A Musical Legacy: Nelly Berman, 1938-2015

Nelly Berman

Nelly Berman

Nelly Berman, the Russian-Jewish pianist from Odessa, Soviet Union, who created a premier classical music school in Haverford on the Main Line, which has trained some of Philadelphia’s top young musicians and provided scholarships for their serious studies, died Monday night. She was 77 years old.

During the 35 years her school existed she touched the lives of many generations of young people through music, inspired them to reach beyond and above their comfort level and to seek beauty, depth of emotions and perfection in music performance.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2011, she continued teaching and molding young talented students, passing to them her immeasurable technical performance skills and profound love of classical music. Four days before her death, she applauded her students at a concert at the Nelly Berman School of Music and taught her last student the day before her death following serious heart surgery. She said to her daughter “If I get better after this surgery, I am planning to start teaching more talented children who are serious about music.” As she was driving to the hospital for the surgery, she was discussing the pieces her students will learn during the interim of her recuperation.

The story of her emigration from the former Soviet Union and subsequent integration into the American society reads almost like a fairy tale. Being an immigrant, her life was full of hardship. It was extraordinary that she was able to overcome the staggering pitfalls in her path, as well as to become a trailblazer for many who came to her for help. She became a great mentor, friend and supporter to the students and the teachers at the school. Their lives were forever enriched by this talented, intuitive, fiery, optimistic, generous, and inspiring woman.

The values she had sought in all of the Nelly Berman School students were great beauty of sound, tenderness, passion, and in her ability to touch all hearts through music. She sought and persevered with all of her being to realize her vision for the creation of a non profit corporation, the NBS Classical Music Institute, which awards talented students scholarships to realize their potential in music performance.

Nelly teaches her two-year -old daughter Elena.

Nelly teaches her two-year -old daughter Elena.

Nelly Berman has been a passionately devoted mother, wife and a friend. She is survived by her husband, David Lefkovitz, children, her daughter Elena Berman-Gantard, and her son Dmitry Berman. She is beloved and mourned by her grandchildren Emma, Armand and Jacob, her niece Faina Lushtak, her cousins Emma and Mara and their spouses, her Russian childhood friends Rachel, Bella, Vladik, Luda, Mila, and her American friends Andrea, Elaine and Marina, and many more dear relatives, friends, students and colleagues. The family thanks all their friends and relatives for their support and love.

Alumna Anna Claire Lynn-Palevsky, shared the sentiments of many of her fellow students:

I can’t imagine my life without the Nelly Berman School of Music, and I can’t imagine a world without Nelly in it. She had the most incredible gift for turning children into musicians through her passion for teaching, the joy she found and shared in music, and most of all, her constant faith in every single student who walked through her doors. The things I learned in her music school have shaped every aspect of my life. Thank you for all the love and trust you always showed me, Nelly. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.

Her funeral will take place at Goldsteins, Rosenberg, Raphael Sacks, 6410 N. Broad Street Philadelphia, PA 19126 on Friday, September 4 at 10:30 AM. Family viewing at 9:30 AM. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Nelly’s foundation, her legacy to past and future generations of young musicians. For more information please contact Nelly’s daughter, Elena.

Gala Concert “Celebrating Nelly: a Tribute to a Life in Music”

— by Elena Berman

Recently, I was sitting crossed-legged on the floor of my mother’s house, digging in her old green cardboard suitcase full of photographs and thank you cards. I poured over the black and white photographs from Odessa, depicting our family and close friends. There were also many pictures in color, of my mother surrounded by her former piano students, whom she taught over the years of her life in Philadelphia, which were proudly taken after numerous concerts my mother had presented. There were pictures of my mother’s students, and even her students acting in a musical play that she had directed based on the lives of Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn. Strewn among the photographs were dozens of cards from the parents of my mother’s students, with words of gratitude for changing their children’s lives through her teaching. With deep sincerity they thanked her for bringing forth their kids’ potential and talent in music. They described her as being not only a teacher, but a great mentor and role model.

More after the jump.


