Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

The Power of Jewish Camping

Posted on June 8, 2021

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

I don’t have to sell anyone in our community on the power of summer camps. When I ask Beth El parents what their kids are doing over the summer, it seems nearly everyone is going to different day/overnight camps. I smile because I too spent my childhood summers at camp, which became the highlight of the year; the school year was merely the long shlep back to camp. Any overnight camp is beneficial socially and emotionally, especially this pandemic year. Camp friends often become friends for life. And living independently of parents is valuable for self-growth.

Jewish summer camps offer all the pluses of overnight camp plus an amazingly positive religious education. I spent my summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and the wonderful experiences I had there are shared by many Ramahniks. I also know that other camps offer robust Jewish experiences too, which is fantastic.

The morning prayer Ahavah Rabbah asks G-d to allow us “to understand, to learn, to teach, to perform and uphold all the words of Your Torah with love.” Camp Ramah excels at this because camp is an immersive experience (I speak primarily of Ramah since I know it personally and it is part of the Conservative Movement).  Kids learn how to pray because their counselors model it for them and it’s a daily experience. Kids learn Hebrew because the buildings are referred to by Hebrew names. Kids learn to love Shabbat as a day of rest because all of camp slows down. Kids form a personal connection with Israel because they have personal relationships with some Israeli counselors. There’s a palpable Avirah, atmosphere, that can’t be found in any other place because everyone is together for the summer.

Of course NSSBE shares these values, and we do our best to teach them. But, from an educational, structural perspective, camp can do so much more because kids learn better by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Or on Zoom.

Although this summer I cannot visit Beth El kids at camp, I look forward to doing so in the future.

If you are considering a Jewish summer camp for your child next summer, I welcome the conversation. I’m happy to find a Jewish camp that is a best fit for him or her.

We can say about Jewish summer camps what the Torah famously says about the Israelite desert camp: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

A Reflection on Israel

Posted on June 3, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

I feel honored and privileged to live in a time when there is a thriving State of Israel.  Israel is a blessing to Jews and the world for so many reasons.  It is the country that contains our historic homeland and the religious and ancestral sites of our people.  Israel is a place in which the national culture can flow by the Jewish calendar and naturally celebrates Judaism’s incredible heritage.  Israel is a center for the proliferation of Jewish scholarship, art, literature and religious innovation.  Israel is a safe haven and protector for Jews spread all over the Diaspora.  Israel is a place we can visit to reconnect with our own personal Jewish identities and to deepen our Jewish journeys.  Israel is a place where millions of our brothers and sisters call home.  Israel is a country that supports the same liberal freedoms that the United States was founded upon: democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Israel is proudly an incubator for so many scientific and medical advances, punching far above its weight class, which they share with the rest of the world.  Israel is a beloved place that our Jewish community should treasure.

I know that right now, in particular, and throughout its entire history, some actions of the governments of Israel have been the subject of heated debate.  This piece is not intended to weigh in on the merits of any particular arguments about any of Israel’s government’s choices. I also firmly believe that it is absolutely clear that the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is very real and that impactful solutions regarding the issue of Palestinian sovereignty urgently need to be reached.  Further, it is also a fact that we all have different perspectives on what solutions are best, and we each have rationales for why we believe what we believe.

Therefore, my ask today is threefold:

1) Let us all acknowledge that the situation is complicated.  Slogans, tweets and Instagram posts are not going to help us communicate or progress.  They make those who agree with us feel good but do not meaningfully engage anyone who may differ in opinion.  In fact, they may have the opposite effect.  As every diplomat I have ever spoken to has told me, real dialogue and a willingness to listen to the other’s narrative is the only way progress will be made. Violence will beget violence and hatred will lead to further hatred. We may not like what we hear, but we need to speak to each other in civil language and truly listen to one another’s perspective. Agreeing to listen is not agreement to concur.  We should respectfully challenge when we disagree, but we should listen and do our best to understand.  Being able to hold such dialogue that does not lead to hatred is a value in and of itself.

