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Recently, I found myself in a Judaica shop, picking out a kiddush cup for a family friend’s son who was becoming bar mitzvah. As I searched around, I wanted to find one that both was beautiful and reflected the young man’s personality. Browsing up and down the shelves, there were countless objects, each one artistically designed, speaking out and saying—I am beautiful, and I want to help beautify your rituals!

In reality, one does not need anything more than a paper cup to make kiddush. We only need a stick of cinnamon for havdallah, not a formal spice box. A tallit is constructed out of a four cornered piece of fabric, with tzitzit tied on the corners. I even once used a small branch as a yad for Torah reading, because for my life, I could not find a proper pointer.

Walking around any Judaica store, I am struck by the thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty that goes into the making of our ritual objects. Judaism is not world-famous for its material culture; yet, our community has constantly created beautiful objects to be used in our most sacred of moments.

The want for this beauty comes out of a concept known as Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the enhancement of a mitzvah (commandment) through aesthetics. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house. Take a small wooden box with the proper small scroll, set it diagonally on the doorpost, and say the blessing—there, we have fulfilled the mitzvah associated with mezuzah. But how does that plain, small box draw our attention to our obligation? Beautify the box, making it interesting and eye-grabbing, and suddenly the mezuzah has transformed into an attention grabber for something that we—as the Jewish community—are supposed to do.

Hiddur Mitzvah, our efforts to beautify the things that we as Jews do, is also made meaningful by memories created around the times those ritual objects are used. My favorite example of this was the tallit that I gave my brother and sister-in-law when they were married. My brother picked it out. It was a large tallit with a blue geometrical pattern that was woven into the stripes along the edges. We incorporated that tallit into their chuppah. It was the canopy under which they were married. And now, my brother wears that tallit each Shabbat. All the more so, we wrapped his daughters up in that tallit when I performed their baby namings, welcoming them into our community as daughters of the Covenant. We have charged that tallit with great power. The mitzvah that is fulfilled each time my brother puts it on is beautified by the memories of these various moments and the anticipation of other meaningful moments.

I am confident that I am not alone in the practice of placing meaning on family heirlooms, along with the want to beautify the rituals that we perform in the contexts of our families and our community. When we embrace and practice Hiddur Mitzvah, we bring light and life further into the commandments and rituals, the meaningful moments of our Jewish experiences.

Bringing light into our community is something that Anita Winer z’’l was dedicated to. She understood the power of aesthetics in our tradition. That is why I am so proud of what our congregation has done to keep Anita’s memory and blessing alive through the Open Your Eyes fund and the Shine a Light initiative.

Beginning last month, and going well into 5775, our congregation will have the opportunity to engage, learn, connect, and create in different ways, all designed to lift up the beauty of our tradition, through the context of visual and performing arts. We hope that this initiative will involve everyone within the congregation in some way or another.

The beauty of our tradition—through the glow of Channukah candles or the light that shines through a stained glass window—has the power to enhance our relationship to Jewish life. Hiddur Mitzvah calls us to consider what we do as Jews, and how we work to make it meaningful and special. I hope you will join in one of the many opportunities over the next months to bring beauty to our tradition.

Just before Thanksgiving, Temple Shalom held its annual Pie & Tie Drive. We’ve had a Pie Drive for many, many years–sending out pies to homebound individuals as part of Thanksgiving meals. It’s been a wonderful tradition within our community.

Just a couple of years ago, we added in the ties. They go to Year Up, and organization dedicated to providing “urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.” Earlier today, I received an email from one of their organizers, with photos of their Dress for Success class. Many of the participants learned how to tie their ties that day, remarking things like “This tie matches my shirt perfectly. It’s like it was made for me!” and “I look sharp in this tie.”

It’s so great to be able to draw connections between ourselves and other organizations around town. I am so grateful and proud that we can be a part of a broader community. Thank you to everyone from our Social Action team who made the Pie & Tie Drive a success this year.

Here are some photos from their Dress for Success day:

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Here are my remarks from last night’s Kabbalat Shabbat service. I’d love to know what others think about the Getting Things Done system, and how it plays as a spiritual practice. If you have any thoughts, make sure to leave your comments here.

Shabbat Shalom!


Guest blog post from Ellie Goldman, Director of Youth Engagement

In second grade I sat next to a boy named Jason.  I don’t remember his last name but I know his first name was Jason because it was on the board every day with a bunch of checks next to it.  He was the kid who was in trouble at every turn for one thing or another – he was a bad seed and even though we were only seven – we all knew it.

