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


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.


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