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I am grateful to the Central Conference of American Rabbis to have posted my message about a day to acknowledge Survivors of Suicide — those among us who have lost loved ones to suicide.

As many of you know, my wife’s father took his own life seven months ago today. Tomorrow, our Congress has identified November 21 as a day to support Survivors of Suicide.

Here are my reflections.

Rabbi Fred Greene, RavBlog, Survivors of Suicide

My wife, Deborah, wrote her own Kavanah to mark this day as she seeks out way to find comfort in God’s Presence.

Deborah Greene’s Survivors Prayer

 

My Rosh Hashanah Sermon from Wednesday eve, September 24, 2015 at Temple Beth Tikvah of Roswell. 

One of America’s greatest Jewish thinkers was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. His practice as a professor was to explain the Torah portion of the week on Monday in a sermonic manner. On Wednesday, a senior student would present his version of the same biblical text. Dr Kaplan was very demanding and critical instructor, and the students were often inhibited about speaking up and were, frankly afraid of him. Once in a class, a student took down verbatim what Dr Kaplan said on Monday. When it came to be the student’s time to explain the Torah portion, he repeated Dr Kaplan’s words from the previous Monday. Dr Kaplan said, “That is a terrible exposition.”

The student countered, “But Prof, Kaplan, that’s exactly what you said on Monday.” Kaplan replied, “young man, I have grown since then.”

We all have a need to grow if we are to make the most of our lives. Just as our bodies are constantly undergoing changes, so are our minds. We meet new situations and we are challenged by new ideas. We learn more about the past and we develop new thoughts about the present. We learn new ways to deal with people and to cope with problems. All of this is a part of growth, and to grow is to live.[1]

 

This is a day of journeys. We venture out on our own so that we can have new encounters, new experiences, gain new wisdom. But Sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we are willing to leave our familiar places and journey forward into the unknown.

I love looking to Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham. He was told by God to “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.”[2]

We often focus on the term lech l’cha, which we typically translate as “go forth.” But what it really means is to “go to yourself.” In other words, look inside, and find your potential.[3] An additional interpretation from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says: “Go back to your essence in order to find out what you are really made of. Before we go on our journeys, we need to look into our souls so that we know where we are heading.”[4]

But journeys can be scary. Moving, leaving… can be stressful. Let’s reflect once again on the text and read the phrase: “From your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.”

Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, one of the world’s greatest Bible scholars, wrote: “The point of this order is not geographical. It is emotional. The three steps are arranged in ascending order of difficulty for Abraham. It is hard to leave one’s land, harder if it is where one was born, and harder still to leave one’s family. And where is he to go? To ‘the land that I’ll show you.’ That is, he must leave his homeland without knowing for what he is giving it up…”[5]

Let’s add one additional layer. Abraham is introduced to us as an Ivri – a Hebrew. The word Ivri is rooted in the term “to cross over,” with the Hebrew root letters of ayin – bet – resh. Abraham left everything he knew to cross over many rivers in order to arrive go to the Promised Land to fulfill his destiny, his purpose.

We are his spiritual descendants. We are the Ivrim; we are the ones who have to cross over rivers. And it is not only that we have to, we ought to. We ought to go beyond our comfort zones so we can strive and grow the way Abraham models for us.

Each of us needs to grow. We all have rivers to cross. We are designed to have experiences not simply to enjoy them, but to learn from them, and to gain wisdom through these encounters. We venture out from our parents homes… at some point. Some of us have moved to different cities. Others have changed careers. Some went back to school. Others went to a campus for the very first time.

Change is a part of life and quite frankly, it is a scary part of life. Maybe that is why Abraham is among our spiritual heroes and greatest of role models. He is far from perfect, but his faith in the One God gives him the strength to journey – to be a seeker. We don’t have to change addresses in order to be that kind of seeker. We simply need to be open to new opportunities.

A new year is an opportunity for change. With a Jewish New Year is the focus on one of our most central tenets in Judaism — teshuvah, generally translated as “atonement.” I prefer to read it as “turning.” If that is the case, then this Rosh Hashanah and every New Year is an opportunity for change, for growth, for renewal, and for us to strive to reach our potential.

