Tag Archives: Community

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

CasualZone Picture

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Day 24 of the Omer – Self in Communal Balance

19 Apr

Tiferet in Netzach – balanced harmony in the enduring single self.

Thinking of our single self at the close of a week when we confront again and again our communal needs to come together – not so easy.

To find the balance between our own needs and those of our community requires a sense of the ideal harmony we aim and strive for.

As this week closes we take a breath and try to find our own place in the balance between all things, all while working to raise our eyes to the image of a better future.

Breathing, counting, coping – all the best everyone.

bombing witness

Causing God to Dwell in Our Midst

18 Feb

This week, in parashat T’rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together’s – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.

The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?

I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.

In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.

To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.

While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.

Yizkor Message – Community Memorial Service – September 23, 2012

28 Sep

The Place Where We are Absolutely Right – Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are absolutely right
flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are absolutely right
is trampled, hardened
like a courtyard.

However
doubts and loves
make the world rise like dough
like a molehill, like a plow.
And a whisper will be heard
in the place where a home was destroyed.
We still relate to those who are gone. We wish they were here to share time and space with us. We talk to them and wish they would talk back. We look back with regret over opportunities missed. Loss remains within us, a hollow space, demanding attention.

As our loss demands attention, so do we resist it – we want it to be simple and complete – to be absolute like the place in Amichai’s poem. A place where we are absolutely right sounds like a comfort. This place could be easier. It would certainly be quieter. Amichai reminds us what that place would look like – it would be truly lifeless. There are no possibilities there. In that place we allow our own small needs to crowd out everything else.

The people we have lost are not absolutely one way or another either, and to hear them we may have to admit that one person may have many sides that we remember.

My father (may his memory be for a blessing) and I used to hotly debate the issues of the day. We knew each other’s positions very well, and often started arguing where we had left off before. After hours of discussion on long car trips between North Carolina and New York we usually managed to discover some common ground – growing closer through our doubts and our love. Over the years, as he fell ill to pancreatic cancer, my father lost interest in these conversations, preferring exchanges that took less effort. I lost those times even before he died. Now that he’s gone I must go past that barren place where nothing grows into my older memories of him in order to connect with a more living time between us.

Instead of working towards that place of absolutes, let us embrace our doubts and loves. Let us live and struggle in our world of grays and colors and shades of partial knowledge. In this world where things grow, things die as well. Our loss grows and changes and we learn and cope.

Over time we all accumulate a bigger cast of characters in our places of loss. As their numbers grow, as our loss increases, so too do those conversations. The ones where we offer one side and have to imagine the other side. These conversations can only happen in the places where we are not always right. Reminiscing with family and friends and imagining the thoughts and ideas of those who are gone allows us to keep them with us, allows doubt and love to live on.

As we enter this new year of 5773, let us bravely enter the areas of loss in our lives together. May we find in our own hollows, in those spaces filled with destroyed homes, the whispers of those who have left us behind, and the responses of we who remain.

In this time of communal memorial, this space filled with repentance and confession, this time of broken hearts and open gates, let us comfort each other. Our doubts and loves shared caringly with each other, our compassion and loss felt together, may help leaven the rising dough of our world. Let us listen to each other whisper, let us find comfort in honoring what has gone before, and building anew together.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we be well inscribed together in the New Year.

Keeping the Community Warm

19 Sep

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 – lots more about offerings and the practices of the priesthood.

Also, these verses requiring the priests to maintain a fire:
Lev. 6:5 Now the fire on the slaughter-site is to be kept-blazing upon it – it must not go out! – and the priest is to stoke on it (pieces-of-)wood, in the morning, (every) morning, and he is to arrange on it the offering-up, and is to turn into smoke on it the fat-parts of the shalom-offering.
6 A regular fire is to be kept-blazing upon the slaughter-site-it is not to go out!

Why maintain a regular flame in the center of the community?

We are a healthy community when we devote resources to the maintenance of things we may need at any time, even if we don’t all need it right now.

Keeping a warm place in the center of our communities, a place of welcome and sustenance, requires constant attention. We must appoint someone to do this and give them the resources to make sure that the fire doesn’t go out.

