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

Divre Harav – February, 2021

Why should Congregation Ahavas Israel and Temple Emanuel share a building?

Imagine that 150 years ago or 50 years ago, we had formed an intentionally combined community that supported both traditional and liberal Jewish practice. Imagine that we had offered multiple streams of programming, learning, and prayer, holidays and life cycle celebrations, for two communities side by side, hand in hand. If we had done this years ago, what would we look like today? 

Rather than feeling like two tiny communities separated by a distance of a couple of miles, we would feel like one small community magnifying and sanctifying each other. Rather than trying to overcome the aversion of feeling like a stranger in each other’s building, we would see full participation in programs like our joint scholar in residence, no matter who was hosting the service or leading the Shabbat table ritual. We would see fewer people reluctant to participate in the other congregation’s programs out of a fear of feeling foolish or ignorant of their practices and customs.

We didn’t accomplish this 50 years ago, but we have the chance to do it now, profoundly changing the future of our community. We are in a better place now than we were back then to accomplish this.

When I arrived in Grand Rapids 27 years ago, the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids was still known as the Jewish Community Fund. It became a Federation shortly after I arrived, reflecting the fact that it had evolved from a fundraising organization for Israel into a fundraising and programming organization for the good of the Grand Rapids Jewish community as well as Jews around the world. The Jewish Theater and the Shir Shalom Chorus were both relatively new. These organizations, along with the Jewish Cultural Council, brought people together regardless of religious affiliation. The synagogue and temple took a step towards this vision of a shared campus when we combined our religious school programs more than 15 years ago, creating the United Jewish School. Representatives from the synagogue, the school, and the temple are currently working together to hire a Cantor/Educator to oversee with the music program at the temple, provide some cantorial support at the synagogue, and to be the Director of the UJS. We have a track record of successful partnerships across the community that reassures us that we can share a building and support each other’s differences with respect.

Sharing a building wisely means that we can lower our ongoing building and maintenance expenses, freeing up resources for more and better programming. The collaboration committee has recommended moving towards a shared campus on Fulton Street at the current location of Temple Emanuel. We are at a critical stage right now where we have to decide whether we as a synagogue community are prepared to keep moving forward. I can tell you that I trust the integrity of the lay leadership of Temple and the Federation and I trust Rabbi Schadick, and I am excited with the prospect of designing a new space in a shared building. Before this can happen, the synagogue board and the synagogue membership will have more opportunities to cast their vote on whether to move the project forward. There have been several opportunities for the synagogue board and membership to ask question, and there will be more opportunities in the coming weeks and months. I will do my best to answer your questions about the project, or you may contact Sandy Freed or any other member of the Collaboration Committee (the following synagogue members are on the committee: Judy Joseph, Barb Wepman, Diane Rayor, Lanny Thodey, Marni Vyn, Rick Stevens, and Marisa Reed). I hope you will join me in embracing this vision of the future of Grand Rapids Jewry.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kahal, Kehilah – Congregation, community
  • Merkaz K’hilati – Community Center
  • Amuta – Association
  • Hevra – Fellowship
  • Matna”s – An abbreviation for Mercaz tarbut, noar, u’sport, Center for Culture, Youth, and Sports

Divre Harav – January, 2021

God made some animals to demonstrate God’s might and power, like the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the great white shark, and the blue whale.

Some animals are a demonstration of God’s beauty, like the antelope, the horse, the swan, and the dolphin.

Some animals make you believe that God has a sense of human, like the platypus, the penguin, and the monkey.

God made some animals to work with human beings, like horses or oxen, and some animals to feed us or clothe us, like sheep, goats, cows, or chickens.

God, the creator and designer, the engineer and driver of this grand experiment called planet Earth and the Milky Way galaxy and the boundless universe, will someday apologize, at least I hope, for mosquitoes, gnats, and cockroaches, some of God’s early insect experiments.

And then there are the animals that God made to be our companions, to live with us and talk with us and comfort us when we are sad and give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Cats and dogs and rabbits and birds and small animals like hamsters and gerbils, and various other animals that give us joy each day. In this category, there is no accounting for taste. Dog people and cat people will rarely agree, except when they puzzle over reptile lovers.

Why do we take animals into our homes? Companion animals are needy – who wants to walk a dog in the middle of a blizzard or a downpour? Expensive – not necessarily to buy, but the vet bills will kill you. Inconvenient – want to go on vacation? Who takes care of the fish? But we love them and we anthropopathize them with human feelings so that they love us back, and we are grateful to God for their playful nature, cuteness, and fuzziness (except for the snakes).

Many years ago, before I came to Grand Rapids, I lived in New York, down the street from the Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine, the largest Cathedral in the world. They hold a Blessing of the Pets each October in which they parade animals from elephants to giraffes, tarantulas to white rats, terrariums of snakes and bowls of fish, llamas, sheep, cows, pigs, goats, horses, dogs and cats and everything in between, down the main aisle, nearly two football fields long. Animals are followed by dancers waving banners representing seasons and other aspects of nature. The service is a celebration of God’s creation and a time to give thanks. Thousands of people sat with their pets on their laps or under their chairs, praising God for creation in general, and for those aspects which they had taken as their own in particular. Following the service, they went out onto the grounds where an army of priests individually blessed animals of all kinds, with the words, “May the Lord bless you and guard you; May the Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord raise His face to you and grant you peace.”

