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Blessings and Curses (9/20/19)

This week's Parshat Ki Tavo, brings us to Moses, as he delivers a powerful speech to the people of Israel in preparation to enter the Holy Land. In his last oratory, Moses conveys God's promises of abundant blessings and prosperity in what amounts to biblical bliss, in exchange for the Jewish people following God's commandments. He directs the Israelites to be actively grateful and consistently kind to those that are less fortunate, as well as to write and display God's commandments for all to see. Jewish values which continue to endure to this day.

Then he gets to the Tochechah (rebuke) portion of the speech: dire threats of terrifying and seemingly disproportionate curses for violating God's prohibitions. Prohibitions which have a very clear underlying theme- one of avoiding deceit and secretly taking advantage of others.

These days media outlets and news sources are filled with an appalling barrage of prominent, powerful people who's externally squeaky clean image is shattered, when they are exposed for privately engaging in the very behavior they publicly condemn. From politicians, celebrities, there is an endless stream of those who believe that as long as they are getting away with it, no harm is being done.

But clearly the Torah has zero tolerance for deception and hypocrisy: The prohibitions Moses relayed to the Israelites include: Worshiping secret idols in the home, degrading the elderly, changing a neighbor's property line without them knowing, taking advantage of a disabled person, several variations of incest, murdering in secret, taking a bribe to kill an innocent person, false testimony against oppressed people. Each act is done covertly and is easily concealed from all but God, and often likely to be committed by someone in the position of power, to another who is less fortunate, or unaware. In order for the Jewish people to enter their homeland and covenant with God, they needed to do so with the understanding that a violation committed in secret was potent and forbidden. That even if the individual was never caught, God was watching, and the result would be a multitude of curses heaped upon the community.

Ki Tavo is a warning that even if a person can get away with secret corruption and and unscrupulous acts in private, there are always consequences. Each betrayal of integrity erodes the moral fiber of our society as a whole. We are all responsible for one another, each and every one of us. As much when our actions are unseen as when they are public.

Shabbat Shalom,
Beata Abraham, Education Director

May Your Strength Give Us Strength (9/12/19)

"Telling a story is like stoking a fire full of hot coals. The more one turns and prods the coals the hotter the fire will become" (Yismach Yisrael on Pesach Haggadah, Magid, par.2).

Eighteen years and one day have passed since the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001.  The trauma still stings us and the pain still clings to us, and despite our despair, we revisit stories of pain and trauma out of necessity and out of honor.  Stories keep us human.  Sharing them binds us together.

In telling the story of 9/11 again this year, may we stoke the fires of memory and ignite our passion to lift up all that is and all who are broken, sparking the transformation of despair and pain into faith, strength, hope, and love. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sharon Mars

For more inspiration, watch "Into the Fire" by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band here

Into The Fire ( Bruce Springsteen, The Rising, 2002)

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

You gave your love to see in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

Hold On (9/5/19)

As I watch dramatic rescue efforts underway in the Bahamas, my heart wants to shout out the words, "hold on."

As I once again stand heartbroken, dumbfounded in disbelief at the loss of more innocent lives by senseless gun violence, my mind wants to cry out the words, "hold on."

As I prepare to sing Psalm 23 at an Interfaith Association of Central Ohio's 9/11 Anniversary Commemoration event this coming Tuesday evening, my gut wants to sing out the words, "hold on."

As the High Holy Days are quickly approaching, I invite you to "hold on." We often think of the "Days of Awe" as a distinct pair of holidays at opposite ends of a ten-day span. Two discrete moments in time, one majestic and joyful (apples and honey!) and the other, a somber fast day when we rehearse for our own deaths refraining from all earthly physical pleasures, wear shrouds and look into our own souls, we discover our deep need to beg for forgiveness from others, our own selves, and from God.

In his book, "This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared," Rabbi Alan Lew makes a persuasive argument that this special time is not just about two holy days, but the spiritual transformation we are hoping for, takes place in the context of a broader journey. The journey that began with Tisha b'Av and stretches all the way through Sukkot, and that this annual holiday journey is a microcosm of the cycle we enact in our lives. Rabbi Lew writes,

The journey .... is one of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across the world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again.

Hold on my friends, hold on to each other, hold on to hope, hold on to the idea that the spiritual journey we will be making together can lead us to a better place filled with renewal, patience, and peace.

Hold on to the idea that hurricanes will be replaced by calm air, that violence will be blotted out by communication, and that hatred will be melted away by love.

My words were inspired by this song.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Bat-Ami Moses

From the Mouths of Babes

"I have to mentally prepare myself every single day just to go to school."

"For practically my whole life, I've been scared."

"How valuable are our lives, anyway?"

These are just a few voices of the many high school students who sat at the Big Table yesterday. The Columbus Foundation's annual event showcased young leadership in the Columbus community by having teens facilitate conversations all around town. At the Big Table I attended, we gathered at First Congregational Church downtown for lunch and conversation with around 200 other adults and students to share ideas and inspiration. The topic of our Big Table was gun violence.

