Yom Rivii, 4 Kislev 5778

A Look Into the Future at Gratitude

Occasionally, you meet someone who changes your life. For me, actor and director Harold Ramis was such a person.

I watched him in comedies throughout my childhood: “Animal House,” “Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Groundhog Day.” I watched them so often that to this day, I can still quote lines from each one. Those movies are part of my DNA. They helped shape who I am and what makes me laugh.  

When I first arrived at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, I would see him around town – at Starbucks, on the basketball court watching our kids play, eating lunch at Country Kitchen. We spoke often about religion, Judaism, and the behavior of kids during Shabbat services. One day, I picked up the phone and invited Harold to speak at the congregation. He gladly accepted and from that moment on, I kept his number and email, and remained in touch. 

The last time he spoke at our congregation was during the community Thanksgiving service in 2006. Today, 11 years later, his words are more poignant than ever:

Thanksgiving is always an interesting and exciting time of year for me because it falls so close to my birthday, which was yesterday, the twenty-first, and so brings together two ideas – the ideas of growth and gratitude. At 62, I look back on my life and I see so much to be thankful for—

Harold then thanked his family for their influence on him before he continued:  

And then there’s my work, almost 40 years of writing, performing, and directing, some of it successful, some of it not so successful, but all of it meaningful and important to me. On the great balance sheet, on my permanent record, in the heavenly Book of Life, I know I will be counted among the lucky. And you need only watch a little bit of CNN to know just how lucky most of us are.

Even though he achieved enormous success, Harold always knew – and acknowledged – just how lucky he was.  

And then, in a moment I will never forget, Harold Ramis turned his Glencoe Thanksgiving speech – much to the congregation’s delight – in an entirely unexpected direction:

When Rabbi Lowenstein asked me to speak here tonight, I wondered what could I say to you that you couldn’t read in six or eight badly rhymed lines on a Hallmark card.  And I decided that rather than elaborate on the things I’m already grateful for, I would try to articulate some of the things that I’d like to be grateful for – maybe not this year, or the next, but sometime soon.  So, here’s my random list in no particular order:

I’d like to be grateful for an end to violence and a lasting peace in the Middle East that not only recognizes Israel’s right to exist, but acknowledges its miraculous social, agricultural, and technological achievements – and at the same time recognizes the humanity of the Palestinians and their right to form a viable state and bring the blessings of development to a dispossessed and suffering people.

I’d like to be grateful for an end to global warming and the destruction of the physical environment – for a scientific and technological effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program that taps the best minds in the world for solutions, and then implements them with the full support and commitment of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations.

I’d like to be grateful for a foreign policy driven not just by our strategic interests, but by a real commitment and adherence to the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights (you can read it on the UN web site if you don’t know what it is), for an end to the exploitation of children, the subjugation and abuse of women, to brutal ethnic cleansings, terroristic civil wars, and horrific genocides like Rwanda and Darfur.

I’d like to be grateful for the eradication of AIDS and HIV, for a medical Marshall Plan that makes education, medication, and treatment available to people all over the developing world.

And closer to home, I’d like to be grateful for a comprehensive health care system that covers every man, woman, and child in the United States regardless of income, employment, or citizenship. I know Communism didn’t work, but I once got the flu in Sofia, Bulgaria and a doctor made a house call for free and charged me 16 cents for medication. And no one asked my nationality. I guess I can dream.

And I’d like to be grateful for a system of public education that provides for all children what my kids have in our incredible school district.

And I’d like to be grateful for one more hit movie and for the Cubs winning the World Series.

And I’d like to see all this in my lifetime so my children can enjoy this better world in theirs.

And one last thing: I’d like to be grateful for a spirit of activism and personal responsibility that makes us all realize that positive change on a global scale starts with the things every one of us can do in our own families and communities. Today Glencoe, tomorrow the world.  As the Buddhists say, we owe infinite gratitude to the past, infinite service to the present, and infinite responsibility to the future. Thank you and may God, whatever you understand that to mean, bless you.

I have kept these words as a tribute to Harold and – most of all – as a reminder of what I hope we can accomplish as individuals and as a community.


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Challenging the Binary is the Best Way to Answer Esau’s Cry

In this week’s Torah portion, Tol'dot, we read about Isaac: “The man grew rich, and he went on growing all the richer until he was exceedingly rich” (Genesis 26:13).  Amid a famine, God blesses Isaac with abundance. His lands and estate are fruitful.  

This portion is replete with contrasts and binaries. Despite abundance, we encounter scarcity. Alongside fruitfulness, we find barrenness. In this portion, we are charged with questioning the institutions, ideas, and practices in our day that divide and exclude people.

