sacrilege incorporated – Maya Salameh

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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
veins
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

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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

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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


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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.

TO READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE PLEASE CLICK HERE

 

Please Bring Your Kids To Synagogue!

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Jonah first time at our synagogue, Ramat Shalom – his Brit Milah

 

This weekend, my little boy, Jonah, becomes a Bar Mitzvah!

Jonah is truly a product of Ramat Shalom. We celebrated his Brit Milah at Ramat Shalom in July of 2003. He attended our Early Childhood Center and our Torah School and now takes his place on the bimah as he leads our Shabbat morning service tomorrow. It is a very special moment for me, Cheryl and Abigail and we hope that you and your family will join us at 10:00am. Your presence will mean the world to us.

Many of you remember that I used to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services with Jonah in my arms. As he got older, he and Abigail used to quietly play, read or snack while sitting in the congregation during services. At times, my kids, along with many of your kids, got in a little bit of “trouble” in the hallway as they attempted to escape from High Holiday services and hang out with their friends. This is all part of life for kids who are lucky enough to grow up in a synagogue.

As many of you know, I wasn’t so lucky. As a kid, I rarely set foot in a synagogue and when I did it seemed to be a very formal, scary place. I consider myself so fortunate that Cheryl and I have been able to raise both of our kids in the Ramat Shalom community – a place where our children are welcomed, embraced and loved – even when they make some noise in the hallway!

While we at Ramat Shalom pride ourselves on our fun, uplifting children’s services, I have always loved the fact that at Shabbat services, at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, our kids are there. When they’re really little, they’re sitting in our laps or on the floor. As they get older, they start to follow along – maybe taking a nap or a hallway break at times. And then suddenly, without much warning, they’re standing on the bimah becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a sanctuary that is truly their spiritual home – a sacred and safe place in which they’ve literally grown up.

I hope you bring your kids tomorrow morning. I hope you bring your kids to High Holiday services (where Jonah will be reading Torah!). Yes, we offer babysitting and great programs for kids on many Friday nights and during the upcoming holidays. We’re even adding a special Young Children’s Service on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur mornings this year. But, please know that the best way to give your kids a Jewish foundation is to have them with us in the sanctuary. I say this not just as Ramat Shalom’s Rabbi, but as the dad of tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah boy!

The 20th Anniversary Of My Bar Mitzvah

I hope you all have been enjoying your summer. I am back online after some fun adventures!

Tallit

A picture of my custom Bar Mitzvah tallit

As many of you know, I did not become a Bar Mitzvah at 13. I did so when I was 26, 13 years after my 13th birthday. And the portion that I read 20 years ago, Eikev, from the Book of Deuteronomy, is what we read this weekend.

As a gift for my Bar Mitzvah, my friend, Mara Blumenthal, now a well-known costume designer based in Chicago, made a beautiful tallit for me. On the tallit, in place of the traditional blessing that is usually found on what we call the atarah, the strip of fabric at the top of the tallit, Mara placed my favorite blessing from Eikev: “Your eyes have seen all the great work that God has done.” (Deuteronomy 11:7)

While our tradition teaches us that this verse was spoken by Moses to the Israelites centuries ago, the Torah shares this verse with us yearly for a reason. It is a reminder that, despite the challenging, disturbing and ugly things that we have seen and will, unfortunately, continue to see, we do see great, awesome, beautiful things. And, by the way, when we talk about seeing things with our eyes, Judaism is really referring to perceiving things with our soul. Even those who are visually impaired can see the great things that the Torah speaks about.

“Your eyes have seen all the great work that God has done” is our tradition’s quiet plea to look into a loved one’s eyes at least once a day, to turn away from your phone and gaze at the clouds or stars just for a minute, to put down the newspaper and read an incredible poem or admire a work of art. Still today, our eyes continue to see great things. We are often too busy to appreciate things. They are easily overshadowed by the sensationalism promoted online and in the news. And so, our Torah reminds us of all the great things our eyes continue to see.

May you take the time to appreciate all the great things that you can see this Shabbat.

The Vioence of Adults and the Smiles of Children

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Seeing the photograph of the doll in the street in Nice, next to the body of the child (one of ten children killed in the attack) who was holding it, tore into my soul last tonight. The late Elie Wiesel z”l reminds us to choose the smiles of children over the violence of adults. These days, it is so easy to question whether or not we have the ability to make this choice. But, questioning is not an option. We must continue to choose with all our might. The smiles of children must prevail.

Once again we find ourselves entering Shabbat in this very broken world. Continue to make choices that heal, strengthen and bring smiles to people of all ages.

On a much less important note, I want to share with you my latest article on The Wisdom Daily that describes Jonah’s reaction to Dwyane Wade leaving the Miami Heat. You can read it here.