Address to Kehillah Synagogue

The Battle Within: What a Story of Twins Tells Us About the Human Psyche

Delivered November 21, 2015

Simone and Martin Lipman Scholar in Residence

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Eighteen years ago my wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. We did not want to know the gender of our expected child and we told this to our physician. But our physician’s mind lacked stickiness, because when he looked at the ultrasound, he yelled out: “Look! Frick and Frack!” And we turned to each other with a look of “WTF”? This is how we learned that we would become parents of twins. And not only twins, but identical twin boys.   Continue reading “Address to Kehillah Synagogue”

Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East

jacob_esau

 

 

 

 

I begin this post with the above image of Jacob and Esau that I found on the web from the artist David Otto www.davidotto.com.  It captures, artistically, one of the questions that the ancient rabbis struggled with in the Midrash – namely, “is the competition between the brothers inherent?”

 

New York Theological Seminary

October 29, 2014

 

Spiritual Lessons from Twins:

Jacob and Esau as a Paradigm for Israel and Palestine 

Seventeen years ago, when my wife was in graduate school, we lived two blocks from this building, on 121st street, the section that has now been named after one of my patron saints, the comedian George Carlin. My wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. The physician pointed at the screen and said: Frick and Frack! And this is how we learned that we would become parents of twin boys. Not only twin boys, but identical twin boys. Which is probably why I am obsessed with biblical narratives about twins and why I have come here tonight to tell you that the answer to the question of how we might bring peace to the land of milk and honey is…twins. I speak here of “twins” as a concept, an archetype.  Envision twins in the womb for a second – these are two competing forces, each struggling to obtain nutrients for themselves to survive, and yet they float around in the same fluid and are influenced by the same thoughts, feelings, and hormones of the mother and the broader environment that she lives in. My question tonight is this: What does it mean for twins to co-exist in the womb and beyond it? And how might that spiritual metaphor guide us forward?

Continue reading “Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East”

Address to Adath Jeshurun, Minnetonka, Minnesota

Shabbat Shalom. First off, I want to express my gratitude to three men who made it possible for me to wake up in Minnesota. Lon Rosenfeld, who called me in my office in New York and said that I had to come. Rabbi Kravitz, who welcomed me to the bima and to Minnetonka with open arms, and my friend from college Donovan Hart, who let me crash on his sofa. Donovan is not Jewish – but he and his wife Rama and their children are members of the Unitarian Church that bought Adath’s old building – and apparently the place still smells like gefilte fish.

I want to start with a few questions addressed to the middle school students who are here that I want you to answer to yourself. In your mind or your heart.

I know that you are all highly intelligent. You know that as Anya steps forward for her bat mitzvah it is a ritual about becoming a Jewish woman. That it is a recognition that one is no longer a child in the Jewish community. You also know that on a physical level, the body is maturing and preparing for procreation. Not that we encourage that sort of thing. Please wait til grad school.

You also know that religiously, the bat mitzvah is taking hold of the responsibilities outlined for adults in the Torah – to lead a life that honors the traditions, rituals, and ethical teachings of Torah within a community of shared responsibility.

But I want to ask you — what does it really mean to go from being a girl to being a woman?
What challenges do you need to face?
What experiences do you need to have?
What do you need to learn?
What do you need to feel?

And this brings me to my topic. What does it mean to go from being a boy to being a man? In the ancient world, I imagine that answering this question was much simpler. Want to be a man? Go kill a bear or a lion. Gut it, and wear the fur. Nobody will mess you. Or better yet, go kill some big man from that tribe we don’t like across the valley. Wear a necklace made of his bones. We won’t question your manhood.

So much of Jewish tradition has been defining Jewish man against the savage. Our patriarach Yakov, whose name is Yisrael – the name of our people, sits in tents, cooks lentils, and listens to his mother. His brother Esav…he goes out and kills things. We trace our line back to Yakov. But after we were enslaved in Egypt, and Jewish men had to come back to reclaim our ancestral lands in Israel, we looked to our warriors, to Joshua, and later to David. We began to think differently about who we were and what kind of men we needed to be in the world. We became poet-warriors, we built cities. We expanded our borders. But then we were exiled from our land. So we adapted. For over two thousand years, Jewish men focused not on military power, but on law and poetry and diplomacy and medicine and trade. Most Jewish men found ways to succeed without being like other men. After the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, we started to rethink everything. The men of Europe were threatened by us, some of them wanted to expel or to even to destroy us. So at the start of the Twentieth Century, very bookish-guys like Max Nordau started encouraging Jewish men to become “muscle Jews” to return to Olympic competition. Early kibbutzniks embraced this machismo…this return to the poet-warrior type Jewish man of King David.

Meanwhile, Jewish men in America were thinking about what it meant to be an American man. White American men were quiet. They didn’t express emotion. They were independent, tough, cowboys. Some of us tried to be cowboys. And we looked at African-American men. They had style. They were cool. They could dance. Some of us tried to be like them. And then came feminism. Women started doing things that were once reserved for men. And all of a sudden, guys didn’t know what we were supposed to be like. Were we supposed to share our feelings now? Were we supposed to censor our thoughts now? Was being cool still cool? Were we supposed to be more feminine?

A year ago, when I first started working full-time on the idea of a national program for Jewish teen boys, I realized that a lot of guys are just plain confused about what they should be, as guys.

Is a guy supposed to express his emotions or be chill?
Can a guy have friends that are not men?
Is he supposed to be tough or to be sensitive?
Should he hide his love for his mother or his father?

These are extremes, of course, but they all raise the larger question: What are the gender expectations that we have created in the various worlds that we inhabit and how are they limiting, stifling, suffocating, our potential to be fully human?
And more specifically, how are these expectations damaging young men, at a time when young men are seeing men behaving badly in politics and sports, are questioning their academic abilities vis a vis the smarter girls, and feeling like men are in decline? Today many men are socially isolated. They do not have friends. They feel more confused about their role as men than ever before.

I am the father of two teen boys, both of whom have very strong Jewish women in their lives. As my sons are playing Halo Reach on their Xbox, watching smosh TV videos on their laptop, and watching ESPN sportcenter, they are thinking about what it is to be a man. A year ago, it became clear to me that young men needed a positive, male-affirming approach to manhood. They need to have the space to think about what it means to be a mensch and the Jewish community can provide that space for every bar mitzvah boy.

