Happy Hanukkah, New Year & Holiday Season!

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May the lights and the story of Hanukkah,
Inspire us all to make a difference,
Fill us with awe and wonder,
And give us opportunities to give thanks for the real gifts in our lives.

May you have a bright Hanukkah and a Happy New Year!

Rabbis Andrew and Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah Jacobs

Positive Psychology and Judaism

Please watch this short clip of Benjamin Zander, the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, talk about how our eyes sparkle when we’re living a truly happy and meaningful life.

Do you want your eyes to sparkle? Do you want the eyes of your kids and grandkids and other people that you love to sparkle? Of course you do! That’s why I’m excited to tell you that we’re about to embark on a fantastic journey that will make us happier, make our lives more meaningful and, yes, make our eyes sparkle.

Earlier this year, Ramat Shalom was selected to be one of just ten synagogues in America to enter into a special partnership with Clal (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) and The Via Character Institute, a global leader in the science of positive psychology. This partnership is designed to explore and implement innovative ways of supercharging already powerful Jewish traditions with scientifically proven ways of making us happier and our lives more meaningful. This will be the first time that religious institutions have engaged with scientific researchers to examine, in measurable ways, how things like prayer and ritual can enrich our lives. We’re so fortunate to be part of this ground breaking journey.

I started preparing for this journey this summer when Clal and VIA sent me many books and articles to read on positive psychology and character strengths. I just returned from a week of learning in Cincinnati (where VIA is based) with the rabbis at the other synagogues involved in the partnership, the Clal faculty, and VIA’s team of researchers, Dr. Neal Mayerson, Dr. Donna Mayerson and Dr. Ryan Niemic. We were also joined by Pam Saeks who oversees Jewish programming for the Mayerson Foundation, the organization that funds the research being done at VIA.

During our time together in Cincinnati, we dove deep into the science of positive psychology. We also began an in-depth study of High Holiday liturgy, music and practices, analyzing how these components of the Jewish new year can impact our well-being. While I plan to begin incorporating much of what I’ve learned about positive psychology into all aspects of life at Ramat Shalom, the VIA research team will be focusing on our 2017 High Holiday experience, studying specifically the potential that this experience has to transform our lives.

Over the next several months, I’ll be continuing to meet online and in person with the researchers at VIA, the folks at Clal and my colleagues at the other synagogues engaged in this project. Together, we’ll be exploring ways to incorporate what science teaches us about human flourishing into our High Holidays practices. I’ll be sharing what we discuss with Cantor Debbie and the rest of our staff as we work to craft our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur experience here at Ramat Shalom. And, of course, I’ll be sharing with you the insights that I learn about how we can make our eyes sparkle!

At some point in the future, we’ll be asking you to get more actively involved in the process. The Cantor and I will be looking for folks to help us lead and inspire our congregation as we welcome the new Jewish year in the fall. In addition, VIA researchers will be eager to speak with some of you about the impact that our 2017 High Holiday experience will have on your life and your family’s life.

I encourage you to visit the VIA website to learn more about the work that they do and the role of character in our lives. I also encourage you to take the VIA Character Survey. If you do, I hope you’ll to share your results with me!

If you have any questions about this exciting project, please let me know.

May your eyes sparkle!

The Times They Are A-Chagin’

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As you know, I am on a modified sabbatical this year. While I remain integrally connected to our synagogue community, I am taking some time to work on special projects and engage in some wonderful Jewish learning. As part of my sabbatical, I have been invited to be a LEAP Fellow and take part in a year-long learning program hosted by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This program was inspired by Clal, the same organization that runs Rabbis Without Borders. Clal’s partnership with the Katz Center and the University of Pennsylvania make for a truly unique opportunity.  This year, the LEAP Fellowship program is focusing on Jewish political thought. I just returned from my first session where I had the opportunity to gather with rabbinic colleagues from across the country as we learned from three leading Israeli scholars: Arye Edrei, Julie Cooper, Menachem Lorderbaum.

Dr. Lorderbaum focused on a biblical text in I Samuel 8 that highlights a major change in the way the Israelite people were governed. The people were not happy with the way the government was working. Samuel, who was the chief judge and leader of the Israelites, had recently put his sons, also judges, in charge. But, the people were not happy with their leadership and demanded that Samuel create something new and different: “Give us a king to judge us!” This demand would pave the way for great leaders like Kings David and Solomon. But, at this point, Jewish kingship was a new, radical idea – an idea that Samuel did not like at all. Samuel warned the people about the potential dangers associated with appointing a king and establishing a new form of government. He was, however, unable to change the people’s mind. Samuel goes to God with his concerns. God too was not in favor of appointing a king. Such an appointment was an affront to God’s authority. The people should not need an all-powerful human as a leader when they have an all-powerful deity. This being said, God tells Samuel: “Listen to [the voice of the people] and you shall make them a king.”

What a powerful story for us to look at today, more than 3,000 years after Samuel led our ancestors and oversaw a major change in the way they were governed. Today, our governmental structure is not changing. We are not, despite what some think, appointing a king. However, our government and the way we do business as a nation is about to change. Some of us are like the people during Samuel’s day: we want a change and we’re willing to enter unchartered territory. Some of us, however, feel like Samuel: we’re not happy with this change and we’re fearful.

As the story of Samuel shows us, for thousands of years the Jewish people have struggled with governmental changes. The transition that is described in I Samuel was not the first example of this kind of change, nor was it the last. As God wrestles with the establishment of an Israelite king, God’s wisdom is important to us today: “Listen to the people!”

While the popular vote and the Electoral College vote give us different winners, our voting process says that the latter is the voice of the people. And, in a few days, the Electoral College will elect President Trump, a leader unlike one we’ve seen before. For those struggling with this, our tradition speaks loudly: “Listen to the people!” Please remember that when it came to the governmental change described in I Samuel, God was not happy either, but the voice of the people must be listened to.

Given God’s unhappiness in governmental change, God’s belief in the power of people to bring about change is admirable. In the end, despite God’s concerns, the people not only survived, they thrived. God willing, we will continue to do just this.