Archive | September, 2014

A Prayer for Our Children – Rabbi Judith Schindler

26 Sep

Temple Beth El, Rosh Hashanah 5775, Thursday, September 25, 2014

L’shanah tovah. It is great to be together. I love being part of a big family – this big family of Temple Beth El and the big family into which I was born. Now my parents did not plan on having five children. They had three which was a lot on a Rabbi’s salary and schedule. Then my mom got pregnant.

Nine months later, as she entered the hospital, my father expressed concern to the doctor about all the kicking inside my mom’s womb. My father said, “It’s either an octopus or more than one.”

The doctor dismissed him, “It’s only one and a small one at that.”

Shortly after, I was born at 4 pounds 4 ounces. The doctor no doubt smirked with satisfaction. Yet ten minutes later, the nurses were shocked when my brother’s foot popped out. My family and the world were completely unprepared for our birth.

Decades later, I received the original letter my father sent to my grandmother announcing our arrival. He shared his dialogue with my mom when she awoke after the delivery.

My father said, “It twins honey.”

My mother laughed, “Some joke.”

“No, really, its twins.”

“Are you kidding?” my mom said.

“Look over here… two… one boy and one girl, really!!”

“Doctor,” my mom replied. “Put me back to sleep. Wake me in a half hour and tell me it’s only one.”

When my twin brother, Jon, and I were born, my family and the world were completely unprepared.

This past year, more than 130 million babies were born and we and the world were similarly unprepared. This year has been exceedingly painful especially for our world’s children.

In this dawn of a New Year, we offer our heartfelt prayer: Adonai, Adonai, eyl rachum v’chanun… compassionate and loving God, in this New Year of 5775, have compassion upon us and upon all your children. Hear their cries. Heal their pain. Enable us to nurture the seeds of hope you have implanted within them and labor in the soil so that those seeds can fully take root.

In the first stanza of our New Year’s prayer for the world’s children, we plea to God to stop the pain of violence and war. We petition God to wipe away the tears and allay the fears of children and parents who live overseas in war torn areas and who face violence both within and beyond our American borders.

The Mishnah says that in Jewish terms a parents’ responsibility is:
• to welcome a child into our people,
• to teach a child Torah – our moral code
• to train a child in a trade, a profession
• to give our children the tools to have successful sacred relationships
• and some rabbis say we must teach our children to swim.
Yet no where does it say that we must accompany our children for burial.

My heart weeps when my memory conjures up images of the funerals of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, the three teens who were kidnapped in June – the day our Beth El Family Trip landed in Tel Aviv. Israeli flags draped their bodies as their parents and Israel’s Prime Minister eulogized them.

My soul cries to learn of Jewish fanatics engaged in an abhorrent revenge killing adding an innocent Arab youth to the list of victims and his parents to the grief stricken circle of relatives. They sparked flames of war that would expand the circle of sorrow to hundreds of thousands.

My breath leaves me when Doron, our Israeli educator for a decade and a dozen Beth El trips and close friend, shared stories on Facebook of his wife and their sons’ daycare teacher making a game of responding to sirens and running into bomb shelters so that their sons Tal, who is one, and Shai, who is three would not be traumatized. Their mom or their teacher would say, “Let’s see how fast we can run, hide under a blanket and make a play tent inside the shelter.”

As soon as I learned of the Red Siren app (an actual app that lets you know a rocket has been fired at Israel), I downloaded it to my phone. It rang with every rocket fired – hour after hour, day after day, and week after week. Thousands of sirens were sounded as I wrote the text of this High Holiday sermon. Usually my seasonal sleeplessness is caused over writing this sermon, but this summer my stress was caused over Israeli and Palestinian strife along with so many other fearful acts of violence: Iraq, Isis, Hezbollah, Syria.

