Authenticity: The Key To A Meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah

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Last week, I shared with you an article written by my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, that focused on the innovation that is going on within the Jewish world, particularly surrounding the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In this article, Chai Tech, our own Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation Program, was featured. Earlier this month, Ritualwell.org, an online source that allows people to learn about and create Jewish rituals, hosted a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah Twitter chat. The chat – some of which you can see here – explored various ways that make the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience more meaningful for B’nai Mitzvah and their families. I am happy to report that most of the innovative ideas that were discussed in the chat are ones that we fully embrace at Ramat Shalom. However, while I certainly take great pride in the creativity that we incorporate into our B’nai Mitzvah services and believe that this creativity adds something special to our services, I don’t believe that it is this creativity that makes Ramat Shalom’s B’nai Mitzvah as powerful as they are.

Tomorrow night, we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the moment Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We’ve been preparing for Shavuot for weeks now. As part of this preparation, we are taught to read Pirkei Avot, an ancient collection of Jewish wisdom. In the fourth chapter of this incredible collection, we are taught: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.” As we step back to examine what makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service special, we can’t just focus on the vessel, the service itself: the prayers, songs, descriptions of mitzvah projects, readings shared by friends, speeches given by the B’nai Mitzvah and their families. Don’t get me wrong, these words are important! But it takes more than these words to create the energy that we feel at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is what is in the words that creates this energy. In Hebrew, we talk about the kavanah of a prayer – the story behind the words. The intensity that we all feel is a result of the kavanah behind everything that is said and done during the service.

So what is the kavanah behind the words shared at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah? It is the authentic story of every Bar/Bat Mitzvah that steps foot on our bimah. It is also a desire to truly celebrate the bonds the Bar/Bat Mitzvah shares with his/her family, friends and the Ramat Shalom community. What we do on the bimah is not a performance. It is not a concert or a poetry slam. It’s not about being perfect. Rather, it is about being real. This means different kids do different things on the bimah. Some read Haftarah. Some don’t. Some sing. Some squeak. And it’s all good. Because it’s real, mistakes might very well be made: the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mispronounces a word, the Rabbi calls up the wrong person for an aliyah (yes, it happens!) or your dear aunt completely panics during her Torah reading. And so? We help each other out, laugh and hold hands as we honestly and openly celebrate the sacred rite of passage of a child we love.

Our B’nai Mitzvah are celebrations of relationships. The Cantor and I, along with Beth Michell, our Torah School Director, and Amy Freund and Miriam Lomnitzer, our tutors, are lucky enough to truly connect with each of our students and their families. Our interactions with each other on the bimah are not for show. We know our kids and their families and they know us. The words we all share with each other during the service are a continuation of relationships that were formed slowly, over time. This authenticity is contagious and is picked up on and shared by everyone who joins us for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

As Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, there is not the pomp and circumstance that is associated with the other major Jewish holidays. There is nothing like a Passover seder, a sukkah or a shofar. Yes, on Shavuot, there is cheesecake – but really, there is simply the Torah that we open, study and celebrate on this holy occasion. We don’t need anything else – just the story of our people. The same is true at our B’nai Mitzvah celebrations and, honestly, at any of our Ramat Shalom lifecycle events. We don’t need bells and whistles to make these moments sacred. We just need the story of our people which, of course, includes the unique story of you and your family.

May you find the time to celebrate your authentic story this Shavuot and may we as a community continue to strengthen our relationships with each other, relationships that lie at the heart of everything that is Ramat Shalom.

A Jewish Blueprint For Innovation

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Creativity and change are two fundamental Jewish values.

