My Personal Journey from Snow Banks to Sunshine

As I sit here in my study, preparing to write, I find myself very far from the home in which I was raised. Most days, indeed most weeks, I do not think about this fact except in passing. In the three years since my little family moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, we have tried our best to plant roots. My wife, Marita, in addition to holding our family together, is working hard as a hospital chaplain and studying at AJR (Academy of Jewish Religion); our two sons seem to be flourishing in our schools; and after a long search, we recently bought our first house. Yes, there are challenges and ‘bumps in the road’, but in general things are going well.

And yet, we are far from our families and, as you can imagine (or perhaps you know), that can be very difficult on so many levels. So I have to wonder, how did a Boston boy like myself wind up 3,000 miles away in Laker country? The answer is simple: Stephen S. Wise Temple…and Israel; however, the story is a bit more complex, and I’d like to share it with you.

When I was 13 years old, to celebrate my bar mitzvah, we toured through Israel on a Family trip with our synagogue. This trip, in addition to giving me an understanding of, and pride in, Judaism that has stayed with me through present day, began a relationship with the State of Israel that has, in some ways, defined who I am as a person. Growing up, and through my 20’s, sometimes I was more mindful of this relationship, and at other times, less so; but my connection to our historic homeland, and the other half of the world’s Jewry, was always there.

Throughout college and the years that followed, I was certainly supportive of Israel, but not particularly involved in public leadership or even participation. My personal relationship with Israel continued to grow in a manner personal, with extended visits allowing a deeper connection to The Land and her people…our people. In the late 90’s I found myself running a business in Silicon Valley. I got involved with pro-Israel activities, organization and demonstrations. Before long, I had made a decision that I needed to listen to this ‘calling’ to work hard for Judaism, and the Jewish people. And so I went to rabbinical school.

Even there, however, to my surprise, many students and even professors claimed a ‘tough love’ for Israel, although truth be told, the ‘tough’ often eclipsed the ‘love’. Five years later, when it came time to interview for jobs, I sat down with

Rabbi Herscher. There were many, many students applying for the position, and more than a dozen had preceded me that very day. After exchanging pleasantries, Rabbi Herscher picked up my resume and I saw that he had circled the word ‘AIPAC’, which I had listed under my ‘extracurricular activities’. What is interesting is that I had debated with myself whether or not to even include ‘AIPAC’ on my resume, for I feared that professing a passion for pro-Israel political activism might be held against me by certain congregations in the interview process (and to this day I have no doubt that it was). But in the end I had decided to include it because, despite the tight job market, I did not want to have to hide who I was or what I stood for. It was a good decision. Rabbi Herscher and I spoke about Israel, and he let me know the importance of Israel to this congregation. In fact, he told me a large part of the job would be to spearhead the temple’s ‘Israel pillar’ by connecting as many congregants with The Land and her people as possible. I could not believe it! It was more than my ‘dream job’ because I did not think that it could exist…and perhaps, outside of Stephen S. Wise, it does not.

Ours is a Temple, along with its Schools, that, when it comes to Israel, does not just ‘talk the talk’, but ‘walks the walk’. Whether it is from the pulpit or our Social Justice work, from the congregational trips to Israel or our Tiferet semester abroad, from our celebration of Israel’s accomplishments or our many classes and courses designed to bring us closer to Israel, one thing that we can proudly say: Israel is a vital part of who we are as a religious community. For this reason, and the fact that Stephen S. Wise is truly a beacon of good emanating out into the world, Marita and I decided to move our family to Los Angeles. We are happy and eager to engage our community in the holy work that is still to be done.

And, we have a lot more work that we can do! Currently, a group of congregants and I are engaged in a revisioning process to figure out how to better engage and connect with Israel over the next decade. This spring, we have our AIPAC at Wise afternoon and Policy Conference, and a number of inter-campus celebrations, opportunities for Social Justice in Israel, and Temple trips. Our goal is to help you connect and get involved with Israel. If you are looking for ways to do this, or if you would like to help us come up with other avenues for connection, please let us know by getting in touch with me directly. I look forward to hearing from you about your personal journey.

