The Miracle of “Am Yisrael Chai”

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As the horrific plan to exterminate the Jews began to unfold, Hitler’s troops entered a Polish town charged with rounding up the Jews and sending them to a ghetto. As the Nazi soldiers began forcing the residents of this town out of their homes, two very brave and wise sisters, ordered their daughters, Rose and Gusta, to run away. Rose and Gusta did as they were told. While their mothers would perish in the Holocaust, Rose and Gusta survived. After running from their town, they were taken in by strangers and hidden from Nazis until the nightmare ended.

Tomorrow afternoon, Rose’s great-grandson, Jacob Albright, becomes a bar mitzvah here at Ramat Shalom. As Jacob takes hold of our Holocaust Torah and carries it around the sanctuary during his service, we will all get a chance to see a miracle unfold before our eyes: a great-grandson of a woman who amazingly survived the barbaric attack on European Jewry, carrying a Torah that remarkably found us after its community was murdered by the Nazis. Given the horror that swept through Europe and killed 6,000,000 and destroyed countless communities, it is truly miraculous that Jacob and our Holocaust scroll will come together 70 years after the end of the nightmare.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” While Jacob carrying a Torah around our sanctuary as he becomes a bar mitzvah might appear to be “common” – once you know the backstory it is anything but “common”. It is a miracle.

Making this miracle even more powerful is that, in addition to Jacob, we also celebrate the bar mitzvah of Todd Levan this weekend. Seventy years after WWII, not one, but two young men stand proudly on our bimah, leading their community in prayer, proving that Judaism is alive and well.

On top of this, commemorating the Holocaust at Auschwitz yesterday were two of our own students, Grant Besner and Zoe Giardina. Not only is Judaism alive and well, but our children have it in their hearts to return to one of the darkest places on earth to honor and remember the 6,000,000. This is miraculous.

And, as if this is not enough, I received word this week that many of our college students are taking on Jewish leadership positions on their campuses, becoming powerful voices for the Jewish people and Israel. Mazal Tov to many of our students including Julie Cole who was elected President of Washington University’s Hillel, Lindsey Sigal who was elected Secretary of FAU’s Owls for Israel and selected to be the Tikun Olam Intern at FAU’s Hillel, and Emily Bernstein who continues to be a leader at UF Hillel. I am also extremely proud of and excited to learn that so many of our college students will be traveling to Israel in the coming months.

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day. We stopped to formally remember the horrors of the Holocaust that we never will forget. Today, with the help of Jacob, Todd, our teens on the March of the Living and our college students taking leadership positions on their campuses, we appreciate the fact that “Am Yisrael Chai”, the Jewish people is very much alive. And, after all that we have been through, this is a beautiful miracle.

Seven Or Eight Days Of Passover? Wait For Me!

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Tomorrow night is a very weird night on the Jewish calendar.  When the sun goes down tomorrow in Israel, Passover is over. As commanded in the Torah, for seven days, we observe the rules and laws of Passover. For seven days we eat matzah.

Why seven days?

Seven days commemorates the time between the 10th plague and the resulting Exodus from Egypt which occurred on the 15th day of Nisan and the splitting of the Red Sea – which happened seven days later on the 21st of Nisan. Passover started last Friday night – on the 15th of Nisan. Tomorrow is the 21st of Nisan. So tomorrow night, as the sun sets and the 22nd of Nisan begins, pizza is fair game in Israel.

Spiritually speaking, Passover is the holiday during which we celebrate our very birth – or rebirth as a people, as a nation. In Genesis, we read about individuals, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. In Exodus, while Moses is prominent, we are reading about a nation – a massive group of people leaving Egypt and beginning a civilization. Passover – the actual Exodus from Egypt – marks a complete change and turn-around from a group of individuals to a group of slaves to a nation. Given this, it only makes sense to take an entire week, a full cycle (seven days of creation) to be inspired and changed by this holiday. Therefore, we celebrate Passover for an entire week. Seven days.

Now, for Orthodox and Conservative Jews (and many others) living outside of Israel, tomorrow night, however, is still Passover. In these communities, Passover is observed for eight days. This is not mentioned in the Torah at all.

Why do some observe for an extra day?

Jewish holidays are based on the cycle of the moon. Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan. A Jewish month begins with a new moon. Once a new moon was declared, folks counted 15 days and Passover would be celebrated.

