Archive | December, 2014

Waking Up to a New Year By Rabbi Judith Schindler

31 Dec

We close our eyes to 2014.
So much to leave behind.

Lost planes,
Lost lives.

Shots ringing out –
In Syria, in schools,
across Israel’s borders.

Rising tides of anti-Semitism

Rising distrust of police
and rising frustration with politicians.

Radicals destroying faith
wreaking destruction

We open our eyes to the dawn of a new year
filled with light.

This year may we see and be the good.

Daily acts of compassion
that outshine others’ acts of contention

Generosity that streams steadily forth
from hearts and hands

Religion that heals souls
and lifts communities

Schools of safety
Police that protect
Palestinians who want peace
and an Israel that inspires the world

This Shabbat,
we turn from one book of the Torah
to the next and say:

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek
Be strong,
Be strong
And let us strengthen one another.

This day,
we turn from one secular year
to the next and say:

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek

Be strong, in faith

Be strong, in goodness and in your resolve
to cast light even in the darkness

And let us strengthen one another
by giving each other
faith in humanity,
and hope for our future.


THE GIFT I GIVE MYSELF WILL BE… by Cantor Andrew Bernard

23 Dec

As Jews, we have the advantage of experiencing many significant annual events twice: once as part of our Jewish year and once as part of the secular year. We have Sukkot and Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah and New Years, Memorial Day and Yom HaZikaron, Tu Bishvat and Arbor Day — to name a few. While the background and customs of these days may vary between the Jewish and secular observance, they also share some similarities that allow us to reflect on some important ideas twice each year.

New Years is a time when many people make resolutions for the coming year. They pledge to improve their physical health, to treat others more kindly or thoughtfully, or to get bad habits under control. Of course as Jews, we just went through this self-examination and self-improvement ritual a few months ago during the High Holy Days. For us, the New Years resolutions may be more of a progress report than a fresh start.

While making changes to improve our lives is a noble idea, it’s not all that easy. At this time of year, experts caution that the best way to make improvements is to start with something small and manageable, and to build on the little successes. Some of the things we want to change are pretty well ingrained. In other cases, we are often not even fully aware of some of the negative behaviors we engage in.

I’m not sure that the world is ever a really calm place, but the last few months have seemed particularly chaotic and unnerving. There has been violence and injustice. People have succumbed to fear and bigotry. Even when there is acknowledgment that we have to make the world a safer and more compassionate place no one, it seems, can agree on the path forward.

Fear brings out the worst in people. While self-preservation is a natural and healthy instinct, fear often causes irrational and counterproductive responses. We reject those we should embrace, we blame those for whom we should show empathy, and in an effort to cope with a complex world, we declare ourselves right and insist that others are simply wrong.

Even more insidious, we make ourselves feel better about ourselves not through self-improvement but by distracting ourselves with others’ misfortunes. Reflecting the tabloid culture, some people find it much easier to point fingers at the troubles or failures of others rather than doing the more difficult work of tending to themselves. Judging another person is a lot easier than taking personal responsibility.

There are plenty of things in my own life that are good candidates for change and improvement. Some of them are easy while others are deeply rooted and a constant challenge. But one of the things I gain from facing my own shortcomings is increased empathy for the challenges of others. The impulse to judge another person is deflected by self-awareness and honesty. It also helps me see that judging myself harshly is not likely to be a healthy or productive way to bring about change. Self-improvement must often begin with showing compassion to ourselves. And if I can learn compassion for myself, it should be an easier next step for me to find compassion for others.

This is a season of gift-giving. Most people enjoy getting “stuff” but I think the gift that can bring joy and peace to our troubled world is the gift of compassion — for ourselves and for others. This gift I give to myself is not selfish but a first step to doing the work of making this world a safer and more compassionate place. May our new year bring peace — to ourselves, to each other, and to our world.


Saving the day with creative cuisine

18 Dec

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This week we continue to read the story of Joseph in the Torah.

Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh and he predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and then Pharaoh entrusted Joseph with the administration of Egypt’s entire harvest for seven years in order to set aside enough food to survive the famine.

Ignoring the strange question of why Pharaoh would have entrusted such a daunting task to a foreigner recently retrieved from prison, let’s look at a different question: how did Joseph accomplish his assignment from Pharaoh? How did he know how to effectively store harvests for seven years? Even in dry climates like Egypt I imagine that grain and crops would not be easy to store up for that long without them rotting or spoiling or going bad. So what secret did Joseph have to help him achieve this massive endeavor?

Joseph spent his time in prison with a baker and a wine steward. Maybe he learned some tricks of the trade from the two of them. Joseph could have learned how to make couscous, a pasta like substance that once made might be more easily preserved over the long time needed to feed an entire country during seven years of famine. And he could have learned how to brew beer from the wine steward, allowing the storing up of another source of nutrition from excess grain for a long time.

In both cases, he would have stored up knowledge that would allow him to fulfill this difficult task of running an entire empire’s food production and strategies so as to avoid the impact of the famine to come.

May we learn in these difficult times that creative thinking about our seemingly overwhelming problems has always been the hallmark of Jewish, and human, ingenuity. Working together, even discussing each other’s dreams, and then applying our know-how creatively, may be the only way out of our biggest predicaments.

Shabbat Shalom!


Eight Nights and Eight Lights by Rabbi Judy Schindler

16 Dec


As darkness descends upon our world tonight, we welcome the festival of Chanukah. As we celebrate, may we fill our world with expanded light.

Here are eight intentions to kindle our passion.

We kindle a first light to celebrate religious freedom — our own freedom won in the time of the Maccabees and granted to us as Americans today. May we work to ensure that citizens across the globe attain that same freedom of worshipping in their own peaceful way.

We kindle a second light for racial justice. We have come too far as a country to not support our African American brothers and sisters so that they can know that only when Black lives matter do all lives matter.  May this flame reflect our commitment to equality for all, on issues ranging from educational to economic to law enforcement.

We kindle a third light to celebrate two miracles: the miracle of oil of old that lasted eight days (when it only should have lasted for one) and brightened our rededicated sanctuary and the miracle of Jewish survival. Despite all odds, our Jewish minority not only survives but thrives.

We kindle a fourth light in expression of our commitment to bring light to darkness through our generosity and acts of kindness. “Tzedakah saves from death,” Proverbs teaches. Righteous giving not only saves the recipient from literal death as it saves those who are hungry or homeless but it saves the giver and recipient from spiritual death — from apathy hardening hearts.

We kindle a fifth light as a commitment to keep the lights in our Jewish homes shining brightly. Jewish legend teaches that a light emanated from our matriarch Sarah’s tent – the light of generosity, the light of Shabbat candles, and the light of God’s presence. The Chanukah lights we kindle in our homes should inspire us to nurture our dwellings as spiritual centers where the values, music, holidays, and teachings of Judaism are brought to life.

We kindle the sixth light of dedication to building Jewish community. The word “Chanukah” means dedication. In 165 BCE, we celebrated and sanctified the community space of the Temple in Jerusalem which brought all of us together. May we dedicate this night to supporting Jewish communal institutions of today.

We kindle the seventh light of education. The word “chanukah” has within it the word “chinuch” education. The heart of maintaining who we are lies in learning. Maimonides described Chanukah gelt as “an incentive for children to study Torah properly.” May we make Jewish learning fun by finding a friend with whom to study or attending a Jewish discussion at a coffee shop or restaurant or at shul. May we make our kids’ learning fun by ensuring they can learn at camps, in Israel, with youth groups, and always in engaging ways.

We kindle an eighth light to celebrate peace. As Jews we are ohavei shalom, lovers of peace, and rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace. We awaken to news of violence each and every day from threats at local schools to hostages taken in a chocolate shop or kids killed by terrorists in schools across the globe. May we support peace through our actions, through our advocacy, and through our tzedakah to organizations that plant seeds of peace locally, nationally, in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and beyond.

