Tishrei: A Wealth of Oppportunity

Many people have said to me that whoever put together the Jewish calendar did a terrible job. After all, five of the core Jewish holidays fall within the first four weeks of Tishrei. Why couldn’t some of them have been saved for Heshvan, which has no holidays, or for the dry spell between Shavuot and the three weeks of mourning?

I see things differently: that Tishrei presents an amazing opportunity for us to reconnect with our families and our community. By placing so many holidays in such close proximity, we are able to reconnect with God and with our tradition in a deep, heartfelt way during this time of year. Now that everyone is back from summer vacation, this is a perfect time to reconnect with family and friends at the synagogue.

I also see a great opportunity for clergy during the beginning of Tishrei. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also the only times of the year that the majority of Jews attend synagogue services, so it provides rabbis and cantors with an opportunity to touch them and leave them wanting more. If the High Holiday services touch one’s soul, there is a greater chance that he or she will come back for Sukkot, Hanukkah, a Shabbat service or a social or cultural event at the synagogue. These holidays are a gift in enabling us to reconnect with those looking for spirituality, a chance to feel God’s presence on the holiest days of the year. Let us be mindful of this as we head into Yom Kippur and let us maximize this time to reconnect with those on the margins of our congregations.

UN Peacekeepers Seek Refuge in Israel: A Double Standard

The media coverage regarding Operation Protective Edge got me very upset, but even more upsetting to me was an article in today’s Newsday about UN Peacekeepers fleeing Syria for Israel. These are the same peacekeepers who represent an organization that jumps to cry “War Crime!” every time Israel acts. If Israel is such a heinous country committing atrocities, why seek refuge there? It’s because the UN deep down knows the truth: Israel is far more humanitarian than any other country in the Middle East. It is a country where one will not be beheaded for being of a different religion, nor gassed with chemical weapons for having a different political viewpoint. I just wish the UN would not follow a double standard at condemning Israel at any given chance while concurrently viewing Israel as a haven from war.

For a few more interesting links, please see the below (sent to me by congregants). The first is a speech by Brother Rachid educating President Obama about Islam. The second is Yair Lapid’s speech at Platform 17 Memorial Site in Berlin. The third is a song by Israeli band Latma about having faith in the Higher Power watching over the Land of Israel.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxzOVSMUrGM Brother Rachid

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTBhPsxKLaI Yair Lapid

http://israelforever.org/interact/multimedia/Video/we_will_never_lose_this_land/ Latma

Hiking and Halacha 2

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25 congregants of various ages at the Jericho Jewish Center went on an advanced hike to Cold Spring Harbor, the start of the Greenbelt Trail which goes from Northern to Southern Long Island. This is known as the most challenging hike on Long Island, and everyone did great with the challenging uphills and slopes! We had a short teaching on blessings said over plants, herbs and fruit-including the blessing said upon smelling the etrog! There was a consensus from the group to do another hike when the leaves change in the fall, so we will try to do one after the holidays.

Now off to Waldbaums for our Apples and Honey Tasting. Busy weekend here at the Jericho Jewish Center!

Friday Night Live

At Jericho Jewish Center, we had our first Friday Night Live service, featuring piano played by Flo Baumonel and Religious School student Ben Rosner. The energy and enthusiasm shown by the 100+ participants and the feel-good nature of the service was wonderful to be a part of, in addition to the spirited singing of Cantor Barry Black and Samantha Eller. It was a great kick-off to the Religious School year and really made Shabbat come to life for our congregation.

Services began after sunset, so I do not have any pictures from the event. However, I will provide pictures of our Hiking and Halacha and Apples and Honey Tasting, both of which will occur tomorrow.

An outstanding facet of the Friday evening was that we had two services: a traditional one at 6:45 pm and our Friday Night Live at 7:45 pm. This reflects the “Tradition and Change” motto of the Conservative Movement. Some went to both services to support both, which was touching to see. We also had a festive Shabbat dinner before the Friday Night Live service sponsored by !jake’s Mens Club.

We will continue Friday Night Live throughout the year, next doing it on Friday November 14. Our goal is to provide additional options for congregants who are not engaged by our traditional offerings. Each service will be varied, so as not to become predictable, yet will have the same goal of providing an engaging, positive experience for all who attend. Through services such as this, we will bring Shabbat to life.

God as Our Rock and Our Redeemer

When I officiated at an unveiling a couple weeks ago, I thought about the tradition of placing a small rock on the gravestone of a loved one. There are numerous interpretations for this, but one strongly resonates for me. It is that the rock that we place on the gravestone is connected to a name for God-Tzur, or rock. God is referred to as our rock and our redeemer, a permanent source of comfort upon whom we can rely and who will always be there for us. Similarly, a stone is a permanent marking-not one that will decompose or fade over time. Consequently, placing a rock it is a permanent mark that we were present at the grave of a love one.

