CONVENTION PRESENTATIONS
From the  NAORRR Convention
2016

2016 NAORRR CONVENTION
EREV SHABBAT VA-EYRA
JANUARY 8th, 2016
Rabbi Peter E. Kasdan

Shabbat shalom! It’s such a special and unique feeling to sit among colleagues and friends and share the sweetness of this shabbat. Like so many of you who’ve already marked the 50th Anniversary of your Ordination, we, the members of the Class of 1966, have anticipated this moment, unsure of how we would feel when it finally arrived - if, in fact, it did! We are all cognizant of those in our class who are not here tonight, whether their absence is by choice, the result of illness or their much too early departure from our world.
I am honored to have been asked to offer this d’var torah. When, having accepted this honor, I sought counsel as to range of topics and timing, my friend Hillel Cohn suggested I offer some חָכְמָה ; Hillel, the fact is that the real source of חָכְמָה in the Class of 1966 is Dr. Rifat Sonsino! NAORRR’s Program Chair, Richard Klein, suggested “brevity - 15 minutes, he
cautioned!” Richard, I have to be honest and tell you that when I play tennis 3-4 times each week, it takes me at least 15 minutes just to warm up! And, then, there is that “voice” that’s been in my head since 1961 - the “voice” of the Cincinnati school’s beloved speech teacher Rev. Dr. Lowell McCoy. During my first year at HUC, each of us was given the chance to stand at the podium on the bimah in the Chapel and to read a passage “at sight.” My classmates sat in the balcony with our teacher. As I was reading, Dr. McCoy shouted out: “stop!” Then, he asked me: “Peter, how do you pronounce the word L-O-N-G-I-S-L-A-N-D? to which I immediately replied “LONG-IS-LAND!” What he was trying to do was to teach this “Brooklyn boy” to avoid, at all costs, that inbred “glottal stop!” So, my colleagues, with the caution of these three friends and teachers emblazoned on my brain, I will try my best to heed their collective advice!
With CCAR Executive Steve Fox having already called out the names of the Class of 1966 - Steve, thanks to you and the Conferencer for acknowledging us at this special moment in our rabbinic journey - and knowing that Hillel Cohn will do so, again tomorrow morning as we are honored by NAORRR, there is one name that I feel compelled to “call out” tonight; it is the name of one of my classmates and friends who was taken from us much to soon, a name and a life that is deserving of being heard, tonight. It is a name that I first heard in the late Spring of 1966, though we had, in fact, been classmates for 5 years. I’ve learned that every name has a story - and the story behind this name will bring me to where I want to go tonight. This story will serve as a bridge between the “why” we are here and the “where I’d like to see us go” as an organization, when tomorrow dawns. 
Sheila and I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Both our families were members of Beth Sholom Peoples Temple; our Rabbi was Emanuel Schenk. My parents, and Sheila’s father, were active members of the congregation and it’s “affiliates.” Among my parents best friends were Dora and Edward Lelyveld, the parents of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld. In 1939, my parents traveled to Cincinnati to celebrate Arthur’s Ordination. My parents were then married 14 years; they had been told that they would never be able to have children. According to my mother, on the night before Arthur’s Ordination, she went outside and “looked up” to the “heavens” and prayed to God: “If I am ever blessed with a child, I will devote his life to the Jewish People.” When, as an “almost-Rabbi” I questioned her when she was telling that story to some friends, she swore that she had never read the Biblical account of Hannah, Eli and Samuel! (I Samuel 1:1-2:10)
In the late Spring of 1966, Arthur Lelyveld, then the Senior Rabbi at Cleveland’s Fairmount Temple, was seeking a new Assistant Rabbi. My parents had learned that in a conversation over dinner with Arthur’s mother. According to Kasdan “legend,” my father phoned Arthur to let him know that his son Peter was about to be Ordained in Cincinnati and
that it would be a wonderful sense of “connectivity” if the Kasdans and Lelyvelds were bound together in such a unique manner. My father was not very pleased when he learned from Arthur that he had already made his selection: his new Assistant Rabbi would come from the Class of 1966, but from the New York Campus. His name, Barry Friedman.
When my father told me what he had done, and what he had discovered, I was in shock. Shock, not from the results of his conversation with Arthur Lelyveld - after all, Arthur and his parents and his first wife Tobey had been dinner guests at our home when I was growing up - rather, shock that my father - a quiet, gentle, soul - would have made that phone call in the first place. If it had been my mother, I would have better understood!
Now, until that moment, I had never heard the name Barry Friedman. While still in college, I had taken 2 years of pre-rabbinic courses at the NY school and spent 6 weeks in Cincinnati taking the required Summer Ulpan - but this Barry Friedman was not among us that summer; he was completely unknown to me. And, besides, I knew where I wanted to be - and it was not in Cleveland, Ohio - but in New Rochelle, New York. Years later, when Arthur and Teela and Sheila and I would spend time together at conventions, we would laugh at the retelling of “the story.” 
