Friday, December 23, 2011

Is contemporary Jewish chanukah music 'going Greek'?

I love telling the story of Chanukah.  Like so many of our Jewish holidays, it is a wonderful and fascinating study in how rituals and myth and religious experiences come to be.  As we begin our exploration of this holiday, we might think that there is a story that is told, born out of a historical experience, recorded for us in the Books of Maccabees.  We celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek empire in taking back control of Jerusalem and re-dedicating their holy Temple, which had been desecrated through a previous re-dedication to the Greek god, Zeus.  The Books of Maccabees never quite made it into the official canon of Jewish Holy books, and the Rabbis reasons for that were partly a matter of dates but mainly a matter of politics.  That's a longer story, but the result for us is that, while many Jews know the basic story of Chanukah, almost none have read the 'original' in the Books of Maccabees themselves.  The story to be found there (and I'm not going to give the game away) is somewhat different from the folk version that most of us have had passed down to us through the ages.  For a detailed review of the historical evolution of Chanukah, take a look at the essays at

One of the things that is often not emphasized in the folk re-telling of the story is the inner conflict between Jews about the extent to which Greek culture - Hellenism - could appropriately be absorbed into Jewish life, culture and practice.  The Maccabees, it seems, may have been zealous to an extreme in their distaste for Hellenism, while there were plenty of Jews in Jerusalem and beyond who embraced Hellenism and sought ways to maintain their Jewish faith and practice but in a way that enabled them to fully participate in the culture that was unfolding around them.  (see here for a longer essay on this).

Today, we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, and a miracle of light.  But, if the Maccabees represented the anti-assimilationist, anti-Hellenist stance, what are we to make of the way we celebrate Chanukah today? We sing Maoz Tzur to a melody taken from a medieval German marching tune.  We eat latkes and donuts - neither of which are 'native' to the Middle East, but represent a claiming of central European food traditions onto which we add a Jewish layer by connecting them to the miracle of the oil.  We play dreidle - an ancient gambling game that can be traced back as far as 11th century England, and probably made its way into Jewish life in the 13th or 14th century in Germany.  We added our own set of 4 letters to remember the Chanukah story (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham - a great miracle happened there).

And this year we see so many new Chanukah songs and videos that engage and delight us, all of which borrow in style and, more often, in actual tune, from the secular pop music world.  I've posted some of my favorites from this year below.

So... did the Maccabees really win?  Or have we Jews been 'Going Greek' ever since?
I believe that what we see is true of the way we have absorbed the richness of so many cultures through food, music, rituals and games is, in fact, simply a truth about being human.  This is what we do.  Its not 'good' or 'bad'... it just 'is'.  And the miracle is that we've been doing it since the very first generation of Jews and yet, while the Greek, Babylonian and Roman empires (and many more since) have come and gone, we are still here.  Not in spite of our constant adaptations to the world around us and the cultures we come into contact with but precisely because of them.  Well - that's what I believe.  Feel free to pitch in and add your thoughts in the comments section below.
Happy Chanukah!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Engaging our Teens

cross-posted from the Rabbis Without Borders Blog at

At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.

Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.

This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.

I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:

While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.

I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.

On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.

My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.

Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there.

They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?

So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The role of music in the healing of Gabrielle Giffords

Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali - the Complete Repair.  Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair - healing at a cosmic level - in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.  This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life.  There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes.  Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies - 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.

I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now.  Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody.  At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more 'in tune' with ourselves and with others.

The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
Hallelujah. Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the horn; praise Him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe.
Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals.
Let every thing that has breath praise Yah. Hallelujah. (JPS, 1917)

In the context of Rabbi Nachman's Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.  Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances.  Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.

It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing.  If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?

Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery.  Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate.  Her therapist, Morrow, explains: "It's creating new pathways in the brain ... Language isn't going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech... 

Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. "The thing about music is that it's something that's very automatic -- part of our old brain system," Morrow said. "If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment."

Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes.  And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began.  Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies - even getting up to dance.

The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me.  It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them.  Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago.  We're just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What happens next? Reflections on Steve Jobs' last words

In the last few days, many people have been talking about the eulogy that Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs' sister, gave at his funeral. More specifically, her sharing of his last words:

The Huffington Post reported: In a stirring eulogy delivered at Jobs' memorial, held at Standford University's Memorial Church on October 16, Simpson revealed the last words Jobs uttered mere hours before he died. Her tribute to her brother was reprinted by the New York Times on October 30. According to the Times' printed version, Simpson said Jobs had been looking at the members of his family, gathered around his bed, when he gazed past them and said," OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW."

Much has been said by media pundits, blogged, and talked about in homes, over coffee and around water coolers, about what those last words might have meant. I'm not going to provide 'the answer', or even 'a Jewish answer'. We simply don't know. Way back in the Talmud (compilation of Rabbinic writings from approx. 0-500 CE), Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania said, 'When they come to life again, we will consult about the matter.' (Niddah 70b). Of course, this in itself might be understand as the declaration of a particular belief - that one day the dead will rise again. But this quote came to mind because, in effect, ben Chanania is also saying that we simply aren't able to say with any certainty what happens after we die and until someone comes back to our world to tell us how it is, we're not going to be able to reach any conclusions.

What is interesting to me is the widespread response to Steve Jobs' last words. A few weeks ago I was discussing beliefs about God with some of my eighth grade class. One group that I was talking to largely expressed that they didn't think they believed in something after death, but that they wished they did - they liked the idea, and found it comforting. In a recent discussion about death and dying at Fairfield University where I was a guest speaker, some students expressed belief in a heaven, but they no longer held to the idea that one would be judged and one's destination depended on choices in this world. Perhaps there was just one 'place' where we all went, and perhaps it was more a transferral of energy or awareness, but not an actual physical place. Some expressed that it was in actions, family, and memory that we 'lived on', but only in those kinds of realms in this world.

