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!

Patience and Guts

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As you know, in anticipation of my “bar mitzvah” year at Ramat Shalom, I have been reflecting on the many people and moments that have defined the past 13 years. Today, I want to focus on a few special teachers whose words have had a tremendous impact on me.

Someone asked me this week: “How did you learn everything you needed to learn to become a rabbi!?” I explained that Judaism expects us to continue learning our entire lives and, therefore, despite the fundamental things a rabbi needs to master, I am still busy learning all that I need to know to become a more knowledgeable Jew.

When I arrived at Ramat Shalom 13 years ago, I was 32 years young. Prior to moving to South Florida, I had been the rabbinic intern and then the assistant rabbi at a synagogue in suburban New York. As the intern and assistant rabbi, I didn’t have to make any tough decisions. Nobody got mad at me for synagogue related issues. I came to work, did what was expected of me and everyone was happy. “Why should it be any different,” I thought as I prepared to begin my position at Ramat Shalom.

Oh how naïve I was!

During my first few years at Ramat Shalom, I felt that I could do absolutely nothing right. My challenge: I was following a beloved rabbi, Jeff Eisenstat, who had served the congregation for nine years. He and I were so different. Here I was, fresh out of rabbinical school, whereas Rabbi Jeff had years of rabbinic experience. His youngest child had already become bat mitzvah and mine was just born. He had done his time and earned the respect of the Ramat Shalom community and I was just some new kid who was untested. I was in for a very bumpy ride.

As we spend our entire lives learning, Judaism teaches us to “provide for ourselves a teacher.” During my intial bumpy ride at Ramat Shalom, I was blessed to have a group of very special teachers who had and continue to have a tremendous impact on me. For the most part, these teachers were many of the founding families of the congregation, past-presidents and other senior members of Ramat Shalom who openly shared their wisdom with their new, very young rabbi. While the support and friendship of all of these teachers remains strong, the lessons of two of these teachers had a tremendous impact on me.

At a tumultuous board meeting many years ago, I got very upset when the board disagreed with me and made decisions that I was opposed to. I do not remember the decisions. I just remember feeling so frustrated and defeated. I walked out of the board meeting to calm my head and was approached by longtime Ramat Shalom member, Arnie Thaler. Arnie put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and sternly told me to calm myself down, get back into the meeting and move forward. I knew that Arnie supported me. I also heard him loud and clear. Arnie was teaching me the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter who said: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.” Arnie woke me up to the reality that my community and I won’t always agree and this is an essential part of being a rabbi. I am fortunate in that Ramat Shalom and I rarely disagree on things these days. This being said, Arnie helped to open my eyes to the fact that being a rabbi sometimes involves challenging debates and disagreements and, as uncomfortable as these sometimes are, I have to face them head on and serve my community.

There were many times during my first few years at Ramat Shalom when I felt that I would never live up to the expectations of the community. Rabbi Jeff had given the community so much and while I could give them some of what he gave them, I was no Rabbi Jeff. No matter how hard I tried, I could only be me. I ran into Paul Chudnow, another longtime Ramat Shalom member, at a particularly low moment years ago – a moment in which I was feeling I would never be able to give the community what Jeff gave them. Paul took me aside and said: “I know now all you hear about is what Rabbi Jeff has given us. But, one day, people will talk about what Rabbi Andrew has given us.” Paul was teaching me about the Jewish virtue of savlanut or patience – a virtue I still wrestle with today. It will take time, Paul suggested, but one day, you will earn your place here at Ramat Shalom. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin wrote: “Woe to the pampered person who has never been trained to be patient. Either today or in the future, he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction.” Paul was training me to be patient. I am honored and humbled by the fact that Paul was correct. It took time and I drank from many cups of affliction. But, it was all worth it to be embraced as Ramat Shalom’s Rabbi.

Thank you to Arnie, Paul and so many others who have shared incredible words of wisdom with me over the years – words that have shaped who I am today. How blessed I have been to have had and continue to have such wonderful teachers!

A Thank You To Some Of My Most Influential Teachers

jdam-1As you know, in anticipation of my “bar mitzvah” year at Ramat Shalom, I have been reflecting on the many people and moments that have defined the past 13 years. Today, I want to focus on the 536 (and counting!) bar/bat mitzvah students that I have learned with over the years. Each of these students, in their own unique way, has had an impact upon me. I consider myself so blessed that I am still in touch with many of these students and just officiated at the wedding of two of them, Samantha Moore and Shep Berg! As I said to them under the chuppah last month: “How is it that I have not gotten older but you both have grown up!?”

It is no secret that I did not become a bar mitzvah until I was 26 years old. My family was not affiliated with a synagogue as I grew up. Becoming a bar mitzvah was not something that I was interested in when I was 13. However, a few years later, when I was 16, I decided that, in fact, I did want to prepare for and become a bar mitzvah. So, I went to the local synagogue and met with the rabbi who proceeded to tell me that in order to become a bar mitzvah, I would have to begin studying with the 2nd grade Hebrew class. Needless to say, I decided not to pursue the bar mitzvah path at that time. The experience left a terrible taste in my mouth and made me feel out of place in the synagogue world.

Jumping ahead ten years and, fortunately, a few wonderful, nurturing Jewish mentors later, that 16 years old kid who was told he had to enter the 2nd grade Hebrew class was accepted to and ready to begin rabbinical school. As I prepared for the beginning of this exciting academic and spiritual journey, I made two promises to myself:

  • When I become a rabbi, I will never tell a 16 year who wants to become a bar mitzvah that he has to begin studying with a 2nd grade class! Instead, I will do everything in my power to make anyone who wants to find his/her place in the synagogue and Jewish community feel as welcome as possible.
  • I will do everything in my power to insure that anyone who wants a bar/bat mitzvah can have one.

