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OPPORTUNITIES by Cantor Andrew Bernard

22 Jan

I am sometimes amazed by the nearly infinite number of ways a person can express his or her Judaism. It’s easy to focus more narrowly on activities directly associated with the synagogue, but the richness of Jewish life really depends upon the infusion of our principles and beliefs in life’s smallest nooks and crannies. Our actions may not always “look” Jewish (to invoke the cringe-inducing metaphor), but they rise up out of our values.

That is not to say that the things we do as part of synagogue life aren’t hugely valuable. I love leading services — an opportunity to help people explore deeper meaning in their lives and reach beyond the physical world to experience something of the divine mystery.

Then there are the activities that could be done in a secular environment but take on added significance when done in a Jewish context. We have some young, talented musicians who make up our Teen Band and Teen Vocal Ensemble. While they could (and do) perform in non-religious settings, there is a depth of meaning to making music in the sacred setting that is enriching and, hopefully, an important part of the path toward contributing their talents to the community. This month and next we are running our 6th, 8th, and 9th grade human sexuality programs — again a subject that is equally important in the secular world but in the synagogue infuses the learning with more profound and enduring values.

At Temple Beth El there are many organized endeavors, inspired by Jewish teachings that serve the broader community. These are activities that I would call “doing Jewish.” Judaism is, in part, about taking action out in the world. It comes alive in a notable way through social action and caring community projects.

But I am perhaps most astounded by the small and simple acts or gestures that reflect the soul of Judaism in less obvious ways: a meal, a brief hand-written note, a call just to check up on someone, the offer to pick up something a person needs while out on errands, showing up with someone’s favorite sweet or cup of coffee. These are all things that any “nice and thoughtful” person would do. Yet when the motivation springs up out of the conscious awareness that those around us are created in God’s image, the kind gesture becomes an expression of what it is to be Jewish.

One of the reasons I most love working as a pediatric hospital chaplain is that the smallest kindnesses are monumental. It may seem counterintuitive in a place where much of the activity is around the saving of lives. That, obviously, is critical. But those small moments of checking in on someone, the hug, or the brief quip as you pass someone in the hallway adds a profound layer of human compassion and empathy that is at the core of our beliefs.

What will each of us do today that bubbles up out of our core Jewish values that makes even the smaller world around us light up — for ourselves and people with whom we have the privilege of sharing life’s journey?

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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.

gift

FILLED WITH THE PEACE OF SHABBAT by Cantor Andrew Bernard

12 Nov

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York for the start of this year’s cantorial certification program where I teach Shabbat music to the first year students. We were so fortunate to have the introductory class on traditional chant presented by Cantor Jack Mendelson, one of the finest cantors on the planet. Both Cantor Mary and I studied traditional Rosh Hashanah music with him while we were students, and I told my students that when she and I are standing on the bima at Temple Beth El during High Holiday services, there are moments when we look at each other and smile because we both know that, at that moment, we are channeling Jack Mendelson.

What makes Cantor Mendelson so outstanding is not merely his mastery of traditional chant. His artistry and knowledge is unsurpassed — but he exudes such enthusiasm and reverence for the music that you can’t help being swept up by it. And he is also an incredible mensch. He worked with the students both as a group and individually, coaxing from each of them the beauty and the subtlety of the style. He is kind. He is funny. And most of all, he’s genuine through and through. At the same time he makes you relax into the beauty of the music, you also realize that you are in the presence of greatness.

Listening to him teach the class, I felt full — filled with the incomparable artistry, filled with the respect and love of the music, filled with the warmth and humor of a man who lets the notes and the sacred words pour forth from his very being. It is a wonderful — and often rare — feeling of being full.

That same feeling is the ideal when we make the transition to Shabbat on Friday night. Every week we ask you to let go of the busy-ness and the stresses of the week gone by — to empty yourselves of the frantic and the mundane in order to make room for the peace and the sanctity of Shabbat. There are many weeks where, frankly, I’m thrilled just to be able to stop the sense of agitation, to empty out the noise and the hysteria. But truly experiencing Shabbat is not feeling empty, but feeling filled — filled with warmth and beauty and a sense of being in the presence of something so much greater. It is a sense of awe that simply makes me smile.

Lines and Circles By Cantor Andrew Bernard

2 Oct

Here we are, in the thick of our holiday cycle. Or perhaps I should say, here we are again, in the thick of our holiday cycle. While the events of our lives usually proceed in a line — sometimes a straight line, sometimes on a winding path bordering on torturously circuitous — the world of nature and the world of our holidays progress around a circle. And it is the interplay between the lines and the circles that give us perspective on our lives.

