Divre Harav – November, 2015

Stuart Rapaport has given me permission to reprint the words he shared about our Endowment Campaign on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Since then, we have received additional gifts and promises so I have edited his remarks accordingly.


How blessed our congregation has been in the over 125 years we have been in existence.  From a small group of 15 families we became a two orthodox congregation city. In 1936, under the leadership of rabbi Benjamin Emdin, Beth Israel and Ahavas Achim became Ahavas Israel. We moved into the post world war II years and moved to Conservative Judaism, built two synagogue buildings.  This facility is the culmination of the effort put into Ahavas Israel by so many of our past leaders and congregants.

We turn to you, our family and friends, for further consideration.  Our biggest problem today is that of operating funds.  We know that our membership is smaller, that we have very few business owners and we struggle to keep the financial ship upright.

We are asking you to consider a proposal that will help the future of Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids. We are asking you to consider remembering the shul in your wills and estates.  By leaving a small percentage of your estate, you are helping to keep Judaism, Conservative Judaism, alive and healthy in Grand Rapids.

We have had many people remember ahavas israel through their wills.  My grandfather, Philip Rapaport, who was not religious but rather a member of the socialist arbeter ring, the workmans circle, realized the importance of our congregation to future generations. He never came to Shul with the exception of his grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah. Yet, when he died in 1963 he left $10,000 to the congregation for this building.  Think about how much that would be in today’s dollars. According to google, figuring 4% inflation, that would be over $77,000 today.  Believe me, my grandfather was far from a wealthy man.  He was a blue collar wood turner who worked for John Widdicomb furniture.

Or, how about our largest bequest to date.  That of Francis Rayden. That money came to us because of a good deed done for her by a member of Ahavas Israel. Abe Wolfson, member, promised Mrs. Rayden to recite kaddish for her parents and she said she would remember the shul.  He recited kaddish for the family for over three decades and just after Abe died, Francis Rayden died and left a bequest of $650,000 to our congregation. That money continues to keep our congregation in the black.

But we need to create a true endowment.  One that can be sustained and grow while still giving financial help to our beloved Ahavas Israel. Rabbi and I have been meeting with congregants to tell them of our ideas. Leon Ash has come forward and has pledged $2,000,000 through his estate. $2,000,000! He challenged us to match the $2 million.

Through our meetings with congregants, we have been promised $310,000 in gifts and estimated pledges based on current values.  This by seven families. Plus an additional five families who have pledged unspecified amounts.

Consider a percentage bequest.  A small percentage.  No matter how large or how small your estate will be, even a 5% gift would be a generous gift to the future of Ahavas Israel while leaving 95% to your family and charities you wish to help.

Obviously, we are not standing like the grim reaper, rubbing our palms in hopes of getting this money right away.  Our hope is that all of us live a long, happy and healthy life.  We just ask for your consideration to join the ranks of our congregation whose financial support span the past, continue today, as well as bringing Ahavas Israel into the future with financial strength to be able to continue serving our community.

If you have been contacted but not responded, we would love to hear from you and to speak to you.  Please understand that all information shared with us is private and will remain private.

Your participation will help insure a successful future for the Jewish people in Grand Rapids.

Divre Harav – September 2015

Food sustains our physical selves and plays an important role in keeping us emotionally and spiritually healthy. Food can connect us with one another. The preparation of food binds parents to children or binds a group of people preparing a meal together. The act of eating food with other people is perhaps the most important social bonding experience.

Jewish practice makes the act of eating into a holy act by means of a combination of the elements of mindful eating, food blessings, and kashrut. We eat mindfully when we pay attention to the quality and quantity of food that we put into our bodies. We cultivate gratitude when we say blessings to God for the food that we consume. Kashrut is a complicated system, combining elements of awareness of the sacred nature of all things, sensitivity toward animal life, reverence for human life, and a way to bind Jews together.

In an ideal Conservative Synagogue, every member would have a kosher home. We live in the real world in which this is not the case, but the Synagogue ought to be a consistent and gentle reminder of the ideal. One such reminder happens every time we eat together as a Synagogue community and notice the kind of food which is served. In order to have the option of a new kind of community-building program involving food, the Religious Life Committee created some guidelines to permit experimentation with potluck meals in the Synagogue. A potluck meal experience in which we encourage everyone to contribute something that would meet a kosher standard, even from a non-kosher home, can bring our community together in a new way. The committee created three simple rules regarding food prepared without recognized kashrut supervision (such as in people’s homes) that are easy to understand and follow, and added two additional suggestions that would increase the likelihood that those who are more traditionally observant will be able to eat as well:

  1. 1. All food must be dairy, kosher fish, or vegetarian (no poultry or meat).
  2. 2. All service and eating utensils will be disposable and tables will be covered.
  3. 3. Food may not be brought into either of the Synagogue’s kitchens.
  4. 4.

In addition, we suggest, although we do not require, that those bringing food from non-kosher homes use kosher-supervised ingredients and cook in disposable pans as much as possible. We also suggest that the committee in charge of the potluck be sensitive to the variety of kashrut and other dietary restrictions of our members and make a reasonable effort to ensure that all who want to participate will find something that they are able to eat.

As much as food is about community-building, it is also about trust. In order to eat someone else’s food, we need to trust that the ingredients and method of preparation are consistent with our dietary requirements. If we have food allergies, the trust we place in the food we eat literally may mean life or death. The Religious Life committee, the Board of Trustees, and I, believe that we, as a community, can trust each other to feed each other properly while preserving the integrity and the kashrut of the Synagogue.

At the same time as we are open for potluck sharing of food, we also want to enable more people to prepare food in the Synagogue. Ahavas Israel holds a fairly strict standard of Kashrut for our kitchens, but even for those who do not keep kosher in their own homes, it is not hard to learn. Paula Miller will be leading a “kitchen orientation” at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14. Please contact Paula Miller with any questions.

The Iran Deal: To Support or Not to Support?

For the past several weeks, I have been following rabbinic discussion on the Iran Deal. Most of the voices have been firmly against the deal, and many of my colleagues have been preaching against it from the pulpit. This is my first Shabbat back from vacation, but I am reticent to devote a d’var Torah on the subject because I’m not sure that the Torah has a definite and conclusive opinion on such a complex political issue.

For me to express a rabbinic opinion on the Iran Deal would be to say that the Torah can definitively solve a complex political issues such as whether Iran is less likely to get – and use – a nuclear weapon with this deal or without it. Although many people and organizations have strong opinions, I don’t know that anyone can predict the future with certainty.

However, I do have a personal take on the issue, and I wanted to share it with you. Many of you will agree with me; some of you will not. Those of you who support the deal have significant support both in this country and in Israel among people who understand security issues far better than I do. Those of you who are opposed to the deal can find a copy of a sample letter that you might send to our senators to encourage them to vote against the deal.

My personal opinion is that it is a bad deal. For years I’ve been hearing that Iran is only a few years from getting nuclear weapon technology. It hasn’t happened yet, which just proves to me that the experts are all just guessing based on the best data at hand. One of these days, though, they are going to be right, and I don’t think this deal is the best way to prevent that from happening.

To the question, “What do you propose instead?”, I say the following:

I’d rather see the sanctions kept in place until an agreement is reached ensuring a non-nuclear Iran, but I’m not thrilled with using the threat of long term, regime changing, war because I don’t think that the current Iranian government could be replaced with anything much better. However, I’d love to see a few precisely targeted massive bunker-busting ground-penetrating bombs dropped on the nuclear sites to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, as Israel did to Iraq years ago, even though I freely admit that I don’t know if it is technologically possible to destroy the reactors that way.

There is also is the issue of the release of somewhere between $50 and $150 billion after sanctions are lifted. It greatly concerns me that think about how much mischief Iran will sow throughout the Middle East (and beyond) with that kind of money. A more gradual release of the money as Iran shows itself to be a responsible world citizen seems a more prudent course of action.

As responsible citizens of this country and as Jews concerned both about the security of the United States and Israel, it is a mitzvah to contact our elected representatives and share our thoughts with them.

The most important action you can take right now is to contact our Michigan Senators, both of whom have not yet taken positions on the deal. I will be urging them to reject it. Below are five points that I incorporated into my letters (from standwithus.com):

Senator Debbie Stabenow
3280 E. Beltline Court NE, Suite 400
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
Phone: (616) 975-0052

Senator Gary Peters
124 West Allegan Street, Suite 1810
Lansing, MI 48933
Phone: (517) 377-1508

Here are five points that will strengthen the agreement, and we urge you to require these points in a new agreement:

  1. Demand the dismantling of centrifuges in all Iranian nuclear facilities. The proposed deal would disconnect and store centrifuges in an easily reversible manner, but it requires no dismantlement of centrifuges or any Iranian nuclear facility.
  2. Include anywhere, anytime, short-notice inspections. The current agreement gives Iran up to 24 days to deceive, delay, and hide.
  3. Release sanctions gradually as Iran demonstrates full cooperation, satisfying International Atomic Energy Agency concerns over the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s program. The current agreement gives $150 billion and lifts sanctions as soon as the agreement commences, rather than gradually in phases as Iran demonstrates sustained adherence to the agreement.
  4. Block Iran’s nuclear weapons quest for generations. The current agreement permits Iran to legally acquire nuclear weapons in 15 years. A child born today would live in a world where the greatest terror sponsors, who want to annihilate the United States, also have the most powerful weapons and delivery systems to achieve their goals.
  5. Prevent Iran from obtaining ballistic missiles and do not lift the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, which will allow Iran to provide additional arms for terrorism and proxy wars, which inflame the region and threaten our allies.

Don’t let Iran become a nuclear threat on your watch!


JFGR Statement on Iran Deal

In response to the recent agreement between the United States and Iran regarding nuclear proliferation the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids joins numerous other Federations throughout the country in expressing significant concerns regarding its content, and encourages the Administration, which worked admirably and tirelessly in pursuit of this deal, to negotiate a deal that requires Iran to dismantle its nuclear program before obtaining sanctions relief.  While we are not nuclear experts, we must recognize that a sizable and diverse number of authorities have stated that, for a variety of reasons, this deal fails to meet the most basic objectives originally set forth to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

History has taught us that the safety and self-determination of the Jewish people cannot be left up to the goodwill and false promises of rogue nations.  This agreement does not allow for “anytime” or “anywhere” inspections of nuclear facilities, and it does not require Iran to reveal its prior illicit nuclear program-a program that violated countless UN Security Council resolutions.  It allows Iran to gain access to intercontinental ballistic missile technology, which equally threatens New York and Tel Aviv, as well as $150 billion of frozen assets before it even takes minimal steps towards compliance.  Iran, which has repeatedly lied about its nuclear activities in the past, will now have time to disguise non-compliant activity before allowing international inspectors into nuclear sites.

The safety of Americans, Israelis, and our Middle Eastern allies would be threatened under this agreement, as Iran’s neighbors seek their own nuclear weapons and unleash a nuclear arms race in the worlds most volatile region.  History has shown us that regimes that sponsor terror throughout the world and call for the destruction of the United States and Israel simply cannot be taken at face value to comply with any agreement. Iran must earn the world’s trust before the international community rewards them with economic relief and legitimacy on the world’s diplomatic stage.

Proponents of this deal claim that our choice is this deal or war.  We feel that the alternative is a better deal that would not legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear state nor accept temporary constraints.  Nothing short of an outright dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure should be acceptable to the global community

We also note that not only do Iran’s neighbors oppose the deal but a broad spectrum of elected Israeli leaders as well, including both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition leader Herzog.  We look to these leaders as examples of rising above partisan politics on such a monumental issue.  We recognize that there are diverse views within our community, but ultimately this issue must remain about policy, not politics, and allow us to demonstrate moral clarity, unity, and resolve when advocating for Israel, the United States, and Peace.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi – November, 2014

Beginning this month, I will be on Sabbatical for three months. It is a common practice of rabbis and other clergy to be given a periodic Sabbatical from their regular duties for reflection, for rekindling the spirit and the sense of calling by God, for reconnecting more deeply with the tradition (Scripture, theology, liturgy), and for deepening one’s own spiritual life. My last Sabbatical was five years ago. While on Sabbatical, I will not be available for my normal Rabbinic duties. I will not be coming into the office, attending meetings, or scheduling appointments. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to email for routine questions. I will not be teaching, leading study groups, leading services, or giving Divre Torah. The office will refer calls or email either to the president or to the appropriate committee.

What will I be doing? Clergy organizations suggest that a Sabbatical should not be heavily structured. The idea is to have free time for unexpected projects and learning. I will be spending a great deal of time time reading and studying. I will be out of town for part of the time, but most of the time will be spent in Grand Rapids. I do have two structured projects to focus on during my Sabbatical time. The first is something I have done several times in the past (my third time – I do it every time I have a Sabbatical). I am serving as a Graduate Assistant teacher of a 12 week Dale Carnegie course, giving example talks, leading small group exercises and discussions, and helping the instructors keep organized. In searching for a second project, I considered that my first Sabbatical focused on visiting other small congregations, and my second focused on studying the art of preaching. It occurred to me that I do a fair amount of writing for the synagogue, and I have had several projects on the back burner (including a booklet that would be a guide to funeral and mourning customs). I decided to join a weekly writing group, in which people bring a piece of whatever they are working on, share it with the group, and receive feedback.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities.  Of course, services will be led by Stuart Rapaport, but the Religious Life committee will be coordinating service gabbai’im, to help announce pages and lead selected readings. I have  invited a number of people to share Divre Torah – as of the beginning of October, November 29, December 13 and 27, and all of January are open. Please call the office if you would like to do one.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However,  the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. After office hours (7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm), please call Stuart Rapaport. After the basic funeral arrangements (include date and time) have been set, I will be contacted. If I am available, I will contact the family to speak about the funeral service.  Otherwise, Stuart will handle the funeral service.

This will be my fourth three month Sabbatical (one every five years). I understand that the many people in the congregation really stretch themselves to cover for me while I’m away, and I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. Todah Rabbah!