September 17, 2019

What’s Happening: Shofar Workshop, Itzhak Perlman, Comedy Film


Rimonim Shabbat
Come as you are to Valley Beth Shalom’s monthly Rimonim Shabbat and be prepared to leave transformed by the Rimonim-style singing, dancing and praying. Rimonim is the Hebrew word for pomegranates, which hold hundreds of seeds. Jewish tradition teaches that seeds represent the 613 good deeds one must accomplish in life. 6 p.m. snack and schmooze. 6:30 p.m. Rimonim service. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.


Shabat Shiur
Getting into High Holy Days mode, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila turns to three of the most incisive minds of 20th-century modern thought to interpret their deep perspectives on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Bouskila explores the texts of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, who was rosh yeshiva of the seminary at Yeshiva University; Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon; and Nechama Leibowitz, one of the most highly regarded female thinkers. 5:30 p.m. Westwood Village Synagogue, 1148 Westwood Blvd., Westwood Village. (310) 824-9987.


Trump’s Impact on Jews
The USC Casden Institute’s 2019 Burton Lewis Lecture examines one of the hottest issues of the 2020 election, “The Impact of Donald Trump’s Presidency on American Jewry.” Speakers are Saba Soomekh, lecturer in Middle Eastern History and Women’s Studies at UCLA; political advocate Donna Bojarsky; Jewish Journal columnist Dan Schnur, a political strategist and USC professor in communications; and Bruce Karasik, a founder of the Republican Jewish Alliance.Steven Windmueller moderates. 4-6 p.m. Free. Town and Gown Hall, USC University Park campus. (213) 740-3405.

Unity Project
With Rosh Hashanah just two weeks away, Nessah Synagogue invites the community to learn from a group of two dozen rabbis, lay leaders and educators about the concepts encircling Jewish unity and love of Israel. The unusual program offers multiple simultaneous breakout sessions on a wide spectrum of subjects taught at varying levels.. Children’s programming available. 10 a.m. $10 advance, $20 at the door. Nessah Synagogue, Simcha Hall, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400.

JQ Orthodox Barbecue
Join the JQ LGBTQ+ Orthodox group for a kosher barbecue in a casual setting. All are welcome to spend quality time in space that is safe and supportive. Confidential registration. 12:30-2:30 p.m. Suggested $10 donation collected in cash at the door. The address provided upon confidential RSVP. (323) 417-2627.

Rosh Hashanah Challah Bake
In the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, Layla Book, aka The Dating Concierge, brings single men and women together in the same kitchen for challah baking. Get in the mix and learn step-by-step how to make your own challah. Later, you can bake your own challah at home with all supplies provided. Refreshments served. Government-issued ID required for entry. 6:30-8:30 p.m. $20. Temple Beth Zion, 5555 W. Olympic Blvd. (323) 933-9136. challah2019.

Amy Bernstein

“From Fear to Faith”
With disagreement becoming a national pastime, the Pacific Palisades Interfaith Clergy holds “From Fear to Faith,” a discussion about individual and collective responsibility to address prejudice in the community. The panelists are Rabbi Amy Bernstein of Kehillat Israel, Monsignor Liam Kidney of Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, and Brother Satyananda of the Self Realization Fellowship. Rev. Grace Park of Palisades Presbyterian moderates. Light refreshments are served. 4-5 p.m. Free. Community United Methodist Church, 801 Via De La Paz, Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.

Come Blow Your Horn
A free and all-ages shofar-blowing workshop at Hollywood Temple Beth El includes the blessings of the shofar and its significance as well as drills in getting the reluctant ram’s horn to sound the notes of the festival. Participants should bring their own shofar. The temple has a limited number of shofars for use. Reservations requested. 10:30 a.m.-Noon. Free. Hollywood Temple Beth El, 1317 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-3150.


“Angels in the Sky”
A discussion at Cedars-Sinai focuses on the birth of Israel’s Air Force (IAF), which was made up of hundreds of idealistic volunteer airmen from countries around the world. Tonight’s program is dedicated to one of those volunteer pioneer aviators, Mitchell Flint. In conversation with Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Flint’s son, Mike Flint, talks about the brave airmen and his association with the book “Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the State of Israel.” 6 p.m. registration. 6:30 p.m. program. $10 general admission, $5 Cedars employees, volunteers. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Harvey Morse Auditorium, Plaza Level, 8700 Beverly Blvd. (310) 423-3277. RSVP to

“Is Religion Still Relevant in the 21st Century?”
Renowned religious skeptic and author Michael Shermer (“The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom”) and Scott Shay, chairman of Signature Bank and author of “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism,” wrestle with the question, “Is Religion Still Relevant in the 21st Century?” Rabbi David Wolpe moderates the debate, which pits Shermer’s view that religion is unnecessary for a fulfilling life against Shay’s belief that our greatest threat is increasing abandonment of religious heritage. 6:30-9 p.m. Free for Sinai members, $10 for general public. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Questions: (310) 481-3228.


Melanie Nezer

“Welcoming the Stranger”
Noting that the worldwide number of refugees and displaced persons has surpassed 70 million in the past year, Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, leads a conversation about the plight of refugees. “Welcoming the Stranger: A Jewish Call to Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers” features Nezer in discussion with Kimberley Plotnik of the Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, and Robyn Samuels of Leo Baeck Temple. Registration required. 7 p.m. Free. Beth Shir Shalom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361.

“Sisters in Law”
“Sisters in Law,” the new play at The Wallis about Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Democrat, and Sandra Day O’Connor, a Republican, introduces two brave pioneering women who were friends but polar opposites in many ways. Based on Linda Hirshman’s 2015 bestseller of the same name, Tovah Feldshuh and Stephanie Faracy star as Ginsburg and O’Connor, respectively, in the production that opens tonight with a three-week run. Through Oct. 13. $70. The Wallis, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 746-4000.


Itzhak Perlman
Master violinist Itzhak Perlman makes a rare solo appearance when he opens the season at Cal State Northridge’s The Soraya, the Valley’s Center for the Performing Arts. Accompanied by pianist Rohan De Silva, Perlman performs Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major, Opus 12, No. 3; the Franck Sonata in A major for violin and piano; and Dvorak’s Sonatina in G major for violin and piano. 7 p.m. $59-$250.  CSUN’s The Soraya, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-3000.

“Land of Milk and Funny”

“Land of Milk and Funny”
The documentary “Land of Milk and Funny” traces the steps of stand-up comedian Avi Liberman as he brings a succession of American funnymen and women to Israel. The film is the newest offering in American Jewish University’s documentary film and discussion series. Liberman is present to bring to life the experiences of such comedians as Craig Robinson, Gary Gulman and Ray Wood Jr. 1 p.m. $10. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572.

Navonel “Voni” Glick

“Responding to Disasters”
IsraAID Co-CEO Navonel “Voni” Glick provides a glimpse of crisis-response thinking and introduces his audience to the cutting-edge methodology used by IsraAID responders in global crises. He recounts IsraAID’s challenges in combating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. Proceeds support IsraAID programs worldwide. 6:30-8:30 p.m. $18. The Cedars-Sinai Innovation Space, 8601 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 423-3277.  

Make Roses Out of Fall Leaves

Now that it’s September, the leaves will start their annual changing of the colors. Well, maybe not here in Los Angeles, where the temperatures were in the 90s this week. But in the rest of the country, autumn leaves are dropping. So what does one do with all these leaves besides raking them? Here’s a creative use — transform them into roses. Big maple leaves work best. I actually used artificial maple leaves I bought from the crafts store because I couldn’t find the real thing. If you do this project with real leaves, be sure to use the newly fallen ones, as they will be more pliable. These autumn-hued leaf roses would be perfect for upcoming Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot decorations. 

1. Fold one leaf in half horizontally. Keep the flat, folded edge at the top.


2. Place the end of the twig at one end.


3. Roll the folded leaf completely around the twig. 


4. Repeat with five more leaves until you have a tight rose bud. Hold onto the bottom with your fingers to keep the leaves in place.


5. Wrap three unfolded leaves around the rose bud.


6. Bind all the leaves to the twig with a twist tie. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Letters and Music Highlighted in Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul

Craig Taubman is a self-described “human doer” — keeping himself busy with spiritual projects that can better his community. Taubman, who runs the Pico Union Project (PUP), said when someone told his wife years ago he should focus more on becoming a “human being,” he realized it was easier said than done.

“During the holidays, we do a lot of focusing. I’m actively involved. I’m so busy doing, that oftentimes I’m not really there,” Taubman said.

But this month, during Elul, when we are called on to do some introspection ahead of the High Holy Days, Taubman is even more focused on the business of “becoming human.” 

Now in its 15th year, Taubman has been working to make his Jewels of Elul project a meaningful and reflective experience for his thousands of email subscribers and himself. 

Each year, Jewels of Elul provides one insight per day during the month of Elul. Year after year, Taubman has tried to shake up each introspection with various views, musical elements, tributes and perspectives.

“I didn’t think I had that much to say,” Taubman said recalling Jewels’ origins. “Maybe I can go to a group of friends and ask them to do it. And that’s what I did. I went to 29 of my friends who were rabbis and cantors, leaders in the Jewish community. This is an amazing thing and people really liked hearing from different voices.”

From there, he published an annual booklet titled “Jewels of Elul” — which is now available for the year 5780 — and went on to create musical playlists, sheet music and spiritual thoughts-to-go for more than 20,000 people. 

This year, Taubman’s Elul theme is “A Letter to Myself,” in which each Elul email is formatted as a letter. To date, letters have been written by President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Elan Carr, Temple Beth Hillel Beth-El Rabbi Neil Cooper, Holocaust survivor Hedy Orden, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President Jay Sanderson and editor and author Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Each has written a letter to either their future, past and present selves, their children and even to inanimate objects.

Taubman wanted diverse voices featured each day to unify the community.

“When our country and, frankly, our world is so divided and we look at the other as an enemy, we need to listen to voices that we don’t typically hear. I think it is critical.” 

— Craig Taubman

“When our country and, frankly, our world is so divided and we look at the other as an enemy, we need to listen to voices that we don’t typically hear,” he said. “I think it is critical. I specifically chose to feature an Orthodox rabbi as well as a transgender rabbi. I firmly believe that there is no right voice, there is no one voice.”

Along with the letters, Taubman has created a 13-song playlist. He reached out to jazz singer Chava Mirel, spiritual singer Beth Schafer, Greece-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi (aka the “Jewish Pavarotti”), Gypsy-rock klezmer band Mostly Kosher, New Haven jazz group the Afro-Semitic Experience and Makom LA spiritual leader Danny Maseng, to name a few.

“I could easily collect 13 of my own songs, but one of the things I appreciate most about the month of Elul [is] there are 29 opportunities,” Taubman said. “What if I give it to 13 other people? It was another quickly [made] thing. I put a letter out to my friends, I asked if there was something for the holidays and we tracked this beautiful CD.”

Jewish High Holy Day prayers “Hayom,” “B’Rosh Hashana,” “Pitchu Li” and “Adonai Ro’i” are featured on the downloadable CD as well as Mostly Kosher’s “You Slay Me,” which has been modified to fit the themes of Elul. 

Maseng, who sings “Adonai Ro’i” on the playlist, wrote in the liner notes that this prayer is his favorite psalm “plain and simple. The most concise and profound God poem I know.”

Schafer also said in the liner notes that her song “Here I am” helps prepare her for erev Rosh Hashanah. “The opening strains of erev Rosh Hashanah begin with ‘Hineni,’ or ‘Here I am.’ It is the very first moment of our arrival at the New Year. Worn, tattered, broken, we come before God with soulful cries as if to say, ‘I have showed up, the work is hard, will you take me as I am?’ We call upon God with the moniker El Elyon (God on high) as if to reaffirm our lowness. ‘Hineni’ is about being present even when it is uncomfortable to be so and to be willing to do the spiritual work that our holy days ask of us.”

Though Taubman says he loves them all as he prepares for the High Holy Days, a personal favorite is “Kol Nidre.”

“We do it with a string quartet [at PUP]. That’s one of the oldest Jewish tunes and to hear it at a multifaith center played on an organ that initially could only be used by pumping air through bellows with your hands because it was before electricity is a pretty powerful thing. It sort of brings everything together.”

Taubman said having music played during services is “like the cherry on top of ice cream. It is, for me, the essence that speaks the loudest. Music is everything.”

With the digital music downloads and Elul letters all coming in through email, most of Jewels of Elul has become electronic. Taubman hopes it reaches as many people from all walks of life as possible. As far as what people take away, he said he’d rather not tell anyone how and when to take in these bits of spiritual information. He just wants the Jewels to be there for anyone — whether they find it on the third day of Elul or the 27th.  

“I think the pathway to renewal, teshuvah, begins with the first step and you might take it on the 29th day of the month. You may take it three days after Rosh Hashanah when you pick up a book and find meaning. Elul is simply 29 opportunities to begin the journey.” 

‘Farm Girl’ Molly Yeh Serves Up Jewish and Chinese Delicacies

Molly Yeh; Photo courtesy of the Food Netwoork

You might expect the host of a Food Network series called “Girl Meets Farm” to serve simple fare from the American heartland, but you’d be only half right. Molly Yeh is of Jewish and Chinese heritage, and she uses that unique culinary perspective to blend both influences in the innovative cuisine she prepares on the show. Her eclectic menus include homey casseroles, decadent desserts and such exotic hybrids as pastrami egg rolls and scallion pancake challah. 

Yeh was a percussion student at the Juilliard School in New York when she discovered that her real passion was food, and began the popular blog that spawned videos, the bestsellers “Molly on the Range” and “Yogurt,” and in 2018, launched her TV career. Beginning its fourth season on Sept. 8, “Girl Meets Farm” emanates from Yeh’s kitchen in northern Minnesota, where she lives with her fifth-generation farmer husband, Nick Hagen, and 6-month-old daughter, Bernie. 

“I want to create food that takes people to another country, another time, or tells a story about something,” Yeh said. “It’s about exploring new things, new flavors, flexing my creativity and just having fun, too.”

Since marrying fellow Juilliard alumnus Hagen, who is Norwegian, she has added Scandinavian recipes to her repertoire, such as lefse, a thin potato crepe with butter, cinnamon and sugar. She also has learned to make bagels but hasn’t mastered Chinese noodles yet. “And I miss really good pizza,” she said. 

Without Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, she relies on friends to send her hard-to-find ingredients, and she stocks up when she travels. “I have my sources,” Yeh said. “And I’m always looking for things to bring home.”

Growing up in Glenview, Ill., Yeh, a self-described “very picky eater,” lived on her Hungarian-Jewish mother’s challah, matzo ball soup and noodle kugel. Feeling homesick for fresh-baked braided loaves when she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., she called her mother for the recipe. “It took me a full two days to make it,” she said. “It was so satisfying and I ate it all.”

“[Israel] is where so much of my culinary inspiration comes from. Whenever I go there, I come back with a suitcase full of spices and stock up on tahini and halvah.” — Molly Yeh

Yeh made the challah for her 2015 interfaith wedding, along with most of the food, including mini pot pies, a potato dumpling soup called knoephla and coconut, chocolate marzipan and Funfetti wedding cakes. Hagen built the chuppah. “Nick and I aren’t very religious, but it was really important to celebrate traditions like breaking the glass,” she said.

Her clarinetist father, who met her mother at a party when he dropped a plate of food at her feet, is Episcopalian. “We did celebrate Christmas and Easter,” Yeh said. But she considers herself Jewish. She plans to raise her daughter Jewish and send her to the same Jewish summer camp she attended. “I do love Jewish culture and Jewish values and will teach them to her — family, tradition, tikkun olam, being part of a community,” she said. “It’s one of my priorities.”

But being Jewish isn’t always easy in a community where there are few Members of the Tribe and worship options are a tiny synagogue in the nearest town, Grand Forks, N.D., that depends on a traveling rabbi, or the Chabad in Fargo, 90 minutes away. “When I first moved there and wanted to celebrate the holidays, I realized I was in charge of making it happen,” Yeh said. “In New York it was taken for granted.”

Yeh has been to Israel three times, including a culinary Birthright trip, and most recently, two summers ago. “It’s where so much of my culinary inspiration comes from,” she said. After her first visit, “I came back and lived on Israeli salad, hummus, pita and shakshuka for months. Whenever I go there, I come back with a suitcase full of spices and stock up on tahini and halvah.” 

Rosh Hashanah is Yeh’s favorite Jewish holiday and she’ll celebrate it with a themed episode of “Girl Meets Farm” airing on Sept. 22. She plans to serve her visiting family a brunch menu featuring sweet apple butter rolls with honey-marzipan frosting and brisket with a carrot hash she described as “a mix between a latke and tzimmes.”

Later this season, there will be a Chrismukkah episode for Christmas and Hanukkah, which coincide this year. “I usually do a latke party but this time it’s a sit-down dinner — roasted chicken with apples and latkes on the side,” Yeh said. Also for Hanukkah, she will host a Food Network competition highlighting traditional Jewish foods. She hopes to continue appearing as a judge on the network’s seasonal baking competitions, and has an interest in possibly opening a restaurant. 

“There are so many great little spots near here that would be great for that,” she said. “It would be a lot of hard work and would involve skills that I have no idea about. But if somebody came to me and asked me to create a menu for a restaurant, and they’d do all the business stuff, I would love that.”

“Girl Meets Farm” premieres at 11 a.m. Sept. 8 on Food Network.

ADL Addresses High Holy Days During Security Briefing

The ADL security briefing; Photo by Ryan Torok

With the High Holy Days around the corner, how do we keep our synagogues safe but also welcoming?

This was just one of the questions the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) addressed on Aug. 27 at its annual pre-High Holy Days security briefing at its Century City office.

Speaking to approximately 30 people, including security representatives and staff members of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, ADL Deputy Regional Director Ariella Loewenstein said everyone has a role to play in ensuring their institutions are friendly but secure during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

“Security is driven by people, not by dollar signs,” she said. 

Lowenstein also spoke about national hate crime trends, stating that those facing threats today include not just Jews but Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and women. Unfortunately for Jews, she said, the basis of all hatred is anti-Semitism. “The victims may differ, but the ideology remains the same.”

