Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

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 DASH

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.

How to Forgive Others

Posted on September 12, 2019

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

We are currently in the midst of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month before the High Holidays.  Spurred by the blowing of the shofar each morning, our tradition reminds us to engage in the process of teshuvah, of repentance, now – not to wait until the Day of Judgment itself to take up this sacred task.  For most of us this means embarking on a journey of self-reflection, identifying wrongs we have committed and doing our best to right these wrongs, which usually minimally includes saying we are sorry and asking for forgiveness.  

Yet, there is another side to the process of teshuvah – preparing ourselves to forgive others.  While there may be exceptions (which we will talk about in my post-Kiddush discussion this Shabbat), Jewish Law requires us to forgive someone who sincerely apologizes and wants to right a wrong they committed.  In fact, in some books of Jewish Law the language is indeed very strong, claiming that not forgiving a sincere penitent is a sin in and of itself.  

Forgiving someone who has wronged you is not a simple thing to do.  That is why we must also use our time in Ellul to prepare ourselves to forgive so that when we are asked to do so, we are ready.  Strategies to aid us include: 

1) Placing ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagining how much we would want to be forgiven if we had made a mistake and harmed someone. 

2)  Reflecting on the toll the psychological and emotional pain has taken on us when we hold onto anger and grudges.  

3) Imagining the feelings we have about the strength of character we show when we are able to be in a position to offer forgiveness.  

4) Bearing in mind that the ability to forgive helps the larger community and society. 

5) Knowing that the wisdom of our tradition requests we do so.  And I know there are many more.

My prayer for all of us in the season of repentance is that we both have the strength and wisdom to seek forgiveness, as well as to forgive those who seek forgiveness from us.  

Cycles

Posted on September 5, 2019

By Hazzan Tisser

Our lives run on cycles–cycles of all sorts. Some sacred, and some mundane. There are the cyclical ups and downs of life…there are periods of peak and of lesser intensity at work…there are cycles in the development of our children…there are the cycles of nature which we acknowledge at every Ma’ariv service…there are the monthly cycles of the sun and moon, which we celebrate each Rosh Hodesh…there are the cycles of our daily routines…and there are others as well. 

I completed a cycle this past Monday evening. In fact, several cycles collided in one evening. Monday afternoon was the last time I recited Kaddish for my grandmother after eleven months of daily recitation. What made the moment especially meaningful is that when I recited the last Kaddish, I was in the home of a bereft family who lost a similarly strong woman—a true matriarch, just like my grandmother—helping them enter shiva just hours after the funeral. My last Kaddish was their first since leaving the cemetery earlier that day. We shared that experience, standing together in sacred time and space. We shared laughter and tears; we shared poems and prayers. We held on to each other for strength, for encouragement, and for the knowledge that we would all be ok. 

The beginning of their sh’loshim (the thirty-day period of mourning) will end on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as the community disperses from shul to a yontev lunch at home. This will not be easy for them. But they have a period of thirty days to prepare themselves for the reality that there will be an empty seat at the Holy Day table this year (a reality which my family will also adjusting to). 

Personally, the end of Kaddish for my grandmother begins a period of sh’loshim for me as well – thirty days of reflection and of remembering, which culminates as well on the second day of Rosh Hashanah with the yahrzeit of my grandfather, whom I loved very much. This period will be one, for me, of deep introspection—of recalling lessons learned and memories shared, and of thinking about how I can use these to better myself. 

We often speak of the ten days starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur as the key period for reflection and calls to action. I would like to propose, however, that just a few days ago we all began a period of sh’loshim—the thirty days leading from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time that the shofar calls to us each morning to pause and reflect. It is during this period that we recite Psalm 27 twice daily, reminding us that we have the potential to grow and to improve, and that God is with us as we do so because God wants us to succeed. And it is the time during which, starting in just two weeks, we will recite daily the selichot—the penitential prayers—which both force us to reflect deeply on our deeds, and which recount daily the Thirteen Attributes of God, which we, as creatures made in the Divine image, must emulate (more on that during Selichot). 

My prayer for us all this Elul is that we take opportunities to pause and to reflect, to remember and to look ahead. I pray that we may all complete this period of sh’loshim a little more whole, and a whole lot better; and that we will reflect together in just a few more weeks when we gather for the High Holy Day services. May we all be blessed with good health and length of days, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year—another cycle. 

Important?  Make Sure You Prepare

Posted on August 28, 2019

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

In the category of “Mom Always Knows Best” I vividly recall a scene from my childhood when my mother inquired if I had a test coming up. She followed with “Did you start studying yet?” The answer was usually “no” and the result, if I didn’t course-correct quickly, was predictable.  For my mother knew that if there was something important on the horizon, the wisest course of action was to prepare for whatever that something was. 

Big presentation at work? Important conversation with your child? Torah reading for the Bat Mitzvah celebration? Public speaking engagement? Big project due? Passover Seder to host? Every one of these requires preparation to have them turn out well — or at least to make the very most out of the opportunity. 

This Shabbat ushers in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe) or what we often call, the High Holidays. During the High Holidays we reflect on our year and on ourselves. We identify those mistakes we have made and faults we possess. We make an effort to apologize to those we have wronged and to construct a plan to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. To say that this is both a large and important project would be an understatement.

Thus, the Rabbis designated this month as a month to prepare for this monumental task. We blow the shofar every morning of Elul to stir us into action and to remind us to begin our introspection and repentance now! Admitting a mistake and finding the strength to actually apologize takes time and energy. It is almost impossible to do on one day, or even over the ten days inclusive of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So remember that both Mom and the Rabbis usually know best: when something important is on the horizon, it is always best to prepare.

I hope that this month of Elul paves the way for a meaningful start to the New Year as we each learn to grow from our mistakes and consequently make the world better!

Back to School, Back to Shul

Posted on August 22, 2019

Rabbi Alex Freedman

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Time to buy the kids new folders; time to buy them new shoes; time to unearth that backpack you buried somewhere last June.

In equal measure for kids and parents, the beginning of the school year is an annual rite of passage. Yet there’s at least one crucial difference between them.

For the students, each year brings a tangible sense of advancement. “No longer am I in Grade X,” they tell themselves with good reason. “I’ve moved up to Grade Y.”

Not so for the parents. It’s possible, even easy, for these school years to feel the same to parents. One year may feel identical to the next. Or if not exactly so, the transition might be gradual instead of as sudden as a first day of school.

As a parent, I envy the ease with which students feel themselves advancing and growing in knowledge. I wish each year brought me a similar emotion.

Having no appetite for late-night homework, final exams, or loads of student debt, I will not be returning to the classroom as a student. Neither will most parents. But you and I can return to shul this week or this year with renewed focus and purpose. And a sense of growth.

I want to share an insight I hope will elevate our understanding of Shabbat. I think many of us intuit Shabbat being the week’s finish line. A day of rest, good food, and time with people we love recharges us for the next week. We believe this because Saturday falls on the “weekend.”

But there’s another way to see it. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in his book Laws of Shabbat shares an amazing Gemara: from the viewpoint of the world, the creation of the six weekdays came before Shabbat. But from the perspective of humankind, who was created on the sixth day, Shabbat came before the six weekdays (B. Talmud Shabbat 69b).

This means that the world knew the six days of the week before Shabbat. But Adam, who was created on Day Six, the first day was Shabbat. The weekdays followed.

Rabbi Melamed writes, “Shabbat is also the anchor and beginning of the next week. From Shabbat we draw spiritual strength for the upcoming week so that we are able to realize, through our activities, the spiritual values that we absorb on Shabbat (7).”

Rabbi Melamed means that Shabbat is also the first day of the week. The day should set the tone for the next six. The values that animate Shabbat – quality time with loved ones, community, prayer, an emphasis on the spiritual – should be activated all week long in some ways. 

I love that he teaches me something new about something that I’ve been doing for so long in the same way. 

