Raising up a generation of mensches - By Rabbi Dean Shapiro, East Valley Tribune, February 9, 2016
Becoming human in the eyes of my country - By Rabbi Dean Shapiro, Jewish News, July 1, 2015
The gift of Torah - By Rabbi Dean Shapiro, East Valley Tribune, May 21, 2015
12 groups in Life & Legacy program - By Salvatore Caputo, Jewish News, March 11, 2015
Life & Legacy, a program to increase bequests to Jewish agencies, drew applications from 12 Valley Jewish agencies and synagogues, and all 12 have been accepted as community partners in the program, said Rachel Rabinovich, the program’s local director.
"We’re thrilled ... we think it’s a great representation," Rabinovich said about the diversity in size, mission, geographic spread and age of the groups that submitted applications.
The partners are Arizona Jewish Historical Society, Congregation Or Tzion, the East Valley JCC, Hillel at ASU, the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Jewish Free Loan, the Jewish Genetic Diseases Center of Greater Phoenix, Pardes Jewish Day School, Temple Chai, Temple Emanuel of Tempe and Temple Kol Ami.
Life & Legacy, locally administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, is a national program that was launched in 2012 with a $20 million commitment by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Its ultimate goal is to increase legacy giving – charitable bequests from estates – in 50 Jewish communities.
Phoenix was one of eight Jewish communities chosen to participate in the expansion of the program, which had initially launched in 12 communities.
So far, the national program has invested $3 million in incentives in those cities and secured an estimated $70 million in legacy giving commitments, according to Arlene D. Schiff, national director of the Massachusetts-based Life & Legacy.
Applicants had to show that they had a donor base large enough to consider making "asks" for legacy commitments and that they had established an internal four-person team to undergo training on how to make those requests of donors and to obtain letters of commitment from the donors that indicate what type of legacy gift they will make to the organization, Rabinovich said.
"A legacy gift doesn’t mean cash right now, it’s an after-life commitment," she said, offering examples such as committing to giving a percentage of an estate’s value or the proceeds from a life insurance policy. "There are a lot of ways that people in their 40s can feel and understand it and not feel like this is something that they can’t even consider thinking about for a while."
In the first and second years of the program, Rabinovich said, the agencies can receive incentive grants from the Jewish Community Foundation for reaching certain numerical goals. Those who obtain a minimum of 18 letters of commitment will receive $6,500. Those who obtain a maximum of 25 commitments will receive $10,000. That means that over two years, an agency may earn up to $20,000 in incentive grants. These funds may be used for any purpose the agency wants, she said.
The program also teaches how to "steward the donor" to ensure that donors follow up on their commitments, she said.
Schiff will conduct a series of training sessions, beginning March 18, over the next two years, and Rabinovich will follow up with the local internal teams.
December 13, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest Commentary by Dean Shapiro
The holidays are here. Carols and peppermint fill the air; twinkling lights delight the eye. All through the day, we’re greeted with “Merry Christmas.” Whether we are religious or not, Christmas is everywhere.
There are other messages, to be sure. I occasionally spot a Menorah on a shop counter. My family was invited to a neighbor’s Divali celebration. Some feel that the presence of other holidays diminishes Christmas’ centrality in our society. That’s not my experience.
I’ve lived on two different islands — Key West, Fla., and New Zealand’s North Island. Island dwellers, I’ve noticed, keep their elbows closer to their bodies — that is, they’re careful to keep their emotions in check so as not to upset others. The jerk you yell at from your car in the morning may just run the shop you enter that afternoon.
America is no island, but I do wish we could keep our elbows in just a bit.
Christmas is not my holiday. I don’t believe in the theology it espouses, and the sights and smells evoke nothing special for me. Snow holds no romance. Nonetheless, when someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I don’t get offended. I take it as an expression of warmth and goodness. That is, in a nutshell, the experience of being a minority in America: We are constantly translating. The mainstream message doesn’t suit us perfectly, and we are required to adapt to it.
