Thursday, December 16, 2010

Meaningful Worship: The WOW! of Shabbat

I was sitting in Shabbat services a few months ago and I had an incredible feeling of deja vu. I can't recall what song we were singing or to what element of the service we had come, but there it was. All of a sudden, I was back in BESTY, at a NEFTY Institute at Eisner Camp. I was 15 again, sitting on the floor of Manor House, and someone was playing a guitar. What felt like hundreds of voices joined in song that evening. With arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, we swayed and sang and....WOW! I recall thinking, "If this is what Shabbat feels like, I want this EVERY week!" (Thanks to my parents, I had it for four weeks over three summers at camp and for all four years of youth group, which felt like heaven).

Every now and then, while I'm sitting in our Temple Beth Shalom sanctuary, I find myself transported back to camp. I find myself in that WOW! place again, that moment when Shabbat is within me and surrounds me at the same instant. Each year, during our Sisterhood Spirituality Retreat, that WOW! moment extends and carries me from Kabbalat Shabbat through to our closing ritual on Sunday morning.

I am curious to hear your story. Can you think of a time when Shabbat was particularly meaningful to you? Where were you? What was it about that Shabbat that separated it from other Shabbat experiences? Have you been able to recreate that feeling (or something close to it) since that particular experience? Is there a song or a moment in our weekly Shabbat services that transports you, even just for an instant, to your WOW! Shabbat? If you haven't had such an experience, what do you think would enable you to bring yourself to WOW! on Shabbat?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dreidel Contest Enteries

Announcing the first entry into the dreidel making contest by Mia Markley.  Keep them coming!  Enter by sending a photo a description of your homemade dreidels to Ellen Dietrick

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Crazy with Menorahs

It lost its shine decades ago. It’s smudged, even discolored. It was never big, but now it seems hunched. The fires have taken their toll.
The Menorah from my youth still survives – in fact, it’s the same Menorah that my mother used when she was growing up during the Great Depression. That this modest brass candelabrum has not surrendered to hard knocks and hot wax is itself a small miracle, and it now stands as a quaint but powerful reminder of both the changes and continuity of Jewish life in America.
Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Second Temple following the victory of the Maccabees, and the Menorah recalls that the Temple’s eternal flame had enough oil for only one day, but miraculously, it burned for eight. With the Shamash serving as the “helper candle,” the classic Menorah is the symmetrical representation of that miracle, and it has become one of the central symbols of Judaism. If anything, it’s become even more prominent in recent years. Whether at the White House or in Town Squares across America, including Needham’s, the Menorah is a convenient symbolic counterweight to Christmas trees.
But even among Jews, Menorahs have assumed new meaning. They were often beautifully crafted, some with ornate flourishes, but they’ve increasingly become decorative pieces with artistic vision and style. Variety is all. Menorahs are now made out of anodized aluminum or stainless steel or platinum or cobalt or wood marble or pure silver with a drizzle of gold. They are electronic with pear-shaped bulbs or are fused glass cut with Jewish stars. They are post-modern expressions of liberation or pre-industrial evocations of oceanic waves. They are novelty items and conversation pieces and status symbols. They come with loops and curves and circles, and they render everything from huppas to hippies to the Holy City – a Menorah for every occasion, including Hanukkah.
This boom makes perfect sense at a time when Jewish households are in the equivalent of a Menorah-style arms race. I can’t remember the last Jewish home I entered that had only one Menorah, including my own. We have a beautifully painted ceramic Menorah over the fireplace; a decorative silver Menorah with an engraved base on a book shelf; a sleek modern Menorah in our basement; and a blue-and-orange stuffed toy Menorah that plays “Rock of Ages.”
Come Hanukkah time, we fire ‘em up in a true “Festival of Lights,” as the holiday is also known.
Have we all gone crazy with Menorahs? Yes, we have. But I have no complaints. We should be grateful that we live in a country, and at a time, that allows us to celebrate our faith however we want. As far as I’m concerned, let a million Menorahs bloom.
And yet . . . I will always have a special place for the simple Menorah that my mother used in her youth, and I in mine. When my mother lit its candles as a young girl, she would have never thought that she was deprived with only one Menorah. When you’re of modest means – or flat-out poor – you appreciate all material blessings. To my mother and her family, one Menorah was a blessing. Two would have been an extravagance; three, obscene. And when I was growing up in St. Louis, I thought we had a cool Menorah. The rainbow candles created a different aesthetic each night, and the Menorah itself was elegant, dependable, and always there.
My mom died in 2002, and when my father sold the house several years later, he asked me if there was anything from it that I wanted.
Yes, I told him, there was one thing that I wanted. It now stands proudly in my house, and with Hanukkah upon us, I will dust off its memories, insert the candles, and rekindle my faith.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hunger--and I don't mean waiting for the turkey to be done.

