For Those Spiritual and Not Religious

I often hear those of my generation say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Sometimes I hear it expressed as “I’m a cultural Jew.” My response to them is Why do you see it as a zero-sum game? One can be spiritual and religious or a cultural Jew for finds meaning in Jewish rituals. Most Jews whether religious or not have at least one Passover Seder, light Hanukkah candles, go to synagogue to hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and fast on Yom Kippur.

What hearing one of those phrases tells me is that one has not found meaning or value in the daily observances of Judaism, whether keeping kosher, praying to God or observing the Sabbath. However, after asking questions, I discover that many of these same people find meaning in regular meditation and yoga practice. These are seen as Buddhist or Near Eastern traditions; however, they have roots in Judaism as well. Having just completed an 18 month course in Jewish Mindfulness Meditation with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I will share a few of these connections.

Before the writing of the prayerbook, it was a regular practice to pour out one’s heart to God. This was done through silent contemplative moments as well as through hitbodedut, daily conversation with God about whatever one was thinking about, without judgment, in order to clear one’s mind. Similarly, Judaism always focused on shmirat haguf, keeping one’s body in good shape in order to serve God. Being flexible as the reed is a value which emanates from the Talmud. Similarly, the purpose of prayer was to open one’s heart and mind, having kavanah (proper intention). It says in the Talmud that one who fixes his/her prayer does not have the prayer function as is intended.

For those who want to see how Judaism and spirituality blend together, I invite you to come to Bet Shira during the month of Elul (which began September 1), the month before the High Holy Days, one which is known for introspection and contemplation. Joi
We had Reiki Torah on Friday September 6, a guided meditation in which we feel the energy of Torah emanate into our bodies. We had a Healing Circle on Friday September 14 after our 9:30 a.m. Shabbat services, geared towards all those who are in need of or are praying for someone in need of healing in body, mind or spirit. Be there for a reflective Selichot service on Saturday September 21 at which we will have Havdallah (ending the Sabbath) at 8:00 p.m., show the film Redemption at 8:30 p.m. and have services to usher in the High Holy Days at 10:30 p.m. Enjoy a free concert for the community led by our High Holy Day Cantor Andres Levy on Sunday October 6 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. Come to be inspired, to have your soul touched and to see firsthand how spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand.

More initiatives combining spirituality and religion, including Alef-Bet Yoga, are to come.

The key is to take the “leap of faith” and join us at Bet Shira, 7500 SW 120 Street. I look forward to meeting you and to joining you on this spiritual journey.

Rabbi Ben Herman plans series of fall events at Bet Shira

Rabbi Benjamin Herman has some exciting plans for the fall at Pinecrest’s Bet Shira, located at 7500 S.W. 120th Street, adjacent to Palmetto Senior High School. 

“We have a whole month of programming planned for the month of September, just before the High Holy Days,” says Rabbi Herman. “The goal is to bring people together for educational, spiritual and social events…that’s the best way to build community through personal relationships, which is an important part of my mission as a rabbi.”

On Friday, September 6th at 6:30 p.m., Rabbi Herman will lead a program called Reiki Torah, where members of the congregation participate in contemplative prayers for forgiveness, culminating in putting their hands out before a Torah scroll and undergoing a spiritual self-transformation through guided meditation.

“On Saturday, September 14th at 12:30 p.m., we will have a Healing Circle for those who have undergone loss as well as for those seeking a deeper spiritual connection with God,” he says.  An Apples with Honey Tasting will take place at Pinecrest’s Milam’s market on September 15th.

Bet Shira will also present a showing of the film Redemption on Saturday, September 21stat 8:30 p.m., followed by a brief discussion afterwards. At 10:30, Rabbi Herman will lead a contemplative evening service for congregants.

Bet Shira’s theme for the Jewish New Year is simple yet profound: New Year, New You. “People are searching for greater meaning in their lives. They’re looking for opportunities to connect…with God, with each other, with their community,” he explains. “That’s what we’re offering here at Bet Shira, opportunities to make those important connections and build relationships.”

Starting in October, Rabbi Herman has plans for some interesting programs planned to enable congregants to socialize, learn and connect with God in the great outdoors.

Hiking and Halacha will combine spiritual teaching with a walk in a natural setting,” he says. “Shabbat on the Bay will be an outdoor service with musical instruments and a picnic afterwards, all overlooking Miami’s beautiful Biscayne Bay.”