Rabbi Jonathan’s Rosh HaShanah Sermon: Wrestling With Discomfort

18 Sep

“Wrestling With Discomfort”
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773 – September 16, 2012
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Four years ago during the High Holy Day season my father lay on his deathbed. Ginny and Jude, then an infant, and I crossed the country from Tahoe to Charlotte to be with him in Salisbury. It was this time of year so I had a lot on my mind – repentance, apologies, sermons, being a new father and losing my own.

In addition to all of that, I arranged for my mother to travel from New York to Salisbury, and figured out how to get her a moment with my father. My parents had been divorced for decades, and both had remarried. There had been many rocky times between them and their families. Years after the worst of the drama, my mother says she talked to my father once a week, maintaining a friendship that began in their teens.

Visiting my father for the last time was difficult enough, why did I have to make it even more complicated by arranging this awkward reunion? Bringing my mother into my stepmother’s home at a private time, a time when I had plenty to deal with on my own. Still, it seemed like a good idea for me to get out of the way. Allowing my parents – long divorced, but friends for all of their adult lives – to say goodbye before my father’s death offered them something. My mother would always have regretted not seeing my father before he died, and maybe it brought my father some comfort. It wasn’t the path of least resistance, but it made sense to me.

Families and our tensions – while many other things bring us here at this time of year, we are often seeking repentance, making amends, and hoping for forgiveness from loved ones most of all. Our families, close and extended, can be our bedrock. Because we are so close, our families can be our greatest source of difficulty too. And that’s OK – after all, even though we are close, we may still want different things at different times.

On Rosh Hashanah we aim to set a good course for the New Year. If we were to craft a healthy method for solving any problem between people, even family members, it might look like this.
– Conflict happens – however we define it
– We acknowledge the conflict. We grapple with it internally.
– This allows us to work towards reconciliation – we take the steps with the people involved to solve the original conflict and move on to more opportunities to do better.

Seems simple – conflict, struggle, resolution – if only getting it right were so easy.

Every year we reread the Torah and it recalls our history of coping and not coping with conflict. Sometimes the stories show us how well it works out, sometimes they remind us of our persistent human failings. Often we find helpful models, and perhaps just as often we find paths to avoid. Depending on our changing points of view over time, we may find both teachings, and more, in the same story. We may find different ways into our scriptures, and different lessons from them, continuing to see new meaning in each rereading.
We come back to the same text year after year – when we change, what the it offers us may be different too. Now we look back at an old story with different eyes, seeking new meanings within it.

One of the highest points of crisis on these holy days can be found in the Binding of Isaac, which we read tomorrow morning. While we often read this as the climax of a story about Abraham and God, let us look at a more personal reading. Let us imagine that the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, is the last straw in the conflict between Abraham and Sarah.

This story is about a complicated family. Abraham and Sarah married. Along the way, Sarah worried that Abraham would have no children, so she gave him Hagar, her handmaiden, as a concubine. Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael. Later on, Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. All through their lives God helped them out. A complicated family that we may recognize – there’s a couple, a child, a second wife, a half-brother, and in the role of a helpful grandparent, God.

We don’t have to look too deeply to find conflict in this set-up.

A short summary of the difficult incidents includes:
– Abraham uprooted and moved the family constantly.
– Abraham and Sarah played at being siblings and, with God’s help, used this ruse to swindle local kings by getting them to try and marry Sarah.
– Sarah, despite suggesting that Abraham have a son with another woman, grew to hate both the woman and the other woman’s child. With God’s help, Sarah convinced Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael.

When we imagine ourselves in this family’s shoes – five people and upheaval – we can see they have issues.

Abraham and Sarah seldom spoke directly to each other. Abraham moved them when God said. Abraham decided on his own to have Sarah act as his sister when they ventured into dangerous situations. Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham with no discussion. Sarah commanded Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out, and God convinced him to do it when he felt uneasy about Sarah’s command. They all conferred with God, who comforted them, helped them with little interventions, and never turned them back in constructive ways to work it out with each other.