First, we learn that Isaac's wife, Rebekah, is barren. After Isaac prays for children, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. When Rebekah learns of her pregnancy, God, about her twins, tells her: “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25: 23). While we read about the blessing of two children (Jacob and Esau), we also learn of deep difference.

A brother either serves or rules; it is all or nothing. This binary spans the divine and the anthropogenic: both the sacred and ordinary worlds promise either riches or rags.  

In Tol'dot, we learn about some ways our ancestors navigated this zero-sum world. The oldest son in a family – in this case Esau – was heir to a birthright, a claim to the land and property of his father. As an increasingly blind Isaac prepares for death, Rebekah encourages Jacob to trick his father into securing his brother's blessing by dressing as Esau.

Reversing his fortune and fulfilling God's promise to Rebekah, Jacob recreates the binary we encounter in the beginning of the parashah (Torah portion) through Isaac’s exampleHaving secured his brother's birthright and blessing – a promise of resplendence – Jacob casts Esau into a world of dependence and scarcity.

It is here that we encounter one of the Torah's most haunting cries. We read, “When Esau heard his father's words, he broke into an exceedingly loud and bitter howl and said to his father, ‘Bless me! Me too, Father!’” (Genesis 27:34).

In many ways, this week’s parashah is a tragedy, a story of deceit and treachery. Brother turns against brother and an entire lineage is torn apart. But it also forces the children of Jacob – the Jewish people – to reconcile with our heritage.  

We are charged to answer Esau’s cry by questioning the binaries we enforce in our own world. In this story, the binary precipitated by a birthright – the practice of one child receiving everything at the other’s expense – causes Esau's misery. Isaac's shudder is that of an entire people, and signals a great injustice and deep remorse. Why, amid great wealth, must one child be left with nothing?  

Today, we grapple with our own binaries: ideas we build and enforce that divide, separate, and create an unjust, and often violent, reality.  

One such binary involves gender. The gender binary divides conceptions of gender into the categories of “man” and “woman,” and organizes expectations around gender that are often based on the sex assigned to a person at birth. The gender binary and its expectations related to gender identity or expression and sex assigned at birth ignore the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people. These expectations help set the tone for the discrimination and violence transgender and gender non-conforming people face every day.  

This week, as we observe Transgender Awareness Week, and especially on November 20, International Transgender Day of Remembrance, people around the world will mourn the loss of those who fell victim to violence committed against transgender and gender non-conforming people during the last year, and reflect on the ongoing violence transgender and gender non-conforming people face daily. The day also serves to remind us of ways in which society's predominant conception of gender is binary and violent. It erases the identity of those people whose gender expression or identity does not correspond to the expectations enforced by the gender binary.  

The ongoing violence, prejudice, and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people is the driving force behind the Reform community’s Urgency of Now: Transgender Rights Campaign. An advocacy initiative on behalf of local, state, and federal policies, the campaign reflects a deep commitment to protect people of all gender identities and gender expressions. Joining these efforts offers Jews and our communities across North America opportunities to take up the charge that extends to us from Isaac’s time. As heirs of Jacob's legacy, we must continue to interrogate the norms and institutions that are riddled with the echoes of Esau’s cry. 


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How One Family Reclaimed its Jewish Heritage

Makom shelibi oheyv sham raglai molikhot otee, a passage from the Mishnah, can be translated as, “The place that my heart holds dear, there my feet will bring me near.” It’s a beloved text at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, NY, where a powerful feeling persists. You may recognize it from your own synagogue, a place that’s so warm, welcoming, and loving, you find yourself drawn there. It’s a place you simply want to be. Sometimes, however, you receive more than you could ever have imagined.

Let me tell you a story, from my makom (place) to your makom.

On a recent Shabbat, Gabe Fuschillo, a kind young man who makes you smile when you’re with him, became a bar mitzvah. Throughout the service, he was surrounded by love as his family and guests, his clergy and teachers all reveled in simply watching him do his thing.

But there was so much more.

Gabe read from Lech L’cha in Genesis, not the famed narrative of chapter 12 in which God calls Abraham and Sarah to their legendary journey, but rather the verses of chapter 17 in which God initiates the Covenant with the Jewish people. As Gabe introduced his Torah reading, he stammered only a tiny bit as he mentioned the required circumcision of every male baby. This remark elicited a soft, sympathetic chuckle from the congregation.

They had no idea what was coming.

Olga Tenenbaum, Gabe’s mom, emigrated from Ukraine in 1996. Reflecting on her family’s earlier life, she presented a d’var Torah to Gabe in which she told him:

Many years ago, when your grandfather Arkady was born, he was circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day after his birth. For carrying out religious rituals, his father was expelled from the Communist Party and was harassed so greatly at work, the family had to move hundreds of miles away to a different part of the country.

