Won't You Be My Neighbor?

During our regular Interfaith Study Group yesterday we read the text of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. We noted the ability of Jesus to teach not with sermons or rules, but the transformative power of stories. 

In addition to the powerful imagery in the story, the practical nature of the help the Samaritan provides and the details given for each step of the process, we have the very clear moral direction: “Go and do likewise.” 

Of the many lessons is the question behind the text which shapes and informs. It is the question of defining neighbors. As expressed by scholar by Amy-Jill Levine, it is: “ Are you able to see . . . the command to love both neighbor (narrowly defined) and those who you would see as enemies?” And “can we recognize that the enemy might be our neighbor and can we accept this disruption of our stereotypes.”

This is our challenge today; how do we define, and more importantly, treat, our neighbors. We have to be open to changing our minds and actions. 

The Interfaith Study Group, which meets every other Thursday from 4 to 5:30 at By The Rivers, is about exploring ancient wisdom to impact current actions. Indeed, all good text study is about disrupting stereotypes and challenging assumptions. You are invited to join us. 

Pray for Peace, Work for Change

Following is a letter sent Sunday July 10, 2016 to clergy from By The Rivers. Please share with your clergy as we gather together. 

Good morning all, 

Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP

Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP

As the rain washes away the smoke from last night, the Twin Cities is reeling from the killing of Philando Castile and injury of several police officers during last night’s protest on 94. By The Rivers is working to connect clergy to work together for healing and change. Our goal to take the next steps after prayer and use the power of our diverse traditions to eliminate such violence in our city. 

I would like you to join us, and ask that you invite others.

We are beginning by asking you to respond to this email, letting us know you are interested. I am working with other interfaith groups to coordinate and will let you know as soon as possible. 

Additionally, for those of you in pulpits, I am interested in what you said over the weekend during sermons / teachings. I would like to gather and share some of these words on our blog. 

With much appreciation for the work you do bringing calming light during difficult times. 


Pray for peace, work for change,

-Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein

Dear Jewish Millennials, It’s Not Your Fault.

Dear Jewish Millennials,  

These are confusing times for the Jewish community. The statistics are scary, the future is unclear, but we do know one thing: we know where the power lies.

According to studies, other generations consider Millennials less patriotic, less hard-working, more entitled and more self-absorbed. Unfortunately, according to a Pew Research Study, your generation is also quite hard on itself, agreeing with these traits. On the flip side, your generation has many positive attributes, including: an ease working in teams, multiculturally tolerant, independent, family focused, sociable, and your generation highly values collaboration, diversity, creativity and being mentored.

These positive and negative attributes are not limited to those in the Jewish world. Millennials of many faiths, in the United States, consider themselves “less religious.” According to one survey, 35% of the Millennial generation use the term “unaffiliated” as compared to the total population, which was at 22.8% in 2014.

We see how this plays out in the Jewish community. For the last decade, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have wondered where you have been and when you are coming back. And you have likely been pressured by family to attend and/or join.

Many Jewish institutions have seen their membership rosters shrink, their seats empty on Shabbat and holidays, and a general graying of their communities. When answering surveys, 32% of you consider yourselves “Jews of no religion.” For synagogues, this means less dues coming in, fewer children in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah pipeline, and a growing concern for the future of the Jewish people.

Your parents, and frequently grandparents, may use love, or guilt, to get you to join the ranks. Synagogue boards are putting pressure on their clergy to find a way to bring you back, and they are willing to pay for any program, event, building renovation or consultant that might help meet this goal. As a former congregational rabbi, I know the panic and despair that permeates every board meeting and the tactics they resort to, in order to cover rising costs despite a shrinking membership. This concern has also led me to research the unaffiliated (often called “The Nones” based on how they answer the question of religious affiliation) especially as it pertains to the Millennial generation.

We all know that that young adult night of bowling or that event at a local brewery will not get you to join a synagogue. What might get you into synagogue is going with bubbe on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or to your niece’s Bat Mitzvah, but that alone won’t make you stay. It will not compel you to come regularly on Shabbat and the many other Jewish holidays and spend an hour to three hours (depending on the denomination) to sit through services, listen to a sermon, and maybe hear the story of the miraculous birth of the Bar Mitzvah boy, whom you most likely have never met.

All of this is not your fault. It is your parents’ generation’s fault. And honestly, it is not even their fault entirely. It is about much bigger trends. Social, religious, and political forces that came into play when the Baby Boomer generation was young are the causes. This generation saw women enter the workforce, divorce become acceptable, the Vietnam war, government scandals and the civil rights movement. This in turn shaped the Boomers into individuals who questioned authority, delayed marriage and children (and had fewer of them), sought their own path and welcomed a pluralistic society. The decline in synagogue attendance and Jewish institution membership started back in the mid-sixties, way before you were born. It has only become more visible over the last decade as your generation has replaced the Boomer generation in prominence. In addition, individuals who were young adults in the 1940s and 1950s are passing away, leaving empty seats and coffers in their wake.

As a member of the Millennial generation, you are aware of your Judaism. It is part of your identity. You follow news about the Middle East and Israel and many of you have been on Birthright trips. You have Jewish and non-Jewish friends and celebrate Jewish holidays with family. You are excellent parents of infants and young children, and you contribute to a pluralistic society that faces many economic, political and environmental uncertainties. Given all of this, where must the Jewish community go and how can we get there?

While I cannot predict the future, here are a few things I do know.

I know that the definition of God as taught to you in Hebrew school, is not necessarily applicable to you. I know that the synagogue has diminished relevance in your life, but that some of you will go back when your children are of Hebrew school age.

And I know where the power lies. It is in your hands and your hearts. You have the power to shape your Judaism your way. You can create communities that are meaningful to you, with rituals that take advantage of the best our tradition has to offer, combined with values that you would be proud to pass on to your children and share with your friends.

It is time to forget about all the studies, and creatively build communities that work for you. And as you do so, the institutional Jewish community will follow.

The Power of Words


Language is one of the most powerful tools we have. 

It’s power to create and destroy is unrivaled by other animals. We create a new reality for our lives when we say “I Love You,” when we name a child or when we insult a stranger. While we can not summon a new car by simply saying its name, we can give shape to our plans and goals by expressing them. 

There is an important story from the Jewish Hassidic tradition that speaks to the power of words in our interpersonal relationships. Rabbi Michael Gold tells it this way:

There is a well-known Hasidic tale of the man who spreads negative gossip about his rabbi.  The man feels regret and goes to the rabbi to apologize.  The rabbis says, "I accept your apology.  But there is one thing you must do.  Bring me a feather pillow."  The man is puzzled but follows the rabbi's directions.  "Now I want you to cut open the pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind."  The man is even more puzzled, but he does it.  "Now I want you to gather all the feathers."  "That is impossible!" says the man.  "So it is with gossip," the rabbi replies. 

I used to believe that for words to have power, you have to mean them. But no longer. Casual offenses can damage just as much as well thought out assaults. In the current political climate it does not matter if the politicians mean what they say. Their words have the power to insult some and inspire others. For those of us listening, our silence is a sign of agreement.   

In these difficult political times, my colleague Rabbi Michael Bernstein has written an insightful take on language as power in The Wisdom Daily called Talking About Donald Trump: Why We Should Channel George Orwell. In it he challenges us to engage in true and respectful dialogue:

How can language be used to expand and not shrink our vocabulary of reality? How can it be used to encourage, not dissuade us from engaging someone of a different view?

I encourage you to read the entire article, and to remember that in both our personal and public lives, we must use the power of words wisely.