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Memories and Making a Difference – Cantor Mary

15 Jan

I’m writing today from a cozy spot in the heart of Manhattan. Several times a year, I make a one or two day pilgrimage to New York City to visit my voice teacher and have a tune up, so to speak. Congregants are often surprised to learn that I still take voice lessons and are even more surprised that I remain with the same teacher after nearly 8 years, working together over skype and in person. I usually ask in response, “Do professional athletes have coaches? Do you think they have trainers?” Of course they do and so must professional singers.

I stood in Candace’s studio, just an hour or so ago, and as we started the familiar exercises, I was flooded by memories. I remember the first time I sang in this room. I remember the endless hours of frustration. I remember the successes. Those memories and feelings immediately call forward memories of the other parts of my life during those early years, the years when I spent one hour a week in that room and countless more practicing. I think of friends and school and work and commuting and dreaming about what the future might hold. Outside of the window, I notice that the sign across the street has changed, and I am back to the present.

My spot behind my teacher’s piano is one of the places where times collapses. Suddenly, all that was, was imagined, or might still come to be comes together into a single point of focus. I am, somehow, more myself and my potential self is more fully realized. These are deep memories – they are experiences that formed me and help me remember my past and to imagine my future.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his work The Sabbath that Shabbat is when we “collect, rather than dissipate time.” During the week, we dissipate time. We annihilate time as we race from one obligation to the next, focus on meeting our needs and the needs of those around us: gym, groceries, emails, meetings, deadlines, and alarm clocks.

But on Shabbat, moments are stretched longer and conversations linger. We are taught that shabbat is a mystical folding-in of all that was, is, and might come to be. Shabbat is a time when we sense the eternality of our people. When, if we stop long enough to tune-in, we feel the sanctity of lives lived before our own and lives that are yet to be. This is an awareness gained from slowing down, sitting back, and listening deeply that assures us that we are not alone, never have been, and are part of a great history past and story yet to be written. Shabbat is our collection of these moments, stacked one a top the other into a deep trove of memories and experiences.

This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira. It is both a memorable and challenging Torah portion, where the first 9 of the 10 plagues are exacted upon the Egyptians. Rabbi Dreyfus explores some of the difficulties with studying the suffering endured by the Egyptians as we went through the process of being wrested from our enslavement. I often think how much easier it would be to read this text, not as history as so many do, but as spiritual drama designed to link us viscerally to our very own story. The trials of the story, when read deeply, trigger a willing suspension of disbelief and allow us to be flooded by the memory of our people and to live our lives in such a way that our people’s history becomes our own story.

I haven’t seen Selma yet – but I will. I’ve heard that it is powerful and that the images, ideas, and events linger for hours after you’ve left the theater. Movies, music, architecture, paintings, theater – all art and everything we experience with our senses – has the power to trigger deep memories. A song may remind us of our grandmother’s hands, a smell of what it was like to feel very small, but very loved, and the feel of the pavement beneath our running shoes what it is to believe we can catalyze change. Our senses, as much as our intellect, can help us to access our deep memories and empower us to be who we are meant to be, not only who we happen to be right now. As we prepare for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, may we seek ways to access our deep memories and may we find the courage to live our own story and to help to write  the story of our people and all peoples with justice, righteousness, and holiness.

~Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

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

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

The View from the Air by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

2 Jul

Several weeks ago, our Torah portions taught us the laws of the Sabbatical year and the sort of super-Sabbatical, the Jubilee year. During these special years in the Jewish calendar, we allow things to rest and be renewed. In the Sabbatical year, we allow the Land a period of time to go fallow, and in the Jubilee year, all slaves are freed and ancestral land holdings are returned to their original owner.

Clergy and academic professions maintain this notion of the sabbatical year. Depending on the terms of the individual institution, that clergy person or professor might be entitled to a few weeks, months, or even a year on a seven-year cycle to have respite from the demands of the day-to-day work of their calling and, instead, be able to work on a special project of their choosing.

At Temple Beth El, full time clergy are entitled to three months of Sabbatical each seven years of full-time employment. Now, a true sabbatical is far-off for me since I have not yet accrued years towards a sabbatical, as I am contracted to work part-time. Nevertheless, I write to you from the airplane headed towards a sabbatical of a different sort.

The American Conference of Cantors, the ACC, is the professional organization for Reform cantors in North America and world-wide. Each summer, we convene to study, sing, share our work, and share our lives for just a few days. I’m sure that it goes without saying, but this time is invaluable. As one of only several hundred Reform cantors in the world, our network is very small and very dear. We support each other through our rewarding, yet challenging callings and also inspire one another to make better music, lead better prayers, teach better classes, and be more deeply present.