God loves animals. As we say in Ashrei, Potei’ah et yadekha umasbia l’khol hai ratzon, “You open Your hands, and satisfy every living thing with favor.” Psalms 145:16

in memory of Mr. Macho Lipsner Krishef, June 3, 2011- December 4, 2020

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kelev – dog
  • Hatul – cat
  • Nahash – snake
  • Dag – fish
  • Kipod – hedgehog
  • Oger – hamster
  • Arnav – rabbit

Divre Harav – December/2020

Last month’s vandalism at the Ahavas Israel cemetery was shocking, disturbing. We wonder who would do such a thing, we wonder about their intent, their motivation. Were they trying to send a message, and if so — what was it? A week after the incident, we have far more questions than answers.

About a year ago on a cold September night in Duluth Minnesota, a nearly 120 year old synagogue burned down. It was a tragic fire. Churches and synagogues had been targets of hate crimes, and the early reporting reflected this fear. Less than a week after the fire, the police identified and arrested a suspect, a 36 year old homeless man. At 2:00 in the morning, he went in search of a place to sleep. He found a little shelter behind the synagogue and went inside. The small hut didn’t have a full roof. It was a Sukkah; Sukkot was approaching. He lit a small fire to keep warm. The fire got out of control and he went to a nearby gas station to call for help, but by the time he arrived, he heard the fire trucks on their way. He was arrested and immediately confessed and soon after pleaded guilty to a felony charge. He was not charge with a bias or hate crime because there was no intent to attack a synagogue or a Jewish community; he was just homeless and cold and careless.

No matter the motivation or lack thereof, losing a synagogue or finding graffiti on monuments in a cemetery is painful. But the outpouring of love and support from the community around us has reminded us that we live amongst a strongly supportive community. The day after we found the vandalism, a couple of the neighbors around the cemetery, on their own initiative, went over to scrub the paint off of the stones. They were joined by a women from Ann Arbor and several others who drove to the cemetery because they wanted to do something, as well as at least one person who stopped by to take care of their family’s gravestones.

Ed Miller, chair of the cemetery committee, and I received scores of emails, phone calls, and messages with offers of help, support, prayers, and contributions to upgrade the security of our cemetery. The notes came from a multitude of Christian perspectives — Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Christian Reformed, among others — as well as Moslem, Hindu, and Unitarian, and Jewish communities around the country and world. We responded to each one with a sense of gratitude that we live in a community of caring, loving, people.

Hanukkah, beginning the evening of December 10, is a holiday celebrating light from the midst of darkness. The vandalism in our cemetery was an act of darkness, but the community’s response chased away the darkness with the light of love.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kever – grave
  • Beit K’varot – cemetery
  • Beit Olam – cemetery (literally, eternal home)
  • Matzeivah – monument

Divre Harav – November/2020

One of the results of the pandemic worldwide is the necessity of “doing Judaism” at home with less support from a community. Judaism has always been a home based religion, centered around the idea of each individual responsible for their own engagement with mitzvah. The requirement of minyan adds a community aspect to prayer, but prayer itself is an individual obligation.

The Zoom minyan or the broadcast of a service places a greater share of the responsibility of a spiritual experience on the individual. It’s easier to zone out and wander away when you’re not in the room with other people, standing, sitting, and hearing voices all around you. Some who are feeling unsatisfied by a Zoom minyan or by watching a broadcast of a service might therefore be wondering, how do I start a Jewish prayer practice? And how might my individual engagement with prayer enhance or support my engagement with a remote minyan?

Here are two paths to begin a Jewish Prayer 101 practice. What we generally refer to as prayer can be broken down into three major categories:

  • Meditation, which can be understood as quieting and preparing your mind for other forms of prayer;
  • Study, which can be understood as God communicating with you through sacred text;
  • Prayer, which can be understood as you communicating your needs, wants, and desires to God.

Although there is a long history of Jewish meditative practices, for most people, the prayer that feels most “Jewish” falls into the latter two categories.

The Shema consists of three paragraphs from the Torah – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. it does not contain petitions addressed to God. Rather, it falls in the category of study. Through recitation of the shema, you will consider the role of love in your life; love of God, but also love of God’s creation – other people, animals, and nature. You will consider broadly the ways you express this love, intellectually, physically, and financially (with your heart, soul, and might). You will consider the consequences to the world around you of living rightly and wrongly (the second paragraph of the shema) and how remind yourself to stay on the right path (the third paragraph). The Shema is a total of only 20 verses, but there is a lot packed into those verses, enough that you might focus on a different lesson each day for several weeks before repeating a lesson.

The internal directions of the Shema are to recite the words twice a day, when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Any Jewish prayers can be recited in Hebrew, English, or any language you understand. Traditional synagogues are committed to Hebrew prayer because that is the language of the Bible and the historic language of our people, not because God doesn’t understand English. Part of your prayer practice could be to spend a little time learning what each Hebrew word means.

A prayer practice takes practice! Give it some time and you might consider keeping a journal of the thoughts that the Shema brings up for you. Let me know how it’s going.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

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