The Jewish Circle of Life


Our 2013 Simchat Torah Celebration – Photo by Josh Prezant

This Sunday night, as part of our Simchat Torah celebration which begins at 6:30PM, we dance with our Torah scrolls. At the conclusion of the dancing, we take one of the scrolls and completely unwrap it so that it surrounds the sanctuary. Many of you will help hold up the parchment of the Torah as others, including lots of our kids, will gather inside the unwrapped scroll. The entire ancient Jewish story will be completely visible to us all – from the Garden of Eden to Mount Sinai to our ancestors’ journey through the desert and on to Israel. We’ll read the last few lines and the first few lines of Torah – officially starting the biblical reading cycle all over again as we have done for centuries.

While many ask why we read the Torah all over again year after year, when you join us Sunday night, you’ll discover first hand that Torah really has no beginning and no end. Torah is a circle, an infinite loop that shares new lessons and insights every time we allow ourselves to connect to the storytelling process that has been part of our people’s history for generations.

At 6:00PM Sunday night, before our Simchat Torah celebration begins, many will gather for Yizkor and think about those who are no longer physically with us. We’ll lean on each other as we remember and weep. But, our grief will be limited. Immediately following the 30-minute Yizkor service, the sanctuary will be flooded with children getting ready to sing and dance with the Torahs as part of the Simchat Torah celebration. This transition from sadness to joy epitomizes the circle of life that is celebrated as we unwrap the Torah.

Whether it be moving from a memorial service to a joyful festival, from one story in the Torah to the next or from the end of our ancient story to the beginning once again, Judaism teaches us that life doesn’t stop. It’s a never-ending process that carries us all along for the ride. Along the way, we welcome new souls and miss those who pass on. We learn from our experiences and we use what we’ve learned to teach the younger generations. And as life carries us along, our Judaism, our heritage, our rituals and our legends are there to give us meaning, unite us and inspire us. Yes, we reread the same stories and repeat the same rituals that define our faith. But, hopefully, in time, we begin to notice that when we find ourselves rereading stories and repeating rituals, the circle of life gives us insight, wisdom and clarity that we didn’t have the last time we engaged with our Torah and tradition.

Sunday night, we start all over again. Seamlessly, we finish reading the Torah and immediately begin rereading it, starting with Creation and the Garden of Eden. The Jewish story continues. Life continues. On the surface, things might seem repetitive. It’s the same Garden of Eden that we visited last year. But, we’re all different than we were when we visited last year. Join us as we come together Sunday to comfort each other, celebrate our story and discover the lessons that the circle of life continues to teach us.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon

My apologies for being quiet on here! The Jewish holidays have kept me busy. Below, please find my latest article on The Wisdom Daily that captures a lot of what I spoke about on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.




I got a message on my blog a few months ago that shocked me. It was in response to a fun story that I wrote and shared on the blog on Mother’s Day. The story is a creative spin on the biblical creation story, one that describes how mothers came to possess a special spark created by God.  You can read the entire story here.

The shocking message that I received was from a woman who thanked me for my story explaining that it deeply touched her, so much so that it caused her to cancel an appointment she’d made to end her pregnancy. The woman, who was six weeks pregnant, said that my story showed her what she was about to give up. “I want to be a mother and share that spark with my child…I am going to have this child thanks to you.”

The fact that my story had such a life changing impact on this woman made me really uncomfortable. I wanted to share with her that I support a woman’s right to choose. I wanted her to know that I would be happy to speak with her about her decision and wouldn’t look down on her if she chose another path. I tried to reach out to her. But I never heard back.

Today, the woman is at least 6 months into what I hope is a healthy pregnancy. I’m still troubled that my story had the impact that it did and I know that to some this might sound terrible. And so I’ll add the confusing reality that I also feel good that my story will lead to the birth of a baby in a few months and, hopefully, this baby will lead a wonderful life. I feel good and, at the same time, disheartened by the fact that by feeling good, I’m identifying with the other side of what remains a painful issue in our country.

To read the rest of the article, please click here.

My New Year’s Playlist

“Holy” is a big word that is used to capture a concept that feels foreign to many of us. But, it’s my hope that as we journey through the holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur together, “holy” will not only become a word that we’re a little bit more comfortable with, but a sensation that we’ll get to experience, appreciate and grow from in the new year.