Fast forward 7 years. Barry Friedman and I finally meet, for the first time, in 1973 when Temple B’nai Abraham moved from its historic home in Newark, NJ to its new mega-facility in Livingston where I had been the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El for two years. As others had done for me when I first moved to town, I called Barry and asked him out to lunch so that we, two, could finally meet.
From that initial meeting over lunch, Barry and I became close friends and, despite the heavy work-load that consumed both of us and usually kept us from our families, we did find time to enjoy lunch, together, and occasional dinner-dates with our wives, Sheila and Irene. It’s interesting to note, here, that we two came from very different backgrounds but wound up as
“gast.ronomic-soul-mates.” Barry, from Philadelphia, as a young man enamored by his rebbe, eating only kosher food - and me, the product of Brooklyn Classical Reform, eating kosher-style in a local deli. And then we found ourselves in Livingston, NJ, more often than not meeting for lunch at Nero’s and both ordering Clams Posillipo!
Barry and Irene retired in 1999 and, in time, moved to their new home on Lake Hopatcong, and Sheila and I retired 2 years later and moved to Longboat Key. Despite the geographic separation, there was never a time when we traveled North to see our children and grandchildren that we did not make the trek to Lake Hopatcong to see the Friedmans and catch up on life. 
 But this is not my reason for “invoking” Barry’s name and memory tonight. I do so because Barry and I were, in our rabbinates, both consumed with social justice, civil rights and the love for the State and People of Israel. Like Moses and Aaron in their dealings with Pharaoh as outlined in this week’s parasha, וארא,, as they attempted to do God’s bidding to free their people from Egyptian bondage, so did Barry and I attempt to fulfill our own challenge of redeeming modern-day captives - whether they were the sons and daughters of former slaves still held captive in America by those who continued to believe in segregation, or Soviet Jews held against their will by an Iron Curtain that had yet to fall, or Ethiopian Jews who dreamed of
flying to the Promised Land on the wings of Eagles, or America’s migrant workers who were good enough to harvest our fruits and vegetables but deemed “unworthy” of sharing the sweetness of America’s economic, educational and social bounty. We did all of these separately, within our congregations and together, within our community. And so did many of you! What Barry and I did was not all that unique in the American Reform Rabbinate.
What was unique was that “one day” in March of 1986 - Thursday, March 27th - 2 days after Purim - when, together with 19 other American Rabbis, Barry and I would find ourselves sitting in a holding cell in the DC Jail. We had traveled to Washington that morning, answering the call of our colleague Ralph Kingsley, the CCAR’s Chair of its Committee on Soviet Jewry, and now NAORRR’s esteemed Treasurer, to join the daily silent-vigil that had been taking place opposite the Soviet Embassy since 1970.
Sheila and I had been part of that vigil several times each year, ever since the Summer of 1974 when, with David Saperstein’s “at-first-reluctantassistance,” I created what has become known, today, as the L’taken Social Justice Seminar. That summer we brought 40 NFTYites from Kutz Camp to stand there, with us, in silent protest.
On March 27th, 1986, we 21 Rabbis stood there - part of the normal gathering of Jews and Christians, clergy and lay people, union members, students and businessmen and women on their lunch break. We stood there in silence from 12:30 to 12:45 - and then, unlike the usual ending of the vigil as participants made their way back to wherever it was they had come from, we 21 Rabbis crossed the street and stood at the gate of the Soviet Embassy, holding signs calling for the release of Soviet Jews, distributing leaflets to passers-by and then, locking arms,we 21 began to sing our people’s songs.
And, while we would not be the first Rabbis to be arrested there - our colleague Bruce Kahn was 1 of 5 rabbis arrested there who chose to serve 15 days in jail for their civil- disobedience - we 21 would, in time, become one of the “test cases” that made its way through the court system. As an “historical” if not “hysterical” aside - Ralph’s letter included this
reassuring caveat: “Demonstrators who have been arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy have not been charged and have been released immediately after their being processed through the arrest phase, with no further charges being filed.”
So, with Ralph’s words tucked neatly in my brain, we 21 were arrested, processed, fingerprinted and photographed and then placed in holding cells and, from the holding cells to 2 “regular” cells in the DC Jail catacombs and then, finally, hours later, brought before a Magistrate to whom we would plead “guilty” to all of the charges, save 3. Finally released on our own recognizance, we were told that we were “due back” in court on June 2nd for our trial. Of the 21 arrested, 7 of us were members of the CCAR. Along with Barry and myself were Doug Krantz, Ralph Kingsley, then CCAR President Jack Stern, Aaron Koplin and Deborah Hirsch. And, while I do not recall the names of all the others arrested with us, 2 stand out in my mind and heart: then President of the Rabbinic Assembly, Alex Shapiro and the sole Orthodox colleague, Avi Weiss. 