No matter where you may land on the issue of gun violence, we can all agree that mass shootings have become a terrible part of our collective "new normal." While "the older generation" at my table told stories of drop-drills to prepare for the A-bomb, the younger folks shared in chilling detail their daily concerns of the day: whether to hide in a classroom if there is an active shooter or to run (best practice: run); why semiautomatic weapons are so easy to purchase (one student asked: "Are guns weapons or toys?"); and when our lawmakers will take action to make school a safer place, regardless of the neighborhood people live in.

But the most haunting and inspiring part of the discussion for me was when these students talked about the loneliness, alienation, and sadness that seems so prevalent among their peers. They spoke openly about the need to "be brave and introduce yourself" to that kid who sits alone at lunch or seems to get bullied a lot. "Go over and sit with them!" "Open your eyes to other people's needs!" "BE the leader!" The first step to changing society, said these thoughtful, wonderful kids, is to acknowledge each other's human frailty. Maybe then we can truly cultivate a culture of compassion inside and outside our schools. Maybe then people won't resort to violence. Maybe part of the solution to the larger problem of gun violence, said these young people, is simply to say, "I'm here."

As we enter the month of Elul this coming week and the new year just one month later, may our go-to words be anchored in "Hineni - I am here." The simplest of sentiments, but surely among the most powerful we can utter. Wisdom...from the mouths of babes.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Sharon Mars

Believing in the Invisible (8/8/19)

Last Friday night, I announced the new Hebrew month of Av, a mournful time in the Jewish calendar dedicated to remembering the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. It is a period of time in Jewish life when we give ourselves permission to mourn, to surrender to our deepest pain and to remember what it was like when we were in exile. In witness to the horrific incidents of violence and hatred in our country this week, it has been way too easy to observe this month of mourning. And it certainly feels like we are still deeply in exile.

Not only do I find myself experiencing waves of distress and melancholy, but in all earnestness, frustration, anger and fear are also on the forefront of my mind. I can imagine the Israelites felt the same complexity of emotions after their sacred spaces, both physical and spiritual were utterly destroyed.

There are many traditional customs that are observed during the last nine days before Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month commemorating the destruction of the Temples which begins this Saturday evening. In traditional circles, during these nine days before the holy day, foods traditionally associated with joy, such as wine and meat, are forbidden, except on Shabbat. Bathing, beyond what is absolutely necessary, is prohibited, as is doing laundry, and buying or wearing new clothes.

While the majority of liberal Jews do not follow these restrictions, the rhythm of our Jewish calendar and the day itself of Tisha B’Av gives us permission to not only remember the pain of our history, but also to acknowledge the very real pain of our present. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s excellent book focused on spiritual preparation before the High Holy Days called, “This is Real and You are completely Unprepared,” he dedicates a chapter to Tisha B’Av with the title based on the psalms, “I turned, the Walls came down and there I was.” He opens this chapter with a beautiful passage:

The soul is always teetering between two great tidal pulls: the sun and the moon, the conscious and the unconscious, the mind and the heart.

Let this Shabbat and Tisha B’Av break down all of our walls between each other, awaken our consciousness, and merge our hearts and minds together in order to reclaim our faith. So that even when it looks like evil prevails we will have the courage and strength to fully embrace Freud's greatest teaching, that "the invisible is more important than the visible." For the antidote to evil and hatred are indeed things that are invisible to the naked eye, but rather deeply felt in the, kindness, courage and hope. These are the vehicles which will be solely responsible for healing ourselves, our neighbors, our country, our world.

Looking forward to being together this Shabbat in our pain, joy, sadness, comfort, and hope—believing in the invisible.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Bat-Ami Moses

Here are some helpful links sent by the URJ to help adults and children alike during this time. 

For Jewish Youth 


Helpful resources for parents and teachers on how to have difficult conversations regarding gun violence 

No Need to Fake Your Own Death (7/25/19)

Growing up, I was the kid who was prepared to fake my own death to get out of going to Religious School on Sunday mornings. Not one single thing about the experience appealed to me, starting with being dragged out of bed on a freezing cold weekend morning, to riding in the carpool with other unwilling kids (one of whom would get car sick and vomit out of the car window every single time on the short car ride). In the musty synagogue classrooms, humorless teachers struggled with the difficult task of making ancient texts seem relevant to our secular, suburban lives..We sat in our seats resigned to our shared fate, praying that we would be able to remember the Hebrew words for “Can I go to the bathroom?”  For many of us, this environment was the only place we dared to misbehave, even if it meant having to be reprimanded by the stern Rabbi of the synagogue. Our bonds were rooted in our shared weekly torment. 

Decades later, I never cease to be amazed on Sunday mornings as I watch the youth of our congregation arrive for a radically different Religious School experience than mine. In spite of the enduring American ritual among Jewish kids to bash Religious School the rest of the week, on Sunday mornings, these same bashers arrive to high fives and bear hugs from their Rabbi, before running to greet each other with urgent updates and giggles. They race to their classrooms early to snag some one on one time with their teachers and Madrichim (teen classroom assistants). There is an abundance of smiles, laughter, energy.