 

Have you ever wondered why God didn’t bring our Israelite ancestors directly to the Promised Land? Isn’t it strange that after everything they had endured in Egyptian servitude, that they didn’t just get the…  Get Out of Jail Free card and Go Straight to Israel?

It couldn’t be that way. They needed to make the journey themselves. They needed to experience the angst and the doubt, alongside the potential for strength and hope.

…They needed to go through the desert, the midbar.

The fourth book of the Torah is called Bamidbar, in English, it is the Book of Numbers. We see an interesting teaching right at the beginning:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite people community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head. (1:1)

 

Our sages ask: why does the Torah say that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness AND in the Tent of Meeting? One well known teaching is that we would all benefit if we would be as open and accepting as the wilderness – to new opportunities, to new ideas, and to God. After all, Torah is given in the Sinai – not in the Land of Israel.

And yet, when we think of a wilderness or a desert – both are translations for midbar – we think of a place that is empty, desolate, even barren. But it is in the desert, the wilderness, where we find God. Just like Jacob who encountered God when he was all alone on his own journey where he dreamed of a ladder bridging the Earth to the Heavens with angels going up and down on it. That was where Jacob had his first incredible, intimate encounter with God and said,

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

“God was in this place and I did not know it.”[6]

 

The wilderness is filled with opportunity, but it isn’t always easy to traverse. Our bias about the wilderness leads us to panic. But we aren’t wandering aimlessly. The first lines of Bamidbar show that God wants us to get organized, take a census, move into camps, and be prepared for what is in store. In the very place where they had angst, they were able to tap into strength that they never even knew they had to make the journey meaningful.[7]

This is the sermon I needed to give tonight. This is the truth that I needed to share. As I leave a place of comfort and kindness, I am following in our ancient ancestors footsteps to enter into the midbar, an unfamiliar place. I also know that my decision to journey forward puts you, my congregants, in a midbar, too. My decision to cultivate my rabbinate and nurture my soul is a frightening prospect on the practical level… leaving a wonderful community, saying good bye to friends. And yet, on a spiritual level, we are all on our own journeys and I am a human being who seeks challenges and meaning like you.

While we resist the idea of being in the wilderness, I believe that is where most of live every single day. Listen to this poem by Rabbi Zoe Klein – I think it illustrates the point well:

 

There are three regions in each of our souls,

There is Egypt, there is the Desert, and there is

the Promised Land.

Many of us have glimpsed our Egypt,

Or perhaps some are still there,

Wearing the chains,

Bearing the burdens of fear, insecurity,

Doubt, and weakness

Mustering the strength to clamber up.

Still fewer of us have glimpsed our

Promised Land,

Our Destiny,

Fulfillment of dreams,

Our fruitfulness, our blossoming,

Our purpose.

We talk of Egypt often.

Every holiday, every prayer service,

Mentions we once were slaves,

Recalls our hardships under Pharaoh.

We talk of the Promised Land often,

Every holiday, every prayer service,

Longs for Israel,

For the Voice to come forth from Zion,

We turn to the east,

Reminisce Jerusalem.

But rarely do we talk of, or pray about, the Desert.

Yet that is the region in which most of us are,

Pushing forward in the wilderness,

Dragging our footsteps across that forty year stretch

Of pristine, barren, moonscape.

It is there we encounter truth,

It is there we encounter miracle,

We are nomads still,

At the shore of some sparkling oasis,

And we sing our nomad song.[8]

So maybe, we have been in the wilderness all along, together. Carrying each other from stage to stage.

My time with you, moving into my ninth year at Beth Tikvah, has had many meaningful encounters. I have cried with you and held you; I have celebrated with you and rejoiced with you. I have seen children grow into amazing young adults and I have helped to bury those you loved most. For some I brought you to places of safety; for others, I tried to. I sought to sit with you in in hospital rooms and bedsides in your homes. I have tried to be present when you felt trapped and when you were ready to take a leap of faith and renew your own commitments to journey forward.

I have striven to share my Torah with you. I have challenged you, sometimes out of your comfort zones to new ways of thinking…

And I have loved you… I have loved this community.

