Reflections for the Omer- Day 1

Starting today, many Jews choose to keep track of Jewish time in a unique fashion: by counting the Omer.  On the second day of Passover in ancient times, our ancestors brought the first sheaf of barley (an amount known as an “omer”) harvested as an offering to God.  From that day they began counting 49 days to Shavuot when they would enter the next harvest season.  Even once the Temple was destroyed they would continue to count the days in accordance with the biblical command found in Leviticus.  In this way, our ancestors made special effort to thank God for the fruits of the field and for renewing life in the spring.

Over time, Passover and Shavuot became linked in an altogether different way.  As Passover tells of our liberation from slavery, Shavuot became known as the holiday commemorating the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai.  For our ancestors, counting the Omer connected them to the land; in our recent history, counting the Omer became a way to reconnect with the words of sacred scripture.

Which brings us to today.  Counting the Omer is an opportunity to be mindful: mindful of our agrarian history, mindful of the words of Torah, mindful of our connection with God and the Jewish people.  Perhaps more importantly, counting each of the days of the Omer reminds us that all of our days are numbered, and it is our obligation to make each day count.

Starting today and continuing until Lag B’Omer, I will post regularly, offering reflections to guide us through the first 33 days of Omer counting.  Some will be more lengthy than others.  May today’s thought offer pause from our daily routines…

Reflection for Day 1: Counting each of the days of the Omer reminds us that all of our days are numbered, and it is our obligation to make each day count.  How have you made today count?

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Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who Would YOU Invite To Your Passover Seder?

Next Year in the White House: A Seder Tradition

Pete Souza/White House

Last year’s Seder, a White House first, saw the Macaroon Security Standoff.

By JODI KANTOR
Published: March 26, 2010

WASHINGTON — One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign — a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man — gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder.

Pete Souza/White House

The day had been long, the hour was late, and the young men had not been home in months. So they had cadged some matzo and Manischewitz wine, hoping to create some semblance of the holiday.

Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. “Hey, is this the Seder?” Barack Obama asked, entering the room.

So begins the story of the Obama Seder, now one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions. When Passover begins at sunset on Monday evening, Mr. Obama and about 20 others will gather for a ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.

In the Old Family Dining Room, under sparkling chandeliers and portraits of former first ladies, the mostly Jewish and African-American guests will recite prayers and retell the biblical story of slavery and liberation, ending with the traditional declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.” (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)

Top aides like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett will attend, but so will assistants like 24-year-old Herbie Ziskend. White House chefs will prepare Jewish participants’ family recipes, even rendering chicken fat — better known as schmaltz — for just the right matzo ball flavor.

If last year is any guide, Malia and Sasha Obama will take on the duties of Jewish children, asking four questions about the night’s purpose — along with a few of their own — and scrambling to find matzo hidden in the gleaming antique furniture.

That event was the first presidential Seder, and also probably “the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware,” said Eric Lesser, the former baggage handler, who organizes each year’s ritual.

As in many Jewish households, the Obama Seder seems to take on new meaning each year, depending on what is happening in the world and in participants’ lives (for this group, the former is often the same as the latter).

The first one took place at the bleakest point of the campaign, the long prelude to the Pennsylvania primary, which was dominated by a furor over Mr. Obama’s former pastor. “We were in the desert, so to speak,” remembered Arun Chaudhary, then and now Mr. Obama’s videographer, who grew up attending Seders with his half-Jewish, half-Indian family.

No one led the proceedings; everyone took turns reading aloud. Mr. Obama had brought Reggie Love, his personal aide, Ms. Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, another close friend, all African-American. Jennifer Psaki, the traveling press secretary, and Samantha Tubman, a press assistant, filtered in. Neither had ever been to a Seder, but they knew the Exodus story, Ms. Psaki from Catholic school and Ms. Tubman from childhood Sundays at black churches.

They peppered the outnumbered Jews at the table with questions, which the young men sometimes struggled to answer. “We’re not exactly crack Hebrew scholars,” said Mr. Lesser, now an assistant to Mr. Axelrod.

Participants remember the evening as a rare moment of calm, an escape from the din of airplanes and rallies. As the tale of the Israelites unfolded, the campaign team half-jokingly identified with their plight — one day, they too would be free. At the close of the Seder, Mr. Obama added his own ending — “Next year in the White House!”

Indeed, the group, with a few additions, has now made the Seder an Executive Mansion tradition. (No one considered inviting prominent rabbis or other Jewish leaders; it is a private event.)

But maintaining the original humble feel has been easier said than done.

Ms. Tubman and Desirée Rogers, then the White House social secretary, tried to plan an informal meal last year, with little or even no wait staff required. White House ushers reacted with what seemed like polite horror. The president and the first lady simply do not serve themselves, they explained. The two sides negotiated a compromise: the gefilte fish would be preplated, the brisket passed family-style.

Then came what is now remembered as the Macaroon Security Standoff. At 6:30, with the Seder about to start, Neil Cohen, the husband of Michelle Obama’s friend and adviser Susan Sher, was stuck at the gate bearing flourless cookies he had brought from Chicago. They were kosher for Passover, but not kosher with the Secret Service, which does not allow food into the building.

Offering to help, the president walked to the North Portico and peered out the door, startling tourists. He volunteered to go all the way to the gates, but advisers stopped him, fearing that would cause a ruckus. Everyone seemed momentarily befuddled. Could the commander in chief not summon a plate of cookies to his table? Finally, Mr. Love ran outside to clear them.

Mr. Obama began the Seder by invoking the universality of the holiday’s themes of struggle and liberation. Malia and Sasha quickly found the hidden matzo and tucked it away again, so cleverly that Mr. Ziskend, the former advance man, needed 45 minutes to locate it. At the Seder’s close, the group opened a door and sang to the prophet Elijah.

In preparation for this year’s gathering, Mr. Lesser and others have again been collecting recipes from the guests, including matzo ball instructions from Patricia Winter, the mother of Melissa Winter, Mrs. Obama’s deputy chief of staff.

“We like soft (not hard) matzo balls,” Mrs. Winter warned in a note to the White House chefs, instructing them to buy mix but doctor it. Use three eggs, not two, she told them; substitute schmaltz for vegetable oil, and refrigerate them for a day before serving (but not in the soup).

The Seder originated with Jewish staff members on the campaign trail who could not go home, but now some celebrate at the White House by choice. Participants say their ties are practically familial now anyway. “Some of the most challenging experiences of our life we’ve shared together,” Ms. Jarrett said.

No one yet knows exactly what themes will emerge this year. Maybe “taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves and health care reform,” suggested Ms. Sher, now Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff.

The evening might also reflect a group that has settled into the White House and a staff more familiar with the new custom. Last week, Ms. Sher was leaving the East Wing when a guard stopped her.

“Hey, are you bringing macaroons again this year?” he asked.

Correction: March 27, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Herbie Ziskend.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 3:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Viagra on Passover?

I was asked by quite a few folks this past Shabbat to post this on the blog.  To see the relevance, you’ll have to read to the end.  And, yes, this is “one of those forwards” that I imagine most of us have seen…

Is it okay to take Viagra on Shabbat?

There are two differing schools of thought on whether you can  take Viagra on Shabbat:

Beit Shammai forbids ingestion of Viagra on Shabbat, lest one violates  the infraction of erecting a structure (“boneh”).

Beit Hillel says do not read it as “boneh”, but as “boner”, and permits the ingestion of Viagra before sundown so long as the Kabbalat Shabbat takes less than one half hour to complete, the kids are asleep, and your spouse doesn’t have a headache.

And what bracha does one say before taking the Viagra pill?

There is a choice of four blessings:

1. Borei p’ri ha-eitz – blessing over the fruit of the tree;
2. Boruch Atah Adonai zokeif k’fuffim – straightens those who are bent;
3. Ya’aleh v’yavo – arise and come;
4. Boruch Atah Adonai mechayei hameitim – raises the dead.

Here is a little follow up to the above… (the best part)

Yes, the anti-impotence drug has been found to contain a tiny amount of animal matter, rendering it – one would think – treif.  But, Rabbi Abraham Blumenkrantz, an American Kashrut expert, says that, as a medication that adds pleasure to the Sabbath (not to mention the rest of the week), it is permissible. But it is banned during Pesach – along with all other agents that cause things to rise.

Happy Passover!


Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 2:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts As We Prepare For Passover

You find out that you are going to move to a far away place in two weeks.  Let’s say you get this incredibly great job offer, the money is too good to refuse, but you have to move.  You decide you are going.  Then what do you do?  You put your house on the market or notify the landlord.  You make arrangements to figure out where you are going to live.  You call the movers and set up a date for the move.  You figure out how you’re going to get to the new place- whether you should ship your car or drive it to your new home.  Then you start packing all your stuff, and if you’re like my wife, you make lists of everything you need to get done… and then your husband comes and moves it and you have to start all over making lists again.

Let’s say it’s two days before you have to leave.  What are you doing?  I remember that when I left Ohio, on the second to last day, I confirmed all the arrangements, I stopped by The Valley Temple, my old place of employment, to say goodbye, I map-quested directions… or Rebecca map-quested directions.  And I continued packing.  I went back and forth to Staples or Meijer to get packing supplies and supplies for the road, and Rebecca began gathering the snack foods… because, God forbid, we should go without or have to stop along the way for snacks.  By moving day, the bags were packed and we were ready to go, humming, like Peter, Paul, and Mary- leaving on a freeway!

So all this discussion is by way of trying to understand something about the next holiday on our calendar, the one we now begin preparing for- Passover.  And there is something about Passover that doesn’t make sense at all.  Okay, there are a lot of things about Passover that don’t make much sense, but we’re going to focus on one thing.  If God told Moses on the first day of the month of Nissan that he should expect that on the 14th day of the month the people and he were going to get thrown out of Egypt, and Moses told the people, which the Torah says he did, why, then, is there this whole business of not having the time to let the dough rise for bread?!?! They had two weeks notice!  Long enough for Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock to fall in love and long enough for me to get my act together to help with the logistics of moving- a miracle no less impressive than parting the Red Sea I might add.  There was plenty of time to let the dough rise!  In fact, the feast of unleavened bread is told to Moses well before there was any discussion of a rush to leave Egypt.  God tells Moses to plan a feast of unleavened bread, which is to last for 7 days and is to be a commemoration of the departure from Egypt, before the people even begin planning the Passover offering.

We have all accepted this idea of a rush, when the rush may not have happened.  My initial response was that maybe the people didn’t believe it when Moses told them they were heading out of town in two weeks, but that can’t be.  If you recall, the Israelites “borrowed” the gold and silver and riches of their Egyptian neighbors during the two weeks prior to the Exodus, so we know they knew they were leaving.  You don’t go around “borrowing” all this stuff, when you don’t plan on returning it, when you think you’re not going anywhere.  Can it be that we would prepare to leave town and our ancestors wouldn’t?  All those Jewish mothers unprepared for a trip?  I can’t believe that!

Why don’t we know what’s going on?  The Torah says one thing in one place, and yet our Haggadah quotes the Torah someplace else, saying there was a rush to get out of town.  Which statement are we to believe?

There’s a symbolism to the unleavened bread, which is why we have this holiday.  Matzah is the bread of affliction, not the bread of liberation.  Matzah has not risen, is as low as you can get.  It is the perfect symbol- in food- of what slavery is: humble, unassuming, impoverished, low.  There is nothing in it to lead it to “rise up.”  Bread, on the other hand, is puffy.  It’s full of hot air, like your rabbi.  One could actually say that bread is full of itself.  And the symbolism continues, for a slave can’t eat such a symbol of uprising, of grandeur, of growth.
Passover falls half a year away from the High Holidays.  It’s a reminder of where we were back then, on Yom Kippur, when we confessed our sins and recognized how little worth we have.  Passover and Matzah remind us of the experience of slavery of our people, and the ways we enslave ourselves to all those things that make us just like bread- how we have puffed up our own egos, our own spirits, and filled ourselves with incredible amounts of hot air.

We are what we eat.  If we are to know and really understand whence we come, we need to understand that we, in every generation, were slaves: we were matzah thousands of years ago, and in our tradition, just six months ago.  And we have been bread- the bread of liberation from Egypt and the bread of our puffy egos.  Matzah reminds us to know who we really are, without all of the trappings and elevations, all the yeast we add to our own personalities.

There may or may not have been a rush to get out of town, but there certainly is reason for the Torah to give us two very good purposes for Matzah- so that we’ll look beyond the rush to see meanings in that which we eat.  May it be Your will, God, now that we are less than one month away from Passover, that we continue to struggle with Your will, to understand that there are depths to the Torah which we have yet to explore, and to constantly find the blessings hidden by You within the text.  May we strive to be much more like the unleavened bread, shedding the pomposity of self-righteousness, ever reminding ourselves that we are, indeed, what we eat.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 6:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Rabbi For A Day

I wanted to share this little story, one of my favorites!

The famous Rabbi of Duvno was once journeying from one town to another, delivering his learned sermons.  Wherever he went, he was received with enthusiasm and accorded the greatest honors.  His driver, who accompanied him on these journeys, was very much impressed by all the pomp surrounding the rabbi.

One day, as they were on the road, the driver said, “Rabbi, I have a great favor to ask of you. Wherever we go, people heap honors on you.  Although I’m only an ignorant driver, I’d like to know how it feels to receive so much attention.  I’ve travelled with you now for many, many years.  I hear the same questions over and over, and I’m certain that I could give people the same words they hear from you.  Would you mind if we were to exchange clothes for just one day?  Then they’ll think I am the great rabbi and that you are my driver.  And I’ll be able to feel what it must be like to receive so much honor.”

Now the Rabbi of Duvno was a man of the people and a happy soul, but he saw the pitfalls awaiting his driver in such an arrangement.  “Suppose I agreed.  What then?  You know the rabbi’s clothes don’t make a rabbi.  What will you do if they ask you to explain something you haven’t heard me teach before?”

“Don’t you worry, Rabbi.  I am willing to take that chance.”

“In that case,” said the Rabbi, “here are my clothes.”  And the two men undressed and exchanged clothes, as well as callings.

As they entered the town, all the Jewish inhabitants turned out to greet the great rabbi.  They conducted him into the synagogue while his “driver” followed discreetly at a distance.  Each man came up to the “rabbi” to shake his hand and to say the customary, “Sholom Aleichem, learned Rabbi.”  The “rabbi” was thrilled with his reception.  He sat down in the seat of honor, surrounded by all the scholars and dignitaries of the town.  And in the meantime, the real rabbi, from his corner, kept his merry eyes on the driver to see what would happen.

“Learned Rabbi,” asked a local scholar, “would you be good enough to explain to us this passage in Torah we don’t understand?”  And wouldn’t you know it, the question concerned a topic about which the driver had never heard the rabbi preach.

“Now he’s sunk!” thought the great rabbi.

With knitted brows, the “rabbi” peered into the Sacred Book placed before him, although he could not understand one word of it.  And then, impatiently, pushed it away from him.  He addressed himself sarcastically to the learned men of the town, “A fine lot of scholars you are!  Is this the most difficult question you could ask me?  Why, this passage is so simple, even my driver could explain it to you!”  At which point, he called to the Rabbi of Duvno,  “Driver, come here for a moment and teach some Torah to these ‘scholars’!”

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Can You Spare A Teddy Bear?

As a result of the recent earthquake and subsequent aftershocks that devastated Haiti, there are over 1,000,000 orphaned children.  10% of the population no longer have parents to care for them.  On a recent trip to Haiti, when touring one of the orphanages, a friend asked how he could help.  “Teddy bears” was the answer.  Why teddy bears?  Because these children need something to hug.

Sandy Gerber has been flying supplies and personnel to Haiti since the earthquake.  He and his family have started a project and they are asking for our help.  Please take a moment and read the letter below from Harrison Gerber.  And please lend a hand.

~ Rabbi Brad

A Message From 9-Year Old Harrison Gerber

Haiti Orphan

Hello, my name is Harrison Gerber.  I am 9yrs old and I’m in 3rd grade at Davis Academy.

I am sure that you have heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  Recently, my daddy went to Haiti to provide aid to orphaned boys and girls.  There are hundreds of children in these orphanages.  These children have almost nothing.  If they are lucky they have one shirt and one pair of shorts.  Their entire belongings fit in a 20×10 inch plastic tote.

Even though these children need of a change of clothes there is one thing that they need even more.  They desperately need to know that their world is not in complete isolation.  They need to know that people care about them.  That is why I am collecting Teddy Bears for all the children.  These teddy bears must be no larger than 18 inches so that they can fit in their totes.  I would appreciate your donation of new teddy bears or at the least bears in excellent condition.  It would be helpful if they were durable and possibly washable.  My goal is to collect between at least 250 teddy bears.

