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Week In The Life: One Reform Rabbi

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

One of my great pleasures is teaching our young people. Just the other day one of our youth asked me, “What does a Rabbi do?” It got me thinking, that very few people have any idea what a Reform Rabbi really does and what I do in particular. People know well of course there are Sabbath services, and holiday services, and hopefully they at least see the Rabbi during the high holy days. And people know the Rabbi will be at a funeral, or a wedding. And board members and members of other committees and boards in our community would know that Rabbi Kunstadt will be there. Hebrew school students, bar mitzvah students, confirmation students, adult education and conversion students, they know that Rabbi Kunstadt will be at their appointment when they make it. Springhill college students know I’ll show up for each lecture. People who read the newspaper know there will be an article from me.

By the very nature of being a Rabbi there are many things I would never talk about and so people don’t know about them. Protecting all confidentiality however, names removed, let me just tell you about a week in my life.

So it’s Wednesday morning because actually my week begins with Wednesday morning. First thing I do is find out who is in the hospitals. Most of the time there are people in the hospitals. I drive out to Providence hospital to visit with one of our members who I’m hopeful will be on the road to recovery. Another family member is there. I haven’t seen them in some time, and it’s a time when a Rabbi uniquely enters into a very emotional relationship. They are fearful about the illness they’re facing. They’re not regular Temple goers. I am there for them, and I pray with them, and I hope with them for a full healing.

On the way over to Temple I stop at one other hospital – Springhill Memorial. When I go to the door of the hospital room it’s marked with special precautions. I have to put on a full disposable yellow gown, rubber gloves, and a face mask. I don’t know because of privacy regulations what’s the matter with the patient, only that these precautions are necessary. After visiting with the patient for some time, it comes out they have the MRSA, the antibiotic resistant staph infection, and they are hoping that the strongest intravenous antibiotics will finally cure the infection. We talk, and I pray with them and the visit is appreciated greatly. Finally I get into the Temple, it’s Wednesday morning and the day is really just beginning. No one has a clue where I’ve been.

I meet with our devoted Temple Secretary Susie, and I am given several messages that need to be returned one urgently, and now I open up the e-mail. You can imagine it is a long list these days. BTW you should know what a wonderful devoted staff we have with Susie Broos, Susan Herring, Mike Jefferson, and Susan Thomas. We could not run the Temple without such great people. And kudus to Small Small and Helen Small who run our RS and Hebrew Schools. Before I begin answering those emails, I sit down with Susie so we can plan the coming Temple bulletin. I tell her what we need to emphasize what important events are coming up and suggest proper placement for those things that are most important for our membership. The bulletin, the Chai notes, my blog – these are our most immediate publicity and they have to be carefully planned.

Just as I’m beginning to put thoughts on paper for a bulletin message and for a blog message I’m told someone is at the door waiting to see a Rabbi. It is someone passing through town who has a long story to tell. The end of the long story is they need financial aid – after some very quick counseling I give what assistance I feel is appropriate.

Now a call comes in from a member telling about another member who’s out in Providence hospital but we didn’t know about it because he didn’t list himself as Jewish, and we would never know they were there. They want to see a Rabbi – their Rabbi. I promise I’ll get out to visit hopefully that very same day after my Torah study class ends at seven p.m.

I have a lunch meeting with one of our members who has been meaning to get together with me. He has some personal issues he wants to discuss. It’s a nice lunch but certainly a working one to help him in his life with some important personal issues.

By the time I get back I just have enough time to prepare for my Torah study class later in the evening. From 4 to 515 I will be teaching Hebrew students. Right after that rehearsing with a bar mitzvah student. And now it’s time for Torah study. That ends a little after seven o’clock at night and since the custodian is long gone I need to lockup Temple before heading out to Providence Hospital one more time. I hate it when this happens – someone went out one of the back doors and did not close it fully so I cannot engage the alarm – it says rear back doors open. I’m always comfortable at the Temple but now it’s 720 dark, no one’s here I am walking through the building trying to figure out what door is wide open. Finally I get the alarm set. I can head out for one last visit. My loving wife Patti saved a delicious dinner for me.

You want to know what my Thursday is like? Rather similar, but with two exceptions. For twenty six years I have been a member of the Rotary Club of Mobile, representing the Temple as the Jewish spiritual leader. The major churches of Mobile all have their Ministers as members, and I am the Jewish representative. Most importantly on Thursday for half the year I teach at Spring Hill College evenings from 6 till 845 at night. I lecture for two hours and 45 min. and at the end of that time, sometimes my throat is quite raw. Part of being a Rabbi.

