Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Thanksgiving Every Day

Posted on November 19, 2019

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

It’s hard to believe Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Although most of us think of Thanksgiving as the day for watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (a family tradition since I was little girl), football on TV, and a big family feast of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, the very name suggests that the holiday is so much more than a day off (and day before the shopping spree also known as “Black Friday”).

This very American holiday, in many ways, emulates the fall festival of Sukkot, celebrated last month. Some scholars have attributed the beginnings of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims’ understanding of the Jewish autumn festival of Sukkot: a time for giving thanks to God for the bounty of the harvest.

As Jews, we observe Thanksgiving every day during our daily worship services: Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Mincha. Our liturgy articulates directs us toward gratitude in every service, in numerous prayers.

We give thanks for the extraordinary—the big miracles—in the “Al Hanissim” (for the miracles of Chanukah, Purim, and the State of Israel) section of the Amidah called the “Hoda’ah” (literally, thanksgiving). We start the Hoda’ah with the words “Modim anachnu Lach” (We give thanks to you) and go on to thank God for not only the big miracles, but the daily “small” miracles that surround our lives.

The Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings)—the series of blessings traditionally recited upon waking each morning, and which begin our daily Shacharit service express gratitude to God for the often easily overlooked things: clothing, food, eyesight, freedom, the basic act of awakening less weary than we were when we fell to sleep, and even the simple functioning of our internal organs. These are only a few of the opportunities we have in our worship to offer thanksgiving and make thanks-giving a daily, as well as, a once-a-year event.

There is so much for which I am grateful as we come to our national day of thanks, not the least of which is becoming a full-time part of the North Suburban Beth El family. There are so many in the congregation (staff and congregants) I would like to thank, it would be impossible to name them all. Just know you have my endless gratitude for making this time of transition as easy as possible and welcoming Phil and I into the NSS Beth El community.

In advance, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

Seeing Criticism as Critical: The Art of Rebuke in Judaism

Posted on November 14, 2019

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17). 

Very few of us like being criticized.  It often hurts to know that we didn’t do everything 100% correctly and that we were not always at our best.

However, without critical feedback, how can we improve?  Without someone pointing out our mistakes or sharing why our perspective is flawed, how will we make better choices in the future? 

Generally, in our society today we have become incredibly sensitive to criticism and most people like to avoid giving it or getting it.  According to Judaism, this mindset is short-sighted.  As the Sages lamented way back at the beginning of the millennium, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ‘I swear that there is none in our generation who is able to accept rebuke! If one says, “Take the splinter out of your teeth,” the other retorts, “Take the beam out of your eyes!”’” In other words, even then the Sages were discouraged that when one gave critical feedback to another, instead of taking it in and using it constructively, the other became defensive and counter-attacked the one who delivered the criticism. 

The truth is that we need to be able to hear criticism about our actions and choices in order to keep away from mistakes as well as to heal relationships we might not have realized we tarnished by our behavior.  As the midrash says, “Rabbi Jose said, ‘A love without reproof is no love.’ Resh Lakish said, ‘Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.’”

Yet, how we deliver critical feedback is just as important.  There is way to rebuke and a way not to rebuke.  As the Rambam codified in his Mishneh Torah law code, “He who rebukes another . . . should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good.” 

In other words, criticism should be leveled only when it is constructive, done for the benefit of the person or the people for whom they are responsible and should not embarrass the person. 

According to Judaism, being a fellow community member means that we need to be able to deliver criticism and receive it.  And when doing so, we need to uphold the highest level of menschlekite possible.  Otherwise the act of criticizing might do even more harm than good.

Shabbat Shalom! 

The Days of Our Lives

Posted on November 6, 2019

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

The older I get, the more I realize just how quickly time moves forward, seemingly without mercy. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago we were celebrating Simchat Torah and now are off and running in the programming year. It’s strange how quickly we (a staff and a community) are able to switch gears and move from one head space to the next, from the grandeur of the High Holy Days to the excitement of all the wonderful classes and programs which now require our attention. But, as the French say, c’est la vie—such is life!

And it really is that way. This week I celebrated a special birthday. True, any birthday we merit to celebrate is special, but this one has special significance for me. I turned 36, which as many of you know is “double chai.” For most people on the planet, the age of 36 signifies perhaps nothing more than being mathematically closer to 40 than to 30, but for us Jews there is deeper meaning to be found.

Chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is always written in the plural. Even when we will read in the Torah about the “lifetime of Sarah” (Chayei Sarah), we read this in plural form. I find that very interesting, and as one who enjoys playing with language I am drawn to attempt to understand why this might be. After much reflection (Chayei Sarah was my Bar Mitzvah Parasha, and this interesting use of plural about a single woman was one of the first things I noticed. So I suppose one could say I have been pondering this for 23 years!), I have come up with the following.

We all go through many distinct periods in our lives. There are, often, very clear “divisions” in our lives, and frequently these “divisions” are manifest in the way we live — a time we DEFINITELY changed a habit; a time we changed our level of religious observance; a time we changed the way we dress or the music we enjoy; and certainly there are moments in our life cycle such as becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, getting married or divorced, beginning or ending a job, etc., which define these distinct sections. 

In my own journey, this year is very significant—I have treated it like a starting-over point in many ways. I have made strong commitments to myself about the way I wish to live. I have adopted (hopefully) healthier habits around eating, I have decided to take up some activities which promote mental, spiritual and physical health, and I have committed to reading more for my own pleasure and personal growth. Oh yes — and in this, my double-chai year, I will begin a very significant new chapter in my life as I marry my incredible life partner, Robyn, who is my greatest support in all of these efforts. I have also committed myself to professional growth, working to grow my skills as a pastor, as a singer, and as a professional. 

Like Avram in this week’s Parasha, Lech Lecha, I don’t know where the journey will take me. But I felt an internal alarm wake me up and push me down a path of growth, of new experiences, and to do so with an open mind and an open heart. Avram, like Noah in last week’s Sidra, doesn’t answer God’s call with words. He simply acts. He does as he is told. The biblical narrative doesn’t give us any insight into his thought process, conversations with his wife, or questions to God. In my mind, Avram simply understands that a fantastic opportunity lies ahead and knows that he had best take advantage of it. On his journey we see his growth as a leader, a husband, a father, and a servant of God. He is not perfect, but he does well, and the lessons he teaches us about the journey of life are truly timeless. 

I pray that we all take the opportunity throughout our lives to make conscious decisions about beginning new chapters, trying new things, and continuing to grow into our best selves. I pray that we not only seek these opportunities, but recognize them when they come our way. And I pray that with each new chapter of our lives we recommit to our obligations to our faith, to God, and to making the world just a little bit better, Ish K’matnat Yado, each of us according to the unique gifts with which God has endowed us. Time moves mercilessly forward, and yet if we are able to recognize and take advantage of each moment we are gifted, we are sure to live lives of deep meaning and of purpose. 

See you in shul.



Notes on “The Spy”

Posted on October 30, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Netflix thriller “The Spy” is entertaining – as well as informative, inspiring, hilarious, heartbreaking, and illuminating. It was a window into Israeli history that I hadn’t looked through previously.

Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Eli Cohen, the Egyptian-born Israeli spy who embedded himself into the Syrian political and military hierarchy in the 1960’s. In this seriously-hard-to-believe story, he charmed his way into meeting key people, uncovered top secrets, and shared them with Israel. He reached awesome heights before the Syrians discovered his true identity and hanged him. His contributions to Israel’s security and military operations both in his lifetime and afterward were monumental. 

I have a few thoughts on finishing the series.

First, I can’t get over the fact that the international behemoth Netflix chose to produce and promote a slice of Israeli history. Less surprising but equally significant is that Amazon Prime Video just produced and released a new show called “TechTalk” that features 50 Israeli tech companies. There are several other current Israeli shows on each media platform as well. That little country of ours is getting a lot of screen time. 

Second, the show is a jarring reminder how precarious life in Israel was before its epic victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Set in the early years of that decade, “The Spy” shows viewers how fragile the country was and the enormous risks the government had to take in order to survive. Watching this on screen fit with what I have read about Israel’s history at the time. Before the ‘67 victory, the country was petrified of a possible second Holocaust, as its surrounding enemies sat perched closer to Israel’s population centers than they do today. From the civilian standpoint, the simple apartments, clothing, and playgrounds show that average Israelis lived very spartan lives. 

Third, the show is a reminder that Israel is not and was not a home for Jews who were exclusively white and Ashkenazi. When I was little I pictured Israel as full of European-origin Ashkenazi Jews because Israel was the Jewish state, and all the Jews I had met were white and Ashkenazi. (Now I know that is not true in the US and certainly Israel). True, these were the Jews who held political power for a long time; in the show, the important decision-makers like Dan are all Ashkenazi. But the show portrays how Israelis also came from the Middle East and how some spoke Arabic so well they could pass for Arab Muslims; Eli Cohen did for a long time. 

