Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts


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.

Counting the Days

Posted on March 31, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

One my mentors had a favorite expression about counting that he would mention in celebration of birthdays. He liked to say, “spend less time counting the days and more time making each day count.”

Yet here we are counting. Yes, COVID cases—just as we have for the past many months.

But Sunday evening, the second night of Pesach, we began our annual count of 49 days, called Sefirat Ha’Omer, and ending with onset of Shavuot—from redemption from slavery to the gift of Torah. It’s not so much a countdown as a count-up, as we travel further and further from Mitzrayim and closer to Sinai, from slavery (and a slavery mentality) to freedom (with its joys and obligations).

Commanded to us in the Torah (in the Book of Leviticus—Vayikra), the omer count also can be viewed as an invitation beckoning us to embark on a seven-week journey into the human psyche, into the soul.

Jewish mystical practice encourages us to embark on this journey within the framework of human experience. Paralleing Jewish journey from the depths and despair of enslavement in Egypt when emotion is a luxury to Shavuot, when we experience God’s presence at Mount Sinai at the revelation of Torah.

This first week is focused on basic decency—loving kindess, in Hebrew, “Chesed.” I invite you to peek in our Shabbat Siddur Lev Shalem (page 63), to read a nice explanation of all the days  and weeks of the omer.

For now, think about this week’s focus on lovingkindness and beautifully it’s expressed in words of Torah, “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” – Love your neighbor as yourself, NSS Beth El’s theme of the year!

I will leave you with this evocative poem about this special season of making each day count:

The Season of Counting
This is the season of counting:
Of counting days and nights,
Of counting the space between slavery of the body
And freedom of the soul.

This is a season of seeing:
Of seeing earth and sky,
Of seeing renewal in the land
And renewal in our hearts.

This is a season of journey:
Of inner journeys and outer journeys
Taking us places that need us,
Places that we need.

This is the season of counting,
The season of joyous anticipation,
Of wondrous waiting, in devotion and awe,
For our most precious gift,
The gift that binds our hearts to each other across the millennia,
The gift that binds our souls to G-d’s Holy Word.

© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day


Green Onions and Lamb: Bringing New Traditions into the Seder

Posted on March 25, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser 

The liturgy of the Pesach seder includes the verse “V’nomar l’fanav shirah chadashah — we will sing before God a new song.” In translation, we should be very familiar with this phrase. It is presented in the command form “You shall sing…” twice in the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, recited each Friday night. In the case of Pesach, however, we offer the verse as not a command from above, but as a promise of humanity.

So how do we do this? How do we take the Seder–a ritual prescribed as early as Mishnaic times, 2,000 years ago–and make it relevant? We have learned to include contemporary songs and readings, relating the ancient story of the Exodus to our times. This year will be no different, except that in many ways we will feel the impact of the story much more personally than perhaps ever in our lifetimes (for many of us). We can finally begin to see the end of the chaos this pandemic has created. We are experiencing the beginnings of freedom that the miracle of science has gifted us. In that way, dayeinu–it’s enough if we stop there! By relating our present situation to the Exodus from Egypt, we have more than fulfilled the commandment that each of us is to see ourselves as if we had actually left Egypt.

But there’s another dimension of the Seder which is so vitally important. That is the element of tradition. This is as much prescriptive as it is personal. There are those elements of ritual which have been part of the Pesach experience for thousands of years, and then there are those traditions which have developed over centuries and across different communities across the world. As a child, I recall adding several new elements to our Seder: a fourth matzah in solidarity with the Jews of the former Soviet Union; Miriam’s Cup filled with water, recalling how, by Miriam’s merit, God provided B’nei Yisrael with water in the desert; different types of Haroset as our family grew (but never without my Grandma Diana’s prune-based Haroset, strong and pasty enough to hold together the largest of pyramids!).

With just days to go until the Seder, and with this year still being very different for so many of us than we are accustomed to, why not add something new, meaningful, or even fun to the seder?! Here are some interesting and fun customs you might consider to enhance and add meaning to your own Seder:

  • Using masks or other fun homemade props for the reading of the Ten Plagues
  • Dressing up nicely (yes, even that which can’t be seen on Zoom!) – we’re free!
  • Do as Jews from Iran and Afghanistan: during the singing of Dayeinu, whip those around you with green onions
  • Do as Syrian Jews: during Yachatz, break the middle matzah into the shape of a Hebrew letter
  • Consider the tradition of Jews from Gibraltar (if you can stomach it): add dust from actual bricks into your Haroset for an authentic, historical experience
  • If you are ready for warmer weather, pretend you’re in South Africa where it’s autumn and include lots of apples in your meal
  • Do like Moroccan Jews: just after reciting Ha Lachma Anya, the leader of the Seder carries the Seder plate around, tapping each participant and guest on the head with it while chanting, “Bib’hilu yatzanu mi-Mitzrayim — ha lachma anya” — “We left Egypt in great haste — this is the Bread of Poverty”
  • If it is your custom to sing Chag Gadya at the end of the Seder, assign a “part” to each person present (in person or on Zoom) and as you go through the song have each person make a silly noise or act appropriately (or, inappropriately!) to bring the song to life!

Whatever you do, however or wherever you celebrate, I pray for all of us that next year we will reach “the promised land” and be able to celebrate the Festival as we truly desire! Robyn and the kids join me in wishing each of you and those you love a Zisn and Kosher Pesach — a sweet and Kosher Pesach!