Most Importantly, most of the children learn English in school.  Please write a short generic note to a child and secure it to the teddy bear.  This will add the special human touch they so desire.

I will be collecting the teddy bears to take to Haiti the end of April.  Please help me bring warmth and a smile to these children and deliver a teddy bear by April 25, 2010.  You may drop off the teddy bears at Temple Sinai, which is located at 5645 Dupree Drive, Atlanta, GA 30327, (404) 252-3073 or at my house.

Finally, I am looking for donations to cover the cost of delivering these items to the children.  We estimate that the cost will run between $1,800 and $2,000.  All donations are greatly appreciated and are tax deductible ( please make your checks payable to “Much Ministries c/o Sanford Gerber” or call for more details.)  Should you have any questions please contact my mommy, Lisa Gerber at 770-393-0404 or email at lisagerber@bellsouth.net .
Thank you,

Harrison Gerber

Other Ways To Help

There are other ways to help the people of Haiti as well.  The URJ has set up a special relief fund (urj.org); the AJWS (AJWS.org) continues to collect money and resources.  And there are countless other organizations.

Katie Tanenbaum, an 8th grader, has started selling, through Temple Sinai, Hope for Haiti bracelets.  They are only $1 and can be purchased at the front desk at Temple Sinai.

A Prayer To Be Recited on Shabbat
As Appears on URJ.org

On this Shabbat, we continue telling the saga of our people’s Exodus from Egypt, our journey from slavery to freedom, from servitude to covenant. We recall that moment of deliverance at the Sea of Reeds when we miraculously passed through the waters, yet witnessed the watery death of others. Rather than rejoice at our own survival, we are taught to hear the cries of the victims; God silenced the angels who would celebrate the survival of the Israelites, proclaiming “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea.”

As we gather this Shabbat, we remember the loss of tens of thousands of God’s children killed in the Haitian Earthquake. We pray that the survivors in need of healing might find strength and comfort. We pray that those in search of missing loved ones will be sustained with courage and hope. We pray that those who have lost their homes and livelihoods will have the fortitude to rebuild their lives. Loving and gracious God, who created the earth in all its fullness, grant them comfort, healing and peace. Be their help, in this, their time of need.

As it is written:
here was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind.  After the wind–an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake–fire; but Adonai was not in the fire.  And after the fire–a still, small voice.   (I Kings 19:11-12)

May we be the voice that brings comfort and hope in the midst of the storm.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 3:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Not All Jewish Heroes Are Jewish

Below are comments from Friday night, originally written by Rabbi Janet Marder and adapted to fit Temple Sinai by me.

This evening we want to recognize and publicly acknowledge some very important people in our congregation. They are part of Temple Sinai because, somewhere along the way, they happened to fall in love with a Jewish man or woman, and that decision changed their life. I want to let you know in advance that in a few moments I am going to be calling up all non-Jewish spouses to come to the bima for a special blessing of thanks and appreciation.

I hope that you will not be embarrassed or upset that I am singling you out in this way. The last thing I want is to make you feel uncomfortable. What I do want is to tell you how much you matter to our congregation, and how very grateful we are for what you have done.

You are a very diverse group of people. Some of you are living a Jewish life in virtually all respects. Some of you are devoutly committed to another faith. Some of you do not define yourselves as religious at all. You fall at all points along this spectrum, and we acknowledge and respect your diversity.

What we want to thank you for tonight is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner. Most of all, we want to offer our deepest thanks to those of you who are parents, and who are raising your sons and daughters as Jews.

In recent times, which saw one-third of the world’s Jewish population destroyed, every Jewish child is especially precious. We are a very small people, and history has made us smaller. Our children mean hope, and they mean life. So every Jewish boy and girl is a gift to the Jewish future. With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your generosity and strength of spirit in making the ultimate gift to the Jewish people.

Please, please…do not be shy and do not feel uncomfortable. It is important that we show you how much you have our love and respect, and there is no better time to say that than on the most important day in the Jewish week. Please come up now, and receive the heartfelt gratitude of your congregation.

