Serious Reflections at...

…the happiest place on Earth.

I just spent my first two hours in Disneyland reading my friend Torran Anderson’s book Piñata Moon about a high school kid hanging out with his two friends searching for unreachable meaning one night in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona a week after his dear friend whom he loved killed herself.

The unique style of writing heightens the dialogical reading experience. It alternates between poems, text messages sent by the moon, and an ongoing list of reasons to live.

Throughout the book, he contrasts the empty strip-mall-like experience of high school party-seeking with the tribal rituals boys go through to become men — both drawing upon the particular imagery of desert life in Tucson. 

My reading of the book in a single sitting at Disneyland provided me with existential companionship to counter the artificial fantasy world that is commercially produced and frenetically pursued.

Reading a book by a friend who describes a common physical and emotional landscape of our youth is gripping. At the same time, the universal nature of grief, loss, and painful seeking resonates with a different time, person, and place found in Catcher in the Rye.

I would like to share this book with the teens I work with, but the raw and real nature of the experience and topic would require parental permission — all the more reason why it should be shared with teens.

To read more about the book to a write-up about it that came out today by clicking here.

-Rabbi Barkan

National Foster Care Month

foster parent.jpg

Since we began our Foster Care journey in 2016, May has consistently been an intense month for us. After being licensed in April, both of our long-term placements came to us in May, one year after another. One of those foster placements resulted in adoption.

After this weekend, we will begin taking foster placements into our home again. When we return from Los Angeles, we will provide respite to another foster family for 10 days by taking care of a five-month-old boy whom they are fostering. During this placement, we will asses how fostering other children is for our two-year-old daughter.

Adina is excited to provide care for another baby. She thrives on being part of a team of case-workers, behavioral therapists, social workers, medical professionals, and lawyers who together create a safety-net for children in the foster care system. She has acquired the skill-set to advocate to meet the needs of the child during this critical time of development in the first months of life.

I am passionate about fostering because it provides the care and love for the child in the moment, while his or her family is receiving the support from the state to repair whatever it is that prevented them from providing adequate care. The primary goal of Foster Care is reunifying the child with his or her family. If the parents are not able, then the extended family is asked to stand up; if they are not available then the community of friends is approached; if they aren’t available, then the foster parents are asked to adopt the child.

In our case, we are privileged to have developed an ongoing personal relationship with our child’s extended biological family. This added element of love has not only enriched our child’s life, it has enriched ours, too.

While circumstances can often make this fostering process a challenging one, the values and priorities are correctly aligned. Within this system, I cherish the opportunity to provide this child with love and care, while being a positive force in the child's larger family and community.

One last note: There is a critical shortage of foster parents throughout our country and within our communities. What do you think is blocking families from stepping up into the breach to support our children? People often say that they could never be foster parents because they wouldn’t be able to say goodbye. If we are looking at this issue from what is best for the child, rather than what is best for ourselves, perhaps our perspective would change and more parents would be willing to foster.

Meaning-making in Chaos, a Personal Response to Yom HaShoah

*How should we commemorate Yom HaShoah?  On a personal level, my initial inclination is to do nothing.  The loss is so great that any ritual can not adequately capture its enormity, nor do I feel a need to do so since it’s dark cloud is so much a part of who I am.  Yet how can I go through my normal routine of the day without doing something?

Perhaps, standing silent here in America at the moment that the siren is sounded in Israel would be appropriate. By doing so, I would be standing in solidarity with my people who have persevered in the face of destruction and thrived in its wake.

Perhaps, I should volunteer to read names of the victims or go to listen to others who are reciting them at the local Jewish center  At least this conveys the commendable attempt to commemorate the loss of so many people.  How long does it actually take to read six million names, their ages, and their birthplaces?

Perhaps, we should fast on this day like we do on other days of destruction. Viscerally, depriving myself of food when remembering my relatives who were starved day-in and day-out is anathema to me.

Perhaps, attending the official community Yom HaShoah ceremony.  By standing up to make meaning in the face of chaos seems like a moral imperative — dare I say a mitzvah?  Yet, it just takes so much energy to trudge up the willingness to do so.

Perhaps we should look to God. Perhaps.

Through all of this we say, “Never Again” with some semblance of conviction as wars rage, terror reigns, and governments oppress their own people. At least we stand up to defend ourselves while still trying to commit ourselves to caring about the other.

Standing up against the meaninglessness in our world is worth every and any attempt to do so, even if it feels feeble.  Committing ourselves to meaning in the face of chaos, however we do it, is sacred.