2) Whatever you think about the current situation in Israel, do not let yourself fall into the trap of questioning Israel’s legitimacy or Israel’s incredible value to the world.  There is much work to be done inside of Israel, inside of the Palestinian territories and inside the region as a whole.  However, our people have an ethical, legal and historical right to a homeland in Israel and Israel has a legitimate place amongst the world of nations, like any other country, that was granted to her in 1947 by the UN.

3) Let us do whatever we can to not let our feelings about Israel’s policies divide us at our core.  We need to continue to be one people and to be ohavei yisrael – lovers of our fellow Jews.  Extremists aside, we need to be able to advocate for what we think is right and foundational to our values without consigning those who disagree to the status of “other”.  There are those out there claiming that our people are destined to be divided into Zionists and Anti-Zionists.  I cannot accept this prognostication and will continue to work towards a more sophisticated understanding of Jewish community that allows us to oppose one another around significant issues while still understanding one another as Jews and part of the same family.

I am a Zionist.  I love Israel and will work to support her continued vitality and safety.  I stand with her during challenging times and celebrate her many successes.  I pray for wisdom for all of the leaders in the region, I pray for the safety of all the inhabitants in the region, and I pray that a lasting peace can be created between Israel, the Palestinians and all of their neighbors.  I also pray that we continue to work towards our vision of being Am Echad, one people, who can continue to stand together as we, and the rest of the world, face so many difficult challenges.  Am Yisrael Chai!



Posted on May 27, 2021

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Dear Friends,

As I reflect on my six years at NSS Beth El, a passage from the Torah comes to mind: “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard…and I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year…” (Leviticus 25:3, 11). For the last six years I have felt blessed to come to work every day at Beth El. Truly, being a Cantor is the most wonderful job in the world. I have the opportunity to share in the lives of thousands of people, to teach, to learn, to share holy moments, and of course to make music.

As I walk the halls, I am reminded of all that has been accomplished here these years. I can see the Sanctuary packed to the brim as we delayed the first a cappella concert’s start while adding more chairs; I hear the voices of our children singing with the choir on the High Holy Days; I see the transformation of our sacred spaces as we made them accessible to those with a variety of needs; I remember conversations at Kiddush and in the parking lot, meetings at which big plans were made and big changes were catalyzed. In these six years, so much has changed at Beth El, and it has been an honor to have played some part in that change.

I remember my first visit to Beth El – months before my interview. I was in town to study with Hazzan Mizrahi at Anshe Emet, and knowing that I would be applying for this position, I made an appointment to meet with Rabbi Kurtz. He showed me around the facility, telling me the history of the shul, and inquiring about my own background. We bonded over common experiences as children singing in the choirs of our own Cantors, and said that we both looked forward to meeting again. (For those who don’t know the story, ask me about how he tried to “stump” me at my audition!). I recall the weekend of my interview, riding with Larry Weiner to morning minyan, being shown around by Jackie Melinger, spending Shabbat with the Starkman-Pachters and their Havurah, and getting to know many of our core group of leaders who have remained so involved for all these years. I will never forget the many wonderful experiences I have had here—they have shaped me in so many ways.

I have been blessed to work with incredible clergy and staff colleagues. Rabbi Kurtz was an incredible mentor and friend. Rabbi Schwab has not only been an excellent partner, but a friend and confidant as well. Together we worked hard to create programming and rituals reflective of our community’s values, and at the same time recognizing that we have the opportunity and ability to grow. I am so proud of the work we have done, and am ever grateful for his constant support in my own work. Although we have only worked together for a couple of years, Rabbi Freedman is an incredible asset to this community and to the team. His creativity is endless, his sensitivity to people knows no bounds. He is a great Rabbi and it’s been my privilege to work with him. I must finally acknowledge our Ritual Directors, with whom I have worked so closely on a daily basis, ensuring that our B’nai Mitzvah program continues as strong as ever. Mark Stadler remains a great friend, and I am so glad I got to know him here. Hazzan Barnett is an incredibly passionate and compassionate educator – I am grateful to her for her collegiality and dedicated work.

