Archive | August, 2014

The Best Response to Ferguson is to Create Faithful Friendships in Charlotte

27 Aug

by Rabbi Judith Schindler

Last Wednesday, I was honored to lead an evening of dialogue at the Levine Museum of the New South with Dr. Ron Carter, the esteemed President of Johnson C. Smith University. “Kinship and Conflict: Black/Jewish Relations” was the topic at hand. Sitting in comfortable chairs on a stage, the two of us reflected on the times our paths as Blacks and Jews historically united and the times they parted.

The conversation was honest. The conversation was, at times, painful. The conversation brought healing to so many who were there. The six years of friendship that Dr. Carter and I shared enabled us to discuss openly our personal experiences with anti-Semitism, on one hand, and racism on the other.

Tensions can arise in communities. The strong partnerships across lines of difference that we share will better enable us to ride out the storms that come our way. Our best response to the riots in Ferguson is to create faithful friendships here in Charlotte.

The conversation that night inspired me to write the following poem.

A Cosmic Kinship

Remember, you were slaves.

Together we remember
Seas crossed, campuses crossed, lines of protest crossed.

At times we walked together.
At times we walked apart.

Holy ground in Black churches
Holy ground in Jewish synagogues
Yet we all come from the same ground
In Hebrew, adam from adamah
In English, human beings from the dust of the earth
Given life by the breath of God

Brothers disappoint
Brothers uplift
Brothers hurt
Brothers heal

May we find common ground.
May we find holier ground.
May we find higher ground.

Gems in the Torah – for Charlotte Pride

12 Aug

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

“Now keep close watch over your selves – for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire –  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…”

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 “But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being.”

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 “Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!”

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

Image source:

Happiness, On Being a GYPSY, and Managing Expectations

8 Aug

I discovered several months ago that I am a card-carrying GYPSY with flowering lawns and prancing unicorns. [More about GYPSYs – Generation Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies – and our “issues”.]

Apparently, what’s wrong with my generation is that our expectations are out of line with our reality. In short, we were raised by our Baby Boomer parents (who, in turn, were raised by their Greatest-Generation-Survivors-of-The-Great-Depression Parents) to expect that each generation would surpass the previous in terms of career success, wealth, and general happiness. Also, we were raised to believe that we are each unique, special, and that if you just work hard enough, you will be the star in your own success story from a very early age. Then, these GYPSYs meet with the reality of adult life in a post-9/11, post-Economic downturn of 2008 world. Suddenly, many of the things these GYPSYs had as core beliefs about the world, money, and happiness were upended, resulting in a lot of melancholy folks in their early 30s. And then, to put the shining cherry on top, GYPSYs watch one another live their lives on social media where there is a tendency to portray only what is good in your life, making everyone look disproportionately happy.

Forgetting about the sociological nuances of the GYPSYs, this all makes perfect sense. In some ways, Happiness = Expectations – Reality. If you set the expectations bar in a realistic place, chances are, reality will meet your expectations and you might be very content with your lot. Set the bar too high, and you might struggle to find contentment. Set the bar too low and you might grow lazy or complacent. It seems like this formula for happiness is about having the self-knowledge to lay out appropriate challenges for ones’ self, something I think about in terms of Flow.

Sometimes we can set our own bar to maximize our happiness: just high enough for a good challenge, but not too high as to be unattainable. Others of us are constantly pushing that bar higher and higher, and working harder and harder to reach it because whatever that bar is seems to really. just. matter. a lot.

An example of this that I’m working on right now is the program we hope to pilot, The Family Experiential School. I blogged about it in May (Pancakes). On the one hand, I set the bar low beginning with just kindergarteners to pilot our program. On the other hand, the model of the FES really pushes how the synagogue functions very far, very fast. It seems to me that we set a very high bar for a very small group of people, taking the relatively small group of TBE kindergarten families and placing the burden of changing the shape of the synagogue squarely on their shoulders. To me, that sounds very exciting; for many of them, it’s not a leap they can take. Here we are, three weeks before Religious School starts and we have not met our enrollment goals. It seems likely that we will have to tell the enthusiastic families who have registered for the FES that we will not run the pilot this year. Those are a lot of managed expectations: my own, our Board’s, and those families who were excited to embark on a creative, whole-family synagogue program. This is all by way of saying, please register for kindergarten!