While we may not be able to achieve clarity of answer, both the ideas we have and the questions we have about life after death are core questions that human beings have pondered since we walked on this earth. Every culture, every civilization, and every religion has had one or more ways of responding to the question. The great Jewish teacher and philosopher of the twelfth century, Maimonides, wrote extensively of the ideas found among the Jewish people in his introduction to Perek Helek. Maimonides was largely dismissive of most the mainstream ideas of his time, and implied that they taught us more about what people valued in this world than informed us of the truth of what happens when we die.
As a Rabbi, I've had enough exchanges with people about near death experiences, or the sense of presence of a loved one after they have died, that I have come to believe that something continues after our physical death on this earth. I've had personal experiences that have brought me to that place of believing in an energy - what some might call the Soul - that goes on. And, while I know those same experiences could be explained in other ways, I find my belief comforting and I believe it is comforting to others. An important part of my faith involves being able to live in the space of 'not knowing'. I am able to experience the mystery of life and Creation in a deep and visceral way when I am able to occupy that space of not knowing. This is an important part of my spiritual awareness.

And so, while I don't know what Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, saw or felt in his last breaths, I hope his soul is united again with the energetic source of all existence. I hope it is quite incredible - the kind of incredible to which we might only be able to utter 'Oh wow!'
Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Creating Jewish memories this Simchat Torah

There's always a lot of energy at B'nai Israel on erev Simchat Torah, which we celebrate this evening at 5.30p.m.  Our Junior choir sings and our Temple Band plays.  It makes for a special service with young and older brought together.

This year we have an additional special component, bringing in some of the youngest people in our community, and their families.  For over a year now, Rabbi Nicole Wilson-Spiro has led a weekly Young Families Chavurah on Shabbat morning.  Breakfast, yoga, music and prayer, stories, crafts, snack and play time - the chavurah offers a rich morning of Shabbat celebration for pre-school aged children. And it offers a great place for parents to meet each other and create new friendships in the Jewish community.

The chavurah has evolved and has generated innovative ideas and ways of celebrating Jewish life that are often out of the box.  A summertime Havdalah gathering included an Earthwalk at a local nature reserve, topped off with making smores around a campfire.  Apple picking before Rosh Hashanah at one of our local (and congregant-owned!) farms, Silverman's, has been a big hit two years in a row.  In a couple of weeks, when we read the story of Noah, a special convoy of animals from our local Beardsley Zoo are coming to visit the children at the chavurah on Shabbat morning at our Temple.

This Simchat Torah, the creativity and innovation that the chavurah has brought to B'nai Israel will be front and center of our Bima at the start of the service.  After a year of the cuddly torahs that our kids march around the chapel with every Shabbat coming in and out of a large cardboard box, the Young Families Chavurah will be dedicating their very own Ark, especially designed to house these baby torah scrolls.  Sponsored by one of the families, designed by a local artist, and including the artistic contributions of many of the children who attend regularly, this is a very exciting project for our youngest children to see in its completion.
Our services are starting earlier than usual (6pm, after flagmaking at 5.30pm) so that our youngest children can enjoy them.  They'll get to experience the music, see older children that they look up to singing and leading the prayers, and get to dance with their Torah scrolls when we take out the rest of the Sifrei Torah from our sanctuary Ark.  And then, in a tradition that many congregations are now sharing, they'll get to see an entire scroll unwrapped around the room.

For children who are 2, 3 or 4 years old, tonight is going to be an exciting night that I don't think they'll easily forget - creating a Jewish memory that is special and something that I think they will want to experience again next year.  Their parents too!

But Simchat Torah is not just for kids! For the rest of us for whom this isn't so new, imagine coming to celebrate Simchat Torah tonight and trying to see and feel the experience as if through the eye's of one of these children.  What Zen Buddhists would call 'Beginner's Mind.'  Imagine the renewed joy we would bring to responding to the music; when we felt our toes tapping, we would get up and dance because we don't have any layers of self-consciousness that have built up over decades, blocking our access to that joy and movement.  We would sing and clap, because we were moved to do so and we hadn't built up years of inhibitions about whether our voices were good enough.  We would smile and laugh, because we would find the smiles ad laughs of the children around us infectious.
Now stop imagining.  If you are local, come and join us for Simchat Torah this evening!  And if you are reading from further afield, I hope you have a community close to where you live - check their websites or give them a call, and celebrate like its 5772!  We all deserve new opportunities in a new year to make meaningful Jewish memories.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wishing you Well over the Fast

May you delve deeply into the pages of your life, seeking understanding, love and compassion.
May you release yourself from the ink smudges, strike-outs, poor choices and long-winded yet aimless passages of past chapters.
May you weave deep and meaningful connections with others into the story you tell of your own life.
May you recommit to writing all that is essential and significant in your Book of Life.

Wishing you well over the Fast,
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: Did you remember to set your alarm clock?

This piece was published by one of our local weekly newspaper consortiums, Hersam Acorn, and appeared in print this week in the Amity Observer, Bridgeport News, Milford Mirror, and Trumbull Times.

This entry is my closing posting for Elul 5771.  I wish you all a Shanah Tovah um'tukah - a Sweet and Happy New Year.  May we all experience fully the blessing of life, and offer blessings to others through our words and deeds.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Wednesday, September 28 in the evening, is a very different kind of New Year to January 1st.  ‘The Choosing’ is a recently-published memoir in which a Jew-by-choice and now Rabbi, Andrea Myers, tells the story of the first year her Italian-Catholic family encountered Rosh Hashanah.  She was living back at home with her parents and, after a long walk to a synagogue for evening services on the first night of the New Year, she returned home late, quite exhausted.  She was awoken at midnight from a deep sleep when her family, wanting so lovingly to help her celebrate, arrived in her bedroom clanging pots and pans, letting off streamers, and shouting ‘Happy New Year!’  The loud sounds more typically heard on Rosh Hashanah are the blasts of the shofar – the ram’s horn, and we usually hear those at the quite respectable time of late morning.  The shofar is, however, metaphorically, our communal ‘wake up’ call.

While the secular New Year is a time when many people make ‘New Years’ Resolutions’, the Jewish New Year marks a period of time when we first look back at our deeds from the past year.  Our worship liturgy speaks of God who holds us accountable, but the inner work that the New Year requires of us is really about how we hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility for our mistakes, the hurt we have caused others, and the ways we have behaved unethically or thoughtlessly.  If we really engage in this spiritual work, we can emerge ten days later, at the end of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – transformed.  If we have the courage to speak to those whom we have hurt, and ask forgiveness, we can transform the relationships we have with others.

In the world we live in today, it almost feels deeply unfashionable to talk of a spiritual practice and a faith community that asks us to engage in a personal accountability inventory in this way.  There are those who speak in the name of faith, or offer spiritual paths, that emphasize what these things can do for you.  What about what we can do for others?  Faith is not about wish fulfillment.  It is about the meaning and purpose of our very existence as human beings.  It is about being fully present to life and to each other in all of the downs as well as the ups.  It is about the hard work of doing things together as communities with shared values, recognizing that no one person is more important than another, yet at the same time each and every one of us is necessary and has a unique voice to add as we work together to make things better.

As the Jewish community arrives at Rosh Hashanah, my hope and prayer is that we can learn from the wisdom of our ancient faith traditions, and hear the sound of the shofar as our alarm clock, reminding us of the perils of living in too much of ‘me’ society and not enough of an ‘us’ society.  The spiritual work of taking account, repairing what we can, and rededicating ourselves to the future takes courage and strength.  May we, by coming together, give each other the courage and strength that we need.
Shanah tovah u’m’tukah – May it be a sweet and good year for all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: Lighting the way to peace

Have you been following the Jewels of Elul this year? Craig Taubman, musician, compiles short daily postings from a wide range of contributors on an annual theme that is woven into the pre-High Holyday month of Elul.  This year the theme is 'light' and postings have come from authors, politicians, musicians, activists and spiritual leaders from all walks of life, Jewish and non-Jewish.

I always find the Jewels of Elul to be insightful, but this year the most powerful posting that I have found so far came not from one of the official contributors, but from the page where anyone can leave a comment.  Craig received a short teaching from the great Jewish teacher and leader of the twentieth century, Rav Kook.  It was sent to him by Don Abramson. He shared it on the comments page.  I'm re-sharing it below.  It speaks for itself.

“There are those who mistakenly think that world peace can only come when there is a unity of opinions and character traits.  Therefore, when scholars and students of Torah disagree, and develop multiple approaches and methods, they think that they are causing strife and opposing shalom.  In truth, it is not so, because true shalom is impossible without appreciating the value of pluralism intrinsic in shalom.  The various pieces of peace come from a variety of approaches and methods which make it clear how much each one has a place and a value that complements one another.  Even those methods which appear superfluous or contradictory possess an element of truth which contributes to the mosaic of shalom.  Indeed, in all the apparent disparate approaches lies the light of truth and justice, knowledge, fear and love, and the true light of Torah.”
Olat HaRe’iah
 Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: Connected in so many ways

Last night I came home from Congregation B'nai Israel after a long a day uplifted and inspired.  The inspiration was sparked, in large part, by the last thing I saw before leaving the building.  The Board of BIFTY, our Temple Youth Group, had gathered together for an evening of preparation work.  On the surface, mundane and repetitive tasks were the order of the evening - one group were busy stapling flyers and envelopes onto 800 paper bags.  Another group was stuffing envelopes.  So what was so inspiring?

First, the room was full - almost every single member of the board was present, from Freshmen Reps through to the Juniors who are our current leaders.  School has just got up and running, and here they were giving of their time to the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of successful programming and Youth group activity.

Second, the work they were doing, beyond bringing them together to connect with each other, represented the start of a chain, the ends of which we will never know entirely or personally.  The bags they were preparing are bags that they will hand out on Rosh Hashanah to all of our congregants.  Our congregants will bring them back filled with groceries on Yom Kippur, and our Youth Group will empty them into our Connecticut Food Bank Truck and recycle the bags.  What was work, but also shmooze time, and youth group program planning time, will spin off from that one hour last night to hundreds of people receiving food to supplement their family meals in a matter of weeks.  Our youth, through this simple act, will generate a response from hundreds in our congregation, helping them all do something small to make a difference in the lives of hundreds more.
BIFTY loading the CT Food Bank Truck on Yom Kippur last year
The other mailing they were preparing is being sent to every 9th through 12th grader connected to our congregation, inviting them to be a part of this incredible youth group.  Again, in the busy and hectic worlds of our teenagers, I realize that something that might seem so small is in fact huge.  I witnessed the enormous pleasure of members of the board arriving and reconnecting with each other after the Summer, and their enthusiasm to share the experience with others - with weekly programs, regional NFTY NE events (excitement is building for the Levi Leap annual dance on October 3rd), social action activities, and more.  The sense of identity, belonging, and leadership that builds from the social community that our teens create for themselves will spin out to manifest in ways still unknowable, likely to impact the rest of their lives.

Walking into our Youth lounge last night, I left inspired because what I witnessed was an example of lives lived in the context of community.  Perhaps especially inspired because these teenagers instinctively 'get it', or certainly recognize the added meaning it brings to their lives and are willing to exert the effort that it takes to create their own community and make a difference in the lives of others.