When Deborah and I needed a community of our own, you accompanied our family, too. From the beginning of our journey, bringing three little girls to a new city far, far, far from home and what was familiar to us. You befriended us. Coming to Atlanta where there was no family, many became our adopted families. You supported us through heartache, diagnoses, even through a surgery… for a different kind of heart…break. And you have celebrated our simchas and made them sweeter through your presence. I have grown as a rabbi here. I have learned how to be a better teacher here. I hope that my gifts have been welcomed and more so, that they made a difference. We have people we care about here; that will never change.

But alas, there comes a time when we need to grow… When we need to find a new challenge… When we need to nurture ourselves and live our lives out to the fullest.

If we are to be as open as the wilderness to new experiences, as difficult as they may be, then I hope we will see the possibilities in front of us too. I know that there are concerns, but there can be blessings in going as there are blessings in arriving. If my presence has been positive, then I hope this community will continue supports its leaders, and welcomes its next rabbi, embrace their family, and take care of her or him as you have done for me.

I know as I take my next step in my journey, I will take much from this community. I hope that what I leave will be celebrated and carried with you, too, as this great synagogue continues on its journey.

 

This is a year of transition, not just for the synagogue. It is a year of transition for our Selves. If we seek to be spiritual beings, if we seek encounters that are meaningful and awesome, then we can embrace the changes that are ahead of us. That is the ultimate lesson for us in this new year.

But change needs a foundation of faith. Let’s look at a parable that I believe provides us a lens through which to seek and understand that foundation:

Sometimes I fear my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I am in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in awhile, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across that void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It’s called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get pushed.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as “no-thing,” a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze bar was real, and that the new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too.

But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.

Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang-out” in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we may just learn how to fly.[9]

 

Letting go is our work of teshuvah, atonement, turning, striving, transforming…

Letting go requires that we know that there is a net. We call that net emunah – faith.

I need faith to feel secure enough to let go, to make the necessary changes, to be willing to journey into the midbar. And so do you.

So let’s be grateful for our journeys, for our opportunities, for the ability to ever increase our wisdom so that we can not only find meaning in our lives, but so we can bring meaning and purpose to our community and to our world.

I thank God for the possibilities that are before all of us. For our ability to dream, to hope and be courageous as we enter into the midbar together. We might be moving on different paths from one another, but we are all striving to reach the Promised Land.

 

May your journeys be sweet this year.

May our time together be filled with more joy then sorrow.

May this year be a year of strength and courage for all of us.

May the New Year be a good year, a sweet year and a healthy year for you and yours.

 

[1] Adapted from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Moments of Transcendence, p. 101. Message by Rabbi Bernard Raskas in Heart of Wisdom II.

[2] Genesis 12:1.

[3] Ed. by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah. Tel Aviv, Yavneh Publ: 1996, 83.

[4] Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky. Sparks Beneath The Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah, 1993.

[5] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001.

[6] Genesis 28:16.

[7] Thanks to Rabbi Lou Feldstein for helping me to see this text in the context of transitions.

[8] Reprinted in Richard Address’ To Honor and Respect: A Program and Resource Guide for Congregations on Sacred Aging. New York: URJ Press, 2005: 42-43.

[9] Danaan Parry, “The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear,” Warriors of the Heart: A Handbook for Conflict Resolution. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009. Thank you, Rabbi David Wolfman, for introducing this powerful teaching to me.

I loved watching this video blog from one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman. In under three minutes, he has shared such a beautiful insight into the meaning of our High Holy Days that can inspire us to thrive in our humanity. Thank you, as always, Dr. Hoffman.

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah to all!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

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One of the things that I encounter most is when folks of a certain age choose to disengage from a synagogue community and say, “my kids are grown and I don’t need it anymore.”

On the other end of the spectrum are the comments of our long-time congregants who continue to support and sustain our Jewish community, but believe helping out and volunteering are for “the new – the younger generation.”

How is it that the synagogue in America has been seen as so narrowly focused? Is it our emphasis on the Bar Mitzvah?

It is clear that the majority of American Jews connect to synagogues when it is time to enroll a child. The overwhelming majority of America’s Jews are members of synagogues at some point in their lives, but only about a third of us are synagogue members at any one time.

