Mazel Tov to Jillian and Michael

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Temple Shalom celebrates with Jillian and Michael as they celebrated their wedding the other week. Jillian is the daughter of Judy Isroff. Mazel Tov!

Mazel Tov to Melissa & Jared!

Temple Shalom shares in the joy of our brides and grooms!

This weekend, Melissa Demir and Jared Levin will enter their chuppah as they become wife and husband. We can say that this wedding is all in the Temple Shalom family. Melissa is the daughter of Joe and Cindy Demir, and Jared is the son of Sol Levin and JoAnne Zangrillo. Both families have been a part of our community for many years.

mel and jar 2

A little bit about them from Melissa:

Jared and I met about five years ago when we were both living downtown; he was in Law School and I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and preparing to obtain my Master’s in Social Work.  We are really excited to be getting married this October among family and friends and to be in the city that we love!

Mazel tov! We wish them many years of happiness together.

Standing up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism

Originally posted on Divrei Shalom:

Yom Kippur Morning

October 5, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Standing Up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism 

As many of you know, from 1987 until 1992, our family made its home in Jackson, Mississippi while I served as the rabbi of Jackson’s only synagogue.  In a sea of some 500 churches, Beth Israel Congregation was the lone Jewish outpost.  Living and working in what many called the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” was an incredible experience for me as a rabbi.  Having served a total of six years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at Temple Shaaray Tefila as the Student Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi and finally Associate Rabbi, Jackson was a true step out of the familiar for Laura and me. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in New York and just days later set out for Jackson.  We were two Jews from New York, about to encounter life…

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Recognizing the Good

Originally posted on Divrei Shalom:

Kol Nidre

Octber 3, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Recognizing the Good

Perhaps you’ve heard this story about violinist Itzhak Perlman. One evening, he was in New York to give a concert. Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, so getting on stage is no small feat for him. He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. Perlman crosses the stage painfully slowly, until he reaches the chair in which he seats himself to play. As soon as he appeared on stage in New York that night, the audience applauded. They then waited respectfully as Perlman slowly made his way across the stage to his chair. He took his seat, signaled to the conductor to begin, and began to play. No sooner had he finished the first few bars than one of the strings on his violin snapped sounding like a gunshot. Perlman was close enough…

View original 2,225 more words

Standing up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism

Yom Kippur Morning

October 5, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Standing Up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism 

As many of you know, from 1987 until 1992, our family made its home in Jackson, Mississippi while I served as the rabbi of Jackson’s only synagogue.  In a sea of some 500 churches, Beth Israel Congregation was the lone Jewish outpost.  Living and working in what many called the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” was an incredible experience for me as a rabbi.  Having served a total of six years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at Temple Shaaray Tefila as the Student Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi and finally Associate Rabbi, Jackson was a true step out of the familiar for Laura and me. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in New York and just days later set out for Jackson.  We were two Jews from New York, about to encounter life in a culture different from anything we’d imagined.

Jackson was a fantastic place to really begin my rabbinate.  I’m not discounting my first years after ordination at Shaaray Tefila. They were an important foundation on which to build my rabbinic self. I still find the lessons I learned in New York City valuable, over twenty-seven years removed from that experience. However, I used to think that the ink on my certificate of ordination dried as the wheels of our Delta flight touched down in Jackson. I was no longer a part of a clergy team.  I was the team – coach, player and bat boy.

Just before Rosh Hashanah I was shocked to learn of an incident that brought national attention to my former hometown. The current Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation found himself at the center of a tempest arising from an incident at a local business. The incident, about which I am certain some of you have heard, involved the rabbi going to a local restaurant to grab lunch.  He ordered the day’s lunch special and a Greek salad. The man behind the counter, who turned out to be the shop’s owner asked my colleague whether he wanted a full size salad or “the Jew size.” My colleague was taken aback as he asked, “Did I hear you correctly?” The owner proceeded to ask the customer before him, “Are you a Jew?” The rabbi affirmed that he was, at which point the proprietor became abusive and threw the rabbi out of his shop.

I clearly remember how folks would query me about my experiences of anti-Semitism during my years in Mississippi.  I would say then, as I affirm now, that I experienced relatively little anti-Semitism in Jackson or even more broadly during my years in the South.  I did find there was more widespread ignorance when it came to Jews, Judaism and Israel, than there was anti-Semitism.  An important part of my response was to offer a community-wide six-week Introduction to Judaism course.  Each year found well over 200 members of the Jackson community coming to our synagogue to study with me. I was blown away by their response and interest. Those classes were among the many highlights of my tenure in Jackson.  Living and working in a place with a troubled history of racial and other problems, I learned it is important to distinguish between prejudice and ignorance – simple lack of knowledge or experience.

