Monday, August 31, 2009

12 Elul. Reflections on 'Rosh'

A member of B'nai Israel, Rabbi Jack Bloom has a new book, 'Blessings for You from Head to Toe' coming out in the New Year.
It includes the poems he has written over the years for Rosh Hashanah, each on a body part. Each poem is accompanied by the paintings of his wife, Ingrid. Particularly suited to our month of reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah - the Head of the Year, he shares with us here his poem, 'Head'.  For more information, and to order Rabbi Bloom's book of poetry, please contact him at

Headline reveries turn our head
proclaiming us head of the line
head and shoulders above the crowd
miles ahead of the flock

Head over heels bewitched with control
We head out with no clear heading
plunging headlong into the headwind
pursuing a headlock on life

Over our head
headstart lost
headway pitiable
headquarters baffled
headed off at every turn
heads ache in confusion

Heads or tails--it matters not
Yet having a head for
seeking life’s headwaters
we return with head held high
that the Ultimate Headmaster
grant us both headrest and headlights
as we head on our way

Sunday, August 30, 2009

11 Elul. It doesn’t get easier - -and maybe that’s as it should be

About now the recurring dreams begin. I stand in front of the congregation and have nothing to say. I lose several pages in the midst of a sermon. I forget to call someone forward for a specific honor. I over sleep.

But here’s the biggest nightmare. I walk into the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and find no one there.

Thankfully that has not happened and I trust it will not happen this year. Something compels Jews to return to synagogues during the days of awe and that in and of itself is testimony to the season’s power and the miracle of Jewish continuity. We see the committed and peripheral, the seekers and the estranged, the young and not so young – all engaged in something very personal, but not something done in isolation. It is the individual quest in the midst of a large community that is so compelling.

Cynics give all sorts of explanations to why this happens: habit, to be seen, to honor parents living or dead. But I think it goes well beyond those types of things. Conformity and social pressures are not sufficiently strong in this day and age to warrant such expeditions to the synagogue.

What brings us together? There is a deep spiritual need to unite the fragments of our lives and there is great wisdom in Jewish tradition in providing the time and place for such self scrutiny. The past year has seen success and failure, missed opportunities, moments when we’ve let down ourselves and others. There is a gap between the reality that is us and the higher vision we hold out for ourselves. We seek wholeness in a holy setting.

Anticipation of these days helps raise the bar. The liturgy, the melodies and the images that have become familiar draws us in again and again.

5770 will mark my 20th High Holy Days at B’nai Israel and my 30th serving a congregation. You’d think I’d have it down by now. While certain things in my rabbinate have gotten easier over the years, preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not one of them.

But I suspect that’s as it should be.
Rabbi James Prosnit

Saturday, August 29, 2009

10 Elul. A 4-Step Program for Elul

When we take on a new project, we often find a ‘to-do’ list essential to help us navigate our way through all the tasks involved. We may know, at an intellectual level, that Elul is a month to begin the process of ‘Teshuvah’ – of returning to a centered and God-guided life, but what does this actually entail? Our Director of Education, Ira Wise, shares the age-old ‘to-do’ list of Saadia Gaon as one answer to this question:

Saadia Gaon, a 10th century commentator and leader of the Jews of Babylonia, said that there are four things we must do in order to do successfully do T'shuvah either with God or humans:

1) We must confess our cheyt (the Hebrew word for sin, which means “missing the mark”), admit that we have missed the mark;
2) We must actually feel remorse for what we have done or failed to do. This is call t'shuvah shebalev –repentance of the heart;
3) We must ask for forgiveness and repair the damage we have caused; and
4) We must accept the responsibility never to repeat the cheyt.

As we do our cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul, thinking about how we have missed the mark), ask yourself “Am I ready for these four steps? What do I have to do to get ready? Who do I need to approach before the Days of Awe come to an end?
Ira Wise

Thursday, August 27, 2009

8 Elul. The Pursuit of Happiness

Living a life that feels centered and whole is also living a life that feels joyful.