The day’s speakers included two law enforcement experts whom the ADL asked the Journal not to name.

“We’re living in an era now where hate travels very quickly.” — Ariella Loewenstein

While the presenters spotlighted recent shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the Chabad of Poway, they also discussed hate crimes that have affected the wider community, including the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, by
a white supremacist who published a manifesto targeting Hispanics before the incident.

Loewenstein said the shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue set the precedent for a perpetrator sharing his hateful beliefs before committing the violence, and through online forums and social media, the message spread like wildfire. 

“We’re living in an era now where hate travels very quickly,” she said.

A longtime member at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada who volunteers on his synagogue’s security board asked what the best practices are for handling visitors who come to the synagogue and want to participate in services and events. He asked if security guards were allowed to physically search nonmembers of a synagogue.

Speakers responded that everyone must be treated the same regardless of their membership status at the synagogue. However, following the briefing, the man, who requested only his first name, Ted, be used, told the Journal he is concerned that Jews are at greater risk than ever following President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Jews being disloyal. 

He said on the High Holy Days, when a large group of Jews is in a single area, Temple Beth Ohr is ramping up efforts to keep its members safe. 

“We’re taking efforts to secure our building and population,” he said. “I’d be surprised if other temples or churches weren’t trying to protect themselves.”

Elul Reminds Us It’s Time for a Personal Audit

Summer comes to an end and fall begins — for the Jewish calendar, that means we are entering the month of Elul. It not only represents the call to prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is a reminder of our relationship with God, which we often ignore or neglect throughout the year. 

It is the sixth month and the name itself has a powerful meaning. The Hebrew spelling, Aleph-Lamed-Vav-Lamed, is an acronym for a verse from the Song of Songs, “Ani L’dodi v’dodi Li,” which means, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.” It may seem like a strange description for a relationship with God, but like all beautiful relationships, there has to be a presence, nurturance and a form of communication. 

The love poetry of Song of Songs is not only the romance and eroticism between a man and woman, but the rabbis read it on two other levels. First, as the mystic relationship between Transcendent Divinity, Kadosh Baruch Hu, and Imminent Divinity, Shechinah, and second, as the covenantal relationship between God and man/woman. Each one of us has this connection, though we may not consciously pursue it. Every year, we are given another opportunity to discover its potential or to reinvest in shaping a deeper, richer union. 

Elul therefore is a period with the incredible aura of love, kindness and acceptance as we work to prepare for the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah is a time of judgment, demanding deep introspection and evaluation of who we are, how we have behaved and who we need to become. Elul is the spiritual alarm clock waking us from our slumber, as we often sleepwalk through life. It reminds us our virtual vacation is over and it is time to go home, to the source of our being, to our authentic and true self, and to the arms of our beloved, HaShem. 

The multifaceted character of the Divine becomes even more pronounced during this time. We not only return to our beloved, but also the unconditional love of the Divine Father and Mother, the Sovereign who rules, the Judge who levies justice, and the Shepherd/Shepherdess who guards and protects His/Her flock. For 21st-century man and woman, these are foreign concepts to relate to. But in a world where we fight for control, Judaism asks of us to relinquish the impossible and to surrender to what may be the unthinkable so that we can be elevated in new and holier ways.  

Every facet of our everyday lives demands preparation. The High Holy Days also demand of us to do the soul work required so that we “return” (teshuvah) more fulfilled and more connected to family, friends, our true selves, and the Holy One. Teshuvah, the theme of these days, begins with inner work called cheshbon ha-nefesh, “the accounting of the soul,” an inner audit, making a list of the areas of our character or the sins or the neglect that require recognition and accepting responsibility. Elul calls us to review our lives so that we can make meaningful change for our future.

Elul is the spiritual alarm clock waking us from our slumber.

The shofar is blown in the synagogue during Elul as another reminder to awaken your spirit. The raw sound captures our deepest shame and guilt. However, God wants us to “turn from our wicked ways and live.” Each day of the month, take time to assess, meditate or explore with another person to gain greater insight into how you have inadvertently or purposively hurt another or even hurt yourself, thereby pushing God away.

It is the love and kindness that makes it possible to face our misdeeds and own our arrogance. Forgiveness awaits. We must begin by forgiving ourselves our humanness and our frailty, knowing we make mistakes and sometimes give in to the evil inclination. In a month of deep love, take the opportunity to prepare and work for change.

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins, author of “Spiritual Surgery, A Journey of Healing of Mind, Body, and Spirit,” is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion California. 

A Prayer for Geshem is More Than Just Asking for Rain

Photo provided by National Park Service

On Shemini Atzeret, we not only celebrate the eighth day following Sukkot, and remember our loved ones during yahrzeit, we also pray for rain. Rain— for those who have not seen it in months or even years— is water that falls from the sky in copious amounts. It quenches our thirst, hydrates our agriculture and cools us off on sweltering hot days

Los Angeles and its residents might not be as familiar with the concept of rain, but we are no strangers to the heatwaves that hit us daily. After experiencing (and surviving) my first summer living in the valley, I wondered how anyone could bear to live like this. I’d like to thank my A/C for being there in my time of need.

The dry, intense heat was nice to my frizzy curls, but not kind to my demeanor. I found myself more agitated by my friends; short-tempered to random strangers and even snapped at those I loved. I wondered where my bubbly midwestern personality went. Then it dawned on me: I was angry because I was hot and hadn’t seen or felt a cool rain in months.

Brian Lickel, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, once said that when people are hot they tend to get cranky.

“It makes people more prone to anger,” he said. “It makes people more frustrated, and it makes decision making more impulsive. And that can lead to altercations that escalate to more extreme levels of aggression.”

Though it seems obvious, when temperatures climb, and rain is nowhere in sight, we tend to become “hot-headed.” Rain, or lack of it, has an impact on us.

My heat-driven anger made me think of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing.” It’s set during one of the hottest days of the year where heat is used to turn the anger up to an ultimate high. Fights break out, gunshots are fired and chaos fills the screen, all because social tensions were met with rising temperatures. Lee isn’t the first person to use this cinematic trope but he did make a lasting impression with it.

Heated arguments can not only turn ugly faster but stay with a person forever.

It’s why this holiday aligns so nicely with the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to start fresh with a clean slate, help us forgive and ask for forgiveness. Sukkot lets us enjoy the harvest and the outdoors by gathering with family and friends.

Shemini Atzeret lets us pray for the rain that will tend to the earth and help us when we will need the most: spiritually and literally.

Growing up, my Bubbie always told me that we needed the rain whenever we got it.

“Look, it’s feeding the plants, it makes them feel good,” she would say while offering me another piece of Mandel bread.

She loves the rain because it floods (no pun intended) her home with color. I think she liked the rain because it gave her a break from watering her large and beautiful backyard garden.  

Rain is able to cool us off so we can think more clearly.  It’s a wet, heavy blanket that falls and hits us right on the head to make us work through our current emotions.

It can nourish us while lending the strength to move forward in the new year.

We ask God for rain where rain is not seen. Rain isn’t seen where there is tension. Rain is not always seen on the days we forget our 5779 resolutions.

This year we will be angry, hurt and want to hold a grudge. It’s unavoidable because we’re imperfect human beings.

It’s why we need to listen to my Bubbie and enjoy the rain when it comes — and pray for more of it everywhere.

Of course, here in Los Angeles, we might only get an inch of rain while many around the world will get hit with disastrous amounts. This year while asking for raindrops, we should let Shemini Atzeret remind us to cool off when we get too hot.

When we feel like yelling, causing a scene, or about to do things we will regret, take a deep breath. Stay present. Imagine a cold front with rain clouds sweeping in to bring our inner temperature down, granting us to resolve the conflict.   

On Monday when many go to shul they will say or hear a prayer for geshem (rain in Hebrew). The importance of this prayer is not just to rejuvenate the world, it’s to symbolically rejuvenate us.

Erin Ben-Moche is a Los Angeles journalist and the digital content manager at The Jewish Journal.


Love for My Daughter vs. Fear of Yoga

Photo by Pexels

The website for “Home for the Weekend — a yoga retreat in Idyllwild taking place in early November — could not be more charming. Soft-focus photos of a lovely log cabin (with rocking chairs on the porch!) trade places with pictures of gently flexible young women in yoga poses, a campy Idyllwild road sign and the majestic San Jacinto Mountains.

The reassuring copy of the website echoes the holistic vibe of the visuals. Participants are promised an experience that will return them home to themselves. There are hiking trails. One can gaze at the stars. There will be breath work and meditation. And, of course, there are the two yoga sessions per day, led by a trio of certified young yogis — Erin Ward, Leah Schlackman and Emma Goldman. No grungy hippie hangout, “Home for the Weekend” is upscale enough to provide catering provided by Honey Hi, the pre-eminent sustainable food eatery in Echo Park.

What Jewish woman could resist the prospect of returning home to herself after the monthlong rampage of holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah? 

And so I signed up. 

I enjoyed approximately five hours of happy anticipation only to find myself beset by galloping anxiety, my mind working overtime. What was I thinking? Me? An overly analytical New Yorker stuck in a high-altitude area with a cohort of cosmic (and skinny) Los Angeles millennials? 

After the initial glow of imagining myself sleeping a log cabin came the dread: What about the daytime? I would have to wear yoga pants in public, twist my body into painful contortions and eat overly virtuous food!

Would there be booze? Would there be anyone my age? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s? Where was the nearest hospital?

And that is how I found myself, during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, sitting in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio known, minimalistically, as The Studio, wooden blocks beneath my butt, straps bound around my hips, shoulders thrust back. My daughter Emma — yes, the same one running the Idyllwild retreat with her pals Erin and Leah — trusses my upper arms behind my back, tight and yet tighter. Sitting in front of me, Abbie Galvin, a master restorative yoga instructor, nods her approval. As Emma pulls the straps, I envision myself as a carved figurehead on a ship from days of yore, chest defiantly greeting the wind, hair streaming behind me, sailing fearlessly into the future.

“Would there be booze at the yoga retreat? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s?

“So good!” exclaims Abbie, watching my face intently. “Look how you open up! How does that feel?”

Feel is exactly the right word. Since I entered Abbie’s realm, my hyperactive mind has put itself on snooze mode and I am awash with feeling. New feeling. Something profound has shifted within me. Though my limbs have been rearranged — and held in place — I feel comfortable and calm. Both lungs work in concert, drawing in air competently and evenly; a team effort. My shoulders relax, relieved of a great burden. A long-ago feeling of security blankets me.  

“Fantastic,” I report, with a smile. “I feel great.”

The private restorative yoga session with Abbie was an early birthday gift from Emma, who has studied with Abbie for years and intends to incorporate her restorative practice into “Home for the Weekend.” Noting my reaction to her upcoming retreat, Emma decided to take matters into her own hands and enlist Abbie.

The rest of the hour flows like warm honey. Abbie reads my body and posture, interpreting, gently correcting, guiding. Emma assists, lifting my hips, adjusting my shoulders, fixing the angle of my chin. 

“Wait a second,” I say to Emma as we bound down the stairs at the end of the hour. “This is yoga?”

“Yep,” says my yogafabulous daughter, my teacher, beaming with pride and happiness at my enthusiastic embrace of her practice. We walk together down the Bowery, Great Jones Street and West Fourth Street chattering.

“Feel less nervous?” Emma asks me as we enter Think Coffee. “Yes!” I sing out. She looks at me intently. “You know, you can take another private session with Abbie if you freak out anytime between now and November.”

Shira Dicker is a writer-at-large and publicist captivated by contemporary culture.

Speaking Truth to Power — Ours

For much of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky’s talk last Shabbat afternoon on “Speaking Truth to Power,” I got really pumped up. The leader of Bnai David Judea Congregation was discussing biblical characters who spoke truth to the ultimate power — God — and how God listened and bent and forgave. Using talmudic texts, Kanefsky went through several examples, including three in which Moses challenged God and God responded: You have taught me something.

I could see where the rabbi was going. Jews are people of dissent. We don’t accept even the highest authority blindly. We are urged to question and challenge and argue in the search for justice and truth.

What perfect timing, I thought. We are living in chaotic times when people holding the levers of authority in government and corporations keep failing us. Kanefsky did not say a word about politics or current events, but he didn’t have to. The title of his talk said it all. We must have the courage to rise up and speak out against injustice. That is the power of our voice.

If Moses himself can speak truth to his divine leader, then certainly we can speak truth to our own leaders.

The idea of fighting injustice has been a theme of several Rosh Hashana sermons this year. At Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein gave a rousing sermon decrying the state of our country under President Donald Trump and urging his flock not to stand idly by. Similarly, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the IKAR community, called for “Building a New America” with a renewed sense of purpose.

“These are trying times,” she said in one of her sermons, “but we must not let exhaustion or cynicism dull our senses. Our history has taught us: either you work to dismantle oppressive systems, or your inaction becomes the mortar that sustains them. Together we must build America anew: fierce, fair and full of promise; equipped to hold us in all our diversity, complexity and beauty.”

“Instead of leaving the synagogue all powered up and ready to march on Washington, I left ready to march on myself. When have I been too dogmatic this past year? When have I failed to listen?” 

That is why I was pumped up by Kanefsky’s talk. I sensed that the rabbi was empowering his flock to take on the leaders who were failing us — to fight injustice during these extraordinary times by speaking truth to the powers that be.

But, I must confess, I was expecting a little more. Kanefsky wasn’t giving a sermon, per se. He was giving what is known as the annual Shabbat Shuva drash, which occurs on the Shabbat afternoon between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many rabbis, it is their most important talk of the year. 

I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed a Shabbat Shuva drash from Rabbi Kanefsky since I moved to the Pico-Robertson area 12 years ago. He always seems to come up with a fresh and provocative insight. My kids tease me because I tell them the same thing every year: “I can’t believe he was even better than last year.”

So, as much as I enjoyed the theme of speaking truth to power and connecting it to God, I didn’t feel I was being challenged enough. It was more of an important reminder than a provocative insight.

Maybe you can see where this is going. When it came time to conclude his talk, Kanefsky took a deep breath and turned the tables on us. Yes, speaking truth to power is important, he said, but the real power is us. If God can be moved, so can we. If God can change his mind, so can we. If God can listen and forgive, so can we. Referencing more talmudic texts, he spoke of God not just as a target for our dissent but as a voice we can emulate.

Instead of leaving the synagogue all powered up and ready to march on Washington, I left ready to march on myself. When have I been too dogmatic this past year? When have I failed to listen? When have I failed to bend and forgive?

“Speaking truth to power is important, [Kanefsky] said, but the real power is us. If God can be moved, so can we. If God can change his mind, so can we. If God can listen and forgive, so can we.”

None of this is a substitute for the important work of fighting the injustice all around us and not standing idly by. Kanefsky has done more than his fair share on that front. Rather, I saw Kanefsky’s message as an opportunity to take a timeout during these Days of Awe to focus on my inner life. The outer and the inner are equally essential.

Maybe because my life this past year as editor-in-chief has been so focused on the outer life, Kanefsky’s message especially resonated with me. And my kids are still teasing me, because you know what I told them.

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

From Fear to Joy

Photo from Wilderness Torah

By During Sukkot — zman simchateinu — everything we acknowledged with awe and trepidation during the Days of Awe, we now celebrate in joy.

On Rosh Hashanah, we observed the birthday of the world, meaning that we owned our status as creatures. We acknowledged that we do not make the world and we do not make ourselves. We came into a world that already existed by the grace of That Which is much greater than us, a world that — God willing — will be here long after we leave it. During the Great Amidah, we sank into trust, lowering ourselves all the way to the ground in awe and respect of the One Who made us. We soberly accepted our existence as mortal, vulnerable, imperfect beings who survive and thrive through our mutual dependence and our obligations to one another and to God.

On Sukkot, we live in fragile temporary dwellings, open on one side to visitors, open to the sky. We rejoice in that fragility, calling in guests, protecting ourselves with mutuality rather than attempts at force. We experience our vulnerability as an opportunity to care for and feed one another — to give hospitality. Our needful mortality is the very condition for our rejoicing.

We remember the people in our city who live year-round in what should be temporary dwellings — booths of cardboard and tarp. Camping out is a delightful ritual for us, but not for them. If it rains, we are commanded to go inside — they have no inside in which to retreat. We recommit to ending homelessness and to giving what we can.

The Yamim Noraim begin during high summer under enamel blue skies. Heat shimmers off the pavement as we walk to shul. At night, the warm breeze gives us kisses. Green plants have grown tawny, farmers markets are bright with the last tomatoes and asparagus.

Sukkot celebrates autumn. We eat squashes and other roots. We prepare to pray for rain so crops will grow (again recalling those who will not have a roof to keep them dry). Even in Los Angeles, leaves will fall, some trees will begin to go bare, seeds will begin to drop, about to start their hidden work of renewal. We think about getting our sweaters cleaned (remembering those who don’t have warm sweaters and thinking about which ones we can let go to clothe them).

“During Sukkot, we count our harvest. We can acknowledge our accomplishments with the same thoroughness that we used to plumb our faults.”

On Yom Kippur, we deepened our work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, weighing our souls. We faced our most profound regrets and fears, voiced apologies, wept without embarrassment — and then, at sundown, let those things go. We accepted forgiveness.

During Sukkot, we count our harvest. Many of us, apart from gardens on patios or in backyards, no longer grow crops. But we can acknowledge our accomplishments with the same thoroughness that we used to plumb our faults. We can look back over the previous year at friendships begun or renewed, work done to speed social justice, income earned honorably and shared appropriately.

During Sukkot, we enjoy the tactile, fleshy, delicious aspects of being creatures of mortal flesh. We smell the fragrant citron. To the six directions we wave a wand of myrtle, willow and pine. And on the last day of Sukkot we begin to dance.

Finally, we arrive at the holiday of Simchat Torah. Judaism is the biggest book club in the world. For a year, we have been reading the Torah, the five books of Moses, all the way through. On Simchat Torah we read to the end, to the bittersweet story of Moses’ death — how he leaves the world, as most of us will, with work unfinished, his heart’s desire in plain sight and unattained, left for the next generation. 