So as not to belabor this story, let me jump to its conclusion, and my reason for relating it. 2 years later, in March 1988, the United States Supreme Court overturned the ban on 3 or more people demonstrating within 500 feet of a foreign embassy, calling it unconstitutional. The lesson learned is found in Hillel’s admonition:
“One person can, indeed, make a difference in the way things happen in our world. All it takes is the courage of one’s ‘convictions’.” 
Now, I may have infringed on your time by relating these stories, but I did so to make a point. We are NAORRR - the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis. And, while I enjoy attending these conventions, I do so mainly because I can see my friends and, hopefully, learn something uniquely special from our Scholar-In-Residence. I had always found attending CCAR and UAHC Conventions exciting because they included resolutions on timely, important issues to be debated and settled; I would leave those conventions feeling that we had stood for something important!
Today, even those Conventions seem to lack that spark that ignited my soul. Most often, even if there are resolutions put forward, there is usually not enough time to consider them and they are then “shipped” to their respective Board for discussion and passage. If you don’t believe me, speak to Hillel Gamoran during the Oneg Shabbat and he will confirm this sad truth. Oh, and by the way, Hillel, I have a check for you to help pay for the ad!
So, tonight, I want to “politely,” but firmly, suggest to the NAORRR leadership that maybe it’s time to go back to where we “used to enjoy being.” As modern-day commentator Neil Diamond suggests: 
“It used to be so natural
 To talk about forever
 But 'used to be's' don't count anymore
 They just lay on the floor
 'Til we sweep them away”
(Neil Diamond - “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”)
I, for one, am longing for removing the “used to be’s” from the “circular file” of retirement living. There are, in our NAORRR family, so many former members of CCAR, UAHC/URJ and Commission on Social Action Resolution Committees. All of us had the “juices flowing” when, as younger rabbis, we sat and debated the issues of our day that needed
addressing - all of us found meaning in challenging our own modern-day Pharaohs. For me, it’s time to reignite that proverbial “fire in the belly.” In my mind, NAORRR ought not be a place to just “rehash“ the “what were’s” but, instead, a place to continue to “lash out” at what are still the
injustices within our society.
 In a late November edition of the Sarasota Herald Tribune a headline caught my eye - “REFUSAL TODAY COMPARED, CONTRASTED, TO THAT OF WWII.” Below was a photograph of Syrian refugees - a group of parents and their children crossing from Turkey to one of Greece’s seaports - then, in smaller print: “THE JEWS DID NOT POSE ANY THREAT TO THE U.S. IT’S REALLY UNFORGIVABLE.”
Those were the words of 83 year-old Dr. Sol Messinger who, as a 7 year old child, stood with his father at the rail of the ocean liner St. Louis and stared out at the lights of the city of Miami, Florida. The two of them were among the 900 plus Jewish refugees on board the St. Louis; all they wanted to do was come ashore and live freely in this land of promise. But, as all of us know from Holocaust history - that dream was not to be. The refugees, first denied entry into Cuba, then into the United States and Canada, were returned to Europe. The St. Louis docked at Antwerp, Belgium and the refugees were dispersed to various European countries: the United Kingdom took in 288 of them - France took in 224 - Belgium admitted 214 and the Netherlands 181. When the war finally ended, 25% of those refugees had died in Hitler’s death camps. Sol Messinger is one of the few who remain of the survivors.
What is “eerie” in this “glimpse” of history is the “sameness” of it. Syrian refugees are being admitted to the very same European nations - this time including Germany - and, once again, despite the Obama Administration’s welcoming gestures and stringent requirements and vetting process, most of our elected leaders and those “TRUMPeting” their qualifications as they
seek the Presidency, are doing their best to block entry to those seeking freedom from 21st century oppression.
t’s as if history is repeating itself! The only difference is the “genetics” of the Semites who are seeking asylum, this time! Jews and Muslims are cousins and, whether our paternal- ncestor was Isaac or Ishmael, each of us traces our roots back to “Father Abraham.”
There is an increasingly loud outcry in the general population to keep Syrian refugees out: the reasoning stretches from unbridled xenophobia to total, abject fear. And there has been, for me, an uncomfortable silence from too many of America’s Jewish leaders. Yet, we Jews cannot - we must not - be silent! For we have been there, before: our people died in Europe
because they were locked out of America! There was no one here courageous enough to open the gates for them. So now we, having tasted the sweetness of the freedom that America offers, must find that courage, today, to welcome in those whom the world has rejected!
