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