Category Archives: Jewish Journeying

A Powerful Witness

elie-wiesel1The tributes for the late Elie Wiesel have been coming fast and furiously.  I am not surprised in the least.  His imprint on so many is immeasurable, and I am no different.

I am pretty certain that my first “encounter” was, as it was for so many, through reading his haunting memoir Night as a teenager.  The book was an awakening, and it led to a period in which my thirst for learning about the Shoah/Holocaust was hard to quench.

In my last semester of senior year in college, as I was already preparing to begin my rabbinic studies, I took a course in post-Holocaust literature and theology. Our professor had us read nearly everything Elie Wiesel had written at the time (1973), along with the writings of a number of Jewish and Christian theologians. It was a heavy-duty course, both in terms of the work-load and the subject matter. I still recall our final class session, in which we sat together sharing how the course had impacted us. Several classmates queried me, “Are you going to continue with your plans to study for the rabbinate in the wake of what we have studied?” While I had certainly found my faith shaken in the intensity of our learning, I responded that I was wrestling, and believed I would continue to do so, even as I set out on my journey.

Some years later, as I served my first congregation I had the opportunity to meet Elie Wiesel as he came to our building to utilize one of our libraries as a setting for the recording of a series of videos on Biblical figures. I was daunted by being in the presence of this man who had seen so much, and wrestled with some of the darkest of what we humans are capable of doing to one another.  It’s not that he was the first survivor I’d met. Perhaps it was a feeling of intimacy from having read nearly everything he’d written and felt his pain and suffering. He was quiet and gentle. His simple presence was an inspiration.

At the time, I had not really put it together, but Elie Wiesel’s presence in our building for the recordings marked his transition away from an almost exclusive Holocaust-focus towards writing and teaching about great figures from our Biblical, rabbinic, and Hasidic traditions. His journey continued to whet my appetite. Realizing that my time in New York City would likely soon end, I hastened to take one of his acclaimed 92nd-Street YMHA courses.  The man was a masterful teacher.  Still quiet and gentle on the stage of the Y, he held me, and everyone around me spellbound.

There were a few other chance encounters over the years.  The last was, perhaps, one of the most important to me.  A number of years ago, the Youth Educator at my current congregation was taking our high school students to Boston University Hillel for an informal evening with Elie Wiesel. Seth had worked at the Hillel before joining our staff and had been invited to bring our students.  Almost four decades had passed since I’d first encountered Elie Wiesel through Night.  I recalled something another survivor had told my youth group at that first congregation in the early 1980’s.  He said, “I want younight_cover-old to remember this evening.  I want you to remember that you met me. Even if you don’t remember all of my story, you will recall that we have met.  A day will come when there will be no more survivors to tell our stories. You will have to be our witnesses to the next generation.”  As our students prepared to go to BU, and me with them, I urged one if my sons to join us.  He was younger than the other students, but I wanted him to hear what Elie Wiesel would say.  I wanted him not only to hear a survivor, but to hear this survivor.  He was resistant, but compliant.  As we left the Hillel gathering that night, he thanked me for urging him to come.

Elie Wiesel has taught generations about the importance of speaking up and speaking out. May his message continue to be heard and felt – through us.  It must be heard, for we still live in a world wherein for too many people, it is still night!

Elie Wiesel – Your memory will be for a blessing, especially if we hear your call and heed your message. Rest in peace, our conscience and teacher.

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“Is it Still Relevant?”

“Is it still relevant?”

It’s a question we ask ourselves quite often in liberal Jewish communities. This week I heard it anew, not in the midst of a discussion of some matter of Jewish law or practice as it has evolved from Biblical times to our own time.  No, IMG_5739this time the question was posed by Eisner Camp Director, Louis Bordman to the almost 800 campers, staff and faculty gathered in the URJ Eisner Camp’s beautiful Beyt Tefillah, the outdoor prayer space.  I have been participating in worship in this magnificent outdoor sanctuary since 1973.  It looks a bit different than it did a bit over 4 decades ago. Yet, the natural beauty, and even more, the spirit which arises from what takes place in that holy space, is still vibrant and inspiring.

