What Bet Shira Means to Me

         The first time I ever heard of Bet Shira Congregation was in October 2018 when I asked one of my colleagues about it and he replied, “I hear it’s a wasp’s nest.” Upon applying to Bet Shira, I learned that nothing was further from the truth. I was interviewed by an impressive Search Committee led by current President Steve Goldstein and Past President Linda Truppman. At my in person visit one member of the committee spent an hour and a half with Ariela while Karina, Leora and I toured the Early Childhood Center. We were impressed not only with the Shabbat program but with the myriad offerings of the Early Childhood Center, including Generations Day, the Shalom Sefer Book Fair and Family Holiday Bridges. We were also impressed by Shabbat morning, when Mitchell Horwich welcomed Karina, Ariela and Leora to the Family Corner and by the Kiddush Lunch prepared by Tobe Marmorstein and the Sisterhood Women-with one of the most impressive displays of Kiddush, a washing station and motzi with an Emanuel Challah Cover that I have ever seen. We spent Sunday morning at the Purim Carnival, the best synagogue carnival I have ever been part of, with a panoply of outdoor games, pizza and Sno Cone trucks and a dunk hat.

         Bet Shira has always brought its best foot forward. Attending Camp Gilah was one of the best summer experiences my children have ever had, each week with an attraction such as a magician, a petting zoo and Disney characters. Four congregants opened their homes to me, including President Elect Stuart Koenigsberg and Sisterhood President Debby Koenigsberg. Reinstating the Drive Through Sukkah and creating the Drive In Shabbat are programs I will never forget, not to mention Havana Nights and our 36th Anniversary Bash. I learned how to play darts and relearned dominos, while enjoying axe throwing along the way. I met some incredible people who became among Bet Shira’s most active new members and are still going strong. The Judaica that people bought for my kids, from an Aleph Bet Tape Measure, to Leora’s First Siddur, are also things I will not forget. In addition, partnering with two incredible Executive Directors, the best Office Staff I’ve ever worked with, Torah reader extraordinaire and musician Avron Smolensky, Paul Hoyle who performed at my Installation, Cantor Andres Levy and Cantorial Soloist Sharon Alcalay-Leibovici and last but not least our amazing Musical Director Dr. Alan Mason have been fun, enriching, spiritually rewarding and unforgettable.

         People often think that a rabbi’s final months at a congregation are a lame duck period. Not so according to Rabbi Bill Lebeau, who said there is never such a thing as a lame duck rabbi. I still am as devoted to Bet Shira Congregation as I was when I was warmly welcomed in, and I will be through my departure in mid-June. The wasp’s nest that was talked about by my colleague couldn’t be further from the truth-this is an incredible community, and I am honored to be part of it.

The Significance of 2 Adars

         This is a Jewish leap year. A regular Jewish year is anywhere from 353-355 days. On average it has 11 fewer days than a Gregorian year. Therefore, our sages, in their infinite wisdom, added a leap month 7 out of every 19 years. We are currently in the 6th year of the 19 year cycle, when a leap month is added, making the year anywhere from 383-385 days. The month is added because we are commanded שמור את חדש האביב ועשית פסח לי-ה-ו-ה אלקיך “Observe the month of Aviv and make a Passover for Adonai your God.”[1] While Aviv was the original name for the month of Nissan, it later came to mean spring, and Passover became associated with spring. Hence when Passover is getting to early (before spring) a leap month is added.

         Which is the leap month? Most sources say that Adar Rishon, the first Adar, but I believe it is Adar Sheni, the second Adar, as one would not have known s/he needs to intercalate a year until that point in time. The reason most believe that the leap month is Adar Rishon is because Purim is pushed to Adar Sheni. However, that is done because of the connection between Purim and Passover: we are commanded to start (re) learning the Passover laws thirty days after Passover[2]-right after Purim. Thus Purim needs to remain thirty days before Passover and is pushed to Adar Sheni.

         A common question I am asked is when someone has a loved one who passed away in Adar in a non-leap year when should his/her Yahrzeit be observed in a leap year. Most authorities say it should be observed in Adar Rishon. That is why the only Yahrzeits that will be listed in Adar Sheni are those for someone who passed away in Adar Sheni during a leap year. Some have the custom of observing the Yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni.

         The laws surrounding two months of Adar are confusing yet the truth is there are only two practical applications. First, Purim is pushed one month later so that it remains 30 days before Passover. The 14th of Adar Rishon is called Purim Katan, “little Purim,” yet nothing major ritually changes as a result of it. Second, if you have a Yahrzeit in Adar, you can observe it in Adar Rishon or in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni.

         We are commanded מכנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה, “when the month of Adar arrives, our joy increases.”[3] My family and I hope that you only experience joy during both months of Adar in 5782.

[1] Deuteronomy 16:1

[2] Shulchan Aruch Laws of Passover Siman 429 Seif 1.

