Monday with Morey: Melton Institute administrator lands in N.O. (finally)
By ALAN SMASON
It’s been three years in the making, but, finally, Rabbi Morey Schwartz made it to New Orleans. The jovial rabbi and author’s job as director of curriculum and faculty development coordinator for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Institute in Jerusalem – a project of Hebrew University – had been trying to visit New Orleans for at least that long, but holidays and local festivals kept getting in the way.
Monday night, however, the amiable rabbi rambled into the Woldenberg-Goldring Jewish Community Center in Metairie and was fully prepared to do what Melton teachers love to do and do best: teach a class. Titled “The Making of a Miracle,” the Melton-style learning session was less a lecture than it was a shared experience. Utilizing various religious texts from sources like the daily siddur (prayerbook), the Talmud and Midrash commentary, Schwartz spoke with a dozen former Melton students who wanted to hear from the author of the book “Where’s My Miracle?”
The book explores how Jewish traditions have dealt with tragedy through the ages and is published through Gefen Publishing House. “It was born out of my own experiences and dealing with personal tragedies early on,” explained Schwartz, a former pulpit rabbi from Overland Park, KS. “It is very Melton-like in its presentation.”
Schwartz expanded that the Melton courses, which are non-specific and pluralistic, are similar to the multiple approaches Jewish liturgy has in dealing with tragedy. “The greatness of our tradition is that there are multiple approaches,” he continued.
Among the many miracles explored, Schwartz considered the modern State of Israel as an example. Born out of the shadow of the Holocaust and threatened since its inception in 1948, the fact that Israel was established and has prospered is nothing short of miraculous, Schwartz pointed out in talking about the nation he, his wife Deena and their four children have called home since 2000.
Referring to the most recent crisis in Israel and the response – Operation Pillar of Defense – Schwartz noted that the hero of that crisis was the U.S.- sponsored Iron Dome defense system, which was 85-90% effective in shooting down enemy missiles destined for populated areas.
Schwartz noted that the person responsible for getting the Iron Dome system installed in Israel was Amir Peretz, the former head of the Labor Party and Defense Minister during the Second Lebanon War. According to Schwartz, Peretz was ineffectual as a leader and was, according to most critics, “a complete disaster.” Yet it was Peretz who became Israel’s unsung hero, Schwartz stated, because it was he who initially pushed for what became the Iron Dome system. “He got this idea that we should be able to shoot down these missiles out of the sky before they hit,” he acknowledged. Considering his ineptitude in other areas of government, wouldn’t that be considered a miracle, Schwartz wondered aloud?
Schwartz also briefly covered the topic of miracles that exist in the natural world such as pillars of fire or consuming clouds and Jewish religious thought about them. Classroom participants brought up instances they considered to be miracles, some of them during natural events and others more centered on the actions of individuals.
Frequently referring back to “Where’s My Miracle?,” Schwartz conducted the learning session with plenty of opportunity for participants to offer their own takes on what constitutes a miracle.
Starting with the Al HaNissim Prayer, which specifically thanks the Lord for miracles, Schwartz used liturgical texts to add layers to the discussion on miracles. For example, there are only two mitzvot (Commandments) that guarantee long life, he continued. The first is to obey your parents and the second is the act of shooing away a mother bird from her nest. Schwartz referred to a Babylonian Talmud that referred to a young man who, at his father’s bidding, ascended a ladder to shoo away a mother bird, but fell to his death in so doing. The Talmudic debate was how come this tragedy come about in the commission of the very two mitzvot that should have prevented this from happening. The tractate ends with this curious statement “Rather, it was a rickety ladder, so that injury was likely, and where injury is likely one must not rely on a miracle.”
Schwartz followed up on by adding “There is the possibility that one can’t expect a miracle when one is in a risky situation,” he admitted.
Throughout the night and into the next day, Schwartz conferred with Florence Melton Adult Mini-School coordinator Debbie Pesses, who escorted him.
The next evening Schwartz observed the regular weekly Melton classes being taught by instructors Rabbi Uri Topolosky and Andy Adelman, who was substituting for Rabbi Ethan Linden. Ironically, Linden is away visiting Israel during the very week that Schwartz was finally able to come to the Crescent City.