When I was thirteen, I was clueless. On the plus side, I had stopped giving wedgies to my little brother and I had survived my first phone call with a girl. This is back when people talked on the phone. Not text – actual talking, on the phone. On the negative side, I was bored in school, I was too short to make the basketball team, my friends from the track team and I sat around playing on computers (the Vic 20 for those who remember) and I was up most nights worried that I didn’t have any underarm hair.

But that is all fairly superficial. On a deeper level, a lot was going on. I lived in a state of fear of “cool guys” in my school. To prove their coolness, they physically abused the weaker guys in gym class, and although I wasn’t on their list of number one targets, there were times when I was ridiculed and harrassed. Maybe what was worse was watching other kids, like the tall an awkward kid Joey, getting beat up and not really being able to do anything about it. I was unhappy, but I did not have the language to express my unhappiness. I found a few friends, but they were not close like my friends from elementary school. And although I liked girls, I had no idea what to say to them when I was actually, like, standing next to one of them. They were all so smart and witty and judgmental and I was probably wearing the wrong shirt.

So maybe bar mitzvah shouldn’t be at thirteen. Maybe it should be sixteen, or eighteen. Maybe twenty-one.

Why thirteen? What do we mean in the Jewish community when we say that you are an adult at thirteen?

The concept of thirteen as the age of adulthood began in the Talmud. The idea sprung from a legal question: Whose words are valid? If a child makes a promise, say, for example, that they promise to water your apple tree while you are on vacation, and then fails to keep that promise, are they liable for damages? Do they have to pay you for the lost apples? The rabbis determined that at age thirteen, a person should be able to back up their words. If you say something now, you understand what it means and what it requires of you. You are liable. So parents at a B’nai Mitzvah are released – as it says in the blessing, she’petarani mai onesh zeh , you are released from liability and punishment that falls on your child’s shoulders.

But there are other reasons for the age thirteen. There is a midrash that says that Jacob, the tent dweller, and Esau, the hunter were indistinguishable for their first thirteen years. At thirteen, Jacob developed the spiritual sensitivities that we label as “yetzer hatov” a selfless sense of goodwill. Esau remained in the place of self-satisfaction, he remained all yetzer harah – a bad will.
What does it mean that Esau cannot break from his boyhood tendencies?
Think of a two year old boy whose Thomas the tank engine has been cruelly stripped from his hands by, say, some other two year old. He will likely scream, cry, bang the floor, throw something, until he gets what he wants. Until we are thirteen, we are basically throwing a long temper tantrum. After thirteen, when we are throwing a temper tantrum, we are kind of on automatic pilot from childhood. But something is different. What is different? At thirteen, we start to see a bigger picture. It is the age when we step outside ourselves and begin to reflect on our childhoods. And deep inside, we can think about where we are hurt, and if we try, we can find what it is that we want to say.

At Moving Traditions, the Jewish organization that I have the honor to work for, we focus exclusively on the coming-of-age period – what happens between the ages of 11 -18, those seven dangerous and adventurous years. My colleagues and I have trained over 1,000 mentors across the country – educators and volunteers – to ask these questions to teens and we hope to train many more.

So what kind of men would we like young men to be? Our goal is not to throw away traditional male ideas such as toughness, independence, loyalty, or calm and just produce young men who are really nice and like to share their feelings. Our goal is not to make men more masculine or more feminine. In fact, we think those categories are not helpful. Rather, our aim is to inspire teen boys to expand their definition of what a man should be. Men should be both tough and fragile. Men should be able to be aggressive and to be peaceful. Men should know how to be quiet and how to be expressive. Maimonidies taught “A man should not be to quick to be angry or to slow. A man should not be too proud or too humble.” The righteous path is to understand your inclinations and to understand how you must grow in order to obtain balance.

I conclude with a question: Is 13 the right age to begin this work? I think it is the perfect age. At 13, young women and men are saying goodbye to childhood and beginning that journey to adulthood. It is a moment both of loss and of promise. We celebrate that moment, we celebrate it today, and we say – as a community – “we are there for you.” Shabbat Shalom.

Address to the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
April 25, 2012

Twenty-two years ago, as a bright-eyed college graduate, I was deciding between studying in a Yeshiva around the corner from my cousins’ house in Crown Heights or going to Suburban Philadelphia, where I knew absolutely no one, but I could study with Art Green at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I wish that I could say that I wanted to study with Art because of his scholarship in chassdiut. Or that I was enamored with his work in contemporary theology. But sadly, the reason I wanted to study with Rabbi Green was because he had written a few minor essays in the 1960s and 70s on casual sex and pot smoking. At the time I envisioned Art as some sot of rabbinic Jerry Garcia, a father figure who reeked of patchouli, vegetarian stew and the Baal Shem Tov, and who had the power to hand me keys to spiritual doors so that I, too, could one day be such a guru.

As a college senior in the #1 party school in America, the University of Wisconsin, I stopped into a video game arcade to take a passport photo, borrowed a friend’s computer to type out an essay, and I applied for admission at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I flew to Philadelphia for the interview, took a train to Jenkintown, and was greeted by Howard Cohen, a student in his final year at the school, who served as my host. As we walked around the college building I thought that I had mistakenly landed backstage at an Indigo Girls concert. Or, to be more accurate, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. Yes, there was a friendly Orthodox guy who worked in the library, but most of the students were women and they all appeared to be ten years older than me and in various stages of man-hating. At the time the popular feminist jewelry was the double-sided axe worn on a chain around the neck. What were these axes going to cut? It was a confusing symbol to a guy like me who was born and raised in the Bible Belt – Charlotte, North Carolina. After the interview and the news that I was accepted, Howard said that we needed to lift some beers to celebrate. This was a sentiment I could relate to. We walked into town, me wearing a yarmulke in public for the first time, in search of an open bar.

The only place that was open in Jenkintown was a dive that featured topless dancers. OK – that’s inaccurate. This place featured a singular topless dancer. So I found myself, four hours after getting into rabbinical school wearing a yarmulke in a strip club. Howard, wisely, ordered a six pack of beers and we went back to his porch and drank.