I still work very hard to fulfill these promises. It is one of the reasons we have created The Center for Jewish Life that is designed to create meaningful entry points into Judaism for the unaffiliated community.

As I said, each of the 536 bar/bat mitzvah students that I have studied with have had an impact upon me and I am grateful for them all! This being said, this week, I want to focus on a few students who have allowed me to realize that over the past 13 years I have been living up to the promises I made to myself.

Many years ago, I was visited by parents who were synagogue shopping. They wanted to talk about their son having his bar mitzvah at Ramat Shalom. But, as they explained, there were some “problems”. Their son, they told me, was in a wheelchair, had physical limitations and learning disabilities. They began to tell me that others had told them that having a bar mitzvah was not a possibility and so, they would not be upset if I told them we could not accommodate their son. I interrupted them and without hesitation told them that it would be my honor to officiate at their son’s bar mitzvah at Ramat Shalom! They were overjoyed. As they thanked me, they explained that they would pick a weekday service as it would probably not be appropriate for their son to lead a Shabbat morning service given his challenges. In response, I told them that the only way I would agree to do this bar mitzvah would be if their son led a Shabbat morning service with me and the Cantor and stood before his entire community like every other child who becomes a bar/bat mitzvah at Ramat Shalom. Their joy turned to shock as they took in this news. Their son, I explained, had the right to a Saturday morning bar mitzvah and we would honor this right. And we did and it was incredible.

The bar mitzvah of this young man was truly inspirational. He had so many challenges in life but overcame them all to become a bar mitzvah. Over the years other kids with limitations much more severe than his, with challenges that would make some think that a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony was out of the question, have stood before our community and proudly become bar/bat mitzvah. The way all of these kids have excelled on the bimah shows us that anyone who wants a bar/bat mitzvah CAN have one. Some disabled children wrestle with severe challenges that make it extremely difficult for them to communicate their wishes and desires and, because of this, I have been asked how I know that these kids really want a bar/bat mitzvah. As someone who was been lucky enough to stand with these kids on the bimah and look into their eyes as they celebrate this tremendous milestone, I can tell you without any hesitation that these kids know exactly what is going on, they want to be up there on the bimah and they are really proud of themselves.

February is known as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and was created to bring awareness to what some call the “invisible minority” in the Jewish community. I am proud to say that over the past 13 years, some of the most inspiring moments I have experienced on our bimah have been with members of this “invisible minority” and here, at Ramat Shalom, they are very visible, very much embraced and very proud that they became bar/bat mitzvah!

To all of my 536 (and counting!) bar/bat mitzvah students – thank you for making me the rabbi I am today!

Words From My Rabbi, My Wife – Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs

Last week, I promised to share a few stories about some of the influential people that have defined the past 13 years. This being said, I turn my weekly post over to the person who has influenced me the most, my wife, Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs.

 

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Every Friday you expect to receive an inspiring message from your amazing rabbi…but you never really specified WHICH rabbi it should come from, so I asked Rabbi Andrew to step aside this week and allow me to write the weekly message to you.

This week, the invitations went out asking you to join together with our congregation on March 29th as we celebrate Rabbi Andrew’s, and by extension, all of us Jacobs’ thirteenth year at Ramat Shalom. It is truly amazing to sit back and think about how much has happened and how we have all grown over the past 13 years as a congregation and as a family. It is hard to believe that it was 13 years ago when Andrew said to me on a walk through our neighborhood in White Plains, NY, “What would you think about moving to Florida?” I will be honest and tell you that I was dead set against the idea. We had a new baby and our entire family was north of Virginia. We didn’t know a soul in Florida and the thought of moving down here was terrifying, but Andrew fell in love with this congregation and I was in love with my husband, so we made the move and the rest, as they say, is history.

I won’t offend you by pretending that everything has been perfect over the past 13 years. For sure, there have been hiccups along the way, days that we were really homesick for the Northeast, times when we missed our family or just had a really bad series of days. There was a period of time when I worked to establish myself as a rabbi in my own right, making a name and a reputation for myself apart from my husband, and that, in itself, was a very difficult growing process for us all – being apart for holidays, celebrations and Shabbat.

Just last week, we read in the Torah about the giving of the Ten Commandments to our ancestors. It was a “WOW” moment, to be sure. Then this week, we read Parshat Mishpatim, a laundry list of laws regarding property damage, kidnapping and cruelty to animals, to name a few. Seemingly, our “high” from the Ten Commandments comes to a screeching stop as we read rule after rule in this week’s Torah portion. But why? Why would the Torah do this to us? We were excited, pumped up and now we stop and go, “wait a minute, what just happened?” Well, one interpretation is that the Torah portions are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual high of the Ten Commandments is great, but it doesn’t solve the problems of the real world. In order to work through the everyday “hiccups” that occur, we need that one burst of energy, that one exciting moment that carries us through even the darkest days. The great commentator, Maimonides explains it like this:

Imagine you’re lost at night, trudging knee-deep in mud through a dark and vicious rainstorm. Suddenly a single flash of lightning appears, illuminating the road ahead. It is the only light you may see for miles. This single flash must guide you through the night. So too, one burst of inspiration may need to last for years.

Thirteen years ago, our family came to Ramat Shalom and experienced that amazing moment of light. That flash has carried us over the years, bursting through again and again through every bump and hiccup, in good times and even in bad. You, my friends, are our light. You are our home.

Please join us in a celebration, yes of the Jacobs’ 13th year at Ramat Shalom, but even more so, a celebration of that light that brought us together 13 years ago. A celebration of family. A celebration of home. To learn more about the celebration, please click HERE.