Then we spiral back to the beginning with a whole year’s worth of new perspective. We read Bereishit, when the world is new, the people were created in the image of God — male and female and very good. We go back to the garden, lush and green, where everything is possible.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at Cal State Long Beach.

What Happens in Uman Doesn’t Stay in Uman

Photo from Jerusalem Post

I spent my Rosh Hashanah this year in Uman, Ukraine, where a remarkable Jewish phenomenon continues to unfold: the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It seemed clear to me there: What happens in Uman won’t stay in Uman, but it will have a far-reaching effect on the future of Judaism. 

Rabbi Nachman himself, great-grandson of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, is the surprise hero of 21st-century Judaism. From a marginal, controversial figure whose followers were often ridiculed by other Chasidim as the irresponsible flakes of the Chasidic world, Rabbi Nachman has moved to the center of emerging Jewish spirituality. 

His Torah and stories were always known as masterpieces of religious imagination — creating a mystical poetics of personal and collective transformation unparalleled since the Zohar. The magnetism of the pilgrimage has brought together a startling array of Jews.

In Uman, I ate, slept, dunked, davened, shmoozed and danced with a kaleidoscopic cluster of Jewish groups: Satmar from Brooklyn, N.Y.; settlers from Bat Ayin, Israel; a turned-on group of Ethiopians from Ashdod, Israel; and the ragged followers of Rav Sabag, a Moroccan tzadik who transforms prayer into sacred play.

The streets were teeming with people. Hundreds of small groups who lodged together were glad to share their meals with all comers, and faucets with free coffee, milk and punch were to be found at strategic locations along the streets. An atmosphere of brotherhood and total acceptance prevailed. When a  worshipper who tried to start a tune was shushed by the minyan’s organizers, he exclaimed, “What? Is Uman over?” meaning that the possibility of one person being silenced by another is a dread violation of the Uman spirit. The rest of the minyan erupted in song, carrying its initiator on their shoulders.

Rabbi Nachman said that if people gathered at his grave on Rosh Hashanah, prayed and gave tzedakah (“charity,” in loose translation), then he would help them overcome Rosh Hashanah judgment: only joy would remain. If 20th-century ultra-Orthodoxy has been about strict adherence to obligations as well as deep learning of Torah, the shift here is to acceptance of and fellowship with others, and an ecstatic experience of God’s love.

In Uman, the ultra-Orthodox are coming out of their shells, mixing with other Jews and creating a tribal Judaism focused on expansive love. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is taking place outside of Israel, in a place where official institutions have no control over religion. Uman is what anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey called a Temporary Autonomous Zone — a place outside of normal time and space where the usual restrictions on imagination and feelings don’t apply. 

But Uman is also a place of struggle. More women are coming — still only a few hundred versus tens of thousands of men. But there is backlash, too: Signs are up asking that we boycott women vendors “to keep the holy gathering pure.” (There are women’s gatherings at the tomb at other times of the year.) Although most here are stalwart Israeli nationalists, hatred of the Arab other is never expressed, and there is no mention of politics (although someone has put up a huge sign in support of President Donald Trump).

But still, the many Ukrainians serving and cleaning are not part of the celebration; the word “goy” is often spoken. Can Uman Judaism evolve so as to integrate the intensive celebration of Jewishness with the passionate love of every human being, even in this place of Cossack and Nazi massacres? Can women be included in greater numbers? Could environmental awareness become part of the mix, responsibility for the earth coalescing with spiritual devotion? Can we avoid the blind spots of fundamentalism while harnessing the incredible energy and goodness of intense and focused faith?

I leave uplifted and suffused with joy, but also with a question: Where will Uman take the Jews?

Micha Odenheimer is a rabbi, writer and founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israel-based organization working on extreme poverty in South Asia and Africa. 

The Eating of the Jews – A Poem for Rosh Hashanah by Rick Lupert

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 22 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 “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “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.

Celebrating the Jewish New Year in the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel


Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – begins in two days, this Sunday evening. For us, the Jews in Azerbaijan, like for other Jews around the world, this holiday embodies benevolence, honesty, fresh start and unity. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, and to make a fresh start together.

Each year during the holiday we, the Mountain Jews living in Azerbaijan, attend services at our synagogues, sound the shofar and recite special liturgy, take care of those in need, gather around the table, eat honey-dipped Challah and apples, and pray for forgiveness. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays in Azerbaijan is that our fellow Muslims and Christians come together with their Jewish brothers and sisters to share our joy and happiness. In Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between these ethnic and religious communities, and this exemplary harmony continues to this day.

Today in Azerbaijan the Jews have everything they want. We have peace, stability and prosperity. We have our flourishing synagogues, schools, kindergartens, and various cultural facilities. We have the support of the government, which is making tremendous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions. On every Rosh Hashanah, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev sends a congratulatory message addressed to the Jewish community of the country. This year was not an exception.

Here is the text of the congratulatory message by the President of Azerbaijan that I just received:

“Dear Compatriots!

I cordially congratulate you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and convey to you my heartfelt wishes.

We regard ethno-cultural diversity in the modern Azerbaijani society, where traditional relations of friendship and brotherhood, and tolerance and multicultural values ​​exist among people, as an indispensable achievement of our national statehood. People of different ethnic backgrounds living in our country, including the Jewish community, have always lived in peace in Azerbaijan, preserving their language and culture and traditions without any discrimination.

Today the independent state of Azerbaijan remains committed to its progressive historical traditions. In line with modern democratic principles, ensuring human rights in the country, protection and strengthening of ethnocultural values ​​of ethnic minorities is one of the priorities of our state policy.

The Jewish community, who have been living in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, have become an integral part and full-fledged members of our society. I want to emphasize with satisfaction that our citizens of Jewish origin are closely involved in the socio-political life of our country, which is currently experiencing a period of great development and progress, and make valuable contributions to the process of democratic state building.

Dear Friends!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrated by you every year is the embodiment of renewal, spiritual purity, kindness and solidarity. Once again, I sincerely congratulate you on this beautiful day, wish happiness and continued prosperity to you and your families.

Happy Holidays!

Ilham Aliyev

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Baku, September 7, 2018.”

Together with our fellow Muslims and Christians, as the Jewish community of Azerbaijan we have to continue our work on a daily basis towards making sure that this togetherness, this solidarity and this harmony keeps blossoming and becoming stronger and stronger every day in the country, and that this unique model inspires many other nations in the region and beyond. That’s my Rosh Hashanah prayer this year!

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Trump Touts Jerusalem Embassy, Nixing Iran Deal in Rosh Hashanah Call

REUTERS/Leah Millis

President Trump addressed American Jewish leaders in a Rosh Hashanah conference call on Thursday, where he touted his decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem as well as to exit from the Iran nuclear deal.

According to a transcript of the call provided by the Times of Israel, Trump said that he has a “personal” connection to the Jewish faith.

“I am the very proud father of a Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and my son-in-law, who I’m very proud of also — I will say that very loudly — Jared [Kushner], and my several Jewish grandchildren, namely three beautiful Jewish grandchildren that I love,” Trump said.

Trump then rattled off moves his administration has made as accomplishments: the Jerusalem embassy, leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and deporting a former Nazi concentration camp guard.

“We’re also deeply honored to be joined by several Holocaust survivors. It is a true privilege to be graced by your presence,” Trump said. “And it marks the 5,779th in the Jewish calendar, so we renew our pledge to confront anti-Semitism and hatred in all of its forms.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman then provided a brief update on the Jerusalem embassy, highlighting that the second phase of construction would be completed by June 2019 and that the embassy has already become “a major tourist site.”

“I’m there almost every day, and people just pull up their cars to the front of the embassy, they get out, they take pictures,” Friedman said. “I’ve seen some people praying there. I’ve actually seen many people crying there. Many Cabinet members have come to visit. Many members of Congress have come to visit. I urge all of you to please come to visit.”

Legal scholar Alan Dershowitz then asked Trump if he was “optimistic” about forging a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump said he was, pointing out that the embassy move has now been taken off the table and that zeroing out funding to Palestinian leaders has given the U.S. leverage in a deal.

“I really do believe we’re going to make a deal, Alan,” Trump said. “I hope so. It would be a great thing to do.”

Former Sen. Norm Coleman then asked the president on what the next steps are in regards to Iran after exiting the nuclear deal. Trump responded by saying that exiting the deal has “had a tremendously positive impact”:

I will tell you that if you look at Iran now, when I — if you go a day before I took over — I don’t want to say the same day — the day before I took over as President, Iran — it was not a question of how big and how strong they were; it was a question of when will they take over the entire Middle East. And that probably includes Israel, in the mind of a lot of people.

And if you look at them today, they’re not looking at the Mediterranean any longer. They’re not looking at places that they were going to routinely take over. And I think Israel feels a lot safer than they’ve felt in many, many years.

Iran is fighting for their own survival. They’ve got demonstrations in every city. This is far worse than it was years ago when President Obama could’ve maybe crushed Iran if all they needed was a positive statement — the people that were demonstrating. Well, these demonstrations are larger, but they’re more widespread. They’re all over the country.

So Iran is no longer the same country. I would imagine that they’ll be calling in the not-too-distant future to try and make a deal. If we can make a real deal, we’ll do it. If they don’t call, that’s okay too. Eventually, they’re going to have no choice. But we’ll see what happens.

Read the full transcript of the call here.

Holy Days in the Hospital

Last December, I was a “guest” at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a week that felt like an eternity. Every day I prayed that I would be well enough to go home and every day brought new problems. It was impossible to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

One of the most important things that kept my spirits buoyed was a visit from Senior Rabbi and Director of the Spiritual Care Department Jason Weiner, along with one of the other Jewish chaplains. They came with little prayer cards, get well wishes, and they helped allay my fears.

It was an absolute blessing at a time when I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. So how much more vulnerable must someone feel to be in the hospital during the High Holy Days — a time when we are supposed to confront our mortality? I reached out to Rabbi Weiner to ask.

“It’s a very difficult time for people, it’s a lonely time,” Weiner said. “It’s a time when they want to be with their families or want to be in the synagogue.”

At this time of year in particular, Weiner said there are so many conflicting emotions for patients, “especially on Yom Kippur, when there’s so much talk about the Book of Life and the Book of Death. Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”

“Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”
— Rabbi Jason Weiner


Weiner said his job is to listen to patients “and let them articulate their fears and provide support and compassion.”

Patients sometimes ask him, “Does this mean I’m likely to die this year because I’m in the hospital over the High Holy Days?”

Weiner said, “I tell them ‘There’s no Torah source that says that.’ I’m more likely to say, ‘Why is that on your mind right now?’ and then explore it with them and help them through it.”

Weiner and his staff do a lot to help make the holidays special for patients. Sometimes they reserve rooms and have entire families come in for Rosh Hashanah dinners. The hospital’s kitchen prepares a special kosher meal and hands out apples and honey and sweet cake. There are pre-recorded High Holy Days services that patients can watch on the television from their beds, and the chaplains will blow the shofar in every room where patients request it.

“We try to give the patients extra TLC and talk about the holidays,” Weiner said.

For those who are well enough to leave their rooms, they can attend services. While the hospital has on average 180-200 Jewish patients over the holidays, services have to be moved from the chapel to the Harvey Morse Auditorium because close to 600 people attend.

“The services are geared for the patients,” Weiner said. “They sit in the front row and we have their nurses with them. But we also have a lot of [Jewish] staff who are working attend, as well as past patients and even people who live in the neighborhood.”

Weiner leads the services himself with Cantor Jordan Gorfinkel, and the hospital has its own machzor in Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration, English and English commentary. The services are truncated. “We call it a learning service,” Weiner said. “There are full Torah readings and a full shofar blowing, but for the prayers, we skip around a bit.” On Yom Kippur afternoon, however, there are full services.

“We try to [hold services] in a way that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated will all feel comfortable,” Weiner said.

The full Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur is something Weiner cherishes. “There are so many tears because people are literally praying for their lives.” He recalled a particularly moving moment when he saw two women hugging and crying. “One said, ‘I was praying for your husband,’ and the other said, ‘I was praying for your son.’ It was so profound,” Weiner said. “And really meaningful.”

How Challah Changed My Life

This is a story about bread. This is a story of how learning to make this bread changed my life; maybe even saved my life. 

As a busy physician, mother, wife and daughter, I had been overwhelmed. Taking care of everyone else, I had somehow forgotten to take care of myself, too. Until one Rosh Hashanah over a decade ago, when a friend suggested that I make challah for the holidays. To me, it was such an absurd suggestion. How was making a challah going to help? 

And over 10 years later, I am still making challah. This journey has meant so much to me that I’ve written a book about it, “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” which fittingly is being published during the Days of Awe this year.

Every Friday, I make challah in time for Shabbat dinner that night. Often, I even make it on the road when we are traveling over Shabbat. When I started making challah, I just made three-strand braided loaves. I didn’t initially realize that challah shapes vary for so many reasons: There are round challahs and hand-shaped challahs; there are challahs shaped like Moses’ tablets and Haman’s triangular hat. Each shape has a meaning, yet another reason that I love this bread that not only nourishes us physically but also nourishes us spiritually.

Growing up, I knew of two different shapes: round challah at the New Year and the more frequently available braided loaves, usually three- or six-braided. There really is a time and place for everything, including the shape of challah. At the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and for the start of each new month (Rosh Chodesh), we create round-shaped challah. No debate. Circular shapes signify the cycle of life. No beginning, no end, just straight-up continuity. Not wanting to mess with that, I finally mastered the round challah after a few misguided attempts during several previous Rosh Hashanah holidays.

The first try a few years ago consisted of me rolling the dough out into two long snakes, twisting them into a long coiled rope and then wrapping that up in a circular shape. It worked. Sort of. I couldn’t replicate how lovely a similarly rounded challah looked at my local bakery and the inside did not cook all the way through without making the outside too crispy. I had not yet discovered the role of the thermometer!

Later on, I took my responsibility more seriously. I researched it, I practiced and, ultimately, I let go of my original method. Getting serious is complicated business. No more two-snake round challahs for me; I use four pieces of dough per challah now. Once rolled out, I spread out the four coils, two by two. Next, I crisscross two coils over and under the other two. Now I have a grid: imagine it — almost like a cross or an X shape with two coils sticking out in all four directions. 

Then the fun begins. Choosing to go counterclockwise the first time (though you could choose either direction), I cross one end over the other end of each pair, then reverse direction and do it all over again. Sounds complicated, and the first time the execution frustrated me. But, oh, the results looked divine. Pulling the oven door open ever so slowly, I saw inside a perfectly golden round challah with a crisscross pattern on top. Hooked, I made round challahs that entire week for all of our visiting friends and family. Each time, it worked; each time, I couldn’t believe it worked.

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner once more, I am already getting excited to try my hand again at a round challah. It may take me a few lopsided attempts to get it right, but that’s OK. That’s what making challah every week has taught me.

Adapted from the book “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” to be published by She Writes Press in September.

Beth Ricanati is a Los Angeles-based physician and writer.

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance

Each period of history has a title bestowed by historians, one meant to reveal some key characteristic of that age. Thus, the medieval period is the Age of Faith; the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason; and the 19th century is the Age of Progress. The name for our age, I would venture to guess, is the Age of Busyness.

Everybody is busy. Americans routinely complain that they work too many hours — and they do. They complain that they have too little time to spend with their children — and they’re right. They complain that they have little time left for quiet reflection, for learning and for celebrating.

Well, actually, they don’t complain about that — because they don’t have enough time to notice its absence, or because they’re so busy that they no longer miss it.

But part of being human, part of living our lives fully, is the inner need to grow and to explore and to play. Contemporary psychology tells us that people continue to grow throughout every phase of their lives, and that the playfulness of children continues into adulthood, as well. To be human is to play, to change and to grow.

Where, in our serious culture of business, work and productivity — or in its flip side of infantile recreation and foolish escapism — do we make room for adult play, adult study and adult growth? America’s Achilles’ heel is its excessive busyness, which spawns equally excessive foolishness to blow off steam.

We’ve lost our balance.

The place to recapture what we have lost is to be found in Judaism’s unparalleled ability to sanctify time. Through the observance of Shabbat, of holy days and festivals, our tradition provides a timeout for adults — not to lose ourselves in fantasies or escape, but to rediscover ourselves and the depths of our own creativity and love. We immerse ourselves in sacred time in order to live better and more fully during the rest of our days.

Now that the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us and we emerge out of our sukkah booths back into our busy, contemporary lives, our immersion in rest, renewal and community is our passport back into a better way of living our lives. Instead of “spending time,” Judaism gives us the gift of learning to savor it.

The Talmud teaches that “rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty.” What a remarkable idea! A day devoted to a special kind of joy. The rejoicing of the festival has little in common with sitting in a dark room staring passively at an on-screen fantasy, or risking life and limb to thrill ourselves into forgetting what drones we’ve become. The rejoicing of the festival is not one of escaping, but one of returning to our own centers — our own families, friends, community and God.

As it says in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘One has nothing else to do on a festival except to eat, drink, sit and study.’ Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Divide it — devote half the day to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of prayer and study.’”

Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships.

What a fascinating way to rejoice. Recall that the word “recreation” involves creating something anew — in this case, our own souls. By spending part of the day together in prayer, song and Torah study, we rebuild our identities as messengers of God and as bearers of God’s covenant. We restore our sense of belonging in a specific synagogue community and in the Jewish people worldwide. Having restored that essential base, the rabbis of the Talmud then tell us to take the rest of the day for feasting and spending time with those we love.

What a marvelous blend of devotion and relaxation, of heightened identity and then simply being.

What this regimen of holy days and festivals makes clear is that mastery of our work — rather than allowing our work to master us — requires setting clear boundaries and limits to our chores and our work. Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships. By rejoicing with one another on these holy days, festivals and on Shabbat, we declare ourselves to be free in the service of holiness and goodness, of Torah and togetherness.

After the end of the fall holy days, take the lessons of the shofar, the fast and the sukkah with you into our busy world. Remember that we each are children of royalty, and we thrive best when we thrive together. 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

Rosh Hashanah in the midst of a hurricane

Chabad Rabbi Mendel Zarchi hands out food and water in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was devastated by Hurriance Maria on Sept. 20. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Mendel Zarchi

It took three phone calls via WhatsApp to connect with Chabad Rabbi Mendel Zarchi in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A week after Hurricane Maria had torn through the region the day before Rosh Hashanah, Zarchi spoke with the Journal via a “hotspot” — someone else’s phone that had internet connectivity, because his did not. Most of the tiny island territory still was without water or power.