On the lay side, there are far too many people to name, and I fear I’ll leave some out. There are, however, a few people I must acknowledge specifically. Mark Mosk was tasked with helping me acclimate to the community in my first year. We began speaking on the phone regularly from the start, and then would meet for breakfast after minyan once in a while. He has been a constant source of support, of good feedback, and a good friend above all. Steve Abrams and Brian Jacobson, in succession, have chaired our Music Committee for the past four years. It is because of their leadership that we have a clear mission and vision, as well as a dedicated group of volunteers who will work hard to ensure an excellent future for music at Beth El. Finally, I offer unending gratitude to JoAnne Blumberg. For my first four years she chaired our B’nai Mitzvah Liaison committee, then became VP Ritual, and all the while ran the High Holy Day committee for our Sanctuary services. JoAnne, I could not have done my job without you. We have spoken or emailed at literally every hour of the day. We have been with each other in moments of sadness and celebration, and our friendship is truly special. I will miss working with you each day.

Robyn shares her thanks for having welcomed her so warmly and lovingly into the community. The experiences she had at Beth El have had deep influence on her own Yiddishkeit, and we have loved reminiscing about so much of our time here. My children have grown so much here. Ethan was three months old when we moved to Highland Park, and soon he will begin second grade! Thank you for nurturing them, for playing with them, and for loving them while I was on the bimah. You made shul a place they looked forward to coming.

“Six years you shall sow your field…” We have done so much together these six years, and now as I look back, as I read the emails and Facebook notes that have come in recent days, I realize that God has surely ordained God’s blessing in this, the sixth year, and that the yield is great. One cannot often realize the impact their work has on the lives of others. As grateful as many of you have expressed you are for my service, I am doubly grateful for having had this incredible opportunity. I have been touched deeply by each of you. Through good and through bad, you have been my community and my extended family. God bless you all with good health and length of days, and may you always be with a song in your heart and in your mouths.

Now we say l’hitra’ot—we’ll see you soon—for we know we will be back to visit. As I begin my tenure at Beth El Synagogue this summer, I will take all of the memories, the lessons, and the encouragement you have offered with me. I have been changed so much by my time here. We hope you will visit us if you are in the Twin Cities. You will be able to reach me after July 1 at btisser@bethelsynagogue.org – stay in touch!

Stay healthy and safe, and have a great summer. I know that great things will continue to happen at NSS Beth El!

B’yedidut—In Friendship,


Hazzan Ben Tisser

The Wholeness of Shalom

Posted on May 19, 2021

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion contains three of the most famous lines in Torah. It is called the Birkat Kohanim, but also the “three-fold blessing” or the “priestly blessing” (the English translation of Birkat Kohanim).

May Adonai bless you and guard you!

May Adonai’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you

May Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!

It’s a powerful three, very short lines.

It is the final line that draws my eye this morning in a world filled with conflicts big and small, local and global. “Grant you shalom.” I use the Hebrew because although I could translate it as “peace,” I think the word “wholeness” is more precise here. Peace is amorphous, slippery and elusive. Wholeness is another thing, an attainable thing—something that can emerge from within and not from without. The blessing is written in second person singular, to each individual who receives it—not to a family, not to a community.

Perhaps personal “wholeness” can emanate both from the spiritual connection to G-d as implied by the second blessing and by the more material blessings suggested by the first (as interpreted by Rashi). If we cannot have “peace” in our world, in our lives at this time, perhaps we might find a way to toward a sense of being whole—whether that is to enjoy the warmth of a spring day, to look up at the stars or to simply breathe deeply.

Top 10 Reasons to Eat Cheesecake on Shavuot

Posted on May 12, 2021

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

Chag Sameach!

The number ten is having its moment. In a few days, synagogues around the world will chant the Ten Commandments in honor of Shavuot.