Ultimately, Olga moved to America, followed by her sister and her parents. Knowing little about her Jewish heritage, which the Soviet Union had virtually erased, Olga began to educate herself. And now, many years later, with Olga’s parents sitting by her side, they watched together as Gabe became the family’s first bar mitzvah in a hundred years.

I looked on with awe and delight, imagining a hundred generations of Gabe’s family, the Jewish lives they had lived, had loved, had lost, and had now reclaimed. I was privileged and moved to witness this young family’s reentry into Jewish history. I thought about the cherished dreams of Gabe’s ancestors and here, unfolding before me, was the very “chain of tradition” that had been quite nearly demolished in Gabe’s family. On that morning, we saw those links repaired, reassembled, and reconnecting this family to its spiritual past and future.

There was a second, profoundly moving dimension to the celebration. Gabe’s dad, Michael Fuschillo, grew up here as a Christian. Upon marrying Olga, Michael supported her exploration of her Jewish roots, lovingly and selflessly participating in raising Jewish children. On many occasions, I have seen such a heroic gift received by a Jewish family from a non-Jewish spouse, and I shivered with astonished humility as I came to understand more fully the role this Italian-Catholic has played in rekindling the long-lost light of Judaism in his family’s life.

When Michael presented his own d’var Torah to Gabe, he said, “Abraham followed God’s Covenant and became the father of a nation. It’s not so important that you set the world on fire but rather that you kindle love in people’s hearts and become a force for good.” I am awe-struck by the generous tenderness proffered by this non-Jewish dad, who holds open a door for his children to re-enter the timeline of Jewish history. He himself has become a powerful model and teacher of Jewish values in their lives.

We are fortunate to be part of a Reform Movement that has made it possible for us to embrace all – regardless of background or religious identity – who wish to embark on their own Jewish spiritual journey. Our movement embraces all who step into Jewish life and endeavor to create sacred space for those they love.

Judaism is an incredibly beautiful and meaningful way of life. It offers a makom, a holy place in which we gather to affirm something that is exquisite and precious, a place where we treasure one another for the goodness we bring to our community. Olga’s journey may have begun with her own curiosity, but others had to notice her, acknowledge the importance of her journey, and offer her companionship and guidance along the way. Michael may have been willing to hold open the door for his family’s journey into Jewish living, but thank God others were there to hold open that very same door for him, so that he would feel welcomed and sustained in joining his family along the way.

Because people supported and encouraged Olga and Michael at every turn, Gabe and his younger brother, Max, will share a love for Jewish life that, having once been present in their family’s earlier generations, is once again present in theirs. May we always hold open those doors. May we open them wide. And may we forever be privileged to witness the blessings that come through, as we welcome new feet to a place that our hearts hold dear.


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What Holocaust Survivors Can Teach Us About Overcoming Trauma

Dr. Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist, victimologist, traumatologist, author, and lecturer is director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children, which she co-founded in 1975. She served as a founding director of the United Nations of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and as distinguished professor of international psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. I sat down with her to learn more about her pioneering work in understanding and treating victims of genocide and their children.

ReformJudaism.org: What led you to specialize in preventing the long-term and multi-generational effects of trauma?

Dr. Danieli: During the 1960s, while working on my doctoral dissertation on the psychology of hope, I realized that Holocaust survivors and their children suffered from what I would later term the “conspiracy of silence”—most people they tried to speak to about their experiences, including psychotherapists and other professionals, would not listen to or believe them.

Survivors’ war accounts were too horrifying for most people to hear. Compounding their psychic pain, survivors also encountered the pervasively held myth that they had participated in their own destiny by “going like sheep to the slaughter” and the suspicion that they had performed immoral acts to survive.

The conspiracy of silence intensified their sense of isolation, loneliness, and mistrust of society. In bitterness and despair, many decided there was no one they could talk to about their trauma except, perhaps, other survivors.

Survivor families tended to exhibit at least four adaptational identity styles: victim families, fighter families, numb families, and families of “those who made it.”

In numb families, little or nothing was said about their Holocaust experiences. The children of such families were often too frightened to imagine what could have led to such constriction and lifelessness in their parents. The parents protected each other, and the children protected the parents.

Victim families were characterized by pervasive depression, worry, and mistrust. Joy, self-fulfillment, and existential questions were viewed as frivolous luxuries. Fear of the outside world – of the inevitable next Holocaust – led to clinging within the family. Children were taught to distrust people, especially authority figures, outside the family circle.

Fighter families displayed an intense drive to build and achieve. Parents forbade any behavior that might signify victimization, weakness, or self-pity. Pride was fiercely held as a virtue, relaxation and pleasure were deemed superfluous, and defiance toward outside authorities was sometimes encouraged to the point of peril.

