Divre Harav – January/2022

In a small congregation in a pandemic world, it is not easy to get a minyan. Yet we have done exactly that, nearly every Shabbat and holiday, since October 23, 2020. Thanks to a remarkably dedicated core of Shabbat regulars and to group of people who have answered the minyan call when we were in danger of falling short, we reestablished our Shabbat minyan.

Our minyan regulars who could be counted on weekly, semi-weekly, or monthly, included Rhonda Reider and Mike Halpern, David and Karen Reifler, Stuart Rapaport, Jim and Patti Flood, Harry Krishef, Lennox Forrest, Elisabeth Rosewall, Dovid Ben Avraham, Connor Hess, Robin Turetsky, Sandy Freed, Mark Silverstein, and Marisa Krishef.

Those who responded to the call to make up for a projected shortfall in our minyan or just showed up to surprise us occasionally were Ken Strauss, Jason Cook, Grant and Taylor Winkelman, David Alfonso, Jan and Bill Lewis, Leigh Rapaport, Jim Siegel, Ed Miller, Barb Freed, Diane Rayor, Barb Wepman, Judy Subar, and Toby Dolinka.

Our weekday Zoom minyan remained strong for about 18 months and then began to taper off. But we still have a core group of about nine who continue to participate, even without a minyan. We are grateful for Judy and Buddy (of blessed memory) Joseph, Karen and David Reifler, Cliff and Jean Shekter, Stuart Rapaport, Fred Meyerson, Binyamin Mehler, Sandy Freed, Harry Krishef, Rhonda Reider, Sol Krishef, Marc Silverstein, Esther Bookbinder, Marni Vyn, Cathy Winick, Dale Kramer, Barb Christiaans, and Mike Halprin for being part of the every-day minyan core, for being semi-regular participants, or for pitching in to make a minyan when we fall one or two short.

Our online minyan was an important component in our efforts to maintain a community during the worst of the pandemic. The halakhic basis for a zoom minyan is rooted in the notion that a person leaning into a window can be counted in a minyan taking place inside the room. In other words, they are counted as physically present, even though they are separated by a wall, as long as they can hear and be heard, see and be seen.

Constituting a remote minyan in which the participants are not physically together was a concession to sha’at ha-dhak, exigent circumstances, a crisis situation. Early in the pandemic, when we keenly felt a sense of isolation, the zoom minyan was vitally important to provide connection and spiritual nourishment.

It is clear to me from my work on the Scare Resources Allocation Committee at Spectrum Health, an extension of my work on their ethics committee, that we are still in a serious situation. Hospital have reached crisis levels of demand and are instituting new measures to allocate the scarce resources of beds and staff fairly. Nonetheless, I have been looking to establish an objective criteria for establishing the end of of the sha’at ha-dhak. As the positive test rate for COVID-19 continue to climb to unprecedented levels (the 7-day average at the beginning of December was above 23% in Kent County), we continue to do what we can to slow the spread. Even though we know that vaccinated people who contract COVID are less sick and much less likely to die, we don’t want to become a vector for spread among the unvaccinated.

I am proposing that the next time that the positive test rate in Kent County goes below the level at which the CDC recommends masking at indoor gatherings (currently, 8%) that we end the sha’at ha-dhak. At that point, our online morning service will no longer constitute a minyan, even if we have 10 or more Jewish adults participating. We will try to resume a daily minyan once a week if we can get at least 10 people to commit to regular attendance. However, we will continue to offer zoom services for as long as we have a group of people who wish to participate. Members from Holland, Big Rapids, metro-Detroit, Texas, and Arizona, who are unable to attend an in-person morning minyan, have found value being able to join with other for morning prayers, even when we are unable to say Kaddish.

אבינו מלכנו … כלה דבר וחרב ורעב ושבי ומשחית ועוון ומגיפה ופגע רע, וכל מחלה וכל תקלה וכל קטטה וכל מיני פורעניות וכל גזירה רעה ושנאת חינם, מעלינו ומעל כל בני בריתך

Our Father, our Sovereign … end pestilence and sword and famine and captivity and corruption and iniquity and plague and evil harm, and every disease and every mishap and every quarrel and all kinds of calamity and every evil decree and senseless hatred, from us and from all of your covenanted peoples.