Given that our ancestors were an agricultural people and dependent upon the natural world, it is not surprising that the liturgical cycle parallels the cycle of nature. Our days begin with the setting sun. Our months begin on the new moon. According to the Torah, the Jewish year begins in spring — a time of new life and renewal. Both the agricultural and historical associations of Passover reflect this idea of new life and renewal, and Sukkot in the fall represents the conclusion of the harvest and the fragility of the world as it sinks into winter. Time and nature repeat in a predictable rhythm.

This predictable rhythm is an essential part of the creation story, which we read this month. The story of creation is really the story of human endeavor: how to establish order in the face of chaos. Here, the word “chaos” does not imply mayhem, but rather the seemingly random and unpredictable course of the world that continuously impacts our lives. By separating light from darkness, sky from earth, dry land from the oceans, God imposes order on the world. On the fourth day, God creates the sun, moon, and stars, thereby establishing a regular pattern of days and nights, seasons and years.

“Predictable” is not a word we can attach to our own lives. Of course we make plans: we schedule our days and weeks; we take on projects that have a beginning, middle, and end; we plan out careers and envision the family life we want. But events outside our control intrude, and we are sometimes nudged — sometimes thrown — off of the path we set in motion for ourselves. When unforeseen events occur, we may have to make hard choices. Work or study opportunities might mean giving up our home and moving far away. An exciting new project may mean giving up activities we have enjoyed, while an unsuccessful undertaking may cause us to rethink our life’s path. And sometimes the natural world intervenes, the course of our lives changed by illness or the loss of a loved one.

Where are we today? Are we where we thought we’d be a year ago? Has the landscape of our family or friendships changed? How have our professional or personal lives changed? And yet no matter the path of our lives, here we are again in our holiday season — a season of introspection and reevaluation, a season filled with traditions and memories. Even if the course of our lives seems fickle, the steadiness of this season anchors us. We stop. We regroup. People who are no longer with us loom larger in our lives, helping us regain perspective on our true selves. We engage in familiar traditions, reinforcing our core values.

And then we move forward again, taking the new experiences and enfolding them into the heart of our being. What was random then is now part of our new order. We have grown since last year. And we move ahead with the knowledge that our forward path will always be anchored by the recurring circles.

Summer Services: A Welcome Change of Pace! by Cantor Andrew Bernard

28 May

Summer Services: A Welcome Change of Pace!

With the arrival of Memorial Day, most of us are grateful for the change of pace. School schedules wind down, many people embark on vacation, and there seems to be more time to spend with family and friends. It’s an easier time to let go of stress and take a relaxing breath.

Each Friday night we begin our worship by letting go of our busy weeks and breathing in the peace of Shabbat; during the summer months, that peace feels even more expansive. To enhance this relaxed experience, we’ve instituted some changes to our Friday pre-neg and service that I think you’ll enjoy. When you arrive for the pre-neg (starting at 5:30pm), you’ll notice our Kiddush Bar and our new Casual Zone. At the Kiddush Bar, you can grab a glass of wine or juice, and toast the end of the week. (Blessing provided.) Wine is provided, but if you’d like to bring a bottle or two to share, you’ll find a sticker to place on your contribution so we may all recognize you for your generosity.

The Casual Zone is in one of the small social hall areas just off of the Sanctuary. Its location may change from week to week, but you’ll always find tables and chairs set up where you can relax with old friends or make new ones. Bring your food and drink to the table and enjoy the conversation. Not finished eating when the service starts? No problem! — continue to sit and enjoy. It’s the best of both worlds where you can both nosh and pray, and be embraced by the warmth of our community. Planning an early Shabbat dinner? Great! — join us for pre-neg and feel free to head out to meet your family and friends when services begin.

The Casual Zone is also a kid-friendly zone with an area set up especially for the younger ones containing books and crafts to occupy them throughout the service. Summertime is a great family time, and we want your family time to be part of our worship experience.

Our services will continue to follow our Community Shabbat model, usually featuring a theme to provoke some thoughts, enhance the spiritual experience, or set your weekend in motion. This week we will focus on our blessings — a great way to appreciate and give thanks for the start of summer! The tone of services will be a little lighter to match the season, and our 6:15pm start will have you on your way so that you can continue to celebrate the end of the week with Shabbat dinner.

Friday nights at Temple Beth El have been a warm and fulfilling tradition for many years. We hope that our new Kiddush Bar and Casual Zone enhance the joy of our being together.

Shabbat shalom!
Cantor Andrew Bernard

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