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