Divre Harav – November/2021

Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism

Thousands of years after Abraham and Sarah set off on their Biblical journey, we, their descendants, are the inheritors of a Judaism which contains the four elements of Peoplehood, Practice, Faith, and Ethics. I want to invite you to spend time this year digging into this Judaism that we have inherited and chosen. I want to unpack the meaning of our rituals and practices, our sense of peoplehood, our faith, and our ethics.

Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism is a curriculum designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a highly regarded institute of Jewish thought and education serving Israel and North America. The curriculum is pluralistic and rigorous and thoughtful. The goal is to engage you and provoke you to think seriously about the big questions at the heart of Jewish tradition. Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism presents our customs in a way which will invite you to make considered choices for yourself.

Each lesson will be self-contained, so you can come in at any time and there is no commitment to participate in the entire series of classes. Dip your toe in and try it out. You can pick and choose from the topics that intrigue you. It’s a new year, a time to focus on new projects, invest in renewing yourself. Abraham and Sarah changed themselves and changed the world. I guarantee that when you immerse yourself in the richness of Jewish Peoplehood, Jewish Practice, Jewish Faith, and Jewish Ethics, you will change yourself and the way you think. You will live a richer life. And maybe you, too, will change the world, or at least your small piece of it.

Class dates and times

  • Sundays, 9:10 – 10:00 a.m. at Temple Emanuel (go down the school hallway to the second room from the end on the left side)
  • Thursday afternoons, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel (meeting room)
  • Thursday evenings, third Thursday of the month, 7:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel (meeting room)

Class topics (subject to change)

There are Source packets for each of the topics. Please contact Rabbi Krishef if you would like to download the pdf file in advance.

Sundays, 9:10 – 10:00 a.m. at Temple Emanuel

November 7 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

November 14 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith, Trust, and Risk

November 21 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith and Knowledge 

December 5 BELIEF AND ACTION –Understanding Mitzvah

December 12 BELIEF AND ACTION – Sincerity and Ritual

Thursday afternoons, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel

November 4 UNDERSTANDING JEWISH PEOPLEHOOD – Peoplehood in the Hierarchy of Values 

November 11 UNDERSTANDING JEWISH PEOPLEHOOD – Particularism and Universalism

November 18 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

December 2 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith, Trust, and Risk

December 9 UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Faith and Knowledge

December 16 BELIEF AND ACTION –Understanding Mitzvah

December 23 BELIEF AND ACTION – Sincerity and Ritual

December 30 BELIEF AND ACTION – Obligation and Autonomy

Thursday evenings, third Thursday of the month, 7:00 p.m. at Ahavas Israel

December 16 – UNDERSTANDING FAITH – Pathways to Faith

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yahadut – Judaism
  • Mahshevet Yisrael – Jewish Studies
  • Emunah – Faith

Divre Harav – October/2021

Jewish Prayer 103 – Framing the Shema

Jewish prayer 101 and 102 covered the Shema (November, 2020) and the Amidah (March, 2021). You can find the articles on my blog, EmbodiedTorah.org or on AhavasIsraelGR.org by searching or scrolling down to the older articles.

Once you are comfortable with the words of the Shema (English or Hebrew), the next step is to enrich the Shema with some context by adding framing prayers. The frame places the Shema in the context of a daily prayer practice and forms a bridge between engaging with God and Torah through study (the Shema) and engaging with God directly through prayer (the Amidah).

Gratitude is central to a prayer practice. The quality of thankfulness doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It is something which needs to be practiced, day in and day out, to remind ourselves to be grateful. The morning and evening Shema provide two touchpoints in the rhythm of our day to practice gratitude. We are grateful for creation, we are grateful for God’s love, we are grateful for Torah and mitzvot, leading to tikkun (repair) and redemption, and we are grateful for peace and security. The outline of the entire Shema unit is as follows:

  • Blessing of creation – Yotzer or  (morning) or Ma’ariv Aravim  (evening).
  • Blessing of God’s love towards us – Ahavah rabah or Ahavat olam.
  • | Three paragraphs of the Shema:
  • | Shema/Ve’ahavta – Command of our love for God/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vehaya im shamoa – Theodicy/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vayomer – Tzitzit/Mitzvot
  • Blessing of Redemption – Ge’ulah.
  • Blessing of peace and protection – Hashkivanu.