Those with a passion for dancing won’t want to miss Havana Nights on Saturday, November 16th when Bet Shira will host a fun evening of salsa dancing, kosher Cuban food, dominoes and camaraderie.

“At Bet Shira, we’re looking to make a difference in people’s lives. Every member of our congregation counts and is valued. These programs provide opportunities for us to come together, grow spiritually and build community.”

Bet Shira is located at 7500 SW 120th Street in Pinecrest. For more information about Bet Shira and upcoming events, please visit

Loyalty and Being Informed

To what or to whom are you loyal? In the Jewish tradition, we are commanded to be loyal to one thing: G-d. In the blessing after the Haftarah which Abe chanted, he readונאמנים דבריך  נאמן אתה הוא ה אלקינו “You, Adonai our G-d, are loyal, and your words are loyal.” In Parshat Eikev, G-d commands us to observe all of the commandments. We need to be faithful and loyal to G-d; it is contingent on having possession of the land of Israel.

Similarly, throughout Eikev G-d commands us to remember and take heed of what we are being told. The word זכור, remember, appears 200 times in the Torah. The word שמע, to take heed, appears 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone! Incidents which occurred long ago, such as provoking G-d with the golden calf, or testing G-d when there was no water in the desert, are repeated at length here. These are drummed into this new generation, about to enter the Land of Israel so that none of them can say they were not informed of the importance of observing G-d’s commandments.

In Judaism, we are required to have loyalty to G-d and to be informed of what G-d wants us to do in the Torah; in return G-d will be loyal to us. However, we are not commanded to be loyal to anything else, whether a person, institution or political party. One can say, in contrast, that one should not be loyal to anything other than G-d. We read as we were taking out the Torah “I do not put my trust in any mortal, nor upon any angelic being do I rely, but rather on the G-d of Israel who is the G-d of Truth, whose Torah is Truth, whose prophets are prophets of truth and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In   G-d alone do I put my trust and to G-d I utter praises.”

We are required to be informed, which is why we read the Torah over and over again, year after year. Humans by nature have short memories, and we need to read and repeat until things become second nature and we develop positive habits. Once again we have in Parshat Eikev words that demonstrate this. G-d says to us “impress My words upon your very heart; bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children-reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates.” If that’s not ensuring that we’re informed, I don’t know what is.

Nowhere in there does it say that we need to have one opinion. Judaism is not a cult where everyone has to drink the kool-aid; in fact, one of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages us to be independent thinkers, to question things, to take what we have and to arrive at our own conclusions. We are given a roadmap towards life in the Torah but we have the freewill to choose to do with it what we will. We are a people where belief is secondary to action, where we do not have a set dogma. Judaism encourages us to inform ourselves through repeating and acting out our core values but when we receive information about the world, we are encouraged to use it as we see fit. That is what makes our community at Bet Shira so wonderful: the opportunity to have multiple opinions and at times vehemently disagree but to continue to come together as a unified community.

I hope and pray that we will always be united rather than divided, coming together for the greater good. You are fully welcome at Bet Shira regardless of what you believe. We appreciate you for who you are rather than how you vote.

Reward and Punishment

So much of Deuteronomy is written from a cause-and-effect philosophy, and this week’s Torah portion is no exception. It begins by stating that if you observe the commandments you will be rewarded and if you disobey you will be punished. Can we really believe in such a philosophy in the 21st century? We all know of people who do bad things and appear to be rewarded and who do good yet are afflicted.

The rabbis took the philosophy that one’s true reward or punishment would come in the “World to Come” yet I’m not sure we can follow this philosophy either. After all, Judaism on the whole is a this-worldly religion. We also know from mindfulness work that we cannot focus too far ahead but rather must be centered on the present.