Nelly Berman teaches two-year old Elena

We came to the U.S. 37 years ago with 3 suitcases. One contained precious photographs and indispensible music scores. Included was the Grieg concerto that I was working on, Chopin concerto I was hoping to learn, Rachmaninov Preludes that my mother loved to play, as well as a number of anthologies that my mother was hoping to use for her future American piano students. The other suitcases held all of the clothes and mementos that we could bring out of Russia.  In them, we also packed wooden cups and saucers, colorfully painted with gold and red flowers, and little black boxes, with miniature scenes from Russian fairy tales, painted with great skill. These trinkets were meant as souvenirs for our future American friends. Those two other suitcases were thrown out long ago, souvenirs given out, clothes discarded, but only this green suitcase, full of pictures of our former life in Odessa, and new life in the USA, was left as a keepsake.

I came upon an old picture of me, not more than two years old, an age completely erased from my memory. I am holding my hands carefully placed over the keyboard of our old Bechstein upright piano we had in our apartment in Odessa. My young mother Nelly is standing over me, showing me how to touch the keys properly. Excited to see this picture, I had it scanned at the NBS school office and emailed it to my mother.  “Look at your hand position,” she exclaimed proudly, glancing at the picture. “Most little kids’ fingers stick out in all directions, and they bang on the piano with such force. On this picture you already have a perfect round shape of your hands, with your wrists high and your fingers beautifully round. And you are focusing carefully on what I am teaching you.”

That is my mother Nelly, in that statement, always conscious of what is important in teaching music to students. In Odessa, she had been teaching piano hour upon hour, in a music school in our district, called “Music school No. 1”.  There, she had to follow a specific, mandated plan for assigning pieces to her students, based on the Ministry of Culture’s graded programs for all music students in the Soviet Union.  My mother would constantly rebel and assign the music that she felt would open the minds of her piano students. She would be reprimanded for it again and again. Music education was free – one of the special perks the Soviet Government allowed their citizens. Students, starting from the age of 7, had two lessons per week in their instrument. If not pianists, they were required to study piano as a secondary instrument. They also had weekly classes in theory, solfeggio, music literature, choir, and chamber groups for advanced students. All students had to pass an examination twice a year to continue their music education.

My mother was famous as a teacher in Odessa, her students not only won competitions but they adored her. I leaf through our old Russian music books that my mother still has. They are piled up on the Steinway in her house, a beautiful instrument she purchased in the USA. I see my mother’s writing in English on different pieces in the books – this Mozart Concerto was meant for Kyle Cesar Luo, the Debussy “Claire de Lune” was meant for Allison Klayman, the Beethoven sonata was for Ellen Morris, the Mozart Fantasy was assigned to Felix Zhang, the Prokofiev Vision Fugitives was intended for Daniel Schlosberg, the Chopin E minor concerto was intended for Nandira. Those students’ names bring memories of the years when I would sit at her lessons trying to pick up on all her skills of being able to inspire her students, achieving beautiful phrasing and dazzling technique.


Nelly, left, with NBS students, circa 1985.

I remember these children’s wonderful music making and their dedication and excitement about playing their instrument. Kyle has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a soloist not once but twice, and while attending Medical school, he played a Rachmaninov Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic. He has become an eye surgeon like his father. Allison Klayman spent 5 years in China, learned Mandarin, and recently received a prize at Sundance Festival for her full length documentary called “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” which was screened at the Ritz and Bryn Mawr movie theaters this summer. Ellen Morris studied Physics at the University of Chicago and minored in piano performance, and then reversed the order. Felix Zhang was named one of the top twenty All American High school students in 2007 by USA Today, played a Tchaikovsky Concerto and is now graduated from Harvard, having done research on Alzheimer’s disease.  Daniel Schlosberg is working on his Master’s Degree in Composition at Yale University, has written an opera for the Yale Opera company, and is working at this moment with a famous Broadway musical theater composer, orchestrating his scores. And then, I found a picture in the suitcase of my mother hugging her two new little students, Nina Hartling and Nicolas Lu, whom she started to teach last year, after her stroke. There are so many others whose names I have forgotten, and whose path in life would love to discover!

