Divre Harav, November 2016

For those of you who were out of town or unable to be at Ahavas Israel for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I encourage you to download my sermons from our website or contact the synagogue office and ask Deb to mail them to you. I hope you will find the messages both inspiring and challenging.

Now that a very busy month of holidays has passed we return to a normal 6 day rhythm punctuated by a Sabbath break. It has been about six months since we instituted our “Torah Study Shabbat” service schedule. The early morning Torah study has attracted about a dozen or so serious participants so when we begin our service at 10:30, we begin with more energy then then the other weeks of the month. We have not yet noticed that many of the people who said that they wanted a shorter service have been coming on the second Shabbat of the month, but there are still six months left in the initial stage of the experiment. Our Junior Congregation will also meet on the second Shabbat of the month so that will give greater incentive for another population to join together.

Perhaps the Torah study or the shortened service will be a gateway that will help you feel more comfortable in the Ahavas Israel community. Shabbat can be a social or a religious or even an educational anchor of a Jewish community. I love seeing people hanging around the meeting room or the library, not wanting to leave after services. With several more volunteers to shop, prepare kiddush, and clean up, we could prepare enough Kiddush food for a light lunch. This would enable those who wanted to stick around to study in the library or bring board games or just socialize. This community can be whatever you want it to you, as long as you are willing to put the time into it.

As Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream – im tirtzu, ein zo agada!”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • agada – story
  • halom – dream
  • midrash – story, typically a commentary

Divre Harav – October, 2016

“Connect with your Jewish neighbors through Ahavas Israel”

The word havurah derives from the Hebrew denoting connection. Hibur means to make a connection; A haver is a friend. A Havurah is a group of people who come together because of shared interests, age, life experience, or geographic proximity. Sometimes a havurah functions as a synagogue, meeting every Shabbat, and sometimes havurot are formed within synagogues as a means to create a variety of small group programs and experiences.

A Havurah group might have a theme, such as:

  • Book discussion
  • Torah Study
  • Hebrew conversation
  • Yiddish conversation
  • Shabbat dinner
  • Havdalah
  • Game Nights
  • Garage sale for tzedaka
  • Sports event watching
  • Movie watching
  • Picnics
  • Other activities

Alternatively, a Havurah might meet as a group of people who live in proximity to each other who want to do a variety of the above activities. Ahavas Israel wants help you connect with your Jewish neighbors. We want you to find two friends with similar interests and let us know about your Havurah. We have a map of synagogue members so if you would like a list of people within a mile or two (or five) to invite, we can provide it. Meet monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly – the schedule is entirely up to you. We’d like to put your event on the calendar so others can see what you are doing and join you (although you may limit the group size, if you wish). We can provide you with study materials, book suggestions, instructions and booklets for Shabbat dinner rituals and Havdalah ceremonies. Just ask me for what you need.

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High Holiday Preview: I typically begin serious work on my messages for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur about a month in advance. Here are some of the topics I’ve been working on:

Repentance – the power of teshuvah. Teshuvah can mean radical transformation, but sometimes the person who needs to do teshuvah is trapped in bad patterns of behavior. What might it mean to extend yourself beyond your comfortable boundaries to consider what it means to give others the chance to do teshuvah?

Sacrifice – What are we willing to sacrifice in order to support our most closely held beliefs?

What is the function of beating ourselves on the chest during the recitation of lists of sins? How might we reconsider the practice and turn it into something that leads to positive growth?

I wish you a happy and healthy new year and look forwarding to greeting you during this holiday season.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Teshuvah – repentance
  • Korban – sacrifice
  • Vidui – confession
  • Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe

Divre Harav – May/16

The festival of Shavuot is approaching, marking the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. The topic this year is “Psalms and their role in liturgy and a life of religious practice.” If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; on the second day of the festival, we recite Yizkor.

I chose this year’s Shavuot study topic because, for almost three years, I have been immersing myself in the poetry of the Psalmist and writing weekly reflections. On June 27, God willing, I will publish the reflection on the final Psalm, 150. I took on this project in part because for my own spiritual life, I needed a project that would bring me to parts of our Tanakh that I had never before thought about seriously. I needed something to break me out of patterns of habitual behavior, in which I only read and study material that I already know and feel comfortable with.

Most of us live our lives in habitual ways because the comfortable routine appeals to us. This is why when we ask people who are not accustomed to coming to synagogue services to participate in a weekday or Shabbat service, we most often do not succeed. Their is a vast gulf between one’s normal morning or weekend routine and the new routine of coming to Ahavas Israel early on a Wednesday or Thursday or at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. People tell me that they’d like to come more often or that they know they should come more often, but most often that desire is not strong enough to break an old habit and form a new one.

Living strictly according to the Jewish calendar can become just as habitual and thoughtless as a life disconnected from Jewish rhythms. Holidays which interrupt our schedule can help us pay more attention to the flow of time. Deliberately choosing to take on a new project or learn something outside our comfort zone can also take us out of habitual behavior. Please join me on Saturday night, June 11, to begin your celebration of Shavuot and your journey towards a more thoughtful life.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • tefillah – Prayer.
  • l’hitpallel – To pray.
  • l’har’her – To mediate.
  • lil’mod – To study.
  • l’la’meid – To teach.

Service Schedule Change

Last summer’s congregation survey reported and recent conversations confirmed that a number of people have said they would come to services more often than they currently do if only the service was shorter. On one hand, the people who doven in the Ahavas Israel community religiously, week after week, appreciate a traditional service, which, no doubt about it, is long. On the other hand, we want people to be able to find a satisfying worship experience at Ahavas Israel. Therefore, I have proposed an experiment to the Religious Life committee. On the second Shabbat of each month we will alter our Shabbat morning schedule and service in order to shorten the service significantly.

We’ll begin at 9:30 a.m. with bagels and Torah study. The service will begin at 10:30, with a goal of finishing by 11:45. We’ll try this for a minimum of 12 months, but begin to gather feedback after the first six months. Please be patient for the first couple of months. It may take a little experimentation to get the timing right.

I’m hoping that the multi-faceted experience will draw in both those who like Torah study, even if they don’t stay for the service, and those who want a shorter service, even if they don’t come early for the Torah study. I’m also hoping that our regulars who appreciate a traditional experience will enjoy the extended Torah study and also find the quicker service tolerable, once a month.

The first of the monthly Torah Study Shabbat services will take place on June 11. Subsequent dates will be July 9, August 13, September 10, October 8, November 12, and December 10. The schedule will be:

  • 9:30 a.m. bagels and Torah study
  • 10:30 a.m. Service
  • 11:45 a.m. Kiddush

Divre Harav – May/16

It used to be, back in pre-modern times, that there was a tall, thick wall between Jews and Christian. Jewish identity was protected by this wall, which formed a protective barrier around us by making it very difficult for outsiders to get in. There was a way through the way from the Jewish side to the Christian side, but Christians didn’t want anyone going the other way so they guarded their side of the wall. Jews were suspicious of anyone who tried to cross onto our side, examining them carefully and turning them away several times before finally letting them in.

As the 18th century enlightenment dawned, the walls between communities began coming down, replaced by neat picket fences. In general, people stayed on their own sides, but we begin having polite conversations over the fence. Most elements of the Jewish community welcomed the new openness in society, although some Hasidic or what came to be known later as Hareidi Jews built new, higher, walls around their lives.

As we reached the late-20th century, the picket fences began to be perforated by gates and more often the not, the gates were left open. People freely visited each other’s homes, married and raised children together. Jewish identity, once so clearly defined by walls or fences, became more challenging to define.

In the early 21st century, we live in a society defined by the consumer marketplace. Shoppers have access to food, clothing, and products from around the world delivered right to their doorstep at the click of a button. Religious community is not immune from this. It is easy to design a ritual that precisely reflects an individual’s Jewish identity, including elements from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, if you wish. A religious community like ours which reflects a particular path to God has to compete in this marketplace and demonstrate how and why our path is rewarding, meaningful, compelling, and true. We host visitors wishing to sample our product. If they like what they see, they might consider staying in our area; otherwise, they move on and sample another community.

Our challenge, then, is to maintain appropriate boundaries that preserve our identity, but at the same time keep our gates open and welcome visitors, knowing that many are just passing through but some will stay.  And those who stay will enrich our community by the many gifts they bring with them.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • ger – In the Bible, a stranger living in a foreign community; in post-Biblical Hebrew, a convert.
  • kahal or Kehillah – congregation
  • Adah – congregation. Adat – ‘congregation of,’ as in Adat Shalom
  • Bayit – house. Beit – ‘house of,’ as in Beit Yisrael. Sometimes written in English as Beth, as in Beth El.