I don’t know if you saw the latest email from the Religious Action Center; it had a photo of a small group of teenagers, part of the December 2015 L’Taken Seminar, standing in front of one of the engraved statements at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The words, from Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” shout out:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963)
I’ve already alluded to my part in the creation of L’taken, so what caught my eye, beyond Dr. King’s challenge, were the words that those teens spoke to their representatives:
“The Jewish tradition is very clear about the treatment of refugees and immigrants. We are to welcome them into our land and communities, and we are to support their integration into the larger society. The principle of welcoming the stranger is echoed 36 times in the Torah. This is the most mentioned commandment in all of the Bible. In the Book of Leviticus, we are ommanded, “You shall love [the strangers] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Today, millions of Syrian refugees are fleeing their country and their homes, way of life, culture, and their livelihood. Too many in our society fear that the terrorists are hidden among the refugees. The fear of attack should not hold us back or overshadow our values. In the book of Micah, we are taught, “and each shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid”(Micah 4:4)...for we are all humans created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim…” (Testimony given to NH Senators Shaheen and Ayott and NH Representative Kuster-December 2015 L’taken Social Justice Seminar by participants from Temple Beth Jacob, Concord, NH)
he names of those who spoke those words are equally worthy of mentiontonight. Becca Katz, Jonathan Weinberg and Brenna Hopkins are Confirmation Class students at Temple Beth Jacob, Concord, NH. I’m sure that their Rabbi, Robin Nafshi, who will not be eligible for NAORRR Membership for five years, is incredibly proud of her students and happy to see their faces and names highlighted by the Religious Action Center. I also know that their Rabbi Emeritus must be just as happy and proud. According to one of Temple Beth Jacob’s Past Presidents, their Rabbi Emeritus, “a former Vice-Chair of the Commission on Social Action and an activist for progressive causes, was unafraid to take strong positions on controversial issues like gender equality, the rights of gays and lesbians, abolishing the death penalty, and advocating for a single-payer health care system.” And I’m confident that in speaking out on those subjects and more, he may have taken more time than allotted to him. How fort nate for us that this Rabbi Emeritus, my friend and colleague on the SarasotaManatee Rabbinic Association, is about to be installed as NAORRR’s President. Richard, you “done” good!
o, with the future beckoning, and with the memory of my classmate and friend Barry Friedman always fresh in my mind and spirit, nudging me to continue the journey, and knowing that there are many more than just we two who share this common vision, I sincerely hope that NAORRR will take a serious look at 2 sections of its By-Laws - the sections labelled “Preamble” and “Purpose” - and find a way to include the continuing thirst - and mandate - for two basic- ewish concepts not mentioned therein: social justice and tikun olam. We are not too old to speak out - nor too feeble to walk the picket-line - nor too unsteady on our feet to stand, publicly, in silent protest!
As our colleague and teacher Rabbi Tarfon continues to remind us:
“Our lives are finite and our allotted time on this earth is a precious, but fleeting, gift. While we are not required to complete the work we’ve begun, neither are we free from ‘retiring’ from it!
Shabbat shalom!
NAORRR – 2016
SHABBAT MORNING SERMON
KENNETH ROSEMAN


There have been three times when I stood on the pulpit and was intensely nervous.
The first occurred in the Chapel at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati when, s a second-year student, I was assigned to read Bereshit – the first time I had ever read publicly from the scroll. Bereshit bara Elohim, I read, and then eht ha-shamayim ve-eht ha-aretz. From the second row came the very audible voice of a six year-old, EIT! The voice belonged to Aaron Petuchowski. The remainder of the reading was a total blur.
The second time was when I was asked to address a Sunday youth service at Rodeph Sholom in Pittsburgh. It did not particularly matter that the young people were seated in the balcony, more than a hundred yards away, nor that the first eight rows were willed with residents of various homes for the aged. What terrified me was the present of the redoubtable Solomon B. Freehof, seated behind me on the bima.
And then there is today, speaking to colleagues, respect for whom is a high value for me.
Nonetheless, let me begin. 
The narratives of the Torah that we have read since Simhat Torah are filled with lies and deceptions. Eve and Adam vainly attempt to fool God. Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, not once but twice. Rebekah and Jacob deceive Isaac, and then there is Laban’s double-dealing. Joseph’s brothers are not exactly truthful, and the two midwives in last week’s parasha pull a fast one on Pharaoh when they testify that Hebrew women deliver so quickly that they, the midwives, cannot carry out Pharaoh’s genocidal command. Even Moses tries to disguise his real intent by telling Pharaoh that the Israelites only want to go out to the desert to worship – and then they’ll return. Right!
With this nearly-unbroken recollection of ancient Oriental rug merchants and used car dealers, I thought I would frame my remarks this morning in somewhat of the same vein. Let me begin on an autobiographical note.
 All of you know that I have written a series of books about Jewish history for adolescent children. Why and how I began this career is a different story, but the first one, called The Cardinal’s Snuffbox, got its title from an incident that happened to Spanish-Jewish ancestors on my mother’s side of our family. As the story was related, they were among those who were forced to choose between conversion and expulsion in 1492. Their escape from the Spanish Inquisition was facilitated by a family friend, a Catholic cardinal named de Sourdes – yes, such a prince of the Church did really exist – who gave them a gold snuffbox that enabled them to make their way to the Netherlands.