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Politics and Judaism

When I was at Seminary, we were told that there were two distinct schools of thought regarding politics and the pulpit. The first is that the two should never mix. This philosophy holds that the rabbi should only be concerned about matters of “the spirit”, as politics is too mundane for Torah. Additionally, politics is “bad for business” because it inevitably alienates folks who might disagree. Thus, the safe path for a congregation is to avoid politics so that no one is unhappy.

In contrast, the second school of thought holds that the rabbi is morally obligated to engage in politics. Our prayers for a safe and just world can only be realized through our very human efforts and political institutions, and in this way, we can act as God’s vessels here on earth. This philosophy holds that matters of the spirit and the human condition are inseparable, and to ignore the mundane realities of our world is to ignore the core mission of Judaism – to engage in the world to make it better. Moses did not remain on Mt. Sinai with God, but returned to b’nai Yisrael and the real world because that is where he, and religion, were desperately needed. The wisdom that politics may be “bad for business” is not disputed, but rather is countered with the mandate that sometimes congregations have to be driven by what is right, and not by what is safe.

One of the defining characteristics of Stephen S. Wise Temple is our culture of activism, particularly when it comes to the safety of the Jewish people and Israel. Some call this Zionism; I think of it more as common sense. Our history has shown us that we need to stand up for ourselves because no one else will. And, when we stand up for ourselves, we, in turn, protect other populations and ideals threatened by the fanatical forces of intolerance and apathy.

Over the High Holy Days, I had the honor of speaking with many of you about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. My message of a couple of months ago is no different than my message today – if we continue on the track that we are on, we are very likely to be on a collision course with horrible violence. The extent of this would mean that either Iran would make good on its promise to wipe Israel off of the map by launching a nuclear missile at Tel Aviv or, feeling that there was no choice, the U.S. or Israel would initiate a preemptive strike on Iran, resulting in massive casualties. What’s more, a nuclear Iran is not just a problem for Israel, but for the entire world. It would ignite an already volatile Middle East into a nuclear arms race, which would essentially mark the end of the global nuclear non-proliferation movement.

None of us wants war. As Jews, we firmly believe that violence should only be used when all other options have been exhausted. Because, we hold life to be sacred – all life: Iranian, Israeli, and American. But, if we are serious when we say this, and when we pray for it, then each of us is obligated to act through the choices that we make. If we do not, if every one of us does not take action to avoid this violence, then we all share in the blame for what happens.

In my sermon, I promised that over the next few months there would be some real grass-roots opportunities to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. One of the most effective ways to take action is for you to commit to targeted engagement in local California politics. This means that occasionally you would take time from your busy day to formally demonstrate, often in our own backyard.

And, in late October, our congregation did just that – we joined with politicians to launch an important initiative. On the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall, Rabbi Herscher,
Cantor Lam, Rabbi Woznica, Metuka Benjamin, and I joined dozens of Stephen S. Wise congregants to support State Assembly members Mike Feuer and Bob Blumenfield as they announced legislation to prohibit public entities in California from contracting with companies that are invested in the Iranian energy sector and/or that supply gasoline to the regime in Tehran.

Although Iran sits atop some of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil and natural gas, it is forced to import roughly forty percent of its refined petroleum because of its poor domestic refining capacity. If these corporations cease supplying gasoline to Iran and pull out of the country’s energy sector, the regime will be forced to reevaluate its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Feuer/Blumenfield bill sends a powerful message that corporations assisting Iran’s ability to develop its nuclear weapons program are no longer welcome to do business with our State. This bill tracks legislation currently working its way through Congress and would help leverage federal sanctions that we hope will be imposed on Iran.