Similarly, Christians (whether religious or secular) need to understand how overwhelming the Christmas season can be for those of us who aren’t part of the dominant culture. The carols — Rudolph notwithstanding — do have religious messages. The tree isn’t merely ornamental. Green and red tell larger stories. Even if we’re not dialed into the symbolic meanings, the gestures of Christmas time can be unsettling to non-Christians. It’s when we feel most out of place in American society. As kids, we became aware of our differences during Christmas. We learned to keep our mouths shut. Some — not all, but some — have unpleasant associations with the season because of the ways we were treated at school or by our neighbors. But in no way do we wish to diminish another person’s heartfelt celebration. On the contrary: While we may not celebrate what you celebrate, we are happy to celebrate with you as friends and neighbors. We share your joy.
It’s no coincidence that Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Divali take place around the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Summer ended so long ago. The human soul craves warmth and light, and needs the promise of springtime. The festivals share a message of hope, telling us that light, although now just a glimmer, will return. Long, bright days and abundant harvests will return. Now, that’s worth celebrating.
I hope your season will be bright and joyous, and I pray for peace on Earth and offer good will to all. Happy Holidays to you.
November 24, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest Commentary by Dean Shapiro
The Jewish tradition requires justice — in Hebrew, “tzedek.” This goes beyond criminal justice. Indeed, we seek justice in all cases, between all creatures. A just world is a world in balance, a world without want. We seek to bring balance to the world through the performance of mitzvot, religious and ethical actions that nudge the world just a bit further from pain and a bit closer to bounty.
In daily usage, we create tzedek/justice by giving tzedak-ah/monetary aid to those in need. While the action may look a lot like charity, the philosophical underpinnings are profoundly different.
The word “charity” derives from the Latin caritas — love of all. Charitable giving is goodwill giving, a choice the giver makes from the heart. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is not a choice but rather an obligation. How can this be? Jewish thought holds that the cash in my wallet, the dollars in my bank account aren’t really my money. I worked for it, but I didn’t create it. It belongs to God. (Here, you are welcome to substitute the words Life or The Universe, if you prefer). Through me, the money has identified a problem in the world — a hungry person, a worthwhile cause, rent that needs to be paid. When I give tzedakah, I am doing my small part to set a world out of balance to right. I am merely the money’s conduit to where it needs to be. Giving is not my choice, but rather my privilege.
Indeed, this pursuit of justice is so obligatory that even the recipient of tzedakah must give tzedakah. No one is exempt; we all do our part. Indeed, the Talmud (classical rabbinic legal codes) teaches that “tzedakah is equal to all other commandments combined.”
The task that confronts us is, of course, enormous. It may even be impossible. But we cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed; the need is too great. Nor are we solely responsible to bring the world into balance. For this the ancient rabbis taught, “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Bringing balance to the world is a team effort, and you are on the team. It’s no coincidence that Jews have been in the front lines of the movements for civil rights, feminism, and LGBT equality, among others.
The Torah commands us “tzedek tzedek tirdof/Justice justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why does the Torah, usually so skimpy with words, double down on “justice?” It cannot be a simple waste of ink — there must be a message in the repetition.
Perhaps the word is repeated to indicate …
An obligation for me, and an obligation for all.
An obligation for humanity, and an obligation for God.
Justice for rich and justice for poor.
Justice for adults and justice for children.
Justice for me and justice for you.
Justice in the courtroom and justice in the boardroom.
Just outcomes achieved through a just process.
Criminal justice and economic justice.
Equality of opportunity and equality of results.
Why do you think the word “justice” is repeated? What actions can you take today to enhance justice?
October 18, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest Commentary by Dean Shapiro
Love always wins. It may be denied for a time, but not forever. When it can’t flourish, it burns and breaks us. When love is allowed, it transforms, improves and heals. It makes us deeper, kinder, more caring people. When we love, we see beyond ourselves, and come to experience another person’s full humanity. When we recognize another person’s full humanity, we can see it in everyone else, too. The more love the better.
What’s true for individuals is also true for societies. Love strengthens the bonds between people. In so doing, it transforms us into more caring communities. That’s why love deserves society’s support in all the many ways a culture can promote and protect it. The more love the better.
How magnificent, then, that marriage equality is coming to Arizona. When all couples share in the joy, security, and context of marriage, love is allowed to flourish, individuals fuse into families, and our society becomes warmer, more caring, more inclusive. This is a change that’s been dreamt about for decades. I didn’t expect to see it in my lifetime.
Some people are thrilled by marriage equality; others are terrified. What does it mean to us?
I can tell you one thing it does not mean: I, as a clergyperson, will not be required to officiate at any wedding I don’t support. I have always had the right and ability to decline to perform marriages. That will remain the case under this change in law. I would decline to officiate at a wedding if I don’t believe the relationship to be a healthy one. I would decline to do so if I feel that Judaism isn’t at the heart of the new home — after all, I’m a rabbi, not a Justice of the Peace. The state does not and will not tell me whom to marry. In this way, neither my religious beliefs, nor those of any other clergyperson, are infringed by marriage equality. Our individual moral compasses remain intact.
What I won’t have, and neither will you, is the right to deny what the state has called legal and binding: the self-declared relationship between two other people. You don’t need to bless it, but you aren’t allowed to trample it, either. Why would you? Like a sapling, love is tender and fragile and good, and therefore merits support.
Change can be difficult, and change at this scale is indeed daunting. But no one need be threatened by love. Love is like a flame — it can be shared without being diminished. One person’s love in no way lessens another’s. Marriage equality need challenge no one’s religious practices.
I have officiated at weddings for a wide range of couples — young and old, first marriages and second, same sex and different. Standing under the chuppah — the Jewish wedding canopy — is different every time and yet always the same. The love and hope are palpable. Family and friends glow with joy. It is an extraordinary honor to bless, sanctify and solemnize a relationship, and to legitimize it through law and custom.
If you haven’t already, I hope that you will have occasion to attend the marriage of two men or two women. You’ll see the glow, feel the hope. And you’ll witness the extraordinary transformative power of love and legitimization, which so many of us thought we’d never experience and which we do not take for granted.
Love cannot be denied forever. Love always wins.
August 24, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest commentary by Rabbi Dean Shapiro
My grandmother told me about the Tree of Troubles.
In a certain small town, each person groaned under the pain of life. This one suffered from a constant toothache. That one’s husband couldn’t keep a job. Another’s child had died young; his neighbor had been an orphan. Everyone suffered and, looking at his or her fellows, envied the easy lives they led. Everyone wanted what the others had.
The townspeople conceived of a way to be done with their problems once and for all. They determined that each person would pack a bag with his or her troubles. They would carry their bags to the large tree on the hill outside town and leave them hanging on the branches. Over the course of the week, they’d each return, open the other bags, and consider each other’s problems. In seven days, they’d select another person’s bag of troubles, take them as their own, and be done with their former struggles forever.
When the week was over and all the parcels were picked through, they each decided to retrieve their own bag, and return to the lives they had known. They were better off than they had realized.
As I rabbi, I’m invited into people’s lives in profound ways. I visit them in the hospital or hospice. I hear of their marital struggles, job woes, addictions, anger and grief. I have come to see that all of us lead complicated lives, that no one’s bag of troubles is empty. Through my work, I’ve gained what the townspeople didn’t originally have — empathy. Whether we know it or not, everyone around us is struggling. The choice we make is whether to focus exclusively on our own bag of troubles, or to seek to alleviate someone else’s burden.
Each day, we have the chance to help another person — to listen, to care, to pitch in.
The first step is to observe those around you, from family members and co-workers to parents at your kid’s school and waiters at the restaurant. Listen to their tone of voice; pay attention to their body language. Do you sense tension or pain? Do they resist making eye contact? Do they tell you everything’s great when you know it isn’t? Some people use humor to signal their inner anguish. If your instinct tells you that something is up, you can, gently, ask how you can be of assistance or let them know that you’re available to listen. It’s rarely helpful to give advice, but it’s powerful medicine to know that another person cares.
Being a mensch in this way is good, but it is not enough. In addition to helping each person experiencing depression or pain, we need to help solve the systemic problems that impact so many of us: abuse, addiction, food insecurity, poor psychological and physical health, among others. We can support the organizations that work to reduce these pervasive problems through our dollars and labor. In the East Valley, these include Sojourner Center, Tempe Community Action Agency, United Food Bank, Community Bridges, and Gilbert Senior Center. Helping someone else is a powerful healer, too.
What’s more, we should each be conscious of the problems we ourselves carry. We should refuse to deny the realities of our lives. We need to take care of our own well-being, and seek help when needed.