Religious School education is certainly not perfect (eliminating Chanukah Bingo, and the annual Passover screening of The Prince of Egypt are long overdue). But in addition to being fun, it is an opportunity for kids to be surrounded by a bunch of other Jewish kids who understand the difficulty of making the decision to attend Yom Kippur services, or to play in their soccer team’s end of the season match (and learning that even Sandy Koufax took Yom Kippur off). 

Educating our youth Jewishly has come along way. At its best, Religious School has a magical way of employing its elements of Torah, Jewish values, Israel and Jewish history, to imprint a deep connection to Jewish identity on kids who attend. Simply being there can spawn lifelong friendships and nurture cherished bonds with educators and clergy. It can equip students with the wisdom and guidance found only in our ancient texts, and provide them with the resilience of strong Jewish values through which to navigate their complicated world. 

Whether you bring your kids to Religious School so that you can spend 2.5 hours laying in bed watching The Great British Bake Off, or feel strongly that Jewish learning is instrumental to raising thriving Jewish children (or both) the payoff will likely be the same. You will participate in creating another Jewish adult who has a strong Jewish identity, and a love for Judaism. However, unlike some of us, this adult, will have joyous memories of Religious School to look back upon.

This Dangerous Moment

Two images haunt me as we enter this Independence Day Shabbat.  The first is of Korach, the obstreperous self-appointed leader of the Levites for whom our parashah is named.  Korach and his band of rebels take it upon themselves to challenge Moses, Aaron, and [therefore also] God’s authority and attempt to tip the balance of power in his own favor.


The other image is that of a Salvadoran father and his baby daughter, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria Ramirez, migrants fleeing violence in their own country, who drowned crossing the Rio Grande this past week.  Their bodies clung to each other even as they lay lifeless on the river’s edge.


Both terrifying images tell stories of how human beings - leaders, in particular-  can go astray when they confuse self-aggrandizement with what they deem to be “the greater good.”  Because Korach defied God’s moral authority, hundreds of people (himself included!) perished, swallowed up by the earth at the Holy One’s command.  And as migrants and refugees are being denied entrance to our country, thousands of people stand to perish at the hand of our own government which is relinquishing its moral authority to do what America has long pledged to do: to take care of the stranger, protect the vulnerable, and stave off human suffering.  


When authority emanates from a place of moral responsibility for the greater good, rather than for its own self-interest, communities can thrive.  So what is our moral responsibility and what can we do as people who revere both American and Jewish values at this fragile and dangerous moment in our country?


A combination of responses are possible and could potentially create positive change:

  1. We can use the power of our voices, pens, and pockets to decry the Family Separation policy, and urge the swift reunification of families - not only has the policy been an ineffective deterrence to immigration, but it is causing widespread panic and long-lasting trauma among children and adults.

  2. We can resist using language which dehumanizes immigrants, such as “illegals,” and insist on learning more about the men, women, and children who are fleeing their home countries which promise violence, economic peril, slavery, war, environmental disaster, and/or death.  

  3. We can remember that for most seeking to cross the border, fears of what lies behind outweigh those which lie ahead.  

  4. And, perhaps most urgently, we can press Congress to pass fair, responsible, and comprehensive  immigration reform.


We will be doing what we can as a congregation to answer the call for immigration justice.  But first, we can all get educated. Learn more about how you can take action here:

As we hold the image of Korach in one hand and the image of the Ramirez family in the other, may we also pledge to live out the most precious and vital values of our country and our people this Independence Shabbat!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sharon Mars

Three Names (6/27/19)

“A person is called by three names: one that their parents call them, one that other people call them, and one that they acquires for themselves. And the best of these is the one they acquires for themselves” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1 [3]; Tanhuma, Vayak’hel 1).
A "gadol," a great one, has left us.  Rabbi Richard Levy, a passionate activist, poetic liturgist, and major mind in shaping the Reform Jewish movement as we know it today, died this past Friday in Los Angeles.  Rabbi Levy was my teacher and mentor during my post-undergrad pre-rabbi days when I worked for Hillel, and when I finally grew up he became my friend.  There are so many ways to remember the people we love and lose in life.
Over the last few days, I've found myself shedding tears as I have recalled...
How Rabbi Levy guided me as a young Jewish professional and budding rabbi to fulfill my personal and job goals (e.g. he did not balk at my request for travel mileage when I decided to work 45 minutes away from my chosen Jewish neighborhood); how he modeled that living as a "traditional and Reform Jew" was possible all at the same time and not a contradiction; how his typical greeting was not "Oh, hi" but that he would shout, "Hooray!" before engulfing you in a hug; and how he fed our now 21 year-old son Adi his very first morsel of solid food (pictured here).
And then there is the way he is remembered among the Hebrew Union College (Reform Movement seminary) community, described beautifully here by Dr. Andrew Rehfeld:  "For all his professional genius, Rabbi Levy was, for us, the rabbi who sought to excavate his own soul, as well as the souls of those whom he encountered—always asking piercing questions posed with a remarkable gentleness and unabashed human interest. He was not above a wry smile and ironic remark, nor did he shy from an ideological argument. But he emanated indiscriminate kindness and warmth, the ultimate mark of his personality and legacy."
But it is his own words that define who Rabbi Richard Levy truly was.  When he delivered the ordination address at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles in 2014, Rabbi Levy charged the new rabbis to approach their work with a combination of anavah (humilty) and ga'avah (authority), saying:  "It is possible, it is crucial, to embrace them both. There are times for softness, and there are times to be bold.  The way out of the wilderness and into the promised land is to be bold...You have thorns to clear away and you need to be bold in clearing them.  Bold enough to know you may get scratched sometimes.  But the promised land is worth a scratch.  Smell the flowers you are planting, and the scratch will not hurt so much."  
May we live by these words and by the memory of this mensch.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Mars