This snuffbox was in the possession of my uncle Richard. After the book achieved a modicum of success, I wrote to Dick to inquire whether he would consider selling it to me. I told him it would mean a great deal to me. Dick wrote back that he would gladly sell me the box, but that, as a fifteenth-century artifact, it was insured for ten thousand dollars. In 1979, that was a huge sum of money for us (It still is.), but we decided to let the negotiations play out. In all fairness, he proposed to have it appraised by a New York antique dealer by the name of Rothschild.
After a delay of three or four months, another letter arrived, this one containing Rothschild’s verdict. “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” Dick reported. “After you read the enclosed appraisal, call me.” Mr. Rothschild thanked him for recounting the family’s history and then continued. “Unfortunately, not a word of the story related to the snuffbox is true. It is, in fact, a fine example of pre-French Revolution gold work. It bears hallmarks that identify a well-known craftsman from the region of Paris and was made in 1788. Its value is about two thousand dollars.”
My book was historical fiction, anyway, so I was not too disturbed that its title and a few of its pages were based on a fraudulent assumption. Helen and I had a hearty laugh. The entire family had passed down an illusory tale for a long time. Then I bought the box and proudly display it in our home until this day. For me, its value had actually increased because it was evidence that the family had deceived itself for centuries.
Now, the entire purpose of telling you this story is to point out our wide-spread propensity to practice self-deception – even rabbis and rabbinical families – we’re just like everyone else in this regard.
So, let’s talk about us. All of us have faced bad times at some point in our lives. Maybe it was a sermon that wasn’t well-thought-out or a class we taught without adequate preparation, and we took some negative feedback. Or we ourselves knew we had not done a good job, but the audience was generous and did not criticize too strongly. We’ve made comments that were offensive and even mean-spirited. We wanted to take them back, but we couldn’t, and we’ve hurt other people. We’ve lost jobs. We’ve experienced feelings of inauthenticity and inadequacy. In our personal lives, we’ve also confronted difficulties, especially balancing professional demands and those of home and family. Honesty compels us to accept that we’ve had more moments of failure and despair than we would like openly to admit.
Down times like these tend to shake one’s self-confidence. It takes a remarkably strong ego not to begin thinking: “Maybe I’m not very good at how I’ve chosen to live my life. Perhaps I ought to look elsewhere – a different job, even a different career or something new in my personal life. Who among us has not passed through periods of self-doubt and the despair of sub-clinical depression? To be a sensitive person almost automatically means that one will be open to such bouts of negative self-scrutiny.
One of my favorite verses in the Torah comes at the end of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. There, the text declares that everything that God had created was tov me’od, very good. But very good falls short of perfect. In the very design of the divine creation, in the very definition of what human nature is all about, God built into the system both the possibility and the acceptability of weakness, failure and even sin. To fall short of perfection is, then, to do exactly what the Creator intended – to be fallible, to be human, and not to pretend that we are God. Being very good is an extremely high standard, and when we do not sometimes rise to that expectation, it is understandable that we are not pleased with ourselves.
To succumb to self-doubt may be a frequent tendency for human beings, but it is also an exercise in self-deception. You and I know each other – and ourselves. We know we’re not perfect. Often enough, we are realistic about our own short-comings, and even more often we are generous enough to point out those of others. We can always do better. But to focus to the point of obsession on an evaluation of ourselves as frail and fallible human beings is an unfair assessment. The honest judgment of who we are and what we have done, both professionally and personally, contradicts any debilitating doubts about our self-worth. If one were to survey the good things we have each done during our lives, the cumulative record would be a remarkable statement of achievement and contribution to human welfare. We are not anywhere near perfect, because we are human and not divine. Are we very good? Sometimes we have come close. But in our own minds we are never close enough because we are heirs to a prophetic tradition of creative dissatisfaction and idealism. We know that, however good we have been, there is a great deal more left to do. Yet our life’s chronicle, if looked at fairly, does not allow for the self-deception of failure or overly-harsh self-criticism. Candid self-evaluation tells us we have no cause to deceive ourselves into thinking that we have failed to live up, at least in large measure, to the expectations of our faith.
There is, however, a second kind of self-deception to which we are prone. It verges, to be honest, on idolatry – an idolatry of self. This variety of self-deception emerges if and when we too easily come to believe what others say about us. I recall a Christian fellow in the Ph.D. program at our seminary in Cincinnati – he was an Anglican – who once wondered if he was a deacon or a beacon. When I was teaching at Cincinnati’s Wise Temple during my student days, we used to ask young children “What does God look like?” Frequently, they would respond: “Rabbi Wohl,” the retired rabbi of the congregation.
