The 20th Anniversary Of My Bar Mitzvah

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

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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.

Will Prayer Make A Difference?

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Pictured above (left to right):memorial for Philando Castile, a Dallas Police badge wrapped in a mourning band and a memorial for Alton Sterling

This morning, many of us woke up to the horrific news that five Dallas police officers were killed and another seven officers and two civilians were injured in the deadliest single incident for US law enforcement since September 11th. Officers Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, along with three of their colleagues who have yet to be named, were shot by a sniper who, according to reports, was determined to kill “white people, specifically white police officers.” The shooter admitted that his rampage was in response to the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black men who were killed by police officers in separate incidents this week. The truly disturbing and graphic videos of Sterling and Castile’s deaths are out there for us all to see. The investigations have begun as have the calls for justice.

While it is nearly impossible to look past the violence of last night, I still hear the words of Alton Sterling’s aunt, Sandra Sterling, in my head:

“I’m not angry enough to hurt nobody. I’m not angry enough to go in the street. I’m not angry enough to curse the police out. But I’m angry and I’m mad because they took something from me that I’ll never, ever get back. So y’all pray for me. But we gotta have peace and unity out here.”         

Responding to Sterling’s request for prayer, one blogger/reporter, Bobby Ross Jr., suggested earlier this week that the prayers that followed Sterling and Castile’s deaths might have actually kept the peace – until last night.  You can read Ross’ words here.

When things get really challenging, many of us turn to prayer for comfort, for strength, for insight. Others question whether prayer does anything at times like these. Obviously, it did nothing to stop last night’s massacre in Dallas. Many ask if prayer really has the ability to do anything good as we struggle to comprehend and respond to this horrific violence. While prayer alone is not enough, I do believe that it has the ability to unite us when we are divided, lift us up when we are pushed down and give us a glimpse of goodness when we are surrounded by so much hatred.

With that being said, please say a prayer for Sandra Sterling and her family, for the Castile family, for the Thompson, Zamarippa and yet to be named fallen officers’ families, for all those wounded last night and everyone affected by this week’s violence. And join me in praying that this is a peaceful Shabbat throughout our country.

My Fifteenth Year

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The Ramat Shalom community mourns the death of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel who was killed by a terrorist while she was sleeping in her home in Israel yesterday morning. Her family, which includes a colleague and a friend of Cheryl’s, is in all of our hearts and prayers.

It’s hard to believe that today, July 1st, I officially begin my 15th year at Ramat Shalom! Abigail was a baby when Cheryl and I moved to South Florida in 2002. Jonah was just a sparkle in our eyes when we arrived and now we’re getting ready to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah on September 3rd (please mark your calendars as we’d love to celebrate with you!). The past 14 years have been an incredible journey and Cheryl, the kids and I are looking forward to continuing this journey with our Ramat Shalom family as we begin the 2016/2017 year.

As you may know, it’s common for rabbis, like professors, to take a sabbatical every seven years. I didn’t take a sabbatical during my seventh year at Ramat Shalom. Instead, I adjusted my schedule to work on a few special projects. As I begin my 15th year, granted one year off schedule, I will not be taking a sabbatical. I don’t have the desire to leave Ramat Shalom to travel or engage in projects that will keep me from our community. We have many B’nai Mitzvah, weddings and other simchas coming up that I’m looking forward to celebrating and there are a lot of programs, classes and gatherings in the year ahead that I want to experience with you.

That being said, I will be spending time this year working on some exciting projects that I hope to share with the Ramat Shalom family. Over the next few weeks, you will hear some more about these projects including our upcoming Mitzvah Month which will take place this November. Mitzvah Month will include a variety of special hands-on activities for all different ages. One of the highlights of Mitzvah Month will be a community trip to Immokalee, FL where we will work to harvest the tomato fields along with migrant workers whose health and well-being is something Judaism teaches us we must not overlook. In addition to Mitzvah Month, you will soon be receiving information about special Sunday morning learning programs for adults and post-B’nai Mitzvah teens. The first Sunday program in September will be a community building and trust workshop that will get us ready for the High Holidays. The program will be held at the Broward College Ropes Course and will get us relying on and working with each other in powerful ways, while we explore Jewish teachings on trust and relationships. A series of engaging courses taught by an impressive faculty that includes Cheryl, Amy Freund, Professor Michael Richmond, Cantor Debbie and Hillary Tescher will be part of our Adult Education offerings in the coming year. Our UF families will be excited to learn that in February, we will welcome Rabbi Adam Grossman, the CEO of UF Hillel, to Ramat Shalom. Rabbi Grossman will talk with us about Jewish life at UF and on campuses in general – and, if we’re lucky, he will share a little bit of his knowledge of Jewish superheroes. Two guest scholars speaking about Israel and a panel of rabbis (including me, Cheryl, Rabbi Salkin of Temple Solel in Hollywood and Rabbi Weinstock of Young Israel also in Hollywood) will be discussing the current state of American Judaism. Stay tuned!