The story is told of the Angel that was sent to earth with orders to bring back to the most precious thing he could find. He searched from pole to pole. He went to the depths of the sea. He picked up a ‘gold nugget’ but reconsidered saying: “This is not good enough for God.” He found a ‘flawless pearl’ but tossed that aside, as well. Finally, he heard a sob. It was a man on his knees, pouring out his heart to God for help and forgiveness. The Angel said to himself, “That is it. I have found it.”

The Angel held his hand under the man’s face and caught a tear. He flew in triumph back to Heaven; presenting it to God: “This God ‘the tear’ is the most precious thing on earth.”

Tears speak louder than words. Tears tell us of pain and let us know that a healing hand, a healing voice, a healing act is needed. The Talmud teaches that since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the gates of prayer are locked – an angel must serve as intermediary carrying our petitions up to God. But the gates of tears, Rabbi Elazar tells us, are not locked. God hears the cries of the oppressed.

Our Biblical mothers wept abundant tears.

Sara wept. According to the Midrash on the Torah text we will soon hear, she had an inkling that her husband Abraham, in a moment of fanaticism, planned to sacrifice their son.

Rebecca wept. Her children, her twins Esau and Jacob, were fighting in her womb. She said, “If this is so, why do I exist?” No parent wants to see their child caught up in battle.

What is so horrifying about this past year was the horrendous use of children as human shields and workers in wielding war. Hamas forced their children to build terror tunnels filled with explosives that were designed to kill our children. They planned to kill thousands of our brothers and sisters on these days of awe.

Hannah wept. As we will soon read in the Haftarah, Hannah wanted a child so deeply and prayed so sincerely that her lips moved and no words came forth. The Priest observing her thought she was drunk. Hannah became a model for genuine prayer.

In the second stanza of our New Year’s prayer for children we ask God to open our eyes, to see within our children their capacity for hope and healing and to follow their lead.

Children have healing power. I recognize it each time I visit to the Charlotte Jewish Preschool for Shabbat. Even if I have just left a hospital room or met with a bereft family, when I look into our toddlers faces, the worries of the world melt away. The chubby one year olds, the energetic two years olds, the joyful three years olds sing with passion, dance with abandon, and always bring hope to my heart.

Children have healing power. Following the tragic shooting at the Kansas City JCC and Jewish retirement home this past Spring, we received a packet of children’s cards sent from the Sikh Community of Greater Charlotte. They experienced a similar loss with the 2012 shooting in a Wisconsin Sikh Temple. One child wrote: “Dear Jewish Community, I am sorry for your loss. Please stay strong in your faith, even though it is very hard to go through these types of things. We know how it feels to lose people for no reason.”

Pictures of flowers, stars, and American flags surrounded by their words of “I’m sorry” brought solace to my soul.

Children have healing power. From the age of 11, Malala spoke out for the rights of Pakistani girls to receive an education. At the age of 15, a gunman from the Taliban got on the school bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” and fired three shots at her face. One entered her forehead leaving her unconscious. Rather than silencing her prophetic voice, this militant magnified her powerful cry for change. This generation can and will and is making a difference.

Let us be inspired by her fearlessness. Malala said, “All I want is an education and I am afraid of no one.”

Let us be inspired by her optimism. Malala said, “Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child one teacher can change the world.”

Children have healing power. As war was being waged between Gaza and Israel, dozens of Palestinians and Israel campers were together in Maine attending a summer camp called Seeds of Peace. They lobbed balls on sports fields rather than rockets, and exchanged words and ideas rather than fire. Over the past twenty years, 5,000 kids from war torn countries have spent the summer at these camps learning how to see another side, to hear another voice, to create another future.

God, let us learn from our children whose eyes, hearts and minds open more easily than ours.

The final stanza of our Rosh Hashanah prayer petitions God to strengthen our resolve to protect the children of our world. As US citizens, we are each obligated to call child protective services if we recognize that a child’s life is threatened. Domestic abuse happens, even in Jewish homes. The children’s lives of our world are being terrifyingly threatened.

