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.

In It For The Long Haul

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In 2002, 13 years ago, I left my first congregational position at Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, NY to come to Ramat Shalom. The last event I attended at Bet Am Shalom was the “Bar Mitzvah” celebration of the congregation’s senior rabbi, my mentor, Lester Bronstein. As he prepared to celebrate his 13th year, I vividly remember Rabbi Bronstein’s words of wisdom to me:

Don’t be one of those Rabbis who stays at a congregation for two or three years and moves on to another congregation for two or three years. Be in it for the long haul. Give yourself time to develop long, meaningful relationships with the members of your community. When you do, you will truly understand the blessing of being a Rabbi.

As I prepare to celebrate my 13th year, I have been thinking a lot about these words of wisdom. In an email last month, I reminded Rabbi Bronstein of his words and thanked him for urging me to “be in it for the long haul.” His simple response to my email was so telling: “It’s great isn’t it?”

 
Rabbi Bronstein is still at Bet Am Shalom. He is now marking his 26th year at the congregation and he continues to find it to be a great experience. I am not surprised. My 13 years at Ramat Shalom have allowed me to discover that becoming integrally connected to a community is the blessing of being a rabbi. Rabbi Bronstein knew this as he shared his words of wisdom with me 13 years ago. But, he knew that the only way I could discover this blessing was to connect deeply with a congregation. So, he quietly implored me to “be in it for the long haul.” As I wonder what it must be like to be the rabbi at a congregation for 26 years, I think Rabbi Bronstein provides the answer in his response to me last month: “It’s great isn’t it?”

 
Rabbi Bronstein is one of the many influential people who have made it possible for me to celebrate my “Bar Mitzvah” year at Ramat Shalom. As we lead up to the wonderful celebration that Ramat Shalom is throwing on March 29th (click here for more information), I will be using these weekly messages to share with you a few more stories about some of the influential people and inspiring moments that have defined the past 13 years. Know that in your own special way, each of you got me to this moment and I hope we can celebrate together on March 29th. Please note, we changed the date of the celebration and can now include teens and children. This is something that is really important to me as who I am as a Rabbi is so defined by our younger members!

Rediscover All That Is Beautiful

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The news these days is so heavy. It fills our lives with negativity and prevents us from noticing the blessings that do surround us. In this way, while we are not living under the crushing power of Pharaoh, we are much like the ancient Israelites we read about in the Torah this Shabbat.

The Israelites, so overwhelmed by years of oppression in Egypt, have lost the ability to see beyond their own pain. They fail to see that God, manifested in the power of nature, remains a part of their lives. And so, God does not free the Israelites from slavery by sending just one plague to undermine Pharaoh and his armies. God sends ten plagues, hardening Pharoah’s heart whenever a plague weakens the Egyptian leader’s resolve to keep the Israelites enslaved. God could have insured the Israelites freedom a lot more quickly, but realized that our ancestors needed a miraculous, divine show – ten plagues – to reignite the Israelites’ ability to be amazed by this world.

Today, as a result of all of the chaos in the world, many of us have lost the ability to see the good stuff in life. Like the Israelites, we need a miraculous, divine show to reignite our ability to be amazed by this world – to refocus our attention away from all that is broken and toward things that remind us that the world is still filled with beauty. Fortunately for us and the people around us, we don’t need ten plagues to open up our eyes to the miracles that surround us. However, we do need a wake-up call – because many of the miracles that surround us are in danger of disappearing if we fail to appreciate them.

An article in yesterday’s USA Today (http://goo.gl/Anc3tz) highlighted seven of the world’s natural wonders – one of them being right in our own back yard – the Everglades and another being in Israel – the Dead Sea. Stressing the fact that we are, like the Israelites, incapable of appreciating these wonders, the article describes how modern plagues that have been brought about by our own hands are threatening the existence of these wonders. Urban development, limited water flow, illegal/industrial logging, deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, war, changes in the global climate, agricultural and industrial pollution are just some of the plagues that could obliterate spectacular beauty from our midst.

Tu B’Shevat – our celebration of nature – falls on February 4th. It serves as the annual Jewish wake-up call – imploring us to focus on the world’s beauty, reminding us that we are responsible for maintaining this beauty. If we don’t stop to appreciate and pay attention to the natural wonders around us, if we allow ourselves to focus only on the negative stuff that pervades our life, we will lose these treasures and, in turn, lose important reminders that, despite the chaos in this world, God still dwells among us.

This Shabbat, I hope each of us finds the time to go outside, look up at the sky, appreciate the trees, the birds, the sunshine and appreciate how amazing it all is. May we be inspired by the world around us and may we prepare for Tu B’Shevat by doing what we can to protect what inspires us.

What Would Dr. King Say…

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This weekend, as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, the outrage surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Officer Rafael Ramos and Officer Wenjian Liu continues to elicit powerful emotions across our country.  Reports indicate that the late civil rights leader’s birthday will be marked by numerous protests where crowds will chant “Black Lives Matter”, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “We Can’t Breathe!”  What would the great civil rights leader say if he attended these protests on his 86th birthday?  What passionate words of wisdom would he have to share that could help us all come together to heal and grow as a nation?  If only he could speak to us now.

If he were here with us, I know Dr. King would focus our attention on how we can and must stand up to injustice not by inflicting violence on others, but, as Dr. King said, by securing “moral ends through moral means”.   He would tell us that we must stand up for ourselves but in a non-violent way.   “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon,” said Dr. King. “Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

If Dr. King were here with us, I can’t help but think that he would speak about the horrific events in France, paying specific attention to the four Jews who were killed.  I imagine Dr. King looking into the crowd before him, into the television cameras focused on him and speaking directly to the Jewish community, saying words similar to those he spoke in 1958 as he stood before the American Jewish Congress:

My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.