A congregant has been attending a local ‘Happiness Club’ .  They recently shared how some of the simple wisdom on how to live a joyful life has helped them and, with their permission, I share their reflections here:

"Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over it became a butterfly". I reflect on this quote at my desk time and time again when I think that things may never change or improve for the better. Yet in addition, I also try to remember that it "never gets darker then midnight". A few years back I read an interesting article about the "Pursuit of Happiness” in the Fairfield Citizen newspaper. At the end of the article it mentioned that the writer, Lionel Ketchian, also ran monthly Happiness Club meetings in the area. I was intrigued and decided to try out a meeting for myself and became hooked. 
I became a regular at the meetings for quite some time. Currently, if I can't attend a meeting I read the monthly "Happiness Club" website columns  and become inspired. This helps to keep me afloat, remain positive, and focus on what is truly important. It reminds me to be happy and realize the beauty and value of each day. It was also through one of the Happiness Club meetings that I became acquainted with the happiness teachings of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin of Jerusalem. Each day I receive an email from him citing his "daily lift". I begin my day by reading his message which inspires me throughout the rest of the day. Each passage is so powerful and poignant with a lesson to remember and words to live by.
Most important, between the mantra of The Happiness Club and Rabbi Pliskin, I now focus on gratitude more and more in my own daily prayers. I believe it is the key to happiness and focus on the blessings of what I have and not what I am missing. I also recite or make a daily mental list of all the "non material" things that I have and I am grateful for. The ones that money can't buy. These are the most valuable things for which I thank God.
The first words of the traditional Jewish prayer for waking up in the morning are Modeh ani lefanecha… Thankful am I before You.  A daily practice of affirming the good in one’s life can help to set the tone for the rest of your day.  If you have a daily mental gratitude list that you wish to share, please add to the comments for this posting.
For more information about Happiness clubs, click here.
You can read the Happiness Club blog here
To watch an interview with Rabbi Pliskin, click here
"Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." - Omar Khayyam
"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

"Happiness comes from spiritual wealth, not material wealth...Happiness comes from giving, not getting. If we try hard to bring happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also. To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it." - John Templeton 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Elul 7. Singing Avinu Malkeynu and how it made me a Cantor

I grew up in a Reform congregation in Northern California. My favorite prayer at the High Holy Days was when the Choir sang Avinu Malkeynu composed by Max Janowski. We were still using the old Union Prayer book in those days, and I would look ahead each service and count the pages until they sang Avinu Malkeyu. Later, when in high school, I joined the adult choir, and, since they did not have a Cantor, Avinu Malkeynu became my big solo. It spoke to me. It moved me. Every time before I would sing it, I would look at my mother, who never missed a service I sang, and we would look at each other and she would give me a special smile before I started. Through all my years as a student Cantor, and then Cantor, thru the 35 High Holy Day seasons I have sung, Avinu Malkeynu has been a spiritual moment for me.

One of the hardest things for me about the High Holy days, was 4 years ago, when my parents were unable to attend services anymore from California anymore due to health issues, my aunt died, my uncle went into a nursing home and my daughter went to college, all the same year, was to look out at the empty seats in the front row where they had all formerly sat, and not have my Mother to wink at before I sang the prayer.

I can honestly say this one prayer was what inspired me to become a Cantor. When I auditioned for Cantorial school, at the Hebrew Union College, I sang it. When I auditioned for my student pulpit in Long Island, I sang it. When I auditioned for my last job in Worcester I sang it. The Rabbi I worked with there said that when I sang Avinu Malkeynu he could see my soul. And then, when I auditioned for B’nai Israel, I sang it.

Music is very powerful. When we hear the special melodies from the High Holy Days, it makes us feel that the holidays are here. The music is special, the holidays are special. What is hard is when we are unable to be with our families anymore at holidays. Luckily, we are all part of the B’nai Israel family, the most wonderful group of people. I hope that all of us receive the comfort from the holidays we seek, renew ourselves and put us in a positive frame of mind for the next upcoming year. And, I hope that the music we sing will inspire all of us.
Cantor Sheri Blum

Share your stories with us - What music moves you? What associations and reflections do some of the High Holyday prayers and melodies have for you?  Let us know by clicking on 'comments' directly below this post, or by mailing to

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Elul 6. High Holyday Travels

For years I was very flexible about my celebration of Rosh Hashanah. If I could, I spent it with family. If that wasn’t convenient, I found other ways to observe the holiday. Some years I went to services, some years I didn’t. What really mattered was eating something sweet and reflecting on the past and on the future.

