Divre Harav – March, 2023

Back in December, I set a goal for myself to meet with the superintendents of the eight largest school districts in the Grand Rapids area, plus East Grand Rapids and Holland, to talk about the issue of antisemitism. We’ve been hearing reports in the religious school of antisemitic incidents or micro-aggressions from our middle school and high school students. Because of the rise of antisemitism locally and nationally, I thought it would be important to introduce myself to the superintendents, open up a channel of communication if and when incidents occur, and find out what they are doing to track incidents, to react to incidents, and to prevent incidents proactively. I also believe that a district which has a plan for handling antisemitic incidents will also be well equipped to handle other forms of racism or attacks against LGBTQ students or staff.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, I have met with the superintendents of Kentwood, Forest Hills, Rockford, Hudsonville, West Ottawa, Grandville, Jenison, and EGR Public Schools. Most districts realize that there is a problem and have a clear system in place to track incidents. Of the three districts with the least diversity, one has been actively working with their board to put diversity training programs in place. This involved convincing the board that incidents of aggression towards religious, ethnic, and racial minorities do exist and need to be addressed. Another has programs to increase diversity and works with the Urban League, the ADL, Grand Valley, and the Jewish Federation to develop curricula. The third relies on state-mandated curriculum to teach history, holocaust, and world culture.

All districts track major incidents, although several said that unless the incident gets referred to a school administrator or counselor, it would not be entered into the system. Many incidents go unreported because the students don’t want to put themselves in the spotlight, so they are handled quietly, if they are reported at all. We have suggested to our students that it is very important that they take a public stand and report incidents. It is in the only way that they will be taken seriously, district-wide.

Two superintendents reach out proactively to groups of students selected or self-selected to represent the diversity from each of the schools in district. They meet regularly with these groups of students to hear about what is happening and what they need to address. I found this to be the most positive, proactive, statement of support for their students.

One superintendent talked about how they address all incidents whether or not they occur inside a school or during school hours. This district believes that any act of racism or aggression involving its students affects its school, no matter where or when it occurs. I found this to be a strong statement of support for a welcoming and safe school environment. Another district addresses only major incidents that happened outside of school, but this, too, represents a strong statement against aggression.

The districts with more diversity seem to have fewer problems, but one district of about 50% Latinx, 50% middle – upper class white, is aware that such a sharp divide creates problems. The superintendent previously worked in the Detroit area and has drawn on the Holocaust Museum Center of Farmington Hills and the ADL for help in addressing incidents.

This is a quick summary of my impressions. All of the districts that I have met with know that I am available to meet with students, faculty, or staff for proactive education or to help them unpack and respond after an incident occurs. Please contact me if you are interested in the specific details of my conversation with your school district.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Shem, Ham, and Yafet – Noah’s sons. Shem is considered to be the ancestor of middle eastern peoples. In 1770, Scholars of the German Göttingen School of History, who history as an academic discipline, coined the term ‘Semite’ along with other terms to categorize people by race. About 100 years later, an Austrian Jewish scholar, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term antisemitism specifically to refer to anti-Jewish prejudice.

A response to the tragedy at MSU

The best short term response to the tragic shooting at MSU this week is to go to your house of worship this Saturday or Sunday. To find out why, read on:

Ford produces cars. Microsoft produces software for presenting ideas. Apple produces hardware on which we produce or consume content. AT&T and Comcast and Verizon and T-Mobile create networks for connecting and sharing content. Walmart and Amazon sell virtually everything. Chase manages and produces money. Exxon Mobil produces petroleum products. Consumer’s Energy produces electricity. Hilton creates places for travelers to gather.

Every business and non-profit produces or creates something. Every organization has a purpose. The role of synagogues, churches, houses of worship is unique – our mission and our product is goodness in the best and broadest sense. We teach people how to be good, we encourage people to be good. We are the only institution with this mission. There are many other organizations and businesses which do good things, like providing food, shelter, clothing, protection from harm, medical care, education, and more. But the core mission of an institution of religion is to transform and shape the human animal into a better human being.

Most, but not all, houses of worship advance their mission by invoking God. Teaching and scripture invoking a transcendent Divine are a powerful way to encourage people to live up to a high set of ideals and behavior. But strictly speaking, I’m not arguing here that belief in God makes people better. I’m arguing that gathering together regularly in a religious community makes people better.

If you don’t gather regularly in a house of worship, where do you learn what goodness is? Where is your impulse to be a good person reinforced and encouraged? Not on social media, not by consuming media content, not in the workplace, or in the sports arena or the gym or at the theater or in the classroom or in any other place, real or virtual, where people regularly gather.