I wish I could apply what I learned in Jackson to this summer’s disturbing eruption of anti-Semitism, and worse, attacks on Jews in so many corners of our world. I can’t. What we saw come to the fore this summer cannot be explained away as ignorance.  Who would have imagined that in London in 2014 there would be need for a rally protesting against anti-Semitism? As one British writer put it in early September, “In 2014, anti-Semitism went global all at once. In July, an anti-Israeli demonstration in Paris broke into racist rioting: Jewish-owned shops and synagogues were targeted. In Berlin, they were chanting: “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone.” In his pre-Rosh Hashanah message, Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman wrote, “In terms of anti-Semitism globally, by any measure the year 5774 was an annus horribilis for the Jewish people. Passions whipped up by crowds protesting the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza leading to open displays of hostility against Israel.  Rather rapidly those displays gave way, in many instances, to ugly anti-Semitic outbursts.”   Some acted out violently against Jewish institutions, homes and businesses.  Who would have thought that in our lifetime we’d again hear chants of “death to the Jews” on the streets of Berlin? Who would have thought that Jewish stores would be marked and face boycotts, or that Jews on the streets would be attacked in broad daylight?” And while relatively speaking it’s a blip, could you have imagined it possible that a candidate running for the US Senate in 2014 would post lawn signs reading, “With Jews we lose.” For me it hearkened back to 1973 when we saw bumper stickers proclaiming, “We need oil, not Jews.”

There are those who have been warning us in recent years that what we are seeing are the same warning signs that were ignored in the 1930s in Germany.  They argue that the handwriting is on the wall and that we in the Jewish community who deny it are naïve.  Believe me I have had my share of such conversations and debates.  We are not, I believe, reliving the 1930s, which saw the rise of Hitler, first to political power, and then as the leader of one of the worst genocidal campaigns in human history. Nevertheless, that does not lead me to suggest that the events of this summer should be ignored or declared an anomaly.  The rise of anti-Semitism this summer must awaken us to the reality that there is work to do – even in places like Boston, here in Newton, and more broadly.

At the same time, I see in this summer’s rise in anti-Jewish sentiment a connection to a concern I have had and about which I have spoken in recent years on many fronts. In this second decade of the 21st century, we have seen a dramatic rise in what I will call the rise of hatred of the other. We hear it in the distasteful chants at sporting events.  We see it in the public sphere and amongst too many of our elected officials.  As I have said before, it disturbs me that politics has become a blood sport. The incredibly distasteful way in which too much of politics are played by our leaders – in our nation’s capital, and at the state and local levels as well is, in my view, alarming.  We have seen it grow in potency since 9/11  and a part of it has been the rising drumbeat in some corners of broad-based anti-Islamic fervor.  To me, this culture of disrespect, and even worse, the rising tide of hate and intolerance, is among the prominent illnesses affecting our world in 2014. It’s not new. I have spoken on other occasions about the disintegration of respectful discourse and the widespread inability to respect others who hold views different than our own. When we attack a person, rather than highlight our differences with their ideas, we can sow seeds of dehumanization and de-legitimization. Both were important parts of Hitler’s program in the 1930s and 40s. In that sense I do see parallels. We certainly see it among certain elements within Palestinian society and quite disturbingly we see the same in the rhetoric and actions of certain elements within Israeli society when it comes to their Palestinian neighbors and even Arabs more broadly. Let me reiterate what I said ten days ago: I respect the rights of those who would express their outrage at Israel’s actions in Gaza this summer, or in relation to the Palestinians over many decades.  At the same time we must not be fooled.  The so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which claims to protest against Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, is dishonest about its true intentions. BDS does not hold as its prime objective the isolation of Israel in order to force Israel to the negotiating table. The core of the BDS movement boldly lies about its ultimate objective, which is the destruction of Israel as a state.  While we must respect others points-of-view, we are entitled to respectfully call them out when they offer less than honest portrayals of their positions. And this movement played no small role in stoking the fires of anti-Semitism this summer.

We have been gravely offended by the dehumanizing rants against Jews in European capitals and other locations this summer.  Can we not see the same dehumanization and de-legitimization when we ignore the same in our own midst? It can be the Red-Blue divide in our country and politics, or racial and religious intolerance towards the other. We have assuredly seen such hate raised against the LGTBQQ community, or in too many corners broad-based attacks on the Muslim community.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, my teacher, Yossi Klein Halevi, who has also become a cherished friend, published what I believe is the single best reflection on the many challenges that grabbed our attention this past summer. Yossi’s article is a very public heshbon ha-nefesh – a taking stock; an inventory of his feelings about the dramatic events of this summer.  Yossi begins, writing, “As we enter [the New Year], I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful.” He then proceeds to catalogue his emotional roller-coaster ride through this summer’s news and events. I suggest that you read Yossi’s article after Yom Kippur.  A link to the article will be posted on our website.

As Yossi put it, “I am fearful for the future of Jews around the world. In this terrible summer, many Jews rediscovered the meaning of exile, of living in acute uncertainty, in dread. I fear for the future of the great Jewry of France, a creative and diverse community of Sephardim and Ashkenazim that is now questioning its long-term viability. I fear for the future of the Jewry of Turkey, a magnificent repository of intact Jewish life in a Muslim country, now under assault by a lunatic leader who demands that “his” Jews repudiate Israel, and commit an act of public apostasy, as the price for remaining citizens in good standing. I fear for the future of Jews in Venezuela and South Africa, where public figures close to the government have called for violence against fellow Jewish citizens.”  I share Yossi’s concern.  I could not have expressed it any better myself.