A close friend of mine, Reverend Robin Tanner, gave birth last month to twins. My son Alec and I were blessed to visit the babies on their 8th day. Alec had never held a newborn. For 30 minutes he sat holding Kirk while I held Ella. Alec was awed by their tiny fingers, their tiny toes, their tiny noses – so small, so adorable, so innocent, so perfect.

Adonai, Adonai, eyl rachum v’chanun. Adonai enable us to help the worlds’ children.

In our prayer, God’s name “Adonai” is repeated twice. The first Adonai refers to the transcendent God who is above and beyond. The second Adonai refers to that image of God within us.

In just a moment Cantor Bernard will passionately chant the Akeidah. It is called the binding of Isaac and not the sacrifice of Isaac, because an angel comes down to stop Abraham’s violent act. Today, we pray for God to send an army of angels down to us to stop the insanity of bloodshed, to peel away the layers of anger and antagonism, hostility and hatred.

In Hebrew, the word “malach” means angel and human messenger. We cannot wait for God’s celestial soldiers. This morning we pray for the strength to stop the violence and pain. We pray for the resolve to never surrender to evil saying, “The militants are too great in number, too fearful, too passionate, and too powerful.” We must speak out against fanaticism even within our own family of faith.

When I was born, my father concluded his letter to his mom saying: “What am I doing with five kids? Only yesterday I was happy-go-lucky bachelor with nary a care in the world. But it is fun in a way and I am confident we will manage. Of course, I sent my boss, Eisendrath, a letter “urgently requesting a cost-of-living raise.” No response as yet. As long as we are healthy we will be happy and I hope you are too.”

In this year of 5775, we too need a cost of living raise. Not a monetary cost of living increase as I am not speaking right now about teacher salaries or income equality. I am not speaking about balancing budgets – federal, local, or personal. I am speaking about balancing our time, our energy, and our focus of concern.

Mohammed Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” This year our world is crying out for a cost of living increase. We need to increase our commitment to create a better future for our children inside our homes and outside, inside this sanctuary and outside, inside our homeland and outside its borders. This is a huge cost of living increase, I know.

The problems of our world are great yet the world is smaller than ever. We can no longer close our eyes to painful realities from the Middle East to our own borders. We see them in the images of photojournalists, we hear them in the words of bloggers, we sense them through simple postings on Facebook.

To be a Jew is to plant for the future: saplings, seeds for vegetables and fruits, seeds of education, seeds of hope, and seed of peace.

Sara’s tears led to peace. An angel stopped Isaac from being sacrificed.

Rebecca’s tears led to understanding. The twins fighting within her womb were two nations, two peoples. The womb warfare foreshadowed the real warfare of the world that causes us to cry for change.

Hannah’s tears led to transformation. In her bitter grief she wept, prayed, and vowed to act. If God blessed her with a son, she would raise him to serve God. Hannah’s son, Samuel, would be the prophet who would anoint David as King – our most successful monarch from whose seed our tradition teaches that a messianic time of peace will indeed come.

May our tears also lead to understanding, peace and change.

In closing, I have adapted a 1995 prayer by Ina Hughes.

Adonai, Adonai eyl rachum v’chanun
Adonai above and Adonai, within
on this New Year’s Day,
we pray for our children
for our young ones who wake too early
and our teens who sleep too late.

We pray for our children
who put sticky fingers on our technology
and who leave trails of belongings wherever they go.

And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from bomb shelters
and from rubble caused by rockets
who witness realities we do not allow our kids to watch on tv
who live in war torn worlds.

We pray for children
who sneak into our bed in the middle of the night and keep us awake.
Whose extra-curricular activities consume our gas
and any free moment we might have.

And we pray for those
who have no rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose parents are not there to hug them
and whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
who squirm in Temple and disturb our prayer
whose tears we sometimes laugh at
and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
whose physical and emotional wounds were intentionally caused
who are pawns in political and religious struggles
victims of wars they did not start.

We pray for children we never give up on
and for those who never get a second chance,
for those we smother.
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

For all these children we pray,
for they are all so precious.

May this year of 5775 be a good one for us, for the 1000 children of Beth El, for the two million children of Israel ,the two million children in Gaza and the West Bank , and the nearly 2 ½ billion children of our world. May we make it so not just with our prayers but with our actions. May we feel on our faces tears of joy in watching children play in peace.

As my father said to his mother on the day I was born, “As long as we are healthy, we will be happy, and I hope you are too.”

Shanah tovah – God, please may it be a happy new year.

The Joy of the Jewish Year – Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

26 Sep

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn’t know better, we didn’t mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn’t think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue’s joy. It’s our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Tashlich 5775-2014 Shofar Laughter

Tashlich at Freedom Park with Temple Beth El – thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

The World’s Birthday and My Wish for Charlotte

24 Sep


By Rabbi Judith Schindler

Today the Jewish world is celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rather than celebrating with champagne in hand, Jews across the globe will celebrate with prayer books. It is a time to reflect on the direction we need to take personally and communally and a time for renewal. The abundant hours we will spend in synagogue are hardly enough to reflect on the complexity of today’s world. Global fear, and for good reason, plagues so many.

In the face of Ebola threatening the lives of thousands in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, there is fear. Health care workers who are bringing education, compassion and healing to these countries are facing suspicion and even murder in Guinea.

In the face of ISIS, there is fear. We fear for moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, Americans, westerners, and non-believers who are in proximity to these violent extremists and whose lives could be in jeopardy. ISIS threatens all of us.

In the face of Ferguson, Missouri, there is fear. We are concerned that racial profiling is threatening the safety and security of African Americans.

In the face of rising global anti-Semitism there is fear. At a recent UN Conference on Anti-Semitism it was reported that in July, 2014, European incidents increased by 436%, American incidents rose by 130%, and anti-Semitic acts in South America rose by 1,200%. The violence, vandalism and hate-filled rhetoric we have witnessed are reminiscent of the Germany of the 30’s, the horrific outcome of which we are all well aware.

In the face of threats to Israel, there is fear. This past summer, Israel found and destroyed dozens of terror tunnels filled with explosives that were built by Hamas and designed to kill thousands of Israelis on these High Holy Days. Israel is in a highly volatile neighborhood. On this New Year’s Day we pray for peace for Israelis and for Palestinians.

Reb Nachman, a Chasidic rabbi who lived two hundred years ago, wrote, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

Fear can paralyze us and move us to be insular or it can propel us to reach out to others for support. Focusing internally and worrying only about our own will increase our fears, yet working together to build strong bridges of connection will enable us to overcome the Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism that threaten us.

How do we build solid bridges that will help us to pass over hard times? We build bridges when we speak out against narrow-mindedness that leads to fanaticism. We mend mistrust when we foster relationships with one another across lines of religious, racial and socioeconomic difference and increase understanding. We heal our world when we right any racist assumptions we see or hear and when we embrace the stranger and foreigner in our midst.

There is legitimate reason for fear in our world. Headlines lead us to believe that extremism and evil are rampant. Yet we have the power here in Charlotte to build the strongest bridges of interfaith and interracial connection so that the headlines we write will give our community the strongest reasons for faith.

On the Jewish New Year, a metaphoric Book of Life is written and ten days from now on Yom Kippur that Book of Life will be sealed. Our fate for the coming year is decreed. Yet Judaism teaches that we have the power, based on our actions, to change what is written. What fate will we create for Charlotte in this NewYear?

The Scout Dilemma and why this rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas Trees

15 Sep

Last week our son Jude came to us to make a serious argument about joining Cub Scouts.

The Scouts have activities that he really wanted to participate in – camping, archery, canoeing, shooting b-b guns, and this was before he found out about the overnight trip to the Atlanta Aquarium, which he has been longing to go to for months.