We are hopefully the embodiment of God’s values, but we are not God. Sometimes, we tend to conflate these two identities and deceive ourselves into the conviction that we have exceeded our humanity. It’s a pitfall that is hard to avoid. Parents inordinately praise their children, and grandparents have never met a grandchild who is less than brilliant. Grade inflation at school means that anything less than an “A” is failing and unfair. People expect outstanding comments about their performance in any endeavor, and criticism is often chalked up as an emotional problem exhibited by the reviewer. We are told we are wonderful, meaningful, important. It’s enormously tempting to believe what our mothers believed about us and to accept adulation as properly due. How easy is it to forget that we, like all the biblical worthies, have feet of clay. Thank God for spouses and children who love us enough to burst our stuffed shirts with the sharp pins of reality.
In our retirement years, we have the luxury of looking back at our lives, the goods and the bads, at who we have been, what we strove to accomplish and what still remains within our grasp to do. Such a retrospective yields, necessarily, a mixed report, many sources of satisfaction, but also regrets and remorse. On balance, however, we ought forthrightly say that we have tried to approximate the divine ideal of being very good. While we should not deceive ourselves about our short-comings, and while we should resist the urge to exalt ourselves above the reality of our achievements, the non-deceptive truth is that, using a South Texas idiom, “we done good.”
So we can gather at this NAORRR convention and repeat without hesitation a traditional Jewish affirmation
Ashreinu! Mah tov helkeinu u-mah nora yerushateinu.
“We rejoice! How good has been our lot in life, and how beautiful is our legacy.”
AMEN 

THE CHOICES WE MAKE ON THIS JOURNEY CALLED LIFE
RABBI MERLE E. SINGER

There once was a Rabbi who traveled from Shtetl to Shtetl – teaching, preaching and doing whatever a rabbi of a Shtetl would do. And everywhere he went he was heard saying: “What ever happens, happens for the best - happens for a reason.” 
Wherever, whenever, and whatever would happen to the rabbi - no matter how challenging - his response was always the same. “Whatever happens –happens for a reason and happens for the best.”
In my youth these stories spoke to me… But then came the Shoah, the Holocaust, Genocide, Nuclear warfare, Terrorism; and everything changed. After Auschwitz, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after 911; how naïve it is, dangerous and foolhardy it can be to believe that “everything happens for the best.” Further the ‘why’ events happen is not the most important question. I now believe, more important than understanding ‘why’ is understanding the responsibility we have to ‘what’…”
The decisions we make… Our choices about how we will play the hand we are dealt are what make the difference…
How often do we find our life - Your life, my life a journey to be on a road filled with potholes roadblocks and detours.
 A journey to awe-inspiring vistas but also full of rough patches and “dead ends.”  
Considering the personal challenges many of us are facing in the days ahead - I am convinced, beyond any pain and heartache of today - the future belongs to those who have enough trust and confidence in themselves that despite their fears, they have the courage to just ”go for it” … As one of my sons is often heard saying to his kids…You can do it the hard way, or the easy way – just “do it”! 
November 18, 1995 – Itzak Perlman’s purported concert at Avery Fisher Hall- Lincoln Center in New York City. For Itzak Perlman getting on stage is no small achievement. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. 
That night something went wrong. Suddenly one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - There was no mistaking what that sound meant. What would he do? What were his choices? Getting up - himself and getting another violin would be quite difficult… Asking someone to get him a replacement- was the easiest choice.  
But he chose - to try to play with what he had! 
Of course, most assume it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. 
I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head… Getting new sounds never heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet them, and then he said, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task at first to make music with all that you have and then when that is no longer possible to make as much music as you can with what you have left." 
This story - for me -is what life is all about - of choices made, of challenges encountered…. 
Today I have a story to tell - my story. As I tell the story I ask only – as you listen – that you examine your own life – looking to those moments when challenges were turned to opportunities – or possibly – when opportunities were left undiscovered.
I have told some of you parts of the story, but today when tradition dictates ,naked honesty as “ the gates begin to close”… I tell the whole story with the choices and the decisions that made the difference… 
It is the spring of 1952. Just weeks before my Bar Mitzvah.
I am in homeroom at East Jr. High School in Duluth, Minnesota waiting for the morning bell to ring. I am thinking about my Bar Mitzvah, only a few weeks away. My speech was done –mother took care of writing that. It was reading Hebrew from the Torah that made me a little more than anxious. How had my older brothers ever survived this? I ‘ll never get through this!
As it turned out, I didn’t! I hit a “dead-end.” At my Bar Mitzvah on Friday night, May 16th, standing on the bema when it came time for me to read from the Torah - usually the centerpiece of a Bar Mitzvah observance - I blanked out! The words of Torah lost all meaning, the rabbi from his seat behind me kept repeating the words to me but nothing helped. Finally I opened my mouth and out came the most “creative reading” of Torah Hebrew the congregation would ever hear. Not a single word of what I said- made any sense in Hebrew or in English… 
I know it may be quite unexpected to hear your rabbi tell the story of how he muddled through his Bar Mitzvah…Permit me- to explain how this came to be --- and the why - of a struggle that continues to this day.  