Zarchi’s voice cracked as he talked of living through the night of the storm in the storage room of San Juan’s Chabad House with his wife, Rachel, their 7-year-old-son, Ari, and two other families.

“We experienced a torrent of winds that is unfathomable,” Zarchi said. “When you see windows shaking, hear the winds howling and see a raging river flowing contrary to its natural flow with waves close to 3-feet high, there’s no illusion that this can be conquered. This was God’s force.”

The families were safe in the Chabad structure, which was built 15 months ago and designed to withstand such storms.

Venturing outside the day after the storm, Zarchi said the area looked like a war zone. “The streets were deserted, there was flooding, chaos, downed wires and telephone lines,” and the roof of his home had been torn off, he said.

And yet, it never entered his mind to cancel Rosh Hashanah services.

“At around 3 p.m. [on Erev Rosh Hashanah], the trauma wore off a bit, and the reality set in that it was going to be Rosh Hashanah,” he said.

Zarchi said his first concern was the safety of the community. For those who could make it to synagogue, there would be davening and meals, courtesy of the rebbetzin, made possible by Chabad House’s generator that provided power for cooking and light.

Together with local volunteers, Zarchi made his way to the synagogue. “It was flooded with hundreds of gallons of water, and our roof had been ripped off, but we rolled up our sleeves and opened the doors,” he said. “The brooms were brought out — we had no mops — and the sweeping began. It took about two hours. We barely made it.”

Usually, 50 to 100 people attend High Holy Days services at the Chabad shul. On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, 15 people made it.

“At around 3 p.m. [Erev Rosh Hashanah], the trauma wore off a bit, and the reality set in that it was going to be Rosh Hashanah.” — Rabbi Mendel Zarchi

The next morning, another small group braved the elements to attend services, which were conducted without a cantor. The cantor was stranded in Chicago after his flight was canceled due to hydraulic problems. He missed his alternate flight because it left two hours early to reach Puerto Rico ahead of the hurricane.

Zarchi said his prepared sermon “went out the window. It was about the emotions of the moment, and it didn’t need preparation.”

In his improvised sermon, he spoke of how we seek security in our families, our homes and our businesses. “We want to feel protected, and in a moment we see how vulnerable we are and how we’re dependent on our creator,” he said. “And on the other hand, we don’t control the events around us, but we do control how we respond to them.”

Zarchi told his congregants that when he walked outside at 7 a.m. that first day after the storm, seeing few people, he noticed “one old man bending down and picking leaves out of a drain. He did that for hours. He chose to respond in a selfless way and he made a difference.”

Zarchi also met with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. He said he told her, “We have deep roots in this community, and we will remain to see the rebuilding of this beautiful island.”

Zarchi said the mayor requested that he keep her and the island in his prayers. Zarchi said he promised he would. In return, he asked for the nightly curfew to be lifted for those wanting to attend Kol Nidre services on Erev Yom Kippur. He said she told him, “I’ll send out a tweet immediately, encouraging the Jewish people to go to their synagogues and asking the police to allow them to go pray.”

Throughout the days after the storm, Chabad flew in supplies.

Zarchi said visiting some of the poorest communities was important.

“We bring them food and water, and also a message of hope that they can rebuild and somebody is thinking about them,” he said. “It could take months for government resources to come. I told them, ‘We’re here, we’re thinking about you,’ and it meant so much to them. We can all make a difference. We can all bring some order to the chaos.”

This article has been updated.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback’s Rosh Hashanah sermon: We Need Each Other

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a very small Jewish community – El Dorado, Kansas was home to about ten Jewish families. Maybe it was because of her deep love for Jewish values, traditions and teachings. Whatever inspired it, my mother absolutely delighted in discovering that the perfect stranger with whom she was sitting on the airplane or whom she happened to begin speaking with in the museum or concert hall at intermission was, like her, a Jew.

If one of her kids was nearby, she’d shoot us a knowing look and stage-whisper, “He’s JEWISH.” Sometimes it was obvious. A star of David around the neck. A hamsa. Maybe it was the name – David Shapiro was an easy one. Rochel Leah Rabinowitz – a no brainer. Shmuel Cohen – a gimmee. But mom could also find the Jewish Maureen O’Malley, too.

Then it was time for some Jewish geography. Before you knew it, mom had found a connection. Maybe through an acquaintance, a distant cousin – some Rabbi we knew in common.

When I entered Rabbinical school, it got worse. Here’s how it played out:

  • Step one: Identify the Jew.
  • Step two: Chat up the Jew.
  • Step three: Discover some type of personal connection to the Jew.
  • Step four: Seize the opportunity to announce proudly to her new best friend that her son is studying to be a rabbi.

Once on a family vacation, as we sat down for our first dinner, a member of the staff approached me and said, “I hear you’re a rabbi – would you be willing to help us light the Chanukah candles tomorrow night in the lobby? Your mom said you’d love to!”

I don’t want you to think that her ability to identify and connect with Jews was flawless – sometimes her “Jew-dar” was off. Once, on a phone call with mom when I was in college, I mentioned that I was going to a Bruce Springsteen concert with some friends. “You know he’s a self hating Jew, don’t you?” She said. “I mean, he never talks about his Jewish identity, he’s not raising his kids as Jews – he hasn’t ever performed in Israel.”

“Mom,” I noted. “We’ve talked about this before. Bruce Springsteen is not, I repeat, NOT a self hating Jew. Do you know why that is, mom? It’s ‘cuz he’s NOT A JEW AT ALL. Yes, his name ends in ‘Steen’ and he’s from Jersey but HE’S NOT A JEW.”

There was a pause.

“Still,” she said, “he could be more supportive.”

My parents taught us that we were part of a community, a People – Members of a Tribe. They were devoted to our synagogue. Mom was president of the Temple sisterhood, an active lifelong learner, forever volunteering for things like the outreach committee, the book drive, and taskforces of all types. Dad was honored to be named the volunteer of the decade at our local Jewish Community Center.

For us kids, attending religious school through Confirmation was a requirement. Mom insisted that we all try Jewish summer camp and youth group. We loved it so much that we went back year after year.

And my parents walked the walk with their tzedakah dollars as well supporting the Temple, our local Federation, and a host of Israel related activities.

Their example, the way they modeled the importance of being part of Jewish community, shaped me in the most profound ways, leading me ultimately to the rabbinate, to devoting my professional life to Jewish community, education, and values. It’s what inspired me to move to Israel to study and that’s there I met my wife, the mother of our three daughters – by far the best outcome of all.

My life has meaning and purpose because of these experiences. I have a deeper sense of my small role in the cosmos because of it. Being part of this tribe, this people Israel, has helped me to feel a sense of connection in a time of increasing alienation and division. And – most importantly – it is through my community that the values of our People have been transmitted to me: a way of life that points us towards justice and righteousness and inspires us to make ourselves and the world better.

This sense of connection to a people with a shared history, destiny and set of values provides us with what the great sociologist, Peter Berger, calls a “plausibility structure.” A system of meaning which helps us to make sense of our world and understand our place in it.

But for so many people today, not just Jews, the “plausibility structure” of community itself is being undermined in profound ways.

Marc Dunkelman, a professor at Brown University, writes about this in his recent book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.”

Dunkelman describes what he calls “middle-ring” relationships. These involve people who are not family or close friends but not as distant as mere acquaintances. Over the past few decades, these middle-ring relationships have all but disappeared in America and as a result, people feel less and less connected to their neighbors, their towns, and, even more broadly, their country. An additional consequence of this alienation is a narrowing of our world-views.

Dunkelman notes that middle-ring relationships are best “suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles” – the increasingly precise way we get our news and are exposed to the ideas of others through the various feeds, tightly controlled by ever-monetized algorithms, that limit the ideas, people and – ultimately – experiences to which we are exposed.

Before the deterioration of these “middle-ring” relationships, “a left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently. But without middle-ring relationships, those sorts of thoughtful, substantive interactions have become all too rare.”

And, sadly, tragically even, our ability to connect deeply with what was once not a “middle-ring” relationship but rather a kin/familial relationship, namely, to Jewish community, has also been compromised.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, our Jewish community has become more fragmented and divided politically, ethnically, and religiously. Right versus Left. Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Orthodox versus Reform.

And, more globally, there has been a most unfortunate distancing between the two major centers of Jewish life today: Israel and America. This past summer, divisions between Israel and the Diaspora surfaced in deeply troubling ways. The Kotel controversy and the debate over a new conversion bill in the Knesset, inspired headlines in Jewish newspapers including this one that should send chills down our spines: “Netanyahu to Millions of Jews – we don’t really want you.” The author of that piece, David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, argued that the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise plan that had been labored over for more than three years was a “blow to the heart and soul of world Jewry.”

And just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the month of Elul – our countdown to repentance – the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem said publicly that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Rabbi, don’t be so naive! Isn’t this how it has always been?”

Indeed, my own grandfather used to tell me about how the German Jews in Omaha used to look down on the Shtetl Jews – my family – who had immigrated more recently from Poland.

And what about the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions”? This one is beautifully illustrated by the joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island. The crew of a passing ship notices his campfire and comes to his aid. When the captain of the ship comes ashore, the Jew thanks him profusely and offers him a tour of his little island. He shows him the fire pit where he cooks his food, the hammock where he sleeps, and the little synagogue he built so he could offer his prayers to God. On the way back to the ship, the captain notices a second synagogue. The captain is confused. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks, “why on earth did you go to the trouble to build two synagogues!?!? You are the only Jew on this island!” “Vell,” replies the Jew, “da first shul, dat’s where I go to daven! Dis shul? I would never set foot in dis shul!”

It’s funny. And it’s awful. And it’s a rather apt metaphor for human life on this planet today – or where we might be headed.

Each of us all alone on our own little islands. Like the two couples I saw the other night out for the dinner – all four of them on their smartphones, not talking to one another, not even looking at each other.

All alone on our islands – one Jew with two synagogues, or, even worse, one Jew actively choosing to absent himself from every synagogue, from the community itself. Each one of us an island – experiencing the world, filtering our news and our friends and the values we embrace, all on our own.

And here is why this conversation is so urgent, why it matters so much, right now: Communities transmit values and a sense that, whatever the challenge, we can confront it more successfully together.

Think about the extraordinary images we’ve seen over the past few weeks of the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes. Neighbors rescuing neighbors right along side professionally trained first-responders.

Friends – now, as ever, we need each other. Whatever our differences, the challenges we’re facing confront us all. Climate change, North Korean nukes, stagnant wages, social disruptions, a worldwide refugee crisis – no one is immune. Gay, straight, transgender – whether we were born in this country, immigrated here with all the proper papers, or came as an infant in the arms of a parent dreaming of a better life – we are all in this together. Only through a shared commitment to our best values will we be able to survive, to thrive, to hope for and realize a brighter tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and our world.

So the challenge is bigger and the sense of urgency is more pronounced but here’s the good news: the solution hasn’t really changed at all. It’s ultimately a matter of choice. We have a simple decision to make: Are the privileges and benefits of communal membership generally and, more particularly for us as Jews as members of this tribe, this People, worth the efforts required? If we conclude that they are, then it’s all about commitment.

And, make no mistake, it’s always been a matter of choice. In Talmudic times, there was a robust competition amongst the Jewish, Christian, and Pagan communities for the hearts and minds of the masses. The rabbis – two thousand years ago – had to make a case for Jewish community.

First, they laid out the obligations the community has toward the People. In short, the community had to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of everyone – no small task. Soup-kitchens for the poor; funding, and matchmakers, to make sure that orphans could marry; assistance for widows; burial societies and cemeteries for life’s end. Schools for learning. Synagogues for worship. Emissaries to represent the interests of the community to the Gentile authorities. The community would provide everything. (Sanhedrin 17b)

But the relationship must be reciprocal. The individual has obligations to the community as well.

Here’s how the Midrash puts it: “The person who asks, ‘Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to involve myself in their problems? Why should I care about what they say? I’m fine all by myself!” This person, says the Midrash, “מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם – destroys the world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2:2)

An example of Rabbinic exaggeration? Perhaps. Destroying the world might be putting it a bit too strongly.

And yet, and yet. The one who thinks, “I’ll just worry about myself and my needs alone,” doesn’t this way of thinking, ultimately, lead not merely to the disintegration of one’s local community but to the disintegration of society, of civilization itself?

And here’s what makes affiliation in Jewish community in particular and the energy we expend to strengthen it more than a provincial, self-centered act. Communal affiliation is generative. The act of connecting more deeply to our particular community, leads us to a deeper sense of obligation to and concern for the broader community. Our affiliation with and affection for members of our tribe does not have to lead us to being “tribal” in a parochial, narrow, xenophobic fashion. In fact, our tribal tradition wants our particular, personal experience to be a doorway to a more expansive sense of connection and responsibility for others who, while not MOTs, are part of our broader, human family.

As the great theologian and scholar, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, argues, “our particular religious vision is also profoundly and inseparably universal.” Our People’s master narrative of our slave ancestors being redeemed at the Shores of the Red Sea, leads us to understand in a personal and profound way, the universal value of liberation and national dignity for all people.

In a time when our nation is so deeply divided and so much in need of healing, our commitment to Jewish community and the values it upholds can help us to be better Americans for, as Jews, we have always cared for more than just “our own.” As the great sage Hillel put it 2000 years ago:

״וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי?״

״If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”

For our Rabbis, the “case” for community is existential: without it, the whole world is destroyed. We depend upon community for our very survival – physical and spiritual as well for communities transmit values.

And our spirits, our souls, need the core values of our tradition especially right now.

In the face of hatred and violence, neo-Nazis and klansmen marching in our streets, our tradition reminds us (Lev 19:17):

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ

Hatred is a sin.

In the face of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia – our tradition reminds us that God created humanity through a common ancestor for the sake of peace –

מִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת

so that no man or woman could ever say: אַבָּא גָּדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ! My father is better than yours! (Sanhedrin 37a)

We are all children of the same loving God. We are all connected.

In a time of “alternative facts” – our tradition reminds us that there is such a thing as truth and that, indeed, the integrity of the world depends on it.

In a time in our country when disagreements about our deeply held beliefs increasingly move from what should be vigorous, healthy debates to scenes of chaos and violence, our tradition reminds us that, no matter how hard, our job is to “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:15)

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ

I could go on all day – but I won’t.

But do indulge me just one more: In a time of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, our tradition teaches us that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid!” In the face of the very real and frightening challenges of our lives, our tradition reminds us never to lose hope, never to give in to our fears. And being part of a community helps us to cross the bridge despite those fears.

In my own experience, the gifts I receive from being part of this community, this People Israel, far outweigh what is required of me. I get so much more than I give.

And I know this is true for so many of you here today. You’ve told me story after story about how – right here, maybe in our parenting center – you met the closest friends who have supported you throughout your life. You’ve told me about how, right here – maybe at Torah study or as a regular in Shabbat services – you’ve found meaning and strength through life’s most challenging times. You’ve told me about how our clergy have been there for your family through simchas as well as through life’s tsuris. You’ve shared how you’ve found a deeper sense of purpose as a volunteer in one of our Tikkun Olam programs.

You’ve told me – again and again – that you have received more than you’ve given.

We’re lucky – so lucky – to be part of a vibrant, established Jewish community. My mom and her family had to drive to Wichita from El Dorado to attend Shabbat services. Now, truth be told, it’s only 40 miles which took them less time than it does to get to Stephen Wise from Santa Monica on a Friday evening but still, still – it took some effort. She could hardly imagine, as a young woman, a Jewish community like ours numbering in the hundreds of thousands, boasting synagogues and day-schools and Jewish institutions of all shapes and sizes. She couldn’t imagine a shul with a pool.

My mom grew up in a town that didn’t have any Jewish institutions and barely enough Jews to make a minyan. It’s probably why she was always searching, always on the look-out for other MOTs, Members of the Tribe.

It’s part of what inspired her to give so much time and energy to her community. But I know that – ultimately – she received as much or more as she contributed.

When she died, much too young, hundreds and hundreds of members of our community were there to honor her and to support us, to carry us in our grief.

This is the commitment, this is the support, this is the sense of belonging and meaning and purpose that we all need. And it’s what our our nation and our world needs right now, too.

To get there – we’ll all need to step up. It’s hard, I know. We’re busy – pulled in a thousand directions. But it’s important. So in this New Year of 5778, let’s all commit to doing more for each other.

I’m not going to ask you to devote yourself 24 X 6 to the Temple – although you’re welcome to do so. But what if we could each commit to doing one additional act of kindness every month for our community? It might be attending a shiva minyan or showing up to pack lunches for homeless folks in our city. Maybe it’s reaching out and bringing a friend to a class or a service. Maybe it’s helping to raise funds for a special project that will bring more meaning and hope into our world. Maybe it’s volunteering to serve on a committee or help with a program. Whatever it is, let’s commit ourselves to doing more to strengthening our tribe, our community and in so doing, we’ll strengthen our city, our nation, and our world.

Friends – we need each other. Desperately. Joyfully. Eternally.


Rabbis share insights in Rosh Hashanah sermons

Jared Stein (L) and Daniel Levitch (R) blow the shofar as Gillian Levitch, 4, watches at a Tashlich ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah ritual to symbolically cast away sins, during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, United States Sept. 21. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

In their 2017 Rosh Hashanah sermons, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum called for their communities to act out Jewish values to combat hate and bigotry, citing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the past year. Others avoided politics and provided guidance for self-improvement, drawing on biblical texts to offer teachings relevant to how people live today. The following are excerpts from some of those sermons.

Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous
We are here to cry out against injustice, to fight for human dignity. To give love and to receive it. To pry open hearts and minds, to lift the fallen and strengthen the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, to advance the causes of dignity and peace — for our people and for all people. We must not abandon our core commitments when things get tough; we must make justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream. Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Senior Rabbi Steve Leder
Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior? Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah are 248 positive “Thou shalts” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots”? Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave. Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold on to from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives, the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.  Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro
The well-known sports psychologist Bob Rotella explains that the majority of amateur golfers approach a shot by thinking about where they do not want to hit the ball. Don’t hit it into the water. Don’t hit it into the trees. Don’t hit it into the sand. You get the idea. Instead, Rotella gives some incredibly simple advice — focus on the target, not the hazards — where you want the ball to go, not what you want to avoid. Filling one’s mind with negative thoughts about what not to do makes it exponentially more difficult to accomplish what one sets out to do. In other words, think about the positive, rather than the negative. Rosh Hashanah is the same. Today should be all about the positive.

Sinai Temple
Max Webb Senior Rabbi David Wolpe
There are times in order to have peace you have to take a step back. In other words, you have to make room for other people to make peace. You have to let them in. You have to allow them to have a say. You can’t discount them immediately because they are on the other side of a religious or political or familial divide. You can’t do that. You can’t scream every time somebody disagrees with you or even offends you. There is no discussion anymore once you push them off the bridge. But if you take their hand and step back, you will discover there is a lot to talk about.

Congregation Or Ami
Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Well, if I may be so bold, like [Theodor] Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream, that any two of you, passionate people both, will sit down and talk about the most difficult issues facing our country, and you will converse with kavod (respect) and chesed (kindness), patiently listening to each other to uncover the nuance and complexity of your opinions. Without destroying each other. Without resorting to the “shock and awe” which characterizes the “ridicule and destroy” sloganeering that tries to pass as debate today on both sides of the aisle, and in the middle, too. Im tirtzu — If we will it, it is no dream. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Isaiah
Senior Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Make yourself an ark. We are the ark when we build not borders, but bridges. We are the ark when we build not separations, but support. We are the ark when we build not contention, but confidence. We are the ark when we build not sarcasm, but security. We are the ark when we build not towers, but trust. We are the ark when we build not feuds, but friendships. We are the ark when we build more compassion, more kindness, more generosity, more understanding, more patience, more joy, more thoughtfulness, more equality, more love. We are the ark when we build upon our best values, when we reflect on ourselves, adjust our sails, make room for others, support and celebrate each other, practice equanimity so that when the floods do come, our inner waters remain calm.

We are sailing over some choppy seas. Darkness on the face of the deep. We don’t always know what lurks beneath, but together we can be prepared for any adventure, until that day when the ark comes to rest, arms linked not to save but to sing, God’s spirit hovering over us with all the colors of the rainbow. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron
There may be some of you here who are unsure how you want to react to the actions of certain people or groups. You’re affected by Charlottesville and racism and sexism and any other “ism,” discrimination, intolerance, hate, genocide, and the subversion of the rights of those who cannot help themselves. But you are unsure as to how or where you can participate. Perhaps these 10 days can be reflections on what really matters to you and where you want to make a difference in the world. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge. (By the way, bringing food for the hungry and diapers for refugees is a great start.) Read full sermon here.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Associate Rabbi Sarah Bassin
We do not calibrate our moral compass by what we see around us. We do not adjust to tolerate a new normal. We do not lower our expectations because the world is backsliding. We strive to hold on to the same purpose we had since the start of creation — to gather light and drive out darkness.

Temple Israel of Hollywood
Rabbi Jocee Hudson
We have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, to say the wrong thing and apologize, to learn from others, and to do so with real humility. Because when we show up together at the Isla Mosque in South Los Angeles to protest white supremacy, and when we show up on Olvera Square in downtown L.A. together to protest the repeal of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], we show up way more authentically, having done the real work of community building. We have to work to be in relationship with our neighbors, even when we don’t yet fully understand each other. Actually, we need to show up because we don’t yet fully understand each other.

Valley Beth Shalom
Rabbi Noah Farkas
The first paragraph of the Shema, our holiest prayer begins, v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha bchol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha — “Love Adonai your God with all your heart and might.” The word for heart, lev, is spelled with two bets. The rabbis teach that each bet is meant to teach us something different. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one. Do not let anyone, my children, split your Judaism with your Zionism. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one.

Temple Ner Simcha
Rabbi Michael Barclay
God’s love is so overwhelming, so awesome. If we can just for a moment realize at a deep emotional level that every aspect of life has been choreographed in a holy way specifically for each of our individual needs. Every sound, color and vibration is a gift from God — feeding our souls with exactly what we really need in that very moment! It truly is overwhelming.

And the only response as human beings that we can have to such an infinite love is to surrender and love God back. To teach our children in every moment and to remind ourselves at all times the depth of God’s love. To allow ourselves to truly feel the only response to that awesome love: loving God back with a passion, honesty and openness that allows us to truly have a sacred relationship with the Divine.

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue 
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
We are here, during these Days of Awe, to FaceTime with God. We can only be connected if we can bring our full selves, flaws, doubts and all, to the conversation. Only then can we truly say, “Hineni” (Here I am).

Pico Shul
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
God wants us looking out for everybody, for those who are in distress, those who are hurting, in need. It’s easy to see when there is a flood how people are in need. So people, their natural instinct, their divine spark inside them, pushes them to help because it is obvious. When we don’t have it so blatantly in front of us, we don’t necessarily realize all the needs.

Temple Beth Hillel
Rabbi Sarah Hronsky
In our Torah portion this morning, Abraham — in the horrendous moment, poised with knife in hand, the most dramatic moment — wakes up when he hears his name called. He lifts his head, opens his eyes and sees in front of him something so important, the ram caught in the thicket. The answer to this dramatic moment was found literally in the resources in front of him, once he opened his eyes. I am hopeful that we, too, in this year will open our eyes each time a dramatic difficult moment happens for us in our country and around the world. Open our eyes to the possibilities of how to offer repair, how to fix, see the resources we have right in front of us, and put it all together to do the hard work.

Kol Nidre: When the melody meets the moment

People play instruments during a ceremony on Venice Beach. 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.

After Hurricane Maria disrupts Rosh Hashanah, Puerto Rico’s Jews vow to ‘start living again’

A flooded street southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21. Photo by Dave Graham/Reuters

Rabbi Norman Patz stood on a 13th-floor balcony overlooking the flooded streets, stripped trees and downed power lines of the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It was Sept. 25, the first weekday after Rosh Hashanah, and Patz had no way of communicating with the majority of his congregants at Temple Beth Shalom; Hurricane Maria had knocked out the island’s communication grid.

“The irony of the thing is that we’re here to celebrate the beginning of the new year, and we wish each other a shanah tovah, and this crap is all around us,” he told the Journal, speaking on a cell phone he managed to keep charged thanks to his building’s diesel generator.

The historic hurricane delivered devastating winds and rain that halted the rhythms of normal life on the island, disrupting synagogue services at the holiest point in the Jewish calendar. Some 1,500 Jews live on the island, mostly concentrated in San Juan, forming the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean. 

At Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation, services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah were cancelled. On the second day of the holiday, however, 15 people showed up, according to Patz.

Though some second-floor classrooms at the synagogue flooded due to driving rain, the sanctuary had been spared flooding. But the lack of air conditioning rendered the sanctuary hot and airless — so congregants carried folding chairs across the street and held a service underneath the cover of a drive-through window of a bank.

Click here to donate to Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico

The Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico, in a touristy area of San Juan, took on hundreds of gallons of water, the center’s director Rabbi Mendel Zarchi told

“The natural flow of water on Rosa Street, where Chabad is located, is toward the north, in the direction of the ocean,” Zarchi said. “At 5:30 a.m., there was a raging river with waves about 3 feet high flowing in the opposite direction, towards the south.”

Emerging from the synagogue, where he took shelter, Zarchi said he encountered “blasted-out windows, toppled utility poles mangled with an overwhelming amount of downed trees [and] smashed cars.”

He said the synagogue still managed to attract a prayer quorum on both days of the holiday.

By Sept. 25, a relief fund had been set up on the center’s website to raise emergency funds for food and water distribution, fuel for Chabad’s generator, repairs to the synagogue building and a 24-hour armed guard to protect the synagogue from looters.

Click here to learn more and donate to Chabads relief fund.

Representatives for the island’s oldest congregation, Shaarey Zedeck Synagogue, could not be reached for a status update, as dialed phone calls met with error messages. But in the hurricane’s wake, the Conservative congregation set up a fund “to aid our Synagogue and vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico,” according to its website.

Click here to donate to Shaarey Zedeck Synagogues relief fund. 

The downed communication network posed a challenge for those hoping to deliver aid.

Patz, who commutes to Puerto Rico from New Jersey to officiate for the High Holy Days, said the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) had reached out with offers of help.

“They’ve offered all kinds of things — personal help, monetary help, anything that we need,” he said. “And I said to all of them, ‘Listen, we can’t assess the needs. We can’t contact people. We don’t know.’”

Hurricane Maria comes as Jewish organizations are still working to meet the needs of the communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. The JFNA is now collecting funds for victims of all the year’s hurricanes, to be distributed as needed.

“We have been actively engaged with the leadership of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico and are working to bring immediate relief resources,” JFNA spokesperson Rebecca Dinar said in an email to the Journal. “We anticipate that the needs of the community will be significant and once we have a clear idea of what those needs are we will determine the best way to support and help them.”

Click here to learn more and donate to JFNAs hurricane relief fund.

Meanwhile, Patz, 79, said he and his wife were stuck walking up and down the 13-story staircase to the apartment loaned to him by a congregant, as the power outage had rendered the elevator useless. “We’re just walking the calories right off,” he said.

He described Puerto Ricans as a resilient community that would inevitably bounce back from the tragedy.

“As we celebrate our new year, we do the best we can,” he said. “The spirit of renewal is the thing that says get up and start living again. And that’s what people here are trying to do.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous’ Rosh Hashanah sermon: The bug in the software of the West

Rabbi Sharon Brous

America is turning from a place with an undercurrent of antisemitism, to a place in which antisemitism is condoned by the state. What are we going to do about it?

The synagogue in Charlottesville, bracing itself for the Nazi rally planned in late August, requested a police presence to protect worshippers on Shabbat morning. You may have heard: the police failed to send even a single officer, so the synagogue hired a private armed security guard to stand in front of the building. As Nazis paraded by, waving swastika flags, they shouted, “There’s the synagogue!” and “Seig Heil.” Learning that Nazi websites had specifically posted a call to burn the place, congregants left out the back exit and removed the sifrei torah from the premises. It’s true that law enforcement was busy that weekend, but also confounding that they would fail to understand the particular threat neo-Nazis pose to Jews.

I’ve never given a High Holy Day sermon on antisemitism. It’s not that it wasn’t a problem before Charlottesville: it’s that there were always bigger, graver, more urgent problems. As Jews in an America facing moral crisis, plagued by racism and white supremacy, poverty, inequality and climate denial, I didn’t want us to focus primarily on our own victimization. Instead, I wanted to draw our attention to the ways in which Jews were called to engage as a fairly privileged segment of a broader culture. I still believe all of that, but this year I wanted to start with antisemitism both because it’s taking dangerous new shape in America, and because antisemitism is bound up in the broader challenges facing our country. Very simply: the way that the Jewish community addresses antisemitism today matters.

They say that antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred—and its most pernicious manifestations, in Europe, left that land drenched in our people’s blood. Massacres, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, libels and ultimately gas chambers stand in eternal testimony to the danger of hatred fueled by church and state alike. James Carroll recently described antisemitism as “the bug in the software of the West,” that insidious, ever-present illness that excludes Jews from moral concern and allows for heinous crimes like the Holocaust to happen.

Antisemitism caused holy hell in Europe. In America, it has been ever-present, but it has never brought the same kind of existential risk that we confronted elsewhere. Thank God. For Jewish immigrants from Europe and Arab lands, even the cold embrace of America was a welcome contrast to the storm of bloodthirsty hatred overseas. Yes, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of New Amsterdam called Jews “deceitful… repugnant… enemies and blasphemers.” Yes, we suffered a century of discrimination in employment, housing and education. The lynching of Leo Frank, wrongly convicted in the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, is seared into the Jewish collective conscience, and yes, Henry Ford funded mass distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We must not downplay the sharp immigration quotas of eastern European nations with large Jewish populations and Jewish exclusion from American social, educational, political and economic life in the first half of the 20th century. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was derisively referred to as the “Jew Deal,” and the SS St. Louis was mercilessly turned away and nearly 1000 Jews seeking asylum from Nazis were sent back, most to their deaths. We must remember to teach our children about the prohibitive housing covenants that restricted where Jews could live, and I will always remember the mix of confusion and shame I experienced as a child learning that two of the three country clubs in the New Jersey suburb I grew up in had strict “No Blacks, No Jews” policies.

Yes, we constantly joke about (and I hope also take seriously) the need to have our passports updated. And many of us still quietly note potential Nazi escape routes when deciding on a new home. But have we not come to feel pretty safe and comfortable here?

In America, Jews have achieved unprecedented prominence in nearly all sectors: political, social and financial. Here we have become Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Professors and Chief Oncologists. A few years ago, the mayors of the three largest U.S. cities were all Jews– one of them is a member of our own shul. Several years ago, when David and I walked into the Hanukkah party in the White House, I cried watching the West Point cadets, wearing kippot, sing “Ma’oz Tsur”—certain that my Grandma Harriet never could have dreamt of such a thing.

Yes, America has been good to us. So good that maybe we’ve forgotten a little bit who we are.

So good that many of our Jewish institutions failed to find the words to condemn the spike in anti- Semitic attacks that coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign. Failed to speak out against White Nationalist sympathizers– men who have trafficked in antisemitism and racism for years—becoming senior White House officials. Failed to protest when—again and again—our deepest Jewish commitments—care for the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable—have been thrashed about in a political tempest that demands outrage and resistance.

So good that somehow, Jewish senior cabinet members silently abided the President of the United States as he delivered one of the most damning equivocations in modern history, revealing a profound and disturbing inability to simply say: “There is no place for Nazism and white supremacy in this country. Take your hatred and get off our streets.”

What has happened to us?

I was recently asked in high-profile interview: “Why isn’t the Jewish community more involved in the struggle for the rights of targeted minorities in this country? Given your history, you’d think Jews would be on the front lines!”

My initial reaction: what are you talking about? We’re fighting with all we’ve got! Of course, I told her about all the Jews deeply involved in multi-faith and racial justice work today, about the electrifying presence of Jewish activists on the street, opposing efforts threatening the rights and dignities of Muslim and Mexican and LGBTQ allies and neighbors. Standing strong in solidarity and friendship. I spoke of how proud I was of our own community, with our inexhaustible Minyan Tzedek leadership inspiring folks to step up in strategic and meaningful ways. I talked about how Jews are on the front lines, fighting for democracy, equality and justice.

But even days later, I couldn’t get her question out of my head. What made her think the Jewish community wasn’t involved? And then I realized: who are the dominant voices in our community shaping the public perception?

There’s Israel’s Prime Minister, who frequently claims to speak for the Jews, who has repeatedly given cover to, indeed warmly embraced, this President, even after his most egregious missteps. There’s the Prime Minister’s son, who, in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, was the banner photo on the neo- Nazi Daily Stormer website after posting a classically antisemitic cartoon on his Facebook page. There are the President’s own family members, observant Jews, who have their rabbis contorting themselves to permit them to fly on AirForce One on Shabbat… I wonder: did they seek rabbinic dispensation for their silence in the face of the Muslim Ban, the rescinding of DACA, the ban on transgender people in the military? And of course, there are the unelected, self-appointed leaders of the American Jewish Establishment, funders and organizational heads who will, of course, decry Nazism, but fail to call out the clear and present role of the administration in normalizing white supremacy and antisemitism, for fear of falling out of favor.

Do you think I’m overstating the point?

I wonder how many here know the difference between white supremacy and White Nationalism? I didn’t, until I started reading and listening to Eric Ward, an African-American senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has been sounding the alarm on the difference between the two. White supremacy is an ideology of racial superiority and subjugation of people of color built into this country’s DNA. The much newer White Nationalism is a radical social movement committed to building a white-only nation. And antisemitism, Ward argues, is the beating heart, the fuel that moves the engine of White Nationalism.2 Thus, the conflation of Nazi and White Nationalist symbols and aspirations in Charlottesville: this is a movement modeled after Nazi Germany whose goal is to eradicate Jews and people of color from the country.

In his thirty years of studying and fighting White Nationalism, Ward says he has not seen the movement operating at such a level of sophistication as we’re now seeing. It has been simmering, he says, waiting for an opportunity. And now the perfect storm has occurred.

Derek Black, the now-estranged son of the Grand Wizard of the KKK explains: White Nationalists expect to be condemned by everyone. Every elected official knows it’s political suicide not to condemn Nazis and White Nationalists. Until one Tuesday in August when the President of the United States could bring himself only to say: “You had some very fine people on both sides.” According to Black, that was a huge victory for White Nationalists. “Tuesday was the most important moment in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement.”

Make no mistake: not only was that Tuesday in August the most important moment in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement, it was a critical moment, potentially a turning point moment, for Jews in America. Because suddenly, in one press conference, America turned from a place, like so many, with an undercurrent of antisemitism, to a place in which antisemitism is condoned by the state.

Yes, these people, with their menacing hatred born of fear and ignorance, with their contorted faces and their murderous chants, they who play softball with words and symbols that cut to the heart of our people’s trauma, they who worship the statues—literally idols to an American past that degraded and dehumanized millions of Black Americans—they are the ones with whom the administration found sympathy.

Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum—it is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation. There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer. They didn’t feel they had anything to hide… because this time they marched with nods of approval from the highest offices in the land.

There have always been angry white men who have held some kind of erotic fascination with Hitlerian symbols, who get high off of and may even kill for their Jew-hatred. But we know from history that the real danger comes when antisemitism is supported by the state. That’s what makes this moment different.

That’s what’s at stake when well-intentioned leaders ignore the whitewashing of Jews from Holocaust remembrance and remain silent at the suggestion of moral equivalence between Nazis and those protesting Nazis.