As we reflect on our day-to-day lives, the ways in which we exert energy, the communities we are a part of, the ways we actively contribute to them, and the ways in which the small acts we do in these contexts spin out to impact the lives of so many others, known and unknown, let the youth leadership of BIFTY inspire us all.  We should never underestimate the power of our actions, and our inactions, to shape the communities and the society of which we are a part.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: On the 10th Remembrance of 9/11

9/11 Memorial, World Trade Center Site, NYC
As the attention of millions is brought back to events of 9/11 ten years ago, there are countless voices offering their commentaries, their explanations, and their analysis. Our world is turned upside down by acts of hatred and violence, whether the scale be as large as the events of 9/11, or it is the experience of one individual family whose lives are forever changed when a loved one is violently taken from them.

We find ourselves torn from the ordinary, everyday, where we have an unconscious expectation that one day will proceed much like the one before.  The sense of certainty and security we have about the existence of the next moment of our lives is shaken.

There is certainly a time and a place for conversations and actions designed to restore our sense of safety and security again.  It is not psychologically healthy to live in a state of anxiety about what might be around the next corner.  But we might also be reminded that, living in a state of humility, we must accept that the only moment we can ever really know is this one, right now.

There is a time and a place for analysis of what took place on 9/11, and the responses that followed - at an individual, national, and international scale.  But there is also a time for silence.  A time to stand with individuals and a country remembering those who died.  A time to remember the acts of giving and bravery by so many in what turned out to be their last moments.  A time to face the monster that is a face of humanity too - our ability to commit great acts of violence against each other.

In this moment I do not seek meaning or explanation.  But I am spurred to respond.  I am reminded, as I so often need reminding, to live each day fully, to love as fully as I can, to never leave the words that I could say today until tomorrow.  I forget this all the time.  We all do.  We don't need acts of terror or national tragedies to remind us; this month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - two days that symbolize birth and death respectively, with only 10 days between them - these are part of the rhythm of the Jewish year so that we can pause and consider what we are doing with this gift of existence that we have been given without needing trauma to help us remember.

May the memories of all who died on 9/11 be a blessing in the hearts of all who mourn.

Join us at Congregation B'nai Israel on Sunday morning, 9:45 am, for a morning service of prayer, remembrance and reflection.
We will then join with many other communities of faith, including local Christian and Muslim communities, for an Interfaith outdoor service at The Fairfield Museum, 370 Beach Road, at 3pm.  The names of all those who died on 9/11 from Connecticut will be read as part of this ritual that will include readings and music.  All are then invited to join Sacred Listening Circles inside the museum to share memories, reflections, and hopes with other local residents in facilitated small groups.  The museum also has a photo exhibit on display in remembrance of 9/11.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: Reflections on our enemies

Today's blog entry is by student Rabbi Lisa Kingston.  Lisa was our rabbinic intern this Summer.  She is a fourth year student at Hebrew Union College, New York.  She delivers her Senior Sermon next Thursday morning during the morning service at the college.

Psalm 27:
The Eternal is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Eternal is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be terrified?
In my very guts came evil to gnaw and consume me,
But these my troubles, my enemies, stumbled and fell.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear;
Though war rise up against me, even then I will keep faith.

During the days of Elul it is traditional to read Psalm 27, an affirmation of God’s help and protection when enemies surround us. Today, we may understand it as a plea for God’s help in dealing with the enemies within us. These are the demons of our own true self who frighten us away from living the lives we want.

I think one of the largest demons that can consume us is self-doubt. A friend of mine is studying to be a psychologist and she told me of an interesting conference she recently attended. Instead of wearing traditional nametags, each person in the room was asked to write their biggest fear and wear it upon their chest. One might assume participants would share silly things like a fear of heights or spiders, but people took the exercise to heart and shared what really unnerved them. They shared fears of failure, fears of being a fraud, fears of not being able to help people in the way they hoped, fears of letting down family members, and fears that they were not worthy of their success. We all share fears like these even when we appear confident and successful.

            Don’t worry, you wont be asked to wear the badges of your fear publicly this year, but Elul is the time to try to name and face your fears. When you arrive to Rosh Hashanah services this year, try to have at least one fear you want to address written on your heart. Identifying what holds you back can begin your steps to teshuva.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771: Finding full humanity

Today's blog is by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, a colleague in the UK, and one of the Rabbis of the West London Synagogue of British Jews - the founding synagogue of Reform Judaism in the UK.  She is a regular on 'Pause for Thought' - a  faith-based message featured on BBC Radio 2.  Follow Rabbi Young-Somers blog here.
In large part Ellul is here to give us time to consider our relationships with each other and heal them, so that we might more fully return to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur. Sometimes this may mean making a direct approach to someone and acknowledging that what you said or did was wrong and/or caused pain and apologising for this fact. Today, however, purely by chance, I was reminded that sometimes it's also about having very normal day to day exchanges and experiencing and being open to the full humanity contained in them. It was a very small thing really, but one that was the perfect start to a busy day and a busy shabbat. When I don't have time to make challah (special bread for shabbat) I tend to end up buying it in our local Arabic shop Solomon's, which picks up 2 boxes of challot, bagels and rye breads from a kosher bakery in Hendon every Friday. During the last month I've apologised to them for buying such good smelling bread when they are fasting, and they have grinned appreciatively. This morning I asked how Eid had been for them, and at the end of the conversation, the sales man wished me Shabbat Shalom. Of course this isn't going to change the world. But it changes my immediate surroundings, and brings a humanity to what is otherwise a very sensible business venture for them and a wonderful convenience for me. Building slowly slowly on trust between individuals, perhaps we can, step by step, create a sense of comfort and joy in our beautiful differences which are, after all, what make us human and interesting. So while during Ellul we look to improve the relationships that are perhaps more meaningful and long term, we can also take the opportunity to explore those relationships that are more functional, and instil in them human warmth and encounter, building local community, and appreciating our differences. Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blog Elul 5771: Entering the holy of holies each and every day