As we have only weeks to go before Rosh HaShanah, I hope we can begin to discover a new area of growth so that when the Shofar rings, we feel we are ahead. 

Shavuot: More than Just Blintzes

Posted on June 5, 2019

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Shavuot is perhaps the least observed of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (regalim). Perhaps it’s because it’s the least understood. Let me share with you a new understanding I experienced just this week. 

I spent the beginning of this week in Florida. Robyn and I woke up very early Monday morning to take engagement photos against the beautiful sunrise on the beach. Now, any of you who remember taking professional photographs—for any simcha, or perhaps for professional purposes, or maybe even just family portraits—will, I’m sure, recall that while it’s a beautiful thing to capture special points in our lives, it can become very tiresome pretty quickly (especially before that first cup of coffee!).  “A little bit to the left…chin down…lean into him…put your right hand on her left shoulder…pretend you’re smiling…and on the count of three, say…’We’re getting married!’”  I must admit, after the first 25 minutes (and still with no coffee), I was ready to crawl back into bed. And then something changed. Robyn looked into my eyes and said something to the effect of, “Can you believe that exactly a year ago yesterday we didn’t know that the other existed, and in just about eight months we’ll be married?” 

I’m not sure if it was her words or the way she looked at me, but all of a sudden the experience of staring into a blinding light and holding a smile became something incredibly beautiful. It became an opportunity to embrace a person I love and respect deeply, and to recall so many beautiful moments in our shared journey—many happy, and some sad. And in that instant, I became re-engaged in the task at hand, recognizing what we were truly doing on the beach so early in the morning. 

I want to propose to you (pun absolutely intended!) that Shavuot is the same sort of reminder, and thus perhaps one of the most important observances on our calendar. The rabbis understand Shavuot as the wedding between G-d and the Jewish People, for tradition holds that on Shavuot we experienced Revelation at Sinai, entering into an eternal covenant with G-d. 

Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting—the period known as the Omer, beginning with the 2nd day of Pesach. During that period of time, very similarly to my schedule earlier in the week, we have some highs, we have some lows, and then there is the seemingly mundane task of counting the day toward the end of the evening ma’ariv service. And yet, when we get through the highs of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Lag Ba’omer and Yom Yerushalayim—as well as the lows of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron—we get the gift of a beautiful reminder to look back on our shared history…on the very thing which brought us together—as a community, and as a people in deep and everlasting relationship with G-d. 

So on this Shavuot, I offer us all the challenge to make it about more than blintzes. Take a moment and think back. Think back to the stories of the Torah in which we went from tribes of wandering Arameans to a great nation enslaved, from a newly-freed people to a people with a land and a language and traditions…and from individuals walking this earth alone to people in relationship with each other—be it in romantic relationships or relationships with our families, our friends, or our larger communities. Invite people to your table, make Kiddush together, and share those moments which made the year since last Shavuot so meaningful. Share collective memories, reminding us the precious nature of each and every moment that passes. I believe that, in addition to cheesecake and study, these are the most powerful rituals we can observe on this festival of memory.

 

Bikkur Holim – Tell us who needs a sick visit

Posted on May 29, 2019

Bikkur Holim – Tell us who needs a sick visit
Rabbi Alex Freedman

I’m proud to say Beth El has a Bikkur Holim Committee to visit sick congregants. I’m thrilled to share that this group of 17 is freshly trained by me. Yet I’m surprised to acknowledge that it doesn’t have a list of people to visit. This is where you come in.

Bikkur Holim is no ordinary Mitzvah; it’s one of the ways in which we directly imitate G-d, Who visited Abraham when he was sick at the beginning of Parshat Vayera. As a Jewish community, we visit the sick because it’s a Mitzvah and adds holiness to the world. At Beth El, the Bikkur Holim Committee exists to do this and to communicate that we care about each other. The strength of a community is measured in how it looks after its most vulnerable.

For those who have been very sick or injured, I’m guessing you agree that a visit from somebody lifted your spirits; receiving no visitors would have made a tough situation even more difficult.

