April 25, 2019

Promises Worth Breaking – A poem for Kol Nidre by Rick Lupert

All vows –
This legal document
written in unholy language

a prenuptial agreement
for our inevitable failing.
This relationship with

the year itself
a contract awaiting
the biggest signature.

Please, cancel my subscription
but charge my card anyway.
I don’t deserve the content.

Every promise I make
a guaranteed broken one
between today and

a year’s worth of
Jewish days from now.
The next time the shofar

is dusted off,
we’ll have this conversation again.
Forgive me this year

and last year and next.
Forgive everyone who ever
stood at the mountain.

Forgive our promises
our oaths, our vows, all vows
You made the whole world

and on this day and every day
You knew this would happen.
Pardon me. Please.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Kol Nidre LIVE 2018

Worshippers will come together September 18 at 6:30 p.m. for a Yom Kippur service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva.

The service will be broadcast worldwide and later archived at kolnidrelive.com. Viewers will be able to follow the service in a downloadable prayer book, and connect via commenting with fellow “congregants” around the world.

Kol Nidre is the evening service of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, will fast and/or will attend services on this day.

Sign up for Kol Nidre LIVE updates!


[Support this program by donating to Nashuva]

Levy, a rabbi and best-selling author, whose latest book is Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, was ordained in the first class of women at Jewish Theological Seminary. She founded and leads Nashuva, Hebrew for, “We Will Return.” Nashuva is a post-denominational, non-membership community open to all that meshes spirituality with social action.

You can also preorder the new CD: Heaven on Earth – Songs of the Soul

Tribe Media Corp. is dedicated to improving the world through media. Our brands include Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com, and the Daily Roundtable.

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Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson’s Yom Kippur sermon: Jonah and Me

One of the inspirational parts of our tradition for me is that as I move through life and as times change, different Biblical personalities resonate with me.  For many years, I felt a great kinship with Jacob.  As a young man, his character flaws threatened to overwhelm him.  Yet, with the passage of time, he transcended his own weaknesses.  I found his transformation inspirational.  His example held out for me the possibility that even I could get out of my own way long enough to transcend my many flaws.  This year Jonah resonates with me.  I feel as Jonah.

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־יוֹנָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:

ק֠וּם לֵ֧ךְ אֶל־נִֽינְוֵ֛ה הָעִ֥יר הַגְּדוֹלָ֖ה וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ כִּֽי־עָלְתָ֥ה רָעָתָ֖ם לְפָנָֽי׃

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

וַיָּ֤קָם יוֹנָה֙ לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֨רֶד יָפ֜וֹ וַיִּמְצָ֥א אָנִיָּ֣ה ׀ בָּאָ֣ה תַרְשִׁ֗ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָרָ֜הּ וַיֵּ֤רֶד בָּהּ֙ לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.

וַֽיהוָ֗ה הֵטִ֤יל רֽוּחַ־גְּדוֹלָה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וַיְהִ֥י סַֽעַר־גָּד֖וֹל בַּיָּ֑ם וְהָ֣אֳנִיָּ֔ה חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר׃

But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.

God calls Jonah to undertake a great mission, a mission that a first blush, should honor Jonah.  God chooses Jonah to go to a city in which the people are known to be sinners and proclaim judgement upon it.  God asks Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that unless they repent and turn toward God, God will punish them.  This should be easy stuff for Jonah, a man of wealth and substance.  Who wouldn’t want to do their civic duty, as it were?  Yet, Jonah flees from this opportunity and heads to the port of Jaffa and sets sail to Tarshish—the opposite direction as Nineveh.  When I have the chance, I stand at the port of Jaffa, I look at the boats and I imagine I see what Jonah saw; I ask myself, ‘what was Jonah thinking?’

Jonah was a man in the midst of an existential crisis.  For Jonah, the world was not a happy place.  Jonah looked around and saw a world of sinners, a world without hope.  That God could forgive their sins was of little consequence to Jonah.   What good, Jonah asked himself, was humanity if they were doomed to a life of sinning and repenting and sinning again—even if God is a merciful God, a God who forgives?  Jonah was pessimistic about the world.  Jonah also feels powerless.  Sure, God can forgive, but what can a mere mortal do?

I feel a bit like Jonah. The world feels heavy.  It’s hard to be optimistic.  Perhaps I am projecting my own uneasiness about the world onto the rest of you, but I think—in fact, I hear this from you—that I am not alone in feeling this way.  And, I’ve observed that this isn’t a statement about politics; everyone seems to feel the stress of the world more keenly at this moment.  In the past two months alone, we’ve witnessed storms and earthquakes that killed hundreds of people and laid waste to countries from Mexcio to the Eastern Carribbean.

I know that every generation faces unprecedented challenges.  Surely, these times are no more turbulent than the Middle Ages, than the Civil War, World War II or the 60s.  Is our own era qualitatively different or is it merely different because we live in it?  I cannot answer that question.  I can say, however, that in my lifetime, as long or as short as you think it’s been, this moment feels different than others.

To begin with, the mighty wind blowing upon the sea is exponentially stronger because it is amplified by deluge of information that inundates our senses literally every minute.  The devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes would be traumatic no matter the era, but in this day and age, we witness these events in real time.

The natural human tendency is to be feel the bad more acutely than the good.  So, like Jonah, the weight of information that inundates us tends to skew, at least in our own minds, negatively.  Faith in humanity is hard to muster watching bickering politicians, insane dictators, spoiled athletes and self-absorbed celebrities 24 hours a day.  Is faith in humanity justified?  Or, is humanity doomed to consistently sink to the lowest common denominator?

For Jonah, his cynicism about humanity causes him to flee.  I can understand that.  I feel that way too, sometimes.  And yet…we know there must be something more at work.  We know that the story of Jonah cannot possibly be about cynicism and powerlessness…for Yom Kippur itself is about redemption and optimism.

As all of you know, after Jonah is thrown from the boat, he is swallowed by a whale.  He spends three days and nights in the whale’s belly.  What happens to Jonah there is this:  Jonah resets his moral compass.  He focused on that which is true and enduring—in Jonah’s case a call from God, and in doing so, Jonah could regroup and do the right thing.  Jonah learns that without a moral compass, we are adrift in a sea of chaos without any clear hope of finding our way.  We feel helpless. We are treading water and getting tired.  At times, we feel we cannot stay afloat for even one more minute.

And, then…and then, we see an image of some guy—and let’s be honest, it’s a guy we normally would never know or have in our circle of friends, taking his own boat to help people stranded by the floods.  And then…and then millions of dollars in aid flow in to ravaged countries.  And then, in the midst of all this angst about the NFL, there’s a guy named J. J. Watt and it turns out not only has he done an amazing mitzvah for victims of the floods in Texas, he does this kind of thing all the time.  In these acts, I find my moral compass reset.  For in these acts, we see the highest common denominator at work:  one human reaching out in empathy to assist another human in need.  There is no concern for race or nationality.  No one stops to ask who you voted for; no one cares about your position on health care or gun control.  Humans connect with humans not on the most basic level, but on the highest level:  the shared human hope that even when everything is lost all is not lost.  Living another day is always a better option than not.  The hope of tomorrow is a powerful beacon that calls us, as we read in the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, to choose life!  And in witnessing these acts, true acts of lovingkindness, our moral compass is reset.

The challenge is in the coda to the Jonah story.  Jonah does one true and good thing:  he preaches to the people of Nineveh to repent and they do.  Yet, when his disdain and cynicism for humanity get the better of him, Jonah heads for the hills to await the what inevitably happens:  the fall of humanity to the lowest common denominator.  For after the redemptive stories of heroism and sacrifice during the floods and earthquakes, we humans tend to fall back to the lowest common denominator just like Jonah.  The stories on our social media feeds of one human connecting with another in grand gesture of the human spirit are too quickly replaced by bickering, political grandstanding and bullying that seem to me unseemly in spirit and petty in the face of mother nature’s unstoppable force.

Why is it we need a massive earthquake or a sequence of category 5 hurricanes to bring out the best in humanity?  Why do we need a tragedy to reset our moral compass?  And, why, once our compass is pointing in the right direction, do we as humans so quickly veer off course?  These questions weighed heavily upon Jonah—they weigh heavily upon me.  Sure, when you’re threatened with God’s wrath, it is easy to do the right thing.  Our moral compass always points in the right direction when humanity is threatened with extinction.  But, what about when we are just going about our day-to-day lives?  Can we imagine the world if at every moment the human spirit soared as high as it did in the aftermath of recent natural disasters?

Judaism imagines that world.  The entire point of Judaism is to elevate the human spirit to the highest possible denominator.  Judaism is the North Star for our moral compass. Yes, we frequently veer off-course, but Judaism and specifically Yom Kippur hold out the possibility for us to reset our compass and get back on the right path, even and perhaps especially amidst the raging seas of the modern world.

This day—Yom Kippur—this day is a microcosm of the great existential crisis faced by Jonah.  This morning we read profound and stirring words of optimism:  we stand this day as one community, asked to do something, exactly like Jonah, that is within our ability.  We’re asked to reset our moral compass.  The Torah itself tells us the task is possible:  ‘this commandment I command you this day is not too hard for you…choose life!’

This afternoon, we shall read the book of Jonah…the story of a man weighed down by chaos of the world, a man riddled with cynicism and doubt; a man bereft of faith in humanity.  Jonah is a man who is drowning in the flood, but ignores the boat coming to rescue him.

This is the challenge of this day.  Yes, we see the destruction of the flood and the devastation of the earthquake.  And, yes, we see the acts of lovingkindness that reveal the greatest spirit of humanity.  The world can be both these things…today we must choose which world we will create.

You can choose to be Jonah.  You can wallow in cynicism; you can believe that humanity will always revert to the lowest common denominator.  You can abandon all hope and give in to the rising tide of the flood. In doing so, not only would you abandon hope, you would abandon Judaism itself.

For as long as I serve this holy congregation, if there is only one teaching that you remember let it be this:  Judaism is the most optimistic religion in the world and Jews are the most optimistic people in the world.  What, you ask, how can that be?  Is the story of Jonah optimistic? How can we be optimistic in the face of the destruction of the Temple not once but twice?  How can we be optimistic after millennia of antisemitism, of expulsions?  Where is optimism in the face of pogroms and the Shoah?

The answer is you.  Despite all these things, all this tzuris, you are sitting here, in this sanctuary.  You are the guy with boat after the flood in Houston.  You are people pulling survivors from the rubble of earthquake in Mexico.  What Jonah failed to realize—and what I think we fail to realize—is that our story is not the story of the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain or the Shoah.  Our story and our religion is the story of what happens between those events—the boats that come to save us.  That’s who you are.  That’s who we are.

There is a famous quote, attributed originally to Debussy and in my version, it goes like this:  How do you play the notes so fast, someone once asked a famous pianist…and the answer, ‘oh, the notes are easy…it’s the space between the notes that are difficult.’

We Jews live in the space between the notes.  Everyone is beset by problems.  How we live between those problems, those calamities, those horrors…this is when we Jews are at our best.  We Jews are forever the man with the boat coming to the rescue and seeking a new beginning.  Let this be our way for the New Year.

Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth

It might seem crazy what I am about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune.  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on.

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It fills our world and floats in the background and many of us never know that it is there.  If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing, happiness, you are living along a single axis.  Your life is broadcast in black-and-white.

But if you understand that happiness is means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

Letters to the Editor: David Suissa, Politics from the Bimah, Iran nuclear deal and Monty Hall

Journal Under New Leadership

I’ve been a reader of the Jewish Journal since the days I started work at the Shoah Foundation about 15 years ago. I really appreciate this local paper with a Jewish take on life. I want to wish the staff well with the recent change of leadership and I look forward to continuing to support your work. I also wanted to mention the column by Dani Klein Modisett. I really enjoy her humorous take on life.

Sonya Sharp via email

I just read the first issue of the Journal since the leadership has changed. Kudos!

It is a surprising and wonderful difference. The Journal is more engaging, friendly and respectful of the diversity of its readers. There isn’t any of the prior judgmental, negative and hostile tone.

“Beginnings are important,” as reflected by the editorial that opens the issue. It is welcoming and demonstrates an intellectual openness and curiosity. This approach also has clearly determined the choice of writers in the issue and probably resulted in their adopting a similar tone. I hope you can keep it up!

Charles Portney, Santa Monica

David Suissa: Congratulations on your maiden voyage. You’ve gathered an excellent and what promises to be an eclectic group of personalities to fill your pages.

I look forward to your successes at the helm of a great Jewish paper.

Gordon Gelfond via email

How refreshing and enjoyable it was to read the Jewish Journal in the first edition under the leadership of David Suissa as editor-in-chief. Conspicuous by its absence is the biased, liberal-left diatribe that was so prevalent in previous editions.

I enjoyed reading Karen Lehman Block’s column (“Toward a Radical Middle,”  Oct. 6). She pointed out how so many of the regressive left have displayed their dislike for Israel and, in fact, began to spread lies about Israel.

I enjoyed the cartoon; it was devoid of the liberal, left bias that was so apparent in the cartoons by Steve Greenberg.

I commend David Suissa for his editorship and hope it directs the Journal to focus primarily on a publication that services the Los Angeles-area Jewish community rather than a politically biased publication that repeats the talking points of the fake news liberal left mainstream media.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

Politics From the Bimah on Kol Nidre

In his story “Heckler Interrupts Kol Nidre Sermon” (Oct. 6), Eitan Arom recounts Rabbi John Rosove’s scathing remarks in his sermon attacking President Donald Trump. These political calumnies are unsuitable in a place of worship, especially on the most holy day of the year.

It is interesting that in all my years davening in Orthodox shuls, I have never heard political diatribes against an American president, either of the right or left persuasion — not once! Is there a reason why leftist rabbis vent in this most crude way and Orthodox rabbis do not? Is it because many left-leaning rabbis and their congregants think less of the Torah than they do of their leftist/fascist principles? As Norman Podhoretz writes in his book “Why Are Jews Liberals?” “Liberalism has become the religion of American Jews.”

But why dump on Trump? In his less than nine months as president, after eliminating many of former President Barack Obama’s odious regulations, the stock market has soared, reaching unprecedented highs; the GDP has grown by more than 3 percent in his first quarter as president — not achieved in all eight years under Obama, who averaged only 1.4 percent — and the job market is thriving with meaningful jobs and increasing wages. 

Does the left not think that this is significant? Of course they do, but only if it occurs under a Democratic president.

C.P. Lefkowitz, Rancho Palos Verdes

This story illuminates perfectly why I hate politics from the bimah. For me, going to shul/synagogue, especially during the Chagim, is about heart-opening, not mind-bending. I need to connect with the Holy One. I need to learn how to practice compassion and forgiveness.

If I had been the rabbi on that pulpit, I would have stopped mid-sentence when the so-called heckler stood up, and offered a teaching on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. I would have reminded the kahal that Yom Kippur is the Great Shabbat and a day of introspection and forgiveness, not the time for resentment, anger and self-serving applause.   

Evelyn Baran, Los Angeles

The sanctuary at Temple Israel of Hollywood has photographs from the civil rights movement of Rabbi Max Nussbaum with Martin Luther King. As long as there is injustice, rabbis must speak out against it.

Michael Schwartz via Facebook

I wouldn’t have walked out but I would have been irritated. I agree with Rabbi David Wolpe: There are moments when they must speak about politics but those times are limited. I don’t want to hear about Trump at synagogue services. I rarely want to hear about him at all.

Dena Nechama Smith via Facebook

Applause at a religious service? Gevalt! It’s inappropriate and disruptive at bar/bat mitzvah services, and it would be even more so at Yom Kippur. And it’s shul. It’s the holiest day of the year; the D’Var Torah should be a D’var Torah and one which nourishes the soul, stimulates the mind, and calms the heart. Keep the secular speeches for a different venue, not a religious service.

Lisa Shepard via Facebook

Iran Nuclear Deal Up for Review

Larry Greenfield’s argument to decertify the Iran nuclear deal (“It Was a Fraud From the Start,” Oct. 6) fails completely as it is no different than the reason many Donald Trump supporters give for their continuing support of the president: “Hillary Clinton was a liar and a thief.”  

Greenfield alleges Trump should decertify the deal because: 

• Barack Obama wasn’t a qualified negotiator.

• Obama failed to enforce his red line in Syria. 

• Tehran residents have chanted, “Death to Israel.”  

• The nuclear deal rewarded a terrorist state.  

• Trump has decried it as one of the worst deals ever. 

Those points may be true, but they are irrelevant. The election is over and the agreement was signed. Neither can be changed. 

Greenfield makes one more point in his argument to decertify the nuclear agreement with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Netanyahu has said Iran has become more dangerous since the agreement was signed.” The statement may be true, but the statement by itself doesn’t argue why decertifying the agreement would reduce the danger to Israel.

Michael Ernstoff via email

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Larry Greenfield’s op-ed. I commend him on writing such a powerful and persuasive piece about the Iran nuclear deal. It was extremely well written and well thought out.

Greenfield’s eloquent writing style and his research on the impact of the Iran nuclear deal was very impressive. I would like to see more stories written by him in the Journal.