The philosophy that I embrace is that we need to focus on what we can do in this moment to enhance our lives, and the commandments can be guideposts to help us do that. In my Weekly Message, I gave some examples as to how being mindful of what we eat (keeping kosher), being mindful of taking time for family (keeping Shabbat) and having a conduit through which to examine how we are feeling or what’s going on with us (praying to G-d) can be invaluable tools through which to enrich our lives. I invite us this Shabbat and beyond to look for those tools for our own lives, not comparing ourselves to others or trying to come up with “the big picture” at the expense of what is going on for us right now. Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

Miami-area rabbi envisions innovative programming

Miami-area rabbi envisions innovative programming
Rabbi Ben Herman is the new spiritual leader of Bet Shira Congregation in Pinecrest. (Courtesy)

Since becoming spiritual leader of Bet Shira Congregation in Pinecrest last month, Rabbi Ben Herman has introduced programs that are considered innovative with the intention of encouraging increased understanding of Conservative Jewish practices and greater personal involvement.

So far in his new role at Bet Shira, Herman has introduced Torah Study classes which are taught on Thursdays and Shabbat mornings immediately after prayer services. He is also planning to teach Reiki Torah, a process of gaining greater appreciation of Jewish philosophy and practices through guided meditation, and also plans to organize several new events at the synagogue including “Hiking and Halachah and “Shabbat on the Beach.” He is also conferring with the congregation’s Programming Committee to introduce new experiential activities for family members of all ages.

Herman previously served as the senior rabbi at Jericho Jewish Center in Jericho, N.Y. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and rabbinic ordination with a Master of Arts in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Visit or call 305-238-2601 for more information on the synagogue.

Korach vs. Yitro

I want to begin by saying how excited and privileged I am to serve as your rabbi, the rabbi of Congregation Bet Shira. To begin my tenure with an aufruf, marking the start of two people’s lives together, is an added bonus. I want to thank all those who have worked so hard to make preparations for Karina and my arrival, especially Linda Truppman, Jason Timmons, Steve Goldstein and the rest of the dedicated Bet Shira team. It has been such a joy and pleasure to begin to partner with you to ensure a strong and vibrant future for our spiritual home.

Five years ago I began my tenure at the Jericho Jewish Center also on Parshat Korach. I deliberately include some of those words within my remarks today as they share crucial lessons about leadership.

I think a case can be made that the antagonist of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, gets a bad rap.  Let’s start by looking at his words.  The first words Korach and his followers say to Moses and Aaron are “רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם יקוק ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל יקוק”-“It is too much for you, for the entire community is holy and Adonai is in their midst.  Why do you lift yourselves up over the community of G-d?”  Doesn’t Korach have a point here?  He is trying to democratize the Israelite nation rather than it being a theocracy governed by Moses and Aaron.  Furthermore, in Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advised him to delegate court cases to others so that he would not get burned out.  Why, therefore, does Yitro get lauded by our tradition whereas Korach gets castigated?

I think the answer can be found in the specific linguistic choices of the Bible.  In Exodus, Yitro first saw what Moses was doing.  He observed the situation before he jumped to conclusions.  After observing, Yitro asked Moses why he was sitting alone while the rest of the people stood before him from day to night.  Rather than making an accusatory statement or giving advice, Yitro asked Moses for the rationale behind why he was the sole judge.  Moses’ reply is that the people come to him to inquire of G-d.  At this point Yitro tells Moses that what he is doing is not good as he will burn out, for this task is too heavy for him.  Yitro does not simply say “Do not do this” but rather demonstrates to Moses that to continue with the status quo will not be to Moses’ benefit.  Hence, judicial reform was needed.  Through first observing the situation, and then asking Moses why things were as they were and finally demonstrating to Moses that delegating court cases will enhance Moses’ ability to be the Israelites leader, Yitro becomes praised by Jewish tradition.

In contrast we have the example of Korach.  The portion begins by saying “and Korach took” but does not define what he took.  Rashi’s interpretation is that Korach took himself to side against Moses and the Israelite community.  His grandson Rashbam’s interpretation, which I prefer, is that Korach took other leaders (Datan Abiram and On and 250 priests) to join him against Moses.  Like Avshalom in the Second Book of Samuel, Korach was politically persuasive and influenced others, each with their own agenda, to join him in his quest against Moses.  By coming together in great numbers, Korach strove to threaten Moses and Aaron’s role as leader.

Next we get to the content of Korach’s words.  Instead of observing the situation first, or asking Moses and Aaron about their leadership, Korach jumps to the conclusion “It is too much for you” and ends by saying “Why are you lifted up over the congregation of G-d?” In other words, Korah’s point is ‘Who made you leader?’  Perhaps Korach was jealous that as a cousin of Moses he was not appointed to a leadership role.  While Korach perhaps is correct that the entire nation is holy, rather than confronting the issue from a point of respect he does so from a point of accusation, trying to bully Moses and Aaron into relinquishing power.  Moses and Aaron have no response to this except to fall on their faces.  Never before have they received a challenge this severe from another Israelite leader.