In addition to these classes and programs, I’m working with two wonderful colleagues, Pastor Troy Gramling and Father Alberto Cutie, on an inter-faith “reality” series called “A Pastor, A Priest And A Rabbi Walk Into A Bar.” Playing on the old joke about clergy walking into a bar, the series will feature the three of us discussing complex religious topics in some of South Florida’s most well-known drinking establishments. It is our collective hope that the series will encourage much-needed interfaith dialogue and discussion. Production continues this summer and I look forward to sharing episodes with you as they are released.

As I begin my 15th year at Ramat Shalom, I am thrilled to be continuing my Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, learning from some of the most forward-thinking Jewish leaders out there, writing for The Wisdom Daily and having the opportunity to explore ways in which Ramat Shalom and ISH, our outreach program, can be part of the cutting edge innovation that is going on in the larger Jewish community. I will keep you posted on the things I am learning from my fellowship. I’m eager to work with many of you this year to incorporate some exciting, innovative concepts into our synagogue community.

Cheryl, Abigail, Jonah and I are looking ahead to a busy July, filled with some special family adventures. We hope you are all enjoying your summer and we look forward to seeing you in August! Please remember to mark your calendars and join us on September 3rd as Jonah becomes a Bar Mitzvah!

Owning Our Word, Interpreting Their Meaning: The Torah And LGBTQ Issue

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As you know, the Orlando attack has led to passionate discussions about some complex issues that we are wrestling with nationally. One of the issues in the spotlight is the fact that homophobia has deep roots in religious teachings. Islamic teachings pertaining to LGBTQ issues have made the headlines since the Orlando attack, but the fact is Judaism contains very troubling teachings concerning these same issues.

It is imperative that we understand and come to terms with the reality that the Torah – the same sacred book that our kids read as they become Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the same holy book we read every Shabbat and on the High Holidays – contains seeds of hate that have the potential to do great harm. This is why tonight, during our 7:30PM Shabbat Service, I will be talking about a few verses of Torah that not only condemn LGBTQ individuals (Leviticus 18:22) but also promote violence against the LGBTQ community. Yes, you read that last part correctly.

Many in the Jewish and Christian community who believe that the Torah is the true word of God and often hide behind the “you can love the ‘sinner’ but hate the ‘sin’,” overlook that the Torah teaches that “homosexuality” is punishable by death (Leviticus 20:13). Our holy text supports the idea that LGBTQ relations are not just abominations, these relationships are capital crimes!

As the passionate discussion surrounding Orlando and dangerous religious teachings continue, the Jewish community must own what our sacred text says, wrestle with the words in the text and determine how we, as a congregation that proudly includes many members of the LGBTQ community, interpret these words in a way that supports the values that we live by today.

I hope you will join us this evening. I encourage you to bring older children and teens with you (young children are always welcome but will probably not be engaged by the discussion!). If you can’t make it, the service and discussion will be streamed live, as always, here. For those of you on Twitter, we will also be live on Periscope (@rabbijacobs) at 7:30PM. The discussion should begin around 8:00PM.

Coming Together After The Orlando Attack

Thank you to all who came to our gathering last night. Many of us were not able to be there. Some of you saw the coverage of the event on WSVN. I wanted to share my words, as delivered by Cantor Debbie, with you today.

 

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My heart is broken, my emotions are high. Like you, I am struggling with the terror attack in Orlando – the latest hate, violence and extremism that has shattered our world. Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends who have lost loved ones and we send our positive thoughts and prayers to those survivors who are healing after this attack. I know you join with us in saying that we promise to do whatever we can to honor the precious memory of those we lost ‪Sunday morning‪.

Given how close we are to Orlando, the number of kids we have at UCF and the number of UCF alum we have in our community, this attack hits so close to home. My own mother lives within walking distance of the nightclub where this nightmare took place. So many people are hurting. We’re hurting and, of course, that is why you came tonight.

I do want to share a few words with you this evening and I thank Cantor Debbie for helping me do so.