The next morning, I went to Rosenberg’s books and bought a leather-bound gold embossed artscroll siddur. I walked back into Howard’s house, showed him the book, and he said: “Why did you buy that?” I said that the explanations looked good. He gave me a look. One of those looks that says – “oy, have you got a lot to learn.”

Needless to say, when fall came around, and I got to meet my classmates, I was in for an eye-opening and wonderful experience. I joined a learning community that challenged me in multiple ways and I began to forge unexpected friendships that nurture me to this day.

But I am not here today to regale you with tales of rabbinical school. For anyone who does want to hear about my formation as a rabbi, my one-man show entitled Faster, Rabbi, Drill! Drill! still exists. The only caveat is that you need to own a working cassette tape player to listen to it. What I do want to focus on today is gender.

Twenty years ago, my thoughts about gender and Judaism were challenged and expanded in the presence of my teacher at RRC the late Tikve Frymer Kensky Z’L For those of you haven’t come across Tikvah in your studies, she was a true trailblazer. She received a doctorate from Yale in 1977 in Assyriology and Sumerology and was one of the first women to academically challenge the male-dominated world of Biblical Scholarship. She was the first woman named a scholar of distinction by the Jewish Publication Society. She gave some classes on her back porch. While her 8 year old son was jumping mushrooms on his Nintendo, she would recite the Gilgamesh epic in ancient Sumerian and simultaneously translate. In her class, we learned that the roots of Biblical Judaism were not to be found in patriarchy alone, but in a synthesis of feminine and masculine mythic idioms including lactating trees, fertility goddesses, and birthing stones as well as the warrior-Gods and storm gods of the region.

While many of us were busy writing new, gender-neutral liturgy, Tikvah was busy sharing four -thousand –year-old Hebrew amulet inscriptions for pregnant women. She loved to talk about ancient understandings of sexuality and probably the best moment in her class was when she was lecturing on circumcision and she said. “I’m not a very good artist, could someone come up to the board and draw an uncircumcised penis.”

It was a wonderful time in Jewish life in terms of feminist scholarship and new thinking about gender, sexuality, and Jewish ritual. Leslea Newman came to class one day and read us from her new book about Heather and her Two Mommies. We all had dog-eared copies of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. And every baby girl born in the community would be welcomed with a naming / foot washing / brit / new song ceremony that seemed to go on for five hours. Needless to say, towards the end of rabbinical school there were lively debates about the merits of Xena Warrior Princess.

And this discussion had an impact on theology. In the beginning of rabbinical school, I thought that what was best was to envision God as being totally beyond gender. I wanted more than anything for the Jewish God to be like the force in Star Wars. I could close my eyes and feel it and Rabbi Yoda could teach me how to use it to blow up the Death Star.

But then I read Howard Eilberg Scwartz’s gender discourse in God’s Phallus. And started to wonder if an invisible god is really the solution. Looking back at my copy of the book, I marked a passage which bears a re-read:

“feminist theorists argue that representation of a disembodied masculine God ends up supporting the association of masculinity with spirituality and, by way of contrast, denigrating femininity as being associated with the body. God creates by the word and not the body, masculinity is linked to intellectual and spiritual activity while femininity is bound to the passive functions of the body – the bearing and nurturing of children.

There are however, a number of myths in ancient Judaism that imagine God as having, or at least appearing in, human form….the idea of God’s body has enormous implications, not only for understanding how ancient Jews figured procreation, conception, masculinity, the male body, and the phallus, but also for feminist and analytic views of religion. How must the terms of this discussion change if God’s body is veiled rather than nonexistent? “
(p. 21-22)

A year after I finished rabbinical school, Rachel Adler came out with her brilliant work Engendering Judaism. In her work, she offers a new paradigm for thinking about gender and sexuality, and most importantly, thinking not just about God’s gender or God’s body, but about Jewish practice.
In her words:

“The purpose of feminist Jewish hermeneutic is not to reject either text or law but to seek ways of claiming them and living them out with integrity. It keeps faith with texts by refusing to absolve them of moral responsibility. It honors halakhah by affirming its inexhaustible capacity to be created anew. “p. 58

That was twenty years ago. And for two decades now, we in Liberal Jewish circles have affirmed egalitarianism and gender neutrality, have taught that gender is a social construct, that gender is something artificially bifurcated, that gender is a performance. We do not think that there is something essential about being a man or being a woman. Male and female is not wired in our brains like some blue and pink software and gender is not in the hardware either. As we all graduated rabbi school, eager to transform liturgy and communal practice, we envisioned a world that was Gender free, gender neutral, post-gender.

And then we met teenagers. If you have not spent time lately with this fascinating sub-species of human, they tend to travel in packs, subsist on snack foods, communicate through cryptic digital clicks and spend a great deal of time covering up their various skin conditions with products extracted from botanical elements. Two of these creatures happen to live under my roof.

My colleagues and I had thought that gender roles were not as big a deal anymore for teenagers because we were diverted by news stories that seemed to point in that direction. We heard about the impact of Title IX on women’s sports. We knew that girls were doing better in middle school, even in math. Gay-Straight Alliances were making high school bearable for LGBTQI students. We had thought that things were getting better and then as we met teens that were struggling to conform to unrealistic gender expectations, we started to realize that things might actually have gotten worse in the last twenty years. We heard a lot of confusion from teens as well as stories of prescription drug abuse, eating disorders, date rape, an the messy business of “friends-with-benefits.” Things were certainly not getting much better for girls, things were getting much worse for guys, and LGBTQI teens were facing new types of harassment.

Looking at the generation, we asked: How did a group of parents who all went through school influenced by feminism end up raising teens who are struggling under the weight of gender expectations? Did they change? Did society change? What happened?

I think that things have, in fact, changed and I hope to discuss this with you today. In my current work, I have been thinking a great deal about how expectations for men have changed and thinking specifically about how the lives of teen boys in our community are impacted. Before I say more about that, I’d like to reflect for a minute on two changes that I see happening related to teenagers and gender.

