05/31/2012 04:13 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 1, 2012


Imagine an enormous block of ice the size of the State of Israel. And, imagine that frozen deep within it is Israel’s greatest and profoundest hope. Imagine that the Orthodox party’s powerful grip on all religious matters including marriages, divorces, and conversions, is represented by an enormous hook holding Israel in its mighty grip. And, imagine standing atop this huge mass of ice are most Israelis and most of the world’s Jews wielding a smaller pick-ax taking swings to break open the ice to gain access to Israel’s hope deep inside. Well, this week that small pick-ax broke through the ice and progressive Jews began to reveal the heart of Israel.

                It really is a place where Jews can be Jewish in all the ways they are everywhere else in the world. Reform, Conservative and other non-orthodox rabbis are beginning to be recognized for their leadership in the communities they serve and they’re going to be paid for their services by the same government that has until now only paid orthodox rabbis.

                Rabbi Miri Gold, the “poster girl” of the battle to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis, and Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, along with the support of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President, spoke this week in a webinar about the profound meaning of this milestone breakthrough. It is significant for many reasons. First and foremost, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are gaining more legitimacy than ever before; not that they were not recognized by the people who attended their synagogues and trained to be rabbis at HUC in Jerusalem, but now the government has opened a way (even if it isn’t perfect) for non-orthodox rabbis serving their communities to be paid by the government. Second, in the past, Israelis identified themselves as either religious or secular. I have met many Israelis over the years who didn’t understand what Reform or Conservative Judaism was because it wasn’t recognized in Israel. Increasing numbers of Israelis are recognizing the opportunities for vibrant Jewish life within Reform and Conservative congregations and communities there.

                Rabbi Miri Gold, upon hearing the news on the radio said, “This is a big step for religious pluralism and democracy in Israel. Israeli Jews want religious alternatives and with this decision the State is starting to recognize this reality. There is more than one way to be Jewish even in Israel.”

                The challenges are not small and the debates will continue. Israelis have a lot to decipher from the aftermath of this longstanding issue. Rabbi Gold courageously accepted victory but humbly acknowledged the pain this decision will cause the orthodox as their stranglehold on Israeli religious life loses its grip. No doubt they will respond by retraining their hold on Jewish religious matters. But the ice has been broken and the thaw will begin to chip away more ice. Eventually, modern Judaism as we have known it in North America will flourish in the hands of Israelis who, like us, want to be everything that Israel can be, namely, modern, ancient, democratic, western, middle-eastern, and Jewish. It’s a tall order but it’s been the hope and expectation for 90% of Israelis for the last 64 years.

                Finally, let me invite you to celebrate with me the historic and profound role played by our Reform Movement which took the lead decades ago to find a place for modern Jews and Judaism in Israel. One person I want to single out is Rabbi Uri Regev, attorney and founder of “Hiddush --- For Freedom of Religion and Equality”, a trans-denominational nonprofit aimed at promoting religious freedom and equality in Israel. I consider Uri a friend of mine and our congregation (he spoke here in recent years), and a vital person on the path towards greater recognition for liberal Judaism in Israel. Rabbi Regev will be speaking to our Beth Israel members who are traveling with us to Israel on June 10th.

                Mazel Tov to Rabbi Miri Gold, Anat Hoffman, Rick Jacobs and the URJ, Rabbi Regev and to all of us who love Judaism and value Jewish life. From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/24/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 25, 2012


Amazing. Sunday morning I received an email from someone I didn’t know, about someone I never met. The writer explained that his grandmother was the daughter of Rabbi Dr. Henry Barnston, and that she was visiting in Houston. I read the email over and over to be sure I understood correctly that Dr. Barnston’s daughter (!) was visiting. The email read, “I know it’s short notice, but, as someone approaches 98 years-old,” she should fulfill her wishes to see the grave of her father.

                At once, I called the man who turned out to be a very thoughtful grandson. He confirmed everything that he wrote in his email. So, I told him that West Dallas Cemetery was open on Sunday, and that an attendant would be there when they arrived, just as he is every Sunday. I also told him where to find Dr. Barnston’s crypt in the mausoleum building. I know where he rests. When I came to Beth Israel to serve as Senior Rabbi, I visited Dr. Barnston’s and Dr. Schachtel’s graves to pay my respects. The grandson also asked me if we could meet. It just so happened that I would be at Beth Israel for a Confirmation Class rehearsal, so I invited them to meet me on North Braeswood at 1:15pm, in the sanctuary foyer.

                They were right on time. I welcomed them into the grand sanctuary foyer where we began our tour. The rabbi’s daughter was as spry as the day is young and eager to see everything on display. She had never seen Beth Israel on Braeswood; she left for California before 1968, when it was dedicated. But, there on the wall of the sanctuary foyer was her father’s portrait. She pointed at it and said, “There he is.” Then she pointed to Rabbi Schachtel and said, “Him, I knew.” Then she pointed to Rabbi Karff’s portrait and said, “Him, I didn’t know.” I was happy to tell her all about Rabbi Karff. She asked me why my portrait wasn’t there as well, so I explained that it’s only upon retirement. She figured I had a while ahead of me.

                Next, I showed them Barnston Hallway, and we walked down the hall to the portraits of Sisterhood presidents. She admired them and quietly recalled a few faces. We walked back and we entered the sanctuary where the lights were still on from our rehearsal earlier. She was so pleased. We talked about the Holman Street Temple. She drove by it earlier in the day with her grandson. We spoke about its interior, the stained glass windows she remembered and the stained glass ceiling. Then we made our way down the Karff Hallway and took in the earliest history of Beth Israel. She read the list of rabbis who served Beth Israel. She remembered that when her mother died, her father resigned as rabbi; but, upon returning to his position, he changed his name from the original Barnstein to Barnston, as we remember him now.

                She read down the list of past presidents, too. Ike Freed, she said, was someone she recalled. Other names were also familiar. She loved the Wolff-Toomim Gardens and enjoyed the history that brought her closer to the times she knew many years ago. Her grandson was looking at the Confirmation Class pictures when he called out, “Grandma, I found you!” We caught up with him and looked together at the picture. There she was, Vivien Barnston, in the class of 1930, standing just two rows in front of her father, the rabbi. Her grandson added that his grandmother remembered her childhood street, the house address, her phone number, and many of her friends’, too. It was touching, amazing, and profound that this wonderful lady, obviously loved by her family, came all the way to Houston, to pay her respects at her father’s grave and to see what became of the place she said good-bye to so long ago.

                Before they left the building, she dug into her purse to give me her card. She made it clear that the card contained only her name and phone number; to offer me her address was too personal, she told me. We didn’t have time to walk the whole campus, but the moments we shared brought this dear friend of Beth Israel full-circle. I don’t anticipate that she’ll make another trip to Houston, so I’m grateful that God gave her the strength to fill her wish to pay respects not only to her father at his grave, but also at the steps of what he participated in building.

                You and I talk about the legacy of Beth Israel, but it’s a moment like this one that makes our work to sustain our beloved congregation so important. The men and women of the past believed in Beth Israel’s future. They sustained it for their children and their grandchildren. Today, we must do the same and, by reason of strength, for our great-grandchildren, too. As Shabbat begins, appreciate the special synagogue that is yours, today, and what it must continue to be for generations to come.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/17/2012 10:28 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 18, 2012


The final chapters of Leviticus are filled with high expectations for holy acts and holy rewards. It also explains the consequences for not meeting these high expectations. Sounds like a grand way to finish the priestly book. That’s the point of the last verse in Leviticus, “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” The redactor’s hand is evident in this final verse. The book of Leviticus, filled with the roles of the priests, the functions of the sacrificial offerings, and the boundaries between blessings and curses, can only be regarded as the holiest of writings if it is inextricably bound to revelation on Mount Sinai. It needed a perfect ending and it didn’t disappoint.

                If you asked yourself, “But, I thought the whole Torah was given at Sinai?” You wouldn’t be wrong; but, you would be identifying with only one way Jewish scholars have understood the origins and the development of Torah. If you asked yourself, “Is Torah inspired by God and written by man?” you wouldn’t be wrong, either; because, this is the Reform Jewish understanding of a complex text that has been shown over decades of scholarly work to be the achievement of more than one redactor/editor. The closing verse of Leviticus is a perfect example. After the long list of do’s and don’ts, the clean and clear verse pins the commandments to Sinai forever, thus giving it, in perpetuity, extraordinary force over a people who sought God’s blessings.

                Whether or not you hold to one theory or the other doesn’t change the way we view the Torah texts as the source of our moral, ethical, and religious life. Our norms, values and duties flow from the inheritance of heritage, culture, language, perspective, outlook, covenant, etc., that is the sum of all Torah, including much later interpretations and commentaries.

                Therefore, we learn Torah stories and their rabbinic interpretations called Midrash for many reasons. Historically, we like to know from whence we came. The stories of Abraham, the first Jew, and the story of Moses, for obvious reasons, pin our people’s beginnings to a time, a place, and gives it a reason for being. The people that assembled at Sinai to seal a covenant with God became a nation that promised to give to their children what they claimed for themselves on that day. Our heritage comes down to us from our parents and grandparents, but it began with our ancestors whose story is told in Exodus. Our Hebrew language, too, is a Jewish value not because it’s old, but because it transcends geography and time by linking us to Torah and to all Jews everywhere. Our outlook and world view is inseparable from Torah and its commentaries. What other people has risen and fallen and risen again? What other people has survived thousands of years, and though smaller in numbers in proportion to other peoples, it has thus far not been our Achilles heel, so to speak. We are partners living in covenant with God; we are not waiting for God to work through us. It is a perspective unique to Judaism and appeals to the modern person who feels bound to a covenant filled with an ethical and religious inventory and autonomous to choose how to satisfy the demands of that covenant.

                Congregation Beth Israel honors the covenant and all its demands; it also values the individual modern Jew’s need to find his or her place within the covenant God makes uniquely with him or her. We are a learning, worshiping, and communal center where the weight of our ancestors promise is carried by all of us according to our respective strengths and contributions to sustain and build Jewish life, today and tomorrow.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/10/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 13, 2012


I haven’t written on the subject of Pay Day loans in four years. Yet, local news reports that the problems Pay Day loan stores create for high risk borrowers persist. This week’s Torah portion speaks to the issue because it’s all about debt and enslavement. We learn in Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) that unsettled debts were once resolved through service of the debtor to the creditor. A person became a slave only to satisfy his obligations. The indentured slave was physically bound to serve his master’s needs. The relationship was concluded when the debt was settled or until the year of release.

                The relationship between debtor and creditor was also protected by moral boundaries. Torah says to the (Jewish) slave, “You shall make no idols,” in order that one should not say, “Since my master is a non-Jew (not bound by Torah), I will be like him; since he worships idols, I will be like him…” The slave wanted leniency and he sought it through abandonment of his own faith. But, the rabbis asked, “At what price?” Would the slave trade his faith for earthly rewards and immediate gratification? The rabbis pointed to the last part of Behar, where we read, “Ani Adonai,” I am the Lord, to which Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century), adds, “who is faithful to pay you your reward.” The indentured slave who protects his faith in God, and spurns his master’s rituals will be amply rewarded by God.

                This textual analysis empowered slaves to hold fast to Torah and the promise that God would reward them. The period of their servitude would not be made easier by bowing to false gods or tolerating immoral practices. Slavery as Torah described it, and slavery as our country once knew it, are over. But, the plight of debtors, today, has rendered our Torah portion remarkably relevant. Today, our ethical imperative is not religiously biased. We have a moral obligation to see that Torah law serves all people, Jew and non-Jew.