What does this mean for us?  I think there are 3 key lessons that we can learn from the contrast between Yitro and Korach.  The first is, when we see a situation that we do not like, we must properly assess it rather than jumping in and making accusations.  To be able to look at a situation from multiple angles rather than just one’s own is challenging, yet it is an attribute of the greatest leaders and one I think which is worth emulating.  If after looking at the situation we are still bothered by what we see, we need to ask the person responsible for the situation why things are as they are.  Again we must be careful not to use an accusatory tone, as Korach did, but rather speak from the point of inquiry and curiosity, as Yitro did.  Finally, if the person’s answer is still challenging then we can try to convince him/her to change, but only from the standpoint that change will be in his/her best interest.  This is not from self-righteousness but rather from a legitimate belief in trying to help the other.  Through following the example of Yitro, as opposed to Korach, we can first learn why certain situations exist and based on that foundational knowledge decide if it makes sense to retain the status quo or make changes.  This is the model that I will follow as Rabbi of Bet Shira.

Today we are celebrating the aufruf and upcoming marriage of two special people, Jennifer and Evan . Jennifer’s parents Jeffrey and Raquel have been long-time members of Bet Shira, with Raquel being one of our minyanires and a leader in our Caring Kehila. Jennifer and Evan met in July 2016 and quickly discovered that they have much in common, including a love of sports, movies and travel. They had a memorable trip to the Dominican Republic. They also are dog lovers, having a shi tzu named Whinnie the Pooh who will be clad in tallit and a yarmulke at their wedding.  The family is fortunate to be celebrating their second simcha in two months, with Evan’s brother Jason tying the knot in May.

Jennifer and Evan-you will receive lots of unsolicited advice in the next two weeks, so let me give some as well. My advice is that you follow the approach of Yitro. When you run into conflict as we all do in the roller-coaster we call life, first observe the situation before reacting. Next ask the other out of genuine curiosity why they feel a certain way of why things are as they are. Most importantly, remember that you are a team and that your successes are shared. This will help you look out for each other’s best interests as a unit.

Jennifer and Evan, my blessing for you is that your love continues to blossom each and every day and that you remain one another’s רעים אהובים best friends, always looking out for the other and letting your love conquer any challenge that comes your way in life. I also know that you will continue to stand by one another, providing confidence and bolstering the other up in times of need. In remembering that your relationship with one another is what is truly most important, much more so than the particular disagreement or issue at hand, may you strengthen your true love each and every day. In addition to being each other’s partners, always remember that you are best friends and then your marriage will thrive. Mazal Tov!

In order to crystallize this moment I ask that we turn to Page 443 for a special Mi Sheberach Before a Wedding.

Arise and Go Forth

I cannot believe that we are at my concluding sermon at the Jericho Jewish Center. I began at JJC 5 years ago with Parshat Korach. Now we are back in Numbers at Parshat Behaalotecha.

A little known theory about the Book of Numbers is that some assert it is 3 books. The first is what we have read up until now; the second is formed by two verses from our liturgy, one of which is well-known, and the third is what comes after those verses. The verses, which are set apart by upside-down nuns, read “When the ark was carried, Moses said, ‘Arise Adonai and scatter your enemies, make those who hate you flee from before you!’” and “When the ark was returned, he said ‘Return Adonai to the myriads of Israel.’” These words of war became memorialized at the core of our central service, the Torah Service. The traditional commentary is that these lines comprise a break between the punishment that came before, when the tablets were broken, and the punishment that comes after, when the people complain about how good it was in Egypt. For two verses we are away from the reality of our stiff-necked ancestors attacking Moses, hearing instead the “rallying cry” that united them in fighting their enemies to conquer our ancestral homeland.

What does this have to do with us? Both the ark and the proclamation as it was carried forth served to unite our people. Similarly, the sounding of the shofar was a call for unification before battle. It is my hope that the Jericho Jewish Center will remain united at this moment of transition. Transitions are often difficult, bringing a sense of uncertainty and of fear. We often say in life “better the one you know than the one you don’t.” Yet transitions are beautiful opportunities for organizations to reevaluate themselves: who they are and what they stand for. The liminal moment, or transformative point, is the time to set apart what came before from what is yet to be.

