Divre Harav – March/2020

A Sabbatical is a wonderful time to step outside the normal routine and explore new pathways of learning. It is also a time for self-care, to step back from the ongoing stress of caring for a congregation and take care of only myself and my family. I returned from Sabbatical refreshed, reinvigorated, and renewed. I am blessed with congregational leadership who have given me this time. I am grateful to Toby Dolinka, Diane Rayor, Ken Strauss, Sheryl Siegel, Diane Baum, Melissa Hillman, and Fred Wooden for sharing divre Torah and leading Torah study, and Barb Wepman and Deb Johnston for handling administrative and programming questions in my absence.

But I am most grateful for Stuart Rapaport, who make sure that weekday and Shabbat services flowed smoothly. Without Cantor Stuart, my Sabbatical would not have been possible. We get by from time to time without him, but it has always been a tremendous relief to welcome him back. The forty-five year era of Cantor Stuart, though, will come to an end on October 2, 2021. He has informed me of his intention to retire following the fall holidays of 5781.

We have known for years that we needed to look beyond Stuart and identify and train individuals to read Torah and services, and we have taken some steps towards that end. However, we now have a firm date. When he retires, 18 months from now, our congregation will deeply miss him. He has made his mark on all of our Shabbat and Festival services, leading and reading Torah, teaching B’nai Mitzvah students and adults, a beacon guiding the music and liturgy of our prayers. He has been a remarkable Bima partner. No one will miss him more than me.

Looking forward, we need to get serious about preparing to replace Stuart. You may remember a program that USCJ used to run back in the 90s and early 2000s, known as Imun. It was an 8 day retreat seminar at Ramah, and its goal was to teach lay leaders how to take on roles such as leading services, reading Torah, and delivering a dvar Torah. USCJ has updated and reimagined this program to meet the needs of today’s small congregations and their lay leaders. Imun 2020 is a collaborative program of USCJ, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Cantors Assembly. Its purpose is to empower lay leaders of small and remote congregations to fill certain roles in their congregations such as leading a Shabbat or weekday service, reading Torah, delivering a sermon, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, or officiating at a baby naming or a funeral.

The program has 3 parts: 

1.          Two Zoom webinars on the evenings of April 30th and June 10th, to begin to get to know other participants and to set learning goals.

2.          A 5-day, 4-night retreat July 9-13, 2020, at Ramah Darom, one of the premier summer camps of the Conservative Movement, located on 185 acres in Northern Georgia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

3.          Optional peer coaching when participants return home.

Participants must know how to read Hebrew and have some familiarity with the liturgy. More information can be found here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Imun2020App

Ahavas Israel has a generous adult education scholarship fund, the Belle and Israel Shapiro Fund, which will cover all costs, tuition and travel, for anyone who wants to go to IMUN 2020. In exchange, we expect that participants will lead services or read Torah at least twice a month. For those whose Hebrew is not quite good enough, we offer Hebrew classes. For those who want to begin to learn but are not able to commit to IMUN 2020, Stuart and I will meet with you privately.

This will be a new chapter in the life of Ahavas Israel. Those who wanted new or different music, now is the time for you to step up and learn how to lead a service and help us bring those new melodies and new ways of dovening into our services. To slightly paraphrase Exodus 10:9, “Let us go forward into the future with our young and our old!”

Hebrew (and Yiddish) Words of the Month:

  • hazan – Cantor
  • doven (Yiddish) – pray
  • Lein (Yiddish) – read Torah
  • shaliah tzibur – prayer leader
  • ba’al k’riah – Torah reader

Divre Harav – February/2020

Consul General of Israel in New York Celebrates Launch of Masorti Egalitarian Siddur for Children with Disabilities

Calling the first of its kind, halachic egalitarian Siddur designed for children with disabilities an “incredible project,” Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York, told a crowd in his official residence that “the entire people of Israel are grateful to the Masorti-Conservative Movement for this outstanding initiative.” Dayan spoke at an April 30th event that he co-sponsored with The Masorti Foundation to celebrate the launching of the B’chol D’rachecha (In All Your Ways) Siddur.