I think that there are many factors that have contributed to this idea. Regardless of what they are, it isn’t healthy – not for our People and not for ourselves. The synagogue is the central address for Jewish life, other than one’s home.  If it is left to the young parents to lead, then an entire segment (and a growing population of older adults) of our community will feel left out. The same is true if it is only run by our more senior members – the voices of our younger members and families will not be present.

Yet, what I believe is even more important than a voice at the leadership table is the fact that we are all spiritual beings. We all have been given a soul that needs to be nourished in order for us to stay healthy. You have often heard me share how I believe that it is so easy to become distracted and focus on things that might not necessarily be so essential. Focusing on our spiritual sides, looking towards the holy can keep us grounded, generous and grateful.

Sacred Aging is something all of us can encounter. Thorughout our lives, we do have different needs – physical, financial, emotional and spiritual. We are all getting older and we all face questions about meaning in our lives. We can’t only think the Jewish community or synagogues are only about the kids in our schools (and you know how devoted I am to our youth!). If that was the case, then we foster a pediatric Judaism. A sacred community involves people of all ages who offer their gifts – learning in community, prayer, spiritual growth, volunteering to help one another, volunteering to help those outside of our community. We all have gifts to give and they all matter.

Remember the purpose of a synagogue – to be a house of prayer / beit t’filah, a house of learning / beit midrash, and a house of gathering / beit Knesset.  According to Harry Moody in Five Stages of the Soul, spiritual journeys of mature adults can be compelling because we have achieved some life experience and are able to understanding our personal histories; we get a panoramic view – we see where we have been and have a clearer picture of what is in store for us; we are able to discern a pattern to our past and perhaps identify a meaningful goal; we need to be grounded when disability or illness strikes; and we are more prepared to engage in practical and existential questions about life and death.

Yes, synagogue communities must be responsive and welcoming to our families with young children and teens. It is critical. But we cannot – ever – cast away our seniors or our empty nesters. They, too have gifts to give, perhaps different than our families with young children. They have wisdom to share. Their needs matter.  And a true sacred community is a community for all – not just the kids.

So the next time you hear that “it is the next generation’s turn” or “we don’t need a temple any more…” consider these words. Make the case for a shared endeavor in covenant with a community, our people and with God. We never cease being a Jew and a being engaged in a Jewish community is about much more than membership. It is about covenant. It is about doing our part. It is about pursuing the holy.

 

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s better than that. And I should know: I’ve been starting each Saturday morning with a BLT at TBT for the past ten years because it leaves me energized (by more than caffeine) and feeling smarter than the guy who slept in a Holiday Inn.

It started when I saw a policeman, walking his Sixth Avenue beat at night, who came upon a man crawling on the sidewalk at the corner at 34th Street. “What’s the problem?” asked the cop. “Are you all right?” The man stopped crawling for a moment and looked up, saying, “I lost my wallet.” “Oh”, said the cop, “Where did you lose it?” “I believe that I lost it on 28th Street”, answered the man. “28th Street?” questioned the cop. “If you lost your wallet on 28th Street, why are you searching here, on 34th Street?” Pointing upward at the corner street lamp the man answered, “Because the light’s better here!”

There’s a lesson to this story that actually makes more sense if you put yourself in that place, substituting your Jewish Heritage for the wallet and our Rabbi for the cop. If you’re looking for your Jewish Heritage, or a better understanding of your Jewish roots, or even if it’s God that you’re looking for, doesn’t it make sense to look where the light is brighter? When it comes to Jewish Studies, the light is brighter where more people are searching; each with their own flashlights focused to find what they seek. That’s what BLT is all about.

Bagels, Learning and Torah is Temple Beth Tikvah’s long-running Adult Studies Program (open to mature youth, as well) that has enriched my life with knowledge, understanding, and the friendships shared with the “Regulars” who, like me, return week-after-week, year-after year, each time learning something new and gaining a better insight into who we are, what we can be, and our place in the universe. We, at BLT, will be completing our study of Genesis and Exodus on December 14th and will celebrate the occasion looking ahead to the next exciting chapter on our way to The Promised Land.