Mind you, these are some of the same Jewish leaders who continue to sound the alarm daily on any hint of antisemitism in the racial justice movement, where it does rear its ugly head all too often. Our allies on the left need to know who they’re getting in bed with when they dabble in, enable and give license to antisemitic trope. But it is communal malpractice to focus our collective outrage and resources on the left while excusing, minimizing and even ignoring antisemitism from the one place it’s ever presented an existential threat to our people: the armed and state-supported far right. As if BDS, problematic as it is, poses a greater danger to the Jewish people than Nazis emboldened by the President of the United States.

Is it wealth and power that have caused this misalignment? Is it our dependence on a few mega-donors who essentially control the public agenda of the Jewish community? I wonder: is it our voice, or our will that we’ve lost?

Listen to the terrifyingly prescient words of Hannah Arendt, written in 1942: “…Our people—those who are not yet behind barbed wire– are so demoralized by having been ruled by philanthropists for 150 years that they find it very difficult to begin to relearn the language of freedom and justice.”

Is that how we, too, have forgotten to see the world through prophetic eyes? Forgotten that we’re called “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8)? Is that how, only 70 years after our greatest tragedy, with the words “Never Again!” still emblazoned on our hearts and the walls of our institutions, we somehow find ourselves downplaying the danger of a regime that rose to power stigmatizing vulnerable minority populations and daily manifests disturbingly fascistic tendencies? Is “Never Again” just an empty promise?

Or is it that we now can only see through one lens: “Is it good for Israel?” As if it is in any way conceivable that an America that is profoundly morally compromised is good for Israel. How could we, who measure time in millennia, be so utterly myopic?

For 70 years, our driving force as a community was vigilance to antisemitism. Forgive us, but witnessing the near extermination of your people tends to leave an impression. Yes, much of our communal obsession was rooted in trauma. Some of it also came from the realization that there was no greater adhesion than shared terror; if we kept front and center others’ eternal hatred of us, we’d stick together in a country that offered more open doors, more access and more ability for many Jews to pass than any we’d previously inhabited.

So from trauma and fear, we set off five star alarms every time a swastika appeared on a school desk. For 70 years, we led with the threat of existential crisis—precisely, ironically, as our community grew to be the strongest and most secure we’ve ever been, anywhere in the world.

But now, as the smoke of antisemitic hatred fills the classroom, we’re asking the students to please stay calm and remain seated, because we don’t want to cause a stir. No need to threaten political alliances. Let’s not misconstrue bombast as ideology! And, by the way, why should I be worried if the Prime Minister of Israel is entirely unconcerned?

It’s no wonder the growing alienation of young people from the institutions our grandparents built. We desperately need a new play book.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for soul examination. It’s also a time for us to examine at the soul of our community and our nation. We do this in the hopes that some clear-headed thinking might help us figure out where our bruises and blind spots are, and what we can do to move forward.

In his 1965 commencement address at Oberlin, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story of Rip Van Winkle. What Dr. King was taken by was not the fact that Rip slept for 20 years, but instead “that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world – indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”

“There are all too many people,” King said, “who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”

In a few moments, we’ll hear the sound of the shofar, calling us to awaken from our slumber. This is the central moment of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Think of what it means that our tradition places an alarm clock right at the heart of the new year celebration. It’s as if the spiritual architects of our tradition understood one critical fact about human beings: we will sleep through the revolution. It’s human. But then Rosh Hashanah bursts into our September, shaking us awake, reminding us that sleeping while the world burns is simply not an option.

Last year, the shofar came as a jolt in the night, calling us to grapple with our nation’s moral crisis, to defiantly lift our gaze toward a politics of aspiration. The year before, the shofar was a call to action: to pair our broken hearts over three-year-old Aylan Kurdi in his tiny sneakers with some real effort on behalf of Syrian refugees.

Some years, the blasts of the shofar free us from the folly of presumed powerlessness. Some years, they come to awaken us from our privileged detachment. And some years, it’s about recalibration—a call back to our core values and true purpose.

Chants of “Jews will not replace us!” are our wakeup call this year. It’s our task to walk away from Charlottesville with a renewed sense that we were put here not to be comfortable, but to be prophetic.

Remember Joseph, thrown by his brothers into a viper pit and sold into slavery in Egypt? Abandoned by everyone who should have cared for him, Joseph is disoriented, dislocated, forced to rebuild his life in a land not his own.

But through some mix of grit, luck and divine intervention, this slave quickly rose in the ranks working וַיְ הי י ֵסף יְ ֵפה־ for the powerful Potiphar, giving him respect and authority. Until the Torah tells us that Joseph was well built and handsome (Gen 39:6). That’s a strange comment for the ת ר וי ֵ פה ַמ ְר אה׃ Torah, so sparse with words, to make. (This isn’t a Tinder profile, it’s the Book of Genesis. What’s going on here?) Rashi explains: As soon as Joseph began to gain power and influence in Potiphar’s home, he started to eat and drink and curl his hair. This infuriated the Holy One, who cried out: Your father mourns for you and you’re curling your hair? Has all this power and luxury made you forget who you are? You’re so enamored by Egypt that you’ve forgotten your people, their suffering, your destiny? Do you think this is what you are here for?

Nehama Leibowitz describes that Joseph then found himself on the brink of spiritual disaster. “The plight of the poor and downtrodden exiled from their land is difficult enough,” she writes, “but doubly dangerous is the plight of one who achieves favor in the eyes of his masters so that they advance him for their own needs to the highest of positions.”

And it was in that moment that God plotted Joseph’s fall from grace.

Privilege, comfort, abundance: these are all great blessings. If we’re paying attention, the shofar wakes us up before they become curses.

So what can we do? I’m going to suggest three things.

First, we—the Jewish community—have to be clear and honest about the dangers we’re facing today. We cannot sugarcoat this. Especially in a time of all-out assault on truth, we have to speak openly and clearly about the threat. We need to hold our leaders accountable: this is not a moment for normalizing, justifying or hedging. Timothy Snyder warns that “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” Anticipatory obedience is when regular people voluntarily compromise on small values or principles, signaling to a regime how willing they are to conform to new standards. The problem is that eventually, it’s simply too late to stand up and resist. We cannot be party to this.

Second, we have to get creative and we have to be bold. On one hand, you heard about the 2014 counter-protest to the annual Nazi march in Bavaria, when residents sponsored the marchers in what they called Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon,” festooning the town in pink banners, throwing confetti at the Nazi marchers and encouraging them to keep walking because every meter brought in donations to an organization promoting defection from extremist groups. Inspired by this model, we did something similar last year when the antisemitic and homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protested outside this building, raising thousands of dollars for The Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.

And at the same time, we have to be bold in our thinking and organizing, particularly around the advancement of racial healing in this country. We have to commit to helping America make teshuvah— reckon with and reconcile our nation’s past. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to take the vulnerability that we felt from Charlottesville, in Ruth Messinger’s words, the “body shock” of seeing Nazis on US soil, and renew our commitment to join forces with other marginalized and vulnerable people in the US. Many of these communities have far fewer resources and are more directly and dangerously targeted than the Jewish community. What I’m suggesting is that at precisely the moment that we Jews feel most vulnerable in America, we need to turn to our Muslim, Latino, Black, Sikh and immigrant neighbors and double down on support, solidarity and love.

It is precisely in our moments of greatest danger that we must affirm exactly who we are. Now we need to lead with the Jewish values that are the air we breathe, that give us both life and reason to live. Now we must remember that we were put in this world to bring a message of justice and love, that the memory of degradation, dehumanization, near extermination lives in our bones, calling us to work to transform the societies we live in. Our goal is not to eat, drink and curl our hair. Nor is it simply to survive. We are called to a higher purpose, to be bearers of light and love, sources of hope and strength. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “To be or not to be is not the question. How to be and how not to be is the question.”

We are here to cry out against injustice, to fight for human dignity. To give love and to receive it. To pry open hearts and minds, to lift the fallen and strengthen the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, to advance the causes of dignity and peace—for our people and for all people. We must not abandon our core commitments when things get tough; we must make justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream.

Mother Teresa once brought food to a family with eight children who had not eaten in days. She entered their home and looked into the faces of children “disfigured by… the deep pain of hunger.” She handed a plate of rice to the mother, who divided the rice in two and left the house. When she returned a few moments later, she served the remaining half plate to her children. “Where did you go?” Mother Teresa asked her. “To my neighbors; they are hungry also.” “I was not surprised that she gave,” Mother Teresa recalled, “—poor people are really very generous. I was surprised she knew they were hungry. As a rule, when we are suffering, we are so focused on ourselves, we have no time for others.”

Antisemitism is a real and present danger in the US today, inextricably woven into the fabric of the racialized hatred that is tearing our country apart. It’s now more than ever that we must stand together. Join us for interfaith actions with our LA Voice partners. Join and support the Poor People’s Campaign. Go to an Iftar at the Islamic Center. Affirm that the best antidote to White Nationalist hatred is multiracial and multifaith alliances.

Luxury and power were a toxic combination for Joseph. He lost himself beneath those fancy dinners and curled eyelashes. It took many years for him to find himself again. At some point, with his estranged brothers standing before him, וְ לא־יָ כל י ֵסף ְלה ְת ַא ֵפק– Joseph could no longer constrain himself. He wept so loudly that all of Egypt heard him as he said, ֲא ני י ֵסף — I am Joseph (Gen 45:1). I look like an Egyptian, I live in the palace, but know that I am yours. #JeSuisJuif. I am a Hebrew. My loyalty is to my people.

His brothers were dumbfounded, but Joseph had never been more clear about anything in his life.

We should not be ashamed of our success or achievements in this country; we should be grateful for the opportunities we’ve found in America. But we also must never forget who we are, and who we are called to be in the world.

Susan Bro, mother of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, murdered by a Nazi on American soil in 2017, spoke at her daughter’s funeral:

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her. I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

Yes, Susan: we will make it count. May your daughter’s memory be a blessing—for you and for us all. This moment is a clarion call; it is a wakeup call. Let us not sleep through the revolution.

Sharon Brous is the senior and founding rabbi of IKAR.

Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

My name is Steve and I’m procrastinator.  For years the Temple staff has known that when my assistant says, “Steve is home working on his High Holy Day sermons,” it really means, Steve is home cleaning the garage.  Every year it’s all there, calling out to me:  the car mats from two models ago, vases from flower arrangements dead for a decade, a dirty aquarium filter, an electric chainsaw I never use, hinges, screws, light bulbs, paint cans, one refrigerator full of beer we never drink.  One empty refrigerator—up and running in case the Zombie Apocalypse arrives– an infomercial ladder I can’t figure out even with the Youtube video, Aaron’s 9th grade Lacrosse gear, Hannah’s college microwave, a dried-out sponge mop, tangled cords, cables, clippers and a Poncho Gonzales tennis racket from 1972—it’s all there just begging to be reorganized.

Each August I reorganize, but by the next August there’s the same mess waiting for me.  How does that happen?  It happens because I have been making the same mistake most of my life—a lot of us have.  As Marie Kondo put it in her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the…problem has been solved.”

Are we hear tonight to create an illusion–to listen to the music, read the prayers, acknowledge a few troubling things about ourselves and then store them away until they spill into next year, and the next, and the next until our lives are over?  Or are we here to really get rid of some things, to make real peace, to really say goodbye to our bitterness and our regrets, casting them away forever?  Are we here to engage in change Kabuki, or real change?

Kondo’s method for deciding what to keep and what to discard from our homes is to pull everything out of the closet, everything off the shelves, everything out of the cabinets, the drawers and the boxes, everything in in every room and then, hold each thing up to light of a single question:  Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.   Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.

Imagine if we ask ourselves “Does this spark joy?” not about our overstuffed garage or chaotic kitchen drawers, but about our inner lives.  That is what the rabbis meant when they commanded a cheshbone hanefesh during these ten days—an inventory of our souls.  These next ten days are not for reorganizing our sins into neater piles and storing our demons in newer, stronger containers; not for restacking our regrets in the basement of our souls, but for facing them and letting them go.

The Rosh Hashanah custom of tashlich, when Jews all over the world take the lint from their pockets and throw it into water, must be done in a body of water that contains fish.  Why?  Because as one sage suggests, just as fish have no eyelids, so too the eyes of God are always upon us.  Jews going to the oceans, rivers, streams and wells of their villages, cities and suburbs on Rosh Hashanah afternoon to do tashlich is more than a metaphor.  It is a promise.  A promise before the ever-watchful eyes of God that we will cast away our sins and our guilt.   Tashlich is a promise to let go….

So is prayer.  That’s what we are doing here with these ancient words and soaring melodies—we are letting go.  God is not some cosmic grantor of wishes.  To pray is not to wish, not to get, not to persuade God to change our fortunes.  To pray is to change ourselves.  To rid ourselves of the sin of indifference, the sin of bitterness, the sin of having betrayed another, of gossip, of cynicism, of pettiness, of an angry, senseless grudge that has gone on for too long.  To pray, is to let go, to lighten, to shed and to know that the shedding and letting go is at one and the same time an embrace of a lighter, better, freer, happier, wiser, more beautiful life….

Ask yourself, what grudges, what bitterness, what guilt, what shame, what avoidances, what foolish pride, what sins tucked away in the cabinets, closets and secret hiding places of your life should you hold up to the light tonight and admit bring you no joy?  Tonight, God and three thousand years of Torah are asking us to hold our joyless, ugly habits, our joyless regrets, mistakes and grudges up to the light.   To think about what we are carrying inside and to ask, does it spark joy?  If the answer is no, pray tonight to let it go.

Is your life not what you hoped for?  Is that what is weighing you down tonight?  After thirty years of being on the inside of other people’s lives—I have learned that no one—no one has it easier than anyone else, and no one has it all.  Tom Waits put it pretty well when he sang:  “Got the sheets, but not the bed.  Got the jam, but not the bread.”  My Yiddish speaking grandmother put it differently:  “God,” she quipped, “doesn’t give with both hands.”

That billionaire you envy may have an ill child, or a child who will not speak to him or grandchildren she rarely, if ever sees.  That woman’s body you envy, she might be living with chronic, debilitating pain in her gut.  The uberkinder you wish your kid could be like might be headed for an unbalanced life that will someday implode.  No one has more or less than you have when you add it all up.  Does envy or jealousy bring you joy?  Count your own blessings, and let your jealousy go…. 

“OK Rabbi, I can let go of my envy, but not my pain.  Do you know what she did?  What he said?  How he hurt me?”  Is it the bitterness of betrayal that is cluttering your soul tonight?  I don’t blame you, unless… Unless the person who hurt you has stopped, has apologized, has changed, and has asked to be forgiven.  We know what Jewish law demands of us then, especially tonight.  We have to forgive; to let it go.  Have you never betrayed another?  Have your passions never gotten the best of you?  Have you never dealt with the stress of your life in some terribly dysfunctional and hurtful way?  Is it right to carry bitterness in our hearts for someone who has done what we ourselves have also done?  Maybe it is, if the person who hurt us shows no remorse.  If that person has not stopped, has not apologized, will never stop or apologize, then it’s true that we do not have to forgive.  But we can let go, move on, make peace with what they will never be—we can release ourselves from their grasp.  To paraphrase the Buddha, “In life, we are not punished for our anger, we are punished by our anger.” 

Remember the 23rd Psalm?  “The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want.”  Remember that line that says:  “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?”  Most people consider it is a verse about revenge in the afterlife.  A vision of eternity wherein we will feast at a table while our enemies who wounded us in life can only watch, starve and suffer.  I do not see it that way.  I think sitting down at a table with our enemies is about an opportunity in this life, the opportunity these High Holy Days present us with.  Sit down with your enemies, reach out to those with whom you have fallen out but whose arms may well be open, pick up the phone, apologize, seek forgiveness, do your very best to make peace with what can and what cannot be changed, what ought and ought not to be held in your heart. 

Your unloving mother, your stubborn brother, your egotistical boss, your friend who let you down, hurt you, gossiped about you, failed to be there for you—do your best with them, and when your best creates no change, ask yourself how long will they remain a poison in your heart?  Does that bitterness in you spark joy?  Let it go….

And invite one more kind of enemy to your table this year too.  Sit down with your enemies that dwell within and punish you every day–your shame, your regret, your moral failures, stupidity, arrogance, pettiness, greed—get help to change what you can, stop what you can, vanquish what you can, and then, sit at the table with your own sins, make peace, loosen their grasp on you and grant the most difficult forgiveness of all–the forgiveness, after honest effort, you owe yourself. 

Look at this.  I bought this in a tiny village in India outside of Bhubaneshwar.  It is a village that time forgot.  No running water.  No electricity.  No paved road.  No doctor.  Most people without shoes and with only a goat or a small garden with turmeric and lentils drying in the sun.  It was the kind of place our ancestors during the time of the Torah likely lived their entire lives. 

Inside this is a tiny elephant surrounded on the outside with this beautiful filigree.  This began as a solid piece of stone rounded by an artist who then carefully, meditatively, with the deepest of intention, removed small bits of stone with ancient tools hewn over time, until this delicate, amazing, work of art remained.  This was created by taking away everything that was not beautiful–everything that prevented light from entering.

People think the Torah is a book of light and love but that mostly isn’t true.  Every family in the Torah is incredibly dysfunctional.  Eve convinces Adam to eat of the forbidden tree.  Cain murders his brother Abel.  At his infertile wife’s request Abraham has a son with the housekeeper.  Then Sarah makes him banish the boy and his mother to die in the dessert.  Next, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, Abraham nearly murders his other son Isaac.  Jacob steals his brother Esau’s entire inheritance.  Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father he was dead.  Add to these stories the hundreds of thousands dying in plagues or at the tip of a spear. 

Why?  Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior?  Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah, are 248 positive “Thou shalts,” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots?”  Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave.  Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold onto from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives…the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.       

Reject the America of Charlottesville and you will find within you the America of Houston’s good Samaritans; that rag tag navy of compassion.  When you see someone, anyone, who does not welcome the stranger, the gay, the new kid, the neighbor of color, the poor, the immigrant, the slow, the large, the small, the disabled, the different, the devout Muslim, the faithful Christian, the pious Orthodox Jew, the liberal or the conservative of good conscience—when you see anyone who hates without reason, without even knowing the object of their hatred–reject that narrowness and that arrogance and that indecency.  Throw it out and let the light of tolerance shine in our country and our souls.   