Finally, “The Spy” starkly portrays that Cohen chose country over family. We know this because when he returned to Syria for the final time he threw his Israeli citizen clothes all over the room, not bothering to fold them neatly for a return trip to his family that would never be. Without Cohen and many, many others placing Israel first, the State of Israel would be weaker, if it existed at all. 

I think the very end of the series is most telling. The postscript for Eli Cohen and his wife Nadia does not end the show. Instead, the last word goes to the Mossad recruiting the next spy for Israel. The message: Despite the horrific dangers, Israel needed a steady supply of brave citizens willing to cross into enemy territory to be its eyes and ears. 

When I think of the Israelis who made Israel possible, I have always thought first of the countless heroic men and women who put on the olive-green uniform of the IDF. But watching this show reminded me there were – and are – many more who lived in similar danger who protected Israel out of uniform as spies in hostile territory. Like Eli Cohen.



Posted on October 23, 2019

By Rabbi Schwab

Over Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the tragedy of the domestic terrorist attack one year ago on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven Jews were murdered during Shabbat services.  During that sermon (which you can read by clicking here) I called upon each of us to do our part in fighting anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry wherever they are found.  One of the main ways I proposed to do this was to claim and re-claim the joy of positive participation in Jewish life. 

In that spirit I share that on the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh attack, The American Jewish Committee has called on all people of good conscience to #ShowUpForShabbat on October 26th.  Beth El is honored to participate this year.  Please join us and come together to honor the 11 victims and raise our collective voice for a world free of anti-Semitism, hate, and bigotry.  We must all be united in combating anti-Semitism in our country and around the world.  And, as Jews, let us re-affirm our love for our heritage and strengthen ourselves as a people.  I will be “Showing Up for Shabbat” in New York at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah and I urge you to join Rabbi Freedman and Hazzan Tisser here at Beth El! 

Am Yisrael Chai!


Sukkot/January 2nd: Happy New Year!

Posted on October 16, 2019

By Rabbi Freedman

The most important day for New Year’s resolutions is January 2nd.  Not January 1st.

On January 1st – New Year’s Day – we may have resolved to do something better, like going to the gym more. We may have even exercised because work and school were canceled. But what happens on January 2nd? When work and school resume and you have to squeeze the workout into your busy day? To create the habit, you have to make it happen, not wait for it to happen. What happens on January 2nd is a better indicator of the year ahead than January 1st. 

Why does Sukkot, which concludes with Simchat Torah, occur now? Haven’t we been in shul enough over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Why not celebrate Sukkot in another month without any holidays? 

I believe the answer is because Sukkot is like January 2nd. Together, the High Holidays mark not only the beginning of the year but a clean wiping of the slate. Sukkot offers the opportunity to start the year on the right foot and create the right habits: with Mitzvot, with joining as community in shul, with joining friends and family for quality time in the Sukkah. It’s the logical follow up to the High Holidays because Sukkot emphasizes what we think about on the High Holidays: relationships, community, and G-d. Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to begin building the Sukkah – even in a token way – the night of Yom Kippur break-fast. 

I wish you a joyful Sukkot!

From Oy to Joy (Sukkot)

Posted on October 10, 2019


by Hazzan Tisser 

In his Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Rabbi Schwab referenced a book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, entitled Antisemitism: Here and Now; specifically, the final chapter, “From Oy to Joy.” As I sit at my computer just hours before we will gather for the opening service of Yom Kippur, I cannot think of a more appropriate title for the period of the next five days.  

Over the course of the next 25 or so hours, we will once again bring ourselves as close as we can to experiencing our own deaths. We will dress in white, without adornments of jewels and perfume; we will not eat nor drink; we will not bathe in luxurious fashion; and we will literally fall on our faces, begging for God’s kindness, until the shofar sounds at Neilah and we know we can then continue on with the work of a new year.  

Immediately after we get home (well, after pausing for a bagel, kugel, other varieties of sweet carbohydrates, and some coffee…), we begin preparations for the next holiday — Sukkot. We all know that Sukkot is the fall harvest festival…a time to connect with nature, to be with family, to eat in the sukkah, and with the seemingly strange custom of shaking some plants and a particular citrus in circles while reciting a b’racha… But Sukkot is so much more than that! Just as Yom Kippur has become, for many of us, the most sacred day of the year, Sukkot is, in the Rabbinic mind, “THE festival” (heh-chag), “THE time of joy!” (z’man simchateinu). 

