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Portrait of a Volunteer (3/21/19)

When it comes to doing the Mitzvah of volunteering your time and talents, sometimes the most impactful contributions are the least visible ones. The Religious School has been blessed with dedicated congregants such as Debbie and Ken Cohen who get up early every Sunday morning to make the Bistro happen for our community of learners. This year we have been fortunate to add to our list of volunteers and have welcomed Allen Reynolds and Mitchel Shapiro. Read Allen's own testimony to understand what his and his husband's investment in the school has meant to them both.

Portrait of a Volunteer (Allen Reynolds)

Train(Guide) a child according to their way; and even when they grow old, they will not turn away from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

A very short but meaningful verse, that in my opinion often gets overlooked. To me and my husband, Mitchel, this proverb contains a “directive” that on the surface might not seem to be relevant to us, and our childless lifestyle. But in fact, the very opposite is true.

Since Mitchel and I are gay, and have chosen not to go down the path of raising our own  children, you may wonder why we would care how other’s children are trained? Why should we get involved with Jewishly educating children? 

I firmly believe that the commandment to teach a child in the ways and traditions of Judaism falls upon the shoulders of the entire community, not just the parents who have their own child. Not only is this responsibility to be taken on by the entire community, but it will also be the entire community that benefits from creating future adults who carry on our learning and traditions, in a living legacy. 

As a Jew of choice, and without our own children, it was even more important for Mitchel and I to find a way to follow this important Mitzvah (commandment). Fortunately, as things often do in my life, at the right time the perfect opportunity presented itself. I was asked if I would take on the role of teacher for the 7th grade class at Religious School on Sunday mornings. While I originally accepted because I wanted to help Temple Israel in any way I could, it has turned out to be one of the most gratifying and meaningful things I have ever done. Over the past few months, I have taught Jewish values and Torah, but for all that I have taught, I have learned even more. I have also had the privilege of being a guide and friend to this incredible group of young adults- to- be, and to watch them forge their own paths in a way that would make their parents burst with pride. It has been a pleasure and a privilege.

As for Mitchel, my husband and partner in in early Sunday morning rising...he too (almost) glady wakes up with me at the crack of dawn each and every Sunday morning and heads to Religious School. While I teach the 7th grade, Mitchel patiently helps the other volunteers, Debbie and Ken Cohen, set up the Bistro where parents and students purchase snacks and coffee during Religious School. Neither one of us knew we would have the opportunity to invest in the community and in the guidance of Temple Israel youth. Neither of us realized how much we ourselves would benefit from doing so. But take it from us, the benefits far outweigh the investment, so if you have the time, and are thinking about donating it to helping out on Sunday mornings, there are lots of opportunities available and all of them will make you glad you decided to invest personally in being a part of the future of Temple Israel: its youth. 

We Are the Storytellers (Cantor Moses 3/7/19)

I love stories. I love telling, listening, and learning stories almost as much as I love listening and singing new songs. Perhaps these two vehicles of expression, storytelling and singing are the reasons why I connect so deeply with my Jewish spiritual practice, as they are the foundations that keep our Jewish history and culture alive. As we embrace the second month of Adar, (when it is a leap year we get two months that we are commanded to be happy!) and look forward to celebrating the the ancient  miracles of the Purim story with a Megilla reading this Sunday during Religious school and a spectacular PURIMAGINATION carnival, we also can take the opportunity to learn and listen to stories that aren't as popular as the heroes of Mordechai and Queen Esther when our Bat Mitzvah will chant from our Torah portion the story of the completion of the Mishkan, (the portable and temporary sanctuary.)   

Our Torah is so rich and layered with an array of stories solely for the purpose of grappling with and teaching to the next generation. In April of 2017,, the flagship website of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) reaching more than two million visitors annually, launched a weekly podcast titled Stories We Tell. This podcast features a diverse roster of outstanding storytellers, that provide a new story for listeners each week to reflect on during Shabbat and beyond. It is intended for listeners of all ages, while each story provides a new lesson and insight based in Jewish tradition.

“Stories reach people like nothing else does,” said Rabbi Leora Kaye, Director of Program for the URJ. “Storytelling is one of my favorite ways to engage with Jewish thought, and it’s so exciting to bring that tradition into podcast form. It’s a unique, lively, and engaging way to make these stories come alive and reach a wider audience.”  

This Shabbat I invite you to take time to share a story from your own childhood to a grandchild, read a story out loud to a family member, tell a funny or poignant story to a friend about something that brought you joy. After all, psalm 100 says, "Ivdu Et Hashem B'Simcha!" Serve God with happiness and joy!  And joy comes alive in the form of story and song. 