During Temple times (2,000 years ago), witnesses would come to the Temple in Jerusalem and testify that they had seen the new moon (a sliver) the previous night. After careful interrogation of the witnesses, the new month (Rosh Chodesh) would be declared. Once this happened, torches would be lit (in cities like Tzefat) and messengers would be sent to the surrounding areas informing the general populace that the new month had begun.

Two thousand years ago, these messengers traveled several days to make this announcement. Jews living outside the messengers’ reach would keep an extra day due to the doubt as to which day was actually a holiday. If you calculated the new moon on the wrong day, you would celebrate Passover on the wrong day. So the extra day of Passover – the eighth day – was a precaution designed to insure that people didn’t eat chametz too early. The second seder, is also a precaution. In Israel, there is no second seder. It too was created to insure that you had your seder on the correct night.

Now, in communities like Ramat Shalom – communities outside of Israel that adhere to modern Jewish theology – the eigth day of Passover is not observed.

Why? Because we believe that modern technology has eliminated the need to worry that we will not be observing Passover at the correct time. We don’t have to wait for messengers to tell us when the new month begins. Not only can we see the new moon in the sky, but we are in direct contact with Israel and the religious officials who establish the Jewish calendar. We know when Passover is. There is never any question. And so, some of us will end Passover tomorrow night.

This being said, there are members of our community who adhere to the eight days of Passover. Why? Because this is how they were raised. In the same way, many of us who end Passover a day earlier – on the biblically ordained seventh day – still celebrate a second seder because the second seder is part of our custom – it is what we do.

So, tomorrow night, for many Jews, Passover is over. At the same time, for many Jews, tomorrow night is still Passover. We are in a period of limbo – leavened or unleavened? Passover or just a regular Shabbat? For some, they have not yet crossed the Red Sea and entered freedom. For others, they have made it to the other side.

So what do we do with this?

Some condemn Jews like us, who make the choice to follow the Israeli calendar. We are accused of being lazy – of just wanting to toss the matzah a day earlier! But, Israeli Jews are not lazy! For me, ending Passover tomorrow night is not about being lazy – but rather, connecting myself to Israel and the practice of our ancestors – the people who created Passover and in whose memory I adhere to the rituals and traditions.

But, ultimately, I don’t see when one ends Passover as something to argue about. There were a multitude of people who had to cross the Red Sea when it split. Certainly, they all didn’t make it to the other side at the same time. Those who made it over earlier – they waited for the last ones to cross. Those of us who end Passover tomorrow night, we have made a choice to cross early, yet in a manner that is embraced by our tradition. Those who choose to eat matzah this Shabbat, they are waiting to cross. And we, just like our ancestors who made it over first, will wait for those who practice eight days. Because whether we are in Israel or in Plantation, the Jewish people are not truly free until everyone has put their matzah away and crossed to the other side.

Because We Still Have Seas To Cross

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I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who attended our “Bar Mitzvah” Gala last Sunday. It was a beautiful, overwhelming celebration. I also want to thank all of you who were not able to join us, but wrote me notes in the Gala Memory Book, sent me private messages, made donations to the synagogue, and/or supplied raffle and auction items. Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in thanking each of you for creating our incredible spiritual home. Thank you!

We also want to take this opportunity to wish you a meaningful Passover! Last Friday night, I spoke about the fact that the Haggadah reminds us we are in many ways still burdened by slavery. While we might feel totally free, we know that there are currently 27,000,000 slaves in the world today! At services last week, I encouraged folks to visit MADE IN A FREE WORLD and learn about modern day slavery. In addition, this site will teach you how you can help eliminate slavery once and for all. There are tremendous resources on the site that some of you might choose to add to your seder this year. Remember, our tradition teaches us that we are still wrestling with slavery today. Made In A Free World drives this point home.

The Haggadah also teaches us that we have still not truly reached the Promised Land. This is why we say “Next year in Jerusalem!” at the end of the seder. This confuses many people because as Jews, we can get on a plane and travel to Israel. We can even make aliyah and move to Israel permanently. Yes, this is true, however, the Haggadah is urging us to remember that many people all over the world have not reached their promised land. As I spoke about last Friday night, there are more than 50,000,000 refugees in the world today – people struggling to find a safe place to call home. This Passover, we need to do our part to help these people. I highlighted the fact that some of these people struggling to find a safe haven are our own brothers and sisters from the Ukraine. You can read more about the struggle of Ukranian Jews and learn how you can help them right now by visiting the American Joint Distribution Committee’s website.