Inspired by things I learned at BLT, I asked my father a question that would not have previously occurred to me. “What kind of Jews are we? I know that we’re not Kohanim (descendants from Aaron, the High Priest), but are we Levites or Israelites?” At 87, he was the only one left in our family who might know the answer and I knew that this was a one-time opportunity to learn this about my past. Dad simply said, “We’re Levites.” Having studied Torah at BLT for many years, I knew just what that meant. It meant that my ancestors were from the Tribe of Levi; the tribe of Moses and Aaron; the tribe entrusted with the task of disassembling, schlepping and reassembling The Tabernacle (which included the “Ark of the Pact” – the box with the tablets of the law – and all of the accoutrements of that portable Temple) through forty years of desert travel, on their way to The Promised Land. In a nation with a brief history, some people take special pride in claiming that their ancestors came to America on the Mayflower (1621), or fought in the American Revolution (1776). How many can say that they know their heritage and tribe and their family’s vocation from 3,500 years ago? Believing, as I do, that there is historical record in the Torah, I find it fascinating and exciting that I should be able to know that I am a descendant of Levi, Son of Jacob (who is called “Israel”). Would you care to know if you are a Kohen (Cohen), Levite, or Israelite? Would that knowledge be meaningful to you?

I’ve told you about the man looking for his wallet (not a Bible story, but a New York Midrash). Now, let me tell you about another man on a quest, from a chapter that I learned at BLT, one Shabbat morning, before 10-o’clock Services.

Toward the later portion of Genesis (37:14~28), we read of an incident in which Joseph (11th son of Jacob; looked upon with jealousy by his elder brothers who envied his ‘coat of many colors’ given by their father as a symbol of his favoritism) is traveling alone through the desert, on a mission from his father in Hebron, seeking to find his brothers who are tending the family’s sheep in Shechem. Joseph had been searching for a long time, and was about to abandon hope and return to his father’s camp, when he came upon a stranger, described in the Torah only as “Ish” / “a man”. The man asked Joseph, “What are you looking for?” Joseph asked the man, “Have you seen my brothers who have been herding flocks of sheep in Shechem?” The man answered, “Yes, but they are no longer in Shechem, having moved the herds to Dothan.” Joseph went on to find his brothers and the man was not seen nor spoken of, again. Some have speculated that the man who appeared out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly was an Angel sent by God, but the Torah is emphatic in stating that he was only “a man”.

When Joseph encountered his brothers, following the directions given him by the man in the desert, they (acting out their jealousy of him) threw him into a pit as they considered killing him and then sold him to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. As the story continues, through many plot twists, Joseph becomes The Grand Vizier of all Egypt (Pharaoh’s “right-hand-man”) and the stage is set for four hundred years of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt.

From this parasha (portion) we learned that Joseph’s brief, chance encounter with an unknown man in the desert was, perhaps, the pivotal moment in all of Jewish history. Had the man not appeared, Joseph would have returned to his father’s camp without meeting his brothers. He would not have been sold to a caravan; would not have been taken to Egypt, would not have garnered the Pharaoh’s favor and would not have invited the House of Jacob to be guests in Egypt (surviving a famine) where, in the following generation, a new Pharaoh would enslave them all. It is the story of the Exodus; The Children of Israel’s redemption from slavery and their path to The Promised Land of Israel, occurring four hundred years later, that is the foundation of Judaism. Thirty-Five-Hundred years of Jewish history have hinged on the appearance of one small-but-significant character. It is a lesson that any one of us, small and seemingly insignificant, could be the next lone person in the desert upon whom our history may turn.

It could be me. Or, it could be you. But it won’t be you if you’re not there. That’s why I and the BLT “Regulars” invite you to join us on Saturday, December 21st at 9:00AM, in the Oneg Room (rear of the Social Hall) as we start a new chapter in this study cycle when we begin reading Leviticus.

– Ellery Potash, a.k.a Zev Ben Chayim HaLevi

My Youth Advisors (Adam and Bobbee Griff) were right…

Hosting a Regional NFTY event wouldn’t just be great for our teens, but it would have the power to transform our youth programs even further towards becoming a Youth Community.

We had 324 Jewish teens in our facility this past weekend. That in and of itself was a miracle. But more than sheer numbers, what was so powerful was my ability to witness some amazing things.