After seeing a moving video about the Masorti funded ADRABA – The Shirley Lowy Center for Children & Youth with Disabilities, which is utilizing this Siddur, Dayan said, “Every Israeli should see this video.” Many of the attendees expressed the same sentiment during the reception after seeing how children with severe disabilities were able to celebrate a Bar/Bat Mitzvah due to this program. For most of these children this was the first time people said Mazel Tov to them and their parents.

On his Twitter page after the event, Ambassador Dayan wrote, “Glad to host an event in my home with the Masorti Foundation to present the new Accessible Siddur, an important tool for Jews with special needs.

Yizhar Hess, CEO of Masorti Israel, thanked Ambassador Dayan for hosting this event. He said, “This revolutionary Siddur touched his heart. This is why he decided to open his home to Masorti.”

One of the Siddur project’s largest funders, Gloria Bieler, chair of the Masorti Foundation Visibility Committee, said, “This Siddur reflects Masorti’s core value of inclusion, and the importance of every single person to participate in Jewish life.” Gloria and her husband, Mark, along with the Lowy family provided the principal funding for the Siddur project.

In his keynote address, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Senior Rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue, spoke about the importance of inclusion in Jewish life, which is reflected in the work of the Masorti Movement. He said there must be a further strengthening of the partnership between Jews in the United States and Israel to offer inclusive Jewish spiritual life for all Israelis, as exemplified by B’chol D’rachecha.

Cosgrove urged the attendees, many of which were members of Park Avenue Synagogue, to plant communal seeds throughout Israel that will foster a more inclusive Israel that will be welcoming to Jewish people of all backgrounds and denominations. 

We must build one nation with one heart,” said Cosgrove.

Heidi Schneider, chair of the Masorti Foundation, closed the event by asking everyone in the room to stand for a “Shehecheyanu” to celebrate this special occasion. 

For more about the Masorti Movement in Israel, follow its blogs at masorti.org.

You can find the video, highlighting children with disabilities celebration b’nai mitzvah, here:

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mug’balut – disability
  • nekheh – handicapped
  • iver – blind
  • heresh – deaf

Divre Harav – January/2020

From the writings of Abba Kovner.*

The Nazi ghetto did not make me a religious person, and I did not become a romantic in the forests with the Partizans. On the day I first arrived in Jerusalem, before even washing my face or changing my clothes, I went to the Kotel. It was 1945, and the place was narrow, crowded, dirty and depressing.  British soldiers were stationed there, armed with guns and rubber truncheons.  I had no friends or relatives who longed for those large stones. I did not go there to pray, my head was uncovered, and I had no plan to push a note into a crack between the stones.

Behind me I could hear the donkeys braying and the Arab merchants whose language I did not understand, and I was flushed with the odd sensation of fear and foreignness and the feeling that I belong somewhere else. And then someone pulled at my sleeve and asked in a whisper, “maybe you can join the minyan?”

Had the fellow called out like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s young men who grab you by the sleeve at the bus station in Tel Aviv or on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in a commanding tone: “Are you Jewish? Come put on tefillin!” I would have responded the way I do to the ChaBaD commandoes: “Sorry, I’m Jewish but I don’t put on tefillin.” 

But the anonymous fellow by the Kotel in 1945 said only: “we need a tenth for a minyan,” and his voice was like the voice of Avraham Leib, the shamash.

Avraham Leib was the shamash of the local shul in the city where I grew up (Vilna). In those days it was called “Jerusalem of Lita.” For morning and evening services there were enough davenners, but for Mincha, even in Jerusalem of Lita there were not many. The elderly shamash would stand in the doorway of the synagogue and, in his hoarse voice, invite Jews to make the minyan.

I’m sure you know that minyan is an important value-concept in Judaism, perhaps the most Jewish thing in Judaism, to be part of the minyan. To know that nine Jews need a tenth, and that the individual Jew needs nine more to be a people, a divine congregation. At that moment it was as if the thousands of miles that my feet had trodden from Vilna to Jerusalem disappeared.  I put on a hat and joined the minyan. I felt I’d arrived.

*Note on Abba Kovner from Wikipedia:

Abba Kovner (March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust; he made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.