Each session of camp opens with a ceremony which enables the camp community to celebrate the beginning of a new IMG_5793season or session at camp.  At the heart of this ceremony is a ritual developed about a decade ago by the educators serving camp at that time.  This ritual involves prayers and abundant singing. Its centerpiece is the passing of camp’s four Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the oldest campers to the youngest ones. It is a joyous, noisy, and I would argue, still quite relevant celebration. The goal is to re-place the Torah scrolls in the Aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark) which stands as the focal point of the Beyt Tefillah. That done, camp begins in earnest and we study, play and live Torah and Jewish values.  As the camp community passes the Scrolls from one age group to another (guided by the Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who have come to serve a week or two on the camp’s faculty), there are readings and words from our rich tradition. These words bring to life the ancient words from the Talmud, “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.  He gave it to Joshua, who gave to the elders of the community; they in turn gave it to the prophets who passed it to the Leaders of the Great Assembly…” (Avot 1:1) With these words we are reminded that already in the annals of early Rabbinic Judaism we have the notion of each generation taking its place in the chain of the transmission and interpretation of our Jewish heritage. At camp, each session, we join that process.

IMG_0084Louis’ question, “Is it still relevant?” a few nights ago had more to do with whether this ceremony, but a decade or so old, needs rethinking.  Standing at his side during the final moments of that ceremony on opening night I urged him to take part differently in next year’s ceremony. I suggested he take the place of a faculty member and that he should guide a Torah scroll from camper to staff to camper down through the layers of our camp community from oldest to youngest.  As I guided a scroll that night I was deeply moved by the smiles on the faces, the light in the eyes and the sheer electric joy of our campers and staff, as I moved through the crowd. Those smiles, those eyes, and that joy in told me all I needed to know in order to answer Louis’ query.  The answer was written on the faces of the 600 campers along with their counselors and leaders.  The joy of Torah was alive and the scrolls returned to the Ark, so that over the weeks to come we can learn and live the teachings of our rich heritage once more.


Becoming Jewish

laura-rosenthalLaura Rosenthal is currently a student at Colby College, studying English. Laura and her family have been active in our Temple Shalom family for many years. She was a leader in SHAFTY, our youth group, and served on the NFTY-NE regional board.

She is an excellent writer, and recently posted an amazing reflection on her process in becoming Jewish for the Mayyim Hayyim Blog. You can read it here:

Mazel Tov to Leah Sawyer!

Leah Sawyer, Wet Hair Moment

We share in joy with Leah Sawyer as we welcome her officially to the Jewish community! Today, Leah met with a beit din and immersed in the mikveh to complete her conversion process.

At services this evening, Leah will stand before our community as she recites Sh’ma holding onto our sacred Torah for the first time. We will also bestow upon her a Hebrew name.

What a milestone! In preparation for this day, Leah prepared a reflection on her Jewish journey:

Today I am choosing to become Jewish.  This is an important step for me – seven steps, actually, into the mikveh waters as a Gentile and seven steps back out as a new Jew – and a decision I do not take lightly.  After nearly two decades of thinking about the idea, and after 15 months of serious study and reflection, I am ready to become officially what I have come to feel inside, and to what I have been drawn for most of my life.

The question of “why Judaism?” is a hard one to answer – not because of a lack of compelling reasons, but because much of my motivation comes from somewhere deeper than logic.  Judaism just feels like the right fit for me, in an elemental way that defies description.

Growing up in a loving Irish Catholic family, my parents instilled strong values that included doing the right thing even at personal cost, prioritizing family and community, and the importance of kindness and generosity.  As I have grown in my life’s path, many of the specific tenets I believe in have changed, but those core values continue to guide me.  In Judaism, I find deep resonance with those values, and with new ones I have come to hold dear – inclusiveness, healing the world, feminism, and lifelong learning.  I still have many questions and expect I always will — in Judaism, I have found a structure in which I can wrestle with thorny topics and learn from others who are doing the same.  Most importantly, I have found an oasis of peace and calm in my life, a space of time in which I can recharge, and at the same time be challenged to be better and kinder.

My Jewish journey started in middle school, when I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and in short order, all of Potok’s other books) that gave me a window into a new world, and when our Christian Bible teacher Dr. D taught us ancient Israelite history and a smattering of basic Hebrew.  In college, as my once-ardent Catholic faith faltered, Dr. D’s statement that “next to Mandarin, Hebrew is the hardest language” was a spur to find a Hebrew tutor (difficult in deep rural Virginia) who introduced the aleph-bet, and to find a scholarship to study in Israel.

My six months in Israel taught me many things – that there are many kinds of hummus and they’re all delicious, Hebrew really IS incredibly difficult to learn, never to trust that an Israeli-organized “short easy” hike will be either short or easy, and that Israel is a deeply difficult and deeply beguiling country – but not so much about the actual religion of Judaism.  I learned that (at that time) most Israelis were culturally but not spiritually Jewish.