Fall Kallah 2013 TBT KIDSWe had 45 kids from our synagogue alone opt in to try to have an encounter with a Youth Community. For many, this was their first event; for others, they see themselves as seasoned veterans at these retreats. But our newcomers and those from all around the NFTY-SAR Region (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth — SAR is the Southern Area Region of NFTY), our teens embraced what Ron Wolfston calls the “Spirituality of Welcoming,” reaching out and connecting people to one another. s

Fall Kallah 2013 Family PanelThey focused on teaching about different kinds of families, our commitments towards inclusion and our respect for diversity. The educational programming was thoughtful and our teens walked away with the perspective of how every family is precious and has integrity.

Our prayer experiences were tremendous. I know I like the traditional tones of our service, but I was exhilarated and inspired by their JOY. There were no spectators in that sanctuary. Our kids PRAYED — with songs that brought them closer to one another and (whether they know it or not…) to God!

Fall Kallah 2013 closing circle

But here is the thing. Our youth advisors challenged us to take on almost all of the housing responsibilities ourselves. Most host congregations reach out to their neighboring synagogues for some help. Why not? Who couldn’t use some extra help? The challenge was made and we needed 70 host families. 60 came from our synagogue. That means, more congregants were able to witness some of these peak moments like I did. They saw a ruach-filled sanctuary come to a quiet, soulful moment as the students sang Sh’ma — holding on to each word for an entire breath. These hosts saw our NFTYites laugh and play, learn and teach. It wasn’t just our youth group board that had responsibilities…it was an array of teens from 8th through 12th grades who played a part. They and their parents were so invested in the success of this kallah.

These hosts — not all of whom even have kids in high school or NFTY! — were able to see how lives could be changed by a meaningful, compelling, fun Jewish experience. So I don’t just have a lot of kids going to Jewish events… I have a bunch of teens who want to build a community and parents who are no longer bystanders. They witnessed how great it is for their kids to find other Jewish teens with similar Jewish needs — for community, for prayer, for justice, and for hope.

So here is the unapologetic, unabashed pitch… help us. Temple Beth Tikvah has three ways to help us support our teens. Consider:

  • an act of tzedakah to our Annual Campaign to support everything that is happening in the synagogue — there is no corner that is not touched by these gifts.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Camp/Israel Scholarship Fund — help us get more kids to summer programs in Israel, Jewish summer camps and learning programs.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Youth Group Fund that provides scholarships for our teens to go to NFTY events when there is financial need or to help fund special programs for our teens.

You can select any of these funds by going to: http://www.bethtikvah.com/make-donation

Make a gift in honor of your teen, of our event, of our Youth Advisors, of our Youth Committee volunteers. The Jewish way of expressing our gratitude is by paying it forward. I am grateful for all who invest in our youth.

Bobbee and Adam — thank you. To our youth group Board and our Kallah Chairpeople — may you all go from strength to strength. To our Youth Committee and parent volunteers — we couldn’t make these things happen without you. To all of our staff, partners, stakeholders, leaders, schleppers, cooks, bottlewashers… it really does take a village.

 

In recognition of October being National Substance Abuse Prevention Month:

I am joining many other rabbis in our Greater Atlanta area to raise awareness and break taboos of talking about substance abuse in our Jewish community. We feel it is such an important issue that the Atlanta Rabbinical Association is partnering with Jewish Family & Career Services’ new initiative, HAMSA – Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse to make this a community-wide effort.

Last year at Yom Kippur, I spoke at great length about the need for our Jewish community to be more responsive to our congregants facing addictions. Since that time, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have been dealing with addictions in their own families – children, parents, spouses and partners. Far more families have been touched than I ever could have imagined. So one hand, I am gratified that we are having this discussion out loud. On the other hand, it shows that there is a lot of pain out there, even in our own Beth Tikvah community.

We have chosen to use this Shabbat because of an episode in the Torah portion, Noach, where Noah survives The Flood and gets drunk. Why is this the image that is given to us? Wouldn’t one expect that Noah would be just grateful to be alive?

There are many things that can bring a person to such self-destructive behaviors. We often say that addictions are a disease, but what they really show is dis-ease. So we are going to talk about faith, hope and God as ways we can find strength, along with issues we need to confront in our community. For additional information about the work of HAMSA, please contact 770.677.9318 or HAMSA@jfcs-atlanta.org / https://yourtoolsforliving.org/hamsa.

