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.

Because We Still Have Seas To Cross

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I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who attended our “Bar Mitzvah” Gala last Sunday. It was a beautiful, overwhelming celebration. I also want to thank all of you who were not able to join us, but wrote me notes in the Gala Memory Book, sent me private messages, made donations to the synagogue, and/or supplied raffle and auction items. Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in thanking each of you for creating our incredible spiritual home. Thank you!

We also want to take this opportunity to wish you a meaningful Passover! Last Friday night, I spoke about the fact that the Haggadah reminds us we are in many ways still burdened by slavery. While we might feel totally free, we know that there are currently 27,000,000 slaves in the world today! At services last week, I encouraged folks to visit MADE IN A FREE WORLD and learn about modern day slavery. In addition, this site will teach you how you can help eliminate slavery once and for all. There are tremendous resources on the site that some of you might choose to add to your seder this year. Remember, our tradition teaches us that we are still wrestling with slavery today. Made In A Free World drives this point home.

The Haggadah also teaches us that we have still not truly reached the Promised Land. This is why we say “Next year in Jerusalem!” at the end of the seder. This confuses many people because as Jews, we can get on a plane and travel to Israel. We can even make aliyah and move to Israel permanently. Yes, this is true, however, the Haggadah is urging us to remember that many people all over the world have not reached their promised land. As I spoke about last Friday night, there are more than 50,000,000 refugees in the world today – people struggling to find a safe place to call home. This Passover, we need to do our part to help these people. I highlighted the fact that some of these people struggling to find a safe haven are our own brothers and sisters from the Ukraine. You can read more about the struggle of Ukranian Jews and learn how you can help them right now by visiting the American Joint Distribution Committee’s website.

On a lighter note, I have prepared a special Passover music playlist: Because We Still Have Seas To Cross – 8 Songs for Passover. Although our ancestors made it to the other side of the Red Sea, each of us has our own personal seas before us. These eight songs, one for each day of Passover, offer inspiring messages that can help us as we cross these seas. (Please note that Ramat Shalom, like many synagogues, follows the Israeli calendar and celebrates 7 days of Passover. For those who follow the Israeli calendar – you get a bonus song!). You can listen to the playlist HERE.

Chag Sameach! Have a wonderful Passover. Please remember, because of the first seder, there are NO SERVICES TONIGHT. May we all cross the sea with family and friends and celebrate as we get to the other side!