Friday the day begins very early with a special Rotary committee meeting breakfast and again continues with hospital calls. Equally important is we have shut-ins at nursing homes-members of our Temple. This Friday I know I can do it – I can make it to three different nursing homes before noon time. I can I do it. Lucky I have a Honda Fit. Finally Get into Temple, put in a call to our Cantor who will be coming in for Friday night services at Temple. I tell him about what’s planned for the service so he can pick just the right music. Need to plan out Sunday school and what I’ll be teaching for our young people in the assembly. After contact with our outstanding religious school director Sam Small I find that I’ll be teaching the young ones for a half-hour assembly this Sunday and work on developing an appropriate assembly for them – this week were studying the Holocaust it is a great challenge to develop this age appropriately for young people. The bulletin message finished yes and now time to make sure everything is where it needs to be for publicity. A call comes in just as I am trying to get my thoughts together for my Friday night. It is from the religion editor at the newspaper – they need a comment on an important political issue for tomorrow’s paper. Cantor arrives before services and we talk again briefly about the service. Service begins at six. Over at seven – enormous stickler for that – our services are over in one hour. Leave Temple by 7:45 after visiting with our members at Oneg.

The week continues with the Saturday Shabbat service and all the planning that entails. Arrive for Temple morning breakfast and get to catch up with some of our members on what’s happening in their lives. After the service is over more to be done and again no one knows what I’m doing. A wedding couple can only see me on Saturday afternoon- they work all through the week and much time is needed for their counseling session. I remain at Temple until they arrive. Saturday night most people are going out to movies socializing with their friends. A member has invited us to a party they very much want us to be at. It’s a party but people are asking me about a bar mitzvah date, and a forthcoming wedding. It is a typical Saturday night. Others have a break, but a rabbi never really does.

Our outstanding religious school fills the Sunday morning. For this I’m particularly proud. This is a Taste of Judaism Sunday. 35 students are eagerly waiting for me at 1230. I brought along a cheese sandwich to eat between Sunday school and taste of Judaism class. However someone pulled me aside after religious school and I never had chance to eat it. After Taste of Judaism class ends several students have great interest in the subject and keep me long after the class is over. It’s a gorgeous day I wish I could’ve gone to the beach, enjoy the time when my family but alas it’s too late and they went without me.

Monday it all begins again just like Wednesday. There is one difference in the evening there is a board meeting of a local community board that lasts late into the evening. It’s being held at the Temple and the custodian has his day off this day and so I have to wait till everyone’s gone to finally secure the Temple. It’s late, and it’s dark, and finally the Temple is secure and I’m off for home.

So it’s finally Tuesday. If you notice I began talking about a week with Wednesday. Why? Tuesday is supposed to be my day off. Trying to keep on top of things I dial into my e-mail from home – people have no idea I’m supposed to have a day off. Someone wrote the night before with some urgent issues and wants me to call first thing Tuesday morning. Of course I do, so much for Tuesday really being off. Though I do enjoy the rest of the day I understand there is never really a day off-because I am always on call. I get my haircut, my oil changed and get in a good workout. The week begins again.

So now you know a little about what I do. Many things I have never told anyone. Is it easy-not at all. Is it worthwhile, and ultimately tremendously meaningful-absolutely.

Enduring Love: Worthwhile Advice

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There are times I am truly touched. Perhaps what moves me most is seeing the love of a couple who shared a lifetime together, and yet their love is still growing. In some of our members I have seen a love so deep that it is as though the two are one soul. I think of some of our more senior members married for most of their lives who are inseparable. If one was sick or hospitalized, the spouse would never leave their spouse’s bedside. What makes such love flourish? It is a sense of love that surpasses time, but belongs in eternity. Often they have known each other since their youth, gone on to raise families, spent middle-age with each other, gone on to retirement and their most senior years together. They are eternally bound to each other.

When I see such deep love expressed so poignantly especially in old age, I wonder. I wonder what it is that makes love so strong, and what it is that we can share with each other to strengthen our own bonds among families. In that love, I often see a growing love, not one of diminution. Of course at times tragedy has tempered their joy. Of course at times there have been arguments and bickering. Despite all the difficulties, what started out as a magical attraction has turned to the deepest level of friendship and understanding in which the two souls cannot exist without the other.

If I ask such a long-lasting couple their secrets the answers I receive range from: love, to remembering the most important expression, “yes dear.” For everyone the answers must be a little different but what is clear is the commitment never dies, and if anything only strengthens together with the caring they have for each other. I often think back to what a pillar of my former congregation in St. Louis told me after I had blessed him and his wife upon their 50th wedding anniversary. He said marriage is the most difficult job you’ll ever have, and the secret, the secret is to work upon it daily.

Perhaps what seems to the casual observer to be such a blissful union of two souls is really only the result of years of tending the garden of love. What better time of the year than now, today, to nurture our own gardens of family love.

Gaming, Education, Judaism and Utilitarianism

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Unfortunately good images seem to stay in our minds for fleeting moments; while negative images are often reproduced and can last generations. For many around the world and in United States the leaders of Alabama have created a few iconic negative ones: Governor Wallace proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Police dogs attacking protesters during the famous march on Selma. We also have outstanding images: our Gulf Shores sugar white beaches, Mercedes made in Alabama, Sweet home Alabama, sung by people around the world, and soon to be Airbus made in Alabama.

One image I don’t quite understand is our political leaders repeatedly focusing upon raiding bingo parlors and other attempts at gambling in Alabama. Judaism’s teaching on gambling is quite clear: if it’s done as simply a game for entertainment it is considered exactly that, entertainment. If it is done as an attempt at a profession, in other words that is the career of the person with no useful production for society it is not okay, but rather wasteful and destructive.

What does all this however say in a utilitarian sense for gaming in the state of Alabama, when we are surrounded by states that allow legal gambling, and use those funds to assist with educational and other state mandated programs? All you have to do is drive to Biloxi, and you will see enough Alabama license plates to make you believe for just a moment you are in downtown Mobile. All you have to do is open the local paper’s entertainment section, and you will see the majority of the largest entertainment ads are not for downtown Mobile, but for the casinos in Biloxi. Clearly citizens of our great state are gambling in Biloxi, and buying lottery tickets in Florida and other states. So it does appear in a utilitarian sense we are negatively affecting revenue that could be flowing into our state to further much-needed causes such as education.

We also must not forget the danger of addiction. Clearly that is a significant problem with gambling, perhaps the most significant. For the addictive personality, gambling can be a terrible vice. This must be gaming’s biggest and extremely serious negative: the many who will take their last dime to a casino with the fervent belief there is hope for a major winning.

Just as the rabbis reluctantly gave in to gambling when not used as a sole form of income, we should have done the same thing to prevent our state from slipping even further down in the ranks in tax funding, often floating off the bottom, when our neighbors opened to gaming. If we can do something to help the education of our students in Alabama, we should do it. Shortsighted planning in years past can lead to long economic declines. Judaism would clearly tell us to keep the big picture in mind: we have a responsibility to help all our citizens: the poor, the needy, the widow, and the fatherless, and the orphan in the largest utilitarian sense. Those are not my words, but rather the words of our greatest prophets 2700 years ago-except the utilitarian part. That has always been our mandate. Now there is even a new twist in state politics: the new plan to take money away from failing schools and allow children to attend private schools with that same money. Clearly this will not benefit the children who will be forced, for various reasons, to remain in those failing schools, now deprived even further of funding. Imagine if Alabama was synonymous with the best public education in the country, and that became our most important iconic image. Just imagine.

Entertainment 2013: Walking Dead

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I have always liked to think of myself as being rather progressive, open to new experiences and new ideas. However broad-minded I might be, until recently I never paid much attention to the renewed fascination so many have with zombies. The Walking Dead is now one of the most popular TV shows, available also on DVD. The recent first show of the series had a rating of 5.6, which means it handily beat out all other shows broadcast that evening. When one of my kids while on winter break spent a couple of days watching the entire series, I began to think there might be something to it, though my immediate thought was he must be very bored. So I actually sat down and watched, against my natural instincts, a couple of episodes.

It did keep my interest – sort of. Quite a bit of suspense, interspersed with lots of guts and gore, which I could live without but of course we know it’s not real. You would expect that in a zombie show.

So why is there such incredible fascination with zombies? What does it say about our society in general in the year 2013? Maybe we simply need some excitement in our lives, which is actually is not harmful to us personally. Some might enjoy the suspense, and the sense of danger. For others it might be a type of escapism from the real world, which after all isn’t most all entertainment? Perhaps it has a deeper meaning – we are all fearful of death and unsure of what lies beyond this world. Rebirth, reincarnation or the zombie state all speak of our fearful interest in what lies beyond this world.