We may come up short in our attempts to recount the horrors of the decimation of one third of our people and the destruction of European Jewry; to preserve the memory of each precious person — man, woman, and child — who was murdered; to reflect upon and understand the human capacity for evil by some and apathy in the face of evil by many; to acknowledge the bravery and sacred acts of gentiles who stood up to save Jews at the risk of their own lives; to remember the tens of millions of others who died in the war.

At least, I can attempt to overcome my own apathy as I commemorate Yom HaShoah.  This may be my small but sacred contribution to make meaning out of this day.

*Delivered at the community Yom HaShoah program in Savannah, GA., and posted in Times of Israel

Building Bridges of Understanding Out of Slavery

This is the piece  published on my blog at Times of Israel:

Building bridges of understanding out of slavery | Ruven Barkan | The Blogs | The Times of Israel

At the march in Selma last month, Dr. Susannah Heschel gave a fiery speech in the prophetic social justice spirit of her father Abraham Joshua Heschel calling upon the Jewish community not to turn inwards. With the threats against Israel, the rising anti-Semitism in the world, and the challenges of the changing Jewish community in America there is the inclination to hunker down and take care of one’s own. How can we care about the rest of the world when we are struggling ourselves?

While all of these are real issues, I agree with Dr. Heschel that we must not respond to them by turning inwards. Yes, we must stand up for ourselves, but if we are only for ourselves then what are we? This Pesach, the repeating imperative in the Torah to care for the “other” is calling out to us:

“You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah reminds the Israelites that when they are established in the land they must not forget the lessons of their enslavement and vulnerability in Egypt. Instead, they must look to their humble origins to access empathy for those who are in such a position when they reach a position of power in the land.

This ancient message remains timeless and relevant for us as a Jewish community. While we are facing our own serious challenges for simply asserting our Jewish identity, there are others in our midst who are suffering. Whether it is racial, religious, or economic discrimination, we know that there are serious issues that plague our society.  By turning away from those who are oppressed as a Jewish community, we bear a share of the responsibility by being complicit in perpetuating the ills in our society.  We can not avoid, excuse, or attempt to remain neutral in the face of others’ suffering.  Again, in the words of Heschel, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

There is a progression in the intensity of the moral imperative of this mitzvah as it is repeated through the Torah.  It begins with, “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).  Building on this it says, “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Then the Torah goes even further, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 20:34).

When we follow the Torah’s prescription of turning outwards to care for the “other,” we place ourselves in a position of strength. This may be why the Torah uses the word “stranger” and not “slave” in these cases when describing our experience in Egypt.  For when we reach out to the other we transform our negative experience of being enslaved into empathetic strength that we can access to protect the others in our midst who may be vulnerable. The Torah is teaching us that by taking action on behalf of others we transform the way that we perceive ourselves and our history – from helpless slave to empowered and empathetic defender of the other.

Once we shift our treatment and perception of the other in our midst, by protecting the stranger as one of our own, we fully redeem ourselves from slavery’s lasting legacy. This can be understood in the ultimate command at the end of the Torah that further challenges our empathetic capability: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation” (Deuteronomy 23:9). The Israelites’ experience in Egypt comes full circle by incorporating the Egyptian stranger into their society, the descendents of those who once enslaved them. The Torah sets a high moral standard for us to strive towards.

Building  relationships with other races and religions in our midst is a crucial first step to build bridges of understanding in our two diverse societies of America and Israel. In my experience, grassroots dialogue with other communities gives each person permission to inhabit his or her own faith, racial, and ethnic identity. While we may interact with people who very different from us on a daily basis, we rarely engage people in the fullness of our respective identities. Engaging in such encounters is sacred. To create such a space, we must intentionally pierce through our routine transactional ways of relating to people by intentionally listening and embracing the other as a person created in the image of God. This sacred encounter provides the opportunity to learn from the other how we express our common human experience differently and ultimately celebrating the varied world that God designed with wisdom.  Building such bridges with others most effectively occurs person to person on the local level.

When we live up to this moral imperative, when we garner the strength and confidence to reach out to the other, even those who were our enemies in the past, when we change our self-perception of being weak by lifting up others in our midst, then we know that we are fulfilling the Torah’s challenge regarding the stranger.  Let us heed this timeless message of Torah restated by Dr. Heschel by reaching outwards to those who are strangers in our midst.  Building these bridges of understanding we redeem ourselves and those around us.

חג כשר ושמח May you have a joyful and kosher Passover!


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