It was not until 2013, after a difficult period caused me to reexamine my life in many ways, that I began to think about Judaism more seriously.  At the time I was living with a roommate who had converted to Catholicism and taught high school theology.  Theological conversations with Andrea over red wine and pad Thai started me thinking again, after a long time of being closed spiritually.  I knew I couldn’t convert to Judaism, even with its lifelong pull, for a number of reasons… though in the end, none of those reasons stood up to debate or research.  I read Anita Diamante’s book Choosing A Jewish Life, my heart racing with excitement, and decided that this sounded right for me – I needed to know more.

After I contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and signed up for an intro to Judaism course, I started attending the local synagogue, Beth El Hebrew in Alexandria Virginia.  People were welcoming, but I struggled with feeling out-of-place, not knowing the melodies, and barely being able to sound out the Hebrew in the prayer book.  I kept coming every week and found a Hebrew tutor, and over several months I learned the melodies and came to feel less out-of-place, although I was still one of the youngest adults in the synagogue by several decades.

Following a sudden move to Boston for a new job, I was referred to Rabbi Neil Hirsch at Temple Shalom of Newton, who enthusiastically volunteered to shepherd me through the conversion process.  My first experience of Temple Shalom was Yom Kippur, which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful and meaningful in a way I hadn’t expected, as I reflected on the ways I wanted to change my life and myself in the coming year.  The evening Yom Kippur service was followed by a 20s and 30s break fast feast, where I met people my age, many of whom I have come to know well in the interim.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind year of growth and learning — I’ve lit Shabbat candles in my home, attended services at Temple Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, studied Torah on Shabbat mornings (especially savoring the footnotes in the women’s commentary Torah), studied Hebrew prayers (thanks to Liz Piper-Goldberg), burned “Thanksgivvukah” mashed potato latkes, taken the introduction to Judaism course in Wayland (thanks to Rabbis Neal Gold, Jen Gubitz, and Alana Alpert, among others), learned about the conversion process at Mayyim Hayyim (thanks to Rabbi Julie Zupan), and participated in the 10-week young adult Eser study class.  Most importantly, I have met regularly with Rabbi Hirsch, whose calm kindness and insightful analysis of complex issues I came to value, as we discussed my evolving thoughts and questions about Judaism, until I felt that I was ready to be adopted into Judaism.

The Mishkan T’filah prayerbook has many beautiful passages for reflection, including one that brings tears to my eyes every time we read or sing it:

Standing on the parted shore of history

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a promised land;

That the winding way to that promise

Passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there

Except by joining hands, marching together.

Today I join a beautiful 4,000 year old tradition, one with built-in growth and deep complexity.  It’s where I belong, and I am honored to join hands and march together into a new future.

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Music Is All Around

By Joanna Grill
Joanna is an active participant in our High School Youth programs, MA’ARIV, SHAFTY and NFTY-NE. This summer, Joanna was a participant in the URJ’s Urban Mitzvah Corps New Jersey. This post originally appeared on the UMC Blog.

On the Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) packing list, I was ecstatic when I saw that “musical instruments” was listed. When I play my guitar here at the Phi Sigma Sigma house, people will walk downstairs and gravitate towards the music in the living room, whether it is a pop song or a Jewish song. I find that the best feeling is to start playing guitar for a group of people, and to end the song with everyone singing along and smiling with me. I led sing-alongs with a large group downstairs, with just girls in the Girls’ Lounge on the third floor, with my three roommates, and with just the music master himself –our own Shawn Fogel. I stepped out of my comfort zone last week and tried song leading for the first Friday night Shabbat service of the session – and I loved it.

Joanna with Kayla, UMC 2014 Student Coordinator, at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Joanna (right) at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Music is all around. We sang along on the van ride to my job site and took turns “DJ-ing”. My job site, Elijah’s Promise, is a soup kitchen on the other side of New Brunswick. We work 3 days a week at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen, one day at its pay-as-you-can-café, and one day at its market. We arrive at 10am and prepare food and clean the kitchen until 11am. Then, we serve lunch. As volunteers, we have the opportunity to look a person in the eye and directly hand them a meal that is potentially their only meal of the day. I used to avoid eye contact and judge homeless people on the street. Now, when I’m walking around New Brunswick, I see many of the people I have served. When I look into a client’s eyes and talk to them, I get a glimpse of his or her life. Often they tell jokes or make me laugh while I’m handing them food. Other times, they tell me how their days are going and ask me about myself. People often ask for more servings than what is allowed, and it’s a challenge to say no, once you begin to sympathize and hear their stories. The experience at Elijah’s is both eye-opening and humbling; I never used to think twice about where my next meal was coming from.