What follows are ten reasons why Jews go for cheesecake and other dairy goodies on Shavuot, the holiday when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

  1. Torah is compared to milk in Song of Songs 4:11. Just like milk sustains the body, Torah nourishes the soul.
  1. The Torah recounts Israel’s journey from the bitterness of Egypt to the sweetness of Israel, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” On Shavuot we recall not just the pause at Sinai but the final destination of Israel.
  1. The numerical value of “milk – Halav – חלב” is 40. This is an allusion to the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai downloading the Torah.
  1. The numerical value of “cheese – Gevinah – גבינה” is 70, which corresponds to the “70 faces of Torah,” the multitude of possible interpretations.
  1. The four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe the Shavuot offering, are “Mincha Hadashah La’Doshem B’Shavuoteichem – an offering of new grain to Hashem on your Festival of Weeks.” The initials of these four words are מחלב. This means “from milk.”
  1. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were considered to be as innocent as newborns, whose food is milk.
  1. Scholars note that ethnic spring harvest festivals – not just Jewish – often feature dairy dishes, perhaps because this was the season for producing cheese.
  1. When the Jews received the laws of Kosher slaughter and cooking on Mt. Sinai, they didn’t have the tools to immediately prepare for a meat meal. So they went dairy.

2. Mt. Sinai is also called Har Gavnunim הר גבנונים, “the mountain of majestic peaks” in Psalms 68:16. The similar Hebrew word Gevinahגבינה                      means “cheese.”

  1. This is not necessarily the best, but it is original, though it builds on #10. Milk symbolizes life. It’s a product that flows from a living animal and sustains another living animal. By contrast, meat is a product that comes from a dead animal. Torah, like milk, emerges from life, and our experiences and Torah nourish the living. Like milk, Torah symbolizes life. L’Chaim.

One thing that impresses me about the Jewish tradition is the range of possible answers to any given question, like this one. Just as cheesecake is enhanced by its broad range of flavors, the Torah is richer when it yields multiple interpretations. It’s a prism that refracts a rainbow of light onto our world.

Chag Sameach!

Liberty and Equality Throughout the Land

Posted on May 6, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

As a native Philadelphian, this week’s Torah portion of Behar holds a special place in my heart.  Here is found the source of the inspiring words inscribed on the Liberty Bell, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).  While in the American context this referred to the freedom of those living in the colonies who wished independence from British rule, in the Biblical context these words literally referred to freeing slaves every 50th year.  In the ancient world if one was indebted to a particular creditor and could not pay him back because he had become destitute, the solution that served both parties was that the debtor would become an indentured slave to the creditor.  This way the creditor received value for his lost money and the debtor was provided with food and shelter for he and his family.  However, in instituting the Jubilee year during which all slaves became free again, the Torah provided a mechanism by which slavery and inequality could not be inherited and passed down from generation to generation, creating a permanent class of the “haves” and a permanent class of the “have nots”.  As such, during the Jubilee year all debts were forgiven and any ancestral lands were returned back to the original family owners.

These values of equality and freedom, expressed in Jewish law that was applied to societal living, reminds us today of the importance of maintaining laws and behaviors that support the success of all community members.  As many will recall, Maimonides stated that the highest form of tzedakah was not evaluated by how much charity was given, though that too is a virtue, but rather by giving a person an occupation — “to teach a man to fish”.  Donating money to provide basic needs is a huge mitzvah, without doing many would suffer and even die.  That is why we, at Beth El, make sure to fulfill this important commandment. However, that type of tzedakah will not change the ultimate situation of the person in need.  Providing access to education, job training programs, and career opportunities is perhaps the modern day equivalent of the Jubilee year.  It allows for someone to rebuild and to provide for themselves a path to a better life.

