Rabbi Rant: The Power of Listening

Maybe I don’t know how to relax.

While most people choose to spend their vacations on a beach, last week I spent my vacation in the West Bank.

Through an organization called Encounter, I was there facilitating a group of American Jewish leaders who came to learn about Palestinian narratives. Encounter is non-partisan and has a unique educational philosophy rooted in listening, not dialogue.

I’m a strong advocate for dialogue, and I struggled for years with Encounter’s methodology. Why I am being silenced, instead of being able to respond and challenge? Also, there are at least two sides to every conflict – why are we exposing participants to such a distorted, one-sided view?

More recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate the deep spiritual power of listening.

As Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish theologian who was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett, said: “I think we infuse words with a sense of who we are. And so therefore, you’re not just saying a word; you’re communicating something that feels like your soul… There is the way within which there’s a generosity of listening. And when somebody says something to try to figure out, ‘Did I hear them correctly?’”

We all need to be heard. When we focus on our own need to be heard, we become incapable of hearing others. But when we remove the expectation that we will be heard, we are able to truly listen. In order to fulfill that need in others, we have to temporarily suppress that need within ourselves.

Listening is an essential part of our spiritual tradition. It’s the focus of a central prayer that we recite every morning and every evening – the Shema: “Listen, Israel…”.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of its importance twice a day precisely because it’s so hard to do. Or, perhaps we need the frequent reminder because we Jews are so bad at it. And that’s not my assessment, it’s God’s: “’I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:8). As the commentator Rashi explains: “They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen.”

And so, to counteract this tendency, the Talmud instructs us: “Make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear.”

I’ve tried hard to internalize this message this past month. In addition to my recent trip, I’ve also been at JStreet and AIPAC conferences, and I’ve listened to Palestinians, Israelis and Americans with vastly different perspectives.

Listening isn’t about about arguing or debating; it’s about witnessing another’s experience. It won’t necessarily change our views, but it will expand our hearts.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Shabbat, Purim, Israeli Baseball, and More in Japan

Although still, a bit jet lagged from a 12+ hour flight, I wanted to share my recent experience as a participant in a young Jewish American delegation to Japan.

For over five years I have been involved in B’nai B’rith International and its Young Leadership Network (BBYLN). B’nai B’rith is an organization that advocates for Global Jewry and human rights. I was recently invited with 11 other Jewish leaders from around the U.S. to be a part of the second #BBYLNinJPN cohort for the KAKEHASHI Project – a program of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that aims to build bridges for the future and create deeper mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the U.S.

KAKEHASHI will bring 5,100 people to Japan this year. I was honored to be one of them. Fellow Jewish leaders from Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New York, and South Florida joined me on this trip. We visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kobe from March 5-12, 2017, and learned a great deal about the history, economy, culture, and policy priorities of Japan. We were a part of the second delegation of BBYLN volunteers to be invited to Japan on KAKEHASHI.

After departing from Tokyo’s Narita Airport, the delegation and our Japanese guides started the week off at an authentic Japanese dinner – where we were instructed to take our shoes off and sit on pillows in front of our plated dinners. Our feast included miso soup, sashimi, chicken yakitori, pickled vegetables, and more.

As Jewish Americans representing B’nai B’rith International—the Jewish community’s oldest humanitarian and human rights advocacy organization— the program focused on the Jewish Community in Japan.The Japanese Jewish community is made up of about 1,000 people.The community includes American, European, and Israeli ex-pats who now live/work in Japan; as-well-as a very small percentage of native Japanese who identify as Jewish. We were invited to Shabbat services and dinner with members of the Jewish Community Center of Tokyo which is made up of 100 families. While on our trip we met the Chabad Rabbi and visited his synagogue in Kobe, and some members of our delegation joined the Tokyo Chabad community for a megillah reading on Purim.

A BBLYNinJPN participant shares his family’s story and thanks our hosts at Japan’s Holocaust Education Center

We met with the number two ranking diplomat in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the former Japanese Ambassador to Israel, and the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Japan. We learned that Jewry in Japan pre-existed WWII, but it was small.  The city of Kobe, which had a small but vibrant Jewish community before the war.  In the early-1940s, Japan helped to save the lives of thousands of Jews from Poland and Lithuania by offering them temporary travel visas.  A Japanese Diplomat who served as Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania, Chiune Siguhara, from that time is named one of the Righteous of the Gentiles in Yad Vashem for this act of humanity in writing over 2,100 visas and saving 6,000 lives. Each visa authorized a Jewish family to leave Eastern Europe and travel to Japan temporarily. We visited Japan’s Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama and were serenaded by Israeli songs, in Hebrew, by local members of the Fukuyama community.