On a lighter note, I have prepared a special Passover music playlist: Because We Still Have Seas To Cross – 8 Songs for Passover. Although our ancestors made it to the other side of the Red Sea, each of us has our own personal seas before us. These eight songs, one for each day of Passover, offer inspiring messages that can help us as we cross these seas. (Please note that Ramat Shalom, like many synagogues, follows the Israeli calendar and celebrates 7 days of Passover. For those who follow the Israeli calendar – you get a bonus song!). You can listen to the playlist HERE.

Chag Sameach! Have a wonderful Passover. Please remember, because of the first seder, there are NO SERVICES TONIGHT. May we all cross the sea with family and friends and celebrate as we get to the other side!

A Rabbi Needs A Community – Thank You For Being Mine!

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Sunday is the big day! I am so touched and overwhelmed at how many of you will be celebrating with us. It is going to be an incredible afternoon/early evening.

Recently, I have used my weekly message to highlight people and moments that have defined my 13 years at Ramat Shalom. The fact is, I would not be the Rabbi I am today without every single one of you. The trust that you put in me to be your spiritual leader, your children who I am lucky enough to call my students, the insight and wisdom you share with me and your financial support of Ramat Shalom make it possible for me to be your Rabbi. I am so blessed to be a part of your families, to celebrate the highs, to help you through the lows and to learn with and from you. I am so grateful to the children, teens and young adults who inspire me on a regular basis. Just this past Saturday night, one of our college students who has been part of my life for 13 years, spent time with me on Facebook “chatting” about the current situation in Israel. Moments like this mean the world to me.

As a Rabbi, I tend to focus on the spiritual life of our community. However, I am well aware that without a strong financial foundation, it would be impossible for spiritual life at Ramat Shalom to thrive. Each of you has played a role in financially supporting our congregation and it has made a tremendous difference. Some of you have gone above and beyond. Our new sound system and other capital improvements, the Center for Jewish Life, our Chai Tech Online Learning Program and our Endowment Campaign would not be possible without the incredible support of some very special people whose generosity overwhelms me. Thank you all.

When I worked at my first congregation, Bet Am Shalom in Westchester, New York, the Cantor, Benjie Ellen Schiller, wrote a beautiful Mishebeirach/Blessing for the Community. As I have prepared for our celebration this Sunday, Benjie’s Mishebeirach has been playing in my head. It captures my feelings for all of you – for us – this holy congregation:

May the One who blessed our fathers,
May the One who blessed our mothers,
Bless us too, bless us too
This holy congregation.

Mishebeirach avoteinu
Mishebeirach imoteinu
Hu y’vareich, hu y’vareich et kol hakahal hakadosh hazeh.

The families gathered here today
Who make us what we are,
Those who give funds for heat and light,
Those who give help to the stranger and poor,
Your sons and your daughters,
Your families yet to be,
May you know the blessing of peace.

Mishebeirach avoteinu
Mishebeirach imoteinu
Hu y’vareich, hu y’vareich et kol hakahal hakadosh hazeh.

Forgive us and favor us O God.
Remember what we are.
Prosper our worthy endeavors.
Shower us all with good health and life.
Let us say Amen.

Mishebeirach avoteinu
Mishebeirach imoteinu
Hu y’vareich, hu y’vareich et kol hakahal hakadosh hazeh.

Thank you all for the love and support you continue to show me, Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah. Thank you for supporting our community. And thank you for the gift of being your Rabbi!

The Gift of Rebuke

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The Torah teaches us that if someone we care about does something that we are not happy with, we are obligated to rebuke him or her, openly and honestly sharing our concerns. We are not to do so if we are convinced that s/he will not listen and take our concerns to heart. In addition, we are forbidden to express our concerns in a manner that will cause him/her any shame or embarrassment. I share this because as I reflect back on the past 13 years of my rabbinate, some of the most influential people have been those who have had concerns about things that I have said or done, but went out of their way to respectfully share their concerns with me. In doing so, these people allowed me to grow and, in turn, strengthened our personal connection.