In the Soviet Union, it was realized that students required at least2 lessons per week plus other instructional classes in order to become musically proficient, and this support was provided by the State. The U.S. does not support music in this way. It is left for parents to make their own decision to provide such financial support for these extra lessons. In many cases they cannot do it, and very talented students cannot realize their musical desires. The NBS Classical Music Institute was thus established in 1996, because the level of support needed to satisfy all of the worthy students that we had by then attracted, was not sufficient. It was then that the generosity and devotion to the advancement of classical music education came to us from Elaine Kligerman. She was willing to satisfy this need, and so the Scholarship Fund was developed.  Because of her generous support, just about every student who is worthy and desirous of having the additional lessons per week can have them. Mrs. Kligerman herself is an established pianist, having attended both the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. With her great knowledge of music and education, including 15 years of serving as adjunct piano faculty at Temple University, she recognized the importance of supporting these talented children.  As a result, the school has grown significantly in reputation, with its fame spread throughout the Philadelphia area as well as to New York and even to communities in California. Without Elaine Kligerman this would not be possible. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

Over the years, my mother brought truly outstanding teachers to the school, who shared her vision of the value and tradition of music education and love of teaching. Together they raised the bar for what each child could accomplish, giving them the tools to realize their fullest potential, inspiring them and nurturing their self confidence.


Nelly at 19 years old

I found another letter in her old green suitcase that she wrote 10 years ago:

“What is a 19-year-old girl teaching her first piano student in Odessa dreaming about?  Her wish was not a big house, a big car and diamonds. Her wish was the same as I have now – to give every child that is gifted in music the best teaching possible. For all 45 years of my teaching life I awake in the morning and review in my mind what students had achieved the day before.  The words in a song from my favorite Cary Grant movie say: ‘Close your eyes, make your wish, and make your life.’ It seems that Providence has enabled me to help talented music teachers from different countries find a home in my school and to be creative enough to bring about this unique school.  I would like to thank you all for coming and making my dreams come true.”

Join me in celebrating Nelly Berman’s gift of music to so many young people.

With much love and admiration,

Elena

Links

Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries Deserve Recognition

B’nai B’rith Plays Key Role in Bipartisan Congressional Action

(B’nai B’rith International) Shortly before the recess a bipartisan bill  was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would recognize the nearly 1 million Jews displaced from their homes in Arab nations due to the Middle East conflict. Under the bill, the president and other government officials would be urged to note Jewish refugees each time a reference to Palestinian refugees is made at international events.

This new bill takes a 2008 House resolution on the matter a step further, requiring the president to report on how the original resolution is being implemented. The State Department would be required to issue a report every two years explaining what the administration has done to advance the issue and offering recommendations for future action.

The plight of Jewish refugees is often overlooked.  Jews living in Arab countries have had their human rights violated, their property and businesses confiscated and have been displaced from their homes.  By most estimates, fewer than 5,000 Jews remain in Arab countries. Not one of the more than 100 United Nations resolutions that refer to Palestinian refugees mentions Jewish refugees.

More after the jump.
“We want to ensure that the United States makes the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab nations a priority in multilateral discussions about the Middle East conflict. Any time refugee issues are discussed in the context of the peace negotiations, the rights of Jewish refugees need to be given their proper place,” B’nai B’rith International Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield said.

B’nai B’rith wishes to thank the sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and the co-sponsors:  Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.),  Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fla.) and Rep. Bob Turner (D-N.Y.).  

Jewish American Heritage Month Reception at White House

President Barack Obama hosted the annual Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House to honor and celebrate the Jewish community’s contributions to America. Obama welcomed everyone to the celebration by remarking upon the Jewish community’s long and important history of civic involvement. 400 Jewish leaders from across the nation attended. A partial guest list follows the jump below.