If this bill is enacted, California would be the first State in the union to bar contracts with corporations heavily involved with Iran. That alone would be a powerful tool, given that California represents the eighth largest economy in the world. However, as we all know, California is a bellwether state – what happens here is often exported to the other forty-nine. If California can take this step, it could be the catalyst for a fifty-state effort that generates dramatic cumulative pressure on the regime.

There is a long road between announcing a bill and getting it passed, and we will need to muster our collective political power and influence to make sure that happens. This is another way of saying that the success of any of these efforts depends on you. Without your commitment to engage and to take action when called upon, we are rendered a rudderless ship at the mercy of the currents of the world.

However, there is nothing wrong with starting small. For, on that day in October on the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall, our presence strongly proclaimed our community’s commitment to policies that prevent a nuclear armed Iran. It urged our politicians to take these bold stands. And, it helped focus the media to enter Iran into the national conversation. Though our numbers were small, our voice was big – by just being there, we did make a difference. And, we can continue to make a difference, no matter what the cause, when we are driven by what is right and we use that drive to engage in making this world a safer place.

(originally published in November, 2009 issue of Stephen S. Wise Temple’s @Wise)

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«What’s In A Name»

or “An Introduction To Our New Rabbinic-Intern, Spike Anderson”

I am looking for a lawyer to file a class action suit against Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash!
“Well, that is just ludicrous,” you say? No so, to the contrary…

Because of their song, ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ many parents throughout America have given their children ridiculous names in hopes of filling some sort of nominal vacuum in their lives or perhaps in the spirit of Darwinian humor. How many innocent children have suffered because of these lyrics?

My father is one of those parents who decided, when he was just ten years old, that his son would nto have a humdrum name like Howard (his name), but rather something outrageous that people would remember. He predicted that a name like ‘Spike’ might allow entrée into pick-up basketball games even if it meant that no mother would ever allow his future son to date her daughter…but that was a sacrifice that my Dad was willing to make.

So, because of the Silverstein-Cash conspiracy, I was fated to be called ‘Spike’ even before my own father hit puberty. I never even had a chance…

In fact, my father was so attached to the idea that he decided that I was going to be ‘Spike’ no matter if I were a boy or a girl! When my younger sister was born, he toyed with ‘Nail’ or ‘Hammer’ but by then my mother had thankfully seized control of the baby naming apparatus. As for me, no matter how hard my father pleaded, my mother would not actually name me ‘Spike’ (because she is ‘normal’), and so my given name is ‘Nicholas’, although the only people who call me ‘Nicholas’ are the bill collectors.
Like many of us, my surname is credited to Ellis Island where the clerks changed it from its Romanian ‘Antonescu’ to the congenial ‘Anderson.’

The oldest of three kids, I grew up in Boston at Temple Israel. As a teenager, I went to a Quaker boarding school and then to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania where I majored in American History with a focus on secondary education. In 1993, I spent a semester abroad at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in an experience that forever changed my life and awakened my passion for Judaism.

After college, I moved to New York City to work for a recruiting firm that focused on technology professionals for Wall Street, and then moved out to San Francisco where I founded my own company which aided the venture capitalists to build their pre-IPO ‘start-ups’ from scratch. This was an exciting time, but in 1999 I decided that rather than continue with business, which I absolutely loved, I would rather chase my latent dream of becoming a rabbi.

Since deciding to pursue the rabbinate, I have had the good luck to travel the world, to spend a year in Jerusalem, to learn the wisdom of our scripture, and most importantly, to marry my wife, Marita, with whom I look forward to raising a beautiful family. Four months ago, we had our first child, a wonderful baby boy.

Now, what to name him?

Forever scarred by my father’s decision, I had decided when I was just ten years old that my future son would neither have a humdrum name like Howard nor a hyper-macho name like Spike. I wanted a name that would allow my son entry into pick-up basketball games and reassure mothers that my son should date their daughter. Marita and I picked “Maccabee”…as in, “Big Mac is on my team!” and “would Maccabee like to stay for dinner?” In any case, Marita, Maccabee, and I look forward to joining your family at Temple Israel.

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