Tension and difficulty dominated this family. They barked orders at each other, threw the others into webs of conflict that grew more intractable as the years went by and never, ever, did they stop and say to themselves or each other, “Something’s wrong here – we have to work it out.” They did have God though, who frequently helped. I think we all know though, when we rely on someone outside of the situation to solve our problems, we’re not really solving them at all.

Finally, we get to the Binding of Isaac – God tested Abraham. Abraham left with Sarah’s only son early in the morning to offer him up as a sacrifice. What made Abraham think this would be OK to do? Abraham argued for justice for the sinners in Sodom, how could Abraham accept this command to kill his son without question?

We often say that this was a test of faith. God wanted Abraham to show God absolute devotion. Here’s a different reading, one that may make us uncomfortable.
We can read this as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God’s promise to help his family – that God’s blessings would continue through Sarah’s son.

God may have wanted to see if Abraham cared about Isaac as much as he cared about Ishmael.
Maybe Abraham could contemplate killing Isaac because he wanted to take Sarah’s son from her the way she had taken Ishmael from him.

Abraham’s difficulties with Sarah allowed him to see their child as a pawn in their struggle. Only someone totally overwhelmed with other issues could see slaying their child as an option. It says in the text that Abraham rose early in the morning – perhaps he snuck away so that Sarah wouldn’t interfere. Again, Abraham got himself into a situation and only God’s intervention saved the day, in this case Isaac’s life and the future of God’s blessings. This was also the end for Sarah and Abraham, since Sarah died before Abraham and Isaac returned.

This is a difficult reading of this story. It challenges me too. Like all of us, and all of our ancestors who read this before us, I want Abraham to be a hero. And maybe he still is, since in the end, he stayed his hand. At that last moment, with some flash of insight, and a helping hand from God, Abraham realized that sacrificing Isaac was not an option.

As a model for resolving conflict, this story serves as a cautionary tale, not a solution. We must check in with each other sooner, we must not allow ourselves to fight fire with fire, we must step back from the brink, and do the hard work of talking to each other. None of us wants to end up on Mount Moriah, with our children, or our friends, or our spouse, on the altar.

How about a better story?

Abraham and Sarah had descendants who better navigated conflicts, struggled with their unease after difficulties, and eventually worked towards realistic reconciliations.

A successful story emerged from the first. Abraham had grandsons, twins, Esau and Jacob.

Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright and fled when Esau plotted to murder him. Jacob caused a major conflict, and ran away from it.

After many years Jacob came back to the land of his fathers, and encountered his brother Esau. Jacob’s scouts warned him of Esau’s strength – 400 men. Jacob realized that he must truly return to the emotional scene of his crimes, and do real tshuvah, real repentance. He knew that he must face Esau.

Worried about the fate of his family, Jacob delayed their reunion. He showed Esau great respect, sent him gifts by way of groveling emissaries. Jacob imagined how wronged his brother might still have felt, and so he went the extra mile to make amends. Having exhausted his options, Jacob tried to sleep on it, waiting until morning to meet his brother these many years later.

Jacob didn’t sleep. Instead he wrestled with a mysterious figure all through the night. Having survived the struggle, Jacob earned a new name, Israel, “God wrestler”. Jacob prepared to confront the brother he wronged by transforming himself – he was no longer the deceiver that fled his crimes decades earlier.

Upon finally reaching Esau, Jacob learned that his brother prospered over the years. Esau was eager and thrilled to reconnect with his brother, as the text reads:
Gen. 33:4 Esau ran to meet him, he embraced him, flung himself upon his neck, and kissed him. And they wept.

Throughout this incident Jacob was really worried. He feared that Esau’s men would swoop down upon his family and wipe them out in vengeance for his prior sins. Unlike his grandparents, Jacob worked to solve his conflict with Esau – the problem was between them, so Jacob had to struggle to overcome his fear of seeing Esau again. He faced the consequences of his bad actions, and traveled towards the reconciliation between them. Jacob did the hard work, wrestled with an angel, and returned to make amends.

We want to emulate this Jacob. Like Jacob, we may cause conflict. We are all human, so we may also, at first, flee the scene of the crime and fear to return to it. Jacob confronted his greatest fear – maybe Esau still wanted to kill him. This time of year reminds us that we should try to make that return too. Jacob who became Israel teaches us to grapple with ourselves – to atone we must find some internal transformation because when we do, and then go apologize, we may have become the person that will not make the same mistakes again.