Check out the first story in the podcast told by my colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Bat-Ami Moses 

Help  a Jewish Angel Get Its Wings

I am convinced that in the right hands, a freshly baked Challah has the power to bring about world peace. While we patiently wait for it to reach  those right hands, the luscious loaf can, and should find its way into your kitchen. Although baking Challah can be a little intimidating (due to the vast number of ways to mess it up), with just a moderate bit of prep and toil, you too can rebrand yourself as a master Challah baker.

Your Challah will undoubtedly be fun to make and delicious to eat. But even more importantly, If you pay close attention throughout the process, you will absorb some of the many life lessons that your warm, crusty sage, the Challah, has to teach you. 

Here are just a few to get you started:

Life lesson #1: Gametime Decisions Matter
Wading through the infinite array of life altering choices hurtling towards  you at warp speed can be overwhelming. So can choosing the perfect Challah recipe from among the over 758,000 that come up in a Google search. Pick the wrong one and your divine dough is doomed. 

Fortunately, in both life and Challah baking, breaking down your decision making process to a few simple steps can help.

  1. Identify your goal: Do you want to be a doctor or an electrician? Do you want your Challah be sweet or savory? 
  2. Do your homework: What will it take to reach your goal? Talk to those have have gone through the process. Watch a YouTube video on Challah baking, read some recipe reviews. 
  3. Trust yourself: Listen to your gut or inner voice, it probably has your best interest in mind. Pick a recipe, roll up your sleeves and plunge elbow deep into the flour.

Life Lesson# 2: Easier Is Not Always Better
We all want to arrive at our destination yesterday, and who can resist the seductive call of a fast-food place beckoning to you to stop in and grab dinner? But as with most things in life, you get out what you have put in. If you can get there on foot, the trip will be slower- but you will have added a smidgen of exercise and and a few lung-fulls of fresh air to your day. If you make that meal from scratch, your taste buds, wallet and waistline will join hands to do a dance of joy. 

Of course there are plenty of perfectly braided and baked loaves of Challah on the supermarket shelves, but buying one will mean that you miss out on being transported to a state of nirvana via the aroma of freshly baked Challah filling your kitchen. Baking Challah is messy and time consuming, but you cannot MacGyver it. Success depends upon following several complicated steps correctly and in order. 

Life Lesson #3: Question the Status Quo
Just because something has been around a long time or is done a certain way, doesn't mean it can’t be improved upon or that there isn’t a better alternative. Eliminate the words “supposed to” from your vocabulary and make it a habit to question the status quo in every situation. 

Do rainbow sprinkles on your Challah make your heart sing louder than sesame seeds? Does a shmear of Nutella tempt your taste buds more than a pat of butter? Following other people’s rules is overrated. Look at things from your own unique angle, and strive to find new ways that are meaningful and create joy inside of you. 

Does a Jewish angel gets its wings every time a Challah is baked? Probably not. But there are still plenty of good reasons to attempt the mystical alchemy invoked in baking Challah. The result will be supremely delicious and a great way to usher in Shabbat, as well as a reason to say a blessing. But also, Challah is not too shabby at reminding us of some much needed life lessons, which is almost as good as the an angel getting new wings.

Why You Need Yiddish In Your Life(Beata Abraham 12/27/18)

I am not saying that the English language is lackluster from a purely technical perspective, but it is no match for the Yiddish language and its ability to spice up a sentence with a few judiciously sprinkled words. Used masterfully, Yiddish can impart sentiment and nuance to a sentence, while simultaneously conjuring up the tenderness and warmth of Bube and Zayde. Would you rather “Go to sleep.”, or  “Go shluffy.” ?

Some things are simply best expressed in Yiddish. When the rules governing normal civil society cease to apply- such as when you have reached your limit for tolerating whining or complaining- the allure of the perfect Yiddish word is irresistable. A “Stop your kvetching!” can be most effective and socially acceptable. Same goes for letting that shlemiel know he is no mensch. No English words would suffice.

But aside from getting a better understanding of Fiddler on the Roof, and borrowing the situationally perfect word when needed, is Yiddish actually important?

For starters, the vast majority of Jews in the United States are descendants of Yiddish speaking immigrants who came to the US in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These immigrants created their own American culture through translating popular music, poetry, novels and political commentary into Yiddish. All of this is invaluable to understanding their experience in the new country.