Families “who made it” sought higher education, social and political status, fame, and/or wealth. Some in this group devoted their resources to public acknowledgement and commemoration of the Holocaust, to prevent its recurrence, to ensure that Holocaust victims were treated with dignity, and to aid victimized populations in general.

So many years after the fact, can Holocaust survivors and their children be helped?

Yes. Over time, a fuller understanding of victimization experiences can lead to their gaining the ability to develop a realistic perspective of what happened. That includes no longer viewing themselves and humanity solely based on what happened to them personally during the war.

Recovery also involves a continuous and consistent unraveling and transcending of an individual’s or a family’s adaptation style. Many survivors and their offspring found participating in groups helpful because they could share with others concerns and feelings that would be very difficult to confront alone. Children of survivors have also benefitted from researching the factual events of their parents’ experiences, especially if their parents didn’t speak about the Holocaust or passed on only selective, fragmented accounts.

Is this pathway to recovery unique to Holocaust survivor families?

No. It has been found to be beneficial for victims of other genocides, for children of perpetrators, and for war veterans. Of crucial importance is the empathetic reception of their communities and societies in the aftermath of trauma and tragedy. Societies need to commit to providing measures of acknowledgement, apology, and reparative justice so the trauma becomes a shared rather than a stigmatizing history. The mourning, too, needs to be shared by all, rather than by the survivors alone.

How can we better understand and relate to survivors of trauma and their families?

Listen to them, despite your fear of the terrible things you might hear. To forsake this opportunity is not only to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence and thereby re-victimize the survivors, but to deprive yourself of historic memory that connects you with your own and your people’s history, and allows you to learn from it.

Take the time. You will be forever enriched and grateful for it.


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Making the Case for Aspirational Advocacy for Israel

Last week, AIPAC held its annual Schusterman Advocacy Institute High School Summit. I accompanied a delegation of inspiring Reform Movement teen leaders who represent the Movement’s regional and national boards to Washington, D.C. for the event.

AIPAC’s leadership development team does an excellent job teaching students about the bipartisan issues that the largest pro-Israel American lobby sees as keeping “Israel’s security as an American priority.”  Like their peers – more than 500 students from other Jewish youth movements, day schools, and other community delegations – the Reform teen leaders finished the two days of intense workshops and one day of meetings in the offices of their U.S. representatives feeling more politically astute about Israel as a topic of American concern on the geo-political plane. For AIPAC to do its work with its singular political purpose, it’s all about Israel’s external position as America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East.

But for the Reform teens who are engaging with Judaism as a meaningful life choice, the Israel political advocacy agenda, whether one supports AIPAC or JStreet, does not encompass all aspects of how Israel might be in dialogue with the students’ collective and individual aspirations for a sustainable Jewish future. Alongside critical conversations about Israel’s geo-political security as a matter of international relations, they seek arenas where caring American Jews can delve into Israel matters internal to Israel’s societal well-being.

We teach them that Israel was founded on the assumption that it would be rallying point for such a grand Jewish conversation. The conversation space they seek is one where they can engage in what I call “aspirational advocacy for Israel.” Aspirational advocacy begins with the premise that no country can garner external support if its house is not in order. Looking at the folks who gathered at the High School Summit, this big tent is open to anyone who supports Israel as a democracy.  

One of the best parts of last week’s AIPAC gathering is that it brought together a diverse spectrum of Jews. As with many programs, some of the most meaningful encounters happen outside the official program during side conversations in the hotel hallways or while standing in a buffet line.  One such interaction epitomizes for me why aspirational-thinking about Israel can’t remained siloed.

An Orthodox day school educator heard me introduce myself as the director of Israel engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. He politely asked if he could pose a controversial question. He proceeded to tell me that during the summer, he sent an email to the Reform Movement, perhaps even to me, to express his disapproval of our movement’s efforts to secure an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall). Inspired by seeing all types of Jews enter the gender-segregated areas set up for worship at the Wall, he wanted to let me know that the Reform Movement was seeking to ruin a place that fosters Jewish unity – most Jews, he opined, are willing to pray according to the status quo for the sake of Jewish peoplehood. Compounding his frustration was the fact that no one answered his email.

I knew that nothing I could say would change his views. Yet, I had a feeling that through dialogue, his frustration might turn into something more constructive. To start, I emphasized that we, too, envision the Kotel area as a site for Jewish unity. Unlike the set-up he cherishes, liberal Jews would like to see the plaza above the worship areas as that peoplehood place. Like him, we want to worship God in the way we find meaningful, which is why liberal Jews in and out of Israel have appealed to the Israeli government to create – with us – an egalitarian area in the Kotel’s southern extension, out of view of the already existing Orthodox space. All Jews could enter the same plaza, celebrating the unity of spirit to be at the same holy site and fulfilling their spiritual needs when they touch the ancient stones in very different spots.