All of us are children and many of us are parents. Most of us have some complications in our families. Abraham and Sarah led lives that mostly revolved around founding a people – they needed a place to live, and resources, and descendants. They had little time for attending to the family they worked so hard to build.

My parents grew together and then apart. They had kids, then got divorced, then had new spouses and new kids. We are a very modern family – that is we are families. Not unlike Sarah and Abraham, my parents had a lot on their plates. One family takes up a lot of time, but two families plus careers – I can barely imagine how they coped. I remember helping in small ways.

I also participated in making it worse.

In part, I helped as an easy go-between – I remember times when they couldn’t talk to each other except through me. I would be on the phone with one of them, and in the room with the other. I also remember how we comforted each other – my mother and I would complain about my father together. My father and I would complain about my mother together. We formed little duos of convenience – seeming to draw closer, but perhaps in hindsight amplifying each other’s pain.

I have no doubt that my parents needed to be apart – their marriage needed to end. Their divorce was not the issue – how we behaved afterwards was. We had our confrontations but we never addressed the real issues – we allowed other priorities to get in the way of taking care of the tensions between us, and even with professional assistance we allowed those issues to be conversations with everyone except the person we had the problem with. We all sacrificed each other in small ways.

As a teen, when I served as ambassador my parents allowed me to do it – it made things easier. I felt important too – if I sacrificed a little of me so that I could help them, then I was doing something good, right?

And when I brought them together to say goodbye before my father died I stepped right back into that old role – I allowed my own needs to be sacrificed for theirs. My mother lost her friend. I lost my father.

When Isaac stared at his father over him with the knife he knew that he mattered less than something else. Who knows what scars he bore with him from that moment?

We may end up in any of these roles.

I hope that I brought my parents some comfort in a small way. I hope that their conflict, wrestled with for a long time, led to some peace. My mother and I continue to build love and peace between us.

Loving people means loving all of them, even their complexities.

Our stories are complicated. We dive into them, face the hazards in our depths, time and time again, hoping to emerge with new insights, and perhaps some healing. For all of my families, we always try to get better at doing this together. We strive to be brave, to face what we need to do as individuals, to bring the problem to each other, and to positively move forward.

My wrestling continues. I try to learn from my own experiences, as well as those who went before me, both in my family and in the Torah.

Judaism and our High Holy Days ask us to walk in the shoes of all who we’ve wronged, and all these characters who went before us. We must struggle with when they wrestled and when they didn’t. Entering their stories allows us to enter our own and find new paths for ourselves.

I want to avoid Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice others.

I want to follow Jacob. I want to wrestle and confront difficulties within myself, and then make amends with the people involved.

We explore these stories and make them our own.

We put down the knife. We wrestle with our inner angels and demons. We struggle to enter the New Year better than we ended the last.

I wish all of us meaningful struggles that lead to greater wholeness and peace – may we find blessings in our own stories for the New Year.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to us all.

Listen closely, go forward together

16 Sep

Rosh HaShanah starts tonight – last daily post of 5772!
May everyone have a sweet and good new year!

Today we look at P’kudei, Exodus 38:21 – 40:38 – the final Torah reading of Exodus. We read about a full inventory of the things that went into the building of the Mishkan, the portable Temple-Tent often translated as the “Tabernacle”, and all of the stuff in it. The Mishkan is completed, Moses installs Aaron as High Priest, and the journey through the desert begins.

The final verses of the Book of Exodus read:
40:36 Whenever the cloud goes up from the Mishkan, the Israelites march on, upon all their marches;
37 if the cloud does not go up, they do not march on, until such time as it does go up.
38 For the cloud of God (is) over the Mishkan by day, and fire is by night in it, before the eyes of all the House of Israel upon all their marches.

Wouldn’t it be great to have such an indicator that told us when to go forward, and when to stay still?

Perhaps we still do, we just need to notice it. Let us make this a year of listening and observing.

May we see and hear and feel the messages people and our world send us before we act.
May we go forward together guided by communal values.
May we build a better world in the year to come.
Shanah tovah!