What does our Torah portion have to say about bar-setting and expectations this week? Well, Va’etchanan is a hot-bed of expectations. Contained in this week’s portion we have both the second-telling of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma and the first paragraph of the V’ahavta. These texts are filled with expectations set for us by our Tradition: Do not Murder; Do not Covet; Love the Lord your God with all your strength; Teach them to your children… As Reform Jews, some the expectations just make sense. The commandments are in line with our own moral compass: Of course I won’t murder, Of course I won’t steal. Others can be harder for us to deal with: What if I do find myself coveting? What if I do take God’s name in vain? What if I don’t really observe Shabbat?

As Reform Jews, I think many of us employ another critical element when we manage the expectations of our Tradition. Compassion. When dealing with areas of Jewish practice and growth, we always have compassion. We know that the bar is set very, very high for Jewish life: observe commandments, study, repair the world, pray, rest, love, eat all in a Jewish way. When we fall a little short of the bar that we and tradition together have set for each of us, we are compassionate and say, “I will do better next time” and “there is always next Shabbat.”

For GYPSYs, an ounce of compassion will go a long way. Maybe the world is very different from what we GenY/Millennials imagined as children and the world we dream will be for ourselves and those who come after us is still so far away, but if we labor with compassion for ourselves and our efforts, we will be OK. Maybe we should add compassion to the equation? Perhaps Happiness = Expectations – Reality + Compassion.

May we all focus on compassion. May we love ourselves for our hard work, knowing that after we recharge and reconnect each week on Shabbat, we can inch that bar just a little bit higher – if we want to – or set the bar lower if we have gone too far. May we be compassionate with our coworkers, whose own equations are often hidden from our view, yet we encounter them every day. May we be compassionate with our family members and friends as they each write their own balanced equation, as we strive for meaning, purpose, and happiness.

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas


7 Aug

Last call for the Family Experiential School! We’ve got some great families registered, how about you?


Over a year ago, I sat in the congregation with my daughter on my lap one Shabbat morning. As a clergy-person, I rarely sit with my family in the congregation, so this was a special occasion. While Johannah regularly attends Tot Shabbat, this was the first time she had ever been in a “main” service on Shabbat morning. Only two at the time, she made it through about 15 minutes of the service before her attention span waned and I sent her home with her dad.

In those 15 minutes, I had a profound realization.

I asked myself, “When will we ever have pancakes?”

You see, in my dreams for my Jewish family, I want my family to “do” Shabbat. I want them to light candles, eat dinner, and sing songs on Friday night. I want them to know the Shabbat morning service and hear Torah read often. And I want…

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A Glimpse into the Jewish Summer Experiences of our Charlotte and Temple Beth El Teens by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

1 Aug

by Dara Gever

“Summer” is the smell of cold pool water on hot concrete, the taste of barbecue (although, as a vegetarian, I prefer grilled cheese), the feeling of the hot sun after months spent trapped indoors.  “Summer Camp,” for many of our Temple Beth El kids, means building and strengthening Jewish identity through innovative programs.

I am a firm believer in summer homes.  I have gone to sleep-away camp since I was eight years old and was a camp counselor for one summer.   This is why I am thrilled that the summer abodes of many of our Beth El kids are at Jewish camps.  Since this is my first full summer as a “Charlottean,” I experienced three incredible Jewish summer experiences for the first time: URJ Camp Six Points, Mecklenburg Ministries In Our Own Backyard interfaith camp, and URJ Camp Coleman.

Sports and Judaism—I never imagined how well they could go together until I experienced the magic of Camp Six Points, my first camp stop of the summer.  I was honored to have been invited to serve as visiting faculty member for URJ Six Points Sports Academy, which uses the sparkling (and air conditioned) facilities of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina.  I joined several Charlotte campers for a session in which enrollment exceeded 200 campers.   According to the staff, they had more campers in that single session than they did in all the sessions combined just a few years ago, when the camp first began.