My story begins on that spring morning in the weeks before my Bar Mitzvah. That was the morning my homeroom teacher called me to her desk and asked. “Merle, what are your future plans for school?” Somewhat surprised by the question I answered:
“Go to Duluth Central High School where my sister, brothers, uncles, aunts and even my mother who was salutatorian of her class graduated… But I barely got to the words “High School” when she interrupted me saying: “Your aptitude test twhich you recently took was so poorly done – you’ll be lucky if you graduate Vocational Tech School.” 
 Looking back at that moment I realize how easy it would have been to follow the advice of my homeroom teacher and given up my dreams. What she said made sense…but I couldn’t and NO I wouldn’t do it her way!  
“I am going to go to college – I have to!” I answered her. I didn’t know whether to panic or just to walk away. 
Seeing my distress she suggested I meet with the guidance counselor after school.
Later that day I went to see Mr. Howard Alaspa. He was looking over my file. We sat for a few minutes, then he looked up and said: “I’m sorry Merle, but the results of your aptitude test raise questions about your ability to go to high school and college…” “But,” he added, “as I look through your file I find that the test you took in kindergarten showed much academic promise and we don’t know why, but many times the Kindergarten test is a better predictor of future academic success then later tests which depend on reading....” He then went on to tell me though I needed to be prepared for disappointment, there was nothing wrong with daring to follow my dreams. His encouragement remained with me for the rest of my life.
I learned many years later, just before the completion of my formal studies, 2 university college Baccalaureates degrees, a Master’s in Hebrew Letters degree and ordination as rabbi - I am a severe dyslexic…
Not knowing what it is that was wrong – people said I was careless, didn’t care, wasn’t smart enough,or didn’t try hard enough – anything but that was true. I just knew and accepted, if I was going to be successful, I had to work harder than anyone else.
 I had no idea that when I was reading – my problem was not just letter reversal, but in a capricious manner I will add letters - syllables and – words and in just as capricious a manner delete them…And I will NOT be aware I am doing so – until or unless someone calls me on it.
You never overcome being dyslexic; it’s like traveling a potholed, detoured road. At first you concentrate on avoiding the deep and jagged potholes, then comes the challenge of finding the patience to endure seemingly endless detours.  
That is where you realize the hard cold truth: You are the only one who can do this job for you. The Israelis have a term for this –ayn’brayra- “there is no alternative”. So it is for those who see the world differently. While an inordinate amount of time and effort may be required,to master the meaning of a written text, with it can come a perspective on life that often is unique: A kind of creative awareness that some like a Steven Spielberg, a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson have found. Perhaps this is why despite the frustration of one’s personal limitations, whether being dyslexic or many worse things and the powerful hold this can have upon you many have found a way to “play the symphony with only 3 strings:” Like a Nelson Rockefeller, Agatha Christi, and a Virginia Wolfe. I believe it was Steve Jobs who said: “…that no matter what happens in your life—struggles in school or an unsuccessful career path—every aspect will somehow help you down the road.”
So it was for me- I sailed through those courses in high school, such as Chemistry that I could feel, touch and hold or history with its stories I could visualize During my first year of college, attending the University of Minnesota in Duluth. I was going to study Industrial Engineering, leading to a career in corporate America with Human Resources.  
My first quarter at the university– my first math course – college trigonometry – Is where I experienced my first “Detour’’: I didn’t pass… The professor saw how hard I worked and said: “Merle, I’ll pass you IF you promise me you will never take another math course.” She didn’t have to repeat the offer – “Done!”
I now had to change my choice of career. – Find a new path – one without so many “potholes”…. Taking a battery of tests at the university counseling center I will never forget the look on the counselor’s face when he announced: “Merle, in all my years as a college counselor, I have never seen this before.” He held out my score to one of the tests I had taken – saying: “you went off the chart on becoming a Funeral Director!”…Well in Duluth I had never known a Jewish funeral home so without giving him time to finish I questioned; “ A funeral director? What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?” 
 As fate would have it I saw a notice that a Mr. Albert Vorspan would be speaking at the university auditorium.- on career opportunities in the religious world of today. The year was 1959: Al Vorspan was co-director, of the Reform Jewish Commission on Social Action. He talked about how social action was essential to the spirit of Judaism. Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel he said: “Judaism requires a leap of action more than a leap of faith.” Adding: ‘to be Jewish you had to never give in to apathy and smug complacency.’ When he finished I couldn’t contain my excitement. I went up to him and I announced, “I’m going to be a rabbi!” With that I began making plans to transfer to the University of Cincinnati and begin rabbinic school studies at the Hebrew Union College.
May 1960 - A day of reckoning came in my second year of undergraduate studies. By then I was well into my classes at the University of Cincinnati…I was even a Sigma Alpha Mu – a Sammy. Minoring in rabbinic Judaism at the Hebrew Union College rabbinic school., I, for a second time experienced “road blocked”.