Mishebei-ROCK (6/20/19)


If you opened this link, you recognized this beautiful melody as one of the songs we sing when we pray for those loved ones in our lives and community who need a "refuat hanefesh and a refuat ha'guf," a full healing of body and spirit. 

Debbie Friedman z'l' (May her memory be forever a blessing) composed another melody for a healing prayer, which we commonly know as the "mi shebeirach, " translated as "one who needs blessing.) Her version of this prayer has become one of the most popular musical pieces in our contemporary Jewish musical repertoire, crossing all denominations. And yet, even when this melody is extremely well known and sung around the world, very few of us know the original source in the Torah of asking for healing, which are not the words of the "mishebeirach" itself, but yet can be found in this weeks Torah portion, B'chukotai
When Miriam is struck with leprosy, Moses prays, "El Na refana lah!" (Oh God please heal her!") Numbers 12:13. 
Rabbi Patricia Karlin -Neumann writes in her article, "A Caretakers Prayer," the five words, the 11 Hebrew letters are all that Moses speaks. Except for Gods name, each word ends in a vowel, as if each word were an unending cry. It is as if each world is punctuated with an exclamation point, the brevity of the syllables giving voice to the tortured helplessness to the supplicant- God! Please! Heal! Please! Her!
And that is where we come in. We not only can recite these healing prayers capturing our fear, powerlessness and incomprehensibility in the face of sudden illness or accident, but these prayers can also give us an opportunity for our primal cry to be heard with our hope and yearning to heal.
We know that when we encounter sickness of the mind, body or soul of others or ourselves, our hearts can become hard as rocks. We chant el na refana la or sing mishebierach, and can become the prayer itself. Let us soften and be strengthened at the very same time to be the solid foundation and become the mishebei-ROCK for the person who is in need and also giving permission to be the strong, stable, hopeful rock for ourselves.   
Shabbat shalom, 
Cantor Moses 
*This article was inspired by Betsy Besl, the maker of "MI SHE-BEI-ROCK" Little pocket gemstone blessings. 

Tank Man and Torah (6/6/19)

Can it really be that 30 years ago this week I graduated from college?  Alas, I can barely remember some of the classes I took at UC Santa Barbara in the late '80s.  What I do recall is wearing my white graduation gown, mortarboard, and a black ribbon affixed right over my heart.  Just days before, the Tienanmen Square massacre shook the world, and a lone individual - a man in civilian clothing carrying two grocery bags - faced off against a line of Chinese tanks.  University graduates and citizens of the world, we united through that little black ribbon with "Tank Man" and the aspirations of the Chinese people for democracy and freedom.
The iconic photo of Tank Man in Tienanmen Square reverberates in my Jewish soul.  When the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, they listened as Moses recited the word of God, and promptly responded:  "Na'aseh v'nishma - all you say we will do and we will understand" (Ex.24:7).  We may not fully understand the consequences of taking action towards improving the world, but we'll deal with that later.  For now, we will act based on the information we have received, and we will have courage that our moral mission is clear.  Talk about standing for something.  Talk about putting it all on the line for what you believe.  Act now, understand later.  Tienanmen Square was Tank Man's Sinai.
As we celebrate Shavuot this weekend, as we ourselves stand again at Sinai, may we recommit to continuously learning what is eternal and valuable and moral and just.  And may we gain strength and clarity from the ultimate demonstrations of human courage in the face of the unknown.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Mars

Help Is On The Way (5/30/19)

Every time we recite a Mi Shebeirach, our prayer for healing we ask for a "refuat ha'nefesh v'refuat ha'guf," translated as a full healing of spirit and body. We live in a day and age where we recognize that the state of our physical bodies aren't divorced from the nature of our spirits.  While many may argue that disease in the body is a manifestation of "dis" "ease" within the soul, perhaps it is also true that just as objects are subjected to wear and tear over time and exposed to the stress of our environment and experiences, we too simply may break down. 
The real question is how do we get up when we find ourselves broken down? How do we continue to be hopeful and strong, courageous and kind when God forbid we are sick or attacked merely for being who we are? What happens when we watch our loved ones, our neighbors, friends, brothers and sisters vulnerable to the mystery of nature as tornadoes or fires destroy homes and lives? 
The only answer that I can think of and that our tradition echoes is found in the Torah portion we read last Shabbat.  Leviticus 15:35 states that, "If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you should strengthen him-sojourner or resident- and he will live with you. " 
We show up, we help, we engage in gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness not only because we know it's the right thing to do, but as Emanual Levinas, a Jewish French philosopher suggests that it is our incumbent duty to look into the eyes of the other and by responsible for him or her. 