The first element of change is related to the rise of niche marketing and new media. I remember reading a story in 2008 about how executives had decided that the Disney Channel was losing tween boys so they launched Disney XD, a channel for tween boys that would show more violent shows. Or as they said, more “action.” Teen Nick saw a similar opening in niche programs for tween girls. They added more “drama” Nintendo saw a new market and started to program video games specifically for girls, and developed successful new lines of games that encouraged girls to care for ponies or make sushi or make sushi for ponies while their brothers hunted down uni-browed terrorists. Rather than expand gender possibilities, the explosion of new media actually affirmed old gender lines. The result is that as we have seen the amount of screen time rise significantly in the lives of tweens and teens, we’ve also seen the emergence of fairly gender-segregated virtual spaces. With this has come a rapid rise of both reality television and pornography. These related genres solidify gender roles and give teens a constant stream of supposedly “real” men and women, straight and gay, who model what it is like to be a “real” man or woman. Rather than watch actors in sit-coms or dramas who can ridicule and subvert their gender roles, in reality shows teens watch non-actors who vie for popularity in highly gendered environments. For more than ninety percent of teens their primary source of sex education is hardcore pornography. This media is providing them with a steady stream of what it means to be a cool guy or a hot girl. Educators and parents are now stuck with the task of helping teens to think critically about a world where they are tuned into what Ariel Levy has dubbed “Raunch Culture.”

A second factor is related to a decline in what I would call social intimacy. Robert Putnam’s work in the late nineties described how communal organizations were breaking down in the U.S. Since that time, the rise of online social networking has certainly increased, but the amount of time that teens spend with friends in what was once called hanging out, away from parents, has been in sharp decline.

This has particularly been a problem for teen boys, a dynamic beautifully chronicled in of NYU professor Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets. She writes about the decline in intimate friendships among boys as they go through high school, and the sense of loss and isolation that many boys feel. Couple this with a world in which boys are losing out to girls academically and fewer boys are going to college and boys are spending increasingly more time than girls online and you get a picture of the challenges that we have with today’s teen boys.

Those are changes that I see in the wider world – but now I want to focus specifically on the Jewish community.

Within the Jewish community, the prominent role of men in nearly all aspects of Jewish life outside of traditional Orthodox circles has gradually diminished. While leaders of most major organizations and synagogues remain men (a glass ceiling that I would argue still needs to be shattered), the vast majority of participants are women. Moving Traditions’ research has shown that this drop-off begins for young men at age fourteen and continues throughout young adulthood. Recent studies by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University (notably by professors Len Saxe and Sylvia Fishman) have found that young men are underrepresented in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips, social action initiatives, Hillels, and ultimately under the chupah. Sylvia Fishman cleverly coined the term “patrilineal descent” to describe how men have slipped away from Jewish volunteer and philanthropic circles and Jewish communal life in general. Those of us who have taken on leadership roles in the Jewish community might ask: How are we failing so many young men?

While participation rates for young women have also declined in liberal Judaism, they have not declined as much as those for young men. The contributing factors that led to this growing gender imbalance in Jewish life are numerous and some of them are factors that we should celebrate. In the last three decades, barriers of prejudice breaking down in politics and in once closed philanthropic circles led men to pursue opportunities outside of the Jewish world. As America embraced a multicultural ethos, many Jewish men left behind their ethnic affiliations. They preferred an emerging secular globalism to what seemed like an outdated, provincial and religious worldview.

But another factor needs to be mentioned, one that is difficult for men and women to talk about. The changing roles of women in American society at large and the Jewish community in particular have had a profound impact on men’s participation. Here I want to be very careful. While it is critical that we do not project a “cause and effect” approach that blames men’s lack of involvement on women’s empowerment, I think that we need to acknowledge that the growing leadership of women in liberal Judaism is part of the equation. The majority of men under age thirty have grown up with almost exclusively female religious teachers in Hebrew School. In hundreds of communities that are not male -led 1,000 member plus congregations, there are many young men who have only spent time with female rabbis and cantors. What is more concerning though, is that young men in many congregations rarely see men who are devoted to Jewish learning and even fewer who care about Jewish liturgy and prayer. The impact of this lack of male mentors on teen boys has yet to be studied, but if it is like any other activity that becomes weighted to one gender, concerns for the continued participation of the other gender – here young men – are warranted.

At the same time that these mixed signals about men have emerged in liberal Judaism, Chabad rabbis successfully populated nearly every American zip code and offered a clear role for Jewish men. Reaching out to all Jewish men to “wrap tefillin” or “make a minyan” has affirmed the unique value of Jewish men offered by traditional Orthodoxy. The messages stand in contrast to one another: Liberal Judaism says “come and be equal in our welcoming congregation” and Orthodoxy says “we need you specifically because you are a man.” While we have no statistical evidence yet regarding the power of this draw to Chabad or other outreach movements, we imagine that it is double-edged. Some men see these efforts as unwanted proselytizing and others feel that they are needed as men by the Jewish community and welcome the opportunity to try Orthodoxy. While most men who participate in activities with Orthodox outreach rabbis do not hold the same theological views as these rabbis, they do feel comfortable learning with them and feel as if their contribution is valued.

Given that men often feel comfortable when other men are involved in social activities and that many crave to be accepted by a community of men, how can those of us outside of the traditional Orthodox outreach world think differently about engaging men?

Although I use the word engagement I have to admit that I have an aversion to the term. I prefer to think about our role as educators and as community builders in another way and ask “What are we offering men? Or more practically, does what we offer men speak to the needs, both social and spiritual, that they have currently identified in their lives and does it have the power to warrant communal obligation and commitment?”

That is the conversation I hope to spark today. It will force us to ask:

What do men need?

Do men need something that is special to men, or should we change what we do for everyone to engage men?

Is thinking about gender separate space a good thing at all? Are women’s groups and men’s groups a model we should move away from?

Should we begin to think of gendered groups in terms of three – female, trans, and male?

I hope that today we will have a chance do seriously tackle these questions and to learn from one another.

Congregation B’nai Israel, Rumson, NJ

Here is an excerpt from a recent speech that I gave “installing” a rabbi: 
When I was young, my favorite book that my parents read to me was Leo Leonni’s Frederick.