Karen Reissman via email

A Doctor’s Response to Death

As a physician, I saw death almost daily, but I did not know what it really was until I faced it 30 years ago (“As I Lay Dying” Oct. 6). Having just returned from Israel the night before, I restarted my running routine at 6 the next morning; I was suddenly trapped by two Rottweilers, who had broken out of their compound less than a block from my home. Each took turns ripping into me until I could no longer stand, and saw death face-to-face. Then a neighbor suddenly appeared and threw a rake and broom into my hands to fend the dogs off until the police arrived.

I have lived in the moment ever since and see every second as precious. I sympathize with the tragedy Kay Wilson experienced. I know two elderly neighbors, who always walked a little later in the morning, were saved from the jaws of fate that day. Life is too precious to waste. We have to look out for our neighbors and be the good Samaritans to anybody in need.

Jerome P. Helman, Venice

Remembering Monty Hall

Baruch dayan emet. May his memory be a blessing for the whole Los Angeles Jewish community (“Monty Hall, Philanthropist and Host of ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ 96,” Oct. 6).

Helene Sicherman via Facebook

Fond memories of Hall joining Rabbi Pressman doing the annual Israel Bond drive “Let’s Make a Deal”-style at Temple Beth Am. I will choose to remember him that way.

Clinton Thomas Bailey via Facebook

Bumping Into Voices

Because this is my first issue as editor-in-chief, I’d like to give you a mini tour of what you’re about to see. One of the joys of being a journalist is that we’re always bumping into interesting voices, and this Sukkot issue reflects many of the voices and stories I bump into in the course of hanging out in our community.

The voice in this week’s cover story is that of my friend Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who shares his personal take on the unusual holiday of Sukkot. Daniel and I share a love for coffee and books. We’re both Sephardic Jews attached to our Sephardic customs but also fascinated by the diversity of the Jewish tradition. His story gives you an inkling of this diversity. And right after his Sukkot story, you’ll get a sneak peek at the magical sukkah of local philanthropists Dina and Fred Leeds, who take the mitzvah of welcoming guests quite seriously.

In anticipation of my new role, I’ve been on the lookout for fresh new voices. Last year, I hosted New York author Karen Lehrman Bloch at my house for Shabbat. Karen, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times and The New Republic, has the voice of the classic liberal who understands the value of meeting in the center, or, as she puts it in her debut column, in the “radical middle.”

Over a shakshuka breakfast at Pico Café, I asked my friend Salvador Litvak, the filmmaker who has built a large following as the “Accidental Talmudist,” if he’d want to contribute something “talmudic” for this issue. His piece, “War at the Book Club,” does just that — examining how we can disagree without animosity.

Kay Wilson is a writer, cartoonist and musician who lives in Jerusalem. We were introduced recently by a mutual friend. Several years ago, Kay survived a horrific stabbing attack at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I asked Kay if she felt comfortable enough to share thoughts that have come out of that horror. Her piece, “As I Lay Dying,” speaks to life’s deepest lessons.

I came across Alicia Jo Rabins on Facebook and was intrigued by her lyrical prose. Alicia is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her piece, “The Sukkah as Spiritual Medicine,” is a poetic meditation connecting the sukkah to the human body.

My friend Aomar Boum is a Muslim associate professor at UCLA who’s a regular guest at our Shabbat table. He’s an expert on the Jews of Morocco, where I was born. My mother’s cuisine reminds him of his mother’s cuisine. I asked Aomar if he’d write something explaining his fascination for studying Jews. “I’m an academic writer,” he replied. “Will that work for your readers?” I told him to write from the heart, and he did.

I met the head of Chabad of Puerto Rico, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, about 15 years ago on my way to a Caribbean cruise with my family. Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Maria tore into the island, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I tried reaching him several times. When I finally did (thank you, WhatsApp), we spoke about the disaster, but also about a little miracle: How Zarchi and his wife found a way to hold Rosh Hashanah services and serve holiday meals after hundreds of gallons of water had flooded their shul. Reporter Kelly Hartog has the story.

Another voice I bumped into on Facebook is that of Israeli-born Yamit Behar Wood, the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. Yamit writes about food, but also about the cultures that surround food. Her first story is about her late Aunt Dora, her culinary mentor.

Right after Yom Kippur, we got the sad news of the passing of television personality Monty Hall. Monty was a friend of the Journal and of charitable organizations everywhere, as well as a storyteller extraordinaire. We pay tribute to this local hero in this issue.

On the day we went to press — as we were putting the finishing touches to the paper — we got news of the tragic massacre in Las Vegas. In addition to our last-minute coverage, we have a poem reflecting on the tragedy by Hannah Arin, a millennial writer who will be a regular contributor.

One of the looming political issues today is whether President Donald Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal as the Oct. 15 deadline approaches. Larry Greenfield, who served as executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior political scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corp., debate the merits of both sides.

Steven Spielberg opens his own heart in “Spielberg,” the first feature-length documentary of his life, premiering Oct. 7. Our contributing writer Gerri Miller shares a few interesting anecdotes from the film, including the fact that Spielberg’s parents’ divorce influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

We also have book reviews about two great Jews this week. The Journal’s book editor,  Jonathan Kirsch, writes that “the late Shimon Peres calls to us from the grave” in his posthumously published memoir, “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel.” Monica Osborne weighs in on William Kolbrener’s “The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition,” a complex take on a complex man.

From Israel, our senior political editor, Shmuel Rosner, shares his latest insights on what’s going on in Israel as part of his expanded “Rosner’s Domain” page. We’re also adding a column titled “Humans of Israel,” where American expat writer Debra Kamin will profile Israelis of all stripes. Her first piece is on winemaker-philosopher Yonatan Koren, who runs an organic winery in western Galilee.

Closer to home, contributing writer Rebbecca Spence writes about three Jewish women who are leading the way in the legal cannabis trade, while Roberto Loiderman writes about a new recording of “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,” a musical-theatrical show that celebrates Ladino culture.

Reporting on the holiest day of the year, Senior Writer Eitan Arom covers an emotional episode at Temple Israel of Hollywood that resulted from its senior rabbi’s discussion of politics at Kol Nidre.

On a lighter note, we’re adding little “spice boxes” throughout the paper with things such as humor and big questions to ponder for dinner conversation.

As I begin my new journey, one of my aims will be to look for voices that try to open minds rather than change them. I want to provoke thought, not anger; curiosity, not cynicism; fascination, not smugness.

I want to touch every member of our incredibly diverse community. I won’t always succeed. Some voices you will like more than others. Some voices will return, others won’t. It’s a journey we will take together.

What I can tell you is that everything I do will come from the deep love I have for this community — and for all the interesting voices and stories I keep bumping into that I can’t wait to share with you.

Chag sameach.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Heckler interrupts Kol Nidre sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood

Rabbi John Rosove

Some local rabbis have shunned the idea of bringing politics to the pulpit, but Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood is not one of them. About five minutes into his Kol Nidre sermon on Sept. 29, the beginning of Yom Kippur, Rosove had already denounced President Donald Trump by name when a man stood up and shouted his displeasure.

“This is supposed to be a house of prayer!” the man said as he stormed out of the sanctuary, according to multiple eyewitnesses.

After a brief pause, Rosove resumed his sermon. When he finished, most of the audience of about 1,200 that had gathered for one of Judaism’s holiest ceremonies responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation in support of his remarks.

The incident at Temple Israel comes amid continuing debate among American rabbis as to whether the sanctuary should be a place of refuge from today’s confrontational politics.

In a Journal op-ed in June headlined “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple urged his peers and community members to keep politics out of the synagogue.

“All we hear all day long is politics,” he wrote. “Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.”

The op-ed elicited a number of responses, including from prominent rabbis such as Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Brous argued in an op-ed printed in the Journal that the Torah is inherently political.

“This sacred scroll recounts the story of a band of slaves rising up before the most powerful and iconic ruler of the ancient world and demanding freedom and dignity,” she wrote. “Is that not a political message?”

Rosove’s sermon, titled “We the People,” put him firmly on one side of the debate. Drawing on quotes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr., Genesis and the Jewish prophets, he argued “that there’s a battle being waged for the soul of this country; that there are dark forces of hate, bigotry, intolerance, extremism and xenophobia that are aided and abetted by our nation’s president.” (The text and video of the sermon can be viewed at tioh.org.)

Reached by phone, Rosove said the man who interrupted his sermon was not a member of the temple. He declined further comment. Several longtime Temple members contacted by the Journal said they did not know the man.

After the applause for Rosove died down at the end of the sermon and cantorial soloist Shelly Fox led the gathering in singing “This Land Is Your Land,” the rabbi returned to the pulpit to defend the nature of his homily in light of the man’s comment.

“A house of prayer has windows that look into the city, and any synagogue without windows is not a synagogue, because we are not divorced from the reality of the world,” he said, paraphrasing the Talmud.

“This is supposed to be a house of prayer!” the man said as he stormed out of the sanctuary, according to multiple eyewitnesses.

The members of Rosove’s congregation contacted by the Journal came to his defense.

David Lehrer, a Temple Israel member and former Los Angeles regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that after hearing Rosove’s sermon, he emailed him, writing: “It would be spiritual malpractice to let the High Holidays pass and not comment on what has happened to our country and what we should be doing.”

Thelma Cohen Samulon, a past president of the temple who attended the Kol Nidre service, said the outburst “caused me a moment of anxiety, and I was very pleased that the rabbi kept going, and he really didn’t miss a beat.”

Samulon and others said the heckler may have been the same person who, during the Rosh Hashanah service when audience members volunteered what they were grateful for from the past year, took the microphone and answered, “Trump.”

The man was not entirely alone in expressing his disapproval of Rosove’s Kol Nidre sermon. Just before his outburst, a woman walked out, quietly telling those seated next to her: “I don’t need to listen to this bull—-.”

A few others — perhaps less than a dozen — were also seen leaving the sanctuary, although their reasons for heading for the exits were not known.

Wally Knox, an attorney and former Democratic state Assemblyman from 1994 to 2000, said he could not remember in his 30 years of membership at Temple Israel a standing ovation for a rabbi’s sermon.

“There’s a recognition that we’re living in extraordinary times,” Knox said. “For one, I was proud to hear John speak up.”

How to Jew: Yom Kippur


It is said that Yom Kippur, literally “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is a time of prayer and fasting during which Jews ask God for forgiveness and think about their actions and sins of the past year. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the culmination of the 10-day period of reflection known as the Days of Awe, and marks the point at which, according to tradition, the fate of each Jew is sealed in the Book of Life.

The original Day of Atonement is said to have occurred when Moses received the second set of the Ten Commandments, after the Israelites sinned by worshipping the golden calf. Later, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies — the part of the Tabernacle where God was said to dwell — just once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur consists of five prayer services: Ma’ariv (evening, which includes the recitation of Kol Nidre, asking to be released from vows not kept in the past year and the year to come); Shacharit (morning); Musaf (additional); Minchah (afternoon, featuring a reading from the Book of Jonah); and Neilah, the concluding service. A memorial service called Yizkor is held as well. At the end of the day, a final shofar blast is sounded.


Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, meditation and introspection. Worshippers, in an effort to focus only on the spiritual, fast from sunset to sunset and traditionally do not bathe, wear leather shoes, apply lotions, creams or ointment or engage in intimate acts with spouses. They refrain from normal daily activities and work as well.

In some religious circles, the day before Yom Kippur is an occasion to perform the ritual known as kapparot. In order to symbolically transfer one’s sins to another object — often a chicken — a person swings a chicken above their head three times while praying. The chicken, or the monetary value of the chicken, is donated to those in need.

It is a custom to give extra charity on this day, and some choose to immerse in the mikveh.


We eat two festive meals before the fast of Yom Kippur, which starts at candle lighting. The meal right before the fast of Yom Kippur, called Seudah HaMafsekes, the “separation meal,” typically consists of foods like challah, chicken soup and kreplach. Break-fasts often include bagels and lox or cream cheese and light bites. 

Kol Nidre: When the melody meets the moment

People play instruments during a Tashlich ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah ritual to symbolically cast away sins, during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach. Sept. 21. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

Kol Nidre ve’esarei

Every year, during the month of Elul, if not before, cantors return to these ancient Aramaic words in reverential search of meaning and inspiration, for they possess a power beyond any others in our long liturgical tradition.

What is it about these seemingly simple, legalistic terms that hold such mystery and transformative power? To me, the compelling power of the Kol Nidre prayer is founded on two truths: 1) the meaning is the moment, and 2) the power of melody.

First, a brief history of this storied text. The first appearance of the opening words of Kol Nidre (literally, “all vows”) has been found on bowls used for magical incantations, curses and spells, which were discovered in ancient Persia (now Iran), dating as far back as the seventh century C.E. Consider this for a moment: The origin of Kol Nidre is a magical spell to deflect harmful curses.

We next encounter an expanded version in the ninth century siddur edited by Rav Amram Gaon. When it appears again a couple of centuries later in the Machzor Vitry, the custom of chanting Kol Nidre three times has taken hold and its meaning has been transformed from magical incantation to legal document, granting the annulment of vows.

This practice eventually led to a controversy that reached its apex in the 19th century, when German Reform rabbis were forced, in response to virulent anti-Semitic charges of dishonesty, to delete Kol Nidre from the machzor. The anti-Semitic claims used Kol Nidre as a proof text for Jewish distrust. Anti-Semites would say, “Look at the Jews! On their holiest day of the year they state openly that their vows are not valid.”

Until its reinstatement in the Reform machzor in 1961, the Jewish community took solace in its melody. The Kol Nidre melody that Ashkenazi Jews recognize as traditional originated in the 16th century and became embellished over the next several centuries. Its collection of simple, short melodic fragments are woven together to form an unforgettable musical moment in sacred time.

Consider the power of just two simple notes, those first two notes of Kol Nidre. In those two notes, an entire community is bound together. Beethoven also needed only two notes to compose what is arguably the most memorable symphony ever composed, his Fifth Symphony.

So potent were those first two notes of Kol Nidre that there was an outcry among the German Reform Jews when the text was deleted from their machzor. However, it wasn’t the text they desired, but the melody. In response, they chose a psalm sung in German to the Kol Nidre melody as a temporary replacement.

The other part of Kol Nidre’s power is the moment. The beginning of the evening of Yom Kippur is arguably the most palpable moment in the entire Jewish communal year. According to our tradition, our very lives hang in the balance. We dress in white and refrain from eating and drinking, as if preparing for our own funeral. We are facing death. Kol Nidre, with its strange and controversial history, its simple but unforgettable melody and the very sounds of its ancient Aramaic words all converge in what is a holy moment in time.

Chanting Kol Nidre for the first time remains a powerful and intimate memory. I was a high school senior in my hometown of Cleveland when our 2,000-member Conservative synagogue experienced a breakup. For reasons unimportant now, nearly 500 members decided to form their own congregation, and I was asked to serve as cantorial soloist.

I was honored to accept but also concerned at my lack of experience and the enormity of the responsibility. I spent the summer preparing with relentless diligence, rehearsing with my accompanist and eight-voice choir. In the end, I felt ready and worthy. Rosh Hashanah went well and I was emboldened with confidence in anticipation of what we then commonly referred to as “Kol Nidre Night.” 

When that moment came, I found myself trembling with fear. I remember being grateful for the loose-fitting white robe that hid my shaking legs. I began the first of the traditional three offerings with timidity, which was all I had at that moment. Then the second with growing confidence, and by the third I was fully present.

I honestly don’t remember much of what followed, other than complete relief and exhaustion. Still, years later, the fear and trembling are present — not from inexperience, but rather from a deeper and more mature understanding of the moment and it’s meaning.

So what does a 21st century cantor do to prepare for such a monumental moment in the Jewish communal drama? We do what we’ve always done. We delve yet again into its history, text and melody, the countless commentaries and personal stories. Deeper and deeper we search so that in that Kol Nidre moment we can let go and become fully present, one with the entire community of Jews as time stands still.

Cantor Don Gurney is a cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Why Kol Nidre keeps calling

Although you are not sure why, you don’t want to be late for Kol Nidre. As the sun is going down, there you are in the car, even running a yellow light or two, hurrying toward the shul, temple, rented room or wherever it is you go to begin Yom Kippur.

It’s not as if you’re that religious, but somewhere in your head, where yontif memories are filtered into expectations, and doubt rubs up against belief, the majestic music and solemn words — of which you know only a few — are calling: Kol Nidre, ve-esarei, va-haramei, v’konamei.

As you look for parking, you wonder where these feelings are coming from. Is it that Kol Nidre is a powerful prayer or blessing? It’s neither. Kol Nidre, which means “all vows,” is a legal formula for the annulment of “vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges and promises,” made not to another, but to yourself and God.

The murky origins of Kol Nidre do not provide much of an explanation for why it has had such a lasting grip on us. Although in Spain it might have relieved some Marrano Jews of guilt from the vows they took upon being forced to convert, many researchers believe the legal formula already was in existence long before that, sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries. The tradition of saying Kol Nidre also is supported by a Talmudic statement that calls for a similar practice to nullify every vow.