Although our lunchtime conversation ended in agreeing to disagree, we did achieve something. My new friend was happy that someone finally explained the Reform position and that was no small thing for him. During this brief give-and-take, I believe we practiced the first steps of aspirational advocacy. By being present at the same convening, there was an assumption that we both cared about Israel’s future and its internal well-being – it was safe to open up to each other. Aspirational advocacy begins with identifying common core concerns, which in this case were the need for a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood, upholding the centrality of worship in Judaism, and presenting Israel as the ultimate Jewish meeting place.  

Leaders can’t do all the difficult aspirational, problem-solving work on their own. In her book, The End of Leadership, Harvard’s Kennedy School professor, Barbara Kellerman, writes: “We need to think of leadership as a creative act – for which leaders and followers both are educated, for which leaders and followers both are prepared over a lifetime of learning.”  To be educated toward a creative act is by definition, aspirational. To turn aspiration into problem-solving, we must make space for sharing divergent perspectives on fundamental questions.  


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What Do We Really Need for a Prayerful Experience?

When I was 20, a friend of mine (later my wife) dragged me to a club in Hollywood to go dancing. To say I was reluctant would be an understatement, but she just kept repeating, “It’s all ’80s music, you’ll love it. You love ’80s music.” I can lay claim to a sense of rhythm, but dancing ability might be overselling it. Between my skepticism and self-consciousness, I was certain I wouldn’t have fun.

You know where this is going: on the dance floor, as long as there was ’80s music pumping, I was deliriously happy. I lost myself in the blend of beat and nostalgia, the familiar strains of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Depeche Mode that I’d only ever heard coming out of my stereo or my computer, suddenly cranked up to 100 decibels. The sheer weight and volume of the music filled the room and all the space between the dancers, wrapping each of us in a big warm blanket of sound and sweat. I lost myself in the music and found instead a tiny slice of divine joy – and if it was even the tiniest fraction of what King David felt when he “danced with joy,” it was a heartfelt prayer.

The Hasidic movement in Judaism talks a lot about the idea of losing oneself in prayer. According to the Hasidim, the ideal state of mind for prayer is a loss of self – amidst immense joy and ecstasy. One rabbi famously taught that even being able to think while praying was too much self-awareness. They call that kind of ecstatic prayerfulness hitlahavut and hitpaalut: a fiery passion in your soul and a sense of joy as gateways to the Divine.

A year ago, I started writing music with this goal in mind – believing that it is possible to take any venue, any space, any group of people, and bring them to an emotional place of joy and community. I knew that rock music could achieve that goal; I experienced it at a Green Day concert years ago. The result was In Pursuit, an album of Jewish hard rock. Unlike the Green Day concert, the music is explicitly Jewish, although it was never intended for use on the bimah.  

Looking back on that night in Hollywood, what amazes me is how little was truly required for that prayerful experience all those years ago: songs in my musical “language,” the company of a good friend, and the fragile bond of a community of strangers. There were none of the accoutrements I associate with prayer today: no siddur (prayer book), no cantor or rabbi, no sanctuary, no bimah. The music opened a doorway to prayer and I walked through.


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How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life

Marilyn Paul has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and taught at the Yale School of Medicine, the Massachusetts General Institute of Health Professionals, and the Hebrew University Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine. Author of An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life, she also is a professional coach, dedicated to helping people improve their lives at work, at home, and in the world. I sat down with her to discuss the healing powers of Shabbat.

ReformJudaism.org: You grew up in a family estranged from Judaism, but you eventually found a path into Jewish life through Shabbat. How did that come about?

Dr. Marilyn Paul: When I was a Yale grad student, a friend invited me to Shabbat dinner. I said no because I was much too busy with my studies and social activism. I had boundless energy and was in the grip of an enormous desire to achieve. I would get up at 6 a.m., go all day, and then study at night in the library until 1 or 2 in the morning.

He asked again and again until finally I went. When I walked in and watched the gathered people lighting the candles together, I realized something wonderful was happening.

At that time, I didn’t know how to slow down, until one morning, I was too exhausted to get out of bed. I was later diagnosed with an immune deficiency disease. I understood my illness to be a warning that I had not paid attention to my body’s natural signals, and that I had stretched my immune system to its limit. It literally took a virus to slow me down.

Not in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that years later I would take an entire day off every week to calm my soul, and write a book about it.

How would you respond to someone who says, “My to-do list is just too long to allow for a day of rest?”

I would say that we have been brainwashed into thinking that working more gets more work done. That’s a fallacy. All the leading productivity experts are screaming into a megaphone: Rest! Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology Sabine Sonnentag, for instance, has shown that people who have regular rest gain control, mastery, and creativity.

Here’s a personal example: Last year, we moved to Berkeley and bought an unfinished house. I became the general contractor in addition to homeschooling my son, writing a book, maintaining my professional coaching practice, helping a friend prepare for his bar mitzvah, and organizing our household meals and social calendar. The only way I could have juggled all these tasks without throwing my life into shambles was by restoring my body, mind, and soul on Shabbat.

What are some of the obstacles preventing us from making Shabbat part of our lives?

For starters, we are trapped in a workaholic culture in which we move too fast, and we place too high a premium on accomplishments and productivity. We don’t know how tired and stressed out we really are, we don’t know what makes us truly happy, and we are addicted to our digital devices.

What are some strategies to overcome these obstacles?

The book offers five:

1. Protect your time off and guard it fiercely, because everything in our world will conspire to take Shabbat away from you.

2. Name your starting and ending times, and try to stick to those boundaries.

3. Put down your digital devices.

4. Slow your movements, which helps slow your mind, and savor the now.

5. Let go of achieving.

When you exit your oasis time, how does it affect the rest of the week?

The soul life of Shabbat extends to every day of week. In his book, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter illustrates this point by describing Shabbat as the center of a wheel with the spokes representing the 6 other days of the week.

How does Shabbat, what you also call “oasis time,” restore your soul?

It helps me reorient to what matters most in my life. It resets my inner compass so that I can remember and act on what is important and meaningful to me. It gives me time to rest and regain my bearings. It breaks the fatigue and burnout cycle that would otherwise rob me of my zest and health. And it allows for a time of genial, unhurried connections with my family, friends, and community.

Shabbat has saved my life.


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Water is Life: How Our Interfaith Work is Ensuring Clean Water in Puerto Rico

Mayyim hem Chayim (Waters, they are life) read the Hebrew poster in my dorm room at Brandeis decades ago. Fast forward to a little more than a month ago, when those words echoed in my head as I sat in my temple office trying to write the Yom Kippur sermon I would deliver to my small congregation, Beit Ahavah - the Reform Synagogue of Greater Northampton. I cried as I watched a news video of a grandmother in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. She had little drinking water and only saltine crackers for her grandchildren.

Downstairs, in the office of Florence Congregational Church (where my synagogue is housed), my minister-friend Pastor Irv Gammon also was watching the news. A hiker, he knew about water filters and how they could help ensure clean drinking water for the people of Puerto Rico. He called up to me and within moments a plan was hatched. There was an urgent need and we would help meet it with a “mission-tzedakah” to send LifeStraw Water Filters to Puerto Rico. Before long, Pastor Irv had arranged a discount on the filters from the LifeStraw company and we were on our way.

On erev Yom Kippur, during the Kol Nidre sermon, I appealed to our congregation for funds to help cover the costs. I invited Pastor Irv to the bimah during my sermon, which was entitled “Water is Life.” Members of the congregation were overwhelmed to see us so energized, empowered, and galvanized at the prospect of making a difference together.

During the second week in October, just before leaving town for his daughter’s wedding, and while I was in the midst of planning my son's upcoming bar mitzvah, Pastor Irv ordered 200 filters to be delivered to the church the following Tuesday. With funds from our own communities and others pouring in, by Tuesday evening, October 17, temple and church volunteers gathered to pack the water filters, filling them with blessings for safe transport. Indeed, their transport is perhaps the most miraculous part of this story, in part because the complex details had come together only days before.

On Sunday, October 15, I heard from leaders at Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, expressing their appreciation for our healing efforts, and stressing how badly the water filters were needed. With Pastor Irv away, I was singlehandedly juggling leads and coordinating logistics to get the water filters to the island.

The next evening, I learned that, thanks to her incredible perseverance, Robin Warner, a Beit Ahavah member and Tot Shabbat mom, had pursued a connection with a JetBlue pilot, Ophneal Kellman. A true humanitarian, Ophneal had arranged his schedule so that he could fly the large shipment of water filters to Puerto Rico early on Wednesday morning. Robin’s husband, Paul, graciously agreed to drive most of Tuesday night to get them from western Massachusetts to the airport in New York City in time for the flight. Meanwhile, there were myriad restrictions on the size and shape of the packaging the airline would allow, and I scurried around town until midnight trying to find the right size duffel bags.