At the same time, I am not prepared to sound the shofar proclaiming it is the 1930’s all over again. The ferocity with which anti-Semitism took root anew this summer must give us pause. We must sound the call, the shofar call, as an alert to awaken us and call us to respond, to anti-Semitism, as well as to hatred, bigotry and all forms of intolerance that all-too-often we brush aside as ignorance or fringe.  I believe that this summer has shown us enough to suggest that we ignore the many expressions of hatred around us at our own peril. I believe that as a Jewish community, we must respond to the anti-Semitic tide rising in our world.  I said on Rosh Hashanah, I can respect differing points of view.  Freedom of speech and freedom to assemble are cherished ideals in our American value system.  The line between protected speech and hate speech, which can lead to hateful aggression, as we have seen this summer, is a fine one.

In this New Year, but ten days old, it is my hope that we will strengthen the hands of those organizations, both within the Jewish community and beyond which work to fight intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and the spread of hatred, especially when it is based in misinformation. It is my hope that together with our neighbors in Newton, in other houses of faith and throughout our community we will work to educate – and for ourselves, learn, about the other so that we can live in the world of respect and peace we so deeply desire.

A number of years ago, our family attended a program here at Temple Shalom with our then-7th grade son, Benjamin on anti-Semitism with a speaker from ADL. She shared a list of things that could symbolize Jewish identity in our lives. Do you light a menorah? Is it in your window for all to see? Does your home a have a mezuzah?  One question asked, “If you wear a Jewish star necklace, do you wear it inside your shirt or outside?” It offered us an interesting opportunity to examine our comfort with sharing our Jewish identities. I pray that we will stand up to anti-Semitism in order that some day soon, no Jew anywhere in this world will feel uncomfortable wearing a Star of David outside any clothing, or on their clothing, proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity. This summer darkened that day’s dawning – it’s up to us to shine the light – of civility, tolerance, and understanding by working for the safety, security and peace of all.

Recognizing the Good

Kol Nidre

Octber 3, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Recognizing the Good

Perhaps you’ve heard this story about violinist Itzhak Perlman. One evening, he was in New York to give a concert. Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, so getting on stage is no small feat for him. He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. Perlman crosses the stage painfully slowly, until he reaches the chair in which he seats himself to play. As soon as he appeared on stage in New York that night, the audience applauded. They then waited respectfully as Perlman slowly made his way across the stage to his chair. He took his seat, signaled to the conductor to begin, and began to play. No sooner had he finished the first few bars than one of the strings on his violin snapped sounding like a gunshot. Perlman was close enough to the beginning of the piece that it would have been reasonable to halt the concert while he replaced the string, and begin again. That’s not what he did. He waited a moment. Then he signaled the conductor to pick up just where they had left off. Perlman now had only three strings with which to play his soloist part. He was able to find some of the missing notes on adjoining strings, but where that wasn’t possible, he had to rearrange the music on the spot in his head so that it all still held together.

Perlman played with passion and artistry, spontaneously rearranging the symphony right to the end. When he finally rested his bow, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence. They then rose to their feet and cheered wildly. They knew they had witnessed an extraordinary display of musical skill and ingenuity. Perlman raised his bow, signaling for quiet. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left.”

The story may be an urban legend. Who knows?  My teacher, Alan Morinis suggests, “Even if it is, it is nonetheless full of truth. We have to wonder, was Perlman speaking of his violin strings, or his crippled body?” Commenting on this story Morinis notes, “We are all lacking something. We are challenged to answer the question: Do we have the attitude of making something of beauty out of what we do have, incomplete as it may be?”  This strikes me as a powerful question as we gather on this holiest night of the Jewish year.  On Yom Kippur, we are called to search our souls with honesty and clarity: How have I used the gift of the year now ended?  Have I been able to rise above my imperfections and live life to the fullest possible? Have I cultivated an attitude of making something of beauty out of what I do have, incomplete as it may be?”

In January, my hevruta study partner of many years, Rabbi Jonathan Kraus of Belmont and I decided that after two plus years of studying a particular midrash collection we were ready for a change in our weekly sessions. We settled on the subject of Mussar. The Hebrew term Mussar (מוּסַר), is derived from a Biblical verse which speaks of the search for wisdom and knowledge. The word has come to refer to moral conduct, instruction or discipline. For me, much like the teachings of Talmud and Midrash, or our Jewish mystical tradition, Mussar is another Jewish prism through which to see the world and our lives. Most historians trace its origins to a 19th century Lithuanian Rabbi, Israel Salanter, who began to teach a message promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among religiously observant Jews. His efforts were a response to the Enlightenment, which had taken root across Europe. As the ghetto walls surrounding Jewish life fell, and Jews entered broader society, Jewish life too became “enlightened.” Within the Jewish community the Enlightenment came to be known as the Haskalah.” Through mussar Rabbi Salanter sought to protect the Jewish community from this “enlightenment,” these new ways of thinking which the Haskalah brought. (By the way, among these dangerous ideas was Reform Judaism.) At first the Mussar movement sought to influence small circles of businessmen but it soon became an elitist movement, attracting especially students in the Lithuanian Yeshivot. Today it is variously described as, “A Jewish tradition; a spiritual discipline; a body of literature; a way of looking at the world; and an ethical philosophy.” Mussar has-emerged and is being revitalized in our day through the work of people like Alan Morinis, who I mentioned earlier. Morinis was one of the founders of The Mussar Institute which offers study programs promoting a modern-day approach to mussar which they view as a treasury of techniques and understandings offering valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.”