The Chofetz Chayyim (a 20th-century Rabbinic luminary) says that there will come a moment in everyone’s life when a poor person, or a troubled person, or a desperate person, will come to you for help — at that moment, you have a choice, to help or not, to fulfill this basic mitzvah or to turn your back, to “strengthen your brother” (or sister) or to “let his hand falter beside you.”

Even before you can answer your neighbor with a resounding, "Hineni--here I am," just hearing "help is on the way," is healing enough. This beautiful song by Nancy Lamott always inspires me,  "Help is on the Way"  Listen here.

Shabbat shalom, 

Cantor Bat-Ami Moses 


Help Is on the Way
Don't give up the ship
Even when you feel it's sinking
And you don't know what to do
Don't give up your dream
Even though you may be thinking
It never will come true
Life has it's own ideas of how things come about
And if you just hang in there, life is gonna work it out
Help is on the way
From places you don't know about today
From friends you may not have met
Yet believe me when I say
I know help is on the way
You don't have to know 
Where the path you're on is leading
You just have to walk along
Dreaming as you go
Asking for the things you're needing
You never can go wrong
If you have faith that things are happening as they should
And just believe each step you take is leading you to something good

Are You Okay? (5/23/19)

Desmond Meade knows a lot about the power of forgiveness and the power of one voice.  He spoke earlier this week to a group of 1,200 Reform Jews from all over North America and Israel in Washington DC at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience.  Meade is a formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated returning citizen who took the stage to urge us as Reform Jews to consider what it means to take part in repairing the world.  After receiving his law degree while in prison, he was the prime mover to help Florida pass the state’s Amendment 4, which restores millions of voting rights to those who have served time in prison and seek to return as responsible citizens.  Turning to the plenary, Meade boiled this moment in America down to this: “The question we need to ask each other is not ‘How did you vote?’ but ‘Are you okay?’”


I felt so moved to hear these words as I sat alongside our awesome delegation of TI congregants, Bev Darwin, Izzy Naveh, Mitchell Snay, and Amy Wharton, all members of the TI Social Justice Team.  You could say that the question at the heart of Judaism has always been, “Are you okay?” This week we answered it by learning Torah and Tikkun Olam strategies for two days before going to Capitol Hill to speak with Ohio’s elected officials about upcoming legislation on criminal justice and immigration reform.  With the generous funding of a Lurie Micro Grant, this team of TI congregants did us all proud in representing the Jewish values of love, integrity, forgiveness, and redemption, all in an effort to make sure we all have a voice and that we are all okay.


While some people might choose to spend their time fighting across party lines, Meade preached, we can also choose to love each other and harness each other’s energy for the betterment of all people.  In houses of worship and in halls of power, these are not mere platitudes but can be used as practical guidance to those of us who seek to create change to help strengthen our inextricable American bond and craft a better country.  To maintain our humanity in the midst of myriad social challenges, “Are you okay?” should be our core question and our platform from which we ensure the "okay-ness" of others.


Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon Mars

Split Your Red Sea (5/16/19)

“To match couples together is as difficult as the splitting of the sea," states the Talmud, (or in a more modern analogy, as difficult as finding a parking spot in Midtown Manhattan)

“Even the worst of husbands is better than no husband at all,” explains Yente, the old matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.  And while she would not get many clients with this attitude in today’s post-Shtetl world, the art of matchmaking and its messy struggles is as old as Judaism itself. Even modern ingenuity has failed to effectively solve the conundrum of how to get amazing people together with other amazing people to make more amazing people (or simply to go through life’s tumultuous journey together)? But it’s not for lack of trying. Jewish matchmaking is an an art and a profession that is timeless.

The very first matchmaker appears in Beresheit (Genesis), as Abraham realizes that his son, Isaac has yet to be galvanized by God’s directive to “Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth”. As any doting parent of a 40 year old bachelor son, Abraham takes matters into his own hands and designates his servant Eliezer as the Shadchen (matchmaker) for Isaac. He sends Eliezer to Haran to find Isaac a wife in order to prevent him from marrying any of the local Canaanite girls.  Eliezer creates a test of kindness, and Rebeccah passes with flying colors. Her brother Lavan, impressed by Eliezer’s wealth, understands what a catch Isaac will be, and invites the servant back to their tent to make the match. The rest is history: literally. Isaac and Rebeccah’s offspring are Jacob and Esau, the progenitors of two powerful nations that still exist today, making this a glorious matchmaking success story.

While the process of finding a match has evolved drastically, many things remain the same. We now have global access with the touch of a finger, generating more choices than our ancestors ever thought possible. Yet, finding the right partner continues to remain no less complicated than the splitting of the Red Sea. Perhaps it is best to  swipe a lesson from the Israelites as they fled Egypt. Unable to advance with the daunting, seemingly, impassable sea before them, but also unable to retreat with the Egyptians in hot pursuit from behind, they cried out to God in despair “What are we supposed do now?“ and God answered, “Why are you complaining to me? Get in the water, go forward!“. So they did. They waded into the sea, and the waters parted before them to create a path. In taking this leap of faith, they changed not only their own destiny, but that of the Jewish people. Luckily, your stakes are not quite this high, but if you are seeking a match, and feeling equal parts of apprehensive and uncertain about stepping into unknown waters, remember this: only you can take that step and part your own Red Sea.