Whatever its origins, according to “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” by Isaac Klein, the purpose of Kol Nidre has been “to provide release from vows in matters relating to ritual, custom and personal conduct, from inadvertent vows; and from vows one might have made to himself and then forgotten. It does not refer to vows and promises to other people.”

Yet, throughout the formula’s history, that has not been the universal understanding. During the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, some Christian courts and monarchs held that it meant a Jew could annul any promise. Some mid-19th century Reform rabbis, recognizing the confusion it could cause, even tried to do away with the legal formula.

Written in Aramaic, the language in which most Jews were conversant at that time, the idea was that everybody should understand it. Connecting us over the centuries to that age is the Jewish perspective that words are important, and that at times a promise made to ourselves or God was not made thoughtfully, realistically, with enough knowledge or the right intent, and we need a way to start anew. Kol Nidre presents that rare opportunity to reset, and perhaps it is this opportunity that draws us to hear it year after year.

Adding to its place in our lives, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, there is an opportunity to resolve issues between you and other people, but during Kol Nidre, there is an opening to resolve issues of the self and your relationship with God.

Helping to add drama to the recitation of this legal formula is the setting. Standing before the heavenly court of life and death brought to mind by the Yom Kippur liturgy, the recitation of Kol Nidre is the time to deliberate on our vows. The tradition is to repeat the formula three times, and thank heaven for that because even if we are late arriving, we still can hear the words: May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled.

Traditionally, the first time, one says the words softly, as one who hesitates to enter the ruler’s palace to make a request; the second, a little louder; and the third even louder, as one who is used to being in the ruler’s court.

Embellishing the courtly setting is the Torah pageantry. Before Kol Nidre is said, all of the congregation’s Torah scrolls are taken from the ark, and as an honor, presented to individuals to hold. In an unambiguous display, the staging lets us know under whose authority the court has been convened, and for good reason.

The Torah contains several verses concerning vows, and teaches that “you must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 23:24). In so doing, it helps to explain the need and urgency for a legal formula that covers instances when we have messed up.

But for what year? Originally, the text read that the period the formula covered was from the “past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.” However, according to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer,” Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), the grandson of the famous French Torah commentator Rashi, argued “’of what value is the cancellation of all vows to him who takes them and immediately declares them null and void?’”

He revised Kol Nidre to read “from this Yom Kippur to the next,” the text that most machzorim use today, although some Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations use both, covering past and future. Others feel the revised text sufficient since it is ambiguous enough to cover the past and coming years.

For many Jews, the rush to hear Kol Nidre is not so much about the words as it is the music. Setting the table for a spiritual experience, and answering our emotional needs, if ever there were a song to begin a fast by, this would be it. Several variations are in use today, but most are derived from what is called a “Mi-Sinai” (from Sinai) melody — that is, according to Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, a tune “treated as if they came from Moses himself” — that emerged in Rhineland communities of Germany and France sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Even if your singing voice is not one with the angels, or you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you still can remember how some of Kol Nidre goes. Especially where it drops down low, then rises majestically, the music seems to imbue us with a sense of identity and a way to acknowledge our frailties.

The rush to shul has been worth it. Standing in the presence of Torah scrolls, family and friends, dressed in your best, maybe even in white, with the words and music washing over, we have arrived at that rare point in time when we can feel regret, and nullify some of our poor judgment.

Whether the formula gives us cover for the coming year or a chance to disavow past vows, we stand at a rare and powerful moment. Kol Nidre can lift us over missteps of the past year and help us to think, not twice but three times, before stepping into the new.

High Holy Days 5778 calendar

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Sept. 20
Rosh Hashanah, first day: Sept. 21
Rosh Hashanah, second day: Sept. 22
Kol Nidre: Sept. 29
Yom Kippur: Sept. 30


Los Angeles-area Chabads offering free services to the public during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include Chabad of Beverlywood, (310) 836-6770; Chabad of Century City, (310) 505-2168; Chabad of Miracle Mile, (323) 852-6907; Chabad in Simcha Monica, (310) 829-5620; Chabad of Woodland Hills, (818) 348-5898; Chabad of Studio City, (818) 508-6633; and Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, (323) 660-5177. For more venues, visit chabad.org.



Free services for families and children, featuring a high-energy band, interactive stories and family participation. Rosh Hashanah, first day, ECE-second grade family service, 9:30 a.m.; third-sixth grade family service, 11 a.m. Yom Kippur, ECE-second grade family service, 9:30 a.m.; third-sixth grade family service, 11 a.m. RSVP required. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.


Services for the whole family. Rosh Hashanah, first day, family service, 4 p.m. Yom Kippur,  family service, 3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Reform synagogue with services geared toward families with young children, lasting only an hour. Longer services for adults. Services offer opportunities for children and adults to join in traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings. Rosh Hashanah, first day, family service, 8:30 a.m.;  youth program (grades K-6) 10:30 a.m. Kol Nidre, family service, 6 p.m. Yom Kippur, family service, 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. tasnorthridge.org.


The Reform congregation opens its doors to children and their families in the community for Tot High Holy Days services. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 3:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur, 3:15 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com


The Reform synagogue holds free family services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Erev Rosh Hashanah youth and family service, 5 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day, tot service (0–7 years old), 1:30 p.m. Kol Nidre youth and family service, 5 p.m. Yom Kippur, tot service (0-7 years old), 1:30 p.m. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.


Erev Rosh Hashanah, 7:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day, 9 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day, 9 a.m.; Kol Nidre, 7:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur, 9 a.m. Services at Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. Temple Ner Simcha, 5737 Kanan Road, Unit 176, Agoura Hills. (818) 851-0030. nersimcha.org.



The LGBT congregation welcomes the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. If you are 30 years old or younger, services are free with a suggested (but not required) donation. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996. kol-ami.org.


The education center holds an abridged, beginners Rosh Hashanah service, open to everyone, 4:30 p.m. Free. Reservations required. Jewish Learning Exchange, 512 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923. jlela.com.


Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band’s spiritual community is back and everyone’s invited. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:45 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day, 9:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day, 9 a.m. hike at Temescal Canyon, 10 a.m. service. Kol Nidre, 6:15 p.m. Yom Kippur, 9:30 a.m. Services are free but a suggested donation for attendance is $350 per person; donations help support programs year-round. Reservations required. Founder’s Church of Religious Science, 3281 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles. Temescal Canyon Gateway Park, 15601 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. nashuva.com.


The historic Reform congregation holds free family services (toddlers through second-graders) at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It opens its doors to the general public for the Rosh Hashanah second-day service at 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.



Free High Holy Days services to anyone interested in participating. No RSVP required. Rosh Hashanah first and second day, and Yom Kippur, 8:45 a.m. Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights (formerly LINK East Shul), 6022 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. linkeastshul.com.


The progressive Reform synagogue holds free afternoon children’s services for families with children up to age 7. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 2:30 p.m. Yom Kippur, 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Santa Monica High School, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.


Everyone is welcome to enjoy these services. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:45 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 11 a.m. Kol Nidre, 6:30 p.m. Yom Kippur, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. (“Stump the Rabbi” program). No reservations necessary. Donations encouraged. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 391-7995. chaicenter.org.


Free to all students with a valid school ID. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services. Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. uclahillel.org.


Pray with the progressive egalitarian community. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day, 8:30 a.m. Yom Kippur, 2 p.m. and after. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


Rosh Hashanah, first day, and Yom Kippur  children’s service (preschoolers and toddlers), 2 p.m. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.


The Mishkon community welcomes families with children ages 2 to 5 to its Mini-Mishkon Tot service on Sept. 21, 10 a.m. Families with children ages 6 to 12 are welcome at its Family/Youth service, Sept. 21, 10:45 a.m. Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main St., Venice. (310) 392-3029. mishkon.org.


The secular humanistic community holds a free, family-friendly day at the park for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Bring a picnic for your family and a dessert to share! Rosh Hashanah, first day, 11 a.m Yom Kippur, 11 a.m. No reservations necessary. Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills Recreation Center Picnic Area 1, 2551 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. sholem.org.


The traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan welcomes the general public to services. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:15 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first and second day, 8:30 a.m. Kol Nidre, 6:15 p.m. Yom Kippur, 8 a.m. Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 916-9820. shtibl.com.


The Conservative synagogue opens its doors to the community for a free Erev Rosh Hashanah service, “Rosh Hashanah Live.” Welcome in the New Year with song and story with Rabbi David Wolpe, singer-composer Craig Taubman and Cantor Marcus Feldman. 8 p.m. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.


Free, one-hour family services filled with music and stories provide a kid-friendly introduction to the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 8:30 a.m. Yom Kippur, 8:30 a.m. Reservations required. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. unisyn.org.

Kol Nidre sermon: Rabbi Zoë Klein – 5777/2016


I am contemplating the one percent, but I want to prevent the presumption that I meant the same one percent over which conventional contenders for president frequently dissent and resent. That’s not my intent, nor is it, for us, time well-spent. I’m lamenting a different one percent, that fragment of contaminant that corrupts the whole movement, that one bad apple that spoils the whole barrel. When you are trusting and receptive and a segment is deceptive, that one lying percent, that vile speck, that defiles the rest. In the present tense, on this day we repent, between heaven-sent instruments and shifts in government, representatives hell-bent on ascendancy, the descent of decency, the number of malcontents versus those who willingly consent to misrepresentation, to the extent that our nation is increasingly content with the fraudulent. Fakeness has become sacred and the actual is sacrificial on the altar of entertainment. The nonfactual, the amusing aggrandizement of character over the virtue of character’s content. While we orient ourselves to enter the New Year, venting our discontent, weary of establishment, weary of the next newsworthy event, hiding in the basement, pacing on the pavement, spent, bent, dented, tormented, we must practice discernment as we wrestle with that which is true and that which we only invent.


Back in ’08 a presidential candidate, who was a successful attorney, a senator, much loved, was revealed to be having an affair, suspected of fathering a child with his mistress. He denied the affair. He denied that the child was his. He denied everything. Until he couldn’t anymore.

At which point he said, “Being ninety-nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

For that candidate, that one percent of dishonesty included an affair, a child he did father, paying an aide to pose as the father, and an attempt to falsify paternity tests.

“Being ninety nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

Well, when is it enough? We live at a time when candidates for the position of Leader of the Free World speak, tweet, debate and are fact-checked in real time, and if their Truth-O-Meter score is 57 percent true or mostly true, much of the public is satisfied.

That’s 43% magical-thinking story-for-hire leprechaun-unicorn liar-liar media-wire headline-hoarding pants-on-fire deception, which to many today, is apparently okay.

Steven Colbert calls it “truthiness.”


Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument…claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. We are a divided nation. Not between democrats and republicans or conservatives and liberals. We are divided between those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.

And that is dangerous.

It is dangerous to think you “know with your heart” without regard for truth. Some of the people who intend to hurt you the most, are masterful at earning your trust and getting your heart to believe.

How do we ever know the truth? We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we have to get power to speak the truth.


Years ago my daughter, who has beautiful curly hair, hated her beautiful curly hair. She wanted straight hair. So I took her to get a blow out. She was happy and looked sleek. The next morning she woke up, looked in the mirror, and the curls were back. With a blood curdling shriek she shouted: “It’s all a lie!”

I wondered how to console her, because she was kind of right. It is all a lie.

I recently baked a batch of homemade calzones. I was proud. They looked pretty good. I took a picture. I used Photoshop to add a summer filter before posting it. Now they looked really good. The weight listed on my driver’s license is true. When I was in my twenties. The hair color changes. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Idols are airbrushed. Reality shows are staged. Profiles are pretend. “Based-on-a-true-story” simply means that the script was inspired by life on earth. We are living in Holden Caulfield’s nightmare. The Age of Phonies.

Everyone carries an iPhoney, our portal into a hive-mind digitalism, where the stroke of a keyboard snowballs into an ephemeral impression, snowballs into a viral myth, snowballs into an un-curated encyclopedia of non-facts nonsense with enough buy-in and truthiness that it is permanently chiseled into the stone slab of our societal superego.

Facts are old-fashioned.

“[Truth] is dead. And we have killed it. What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”

 Of course, I plagiarized that last thought. That was Nietzsche. I just substituted Truth for God. And when Nietzsche said in 1882 “God is dead” he was talking about how the advances of the Age of Enlightenment would lead to a rejection of universal moral law, the rejection of values, and here we are, on our festival of atonement, playing our sacred games, in the Age of Entitlement, the Age of Entertainment.


We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness. When a leader is certain of his or her choices, even if there are no facts to back them up, people follow. Stiff-necked certainty is valued more than intellectual integrity. We have a culture in which leaders hardly apologize for anything. Similar to the ancient belief that sovereigns cannot change their minds lest they lose their status as demi-gods. Like Passover’s Pharaoh whose dogged posture brought plagues on his people and cost him his son, his wealth, and his army. Like Purim’s Ahasuerus who decreed the murder of all Jews on a particular date, and whose pigheadedness prevented him from annulling the decree. Rather, he issued a second decree empowering the Jews to preemptively strike at their neighbors. The deified dictator has blood on his hands, and there’s not enough water to clean them.

Our Torah, that shining vision that emerged out of the Iron Age, was concerned with the trustworthiness of Israel’s leaders. Torah outlines the parameters of kingship. In Deuteronomy 17 it is written:


“[The king you set over you] may not acquire many horses for himself…and he shall not take many wives for himself lest his heart go astray…and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And when he sits upon his royal throne…this Torah…shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear and respect the Lord his God…so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers and so that he will not turn away from the commandments.”

Torah was trying to safeguard the people from an untrustworthy leader, one whose heart was distracted by women and horses and money, one who cared more for his own wealth and glorification than the wellbeing of the people. A leader must not be so high and mighty, that he, or she, is above all others, nor above the Law. The leader must hold this Torah to heart, maintaining respect for an absolute morality, for the highest Truth, for a living God.

Truth matters. And God is alive.


Lies don’t go over so well in the Torah. Abraham wasn’t exactly transparent when Isaac said, “Where’s the lamb for the offering, Dad?” Abraham answered vaguely, “God will see to it, my son.”

Jacob dressing up as his brother Esau to trick their blind father leads to animosity and bloodshed throughout the ages. Later in life, Jacob’s own sons lie to him, when they say his son Joseph was torn to death by wild beasts, when in fact they had sold him to the Ishmaelites.

However the rabbis say there are times when the plain truth can be overly injurious. 

In the Torah, Sarah is 90 years old when she learns that she is to have a child. She laughs, and says, “Am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” It’s a funny reaction, actually. She seems less perplexed at the idea that at her age she may in fact carry a child than she is at the question of her husband’s performance. God reports this to Abraham, but changes some of the details. God says, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” That is not what Sarah said. She did not say, “Old as I am.” She said, “Can my husband really give me enjoyment?” Big difference God…How could God get it wrong?

The rabbis say that this is an example of the priority of Shalom Bayit, keeping peace in the home. Every now and then, a small fib in order to preserve the peace of the home is good. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one sing before a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is.2 Talmud says that if you are late to synagogue because of sexual relations with your wife, and people ask you why you were delayed, you should ascribe your tardiness to something else.3  A lot of you are late to synagogue. Some are apparently so engaged you don’t show up at all. Makes me wonder.

I would argue that shalom bayit, peace in the home, is not about fibbing. It’s not necessarily about dishonesty. It’s about delivering honesty on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Paul Simon as a song called Tenderness with the lyric: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty. You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.” And yes, Otis Redding, I know you have a song too, and I agree that we should try some.

Honesty plus tenderness equals trust.

Maybe we are inherently untruthful. We all learn to lie at a very young age. Cross-culturally every human being tells the very same first lie when some nosey nudnik interrupts our playtime and asks, “Did you make something in your diaper?” and we take a moment to calculate the risks and rewards, our discomfort against our self-determination, and answer, “No.”

The Chassidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was born in 1717. As he grew, he became more and more confident that he would merit eternal life. He said, “When I arrive at the gates of Eden, they will ask me: Did you learn enough Torah? I will say: No. Then they will ask: Did you pray with enough fervor? I will say: No. And then they will ask: Did you fulfill the other commandments as you should have? I will say: No. Finally they will ask: What of your good deeds? I will say: I had none. And then they will say: What an honest man! Come in!4

Even in paradise, an honest person is a rare find. But honesty isn’t a backdoor to forgiveness. Just because one decides to tell the truth after committing innumerable secret sins, doesn’t mean the gates of atonement just burst open. It doesn’t mean you have become a trustworthy person because after years of denial you now say, “I made a mistake,” although it’s a start.


Marriage and Family Therapist Sheri Meyers writes that trust is the belief that “I am safe. You are safe. The world of us is safe.”

To rebuild trust, she writes that one has to be “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” She suggests when the relationship feels like it’s stuck and struggling, remember to stop and ask yourself the following question: “How would love respond?” 

Rebuilding trust requires a lot of understanding, humbleness, and stamina. Alan Morinis writes, “A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds onto our heart. Cultivating trust, love becomes possible.”