If Dr. King were speaking to us on Monday, he would, with great passion,  tell all who listened that “Jewish Lives Matter Too”.  He would look into our eyes and explain that those who stood on the other side of the terrorist’s gun in Paris, they too exclaimed: “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!”  And Dr. King, using his tremendous oratorical skills, would preach the painful truth that as the four Jews were killed in the kosher market in Paris, they too might very well have uttered “I Can’t Breathe!”

If Dr. King were with us on his birthday, I know he would shock many listening to him as he would proudly stand up for Israel and against anyone who had the audacity to attack the Jewish State.  In the run-up to the Six Day War in 1967, while many in the civil rights movement strongly supported the Arab world, Dr. King told President Johnson, in a letter published in The New York Times, that the United States must support Israel.  He practiced what he preached, telling those who disparaged the Jewish State exactly what he thought of them.  In 1968, responding to a student who attacked Zionism, Dr. King exclaimed: “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”

Oh how I wish Dr. King was with us now.  Not only because I believe that his wisdom is so needed by those leading the protests in memory of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and those who are outraged by the murder of Officers Ramos and Liu, but also because the American Jewish community desperately needs one of his rousing sermons to yank our heads out from the sand and come face to face with the harsh reality that we need to act.

Dr. King so eloquently preached:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.  This is our hope, and this is the faith.

Over the past week we have sadly been handed horrific proof that shows us what the experts have been saying for some time now: European anti-semitism is surging.  We have been taught to believe “Never Again”.  This is our hope, our dream.  But, with European Jewish leaders telling us that these are the worst times for Jews since the Nazis, “Again” seems like a frightening possibility.  The attack against the French Jewish community was not a shock to anyone who has been following the hatred and violence directed against the Jews of France and other European nations.  How sad is that?  We the people who say “Never Again!” were not shocked.  We saw it coming.  So why haven’t we done anything?   In 2012, when four Jews, including three children were killed at a French school, where was the global Jewish outrage?  In 2013, when a French rabbi and his son were stabbed near their synagogue, where was our “Jewish Lives Matter” campaign?  Last summer as synagogues were firebombed and Jews were attacked in France in response to Israel’s war against Hamas, where were the Jews who put it all on the line and got arrested in New York City while holding up “I Can’t Breathe” signs?

Where are we?  Where is our passion for our people?  What has happened to our dream of “Never Again”?

If Dr. King were here with us, he would not allow the overwhelming silence of the Jewish community to go unnoticed.  I imagine him asking us:

What happened to the hope of  Anne Frank who wrote “If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.”

Did you lose the courage embraced by Elie Wiesel who said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor.”

Are you afraid to act like Simon Wiesenthal who taught: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”  

What has happened to the Jewish People?

Dr. King, the Jewish people desperately need you to inspire us, to remind us that “Never Again” is possible; to remind us that we must be an example because we were doomed yet we survived; to remind us that we must take sides and support our own; to remind us that doing nothing does nothing good.

We need you, Dr. King, to remind us as you so powerfully put it:

[We]were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for [us] in Europe…We must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.  We cannot turn back….we are not satisfied and we will never be satisfied until “justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like a might stream.”  

We need you Dr. King to remind us that we are not satisfied until “Never Again” means “NEVER AGAIN”.  We need you to remind us that:

We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords…into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Yes, Dr. King, we need you to remind us that we must act together in bold, yet peaceful ways, to teach the world that indeed, Jewish Lives Matter.  While some in the larger community need you to remind them of the power of non-violence, we in the Jewish community need you to remind us that we must act.  As we enter Shabbat and prepare to remember you and your legacy, may your memory remind us of the incredible power we have to stand up to hatred and may we all have the courage to embrace this power and use it to make our dream a reality.

First They Came For The Jews…

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Last summer, the synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods in France came under attack.  Beginning as demonstrations against Israel, the animosity quickly spread into what some called the Paris Intifada.  Hundreds of mostly Arab and North African youths stormed through the streets screaming “Death to Israel”, “Death to Jews” and “Hitler Was Right”!  Jewish stores were burned down, synagogues were attacked (one was firebombed) and Jews were physically harmed.  

This vehement anti-semitism was not new to the Jews of France.  For many years now, French Jews have been threatened, hurt and even murdered by the same extremist elements that lead this week’s on-going terrorist attacks in France.  Feeling that their lives are in danger, over the past three years 20,000 French Jews have moved to Israel and one survey suggest that almost 3/4 of the remaining French Jews are considering leaving France.

As I read and listen to the media coverage of this week’s horrific on-going terrorist attacks, the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller (posted above), a German anti-Nazi religious leader, immediately came to mind.

Anyone who claims to be shocked by the on-going terrorist attacks in Paris has had their head in the sand.  The Jews, well, our heads were ripped out of the sand long ago.  We know all too well the hatred that exists out there.  While we begin 2015 praying for peace and an end to hatred and violence, let’s also pray that this week’s brutal attacks wake up those who have been slumbering, those who were feeling removed from the terror that is infecting our world.  May those who have just woken up join with those of us who have been wide awake for some time now and together may we find the strength to stand up to extremism and bring about tikun olam (healing of the world).

Please keep France and her people in your prayers this Shabbat.