As you build your own prayer practice, you might draw upon the words of the Siddur to offer some words of gratitude to focus your thoughts before the Shema and to reinforce the message of the Shema afterwards. Leading into the recitation of the Shema are two blessings. The first connects us with nature. The version preceding the morning Shema focuses on the light of the rising sun. The version before the evening Shema, as we watch the sun set, focuses on the darkness.

Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation. You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy; in Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation. …. The good light God created reflects God’s splendor; radiant lights surround God’s throne. … Praise shall be Yours, Adonai our God, for Your wondrous works, for the lights You have fashioned, the sun and the moon which reflect Your glory …. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of lights.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the Universe, who word brings on evening, who alternates the seasons, and arranges the stars… God creates day and night, rolling the light away from before darkness, and darkness from before light …. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who brings on evening.

The second blessing before the Shema  is based on the central idea of the Shema, the instruction “You shall love Adonai your God ….” The blessing just prior to this passage asserts that the loving relationship is mutual, that it is because of God’s love for us that God gave us Torah and mitzvot.

Deep is Your love for us, Adonai our God, boundless Your tender compassion … Praised are You, Adonai who loves God’s people Israel.

Following the Shema is a blessing connecting the mitzvot embedded in the Shema to redemption. In the morning there is no break between blessing God the Redeemer and engaging with God in prayer. In the evening, as the day is ending, there is an additional blessing for peace and protection.

Your teaching is true and enduring. Your words are established forever. Awesome and revered are they, eternally right; well ordered are they, always acceptable. They are sweet and pleasant and precious, good and beautiful and beloved …. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Lie us down, Adonai our God, in peace; and raise us up again, our Ruler, in life …. Shield us; remove from us every enemy, pestilence, sword, famine, and sorrow …. Blessed are You, Adonai, who guards the people Israel forever.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yotzer Or – Creator of light
  • Ma’ariv Aravim – the One who makes the evening 
  • Ahavah Rabbah – A great love
  • Ge’ulah – Redemption
  • Shomer – Guardian

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 – May, 2021

When Ahavas Israel decided to purchase, build and move from Lafayette Street to Michigan Street over 50 years ago, it wasn’t a simple decision. The discussion was ongoing and contentious and the board was unable to make a decision. Moe Kleiman, z”l, used to tell the story about how the decision was made in the following way:

The board held its meetings in a room in the lower level of an old house that was at the center of the synagogue structure. The room had one door leading into the basement and small windows set high in one wall. During a board meeting, Moe arranged for someone to pull the fire alarm. Panic ensued as the board members realized if there was a fire in the house above them, there would be no way for them to get out. They voted to begin the process of building a new (and safer) synagogue on the Michigan Street property.

When an organization is experiencing a crisis, it is easy to embrace change. When there is no crisis, there is no immediate reason to change, and organizations tend to slip into stasis mode. Moe manufactured a crisis, which broke the stasis. However, the best, most vibrant, organizations with wise leadership know how to keep changing and evolving and growing even when there is no imminent crisis.

Congregation Ahavas Israel is not in crisis. We have a solid endowment and are reasonably financially stable, although our budget relies on large transfers from several of our accounts each year. We own our building and have turned the building into a source of income by renting it to a preschool, a church, and the Federation. But there are clouds on the horizon. Our building is aging. Roofs, heating and cooling systems, and security systems, are costly to replace, repair, and maintain. Renters can go out of business or decide to go elsewhere and new tenants are not easy to find. Synagogues and Temple (and religious institutions of all denominations) are experiencing precipitous drops in affiliation, on top of the slow decline of the past 20 years.

By embracing change now, we can avoid a crisis. And I believe in a partnership with Temple Emanuel. I trust that we can work together effectively, reduce the footprint of the two buildings, and renovate the Fulton Street property to create a shared facility. We have the opportunity to create a green building that will use our resources wisely. In the future, when major repairs are necessary, we will share the expenses rather than bear them alone. 

If we approve the plan to create a combined campus, we’ll be sending our children to a religious school that will be in our building, rather than in another congregation’s building. We’ll have the space for concurrent adult education during religious school in the same space as the children.

And finally, to emphasize – this proposal is not a merger. We would not be losing our governance structure and moving under the umbrella of Temple Emanuel. We would retain our board, our religious leadership and practices, and our finances. I believe that if we agree to engage with the collaboration and place our property for sale and join in a newly renovated, shared campus on Fulton Street, Congregation Ahavas Israel will be best positioned to continue to promote Conservative Judaism in Grand Rapids.