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul.  Inspired by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, this year I'll be sharing postings a few times a week in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and cross-posting some of my favorites from others who are doing the same.  If you use Twitter, you can see who else is blogging their way through the month of Elul by following #blogelul
Artwork by Michael Noyes:
The Hebrew letters of the month of Elul, Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, were transformed in rabbinic commentary into a representation of the phrase from Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li - I am my beloved's and my beloved in mine.  The 117 verses of love poetry that make up the Song of Songs, absent of the explicit mention of God, are a bit of a mystery - why are they part of our holy canon?

Rabbi Akiva argued that this book was like the holy of holies in the Temple; he said that when the messiah came we wouldn’t need all of the commandments in the Torah, but we’d still need the Song of Songs.

The holy of holies was meant to be the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was believed to be the place where the High Priest came closest to sensing the Presence of God.

The Song of Songs is an erotic book, but not in the sense that we usually use that term in common language. The love imagery of Song of Songs takes us to a place that is more experiential. It is sensual because it engages all of our senses and the poetry gives us a feeling of something that is very difficult to capture in words. A bit like love itself. We know it when we feel it. I once heard someone describe the holy of holies as being ‘on the inside of the inside’. Being so completely present in the moment that you completely lose the sense of separation. As soon as you notice this, you are no longer in it. I think that can sometimes be the experience of love, but it can also be the experience of listening to a symphony, or hiking up a mountain, or reading a book, or watching your child sleep in their bed.

These are deeply spiritual experiences… or they can be. The poetry of the Song of Songs uses love only as an example. And the Song of Songs makes no explicit mention of God. Yet our tradition suggests that it is when we have these kinds of spiritual experiences – when we are on the inside of the inside and so completely present to the moment we are in – this is the closest we might come to feeling the presence of God.

There are many people who don’t feel comfortable using the ‘G’ word to describe these kinds of experiences. That is partly due to the idea of God that we have inherited from many of our holy texts, and generations that have gone before us, not serving us well in the world we live in today. They were the best attempts of an ancient people to understand their most deeply felt experiences. But, as Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests, maybe its time for a new God – time for new conversations that help us talk about our most deeply felt experiences in ways that help us make meaning in our lives.

Those who have read recent entries in this blog will know that I recently returned from a social action trip with some of my congregants to help rebuilding efforts in Alabama. We worked in a small town called Cordova – about 40 minutes outside of Birmingham. It was a very powerful experience for us, and one of the things we were immediately struck by was the deep language of faith that pervaded the way people there understood their world. And so we were not volunteers coming to help for a week, but ‘God’s hands here to do God’s work.’ I confess, it took us aback a bit. We North Easterners aren’t used to thinking about our lives that way. And yet, our group was deeply moved by it – we recognized that the language they used elevated the way we thought about each little thing we did there and each interaction we had with the people who lived in Cordova.

I think that’s the secret of the Song of Songs. Its just a book of love poetry, or it’s the holiest book that we have. And the holy of holies is just another room in a man-made Temple, or it’s a place where one can feel God’s presence intensely. Whether it is ordinary or holy, a mundane or a spiritual experience, depends on whether we are paying attention, being fully present to the experience, and willing to label these moments of our lives in significant ways or not.

And I think that’s why the month of Elul is connected to the phrase from Song of Songs, ‘Ani l’Dodi v’dodi li’ – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. We are invited to pay extra attention this month – to experience life more deeply and reflect on the meaningful moments that can be felt in the midst of the most ordinary of days. This is Jewish mindfulness practice.

As we move toward a New Year, with good intentions to move away from judgment, harshness, anger, impatience, intolerance, and many of those other sins we declare during the high holydays, Elul invites us to see our attempts to be more compassionate, kind, generous, patient, understanding as a spiritual practice.

We sing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
Adonai, Adonai El Rachum v’chanun. Erech apayim, Rav chesed v’emet. Notzer chesed la’alafim, nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah v’nakei 
The Eternal One, A God merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.

Maybe we are God’s hands doing God’s work. And maybe these words are there to remind us of who we most want to be in the world.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An unforgettable experience in Alabama: Closing thoughts from our Social Action organizer

Lorrie Wexler is a member of Congregation B'nai Israel and serves on our board.  Active on our Social Action Committee, Lorrie was responsible for all coordination of our service trip to Alabama, corresponding with Bob Gross, our wonderful point person at Temple Emanu-el in Birmingham, booking our flights, and bringing us all together.  We leave the final words on our week's experiences to her.

When Rabbi Gurevitz asked me to write the last piece for the blog, I immediately felt a sense of pride.
To think this all began with an email sent to Rabbi Prosnit from Rabbi Miller from Temple Emanu-el in Birmingham, Alabama asking for help with the tornado relief. Three months later we had 12 remarkable people volunteer to help a community in need, just because.

We arrived in historical Birmingham on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon we were in a town called Cordova diving into the work that needed to be done. Cordova became our community that week and we became theirs. Just by being there gave the people who had lost everything a feeling of hope. It was an eye opener for us to learn about their faith, their way of life and delicious culinary delights like vegetable goulash, fried green tomatoes and fried okra.

The church in Cordova was a central location for volunteers to find tools to rebuild homes, eat lunch and dinner, choose furniture and every household item imaginable. These were all donated items.
Suzanne Phillip, George Markley, Lorrie Wexler and Elaine Chetrit outside house no. 1
One afternoon we were fortunate to have the family whose house we were working on stop by. The look on their faces was pure joy.