Therefore, I was so proud of our Social Action and Love Your Neighbor committees as they facilitated a presentation to our community of different organizations that are doing this wonderful type of work. Right in our backyard, the Highwood Public Library, which has become a community center as well, is providing tutoring and career training.  And Waukegan to College is helping to ensure student success and is providing resources to help Waukegan students who might not have otherwise been able to enroll in universities and be successful in the college setting.  If you would like to help, please be in touch with Abby Lasky at alasky@nssbethel.org or click on https://www.nssbethel.org/community/social-action/season-of-mitzvot/  In doing so we fulfill the spirit of our Torah, and the proclamation of the Liberty Bell, in bringing true freedom to all the inhabitants of our land.


Holiness is Hard

Posted on April 29, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

The word kadosh, or Holy, is an interesting word. According to the dictionary, it can mean several things:

  1. Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.
  2. (of a person) devoted to the service of God
  3. Morally and spiritually excellent

It is also related to the word “whole”, and so there is a dimension of completeness or fullness – in Hebrew, shalom or sh’leimut.

Last week in Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code – our charge to be holy because God is holy, and the list of some of the key ways in which we are to live our lives to that best end. For those who remember studying this with me several years ago, the Holiness Code mirrors the Ten Commandments, using other words. In Emor we learn more about the ways in which we are to live a holy life, a life of spiritual and ritual purity, and how we offer our deepest gratitude to God for all that God has given us.

We learn about appropriate marriages for the Kohanim, that they may maintain spiritual purity in their families and households; that they may serve as exemplars of the highest standard of sacred living. And then there is a verse which challenges our contemporary understanding–really all the work we have done as a holy community towards inclusion–when the Torah states that a Kohen with a physical deformity may not serve in the Temple. There are many commentaries about this verse, and I suppose the idea of wholeness comes into play here, but it is a very challenging verse to read.

After describing some aspects of the Mishkan,  the Torah goes on to list the Holy Observances–the Festivals, the Counting of the Omer, and Shabbat. These are opportunities for us to approach God fully, offering the best of what we received from the earth or through hard work and good fortune, showing pure joy and gratitude for all that is ours.

As I reflect on the past year, I think about how my own sense of gratitude and completeness has shifted. It has become so much easier to be grateful for everything, especially the little things, since life changed last Spring. It has become easier to feel more complete, more at peace, since then. As a result, my spiritual life has changed as well. I feel closer to God, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for community, and I can pray more honestly. This has all been so freeing. The moment gratitude and spirituality took a greater role in my life, I suddenly became so much more at peace with life and with the world around me. 

Holiness is hard. It takes work to live a holy life. But that is our challenge as Jews. We are to be the standard bearers of living lives bound by ethics, mitzvot, and laws, all of which ultimately bring a dimension of holiness to our lives. As we read the book of Vayikra, I invite you to join me in this quest for holiness. Pray more. Practice gratitude. Meditate. Come to shul. Light Shabbat candles and have dinner with people you love. Each of these things, when compounded, takes us one step closer to a life of holiness.

The Stumbling Block of Misinformation

Posted on April 22, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion is the double header of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Deep within the portion, in Chapter 19 of Vayikra (Leviticus), is a listing of ethical admonitions punctuated by the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (“Va’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha”).

Within this list we find “Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Leviticus 19: 14) On the surface, it’s a simple commandment. My mom was legally blind most of my life; we took care to make sure there was nothing ever hazardous in her way so she wouldn’t trip. But like many things in Torah, you have to look beneath the surface and into the subtext and metaphors to understand what G-d is trying to say to us in our time.

How many of us get multiple phone calls and emails every day from scam artists promising pots of gold or, conversely, threatening to send the IRS or the FBI knocking at the front door unless we pay up?

Misinformation. Disinformation. Stumbling blocks for the Social Media Age. Rumors morph into “facts” and even conspiracy theories twisted into ill-informed realities and urban myth—spread like wildfire on Facebook, Twitter, texts, and beyond—stumbling blocks, believed as truth by enough people to cause genuine harm. Whether it’s COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions, Jewish space lasers, or vast QAnon-style pedophile conspiracies, they prey upon the uniformed—the metaphorically blind, and to corrosive effect.

“Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind”—a commandment from G-d as relevant today as the latest social media post.


Yom Haatzmaut: 7.3 reasons to love Israel at 73

Posted on April 14, 2021

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

In honor of Israel’s 73rd birthday today, here are 7.3 reasons to feel renewed pride in our Jewish home. (I could do 73, but that would be a Thursday Thesis instead of a Thursday Thought!)

  1. Israel’s ahead-of-the-world vaccination rollout – Israel has successfully vaccinated over half its residents for Covid 19 – 5.3 million people. Nations all over the world look to Israel for insights in returning society to pre-pandemic life.
  1. The Abraham Accords– 2020 saw these agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Soon other Muslim and Arab countries began to normalize relations with Israel too: Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. We hope more will follow soon.
  1. Nonstop flights– This year United Airlines began flying nonstop flights from O’Hare Airport to Tel Aviv. And vaccinated international tourists can visit again starting May 23rd. Celebrate by joining Beth El’s winter break trip to Israel.
  1. Astounding inventions – Last year Time Magazine included 6 Israeli innovations in its list of 100 best inventions. This includes the City Transformer, a foldable electric vehicle.
  1. Commitment to global natural disaster relief– Israel continues to assist internationally when natural disaster strikes. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli drones (Airobotics) will now assist in emergencies in the US by helping to locate survivors during natural disasters.
  1. Dead Sea Scrolls 2.0 – Israeli archaeologists announced last month the discovery of dozens of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, dated around 2000 years ago. The new fragments are thought to be part of a scroll hidden away during the Bar Kochba Revolt in the 2nd century.
  1. Kidney donations to strangers– According to Israel 21c, Israel leads the world in its rate of kidney donations to strangers. Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber’s (Z”L) organization Matnat Chaim has prompted a 400% increase of living kidney transplants there.

And .3 – Shtisel Season 3 – The third season of the hit TV show Shtisel was just released on Netflix! (This is a third of the series, which conveniently rounds to .3).

Israel is not perfect and has room to improve – much like Chicago and the US are imperfect too but we love them nonetheless. But on this day of Israel’s birthday, let’s make sure to celebrate all the blessings of our home in Eretz Yisrael.

The Power of Reflection

Posted on April 7, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

Even before I understood why, I have always appreciated the quiet reflective moments that life sometimes offers me.  For example, I look back with fondness on moments of waking up early while on vacation in the wilderness and sitting quietly watching the morning unfold with only the sounds of nature as my companions.  I recall with great fulfillment the nighttime strolls with Erica on the deck of the cruise ship we took during our honeymoon, quietly experiencing the wonderful new reality of our marriage.  I recollect many Shabbat afternoons sitting out on a lawn, or on a porch, thinking or just being, happy to experience simply being alive.  Upon reflection I see that these moments represent opportunities to slow down, to raise our awareness, to increase our appreciation and to simply experience the joys of living.  

Later in life I made the connection between the magic of moments such as these and the great spiritual offerings of our amazing Jewish tradition.  To illustrate, our parsha this week gets its name from the word Shimini, or eighth. It is on the eighth day that the mishkan (holy tabernacle) is dedicated.  It is also on the 8th day that we celebrate a bris.  Why eight?  The week is a seven day cycle and the holiest day is the 7th, Shabbat! However, the 8th is the day after the complete cycle.  It is the day that represents the importance of how we reflect on, celebrate, and appreciate the fullness of what came before. 

Symbolically it reminds us to take advantage of a number of powerful aspects of religious life.  First there is prayer, a daily invitation to create an oasis in our day for reflection and contemplation.  Second, holiday celebrations, which create a break in the regular cycle of the calendar and give us a chance to focus on aspects of life that we often fail to think about enough.  And, third, there is the great gift of Shabbat, which, as Heschel taught, is the ultimate “palace in time” dedicated to appreciation, spirituality and raising awareness.    

My prayer this week is that we all explore the power of Shmini and consider the many ways in which Judaism helps us to reflect on life and soak in the significance of life’s most important blessings.