I'm in awe of the people from both our communities who came together on Tuesday night – filled with incredible energy, love, courage, and hope to prepare and stuff duffel bags. As if on cue, Pastor Irv and his wife, Brenda, stopped in on their way back from the wedding at just the right moment to see his vision of sending water filters to Puerto Rico come to fruition. Thanks to the incredible perseverance and patience of our volunteers, by the end of the evening, 18 (truly life-saving) duffel bags filled with water filters had been packed into bags of 15 cubic feet, each weighing no more than 50 pounds (to conform to the airline’s weight restrictions) and loaded into Paul Warner’s car for the all-night drive to the airport. With that feat behind us, we gathered in a circle and, holding hands, shared some of the words and prayers in our hearts: gratitude, faith, love, hope, exuberance, and awe. I stayed up all night awaiting news via texts from the pilot, and was thrilled when he let me know that the plane – with all our filters on board – was pushing back from the gate.  

On Wednesday, we received word that earlier that day, Ophneal had successfully rendezvoused with Zevio Schnitzer, Temple Beth Shalom’s administrator in the baggage claim area of the San Juan airport so that the pilot could personally hand over the large duffel bags containing 270 pounds of water filters for those in need. 

I received this email from Zevio two days later when he was able to get online for a moment:

The filters arrived safely! I took one home to test it out, and on Shabbat will be demonstrating how it works and how to clean it, and then will give one to each family. We will also distribute some to families and community-run soup kitchens and to families who live near our temple. The rest will be given to volunteer brigades that are working nonstop to deliver supplies to the center of the island where the devastation was greatest.

After that Shabbat, we received pictures from Zevio demonstrating how to use the filters to the congregants, many of whom had traveled more than two hours in difficult conditions to get to the temple.

To date we have raised nearly $29,000 – an astounding amount for our small community – and that figure continues to grow. Together with the Florence Congregational Church, we are multiplying our efforts, aiming to send 1,000 family-size water filters to Puerto Rico. We’re working on the second shipment of 200 filters now, and by doing what’s needed, we’re learning to fundraise and to package and ship filters – to get them as quickly as possible into the hands of those who need them.

To contribute to “Water is Life: LifeStraw Family Water Filters for Puerto Rico,” make checks payable to Florence Congregational Church (write “water filters” on the memo line) and mail to 130 Pine Street, Florence, MA 01062. Online donations can be directed to Temple Beth Shalom’s Hurricane Maria Recovery Fund or to the Jewish Federation of North America’s 2017 Hurricane Relief Fund. For information about donating specific, urgently needed items, contact Rabbi Norman Patz or Zevio Schnitzer.


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Millennials Ask about Israel: "Is There a Generation Gap When Talking About the Jewish State?”

Question: As a young person, I feel like there is often a gap between how I talk about Israel and how older Jews talk about Israel because of our differences in education. My mom, for example, is uncomfortable using the word “occupation” whereas I am not. My parents’ education focused a lot more on the promises of the Zionist dream whereas mine has also included some of the failures of modern Zionism and the injustices faced by ethnic and racial minorities, religious non-Orthodox Jews, women, and Palestinians. Do you think the ongoing adult education on Israel differs from the education for the young adult community?

Answer: Your question raises several issues, and I will do my best to respond to each of them.

First, you are right to use the word “occupation” in reference to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Virtually the entire international community, including friends and allies of Israel, sees it as an occupation. Most experts in international law define it in these terms. And much of Israel’s leadership also refers to it in this way. The late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talked of Israel’s occupation of the territories, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak uses this language as well.

To say that Israel occupies the West Bank is not to say that she bears sole responsibility for that occupation. I believe that most of the responsibility rests with the Palestinians, although Israel is surely not blameless.

But talking sensibly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes impossible when we separate words from their commonly accepted meaning. Instead of thoughtful discussion, we end up with semantic game-playing. This happens, for example, when terror – the killing of innocent civilians for political purposes – is not defined as terror in cases in which the victims are Israelis or Jews. This is both contrary to standard language usage and an affront to basic morality.

But for Jews and friends of Israel to make this case, they too must speak plainly and use words as they are generally understood. And the simple fact is that by any reasonable definition, Israel’s presence in the West Bank is an occupation.

Second, you reflect on how your education about Israel might have been different from that of your parents. I am sure that it was. Israel is not quite 70 years old, and for the first half of that period, Israel education in the American Jewish community focused on the heroic and miraculous elements of her founding.

This reaction was not surprising. The creation of Israel was not assured. A combination of extraordinary effort by Israel’s founders and a moment of consensus among the Great Powers following World War II brought Israel into existence. American Jews, in their study of and support for Israel, were not interested in exploring the young country’s flaws. They wanted to celebrate the miracle of her existence.

But by the 1970s, generational and political changes created a new reality. Israel had moved from the period of state-creation to state-maintenance, complicated by an occupation forced upon her by threatened Arab attacks in 1967. How was the occupation to be managed and ultimately ended? What about the absence of religious pluralism in the young state? What about prejudice directed at Israel’s Arab citizens? Just as one could not study American history without examining slavery and racism, one could not study Israel without looking at the various forms of injustice and discrimination to be found there.

Some Jewish educational institutions resisted confronting such matters. But the American Jewish community is open, pluralistic, and contentious, and there was no way to hide from young Jews the realities, both positive and negative, of Israel’s vibrant democracy. Like it or not, in synagogues, Jewish publications, and university Jewish studies programs, young people studied the issues that many of their parents and grandparents had not been exposed to or had chosen to avoid.

Finally, you ask what will happen now with Israel education. The honest answer is that I don’t know.

I applaud your generation’s insistence on seeing Israel as she really is. As I have said many times, Israel is not Disneyland or summer camp. We must be free to study her problems and criticize her government. Otherwise, it will be impossible to take her seriously and encourage appreciation of her extraordinary achievements. The real Israel is politically chaotic but a guaranteed refuge for Jews in distress; a young, stumbling democracy but a place where Jewishness can be found in the street and in the soul; a source of Jewish conflict but an address for Jewish renaissance.

But our problem in the American Jewish community is that too many of us have fallen into a trap that reflects the polarized culture in which we live. This trap is an intellectual box, characterized by inflexible thinking in which tweets are mistaken for serious debate and everyone must choose sides. On one side, Israel is (almost) always right, and on the other side, Israel is (almost) always wrong. But this is crazy. And in this atmosphere, real education is impossible, and young people will flee from the discussion – and from Israel – in disgust.

Our task – and yours – is to remedy this situation. It is to formulate an educational model that bridges the divide, rejoicing in the sovereign nation that is Israel while allowing a critical look at her policies and values. In this model, severing the bonds that tie you to Israel will not be acceptable, but disagreeing with Israel – sometimes passionately, and even vociferously – will not only be acceptable but expected. In fact, arguing with Israel’s leaders and protesting some of their policies will be a natural part of Jewish life and thought.

I hope that our generations can create this model together.


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Trick or Treat? Absolutely!

Some of my earliest memories of freedom and delight are from Halloween. In the old days, the rule of thumb was that kids were allowed to go out with a gang of friends at age seven or eight, sans parent or bodyguard. It was so exhilarating! Dressed up in great costumes? I was Batman! I was the Phantom! I was a pirate! I was walking around in the dark, with my friends and without grownups. All that and candy, too? Come on! What could be better?

As I got older, I graduated from a small orange paper bag to a bigger paper Halloween bag with those rope-like handles. “Trick or treat!” we would howl and open our bags wide for fabulously decadent candy treats. By age 10, my band of trick or treaters achieved the ultimate candy storage method: a pillowcase. Of course, we believed it to be our duty to fill the case, which none of us ever accomplished, though not for lack of trying.

Despite the occasional viral stories that make parents and kids anxious: loose candy laced with LSD, razors in apples, etc., there has never been a reported case of poisoned or laced candy. There has never been a report of injury due to bobby-trapped fruit. Why wouldn’t every kid in America be on the streets?

There is absolutely nothing that prohibits nice Jewish boys and girls from hitting the streets on Halloween. Halloween does not celebrate any religious ideology. None of the symbols or practices is remotely religious. It’s all good, clean American fun. It is devoid of any religious connotations. Why would we eschew this utterly secular American custom?

I know; there are those who suggest that Jews must not go out trick or treating because Halloween’s roots are pagan. In response, I would advise thoughtful Jews to look at the lulav and etrog we use on Sukkot and the rituals for which we use them. The roots of homo sapiens are planted in pagan soil. As we evolved, some of them were incorporated into religious practice and some withered. Halloween does not celebrate pagan practice nor does it even vaguely threaten Jews and the Jewish tradition.

I wonder if the aversion some Jews have to Halloween isn’t like the dour Ashkenazic prohibition against things that in and of themselves are kosher but are forbidden because they remind us of things that are not kosher… We need to unclench on this one. There’s no conversion conspiracy hiding behind the jack o’lantern. There’s no satanic worship in the Snickers bar. It’s nothing but fun.

Halloween is a lot like Thanksgiving. It is a civic celebration, uniting and unifying Americans across virtually all socio-economic, religious, and racial barriers. In the costumes and masks, there are no divisions, no us and them. On Halloween, all of our children are what they should always be when interacting: the same.

We live in a partisan time. With all of the things that divide us, how nice that there is still a tradition that transcends barriers of culture and religion and politics, that brings us all together in a non-threatening joyful celebration. Trick or treat? Yes!

In another perspective on this topic, Rabbi Ruth Adar explains why she gives out candy to trick-or-treaters, but doesn't celebrate Halloween herself.


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