Blessing:

You are the moms and dads who drive the Religious School, Hebrew school, and Day School carpool. You help explain to your kids why it’s important to learn to be a Jew. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home. You learn to make kugel and latkes; you try to like gefilte fish; you learn to put on a Seder; you learn to put up a Sukkah. You join your spouse at the Shabbat table – maybe you even set that Shabbat table and make it beautiful.

You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language. You stand on the bima and pass the Torah to your children on the day of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and tell them how proud you are and how much you love them, and how glad you are to see them grow into young Jewish men and women.

We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. We hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.

I ask our congregation to rise in your honor now, as we offer you this ancient blessing from the Torah….

May God bless you; may God keep you;

May the light of the Holy One shine on you;

And may God grant you the precious gift of peace.

Amen.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 12:50 pm  Comments (2)  

News From The Rabbinic Convention

This is a synopsis of our opening program at the Rabbinic Convention. What do YOU think?

PANEL EVOKES CHALLENGES FACING THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH COMMUNITY – AND SOUNDS CALL TO ACTION – AS 121ST CCAR CONVENTION BEGINS IN SAN FRANCISCO

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of New Israel Fund, and Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco Paint Picture of Moment of Profound Challenge for American Jewish Communities; Joe Green, Founder of Facebook’s CAUSES, Shows How Social Media can be Tool for Cohesion and Congregation-Based Social Action

San Francisco, March 8, 2010 – The 121st Annual Conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) commenced yesterday as a ballroom packed with nearly 500 CCAR members heard provocative presentations on “New Visions for Our Jewish Communities.” In keeping with the times (and some of the presentation content), the audience was asked to tweet questions and comments real-time to @ReformRabbis (or write them on notecards).

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, and moderator Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, underscored challenges to contemporary Jewish communities that institutions (including congregations) haven’t yet addressed. Joe Green, Founder of Facebook’s CAUSES and a 2006 Harvard College graduate, spoke on “Tikkun Olam and the Social Web,” offering up social media as an avenue for solutions for rabbis and Jewish leaders.

Mr. Sokatch put forth that the American Jewish community, especially its social justice dimension, is at a moment of profound crisis, largely because of ambivalence, fragmentation and disaffection regarding Israel. He pointed out that…

· There’s no longer a central “organizing principle” for Jewish communities.

“There’s no flag to fly by…[as] Israel isn’t the ‘central principle’ anymore.”
· The gap between the leadership of “organizing” Jewish institutions and the sentiments of the Jewish community is growing. “We [institutions] don’t speak a language that’s compelling,” he said.

· Israel is the biggest gap-maker in Jewish life today. He suggested that institutions don’t represent and match the community’s capacity to modulate feelings and thoughts about Israel.

· The community at large fails to have meaningful conversations about Israel. There’s currently not enough ground between the “Israel, right or wrong” and left-wing anti-Israel feelings. (Rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel from the pulpit, he suggested…)

Mr. Sokatch’s call to action involves…

· Rabbis’ standing up for the idea that a dual-dichotomy sentiment about Israel can’t and shouldn’t prevail.

· Allowing, and fostering, difficult conversations regarding Israel.

· Ensuring that these conversations are civil.

In his presentation, Rabbi Pearce made the case that rabbis and congregations need to confront a national reality that definitely applies to Judaism: The U.S. is increasingly a nation of religious drifters. The days of a Jewish community of three main movements are over. He delineated a whole new set of categories (largely unaffected by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox categories). They are…

· Not very Jewish Jews, who use Judaism for life cycle events; formerly affiliated Jews; very Jewish Jews, who are defined by being Jewish; no longer Jewish Jews; suddenly Jewish Jews, who are Jews by choice; half-Jewish Jews, a huge and growing segment whose shame surrounding their “neitherness” is an important issue; non-Jewish Jews, i.e., people in relationships with Jews and thus living Jewishly-based lives; broad-spectrum Jews, e.g., LGBT Jews for whom Judaism is a guide or gathering point; spiritual but non-religious Jews, who feel alienated from synagogues but are looking for significance and meaning; unconventional/renewal Jews, e.g., hipsters who create their own renditions and may distrust rabbis; absent male Jews, i.e., those who believe Judaism is now a female province; “alimony” Jews, who support Judaism but are unwilling to live by it in their own lives; and excess baggage/disaffected Jews (who may play out their disaffection on boards and committees).