Before we began our study of mussar in January, I knew a bit about the Rabbi Salanter. I even taught a course grounded in mussar here a few years back.  Jonathan and I approached the Mussar Institute to see if we could “buy in” and study one of their programs. Their initial answer was that they appreciated our interest, but that their programs and materials are intended for groups led by their trained facilitators.  I guess we were persistent, because after a few weeks of back and forth they agreed to let us be a “group.” As it’s Yom Kippur, I should apologize to those of you who took my Downtown Study or Lunch and Learn course on mussar a few years back.  I now know how much I didn’t know then. With summer over, Rabbi Kraus and I have resumed our study sessions.  Later this month I will be attending a seminar at the URJ in New York at which I will be trained to lead a program of the Mussar Institute.  I am honored to be among the handful of rabbis selected for this first Reform movement Mussar cohort. I imagine the Salanter Rebbe is turning over in his grave to see our movement which he opposed adopting and adapting his teachings.

Tonight I want to lift up just one principle of Mussar I believe is pertinent on this day. In Hebrew it is known as Hakarat HaTov. It’s often translated as “gratitude.” For me, a more accurate rendering in English would be “Recognizing the good.”  On this Day of Atonement, when so much of our liturgy is focused on what we have done wrong and how we can set ourselves back on the right course in the year ahead, I believe we also need Hakarat Ha-tov as part of our repertoire.

Teaching on Hakarat ha-Tov, Alan Morinis suggests that we humans are hard-pressed to stop and focus on gratitude. He suggests “practicing gratitude [is a] means [to] recognizing the good that is already [ours.]” It means focusing first on what is right, and on what is good. Let’s face it, for some of us, its a part of our nature that we first notice what’s missing, what’s broken, or what’s imperfect. Hakarat HaTov is about looking for the good, and acknowledging it – first in ourselves, then in others, and in our world.

Now Hakarat HaTov does not suggest we turn a blind eye to imperfection. We know our tradition challenges us to seek tikkun – to repair ourselves, and to repair our world. This day, Yom Kippur is very much about tikkun. It is about repairing our misspoken words, and our wrongful deeds. This day is about resetting our inner compass as we set out on the New Year we welcomed but ten days ago.

Our Haftarah portion tomorrow morning, from Isaiah 58 will remind us of our obligations to heal and repair the world around us. The prophet calls us out for not matching our words with action. As we hear his words in the morning, it is as if Isaiah is saying, Don’t just say x or y is important to you.  Live what you say! Otherwise the words you utter are meaningless. Even as we strive to engage in tikkun olam, at the same time we must be honest and realistic with ourselves.  We cannot fix everything. Even in the midst of brokenness and challenge, Hakarat HaTov suggests we start by acknowledging what is, in fact, good.

The new Reform movement High Holy Day prayer book, MIshkan HaNefesh, the draft of which we will use during tomorrow’s Yizkor and Neilah services includes several teachings on this value of Hakarat HaTov.  (I urge you to plan your day so as to remain with us and join in tasting the Machzor.)  I think it is an excellent move on the part of the framers of our new Machzor to specifically include a number of passages on Hakarat HaTov, on “recognizing the good” in our lives.

So often people speak with me of the difficulties they have with our Liturgy, especially that of this Day of Atonement. Atonement does not have to involve simply beating ourselves up.  As we will see (hopefully next year) in the new Yom Kippur Morning Liturgy, our attention will be drawn to a number of teachings which support this value of Hakarat HaTov, such as this one, from the Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav who teaches:

Always look for the good

in yourself.

And remember:

Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest;

it is vital.

For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): “You will go out through joy,

and be led forth in peace.”

Focus on the good in yourself;

take joy in what is good,

and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

We often joke in Jewish life about the role that guilt plays in the Jewish experience. Our prayers are not striving to make us feel guilty or badly about ourselves. Guilt is a natural human emotion that can help us to be honest with ourselves and take responsibility for our words, our deeds, and our lives.

Surely there is much that lies out of our control in life. We are not expected to give account for that over which we have no control. At the same time, the words of our liturgy on this day, and the teachings of tradition, are intended to help us come face-to-face with ourselves with honesty. The Zohar, a mystical text from the 13th century, states that Yom Kippurim, can be understood as Yom K’purim, a day like PurimOn Purim we don masks and pretend to be someone other than who we really are. On Yom Kippurim, we must take off our masks, so we can face ourselves, our loved ones and friends, our community, and God without the protective covering behind which we hide during so much of our lives.

Hakarat haTov begins as a self-reflective process.  We must see, and acknowledge the good in ourselves. For some this is a difficult, even terrifying task. But it is an important discipline. For each middah, each quality or value in Mussar tradition, Alan Morinis offers a simple phrase which one can say as a part of mindfully focusing on the particular middah/value at hand.  For Hakarat HaTov his offering is “My cup is filled with gifts.” (Repeat after me: “My cup is filled with gifts.”)  Imagine if we each took just a few minutes in the morning; and perhaps again before we retire at the end of a day – even sixty seconds to recite, “My cup is filled with gifts.”  The practice can help put both good days and bad ones into perspective.

Later this year, I will be offering some sessions to allow you to join me in exploring what mussar can offer for our lives. Some of the other mussar values include: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, enthusiasm, silence, trust, faith, among others.  Mussar surely has what to teach us even in the 21st century.   To end, I’d like us to join in a moment of Hakarat Hatov. We have a long day ahead of us this Yom HaKippurim. We will recite many passages, some of them many times, which strike us as harsh, foreboding, and challenging. Recently, a colleague shared a Viddui, a confessional, which is said to be inspired by the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rav Kook urges us to flip the traditional Viddui on its head.  Rather than just reciting what we have done wrong, he suggests we recite what we have done well, what we have strived to accomplish – for good in this past year. The words are on your ivory service booklets – Won’t you join me in reciting this viddui – in the hope that we will “recognize the good” in our lives, our words and our deeds.  I’ll lead with the Hebrew term, let’s join together in the English.

An Alternative Viddui/Confessional – attributed to Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

 Ahavnu - We have loved

Bachinu - we have cried,

Gamalnu - we have given back,

Dibarnu Yofi - we have spoken great things!

He’emanu – We have believed,

V’hishtadalnu - and we have given our best effort,

Zacharnu - we have remembered,

Chibaknu - we have embraced,

Ta’amnu sefer - we have chanted Your book!

Yatzarnu - We have created,

Kamanu - we have yearned,

Lachamnu avur hatzedek - we have fought for justice!

Mitzinu et hatov - We have done all the good we could do,

Nisinu - we have tried,

Sarnu lirot - we have turned aside to see,

Asinu asher tzvitanu - we have done as You have commanded us!

Peirashnu - We have learned interpretations of Torah,

Tzadaknu lifamim - sometimes we have even been righteous,

Karanu b’shimcha - we have called out Your Name!

Ratzinu - We have been steadfast in our will,

Samachnu - we have rejoiced,

Tamachnu - we have been there to support one another.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of good health, sweet blessings, and peace!

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning
September 25, 2014
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

On July 18th, after 3 weeks in Jerusalem, my dear friend, Rabbi Howard Jaffe and I decided we would head to Tel Aviv to welcome Shabbat with the Beyt Tefillah Yisraeli on the promenade overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the port. On a Friday evening during the summer one can easily expect as many as 1000 Israelis gathered for an inspiring and invigorating Shabbat celebration. It is breathtaking to welcome Shabbat as the sun dips into the Mediterranean. However, this summer Israeli officials placed a ban on outdoor public gatherings in excess of 300 people. Hence, Beyt Tefillah was forced to welcome Shabbat in their new indoor location in a nearby community center. About a half-hour before services were to begin, we found a coffee kiosk a block from the community center, and decided to grab a cup of coffee. Like others, sitting at the nearby picnic tables while sipping our coffee we savored the quiet as Shabbat approached. Ten minutes later that calm was shattered by the shrill sound of the by-then familiar Tzeva Adom/Red Alert sounding throughout Tel Aviv, a sound of reality in Israel this summer. “Howard,” I said, “follow the Israelis” – and we joined the race to a nearby apartment building.

Another reality this summer: an ordinance was passed requiring apartment houses and multi-story buildings to leave their front doors unlocked so that anyone in the vicinity could enter and take refuge in the Miklat – the fortified shelter. As we reached the nearest building with a crowd of Israelis, we found the door locked. I said, “Let’s head around back,” knowing we’d find a covered parking area in which to take shelter. The protocol with a Tzeva Adom is to wait ten minutes after the sounding of the sirens before exiting the shelter. In just moments we heard the familiar thud of Kippat Barzel – the Iron Dome doing its job, detonating the missile mid-air. This thud was closer than any other we’d heard or would hear this summer. As we emerged, we noticed clusters of Israelis in the street, their eyes fixed on the sky above, with their cellphones rapidly shooting pictures of the evidence of Iron Dome’s success in a sizeable trail of smoke above our heads. We each took a deep breath and we headed to services, eager to find some familiar faces as well as the peace and calm of Shabbat. Rabbi Esteban Gottfried greeted us with no small measure of surprise. He told the thirty or so of us gathered, that after the tzeva adom he was certain no one would come for Kabbalat Shabbat. Yet, the crowd slowly grew, numbering almost 100 by the end of services.

This was a far different summer than I’d anticipated when I set out on sabbatical in late June. I looked forward to studying at Hartman; travel in Israel with friends; time at Eisner Camp; and special for this summer, a long-awaited baseball trip with my son Jacob. I expected a busy, yet largely uneventful summer. As I flew to Israel on June 26th I knew three yeshiva boys had been missing for several weeks. I knew there were random missiles being fired at Israel from Gaza. We all knew the latest peace negotiations had fallen apart in April. In no way did I think this summer’s visit to Israel would involve a noisy, violent and destructive conflagration between the State of Israel and Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical elements within the Palestinian population. Things turned quickly.

First came the discovery of the bodies of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad three days after I arrived. This was followed by the abduction of Mohammed Abu Khedir, and the discovery of his horribly brutalized and burned body. All the while there was an uptick in missiles flying out of Gaza. Israel repeatedly called for Hamas to cease firing missiles. “We don’t want to go to war with you. We’ll give you 48 hours to stop the missiles.” This was followed by an additional 24 hours. “Quiet for quiet” became the refrain of this summer.

But quiet was far from what Hamas had in mind. After absorbing an alarming number of missiles several days in a row, Israel responded. Aerial attacks were launched. A week later the ground troops entered Gaza. Rather than quiet for quiet, the Palestinian community of Gaza, the residents of Israel, as well as parts of the West Bank, found themselves dealing with firepower for firepower. In Israel it was no longer a random siren here and there. The handful of missiles turned into hundreds fired at Israel each day. The network of terror tunnels uncovered by Israel in Gaza was staggering. This might have been a very different Rosh Hashanah as one tunnel was to have been used by Hamas militants to attack a Kibbutz near the Gaza border on this very day. The tunnel reached all the way to the Kibbutz dining hall. I wonder how we, or the world would have dealt with what might have become reality of this day had they succeeded.

Israelis became accustomed to having their routines interrupted by tzeva adom, such as the one we heard that Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv. Depending on where you are when tzeva adom sounds, you have between 15 and 90 seconds to seek shelter. I’d had one brief brush with a tzeva adom a few years ago on a visit to the Israeli communities near the Gaza border. This summer brought a very different reality to the communities in the South, in and around Jerusalem, and in the very center of Israel, where much of the population resides. It was also a reality faced by our teens from North America and other places who had come to Israel this summer to experience the Jewish state and encounter Jewish history and identity.

The missiles used by Hamas are mostly crude in nature. They are intended to disrupt daily life, to foster a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among those at whom they are aimed. In this sense, Hamas achieved no small measure of its objective, as life in all but the extreme North of Israel was rendered anything but normal, with Israelis and visitors alike having to be mindful of the nearest shelter at any moment. Following services that Shabbat evening in Tel Aviv, Howard and I joined friends and colleagues for Shabbat dinner. Not fifteen minutes into the meal, all of us who were dining by the seacoast that Shabbat evening found ourselves racing for cover as the sirens blared yet again. After the requisite waiting everyone returned to the table, reclaimed their seats and resumed eating, drinking, and schmoozing. In some bizarre way it was as if nothing had happened. By this point, the end of the third week in July, this was the “new normal” for summer 2014. It was an experience shared by Israelis and visitors alike as the days went by. By our last week in Israel Howard and I realized we were often virtually alone walking the streets and eating in the cafes. Most tourists had left. Israelis simply went to work or stayed home, rather than deal with the nuisance of finding shelters and racing around in the sweltering heat of summer. It was not out of fear that Israelis stayed home, nor was fear a factor for us. We were never afraid something would happen to us. But a palpable pall hung over Israel as the weeks went by.

The difficulties and tragedies of this summer were not limited to Israelis and others across Israel racing for shelters, or changing their plans to avoid areas most likely to be targeted. We know that the destruction and loss of life in Gaza far exceeded that on the Israeli side of the border. Yet, to comprehend the events of this summer, we cannot simply look at numbers. This conflict is far more than a numbers game. A difficult reality of the conflict this summer (like that between Israel and Hezbollah 8 years ago) is that Israel faces an unconventional enemy. The reality is not one army facing off against another. In fighting Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel’s Defense Forces and their leaders constantly find themselves in situations in which enemy combatants are not wearing uniforms. Hamas’ missiles are not launched from military installations. Their fire blazes forth from homes, schools, mosques, and on occasion, from supposedly neutral safe places such as UN-administered schools and shelters. Videos surfaced of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters emerging from behind groups of children, and schools to hastily set-up and launch their missiles. Their task completed, they’d take cover behind the innocent civilians whom they sometimes compel to serve as human shields. This renders any Israeli response all the more complicated. I believe Israel had to respond once her call “quiet for quiet” was ignored. For me, experiencing this summer’s conflict from Israel was entirely different from being at home here in the US, where I believe the media did a great deal of damage in reporting on the conflict.

I recognize that on the subject of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there are a myriad of strongly held views in our community. I respect that. This morning I am speaking from out of my experience this summer, and from my heart as continue to I wrestle with the realities I experienced. I neither expect you to agree with me, nor do I assert that I know I am correct. I only know how I feel. Some of you may be upset, disappointed or even angry about what I am about to say. This morning I am speaking from my heart. In the weeks and months to come, I am more than happy to meet you over coffee or tea so I can hear what’s in your heart. In late October, I invite you to join me as I convene a Sunday morning series for learning and conversation so we can share our concerns and observations in a respectful and safe setting. Our gatherings will be rooted in the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program. Many in our community have already shared this experience. Even so, issues such as Peoplehood, Core Narratives, Morality on Battlefield, the Occupation and other such issues are still relevant and are worthy of further discourse.

This summer sharpened my thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It forced me to concretize some of my thinking about the Israel I love. First: I believe that as a Jewish community it is incumbent upon us to care about Israel and her people. That does not mean we must support all the policies and decisions made by Israel’s elected officials. As Americans, most of find ourselves at odds with the policies and decisions of our elected leaders at one time or another. But we do not walk away from our country. Neither can we walk away from our people. Given our people’s history, and the rise of global anti-Semitism, to which I’ll return on Yom Kippur, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to support our brothers and sisters in Israel as they face isolation and despair that peace may never come.

At the core of our Jewish tradition lies a moral code by which many of us strive to live our lives. We also expect Israel, as a Jewish state, to strive to live by that code. The Israel I love is imperfect, but that moral code has been at her core since the Declaration establishing the State was signed in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will . . . foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions . . .” Has Israel lived perfectly by its founding principles? Hardly! But neither is Israel a failure. Democracy is noisy and messy (don’t we know that here at home?) Israel struggles with living as a Jewish and democratic state. We, who value democracy and human rights, must stay committed to walking with Israel as she struggles to strengthen her democratic ideals and preserve security for all. The reality in Israel is no different from our own United States. Deeply held principles often get caught in the crossfire of different political factions and parties.

The IDF has a Code of Morality for the Battlefield. No other country has as stringent a code as the Israel Defense Forces’ Tohar Nesek – Purity of Arms, which in part reads, “IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.” Did every member of the IDF live up to this ideal perfectly this summer? We can assume not. Wars are messy, especially asymmetrical war, in which it is nearly impossible to separate combatants from civilians. No one is asking more pointed questions of Israel’s military conduct than Israel herself. And note, even in the midst of this summer’s tragic conflict, Prime Minister Netanyahu put forth the notion that at the conflict’s end Israel must help the residents of Gaza rebuild their homes and their lives. What other country makes such a statement while still in the midst of conflict?

At the same time, I cannot forget that it was also Prime Minister Netanyahu who, late on Friday afternoon July 11th (let’s call it the slow part of the news cycle) proclaimed, “Now the world must see why we can never relinquish the West Bank and our security to anyone else.” His comment went largely unnoticed. Not by me Mr. Prime Minister. You absolutely have the obligation to seek the safety and security of Israel and all her citizens. I believe you had no choice but to order the response you did at the end of the first week of July as your call for “quiet” was rejected with increasing attacks on Israel. However, at the end of the day, statements such as the one you made that late Friday afternoon give no one any confidence that you mean what you say when you speak of two states for two people. Israel and the Palestinians must finalize an agreement that in truth has been largely outlined for years whereby Palestinians will have their State (albeit not in the fullness of the territory some want) and Israelis will likewise enjoy security and sovereignty in Israel (albeit an Israel somewhat smaller than some might insist upon.)

I believe that there is no solution other than a two-State solution. I believe that those who argue for the status quo as a long-term solution are mistaken. Israel cannot hold the nationalistic dreams of another people hostage. And, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian factions cannot hold Israelis hostage to lives of terror. Even if their crude missiles do little damage, the cost of the terror is high, as the cost of war is high. The sooner moderates on both sides of this divide come to that realization, and act to control and defang their respective extremists, the sooner that both Israeli and Palestinian mothers can sleep at night secure in the knowledge that their respective children are safe. I want the Israel I love to reach for the dream of Prime Minister Menachem Begin z”l, who in 1979 proclaimed: “It is time for all of us to show civil courage . . . to proclaim to our people and to others: no more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement, peace unto you. Shalom, salaam, forever.” I want the Israel I love to reach for the dream of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z”l the weary soldier turned peacemaker, who declared: “Enough of war, enough of bloodshed. Enough.” The dream is still the right one. The reality, as we saw this summer, is a nightmare from which we must all awaken. Friends, it my most heartfelt prayer that the current ceasefire not only holds, but that it takes root and grows into the peace that both sides so desperately need.

The entire region is a tinderbox with flames burning out of control. Israel needs security and peace; Palestinians need no less. Are there courageous leaders on both sides who can bridge the gaps and bring that peace? That remains to be seen. This much I know: Israelis cannot spend their lives 15 seconds from bomb shelters; and Palestinians living in Gaza cannot see their homes demolished and their family and friends die as casualties in a conflict in which they are held hostage as human shields and captives.

What can we do? More than we might think. One option is to go to Israel. Israelis found their streets and businesses emptied in the noisy summer that has just ended. They need to know they are not alone. Let me tell you, as one whose flight was repeatedly cancelled during that several day window when the airlines stopped flying, Israelis came to feel a brand new sense of isolation. The impact was devastating. When we visit we send the crystal clear message: “you are not alone.” In December I will lead our next Temple Shalom group to Israel. Consider joining me, and your fellow Temple Shalom members in sending that message.

We must be steadfast in supporting those Israelis who are not only working for security and peace, but also to build a nation that stands for the values of human dignity, justice and freedom. The war with Hamas is a physical danger. Israel faces other challenges from within – in its courts, at its Holy Sites, in the area of economic justice and religious freedom. The Israel I envision and love cherishes her diversity. That Israel needs us in the game, not turning away. There’s more for us to do here, and I’ll return to that at another point during these Holy Days.

We must stay engaged in the struggle to build the Israel we hold in our hearts and our dreams, an Israel that represents the best of Jewish values. For now I close with words my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote a few weeks ago, “To love Israel is to stand with it in good times and in bad times. To love Israel is to worry about its safety and to work to protect it. To love Israel is to believe in and to work for a new and different tomorrow.”

Shanah tovah!

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The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

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Food for Thought as we “Enter the Gates”

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During my preparations for this year’s Holy Days, I came across this marvelous piece by Rabbi Michael Gottlieb which I believe serve us all as Food for Thought as we enter “the Gates”

May 5775 bring you and your loved ones good health, sweet blessings, and ley us all pray, peace for our people and all the world!

 Rabbi Eric Gurvis

10 Secrets to a Happy 5775 – by Rabbi Michael Gottlieb

Every marker of time can teach a lesson and serve as a reminder of life’s fragile and transitory nature. The poignancy of that message can be particularly felt as we welcome in yet another new year.  So, ponder this: Think of the calendar and the rapid passing of days as a rallying call to live life more fully. Determine yourself to make each moment count.  As 2014 approaches, here are 10 recommendations that can help you do just that.

1) Be happier. 

Chances are you’ll live longer. Whether that’s true or not, most importantly you’ll enjoy the years you’ve been granted more fully.  The operative words are “be happier.”  You do it. Don’t wait for happiness to come your way—pursue it.  We humans are not resigned solely to our genetics. We have been given the gift of free will.  Take the necessary first step: choose to be happier in the coming year.

2) Forgive. 

Where possible, forgive those who have caused you hurt.  Don’t do it solely for the sake of the one who has wronged you. Do it also for yourself. For certain, it’s not always possible to forgive, let alone prudent under all circumstances.  But let’s face it; most mishaps in life are forgivable.  Both seeking and granting reconciliation is a lofty thing to do.

3) Take care of your health. 

Our bodies, contrary to popular culture, do not belong to us.  Metaphorically, they are given to us on loan.  Don’t worship health.  There’s a fine line between obsessing over health and living a healthy lifestyle, one that embraces the triumvirate of mind, body and soul.  For some, eating a donut is a federal offence.  Stop putting off your annual doctor’s visit.  Lose unnecessary weight and rid yourself of behaviors that prevent you from living  healthier.

4) Go tech free for one day, or a portion of a day, each week.

The cell phone, computer and other exceptional technologies are for your benefit; that’s why they were engineered.  But don’t forget: you control them, not the other way around. For many, they’ve become an addiction, even an appendage to one’s person. Worse, they divert our eyes away from life in real time. Technology has created a wonderful platform for greater communication, the cell phone, text messages and e-mail in particular.  But it can also create a barrier between people.  For many, technology has become a tool of distraction, inhibiting conversations and substantive, human interaction.

5) Remove the clutter from your life.

We speak nonstop about the “clutter” and pollution in our public environment; remove it from your private environment.  Clean out your car, clean out your home’s cabinets and garage. Let’s face it, how many of us have things we don’t use, or need?  Get rid of the clutter; give it away.  You’ll feel lighter and become more appreciative of what you do have.

6) Read.

Buy or borrow books.  For suggestions, read book reviews written by reviewers whom you identify with and respect.  Then go out and acquire the book. Fiction, non-fiction, history, philosophy, politics, science, theology, let your mind run free.  Go to a library—they do still exist.  Use Wikipedia to help you initially understand an idea or event, but don’t end up there.  Go beyond a superficial understanding.  Join a book group. Read, it’s good for your mind and your soul; it will also make you a more interesting person, the more well read you are.

7) Express gratitude.

Write it down and send it off, or verbalize it directly.  Either way, gratitude is appreciation articulated.  Appreciation conveys humility, as if to say:  I couldn’t have done it without you.  Saying thank you is up there with saying I love you. Regardless of one’s faith, expressing gratitude is a spiritual gesture.

8) Drive with greater care.

All of us are important; all of us are busy and need to be at appointments on time.  Nearly 90 Americans die each day on our roads in car accidents. That’s well over 30,000 killed each year.  Slow down, stop texting, and be more courteous. Your blood is not redder than anyone else’s.  The laws of the road apply to all of us equally; no one is above them.

9) Write an ethical will. 

Your attorney can guide you on how to write up your estate’s will.  An ethical will goes beyond a legal one.  An ethical will focuses on the essence of what you stand for; it addresses how you hope to be remembered. It spells out the values and passions you hope to bequeath to others.  Don’t assume family and friends will fully understand what you stood for simply by having known you.

10) Author a family cookbook.

We longingly speak of a parent’s or relatives’ unduplicated delicious cooking or baking.  Write those recipes down while the ones who make the food are still alive.  Your family’s meals helped define you; they further help you relive tender memories.  Food goes beyond sustenance; it is an expression of love, concern and hospitality.

Any of these 10 recommendations, when acted upon individually or together will increase your joy and fulfillment in the New Year ahead.  The time is short and fleeting; the work is great and without bounds.

Happy 5775

Mazel Tov to Eric Ritvo and Dalia Topelson

Eric & DaliaThe Temple Shalom community celebrates with Eric Ritvo and Dalia Topelson who were married this month, in Denver, Colorado. Mazel Tov! Eric’s family has long been involved at Temple Shalom. What a blessing to see the formation of a new family here in our own congregational family.

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