On Tuesday, the morning after the tragic shooting at MSU resulting in the death of three people and the injury of five others, I shared the following at our morning service:

Near the end of our weekday morning service we read Psalm 20, including the verse, “They call on chariots, they call on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God.” Chariots and horses were the technology and the heavy weapons of their day. Ultimately, reliance on the technology of weapons brings death. The antidote to reliance on instruments of war and destruction is to gather in places focused on transcendent behavior, on goodness.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the MSU shooter or any of the previous 66 mass shooters so far this year went to church or to any other house of worship regularly. Attending worship regularly does not guarantee that there will be no tragic shootings. But if houses of worship do their job of producing goodness well and if more people committed to attending, it’s hard to imagine that it would not have a positive effect. And stronger background checks, gun safety laws such trigger lock or gun safe requirements, and extreme risk protection laws could also help.

If you are part of the Ahavas Israel community, please join me this Shabbat. If you are a part of another religious community, here or elsewhere, please join your community this weekend. And if you are not part of a religious community, please consider finding one in your area and making a commitment to grow goodness.

Divre Harav – February, 2023

Gathering for prayer and study is the core activity of a synagogue. Making this happen requires the participation of the community, to form a minyan of ten adult Jews, to welcome people as they come in the door, and to help lead the service. We need people to read the Torah portion and the Haftarah selection from prophets, to facilitate the Torah service by assisting the Torah reader and others coming up to the bima, to lead parts of the service itself, and to prepare a little kiddush, to give us some time to eat and socialize before we go home. We also honor people with smaller parts, to be called up to the Torah to say a blessing for one of the aliyot of the Torah reading and to lift and dress the Torah.

Without the participation of our synagogue community, we could not sustain a service. Some parts require more familiarity with Hebrew than other parts. We want each person to be able to participate in the service in a way which is comfortable and meaningful to you. If you do not want to participate in a leadership role, we still invite you to be present, to lift up your soul in prayer and to learn a little Torah. But if you would like to take a larger role in helping with our service, we would like to help to do so.

No qualifications are necessary to take a Torah honor such as an aliyah or gelilah, dressing the Torah. The gabbai’im will help you know where to stand and when to start saying the blessing, which is printed in Hebrew and English transliteration next to the Torah; or assist you in rolling the Torah shut and putting on the mantle, breastplate, and finials in the right order.

Lifting the Torah takes a bit of practice to learn the technique, but does not require you to be an olympic-level weight lifter. If you’d like to practice in advance of a service, I can make that happen. You might also want to watch a video explaining how to lift the Torah properly, such as this one, from Adath Jeshurun in Minnesota: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6B4x9zxqv8

Qualifications to be a gabbai, helping to coordinate the Torah service and assisting the Torah reader: knowledge of the order of the service and some ability to follow along and help the Torah reader read the words correctly. If you’d like to be a gabbai, I’ll meet with you for about an hour to do some training.

Qualifications to read Torah: basic knowledge of Hebrew reading, the more vocabulary and grammar you know, the better, but many people begin with nothing more than the ability to pronounce the words.

Qualifications to lead a service: fluency in pronouncing the Hebrew words, basic knowledge of the melodies, the ability to sing them with kavanah and energy, and the willingness to be the representative of the congregation.

Currently, Cantor Fair is teaching a Torah reading class. He and I have spoken about scheduling a class either in Haftarah trope or in leading a service in the late spring/summer. Please let him or me know if you are interested, and which class most interests you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Gabbai – one of two people who assists with the Torah reading. The word itself comes from a term for one who collects and distributes tzedakah funds.
  • Shaliah Tzibur – One who leads a service, literally, a representative of the congregation
  • Ba’al Kriah – Torah reader (sometimes called the ba’al koreh, but ba’al kriah is the grammatically correct term)
  • Hagbah – Lifting the Torah
  • Gelilah – Dressing (literally, rolling shut) the Torah
  • T’amim or ta’amei ha-mikra (also called trope in Yiddish) – The system of punctuation and musical notation of the Hebrew Bible.

Divre Harav – January, 2023

Deuteronomy 31:30 describes the land of Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase evokes the image of richness and sweetness of milk, cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream, sweetened with honey made from figs, dates, or sometimes made by bees. Exploring the nature of the land of Israel will be a part of the Tu Bishvat Seder that we’ll celebrate together with Temple Emanuel early next month (February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel), which will also will explore the mystical/environmental side of Jewish thought and practice.