As clergy, from time to time we receive a name of somebody who is in the hospital briefly or rehab for a longer period of time. But we know that there are many more members in nursing homes or even in homes who may be quite lonely. They may not be hospital-sick, but they may still not be 100%. In these long-term situations, they may not have visitors. If you know of somebody who could use a visit from a friendly clergy or congregant, please ask their permission to share their name with me. And we’ll be sure to visit them.

Even if you don’t plan to join this committee, there is value in knowing the best way to visit somebody who is sick. Though we wish it were otherwise, at some point each of us will likely have a sick family member or friend and feel moved to visit. But this visit can feel daunting.

Here are a few pointers for visiting somebody who is sick:

1. Call ahead to schedule a visit sometime between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
2. Begin with “I just came to wish you well.” Listen well and follow the person’s lead.
3. Sit down in a place where it’s easy for them to see you.
4. Don’t try to fix or explain the injury or illness.
5. Don’t stay too long, which may tire them out – maybe 15 minutes.

Remember that your presence is the key, and your very act of being there does immeasurable good. Please help us bring this goodness to as many congregants as we can by sharing names with me – afreedman@nssbethel.org.

For more step by step instructions on how to do the Mitzvah well, check out this terrific article from chaplain Jason Weiner – https://jewishaction.com/jewish-living/how-to-do-bikkur-cholim/.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reveal the Power of Gratitude on Lag B’Omer

Posted on May 23, 2019

By Rabbi Schwab

Gratitude is considered a powerful component of living a happy, fulfilling life both in Jewish tradition and in contemporary psychology. The expression of gratitude sensitizes us to the ever-present goodness in the world and the everyday miracles of personal kindness.

Cultivating gratitude is linked to a sense of optimism, peace, hope and spirituality. Journalist Ilana Harris noted that author A.J. Jacobs in his book “Thanks a Thousand” coined the term “gratitude trail.” This suggests that for each blessing in our life we trace the manifestation of that blessing from its origin to its reception and express gratitude for each step along the way. He demonstrated this by expressing thanks for each step that led to his enjoyment of his morning coffee, from bean to barista. 

As Jews we actually do something similar ritually by reciting a Beracha before partaking of food and other pleasures. For example, “Hamotzi lechem min haaretz” – which thanks God for being able to extract bread from the earth. We do not just thank God for the wheat or barley but the bread, suggesting thanks not only for the crops but for the tools and human labor that it takes to turn the grain into edible bread. The Beracha acknowledges the many blessings it took to have that bread reach our mouths.

Gratitude is something we should be paying particular attention to today, on Lag b’Omer. On this day – the 18th of Iyar and the 33rd day of the Omer – Ilana Harris writes that several events took place which call for gratitude and appreciation. 

First, according to our rabbinic tradition, the Manna in the desert began to fall on this day – miraculous food from heaven that sustained our ancestors in the desert. Such a miracle highlights our gratitude to God for all of the blessings we take for granted each day.

Second, one of the most well-known reasons for celebrating Lag b’Omer is because of the cessation of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. A lack of respect for each other is the explanation given for why this plague took place. Today, of all days, we should make sure to repair this transgression by showing gratitude for the people in our lives instead.

Third, today is the day our tradition tells us that the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. Yet, our custom is not to grieve on his Yahrzeit but to hold a celebration with bonfires and gatherings. Instead of looking at the tragedy of his death, our tradition calls upon us to show gratitude for what he accomplished in life.

What is more, the Kabbalistic tradition associated with him assigns an attribute to each day of the Omer. The attribute associated with Lag b’Omer is “Hod,” from the word “Hodu” or “Modeh,” meaning to thank. Therefore, according to the Kabbalah, today is a day we focus on thankfulness and gratitude.

So, on this day and throughout Shabbat let us try to focus more on adopting an “attitude of gratitude” and to engage in acts of thankfulness: gratitude towards God and towards our fellow human beings. It is a Mitzvah, it is good for you and it will surely make your day and the day of those around you that much better.