This time - failure could easily mean the feared “ROAD CLOSED” – an end of a dream WITH NOWHERE TO GO.
 I did not pass my first course of Hebrew studies! My instructor1, an upper classman, said I had done so poorly there was no way he could have possibly passed me. He said he tried every which way to give me a passing score, but he couldn’t. It began to look like my 7th grade teacher was right – higher education was not for me. You cannot be a rabbi without fluent knowledge of Hebrew.  
Fortunately, later that day, the Provost of the College Dr. Sam Sandmel z’l, saw me standing dejectedly in the hallway outside his office. I had come to say goodbye. He invited me in. As he had already heard what happened, in his famous southern drawl he said: “Boy, you go home and all summer you study real hard then you come back here in the fall and retake the Hebrew readiness test. If you pass, you just plan on staying here until you’re a rabbi ---understand my boy?” “Yes sir” I answered…more out of respect than anything else.
Early the next morning I was at Union Terminal in downtown Cincinnati to take the train home. With time to spare I went out on the station promenade to watch the sunrise. While standing there – with tears of sadness, disappointment, and fear of facing my family as a total failure – I wondered if I would ever see this sight again. Standing there I remembered the story of the sage Rabbi Akiva, who once finding a small waterfall noticed how the water falling on the rocks had, over time, carved them out. Seeing this, he said: “If water can soften a rock – knowledge can penetrate my head.” For me, at that time, this story renewed the few shreds of hope I had left.
Two years later I completed my undergraduate studies graduating from the University of Cincinnati, and six years after that - 50 years ago this coming June - I successfully completed my graduate studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion graduating with the title “rabbi.” 
If Steve Jobs was correct, which I believe he was, the brain disorder dyslexia can either sink you or empower you to turn the failure of defeat into successful opportunities... The choice is ours!
As the years moved on there was another major challenge – and opportunity for growth – to be faced. Parkinson’s disease. The words of Michael J. Fox – ”Parkinson’s is a gift that keeps on taking – soon became very personal to me And for me another rather large bump – and what was to become a series of increasingly closely spaced speed bumps, come to think of it – on the road.
That was 10 years ago. And today, despite those bumps – these bumps – I am here!!! - Speaking to you !…Proof that with, medical help, excellent physical therapy: a special thank you to our Temple member Ed Gray who at his therapy centers keeps me moving and to Sue Levy, my voice coach- who reminds me that I still have a voice to be heard. Ed’s dedicated staff just won’t give up on the likes of us. They along with my amazing wife -Myra, our beautiful children and their families, and indeed, so many of you, who stand by my side and give me the strength to face whatever may come every single day. You all are the ones who deserve the credit for not letting me forget – as we must all not forget – that making beautiful music without all the strings is still possible..
 I stand here today to ask What about you? What is your story?
I ask you to take a look at your journey - the detours that brought you to places you never believed would be yours. Detours, which if given the chance - can become for you the pathway to fulfillment.. 
I ask for those whose who may have experienced major changes or challenges in your life; What are the choices that helped bring you strength and not be left behind?
When you came in here today what were your excuses for not fulfilling your dreams, not following your passions? I know what mine have been – and I sincerely ask you to look carefully at yours. 
In our home as the boys were growing up Myra would often challenge them saying: “it's not what you have, it's what you do with it”.   Every time they would complain to her that they were not fast enough, smart enough, or cool enough to get through whatever challenge de jour they faced, she would tell them this-- so they could stop focusing on the perceived limitation and start thinking of the solution.
So I ask you to think for a moment. What personal wall is in front of you that would benefit from the perspective – “it's not what you have…It's what you do.”
      Like Itzak Perlman, you don't need a perfect instrument to make beautiful music - and it certainly doesn't matter what the rest of us, think is possible or practical.   All that matters is that you believe in yourself and make the effort – remembering: it's not so much the challenge but your response that counts…. The Choices you make – the decisions you reach…  
    I ask, What tough choices or decisions have you made? Can you make? Will you make that became – or will yet become – for you and you –and yes you- the sacred ones the paths to greater things than you may have ever thought possible. Choices and decisions that lead you , despite the risks, to “go for it.” 
Giving you - all of us - the courage … the will power… the CHUTZPAH… to Dare to Live!   






 






While the following sermon was not delivered at the NAORRR 2016 Convention we are honored to include it here. Merle Singer (C' 1966) was among the rabbis honored at the NAORRR 2016 convention on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his ordination. This sermon was preached to his congegation on Yom Kippur 2015.
TO WATCH THE LECTURES BY 
DR. DAVID RUDERMAN AT THE 2016 NAORRR CONVENTION PLEASSE SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS SECTION. TWO OF HIS LECTURES APPEAR THERE.