As we wrestle with Sunday’s terrorist attack, we must not overlook the fact that this was a direct attack on the GLBTQ community. Pulse, the nightclub where the attack took place, is an integral part of the GLBTQ community. Barbara Poma co-founded Pulse in memory and honor of her brother, John, who died from complications related to AIDS in 1991. Pulse was a haven for the GLBTQ community. To overlook that this was an attack grounded in homophobia and an attack against the GLBTQ community is no different than overlooking that the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv last week was an attack against Israelis, Jews and all supporters of the Jewish State.

As we wrestle with the terrorist attack, many of us are struggling with gun legislation and gun rights. Wherever you find yourself in this struggle, I think we all can agree that dangerous weapons do not belong in the hands of dangerous people. Just like after September 11, 2001, when we as a nation explored ways to keep our airplanes safer, now is the time for us – those of us who oppose guns, those of us who own guns, and everyone in between – to come together to find a solution to gun violence that makes our world safer. As we do so, we must remember that those who are determined to undermine our society will use all means necessary to do so. The Boston Marathon terrorists didn’t need guns. I say this not to dismiss the need for serious discussions about guns, but to remind us that the discussions we need to have must include conversations about bigger issues of security and personal privacy.

As we wrestle with the terrorist attack, many of us are wrestling with the fact that the attack in Orlando, that attack in Tel Aviv, the attack in San Bernadino, the attacks in Paris, the attack in Boston, the attack in Chattanooga, the attack at Fort Hood and too many other attacks all share a frightening common denominator. Many of us are afraid or uncomfortable to call this common denominator what it is – radical, Islamic extremism. We are afraid and uncomfortable because we know that there are good, peace-loving Muslims out there and we don’t want to label as evil an entire religion. But, I have been taught by the wise Muslim American, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, that we must openly call out and stand up to radical Islamic fundamentalists. Dr. Jasser, the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, calls upon his fellow Muslims “to reject interpretations of Islam that advocate for violence, social injustice and political Islam” and “to support a reform of Islam that advocates for peace, human rights and secular governance.” Dr. Jasser, his colleagues and fellow Muslims who stand with him want us to differentiate between peaceful, patriotic, inclusive Muslims and the fanatic, extremists who have hijacked their religion and are using it as a dangerous, destructive tool of terror. Dr. Jasser demands that we stand up to Islamic extremism. His courage and leadership are truly incredible and we must join the growing crowd of people who are standing with him.

Finally, Sunday’s terrorist attack has hit us hard. As we try to comprehend what took place, we are grasping for answers and, in doing so, looking to place blame on someone or something. This attack has us fighting over gun rights. This attack has us fighting over political candidates and politicians and what they have said or haven’t said. This attack has us fighting over personal freedoms and what the FBI, CIA and law enforcement has or hasn’t done to stop attacks like these. I’ve even heard people beginning to attack the owners of Pulse, the club where the attack took place. We’re upset. We’re angry. We’re confused. But we must remember that terrorists ultimately have one goal – and that is to undermine our community. One of the ways that they can do this is to divide us. As President Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yes, if we have the discussions we need to have following this most recent terrorist attack, we will disagree with each other. As we move forward with the current presidential campaign, these disagreements will become more and more obvious. But disagreement does not mean we have to turn against each other. Please, let’s commit to doing everything we can to keep this horrific attack from dividing us. We need each other.

The words of the Haskiveinu – our prayer for protection, comfort and peace (slightly modified for tonight):

Grant that we may lie down in peace, God, and awaken us to life. Shelter us with Your tent of peace and guide us with Your love and strength. Shield us from hatred, plague and destruction. Keep us from harm, famine and heartbreak. Help us to do good. God of peace, may we always feel protected because You are our Guardian and Helper. Give us refuge in the shadow of Your wings. Guard our going forth and our coming in and bless us with life and peace. Blessed are You, Eternal God, whose shelter of peace is spread over us all, over all Your people in Orlando, in South Florida, throughout America, in Israel, over Jerusalem – over all Your people everywhere.

Thank you for being here – for supporting each other – for creating a safe place.

Shavuot: A Time To Celebrate The Lessons We Have Learned

Tomorrow night, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. According to Jewish tradition, it is on Shavuot that Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Torah. Contained within the Torah are hundreds of invaluable lessons that have the potential to make our lives more meaningful. In celebration of Shavuot, I encourage you to watch the short video posted below. It is from Soul Pancake and challenges us to think about some of the most important lessons that we’ve learned over the years. Interestingly enough, with the exception of the lesson about the Ford Probe, most of the lessons shared in the video can be found within the Torah. Given this, it is no surprise that more than 3,000 years after Moses received the Torah, we gather together on Shavuot to celebrate the moment we received the timeless lessons that continue to shape our lives and make us the people we are today