Rabbi Pearce said it is rabbis’ and congregations’ job to parse, recognize and find ways to embrace the real, wider set of categories of Jews.

Social media, according to Joe Green of Facebook’s CAUSES, can be an avenue for rabbis and congregations to catalyze reconnection and engagement. And a good social media channel for them to do that is social activism, i.e., supporting good causes. He pointed out that, as of 2008, there were 212 million Internet users, compared with only 65 million in 1998. Facebook’s CAUSES, which supports social action, now has 100 million users and has benefited 400,000 causes. Not only does social media “level the playing field” for causes, but it can also benefit Jewish communities because…

· It’s now “warm.” You identify who you are; one no longer generally “goes online” as someone else, to be anonymous.

· It works through one’s own social network – albeit (in a positive way) a very extended one. In other words, you get the right people – and more of them.

· People get immediate “social” credit – and fast, worldwide exposure – for their deeds, views, contributions and so on.

Mr. Green implored rabbis to turn to social media to help shape Jewish communities of the future. He pointed out that…

· Rabbis are naturally community organizers – and the relationships strengthened and made via social media are real.

· It’s easy to experiment with- because it’s free.

· If experiments don’t work, it won’t matter; no one will know.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 1:46 pm  Comments (2)  

Reframing The Question

At these rabbinic conventions, there is a terrific opportunity to bond, to see each other, to greet old friends and to meet new.  Inevitably, the hotel bar late at night is a great scene for sharing and community building.  Late last night, as I sat there with a colleague, the conversation became more serious.  After sharing our successes and challenges, he turned to me and to our third colleague and asked, “What keeps you up at night?”

What a question to be asked.  What keeps you up at night?  The question is a difficult one to answer, for it is not the presentingly obvious answer- “well, right now, the only thing from preventing me from sleep is this conversation with you.”  Rather, the question is: what fills your life with worry?  About what can you not solve during the day?  What are your fears?

I thought about it and did not have an answer to the question.  My family is what I offered- being present for my family, showing my wife and children that they are loved as much as I do, in fact, love them.  I worry that I may spend too much time away from them, that my role in their lives is more tertiary.  I know it is not true- well, not the whole truth at least- but it is a worry.

Throughout the day today I have had a chance to think about the question even more.  The things that keep me up at night- worries about my family, concerns about doing my job in an appropriate and meaningful way- are also the things that fill me with the most joy, the most hope.  Which, of course, leads to my next question: is it always that which fills us with fear and worry that can also fill us with hope and relief?

Can we be defined more by our hopes than our fears?

Perhaps instead of saying, “I lay awake at night worrying about being present for my family,” my statement should be, “When I am tired and groggy in the morning, I am excited to get out of bed to deal with my family.”  It’s not “what keeps you up at night”- it is “what gets you out of bed in the morning.”

When we can define our time in those terms, I imagine we will be more satisfied- professionally as well as personally.

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:21 am  Comments (3)  

Sending Ourselves To Timeout

Two years ago, something happened that shook the very foundations of our society.  The coffee metropolis known by the name “Starbucks” came to a screeching halt for three hours.

The CEO of Startbucks, Howard Schultz, believed that his product had become less than the best.  In his own words, “the pastries were starting to out smell the cafe lattes and cafe mochas.”  So he shut down more than 170,000 stores in order to make one thing perfectly clear to his employees: we need to be the best at coffee!  So for three hours the baristas were re-trained to brew coffee perfectly, to create an amazing latte grande with skim milk and one splenda (my favorite), and wow the world with a superior mocha.

Mr. Schultz decided to cut back on the pastries (much to the chagrin of my daughter!) and get back to what Starbucks was supposed to do best… and it took a timeout to get there.

Let me ask this question: what do you do well?  In what areas are you “good” and in what areas are you “great”?  Not easy questions, I know.

I firmly believe that in order to care for ourselves and each other, we each need to call a timeout once in a while.  In order to rediscover who we are, we need a timeout.  To figure out our identity, intimacy and professional issues, we need a timeout.  Coaches call them, parents call them.  Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called one for three hours.

Maybe it’s time for our town timeout.  Take three hours away from cell phone, the TV, the laptop.  Change your scenery, maybe even get some fresh air.  No music.  No company.  Just you, your thoughts, your time.  Or rather, your time out.

Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 4:19 pm  Comments (1)