More importantly, Jude assured both of his parents, separately, that he embraced the values that we taught in our home, and that we should trust him to keep to those values outside our home, that he would, in his words, “Always be his mensch-y self.”

We use the term “mensch”, Yiddish for a person of morals and integrity, to describe good behavior in our home – everything from table manners to sharing and respect and fairness and justice.

So, in very short order, I went from protesting about Jude participating in an organization that still resisted one of our essential human values – namely the full welcome and inclusion of LGBT people, and equal rights for all, which I advocate for publicly on a regular basis – to escorting Jude to the “Scout Store” to purchase all the paraphernalia needed for his first pack meeting which took place yesterday.

Ginny and I very much want Jude to see that his well-reasoned opinions have an effect on us, and we will support his path, even when it isn’t ours.

Jude had a pretty good time, and I found nothing objectionable about grade school boys playing bingo, eating pizza, and running around creating mayhem in a playground. The Scout ethos is OK, a little bit more of a lean towards “group think” than I would prefer, but I must admit that I am particularly sensitive to such things.

On the topic of LGBT rights, it seems like the Boy Scouts may be shifting, and we hope to participate positively in that shift. (See this piece on a similar dilemma for other people).

When it comes to fundraising on behalf of the Cub Scout troop I will happily support going around our neighborhood and selling popcorn. However, I draw the line at the Christmas Tree sales for the den. This rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas Trees!

And there is no argument that Jude can make to sway me on this matter.

[For a great take on the December Dilemma and being a Jew in a majority Christian society, check out Lemony Snicket’s book below.]


The New CMS Excused Absence Form and Working in Partnership with our Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools by Rabbi Judy Schindler

12 Sep

Thank you to everyone for sharing your concerns about the new CMS Excused Absence Form for Religious Holidays. I especially appreciate those who brought their feedback with a kind tone! There is tremendous misinformation surrounding the new policy so I am writing this to clarify some points.

The CMS Excused Absence Form for Religious Obligations was created by CMS and brought to the Interfaith Advisory Council made up of representatives from the Islamic, Bahai, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, and other faith communities for review. This form was not created specifically nor exclusively for the Jewish community, rather it was created for the entire CMS community including many other faiths observing holidays throughout the school year. In creating the form, CMS was responding to the large volume of concerns expressed over the years by members of religious minorities due to schools’ lack of awareness and preparation for religious holidays.

Here’s some background and context on the new form that might be helpful:

• The Religious Observance form was created and intended solely for planning purposes, and was the result of an extensive best practices due diligence process.

• The form is optional. Alternative forms of notification of religious absence are still acceptable, including emails and notes to school teachers, attendance offices, and principals. The benefit of using the form, however, allows for ample notice to the teachers and school for advance preparation.

• The form is new to CMS this year and as such it is reasonable to expect a learning curve with the process. Some schools may not be well versed on the form or its intent. If this is the case with your school, feel free to encourage them to contact the CMS Diversity Office for further information.

• Some concern has been expressed about the forms being used to “register” students. This is not the case! As noted previously, the form is intended for planning purposes only, in an effort to better serve the needs of CMS students. In a school system with more than 140,000 students, standardized forms will help to facilitate better communication to the teachers in a timely fashion. It is chaotic to have parents calling, emailing, sending notes, forgetting to send notes, etc. A standardized form clarifies for our teachers and principals that the absence is clearly sanctioned by CMS and allows them the opportunity to avoid tests, classroom or school programs, and other areas of conflict experienced in years past.

• Due to concerns expressed by some in our community, the form has been modified to note that stating one’s religion is now optional.

• Additional modifications to the form include decentralizing the collection of the information on the forms. Rather than returning completed forms to the CMS Diversity Department, they will be returned directly to the student’s school, and each school will report on a quarterly basis the aggregate number of requested holiday absences to the Diversity Office (no individual information will be shared).