Remarks by President Barack Obama
White House, East Room, May 30, 2012

This year, we celebrate Jewish Heritage Month — Jewish American Heritage Month, and we’re also commemorating an important anniversary.  One hundred-fifty years ago, General Ulysses Grant issued an order — known as General Orders Number 11 — that would have expelled Jews, “as a class,” from what was then known as the military department of the Tennessee.  It was wrong.  Even if it was 1862, even if official acts of anti-Semitism were all too common around the world, it was wrong and indicative of an ugly strain of thought.

But what happened next could have only taken place in America. Groups of American Jews protested General Grant’s decision.  A Jewish merchant from Kentucky traveled here, to the White House, and met with President Lincoln in person.  After their meeting, President Lincoln revoked the order — one more reason why we like President Lincoln.  (Laughter and applause.)

And to General Grant’s credit, he recognized that he had made a serious mistake.  So later in his life, he apologized for this order, and as President, he went out of his way to appoint Jews to public office and to condemn the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Today, we have a few documents on display — maybe some of you saw them when you walked in.  There are two letters of protest from Jewish organizations to President Lincoln.  There is President Lincoln’s handwritten reply, saying that he had taken action.  And there is a receipt for the donation that President Grant made to the Adas Israel Synagogue here in Washington, when he attended a service there in 1876.

So together, these papers tell a story, a fundamentally American story.  Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream.  But this country holds a special promise:  that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right; our union can be made more perfect and our world can be repaired.

Today, it’s our turn, our generation’s turn.  And you guys, your generation’s turn.  You’re younger than us.  (Laughter.)  We got some later generations here in the front.  We’re the ones who have to stand up for our shared values.   Here at home, we have to rebuild an America where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules.

Beyond our borders, we have to stand alongside our friends who share our commitment to freedom and democracy and universal rights; and that includes, of course, our unwavering commitment to the State of Israel and its security and the pursuit of a just and lasting peace.  (Applause.)

It’s no secret that we’ve got a lot of work to do.  But as your traditions teach us, while we are not obligated to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from that work.

So today, we don’t just celebrate all that American Jews have done for our country; we also look toward the future.  And as we do, I know that those of you in this room, but folks all across this country will continue to help perfect our union; and for that, I am extraordinarily grateful.

God bless you.  God bless America.  (Applause.)

Guest list follows the jump.
More after the jump.
Partial Guest List

  • Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park
  • Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Merion Station
  • Rabbi David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley
  • Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA)
  • NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley
  • NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris
  • Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren
  • Democratic National Committee Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
  • Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)
  • Representative Shelley Berkley (D-NV)
  • Representative Howard Berman (D-CA)
  • Representative David Cicilline (D-RI)
  • Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
  • Representative Susan Davis (D-CA)
  • Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL)
  • Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY)
  • Representative Sander Levin (D-MI)
  • Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY)
  • Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)
  • Representative Jarrod Polis (D-CO)
  • Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
  • Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA)
  • Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA)

Obama Administration Requests More Iron Dome To Protect Israel

— by David Streeter

The Obama Administration will be asking Congress for additional funding to support Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris praised this decision:

In making this crucial announcement today, the Obama Administration-working in close cooperation with Israel-is ensuring that Israelis will have the resources they need to defend against the deadly wave of rockets being launched into the heart of Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

These indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians-men, women and children alike-are horrific, and Iron Dome has been at the forefront of helping to protect Israelis during this deeply trying time. It was President Barack Obama’s initiative and request that brought Iron Dome into being, and funding for missile defense cooperation between Israel and the United States has more than doubled under this Administration than under the previous administration. We thank the President for his leadership on the Iron Dome — as well as key supporters of Israel and Iron Dome in Congress — for taking a firm stand to support the people of Israel.

More after the jump.

In announcing its request, the Department of Defense said:

Supporting the security of the State of Israel is a top priority of President Obama and Secretary Panetta. The United States has previously provided $205 million in support of Israel’s Iron Dome short-range rocket and mortar defense system.  During the rocket attacks earlier this month, the Iron Dome system played a critical role in Israel’s security. When nearly 300 rockets and mortars were fired at southern Israel, Iron Dome intercepted over 80 percent of the targets it engaged, saving many civilian lives.

Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Howard Berman (D-CA), the author of the “Iron Dome Support Act” (IDSA, H.R. 4229), said in response to the Obama Administration’s request:

Iron Dome is a game changer. The threats Israel faces from incoming, indiscriminate terrorist rocket attacks are countered by this cutting edge anti-missile system. Iron Dome is fundamentally shifting political, diplomatic and military realities on the ground, while saving lives of innocent Israelis. Today’s statement is a further step in the right direction.

Representative Steve Rothman (D-NJ), a member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and a leader on U.S.-Israel missile defense issues, said:

I am pleased to see that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Obama Administration understand the importance of and remain committed to funding the life-saving rocket defense program, Iron Dome. We must continue to stand with Israel to make sure that our most important strategic ally in the region has the additional Iron Dome batteries it needs to protect its population from rocket attacks.

Over the past weeks, we have once again seen the tremendous importance and effectiveness of Iron Dome that is now deployed in Israel. In the face of rockets fired by terrorists from Gaza into southern Israel, Iron Dome has been remarkably successful in saving lives and preventing all-out war.

McClatchy reported today that Israel is expanding the use of the Iron Dome system and published a brief illustrated explanation of how the system works.

Words Can Kill!

Hearts have their own natural biological pacemaker that allows them to beat on their own accord even when the brain dies.

— Robby Berman

People don’t like to talk about death. But I can’t help it. It’s my job. I encourage Jews to donate organs upon death to the general public. It is a difficult profession and journalists are constantly making my job even tougher. Recently a four-month-old Israeli baby boy died. Some Israeli media reported he died on Friday while others reported he died on Sunday. Why were they confused? Because his brain died on Friday and his heart died on Sunday.

More after the jump.

Hearts, yours and mine, have their own natural biological pacemaker that allows them to beat on their own accord even when the brain dies. (Go to YouTube and type in the words “dead frog beating heart” and see for yourself.) The heart is not connected to the brain in any meaningful way, and as long as it is artificially receiving oxygen from a ventilator it can take a licking and keep on ticking for a few more days before it, too, dies.

So which is it? Did the baby die on Friday, when his brain died, or did he die on Sunday, when his heart died? The Israeli Medical Association, Israeli legislation, the Ministry of Health, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Medical Association of almost every country in the world all understand that when a person’s brain dies death has occurred. In other words the organism is dead but its organs can remain alive for a few more days.

Why? Because they are artificially — and incidentally — being given oxygen by a ventilator.

Well, if it is resoundingly clear that brain death is death then why did some Israeli media organs get it wrong? Why did IBA English TV News and The Jerusalem Post, among others, report the baby had died on Sunday when his heart stopped beating? Why didn’t they say he died on Friday when his brain died? The answer is not a good one. It is because it would have felt weird to say on Friday that a baby that is warm to the touch — whose heart is still beating — is dead, and it would have felt weird to say on Sunday that a dead baby had been lying in the hospital with a beating heart for two days.

Not only is describing the functional reality of brain death difficult to put into words, it’s hard to decide how to refer to the baby himself. What do you call him? If you accept brain death as death, should the baby be called a braindead patient? The word “patient” implies he is alive. Should he be called a brain-dead corpse? If he is a corpse, why is he being kept in a hospital bed attached to a ventilator? And if he is dead, why are we calling him brain dead? He should just be referred to as dead. He should be called the deceased, not the brain-dead deceased.

This is not simply an exercise in semantics. This is an important issue that all responsible citizens have to wrap their heads around.

The words chosen by family members, doctors and journalists can lead to life or death decisions.

Israel has one of the lowest organ donor registration rates in the world. So the words chosen by the chosen people will have an impact on how family members and the public perceive a brain-dead corpse (hear how weird this term sounds?).

Is he a living patient or is he a corpse whose heart doesn’t know enough to stop beating because it has an artificial supply of oxygen? Your answer will influence your decision whether or not to donate organs. If he is alive, then understandably you will not donate his organs. But if he is dead, you will consider it. And since one organ donor can save eight lives the stakes are high – especially if you are one of the 100 Israelis that will die this year waiting for an organ that will not be donated.

