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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?

New conversations and connections

21 Jan

Seeking a new approach to spiritual life and bringing meaning into our lives?

We have two new opportunities – one is a four session class exploring Kabbalah from a useful and scholarly perspective – how can Jewish mysticism affect my life for the better every day?
Find out – details and registration here:
Entering Kabbalah

The other is a new conversation:
Lunch with Martin Buber
Monday, February 2, Noon – 1:15 PM
Bricktop’s Restaurant, 6401 Morrison
“I and Thou” and lunch.
We will begin to read and discuss Martin Buber’s majestic and humble approach to finding God in the world.
We will look at at the First Part (pages 53-85 in Walter Kaufman’s translation).
Copies provided, no reading ahead required

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Time Flies by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

6 Jan

Time flies. You’ve heard that saying a million times. Well, I’m here to tell you that it sure does. I just spent a wonderful week with five of my six children, their spouses and three of my six grandchildren, celebrating my husband’s milestone birthday. Our youngest child is 31 and the family dynamics are so different when your children become adults. And I am here to tell you that it happens in the blink of an eye.

Moments ago and a lifetime ago, I was holding my babies. As any good Jewish mother would do, I had their entire lives mapped out and all I had to do was keep them safe and on the path and we would be fine. What I could never have predicated was how bumpy their paths would be. Each one had many periods of smooth sailing but each hit rough patches, some rougher than others but they all wandered off course many times in their lives. Sometimes it was because of matters that were beyond their control but most often it was because they made some bad decisions or had a period of time when their brains stopped functioning completely. During those periods, I felt like time was standing still and that the blackness would never leave. It was overwhelming to see my children lose control, be in pain, or worse, cause someone else pain. But that is part of parenting, as well.

This week we begin the Book of Exodus or Sh’mot in Hebrew. It begins with the birth of Moses. With the Egyptian Pharaoh commanding the midwives to kill all Hebrew males, his very survival is a miracle. At three months old, Moses’ mother makes the impossible decision to abandon her child in the river to try to save his life. I think about holding a three month old and imagining all the possibilities that lie ahead for that child. Rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised by his own mother who acts as his nurse maid. As Moses is reaching adulthood, she again must abandon him to the Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ very first independent act is to kill an Egyptian. Even from a place of concern for his people, he made a decision that would cause him to have to flee and go into hiding. I am sure that act was far from the dreams his mother had for him. The consequences of those actions make it hard to predict that he would become the great leader we celebrate. And that’s the point. Perspective is everything.

I am now at a time in my life where I look at my children and see adults who are responsible, loving, hard working, compassionate people. They are now the ones holding the babies and praying that they will not stray too far from the path of their dreams. They became those adults because of the journey they made through their childhood and teen years. All of those experiences, both good and bad, have brought them to this moment. Some of it was painful and frightening but most was wonderful and went by much too quickly. And now, time flies. We are expecting our seventh grandchild in March and I marvel at our blessings.

It would have been impossible for me to have predicted what kind of adults my kids would become any more than I could have kept them from making the choices they made. What I can tell you is that I lived through it, laughed a lot, shed some tears, stayed awake some nights, beamed with pride, yelled at them, and kissed and loved them. So like Moses’ mother, who can brag that her kid became the leader of the Jewish people and hung out with God, I can tell you that each of my children has become exactly the person they were meant to be.

baby moses

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.

sunrise

My Grandmother’s Shabbos Soup by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

3 Nov

Ordinarily, I would write Shabbat, but when I talk about my beloved Grandmother, I need to write Shabbos because that is the way she would have said it. I adored my Grandma Berdie, my mom’s mom. Everyone in my family did. She was the center of my maternal family’s world and lived to be 99 years old. When my son was born, her oldest great-grandchild, her name was shortened to G.G., for Great Grandmother. She always said it with a French accent! G.G. was widowed at 56 and worked until she was 70. She was smart, articulate, hard-working, kind and loving. Everyone adored her. She was also deeply religious. Her life centered on Judaism. She kept Shabbat and always walked to shul (temple). She kept a kosher home and was an exceptional cook. Her recipes were all the Jewish dishes you would expect but no one could make them like my G.G. Believe me, I have tried.

There is a story about a King who ends up eating a Shabbat meal at a peasant’s home and he realizes that he has never tasted anything so delicious. He gets the recipe and has his cook try to replicate the dish. To his dismay, no matter what they try, it never tastes as delectable as it did when he ate with the peasant. Finally, he returns to the peasant to ask him to help with the recipe and he discovers that what was missing from the dish was the most important addition, Shabbat. It was the spice and spirit of Shabbat that made the peasant’s food so extraordinary.

That story brings me to my grandmother’s Shabbos soup. Every Friday night dinner in her home, after lighting candles and saying the prayers, started with a steaming bowl of soup. There were many courses and everything was wonderful but I loved her soup. As a young bride, I meticulously wrote down all of her recipes and try as I might, they never tasted quite as good. When she would come to Charlotte to visit, I would have her come over to prepare my favorite things and take copious notes as I watched her taste and adjust her specialties to get them just right. Didn’t matter. When I prepared them, they were good but never quite as good.

And then something changed. I became the grandmother. I don’t know how that happened but somehow time has flown by and I am now the grandmother who cooks the special Jewish foods that makes Shabbat and holidays so special. I now understand that it wasn’t what my grandmother added to the soup that I couldn’t figure out. It was that my whole family was together and that we were sharing Shabbat.

Why am telling you this? For a couple reasons. Whether it is a traditional Jewish Shabbat menu or pizza, nothing tastes as wonderful as a Shabbat meal shared with special people and those special people are right here in our Temple. On November 14, 2014, the Religious School Committee is inviting all of our school families to join us for a Shabbat Pot Luck dinner. Click here for the details. There is no agenda for this evening other than to share the Shabbat experience together. Please RSVP and join us. As an added bonus, I am going to give everyone a copy of my grandmother’s Shabbos soup recipe. The second way to enjoy the sweetness of Shabbat is to join the Shabbat Supper Club program for Religious School families. Contact Cantor Mary for details and she will find the perfect group for your family to enjoy a monthly Shabbat experience. Click here for more information.

I hope to see you all on November 14th. I promise, every dish will taste superb!

A Shelter of Peace by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

15 Oct

Sometimes you don’t know that something important is missing until you get it. That’s what happened to our Religious School students and indeed our entire congregation during this holiday of Sukkot. Temple Beth El has always had a sukkah. The students of our school always decorated it and the clergy lead beautiful holiday services in our snap together sukkah. But we knew something was missing and Rabbi Judy reached out to Dr. Peter Hindel and asked if he would consider designing and building a larger sukkah. Peter had built some other small projects for us in the past and she trusted that he would be able to complete the task. He agreed to do it and went to work.

I have a hard time putting into words how grateful I am for the beautiful sukkah he created. It is so much more than a portable, three sided temporary structure. Our new sukkah has a story. It represents the journey of the Israelites following the cloud through the wilderness. It is a shelter of peace. It is a labor of love.

This past week it was filled with our students’ laughter as they decorated the walls. It was filled with their beautiful voices as we sang the songs of our family Sukkot services. Our clergy told stories and taught our students the proper way to shake the lulav and etrog. Families brought dinners to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. All week long our holiday was elevated by the beauty and symbolism of our new sukkah.

On behalf of all of our students, faculty and staff, I want to thank Dr. Peter Hindel for building a sukkah for us that was more than we could have ever imagined or hoped for. It will serve us well and will continue to be the source of celebration for many, many children celebrating Sukkot for years to come.

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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!