Next week, we celebrate these values with the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai. The fact that Shavuot does not have a festive meal like Passover or a cool, outdoor hut like Sukkot keeps the holiday from getting the attention it deserves in the liberal Jewish world. The winding down of the school year, final exams, proms, graduations and Memorial Day don’t help either. It is unfortunate that Shavuot is often overlooked because it actually commemorates the most important moment in Jewish history, the experience that defined us as a Jewish nation: the moment we received the rules that taught us how to behave as a people and as individuals. Without the Torah, we would never have been able to come together and function as a community and grow into the incredible civilization that we are today.
What’s interesting is that while the Torah is indeed filled with rules, Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism, teaches us that the Torah is much more than a book of rules. It is actually the blueprint of Creation – the tool that God used to create us and the world in which we live. Once God created the world, God decided to give the Torah away. But, when this time came, God did not want the Torah to stop being a creative tool – a tool that could be used to generate new and incredible things. And, so, God gave the Torah to us – not simply to give us rules to live by, but to use as an instrument of real change.

The Talmud teaches us that when Moses went to receive the Torah from God, the angels tried to take it from him. They asserted that the wisdom of the Torah would not be appreciated by humans because we have a tendency to stray from the good and embrace the not-so-good. Moses, however, explained that this is exactly why the Torah must be given to us. The Torah should not simply be studied. It should inspire new ideas. Angels, we are taught, are holy beings and, as such, have no need to change or grow. They are perfect the way they are. We humans, however, are far from perfect. We struggle on a regular basis with difficult choices and living a life of meaning and purpose. The values, teachings and stories in the Torah are intended to push us to to reach higher – to do good. When we allow the Torah to challenge our choices, improve our character and find new ways to bring spirituality into our lives, we become new people, better people. In doing so, we recreate ourselves and, in turn, prove that the Torah remains a blueprint for our ongoing creation.

This is a very exciting time to be a Jew – a time when many of us are opening up the blueprint that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and examining it with a fresh, new perspective. New Jewish pathways are being created. Jewish innovation is happening. And I am excited that Ramat Shalom is at the heart of this innovation. I was honored that my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of Rabbis Without Borders, featured our Chai Tech Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program on MyJewishLearning.com this week. As she says in her article, change is scary. Some suggest that by changing, we are lowering the bar, watering down Judaism, making it too simple. I couldn’t disagree more. By creating new ways for folks to engage with Judaism, we are using the blueprint to build new doorways that allow more people to discover the power of Torah and flourish as a result of being touched by her lessons. In doing so, we are living the lesson of Shavuot. We are keeping Torah alive and allowing it to inspire us as we envision the Judaism of tomorrow.

While I certainly hope you will join us next weekend on Friday and Saturday evenings for our Shavuot celebrations, no matter what, I want each of us to use the days leading up to Shavuot to realize the incredible potential we as a people and as individuals have to grow, change, create and inspire. Push yourself to live your potential over the next several days. When you do so, you will honor our holiday of Shavuot.

A Mother’s Spark

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A Mother’s Day Tale/Midrash

At the beginning of time, God created the plants and the trees, the Sun and the Moon.  God created the animals, the seas, Heaven and Earth and, of course, humans.  But, did you know that when it all began, God created a small but powerful spark of energy?  God loved this spark.  It was so bright, so full of love.  It emanated compassion.  It actually made God, the protector of all, feel safe and not alone.

God brought this spark to Earth after the work of Creation was done.  Now, God knew that this spark could not stand on its own.  It needed to be put inside of something special – something that could protect it, nurture it and enable it to fill the world with its incredible light.  And so God tried to put the spark inside some of the plants and trees – but the spark was just too strong.  It could not be contained within leaves, stalks and bark.  God tried to put the spark in some of the animals – but the spark frightened them.  So God tried to put the spark in the Sun and the Moon, but, the spark kept falling down to Earth.  So, God put the spark into man.  But, inside man, the spark did not shine brightly.  Its light did nothing to make the Earth more beautiful.  And, so, God was frustrated.

As God thought about where else the spark could be placed, God was startled by the cry of the first baby born on the face of the Earth.   As God looked down upon this baby, his mother lovingly picked him up, cuddled him, comforted him and rocked him to sleep.  As she did so, God noticed that the mother’s eyes were radiating a magnificent light – a light that was very familiar to God.  It was the spark!  It had found its home on its own – inside of the first mother – the first human being who truly and madly and deeply loved another human being.  Over time, the spark multiplied and found a home in all the mothers on the face of the Earth.  And God saw this and was happy for it was good.

Some might read this and think that this sounds like a wonderful fairy tale.  But, the fact is, anyone who is lucky enough to have been loved by a mother has looked into her eyes and seen the spark.  It’s still there filling the world with incredible energy, love, compassion and beauty that can only come from a mother.

Take the time this weekend to look for the spark in the eyes of all those mothers you celebrate this weekend.  Once you see it, realize how blessed you are.  Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, to my wife and to all the moms out there that make the world a more magnificent place.

Destroying The Fruit Trees: What The Torah Teaches Us About The Baltimore Riots

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When something in society is broken, we are obligated to fix it.  It is a basic Jewish value, captured in the Torah:  “Tzedek tzedek tirdof “ – “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20)   When we stand up to those who are determined to enshrine injustice, the Torah understands how overwhelming this task can be and instructs us accordingly:

Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them. (Deuteronomy 20:3)

According to the Torah, standing up to the unjust requires that we do everything in our power to “propose peace” (Deuteronomy 20:10) to them and pursue all means to bring about a just and lasting change.  If, after a great deal of effort, we cannot reason with those who seek to keep the scales of society unbalanced and they come after us to do us harm, the Torah insists to us that we have the right to stand up for justice with great strength, “besieging” those who pursue us. (Deuteronomy 20:12)

So yes, the Torah does believe that if there is no justice, there is no peace.  Yes, the Torah also supports the concept of “sticking it to the Man” when “the Man” is truly doing wrong.  Yes, the Torah even supports going to war against those who seek to do us harm and undermine our freedom and safety.  However, the Torah makes it explicitly clear that when we do find ourselves battling the pursuers of injustice we “shall not destroy (their) fruit trees by wielding an ax against them.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Whether it be in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City or any other location where people feel a terrible injustice has been committed, Judaism supports the right of these people to pursue justice. However, our tradition expects that before there is any confrontation, every means to “propose peace” must be tried. And, if a confrontation arises, Judaism demands that no fruit trees be destroyed.  Today, actual fruit trees are hard to come by in the streets of Baltimore and other cities where we have recently seen rioting and looting.  This being said, countless fruit trees were cut down this week in Baltimore.

In the Torah, a fruit tree was many things.  First and foremost it was a source of food.  It was also a source of income for the owner.  It provided shade and beauty.  In addition, the Torah asks: “is the tree of the field a man…” suggesting that fruit trees are symbols for other people.  The looting and rioting that have taken place in our country have destroyed neighborhoods. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail outlets that provide customers with life’s necessities and owners with a livelihood have been ransacked.  Boarded windows and burnt cars are left behind.  Innocent civilians and law enforcement officers have been hurt and killed.  Tragically, too many modern-day fruit trees have been cut down.

Pursuing justice is something that we are obligated to do.  Looting, rioting and senselessly destroying property and lives only make the scales of justice even more unbalanced.

As Shabbat begins, may peace prevail and may true justice be experienced by all.

Take The Kugel Exit – Happy Birthday Israel!

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“I love that this (Israeli) exit shares the name with an Ashkenazi egg noodle dish” writes Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt in his list of things he loves about Israel, published in the Times of Israel this week.

On Thursday, Israel celebrated her 67th birthday! Too often, when we hear or read about the Jewish State, the information we receive is political, divisive and/or depressing. It leads many to envision the Jewish State as a hotbed of controversy, hate and war. Sure, Israel has her problems, but we should never allow these problems, while serious, to be what defines her. Israeli technology, medical advancements and scholarship have made the world a better place. The landscape of Israel – from the Dead Sea to the mountains to the blossoming desert are breathtaking. Israeli music, art, and literature are as diverse as her people. Her food is delicious and her history is amazing. And, as Benji Lovitt points out by sharing the photo below in his list of things that he loves about Israel, how great is it that in Israel, you can can visit the Western Wall, our holiest site, in jeans – even if you are not Justin Timberlake!

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And really, where else can you take the Kugel exit?

So, the next time you hear or read things about Israel that are unsettling, remember the Kugel exit – remember that as Israel begins her 68th year, she gives us much to smile about and be proud of.

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.