Reports of the death of the Yiddish language have been greatly exaggerated. Yiddish began at least as early as the 12th century as a homespun construct of Ashkenazi communities of Europe. Today, it is alive and well, failing to be extinguished with the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust (many of whom were Yiddish speakers). Instead, Yiddish words have boldly worked their way into colloquial language among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Yiddish played an integral role in the Holocaust as well. Many of the Jews in the Holocaust used Yiddish to overcome language barriers between themselves, to keep diaries, to write the songs and poems designed to keep up morale. After World War II, Yiddish was most used as a vehicle for survivors to express themselves through personal memoirs, music, poetry and film. These recorded vestiges of bravery and humanity in the face of extermination are key to understanding and honoring our brutal history.

Today, Yiddish endures as an intrinsic part of our collective Jewish heritage, elevated by its history as a form of covert and spiritual resistance in shtetls and for Jews in the Holocaust. Keeping the Yiddish language alive is not only a posthumous act of defiance against those who attempted to annihilate us and our culture, but also an amazing way improve your shmooze and express your tzuris to the mishpocheh. Just try not to be a shmendrick about it.

Shabbat Shalom,
Beata Abraham

The Fine Art of the Kvell (Beata Abraham 11/22/18)

Although Thanksgiving is not necessarily considered a Jewish holiday, you will find plenty of examples of the importance of gratitude (in Hebrew Hakarat Hatov) in the world’s number one best selling self-help book; the Torah. We can all agree that gratitude can bring you joy by helping you appreciate all that you have to be grateful for, can strengthen your relationships and build up your compassion muscle. All of which will result in you being a better human in the long run. And don’t worry, in case you forget to be grateful throughout the year, there is an actual holiday (some call it an entire month), dedicated to reminding you of its importance.

However, lurking in the background is the equally significant, and frequently underrated first cousin of being grateful- Kvelling. You have likely felt it, but perhaps didn’t know there was a word for it: the feeling that you are bursting with pride over the accomplishments of someone you care for deeply. Kvelling feels so personal - almost as though you are the one who gets the credit for the accomplishment, that you simply need to share your exultation with the world, or risk exploding. The Yiddish translation of Kvelling is: “Being filled with pride, to swell with delight over a family member’s achievements, to be delighted by another’s accomplishments, usually a relative”. Once again we can thank the Yiddish language for putting four sentences of meaning into one perfect, concise word.

So why is the act of Kvelling sometimes suspiciously regarded (and even suppressed)? Perhaps due to its other cousin; bragging. But make no mistake, Kvelling and boasting are distant relatives. While both require a bit of Chutzpah (another perfect Yiddish word), Kvelling makes the object of your attention feel good (who doesn’t love to have their achievements shouted from the rooftops?), bragging simply makes people think you are trying to show off.

This year amidst getting caught up in the minutiae of Thanksgiving (the menu, the travel, the imminent family warfare), try an experiment. Put the transformative powers of the Kvell to the test by actively seeking opportunities to point out and boldly share an achievement about each person sitting around your table. It doesn’t have to be something monumental, but it does have to be genuine. It must be something about the person that simply makes your heart sing with joy just thinking about. Be ambitious and challenge others at the table to take a turn at Kvelling. Although this experiment might alternate between being easy and challenging (Kvelling about Mean- Grandma might put you to the test), it will transform the focus of your guests from “How do I survive this turkey coma?”, to “I did not know that Uncle Sam built his lawnmower completely by himself!”. After all, isn’t the point of Thanksgiving for everyone to stumble away from the table, their bellies, hearts and souls filled to capacity?

Shabbat Shalom!
Beata Abraham, Education Director

Shabbat Soup (Cantor Moses 11/8/18)

I've always loved the drama of Toldot, (Generations) the Torah portion our Bar Mitzvah will chant and teach us about this coming Shabbat morning. It is a story of struggle, negotiation, deception, blessing, and.....soup. Yes, lentil soup to be more exact.

You may recall the story of Isaac's sons negotiating their birthright over a bowl of bean soup. Esau comes in hungry from a hard day's work in the field and in a haste he agrees to give his birthright to Jacob in exchange for sustenance. As we learn later in the story, the exchanging of the birthright foreshadows the switching of the blessings they will receive from their father, Isaac.

Esau's weakness is that he lets his immediate hunger drive his behavior without thinking about the consequences of selling his birthright. In the moment itself, it never occurred to him that by relinquishing his right as the first born, he was also going to lose his father's blessing which would grant him inheritance and status. Jacob's actions are also immature and deceptive,  thinking he could have a short cut to the "better" blessing by selling his soup for the birthright. Both brothers could only see what was clearly right in front of them, seeking immediate gratification without taking the long view . 

As it so happened, when the time came for the brothers to receive their blessings, their father Isaac possessed "eyes that were too dim to see," (Genesis 27:1) Not only did his eyes have physical difficulty seeing what was in front of him, but perhaps he also suffered the same inability as his sons, unable to see metaphorically into the truth of the situation. Their father was also unable to take the long view. 

Even though the brothers eventually do reconcile, because of their narrow vision they couldn't have truly known the struggle it would take to embrace each other as mature adults. Perhaps their journey is a lesson trying to help us take the long view. When we are tempted to seek immediate gratification in any form, whether it be a desire to be right in an argument or make a decision without thinking about the consequences of hurting another, we forget that real meaning in life comes from growth, learning and time spent grappling with a certain amount of struggle. 

Today marks the second day of the new moon, Rosh Hodesh Kislev,  a new month in the Jewish calendar where we will embrace some of the darkest and coldest days of the year. The darkness of these days can sometimes consume us and limit our ability to embrace the hope that lies on the other side of patience and productive growth and struggle. But if we take the long view, we can be certain to feel the warmth of light and love that will help us get through the darkness.

It will also help to have some warm lentil soup with your challah this Shabbat. Enjoy this recipe!  

Shabbat shalom, 
Cantor Moses

Solidarity Shabbat (Rabbi Mars 11/1/18)

"My people –
We are beautiful.
We are beloved.
We are worthy of life.
May the souls of our eleven
brothers and sisters from Pittsburgh
be held in life and love
in this world and the next.
May those who are injured be healed.
May we love ourselves
and one another fiercely –
as we mourn,
as we remember,
as we choose life." 
-Rabbi Annie Lewis

In the most desperate of times, our people- our beautiful and beloved people- have always understood the urgency of hope and the necessity of communal action.  King David was moved to song: "A song from the deepest places- Shir Lama'alot Mi'ma'amakim" (Psalm 130:1).  And our prophets wrote potent poetry to get us off our feet even when we may have felt unable to move.  

This Shabbat, we will sing out to the heavens and the holy places in our own earnest song of remembrance and hope for our family in Pittsburgh.  We will raise up our communal voice at Temple Israel as a statement of our love and grief, and our shared belief in ultimate goodness and peace.  

This weekend has been named Solidarity Shabbat by the Union of Reform Judaism.  Please join us for all of the following special Shabbat offerings:

  • On Friday night, we'll gather for a unique Shabbat evening service in solemn remembrance of those affected by the Pittsburgh shooting.  As we do every first Shabbat of the month, we will also have an opportunity to share simchas.  This moment asks for us to balance both grief AND joy.
  • On Saturday morning, join us for a special Jewish meditation dedicated to our sisters and brothers of Pittsburgh, including a chance to share and process, be silent, offer blessings of healing, and of course sing and say Kaddish together.  
  • We will also bring our youngest kids and their parents together for Tot Shabbat, complete with music, stories, a craft and a nosh with Cantor Moses and Dana Zager.
  • The Jewish Women's Retreat is happening this Shabbat afternoon, 3-5pm at the Westin downtown, complete with massage, meditation, movement, and music.  A much-needed chance to Be, Breathe, and Bond together.
  • great Shabbat activity we can all do this Shabbat is to vote.  It's the perfect way to show we love this country and we love our freedom.

Come let us welcome Shabbat together in a song of strength, courage, peace, and healing-

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Mars

Our Bonding Youth (Lindsay Scheinbach, Youth Advisor, 10/25/18)

This past Sunday, we kicked off our Temple Israel youth group event for the year with a fantastic event for the 7th & 8th graders. It was the first program our two new Youth Leaders, Ben Ziegler and Charlie Breyfogle, planned and executed, and it was an incredible success! It was an exciting event and I was thrilled to observe how much the activity truly brought out the best in our participating Temple Israel kids.

The group of teens worked together to complete the obstacle course behind the JCC, and It was wonderful to watch the friendship and the bonds between everyone, as well as the smiles on their faces throughout the exhausting course. Each person brought a positive attitude and an encouraging spirit to the event, supporting and cheering on their classmates and encouraging them to complete each obstacle. They all genuinely impressed me with their adventurous attitudes and their incredible amounts of energy! Everyone attempted each obstacle, sometimes multiple times, really giving it their all and doing the best they all could.

The group of teens worked together to complete the obstacle course behind the JCC, and It was wonderful to watch the friendship and the bonds between everyone, as well as the smiles on their faces throughout the exhausting course. Each person brought a positive attitude and an encouraging spirit to the event, supporting and cheering on their classmates and encouraging them to complete each obstacle. They all genuinely impressed me with their adventurous attitudes and their incredible amounts of energy! Everyone attempted each obstacle, sometimes multiple times, really giving it their all and doing the best they all could.

Shabbat Shalom!
Lindsay Scheinbach

Those 62 Precious Hours (Rabbi Mars 10/18/18)

Our Torah portion opens with a booming command this week:  “God said to Avram: ‘Lech lecha! Go from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you'”  (Gen. 12:1).  Avram, very much a "newbie" to being the first Jew, should have taken off running as the Holy One shouted out "Lech Lecha!" from on high.  Avram at the ripe age of 75 determines that he is being told "Go by yourself" and "Go for yourself."  So he goes with his family and he is ready for this "reinvention" of himself.  

But I think that Avram ultimately internalizes this command as: "Go TO yourself."  God chose Avram to set out and establish himself in a new land as God's holy instrument, and "Lech Lecha" is the call for Avram to pause before rushing out to fulfill God's command.  It is the Holy One saying, "Get up and WAIT!  Lech Lecha- Get ready to launch the best version of yourself to fulfill your life's mission which is My mission for you and for the Jewish people.  Look inside yourself.  Study your own potential.   But don't move a muscle until you know first who you are."

"Lech Lecha" isn't just an ancient echo for Avram and his family.  It is the shofar call, the alarm clock, the pop-up notification on our phone to live our lives in a state of mindful "forward march" every day.  If we live with the awareness that we only have 168 hours in every week- with an average of 56 hours for sleep and 50 more for work and travel- how do we (ideally!) live the 62 remaining hours per week with intention and grace?  Even one 24 hour period of self- care and reflection could make all the difference.  One simple answer is to make Shabbat itself a time for nurturing relationships, feeding our minds, taking care of our bodies, and contributing to the community.  Imagine what "going to yourself" might look like and how that could change your daily life!

Heeding the call of "Lech Lecha"- journeying to ourselves, regularly reflecting on our lives and taking care from within- can help us fulfill our missions in life and realize the promise of landing in a place of growth and potential.  May this Shabbat be our time for doing just that.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Sharon Mars

The Promise of a Rainbow (Cantor Moses 10/11/18)

Out of all the Torah portions we study, one of the most memorable as a child or adult is the story of Noah's Ark, which we will chant this coming Shabbat at our special B'nai Mitzvah Workshop morning service.  As I write this message with current events in the backdrop, I am acutely aware of the element of water with its equally powerful abilities to either create or destroy, which we find in the story of the "great flood" in the Torah, as well as in the natural disasters that manifest right now in our lives.  

 I reflect on the way Noah exercised leadership by shepherding people and animals inside to shelter and safety in order to save them from the possible devastation from water. Concurrently I am thinking about the leaders and officers who forced people to go outside and leave their homes and property behind in order to escape Hurricane Michael, a first time category 4 hurricane that hit the Florida panhandle with the promise of destruction, as well. 
Just last Shabbat, we read about the creation of water from water, and only one week later we learn about the destruction of God's entire world with that very same element. Just as fire has the power to heal or harm, we recognize that water and wind have the powers to either quench or squelch in the Torah, as well as in our own lives. We recognize nature's ability to use water as a vehicle to create, through the birthing process and by enabling vegetation and food to grow.  Humans can live without food for days. but not without water. Now, more than ever before in my lifetime, our environment reminds us how very fragile we are and the undeniable powers that water and wind have to destruct and destroy.  
We can all relate to the Torah portion this week by recognizing that we cannot control how nature renews itself, but that we can control whether we help others take shelter in a "proverbial ark." We must open our hearts and prayers to those who have felt destruction this week by living in gratitude for our safety and taking our part in creating our own "brit," (covenant,) not only with God, but with our neighbors. We know how the story ends-- with the sign of a rainbow symbolizing hope, and an olive branch symbolizing peace. Let us enter this Shabbat creating the belief in the promise of a rainbow that will always appear in the aftermath of destruction. 
Shabbat shalom, 
Click here for ways to help those communities affected by Hurricane Michael.
Mon, March 25 2019 18 Adar II 5779