May we light the shammas each night of Chanukah and not only share the physical light of our faith but go farther to bring the spiritual light of our holiday to the world.

Chag Chanukah sameach — may you have and create a joyous holiday of Chanukah.

How to Chanukah and an awful lot of Music!

11 Dec

A friend of ours is getting ready to light Chanukah candles for the first time this year (two friends, actually, but only one is local). Since I’m in the business of guiding people through their Jewish journeys, it’s an extra privilege to help someone a friend to find the tools and learn the skills to lead a Jewish life. So, the very first thing I did was look to my calendar for when I could invite our Charlotte friend over to join us in lighting the Chanukah candles.

Alas, it seems that my family of four will only be together in our home for one night of all eight nights of Chanukah! And that one night is the SEVENTH night, which is not a great night to help someone kick off the holiday for the first time. While we negotiate our complicated schedules, I thought it would be best to put together a little Chanukah How To for these two ladies and all of you!

First, you can learn how to light the Chanukah candles from the rabbi and cantorial soloist at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton. This video is endorsed by the Union for Reform Judaism. And on this page, you can find blessings sheets, more blessings recordings, and every detail you could ever want to know about Chanukah.

For those of the preschool set, or the young at heart, our friends at Shalom Sesame and the URJ can teach us all about Chanukah. Here are songs, videos, and ideas for celebrating the Festival of Lights with your little one.

Latke recipes abound and are only ever a google search away. I think the most important thing to know is that, like all things Jewish, there isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it. What you need to figure out is how your family does latkes! I grew up eating latkes from a mix (foodies, avert your eyes!), but I loved them and still do. In fact, I have in my mind that I might even make some instant-mashed potato latkes to use up the leftovers from the box I bought for my kids’ preschool Thanksgiving Feast. Someone shared their grain-free latke recipe with me today – substitute coconut flour for wheat flour. If you are paleo-minded, switch for sweet potatoes, coconut flour, egg, and coconut oil and you will get a very paleo-friendly version. You could even top with some brisket. Yum.

Now, to bring you the full bounty of the internet, here is some great Chanukah music! Let me start with the classics.

First, here is Theodore Bikel singing Oy Chanukah in Yiddish. Both Bikel and this song are as classic as Jewish music can be. He is a superstar and this song has been passed down many generations. I remember my mom coming in to my Hebrew School to teach it to us in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.

Haneirot Halalu is a very old chant mentioned in Masechet Soferim, an 8th c. Palestinian work often included in addenda to the Talmud. There are traditions that prescribe singing this text after the new candle is lit each night, or at the very least sung after candle lighting. For me, this melody capture some of the mystical warmth and gratitude that we hope to bring into our homes with the lights of Chanukah. That sentiment is certainly captured by this all-women’s arrangement of the traditional melody. The text means, “We kindle these lights because of the wondrous deliverance You performed for our ancestors. During these eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred; we are not to use them but only behold them, so that their glow may rouse us to give thanks for Your wondrous acts of deliverance.”

Another key piece of the Chanukah liturgy is Al Hanisim, which is recited twice a year, once on Chanukah and the other time on Purim, both occasions when we express gratitude for averting grave danger. Al Hanisim is inserted into the Hoda’ah – the Thanksgiving Blessing of the Amida. If you’re at synagogue during Chanukah, you will hear this sung. Here is a zesty rendition of the traditional tune.

Now, I’m leaving a gaping whole in this musical review by not including a version of the number one, most traditional Chanukah song of all time – Maoz Tzur, Rock of Ages. This omission is because I have found no versions on the entire internet that I like. I may need to come back later and add my own….