I was told another story, attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok. It’s called the Parable of the Long Spoons. In it, we imagine visiting hell, where the inmates are starving. Although their banquet table is laden with food, they only implement they have is an extraordinarily long spoon, and they cannot figure out how to get the food into their own mouths. In heaven, by contrast, the residents have discovered how to work together to feed one another. Their burdens are shared, and thereby lightened.
We’re all in this together.
March 22, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest commentary by Rabbi Dean Shapiro
Joy, fun, and laughter enrich our lives. They belong in our houses of worship.
On March 16, the Jewish world celebrated Purim. The festival derives from the Book of Esther, a description of a triumph of the Jewish people over a villain and a regime who sought its destruction. To celebrate the victory, we dress up in masks and costumes, put on silly skits, drink, play games, and go a bit mad. It’s good fun.
Purim reminds us that fun is good. We too often carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We worry about the rent, the kids and the future. We stress about our jobs, and we stress about losing them. We work hard to make ends meet, and some of us don’t manage. Life today is difficult. We get worn down by the daily grind. We need fun to lift our spirits and make life worth living.
Many believe that our synagogues and churches ought to be solemn places. They hold that the lofty pursuits of self-awareness and repentance are enhanced by quiet and solemnity. For them, decorum is paramount, and children should be seen and not heard. Some deride “happy clappy” worship, as if joy and music got in the way of feeling God’s presence.
Like those people, I seek a place where the serious themes of life are explored and where I can pray without distraction. At the same time, I crave laughter. Laughter heals many ills, lifts our spirits, and bonds people to each other. Joy helps us feel better about ourselves, see new opportunities, and make good choices. Laughter doesn’t eliminate life’s pain, but it does lessen it for a few precious moments.
Laughter should be welcome in our worship. When I lead prayer, I allow myself to laugh when the mood strikes. I sometimes crack jokes. Indeed, I believe that laughter and joy unclog the detritus of the mundane from our soul. They free us and refresh us, and remind us that life is juicy, fun and delightful. They restore our souls. At Temple Emanuel of Tempe, we celebrate a monthly “Rock Shabbat” where the music is upbeat and the mood free. People sing and clap along. I love to move my body during prayer, swaying as some Orthodox Jews do. The movement encourages God’s energy to flow through me, and helps me remain supple.
On Purim, laughter rings out from synagogues worldwide. The plays we put on are silly and ribald; the costumes outlandish. The masks we wear surprise, amaze and dazzle.
Masks cloak our identity and our feelings. When we wear a mask, we are simultaneously seen and hidden. Masks can reveal more than they conceal. So, too, they can transform: an unhappy person wearing a silly mask may become silly herself as she taps into her inner goofball and observes the responses she provokes.
In the same way, when we come to our houses of worship, even when we are out of sorts, the music soaks into our spirits, and the laughter buoys us. We might find ourselves tapping our toes. We might grin to witness another person’s celebration. Our mood might lift and we might become genuinely happy, if only for a little while. Just as when we wear masks, the inner self can transform to match the mood of the exterior. (Sometimes, it must be noted, the opposite happens: other people’s joy can make us feel more isolated).
When I was child, I heard the passage from Ecclesiastes: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.” I didn’t understand why we should ever tear down or slay. Now that I am an adult, I understand that life unfailingly brings challenge and pain. Since synagogue is a place where we can bring our whole selves, we can certainly bring our grief and disappointment. But life also presents us with joy and hope. We serve no higher purpose by banishing delight. Quite the opposite.
After all, even God giggles, as Psalms 2 teaches: “The One who is enthroned in heaven laughs...”
February 23, 2014
East Valley Tribune
Guest commentary by Rabbi Dean Shapiro
The synagogue is a place with many doors. People enter for a wide range of reasons: to learn, to socialize, to make a contribution to the community, to develop values in our children, to celebrate the seasons of life, to mourn losses of many kinds. However they enter, we welcome them into a caring community.
Some come to synagogue after a lifetime in Jewish community. They are steeped in Jewish culture and thought. Some come to synagogue with a vague memory of a Jewish upbringing — seder with the grandparents, cousins who went to Jewish summer camp, maybe a bar or (less likely) bat mitzvah.