[3] Mishnah Taanit Chapter 4 Mishnah 6

Reaction to The Publicity Around Dara Horn’s Bestselling Book

To be honest, I have not wanted to read Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews: Reflections of a Haunted Present. I have Holocaust educators in my family and it has been dwelled into my head to never forget. I also am astutely aware of the rise in antisemitic attacks in the United States. At the same time, to read a book with that title makes me recoil. It is the same reason I have not been able to bring myself to go on the March of the Living, although I do plan to go when the COVID numbers go down. I finally purchased a Kindle copy on Amazon and will read it. I’ve learned from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality about the importance of acknowledging one’s fears, especially what makes him/her recoil, yet concurrently having the courage to face them.

What concerns me most about this book knowing not much more than the title is how we want to perceive ourselves as a Jewish people. Do we want to be loved as martyrs, as victims of antisemitic hate crimes, or do we want to be loved because of all of the joy, positivity, learning and spirituality that Judaism has to offer? People Love Dead Jews won the National Jewish Book Award in 2021 and the positive reviews abound. At the same time, in his book review entitled KEEP JEWS INTERESTING: IT’S TIME TO STOP BEING DEFINED BY ANTI-SEMITISM, Professor Shaul Magid quotes Professor Salo Baron z”l who wrote “All my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant lachrymose conception of Jewish history because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the whole picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres.” Do we want to be defined by antisemitism, by pogroms, persecutions and Jew-hatred, or by who we are as the Jewish people and all that we offer. Magid ends his review by quoting Jacob Neusner, “If the Jews can’t somehow get beyond the Holocaust they will survive. But they just won’t be a very interesting people.”

Interestingly Dara Horn, as quoted by Haaretz, said about her book that she “wishes people liked it a little bit less, because that would make its depressing points less true.” Horn’s accounts certainly have veracity to them and on one hand it’s important for people to know how strong antisemitism is in the United States. On the other hand, I certainly do not want my work as a rabbi to be defined by antisemitism.

As I have not yet read the book, but intend to over the weekend, I will comment more after I read it about its specific aspects. I hope to finish it before Adar Rishon, a month in which our joy is supposed to increase, not to be in denial of the truthtelling that I am certain it contains but rather to be able to focus on bringing joyful Judaism into Bet Shira and South Dade, while concurrently being vigilant and aware of the antisemitism in our midst.

What I Have Learned from Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

I have not had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Cytron-Walker. However, I saw him being interviewed as well as speaking at the healing service last night. Here are seven things as a colleague that I have learned and/or which have been reinforced for me.

1.) More emergency preparedness trainings for all situations. The last training I have had was fall 2019 just before the High Holy Days. While we are blessed to have a Security Guard and Police Officer, we saw at Beth Israel how a person with a motive can sweet-talk their way past a guard. I was amazed that among the trainings Rabbi Cytron-Walker had was how to handle oneself in a hostage situation. I recognize the need for more trainings, included but not limited to active shooter/lockdown, hostage, fire and flooding, among others. I need to learn or relearn best practices for each of these situations as well as make sure my congregation has an emergency preparedness plan for all of the above that is regularly reviewed in staff meetings.

2.) Regularly reminding congregants where the exits are in the event of an emergency.

3.) Always working to deepen our relationship with local police officers and fire fighters. Making sure that they have a plan of our building. I have a panic button and have learned how to lock off the Sanctuary, yet it is equally important to have a strong relationship with local law enforcement.

4.) Staying calm when under attack. This is one of the most difficult of all. I don’t know how Rabbi Cytron-Walker remained calm with Malik Faisal Akram pointing a gun at him. His calm demeanor enabled one hostage to go free and worked to lower the tension in a situation that could have been much worse. He gave in to the gunman’s request to speak with Rabbi Buchdahl and was also calm when speaking with the FBI. Just thinking about what he went through makes me anxious so I don’t know how he did it.

5.) Looking for an opportunity to get out of the situation. When Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw Akram distracted, he has the remaining two hostages run and then threw a chair at Akram. He then ran out of the building as well. By being vigilant he was able to save himself and his fellow parishoners.

6.) Being vigilant at all times. Extremely difficult to do. Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw a man who said he needed help and he did what Abraham would have done, what every mentschlach rabbi would do: he sat with him and offered him a cup of tea. He had no idea that this man would point a gun at him minutes later. The vast majority of my colleagues and I did not become rabbis to be suspicious of people’s motives, to think that someone would manipulate us into welcoming us in only to later take us hostage. As hard as it is to turn people away we don’t recognize, I’m saddened to say that might be in the future. I hope that we don’t need to become hardened to the degree of European synagogues, where one needs to make a reservation in advance, and in some cases bring two forms of photo ID. In 2005 I went to the New London Synagogue, showed my passport and was still denied entrance because a background check was not done. In 2009 my classmate Phil and I visited the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, and we had to be led by two separate sets of security guards, turning three different directions before passing through metal detectors and then seeing a sign for a museum. We couldn’t find the synagogue we had a reservation for that Friday evening and had to do services on our own. While one does not want to overreact, we also need to take an abundance of caution and at times suspicion, especially when we are interacting with people we are just meeting for the first time.