• The demographic data based on the numbers of students requesting an excused absence for religious purposes will help with future calendar planning.

CMS is our partner and is working with us every step of the way to respond to concerns of the Jewish community. CMS constantly strives to find ways to support and accommodate the wide variety of needs of their diverse student body and their families, and we applaud them for this. We ask that if you have continued concerns to bring them to the attention of CMS, in the spirit of good faith and partnership.

If you have further concerns, I encourage you to contact Tal Stein or Sue Worrel at the Federation’s JCRC, at 704.944.6757.

May the New Year of 5775 fill your life with health and joy.



Our Kids Just Cannot Get Enough of Temple Beth El, by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

10 Sep

Our Kids Just Cannot Get Enough of Temple Beth El

It is the beginning of the school year.  It is time to get your kids up in the morning and to make sure they are safely home from school.  It is time to start arranging car pools and babysitters.  It is the beginning of fall sports, ballet, after-school tutoring, marching band, AP classes, and tons of homework.  There are so many reasons why our kids cannot make it to Temple Beth El for Religious School, for youth group events, for madrichim hours.  There is no extra time in anyone’s schedule while we are in this back-to-school mindset.  Yet, we simply cannot keep kids of all ages away from Temple Beth El.

Things have changed since I was a kid in the Northeast.  When I was growing up, the first day of Religious School did not entail give-aways and fun assemblies.  Youth group meant playing foosball in a tiny lounge for an hour with five other kids.  There was no teen band or teen vocal ensemble.  After 7th grade, most people saw no reason to remain enrolled in Religious School.  In fact, most people chose not to renew synagogue membership after their kids’ B’nai Mitzvah.  Yet, we simply cannot keep kids of all ages away from Temple Beth El–especially post-B’nai Mitzvah aged teens.

To exemplify this TBE phenomenon, let’s shine the spotlight on a special group of teens who refuse to “graduate” out of Jewish learning and involvement after their B’nai Mitzvah: our Temple Beth El Religious School madrichim.  I am thrilled that this year 100 8th-12th graders have registered for our madrichim program.  That means I have the pleasure of managing 100 madrichim who volunteer in Religious School classrooms, song lead with Ms. Patty for the music specialty, help Yonatan with art projects, assist Sean White in the technology lab, babysit for our Religious School teachers, tutor Religious School children during class time, work with Susan Jacobs and Tracey Lederer in the Religious School office and at carpool, and help out with concession stand.  These madrichim are required to be registered for Hebrew High until 10th grade, and 11th-12th graders are required to be involved in a Jewish teen group (such as LIBERTY, BBYO, Teen Band, Teen Vocal Ensemble).  The value that these madrichim fulfill is crucial to the mission of Temple Beth El youth programs: the value that Jewish learning and involvement never ends.

Take the LIBERTY board, as another example.  For two days during summer break, the seven teens in charge of ALL programming for our senior youth group buckled down in the TBE youth lounge to start planning events for the school year.  It was sunny and warm outside, a perfect pool day.  But the LIBERTY board preferred to stay indoors to make sure that they could organize the best possible events for LIBERTY 8th-12th graders this year.  The LIBERTY board meets several times each month and puts many hours into their role as youth group leaders.  I am proud to be an advisor for the youth-led LIBERTY senior youth group, and to give support to the LIBERTY board.

Take the LIBERTY board, LIBERTY song leaders, and LIBERTY grade representatives, as a third example.  All of these hard working LIBERTYites had a long week of school last week, yet on Friday afternoon they boarded the bus to the Liz Leadership Training Institute to gain the skills necessary to be effective Temple Youth Group Leaders.  Instead of sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday, these leaders were working hard in break-out networking sessions to learn how to plan and implement meaningful youth group events at Temple Beth El. 