Lionni was born in Amsterdam, the son of an Italian Jew, and he came to Philadelphia in 1939. He wrote Frederick in 1967. Here is the story: there is a group of field mice and they are all gathering grains and other foodstuffs for the coming winter months. All except for one – Frederick. What is Frederick doing? He is sitting watching the sunset, he is chasing butterflies, he’s watching the wheat blow in the wind. What are you doing? The other field mice say. “I am gathering colors” he says. Some of the mice mock him. But then, as they huddle together in darkness, for months on end, the field mice get depressed. Frederick begins to tell stories of the colors. He paints a picture for them in such a way that their winter depression is lifted and they all come to see the importance of his sacred task.

What, as we enter 2013, is the role of a communal spiritual leader? What is a rabbi for?

I want to suggest that there are two forces that are shaping our world as we enter into 2013.

The first is what I’ll call the global digital revolution. Future generations will look back on Steve Jobs as we look back on Thomas Edison, and Galielo Galeli. The instant interconnection of the globe through shared information is, indeed, a monumental shift in human culture. Within seconds, we can see what is going on all over the globe. A few weeks ago, I simultaneously watched a live feed from Gaza City and from Sderot from the comfort of my home in Montclair. At the same time, I was Gchatting with my Israeli cousins, reading Facebook rants from my friends on the left and the right, and shopping for Hannukah gifts.   

In some ways, the inter-connectivity is amazing. We can now access libraries and news and order flaxseed, shoe polish, hair gel, and garden gnomes.

But the inter-connectivity also has a downside, evidenced in the network of thieves, human traffickers, and nefarious predators who are harnessing the digital world for destructive purposes. The world has become a more dangerous place.

But what I want to focus attention not on the benefits or drawbacks of the digital era, but the way in which the digital era has produced a spiritual crisis. In our day, we want everything immediately, we can’t focus on one task, we are frustrated by anything that is not lightning fast, and we have an information overload.

Many students in our schools have little idea where to begin in navigating a flood of information and in dealing with the peer pressure that exists in digital environments. Thinking critically is not valued in our educational testing system and our children need strong mentors and teachers and parents who can help them to be discerning.  

We know more than we have ever known about the human body, about the bio-chemical make-up of our brains, about our digestive system, respiratory system, and immune system. And yet, when we or someone we love is faced with illness, we are lost in a sea of information. A flood of possibilities surround us and information contradicts other information and there are no simple answers to the ongoing mysteries of the human body.

The spiritual crisis of the digital era leads us to want fast answers to questions that may not be answerable.

The second force that is surging today is also global. It is a global resurgence of religious tribalism – a worldview that offers fast answers.  Religious leaders, who often use the tools of the digital era, paint modernity and science as a weapon of the good. They call for a return to patriarchy and an end to all judicial systems that exist outside of the religious authorities. We see this resurgence particularly in nations whose people have seen years of government corruption and have lose their faith in pluralist, secular systems of governance.

This rise in religious extremism presents a spiritual crisis for us as well. All those who do not pledge allegiance to the leaders of these sects are labeled as illegitimate. In Muslim, Chrisitan, and Jewish circles the level of hatred between these resurgent traditionalists and all other adherents has grown. Many young Jewish people grow up today thinking that unless you are in the most anti-modern yeshivah, then you are not really practicing Judaism.

These two forces are very real and our world needs leaders who can help us to navigate them.

What is needed to navigate a global digital world?

A rabbi who understand how the digital revolution is changing the way that people are learning and socializing, but who champions the wisdom of our ancient technologies – reading, conversation, ritual, poetry and silence. 

What is needed in a world of narrow religious tribalism?

A rabbi who has great love and respect for tradition, but who is willing to balance that respect with a respect for modernity and the new ways in which we are coming to understand what it means to be human and to be in community. A rabbi who is not afraid to think critically about tradition and not afraid to be a public spokesperson who defends the Jewish people.  

Address to Hebrew Union College – JIR in New York

Posting my February 23rd address to the faculty and staff of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. To listen click here.

Gender Trouble: What We Are Teaching Boys About Being Men and Why It Matters

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Address to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

February 23, 2012

First of all, I want to thank Rabbi Shirley Idelson for extending the invitation to be with you today and to thank Rabbi Carol Bailin who is a board member of Moving Traditions, and whose exhibition Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age will be opening March 6th at the JCC of Manhattan. With the permission of the teachers who are hear today, I want to share a few thoughts about the Torah portion. 

I am the kind of person who believes that the gender lens is a necessary perspective when reading any part of the Torah. Or at least that is what I thought before I started to review this week’s parsha. Planks and lumber and sockets and joints… it is a cross between Ikea and Home Depot. It is Lego Land meets Shinto Shrine. Not only is the parsha not about gender – it is not about living beings. It is about the mishkan, a physical structure made of wood and melted metal and various fabrics and the most exciting part is a pair of gold winged angels that remind me either of Ceasar’s Palace Casino or Valentines Day iconography. As my daughter would say, there is not much “drama” to draw from. And then, in yet another episode in my rabbinic life of Saved-by-the-Aggadah, I learned that the creation of the Mishkan actually has an allegorical meaning that is profoundly gendered:

Commenting on the verse “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). the Midrash in Exodus Rabbah 33:1 tells a story. A king has a daughter who he is marrying off to the ruler of another land. When the king’s son-in-law wished to return to his own country with his new wife, the king would tell his son-in-law: “I cannot say to you, ‘Don’t take her,’ for my daughter is now your wife. However, I ask of you that you wherever you go to live that you have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.” So too, the Midrash explains that God said to Israel: “I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it. But I request that wherever you go, make for Me a house in which I will be able to dwell.”

Now we have some rich and rather intense gendered imagery to play with. Some initial thoughts: First off, the Torah has just become a young woman, in this case the King’s daughter. The Mishkan in this allegory is a room set aside for a man that exists in relation to this woman. Wherever this woman travels, the Mishkan, the chamber, must be near her.

But isn’t it ironic that the daughter, who is symbolic of Torah, has no voice? She has no divrei torah. Only the father speaks, and while he grants freedom to his son-in-law, the young woman remains an object, or to be more accurate, a desired object. In the back of my mind I see a masculine God played by James Gandolfini who grants partial freedom to his daughter, but ultimately does not let her out from under his shadow.