I will never forget the 4 Presidents I worked with at the Jericho Jewish Center. Mark Wilkow, who attended my wedding in Scottsdale and who really showed me the ropes when I came into the JJC very green and inexperienced, having never been the direct conduit with a Board or the one responsible for shaping the vision of a congregation. Mark organized 14 get-together events my first summer in Jericho. He also helped me get 120 people to my first Shabbat on the Beach and helped me created Hiking and Halacha and Friday Night Live. Martha Perlson and Diane Charet completely devoted themselves to JJC. Martha even worked here for a time as the Bookkeeper! I am indebted to them for their establishment of the Jericho STEM Preschool, which Ariela had the privilege of attending this year. Both have stayed involved at JJC, with Diane recently creating the Mitzvah 613 kippot for our new Torah initiative and Martha working on the finances of JJC. Richard Cepler I will refer to later in this speech. There are so many here who have helped us – but I would also be remiss if I did not publicly acknowledge my deep gratitude to Barbara Rosenblum – who has extended herself above and beyond for me and my family – as she has always done for the Jericho Jewish Center.  I have learned so much in these 5 years and thank everyone, beginning with these Presidents, who helped me achieve so much, from 120 people at the inaugural Shabbat on the Beach to the establishment of a monthly Friday Night Live Service to the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative. Each of you has made me a stronger rabbi, and for that I thank you.

One of the things I am most proud of doing at JJC was our involvement in the Sulam for Emerging Leaders initiative with Anita Haut. Following a United Synagogue curriculum, we had eight 2-hour sessions of training Religious School and Schechter parents, pairing Jewish texts with leadership questions. Many of the emerging leaders who participated have occupied important positions on committees and on the Board of Trustees. I am grateful to Linda Sussman for introducing me to Sulam for Emerging Leaders. I have learned, not only from Ron Wolfson but also from personal experience, that the relationships formed are what is integral to congregational success. I am also grateful to those who bought into my vision of the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative for the creation of a new Torah which JJC can benefit from for years to come.

This transition will be difficult for many, including me, yet let us view it as an opportunity. Rabbi Matthew Abelson is coming into JJC with fresh eyes and enthusiasm. As a congregation, I know you will strengthen him just as you strengthened me. You are all such mentschlach and kind people and that will transfer over to your new partnership with Rabbi Abelson to ensure that the JJC continues to evolve into the best synagogue it can be.

I want to extend a very public and heartfelt thank you to our current president, Richard Cepler, who took on this role at my personal request. Richard – we’ve been through a lot together, and I know that your term as president has been far more challenging than anticipated originally. I would like the congregation to know how fortunate we all have been to have had Richard at the helm. Throughout the last year, Richard has remained a leader of high moral character and principles – a true mentsch. Richard – I want you to know how much I respect and admire your conduct throughout this transitional process, and how much I will always value your guidance and friendship.

As I leave the Jericho Jewish Center to embark on a new and uncharted chapter in our lives, I have such mixed emotions. Each of us in life learns to balance our many roles. We have our professional lives, our lives as family members – as spouses, as children, as parents – our lives within our communities and our own internal lives. It’s often difficult to find the formula to balance all of these components, and for many of us, this is a continual quest throughout life. As I look out at all of you here today, I want you to know that the hardest part for me in leaving is that I will miss all of you so very much. I see people here whose parents or spouses I buried, whose children I Bar or Bat Mitzvahed. I have officiated at some of your family weddings, as well as so many joyous births. Karina gave birth to both of our daughters here. They say “it takes a village to raise a child”, and the Jericho Jewish Center has been the village that has helped raise Ariela and watched her grow, as well as welcoming our Leora into the world. This congregation has been such a special and important part of our lives. We are so grateful and thank you for all of the love and care you have given our family during the last 5 years. Life moves on, but people are irreplaceable. I will always remember the goodness and values that are at the heart of this very special community.

From today’s Torah portion, when the ark was carried forth Israel proclaimed, “Arise G-d!”. As we both embark on new beginnings, it is my hope and prayer that the Jericho Jewish Center rise up in strength and with renewed spirit.