When you see unkindness reject cruelty.  When you see cheating reject the moral short cut.  When you see someone abusing his or her body with drugs or too much or too little food, or exercise, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or weed, reject the desecration of you own God given body. 

When you know you have a problem with money, with anger, with addiction, with workaholism, with stubbornness, with anxiety, depression, with the friend you no longer know, the loved one you no longer call—do something, get help, don’t just tidy up, reorganize, re-shelve and wait another year.    

When someone is truly sorry, forgive, let go.  If you have slayed some terrible demon because you did face it, you did stop, you did confess, you did change, you did hold your moral failing up to the light—then forgive yourself.  Your shame, your regret, they spark no joy–let them go.  We are all, after all, only human.      

Why three-hundred-sixty-five “Thou Shalt Nots” in the Torah?  Because every day we encounter something we should no longer hold onto, or someone we should never become or believe in.   Because every day we have the opportunity not just to reorganize that which brings us no joy, but to cast it from our lives forever. 

The High Holy Days, repentance, forgiveness are all tashlich—are all a casting away with the time hewn tools of Torah, Teshuvah and love.  Use these ten days.  Use these tools.  Use them to finally let go of what is hurtful, and ugly and brings you no joy.  Then, what remains for you in the New Year will be lighter, gentler and more beautiful than before.

L’shana tova.

Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

If you don’t know our theme phrase by heart yet, I’m sure that by the end of the days of awe you will. “In a place where no one’s acting Human, strive to be human.” It seems like a pretty straightforward phrase. But tonight I want to show you four approaches to the verse from Pirke Avot, with the hopes that you may relate to at least one of them, and make it a part of your process during the 8 hours or so we will congregate here in this room over the next ten days. For me, our theme, and the themes we have introduced over the years, is a big kavannah, a direction of thought. It is like a liturgy and poetry filter, a way to think about this whole through a distinctive lens. But each of us comes into this room from such a different perspective, and we go out of this room, after the introspective process, with different areas that we need to work on in our lives. So here are four ways to enter into the High Holy Days this year.

The first approach is the way we have introduced the text through our translation. “In a place where no one’s acting human, strive to be human.” When a place is devoid of morals, be moral. Someone put it more bluntly to me, “When people are morons, be a mensch.” This leads us to social action, social justice. Reading it this way is about standing up for the rights of others when they can’t stand for themselves, about standing up for injustice and inhuman behavior, and turning injustice to justice, the inhumane to the humane, the inhuman to the human. This is how we translated it, this was a big part of our online High Holy Day message. Feed the hungry, care for the elderly, attend public rallies, be human. There may be some of you here who are unsure how you want to react to the actions of certain people or groups. You’re affected by Charlottesville and racism and sexism and any other “ism,” discrimination, intolerance, hate, genocide, and the subversion of the rights of those who cannot help themselves. But you are unsure as to how or where you can participate. Perhaps these ten days can be reflections on what really matters to you, and where you want to make a difference in the world. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge. (by the way, bringing food for the hungry and diapers for refugees is a great start)

For the Second approach I have to point out the Hebrew wording of our theme. In our translation, we say, “In a place, where no one’s acting human.” That is certainly a valid translation/interpretation. The actual words in Hebrew – she ayn anashim – means, “where there are no people” (it’s actually “men,” but we are in the year 5778/2017, lets take the gender out of it), hishtadeyl l’hyot ish, “Strive to be a person” (or, man). So if I use similar wording to our translation it becomes: In a place where there are no humans, strive to be a human.

Consider how Hillel, who said this phrase two thousand years ago, became the head of the Sanhedrin, the court in Jerusalem made up of 21 great scholars and leaders. It is said that he only agreed to became the head of the Sanhedrin when he realized that there was no one else more qualified than he to answer questions of Jewish law regarding the Pesach offering. For him, perhaps the phrase meant: “In a place where there are no people to lead, take it upon yourself to be a leader,” or, “In a place where there is a vacuum, fill the vacuum.”

I think reading it this way offers the opportunity to search through our lives to identify those places where you feel you can step up, where you can fill a void, perhaps become a leader,  even a reluctant one. This void could be at work, could be in an extra curricular activity, or volunteer work, could be here in the synagogue, could be in our homes or within our larger family. Sometimes it is difficult to take the reigns of leadership. We are all afraid to fail, and there are times when it is intimidating to be thrust into a leadership role. We may feel that we are not worthy. But to summon the courage, to open ourselves up and put ourselves out there, to become more, that is our opportunity, that is our challenge.

The third idea focuses more on the first line: “In a place where there are no people.” If we take this line literally, then no one is around, and we are left with a basic question: Who are we when no one is there? What do we act like, “when there are no people?” According to this text, we must still “strive to be human.” Even though no one is looking, even when there isn’t a person around, that doesn’t mean we can just throw all morals out the window. Pinchas of Koretz wrote the following:  A person can act as purely innocent, and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he can pose as the most humble of all men, while pride rages within him. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool God.” Isn’t that the same idea that the High Holy Days sets up? There is a book, and all of our deeds are found in that book, because nothing escapes the view of heaven, and whether there is anyone around or not, we still need to live up to the standard.

It’s like the Jewish folktale of a man who takes his young daughter into a neighboring field to steal corn. He asks her to be his lookout. After a minute or so, she says, “Daddy, someone sees you from the North!” he stops what he is doing, looks to the North and doesn’t see anyone. He throws her a look and goes back to his business. Minutes later, “Daddy, someone sees you from the south.” He looks, no one there, he throws her a perturbed, suspicious look. “Daddy, someone – “ He stops her. “Sweetie, why do you keep saying someone sees me, there is no one around.” She looks up at him and says, “God sees you.”

Now it may or may not be a part of your theology to imagine that God can see us, but it does beg the question, “Are we the same when we feel like there is no one to see us, to judge us?” Perhaps for some of us, we need to reflect on whether we are who we are at all times, when we are in public around others, and when we are alone? The opportunity and challenge is to align both our public outer selves, and our private inner selves.

The last concept really ties them all together. It is the word hishtadeyl. We are translating it as “strive.” I like that translation because it encompasses the essence of the root of the word. All Hebrew words (with some exceptions) have three lettered roots, and those three letters have a core meaning. In this case SHADAL has a couple of meanings that work. First, in its simplest form, it means, “to be wide open” (like a door opening). Another active form means, “to persuade”.  But the form of the verb is the key. It is reflexive, we do it to ourselves. We open ourselves up, we persuade ourselves to act. So I have news for all of us. This will not be easy. It is difficult to stand up to injustice. It is hard to take on leadership, even when you need to be that leader. It is not always an easy thing to be the same person when no one’s looking as when you know you are being seen. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility, and we need to persuade ourselves, convince ourselves to do what we need to do.

That’s why “strive” is our word. To strive towards something is to exert yourself, to make the effort – to “convince” yourself to contend in opposition to something. It is an effort towards a goal. And the effort comes from within us. Striving is a process, not a destination. We may never be able to solve injustice completely, we may not become that leader, we may not achieve parity in our private and public selves – this week, month, year, or ever. But we can strive to get there, we can move the arrow in the right direction. And it only comes from inside of us, not from anyone else. To strive, in the hishtadeyl sense, is to open yourself up to the possibility of making things happen, convince yourself to act, persuade yourself to be human independent of others.

This is the work we have in store for us over the next ten days of honest reflection. May we find what we strive for: a place to combat injustice; a place to become the leader we need to be, where we need to be it; to a place where we can be proud of our public and private actions. May we find that place, and open ourselves up, convince ourselves, persuade ourselves, to be that person we want to be. This is our opportunity. This is our challenge.

Jonathan Aaron is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes

This summer, Michelle and I donned our blue wetsuits, pulled up our oversized boots, and climbed aboard our raft for a guided ride down Alaska’s Chulitna River, from Denali to Talkeetna. Initially, the River looks uniform, winding this way and that, carrying greyish water from the glacier out to the sea. Up close, we discovered that the river was anything but uniform as its branches split multiple passages carved through deposits of glacial silt.

From our guide we learned that reading a river is an adventure in complexity and nuance. When rivers run quickly, it is not because the water was flowing deeply. It’s more nuanced than that. The quickly flowing parts signify that the bottom is closer to the surface and that hidden below the water might be sharp rocks and fallen trees, which might impede our travel or worse, might tear a hole in the raft.

Now I was blissed out during my sabbatical, not a temple related thought in my head, when it occurred to me. There’s a sermon in this: Life is sometimes like that. When rafting along the river of life, we too easily are misled by first impressions. We become overconfident about what we think we know, and miss the complexity of what’s around us. If we are not careful, we just might end up ripping holes in our life rafts. I whipped out my iPhone, opened Evernote, and typed: “Embracing complexity and nuance is not easy.”

We live in an age when many yearn for simplicity. Social media rewards short attention spans with 30-second videos and clever Instagram memes, which claim to offer everything we need to know. Everything is binary: Good or bad. Left or right. Right or wrong. No room for a middle ground. But when we practice this reductionism, we overlook treacherous circumstances, ignoring the dangers as we try to float on by.

It was not always like this. In the early days of the Talmud, that epic compendium of Jewish law and lore, the ancient rabbis lived among shades of gray. Even on points of law, when we needed a decision, the rabbis exhibited incredible complexity and nuance. On each page of the Talmud alongside the anonymous, accepted legal opinion, we find the words d’var acher – another interpretation – preserving for all time insightful alternative arguments.

The rabbis understood that eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – that these AND those were the words of the living God, in spite of the fact that the law followed one opinion. From this, we learn that clarity does not reside in black-and-white but rather amidst the grey muck that hides the nuances of life.

The rabbis of old had it right. More often than not, our challenge while floating along the river of life is not about discerning right from wrong. We must choose from a bunch of interwoven options, left to navigate between two or more equally hopeful alternatives. Sometimes we are even choosing not between good and bad, but something more arduous: between good and good, or between more acceptable and less acceptable. Each option boasts its benefits; each has hidden dangers.

Unfortunately, the evaluation of ideas requires patience and proceeds only slowly, like a Sunday afternoon float down the river. That’s why we tend to prefer the easier route: reducing our options to simplistic catchphrases. Thus we get: “all Mexicans are murderers and rapists.” That “all police are racist and evil.” Or that “Jews are conniving and control world finance.”

Now don’t worry. I’m not going to talk about politics this morning. Though perhaps we should. Politics is just the art of bringing our values to bear on the public negotiation for a better world. It’s supposed to be an attempt to attain the best for the public by bringing disparate interests together, negotiating a solution that works for the betterment of all. It’s about listening to insights different than our own, debating openly, and figuring out – together – how best to move our city or country forward.

Politics allows us to apply our Jewish values to the public sphere. In fact, our 1400-year-old Talmud provides crucial insights about almost every major issue we face today, from public policy and economics, to government and the dangers of dictatorship, to insights about different gender identities – the Talmud lists seven! – to compassion for the poor, to how we must prioritize healthcare for all, to explanations of why there ought to be one law for the citizen and non-citizen alike.

But today we won’t talk about any of that. Instead, on this Rosh Hashana, perhaps we might focus on confession. Should we be confessing to ourselves and to the Holy One that many of us are guilty of the sin of avoidance? (I know I am.) That we harbor great anxiety about talking openly with people we are closest to? That we fear being judged by others, having people cut us off, or ruining relationships by offering an opinion.

How many of us sat uncomfortably around the Thanksgiving table, a few weeks after the election, purposefully avoiding what everyone was thinking about: who did you vote for and why? Who worried that across from them sat this Republican, that Democrat, or that other person who didn’t even vote? Who sat quietly, unsure how to respond, When someone was attacked for an opinion? Or elsewhere, who has sat among groups of Jews wondering: do these people really support Israel in its totality, or do they criticize her or, chas v’shalom (God forbid), do they care too much about Palestinians, or too little?

Don’t worry. Your rabbi is not gonna talk about all that, because we don’t know how to listen. We don’t know how to hear opinions we disagree with. We have lost, or abdicated, our ability to sit with complexity and nuance.

So instead, like some of you, I am sick to my stomach thinking about all those families and friends who cannot sit and talk about the troubling issues we face. Why? It is because buzzwords and slogans are easy – we get them, complexity and nuance, not so much. Well, Judaism has plenty to say – from the Torah and Talmud, to the Prophets and Midrash – about today’s challenges. If you want to hear how I think Jewish values speak to the great issues of the day, please come by Congregation Or Ami and sit with me, and I will teach you. We shouldn’t allow our bifurcated community to keep us from hearing opinions, even the ones that make us uncomfortable, but will make us think.

Of course some of you might be uncomfortable that your spiritual leader is sliding there, right on the edge of the sword, getting ready to speak about what Judaism has to say about the real issues facing the country and the world. I know because I have received so many calls, texts and emails from people about the content of my sermons, about the services in general. Silly me, at first I was tickled that so many of you were thinking ahead about your High Holy Day spiritual preparation. Until I realized that some of you calling to urge me not to talk about anything related to current realities. Not about what Judaism has to say about political behavior, or values underpinning our tax policy, or about racism or Nazis, or what it means that a Hurricane could devastate a major American city… again. And of course I received an equal number of contacts urging me to do just that, to say what Judaism has to say from our Jewish texts and tradition about this issue. And everybody was really uptight about it.

If we want this country to prosper, and this congregation to flourish, and our families to blossom, we need to take a collective communal breath. Back in the beginning, Bereisheet, God warned us about times like this. According to the Midrash, when God created Adam, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Behold my works. See how beautiful they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake. Now it is up to you. Make sure that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” We must examine what’s happening to our world before we burn it down. Before our country is consumed.

If we don’t learn how to talk about our mutual concerns for our communities and country, and our shared worry about the people in them, then we allow others to control the tenor of the conversation. We give space – and allow others to give space – to hate-filled ranting and hate-filled Nazis marching through our American cities, carrying banners emblazoned with swastikas, chanting the German Nazi slogan blut und borden – blood and soil, and shouting “You won’t replace us here. Jews won’t replace us here.” And all the counter claims, What about the Antifa? – problematic as it might be – will not change the horrific fact that Nazis were again marching openly in America, denouncing Jews and other minority groups with heinous words, shouting anti-Semitic tropes, and that it became … acceptable.

It’s not only because of this President, or the one before, or the presidents who preceded them. It is because of us. We the people are the guardians of our values, the foundation of our republic.

Imagine if we learned to embody complexity and embrace nuance. Im tirzu ein zo aggadah- if you will it, it is no dream, said Zionist thinker Theodore Herzl, the late 19th century dreamer who dreamt that Jews would once again be a free people in our homeland of Israel. He dreamt, he worked at it, and, though he never lived to see it, 50 years later, Israel came to be. Herzl was safe in his own life, nonetheless labored diligently on his dream, making it his mission to create something for the good of our people and all of humanity.

Well, if I may be so bold, like Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream… that any two of you, passionate people both, will sit down and talk about the most difficult issues facing our country and you will converse with kavod(respect) and chesed (kindness), patiently listening to each other to uncover the nuance and complexity of your opinions. Without destroying each other. Without resorting to the “shock and awe” which characterizes the “ridicule and destroy” sloganeering that tries to pass as debate today on both sides of the aisle, and in the middle too. Im tirtzu – If we will it, it is no dream.

I have a dream that the content of one’s argument – intellectual, logical, even passion if measured – will be more important than the slogans some chant or the vicious names some hurl at those with whom they disagree. Im tirtzu – Does it need to remain a dream?

I have a dream that next week we will look across the Erev Yom Kippur table at people with whom we intensely disagree, but we will still perceive tzelem Elohim (the image of God) within them, and we will affirm that within them too exists that combination of intrinsic worth, blessed uniqueness, and undeniable equality. And we will disagree thoughtfully while engaging in difficult conversations.

And I have a dream, as said the ancient prophet Micah and as sang the modern poet Lin-Manuel Miranda, that “every man and woman will sit under his or her vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.” Let’s aspire at home and at the synagogue to talk openly, for example, about Israel, in all her beauty and complexity, her grave mistakes and incredible successes, exploring the challenges of living as Jews in a dangerous neighborhood, facing the horrid plight of the Palestinians, considering the future of the settlements, and the challenges to Jewish pluralism… and during that whole discussion, never once will we be calling the other a “self hating Jew” or “right-wing Jewish extremist.”

Similarly let’s aim to sit together during the 2018 elections as Republicans and Democrats and independents, sharing our diverse understandings about the challenges we face.

Or be like my father-in-law Murray who heads over to McDonalds or go to some coffee shop not near where you live, and week after week sit with people who are unlike you and just to talk. Try to grasp their opposing opinions and why they think that. It shouldn’t be that difficult. We used to talk to each other.

I wish I had some grand 5 point plan to tell you how to do this. But I have to be honest, it is hard for me too. Of course, Talking with my brother Chuck, we came up with these five steps:

  1. Find a person you disagree with and buy him or her a cup of coffee or a beer.
  2. Ask them hard questions. If they voted for President Trump, ask them why and what values underpinned their decision. If they voted for Senator Clinton, ask them why and what underpinned their decision. Don’t let them – kindly – get away with, “I didn’t like her.” Don’t let them – respectfully – get away with, “I didn’t like him.” Get to the values that underpin their ideas.
  3. Shut up and listen to what they have to say. Ask questions, respectfully, but then listen.
  4. Don’t think that you have the right answer, or that you know it all. Because my study of history is that we don’t. Even me.
  5. When you have these conversations, don’t be a jerk. Don’t be the one trying to “search and destroy,” be someone who listens and builds relationships.

Im tirtzu… it doesn’t need to be a dream! In fact, it is tied up with what it means to be a Jew.

To be a Jew begins with the recognition that even God is magnificent Presence, a complex idea, a Force and the sum of all Forces, the internet for the souls, and so much more. God cannot be reduced to simplistic sound bytes so we can wrap our little heads around God, for even as God is immanent, right here around us and within, God is also transcendent, way beyond us.

To be a Jew is to comprehend that when we sing Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, the words Adonai echad – God is one, affirm that oneness actually means that the one God welcomes multitudes of people with a multiple perspectives about every issue under the sun. If God can wrap Godself around that reality, can’t we? To be a Jew is to work hard to live fully within mind-blowing nuance and the mind-numbing complexity of Existence.

I believe it’s possible. Last month, Michelle and I were up in Alaska, we watched not seven feet away from us, two Alaskan brown bear cubs – they were brothers – wrestling playfully together. They were endowed with sharp claws and knife-like teeth. They were swatting and biting, pushing and pawing, never once harming the other. Just because they could maul and mutilate each other doesn’t mean they would. Just because we can maul and mutilate each other, doesn’t mean we should. We Americans should wrestle through our most intense debates and even our most vulnerable moments, and strive that everyone comes away unscathed.

Look, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and that earthquake down in Mexico City, those rescuers and we donors didn’t ask if the people in need were liberals or conservatives, gay, trans, or straight, Hispanic, black or white, poor or rich. If you needed help after the tragedy, we reached out and helped.

That’s because to be human, and to be Jews and be part of a Jewish family and Jewish community, is to work to transform our dinner table back into a mikdash ma’at, a holy altar of mutual respect, and to rebuild our cities into an ir shalom, a city of peace, so that our world can become a makom kadosh, a holy place.

Yes, I your rabbi have a dream that we can get to this place. And I really think that a lot of you share that dream too. Im tirzu ain zo aggadah – If we will it, it won’t just be a dream. So let’s go make it happen… together.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes ( is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles’ Rosh Hashanah sermon: Building our boat

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles

Creation. Genesis 1:1-2.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

What would that look like, if you were to paint it, the Spirit hovering over the waters? Van Gogh’s somersaulting spirals, a sky-born Chagall figure, cherubs hovering over Venus as she lies across the surf?

I love the word ‘hovering’ here, the Hebrew, merachefet, connotes a fluttering, a disturbance of air caused by wings, the rippling of gossamer gowns.

Hovering takes enormous energy. The hummingbird’s wings beat furiously. It takes immense movement and speed to appear still. The disappearing blades of a helicopter. Imagine the neutronic force it would take for God to suspend over the waters for immeasurable eons, a colossal zeppelin consumed in infinite black.

The opening of Genesis speaks nothing of noise, just darkness, until the word is spoken, “let there be,” a rippling of air, and a bolt of light, and Bang… 

An eye is opened, colors emerge, squid-ink blue, spearmint green, there is light, and sight, the original Holy See, meets the original living sea. God sees the mirror below, as Narcissus hovering over a lake, enraptured by what looks back. And God said, “It is good.” 

Genesis is careful not to call the sun or the moon by their names, rather Torah refers to one simply as the greater light and the other, the lesser light, to dissuade their worshipers. Torah was intent on debuting one God, Orchestrator of all of Creation. God set that luminary to hover over the day, and that one to hover over the night, mere ornaments suspended in space…but the waters are something else entirely.

The waters were there from the beginning, darkness upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God upon the face of the waters, God and the elemental ocean, face to face, Lord and Leviathan. One could argue that in Torah, the devil is the deep blue sea.

The water is frightening. An 18th century aphorism reads, “Those who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for a pastime.”

Yet it calls us. So much of our language is born of our experience on the sea. To be groggy, three sheets to the wind, to get on board, to get underway, to overhaul, to know the ropes, a loose cannon, hand over fist, feeling blue, toing the line, a square meal, to be pooped, to let the cat out of the bag, to be dressed down or held over a barrel, tacky, tipsy, slush fund, scuttlebutt, swamped. Our encounters with the sea put an indelible mark on our psyche.

Our people were reborn as a nation when they emerged from the Sea of Reeds. Our prophet Jonah was reborn when the mouth of the sea spew him out. Moses’s name means ‘Drawn from the water.’ When one converts to Judaism, one is reborn through the waters of the mikvah.

The ancients knew the power of sea and storm. They were rightfully afraid. It is a place of birth and a place of death.

In Panama Beach, Florida, earlier this summer, in July, two boys, 8 and 11, were swept away by a deceptive rip current churning below the surface, screaming and flailing 100 yards from the shore, a young woman and her wife, strangers to the boys, were the first to try to reach them, soon the boys’ mother, father, nephew and grandmother were in the water, also caught in the rip current. There was no lifeguard on duty. Amidst crashing waves, and gulping seawater, the family was sure they would die. After struggling for twenty minutes, people on the beach started shouting to form a human chain. Eighty people, of all races and nationalities, some of whom couldn’t swim, linked arms, and one by one started pulling people toward the shore. After an hour, the grandmother, still in the water, had a massive heart attack, her son-in-law and nephew struggling to keep her afloat while keeping their own heads above water. As the sun was preparing to set, at last, all ten of the stranded swimmers were safely back on shore. Everyone survived.

In Sierra Leone, this August, flash floods ravaged the land, leaving over 400 confirmed dead, over six hundred still missing. One of our temple guards, Mohammed, who is from Sierra Leone, showed pictures and video his brother sent him from home, our heads over the screen of his phone, we watched Muslims and Christians create a human chain to rescue people in an SUV balancing on a ledge, as a mud river roared underneath.

Insurance companies call floods, hurricanes, hail, tsunamis, wildfires, tornados, earthquakes, Acts of God. An “Act of God” is defined as any accident or event not influenced by man, although claimers might reconsider man’s influence when it comes to the catastrophe of climate change. How billions of careless acts of man accumulate to cause a so-called “Act of God.”

In this increasingly polarized political climate, littered with the tweetstorms and mudslinging, it is in the midst and aftermath of real storms and mudslides that we see acts of godliness. When our fortresses are stripped of walls, and our foundations upended, we are reacquainted with the power of humanity to help, linking arms. Act of God giving way to acts of good.

And we cling to the images of people helping people the way a flood victim clings to the side of a boat. Look! An undocumented immigrant helping his family just like a white American helps his family! Look, we are the same! Look, Christians and Muslims! Look, a black man carrying a white child, and a white woman carrying a black child! We cling to these images for dear life, as if therein lie all the evidence we need that we are all going to be okay. The angry torch carriers, the barbed wire border walls, the erosion of human rights, the eruptions of violence and hate, the shooting deaths, it’s all going to be alright, because look, black, brown, white, holding each other up, that’s who we really are. We can form a human chain and save this family after all.

However, all it really proves is that we are good at helping each other in a crisis. But we already knew that. That’s nothing new. The deeper message, that we keep forgetting, is the need to prepare before the crisis.

We need to be both Jonah and Noah. Jonah who told the people of Ninevah to repent, saving them from a flood of wrath, and Noah who built an ark for when it came. We need to work to prevent the next flood, while at the same time, building our boat for when it inevitably comes.

We don’t have the luxury of wondering if the next floods will happen. We know they’re coming.

Genesis 6:14. Make yourself an ark… you shall make the ark with compartments.

We need to build our boats now. And everyone needs a different kind of boat, to stay afloat on the particular flood that’s coming for them.

For some, it’s the flood of financial debt, compounded by new regulations, compounded by inflated healthcare, or lack of accessible healthcare, compounded by debts and loans, or crushing mortgage, or job loss, caught in rip currents of delinquency notices and collection calls, struggling to keep one’s head above water while the heart is seizing up, with no strength or will or dollar left to buoy one up. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach those who are drowning in debt.

For some, the flood is deportation from the only home and family they know to a wilderness in which everything is foreign, including the language. They need a boat, and the boat is made of pro-bono help with filing DACA renewal paperwork for those who qualify, and for those who don’t qualify, their boat is built board by board, with every call placed to senator or congressperson, the boat is sanctuary, the boat is policy, the boat is a clear path toward security and protection. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach the undocumented.   

For some the flood comes in the form of the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. Wrathful people adrift on the face of a deep sea of rage and misinformation. Angry men and women, some with swastikas, some waving confederate flags, people unmoored by their own fears, insecure, lashing out against anyone they perceive as threatening a nostalgic way of life that never truly existed. They need a boat, too. A board built of education, and relationships, better anchoring. But we are less motivated to form that human chain to reach those whom we hate.

For some, the flood is anxiety, blood pressure rising as flood waters rising, who can’t look away from coverage of every terror attack, every defacement, every new intimidation, every new menace, they need a boat as well. A sense of appreciation for all that is going right, a sense of purpose, a path to apply oneself to make a difference, the tools to cope, and to transform fear into creativity and productivity.

Our boats are built in part by belonging to a community that values one another. And the more you participate in that community, to more you fortify the boat you are building, and the stronger and more flood-ready it becomes.

When you come twice a year, you have built for yourself a Jewish raft, two logs and some hasty boards, and a raft can save your life to be sure. But it is in the continuity of connection that turns a raft into an ark, tapping into the ancient blueprints, supportive hearts and hands, shared values, every relationship securing another sailor’s knot, so that the rigging can weather any storm.

Our first boat is constructed by our parents. Then it’s up to us to continue to live in the boat and make improvements, or, when we discover the boat cannot meet our beliefs, construct a new boat.

Make yourself an ark, Torah says. With compartments. Not just for oneself, but to bring onboard others who need help.

Make yourself an ark. Make yourself an ark. You are the ark. We are the ark.

And when we build our boats, we include rudders and sails. Tides change and winds shift, and our boats need to be versatile enough to move with them. We all need more resiliency. We need to be able to steer, and to adjust the sails when needed.

I have been captain of the good ship Isaiah for ten years, and I have loved it. And together we’ve navigated rough and calm seas peacefully and successfully, sharing leadership with phenomenal temple presidents, staff and volunteers. It has been a privilege and an honor to be at the helm. I was on the crew before becoming captain for seven years. This is my eighteenth year at Isaiah.   

A good captain knows how to read the weather. Temperature, cloud formations, surf. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky at morning, sailor’s warning. I have spent a long time studying and charting the path of this congregation, reflecting on my own path, in concert with the community. In the past two months, since relocating from the large and spacious captain’s quarters to the vibrant bustling education suite, I have learned so much, from a different vantage point, everything looks different, and I find it thrilling, invigorating, wind in my hair, an explorer.

I love looking at the horizon through my fellow clergy’s eyes, and I love having the opportunity to be creative with programming, to find the demographics who may be underserved and lift them up, to have the space to contemplate the long-term future of our holy community by building its endowment, to learn alongside lifelong learners, to write, to share ideas. I am content, deeply content with having completed one significant leg of this voyage with you, and being part of preparing for the next. Together, we are adjusting our sails, to move gracefully with changing tides and shifting winds. With star-charts and weather apps, some good soul intuition, deeply wise co-captains, and each other, we are bound to discover great things together.

The word ‘shana’ in Hebrew means year, but it also means ‘change.’ So when we say, ‘Shana Tova’ to each other, we are not only saying “Have a good year,” we are also saying, “Have a good change.” What change will you work toward this year?

Make yourself an ark.

We are the ark when we build not borders, but bridges. We are the ark when we build not separations, but support. We are the ark when we build not contention, but confidence. We are the ark when we build not sarcasm, but security. We are the ark when we build not towers, but trust. We are the ark when we build not feuds, but friendships. We are the ark when we build more compassion, more kindness, more generosity, more understanding, more patience, more joy, more thoughtfulness, more equality, more love. We are the ark when we build upon our best values, when we reflect on ourselves, adjust our sails, make room for others, support and celebrate each other, practice equanimity so that when the floods do come, our inner waters remain calm.

We are sailing over some choppy seas. Darkness on the face of the deep. We don’t always know what lurks beneath, but together we can be prepared for any adventure, until that day when the ark comes to rest, arms linked not to save but to sing, God’s Spirit hovering over us with all the colors of the rainbow.

Zoë Klein Miles is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles.

Some High Holy Days sermons become words to live by

Jennifer Stempel, a Los Angeles-based writer, changed her approach to life after hearing a High Holy Days sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Stempel was shul-hopping when the wife of a Temple Emanuel rabbi gave her and her husband tickets to the synagogue’s holiday services. Little did she know that Temple Emanuel Rabbi Jonathan Aaron would deliver a sermon that, inspired by “A Complaint Free World” — a book by Will Bowen that posits that people can transform their lives if they stop complaining — would have such an impact on her.

Aaron concluded the sermon by challenging his community to go the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without complaining. If they caught themselves complaining, they were to start their 10 days over again. They could keep track of it with bracelets that read, “Be Complaint Free,” distributed to all 1,200 people in the sanctuary that day. He told people to wear the bracelets on their right wrist, and if they caught themselves complaining to move their bracelets to their left wrist.

The sermon so resonated with Stempel that she asked the rabbi for a copy of it and even shared it with her friends who were therapists, with the suggestion that their patients might get something out of it.

Nearly a decade later, she remembers the sermon.

“For me, personally, it was a very profound experience,” she said. “I felt like this was the first time I was engaged in a High Holy Day sermon. I was challenged and I actually took action from it.”

Every year, rabbis across Los Angeles attempt to deliver High Holy Days sermons that will leave a lasting impression on their congregations. The test, perhaps, is whether years later congregants can recall — and live by — what their spiritual leaders said.

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, did not recognize the rights of gay people to be ordained as rabbis. Moreover, it prohibited its rabbis from officiating same-sex marriages. This, despite the fact that it had been two decades since the Reform movement had admitted Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), an LGBT synagogue in Los Angeles, into what is today known as the Union of Reform Judaism, an umbrella organization for the Reform movement.

It was against this backdrop that Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spiritual leader of Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), set out to determine whether homosexuality actually was the sin some believe it is described to be in the Torah, which says one man is not to lie with another. He visited BCC and spent time speaking with some of its congregants. He read many scientific studies on the subject. On erev Rosh Hashanah in 1992, he delivered a sermon that addressed his movement’s position on gays in a sermon titled, “Morality, Legality and Homosexuality.”

In part, it said, “It is one thing to quote a verse. It is another thing to look into the pained eyes of a human being. I’m not dealing with words, and I’m not dealing with texts. … I do not regard these people as sinners or their love as abomination. The God I have been raised with is el moleh rachamim — God who art full of mercy — and the attribute which Jews are to emulate is that of compassion.”

Stephen Sass was seated in a pew that day. He was both a member of BCC and of VBS. He was in a same-sex relationship. What he heard made an impact on him.

“To hear him saying, ‘If this is what the tradition is saying, the tradition is wrong and we need to do something about it,’ that was very groundbreaking,” said Sass, an attorney and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, there was a conspiracy of silence where nobody would talk about that,” he said. “Even then in those days, people at BCC would not be identified by their last name; they would just use an initial because they could lose their job or their family.”

Schulweis’ sermon paved the way for the acceptance of gay Jews in the Conservative world. A support group for gays and their families launched at VBS. Eventually, same-sex couples could join the synagogue together as members.

“The Reform movement had made those strides and in a way the Conservative movement was just catching up,” Sass said. “He took this on. He didn’t have to, just like he took on so many issues.”

In 2004, Schulweis, who died in 2014, made another deep impression with a High Holy Days sermon titled, “Globalism and Judaism.” In it, he asked where Jews who said “never again” to the Holocaust stood as a genocide was unfolding in  Rwanda in 2004. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, then an attorney who was an active volunteer at VBS, was in the sanctuary that day. She was struck by Schulweis imploring his congregation to open a newspaper: “You can’t close the newspaper once you believe in a global God,” he said.

“It fortified the theology I had developed anyway about the relevance of Judaism and the relevance of Torah to daily life,” Kamenir-Reznik said. She went on to co-found Jewish World Watch — an anti-genocide nonprofit organization that is active in Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — with Schulweis.

Last year, Emily Alhadeff, a Seattle resident and member of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the largest Reform synagogue in the Pacific Northwest, was transfixed as Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen delivered a sermon on Rosh Hashanah about postpartum depression.

“It wasn’t my first dance with depression, and I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout my life. But when the crash came, I felt completely alone and deeply ashamed,” Cohen said in the sermon.

Alhadeff, a chef and founder of Emily’s Granola in Seattle, said the rabbi’s willingness to make herself vulnerable was transformative. 

“This idea — this strong woman having to confront her congregation — I just found it to be so powerful,” Alhadeff said.

Cohen, a Los Angeles native who joined Temple Beth Torah in Ventura this year, said she was nervous about opening up to her congregation that way. She did not know how people would react to a sermon that called on eliminating the stigma around mental illness. So when the community erupted with applause at the end of her remarks, she was at a loss for what to do.

“I was so taken aback, I looked down uncomfortably,” she said. “I said something that mattered. It was really amazing.”

Effective sermons are speaking to the realities of the times, Stempel said.

“What’s going on in the world, the sermon should take that into account,” she said. “I think you should be talking about a universal truth, something everybody in the room can relate to on some level.”

Of course, a profound sermon for one person is a dud for another. Stempel acknowledged that her husband did not respond to Aaron’s “complaint” sermon in 2008 as enthusiastically as she did.

“He likes to complain,” she said.

As Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico, synagogues cancel Rosh Hashanah services

People walk on the street next to debris after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 20. Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Puerto Rico’s three synagogues closed for Rosh Hashanah as Hurricane Maria pummeled the island.

The synagogues, all in or nearby San Juan, canceled Wednesday evening services for the Jewish New Year and urged members to stay home, according to The Times of Israel.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning after causing widespread destruction on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. In Puerto Rico, which has 3.3 million residents, power outages were expected as strong winds ripped trees out of the ground

Leaders of the Jewish community, which numbers around 2,000, said there was no choice but to cancel the Rosh Hashanah services.

“In 2005, we missed the first night of Rosh Hashanah due to a tropical storm, but that was nothing compared to this monster,” Diego Mandelbaum, a leader at Shaare Zedek, a Conservative congregation and Puerto Rico’s largest synagogue, told The Times of Israel. “This is a situation that speaks for itself. This isn’t even a decision, it’s an impossibility.”

Yadhira Ramirez Toro, a leader at the Reform Temple Beth Shalom, said people had been urged to stay home.

“Nobody’s supposed to leave their houses. Right now we’re just on standby,” Toro told The Times of Israel.

Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Irma earlier this month, which led to widespread power outages on the island.

Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, who runs a Chabad house in the San Juan suburb of Isla Verde, was using his synagogue to provide shelter for people in need. The synagogue was built to be able to withstand a hurricane.

“Our facility has a backup generator, we have food supplies and we’ll do everything we can to share our resources with the community,” Zarchi said. “May God give us strength and may we be spared the full wrath of Maria.”