Another dangerously inaccurate and misleading term that is the darling of doctors and journalists is “life support.” Sometimes a living patient needs help to breathe and so he is put on a ventilator. His life is indeed being supported by the ventilator. But if a brain-dead corpse (whose heart is still beating) is on a vent, his life is not being supported because he is already dead. And to say he is “on life support” implies he is alive, again inhibiting donation of his organs.

If I am being asked to remove life support I am killing my loved one.

It would be just as inappropriate to use this term if I were to attach a football to a ventilator (which could easily be done) and see it reported in The Jerusalem Post that I put a football on a life-support machine. The ventilator simply vents air in and out of the thing it is attached to. A vent is a vent is a vent and nothing more. The word ventilator is accurate as it is neutral and should always be used.

Israeli medical and Israeli media professionals have an obligation to the public to use exact terms and to be consistent in their reporting. If a health reporter insists that the baby died on Sunday when his heart stopped beating then she should also, for the sake of consistency, report that doctors are murdering patients every time they remove organs from a brain-dead donor because the heart is still beating.

Consistency is the bedrock of clarity and currently Israeli medical reporting is rolling around on shifting sands. An Israeli journalist who reports that a brain-dead baby died upon cessation of heartbeat contradicts the understanding of the medical community in practically every country in the world, as well as contradicting the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Knesset of Israel and the Ministry of Health of Israel. A journalist who uses the term “life-support,” when she should have written ventilator, contributes to people’s decisions not to donate organs resulting in the needless deaths of more than 100 Israelis every year. Choosing our words carefully is good advice for conversation as well as for journalism.

The writer has an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a freelance writer and the founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society.

Ten Years Later: The Sukkah & the World Trade Center


The past, as William Faulkner said, is not even past.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

At about 11 o’clock on 9/11 ten years ago, I casually phoned New York to talk with my beloved life-partner, Rabbi Phyllis Berman. Phyllis founded and directs an intensive English-language school for newly arrived immigrants and refugees. The school is housed in Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and every weekday Phyllis commutes back and forth from/ to Philadelphia.  

But that morning, my telephone gave back only a frantic bzz-bzz-bzz, a super-busy signal. After trying for 30 minutes, I called the Operator. “There’s a glitch in the phone system to New York,” I said.

“Haven’t you heard?” she answered — and explained.

I knew that once a  month or so, Phyllis had a business breakfast in the World Trade Centers. So now my call was not a casual “How you doing?” I finally got through to learn that she was safe at Riverside, shepherding her  frightened non-English-speaking students  to walk their ways home through a frantic, fearful city  — with no means of public transportation.

In 2001, September 11 came three weeks before Sukkot,  the Jewish harvest festival whose major symbol is a thatched hut, a sukkah, utterly open to the wind and rain.  
Through that day and night, I was haunted by two images: the proud, massive, sky-penetrating Twin Towers on Manhattan’s edge, and the  utterly vulnerable sukkah we were soon to build.

During the next weeks, as we move toward 9/11/11, I will share with you some prayers and liturgies that might help us build new sukkahs in our souls.

On September 12, I wrote the meditation that follows the jump.

The Sukkah & the World Trade Center

When the Jewish community celebrates the harvest festival, we build sukkot.

What is a sukkah? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, where it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, where its roof must be not only leafy but leaky — letting in the starlight, and gusts of wind and rain.

In every evening prayer, we plead with God – Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha – “Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom.”

Why a sukkah?- Why does the prayer plead to God for a “sukkah of shalom” rather than God’s “tent” or “house” or “palace” of peace?

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.

For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:

  • Pyramids,
  • air raid shelters,
  • Pentagons,
  • World Trade Centers.

Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us.

But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If “a hard rain gonna fall,” it will fall on all of us.

Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.

Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing. Worse than nothing.

Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us.

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. For my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.

What is the lesson, when we learn that we – all of us – live in a sukkah? How do we make such a vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace and security and harmony and wholeness?