These are all the initial ideas that dance in my mind when I read the text with a gender lens. But this is not the Torah that I want to teach. My goal this morning is to suggest a different gender lens with which to read this text. One that is related to the lives of daughters and sons today and one which will tell us something about the meaning of Torah and Mishkan.

But before I proceed, I want to say a few words about how I started thinking differently about gender and Torah.

Twenty years ago, when I was a young rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I had the great fortune to study with the late Tikve Frymer Kensky. Z’L  For those of you haven’t come across Tikvah in your studies, she was a true trailblazer. She received a doctorate from Yale in 1977 in Assyriology and Sumerology and was one of the first women to academically challenge the male-dominated world of Biblical Scholarship. She was the first woman named a scholar of distinction by the Jewish Publication Society. In Tikvah’s class and at her occasional storytelling sessions on her back porch, we learned that the roots of Biblical Judaism were not to be found in patriarchy alone, but in a synthesis of feminine and masculine mythic idioms including lactating trees, fertility goddesses, and birthing stones as well as the warrior-Gods and storm gods of the region.  

While many of us were busy writing new, gender-neutral liturgy, Tikvah was busy sharing four -thousand –year-old Hebrew amulet inscriptions for pregnant women. She loved to talk about ancient understandings of sexuality and probably the best moment in her class was when she was lecturing on circumcision and she said: “I’m not a very good artist, could someone come up to the board and draw an uncircumcised penis.”

It was a wonderful time in Jewish life in terms of feminist scholarship and new thinking about gender, sexuality, and Jewish ritual. Leslea Newman came to class one day and read us from her new book about Heather and her Two Mommies. We all had dog-eared copies of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. And every baby girl born in the community would be welcomed with a naming / foot washing / brit / new song ceremony that seemed to go on for five hours. Needless to say, towards the end of rabbinical school there were lively debates about the merits of Xena Warrior Princess.

That was twenty years ago. And for two decades now, we in Liberal Jewish circles have taught that gender is a social construct, that gender is something artificially bifurcated, that gender is a performance. And you know what, it is all true. There isn’t something essential about gender. Male and female is not wired in our brains like some blue and pink software and gender is not in the hardware either.  As we all graduated rabbi school, eager to transform liturgy and communal practice, we envisioned a world that was Gender free, gender neutral, post-gender. 

And then we met teenagers. If you have not spent time lately with this fascinating sub-species of human, they tend to travel in packs, subsist on snack foods, communicate through cryptic digital clicks and spend a great deal of time covering up their various skin conditions with products extracted from botanical elements. Two of these creatures happen to live under my roof.

My colleagues and I had thought that gender roles were not as big a deal anymore for teenagers because we were diverted by news stories that seemed to point in that direction. We heard about the impact of Title IX on women’s sports. We knew that girls were doing better in middle school, even in math. Gay-Straight Alliances were making high school bearable for LGBTQI students. We had thought that things were getting better and then as we met teens that were struggling to conform to unrealistic gender expectations, we started to realize that things might actually have gotten worse in the last twenty years. We heard a lot of confusion from teens as well as stories of prescription drug abuse, eating disorders, date rape, an the messy business of “friends-with-benefits.”  Things were certainly not getting much better for girls, things were getting much worse for guys, and LGBTQI teens were facing new types of harassment.

Looking at the generation, we asked: How did a group of parents who all went through school influenced by feminism end up raising teens who are struggling under the weight of gender expectations? Did they change? Did society change? What happened?

I want to suggest that yes, the world is changing, and I want to speak specifically about how teen boys are dealing with those changes.  

The first element of change is related to the rise of niche marketing and new media. I remember reading a story in 2008 about how executives had decided that the Disney Channel was losing tween boys so they launched Disney XD, a channel for tween boys that would show more violent shows. Or as they said, more “action.” Teen Nick saw a similar opening in niche programs for tween girls. They added more “drama.” Nintendo saw a new market and started to program video games specifically for girls, and developed successful new lines of games that encouraged girls to care for ponies or make sushi or make sushi for ponies while their brothers hunted down uni-browed terrorists. Rather than expand gender possibilities, the explosion of new media actually affirmed old gender lines. The result is that as we have seen the amount of screen time rise significantly in the lives of tweens and teens, we’ve also seen the emergence of fairly gender-segregated virtual spaces. With this has come a rapid rise of both reality television and pornography. These related genres solidify gender roles and give teens a constant stream of supposedly “real” men and women, straight and gay, who model what it is like to be a “real” man or woman. Rather than watch actors in sit-coms or dramas who can ridicule and subvert their gender roles, in reality shows teens watch non-actors who vie for popularity in highly gendered environments. For more than ninety percent of teens their primary source of sex education is hardcore pornography. This media is providing them with a steady stream of what it means to be a cool guy or a hot girl. Educators and parents are now stuck with the task of helping teens to think critically about a world where they are tuned into what Ariel Levy has dubbed “raunch culture.”

A second factor is related to a decline in what I would call social intimacy. Robert Putnam’s work in the late nineties described how communal organizations were breaking down in the U.S.  Since that time, the rise of online social networking has certainly increased, but the amount of time that teens spend with friends in what was once called hanging out, away from parents, has been in sharp decline.

This has particularly been a problem for teen boys, a dynamic beautifully chronicled in Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets. She writes about the decline in intimate friendships among boys as they go through high school, and the sense of loss and isolation that many boys feel. Couple this with a world in which boys are losing out to girls academically and fewer boys are going to college and boys are spending increasingly more time than girls online and you get a picture of the challenges that we have with today’s teen boys.

What does this have to do with the Jewish community and how we raise men?

We have an opportunity. More than 70% of Jewish boys have a bar mitzvah, and most of them do so with the support of rabbis, cantors, and educators.

My own sons went through this recently. They learned about a social action requirement, they learned how to give a dvar torah, they led services and leyned Torah. But while they briefly discussed adulthood, they were never asked what it meant to be a man or what it meant to be a Jewish man.