They never imagined that this house could even be salvaged, let alone turned into this wonderful home that would enable them the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Through our hard work we turned their house into something that was warm and inviting. We schlepped furniture, primed walls, planted trees, put a brick walkway in, hung shutters and stocked their kitchen.
Rabbi Gurevitz, Ari Matz, Emma Pearlstone and Brittany O'Connell
outside House no. 2
The social action committee would like to thank Margo Schiff, Lisa Knicos, George Markley, Suzanne Phillip, Steven Soberman, Andrew Soberman, Elaine Chetrit, Brittany O’Connell, Ari Matz, Emma Pearlstone and Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz.
Andrew having way too much fun on a tractor

This wonderful group of people volunteered their time and their own money to make this happen.
We worked hard together, sweated together, laughed together and cried together.
What a truly gifted community of people to share the week with.
Lorrie Wexler

Below is some video footage that shows the devastation caused by the tornado in Cordova in the immediate aftermath - while most of the debris had been cleared by the time we arrived, the scale of the destruction gives some sense of what it means to rebuild this community:

Friday, August 12, 2011

B'nai Israel service trip to Alabama: The youth perspective

Today's blog entry from our social action volunteers in Alabama is written by our three teen participants, Ari Matz, Brittany O'Connell, and Emma Pearlstone
Beginning to take down and recycle cinder blocks, one by one
Hello from the jew crew in Cordova, Alabama! Helping in the relief efforts continues to be an exciting adventure for all of us. Being the energetic youth of our group, Ari, Emma, and Brittany were able to help. We spent today tediously chiseling cinder blocks off a partially demolished garage. In order to recycle the blocks for another house, we had to individually remove all of the cement from the edges of the blocks. On prior days of working we were in the midst of cleaning and organizing the equipment in the house when we stumbled upon some bullets, a few of which were loaded and also a bunch of casings. Emma wanted to take them home with her to Connecticut, but since she was taking only carry on and no one would carry it for her, she and the explosives were forced part ways.
Later that day a kind man came to the Cordova church to donate 75 watermelons from his farm, since we take our time eating lunch we were there to help volunteer unloading these watermelons. While unloading Emma soon became distracted once again and was found in the midst of playing with a small grey kitten she had found! The kitten was a stray, was very hungry, and wanted love. Happily Emma was there to supply it! Resulting in instead of carrying watermelons she played with her new cat, named Watermelon.
Brittany and the Watermelons
Emma and Watermelon
On our way home from a long day’s work, we listened to our complimentary Sirius Radio. In our quest to find the perfect station, we came across Gospel Music. Stunned by its presence, we immediately broke down into laughter and song. We soon realized the role of religion in Southern society. 
Chuy's Mexican Restaurant, with blessings for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews on the silverware wrapper -
an indication of the role of faith in Birmingham, AL
One of the greatest parts of this trip was the van rented from Alamo. We had rented a new navy blue Town & Country, and it was “Like driving a boat”. This giant car was also capable of the amazing powers of the stow and go, allowing the passengers to fold down all seats resulting in a giant flat space that we had come to dedicate for loading materials, taking naps, and having dance parties. When “stowed and go-ed” the passengers had to ride in an alternative vehicle resulting in us riding in the hitched trailer full of cinder blocks. 
Transporting the bricks... and a few teens too
At the end of the day we were able to gain a new perspective on the people around us, and the good grace that has fallen upon us in our own lives. By the end of the week we managed to help brighten a victim’s outlook, and build many great memories along the way.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Schvitzing, Sweltering and Satisfied! Day 2 in Alabama

The 'house staging' team
This morning we all traveled back to the town of Cordova, Alabama, a town some forty-five miles away from our base in Birmingham. The second team has been working on a house that is part of a program called Flipping for Families. While “flipping houses” often connotes trying to rehab houses for profit, here in Cordova the purpose is to rehab old houses and make them livable for families displaced by the tornadoes. When our work coordinator, Andrea, inquired yesterday morning as to who in our group was interested in “staging” a house, hands immediately went up, led by our trip coordinator Lorrie Wexler. She was soon joined by Elaine Chetrit, Suzanne Phillip, and George Markley who, despite his lack of decorating skills, saw benefits to working with three of the women in the group. The house to which we were assigned had been abandoned many years before the tornadoes. Andrea had managed to secure the house by promising its owner that it would be rehabbed provided he would allow the house to be occupied for a year rent-free.

Yesterday Team 2 promptly went off to their house on Johnson Drive, having been told that the house was ready for its occupants to move in except for some decorating. When we got to the house, we soon discovered that, while the house was barely structurally sound (for example, our bathroom has a gaping hole in the floor through which you can see daylight), it hardly was ready for its occupants to move in. It still lacks a stove, a kitchen sink, a toilet, doors on the closet, running water or electricity. We soon learned that the goal of disaster recovery is to get the tornado victims back into homes even if the conditions are sub-optimal. So, we got to work doing our cleaning – washing the walls, sweeping the floors, cleaning the refrigerator, and so on.