The Seder is based on the notion that we live in four different kinds of worlds. At the basic level, we live in the world of asiyah, action. This is a physical world ruled by the expected laws of nature, physics, chemistry, and biology. In the fruits of the Seder, this world is represented by nuts with a hard shell, representing a world in which the spark of God’s presence is hidden. It is also represented by winter, a time of year in which a great deal of life is hidden and dormant.

We also live in the world of Yetzirah, formation. In the spring, life begins to sprout. Transcending the physical world, this world encompasses emotion and creativity. This is represented in the fruits of the Seder by fruits with an inedible pit. The seed is the blueprint for the fruit. Contained in the seed is the excitement of new life. We can imagine what the seed will become, the life that will be born. This level is also represented by spring, a time when God’s presence blossoms like a sprouting seed.

Above Yetzirah, we find the world of Beriah, the world of creation. This is the realm of thought. We hold the concept of something in our head, we envision it, but we have not yet taken steps to put together the elements. This stage is represented by fruit which is completely edible. This is also represented by the warmth of summer, when living beings sense God’s energy. This is the feeling of the nullification of the self, when we feel ourselves to be completely aligned with God.

Finally, the highest world is Atzilut, the world of emanation. This space is dominated by the infinite God alone, which radiates its energy down through the lower levels. Rather than the taste of fruit, this stage is represented by the sweet or energizing smell of spices like cinnamon, rosemary or cedar, indicating that we don’t exist on this plane, but we can be aware of its presence. This stage is represented by fall, a time when we celebrate the fullness of the harvest.

These four world intersect with the the seven species of grain and fruit of the land of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8: wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates or date honey, foods typically eaten at a Tu Bishvat Seder. I hope you’ll join me, Rabbi Schadick, and Cantor Fair to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder and a light dinner on February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • hita – wheat
  • s’orah – barley
  • gefen – a vine (as in grapes)
  • t’einah – fig
  • rimon – pomegranate
  • zayit (shemen) – olive (oil)
  • d’vash – honey

Divre Harav – December, 2022

Monday through Friday, we meet for weekday morning prayers. Each day but Thursday, we meet online at 8:00 a.m. using zoom and we pray without a minyan. Thursdays, we meet in person at 7:15 a.m. in the chapel. We would like to have a minyan, although it is rare that we have one. Every day, I wake up and take myself and all of my baggage into the service.

  • • Some mornings I wake up with anxiety or worries that I’m carrying from the day before or the previous week.
  • • Some mornings I wake up with anxiety or worry because of some particularly difficult talk or conversation or meeting I need to handle that day.
  • • Some mornings I just wake up tired or low energy and don’t feel like getting moving.
  • • Some mornings I wake up with the sun streaming in the window and leap out of bed ready to greet a new day!

No matter in what state I find myself when I wake up, when I take time for a little morning prayer, I feel emotionally and spiritually centered and better able to begin my day.

If I am feeling good, I notice the portions of liturgy which remind me to be grateful. If I am feeling tired, the morning blessings remind me that God, who infuses energy into the world, will also restore me to my fully charged state. If I am worried about something I need to do, my prayers remind me that God redeems, supports and protects me. As long as I do my part by being prepared and fully present for the encounter, I’ll be OK and the outcome will lead to something positive. And if I’m still carrying anxiety from the day or week before, the liturgy reminds me that today is a newly day created for me by God so that I can let yesterday go and forget yesterday’s mistakes and start over again with a fresh slate.

Some religious traditions prefer to take one idea, such as compassion, and sit in meditation for an hour with that word in one’s mind and heart. Our tradition prefer to give us a cascade of words and ideas to throw at your soul, because what sticks today is not necessarily what will stick with us next week. Perhaps today we need to have compassion for ourselves or our partner, but next week what we need to to see more justice in the world around us, and next month we want to know that God forgives us when we don’t live up to our best selves. That which I need may be different than that which you need. We read the same prayers, but we may come away with different pieces of liturgy echoing in our souls.

Prayer is a practice. That is to say, prayer takes practice. It doesn’t necessarily work immediately. It takes time to become comfortable with the prayers, to understand them well enough that a certain pattern of words can fly by and wrap themselves around our heart. At that moment, we might experience deep satisfaction. We might stop and sit with those words for a while to puzzle out what they are trying to teach us about they way we are or should be living our lives.

I wake up each day to go to online or in-person services because the experience of praying with other people, minyan or not, is more powerful than praying by myself. Perhaps you’ll join me. 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Shaharit – The morning service, from the word meaning ‘dawn.’
  • Minha – The afternoon service, from the world meaning ‘gift.’
  • Ma’ariv – The evening service, from the world meaning ‘evening.’