What happens during that year and the next is the time when we have the power to provide guidance for our community’s teens and to give them peer-centered skills that will help them during their most dangerous years. In the past year, I have seen how the right mentors can teach them that guys have more emotions than anger, that having a six-pack is not going to bring them true happiness, that there is a difference between kissing someone and kissing with someone. How we train mentors and how we reach teen boys will be part of the lunch hour discussion that I hope that you’ll join me for as I speak a little bit about the work that Moving Traditions is doing with girls in over 100 Reform synagogues in the U.S. and with boys in over 20 reform communities.

But now it is time to return to the Midrash. A father marries off his daughter. The son-in-law moves her to his Kingdom. The father-in-law says “build me a chamber” so I can dwell with you.

I want to read the text from a gender perspective that is not philosophic, or political, but is deeply feminist. One of the great insights of second wave feminists was the argument that we must dredge through the personal, the embodied and messy stories, on the path to get to the universal. To quote the brilliant Rachel Adler: “I choose to walk through stories searching for the waters of salvation: the hidden springs of laughter that well up once we are willing to relinquish the suffocating security of the dominator or the smoldering grudge of the victim.”

So, I’d like to read this Aggadic text not as a rabbi or a scholar, but simply as the complicated guy that I am, to walk through my own story for a moment.

My beloved, Lisa, grew up very close with her father. The more I got to know Mel, my father-in-law, the more I appreciated hanging on the back porch with him and drinking beers or shooting hoops with him in the driveway. Even though golf is not my thing, playing golf with Mel was a delight. He would always ask me how work was going and help me with the challenges it brought. He called me boychik. He was proud of me. He wanted me to be happy. Then I watched Mel face a long battle with lung cancer that included a decade of chemotherapy treatments and three brain radiations. During that time, he wanted to be near Lisa and our children as much as he could. We lived an hour away.

“I ask of you that you wherever you go to live that you have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you.”

We set up a comfortable bed for him downstairs. His last Yom Kippur he stayed with us and rested on that bed. Through Mel’s many visits, and our visits to see him and my amazingly resilient mother-in-law, I got a picture of what kind of father I want to be to my daughter, and I got to think about what kind of grandfather I might be if I merit grandchildren someday.

Approaching the text this way, as a man, Torah and Mishkan are transformed. I am the son-in-law in the aggadah and Torah is the wisdom I benefit from each day that I am fortunate enough to deepen my relationship with the person in this world who knows me best. And G-d knows that revelations happen in the conversations that are the most difficult to hear. My Torah and I are in dialogue. Mishkan is the place I set aside for the visits with my mentors, living and gone, who guide me and push me to be a better partner and father, brother, son, and friend. On my journey they are with me as long as I take the time to ready the chamber.

I want to conclude with a few words of theology.  The aggadah is a story of a God who feels the pain of distance and articulates the desire to be close again. It is a story of a God who once built a home for us who is now heartbroken and lonely and calling on us for company.

Many of the teens in our communities are feeling the pain of distance and longing for a closeness that they once felt. Our role as rabbis and teachers is to build the space, the Mishkan, for them to gather and to reconnect with Torah. May we each merit the opportunity to contribute to such a tent.  

Address to the Interfaith Dialog Center, Hilton Hotel, Hasbouck Heights, NJ

Respecting the Sacred

Delivered at the Iftar of the Interfaith Dialog Center
Hilton Hotel – Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey
October 10, 2006
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

E akshem la. First off, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Dr. Levent Koc, and to all the supporters of the Interfaith Dialog Center. It was my great pleasure to join the Iftar of the Turkish Cultural Center last week in Manhattan at the Waldorf –Astoria and to hear dignitaries such as Senator Hilary Clinton as they took the podium. But to be honest, I feel a lot more at home right here in the Garden State. The food is just as good, you all are much more relaxed and better looking than the Manhattan crowd, and I do not have to pay $45 to park my car.

Our topic tonight is respecting the sacred. It sounds like a noble idea. But what do we mean by the sacred? Or we could ask the question in another way: What is sacred in your community? And how did you learn to see certain objects as sacred?

When I think of that question, I think of my earliest memories. I think of the white tablecloth my mother would spread out on the table for holidays and the Sabbath. I think of the prayer shawl, the tallit, my father would drape over his shoulders. I think of the torah scrolls in the synagogue, which we treated with great respect.

But we can not talk about respecting the sacred without talking about disrespecting the sacred. I want to share two stories that touch on this subject.

Four years ago, a controversial exhibit was opening at the Jewish Museum in New York. I love the museum, and one of my oldest friends works at the museum. And I have also had the wonderful experience to be part of the planning of a particular exhibit at the museum. But this controversial exhibit was raising some difficult issues. The exhibit focused on young artists who used Nazi imagery in their artwork. Knowing that it would spark anger in the community, the directors asked a group of rabbis to preview the exhibit. I happened to be one of them. Most of the pieces in the exhibit were interesting conceptual pieces – a lot of sculpture of one sort or another. It did not anger me in the least bit. But one piece was deeply troubling to me. It made my stomach turn. The piece was a digitally altered photograph. The original photograph, taken by Life magazine’s Margaret Burke White, was a picture of the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. In the picture are a few survivors, malnourished, their bones poking through their skin, lying on wooden barracks. The artists had used Photoshop software to insert himself into the picture, and he was in the barracks, and he was holding a can of Diet Coke. I did not find this funny. In fact, I found it to be profane. That photo was a photograph of a crime scene in which Jewish people were stripped of their dignity, enslaved, and de-humanized. I had the choice: Do I stage a protest outside the museum? Do I call for the museum director’s resignation? Do I write a scathing op-ed? What should I do to stop such a disgrace from occurring?

When I first saw the cartoons printed in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten, I thought about how Muslims might view them. I think that feeling that I had when standing in front of that photoshopped piece helped me to understand. Mohammed is depicted with a bomb in his turban? The one whose name is followed by “peace be upon him” is depicted as a madman?

Many Muslims, around the world, were deeply offended by these sketches. But the media chose to focus on the most violent reactions, and the world watched the flames rise and read the reprts — fifteen Nigerians were killed in riots, two Afghanis, two Iraqis, a Somali teenager. During that time, many people that I spoke with said : ‘see, they do not believe in the freedom of the press’ or ‘see, they are truly violent’ or perhaps the worst: ‘see, Muslims do not value human life like we do.”