One day our teacher sat us all down and said we needed to discuss something as a class.  She said that Jason (who was there as well) was really having a hard time, that staying focused was difficult for him and that he was falling behind.  She said we were all going to work together to get things back on track.  As a class we strategized about possible solutions.  One classmate asked Jason if he might have trouble hearing the teacher.  Another thought perhaps he needed a snack in the middle of the day because he was hungry. Ultimately we concluded that it was we who were the distraction.  Sitting near friends was a temptation he struggled to overcome.  We made him want to talk and joke and turning away from the socializing was just harder for him than for other kids.  Image

We brainstormed different options and then that afternoon we constructed a 1-man cubby around his desk. I can picture it like it was yesterday – covered in yellow, waxy butcher paper and extending high above his desk.  We moved his seat so that it was without an immediate neighbor but still part of the larger group.  Someone thought having headphones might help as well to dull the noise of the room so we outfitted his desk with those.  At the end of the day Jason had his own private learning oasis and we had all been a part of the process.  I can still see him sitting there, hunched over a worksheet or a book with his headphones on working away.  That cubby changed his whole existence at school and it changed me as well.

I think about Jason and his yellow cubicle frequently, sometimes daily.  I think about how my brilliant teacher saw a little boy, branded as a bad seed, who had a desire to learn and she asked us to help him succeed.  She crafted a conversation that was not shameful or demeaning but rather powerfully respectful of him and trusting of us.  I think about how beautiful it was to create a space that was separate for him but which ultimately allowed him to be included and to become a learner.

That single day, more than thirty years ago, has completely shaped the way that I understand what it means to be in community and has guided me throughout my career working with young people.  I am constantly aware of Jason, what his needs were, how he encountered school and how we provided for his needs in a spirit of joy and support. In this, the month of Inclusion Awareness I am grateful for that 2nd grade lesson about what it means to be responsible for one another and how important it is to value each individual, even (especially) the ones who struggle the most.

T-Minus One Day

I’m writing this post from Logan Airport in Boston. I’m waiting for my flight down to Miami. In just over 24 hours, I’ll be boarding a flight to Cuba with 30 other souls from Temple Shalom.

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Now is the time to get excited about this trip. For ten days we’ll tour around Cuba, experiencing the Jewish community there, the culture, and the life that makes up this country.

I honestly do not know what we will encounter. I know, though, that what we will find there will be eye opening. I look forward to learning about Cuban life today. I look forward to experiencing Cuba culture. And, I’m hoping to get in a Cuban baseball game.

While on this trip, I’m going to keep a video journal. With the infrastructure in Cuba, I won’t have the ability to put up any posts or videos. So as soon as I return, I’ll be getting that up and running. I will also be collecting photos, videos, and journals from our trip participants. I’m excited to share all of this at the completion of the trip.

Until then, I’m looking forward to some good weather and great company. See you on the flip side!

Confession time: Impromptu, public prayer has always made me anxious. It has taken a lot of work to recognize and articulate the natural prayers that my soul wants to speak. From time to time, when called upon to pray in public, with no time to prepare my thoughts of what to say, I find myself tongue-tied.

Letting one’s soul loose is challenging. 

I found myself confounded recently, in a situation only Serendipity, herself, could have foreseen. On a Friday afternoon, I was out and about running some errands. Along the way, I decided to stop off at a florist, to buy some flowers for my fiancé, Liz. 

The florist shop was tiny, with only enough space for one customer and the florist, herself. Behind the counter stood a middle-aged, small, African-American woman in nurse’s scrubs. She was smiling as she was finishing up a beautiful bouquet. As I began to describe the thing I wanted to bring home, she decided she needed to make me something special, right there on the spot. Nothing already prepared from her; it was only made-to-order. 

So I waited, as she made me this custom bouquet of flowers. She was performing art right in front of me, which I found transfixing. She brought me out of it when she struck up a conversation. “You look like a creative type,” she said. “What do you do for a living? Please tell me you do something where you create.” 

“Well I suppose I have to be creative to a certain extent,” I replied. “But if I tell you what I do for a living, you have to promise to believe me.” How many rabbis does a person run into on a given day? 

She agreed, and when I told her about my calling, she stopped what she was doing. She looked at me and said, “Thank God. I knew I was supposed to meet you today.”

The woman launched into a story of what had happened to her the evening before. She works as a nurse at night, at one of the hospitals in Longwood. The night before, she and a friend of hers, also dark-skinned, took a break around 3:00 AM. They were walking to a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, when they walked past a group of white teenagers. They passed by them, when suddenly one of the boys spat on the ground in front of them and shouted the N-word right in their faces.