You want this where?
 Once the house was cleaned, we began “shopping” for furnishings for the house in a garage and parsonage that are no longer being use to house cars or a minister. Instead they are filled with donated items from communities throughout the state. We soon were laying claim to dressers, tables, mattresses and an assortment of “tchotchkes” that we then transported to our house. Today was spent washing windows and placing the furniture. We broke for lunch, served at the church, which was expertly prepared by several of the volunteers, including our own Margo Schiff and several members of the Reform congregation in Morristown, New Jersey. In the afternoon, Margo joined the group at our house, and we all continued cleaning and putting bedding in the house.
Emma, Ari and Brittany resting up after furniture shlepping
By the time the group was done today, the house was fully furnished , even to the extent of having a dining table complete with placemats and place settings for the mother and her 17-year old daughter who lost their home on April 27th and will be moving into this new “B’nai Israel house.”
George Markley, Elaine Chetrit, Suzanne Phillip, Lorrie Wexler, and Margo Schiff

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reporting on B'nai Israel service trip to Alabama, Day 1

Yesterday afternoon a team of 12 congregants from Congregation B'nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, arrived in Birmingham, AL, for a week of volunteering in areas devastated by tornadoes, earlier this year.  We had a little time late yesterday afternoon to get our bearings and visit part of the Downtown area.  We took in the district near the Civil Rights Institute where a Civil Rights Heritage Trail walks visitors through the events that took place on these streets in 1963.  The trail was erected in 2010 and consists of life-size original photographs of events on these streets and a brief description of the unfolding of these events.  At Kelly Ingram Park, additional sculptures continue to send a message of the lessons learned from that era in Alabama's history.
Sign held by child protestor reads 'Can a man love God and hate his brother?'
Plaque next to a young Horse Chestnut Tree in the Park
Sculpture of Water Canon aimed at children during peaceful civil rights protests in 1963
 The images and sculptures were striking and impactful.  Striking and impactful are likely to be the two most relevant words to describe our experiences on this service trip to Alabama.  This morning, we first checked in with the Christian Service Mission warehouse that coordinates volunteer efforts.  This warehouse, which is the size of a Walmart, has been filled and emptied 30 times over since the tornadoes struck, distributing food, clothing, and supplies of all kinds to those in need.
 Our group were soon dispatched to the town of Cordova, 40 minutes from downtown Birmingham to connect with a grassroots group of volunteers based in a Baptist church who have been working hard to revive their community and rebuild some of the 70 homes that were lost in the storms.  Some images from the town are shown below.  At this point, several months on, we no longer see much of the debris that was strewn everywhere, but the clean-up and rebuilding work is going to take several years.
The remains of the Main St in Cordova
The bank vault is all that is left of the Bank in town.

We met Andrea, a one-woman powerhouse - an Attorney by profession - who is almost singlehandedly coordinating the volunteer effort in Cordova.  She told us what had happened when two tornadoes ran through the town in the same day.  The first had caused relatively minor damage, but it took out power and the warning systems which is why, when the second one came through in the afternoon, so many people were caught off-guard.  Her volunteer organization has been helping individuals rebuild but is also taking abandoned homes and flipping them to make them ready for new residents, rent-free for the first year to help rebuild the community in the town.  Our team divided into two groups - one to work on a home that was almost ready, to clean up and start organizing some furnishings, and the other to do dry-walling work.  I was with the latter team, with Lisa Knicos, Steve and Andrew Soberman, and the three teens on our trip - Brittany O'Connell, Ari Matz, and Emma Pearlstone.

Framing a closet wall for dry wall

An interesting find during house clean-up
One of our teams - all smiles at the end of day 1
I think that one of the big lessons of day 1 was humility; recognizing how small our contribution is, visiting for just a week, compared to those who are dedicating months and months to rebuilding their communities and their homes.  Recognizing the limits of our skills as we seek to do things that help and do not hinder the work efforts (an amusing moment this morning, as our coordinator sought to find out what house-building skills we had brought with us was that moment of silence in which many of our group were silently thinking to ourselves, 'We're Jews! We know who to call!').

Another big lesson, and one that generated interesting conversations among our group in private moments, was the enormous role of faith among the local people working to rebuild; not only to give them the strength to do the exhausting work that they are doing, day in and day out, but also to make sense and meaning out of the events that befell them.  While we may not share the same theology, we recognize that when they speak of us all being God's hands and doing God's work, we might understand the God-spark in each of us being that which inspires us to do good, or we might understand ourselves to be God's partner in the pursuit of tikkun olam (repair of the world).  While we may express our faith in different language, we are inspired by the power of faith to sustain these communities through some of the most difficult times of their lives.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, August 4, 2011

NFTY in Israel - A letter from our B'nai Israel teens

Some of our teens who were traveling together with NFTY in Israel wrote to Rabbi Prosnit, describing the incredible experience they have had.  We wanted to share their experiences with the congregation (and beyond) - NFTY in Israel is such a transformative and exciting experience for our teens.

In addition to those who signed on to this letter, who were traveling in the same group, Sydney Foulk, Mollie Rich and Jesse Spears are also traveling with NFTY, and Alex Landau and Morgan Glucksman are also having Israel experiences this Summer.  For Sydney, the Israel experience will be remembered as an extra-special memory; she had a bat mitzvah ceremony while in Israel, and our teens who talk about this celebration in their letter, made a special arrangement with their group leader to ensure that they could be there to support and celebrate with Sydney.  We are so proud to have teens like these in our community.

Dear Rabbi Prosnit,

Shabbat shalom from the holy land! We are writing to you on our final shabbat in Tel Aviv. Our experience in Israel has been powerful and extremely moving. The memories of our adventures will remain with us for the rest of our lives.

Our trip began in Prague where we embraced our Eastern European Jewish culture. Not only did we try exotic foods such as ghoulash and homemade sweet bread, but we also uncovered the thriving Jewish community still prsent in the Czech Republic. When we visited three of the temples still remaining in Prague, we realized that our Jewish heritage survived and prospered even with the antisemitism of the Holocaust. With amazing views and good ice cream, Prague was a magnificent stop on our long journey.

We soon arrived in Poland where we were greeted by a drastic change in weather. The dreary atmosphere was almost fitting for the horrors that we soon experienced. No amount of pictures or black and white videos can begin to describe the power that Auschwitz-Birkenau holds. The visit brought our group together and made us even more excited and proud to be able to visit the Jewish state.