Two of these people, a married couple, came to me many years ago after I told them I was unable to officiate at the wedding of one of their daughters because she was marrying someone who was not Jewish. At that point, I was not performing interfaith marriages. While they were upset with my decision, they sat with me in my office and privately opened their hearts, sharing their hurt, frustration and sadness. They did so with great passion and with great respect. In doing so, they beautifully expressed the other side of the interfaith marriage argument. They got me thinking about my own position and were the impetus behind my becoming a rabbi who officiates at interfaith weddings. Because of their honesty and their respect, I have now been fortunate enough to celebrate the marriages of many interfaith couples and they have made me a better rabbi. In addition, the couple that shared their concerns remains actively involved at Ramat Shalom. They are both very special to me and my family.

Another married couple that comes to mind also came to be me many years ago to talk about a sermon I had given. Just like the couple who came to me about their daughter’s wedding, this couple also shared their feelings with me with great passion and respect in the privacy of my office. Their words deeply affected me. When it comes to certain issues, rabbis in general struggle with how much of our hearts and souls to share on the bimah. Sometimes, we share too much or share thoughts in a way that ruffle feathers. Yes, we want to get people thinking. We want to challenge our congregation and inspire good, healthy debate. However, by coming to me and trusting that I would hear their concerns, this couple reminded me of the power of my words. Yes, as a rabbi I am obligated to get people thinking. But, when I speak from the bimah, my words are being shared in a spiritual place. Sometimes, the everyday issues and topics of life that we read about in the papers or online simply clash with our spiritual lives. And this is okay. Sometimes, there are things that are best left outside the synagogue, or at least off the bimah. There is a difference between what we discuss in an adult education class and what I share in the sanctuary. This couple that came to me to share their concerns, a special couple that also remain actively involved at Ramat Shalom, both of them being some of my best students, helped me to really appreciate this difference. They also reminded me that while we rabbis need to get our congregations wrestling with difficult issues, more importantly, we must use our words to nurture souls and make Jewish values meaningful and relevant.

So, as I get ready for to celebrate my 13th year at Ramat Shalom, I want to thank some of my greatest teachers in the congregation – those who have come to me to share their concerns about things I have said or done and give me the chance to listen, learn and grow. You have helped me become the rabbi I am today and I am so very grateful.
Shabbat Shalom!

A Sacred Responsibility

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When I began as the rabbi of Ramat Shalom in the summer of 2002, I was summoned by Larry Kalevitch z”l (of blessed memory). Larry was an extremely well respected professor at Nova Law School. He was a wise lawyer who inspired his students and gave them the skills needed to become talented attorneys. Larry had a huge heart but a very tough exterior. He was wonderfully opinionated and had the ability to be quite intimidating. When he summoned me, his new, young rabbi, Larry knew that the end of his life was near. He had been battling aggressive cancer and wanted to get to know me as I would be officiating at his funeral. As I walked into his home, I smelled cigarette smoke – lots of it. “You mind if I smoke,” asked Larry as he greeted me holding a lit cigarette. Actually, I did, but, out of courtesy, I told him I did not mind at all. “Good,” Larry responded, “because I wasn’t planning to stop.” And so began my special, albeit too short, relationship with Professor Kalevitch.

I soon learned that I was summoned not just so Larry could get to know me. He had a challenge for me: “My plan is to be cremated,” he explained “and your job today is to try to talk me out of it if you can.” I told him that if he truly wanted to be cremated, I would support his decision and still officiate at his funeral. This was not an acceptable answer. It was clear that Larry wanted me to present a case against cremation. As he sat back, took a drag from his cigarette and waited for my response, I suddenly felt like a first year law student who was put on the spot by the professor. I composed myself and began to explain why traditional Judaism opposes cremation. My explanation was interrupted many times by Larry who took every opportunity to challenge what I was saying. After a great deal of discussion, Larry, still smoking his cigarette, stopped to think for a bit. “Okay,” he said, “you convinced me. Call off the cremation. We will go with traditional burial.” I was stunned and a little proud of myself.

For the rest of Larry’s life, I was blessed to be his rabbi. We would visit often and each time we did, we would have a challenging, in depth conversation that, in the end, left me feeling better than I did when our visit started. While there are many things that he taught me, there is one very important lesson that I learned from him – a lesson that I have thought about regularly over the past 13 years of my rabbinate. Larry was the first congregant that I had to bury. I had been an assistant rabbi prior to coming to Ramat Shalom but never had to officiate at the funeral of a member. While I had officiated at funerals of people I did not know, Larry’s funeral was a first for me. While we had only known each other for a few months, Larry and all his quirkiness quickly gained a special place in my heart. I looked forward to our visits. And, when he passed away – I felt the loss. It hurt. But, the loss I felt was nothing compared to the loss felt by his family and friends. And, with his passing, it was now my job to take what I learned about Larry and his life and use it to help all of these mourners remember Larry, celebrate his life and weep over their loss. As I prepared for his funeral, I realized the enormity of the task that Larry had given me.

I vividly remember looking out at the crowd of people who gathered for the funeral and, for a split second, I felt unworthy. I was standing before Larry’s family, his closest of friends, distinguished lawyers and academics – people who had known Larry for years and years. What gave me the right to officiate at this funeral? As I began to doubt myself, I remembered the moment I changed Larry’s mind about his burial arrangements, the moment he said: “Okay, you convinced me.” As I did so, I realized that Larry, after summoning me and putting me to the test, had chosen me to be the rabbi at his funeral. In doing so, he taught me what an incredible responsibility and honor it is to help those left behind remember and mourn a loved one. The conversations we had before he passed taught me how lucky I was to have gotten to know Larry and engage with him. The loss that I felt when he passed taught me that we had a connection that made a difference in my life. And, once I got over the self-doubt, the privilege of standing up at his funeral as his rabbi taught me just how sacred it is to officiate at the funeral of someone who was a part of my life, someone who trusted me.

Unfortunately, Larry was just the first of many members of our community that I have had to bury. While not comparable to the loss of their immediate family and friends, whenever a member passes away, I feel a loss. At each of the funerals of these members, as I step before the mourners who gather to remember their loved one, I think about the loss of my first member – I think about Larry. And each time I do so, I am reminded of the incredible responsibility that he gave to me, that every congregant who leaves us gives to me – to officiate at their funeral, comfort their loved ones and bless their memory. It is a huge task, a task that I often feel unworthy of, a task that I never want to do, a task that breaks my heart. But it is a task that I have been entrusted with and so it is a task that I take very seriously. To officiate at a member’s funeral is not a task any rabbi wants to do – but to do so is a tremendous honor.

As I continue to focus on the people and moments that have defined my past 13 years here at Ramat Shalom, I must pause to remember the congregants who have passed away since I arrived in 2002. I was blessed to know each of them, be a part of their lives and serve as their rabbi. Their memories continue to bless my life. As we celebrate 13 years on March 29th, I will be remembering them.

My Incredible Team!

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A few weeks ago, we read about Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. He was an incredibly wise man who, after observing Moses attempt to lead the Israelite people, helped his son-in-law establish a well-organized community. Yitro did this by teaching Moses that no one can create a community on their own. Yitro watched as Moses attempted to do everything for the Israelites. Without hesitation, he tells his son-in-law: “The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” With Yitro’s help, Moses created a team of leaders that worked with him to create a strong Israelite community.

This week, as I continue to focus on the people and moments that have defined my past 13 years here at Ramat Shalom, I want to thank the incredible team of people who have given and continue to give so much to make Ramat Shalom the community she is today. As the Rabbi, I am the most visible member of this team and often get the credit for the synagogue’s many accomplishments. The fact is, none of these accomplishments would be possible if it were not for our staff or lay leaders. These people give so much time, energy and passion to make us who we are. Plus, they put up with me – no easy task!

The past 13 years at Ramat Shalom have been defined by so many special people, including:

  • Leslie Goldman, our Executive Director
  • Cantor Debbie
  • Beth Michell, our Education Director, and her Torah School team
  • Allison Sands, our Early Childhood Director, and her ECC team
  • Barbara Laing, my right and left hand
  • Nancy Wyman, our bookkeeper
  • Mr. Denis and Mr. Tito, our maintenance staff
  • Amy Freund and Miriam Lomnitzer, our B’nai Mitzvah tutors
  • Many who are no longer officially part of the professional team, but whose impact helped shape who we are today, including: including: Cantors Sharon and Natalie, Marney Tokar, Lydia Colon and the late Harriet Kamerow z”l.
  • Our incredible lay leaders who have served under the guidance of dedicated Presidents, including: Donna Berger, Allyn Kanowsky, William Freund, Leslie Goldman, Bretta Schachner, Anita Platt and our current President, Craig Mayer.

As we gather on March 29th to celebrate my 13th year, the truth is we gather to celebrate all of these people because I could not have done it alone. These people – and many more – have played a significant role in shaping our wonderful synagogue.  I hope you will join me on March 29th as we thank them for all that they have given to us!