Divre Harav – September, 2021

Now is the time to begin thinking about what you want to get out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Ahavas Israel and how the synagogue can add to your life in the year that follows.

Because you are reading these words, probably a member of the synagogue or considering membership, I’m guessing that some level of Jewish content in your life is important to you. You may have Holocaust survivors or victims in your family tree and are affirming a Jewish connection because of that. You might enjoy Jewish community and culture, Jewish music or literature. You might feel connected to specific Jewish practices. You might be moved by a sense of God and even feel a sense of commandedness with respect to mitzvot.

My job is to enable you to deepen your connection to traditional Jewish practice, to convince you that there is something about prayer, Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the system of Torah and Jewish ethics that is worth your time. The mission of the synagogue is to deepen your connection, to see you become more fully Jewish, that over the course of your lifetime, you are engaged in a continual journey of Jewish discovery.

What’s the benefit to you? I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe that my life is better because of Shabbat, because of the time I spend in prayer, and because the time I spend in Torah helps me to be a better person and make better choices.

That is why beginning this year, I will be offering you a program designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute called “Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism.” It is:

●  A sophisticated introduction to foundational concepts of Judaism and Jewish life,

●  An invitation for learners to join Judaism’s interpretive conversation, and

●  A curriculum designed specifically to be accessible for adult learners taking their first steps into Jewish thought.


It’s basic aims are:

●  To explore and make accessible the most compelling and deepest questions in Jewish thought,

●  To demonstrate the principles and debates that underlie our Jewish heritage, and

●  To reject the assumption that every learner is on track toward practicing Judaism in a specified way.

Whether a Sunday morning conversation, an afternoon study group, or evening class, please make time to:

●  Explore the role of peoplehood in Judaism,

●  Wrestle with the complexity of faith in our tradition,

●  Debate the meaning of mitzvot, and

●  Engage in conversations about Jewish ethics.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Am – People
  • Emunah – Faith
  • Avodah – Practice
  • Musar – Ethics

Divre Harav – Summer, 2021

The Talmud consists of 38 volumes of disputes. As such, it has much to teach us about how to engage in discussion and, even more important, how to disagree agreeably. What happens after a group reaches a non-unanimous decision? 

In one tragic model, Rabbi Eliezer was the sole voice in a decision that was decided against him. He took the disagreement personally and kept arguing long after the vote was over. The sages took his intransigence personally and excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva tried to soften the blow, but Rabbi Eliezer was distraught. Tears and waves of anger, as described in the Talmud, threatened to destroy the world. His wife, Imma Shalom, wouldn’t let him say certain prayers lest his fury do more damage. She left him alone for a few moments, however, and his unsupervised prayer led to the death of her brother Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Sages who had voted for his excommunication.

Ill feelings might not literally destroy the world, but when we are unwilling or unable to let go of anger and resentment when something doesn’t go our way, a disagreement can become a rift that seriously damages a community. The losing side needs to know when it is time to stop fighting and start adjusting to the new reality. The winning side should behave with sensitivity and not gloat over its victory, understanding that the other side had good reasons for their passionate arguments. 

The better model is that of Hillel and Shammai, who fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Jewish Law. Yet even though they disagreed about fundamentals of marriage and divorce in ways that might cast doubt on the validity of the children’s status, their respective students continued to marry each other’s children. The respect that each side had for the other’s position prevented the dispute from fracturing the Jewish people into two different religions.

Our United Jewish School model includes language in our governance documents that asks us to work towards consensus decision-making. Neither congregation can take action alone – significant decisions require a majority from each side. Virtually every decision we’ve made in the past 15 years has been consensus. But this is an unusual situation. More often, our decision making bodies do occasionally reach a point where a principled disagreement requires a vote. Organizations cannot allow an inability to reach consensus to paralyze them into inaction. At those times, we turn to the Talmudic model, reaching for “disagreement for the sake of heaven” in which both sides listen deeply to what the other is saying, discuss ideas rather than attack ad hominem, argue with reason rather than fear, and strive to reach for truth rather than for victory.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mahloket – disagreement
  • Vikuah – debate
  • Ta’anah – argument
  • Riv – dispute
  • Sikhsukh – feud

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 – 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

Divre Harav – September/2020

Over the past five months plus, I have become an expert in participating in prayer online. No matter what the status of COVID-19 cases might be in West Michigan in mid-September, some will not be comfortable in an in-person service. And Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur might be your first experience in a virtual synagogue environment. Here are some things you should know:

First, the service this year will be significantly different than in the past. We have designed it with the pandemic in mind. It will be shorter, to reduce potential exposure time of those sitting in the sanctuary, to acknowledge that wearing face-masks for a prolonged service is uncomfortable, and because we know that it is more difficult to remain engaged while watching a service through a screen.

We have crafted this service carefully, choosing prayers that are engaging, even while sitting at home. But in the end, the service is only as active as you are. The trick is to place yourself in a sacred frame of mind and imagine that you are sitting in your favorite seat in the sanctuary, no matter where you are physically located. Stand when the congregation stands, bow when the congregation bows. respond – out loud – when the congregation responds. Sing along with Cantor Stuart and read the English readings along with me. Don’t stand by and watch — Participate!

We are making High Holiday Mahzorim available for you to take home for each person in your household. Set aside your electronic devices and turn off the notification on the screen that serves as your window into Ahavas Israel. For 90 minutes (or so), follow along and contemplate the themes laid out before you in the liturgy. The season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of renewal. Draw your attention to the areas in your life which would benefit from breathing new life into them. The New Year and the Day of Atonement is about strengthening relationships with family, reconnecting with friends, remembering to be generous, giving, and kind to yourself and others, establishing a prayer routine, and finding God at the center of your consciousness.

Leo Laporte, a tech journalist, describes the consumption of media as a “sit-back experience,” versus the “lean-in experience” of interacting with the content. I encourage you to lean into your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience with an active posture and an active mind. If you take my advice, whether you are sitting in the pews or sitting at home, I virtually guarantee that you will be transformed!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Mashgiah Ruhani – spiritual advisor