Some come to synagogue with no previous connection to Judaism. Perhaps their parents, though Jewish, were entirely secular. Perhaps they are not Jewish but are married to a Jew. Perhaps the idea of this people, at once ancient and modern, calls to their soul.
No matter why or when someone walks through the doors of a synagogue, they are welcome.
I hadn’t had much to do with synagogue between the ages of 13 and 23. I was busy at school, and out exploring the world. One day, though, I decided to get busy exploring myself. Why was I born into this Jewish family? How shall I balance my Jewish and American selves? I wanted to know what it meant to lead an authentic Jewish life.
And, truth be told, I hoped to find a date.
Unsure of myself and tentative, I took myself to a synagogue one Friday evening. A kind man greeted me, gave me a prayer book, found a place to sit and calmed down a bit.
Surprisingly, I remembered the prayers and how to read Hebrew. I met friendly people. I rediscovered a life of the mind and of the heart. I met a dynamic, gracious rabbi. Since that day, I have never really left synagogue.
From ancient days, synagogues have been called Houses of Gathering, Houses of Study, and Houses of Prayer. Indeed, these three facets are central to our purpose.
We learn together, whether deepening our understanding of ancient Jewish wisdom, teaching children our culture, language, and values, or exploring practical topics such as good parenting.
We gather together to laugh and play, to celebrate the joyous experiences of life, to find solace when we taste the bitterness of life’s cup.
We pray together — through music, word, and silence — seeking to connect with the Source of the Universe, the force that binds people together and inspires deeper living. At synagogue, we train ourselves to become better people and to lead more vibrant lives.
Life these days is fast-paced and lonely. We are bombarded with images and information — so much so that none of it has an impact.
We sit in cars and cubicles, and rarely look each other in the face. We share the fabric of our lives with fewer and fewer people; even the nuclear family is disbanding. We are rarely seen for the people we are. We have become consumers first and foremost.
It’s not a healthy way to live. Human beings are hominids, and as such are social creatures. We’re not meant to lead isolated lives. We crave meaningful contact. We need each other. Sharing with other people enriches our lives and souls.
Synagogues, like other communities, are the tribe Jewish people and our families crave.
At synagogue, we know that we are not alone. At synagogue, we know that we matter to other people. At synagogue, we know we have something to offer others.
At synagogue, we live richer, more meaningful lives.
April 22, 2011
Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
by Leisah Woldoff
EMANUEL FORMS GREEN TEAM BECOMES COOL CONGREGATION
Members of one Valley synagogue have committed themselves to promoting energy efficiency and teaching fellow congregants about conservation.
Temple Emanuel of Tempe is the only Jewish congregation to be involved with Arizona Interfaith Power & Light, an interfaith ministry formed in 2009 to deepen the connection between ecology and faith. AZIPL is the state affiliate of the national Interfaith Power & Light, which formed in 1998 and is based in California. According to its website, interfaithpowerandlight.org, its mission is to "be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy."
In November, a core group of Emanuel members attended an AZIPL workshop on "Cool Congregations," a program teaching people to calculate their carbon footprints and learn about practical ways to reduce energy usage. "It's a really comprehensive way of getting congregants to look at their own carbon footprint and save money at the same time," said Judy Stock, Emanuel's vice president of social justice.
After the workshop, more than a handful of Emanuel members formed a green team, which includes a landscape architect, a meteorologist and the architect that helped design the synagogue's recent expansion. Member Wendy DeTata is the temple's AZIPL representative.
Future plans include educational projects, speakers and movies. They have also discussed adding some facets to the synagogue building that make it greener, such as a solar ner tamid (eternal light). The green team's main project deals with using a carbon calculator that will add up the carbon footprint of families. "We are going to be using existing groups (such as preschool families or the hiking group) at the temple to add up their carbon footprint and then, as a community, form ideas to reduce these emissions and make pledges to do so after a year," Stock said.
The synagogue got involved in AZIPL after the Arizona Ecumenical Association, the founding group, contacted Emanuel's Rabbi Andrew Straus after hearing about Emanuel's green remodeling effort during the synagogue's 2006-2008 expansion project. Emanuel used environmentally friendly materials and technologies in the construction and complied with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, although it is not LEED-certified because of budget limitations, according to a 2008 Jewish News article.
To learn more about the Cool Congregations program and other efforts, visit Arizona Interfaith Power & Light.