In the fashion of a sabbatical, the ACC holds this annual convention in Israel every seven years. In this case, the call is not to let the Land rest from its work, but for cantors to return to the Land and renew their connection to our language, our people, and our music for one week.

The last time that the ACC convention was in Israel, I was in Israel, too, on the first year of our five-year seminary program. (In a bizarre scheduling blip that I do not understand, this was actually eight years ago. We do not recall why the seven year Israel conference interval was pushed to eight this past time…)

In the summer of 2006, I left Charlotte, my home for three years and Matthew, my husband for only slightly more time than that, and headed off to a year of study living with new classmates in Jerusalem. During that year, I flew back and forth six times to nurture my marriage and to see my grandfather in what would be the last year of his life, alav hashalom – peace be upon him. I became an expert in navigating the 6000 mile flight – 10 hours one way, 12 the other – and an expert in navigating multiple worlds, multiple lives, multiple languages. That was the very beginning of Facebook and Skype, thank goodness, so I think I was able to be more connected at home than I would have in previous years.

Preparing for this trip over the last few days, I have become distinctly aware of the passage of time. Johannah, who is closer to four-years-old than three these days, and I have been talking about this trip to prepare her for me to be away for so long. She understands that she is too little to come this time, but I’ve promised her that in seven years, when the ACC convention is in Israel again, she and her brother and her dad will all come with me. She will be ten then. And for two weeks, she has reminded me that when she is ten-years-old, she will get to come with me to Israel.

So here I sit in hour seven of this ten-hour flight, poised between two worlds: the memories of me at 25 out on my own for a Jewish adventure at the beginning of my career, and the promise made to a little girl that in seven more years, Matthew and I will introduce our children to beloved Israel. And, at this moment, those dear ones are far away.

It is a wondrous thing to have markers in our lives: birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. These stopping points are moments of reflections where we assess what has transpired in the year gone by and likely set goals and dream about the year ahead. The sabbatical year, however, gives a bizarre mid-range vantage point over the landscape of one’s life.

Seven years is just long enough for everything in a life to change. For me, in the past seven years I have lost my grandfather, completed graduate school, become a cantor, had two children, and most recently, lost Matt’s mom. When I look at recent photos of myself, I see the weariness that comes with parenting small children and the wisdom that comes with responsibility. When I look at pictures from the last time I was in Israel, I see a very young woman and I remember my naiveté and the conviction that if I just worked hard enough, everything will be alright.

Sometimes, things will never be right again.

While I sat in the airport in Charlotte Monday afternoon, the world learned that three kidnapped Israeli boys had been murdered in cold blood by their captors. Their bodies had been found partially buried beneath some rocks.

I, and all of the people of Israel, wept for these mothers and fathers, whose seven-year dreams for their children might have been to be doctors, lawyers, or fathers. We wept for these boys whose own long-term dreams were snuffed out like a candle.

Sometimes, things will never be right again.


My view is not so pessimistic, really. I continue to be, though older and more worn, filled with the profound hope that through hard-work and perseverance, most things will be OK. Even for the families of Ayal, Gilad, and Naftali, in time I pray that they find comfort in their community, in our traditions, and in the memories of their sons. Though this time may tarry, I pray that it will be theirs.

It is a wondrous and dangerous thing to have the vantage point of the sabbatical, the view from the air. It gives time to take stock of seven years passed and dream of what might be for seven years future.

Yet, I am reminded of the Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs.” it is the Creator who has the real vantage point, able to know the twists and turns of our choices just out of our own sight lines. It is the Source who knows how quickly the tide can turn, for better or for worse.

As for us, let us hope and plan and dream, yet know that ultimately there is so very much in life that is beyond our control. May we build strong ties to community and loving relationships that will carry us through the smoothest skies and the most turbulent storm.

Pic From Israel

As the Gates Begin to Close – N’ilah 5774

16 Sep

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

September 14, 2013

There is a propensity to love the service of n’ilah, these final moments of Yom Kippur prayer said as day turns to dusk. Here at Beth El, our “purple” service (hold up book) is most beloved throughout the year. Rabbi Alan Lew writes that people “throng” to his synagogue for n’ilah, even after praying all day long.

We Jews the world over are pulled to this service.

Personally, I am viscerally drawn to this hour, this service of n’ilah, (and it is not just because I’m eagerly anticipating the best night’s sleep I get all year awaiting me when I get home). While I am most profoundly moved by the words and music of this service, I have some continuing struggles with one of the central images of n’ilah. Each year at this time I work hard to peel away layers of my own discomfort, uncovering new understandings about the wisdom of our tradition as I do.

So, what is my problem with N’ilah? Isn’t the beautiful poetry and majestic music enough? My struggle is with the word n’ilah, itself, which means locking. Calling a service n’ilah instructs us that something is about to be closed off, something is about to be locked away. Each year I ask, what are we locking? And why does it need to be locked?