                The mortgage crisis lingers, but the real debtor crisis is the insidious “pay-day” loan system that proliferates in our country, and most notably in Texas. This is the system that accepts a promise to pay for an advance on one’s paycheck. With “easy” cash in hand, borrowers open themselves up to exorbitant fees, and high-cost loans, which they are rarely able to pay off without risking additional financial burdens. The web of debt begins with a small loan to overcome a short-term crisis or even some personal financial mismanagement. But, it escalates so quickly that the debtor cannot pay back the loan or escape it by any means. Constantly caught in a cycle of debt, they are dependent on their lenders for extended periods of time, even years.

                While high-risk borrowers will always pay higher interest and fees, it should happen in a debtor-creditor relationship that serves its purpose and then ends. The rabbis’ question, “At what price?” is still the leading question. Should the debtor be enslaved without any protections? Should the creditor set the terms that extend for years and well beyond the principal amount of the loan? God isn’t going to pick up the balance due, but God’s teachings command us to set reasonable terms so that a human being who accepts the terms of his debt does not also have to sell his soul. That’s the rabbis’ point; the soul belongs to God who gave it and is not the possession of any other human being. Make a businessman’s profit, but settle the debt and return the dignity and human potential to the person to whom it was given by God.

                Then, the words of Torah are made real and the very symbol of America’s freedom found in Torah this week rings true, (Leviticus 25:10), “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

05/03/2012 08:32 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 4, 2012


                At Beth Israel, it’s not our custom to create a theme for Shabbat. Shabbat is the theme! However, this Shabbat, we’re taking the opportunity to highlight Jewish education as a Jewish value. It sounds like an obvious Jewish value, but there is more to it than you might think.

                In Torah, parents first learn about their obligations to teach their children. In Deuteronomy 6:4ff, we read, “You shall teach them (mitzvot) to your children.” This marks the beginning of a curriculum that is further developed in Talmud. From an early age, as young as 3, children are involved in Jewish life through basic prayers, a little study, and imitation. Reciting Shema at bedtime, participating in holidays and Shabbat, and following parents’ examples connect them to the rhythm of Jewish life.

                Talmud also recognizes that not every parent can be the sole provider of their children’s Jewish education. Nevertheless, they are duty-bound to teach them. Talmud makes it possible for them to hire teachers to stand in for them. At best, it should be a teacher who is knowledgeable and doesn’t make mistakes, and one who gets along well with the children and turns Jewish learning into joyful Jewish lessons.

                At Beth Israel, both Torah and Talmud are reflected in the ways Jewish learning is provided to our children. It begins in Beth Israel’s Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center. Miriam Browning was a beloved teacher for over 45 years. She died many years ago, but the legacy of her lessons bound up in her kindness lives on in the warmth her students still feel for her and Beth Israel. Now, in the school named for her legacy, pre-k to 12th graders learn, explore, and participate in every facet of Jewish lessons, holidays, and experiences. And, from 18 months through 5th grade, Beth Israel’s Shlenker School provides an outstanding Jewish day school education in spectacular facilities and in the presence of award-winning teachers and staff. Beth Israel rabbis and cantor have full roles in both schools and the children have come to know them as teachers and partners in Jewish life.

                Some adults look back on their Jewish education with great pride. They recall their favorite teachers and their favorite lessons. Some adults look back and wonder what it was all about. It’s reminiscent of the Four Children on Passover. We recognize that everybody comes to Jewish life and learning with different attitudes; but, we also recognize that everybody deserves a chance to learn in their own way. Every question deserves an answer; every Jewish child and adult is a Jewish learner; and every day at Beth Israel is dedicated to excellence in Jewish education in the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center and Shlenker School.

                When children graduate from our schools, they are not dispersed never to be heard from again. Unlike public schools, we maintain strong ties with them. An e-newsletter to college students, letters to alumni, and a special Shabbat dedicated to the roots of our Jewish future brings us full circle.

                I am personally grateful to Barbara Garber, Director of the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center, Ricki Komiss, Head of Shlenker School, their faculties and staffs, for their unwavering passion and dedication to excellence in Jewish education. We worship God, we study Torah, and we teach it to our children. We say, “Am Yisrael Chai,” The people of Israel lives through Torah we give to our children. There is no greater duty than that.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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