One year I was on vacation in Sweden with my father and sister. On Erev Rosh Hashanah we were driving back to Stockholm from a weekend trip, and we stopped at a rest area. We couldn’t find apples and honey so we celebrated with a plate of cookies. The next morning we found the main synagogue in Stockholm and showed up for services. We didn’t anticipate that the prayer books would be in Swedish and Hebrew, and we had some trouble following along, but we felt that we had done something to observe the day before resuming our sightseeing.

Another year I was in Berlin, by myself. I found a synagogue on the map, but didn’t have the energy to investigate it on my own. I felt that my anonymity in the city exempted me from any formal observance, and I settled for a pastry and some time writing in my journal.

Traveling on the holidays gives them an exotic appeal and makes them more memorable, and I do think that Rosh Hashanah is more a state of mind than anything else. But I also find that B’nai Israel provides an inspiring physical place and a spiritual community that helps to cultivate reflection and contemplation. Just knowing where I will be makes the holiday sweeter than Swedish cookies or German pastries.
Anat Shiloach

Have you, like Anat, found yourselves away from home for the holidays?  How did you mark the turning of the year?  Do you have stories to share?  You can add them by clicking 'comments', or you can mail them to for posting.

If you are a member of B'nai Israel and traveling over the High Holydays, you can find other Reform congregations in the United States near where you are traveling here  and a letter of reciprocity, available from our Temple office, can facilitate your visit.  You can find Progressive synagogues in other parts of the world here, and all synagogues worldwide here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Elul 5. Preparing ourselves for a healthy New Year

Rabbi Stephen Roberts recently shared the following on a rabbinic listserv and, with his permission, I share it here. He writes:

For many years one of my "spiritual" practices during Elul has been my annual physical exam. It is a good way for me to make sure that I keep taking care of my body "religiously." I encourage you to incorporate this into your own spiritual practices.

What good advice! It's advice that I need to hear - I left it 4 years before finally catching up on medical check-ups last Fall.  The Jewish New Year is a time to re-center, return to our core, and find our way back to a balanced life. Taking responsibility for our physical health, particularly with preventative measures, is so easy to leave for ‘when we have more time.’ But ‘if not now, when?’ Elul is a good month to take the time to care for mind, body, and spirit.  To enter the New Year rededicated to living a centered and God-connected life, we need to do whatever we can to maximize the health of our bodies - the holy vessels that enable us to do our work in the world.

If you have other suggestions of activities and practices that can help to re-center our bodies – practices that have helped you, please share your stories and ideas here, by clicking on ‘comments’.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, August 23, 2009

4 Elul. Let bygones be bygones?

At the end of last week, I came across the following quote floating in the header at
Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.   -Landrum Bolling
I've been contemplating this quote for a few days, finding it both insightful yet limited simultaneously.  Forgiveness is a form of letting go that does not always directly involve interaction with the one you felt has wronged you, although it is better if that interaction is possible.  Much has been written in recent years that shares the psychological wisdom that our inability to forgive often causes us much more harm, in terms of our state of mind and even our physical well-being, than it inflicts on the person who wronged us.  In the introduction to his book, 'Forgive for Good', Frederic Luskin reflects on our inability to let go of past experiences in a way that feels very familiar, and brings a smile to my face.  He asks us to think our mind like a house, where we choose the tenants to whom we rent the various rooms.  What kind of accommodations do we want to give our wounds and grievances?  We can rent our grievances the master bedroom and build them a hot tub out back.  We can give them a great lease with terrific terms that never expire, or we can grant them a day-to-day tenancy.  We can allow them to put their stuff in all the rooms of the house, or we can restrict them to a small room in the back.