A related interpretation comes from Rabbi Simcha Weintraub, who was our Scholar in Residence at Congregation Anshei Israel in Tucson. Rabbi Weintraub writes “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror – and it happens that this Hebrew word also means ‘bond.’ When we pray the memorial El Maleh Rahamim prayer (and at other times) we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – Tz’ror haHayyim.  By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through us.”

It goes along the lines of a quotation I learned from my Rabbi Emeritus in Tucson: “If you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.” There will always be a permanent connection-one marked by a rock that is left on the gravestone.


Celebration of New Life

Today I was privileged to officiate at my first baby naming. Unlike a Brit Milah for a baby boy, a baby naming for a girl can be done at any time. Traditionally it is done the first time we read Torah after the birth, with the father (and in egalitarian communities also the mother) getting an aliyah to the Torah and receiving a special blessing featuring the name. However, more and more people are doing special Simhat Bat ceremonies one month or more after the birth, where the baby girl is brought in, given a name and then celebrated. Some people do a ceremony with water, as water is traditionally a symbol of life. Others do ceremonies with candles, as the new girl brings light into the world. The ceremony that we did featured special readings done by the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, welcoming this new addition to their family into the world.

I love the fact that new traditions have developed in how to meaningfully do a naming for a baby girl and enter her into the covenant of the Jewish people. This enables the family to have flexibility in choosing a ceremony that is most meaningful for them to celebrate this life-cycle event. As every family is different, there is no cookie-cutter approach as to how to celebrate new life.

After the ceremony we gave the girl a onesy which says I Was Named at the Jericho Jewish Center. It was a touching moment to a beautiful event.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

When someone we know dies (actually when we hear any bad news), we are commanded to say “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” Blessed be the Judge of Truth. Why do we say this? Rather than saying words of anger, frustration or resentment, though we might feel them, we acknowledge what is a basic truth: our life on earth is for a finite amount of time. We further acknowledge this in the words we say after kriah, the tearing of the garment or ribbon prior to the funeral: “G-d has given and G-d has taken, blessed be the name of G-d.” As hard as it is, death is a reminder that we are mortal beings who came from the dust of the earth and will return to the dust of the earth.

I had a reminder of this today when I was e-mailed by a former congregant in Tucson that Reverend Nachman Berkowitz z”l had passed away. Reverend Berkowitz grew up extremely poor in Russia and was able to put shoes on his feet through becoming a Torah reader. During World War II, he was sent to the gulag, and miraculously persevered through the hardships of the Russian labor camps. He said that what gave him the strength to keep going was the Torah, and in the camps he often said to himself huge sections of the Torah which he had memorized. After the war he came to the United States where he served as Torah Reader of two congregations: one in Toledo and the other in Tucson. 

Reverend Berkowitz always read Torah with true yirat shamayim (fear of G-d) and with all his heart. It was truly a beautiful thing to hear him read, and extremely inspiring. I especially remember hearing the love with which he read Megillah all 3 of my years in Tucson. Reverend Berkowitz also was a sofer and was the first person to check my tefillan and to attach new r’tzuot (straps).

The best part about Reverend Berkowitz was, though he knew so much Torah, Jewish law and tradition (more than I will ever know) he was humble and understanding. He would have a conversation with anyone about any aspect of Judaism, not as the scholar that he was but as a regular guy.

Nachman-you are missed. I know that, in the words of Micah, you are walking humbly with G-d. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

ISIS and Iran: One Eye on Each

Yesterday I went to Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights to hear Congressman Steve Israel speak about his recent trip to Israel. It was a great experience for me, both to return to the synagogue I worked at in 2009-10 and to meet my Congressman, whose daughter worked for me at Congregation Anshei Israel in Tucson. Small world!

One aspect of the evening that struck me was a question as to ISIS being a threat to Israel’s security. The Congressman’s response (if I remember correctly) was “ISIS is a threat to Israel. Iran is an existential threat to Israel. I don’t want to just put my eyes on ISIS and take them off Iran.” 

This astute point by Congressman Israel demonstrated to me the danger of missing the forest for the trees. It is very easy to turn both eyes on ISIS’s massacring thousands of people and beheading of American journalists, both of which constitute terrible war crimes and atrocities. One eye always needs to be on toppling the Islamic State-for if we do not do so it will destroy all the values that we hold dear. NO ONE should be killed for being a member of a different religion. At the same time, the other eye must constantly be focused on Iran and its attempt to develop an atomic bomb, which could wipe out an entire people. We cannot lose sight of Iran’s developments in this regard because if we do NO ONE will be safe. 

Congressman Israel reminds us to focus on the issue of today (ISIS) but not at the expense of forsaking the issue of the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran.

I am sorry to miss the AIPAC Rabbinic Summit today but have the AIPAC Policy Conference on my calendar. Hope to see you there.