Today, all four volunteers from UMC got to serve in front. We met some hilarious clients and had a blast. Out of all the days I have spent here in New Brunswick, today was by far the best. After our lunch break, we made pickles and chopped up several different kinds of vegetables for a huge soup. Hey, remember when I said I loved music? It was a bit quiet today chopping, so I asked Chef Pam if we could bring in our speakers and plug my phone in. All of us from Mitzvah Corps had an incredibly fun sing along while making a tremendous amount of food. I spilled pickle juice down my shirt, but I was having too much fun at the soup kitchen to care. Chef Pam, who is filled with unbelievable spirit and energy, walked in and out of the room as we were chopping. Pam smiled and sang along with us. During one song, Pam jumped in the room, pulled me away from my cutting board and had me teach her the dance to the Cupid Shuffle. Meanwhile, we were chopping onions and were all in tears and having the time of our lives singing with each other. Chef Pam, a complete stranger to us at the beginning of the day, was brought closer to us through serving clients, preparing food, and especially through dancing to music.

Music has been my connection to all of the communities I have interacted with here at UMC, from the house, to my job site. Tonight, UMC participants are leading a service at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a temple in New Brunswick. I will be standing with my guitar along with all my friends in front of the congregants, all complete strangers. But by the end of the night, I know that the beautiful songs that we will share will bring us together as a community.

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A New Experience

By Jacob Gurvis

This piece originally appeared on the Urban Mitzvah Corp blog on July 30, 2014. Jacob is a leader in SHAFTY, our youth group, and staffs MINCHA, our 7th & 8th grade program.

When I was signing up for Urban Mitzvah Corps New Jersey (UMC), it was just assumed that I would go for the full six weeks. Four weeks wasn’t really logistically possible, with my father being in Israel and my mother at URJ Eisner Camp all summer. So I signed up for all six, not really knowing what it would be like, or what would happen if I didn’t like the first session.

jg2Fortunately, none of those worries proved true. Even after fourteen summers at Eisner, the first session of UMC was one of (if not the) best months of my life. The friendships I made were incredibly special. I loved my job site, Play S.A.F.E., but it was the fun we had in the house and on our trips that made the session truly magical. Whether it was playing poker at night with all the boys, or just sitting and jamming out on guitar, we all had an amazing time together. We were just 32 teens from all over the country, with different backgrounds, customs, and likes, all bonding every second of the day. I never could have imagined that one group of people could become so close so quickly. And I couldn’t be happier that it turned out the way it did.

Needless to say, after such a life-changing and incredible month, saying goodbye was not going to be easy. In fact, that Tuesday morning, watching as 22 of my new best friends left, was one of the hardest days of my life. The day was full of crying and hugs, and saying goodbye was, to put it simply, heartbreaking.

After the tears and goodbyes, for the ten of us full-summer kids, the thought of starting over with new kids did not seem appealing. We were sad, and frankly did not want to meet new people after such a transformative month. It was tough for us to stay positive and excited, but we pulled through, and welcomed the new participants with smiles and open arms. By the first night, I could tell that we’d all be okay.

Now almost a week into second session, I’m so grateful that I was able to stay for both sessions. Sure it was hard saying goodbye, but the new friendships I’ve already made have made it all worth it. It was definitely weird starting over and having a completely new group come in after the month I had, but it has already been so great, that I wouldn’t give this up for anything.

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Mazel Tov to Gabe & Rachel Tash!

We share in joy as we welcome Charlie Wesley Tash to the world. We welcome him into the Covenant of Israel, and into the Temple Shalom family. Mother, Father, and baby are all doing well. 

Rachel shares here about Charlie’s name: 
Charlie is named after Gabe’s great uncle, Charles Schiff, who was a loving presence throughout Gabe’s childhood. He was a successful business owner in New York City and loved trains and dogs, just like my husband, Gabe.
Charlie Wesley TashCharlie’s middle name, Wesley, was my maternal grandfather’s name. Wesley Leonard was a family physician in Rockville Center, New York and lived in Concord, NH with me for the last few years of his life. He was a hard working community doctor and was incredibly devoted to his grandchildren.
Charlie’s Hebrew name is in honor of my paternal grandmother’s long time partner, Sidney Horblitt. Sid was around for most of my childhood and he was like a grandfather to me and my sisters. Sid always referred to my mother (Carol Sobelson, hebrew name Shira) as Shira Katanah (little Shira) and in response we all called him, Shalom Gadol (big Shalom). Although Sid’s true given hebrew name was Shalom, in my mind he never went by this single word so naming Charlie after his full nickname seemed more appropriate. Cantor Halpern has helped us to translate this into English as “Great Peace,” which we also think is a wonderful reflection of Sid’s character and the kind of person we hope Charlie will become, too. 
We look forward to many happy occasions with the Tash family, as we watch the family grow. May they aways continue from strength to strength. Mazel Tov! 