To get us thinking about all that is holy in our lives, I’m sharing part of my “New Year’s Playlist” – just a few of the songs that have inspired me as I’ve prepared for the upcoming holidays. While we often don’t realize it, much of the secular music we listen to captures various aspects of the spiritual, holy journey we’re all on. The first song on my playlist, H.O.L.Y. by Florida Georgia Line (yes, I like country music!), is a current top country hit and reminds us that some of the most important people in our lives are holy.

Most of the time, holiness is something that singers and songwriters are seeking. For John Mayer, the absence of all things holy makes life empty and so, he, like many of us, is waiting for the world to change.

Katy Perry’s Olympic anthem, Rise, warns those of  “little faith” not to doubt those who are determined to do more than wait for the world to change. The tremendous ability to rise above all the negativity that fills the world is holy.

But rising is not easy. Embracing holiness is not easy. It takes a lot of determination, energy and practice. And when we begin to rise, we’re often a little unsteady. By pushing through that unsteadiness, we get closer to holiness.

If we keep pushing through, get steadier and find our balance, if we’re lucky, we might just defy gravity and rise above it all.

Today, unfortunately, the lack of civility, the divisiveness of politics and society’s overall lack of compassion makes it hard to feel the holiness that is out there. Too many of us have forgotten that even though we don’t see eye to eye, we have to figure out how to share this world we live in. As Graham Nash sings in There’s Only One:

When we’ve all begun
To see the world we’re on
Don’t you see there’s only one
Then we all begin
To see the skin we’re in
It’s just the same
There’s only one

It’s when we see that “there’s only one” that we begin to live holy lives.

We should all have the holy experience that Aloe Blacc sings about:

I had an epiphany one night,
looking at the endless star filled sky
The world is ours!

But holy experiences don’t have to be shocking epiphanies. Accepting the fact that we’re surrounded by everyday people with diverse opinions, and learning to respect, not necessarily agree with, these people is how we can begin to make our lives holier.

Bob Marley sings about the holiness of coming together with all different kinds of people in One Love:

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
As it was in the beginning (one love)
So shall it be in the end (one heart)
Alright, give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right

We Shall Be Free (Garth Brooks)

When I close my eyes I see
The way this world shall be…
When we all walk hand in hand
When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within…
When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free
And when money talks for the very last time
And nobody walks a step behind
When there’s only one race and that’s mankind
Then we shall be free

This new Jewish year, we’ll talk about what we can do to open our eyes and actually see the holiness that Garth Brooks sings about below.

Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing you all a very happy and holy new year.

sacrilege incorporated – Maya Salameh


Maya Salemeh, third from right, and the other 2016 National Student Poets,
with Megan Beyer (center), Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts


Tomorrow night, we gather together at 7:30PM for Selichot – the official beginning of the High Holiday season. We’re about to enter the holiest days of our calendar – time we’re supposed to use to reflect upon our lives, determining how we can fix the wrongs we’ve committed in this year that is coming to an end and how we can grow in the new year that is about to begin. But, with all the terror and violence that has rocked our country yet again this week, it’s hard to focus on the holy work that the new year requires of us.

But, fortunately, there are courageous voices out there that have the courage to stand up to the terror and violence and say enough. Young voices that in their boldness fill us with hope and give us reason to believe in the potential of the new year. Voices that remind us that we can and we must bring an end to the chaos of hate.

For me, Maya Salameh, a 16-year-old junior at San Diego High School of International Studies, is one of these voices. Maya was one of five students selected by the White House to be one of the 2016 National Student Poets. Maya, who is a Lebanese American, shared her poem, sacrilege incorporated, at the White House earlier this month. It is a bold reminder of what holiness can be, what it really means to love God and what it means to have faith in humanity. As you read it, remember, it was written by a teenager whose insights need to be shared far and wide.

sacrilege incorporated
i speak to you
terrorists, skyjackers, lifejackers
and otherwise-flavored peddlers
of sacred hearsay
i speak to you
just fyi
just for your illumination
god is not
a mcdonald’s franchise
you don’t hold any right to sell, market, or
otherwise operate in his name
i speak to you
for now is the time
to open your eyes
to close your pocketbooks
no prophets have ever had
swiss bank accounts
i speak to you
for if you love god
you would not lie
in his name
you would not kill
in his name
you would not explode
in his name
i speak to you
for the only god you seem to know
is the god of destruction
always thirsty
for more blood, more tears,
more futures gone wrong
i speak to you
for children
belong to no creed
and if holiness exists
it is the selflessness that runs in their
i speak to you
for the magnetic attraction of violence
keep no home
in the nonpolar
hearts of the young
i speak to you
for senseless violence
has no part
in my definition of humanity
i speak to you
because blind faith
is no faith

May Maya’s definition of humanity become the norm in the new Jewish year. And may what she would refer to as the violence of blind faith be replaced by the love of selfless holiness.