And yes, we did make it to a Team Israel baseball game in the Tokyo Dome where we joined in the chorus of Hatikivah before the game – a memory that none of us will soon forget!

The BBYLNinJPN delegation with our guide at the Israel v Cuba World Baseball Classic game in the Tokyo Dome

Beyond the exposure to the Japanese Jewish community and the important triangular ties between the U.S.-Japan-Israel, we also learned a great deal about Japanese history and culture. We spoke with a survivor of Hiroshima and visited the site where the atomic bomb was dropped, met with the CEO of a Japanese company, had dinner with young Japanese entrepreneurs, visited numerous historic sites, toured a Sake brewery, and some of us – who weren’t allergic – visited a cat café during our free time.

Speaking with the Rabbi of the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue in Kobe

Top 5 Coffee Places in DC

A large part of my job as GatherDC Community Coordinator/at GatherDC is taking people who are new to the city out for coffee. I love this part of my job because it requires me to explore the city, meet new people, and also try out new coffee places. And, I just so happen to love coffee.

Passover Guide 2017

Passover is the Jewish Holiday that young American Jews find the most meaningful! There are many different ways and places that Jews all over the District will be celebrating in the upcoming weeks.

Passover begins the evening of Monday, April 10th and ends Tuesday, April 18th, but there are events all throughout the week leading up to the holiday. Here is a list of what is going on in DC for Passover! Sign up early to secure a spot at one of these great events!

Are you hosting your own Seder this year? Get funding through Moishe House Without Walls or OneTable!

Have events not listed? Submit them here!

Tuesday, March 28th

Sunday, April 2nd

Monday, April 3rd

Tuesday, April 4th

Friday, April 7th

Sunday, April 9th

Monday, April 10th (First Night of Passover)

Tuesday, April 11th (Second Night of Passover)

Sunday, April 16th

Monday, April 17th

Wednesday, April 19th

Sunday, April 23rd

Have events not listed? Submit them here!

Yes I’m Jewish, Despite the Last Name

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been performing and traveling with some “undercover Jews” on a tour entitled, “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.” Our show features African American, Indian, Italian American and Vietnamese Jewish comedians. I’m the token Italian American Jew in the show.

Capozzola onstage picI’ve personally done a lot of shows at synagogues, for Hillels, and appearances at Jewish events. But a small portion of my set always needed to be wasted on explaining exactly why a guy named Mike Capozzola is booked in a show with comics named Goldman, Cohen and Markowitz.  The line up usually sounded like a law firm, plus a typo.

Sometimes the rabbi, the cantor or a congregant hosting the show would try to make a joke of it while introducing me. It was never useful, even if they meant well.  “He has an Italian name, but he assures us he’s Jewish. Maybe he’ll tell you all about it… please welcome, I hope I’m saying this right…  Mike Kap- Cap… Capo?  Capozzelli…?”

Even landing Jewish gigs, getting my info to a Rabbi or Hillel director needed a pre-emptive explanation. It meant cutting and pasting this line from other outreach e-mails: “I’m actually Jewish, despite the last name.” [In the interest of full disclosure – I’ve cut and pasted those seven words from an old e-mail for the sake of authenticity.]

At some point, I realized that it would be easier to just create a show with a title that not only celebrates a degree of diversity, but also takes away the wide eyed stares of incomprehension that have greeted me as I take the stage. Sometimes I hear (or imagine) gasps and chatter, “What’s he doing here?” How did this happen?” “Mah-Zeh?!  “Do something, Lenny..!”

Was it so unthinkable and uncommon that there were Italian Jews walking among us?  Surely there were others out there…

I’d known a few other “undercover Jews” in my life. At Hebrew School, attendance being taken put my friend David and I back-to-back: “Bloom, Capozzola, Carnicelli, Cohen, Erenberg…”  For the most part though, aside from me, my brother Steven, and David Carnicelli, Italian Jews seemed almost mythical.

Then, at Ithaca College, I encountered a stunningly beautiful Italian-Jewish girl several years ahead of me whom I met at High Holiday services my Freshman year.  (I can’t recall her name but I like to picture it as the best of both worlds, “Contessa Francesca Abromowitz.”)  She called me a “Kosher Meatball.” She may have even patted my head. It was the first time that I’d heard this term and the mere fact that it had a name at all – was very cool.  It sort of legitimized the brand.