Even though the Six Points program promotes a non-conventional approach to Jewish education, this camp converged with Jewish learning in a very traditional way: Jewish learning was frequently centered around meal offerings for the day.  The staff and campers participated in song session in the chader ochal (the cafeteria), prayers before and after each meal, and a special Shabbat dinner complete with Challah and candles at the end of the week.  Every morning at breakfast, three or four staff members would perform a skit to act out a “Jewish Value of the Day.”  Once that Jewish value was taught, the campers could earn bracelets with the Jewish value printed on them as a reward for exemplifying that particular trait.  While I was at camp, we learned Jewish values of Community, Loyalty, and Compassion.  When kids exemplified these values, they earned respect from their counselors and coaches in the form of bracelets.   I loved taking pictures with our Temple Beth El crew at Six Points!

Camp Six Points

I was also fortunate to be able to spend an entire week with the Mecklenburg Ministries “In Our Own Backyard (IOOBY)” Interfaith youth camp, directed by Jason Williams.  Three Beth El teens, Abby Levinson, Darien Lewis, and Arthur Valdman, participated in the camp along with 17 other rising 9th-12th graders of different faiths.  The religions represented by the IOOBY participants ranged from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’I, and Unitarian Universalist.

The teens spent the entire day in the sweltering heat experiencing “A Walk in Their Shoes,” a simulation of what it’s like to be homeless.  We visited the Bahai Temple, meditated with a Buddhist monk, did Yoga at the Hindu Center of Charlotte, learned about Unitarian Universalist teachings and celebrities, experienced a Catholic mass, participated in Muslim prayer during Ramadan, and ended our trip at Temple Beth El Shabbat services.  In between visiting all of these incredible houses of faith, we did community service projects around Charlotte.  The IOOBY teens volunteered at “Sow Much Good,” a community organic garden; we helped the volunteers at Freedom School Field Day; we sorted clothes at the Crisis center and sorted food at Second Harvest Food Bank.  Our mode of transportation to all of these sites was the public bus system, so that we could experience first-hand the challenges of poverty in Charlotte.  At the conclusion of camp, the teens prepared and presented an interfaith service for their parents in which each teen told the group how the different visits to religious centers and community service projects had an impact on the group.  It was so touching to see how the next generation of leaders demonstrated a level of compassion and understanding that allowed them to celebrate their differences and create a strong bond that united these teens–not in spite of their different faiths, but because of the differences in their beliefs.

IOOBY 2014photo

The last stop of my summer camp swing was Camp Coleman, which I visited for one day with Rabbi Judy and Max Wallach.  Jewish tradition teaches that when you visit the sick you take away 1/60th of the illness. It also teaches that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy (of God speaking to us). And Shabbat is 1/60th of the World To Come. We would add, after spending Shabbat at our Reform movement’s Camp Coleman, that Coleman is also 1/60th of heaven. Our 21 Charlotte kids who attended camp Coleman this summer would agree.

Rabbi Judy and I visited Camp Coleman today to hang out with our Charlotte and Temple Beth El campers. Marlene Rosenzweig and Lori Handler put together gift bags for our kids that we handed out after lunch.

After mandatory optionals, where kids are required to make tough choices between playing in the lake, swimming in the pool, or eating fresh chocolate pita baked over a fire by the Israeli staff, among many more options, Rabbi Judy and I taught the 53 rising 10th graders, known as the Coleman Chalutzim. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer with a festive balloon and cookies while overlooking Lake Shalom. We had a great debate as to whether 50 years ago they would have made the choice to give up working a summer at Coleman during their college years to register African Americans to vote and to teach at Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964. They understood why, as Jews, they might do this mitzvah of fighting for civil rights.


We are so proud of our 21 incredible kids who chose Coleman, the 24 who chose Camp Six Points, and the 3 who represented Temple Beth El in the Mecklenburg Ministries interfaith youth camp.  Our community and our movement are blessed to be able to offer so many different opportunities for engagement for our youth during the summer.  If you are looking for the perfect Jewish summer experience, do not hesitate to ask our clergy or educational staff!