I’ll wrap this up with three of the most important contemporary Chanukah Songs. First, Debbie Friedman’s I Am A Latke, sung live in 2001. Then, of course, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song live on SNLhref=””>, or watch TBE’s fine young men Caleb Seidler and Foster Machicote sing it). Finally, here is that ear worm from a few years back from the Maccabeats.

I wish you all a wonderful Chanukah filled with warmth, love, friends, family, and wonder. If you are local in Charlotte, I hope to see you at one of the myriad of Chanukah events that we have coming up over the next week and a half. In fact, if you’re 22-45 and have kids 6 or under (or a little older, too…) there’s still time to register for The Porch’s Southern Fried Chanukah this Saturday at 4!

-Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights –By Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

3 Dec

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights

By: Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

We have made it to the end of the November trajectory that shoots us through Thanksgiving and Black Friday, delivering us to the doorstep of the month of December like a package that arrives early.  Our seasonal obligations were relatively straightforward up to this point: make plans to bring our families together for Thanksgiving; navigate complex family relationships and accommodate everyone’s unique (and sometimes crazy) food requirements; wait in line for a discount on Black Friday; and exclaim that December snuck up on us upon looking at the calendar on Monday morning.

Suddenly, as though overnight, holiday wreaths have sprung up around malls and holiday lights decorate every nook and cranny of our public living space.  The Starbucks cashier wishes you a Happy Holiday, the dentist sends you a Happy Holidays card in the mail, and the world is alive with light shows and holiday editions of foods and drinks.  The anticipation of Christmas transforms the landscape of American culture, turning all public venues into celebrations of this non-Jewish holiday.

American Jews, particularly those who are Reform, are renowned for our ability to assimilate to the norms of contemporary American society.  In fact, the ability to conform to the society of which we are a marginal population has saved Jewish people from being expelled from society altogether for ages.  In general, our Jewish rituals are neatly compartmentalized physically: we attend services at synagogue; we celebrate Shabbat with those who are close to us, privately; we light the menorah at home.  We are Jews in the synagogue and home, and Americans outside of it.  The term “Holiday” represents society’s acknowledgement that other religions—Jews in particular—wish to be a part of American society, one that is founded on Christian values.  This term is an attempt to equate Christmas with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which usually falls very close to December 25th.  In other words, it is an attempt to inject Chanukah with a measure of importance by associating it with Christmas.  When the term “Holiday” is used during the month of December, it demonstrates how successfully American Jews have integrated into American society, after centuries of expulsion from communities of every generation.

Chanukah is certainly a unique Jewish holiday worthy of celebration, but we must be cautious not to fall into the habit of comparing a minor Jewish holiday with a Christian holiday that is, in comparison, colossal—comparable only to Easter in importance, truly.  As Dr. Ron Wolfson explains in his article, “The December Dilemma,” found on, some Jews will conflate Chanukah with Christmas by telling their children, “’Christmas is for Christians.  They have Christmas.  We are Jewish.  We have Hanukkah.’  In an attempt to substitute something for Christmas, the parent offers Hanukkah.”  The challenge that we face during December is teaching our kids about the special significance of Chanukah without comparing it to or competing with the significance of Christmas.

The good news is that Temple Beth El’s mission is to provide a super fun Chanukah celebration for every age group.  The k/1, 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7 junior youth group advisors have organized Chanukah events for all kindergarten through seventh graders.  ALL events for kindergarten-seventh grade will take place on Saturday, December 13th from 3-5 PM.  This date and time was chosen purposefully to maximize the convenience of dropping off kids of multiple ages.   The LIBERTY board has been working around the clock to plan our Chanukah lock in from December 12th-13th.   To find out more about all Chanukah youth, or to sign up and pay online, go to and look under “Temple Beth El Community Events” (you will have to scroll down a bit). There is also information about adult Chanukah programs on the homepage.  No matter what age you are, there is a Chanukah event that you’ll love at Temple Beth El.

Even though we cannot completely solve the “December Dilemma,” we can embrace the “Holiday” season as a time to remind our kids why being Jewish is unique, special, and cause for celebration.