Tree of Life

Saturday morning I attended a board meeting in Pittsburgh, for a public health ministry in Nicaragua.  We chose Pittsburgh because of civil unrest in Nicaragua,  It wasn’t safe for us to travel.   Our board’s focus was on how to provide access to health care, in the midst of growing violence and uncertainty in that country.  We chose Pittsburgh because it was easy to get to and considered safe.

As we met, several miles down the road, a man with an assault rifle entered Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven Jews gathered for worship.   They were the ‘minyans’ mainly older faithful Jews, who gather early, to begin the Saturday morning Shabbat services.   Others, such as busy parents, would  join them as their schedules allowed.  The role of the minyan is to hold the sacred space, for others to join them.

It was a typical Shabbat, until a white male with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, broke in and murdered eleven…wounded several others, including four police officers.

We all thought Pittsburgh was safe.

The reality is we live in a volatile time.  Barack Obama as the first African-American elected president, led to a dramatic increase in white supremacist organizations.  Donald Trump’s political ascendency and presidency is based in part, on  promoting an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.  A focus on division rather than unity.

This week that division was evident:  Pipe bombs mailed to over 14 leaders within the Democratic Party; two African-Americans murdered at a grocery store, after the assailant was turned away from an African-American Church; eleven Jews murdered while worshiping.  Each act of violence by a white supremacist.  An ideology which finds encouragement (intentional or not), in the freewheeling rhetoric of our highest elected official.

So what is the antidote to hate and division?

The answer is simple yet profound:  Building relationships.  It’s hard to label a person or be indifferent to their plight, once you know their name, their story.

Sunday night, we gathered as a community at Temple B’nai Abraham.  My friend Rabbi Alison Adler, on only several hours of notice, gathered together 300 neighbors, from ten different faith communities, to grieve the atrocity visited upon Tree of Life Synagogue. We gathered too, in response to the nationwide increase in anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant violence.

Passover at the home of Rabbi Alison.

We came together to remember that we belong to one another.  At the Temple I said: ” I am here tonight because Rabbi Alison is my friend.  Her family and my family have been in each other’s home.  We have broken bread, played and prayed together.  And, because we are friends, when someone messes with my friend (anti-Semitism) they are messing with me.  I am responsible to and accountable for the well-being of my friend (s).”

The antidote to hate and violence is found in relationship building.  I challenge myself and you, to get to know those who are different from you. Get to know neighbors of different religions, ethnicities, race, nation of origin, sexual orientation, political perspective, languages.  Listen to one another’s story.  Let the other get to know you.

If you don’t have enough diversity in your life, then get out of your zip code.  Reach out. Find ways to rub elbows.  Break bread, sip wine, play games, talk with… someone who is different than you.

As relationships are built, prejudices based on ignorance, melt away.  The rhetoric of fear and the house of cards it is built upon, collapses.

The poet William Stafford, writes ‘the real enemy, is the one who whispers in your ear, telling you who to hate’.  As citizens, as neighbors, may we be wary of those who sow division.

On Sunday night, Temple B’nai Abraham was a beautiful mosaic of faiths and backgrounds.  We gathered to grieve with and draw strength from the company of one another.

Jesus said, ‘perfect love, casts out fear’.  May it be so.  For all of us.






Sports: The Tie that Binds

The improbable come from behind victory of the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons left fans exhausted, elated (or distraught) depending on one’s allegiance.  This ‘Win for the Ages’ joins a list of great sport moments in Boston.

I grew up in Rhode Island with a natural allegiance to Boston teams.  Memorable moments in sports, both victories and painful losses, help define who we are and where we belong.

I remember watching the Boston Bruins in my Uncle Freddy’s living room…with  Bobby Orr flying through the air in 1970.  I remember listening to my transistor radio under the blankets, long after I was supposed to be asleep, as the great Johnny Most called the Celtics play by play.

My Uncle Bob, my Dad’s mischievous younger brother, gave me my first beer at age 16 (‘don’t tell your father’) as we watched on television the Patriot’s with Jim Plunkett as the QB.

In 1978 I was working in a supermarket as a tie breaking play-off game between the Red Sox and Yankees was broadcast over the stores sound system.   I remember the cries and curses that arose when Bucky ‘##&*ing’ Dent hit a home run to break our hearts.

On Sept. 12, 1979 I witnessed Carl Yazstremski reach the milestone of  3000 hits.  Witness is a bit of a stretch. My lifelong friend, Clyde Haworth ( a Yankee fan) had a dorm room off of Kenmore Square.  We sat on the roof, sipping a favorite beverage, listening to the game on the radio…with a partial view of Fenway Park. Such are the lengths we fans go to, when a team captures your heart.

In 2000 I rode with my Dad in an ambulance as he went for radiation treatment.  His cancer had spread and the prognosis was poor.  Striving for any type of normalcy, I remember my Dad asking: ‘How did the Sox do last night?’

In 2004, four years after my Dad and Uncle Freddy had died, then living in Oregon, I watched with my friend Win Dolan (another New England transplant) as our Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.  We toasted my Dad and Freddy and all those who hadn’t lived to see this day.

Those who aren’t sport fans may think such stories are over stated, even childish.    But sports with their medley of heart-break and joy have a way of shaping who we are as we remember those living and dead, to whom we belong.  Those with whom we have a shared memory.

photo-tom-bradyThis past Sunday, like most New England fans, I thought all was lost.  But as the second half of the Super Bowl progressed, we found the impossible become the improbable become ‘a win for the ages’.  I shared the moment with friends while our buddy, Clyde Haworth (at the Super Bowl with his son Jake), texted video clips of the crowd… as despair gave way to delirium.

Such are the ties that bind us to one another.  Sports offer a storyline within which we share a lifetime of memories.  Sports serve too as a diversion from the painful realities of life.

In a few weeks, Spring Training begins for baseball in Florida and Arizona. The storyline continues as fans gather around their team and learn a new line up of players.  A new season means a fresh start for our team and for us.

We await those familiar words: ‘Play ball’!



How to Heal a Nation

We lament the loss of civility in our culture.   Our current political season offers many examples but is not an outlier.  In the early days of our nation John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were locked in a particularly nasty campaign for president.  Jefferson questioned Adams sanity and Adams raised a rumor of Jefferson fathering illegitimate children.

If mudslinging is part of our political and social psyche it isn’t the entire story.  A few days ago we remembered the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attack on September 11th.  We remembered our collective trauma in seeing so many innocent people murdered.  We remembered too the beauty that arose from the ashes,  as strangers and neighbors across this country reached out to one another with countless acts of kindness.

Cindy McGinty lost her husband on that day.  In the years that followed Cindy says: “My community loved me back to my feet. I think of the neighbor who mowed my lawn for eight years. The taxi driver who took me on countless errands and refused to take my money.”

We think of Jo Jo Esposito the Staten Island fireman whose battalion lost half of its members on 9/11 .  He’s become a surrogate father to the children of several firefighters, including his own family members who died that day.  ‘There’s no manual that prepares you for this”, he said, “you simply try your best to do the right thing.”  Over the course of 15 years this surrogate dad has walked brides down the aisle and attended graduations and birthday parties.   He did it out of love for his friends.

On the anniversary of 9/11 we remember the trauma and all that was lost.  We remember too how it also brought out the best in us.


During this uncivil political season it serves us well to remember the positive lessons from 9/11. The antidote to fear and coarseness is simple kindness.  The reminder that we are all in this together.  That our strength as a nation is in the quality and depth of our character, our  capacity to take care of each other.