How does Temple Beth El support the masses of kids who cannot stay away from our Jewish community?  I want to highlight the invaluable work of the Youth Engagement Committee (YEC), led by co-chairs Liz Morgan and Carissa Schlesinger, with direction from myself and Rabbi Freirich.  Our committee meets once a month to work on different aspects of youth programming that benefit TBE kids of all ages.  If you are a new member of Temple Beth El, it is only a matter of time before the YEC Member Outreach coordinator, Brian Yesowitch, shoots you an email to tell you about our incredible youth programs.    Several of our committee members volunteer to serve as junior youth group “liaisons,” where they help facilitate the programs so that all of the activities run smoothly during the event.  If you have a teen who is involved in NFTY, the Youth Engagement Committee will be responsible for organizing layleader volunteers to house, supervise, and feed about 350 teens during Spring Kallah, the NFTY regional convention, at Temple Beth El in April 2015. If your teen is graduating high school this year, they will be invited to a Graduation Shabbat ceremony and service organized by YEC Graduation Shabbat co-chairs Liz Morgan and Holly Gainsboro.  Once your teen leaves for college, Nathalie Malter, the YEC College Connection chair, will keep them connected to their Beth El families by mailing care packages and by organizing TBE College Connection reunions. Our plan to consistently and reliably promote youth events is being spearheaded by Beth Lewis, the YEC Communications Coordinator.  Our committee also serves the vital role of fundraising for youth scholarships, so that cost is never a barrier to participation in our youth programs.  What are some examples of YEC fundraisers?  Nathalie Malter is an expert at coordinating our fall Autobell fundraiser; Brian Yesowitch and Rabbi Freirich take the lead on our March Madness brackets fundraiser; this year Andrea and Mara Gose will take charge of the January Bingo fundraiser;  finally, you can thank the Youth Engagement Committee bagel chairs Alison Levinson and Janna Stein for those bagels that we sell at Religious School every Sunday.

With the year-round dedication of this committee of parents and lay leaders, the success of Temple Beth El youth programs is guaranteed.  It is no wonder that our kids never want to leave Temple Beth El with such a strong support for our outstanding youth programs.

How can you support Temple Beth El Youth programs to start the New Year off right?  Come to the K-7th Grade Bingo Tournament and Ice Cream Social on October 11th, from 3-5 PM to learn about youth group, meet other youth group families, and learn how you can become involved.  Support our fundraisers throughout the year to help us raise enough money so that cost is not a barrier to participation in youth events.  Stay updated by reading the upcoming events on the weekly congregational emails and by reading bi-monthly “News for Jews” e-newsletters.  I am so grateful for the way our community supports youth programs, and I am looking forward to a fantastic year at Temple Beth El.

A Morning Blessing

8 Sep

[Rabbi Jonathan Freirich delivered this on Friday, August 29 with the wonderful people of the Transfaith Conference here in Charlotte, NC]

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא

My God, the soul you have given me is pure.

As we look out upon this day, among these beautiful people around us, let us acknowledge the shining purity and beauty of the spirits we find around us this morning.

Let us revel in the light that we bring to each other and share with one another.

In Jewish traditions we begin our mornings in gratitude – first for our bodies, may they work well enough so that we can offer praise and thanks. Then we notice that our spirits still reside within us, and that that essence is pure, and we celebrate the return of our souls into our bodies after that absent time during our slumbers.

Each morning we look out upon the world and offer up gratitude because a day that begins with gratitude is a better day. A day that we transform with words of thanks in turn transforms us into grateful people.

I am so grateful to be among all of you today.

So I offer you another blessing from the opening prayers of a Jewish morning service:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים

Praised are You, the Infinite source of a miraculous creation, who made me, and all of us, in the divine image.

Each and every one of us here today reflects another gorgeous facet of the image of the divine. To be in the image of the infinite is to be infinitely varied.

Let us begin our day in praise of the purity of our inner spirits, and in awe of the beautiful variety of our outward appearances.

Let our time together be filled with soulful beauty, and pure diversity, and let us say: Amein.