Spoiler alert: you will probably be glad that you did.

If you are single or know someone who is, come to Temple Israel’s Jewish Singles Speed Dating event!

Shabbat Shalom,
Beata Abraham

Singing with Strength and Praying with Pride! (5/9/19)

We have been holding Israel close to our hearts this week. Yesterday we commemorated Yom HaZikaron, a day of remembrance to the soldiers fallen in war and today we celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. During these two days of ceremony and celebration, we have been acutely aware of those who still continue to hurt and heal from the violence that erupted this past week in our holy land, as we continue to pray for shalom. 

Today also marks the 20th day of the Omer, the seven week period of time counted between Passover and Shavuot, which serves as a spiritual exercise gearing up and counting the days to receiving the Torah. Every week of this  time period is matched with a specific theme. This third week of counting the Omer possesses the theme of "tiferet," meaning beauty. In her book, The Jewish Book of Days, Rabbi Jill Hammer explains that the 20th day of the Omer is specifically called "yesod shebetiferet," or the "root of the heart." Today we root ourselves in the land of Israel, and also acknowledge the need of all people for peace." 

Join us this Friday night to celebrate Shabbat and acknowledge the need of ALL people to live in peace, dignity, safety and joy at our annual PRIDE Shabbat. We will be blessed to hear from a guest speaker, our own Cheryl Rose as she speaks on the topic of the power of everyday moments. As we do on all Shabbatot, we will immerse ourselves in prayer and music that reminds us we are all loved, by an unending love and that we are "supported by hands that uplift us, even in the midst of a fall," as Rami Shapiro's poem so beautifully illustrates.  Join us in harmony as we acknowledge that which makes us unique while at the same time celebrating our oneness and the idea that we are all created "b'tzelem Elohim," in the likeness of God. 

Looking forward to singing with strength and praying with pride. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Cantor Bat-Ami Moses 

LISTEN TO "We Are Loved"      Music: Shir Yaakov     Text: Rami Shapiro

We will sing it together this Shabbat!

And Then...Poway (5/2/19)

Last Friday evening, I shared a few words (below) about the holiday we celebrate today, Yom HaShoah.  I wanted to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day to help us approach this holy day thoughtfully, to brace ourselves as we do every year for this day of mourning and deep sorrow.  Nothing could have prepared any of us for what happened the very next day, that Shabbat afternoon when a young man violently attacked the Chabad House in Poway, California, killing one woman and injuring many more, traumatizing all.  As we manage our own trauma from afar, we pray for healing for the victims of this latest anti-semitic attack and for the fortitude each of us must muster to forge our way ahead despite this display of vehement hatred and tragic ignorance. 

I feel like I was there, but I wasn’t.  I can’t remember the whole story, but I remember feeling it as if it was happening to me.  I know it wasn’t me and my family who perished in the Shoah, but knowing what happened to Mr. Lowy’s parents, his aunts and uncles, friends and teachers, it may as well have been my parents, my aunts, uncles, friends, and teachers whose lives were taken.  Honestly, all I have is the sensory memory of having witnessed my Hebrew school principal’s knees knocking together as he shared his family story with us to make me feel like I had been there.

Mr. Lowy’s sunken eyes seemed only to see their shadows as he gazed down at all of us second graders assembled at his feet for Yom HaShoah (the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony) in the social hall of the shul I grew up in.  His body trembled head to toe, a human earthquake.   He spat the word “Treblinka,” his thick Polish accent rolled out the word “torture.”   Tears streamed down his weathered face and I felt mine grow hot.  I was petrified that our education director had feelings at all, much less that he was suddenly sharing them this way - through a horrific tale I could not seem to blink away or command to disappear from my thoughts for many weeks thereafter.

I feel like I was there, but I wasn’t.  I can’t remember the whole story, but I remember feeling it as if it was happening to me.  Just like at Mt. Sinai, when the Torah was handed to Moshe and the Jewish people, it is said that every one of us was there to bear witness in that moment.  Suddenly, stunningly, the family I belong to expanded.  This terrifying story became MY story. 

I’m therefore particularly troubled by a recent survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany which reveals that:

  • 41% of Americans do not know about Auschwitz
  • 41% of American millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews perished in the Shoah
  • 70% agreed that “fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust as much as they used to”
  • 58% believe it could happen again

These statistics should shake us.  And we can all say with 100% accuracy that genocides can and have happened since the Shoah, and that the world in many ways HAS forgotten the lessons of the Shoah:  Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur (not at all an exhaustive list!) have all experienced systematic murder.  And Holocaust denial continues to rear its ugly head and roar in white nationalist circles and websites with a thunderous and foreboding howl.