So how are we supposed to switch gears so quickly? How do we confront our own mortality, our misdeeds, our least proud acts? How do we come before the Sovereign of Sovereigns, bowing down to the floor, begging for another chance to do better? How do we do this with our full beings, and then in almost an instant re-approach God with hearts full of joy, in beautifully decorated sukkot, and become our most joyous and festive selves?  

I want to propose that there are a number of ideas in each of these two seemingly disparate holy days which connect them very deeply. As I mentioned above, each one of these holidays demands that we experience one extreme or the other of the emotional spectrum — awesome fear on Yom Kippur (mixed, of course, with the joy of knowing at Neilah that we are forgiven), and extreme celebration on Sukkot. We start off the year by exposing ourselves to the highs and lows we will ultimately experience over the course of the year, all the while connecting ourselves more deeply to God, to community and to our families. There is something very poignant about this—it’s almost as if to remind us that to be successful in the work we set out to do over the course of the year, we must not keep to ourselves; we must keep close to God, and we must know that we have supportive and loving community and family to aid us on our journey…and that we must be present for them as well.  

Then there is an element of fragility which exists in both holidays as well. On Yom Kippur we examine the frailty of our lives. From our petitions to God to the Yizkor prayers, we cannot help but realize the limits of our own mortality. On Sukkot, of course, we are commanded to spend our meal times, and by some interpretations, even sleep, in the sukkah—a temporary structure which is completely vulnerable to nature, and which could theoretically collapse at any moment. I think that through these two expressions of fragility we can and should be reminded to enjoy and to maximize all of the wonderful things and opportunities which make our lives so rich.  

There are a number of other connective themes between these two days, and I would encourage you to think about the holidays themselves and then invite you to share—with each other, and with me—the connections you have been able to draw to create even deeper meaning and celebration over the next couple of weeks.  

In the meanwhile, it is my hope that over Yom Kippur you were able to experience moments of personal reflection, that perhaps you left the sanctuary changed or moved, even just a little bit, from how you felt when you entered. It is my prayer that all of your prayers be answered, and that all of our worthy deeds over the course of this year be blessed by the Holy One. May we ultimately find next week that just as we pray for God’s protection on Yom Kippur, we find that protection inside the Sukkat Shalom, the sukkah of peace, and that in that protection we find many things to be joyful about and to celebrate.  

From my family to yours, Hag Sukkot Same’ach 

Guide for 5 Minute Jewish Learning

Posted on October 2, 2019

My Rosh HaShanah sermon centered around the ideal of Jewish learning, broadly defined. Take five minutes each day to learn more about what interests you personally about the Jewish experience.

I am here to help you find something that excites you. Feel free to contact me – afreedman@nssbethel.org

Here is my guide to help you find Jewish content that interests you:

Torah – 

5 in Five (video) – I explain the Parsha in five minutes. Check your Beth El weekly email. 

Covenant and Conversation (email) – Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interprets the weekly Parsha. Subscribe at http://rabbisacks.org/

#Parsha (book) – Israeli journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir comments on each Parsha.

Talmud – 

Koren Talmud (book) – This new edition has an easy-to-follow English translation complete with pictures and graphics.

Mishna Yomit (web) – This introduction to Mishna is translated by the Conservative Yeshiva’s Dr. Josh Kulp. http://learn.conservativeyeshiva.org/mishnah/

Halacha/Jewish Law – 

Responsa Radio (podcast) – Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Avi Killip from Hadar offer their answers to real-life issues today.

Responsa from Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (web) – This is the official database of Jewish legal positions from the Conservative Movement. https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards

Israel – 

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (book) – Daniel Gordis writes an introduction to Israel’s history that reads like a story. 

Times of Israel (website) – This site covers Israel in all its arenas, not just politics. 

Modern Hebrew – 

Ulpan Or (web) – While I haven’t used this program, I know people who rave about its Skype-like option for one-on-one tutoring.

If you’re not sure where to begin – 

Beth El’s Continuing Education classes (in-person classes) – A wide range of options. Click here to see current online brochure. Adult Education Fall Classes 5780

The Maxwell Abbell Library at Beth El (books) – Lots of choices here at home. 

Myjewishlearning.com (web) – This site is a clearinghouse for everything Jewish and is easy to navigate. 

Jewish Literacy (book) – Joseph Telushkin writes a wide-ranging introduction to Jewish knowledge. 

Keep in mind that there are plenty of other excellent choices out there. It doesn’t matter exactly where you begin so long as you jump in somewhere. 

I’d love to hear about your Jewish learning explorations. 

While five minutes one day is nothing, five minutes every day adds up to something significant and meaningful.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah!

Click here to read my Rosh Hashanah sermon.