Maybe what the new zombie craze is really telling us is that society is far from progressing, but in a way turning back to the voyeuristic violent days of the Roman Coliseum. It is like the games without a gladiator’s actual death, but nevertheless still filled with Hollywood violence.

Entertainment for relaxation purposes is not a bad thing. A balanced life has always been a Jewish ideal. So my suggestion is this: along with enjoying your entertainment try to also do something to make this also a better world. It is with the latter I’m sure you will ultimately find far greater meaning.

Gun Control: Different Jewish View

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The Central Conference of American Rabbis, together with the Union for Reform Judaism through the wing of the Religious Action Center, are on record for stronger gun control laws. On the Religious Action Center’s website you can find, “It is imperative that President Obama and Congress take action to prevent gun violence, including taking assault weapons off of our streets and improving our system of background checks.” By far the great majority of reform rabbis are in agreement for stronger gun control laws.

I concur with my colleagues in regards to the need to effectively keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. We have all too often seen the tragic consequences of this failure.

There is a danger however in Jews being the leaders in taking all guns from our homes, and Jews complying. This is what happened to my own grandfather in 1938 in Vienna, Austria:

Soon after the Nazis took control of the Vienna, Storm Troopers came to my grandfather’s apartment and searched it for contraband. He owned a pistol, which had been made illegal by the Nazis for Jews to own. This was one of the first laws passed in 1938 when the Nazis occupied Austria. The Storm Troopers, who my father described as being similar to the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s, at first wanted to immediately take my grandfather to a concentration camp. My grandfather, who had great people sense, brought out the schnapps and managed to ingratiate himself with the storm troopers well enough to make them leave for the night without arresting him on the spot. Needless to say, he was able to escape with the rest of his immediate family from Austria. More than thirty other members of my family died in the Holocaust. My point is simply this: we should think very carefully about disarming the Jewish world. Perhaps the Holocaust would have had a different ending if the Jewish community could have effectively protected themselves.

What Is In A Name?

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Most parents spend considerable time thoughtfully picking the names of their children. I remember all the hours my wife and I spent debating possible names for each of our three children. We wanted the name to be just right, one we both liked and one which would help them through life. No question there is power and meaning to someone’s name.

In fact in the Hebrew Bible the second book is called in the Hebrew language Shemot, which means names – in English we call it the book of Exodus. It is named after the first verse of the book of Exodus “These are the names of the sons of Israel…”

There is an ancient Jewish legend which teaches the great importance of names. The legend teaches each person has in reality three names: the name that parents give to him or her, one that friends bestow, and the one that God gives to a person at the end of his or her days.

The legend teaches about our character. Some of it is clearly given to us at birth, from heredity. Clearly we are influenced by our environment and our friends. But the name we really make for ourselves is one for which only we are responsible. We are all free agents. The real name we create for ourselves is the one we create by what we do and how we live our lives.

The terrible tornado in Mobile has been a true test of the names we are creating for ourselves. As Rabbi I have personally witnessed many of our members doing extraordinary acts of kindness and dedication on behalf of our historic Springhill Ave. Temple. Similarly many people have already created names for themselves, ones of remarkable generosity. As this New Year begins it is most appropriate for us to ask what is the name we are creating?

From Tornado to Better Future

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Springhill Avenue Temple, Mobile, Alabama: December 25, 2012 EF2 Tornado Damage

What is it like being the rabbi of a congregation that has been damaged over the years of my rabbinate by two hurricanes and now perhaps the worst damage from an EF2 tornado? At first discouraging, but on the other hand déjà vu, and experience dealing with disasters comes to mind. As my wife reminds me I tend to be the cup half empty type, but I am learning to change.

So I must think of our Jewish motifs: Joseph saw seven good years, and seven lean ones, but a better time would eventually come. Moses knew the children of Israel would enter the Promised Land, in time. The prophets though they saw evil, still predicted a better day would yet come. The ancient homeland of the Jewish people has been brought back to life once again. How could I predict anything but a better future, and an even more beautiful congregational building once more? As one of the oldest congregations in the country, going back to 1844, I am confident our future will indeed be better than our past.