The quote attributed to Landrum Bolling who, by the way, has spent a lifetime working in conflict management and peace resolution (including as an advisor to the US government in early attempts to bring the PLO and Israel to the negotiating table), reminds us that we have little hope of moving forward in our lives, or resolving past hurts, if we remain in the past or, using Luskin's image, if we allow that past story to occupy every room in the house.
But, I don't entirely agree with the literal reading of the quote.  I believe that it is possible, sometimes, to create a better past.  Not when terrible acts have been committed (although, even then, forgiveness is possible - for our own sakes).  But many family conflicts, or fall-outs between friends, occur over events where there is more than one narrative to explain what happened.  In our certainty about the intentions of the other, and our inability to let go of the hurt feelings we felt so intently at the time, we close ourselves off to the possibility of another explanation.  
A daughter may remember the past as 'My mother never loved me as much as my older sister - she never gave me as much attention.'  Through attempts at reconciliation, and a willingness to hear each other's story, perhaps the narrative might change to: 'My mother loved me very much, but there were times when my older sister was having problems that I wasn't aware of, and she needed more of her attention.  I remember feeling left out, by I realize now that my mother still loved me'
Two friends haven't spoken for 3 years because one felt that the other didn't care and could not possibly be a true friend because she didn't coming running when her husband was diagnosed with skin cancer.  She did not know that her friend had slipped into a clinical depression some months after her mother passed away, and was not able to be present for her in the way that she needed.  Both friends felt abandoned.
In scenarios like these, communication is the best way to break out of the old narrative.  When it is hard to pick up the phone, writing a letter may be a way to begin, or an email.  It is important to speak in terms of 'I thought...' or 'I felt...' rather than the more accusatory 'You did...' or 'You made me feel...' - the latter communicates that you have certainty that your narrative is the correct one, and is less likely to open the door to reconciliation and forgiveness.
By opening up the channels of communication, and opening up our hearts to the possibility of another way to understand our life stories, it may well be possible, in partnership with others, to create a better past and, from this, forgiveness can flow.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
What do you think?  Please share your reflections by clicking on 'comments.'

Saturday, August 22, 2009

3 Elul. The Moon of Elul

This powerful and reflective prayer for the month of Elul is by Rabbi Vicki Hollander. It is reprinted here with her permission. You can find many more inspirational prayers, poems and thoughts at her website (also on our 'Websites that Inspire' list).
The Moon of Elul (August-September)

Photo credit: Alon Kvashny

Your soul, seasoned by the heat of summer, burnished from the flames, grows ever more golden.You are growing like the fruits hanging in the trees,becoming more flavorful with each passing day.

You can feel the slight shift in the light now; feel the change in the air.The chant of the Song of Songs runs through your body,"I am my Beloveds and my Beloved is mine."
You feel a longing to reflect.You know you need review your life before you can step freely into your harvest time.

And so you begin, your soul calling upon the name of God
Your Stronghold, One Who is solidly present, with you, for you.

HaTzur, my Rock, my strength,aid me as I walk within and enter into the tasks of Elul.
The month of Elul awakens each dawn to the voice of the Ram's horn, androuses each midnight to the music of prayer.She bears scent of wild rose and sound of the departing wings of turtle doves.
The month of Elul,time of readying, time of shaping understanding,time of picking ripe figs.
Elul holds newly born autumn fog and freshly woven dew.She shoos scent of carob and tamarisk blooms into the evening breeze.In her reign the last remnants of summer heat swell, and hot desert winds scatter shards of thistles, grasses, and vegetable seeds wildly into the air.

Elul instructs me that the pieces that have dried out within me bear kernels of future possibilities,that when parched, rains of restoration follow.

Elul bids me learn from the earth who moves gracefully into her season of ripening,who readies for her winter. And she bids me to follow in her wake.

Elul enjoins me to forgive, for she, wizened with age, knows that accounts unsettled act like the small tear in a sack of flour from which a steady stream of wheat pours surreptitiously,until the sack lies depleted.Thus do un-forgiven deeds and words drain and alter my form.
Elul calls me to seek forgiveness from those whom I have wounded wittingly and unwittingly, by language and by actions. She bids me to ask forgiveness and to grant forgiveness.

Elul calls me to seek forgiveness from myself whom I have wounded,wittingly and unwittingly, by language and by actions.She bids me look at myself and to ask forgiveness and to grant forgiveness.