Upon our 3 am arrival in Ben Gurion airport, our excitement and anticipation overpowered our exhaustion. These past four weeks have been spent learning about out Jewish heritage and experiencing all that the land of milk and honey has to offer. During our four day Negev trip, we endured four long and strenuous hikes, enjoyed a few beach and mall trips in Eilat, and jumped, ran, and tumbled down the sand dunes. We then drove to Jerusalem, where we spent our days walking through the Jewish quarter, completing a hike through a water tunnel, shopping in Ben Yehuda street, and visiting the Kotel, or Western Wall. This experience brought our group together through everybody's different feelings and reactions. None of us knew what to expect upon our arrival, and touching the wall with one another is something we will never forget.

Our kehilah kedoshah, or holy community, was split apart for a few days for our different chavayot, or choice experiences. Michael completed Yam L'Yam, or Sea to Sea, which included many hikes and bike rides in order to travel from the Kineret to the Mediterranian Sea. Ari, Molly, and Alexa all ventured off the Gadna, an army training boot camp. There they experienced a taste of what life as an Israeli soldier is like. Sarah went off on the Tikkun Olam trip, where the days were spent helping to repair the world through a variety of  activities.
Sydney Foulk reading Torah in Israel (note the Sefardi Torah case)
One of the big highlights of the trip for the five of us came when our group reunited at a hostile near the Kineret for a few days. Not only was the hostile comparable to a Hawaiian resort, but we had the chance to go see our fellow B'nai Israelite and NFTY participant from a different group, Sydney Foulk, become a Bat Mitzvah. Watching our good friend read Torah for the first time, surrounded by a few of her home friends, all of her new friends from her group, and even her family via video chat was such a moving, emotional, and unforgettable experience for us all, and although we knew hardly anybody from her group, the entire service felt like we were one big community.
Sarah Stein, Matt Kalmans, and Molly Blumenthal celebrating with Sydney
(and  waving to Sydney's mom and brother on Skype!).  Mollie Rich and Ari Matz were also present.
The day after the Bat Mitzvah, we welcomed our new Israeli friends into our group. With them we conquered ropes course, went banana boating in the Kineret, spent a night in a Bedouin tent, rode camels and donkeys, woke up at 4 am to climb Masada and see the sun rise, rafted down the Jordanian River, and floated in the Dead Sea.

Now that we're in our last week, we hope to make it last as long as possible and to enjoy ourselves as much as we have this past month. Thank you and all of B'nai Israel for all of your love and support as we travel through the Holy Land, and we can't wait to see you soon!

Much love,
Molly Blumenthal, Michael Kalmans, Ari Matz, Alexa Molinoff, and Sarah Stein     

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Putting local food on your plate ... when you can

I've just recently returned from a Summer vacation in Ireland (hence the lack of blogging for a while).  As I so often do when I'm away, I took advantage of eating local foods whenever I could. Its part of the joy of visiting another place to not only sample the regional cuisine, but to look for locally grown ingredients in the food too - its always the freshest and the flavors are almost always vastly superior.  In Ireland that included eating some of the juiciest, sweetest strawberries I've had in a very long time, from a local Kerry farm.  And it included the joys of eating fish that had arrived at the dock of the very town we stayed in (Dingle) the very day we were eating it.

Arriving back in Connecticut, its the heart of the Summer farm produce season.  The tomatoes on our own deck taste so much better than anything available in the supermaket, and the fresh basil and parsley is now in abundance.  Living on the second floor of an apartment, we're not able to grow very much more of our own food at the moment, but we are not short of local places to buy.  There are farmer's markets every week, plus local farms (especially in Easton) where you can go straight to the source.  There are also independent small stores near our home, like A and J Farm Market in Southport or the Double L Market in Westport.  Some people plan ahead and sign up to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs where they receive a weekly or bi-monthly delivery of fresh produce from a farm either delivered to their home or to a local pick-up point.  Its probably too late for this season, but you can learn more about these at local harvest (which also provides info on local farms and farmers markets in States across the country).

Buying local food is seldom the cheapest option, because we're usually dealing with small scale producers that cannot compete with huge agribusiness.  But I find that the intensity of flavors and overall quality makes me much more appreciative of what I'm putting inside of me and, subsequently, I eat less and more healthily.  It also encourages more creativity at mealtimes with meals based on what is in season and what was coming from the farms this week.  At they have a top 10 list of reasons to eat local.

There's a lot of attention in the Jewish community these days to expanding our consciousness about food ethics.  I was reminded by a Jewish Youth Worker who I met at the URJ Kutz Camp this Summer who was from London that I've been teaching about Eco-Kashrut since the early '90s.  (It turned out, as we introduced ourselves, that she realized that I had been her Religious School teacher when she was 10, 20 years ago, and this was one of the things she remembered about my classes!).  I was inspired by teachers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow at The Shalom Center, who had been writing about it even earlier than that.

Today inspiration comes from organizations like Hazon and programs for Jews to learn about sustainable farming in the context of Judaism at places like the Adamah Fellowship program at Isabella Freedman Center or the Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Baltimore.  Many Jewish organizations and schools expose their children to Teva, which provides residential courses for youth to learn about Jewish environmental awareness and sustainability.

The CCAR Press (the publishing body for the Reform movement's Rabbinic association) recently released 'The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic', edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore.  It is a wonderful collection that takes spiritual consciousness and ethics around issues of food from many different angles, offering a contemporary lens through which we can all think more deeply about the consequences of our day-to-day food decisions.  At B'nai Israel we are looking forward to welcoming Rabbi Zamore at our Shabbat author's series next Spring.