Divre Harav – February/16

Trivia Question: How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You’ll find the answer by reading to the third paragraph of this article. No fair looking ahead!

I am writing this article for the February Voice early in January, shortly after winter arrived, measured by the onset of cold weather, ice, and snow. Around me, except for the evergreens, the trees are completely bare. No green (or even brown) is visible on the ground, only white. At the end of January we celebrated Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees. It is hard to imagine that elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, the sap is beginning to enliven the trees again and soon buds will begin to sprout.

The month of Adar begins this month, normally followed by the month of Nisan, in which we celebrate Passover. If we followed the normal pattern, we’d celebrate Purim on February 23 and Passover March 25. However, the Jewish calendar requires Passover to fall no sooner than a certain time before April 7, the pre-Gregorian calendar’s calculation of the spring equinox. In simpler terms, the calendar tries not to let Passover occur before the world begins to look spring-like! Therefore, every 2-3 years (according to a fixed pattern), a second month of Adar is added before Purim. So this year Purim will fall on March 24 and Passover will begin April 23 and end on April 30! Next Rosh Hashanah does not start until October 3, and Hanukkah begins December 24 and ends on New Year’s Day, 2017.

Now you know the correct answer to the trivia question, How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You can amaze your friends, confound your enemies, and win countless bets because everyone who can count the branches of a Hanukkah menorah and subtract one for the shamash knows that there are eight, but you know the answer is nine: January 1, 2017 and December 12-20, 2017!

One more fun and confusing fact (because everything having to do with the Jewish calendar is confusing): I’ve already mentioned that there are two months of Adar. For the purpose of calculating Yahrtzeits and celebrating Purim, the added month of Adar is Adar I. If a person died in a non-leap-year Adar, his or her Yahrtzeit is observed in Adar II in a leap year, as is Purim.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shana m’uberet: A leap year of 13 months. Literally, a pregnant year.
  • tekufah: equinox or solstice (Hebrew does not distinguish).
  • molad: the precise moment of the new moon. Literally, birth.
  • rishon: first, as in Adar Rishon, the first month of Adar.
  • sheni: second, as in Adar Sheni, the second month of Adar.

Divre Harav, January, 2016

First I want to acknowledge with gratitude the outpouring of love and support for me and my family on the loss of my father. The journey through shiva gave me insight into a profoundly healing ritual that I had never fully experienced. The first time I sat shiva was for my infant daughter. The shiva minyanim morning and evening were important, but because we had two of her siblings in the hospital, we left the house every day to go visit them and focus on their needs. This time I experienced shiva in a form closer to its intended state. Except for the travel day between Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, I stayed in the home and stayed away from activities that would distract me from thinking about my father.

I talked about my father to Marisa and kept in touch by phone with my mother and sisters. I did some writing with my father in mind, created a slide show of pictures of my father, and watched it until I could do so without crying. I also sat or lay down doing nothing but thinking about him, stories he told, things we did together, and particularly how he handled the last week of his life.

The day my father died and the following day, the day of the funeral, I was an emotional wreck. The time I spent with my sisters and my mother, all grieving the loss of this person who meant so much to each of us, was enormously healing, and the time I spent in Grand Rapids with my community was comforting. In accordance with shiva customs, I didn’t get up to greet visitors. I waited until they came to greet me. I did that because even when I was in my home, I was not a host and didn’t want to act like one, which would have taken me out of the mental space of mourner.

Some people don’t know what to say to a mourner. For this reason, some visitors avoided me, not speaking to me until they were ready to leave, when they shared a few brief words of condolence, like “I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father.” Other people said that or the words that Judaism supplies, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” as they entered, but disengaged as soon as possible afterwards. There were times, especially at the shiva in Minneapolis, that I was sitting by myself just watching people come in and stand on the other side of the room from where I was sitting.

It is difficult for many people to talk about death. To speak about my father would stir up uncomfortable feelings either about their own parent’s death or about their own mortality. They may have projected those feelings onto me, thinking that I would be uncomfortable having to speak about my father. The most uncomfortable moments for me were when people engaged me in conversation that had nothing to do with my father or when they launched into some kind of sermon telling me what I should be feeling, thinking, or believing about my father’s soul.

I found great wisdom in the traditional approach to shiva, suggesting that visitors sit with the mourners in silence and let them open the conversation however they want. I wanted to talk about my father and when I found opportunities to share stories about him, it was a comfort to me. I was looking for the shiva visitors to provide me with an opening. More than anything, I wanted them to say very simply, “Tell me something about your father.” This, more than anything, is the enduring lesson I will take away from this shiva experience. Again, I am grateful to each one of you who called, visited, sent a note, made a donation, brought food, or spoke to me personally about the loss of my father.

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!


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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.