What, then, is our responsibility as Jews alive and thriving in the world today?
Not only to those martyrs of our people but to those who have yet to be taught 

-or reminded- that the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” is a real and undeniable part of human history?  We live in a time of “fake news” - what the Cambridge English dictionary defines as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”.  We live among those who would call the Holocaust invalid or “fake” because to them history is merely hearsay, second-hand evidence in which the witness is not telling what he/she knows personally, but what others have said to him/her.  So how, ask these bombastic deniers, could the "so-called Holocaust" be proven to have actually occurred?

What is our responsibility as Jews alive and thriving in the world today?  My answer is simply this:  To use our words, to tell the story AS IF IT WERE OUR OWN -  When words of hatred and ignorance come our way, to respond with words of fact, truth, and conviction - strategically and not passionately.  To testify as witnesses ourselves to this cataclysm, not just so that it never happens again, but so our sisters and brothers walking this earth at the same time as we are (Jews and non-Jews alike) become second- or third- hand witnesses themselves to what undeniably DID happen.  We say WE ARE WITNESSES because we know what one human being can and did do to another.  The Jewish people is OUR people and the Jewish story is OUR story tell.  Just as we did at Pesach last week, we can feel in our bones AS IF we experienced the tyranny of Egypt or Poland or Skokie or Charlottesville or Pittsburgh...

And as long as we have HEARD those stories, then we have an ethical responsibility to bear witness and help facilitate teshuvah and tikkun - repentance and repair - by using our voices to teach and to inform and to correct false information and to testify before humans and before God.

I did not survive the Shoah, nor did most of the people in this room.  And yet we know what we know and we are here to bear witness.

Yom HaShoah will be commemorated in our community this coming Wednesday night at WHV at 7:15pm.  Consider yourselves hereby invited to attend.  As usual, the CBOR have organized a meaningful tribute to the millions of our people who died in Kiddush HaShem (for the sanctification of God’s name through martyrdom).  A speaker will teach about her mother’s experience as a Righteous Gentile saving Jews in the Shoah, some of the few survivors will light candles of remembrance, and inspiring words will be offered.  And we will leave feeling lifted up by those words, validated in our grief  But if we’re not careful, we may also feel vindicated to go about our lives free of the onus to do anything beyond attending a ceremony once a year.  We cannot be indifferent to the history of our past or the story of our present and future. We must see ourselves as the Holocaust’s witnesses whether we were there or not.

When author and survivor Elie Wiesel spoke to the UN in 2005, 60 years after WWII ended, he noted:  “Suffering confers no privileges; it is what one does with suffering that matters. Yes, the past is in the present, but the future is still in our hands….We must be engaged, we must reject indifference as an option. Indifference always helps the aggressor, never his victims. And what is memory if not a noble and necessary response to and against indifference?”

With memory as our motivator and the courage of conviction and justice as our guide, may we own our place as witnesses to history for the sake of all who perished and for the sake of our collective Jewish future.

Shabbat Shalom~

Rabbi Sharon Mars

Honor Thy Everyone (4/26/19)

As we near the end of this Passover week, we embrace the quality of Kavod (honor) in the counting of the Omer.  Marking each day between now and Shavuot when we celebrate the giving of Torah, we can set a spiritual intention to help bring consciousness to this special season of the year.  Cultivating Kavod for me means refining my awareness of those beings that I might otherwise overlook.  

We can cultivate our Kavod when we try to help the people around me who may be hungry, homeless, addicted, or forgotten.  I cultivate my Kavod when I recall the holiness of the soul who may be frustrating me in traffic or at the grocery store.  By honoring the other with kindness and compassion - rather than venom and vitriol-  we lift up that person's humanity and help our holy souls shine more brightly together.

When we open the door for "all who are hungry [to] come and eat," and later for Elijah the Prophet at the end of our Seder, we invite in those holy souls who deserve our Kavod.  The hungry deserve to eat and the Prophet deserves a seat.  It is only when we open our hearts and homes to others that peace can feed our own holy being selves.  

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same'ach- Happy [end of] Passover!
Rabbi Sharon Mars

What If I Have More Than Four Questions? (4/19/19)

Passover is not just a time when we must part with our emotional support carbs for a week, it is also a time when many of us fall into one of two camps: those who eagerly anticipate the Seder (copious amounts of singing, eating, drinking), and those who approach it with some amount of trepidation (how to remember songs sung once a year? The food options begin with the word Matzah, -ball, kugel, brei, and the alcohol is Manischewitz). But regardless of which camp you belong to, take comfort in knowing that there is no wrong way to Seder. In fact, you get instant participation points just by sitting at the table. And although there are plenty of rules associated with this holiday (at our house, enforced family viewing of the Ten Commandments), which ones you embrace and how you do so, is entirely up to you. Also, none of the rules specifically prohibit you from playing a drinking game that requires taking a shot of Manischewitz each time you hear the word slavery. Your Seder does not have to be as dry as the Matzah in the Afikomen bag.

Luckily, the most charming highlight of the Seder, the tradition of the youngest child at the table reciting the Ma Nishtanah (Why is this night different than all other nights…”), is also one of the most enduring. And while I don’t wish to deprive anyone of this opportunity to Kvell as a 5 year old ask and answers the four questions, I must admit: I have more than four questions. To be honest, I always have more than four questions, and since our longstanding tradition tells us that the answer is less important than the question. The Seder is the perfect opportunity to ask some of those questions, and to encourage the captive Seder audience to do so as well.