7.) Having faith. This is the hardest of all. With another antisemitic attack and the Omicron virus surging, many clergy are saying they didn’t sign up for this, as I heard multiple times on a zoom meeting yesterday evening. A number of my younger colleagues are leaving the pulpit and a number of older colleagues are retiring early. There are at least 25-30 more Conservative pulpits available than candidates. When I saw Rabbi Cytron-Walker last night, I saw a man who is able to have the courage of his convictions, who knows that love triumphs over fear, who is able to build community and bring community together towards a common goal. That is to me what being a pulpit rabbi is all about, and that pastoral, kind presence is the type of leader who I would want as my rabbi.

As we prepare for Parshat Yitro, I want to echo Yitro’s words, Baruch Adonai, Blessed is God. I believe that there is more good than evil in the world and that we need to show gratitude to God for all our blessings. We cannot let the bad guys win by hanging our heads or giving up, yet we can also not be naive. Antisemitism is alive and well in the United States of America and we must always be vigilant and not let our guard down. It is a sad but true reality. At the same time, we must always keep hope for a better future, that together with God we will bring peace and equanimity, both to us and to the world.

Moses’ Special Nature

What’s so great about Moses? Last week God told him, “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac and unto Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai.”[1] That is factually inaccurate.[2] My belief is that God said this to Moses in order to build up his confidence during a difficult moment. If you recall from Parshat Shemot, Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh didn’t go so well. Pharoah not only didn’t let Israel go, he also made them gather their own straw![3] When the Israelites accost Moses, he exclaims to God “Why have you done evil to this people? Did you send me for this?!” למה הרעותה לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני[4]

         At this point God indicates to Moses how special he is, that he received a gift that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not: God’s special name becoming revealed to him. He will serve as judge[5] to Pharaoh, subjecting him to ten plagues including the worst of all-the death of his firstborn child.[6]

         From Shemot to Bo, we see a great evolution in Moses, indicating why he is truly a special leader. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Pharaoh, says to go and then asks Moses “who should go?”[7] He will only let the men go, but that’s a no-go for Moses. The man who once was so timid, refusing to serve God four times in Parshat Shemot and once in Parshat VaEra, here makes the ultimate statement of a leader. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ׃ Moses said “We will go with our young and our old, our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds-for it is a holiday of God for all of us.[8] Moses refused to leave anyone behind. He would not accept a partial exodus-rather the entire Israelite community needed to be free. The very people Pharaoh was afraid of[9] becomes a people in the fullest sense with these words of Moses.

         We learn three crucial lessons from Moses that should be applied to leaders today. First, it’s ok to be afraid of stepping up, as long as one eventually does the right thing and leads when s/he needs to. Moses’ fear dissipates when push comes to shove. He does not take a plea bargain or a settlement but, recognizing he has the upper hand and that the most vulnerable of Israel need to be protective, takes an all-or-nothing stance. Second, at times a leader will fail and the point is to learn from one’s failures. Moses’ first attempt to lead ended in disaster-the Israelites had to procure their own straw, working even harder than before. It took learning from his mistake and going back before Pharoah again and again for Moses to develop the confidence he exudes in Parshat Bo. Third and most important, all leaders need cheerleaders to encourage us to stay the course, especially when the going gets rough. Two weeks ago Moses was discouraged, doubting himself and his abilities, believing that his mission would never succeed. With God as his cheerleader, bolstering his confidence by telling him how special his role truly is, Moses developed the courage to go return to Pharaoh. He also had the aid of his brother Aaron, and the two of them together succeeded where one alone might have failed.

         In our new secular year 2022, it is my hope that each of us will look at situations in which we are a leader and evaluate how we might be more effective. Perhaps we need to find supporting hands to help us when we are afraid to try again. Maybe we need to learn a lesson from a past struggle. Whatever the case may be, let us recognize that we are not alone and that together, with the right partners, we can work together to make a positive difference in our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Exodus 6:3

[2] See Genesis 16:7 and 24:3

[3] Exodus 5:6

[4] Exodus 5:22

[5] Exodus 7:1. Interestingly the word for judge, אלהים, is the same as the word for God, perhaps indicating that Moses, the foundling adopted by Pharaoh, will in fact hold up a mirror to him as God’s designee, showing who the true God is.

[6] Exodus 11:29

[7] Exodus 10:8

[8] Exodus 10:9

[9] Pharaoh is the first person to define Israel as עם, a people or a nation, in Exodus 1:9