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