Whether you are hosting or making a guest appearance, come to the table prepared with a question to which you know the answer, as well as a question to which you do not, this way you will be both student and teacher. Encourage each guest to come with two questions of their own, and if you are doing it right, unsettling revelations and uneasy honesty will be part of what surfaces as everyone around the table has the opportunity to throw new questions into the mix.

Sample Questions:

  • Who in the story of Exodus is really more stubborn Moses or Pharoah (and doesn’t it seem like they would have been great friends under different circumstances?)

  • Why is the current, modern version of Promised Land (i.e. Israel) less about milk and honey and more about conflict and division?

  • Is Exodus really a cautionary tale about the dangers of assimilation?

  • Why do some people love horseradish (Maror) while others hate it?

These questions and the ones which you and the other guests come up with will infuse some lively and possibly enlightening elements into your Seder.  But obviously, no matter how wise and scholarly the participants around the table may be, the most important question of all remains to be answered only by you: Where is the best place to hide the Afikomen?

Shabbat Shalom,

Beata Abraham, Education Director

Shoot for the Moon (4/12/19)

Just two days after the conclusion of the most divisive election in Israel's history, the country united to cheer on its first ever attempt to land on the moon.  Though the unmanned Beresheet aircraft crash landed in the final stage of its mission, it was still called a success for Israel.  "Compared to not doing the mission at all, it [is] still an advancement, because it proves that they got that far," noted planetary scientist Phil Metzger of the University of Central Florida.  "You can say they hit the moon, they didn't get hopelessly lost among the stars- that's amazing!"

I felt a thrill of pride and excitement for Israel when I heard the news.  Daring Israel, risk-taking Israel, "shoot for the moon" Israel - this is my Israel!  And it is such a far cry from the back-biting, contentious, Jewish in-fighting characterizing the campaign for prime minister which just ended with Netanyahu's victory.  How refreshing it is to see our people coming together to root on Jewish ingenuity and sheer grit, imagination and technological prowess for this shining moment.  We Jews are so divided these days - both in Israel and the U.S. - that it is a minor miracle that in this one instance we decided to collectively launch a symbol of our unity into space.  In this moment, we agreed that attempting the mission was more important than never trying at all.

Our mission as a people is to be a "goy kadosh," a holy nation.  The Jewish mission is to live in the presence of something awe-inspiring and vast as the stars in the sky, yet as tangible as the touch of a person's hand when we help them.  My prayer this Shabbat is therefore that our speech and actions reflect this sacred obligation we have to the Divine and to each other.  And as we enter into our preparations for Passover next week, we use the redemptive power of our freedom to take seriously our responsibility to our fellow Jew.  Without that commitment, we may find ourselves "hopelessly lost among the stars."

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon Mars

Come, Let Us Sing! (4/4/19)

There is nothing more fulfilling than "jamming" and creating music with my children. By "my" children,  I do mean the two children I physically and spiritually brought into this world, but I also mean all of "our" Temple Israel children. There is nothing more joy inducing and fulfilling as spending a Sunday morning teaching and rehearsing music with our youth choir, "Hava Nashira," which translates as "Come, let us sing together!" 

Throughout my tenure at Temple Israel, our youth choir has taken on different forms throughout the years that included a couple of teenagers with guitars, to younger students from K-3rd grades leading Friday night services once a month, to a very special past year where we created a special after school music program designed with 5 objectives:  

  1. To cultivate a love of Judaism through the language and exposure to diverse types of Jewish music. 
  2. To teach students some music fundamentals and the proper way to use and warm up their voices in a healthy and productive way.
  3. To write original melodies and lyrics, creating musical arrangements and choreography to music. 
  4. To utilize instruments in practice and performance, with students playing the piano, guitar, violin and drums. 
  5. To record in a professional music studio a new CD, "It's a CHALLAHday!" 


I am very proud to say that in 10 short rehearsals we have accomplished these goals culminating in a field trip to a recording studio this coming Sunday, to record music for a new CD comprised of mostly original music written by Ma'ayan Cohen, Zeke Moses and yours truly. As we celebrate the new Jewish month of Nisan, this coming Shabbat we are reminded that music is and will always be one of the vehicles of redemption and peace, which is exactly what this month promises to celebrate with the holiday of Passover quickly approaching. And we know that the best Passover seders are the ones with lots and lots of music! 

I couldn't think of a better way to invite this month than with a special welcome to our new Temple Israel members at our Celebration Shabbat during Friday night at services featuring the original music of our youth choir, "Hava Nashira" and our trusted and beautiful Shabbat melodies. 

A very special thanks and shout out to the dedicated and supportive parents of the Hava Nashira singers and instrumentalists who not only organized and structured their weekends around our rehearsals, but schlepped instruments and siblings to class!

Enjoy a little preview of what you'll hear on Friday night!
*Recorded in honor of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov! (Happy New Month!)
Cantor Bat-Ami Moses 

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.
Tue, September 24 2019 24 Elul 5779