Divre Harav – September, 2021

Now is the time to begin thinking about what you want to get out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Ahavas Israel and how the synagogue can add to your life in the year that follows.

Because you are reading these words, probably a member of the synagogue or considering membership, I’m guessing that some level of Jewish content in your life is important to you. You may have Holocaust survivors or victims in your family tree and are affirming a Jewish connection because of that. You might enjoy Jewish community and culture, Jewish music or literature. You might feel connected to specific Jewish practices. You might be moved by a sense of God and even feel a sense of commandedness with respect to mitzvot.

My job is to enable you to deepen your connection to traditional Jewish practice, to convince you that there is something about prayer, Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the system of Torah and Jewish ethics that is worth your time. The mission of the synagogue is to deepen your connection, to see you become more fully Jewish, that over the course of your lifetime, you are engaged in a continual journey of Jewish discovery.

What’s the benefit to you? I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe that my life is better because of Shabbat, because of the time I spend in prayer, and because the time I spend in Torah helps me to be a better person and make better choices.

That is why beginning this year, I will be offering you a program designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute called “Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism.” It is:

●  A sophisticated introduction to foundational concepts of Judaism and Jewish life,

●  An invitation for learners to join Judaism’s interpretive conversation, and

●  A curriculum designed specifically to be accessible for adult learners taking their first steps into Jewish thought.


It’s basic aims are:

●  To explore and make accessible the most compelling and deepest questions in Jewish thought,

●  To demonstrate the principles and debates that underlie our Jewish heritage, and

●  To reject the assumption that every learner is on track toward practicing Judaism in a specified way.

Whether a Sunday morning conversation, an afternoon study group, or evening class, please make time to:

●  Explore the role of peoplehood in Judaism,

●  Wrestle with the complexity of faith in our tradition,

●  Debate the meaning of mitzvot, and

●  Engage in conversations about Jewish ethics.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Am – People
  • Emunah – Faith
  • Avodah – Practice
  • Musar – Ethics

Divre Harav – Summer, 2021

The Talmud consists of 38 volumes of disputes. As such, it has much to teach us about how to engage in discussion and, even more important, how to disagree agreeably. What happens after a group reaches a non-unanimous decision? 

In one tragic model, Rabbi Eliezer was the sole voice in a decision that was decided against him. He took the disagreement personally and kept arguing long after the vote was over. The sages took his intransigence personally and excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva tried to soften the blow, but Rabbi Eliezer was distraught. Tears and waves of anger, as described in the Talmud, threatened to destroy the world. His wife, Imma Shalom, wouldn’t let him say certain prayers lest his fury do more damage. She left him alone for a few moments, however, and his unsupervised prayer led to the death of her brother Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Sages who had voted for his excommunication.

Ill feelings might not literally destroy the world, but when we are unwilling or unable to let go of anger and resentment when something doesn’t go our way, a disagreement can become a rift that seriously damages a community. The losing side needs to know when it is time to stop fighting and start adjusting to the new reality. The winning side should behave with sensitivity and not gloat over its victory, understanding that the other side had good reasons for their passionate arguments. 

The better model is that of Hillel and Shammai, who fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Jewish Law. Yet even though they disagreed about fundamentals of marriage and divorce in ways that might cast doubt on the validity of the children’s status, their respective students continued to marry each other’s children. The respect that each side had for the other’s position prevented the dispute from fracturing the Jewish people into two different religions.

Our United Jewish School model includes language in our governance documents that asks us to work towards consensus decision-making. Neither congregation can take action alone – significant decisions require a majority from each side. Virtually every decision we’ve made in the past 15 years has been consensus. But this is an unusual situation. More often, our decision making bodies do occasionally reach a point where a principled disagreement requires a vote. Organizations cannot allow an inability to reach consensus to paralyze them into inaction. At those times, we turn to the Talmudic model, reaching for “disagreement for the sake of heaven” in which both sides listen deeply to what the other is saying, discuss ideas rather than attack ad hominem, argue with reason rather than fear, and strive to reach for truth rather than for victory.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mahloket – disagreement
  • Vikuah – debate
  • Ta’anah – argument
  • Riv – dispute
  • Sikhsukh – feud

Divre Harav – May, 2021

When Ahavas Israel decided to purchase, build and move from Lafayette Street to Michigan Street over 50 years ago, it wasn’t a simple decision. The discussion was ongoing and contentious and the board was unable to make a decision. Moe Kleiman, z”l, used to tell the story about how the decision was made in the following way:

The board held its meetings in a room in the lower level of an old house that was at the center of the synagogue structure. The room had one door leading into the basement and small windows set high in one wall. During a board meeting, Moe arranged for someone to pull the fire alarm. Panic ensued as the board members realized if there was a fire in the house above them, there would be no way for them to get out. They voted to begin the process of building a new (and safer) synagogue on the Michigan Street property.

When an organization is experiencing a crisis, it is easy to embrace change. When there is no crisis, there is no immediate reason to change, and organizations tend to slip into stasis mode. Moe manufactured a crisis, which broke the stasis. However, the best, most vibrant, organizations with wise leadership know how to keep changing and evolving and growing even when there is no imminent crisis.

Congregation Ahavas Israel is not in crisis. We have a solid endowment and are reasonably financially stable, although our budget relies on large transfers from several of our accounts each year. We own our building and have turned the building into a source of income by renting it to a preschool, a church, and the Federation. But there are clouds on the horizon. Our building is aging. Roofs, heating and cooling systems, and security systems, are costly to replace, repair, and maintain. Renters can go out of business or decide to go elsewhere and new tenants are not easy to find. Synagogues and Temple (and religious institutions of all denominations) are experiencing precipitous drops in affiliation, on top of the slow decline of the past 20 years.

By embracing change now, we can avoid a crisis. And I believe in a partnership with Temple Emanuel. I trust that we can work together effectively, reduce the footprint of the two buildings, and renovate the Fulton Street property to create a shared facility. We have the opportunity to create a green building that will use our resources wisely. In the future, when major repairs are necessary, we will share the expenses rather than bear them alone. 

If we approve the plan to create a combined campus, we’ll be sending our children to a religious school that will be in our building, rather than in another congregation’s building. We’ll have the space for concurrent adult education during religious school in the same space as the children.

And finally, to emphasize – this proposal is not a merger. We would not be losing our governance structure and moving under the umbrella of Temple Emanuel. We would retain our board, our religious leadership and practices, and our finances. I believe that if we agree to engage with the collaboration and place our property for sale and join in a newly renovated, shared campus on Fulton Street, Congregation Ahavas Israel will be best positioned to continue to promote Conservative Judaism in Grand Rapids.

Divre Harav – April, 2021

We had a technological failure at Purim which got me thinking again about the role of technology in creating community. How many things need to work properly in order to create a community via Zoom or in order to be included in a community by watching a broadcast? The building needs to have power, the camera, sound system, and broadcast equipment needs to be turned on and working, the internal network needs to be active, the network of the company from which we buy internet needs to be working, the software of the video broadcast company and their network needs to be working, and your internet, equipment, and software needs to be working. And of course the entire system from one end to the other needs power. If any single piece fails, the broadcast fails.

It reminds me of the logic behind our approach to Shabbat. The minimal use of technology on Shabbat encourages us to turn to face-to-face community. In its most traditional form, when the community walks to shul, the only technology we rely on to gather a minyan on Shabbat is having sufficient heat and light in the building. Even adding the element of transportation to shul, we’re still relying on fewer points of failure than the broadcast.

Video-conferencing software like Zoom has been a blessing and a life-saver during this pandemic, allowing us to interact with each other virtually in ways that have begun to feel normal. However, periodically, the technology reminds us that virtual is not the same thing as actual. Even post-pandemic, we’ll continue to broadcast our service for people who cannot come in person. But as the Purim failure reminds us, if you are comfortable and able to come in person, you can bypass the technology when it fails by hopping in your car and driving to the synagogue. Within 15-20 minutes (or less for most people), you can be in the sanctuary plugged directly into the community without missing too much of the service.

***

As the vaccine becomes available more widely, I urge you to sign up for a vaccination. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that vaccinations are an obligation, to protect your health and potentially that of others around you as well. And I hope you will begin to be more comfortable returning to in-person services on Shabbat. We have had a consistent minyan since mid-October thanks to about 20 people coming either weekly or once or twice a month. We need your help during Pesah. The Sanctuary, however, is a large room and we need a few more people to fill it up with sound!

Hag Sameah!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • telephone selulari or nayad – cellphone or mobile phone
  • mahshev – computer
  • reshet – network

Divre Harav – March, 2021

Jewish Prayer 102 – Petitionary prayer

Studies show that meditative or contemplative prayer is health-enhancing, perhaps because it calms the mind and slows down breathing and heart rate. A few months ago, I suggested that for those looking to begin a Jewish prayer practice, the Shema is a good place to start. The Shema, however, is not exactly prayer in terms of words and petitions addressed to God. The Jewish prayer that best fits that definition of prayer is Amidah.

The Amidah consists of 19 blessings. The core of each blessing is one line, beginning Barukh ata, Adonai …, which I understand to mean “You are the source of Blessing, Adonai.” The most basic approach to praying the Amidah might be to isolate those blessings lines, read each one and spent 15 seconds just holding the words in your heart. Devote about five minutes to the 19 themes of prayer composed in the first century and recited by Jews three times a day ever since, and see what comes up.

An important aspect of the power of traditional Jewish prayer — by design, it is not selfish, focusing primarily on ourselves. The themes cause us to remember our relationship and responsibility with others. There is room in the Amidah for petitions to God, but most of the things we ask for are not about ourselves, but rather about the community or world around us; and if it is about ourselves or loved one, it includes others as well.

We open with meditations on our relationship with our ancestors, God’s power, and Holiness. We continue with a focus on gratitude for the power of our minds, the capacity to say I’m sorry and be forgiven, and the ability to start over. We move on to prayers for healing, livelihood, and the ingathering of exiles, and hope for justice for all, punishment of the wicked, and support of the righteous. We build up to consideration of full restoration of Jerusalem, salvation for all, and thankfulness for God’s listening ear. And we conclude with a prayer for the restoration of God’s presence, a focus on gratitude and a prayer for peace.

The 19 Blessings of the Amidah:

  1. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Shield of Abraham and Rememberer of Sarah.
  2. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who revives the dead.
  3. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, the holy God.
  4. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who graciously bestows knowledge.
  5. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who desires penitence.
  6. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, gracious One who pardons abundantly.
  7. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Redeemer of Israel.
  8. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who heals the sick of God’s people Israel.
  9. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who blesses the years.
  10. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who gathers the dispersed of God’s people Israel.
  11. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, King who loves righteousness and justice.
  12. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who crushes enemies and subdues the wicked.
  13. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, the support and security of the righteous.
  14. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who rebuilds Jerusalem.
  15. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who causes the power of salvation to flourish.
  16. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who hears prayer.
  17. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who restores God’s Divine Presence to Zion.
  18. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Beneficent is Your Name, and to You it is fitting to offer thanks.
  19. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who blesses God’s people Israel with peace. 

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Tefillah – prayer
  • L’hitpallel – to pray
  • Berakha/Berakhot – blessing/blessings