Tradition says that Sha’arei Hashamayim – the Gates of Heaven are open wide during the Days of Awe.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that when Sha’arei Hashamayim are open during the Days of Repentance, it is not only so that our prayers might enter more readily, but also so that we might receive Heaven more freely. You see, he teaches, that when the Gates are wide open, bits of Heaven flow towards us here – there is a subtle, special energy that pervades our world these Ten Days. When the Gates begin to close, as they do now, they push back against those bits of Heaven seeping toward us. And this energy, otherwise relatively imperceptible, becomes concentrated as it rushes through the ever smaller space between the closing Gates.

I imagine this flow of glistening energy as water. I imagine the pressure on that Divine energy as the Gates close as a parent might hold their hand over the end of a garden hose to spray children playing in the yard, to see them squeal and delight in this playful affection. It is as if Avinu Malkeinu, our heavenly parent, is showering us with love as we stand in the Divine courtyard.

What might the consequences be of a Divine energy pouring toward us for Ten Days? Perhaps this flow of Heavenly energy is what gives us the strength to do the hard work of this season. Perhaps this is the potential energy for the year to come sustaining our hopes and dreams. Perhaps, we are the recipients of even more Divine love fueling our innermost longings. Perhaps what pours forth from Heaven at this hour is our spiritual sustenance for the year to come. Perhaps it is giving us the material with which to build our lives this year.

The word for material – for stuff – in Hebrew is “chomeir.” There is a beautiful liturgical poem that we do not recite here at Temple Beth El called “Ki Hinei Chachomeir”; it is found in our High Holy Day prayerbook on page 381 and it is sung like this: Sing first stanza.

This first verse can be translated: As clay in the hand of the potter, to be thickened or thinned at will, are we in You hand. Continue to sustain us with your gracious love. Recall Your Covenant, not our imperfections.

This text portrays a somewhat unusual theology for Judaism. It seems to suggest that we the chomeir – the material – can be shaped and altered at the will of our Creator. As Jews, we are a people of deed and not creed; it takes much more than belief to be Jewish, we must be active in our Jewishness. It is not enough, as some of our neighbors might say, to simply give ourselves over to God for molding and shaping. We must be our own molders and shapers.

Each stanza of Ki Hinei ChaChomeir ends with the same refrain – Recall Your Covenant, not our imperfections. This sentence is much more familiar. Remember Your promises to us God, Remember us despite any wrongdoings for which we now repent.

There is a mystical teaching about the nature of our Covenant with God. It explains that we are in partnership with God to sustain the world at every moment of every day. Should one of us cease to uphold our end of the bargain, the world would no longer be. We are inextricably bound to God and God is to us at each moment and every moment of our existence.

Is it so hard then to imagine that God might give us a gift during these days of Awe? It is a gift to share a festive meal (though today’s has yet to come) with friends and family; it is a gift to be guided to examine our character and our behavior; it is a gift to take the time to look backwards and forwards at what we have done and what we hope to accomplish with our lives. Could it then be that God also gives us a gift at this season of the year of just a little bit more palpable taste of what it means to be holy with the Gates of Heaven wide open, God’s loving warmth spreading forth to us?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I only know that for me, there is beauty in the longing to be near to our Creator and comfort in the imagining that our Creator longs for us as well.

We are drawn to N’ilah, we are drawn towards the last moments of the blending of Heaven and Earth, as Divine light pours forth from the Gates as they begin to close. Let us, Clay in the Hands of the Divine Creator, find warmth and comfort in that radiance as the Gates begin to close.

Temple Beth El’s Passover Seder Supplement – 5773/2013

25 Mar

Chag Sameach! Happy Passover everyone!

Check out TBE’s Seder Supplement – feel free to use any or all of it for your own Passover Seder!

Reflections and insight on today’s issues as they apply to our celebration of Freedom by Rabbi Judy Schindler, Cantor Mary Thomas, and Rabbi Jonathan Freirich.

Download the file from here:

Help Charlotte’s Jewish Students Get a Teacher Work Day for Rosh HaShanah

10 Jan

For those of you who live in Charlotte, please help to make Rosh Hashanah a teacher workday on September 5, 2013. It will make a huge difference to our hundreds and hundreds of Beth El students who want to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days. For just this week, until January 14th, CMS is polling parents, students and general community members for input. Calendar Option A observes Thursday, September 5, 2013 (the first day of Rosh Hashanah) as a Teacher Workday. After the polling period ends, Superintendent Heath Morrison will review the results and evaluate comments to decide whether to recommend a revised calendar to the Board of Education.

Regardless of your personal connection to CMS schools, all community members are encouraged to vote and support our Jewish students and families at CMS. To see the calendars and then vote go to: