Divre Harav – Summer/2022

Some years ago, I participated in a program with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality which included silent retreats and mindful eating. I enjoyed the experience of sitting with others for a leisurely meal, concentrating only on the food in front of me. I was completely focused on taking a bite of food, enjoying the texture and flavor, chewing and swallowing and taking a breath before choosing the next spoon- or forkful. When I engage in mindful eating, I eat less and enjoy the food more. It is a physically and emotionally healthier experience than my normal experience of eating. Most often, I grab food while checking email or reading the news, squeezing meal time in between other activities or appointments or errands. If I am alone, I might watch a program to distract myself. If I am with others, I might be involved in conversation and not paying attention to the food I am putting in my mouth.

The goal of the retreat experience was not to convince us that we should take meals alone or in silence in order to eat mindfully. Eating should be an experience that brings people together. Rather, the goal was to teach us the skills and habits of mindful eating and learn how to use those skills even when we are eating in communal settings. With practice, I can remind myself to slow down and enjoy both the food and the people around me mindfully.

I’ve been thinking about food because, as you’ll see elsewhere in the Voice, I am focusing a bit of attention this summer on creating opportunities for us to eat, socialize, and learn together, as well as to cook and do mitzvot together. The pandemic years have been difficult in this respect. We’ve gotten out of the habit of sharing food together. Pre-pandemic, our daily minyanim would have breakfast together each week after the service. It was a time to strengthen and deepen relationships. It was how we welcomed new people to the community, over a copy of coffee and a little food.

This summer, I would like to restore opportunities to socialize with each other. We have reestablished a weekly Thursday morning, 7:15 a.m., minyan with breakfast following. I’d like to see us gather for lunch after Shabbat services once a month, have dinner and study Torah together once a month, and cook together to freeze dinners for later delivery to people such as those who have a new baby in the house, who have been ill, or who are new to town. Please consider supporting our Thursday morning minyan and joining me for lunch or dinner this summer.

In addition, please consider joining me in the kitchen to prepare food for one of these events or for delivery. Cooking can also be an enjoyable way to spend time together. Meal planning, shopping, and preparation is another opportunity to engage in a mindful, deliberate activity of choosing healthy food. Let’s embrace the opportunity to do mitzvot together, to nourish the community and ourselves with food and Torah and prayer and Shabbat. I’m looking forward to spending time with you!

Divre Harav – May/2022

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, on May 5. 25 years ago, I could have written the previous sentence without a second thought. But although the vast majority of Jews care about Israel (82%, according to the Pew Research Center), and most of the rest would identify their ambivalence as non-Zionist, the number of Jews who identify as anti-Zionists has grown. So it is no longer a given that the subject of the first person plural pronoun at the beginning of my first sentence is “the Jewish community.” This saddens me.

It saddens me even more that a Chicago-based synagogue, founded seven years ago as a non-Zionist institution, has recently redefined itself as affirmatively anti-Zionist. I’m not in favor of creating a synagogue in which opposition to a long-standing Jewish belief is a founding principle. A synagogue based on eating pork, intact foreskins, feasting on Yom Kippur, or hating the principle of Zionism seems perverse and anti-Jewish. At the same time, creating a litmus test in which pork eaters, Kol Nidre feasters, intacters, and anti-Zionists are specifically called out for exclusion also seems anti-Jewish to me. Jews don’t have a history of carrying out threats of wholesale, widespread, excommunication, do we?

I suppose I’ll continue using the unqualified first person plural “we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut” in the same ways that I say “Jews observe Shabbat,” knowing that what I really mean is that most Jews are aware of the existence of Shabbat, recognize it in their own way, and appreciate its power and beauty when they do. Most people alive today, including Jews, are aware of the existence of Israel, recognize that it sits in the geographical location that gave birth to two of the world’s major religions, and appreciate its power and beauty and history and connection to three major religions. 

So I encourage you to celebrate a world in which Israel exists as the place where our sacred language of Hebrew lives a vibrant life; where the Jewish calendar forms the natural rhythm of the week; where Jewish texts, values and ethics inform the legislative and judicial system; where Jewish history actually began; and as the place where any Jew, anywhere, for any reason, can claim refuge from a world that is not always friendly to Jews.

And I encourage you to be proud of a world in which Israel exists as a light until the nations, as a country nearly always among the first to send support and expertise in the wake of a natural disaster; as a country which take in refugees of any religion; as a bastion of religious freedom; and as an innovative “start-up nation.” 

Celebrate Israel’s 74th birthday on Wednesday evening, May 4 or Thursday, May 5 with Israel food, watching an Israeli movie or series on your favorite streaming service, listening to Israeli music (My favorite place to go is MyIsraeliMusic.com, The Israel Hour, with Josh Shron), and say a prayer of gratitude for the existence of Israel.

Hag Sameah!

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, on May 5. 25 years ago, I could have written the previous sentence without a second thought. But although the vast majority of Jews care about Israel (82%, according to the Pew Research Center), and most of the rest would identify their ambivalence as non-Zionist, the number of Jews who identify as anti-Zionists has grown. So it is no longer a given that the subject of the first person plural pronoun at the beginning of my first sentence is “the Jewish community.” This saddens me.

It saddens me even more that a Chicago-based synagogue, founded seven years ago as a non-Zionist institution, has recently redefined itself as affirmatively anti-Zionist. I’m not in favor of creating a synagogue in which opposition to a long-standing Jewish belief is a founding principle. A synagogue based on eating pork, intact foreskins, feasting on Yom Kippur, or hating the principle of Zionism seems perverse and anti-Jewish. At the same time, creating a litmus test in which pork eaters, Kol Nidre feasters, intacters, and anti-Zionists are specifically called out for exclusion also seems anti-Jewish to me. Jews don’t have a history of carrying out threats of wholesale, widespread, excommunication, do we?

I suppose I’ll continue using the unqualified first person plural “we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut” in the same ways that I say “Jews observe Shabbat,” knowing that what I really mean is that most Jews are aware of the existence of Shabbat, recognize it in their own way, and appreciate its power and beauty when they do. Most people alive today, including Jews, are aware of the existence of Israel, recognize that it sits in the geographical location that gave birth to two of the world’s major religions, and appreciate its power and beauty and history and connection to three major religions. 

So I encourage you to celebrate a world in which Israel exists as the place where our sacred language of Hebrew lives a vibrant life; where the Jewish calendar forms the natural rhythm of the week; where Jewish texts, values and ethics inform the legislative and judicial system; where Jewish history actually began; and as the place where any Jew, anywhere, for any reason, can claim refuge from a world that is not always friendly to Jews.

And I encourage you to be proud of a world in which Israel exists as a light until the nations, as a country nearly always among the first to send support and expertise in the wake of a natural disaster; as a country which take in refugees of any religion; as a bastion of religious freedom; and as an innovative “start-up nation.” 

Celebrate Israel’s 74th birthday on Wednesday evening, May 4 or Thursday, May 5 with Israel food, watching an Israeli movie or series on your favorite streaming service, listening to Israeli music (My favorite place to go is MyIsraeliMusic.com, The Israel Hour, with Josh Shron), and say a prayer of gratitude for the existence of Israel.

Hag Sameah!

Divre Harav – April/2022

I’ve always loved Passover, but I think I’m going to like it even more this year. Coming as it does after a long winter, Passover symbolizes the freedom to enjoy being outside again without gloves, boots, and a warm coat and hat. When I feel the warmth of the sun, breathe the sweet-smelling air, get on my bike again, as the sun’s lengthening path across the sky keeps it visible more than 12 hours a day, I feel my spirit and my breath expanding from the narrowness and darkness of winter.

This year, after two years of pandemic living, we celebrate an additional kind of freedom. During the month and weeks leading up to Pesah, many of us who have been careful to protect the health of ourselves and others by wearing a mask, have increasingly been setting it aside and enjoying the freedom of going to work, getting a sandwich, or shopping with a visible smile on our face.

Please note that I am not at all critical of those who prefer to remain masked in public spaces. I assume that they have a good reason for doing so and I respect that by doing my best to keep my distance from them. I am, however, saddened by those who have chosen to exercise their freedom to forgo vaccination, without a compelling medical reason. They certainly have the God-given autonomy to refuse the vaccination, despite the fact that the rate of serious illness or death from COVID is somewhere between 14% and 50% higher for the unvaccinated compared to the fully vaccinated.

Another kind of Passover freedom – I hope that those who are comfortable coming in person will commit to regular support of in-person services. Whether regular means weekly, twice a month, monthly, or bi-monthly, we need to see your face again. The essence of Passover was the transformation of a collection of families into a nation; the creation of a community. Regularly gathering on Shabbat and holidays is the heart and soul of Jewish community. And I ask those who take advantage of the opportunity to watch the broadcast of our Shabbat service will recognize that it cannot continue without their support.

The Judaism that I celebrate each spring is a physical, tangible part of my life. I can touch it, taste it, and feel its texture in my mouth. At this time of year, it is matza, matza balls, horseradish and romaine lettuce, parsley, green vegetables, and haroset. It is the foods that take me back to Seder meals in St. Lous Park, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milan, New York, and Grand Rapids, reunites me with my grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, parents and in-laws, gathers together my siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins at the far end of the table incessantly asking, “When do we eat?”

I thank God that I have the freedom to live in the great country of the United States and have the resources to visit the great State of Israel regularly. I marvel that I live in a world so different than that which my parents and grandparents were born in, in which more than 85% of the population has never known a world without an Israel.

What do you celebrate at Passover?

Divre Harav – March/2022

As I sit down to write something about our community Purim celebration, I find myself struggling a bit. How to approach Purim, a holiday on which we make fun of antisemitism and those who would try to kill Jews, when the memory of just such an attempt at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, is so fresh that many synagogues and Jewish communities around the country are reassessing their security protocols and running active shooter drills?

Jew-haters are not new. Every generation has experienced its share of fear, and some generations have experienced more than their share. Yet, we have persisted in celebrating our holidays, including Purim, and we make jokes about them, summarizing every holiday in three easy steps — “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Or the story of two Jews sitting on a park bench in Germany, 1935, reading newspapers. One looks over at the other and sees that he’s reading Der Sturmer, a notoriously antisemitic weekly, and asks, “how can your read that Nazi garbage?” The other responds, “In your newspaper, Jews are being attacked on the streets, our businesses are being looted, and our synagogues are being destroyed. In my newspaper, Jews control the banks, the world media, and are on the verge of dominating international governments. I’d rather read the good news!”

I continue to observe Judaism proudly and publicly because I can’t imagine a world without Jews. Such a world would be infinitely poorer. The teachings of Judaism inspire the world. I cannot imagine a world without Jews, who, inspired by those teachings, go on to better the world in the fields of law, medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and more. And the practice of Judaism enriches my life in countless ways, giving me a path of Middot to improve my character, a path of Jewish ethics to improve my interactions with others, a religious practice that ties me to the repair of the world around me, a body of Jewish wisdom to keep myself intellectually engaged and psychologically healthy, all of these being piece of a journey within a covenant with God.

This month’s Purim story, the soon to arrive Passover story, both are part of the larger story of Jews in relationship with the world. I am alive in order to bring love to my neighbors. Not necessarily to bring them to Judaism, but to be connected to them in positive ways that benefits our Grand Rapids community. For every person out there who thinks about bringing chaos to the Jewish community, there are a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand who would stand by our side against evil.

Please join me in a celebration of Purim on Wednesday evening, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. that includes a joint Purimshpiel with Temple Emanuel, two options for telling the Purim story (a traditional megillah reading and a Mad Lib megillah), and something delicious to take home with you. We’ll mock the villains and cheer the heroes and imagine a world where Jews are never afraid. We’ll wear costumes and masks to remind ourselves that nothing is as it first appears, that reality is often hidden under layers of superficial garments, that the world as it appears today is not the world as it is meant to be. Set aside your fear and display your pride in living a Jewish life!

Divre Harav – February/2022

In the coming months, it is my wish to contact each member of Ahavas Israel and offer to engage in a spiritual checkup. Spirituality concerns making a connection with something higher than yourself. The essence of spirituality is seeking meaning in your life that transcends you as an individual, seeing yourself as a part of something larger than yourself. A Jewish spiritual assessment is an exercise in which you explore your personal set of values, the most important values within Judaism, and the relationship between them. It is not a judgement. It is a snapshot of where you are right now, to be compared to where you want to be five years from now. It uses language of mitzvot and Jewish practices as a starting point coming from Torah, because that’s what unites and drives us as members of a Jewish community.

When I contact you, I hope you’ll join me for a conversation about your spiritual checkup. The goal of the conversation would be to engage in the questions, “Where are you religiously?” “Where do you want to go?” And “How can I/Congregation Ahavas Israel help you get there?” If the thought of doing this kind of spiritual work interests you, please call me to set up a time. If you think you have nothing to learn from such an exercise, I’d ask you to consider, what would you lose by giving it a try?

I have a list of specific questions to guide our conversation. If you wish, you may think or journal about them in advance.

  • Where do you have Shabbat in your life? Where do you need it?
  • How can you experience mindful eating?
  • What do you give of yourself?
  • How can you be mindful of your speech?
  • How are you engaging in Talmud Torah, what Jewish books are you reading and studying?
  • How do I approach difficult issues?
  • Where are you in your life-goals and relationships (including your relationship to Judaism)?
  • Where would you like to be in five years?
  • How has your practice of Judaism helped your spiritual life?
  • How can Ahavas Israel help you get there, or facilitate or further your goals?
  • A time I felt close to God was when:
  • A time I felt distant from God was when:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I especially value are:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I have trouble with are:
  • My general feeling about coming to services is: 
  • I feel connected to our congregation and the Jewish community. True or false. Please explain.

Note: In last month’s Divre Harav, I accidentally omitted Esther Bookbinder from the list of those supporting our Shabbat service and the weekday morning Zoom minyan. I apologize to Esther. To any others whom I omitted, please know that it is not a deliberate slight, just my imperfect memory.