Steve Covey introduced the idea of the Emotional Bank Account. He taught that we create a personal “emotional” bank account with everyone with whom we have a relationship. This account begins on a neutral balance. Over time, we make deposits and withdrawals. But instead of units of monetary value, we deal with emotional units. These emotional units are centered on trust. When we make emotional deposits into someone’s bank account, their trust in us grows. And as a result, our relationship grows. If we can keep a positive reserve in our relationships, by making regular deposits, there will be greater tolerance for our mistakes and we’ll enjoy open communication with that person. On the contrary, when we make withdrawals and our balance becomes low or even overdrawn, mistrust develops. When we break our promises to others, we make major withdrawals from their Emotional Bank Accounts. Also, not arriving on time, not following through, not attending to the little things, or living up to the words we speak. We make mistakes. That’s part of life and learning. When appropriate, sincere apology keeps Emotional Accounts in the positive, allowing you to maintain the balance.

It is hard to trust once your trust has been broken and the Emotional Bank Account is raided and empty.


In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”5

The first thing? Really? Not about your piety, your charity, your relationships, your scholarship? But about your trustworthiness in the marketplace?

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

We are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull give-and-take system. We are all on the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time the light turns yellow and we step off the curb, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit in a bank, we trust that our money is safe. Every time we enter our credit card number, our social security number, we trust it will be used correctly. Every time we get a root canal, we trust the professional holding the drill. Every time we drop our kids off at school we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the mechanic tells you what is wrong with your car, every time the contractor says “we’ve encountered a problem,” every time you hire a dog sitter, every time you click here, every time you step out of your home, every time you knock on a door and say trick or treat, every time you turn the corner to capture a rare Pokémon, every time you accept a drink at a party, every time you receive a diagnosis you are trusting others to be honest and tender and not take advantage of you. Everything depends on trust, however, collectively we have an increasing sense of betrayal. A fear that it’s all rigged anyway.

There is great mistrust between people and the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Great mistrust between communities and the police who are supposed to protect them.

We are suspicious that we are being “gaslit” manipulated into questioning our sanity. Politicians regularly saying, “I never said that,” even though we’ve heard the tapes. Police saying, “it didn’t happen that way,” even though we’ve watched the videos. The repetitive denials even of that which has been captured on film or tape are designed to chip away our trust in ourselves, and like Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight, we worry that our accurate observations are actually wrong. And we might be insane. We are encouraged to dismiss scientific data. We no longer trust our FBI, our attorney general. We fear everything is rigged.

We are weary of trusting. Every time the light turns yellow, we assume that cars are going to speed up to try to beat the red light. We are suspicious of banks, learning of unauthorized accounts in our names. We are weary from every time we were told by doctors and dentists, “This won’t hurt at all,” and it hurts. We are suspicious when we go in for an oil change and the mechanic says we need a new radiator. We have been betrayed by companies that have labeled their food kosher or organic when they are not. By merchants who sell diamonds that are fake. By being overcharged and scammed.


We crave leaders who are trustworthy. Leaders who will work to restore and rebuild trust, who are “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” Who are understanding and wise. Who have pure “hearts of service.”

Trustworthiness means I believe the world of “us” is safe. I believe you won’t hurt me. That you won’t abandon me. That if you send my child to war, it is for a noble reason and you will protect them. That there is as much transparency as public safety will allow. That you know where we are going and I won’t be left behind. That you recognize my inherent worth, even when I’m disabled. That you recognize my inherent beauty, even when I’m deformed. That you treat me with dignity no matter my income, race, gender, sexuality, or citizenship. That I merit your care. That you will discern without bias.

We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness, when confidence is just one’s own measure of one’s perceived grandness, while trustworthiness is the universal measure of a good person.

Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” That’s what our tradition says is the first question we are asked in paradise. What if that was the only question that was explored in the debates? Have you dealt honestly? Are you trustworthy? What Torah, what Law, do you hold against your heart that reminds you every day of an absolute morality, a highest truth? That is more precious to you than the accumulation of lovers, horses and money?


On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire other good deeds, and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees. And we are renewing that trusteeship right now in the Book of Life.

In the book of Jeremiah it is written: “Blessed is the person who trusts in God for he shall be like a tree planted by waters…it shall not be anxious in the year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit.”6

In Judaism trust (bitachon) and faith (emunah) are related. Maimonides says that one first needs faith in order to trust. Faith that there’s something more than this, that somehow I am part of something bigger than me, faith that though the reason is hidden, it exists. Faith that although I don’t have control over everything, there’s a purpose.

On the dollar bill there are also scales, stamped over the number. During the gold rush, assayers would put the nuggets brought to them by prospectors on one pan, and weights on the other.


The Torah is very insistent about our use of equal weights and measures.7

It is the basis of a stable and just economy. On Wall Street and on Main Street and on your street.

Lady Justice is blindfolded as she holds the scales. She is not biased when weighing innocence and guilt. Ron Wolfson wrote, “The underlying notion of helping others is the call for justice in the world to right the scales, to bring up those brought low and be compassionate toward others.”

Can you be trusted to use honest weights and measures when judging others? How about when judging yourself? Some people are easy on themselves, taking their own good intentions into consideration, while they are hard on others. Some are easy on others, and much harsher on themselves.


Too much trust can be dangerous. We would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality, these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

A person should not trust everyone. Hopefully you have a community of people you do trust, friends, handypeople, medical people, teachers, dog-walkers, advisors, clergy. And as you expand the circle of people you trust, I encourage you to look outside your demographic. If you are in a new job, look to a retiree for advice and mentorship, one who you don’t see as a threat, but who has a wealth of wisdom and success to relay. And if you are of an age where you find yourself saying, “Kids these days!” and “We are doomed!” look to a millennial who can tour you through the changes and show you it’s not as scary as it seems.

You should not trust everyone. But everyone should find you trustworthy. The goal isn’t to trust everyone because not everyone is worthy of your trust. The goal is to be trustworthy, that your legacy be good and proud and just.

If everyone finds you trusting, you are vulnerable to being played for a fool.

If everyone finds you trustworthy, you are beloved and a precious jewel.

If everyone finds you trusting, there will be bottles that say “drink me” and cakes that say “eat me” and ads that say “buy me” aplenty with little good to show for it. If everyone finds you trustworthy, there will be people who always want to be with you, who will seek your guidance and wisdom, who will entrust you with their dreams and stories, and you will have an abundance to show for it.

At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” Rava did not say trust everyone. He didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures. He said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures.

We look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we say, “It’s all a lie,” weighing ourselves against the false measures presented by our glossy, materialistic world, shallow and fragile as the mirror itself? (She likes her curls now, by the way.) Or do we take the time to bolster our trustworthiness, exercise compassion in that heart, excise judgement from that mind.

Ask yourself, can you be trusted? Some of us can be trusted to be total blockheads every time we speak. Some of us can be trusted to take a wrong turn at every fork. Some of us can be trusted to ruin every opportunity. That’s not the trustworthiness I mean. Rather, can you be trusted to keep those who depend on you safe? Can you be trusted to do no physical harm, and to do as little emotional harm as is possible?

Ask yourself, can you trust yourself to make decisions that are healthy for you? Can you trust yourself to keep yourself safe, to do yourself no harm? To not beat yourself up for every self-perceived short-falling, to resist constantly comparing yourself to others, to be good to yourself and grateful for who you are and where you are? And if you are disappointed in yourself, and the path to lifting yourself up seems too slippery and steep, can you consider “How would love respond?and try a little tenderness?

In this new year, may our leaders merit our trust through their words and their actions. May trustworthiness become a value that once again matters, a lot. May trustworthiness be our measure, more than confidence, charisma and quotability. May we invest the time in building our own trustworthiness, for a trustworthy person is a treasure to all. May the real time fact-checking Truth-O-Meter soon register 100 percent.

On this Day of Judgment, the angels are the assayers, and they weigh that which is precious in us, and they measure the reach of our deeds. Our property is our good name and it determines the acreage of our influence. Every time we default on a promise, we break a trust. But we have the chance to regain it, starting now. Today is all about taking an accounting of our deeds. This is your moment to open a new emotional savings account.

“Blessed is the person who trusts in God,” spoke the prophet Jeremiah. And blessed is the person in whom all can trust. May fear loosen its grip on our hearts, and love become possible again. Amen.

Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

The time is now

Three nights ago as I sat in Kol Nidre services to usher in Yom Kippur, I listened to the Rabbi’s sermon with tears in my eyes. My fiancé and I attended the Chabad Young Professionals service in New York where Rabbi Levi told the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul for Japan in Lithuania during World War II.

Sugihara woke one evening to the sound of hundreds of Jews outside his window; panic-stricken, they would not make it out of Lithuania before being captured by the Nazis and transported to a concentration camp where they would likely be murdered. It was 1940, and the only way Jewish people could leave Lithuania to Japan was with a travel visa. The Vice-Consul called his superiors in Japan three times, begging for permission to write visas. All three requests were denied.

Sugihara ignored the orders and began handwriting visas. He worked 18-20 hours per day, producing a month’s worth of visas every day. In addition, he often wrote the visas for the head of the household, which permitted entire families to leave Lithuania. His wife would massage his tired, cramped hands between short writing breaks.

When the consulate was forced to close in September, Sugihara still refused to quit. He continued to write visas on the way to the train station, throwing the documents out the window for Jewish refugees to receive. As the train was pulling away from the station, Sugihara tossed blank paper with only the consulate seal and his signature. These papers would later be transferred to visas.

Sugihara saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish refugees who have now grown to more than 50,000 descendants. When he returned to Japan, he didn’t boast or brag of his good deeds. Instead, his actions remained virtually unknown. However, when the people whose lives he saved began looking for him, his righteous act was unveiled.

In 1985, Sugihara and his family were given Israeli citizenship, and he was granted the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in Israel.

The Sugihara story truly embraces Kol Nidre, which translates to “all vows.” As I sat listening to this miraculous, selfless story, I wondered if our, the world’s, Sugihara moment was happening right now. The Syrian refugee crisis has entered our homes daily, through email, television, discussions and newspapers, for months. It is possibly the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that three million Syrians have fled and another six-and-a-half million have been internally displaced. A global crisis often appears too large for one person to tackle. But what if Sugihara had said, “There are too many, I could not possibly help.”

The time is now. Whether we sign petitions for refugees to be relocated throughout the United States and Europe, or we donate funds for medical, food and educational expenses, we must not sit idly by as history continues to tell the same story.  


I was standing with my brother on the top floor of a hotel in Atlanta having checked in for a conference he had organized.  The elevators were jammed and they didn’t have enough to accommodate all the guests.  More, some of them went to the lower floors and others to the upper.  We stood waiting for a long time.  I looked at the six doors, and said, “You know, not all of the elevators even come to this floor.” My brother looked at the doors, and then backs at me. “Um, David” he said, “These do.” 

We laughed uncontrollably.  When I told my sister-in-law, she recounted how her brother, a navy seal, was in his final exams for the position and his commanding officer walked him around the pentagon.  “Now you understand the structure of the building?” he was asked.  “Yes” he answered, “its an octagon.”  “Noooo” said his C.O. “it’s a pentagon.” 

We all make stupid mistakes. They are often the basis of humor.  For example: Once Sherlock Holmes decided to take Watson on a camping trip.  In the middle of the night, Holmes looked up at the stars and woke Watson.  “Watson” he said, “what do you observe?”

“Well” said Watson, clearly knowing he was being tested, “I observe a slight trail which suggests a shooting star.  And I see the constellation Orion.  And the moon is slightly less than half, but growing.”  Proudly, he said to Holmes, “And what do you observe?”

“I observe,” said Holmes, “that while we were sleeping someone stole our tent.”

Yes, we make foolish mistakes.  And we make serious mistakes, as well.  Often there is one way to get something right and endless ways to get it wrong. That is true in the moral sphere as well as the physical one.  That’s why the idea that you can just follow your heart, or listen to your dream and all will be well is a fiction.  We feed it to our children, but it is not true.

In fact, in the shema we are told, “do not follow after your heart and your eyes that lead you astray.”   Of course, following your heart can often bring satisfaction and depth.  But it is hardly foolproof.  Is there a parent in the world who with the best intentions and love hasn't hurt his or her child?  Or a child who has not done the same in reverse?  We wound from good intentions as well as bad, and often when we think we are following our heart, in retrospect we wish we had listened to our own reservations. 

It is a paradox that we learn as we get older, but to feel something is right doesn't always make it right.  For the world is more complex than simple guidelines, and there will always be much we do not, and even cannot, know. On Yom Kippur we confess to sins we did knowingly and those we did unknowingly. At times we do not understand the impact of our own actions until much later; the unknowings of life are cumulative, and I know how much more I don’t know now, than I used to know when I knew less! 

We go about jangling the heartstrings of others, carelessly and painfully, often without meaning to.  That recognition should sting; it is not against Jewish law to feel bad, or have a sense of sin or sleepless nights. 

Yet we neglect this lesson with our children.  Too often when I ask the bar or bat mitzvah child, “What would you like to change about yourself,” I get the proud answer – “nothing!” I see that the child thinks it is the “right” answer.  Actually, it is exactly wrong.  Is there nothing to do teshuva for, to improve, to do less or more or better?  The idea that we are perfect on instinct is pernicious and untrue.  We can hone our instincts and be better, but the world does not allow for seamless perfection.  Moral struggle is essential, and we need to teach its reality to our kids.

Heschel was once approached by a man who said he did not feel he needed the synagogue or God because he was a pretty good person.  Heschel answered, “I envy you.  I don’t feel so good – I am always saying or doing the wrong thing, hurting someone by words or silence.  I need God, and I need prayer.”

Just as it is dangerous to be without a sense of sin, it is dangerous to luxuriate in it.  We cannot be stuck in sin, mired in our own mistakes. The Jewish answer to a serious sense of our own moral struggle, mistakes and sin is forgiveness.  Sin is our action, not our identity. 

To forgive is hard.  To forgive someone else, you must give up your power over them, release your grudge.  No longer do you get to feel morally superior, since they hurt you.  We are all in need of forgiveness, human and divine, because no one gets it right all the time.

And if we do some emotional excavation. we discover that the same sense of over-expectation that we direct to others, we focus on ourselves.  As we need to forgive those who have hurt us, we need to forgive ourselves.  If we understand that mistakes and even sins are inevitable, are human – then we can forgive ourselves. 

After all, to judge yourself is to be weirdly split.  Who is the “I” that is judging “me”?  To forgive is to reach wholeness, shelemut.  We recognize that another person is like us, so we reunite as common, flawed humans.  And we realize we are one person, so the sin and the judgment come from the same individual who can let both go.

We all of us, of the broken lives and the picked up pieces, of the faltering promises and mislaid resolutions, we who walk in darkness with flickering lights, who know we might be better.  And we know that the release of forgiveness helps us to be better.

Yes, we have serious requirements for forgiveness.  You have to try to make it right, to apologize, resolve not to commit the same transgression.  Forgiveness is not an escape hatch, it is a struggle and a gift. 

And yet.  If you have ever forgiven, truly forgiven, or been forgiven, you know that it is a transcendent moment.  The moment of forgiveness is one of those in which the human and the Divine touch.  It is the reaching toward one another, as in the famous depiction by Michelangelo of God and Adam.

Michelangelo, we are told, used to keep a candle in his cap, to eliminate the shadows on the picture he was painting.  Forgiveness is that candle, the one we carry with us, that brings light into the world.

You can carry that candle for others, and for yourself. 

Many years ago my father told me a story of Calvin Coolidge, who was famously laconic.  To get more than a few words form him was a chore.  Once, he returned from church, and his wife asked, “What did the preacher talk about?”

“Sin.” He answered. 

“What did he say?”

“He was against it.”

I hope this does not resolve to “What did the Rabbi talk about?” 


“What did he say?”

“He was for it.”

It isn't that I'm for it.  It is that I believe that without it, we are doomed, and with it we are saved. Not saved to another world, but saved in this one. 

If God can forgive us, surely we can forgive ourselves and one another?  We cannot do it all at once, but begin forgiving others, forgiving yourself.  You will discover when you do the reality of God's light and warmth, and feel some peace.

Reclaiming JEW

Jew. Jew. Jew.
I’m a Jew.
I imagine the majority of us here are Jews. We’re Jews.
And friends of Jews.

What is it about the word “Jew”?

Comedian Louis CK observed: “Jew is a funny word, because Jew is the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people, and the slur for the same group.”

He said: “Most groups have a good and a bad word, theirs is the same word, just with a little [sneer] on it and it becomes a terrible thing to call a person! Because you can say, ‘He’s a Jew’ and it’s fine, but ‘He’s a Jew…’ that’s all it takes.”

Are you as comfortable saying “I’m a Jew”
As you are saying “I’m Jewish.”
“I’m of the Jewish persuasion.”

Why are we more comfortable with ourselves if we add an “ish” to the end? How old are you? 

I’m fortyish.

Actually, I’m forty-four.

What religion are you? I’m Jewish.

Actually, I’m a Jew.

One of the entries for “Jewish” on Urban Dictionary says: Someone who is kinda like a Jew, but not quite. For example, “Marisa makes matzo ball soup but never goes to temple, she’ s so Jewish.”

Yes I know, there are other ish ethnicities. English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Amish…

I’m toying with language here, just having fun with suffixes – but… perhaps we are more comfortable being Jewish than “a Jew” because when you add ish to the end of your age or your weight or your height, you’ve made a little wiggle room, you might be a little older, a little younger than you say, a little slimmer, a little heftier, a little shorter, a little taller. You’re this, but you’re fluid, you have brown hair but you’re blondish, in certain lights. If you’re vegetarianish you can still have a turkey slider now and then. If you’re due to arrive at sixish, you can still be a few minutes late. The ish is forgiving. You can’t be defined, nailed down. You defy categories. The ish perforates the lines. While Jew is so exacting.

I’m Jewish. I’m not orthodox. I left the shtetl with the Enlightenment and never looked back. I have universal principles. I reject the biblical concept of a chosen people. I’m uncomfortable with elitism. I value and defend the rights of all people.

I’m an American, a citizen, a human being, a humanitarian, a student of humanities, who happens to be Jewish.

And even with an ish at the end, sometimes we worry things are too Jewish…

No one walks into a pho restaurant and complains that it’s ‘too Vietnamese,’ a patisserie and says, ‘too French.’ A trattoria and says, ‘oh, too Italian.’ But Jews, we walk into a deli and sometimes it feels too Jewish!

Vanessa Hidary, also known as the Hebrew Mamasita tells this story:

I meet a guy in a bar that’ s cute. He asks me out to dinner on the following Tuesday. I decline. Next Tuesday is Yom Kippur, I will be fasting. “You’re Jewish. Wow, you don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” And he says it in this tone that sounds like he’ s complimenting me. And I say, and I say, nothing. I say nothing which combined with a flirty smile translates as “Thank you.” I say nothing because I got a contact high off of someone’ s anti-Semitic crack pipe… Bartender! Tell me I don’t look Jewish. Tell me I don’ t act Jewish. Because…what does Jewish look like to you? Should I fiddle on a roof for you? Should I humor you with oy veys and refuse to pay because oh, you know how we like to “Jew you down.” Jew you down? I’d like to throw you down, because I walked here long miles on hot sand to publicly repent my sins, because I almost forgot six million died without having the option of giggling on barstools…and if you must see me as that blood-sucking Jew, see me as that pesky mosquito who sucks the prejudice right out of you…Someone tells you you don’ t act like or look like your people? Impossible. Because you are your people. You just tell them they don’t look. Period.

Good stuff. But there’s a reason “Jew” is uncomfortable at times. A reason we worry about things being too Jewish. A reason we forget that two of the most iconic beauties on the planet, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, were Jews by choice. A reason why we feel good when we blend in.

Because despite living in West Los Angeles, sometimes we think “Jew,” and we still think beard, sidelocks. Shtreiml. Yellow star. German propaganda. Cartoons. Warsaw. Young boy with his hands up. Piles of shoes. We think soap. Lampshade.

It’s safer to be Jewish than a Jew.

Jew has been defined by the centuries, chiseled by abusive hands, molested

into shape. A blood-stained word. A target. A word people spit.

This past year has seen a rise of anti-Semitism on American campuses2 and around the world.

Starting with a firebomb thrown at a synagogue shortly before the start of Rosh Hashanah services last year in Kiev.

A rabbi in Belgium stabbed in the throat walking to synagogue. A Belgium officer ranting online saying, “The word Jew itself is dirty.” Jews assaulted in Austria.

Posters calling Jews murderers and criminals all over the capital of Brazil. In Denmark, a kosher restaurant smashed, painted with the words “Jewish pig.” A gunman opening fire at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen.

In France, a Jewish woman and her child violently assaulted by others shouting “You’re a dirty race.” People beaten, punched, kicked walking home from synagogue. Windows smashed at the Jewish library. A Jewish boy tear-gassed. Four Jewish men killed in a Kosher supermarket the same time a dozen people were killed at a newspaper. Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif.

Hundreds of graves in a Jewish French cemetery overturned, the words “dirty Jew” graffitied. Jewish cemeteries vandalized in Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Norway. Swastikas and slogans like “six million more.”

A soccer game in Amsterdam where people chanted: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” and “My father was in the commandos, my mother in the SS, together they burned Jews because Jews burn the best.” Happened this year.

An attack inside a London synagogue. Jewish teens attacked in a South African shopping mall, assailants yelling ‘You Jew.”

Even though there are strides, Pope Francis saying this year: “It’s a contradiction that a Christian is anti-Semitic. His roots are Jewish. Let anti- Semitism be banished from the heart and life of every man and every woman.” It was a rough, rough year.

It is upsetting, scary, but not surprising. It happens whenever the world spirals down. Economic distress. Debt. Recession. Crash. Blame the Jew. The eternal scapegoat reloaded.

In fact, that’s what this day was originally about. Torah describes the ancient Temple ritual on Yom Kippur. The High Priest took two goats, sacrificed one on the altar to God, and the other was sent off into the wilderness3. The original scape-goat.

We invented the scapegoat. And… we are the scapegoat.

Yes, “Jew” is a tough word.

The first time the word “Jew” appears in our Scripture is when our matriarch Leah says of her fourth baby, “This time I shall thank the Lord,” and she names him Yehuda. Judah. Which means “Thankful.” Judaism means thankfulness. Jew means Thankful One.

The first time the word “Jew” appears not as a name but an identity in our Scripture is in the Book of Esther. “Mordechai the Jew.” And we all know that story. In chapter 3 it says: “Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them.”

“A certain people.”

Boo Haman. Cue the groggers. His genocide is thwarted, and at the end Haman hangs. But he’s not dead.

You could hear echoes of Haman when the term “The Jewish Question” was first used in Great Britain in 1750 in debates over the status of the Jew in European society.

The question was discussed in France after the French Revolution in 1789.

“There is a certain people.”

The Jewish Question then moved to Germany.

“There is a certain people, and their laws differ.”

Reform Judaism was born around the French Revolution, when for the first time, European Jews were recognized as citizens of the countries in which they lived. No longer ghettoized, no longer “separate among the peoples” the Reform movement re-formed Jewish practice to mainstream Judaism, pledging allegiance to this new world of opportunity, no longer German Jews but Jewish Germans.

In its earliest iteration, our movement removed Hebrew from prayer books, renounced circumcision, kosher laws, family purity laws, renounced the hope for a restored Israel, called Germany the new Zion, replaced Bar Mitzvah with confirmation, changed Shabbat to Sundays.

There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples and their laws differ.”

Even so, Haman’s voice persisted.

There is a certain people scattered and separate…and they do not “keep the king’s laws.”

Karl Marx wrote a work called “On The Jewish Question.”

“There is a certain people.”

The Dreyfus affair.

“There is a certain people.”

Theodor Herzl’s answer to the Jewish Question was Zionism.

Hitler’s answer was different. A genocide that would not be thwarted. “If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them.” Haman’s revenge.

Oh once there was a wicked wicked man
And Haman was his name sir,
He would have murdered all the Jews
Though they were not to blame sir.
Oh today we’ll merry merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry merry be, And…

Joseph was Pharaoh’s right hand man, his top vizier, and he rescued all of Egypt from crippling famine. And then, in Exodus we read, “A new king rose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people, “The children of Israel have become too numerous, so we must deal harshly with them.”

How quickly our accomplishments, our mighty contributions, forgotten.

“There is a certain people.”

The echo of those words even heard at UCLA this year, when the student government questioned the ability of a Jewish nominee to maintain an unbiased view.

“There is a certain people. They do not keep the king’s law.”

Economic distress. Debt. Recession. Crash. One goat to the altar. One goat to the wilderness. Bring out the scapegoat.

“There is a certain people.”

This “certain people…” Religion, race, ethnicity, heritage, nationality? A tribe? What makes one a Jew? Birth mother? Mikveh? Cultural Jew, Hasidic Jew, Reform Jew. Is Judaism particular, universal? Insider/outsider, settler/wanderer, “the other” or just-like-any-other, self-loathing/self-loving, Diasporic/Zionist, pacifist/activist? Witness.

I want my name back.
I want our name back.

Remember the poem by Edmund Fleg. He wrote it in 1929 in France, but you might know it from the Maxwell House haggadah?

I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet fully created; men are creating him.
I am a Jew because Israel places man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

I want my name back.
I want to decide what my name stands for.

My name is “Jew.” My name is smoothed by centuries of storms, polished by the rolling river of time. My name is a diamond, born of friction and pressure, thrust to the surface by fiery lava, precious, multi-faceted. My name is “Jew” and my name is the philosopher’s stone, turning base metals into gold, turning all that is mundane in this world and infusing it with meaning, turning it into the shining substance of the sacred. My name is “Jew” and my name turns the animal of man, his brutality, his beastliness, into beauty and righteousness, elevating him above his dust and his dross. “Jew” is the stamp on the greatest love-letter ever written, from Creator to created, the love-letter in which we are given the Ten Commandments, the ethical guideposts of civilizations, the love-letter that proclaimed that every person is made in the Image of God, b’Tzelem Elohim, that every living vessel, whether broken or whole, is infused worthiness, casting down cast systems, a love-letter that told the story of all humanity descending from one couple, that we are one family, no one superior to another, a love-letter that illustrated the redemption of a slave people into a nation of priests, a people whose babies had been drowned in the river, a people beaten and in rags, restored to dignity, a thread of royal blue tied to the corner of their garments, a reminder of each individual’s inherent nobility.

Dear mankind, Here is Shabbat, the world’ s greatest religious gift, a day upon which the flower and the gardener stand as equals to one another, day of peace, of rest, of family, of vision of a future world. Enjoy. Sincerely, Jews.

Dear mankind, Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof. Love, Jews.

Dear mankind, Love your neighbor as yourself. Sincerely, Jews.

Dear mankind, Welcome the stranger in your midst. Sincerely, Jews.

Dear mankind, Let my people go. Sincerely, Jews.

Dear mankind, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send those, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. Sincerely, Jews.

Dear mankind, Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof. Love, Jews.

I want my name back.

Jew means “championing what is arguably the single most revolutionary concept in human civilization, monotheism.” One God. A universal moral code of conduct.

Jew means having partnership with the Divine for the repair of our broken world. Tikkun Olam. Not outsourcing to a higher authority.

Jew means helping the other is my responsibility during my lifetime. Jew means confessing my shortcomings and striving to better myself.

I want my name back. My name is “Jew.” David Harris writes that the Jew is:

The first to challenge the status quo and insist on the right to worship differently than the majority. Pluralism – the bedrock of democratic society.

Heir and custodian of a civilization that is thousands of years old.

Living in perpetual mourning for all that was lost, in the Holocaust, the pogroms, the inquisition, the forced conversions, the exiles, the blood libels, while at the same time, living in everlasting gratitude [the Thankful Ones] for the gift of life [and] the sacred task set before us of igniting that special spark within each of us.

Barely one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population, How we’ve advanced the frontiers of world civilization, 22 percent of all the world’s Nobel prizes… marveling at the almost unimaginable determination to persevere against all the odds, without ever losing hope for a brighter future.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshiped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased.

The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God.

I am a Jew because…though at times [we] suffered the deepest poverty, [we] never gave up on [our] commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed.

I am proud to belong to the people Israel, who name means ‘one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.’ For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with God nor God with us.

I am proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatized, never lost their humor or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption.

I have put My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between [God] and the world.

Sincerely, Jews.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.13 Sincerely, Jews.

Heir and custodian of a civilization that is thousands of years old.

Barely one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population, How we’ve advanced the frontiers of world civilization, 22 percent of all the world’s Nobel prizes… marveling at the almost unimaginable determination to persevere against all the odds, without ever losing hope for a brighter future.17

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshiped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God.

I am a Jew because…though at times [we] suffered the deepest poverty, [we] never gave up on [our] commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed.

I am proud to belong to the people Israel, who name means ‘one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.’ For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with God nor God with us.

I am proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatized, never lost their humor or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption.18

Who packed timbrels when they left Egypt because they believed they’d one day sing on a new shore.

Living in perpetual mourning for all that was lost, in the Holocaust, the pogroms, the inquisition, the forced conversions, the exiles, the blood libels, while at the same time, living in everlasting gratitude [the Thankful Ones] for the gift of life [and] the sacred task set before us of igniting that special spark within each of us.

I want our name back, the name of a people whose father Abraham was not afraid to raise his voice to God and ask: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”

The name of a people whose Prophet Isaiah said: “Is this not the fast I choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked?20

I want our name back, with all of its Jewtacular, Jewdacious, Jewbunctious, Jewtabulous Jewliciousness.

All of its sweet charoset and biting horseradish, its chutzpah and its menschlekeit.

To be a Jew is to know how to sow in tears and reap in joy, to make a song out of sighing, to make light out of shadows.

To be a Jew is to be called, to stand up for justice, to collect the shards of a broken world and build and rebuild.

To be a Jew is to be hope. HaTikvah. A miracle. To defy fate.

To be a Jew is to be a soldier for ethics, strident and courageous, manly and virile, womanly and strong.

To be a Jew is to be aware of beauty, to understand stillness, to love and pursue wisdom, to cherish virtue.

To be a Jew is to be passionate, to have a vision and a voice and a bone to pick with God.

To be a Jew is to be in relationship. I and Thou. Here and now.

To be a Jew is to be invited into a beckoning and mystical tradition, not a birthright but a blessing, not a burden but a privilege.

Elie Wiesel said that being a Jew means not seeking to make the world more Jewish, but more human.

To be a Jew is to be a poet, to derive meaning from the stone and the brook, to be an artist, the community your canvas, to dance with the cycles of the moon, to be in tune with the seasons.

To be the Thankful Ones, despite it all.

To be a Jew is to know how precious it all is. How much there is to be thankful for, how much more needs to be done, to be partners with God and to take our work seriously, how far we have to climb, how tedious but how glorious the journey.

To be a Jew is to take our most precious treasure, our Torah, and place it into the hands of our thirteen year olds and say, you with your fresh eyes and your pure heart, we trust you to lead us.

I want to take our name, Jew, and rinse it in a desert well, wring out its tears, mend its tears, hang it on an olive branch in the Godshine, spread it out like a chuppah, under which we renew our covenantal vows, spread it out like a solar panel, its renewable energy charging through our veins, spread it out like wings as we soar skyward for a bird’s eye view, spread it out like a parachute, as we come in for the landing, wrap it like a comforter when in need of embrace, wear it like many-colored coat…

Jewpendous, Jewmendous, Jewstonishing, Jewnomenal, Jewperb, Jewrrific, Jewtastic, Jewminous, Jewcandescence, and bathe in its light, for a moment, before the blast of the shofar interrupts our basking, and we are called back out into that calamitous world, meager tools in our pockets, delegates of the Divine, charged with the task, against all odds, to help make things a little better for somebody else.

Baruch Atah Adonai, she-asani Yisrael.

Blessed are You Adonai, who has made me a Jew.

Thank You. Thank You. She-asani Yisrael. Baruch Atah Adonai, she-asani Yisrael.

Blessed are You Adonai, who has made me a Jew.

Return, reboot, reload

In 1913, a 27 year old Jew, who had grown up in the home of totally assimilated, wealthy German parents, came to a Kol Nidre service in Berlin for what he thought would be his last time.  He had decided to convert to Christianity.  This service was to be his way of saying goodbye to Judaism. But something happened. That young man, Franz Rosenzweig, heard something or saw something or felt something or remembered something that led him to change his mind. He began to study Judaism seriously… including establishing with Martin Buber the Lehrhaus Judaica, a radical center for secular Jewish studies… and he became one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

Biographers and historians never could figure out exactly what happened that night to change his life.  Maybe it was the Kol Nidre prayer itself.  Probably not the words – the words don’t really make sense. The words are a legal formula that release us from vows we haven’t yet made. “All of our vows, all of our promises and obligations, from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur — they shall not be binding nor shall they have any power.”  It’s counter-intuitive, almost fraudulent. No wonder the medieval rabbis tried to abolish it. So did the early leaders of the Reform Movement. But they couldn’t.  In fact the prayer is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that the whole evening service is called by its name.  And it is presented with great pomp and solemnity, as sacred theater: as though we were in a Jewish court, with people, holding Torah scrolls as witness to the legal proceedings where we are released from our vows. Traditionally the Kol Nidre is recited before dark because you can’t conduct a courtroom hearing at night. That’s why it is the only evening service where worshippers wear a tallit, a garment that is only worn during the day.

So what was it that made Rosenzweig wrestle with the meaning of his life, his purpose?  If it were not the Kol Nidre itself, maybe for it was the intensity and power of contemplating his own death, which is the central point of Yom Kippur. Or maybe he felt in that haunting melody all the pain of generations of Jews before him who were pressured into giving up their Jewishness, against their wills.  

Or maybe he sensed what I sensed as I stood before this Jewish court tonight.  If my vows are no longer binding, if all the promises I have made are broken, then who am I? I’m no longer a wife, a mother, a daughter, a grandmother, a rabbi, a friend… no longer obligated to finish a project or to answer an email.  No, I am simply be a naked soul.  Standing in the presence of the Transcendent. The “me” I recognize is in ruins.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Larry Kushner, explains it this way: “Kol Nidre means:  all bets are off. Hearing Kol Nidre is like the sound of flipping that silent software switch that anyone who has ever fiddled with a computer has discovered with relief and joy:  ‘restore default configuration.’  Go back to zero. Clean slate. Fresh start. You see before you on the screen one simple question:  ‘Begin new game?”

Yes, you have screwed up this past year.  Yes, you have work to do to heal the pain you have caused. Yes, Yom Kippur doesn’t atone for the sins you’ve committed against other people – you still have to repair those directly with them… But for promises made to yourself, promises made to God… clean slate; fresh start… an opportunity to begin a new game. We know that, because immediately after we hear Kol Nidre, we hear the words that God spoke after the sin of the scouts not trusting that God could bring us into the Promised Land:  “I have forgiven as you have asked.“  Or, in computer speak: “Reboot – you can begin a new game.” 

So for the rest of the long day of Yom Kippur, you get to decide what to load back into your soul’s computer. This is really what teshuvah means: reloading your computer with what you need to restore your best vision of yourself, your best version of yourself, to return to the purpose for which you alone were created. A Chassidic master, the Slonimer Rebbe, teaches: “From the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill someone else’s mission.”

Teshuvah is returning to that purpose, to that mission. Yom Kippur gives you the space and time to discern it.

Are you ready for a new game?  What do you need in your computer?  What is the data you need to recalibrate?

What I need are some core memories, Jewish memories, that have shaped who I am and connect me with the values that have shaped my sense of purpose.   

Memory Number One:

My sister Meggie died of cancer before I was born. She was two.  My mother found out she was pregnant with me on the day of her funeral. We never talked too much about her, but there were always pictures of her in my parents’ bedroom. It wasn’t until I had a baby of my own that I was ready to hear the story. I learned that my parents mourned her death very differently; my mom turned to family and friends for support.  My dad was more private; it was very difficult for him to find solace. And then he went to talk to his rabbi, a man I never knew, who told him this story:  “Once there was a caterpillar who noticed that every so often a lot of caterpillars would disappear. He became determined to find out where they went and he promised that if it ever happened to him, he would come back and let all the other caterpillars know.  So, of course eventually he spun himself into a chrysalis and emerged a butterfly.  True to his word he returned to the caterpillars, flapped his wings and tried to get their attention. But they never looked up, because they could never imagine that they had any connection to this beautiful creature.”

That story comforted my dad. To him Meggie was somehow always a part of his life, as a beautiful butterfly. Years later, as I sat in meditation, my mind wandered to that memory… and, in a kind of epiphany, I realized that that his sharing that story with me might have been central in my calling to become a rabbi.  I felt the power that a rabbi had to bring comfort to my father in such a dark time. Maybe I could do that with other people.

That is a Jewish core memory. It reminds me that healing from loss is possible and that life goes on, enriched by connection to a Jewish community.

Memory Number Two:

I was about six or seven. .  There was a meeting of the social action committee of my parents’ Reform synagogue in our living room.   My brothers and I were supposed to be in our rooms upstairs, but, being a curious and nosy little girl, I snuck downstairs to listen.  The adults were talking about selling houses as straws. That seemed so strange to me—a straw was something you used for a milkshake.

The next morning I asked my dad what they were talking about.  “There are neighborhoods in this community where black people can’t buy houses,” he said.  “That’s wrong. A straw is a white person who buys a house from another white person so he can sell it to a black person so black people can live wherever they want. The meeting was about how we could help integrate housing in our city.”

“But I thought it was a meeting from Temple,” I said.  “What does that have to do with being Jewish?”

My dad responded: “That is what it means to be Jewish: fixing what is broken in the world.”

That core memory reminds me that central to my purpose is tikkun olam.

Memory Number 3:

During the week of Passover of my freshman year at Brown, I participated in a sit-in for fair housing at the State House.  Someone had brought in trays of delicious looking donuts.  I was hungry and really tempted.  But then I realized that not eating donuts and sitting in for fair housing were both ways to honor Passover

That core memory reminds me that the ethical and the ritual dimensions of Judaism both connect.  Every year, as I reload my computer, I confront the ritual of reciting the Al Chets, the list of sins we confess out loud.  I am struck that the list does not include specific ritual violations but rather ethical lapses; for example, it doesn’t say: for the sin we have caused against you by not keeping kosher, but rather, for the sin we have sinned against you in our eating and drinking. It doesn’t say: for the sin we have sinned against you by not saying prayers, but rather, for the sins we have sinned against in our routine conversation (like gossip.  We get in touch with those deeper values through a ritual act like confessing collective sins in public or not eating donuts or other chametz on Passover.   

Memory Number 4:

In the summer after my freshman year in college, I drove to Memphis with a group of students and community activists to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Memphis. It was the year after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.  I was one of the very few white people at the convention.  I guess I was overwhelmed by the gospel singing and the church like atmosphere, so I went outside to try to figure out what I was doing there.  The organizer who was leading our group came out to check up on me. When I related my confusion, admitting that I felt like I didn’t belong, he responded: “You are right. You don’t belong here. You need to go back to your own community and do this work there.”

The core memory of that gentle challenge helped me understand that my community is the Jewish community.  That is the inner circle where I need to begin, never forgetting that that circle of my people is part of larger concentric circles of community — the circle of my city, my country and my world.

Memory Number 5

I was the only woman in my rabbinical school class. We were studying the section from the Talmud that describes intercourse with a little girl as “nothing… (it is only) as if one puts a finger into the eye.”  While I understood that the rabbis were trying to protect the girl by asserting that she was really still a virgin and therefore the rape wouldn’t affect her bride price, to me this was a “text of terror.”  No one, neither my male classmates nor my male professor, understood how painful this text was for me. How could the rape of a little girl be “nothing”? To me, it was very personal.  I was once a little girl!

That core memory continues to animate my conviction that women’s voices must be part of the Jewish conversation, and I need to be mindful that just as Jewish women were once invisible, there are still groups within the Jewish community and beyond who feel excluded and unseen. Bringing those on the margins onto the page is part of my mission.

Finally: Memory Number 6

My grandson’s bris. It was an intimate group.  All of what my kids call “the parental units” had flown to Portland to be there. Both my son and daughter-in-law have divorced and recoupled parents. It hasn’t been easy for me to be with my former husband and his wife. But of course we were all there, along with the new aunts and uncles. The rabbi (yes, my kids actually did join a synagogue, although we’re paying the dues); the rabbi was really was terrific. She asked each of us to offer our grandson a blessing. My son’s father said to our grandson: “You have a complicated family. May you take what is best from each of us and know that the more people who love you, the richer you are.”

At that moment I felt my heart soften, just a little.

This is a new core memory.  It’s is about the power of ritual to heal. . And it is about forgiveness.   Forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting behavior that was unacceptable, but rather, letting go of the power of old dramas to continue to wound. Forgiveness means trying to move forward instead of looking back… and, instead of replaying the pain, working on being grateful for the blessings that are mine.  

So tonight I begin by reloading those core memories.   And they connect me to the promises I want to make again — to the essence of who I really am. They remind me of my purpose, my mission. I hear Kol Nidre; I beat on my chest during the public confession as I try to crack open my heart.  I remember my father, and the truth that healing from loss is possible and life goes on. I remember that I am part of a community that brings both comfort and challenge to make a difference in the world.  I remember that I am part of a tradition that keeps changing and that I can be part of the change.  And I remember that I still have work to do to be the person I really want to be, more forgiving, more compassionate and more grateful.   This night, this day, does have the power to change a person’s life.  It did for Rosensweig.  It does for me.

Does it for you?  What do you remember?  What do you want to reload tonight? I’d like to invite you to share a memory that taught you something important about the Jewish values that matter to you. For some of you, Jews by birth, the memory might go back a long time; for others, Jews by choice or non-Jews who are part of a Jewish family, the memories might be more recent. We will take about five minutes. Please turn to another person, maybe not someone you know, sit quietly for 15 seconds to connect to that memory,  One of you will go first, sharing for two minutes the memory and the values it taught you. Then sit quietly for a few seconds, take a breath and then the other person will share for 2 minutes. Please begin,

Now take a breath. Maybe say thank you.

One more memory of mine, a difficult one, for it raises questions of who one becomes when it is hard to reload memories because the soul’s computer is challenged by dementia.  I think about my 93 year old mother, who has trouble remembering things.  But thankfully, she is happy and grateful for the comforts of her life. Occasionally in our daily phone calls she laughs when she realizes that although she can remember that she doesn’t like Donald Trump, she can’t remember whether she watched the debates. But then she says: “the only important memory that I never want to lose is that I love you.”

We all have work to do over these next 24 hours. Facing our naked souls, experiencing our own death and asking what is the purpose of our lives, our unique mission.  And then slowly, as the day wears on, tired and hungry, as we let the music and the prayer and the poetry and the study wash over us, our work is to reboot our computers and remember the moments that shape who we want to be and what we can learn from them.  

That is teshuvah.  Coming home. Rebooting. Beginning a new game.

(The sermon was followed by Neshama Carlebach’s singing her father’s powerful “Return again.”)

Live webcast of Kol Nidre expected to attract 40,000 viewers

A California-based live webcast of Kol Nidre services is expected to garner more than 40,000 viewers.

The service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, including preaching, traditional prayer, meditation and music by a five-piece, multicultural band, will be livestreamed at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Pacific time) on the website of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal.

Last year, 40,000 viewers tuned in to the online Kol Nidre service, according to the organization. The viewers included guests at a resort in the Costa Rican rainforest, a hospital patient in Brooklyn, residents of a vacation home in southern France and a resident of Moravia, Iowa, who called himself “the only Jew in at least 100 miles.”

“I’m humbled by the thousands of people who write to me from all around the world,” Levy told JTA. “People in hospital beds, people looking for a way back to Judaism, college students searching for a meaningful service that resonates.”

Nashuva, founded by Levy, who was ordained in the first class of women at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, calls itself a “post-denominational, non-membership community that meshes spirituality with social action.”

The tyranny of the normal

I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too? 

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival. 

We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self. 

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table. 

Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?

We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.

All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. 

No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.

But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.

Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words: 

Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.

All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished. 

V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.

We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free. 

Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.

This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.

That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Free High Holy Days services

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Sept. 13

Rosh Hashanah, first day: Sept. 14

Rosh Hashanah, second day: Sept. 15

Kol Nidre: Sept. 22

Yom Kippur: Sept. 23


Los Angeles-area Chabads offering free services to the public during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include Chabad of Beverlywood: (310) 836-6770; Chabad of Century City: (310) 505-2168; Chabad of Miracle Mile: (323) 852-6907; Chabad of Simcha Monica: (310) 829-5620; Chabad of Woodland Hills: (818) 348-5898; Chabad of Toluca Lake: (818) 308-4118; and Chabad of Greater Los Feliz: (323) 660-5177. For more venues, visit chabad.org.



For families with third- through seventh-graders, these free services feature a full band, interactive stories, high-energy music and inclusive participation. Led by Rabbi Jonathan Bubis. Babysitting available for children ages 2 to 5. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10:30 a.m. Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m. Reservations required. Shomrei Torah, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.


For parents who want to attend services with young children (preschool to second grade; older siblings permitted), these free, 30-minute Reform services are for you. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 4 p.m. Yom Kippur: 3:30 p.m. No reservation necessary. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Geared toward families with children 8 and younger, these hourlong services offer opportunities for children and adults to join in traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and Torah readings reflecting the mood of the season. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m. Kol Nidre: 6 p.m. Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. No reservation necessary. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. tasnorthridge.org.


College students and military personnel are welcome to attend these Conservative services. Please contact the synagogue for a list of service times and tickets. Student or military ID required. 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-3545. templealiyah.org.


This Reform community opens its doors to children and families for Tot High Holy Days services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 4 p.m. Yom Kippur: 3:30 p.m. No reservation necessary. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com.


This synagogue holds a variety of free youth and family services over the course of the High Holy Days. Erev Rosh Hashanah (third- through sixth-graders): 5 p.m. RSVP required. Rosh Hashanah, first day, family service (children 5 and younger): 2:30 p.m. No reservation necessary. Kol Nidre, youth and family service (third- through sixth-graders): 5 p.m. RSVP required. Yom Kippur, family service (children 5 and younger): 2:30 p.m. Yom Kippur, service for all adults: 5:30 p.m. Yizkor and Neilah at 6:30 p.m. Break-the-fast at sunset. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.



These free services for the unaffiliated feature music, poetry, reflection, memorial candle-lighting services and more. Please bring canned food to donate to food banks. Led by Cantor Estherleon Schwartz. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 7 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10 a.m. Kol Nidre: 7 p.m. No reservations necessary (limited seating). Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m. OS Open Space Cafe, 457 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. estherleon.com.


This LGBT congregation welcomes the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. Also offering these free services for those 30 and younger: Erev Rosh Hashanah: 8 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10 a.m. Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., L.A. Kol Nidre: 8 p.m. and Yom Kippur: 10 a.m. Harmony Gold Theater, 7655 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. RSVP required. (323) 606-0996. kol-ami.org.


The education center holds an abridged, beginners Rosh Hashanah service, open to everyone. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 5 p.m. Reservations required. Jewish Learning Exchange, 512 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923. jlela.com.


The venerable Sunset Strip comedy club holds services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. Services are conducted in the Reform tradition by Rabbi Bob Jacobs. Everyone is welcome. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10:30 a.m. Refreshments follow. Kol Nidre: 6-7:30 p.m. Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Neilah: 6-7 p.m. Break-the-fast follows. First come, first served. Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. laughfactory.com.


Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band’s spiritual community is back at its larger location, the historic Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Koreatown, and everyone’s invited. A Rosh Hashanah second-day hike and service will be held in Temescal Park. A massive drum circle/tashlich will take place where Venice Boulevard meets the ocean on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at 5:30 p.m. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:45 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 9:30 a.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m. (hike), 10 a.m. (service). Kol Nidre: 6:30 p.m. Yom Kippur: 9:30 a.m. Reservations requested (donations appreciated). Child-care program available with reservation. Founder’s Church of Religious Science, 3281 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles. Temescal Park, 15601 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. nashuva.com. For people unable to get to synagogue, Nashuva’s entire Kol Nidre service will be live-streamed at jewishjournal.com.


The historic Reform congregation holds free family services (toddlers through second-graders) on Rosh Hashanah, first day, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, and opens its doors to the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m. Kol Nidre: 6 p.m. Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org



Rabbi Heather Miller leads the LGBT congregation’s family services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur in Temple Isaiah’s Social Hall. These services are for families with children of all ages. Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat lead a service for the public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at BCC’s Pico Boulevard synagogue. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 9:30 a.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m. Yom Kippur: 10 a.m. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., LA. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org


This progressive Reform synagogue holds free afternoon children’s services for families with children up to age 7. Led by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and Cantor Richard Bessman. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 1:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Santa Monica High School, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.


These free services are in English, with meaning, melody and humor by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz (aka “Schwartzie”). All ages welcome. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:45-8:45 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Kol Nidre: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Yom Kippur: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 3-5:30 p.m. (“Stump the Rabbi” program). Neilah: 5:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 391-7995. chaicenter.org.


Free to all students with a valid school ID. There will be egalitarian and Orthodox services. RSVP required. Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. uclahillel.org.


Pray for free with the progressive egalitarian community on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur from Yizkor through Neilah. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:45 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 8:30 a.m. Yom Kippur from Yizkor on: 2:15 p.m. Pre-registration and ID required. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


These free and lively family services feature music and storytelling for children (7 and younger) and their parents and grandparents. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 2 p.m. Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. Reservations required. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.


The independent community’s free second day Rosh Hashanah/Beit Midrash will be a morning of study and liturgical music. A Yom Kippur service will feature commentary by Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m. Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Rosh Hashanah service: Ohr HaTorah, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. Yom Kippur: Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. (310) 915-5200. ohrhatorah.org.


The secular humanistic community holds a free family picnic and celebration with readings and songs on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and a discussion about ethics in our daily lives on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11 a.m. Yom Kippur: 11 a.m. No reservations necessary. Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills picnic area No. 1, 2551 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. sholem.org.


The traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan welcomes the general public to services. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:30 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 8:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 6:15 p.m. Yom Kippur: 8 a.m. RSVP requested (donations encouraged). Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 916-9820. shtibl.com


Rabbi David Wolpe leads Rosh Hashanah Live, a free musical celebration combined with a service on Erev Rosh Hashanah. There is also a more traditional service offered. On Yom Kippur, the Yizkor service is open to the public. Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah Live: 8 p.m., Ziegler Sanctuary; Erev Rosh Hashanah, traditional service: 8 p.m., Barad Hall; Yom Kippur, Yizkor service: 3 p.m. No reservations necessary (space is limited, arrive early). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org


On the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, the Reform congregation offers free half-hour services for toddlers and preschoolers and their families, including lots of singing, dancing, stories and activities. Hebrew and English readings, a sermon from an Emanuel rabbi, and a mix of classic High Holy Days choral music balanced with traditional and contemporary melodies highlight the congregation’s free service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11:00 a.m.-11:30; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m.-noon; Yom Kippur: 11:00 a.m.-11:30. No reservations necessary. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Bess P. Maltz Center, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737.  tebh.org.


Music- and story-filled, these one-hour families with young children services are a kid-friendly introduction to the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, first day and Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. Reservations required. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. unisyn.org.




Chabad of Toluca Lake. Sept. 14. 1 p.m. Walk to L.A. River from Oakwood Toluca Hills, North Clubhouse, 3600 Barham Blvd., Toluca Lake. (818) 308-4118. chabadoftolucalake.com.


Temple Judea. Approximately 11:30 a.m. Lake Balboa, 6300 Balboa Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com


Temple Adat Elohim. Sept. 14. 5 p.m. Conejo Creek Park, North Park, 1379 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Temple Aliyah. Sept. 20. 4-7 p.m. (picnic at 4 p.m.; tashlich at 6 p.m.). Point Dume, Westward Beach Road, Lifeguard Tower No. 5. templealiyah.org.


Temple Ahavat Shalom. Sept. 15. Wine and cheese at 6 p.m.; service at 6:30 p.m. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. tasnorthridge.org.


Shomrei Torah. Sept. 20. 5:30 p.m.  Heal the Bay project.  Surfrider Beach, Lifeguard tower between Adamson House and Malibu Pier. Free parking along Pacific Coast Highway, paid parking in lot adjacent to Adamson House.  (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.



Temple Akiba. Bike ride to Culver beach. Sept. 20. 1 p.m.  Meet at Temple Akiba, 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783. templeakiba.net


Beth Shir Shalom. Sept. 14. 3 p.m. Beach at the end of Pico Boulevard. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Temple Israel of Hollywood. Sept. 14. 4 p.m. Meet at Lifeguard Station No. 12 (parking at Lot 3 North). 1150 Palisades Beach Road, Santa Monica. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

IKAR. Sept. 20. 4 p.m. Bring a picnic dinner and meet at Lifeguard Station No. 26 (where Ocean Park Boulevard meets the beach). (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


Nashuva. Please dress casually in white and consider a sweater. Bring a percussion instrument and bread for throwing. Sept. 14. 5:30 p.m. Venice Beach (where Venice Boulevard meets the sand; approximate address: 1 N. Venice Blvd., Venice).

Beth Chayim Chadashim. Sept. 15. 4 p.m.  Park in Lot 5S, meet at south end of parking lot. Bring sweater and shofar. 2600 Barnard Way, Santa Monica. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


Leo Baeck Temple. Sept. 14. 5 p.m. Will Rogers State Beach (intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Temescal Canyon Road). Meet at Tower No. 7. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Sept. 14. 5 p.m. Will Rogers State Beach (intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Temescal Canyon Road) Lifeguard Tower No. 8. (310) 276-9776. tebh.org.

KEVER AVOT, Sept. 20 


All are welcome — especially Jewish war veterans. Please bring a canned food item, nonperishable food, personal hygiene item or children’s book to be donated to Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ SOVA Community Food and Resource Program. 10 a.m. Free. Eden Memorial Park, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills. (818) 361-7161. eden-memorialpark.com.  


Service led by Rabbi John Rosove and Cantorial Soloist Shelly Fox of Temple Israel of Hollywood. They are joined by Cantor Linda Kates (Leo Baeck Temple), and Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot (Temple Judea). Complimentary yahrzeit candles will be available. There will be a shomer to assist with Kaddish. Please bring canned and dry foods, eyeglasses and hearing aids to donate to the Hillside Chesed Project. 10 a.m. Free. Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 641-0707. hillsidememorial.org.


Led by Rabbi Robert Elias. 11 a.m. Home of Peace, Chapel, 4334 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 261-6135. homeofpeacememorialpark.com


Services will be led at two sites. There will be interpreters for the hearing-impaired at both services. Donations to Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ SOVA Community Food and Resource Program accepted. 10 a.m. Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, L.A.; 1 p.m. Free. Mount Sinai Simi Valley, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley. (866) 717-4624. mountsinaiparks.org.


Led by Rabbi Alan Kalinsky and Cantor Jance Weberman. Refreshments served at 9 a.m. Service at 10 a.m. 13017 Lopez Canyon Road, Sylmar. (310) 659-3055. sholomchapels.com

Sanctuary@Pico Union looks to engage and enlighten

With the launch of the Sanctuary@Pico Union next month, Craig Taubman — the singer/songwriter who co-founded Sinai Temple’s influential “Friday Night Live” services — aims to bring Jewish congregational life to a venue that has not seen any in nearly a century. 

The Pico Union Project building on Valencia Street, a short distance from the Staples Center, was home to Sinai from 1909 to 1925, before that community moved west and a Christian faith community moved in. Taubman purchased the site — the oldest remaining synagogue building in Los Angeles — from the Welsh Presbyterian Church in 2012 with the goal of turning it into a multifaith center. 

Today, the Pico Union Project is home to four faith-based organizations — three Christian and one Muslim — and the addition of Sanctuary@Pico Union will restore a Jewish presence as well — one that Taubman hopes will operate outside of the box.

“We’re not your traditional congregation,” Taubman said during a phone interview from the Pico Union Project less than one month before the kickoff of the High Holy Days and on the same day that a film crew was at the venue shooting a scene for the upcoming season of the Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” 

Taubman hopes the arts-heavy content that will be offered during the High Holy Days and beyond — biweekly Shabbat programs called “Invisible Hour” will feature performances by an array of musicians, spoken-word artists and others — will be interesting enough to keep members involved long after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

“If they don’t come back, you are delivering a product they don’t need for the rest of year,” he said. “[I want to] give them something they might have a glimmer of hope of using for the rest of the year.”

During the High Holy Days, Taubman will help lead four services: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 14), Kol Nidre (Sept. 22) and two on Yom Kippur (Sept. 23). He will be joined on the bimah by a diverse group that includes author and educator Ron Wolfson, who will discuss how to build community and who will hand out free copies of his book “The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven” for what Wolfson described as a “community read.”

Also involved will be singer Shany Zamir; acting coach Stuart K. Robinson; writer-director Salvador Litvak; Rabbi Scott Westle, rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge; Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) Executive Director Ayana Morse; SIJCC Jewish Learning Center Director Deanna Neil; and Yeshaia Blakeney, a spiritual counselor and rabbi-in-training at addiction treatment center Beit T’Shuvah.

Taubman said the aforementioned team has been helping him formulate a vision for the new community. To that end, over the past few months, the team has been coming together for brainstorm sessions at people’s homes in different neighborhoods in Los Angeles. 

“There are people from every walk of life, and more than having one titular head, one voice, we are crowdsourcing our leadership because we recognize there is not one voice, one message from the entire community, and we want to reflect a broader spectrum of the community,” Taubman said.

Sanctuary@Pico Union is employing what its leader describes as a different kind of pricing model: singles, couples and families of up to four who purchase tickets to the entire offering of High Holy Days services will also receive membership at the shul, through packages called “Red Sea Pedestrian” ($250), “Noah” ($450) and “Friends and Family” ($800). The congregation also is offering a $40 “taste” option that allows people to attend a single High Holy Days service. 

“Don’t oblige people for a whole shebang, especially if they don’t want the whole shebang,” Taubman said. 

He also touted ticket packages that reward families that have sustained an interest in Jewish life from generation to generation. A ticket option for the High Holy Days called “Community” ($1,100) covers six people, and a “Generation to Generation” option ($1,800) is good for up to 12 people. He distinguished these from synagogue models that would offer a separate membership package for each generation of a multigenerational family joining a synagogue.

“We’ve come up with this membership model that’s more like a pass. … The pass rewards you for where you are in your life: If you are a matriarch or a patriarch and blessed to have children who want to ‘do Jewish’ and your children have children who are Jewish who want to ‘do Jewish,’ instead of saying, ‘We are going to penalize you for your continuity,’ we are going to reward you for your continuity. One pass will get the whole family in, so you don’t have to get three memberships to bring your whole family in,” Taubman said. “That’s a radically different model.”

Those who are single, on the other hand, have less expensive options, he added.

Taubman said he doesn’t expect the new congregation to attract the kind of crowds that major, more-established congregations do — he anticipates each High Holy Day service will draw about 400 people. But he is excited nonetheless about the effort to cater to people who are not traditional synagogue-goers.

“Affiliated people are going elsewhere — to Sinai, [Valley Beth Shalom], wherever. Our people are brand-new people … [and] that’s kind of exciting,” Taubman said.

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education in the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University, said the endeavor won’t be easy. 

“I think it will be a challenge to build an ongoing community downtown,” Wolfson said, “but if anybody is up to it, it’s Craig Taubman.”

Can’t make it to shul for Kol Nidre? Join us LIVE online!

On Oct. 3rd, Yom Kippur Eve, Rabbi Naomi Levy and Nashuva will lead a virtual congregation of over 100,000 people in the world’s largest Kol Nidre service being streamed live over the web at kolnidrelive.com.

[RSVP for the FREE service here]

Kol Nidre is the evening service of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend services on this day. Nashuva’s unique service combines the gravity of the holiday with an upbeat, captivating message.

Levy, a rabbi and best-selling author, was ordained in the first class of women at Jewish Theological Seminary. Nashuva is a post-denominational, non-membership community open to all who wish to  blend spirituality with social action. The service will begin at 6:15pm PST.

Tribe Media Corp. is dedicated to improving the world through media. Their brands include The Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com, TRIBE Magazine, hollywoodjournal.com and TribeLIVE Events.

Below is a recording of the Kol Nidre service from Sept. 13, 2013.

Calendar November 9-15

SUN | NOV 10


Siblings Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs, survivors of Kristallnacht, will share their experience and discuss their memoir, “An Uncommon Journey,” during the Museum of Tolerance’s Kristallnacht commemoration. A book signing will follow. Advanced reservations recommended. Sun. 3 p.m. Free (with museum admission). 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2504. ” target=”_blank”>aju.edu.


Merry Christmas — whether you like it or not. Author and Rutgers University Jewish studies scholar Jeffrey Shandler discusses the unique impact Christmas has on American Jews’ celebration of Chanukah in an era of consumerism and public displays. The lecture will be followed by commentary with Josh Kun, associate professor with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism as well as the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Sun. 4:30 p.m. Free. Please RSVP. The Davidson Conference Center, 3425 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (213) 740-1744. ” target=”_blank”>sierramadreplayhouse.org

TUE | NOV 12


The Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and the Jewish studies program of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) host their annual commemoration of Kristallnacht. With prose in both Yiddish and English, song and commentary featuring Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel, it will be a moving evening with the help of pianist Tova Morcos. A short film about LMU students in Poland studying the Holocaust will be premiered. A reception follows the program. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. LMU University Hall, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-7664. THU | NOV 14


The Ukrainian author and scholar discusses “Laughing all the Way to Freedom: Social Functions of Jewish Humor of Modern-Day Exodus.” How were Jews able to create communities and hold on to their identity when society told them no? Jewish “jokelore” of course! Draitser draws from his book “Taking Penguins to the Movies: Ethnic Humor in Russia” and addresses the vital social role of Jewish humor. A Q-and-A with sociology professor Gail Kligman follows the lecture. Thur. Noon. Free. 10383 Bunche Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles. (310) 825-8030. ” target=”_blank”>jfsla.org.

FRI | NOV 15


When a secret is learned, two Polish brothers must revisit their perception of their father, family, neighbors and the history of their nation. Winner of the Yad Vashem Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival and the Critics’ Prize at the 2012 Gdynia Film Festival, “Aftermath,” inspired by actual events, has caused such a controversy with the Polish right wing, it has been banned from some local cinemas. Come and learn what all the fuss is about. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836. ” target=”_blank”>shalominstitute.com

Kvetching Fire: The video that will get you through Yom Kippur

Worried about how to get through the 24-hour fast?

Katniss Eversteen, the protagonist of “The Jewish Hunger Games,” a clever parody by Andrew Zenn and Jon Rudnitsky, can help you out.

“This is crunch time,” announces a helpful voiceover. “There will be temptation.”

Two L.A. kaporot ritual sites shut down

Just hours before Kol Nidre, more than 100 chickens intended to be used for kaporot ceremonies won a reprieve. Kaporot, which means “Atonement,” is a 1,000-year-old custom observed by some Orthodox Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which an individual swings a live chicken over his head three times and says a prayer— as a ritual transference of sins to the chicken.

According to Steve Lyle of the Public affairs office of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, inspector Rhett Dunn of the department issued a notice of violation to two sites on Pico Boulevard, at Ohel Moshe and at Bait Aaron. This means “the practice must cease,” Dunn said. “We determined it was an unlicensed slaughter plant,” Lyle said by phone from Sacremento.

Lyle said the notice of the ritual practice taking place came to the department from the Los Angeles County Health Department.

“We respect the right of religious practice of all religions in California,’ said Lyle, who added that up until the day of the inspection he “was not aware of this activity.”

[Related: Thousands of kaporot chickens die in New York heat]

After the ritual, the chicken is kosher slaughtered and meant to be given to the poor, though the Jewish Journal has uncovered evidence that last year almost 10 tons of dead chickens may have been tossed away.

As reported earlier, at the location operated by Bait Aaron visited by a Jewish Journal reporter, dead chickens were being butchered inside a covered area off of an alley.

“Our office works towards compliance, and going forward we welcome discussions on the practice,” Lyle said.

After the closure, several cages of live chickens remained in the alley behind the Bait Aaron, which was closed down and cleaned up—as was Ohel Moshe. A woman from West Los Angeles drove down the alley looking for the ceremony, and was upset that it had been closed.

Niloo Khodadadeh, a protestor, stood with her arms spread holding onto the cages, “Have mercy,” she said.

Free High Holy Day services 2013

TONIGHT: Kol Nidre LIVE webcast at 6:45 p.m. (PST)



Erev Rosh Hashanah: Sept. 4
Rosh Hashanah first and second day: Sept. 5-Sept. 6
Kol Nidre: Sept. 13
Yom Kippur: Sept. 14



A Conservative congregation in Valley Village, Adat Ari El holds a free Young Family Service (for preschoolers to second-graders and their parents) as well as a free Tekiah Family Service (for elementary school age children and their parents). Rosh Hashanah Day: 8:45 a.m.-9:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m.-10:30 a.m. (Young Family Service); 11 a.m.-noon (Tekiah Family Service); Yom Kippur: 8:45-9:30 a.m., 9:45-10:30 a.m. (Young Family Service); 11 a.m.-noon (Tekiah Family Service). Reservations required. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. adatariel.org.


For families with third- to seventh-graders! These free services feature a full band, interactive stories, high-energy music and inclusive participation. Led by Rabbi Erez Sherman. Babysitting available for children 2 to 5. Rosh Hashanah day: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Reservations required. Pomelo Elementary School, 7633 March Ave., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.


For parents who want to attend services with their young children (preschoolers to second-graders; older siblings permitted), these free 30-minute Reform services are for you. Rosh Hashanah day: 3:30-4 p.m. Yom Kippur: 3-3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Geared toward families with young children (8 and under), these free hour-long services offer opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflecting the mood of the season. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6-7 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah day: 8:30- 9:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 6-7 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 8:30- 9:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. tasnorthridge.org.


College students and military personnel are welcome to attend these Conservative services for free. Please contact synagogue for a list of service times and tickets. Student or military ID required. (818) 346-3545. templealiyah.org.


The Reform community opens its doors to children and their families for Tot High Holy Day services on both Rosh Hashanah day and on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah day: 4 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com.


The Reform community holds free family services on Rosh Hashanah day and on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah day: 2:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2:30 p.m, 5:15 p.m. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.


For seniors. There will be an array of exciting High Holy Day programs for Jewish seniors including a Rosh Hashanah luncheon on Sept 9 at 11:30 a.m. Rosh Hashanah Day shofar blowing ceremony led by Cantor Rabbi Mendy Lubin: 2:30- 3 p.m.; Yom Kippur service: 2:30 p.m. Free. Please RSVP. Services: Venture Townehouse, 4900 Telegraph Rd., Ventura; Luncheon: The Chabad Jewish Center, 5040 Telegraph Road., Ventura. (805) 658-7441. chabadventura.com.



These free and uplifting services for the unaffiliated feature music, poetry, reflection, memorial candle lighting services and more. Please bring canned food to donate. Led by Cantor Estherleon Schwartz. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 7:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah day: 10:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 7:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary (limited seating). Plummer Park—Great Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 653-7420. estherleon.com.


The LGBT Reform congregation welcomes the general public on Rosh Hashanah second day only. 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996. kol-ami.org.


The education center holds an abridged, beginners Rosh Hashanah service, open to everyone. Rosh Hashanah day. 5 p.m.- 6 p.m. Reservations required. Jewish Learning Exchange, 512 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923. jlela.com.


The venerable Sunset Strip comedy club holds services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, on Kol Nidre and on Yom Kippur. Everyone welcome. Rosh Hashanah day: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Refreshments follow. Kol Nidre: 5:30-7 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. A break-the-fast follows. Reservations recommended. Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. laughfactory.com.


Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band’s spiritual community is back at its larger location, the historic Founder’s Church of Religious Science, for this year’s services, and everyone’s invited. A Rosh Hashanah second-day hike and service will be held in Temescal Park. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:45 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah day: 9:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m. (hike), 10 a.m. (service); Kol Nidre: 6:45 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 9:30 a.m. Reservations required (suggested donation $350 per person). Child care program available with reservation. Founder’s Church of Religious Science, 3281 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles. Temescal Park, 15601 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. nashuva.com.


The historic Reform congregation holds free family services (toddlers through second-graders) on Rosh Hashanah day and Yom Kippur, and opens its doors to the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. No reservations necessary. Rosh Hashanah day: 8:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.



Rabbi Heather Miller leads the LGBT Reform congregation’s free family services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Temple Isaiah’s Social Hall. The services are for families with children ages 1-12. Rabbi Lisa Edwards & Cantor Juval Porathe lead a service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the BCC’S Pico Boulevard synagogue. Rosh Hashanah day: 10:30 a.m.- 11:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 11 a.m- 12 p.m. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


The progressive Reform synagogue in Santa Monica holds free afternoon children’s services for families with children up to age 7. Led by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and Cantor Diane Rose. Rosh Hashanah day: 1:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Santa Monica High School, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.


Services are in English, with meaning, melody and humor by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz (a.k.a. Schwartzie). All ages welcome. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 7-9 p.m. New Year’s Eve singles party follows (9-11 p.m.); Rosh Hashanah day: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Kol Nidre: 6:30-8:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 3-5:30 p.m. (“Stump the Rabbi” program). No reservations necessary. HI Point Studios, 5907 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 391-7995. chaicenter.org.


Pray for free with the progressive egalitarian community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah second day: 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. I.D. Required. Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


These free and lively family services feature music and storytelling for children (ages 7 and under) and their parents and grandparents. Rosh Hashanah day: 2 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. Reservations required. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.


The independent community’s free services feature eclectic music performances reflecting on themes of the human condition and commentary by Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Second day Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Rosh Hashanah service: Ohr HaTorah, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. Yom Kippur: Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. (310) 915-5200. ohrhatorah.org.


The secular humanistic community holds a free family picnic and celebration with readings and songs on the day of Rosh Hashanah, and a discussion about ethics in our daily lives on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah day: 11 a.m., Yom Kippur: 11 a.m. No reservations necessary. Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills picnic area No. 1 (Rosh Hashanah), picnic area No.2 (Yom Kippur), 2551 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. sholem.org.


The traditional egalitarian, lay-led minyan welcomes the general public to services. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah: 8:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 8:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 6:15 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 8 a.m. RSVPs requested (donations encouraged). Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. shtibl.com.


Rabbi David Wolpe and musician Craig Taubman lead “Rosh Hashanah Live,” a free musical celebration on Erev Rosh Hashanah. 8 p.m. No reservations necessary (space is limited, arrive early). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.


The Reform congregation offers free half-hour services for toddlers and preschoolers and their families, include lots of singing, dancing, stories and activities during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A combination of Hebrew and English readings, a sermon from one of Emanuel’s rabbis, an eclectic mix of classic High Holy Days choral music balanced with traditional and contemporary melodies highlight the congregation’s free service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah: 11-11:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m.-noon; Yom Kippur: 11-11:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Corwin Family Sanctuary, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6388. tebh.org.


Music- and story-filled, these free, one-hour family services are a kid-friendly introduction to the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah day: 1:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 1:30 p.m. Reservations required. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. unisyn.org.

Cellist’s path to Judaism

When cellist Lynn Harrell would play “Kol Nidre” at his synagogue on Yom Kippur, he felt more than the notes and the melody. It was through the music that he discovered he wanted to become a Jew.

“It was a 45- to 50-year journey to come to the realization that all the people I really loved, married and were close to all my life were Jews,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I am a Jew.”

Harrell, 69, converted to Judaism two summers ago, but over the years, he had always connected with the religion. As a child, every one of his friends was Jewish, and when he was a teenager, he was taught the cello by a Holocaust survivor. 

In 1994, he had the chance to play “Kol Nidre” with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vatican. The ceremony, attended by Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was the first Vatican commemoration of the Holocaust. That same year, at the Grammys, he also performed an excerpt from his nominated recording of Beethoven’s String Trios with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. 

His former wife and current one are Jews, and he sent two of his children to preschool at his synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. 

During the High Holy Days in 2009, Harrell decided to formally pursue conversion. “I wanted to make the journey complete, particularly for my cello teacher, who showed me his Auschwitz uniform,” he said. “It deeply affected me as a 13-year-old.”

 Harrell was raised in a Christian family with a brother who became a minister. His father was the leading baritone for the Metropolitan Opera, so he was raised around music. At the age of 9, he began taking cello lessons, which he would eventually pursue as a full-time career. 

He and his current wife, Helen Nightengale — a violinist and a Reform Jew — are the parents of Hanna, 8, and Noah, 6. Together, they decided that raising their children with both Christmas and Chanukah was not right, so they chose the latter holiday.

To start the conversion process, Harrell began taking classes with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels at Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform synagogue. He connected with the rabbi because the services are mostly song-based, and they are both musicians. 

Through the course, Harrell learned about the history of Judaism, the parables and the life lessons. He learned how to read Torah and celebrate the holidays. The rabbi tried to talk him out of the process three times, but he persisted. When he was ready to complete the conversion, he, along with Comess-Daniels, his family and some close friends, traveled to Jerusalem, where his immersion took place in a stream under the Western Wall. When Harrell emerged, he said, he felt like a Jew. 

“Before that, I was on the outside looking in,” Harrell said. “After my conversion, when it was Yom Kippur and I played ‘Kol Nidre,’ the rabbi said it was something extra special. I said that it feels different because I’m from the inside looking out now.”

Aside from being an active member at Beth Shir Shalom nowadays, Harrell celebrates his Judaism by practicing tikkun olam (repairing the world). In particular, he and Nightengale started their own nonprofit organization called HEARTbeats, which utilizes music to help children in need. 

The couple have also spent the past three years putting together and recording an album, “We’ll Paint You a Rainbow,” which features the music of Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Joan Baez. Released in March, the album benefits both the HEARTbeats Foundation and the Save the Children HEART campaign, which also serves kids in need around the world. As Harrell said, “Experiencing the emotion of music is something that can heal. It can simply change someone’s life.”

And it is music, in a variety of ways, which brought Harrell to Judaism and helped him discover who he was all along. “I came to realize more and more that this is who I am and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “It took a long time.”

Hank Greenberg in extra innings

“I think Hank Greenberg was the great American hero,” Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner says. “What he did on Yom Kippur. What he faced. He was our Jackie Robinson.”

Thirteen years after the debut of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” her documentary about the baseball great, Kempner is rereleasing the film on DVD — including an additional two hours of interviews that didn't make the original cut.

Greenberg, known to Jewish fans as the Detroit Tigers' power hitter who sat out an important game during the 1934 pennant race because it fell on Yom Kippur, scored achievements rivaling those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Greenberg served in World War II and, after his retirement from playing, went on to be an owner-manager of the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. He faced anti-Semitism throughout his playing career.

The DVD of “extras” includes players who were contemporaries of Greenberg's talking about him and how baseball used to be. In one humorous juxtaposition, Kempner follows a clip of a spirited argument for why being from the South makes a better player with a clip of an equally confident assertion that being in the North makes a better player. And she weaves throughout the CD an audio interview with Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams.

There are insights from baseball broadcasters and writers such as Washington's Shirley Povich. And the fans have their say: Lawyer Alan Dershowitz tells how he hid his baseball glove behind his Talmud in school. Detroit-born brothers Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Sander Levin talk about their passion for the game and reverence for Greenberg. Joanne Kinney, identified as a “batgirl,” describes how she convinced Greenberg to do her math homework for her.

Kempner spoke about Greenberg, the second time around:

Washington Jewish Week: What explains the fact that Hank Greenberg is still a household name?

Kempner: He was a very powerful hitter. He almost broke Babe Ruth's record. He stood up to adversity. He fought in war. And our heroes in Judaism are the stories we keep repeating. He taught America that he could be true to his religion, even in a pennant race.

What are the highlights of the extras for you?

Who else could get Ted Williams, the great Hall of Famer, and Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsberg in the same DVD extras? I'm pretty proud of that. Also, Greenberg made all these great innovations in baseball, like taking mitts. [Before the practice changed, players dropped their mitts in the field rather than taking them back to the dugout.] I can't imagine what that was about. Also, there's more of Shirley Povich, [actor] Walter Matthau, Senator [Carl] Levin and his brother, Congressman Sander Levin.

You originally jumped on the idea for a documentary on Hank Greenberg because he was Jewish and played for your hometown team, the Detroit Tigers. Were you also a baseball fan?

My dad always talked about him. Every Yom Kippur my dad would talk about how Hank Greenberg hadn't played on Yom Kippur '34. I grew up thinking Hank Greenberg was part of Kol Nidre services. And another thing — I was tired of always seeing these nebbishes, these nerds on the screen. When Greenberg died [in 1986], I said this is a Jewish hero I grew up with — a 6-foot-4, strapping Jewish male. Of course I had my crushes in baseball. So I thought I've got to do it, but I've got to do it from the point of view of the fans. The worshiping of him was amazing. And luckily he lived up to the image.

Has your thinking on Greenberg changed?

No. Can you imagine what it is to go every day to work and have people yell and scream names to you? It's important for people to see what he faced — and in America. Maybe we can be a little more sympathetic to the other in this country, to immigrants or to people who don't look exactly like us or practice their religion like us.

What I think one of his greatest significances is in '34 is not playing on Yom Kippur. He really taught America what our holiest day was. And how the Supreme Court still has the Hank Greenberg model, according to Justice Ginsburg. They won't have cases argued on Yom Kippur in case there's a Jewish lawyer. She said the justices can take off, but what if it's a lawyer?

Do you think he really did a girl's math homework for three months? I wasn't sure what to make of that.

Absolutely. She swears by it. That was when you had access. There was that other man who followed Greenberg around at the airport and wound up sitting next to him on the plane. It's just a different era.

I was amused at the section in the interviews where the veteran players are griping: about Astroturf, about the balls and bats players use now, about baseball today as showbiz.

It was the golden age of baseball. Games were played during the day. There was more pure hitting. It wasn't being a multimillionaire superstar. It was for the love of the game. I'm not saying that players today don't love the game. What I'm saying is the heroes of the game are the ones who played back then.

Greenberg could have moved into showbiz, become a superstar, if he was playing today, don't you think?

I think he did exactly what he wanted to — he went into management. He loved the game so much. And there were great innovations like the scoreboard, hiring African-Americans in the league. I don't think he was a showy man in that way but, yeah, he could have done pretty much anything he wanted to.

Are you working on a new film?

I'm working on a film about the great philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears Roebuck. One hundred years ago he gave away $62 million to a little over 5,000 schools for African-Americans, and gave to thousands of African-American artists and scholars. I think it's a great philanthropy story, and an unknown story between blacks and Jews.

For information about the film, go to hankgreenbergfilm.org.

A life saved during Kol Nidre service

Lips and face blue, Temple Akiba congregant Duke Molner lay unconscious, without a pulse, outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City, during Kol Nidre services on Sept. 25. 

Molder, who is in his 60s, had had a heart attack. A congregant found him lying on the ground at the entryway to the synagogue. “He said he went down, and the next thing he remembers was being on a gurney in the hospital,” Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba said in an interview. 

Molner had left services midway though, feeling faint and wanting fresh air. Once the congregant found him, multiple doctors who were in the congregation rushed outside and administered CPR on Molner, whom the doctors were able to identify only after finding a pill bottle with pain medication in his pocket. The rabbi left the cantor in charge of services and came outside as well. One of the doctors sat with Molner’s wife and kept her calm. Paramedics arrived on the scene just minutes after Molner was found, and they used a defibrillator to revive him and then took him to Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center.

Shapiro, spiritual leader of the Culver City-based Temple Akiba, a Reform congregation, visited Molner in the hospital on Sept. 27, expecting to find a patient barely hanging on. But Molner was awake, and he burst into tears when he saw Shapiro and promised to take better care of himself. 

“In his words, this was really a wake-up call, almost like a shofar blast, that he had to start seeing his doctor more regularly,” Shapiro said.

Molner, who has been a congregant of Akiba for nearly five years, lives in Encino with his wife, Joanne. They attend services regularly. When called by the Journal, he was not well enough to speak to a reporter, following  surgery performed at UCLA to insert a stent — a stainless steel wire mesh tube — into an occluded coronary artery to keep it open. But Molner is doing well and was expected to be released soon from the hospital, Shapiro said. 

Because Molner became ill so suddenly, Temple Akiba’s staff has been discussing how to prepare for medical emergencies that might occur during services. Fortunately, doctors were in the crowd the night of Kol Nidre, but, they are asking themselves, what about during smaller services when, perhaps, no doctors are in the room? There have been discussions about offering CPR training to staff and keeping a defibrillator at the shul.

Israel’s alt Yom Kippur

With its lively beaches, all-night clubs and restaurants serving ham and shrimp, Tel Aviv is a city known more for its Speedos than its spirituality.

And while observant Jews may spend Yom Kippur praying in synagogues, secular Israelis are more likely to spend the Day of Atonement watching videos and biking through the city’s empty streets.

Options are opening up across the city and the country for non-Orthodox Jews seeking a meaningful way to observe the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Secular Israelis who attend synagogue usually go for Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur eve or Neilah, the holiday’s closing service. But the services are rarely meaningful to Jews who hardly ever enter a synagogue during the rest of the year, says Eran Baruch, head of Bina, a secular Tel Aviv yeshiva.

“Most young people usually don’t feel connected, don’t know how to pray,” he said. “They usually have some alienation to what’s going on.”

Bina has been countering that alienation since its 1996 founding by crafting a Judaism with prayers, texts and values that secular Jews can appreciate. On Yom Kippur eve this year, the yeshiva will host study sessions, discussions and a rooftop service that Baruch says will attract 400 people.

The service will feature some classic selections from the prayer book, such as the Kol Nidre prayer. But the service cum study session also will include recent texts, such as poems by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai or American Jewish musician Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire,” which is inspired by U’netaneh Tokef, a High Holy Days prayer that describes the process and consequences of divine judgment.

The service also will include an opportunity for personal confession; Bina will hold confessional services the following day and night focusing on community and nation.

Yom Kippur lacks an element of national heroism central to such holidays as Chanukah and Purim, which many secular Israelis observe. But while Bina does not ask its students to fast or perform any particular rituals, Baruch says the ideas of self-improvement and forgiveness should resonate with everyone.

“There are many traditional texts that ask very deep questions — Job, Jonah and Ecclesiastes,” he said. In its study sessions, Bina’s students also will read Abraham Joshua Heschel and the diary of Hannah Senesh, a Jewish paratrooper killed by allies of the Nazis.

The Jerusalem-based organization Elul also aims to engage nonreligious Jews in Yom Kippur by fostering dialogues and discussions between secular and religious Israelis. Like Bina, Elul will hold study sessions mixing traditional and religious texts leading up to the holiday, although it will be closed on Yom Kippur itself.

Roni Yavin, Elul’s executive director, says most secular Israelis observe the holiday, although their Yom Kippur may not include prayer or ritual.

“They will celebrate Yom Kippur by reading books, by meeting friends, by having a study session,” she said. “It’s a meaningful day for study, for thinking about identity, for thinking about what happened this year, what I want for next year.” 

Yavin says that since 1973, the day also has become an opportunity for Israelis to commemorate the Yom Kippur War.

Secular Tel Aviv residents also may attend a Yom Kippur yoga session (white clothes and a bottle of water recommended), while a learner’s service will take place in nearby Herzliya. A blurb about the service advertises that it will not have assigned seating for regular worshipers, “which alienates secular Jews.”

After the holiday, Tel Aviv residents may choose from a break-fast with several options, including a 1970s-themed party, a stand-up comedy show or a restaurant advertising an 11-pound steak — to share with five people.

The most popular Tel Aviv-area activity remains bicycling. Tel Aviv bans private vehicles from the road on the holiday, meaning that the city’s streets, and even its highways, fill with cyclists.

“I have quality time with my family,” said Charlie Anstiss, 61, a non-Jew who moved to Israel in 1983.

Anstiss, who lives north of Tel Aviv, has cycled competitively here. He used to ride 70 miles up the Mediterranean coast on Yom Kippur, but now he takes a shorter trip with his children and grandchildren.

“When you get to the city center, you have to be very careful, because all the kids are on the road,” he said. “I don’t know why their parents let them out. It’s quite dangerous.”

High Holy Day services guide: Alternative services

For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”Family”>Family, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

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Sun. 7:30 p.m. Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.

Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Mon. 9:30 a.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544. ” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration, and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Mon. 1 p.m. Donation requested: $50 (RSVP required). Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”nashuva.com”>nashuva.com

Chant and meditation service. Tue. 10 a.m. $50 (includes today’s service only). Olympic Collection, 11301 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 654-9293. TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Tue. 6 p.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544.” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Tue. 7 p.m. Donation requested: $50, (Kol Nidre only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.


Wed. 9:30 a.m.  Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. “>jconnectla.com.

The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Wed. 1 p.m.-sundown. Donation requested: $75 (Yom Kippur only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. calendar@jewishjournal.com.