The Spiritual Three-Way Mirror


We’re currently in the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. As we prepare to welcome the new Jewish year 5777, our tradition encourages us to spend this month closely examining our lives – appreciating the good stuff while looking for ways we can grow and change.

As I’ve talked about before, taking the time to really examine our lives is like looking into a three-way mirror – the type you often find in department stores. People generally have one of four reactions when standing before such a mirror.

1. The most common reaction: we’re startled by the part of us that we never knew was there.
2. Dread – if we have the courage to open up our eyes and actually look into the mirror, it’ll force us to look at that part of us we knew was there, but never wanted to acknowledge.
3. We stand before the mirror and see a side of ourselves that makes us happy.
4. We simply see clothing and pay no attention to the body that fills the clothing.

Elul is our time to step before the spiritual three-way mirror. Doing so isn’t easy. Honestly looking at who we’ve become this year will be challenging for many of us. The difficult aspects of our lives that we’ve worked so hard to ignore will be completely visible before the spiritual mirror. We’ll discover attributes or behaviors that we never knew existed and would like to change. And, without a doubt, we’ll be given an incredible opportunity to see what makes us truly special.

So, how do we stand before the spiritual three-way mirror? By performing what our tradition calls Cheshbon HaNefesh, an examination of the soul. Good news! This examination doesn’t require an office visit or a co-pay. It simply involves your time and honesty.

Below, you’ll find the “Cheshbon HaNefesh: End of the Year Exam” that I’ve shared before at this time of year. Some of you have taken it in previous years and have found that your answers differ each time you take it. There are a few new questions this year! Please try to answer the questions this Elul – before Rosh HaShanah which begins on the evening of October 2. You don’t have to share your answers with anyone. Study your answers as they are the spiritual mirror. Learn from them. Embrace what you love. Commit to changing what you can as you enter the new Jewish year 5777 in a little more than two weeks. Make the new year be a year of personal growth. Give yourself the gift of the spiritual three-way mirror.

1. Have you taken care of yourself this year? Did you get a physical, go the gym on a regular basis, eat well, give yourself time to relax and reflect? If you haven’t taken care of yourself, what has kept you from doing so and how can you do things differently in the new year?
2. Have you taken care of the important people in your life? How have you treated your spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, children, parents, siblings, friends, extended family, colleagues, etc. this year? Would you like to change anything? Are there relationships in your life that need improving? What can you do to repair things?
3. Do you owe anyone an apology? If so, when will you apologize and how will you do it?
4. Have you refused to make amends with someone who apologized to you? Why? Is it worth holding on to the negative feelings that this person fills you with?
5. Have you been financially responsible? If not, what can you do to change this?
6. This year, what was your number one weakness? What caused it? How can you get over it?
7. Most of the time you feel________________(fill in the blank). Do you like the answer? If not, what can you change so that you feel differently next year?
8. As this Jewish year ends, what do you regret the most? What caused this regret? Can you fix things? What can you do to not feel this regret next year?
9. What was your greatest accomplishment this year? Have you congratulated yourself for this accomplishment? In general, do you accept praise and compliments? Are you too hard on yourself? What can you do in the year ahead to accept and own the good stuff you bring into this world?
10. What are you afraid of? What can you do to overcome this fear in the new Jewish year?
11. What unfinished business do you have to complete before the Jewish year is done? What is your plan to get this business done?
12. Overall, are you happy with your life? If not, what do you want to see change this upcoming year? List three ways you can make these changes.
13. Have you given tzedakah (charity)? Do you volunteer your time to help others? Do you have a “cause”? If you answered “no” to any of these things, would you like the answer to be “yes”? Why?
14. Have you taken the time to explore your spirituality? If so, what have you learned?
15. How do you feel about God? Are you happy with your answer? If not, what can you do to make your answer different next year?
16. If you believe in God, have you been angry or upset with God this year? Have you expressed your feelings? If not, why?
17. This year, have you prayed, meditated or done other activities that help you focus and connect deeply with yourself and the world around you? If you haven’t, do you want to? How do you plan on doing this in the new year?
18. Has your cell phone/social media been too important this year? What can you do to change this next year?
19. What is one thing you want to accomplish in the new Jewish year? How will you make this happen?
20. Add any additional thoughts, feelings, etc…..