She bids me loosen jaws which clench, open the closed recesses within, scour that which has solidified, staining the inner parts of my being. She bids me wash myself clean, that I might be fresh again, that I might shine again, that I might stand restored, pure as first made.

HaTzur, my refuge, One Whom I turn to on my way, support me as I walk this path, for the way is most arduous. I lie exposed, open like a freshly cut fig, raw, naked, succulent.
I face harsh words and mottled histories,tortured sculptures of intentions that missed the mark, overgrown gardens of desires that grew awry.

Help me embark upon Elul's tasks. Help me cleanse, scrub away my shadows, that I might pass through her, at end, purified, renewed.

So that I might sing my songs more clearly,so that I might shine more brightly.
Be with me as I walk forward HaTzur. Grant me courage and fortitude.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

1 Elul. The Power of Words.

Do you think you could go a whole month without saying a sharp or unkind word? Without expressing frustration or impatience? Without sharing gossip? Could you do it for a week? Perhaps a day? Perhaps an hour?

It’s a tall order and, in many ways, as we look at our society and our media, extremely counter-cultural. But speaking with mindfulness is a deep spiritual practice that can be cleansing and centering, as well as helping each of us to play our part in creating the kind of community, and the kind of family that we wish to live in. Mindful speech is a spiritual practice that we find in Jewish teachings, such as the study and practice of Mussar, and many approaches to Jewish meditation, as well as rabbinic ethical teachings that warn of the damage we cause both spiritually and to our community when we engage in gossip, and other forms of negative speech (lashon hara). So central to living a spiritual and centered life, teachings on mindful speech are also found in the wisdom of many other faith traditions. For example, this year, Elul coincides with Ramadan for Muslims. You may be familiar with the sunrise to sundown daily fasting that is required during Ramadan, but did you know that refraining from speaking or listening to negative speech is also central to the spiritual practices of Muslims during this month?

Today is the first day of Elul – the month that invites us to begin our preparations for the Jewish New Year. Just as our Biblical story tells us that God created the world with words, so we too, created in the likeness of God, create, and also destroy, worlds with words. Just take a look at a very specific aspect of public discourse at the moment – the health care debate – and it is quite evident that thoughtful, ethical and loving speech is absent among many who are speaking on this issue. And it is quite clear how dangerous and destructive some of that speech is.

This blog is also an experiment in the power of words. Over the coming month, by offering daily postings for reflection and practice, and by inviting anyone to add their own reflections and experiences via the ‘comments’, we have another way to engage in ‘big talk’ (as opposed to ‘small talk’) about living spiritually, Jewishly meaningful lives as individuals and as a community.

As we begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holydays, try to begin each day with a personal affirmation to speak mindfully in the day’s interactions. No doubt, each of us will slip, but mindfulness practices are not about getting it right every moment. The ‘success’ is each moment that we are awake enough to recognize that we slipped, take responsibility for apologizing to the person we may just have been sharp or impatient with, and re-commit ourselves to the way we wish to speak today.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Welcome to Sh’ma Koleinu – Hear our voices. The voices are those of Congregation B'nai Israel, sharing thoughts, inspirational texts, and spiritual practices that can help guide us toward more conscious, healthy, and balanced living. Our blog begins on 1 Elul 5769, the Jewish month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time for introspection and preparation; a time to reflect on the lives we have lived this past year, and an opportunity to rebalance our lives, recharge our souls, and redress behaviors or relationships with others where we have missed the mark and wish to bring healing to those parts of our lives.

Sh’ma Koleinu is a prayer that is found toward the end of the daily Amidah. It both follows a list of set prayers that seek the inspiration and support of God in making our world a more balanced, complete and peaceful place to live, and is an invitation for each of us to find our voice and let our souls pour forth their deepest desires for a life that is integrated and balanced, helping us to feel whole.

In this blog you will find postings from clergy, educators, and congregants of B’nai Israel, as well as inspiration gathered from other places that have inspired us. All are welcome to participate in reflection on the posted pieces via the comments section. If you would like to share a thought, text, advice or practice that has inspired you, please submit to
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz