Divre Harav – May/2020

Shabbat in April was a strange experience for anyone whose normal routine takes them to shul on Shabbat morning. We had nowhere to go.

When all air traffic in North America was grounded in the days following September 11, 2001, the skies were eerily quiet. And when all, or virtually all, communal prayer ceased in the Jewish community in late March and April, a different type of silence emerged. For some, the silence was filled with the calls to prayer issuing from their screens, coming from rabbis and cantors across the country, seeking to gather a minyan via Zoom or Facebook Live or some other online platform. For others, exhausted by endless meetings in front of screens all week, the chance to relax into Shabbat by withdrawing from screens was a precious retreat away from technology.

For some, the days stretched long, sitting along in the house, waiting for deliveries of mail and food. For others, college age children returned and the house grew busier and more crowded, as each person vied for private space in the house to work undisturbed or perhaps to communicate with friends. When the days blur together, especially for people not used to working from home, it is too easy to become the person whose work takes over life. When you remove shopping, eating out, seeing movies, working out, and running errands, work becomes the routine that shapes the day. And Shabbat can become one of the markers that helps us keep track of the weeks since we felt normal.

Shabbat, for me, became a refuge away from the the things taking over my life in isolation. I finished books and magazines that had been on my coffee table. I took a walk with Marisa. I took the dog for a walk. I waited for the weather to warm up enough to be comfortable riding my bicycle. And I reset my body, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, to prepare for the next week.

Because as I sit and write, I don’t know what our world will look like in May, I’ll conclude by sharing a Prayer for Healing and Strength and Wisdom in Response to the Pandemic.

Oh God, we turn to You at this time of peril seeking Your protection for us, our families and all humanity. We ask that You heal, in body and spirit, all those — in this country and throughout the world — stricken by this terrible new plague.

We ask that You strengthen and protect the nurses, doctors and all others who are placing their own lives at risk to care for the sick.

We pray for our leaders and their advisors at all levels of government and for all others who exercise just and rightful authority, asking that You give them insight, judgment and compassion as they make the many decisions facing our country that need to be made now and in the future. 

We pray, too, that You will guide and grant wisdom to all who are tirelessly working to develop new medicines and vaccines to cure and protect against this virus and ask for their success so that soon it may be defeated and this pandemic ended. 

And finally, we ask that You sustain and help all who, even though escaping illness, are finding their lives and the lives of their families in turmoil because of the consequences to our society of the disease.

As we seek Your assistance, support and mercy, we say, AMEN.   

© 2020 Roger Leemis
Permission to reproduce with attribution granted.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • bidud – isolation
  • Mageifa – pandemic
  • N’gif – the pathogen behind the pandemic
  • hisun – vaccine

Divre Harav – April/2020

A Passover thought.

 The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is related to the root tzar meaning “narrow.” Most of Egypt’s population lives in a narrow band on either side of the Nile or its delta. When you are in mitzrayim, you are confined to a narrow, constricted space. That’s what it means to be in slavery – to live in confinement.

Slavery can be physical, financial, emotional, or intellectual. We can be enslaved to an idea, unwilling to entertain that we might be wrong, or unwilling to hear alternative points of view that might change our position. We can be enslaved to a dead-end job we can’t afford to leave or a well-paying job whose stress is slowly killing us. We can be enslaved to fear, anger, jealousy, mistrust, or even love.

What is it that enslaves you? Are you held hostage by your memory? Were you hurt or wronged year ago, and even today are still carrying the pain? Consider the lesson of this Zen story of two Buddhist monks:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a beautiful woman, fine dressed in silk, also attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman on his shoulders so her dress would stay dry, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could not contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted even to touch a woman! How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

A good memory can be a curse. Forgetfulness can be a blessing. What are you holding onto from your past that is keeping you from living a mentally and physically healthier life?

Think of the things that keep you imprisoned in mitzrayim. Make a list. Write them down. And this Passover, choose one of them and free yourself. Celebrate the seventh day of Passover, the day of crossing through the Reed Sea, by singing a song of freedom from something in your past that enslaved you.

This is the message of Passover. Free yourself from the things that enslave your body and mind, physically, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mitzrayim – Egypt
  • av’dut – slavery
  • heirut – freedom

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.