“I’ve lived in Boston all my life,” she told me, “and never before have I experienced such overt racism. Covert bigotry, yes. Overt, no. Boston can be a difficult city, but I haven’t ever had someone spit at me. 

“I need you to pray for me, Rabbi. I need grace. I need grace, now. Will you pray for grace with me?”

ImageI did not realize in the moment I was supposed to start praying then and there. I could not come up with any words. How could I pray? Here she was having just faced baseless hatred, and she wanted grace—what we would call chesed v’rachamim, kindness and compassion. I had no response. I felt the prayer sitting stone-heavy in my heart; it was real and it was present. But pray out loud at that moment, I could not bring myself to do it.

In the Jewish community in which our prayers are routinized, spontaneity has a place but is not easily achieved. I am envious of my Christian counterparts whose liturgies are flexible enough to allow them to speak aloud prayers that articulate their hopes, their dreams, their anxieties, and their reasons for thanks, praise and petition. 

Prayer should be natural—as natural as breathing. To cultivate a prayer life takes work. And in our community, when we come into services, knowing what to expect, prayer can work if we work at it. And we can find the space within our liturgy to speak those prayers that exist genuinely within. Our liturgy is ripe with opportunities to connect—to connect with those around us and to connect with the Higher Realm. Prayer can take us to unexpected places. In the face of adversity, this woman wanted a prayer that would bring her grace, kindness and compassion. How she can place those things together within that experience is a real-life riddle for those looking from the outside. Prayer is the key to unlocking that riddle. The Jewish community would do well to imagine expansively about what prayer can be when we look up from our prayer books, forget the words we’re supposed to be saying, and get down to the real work of trying to pray with our whole souls. 

As I shared on Kol Nidre eve in September, “One of the goals I set for my Sabbatical time this summer was to try a new path, to do something out of the box, something out of my own comfort zone. While I always find new things to experience in Israel, by and large, my time in Israel is familiar territory. I knew that part of my time would be spent in the Berkshires so that I could be with Laura, and some of our children, who were spending their summer at our URJ Eisner Camp.  But I wasn’t going to be part of “camp” in a formal way.  So I set out to find a learning opportunity that might be available. The Berkshires are full of wonderful opportunities.  I figured there just had to be something out there for me.  With a bit of cyber-exploration back in the Spring I found what I thought might fit the bill – a seminar at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge. . . the time I spent at Kripalu that left me a different person.”As part of the completion of last summer’s sabbatical time I have been blessed take this month of January (since the High Holy days came so early this past year): Some weeks of travel with Laura in Italy — wonderful; A long weekend at camp (as Laura was leading a family retreat) with my brother Mark and his wife Leah (our first extended shared downtime since they moved to Vancouver twelve years ago); and now . . .

I’m back at Kripalu for a 5 1/2 day mindfulness retreat with master teacher, Jack Kornfield.  This past summer I had my first serious exposure to Mindfulness meditation. I’ve returned this month for a more intensive look.  These winter retreat days have a different flow and intensity from what I experienced back in July.  Pretty quickly, we were taken into mindfulness practice by our teacher (who just this morning I discovered was raised in Newton, and who graduated from Newton North High School back in the day.) Long periods of sitting in silence; numerous walking practices; learning to hear the sounds around us with new ears; learning to breathe . . . more deeply, more fully, in a more focused way; more mindfully.  The retreat is just past the halfway point and I’ve come to rest my mind with the notion that what I am doing is nothing less than learning a new language.  As with my years of learning Hebrew in Ulpan (the intense immersion for learning Hebrew), I have realized that I am at a mindfulness meditation Ulpan.  This new language, for which I began learning just a few of the letters of the alphabet back in July, is a language which has grabbed hold of me.Indeed, following upon my summer experience, and with the guidance of some summertime classmates, I found myself devouring some of the literature, both in book and audio form which helped me take baby steps along the way this summer and fall.  Now I’m immersed in really learning to speak the language.  Just as when I first really learned to speak Hebrew, I wasn’t always comfortable. Just the same, I learned I had to take risks, speak my nascent Hebrew outside of the classroom, take it into the streets and the shops; walk with it, and live it. So often I made mistakes.  Indeed, I still do.

So it is with this new language, which I began to speak – at home, in my study at the synagogue, and even from the pulpit while leading services in recent months.For me, learning something new brings exhilaration.  It creates excitement.  I look forward to continuing my journey into this new “language,” which is mostly spoken in silence and with breath.  It might sound hokey, but learning this language is breathing something new into me, even as I take into my heart, mind and soul.

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