I’ve spent the day beginning my Thanksgiving preparations--picking up a much-too-big turkey, baking cranberry and pumpkin breads, and chopping ingredients for the stuffing. Today, I’m off from work, distant from the reality that I confront everyday at my job, which is to help people who live in a world of food insecurity. I manage Family Table, which is Greater Boston’s largest kosher food pantry and a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Family Table, not unlike other organizations has experienced an overwhelming increase in demand over the past several years as the economic downturn has pushed many people to seek our help. We are currently feeding 300 families every month, a 60% increase over the last two years.

Recently, Project Bread, the state's leading anti-hunger organization, released data, which indicate that approximately 8.3% of all Massachusetts households are “food insecure.” Food insecurity refers to “the ability of people to obtain sufficient food for their household. Some people may find themselves skipping meals or cutting back on the quality or quantity of food they purchase at the stores. This recurring and involuntary lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition over time.”1 Further, Project Bread’s statistics show that nearly half of these food insecure households are at the extreme end of the hunger spectrum, as we know it in this country. In these homes people are suffering from “food insecurity with hunger” which is defined by the actual physical and painful feeling that results from a lack of food.

As I write, numerous organizations around the Commonwealth and around country are busy putting together Thanksgiving meals so that our neighbors who are hungry will be able to enjoy a hearty holiday meal. At Family Table, we did our part by providing our recipients with gift cards to purchase a kosher turkey, in addition to the groceries that we provide every month. But we all know that after Thanksgiving is over, these families will once again face the painful choices that they must make when they look at a bare cupboard. Do they buy food and forgo medicine? Do they skip meals so that their children can eat? Do they opt for inexpensive, less nutritious alternatives at the grocery store just to put food on the table?

I would urge you to remember these families everyday, not just at the holidays. The most important thing that you can do (beyond making financial contributions) is to donate nutritious food to these organizations on a regular basis. When you are doing your own grocery shopping pick up a little extra, and remember the basics: cans of tuna, low salt vegetables and beans, whole grain pasta, brown rice, and low salt soups. These are the kinds of items that truly help a family in need feed their children a nutritious meal. Your regular contributions to Family Table, the Needham Community Council, and other food pantries and food banks truly matter. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!

1 Hunger and Food Insecurity in the United States, The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Would We Do?

Yesterday the Boston Globe that Temple Beth Avodah in Newton made a decision to "cancel an event with the president of J Street, a lobbying group that supports liberal positions on Israel, because of vigorous objections from some members of the congregation regarding J Street's politics." The Globe further reported that the event, a conversation between the J Street president and the editor of the Jewish Advocate, was moved to another location.

The Globe described J Street as believing that the U.S. should encourage the peace process in the Middle East, even if it means disagreeing with Israel, and reported that the group has come under fire for accepting funds from Holocaust survivor George Soros who has been a critic of Israel and of US policies supporting Israel.

The Globe article ended with a quote from Jonathan Sarna from Brandeis, who termed the community's question as "What is J Street? Is it simply a progressive organization that supports a different policy for the state of Israel, or is it a Trojan horse for anti-Israel activists?"

We don't know the details of what transpired within Temple Beth Avodah that led to this decision, and we are therefore not in a position to judge Temple Beth Avodah or its decision.

What we can do, however, is ask the following: how would our community respond if members of our congregation voiced strong objections because a perceived critic of Israel was a planned speaker at Temple Beth Shalom? What steps would we want to take under such a scenario?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's Kislev! Come along for a spin!

The Hebrew month of Kislev has arrived. What does that mean? Let the dreidel making begin!

I'd like to take you on a tour of dreidel making ideas. There will be five stops on our dreidel tour, from the traditional dreidel to dreidels perfect for the scientist in your family. So pack your creativity and your gelt and come along. If you decide to try one, please take a photo and send it to me and I'll share your creation here. And be sure to leave a comment below with your dreidel stories, memories, or ideas. The best stories and ideas will win (what else?) a golden dreidel!

Click on the titles of each dreidel for more photos and complete directions.

#1: The Super Fast Dreidel from Martha Stewart

These dreidels are perfect for spinning contests, or to decorate your Chanukah table. Without sides, these dreidels won't work for the traditional dreidel game, so instead have a spinning contest.  Choose your favorite Chanukah song (I like Sivivon Sov Sov Sov) start the dreidels spinning, and see how far you can get in the song (singing fast is allowed) before the dreidels fall. 

#2:  The Hovercraft Dreidel from Matzo Ball Soup
Gather an old cd, a balloon, and a water bottle to create this science experiment turned dreidel of the future.  It doesn't spin, and it doesn't land on a particular letter, but it does make for lots of fun! It may even become the beginnings of your next science fair project.

#3:  The Recycled Dreidel from Family Fun Magazine
For the environmentally conscious, this dreidel is made from an empty milk carton.  After you track down a school kid who's finished his milk, the rest is easy.  Follow the step by step instructions to build and letter your dreidel, then start spinning.  This lightweight dreidel spins easily and is perfect for playing the traditional dreidel game.

#4:  The Classic Wooden Dreidel from GeltDesigns
If you have a little time and a few tools, this dreidel is for you.  The solid wooden body will last for years, the button spinner, if glued on correctly, spins well, and it can be decorated with markers, paint, pens, cut paper, stickers, or any other materials you have around the house.  If you want to hold a dreidel beauty contest, choose this dreidel, gather lots of supplies, and get creative.

#5:  The Origami Dreidel from OrigamiShawn
The last stop on our tour takes us to the workshop of OrigamiShawn, whose young and skillful hands show us how to craft a long spinning dreidel using nothing but a few pieces of paper.  Constructing this dreidel is only for the brave, patient few, but the nine minute video can be enjoyed by all.  Watch those hands go!  Do as Shawn advises and spin this dreidel right on the floor.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wilderness Awakenings, and Judaism?

This Fall's Reform Judaism Magazine has a fascinating article about "how our Biblical ancestors first experienced G_d in the wilderness: what did they know that we need to re-discover"? The article explores how in Biblical times there was no separation from the natural world, so indeed there isn't even a word in Torah for our modern day term of 'wilderness' (from Rabbi Mike Comins).

If we're not separated, then why have we strayed from worshipping and performing rituals within these perfectly serene environments?

This resonates strongly with me, as I’ve often wondered whether or not my personal wilderness search – the desire to find and reside near "foreverland", and/or just disappear there daily, and then share it – had a connection to my Judaism. Since I typically find my spiritual comfort zone in natural places, outdoors vs indoors, that dis-connect to how we usually practice Reform Judaism has always left we wondering about how, or if, I belong with our regular traditions.

Then, I read the RJ Magazine article. What an eye-opener. Our roots ARE the natural places and wilderness: perhaps obvious historically, but I never really thought about it. Housing Judaism indoors came later – perhaps to keep the flock from reverting to paganism.

The article is a compilation of comments from Rabbis who are practicing a Judaism closer to the natural world. They are quite stimulating!

I would hope there’s a place in our congregation for programming that encompasses this level of experience, worship, and spiritual travel: I sense Rabbi Todd has begun with some of the youth experiences in recent years. Are there not those in our adult community seeking such a connection? Certainly those concerned about the environment and Mother Nature should be interested. Seems to me, it’s the ultimate in spiritual synergy between Torah, humankind, and the rest of G_d’s creation . . .

Our annual Tashlich service at Elm Bank is but a small tip of the iceberg (albeit, a nice one). Retreats, wilderness trips, a regular Shabbat outdoors, and just appreciating the miracle of beautiful sunsets, all fall within this natural and spiritual mindset.

I'll share an example: Shabbat on horseback, one Friday on a night horseback ride in the Pennsylvania Tioga County wilderness, a full moon to boot. I’ve never found the words to describe it, but somehow almost the entire Shabbat service came to me from memory . . .

“Wilderness Awakening” is a great read – see the mag, or I'd be happy to forward anyone a scanned copy.

And, please share your thoughts here on the TBS blog, and particularly any personal experiences!

Jeremy Serwer

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Favorite Jewish Baseball Player

Inspired by the convergence of the High Holy day season and the baseball postseason, I recently checked out "The Baseball Talmud" from the TBS library. It ranks the best major league Jewish baseball players of all time.

While Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg may have been the best from the past, and Ryan Braun might be the best current Jewish player, my favorite is Harry Danning. Harry was a catcher for the NY Giants between 1933 and 1942. Why Harry? His nickname was "Harry the Horse", and he was the inspiration for Frank Loesser when he created the same-named character in my favorite musical, Guys and Dolls. Judaism, baseball and musical theatre - that's my magical combination!

Who have been your favorites, or what encounters have you had with Jewish major leaguers?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

God Talk

From Rabbi Perlman's Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon on God.......

".....Throughout all of last year, as you know, our congregation engaged in a wonderful process of formulating a new Temple Beth Shalom vision statement. Many members of our community set about the important task of reflection, consideration, and crafting a statement that accurately articulated who we are as a congregation and what we strive to make real. The document, as it developed - along with the evolving mission statement - spoke of learning, prayer, sacred community, and tikkun olam - healing our broken world. In the spring, a draft of the proposed vision statement was introduced to our Board of temple leadership for feedback and comments. Both in substance and poetry, the leaders gathered that night affirmed the hard work that had already been done. And then, part of the way through the meeting, someone raised a hand and asked the question: "Where is the word 'God' in all of this?" Immediately people started scanning the statement. The questioner was correct. Indeed, while the text for the proposed vision had used such words as "holy," "sacred," and "covenant," the word "God" was no where to be seen."

"For some, this was not problematic at all. Those other words alluded to God, even if the statement did not mention God specifically. And this, they felt was enough. Furthermore, some commented that there are many people in our community who do not believe in God and that using such specific language might distance them from what the vision was trying to express. Others, however, respectfully disagreed - commenting that, as a temple - a House of God - we should not be apologetic and speak around the word "God" but include it."

"Sitting next to Beth, our temple President, I recall thinking that this was one of the best Board meetings in which I had ever participated. The "God Talk" was thoughtful, impassioned, personal, and respectful......And, all the while, I couldn't help but wonder at how it was that God had somehow become a kind of "third rail" topic - one that needed to be avoided - at temple."

"This morning, I would like for us to begin a conversation about God. I would like for us to thoughtfully consider what we believe - what we don't believe - why - and, perhaps most importantly, what difference it makes.......The goal, of course is not to force faith - for as we know, to be Jewish, one need not specifically believe in G-d - but rather to grow through our engaging our tradition and one another."

......."By the conclusion of the Board meeting during which the 'Great TBS God Debate' took place, it was decided that our congregation's new Vision Statement should, in fact, specifically include God.....and should do so in such a way that both honors the members of our community - and, at the same time, states that an important part of who we are is that we take our evolving understanding of God seriously."

"The specific God statement in our vision reads as follows:
'We seek a relationship with God that is personal. Living in the tradition of being Yisrael - one who wrestles with God - we cherish our diversity of belief and Jewish expression. Each of us thoughtfully searches for understanding, guidance, and inspiration from the teachings and many voices of our tradition."

Some Questions to Consider for Your Post:

  • If you had been at the Board Meeting, what would your opinion have been?
  • What are your thoughts about God? What do you believe? What don't you believe? Why?
  • What are your thoughts about the TBS Vision Statement regarding God and our community?

We look forward to seeing this community conversation develop!!

Chag Sameach!! Happy Sukkot!!