Good luck standing before the spiritual three-way mirror! If you need some help answering the questions or figuring out how to grow in the new year, let’s talk!

My Son, Jonah, Takes Over The Blog This Week


Jonah before the Torah, photo by Alison Frank Photography

Cheryl and I want to thank you for celebrating Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah with us. So many of you joined us last Shabbat and/or reached out to us to share your good wishes. Your kindness means the world to us and, of course, to Jonah. Thank you.
Because my son is now a “man,” I felt it was only appropriate that he take over my weekly message this week. It is my honor to share Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah (speech) below.


My Torah portion, Re’eh, is pretty rough. It describes the killing and destruction of other religions. For example, in Deuteronomy 12:3, God clearly states: “And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim (sacred objects) with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.” While some people can argue that God is trying to be overly dramatic to gain the attention of all, this extremism really upsets me, especially since it comes from my own Torah portion. The Judaism that has been taught to me does not portray this kind of hatred. This hateful ideology would keep the world free from diversity.

I grew up here at Ramat Shalom, in the preschool then in a Jewish day-school, but I still remained a part of our synagogue. At this point in my life, I did not know much about, or the importance of diversity. I kind of lived in a nice, safe Jewish bubble. Once I began public school and eventually came to American Heritage this bubble popped. I began to understand how diverse the world really is and how good diversity can be.

The diversity that I have experienced has taught me many things. I learned about different cultures and how many of them share the same values, lessons, and teachings. This proves that diversity is not a bad thing because it teaches the same morals, just in different ways. My new, diverse environment helped remove certain stereotypes and false judgements from my head. For example, non-Jewish parents can be just as over protective and neurotic as my Jewish parents. I also learned that non-Jewish families can be just as loving and accepting as my Jewish family.

For my bar mitzvah I am twinning with a child named Aharon Moshe Fish, who was born in 1934 and lived somewhere in Hungary. Aharon was never able to have a bar mitzvah of his own because he was murdered in Auschwitz in 1945. He was 10 years old. As I read how my Torah portion was really not in favor of diversity, I began to wonder…The hatred of diversity not only took Aharon’s life but over 6 million Jews and another 5 million other innocent people. And on top of this Aharon was adopted, so no one knows where he came from and if he was even Jewish by birth. If people were more tolerant and accepting then the Holocaust and other catastrophic events may not have happened.

In today’s world, the fear of diversity remains a threat. Terrorism, racism, antisemitism and other forms of bigotry and hate are all based on a fear of the other, a fear of diversity. Could all of this stem from religion? From the ancient ideas expressed in my Torah portion? If so, how do we rise above such an old practice, especially since I read the words that preached against diversity today as part of my becoming a bar mitzvah!?

This is how we do it: we challenge the words just as I did this morning. We embrace our own religions, ethnicities, and racial backgrounds, while saying loudly and proudly that fear of diversity is wrong. But words are not enough. We have to let our bubbles burst. We need to move outside of comfort zones and live and interact with “the other.” And when we do, we will discover, just like we do in this sanctuary today, more often than not, that the other is our brother, is our sister.

The Healing Power Of A Son

My latest article on The Wisdom Daily


My son, Jonah (pictured above), became a Bar Mitzvah on September 3rd, 2016. The words below capture the incredible gift he has give to me.

While the idea of becoming a father to my daughter, Abigail, a little more than 15 years ago overwhelmed me, being her dad has never been something that frightened me. Sure, fathering a daughter, especially a strong-willed teenage daughter, comes with challenges, but, as my daughter would say, “Dad, you’ve got this!” And, when it comes to being her dad, I do think Abigail is right – I’ve got this (even if she doesn’t always like how I parent her!).

It’s been a different story with my son, Jonah. When he was born two years after Abigail, I was scared. As I held Jonah in my arms for the first time in the delivery room, I experienced the same awesome, intense, all-consuming love that I felt for Abigail when I held her for the first time. However, as I held Jonah, I felt tremendous anxiety that was not present with Abigail. This anxiety wasn’t because I was responsible for strapping this tiny baby boy into a car seat or because I had to play a major role in feeding, bathing, supporting and keeping this infant alive and well. Having been a parent for two years prior to Jonah’s arrival, I was confident that I knew how to do this stuff. I also knew that if I couldn’t do this stuff, my wife, Cheryl, was really good at it. I was anxious because, as I held Jonah, it hit me that I was now the father of a son.