Reflections on a Year Gone By

Posted on September 26, 2019

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

As I sit in my living room with my Mahzor open, knowing that Rosh Hashanah is but a few days away, I am looking at the text of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. This, of course, being the prayer in which we are reminded that during these days our acts are recalled and our fates decided. Each time I look at these pages in the prayer book, no matter how many times I’ve looked at them before, I am compelled to stop and to reflect on the year that is coming to an end.

In many ways, 5779 has been a remarkable year. As a community, we have seen phenomenal change. We have enjoyed many new programs and initiatives; we have reinvigorated our Friday night davening through Rinat Shabbat; we have welcomed Hazzan Barbara Barnett as our new Ritual Director; we have celebrated (and will continue to do so throughout the year) Rabbi Schwab’s ascent to the position of our Senior Rabbi; and of course, we are delighted to hear how Rabbi Kurtz and Bryna are so enjoying their time in Jerusalem. Personally, I have enjoyed watching the fruits of my labors at the synagogue—the success of programs, and the joy of watching our b’nai mitzvah share their milestones from the bimah. I have also particularly enjoyed singing in communities across the country, and even in the synagogue in Dresden, Germany, where my late grandfather became a bar mitzvah some 85 years ago. And, as many of you know, I became engaged to an incredible woman.

Even with all of the success and celebration, this year has also had its difficult moments. As a community, there have been illnesses and deaths, and we have held each other up through those challenging and sad moments. I have shared with you my sadness as I lost my beloved grandmother just after last Sukkot, and as well we mourned the tragic loss of my fiancé’s teenage son, as well as her grandmother, in January. There are no words to describe the holes in our hearts, and yet even through these sad and difficult moments we have the opportunity to reflect in ways that will allow us to live a more full and meaningful 5780.

I want to share with you a poem, which you’ll find below this message. It is often read at funerals, but it is an important reminder as we come before Avinu Malkeinu, asking for another year of goodness, of health, and of life.

I want to close first by asking for your individual and collective forgiveness for my misdeeds and shortcomings over the course of the past year. If I was late to an appointment, or if I said or did something hurtful, I am most deeply sorry, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss it privately and to do proper teshuvah.

Robyn, Talia, and Ethan join me in wishing you and yours a most happy, healthy, successful and fulfilling 5780. May we only meet for s’machot, for happy occasions, this year.

See you in shul,

Hazzan Tisser


the poem by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?

By Linda Ellis, Copyright © Inspire Kindness, 1996, thedashpoem.com

Beth El to Launch Adult Bnai Mitzvah Class in 5780

Posted on September 18, 2019

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

If you did not have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and wish to do so, Beth El wants you to join other adults on this meaningful Jewish journey. 

Here are the details of this new initiative:

  • Classes will meet twice weekly from November through May.
  • In November/December, students will have a weekly Torah study class with me. The class will be entitled, “Forefathers and Four Mothers.” Together we’ll closely examine these pivotal Jews as characters, through the eyes of adults. Even if you learned about them as children, I assure you that your perspective has changed.
  • From January-May, students will participate in a weekly skills class with Hazzan Tisser and Hazzan Barnett. They will teach the classic skills of how to lead prayers and chant from the Torah/Haftorah. 
  • Throughout these months, students will join a Sunday morning learner’s service. This service combines practicing the basic prayers along with the clergy explaining their meaning and choreography. This service meets from approximately 9:20-10:10 AM and will combine with Gesher and their parents. 
  • The big day will be Saturday May 30th, which is also the 2nd day of Shavuot. This Jewish holiday – the anniversary of receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai – is the perfect day to celebrate these adults who reaffirm their commitment to Torah as adults.
  • Interested students will decide upon a class day/time together. The reason we decided to offer this choice is because it maximizes the chances that interested students can participate.

If you have questions about the process, please contact Hazzan Tisser at btisser@nssbethel.org. If you are interested, please contact Ana Igornov at aigornov@nssbethel.org by October 25th.

The cost will be $180 per student, which covers the adult education fee and a Kiddush contribution.

While students will bring varying levels of Hebrew abilities, we require that students minimally be able to decode Hebrew (by January). This ensures that the skills class will be teaching the actual trope. For those students whose Hebrew is not quite there, please contact Hazzan Tisser for options as to how to take the next step in Hebrew.

I personally find it very moving when adults freely demonstrate their own religious commitments. It is our very own Jewish Tradition that celebrates that the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old when he learned the Aleph Bet!

These adult Bnai Mitzvah participants will be an inspiring model to their families, their community, and their clergy.