Full Rights for Women and Reform Judaism In Israel

My colleague and friend Rabbi Elyse Frishman, being detained by Israeli Police for wearing a Tallit at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. She is the editor of our Reform Prayer Book, Mishkan T’fillah. This must change!

Following this incident, which occurred just before the last night of Hanukkah 2012, Haartez published an op-ed by Rabbi Frishman recounting her experience. She writes, in part:

We began to move through security. All of us wore our prayer shawls and carried our prayer books. There were rumors: No women permitted to bring prayer books or prayer shawls today! Contrary to rumor, prayer books were permitted – but for the first time, no prayer shawls. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that women could not have prayer shawls today. Security began to confiscate them. Some men walked in with prayer shawls. Most women had theirs removed.

There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a prayer shawl. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”

We gathered quietly at the rear of the Western Wall to pray. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my prayer shawl, but I’m afraid.”

Two police officers walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the prayer shawl.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.”

Read full story at Haaretz

Elephant in the Room: Interfaith Dialogue

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I’ve had the pleasure participating in Christian-Jewish dialogue my entire career. In particular here in Mobile, Alabama for the last 25 years I have been a part of the oldest continually active lay led Christian-Jewish dialogue in existence in United States. More recently we have started a Trialogue group between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities.

Over the years I’ve learned from the excellent intellectual presentations made by national and international scholars visiting our community. There is one serious problem however: the people who attend dialogue are invariably not the people who most need to attend these programs. The regular attendees are open-minded people from every religious denomination who are generally not convinced of the inerrancy of their respective traditions. They are open to learning about other faiths and ideas. They are a minority of the religious community.

The people who would benefit most by attending these programs rarely set foot in the door of either a church, mosque, or synagogue to hear such a program. Why will they not attend? Invariably they are members of a more fundamentalist denomination of their particular faith group, who simply put, know the truth. They have the religious answers and feel no need whatsoever to hear other people’s opinions about matters for which they are so very sure. When you possess absolute truth why waste your time listening to other people’s misguided opinions?

The people who most need to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the diversity of religion in our great country have no interest whatsoever in doing exactly that. That is the “elephant in the room” of interfaith relations.

One solution might be project oriented. In our diversity we can find unity in projects of service, which might have the possibility of bringing diverse communities together. Joint projects on topics such as under education, homelessness, poverty, and social justice to name only a few, might if carefully orchestrated become grounds for building relations. Relationship and conversation is where we must start, and at present there is little of either between liberal and fundamentalist denominations of any faith group.

Whether dialogue groups around the country have the enthusiasm, energy, and stamina to try to break down these age-old barriers is another story. It would be the true tough work of interfaith relations, but more importantly it would be where the greatest dividends could accrue. It is nice and lovely to talk with like-minded liberal interpreters of all religious traditions but it never crosses the bridge into the untouched world of fundamentalism. Maybe we should try.

True Interfaith With Life of Pi

Debating what movie to watch Saturday night, I was glad we did not follow A O Scott’s review in the New York Times of Life of Pi. IMBD rated it quite highly so we went with that opinion.

I am certainly thankful we went with the latter. Having studied religion at Berkeley, I found the entire movie a delight of open-minded religious synergism, that I only wished was shared by more people in the world. Unfortunately it is not, and what is more world opinion seems to be only intensifying in the opposite direction toward greater religious ethnocentricity.

See the movie for the delightful play of cinematography and metaphor. It is the story of Pi, who as a boy coming from a Hindu background, finds the god Jesus in a church, and explores Islam. He finds kindness from a Buddhist sailor, as the family embarks on an ill-fated freighter journey with the family’s zoo in tow. They cross the Pacific on a ship fascinatingly called Tsimtsum. Unfortunately Tsimtsum sinks. To many this name would mean nothing, or they would guess it is Japanese, coming from the freighter’s country of origin.

Tsimtsum however comes from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition popularized in the 16th century. It explains that tradition’s teaching on cosmology: the Infinite One, Ein Sof, at one time filled all, but in an act of self contraction, made room for the world as we know, filled with both good and evil, and free will. It is a nice conception that actually could in some ways be related to modern theories of cosmology such as variants of the big bang. When I saw that name Tsimtsum, I was pleased. The bad news is the ship sinks. The symbolism is delightfully open-ended.

See the movie, and pay attention to the symbols, at least with more detail than the NY Times. If only world religions, and more importantly their often radicalized followers, could learn to reason with the mind of Pi.

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