A Legacy for Your Family

By Loretta Zack 

The best gift you can ever give your family is to arrange your own funeral. …Did I hear a sharp intake of breath?

There are certain things that one should do in life, but somehow funeral planning does not always happen. When you are young, you have no concept of the future and as you get older, it becomes taboo. But when it happens and you have not made plans, it is a nightmare.

In my own life, I have been through many varying stages with family and friends where no planning was done and families tended to argue. In some cases, it caused everyone to totally fall out with one another. This is such an emotional time for everyone concerned and that is why planning ahead is the most sensible answer, however gruesome.  

Truthfully, when I say gruesome, it actually can be very satisfying to know that because of your actions, your children and family will not have too much to worry about, as long as you have everything in writing.  

The actual funeral arrangements can be so simple as long as you know what to do. Working at Temple Shalom for over nine years now, I have learned so much, and feel that with this knowledge, I have been able to guide and help people where they are just not sure what to do. And let’s face it, heartbreak, sadness, emotions, you just cannot think straight. For this reason, it is so important to shop for a funeral home and speak with our clergy. These are the people trained to help you during such a tough time. Since, in the Jewish tradition, burial takes place quickly, even if death was expected, the grief that comes with the loss is so overwhelming that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Over the years, members of our community have asked many questions to help them plan. For example:

  • What do I do, I have never done this before?
  • My children do not want to observe shiva. What do I do?
  • How many days do I have to sit shiva?
  • Who will be there to help me?
  • Where do I get the black ribbon and the large yahrzeit candle?
  • How am I going to cope?
  • My brother will not come to my house to sit shiva, what can we do?
  • What is Sheloshim?
  • None of my family are Jewish, and they will not know what to do? How do I handle that?
  • What is the difference between a burial service and a memorial service?

It is important to know that we at Temple Shalom will always be available to help with any questions you have. Never be afraid to ask. That is why the Temple Shalom family is so important—we are here to support and assist you.

I strongly urge you to take that giant step and make arrangements now. Leave your family the best gift, ever!

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Israeli Adventures

By Louis Stein

We’re re-blogging this post, which originally appeared on the NFTY in Israel B’Yisrael Blog on July 14, 2014. Louis is currently on one of their trips. During the year, he and his family take part in the life of Temple Shalom. Louis is a leader in SHAFTY, our Temple Youth Group.

The week started off flying over to Israel after a long week in Eastern Europe. After seeing the dark days of Judaism, we finally see the triumph of the Jewish people, and it is incredible. Tel Aviv was so beautiful. We toured around the city briefly with a highlight of putting our feet in the Mediterranean Sea. After a night in Tel Aviv, we packed up and headed south to Eilat and the Negev Desert. A long day of travel was followed by a windy night sleeping on the rocky desert floor. The nex1t day was followed by hikes and a swim in the Red Sea where we got to snorkel and see the beautiful reef. Everyone had a nice relaxing time at the beach, which was much needed for the long hike up Har Shelomo (Mount Solomon) which was a struggle for many people. It was a long, rocky climb filled with sweat, blood and tears, but in the end it was absolutely worth it. The view looked over Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel and was incredible. The whole trip in the Negev was difficult, but bonded everyone together on a whole new level. We travelled the next day to Jerusalem for a well-deserved, relaxing Shabbat. The trip so far is incredible and worthwhile, and I love every minute of it.

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Gaining Jewish Knowledge, Building Community

by Leah Sawyer

When I moved to Boston last fall, I was looking for community in the 20s/30s age range.  I was told by several people to check out Hebrew College’s Eser Program. In Hebrew, eser means ten, for the ten weeks it ranges and the “Top 10” topics discussed.  There were Eser groups meeting in homes located around Boston on different nights, and each was a guided discussion (moderated by a young rabbi in the same age range) on a Jewish topic (like Jews and tattoos, and gender and sexuality) – with the expectation that we would wander into non sequiturs and get to know each other along the way.  Our Thursday Newton group had just under 20 young people with a wide range of life experiences and a similarly wide range of knowledge of Judaism… and some amazing cooking abilities.  As someone with only a little background in Judaism, I learned a lot from both Rabbi Neil Hirsch and from the other folks in our group, and felt comfortable asking questions and sharing my own experiences.  Several times during the ten weeks, we met with other Eser groups in big combined events, so we could make connections outside our group.  Even though Eser is now officially over, we have a Shabbat barbeque planned. I am hoping to continue to make and deepen connections with people from my Eser cohort.  Eser is exactly what I was looking for, in searching for Jewish community in my age range in the Boston area.

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