At the time, I spoke with a Muslim friend of mine, Nurah Amatuallah Jeter. Nurah was very upset about the cartoons, but she said: “Sometimes the best thing to do is to just keep quiet. The more people complain the more press these people get. Why spend your time burning flags when people are going hungry?”

In many ways, Nurah is right. But should we keep quiet when something sacred to us is disrespected?

Just this week there was more bad news on this front: Danish state TV on Friday aired amateur video footage showing young members of the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples’ party engaged in a competition to draw humiliating cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.The images, filmed by artist Martin Rosengaard Knudsen who posed as a member of the party for several months to document attitudes among young members, show a number of young people drinking, singing and drawing cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. One cartoon appeared to depict the Prophet Mohammed as a camel, urinating and drinking beer.

I have here in my hand, a cartoon that shows the way in which many people probably view this debate. On one side, what appears to be a Muslim man, represented by an Arab headdress, burns a Danish flag. On the other side a Dane, holds a torch labeled freedom of the press. They are both igniting the world around them. Many feel that this is an issue pitting freedom of speech against the claims of religious truth. It is as if the world is a big football game – the secularists vs. the religious extremists. Who are you rooting for?

I want to suggest that this is a dangerous and narrow-minded way to view the world. Our challenge today, In America and around the world, is to find the right balance between traditional religious values and a society which affords us freedom of expression.

I ask this question first and foremost as a parent. I have three young children at home. It is easy to see freedom at work in their lives. My children have been exposed to a world of television, internet, video games and all the rest. They are also taught by living in a free society that kids can say anything, do anything, and buy anything. And my wife and I ask: How do we educate our children to value that which is holy – not just prayer, study, the festivals and Sabbath days, but their bodies. family relationships, obligations to the community, and to society?

In Hebrew, God’s name is Ha-kadosh – the sacred. And if you simply know that one word, kadosh, that one root, k-d-sh, then you know the sacred. (In Arabic the word for Jerusalem is Al-Kuds – the Sacred, same root.) When my wife and I stood under the wedding canopy more than a decade ago and said our vows, it is called Kiddushin, when I perform any ritual commanded in the Torah I say a blessing with the word Kidishanu, when I mourn I recite the Kaddish, when I enter into the sabbath the time is called kodesh. For Jews, the sacred is not something far off in some sacred mountain hideout or locked up in a box, but is woven into life itself. The sacred is with us here in the food we eat, in our friendship, in our very breath. It is in that context that we try to raise our children.

God is ha-kadosh – the sacred. And we, who are created in God’s image, are vessels for this sacred. For this reason, the greatest disrespect of the sacred is to ridicule, torture, or murder a human being. The other major violation of the sacred is to abuse, or wantonly destroy the fruit trees and earth that enable us all to live and thrive. This is something we are reminded of with the dates of the Iftar dinner.

After God, humans, and the natural world, the sacred in Judaism focuses on those objects which serve to remind us of our connection and obligation to God. The most holy object is the scroll on which we write the Torah. We value language, and the scrolls on which we write the torah, the mezuzot we place on our doorposts, and the tefillin we wear during morning prayer, become signs of God’s presence. For us, teaching our children these words is the primary responsibility of a parent. Literacy is holy, and we celebrate our children’s entrance into the world of books and rejoice when our daughters and sons chant from the Torah for the first time.

If you feel that words are powerful, then you know that they can heal the world or they can tear it apart.

And this takes us back to the controversy over art and cartoons. Art deliberately take us out of the world of words. In some ways, that is their unique gift. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”

Because art is simple, it has emotional power, and it can invoke both tranquility and anger. But it is with both emotions and words that we respond. In the words of Marcel Duchamp, “The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something – like electricity. But the onlooker has the last word.”

We have the last word – our reactions to those who provoke us are vital. And for this reason, dialogue is so important. When I was confronted with the Concentration Camp art that I saw in the Jewish Museum, my emotions wanted a street protest, in fact what I really wanted to do was tear down the artwork. But what I ultimately wanted was a change in people’s hearts – I wanted that which I felt was sacred to be respected as a result of a dialogue. Luckily, I was able to work with some people at the museum to invite in people across faith traditions to discuss the works before the exhibit opened. We then worked on a guide to the exhibit and we spoke with reporters and we wrote op-eds and we got the word out. It was an opportunity to promote understanding. It was a healing dialogue.

And I sense that you here tonight, who support the great work of the Interfaith Dialog Center, are doing the same by hosting this gathering and by supporting works throughout the year that help many Christians, Jews, and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from many nations to understand what it means to be a Turkish – American Muslim. You are doing work of healing. Healing us from the sound-byte culture that grabs our attention for a moment but robs us of our humanity. We do our work because we believe that if we are in dialogue – if we speak to one another, if we learn what each other sees as sacred, then our words have more power than any art or cartoon.

I want to end with a story. Each year, at Auburn Theological Seminary, we sponsor a youth program that brings together Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth from the U.S., the Middle East, Ireland, and South Africa. It is a program called Face to Face/Faith to Faith in which we bring enemies together to the same table. We spend three weeks together in intense dialogue. At one point, I helped to bring all the participants to a Mosque, Synagogue and Church in NYC. In the program, the greatest tension is between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And right after the program this year, war broke out in Lebanon and Israel. But during those intense weeks of bombings and missiles, one of the Israeli participants, a fifteen year old from Jerusalem, sent an email:

“I have a mosque 200 meters away from my house—the mosque of Beit Sira. Every Friday the prayers come out of the mosque and throw stones and patrol bombs at Israeli cars, after their imam washes their brain against us. In the past few years things have become so out of control that the prayers entered my neighborhood and put bombs outside the doors of some apartments. Someone from my neighborhood opened his door when a bomb exploded, and he lost his hand.

Only now I truly understand how unbelievably important Face to Face is because, to be honest, before I came to camp and met all the Muslims who came there, and before I visited a mosque, I was exposed only to the darkest side of Islam.When I came to Face to Face I met the other side of Islam and now I know that peace is possible.”

We need to meet one another Face to Face to know that peace is possible. I thank you all for making this work happen through the Interfaith Dialog Center and I bless you in your efforts build an America where religious freedom and religious diversity are celebrated.