There’s also another term, “Pizza Bagel.” I’d heard that first from my friend, Lauren, who like me, and The Contessa has a Jewish mom and an Italian dad.  I’ve tried a few times to get the term “Kugelroni” in play, but no one seems interested.

Being a Jew with a distinctly non-Jewish name has meant, regrettably, that I’ve been a fly-on-the-wall when people decide to share some anti-Semitic thoughts and leanings.   I was halfway through a haircut when the barber explained away someone’s greed with this line, “Well, he’s a Jew you know…” I got up and said, “We’re done here” and I left. It was shortsighted of me to leave as this barber is now doubly assured that Jews will do anything to save a buck, like leaving midway through a haircut.

My dad was a passionate crusader for positive images of Italian Americans in media.  He deplored the gangster, buffoon, henchman and slob stereotypes. Until 9/11 changed the face to Muslims, it was the Bad Italian that permeated network television like the smell of garlic. Any crime, superhero or legal drama in need of a bad guy could just point to the Italian. It was always a variation on this revelation of corruption: “If these documents say what I think… then this leads all the way to Senator Esposito’s office!”

Understandably, the sitcom “Happy Days” was off limits growing up.  The Fonz was not as welcome in our house as he was in the Cunningham’s. But it was endlessly amusing to me that Fonzie was a played by Jewish actor, Henry Winkler.   In addition to being a comedian, I’ve been a cartoonist all my life and I snail-mailed a FONZ spoof of mine to Mr. Winkler not long ago.  He called to thank me for the art and the note, but I was on line at the DMV and somehow missed the call and it rolled into voicemail.  Still, very cool to hear “Mike, it’s Henry Winkler…” when I played my messages.  He even included a very authentic L’Shana Tovah.


My story: my background is just 25% of the group with whom I travel and perform in this Jewish comedy night.  The other comics all have very varied and separate backgrounds.  Samson Koletkar, whom I’ve known for years, may very well be the world’s ONLY Indian-Jewish comedian.  He usually headlines our shows and he’s found a nice niche getting booked at Indian festivals and comedy nights where they can only afford a fraction of what Aziz Ansari gets paid.

Joe Nguyen comes from Atlanta. He’s a great writer with a sly delivery and gifted comic mind.   Joe has a great stretch of material about his experiences on the Birthright Israel trip.  In 2010, we did a Hillel show together and the idea started percolating for this tour. But it wasn’t until I’d met acclaimed Bay Area storyteller Gina Gold that it all fell into place.

Gina hosts a monthly show in Berkeley, CA called “TMI: Too Much Information.”  At her show, I saw Gina tell a fantastic story about being Jewish and African American.  That was the night that I had the idea to assemble this pile of comedy crayons into a single, themed, and packaged box.

Since April of 2014, we’ve played sold out shows at JCC’s, synagogues and theatres in California, Seattle, New York and Canada.  It’s been a lot of fun, but also there are moments that transcend any intentions and hopes.

One night we received a compliment that I’ll never forget. An elderly woman told us that she had not heard the sound of her husband’s laughter in many years until the night of our show.  It was off-brand of me to get teary eyed, but I did anyway as she thanked us.

We’re headed your way very soon and we hope that you’ll give thought to attending.

Show Logo Art

“You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.”

Sixth & I: Thursday March 23rd 8pm, Sixth & I 600 I Street, NW Washington, DC

Temple Solel: Saturday March 25th 8pm, Temple Solel 2901 Mitchellville Rd, Bowie, MD

Mike Capozzola is the producer of “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.” you can get more information about the show he produces on his website or Facebook.



Rabbi Rant: What Do You Worship?

It’s easy to dismiss the famous story in this week’s Torah portion of the Israelites making and worshipping the Golden Calf. I mean, do you or anyone you know really struggle with the temptation of bowing down to a statue? This story may have been relevant thousands of years ago, when people worshipped idols, but not today.

But this story isn’t only about literal idols, and interpreting it that way allows us to avoid confronting the more metaphorical idols that we do worship.

As David Foster Wallace shared in his “This is Water” graduation speech: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.”

We are immersed in a capitalist culture, symbolized by none other than a golden bull smack in the middle of Wall Street. Yes, it’s important to have drive and ambition. But like David Foster Wallace suggests, I worry that we have substituted God with money and things.

In that way, the story of the Golden Calf is more relevant today than ever before. To be clear, God can be made into an idol, too. The lesson for me is less about what to worship and more about what not to worship. There is nothing wrong with enjoying money and things, but when we elevate them to a sacred status – making it the focus of our life, believing it will make us happy, etc. – we are no different than the Israelites bowing down to the Golden Calf.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.