P.S. Ahavas Israel needs YOU for a minyan, Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. and Thursdays, 7:15 a.m.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shamash – “service” or “helper” light; later, describing a person who is a helper or assistant.
  • shemesh – sun
  • minyan – from the verb “mana,” to count. A quorum of 10 adult Jews.

Divre Harav – December/2019

We are now in the darkest time of the year when the days are short and the nights are long. Soon, we will be lighting candles on Hanukkah to bring more light into the world and celebrate our free choice to turn darkness to light. If our attitude can express gratitude during the dark moments, we will soar during the moments of light and joy. Let’s now get down to business and make miracles come to life through our heartfelt recitation of this prayer, a Breslov Hasidic prayer that can help us through the darkest moments each of us must face in life.

To Be Said in Times of Revealed and Hidden Goodness:

King of Kings, Master of the Universe, Hashem – Thank You! Thank You that I am standing here and thanking You! Thank You for the infinite times that You have helped me, supported me, rescued me, encouraged me, healed me, guarded over me and made me happy. Thank You for always being with me. Thank You for giving me the strength to observe Your commandments, to do good deeds and pray – thank You for everything! Thank You for all the times You helped me when I didn’t know how to say “Thank You”. Thank You for all the loving kindnesses You do for me each and every moment. Thank You for every breath I breathe.

Thank You Hashem for all the things that I do have, and thank You Hashem even for all the things I don’t have. Thank You for my periodic difficulties, my occasional setbacks, and for the times when I don’t feel happy, because everything is for my ultimate benefit. Even if I don’t see that it’s always for my best, deep in my heart, I know that everything that comes from You is the very best for me and designed especially for me in precision and exacting Divine Providence, of which only the King of Kings is capable.

Thank You for my difficulties, for only through them I know how to appreciate the good. Only after being in darkness can one appreciate the light. Thank You for the wonderful life You have given me. Thank You for every little thing I have, for everything comes from You and from no one else. Thank You for always listening to my prayers. Creator Of The World, I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the times that I didn’t appreciate what You gave me and instead of thanking You I only complained. I am dust and ashes and You are the entire universe. Please never cast me away. Amen

~shared with the permission of Rabbi Gershon Weissman

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • hesed – kindness, love
  • gemilut hasadim – acts of loving-kindness
  • hasid – one who is pious; also, a follower of a hasidic rebbe.
  • hasida – Stork(!)

Divre Harav – November/2019

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

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.

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. 

Previous Sabbaticals have focused on:

2004-5 – Visiting small synagogues Tefillah Tidbits, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

2009-10 – Visiting churches to learn the art of preaching, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

2014-15 – Writing group, Guide to funeral practice, Psalm Blog, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

This Sabbatical, I will be working with the Local First organization on a national project to create materials supporting a “Sacred Economy” initiative. They describe the project this way:

We believe a Sacred Economy:
is that ordering of relationships
that enables and encourages people
to activate their talents and energies

to create, exchange, and use goods and services
to provide for humanity’s everyday needs,
in a truly loving manner,
befitting that Love that is the signature identity
and desire of both God and the human person.

I’ll begin by working to identify teachings and language that resonates across spiritual traditions, political spectrums, and people groups, gathering multi-faith resources related to the sacred economy and connected topics. I’m looking forward to meeting with people from many different faith traditions to learn how their personal faith and sense of the Sacred affects the way they structure their business, and what texts or traditions shape their decision-making process.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities. Services will be led by Stuart Rapaport. As of the beginning of October, seven slots were open for divre Torah and 2 slots were open for leading Torah discussions. A d’var Torah should be about 12 minutes. The Torah study should be a 50 minute interactive session. To sign up, go to https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1akhLglgeGsuICPyT0aWjPhnOmhGUcmk65wMrPOXn7AY/edit#gid=0 or http://tinyurl.com/CAITorahSignup.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However, during normal office hours the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. At other times (weekdays 7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm or weekends), 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. 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!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Sh’mittah – Sabbatical year, once every seven years, a Sabbath of the land.
  • Yovel – Jubilee year, once every 50 years, every seven Sabbatical cycles, an economic realignment.