The lesson is that only a world where we all recognize our vulnerability can become a world where all communities feel responsible to all other communities. And only such a world can prevent such acts of rage and murder.

If I treat my neighbor’s pain and grief as foreign, I will end up suffering when my neighbor’s pain and grief curdle into rage.

But if I realize that in simple fact the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them in compassion and connection.

The perpetrators of this act of infamy seem to espouse a tortured version of Islam. Responding to them requires two different, though related, forms of action:

  1. Their violence must be halted. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile “sukkot” of lawfulness. There are in fact mechanisms of international law and politics that can bring them to justice.
  2. At the same time, America must open its heart and mind to the pain and grief of those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who feel excluded, denied, unheard, disempowered, defeated.

We must reach beyond the terrorists — to calm the rage that gave them birth by addressing the pain from which they sprouted.

From festering pools of pain and rage sprout the plague of terrorism. Some people think we must choose between addressing the plague or addressing the pools that give it birth. But we can do both — if we focus our attention on these two distinct tasks.

To go to war against whole nations does neither. It will not apprehend the guilty for trial, and probably not even seriously damage their networks. It will not drain the pools of pain and rage; it is far more likely to add to them.

What would it mean, instead, to recognize that both the United States and Islam live in vulnerable sukkot?

What do we need to do to recover our knowledge of the history of two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world?

How do we keep remembering that in all religious communities and traditions — including Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Islam — there are streaks of blood? How do we work with the peaceful majority in each community to grow past those messages of violence toward embodying the vision of compassion?  

How do we welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community?

What does the United States need to do to encourage grass-roots support for those elements of Islam that seek to renew the tradition?

How do we encourage not top-down regimes that make alliances with our own global corporations to despoil the planet, but grass-roots religious and cultural and political communities that seek to control their own resources in ways that nurture the earth?

Of course not every demand put forward by the poor and desperate and disempowered becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. But we must open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it without increasing the over-all amount of pain in the world?

Instead of entering upon a “war of civilizations,” we must pursue a planetary peace. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.

GOP Budget Cuts Off Bubbie and Zadie

— David Harris

This week, GOP House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposed 2012 budget will become the basis for negotiations between Congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama. Ryan’s budget effectively cuts off bubbie, zadie, and the neediest among us from the social safety net that enables America’s seniors – along with women, children, and working families – to live dignified and secure lives.

Ryan’s GOP budget contains deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and other vital social safety net programs including food stamps, Pell grants, and housing aid. It even contains a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act – Obama’s health care reform package – which is on track to help millions of Americans receive better health care while cutting the deficit.

A budget is more than just a fiscal spreadsheet – it’s a statement of our values. And we need your help to defend our Jewish values! Take a look at what leaders from the American Jewish community have said about this GOP budget and then take action! (You can click each name to read more about Ryan’s GOP budget and its negative consequences.)

“Anyone can cut the budget by arbitrarily capping programs. The real challenge we face is to reduce the deficit without decimating help for the neediest among us, or making retirement impossible for the next generation.” – B’nai B’rith interim President Alan J. Jacobs

“If a budget is a reflection of our national priorities and morals, then we cannot ignore the reality of hungry families and high unemployment.” – Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Dr. Conrad Giles

“Everyone would suffer under Chairman Ryan’s proposals, but women would suffer more.” – National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) President Linda Slucker and NCJW CEO Nancy K. Kaufman

“Ryan’s budget resolution prioritizes the wealthy over the needy, and, therefore, does not reflect the values to which we aspire as … Americans.” – Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Associate Director Mark J. Pelavin

 

JTA also reported Representative Howard Berman‘s (D-CA) reaction to the impact that Ryan’s proposed budget cuts would have on foreign aid — which could pose significant risks for Israel. Berman “said the proposal, which would slash the international affairs budget by 40 percent, sets ‘a new standard for recklessness and irresponsibility.'” Berman also dubbed the plan “a slap in the face” to military leaders, who have “long argued time and again that diplomacy and development are key pillars of U.S. national security.”