There are so many different themes and issues that resonate for me when we approach Pesach, the Festival of our Liberation. I always think of those who are hungry and homeless. I think of my teenage involvement in a Soviet Jewry movement when our brothers and sisters were in a very real physical captivity. I think of all of us and our every day struggles with life. But I also think of the Egypts of living in abusive relationships where there are Pharaoh’s  keeping us confined in narrow places/Mitzrayim/Egypt.

It is in that spirit that I share this reflection from the Faith Trust Institute, an amazing organization that addresses domestic abuse in the religious community. See what my colleague has to say about women, abuse, and Passover in this blog entry.

Guest Blog: Reflection on a Journey Towards Freedom — FaithTrust Institute.

Printed in our November issue of the Kol Tikvah.

As a native New Yorker and still a recent transplant to the South, I underestimated the power of living in a Christian community. Even on Long Island, while the Jewish population was far larger, we were always a minority and often felt it. But the sheer numbers and strength of the Jewish community created a different atmosphere.

In public schools, then and now, no one would ever have to contend with a group in schools called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Their mission is to “To present to coaches and athletes, and all whom they influence, the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, serving Him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church.” While it is admirable to live it out your faith, our students are often encouraged to attend these meetings. What is a greater issue, we have a number of parents who permit our kids to attend. Please take note of the phrase …and all whom they influence…. While we want our kids to make Jewish choices, we are often conflicted with the desire to not deny them any opportunity.

I have recently heard from several of you about a not-so-new campaign in some local churches about how to bring Jewish neighbors into the church. This is a missionary group that is being advanced by a very wealthy man who was born Jewish but who has since found a stronger faith in Christianity. His Light of Messiah Ministries’ task is: “Bringing Jesus to the Jewish People.” I even got a free DVD in the mail from him to see his message. 

These are dramatic challenges to our community, but we also face more subtle, perhaps less threatening issues of an unfamiliarity of Judaism and Jews by our neighbors. I have heard from parent after parent about how our schools’ teachers and administrators have not been so sensitive to our community’s needs during the Days of Awe. Many of our students even felt pressure to NOT miss school.

Why am I sharing all of this with you?

I understand the need to live out our faith. I try to do it every single day with every decision I make. I don’t even blame others whose faith dictates that they need to focus on bringing our community over to their faith. But I am not prepared to make it easy for them. We have a lot to offer the world and ourselves. When people contact me asking, “what can I do?” – it is often too late.

I will have a letter for our parents in August and hope everyone will bring it to your school principals and teachers that will explain different holy days and why some in the Jewish community will miss school, and how we would like for them to respond to our needs.

Encourage your child to refrain from “being welcomed” into FCA or sports teams whose mission is to teach the values of Christian faith, particularly the kind of team at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in East Cobb.

Do Jewish! Live out your faith. Try to become better equipped to participate in Jewish prayer. Come to a study session. Register your high school student for our post-b’nai mitzvah programs. Tell your grandchildren how important being Jewish is to you. Being Jewish is so much more than an ethnic identifier. It is more than nostalgic recollections of my childhood synagogue’s sukkah or my grandmother’s matzah balls. We have a worldview, too. The greatest strategy for keeping our kids Jewish and having another Jewish generation is to “live it.” 

As December approaches and schools will decorate the halls with different religious symbols, I have asked my friend and colleague, Shelley Rose, the associate director of our region’s Anti-Defamation League, to learn more about  “ABC’s of Religion in the Public Schools.” This gathering is scheduled for Thursday, November 15 at 7pm. This gathering, for parents and for middle school and high school students, will be an opportunity to learn our rights, receive some strategies, and figure out how to appropriately respond to the concerns we have.

Just so you don’t think that all is lost…just the other day, a prominent, neighboring church’s youth minister invited me to speak to their 80 high school students in their Sunday learning program. The youth pastor saw that the students had such a closed perspective on God and wanted to hear another perspective. I get those calls, too, all the time. As I develop greater relationships with local pastors, I find that there is much work we can do together to develop mutual understanding and respect. They can be our greatest allies in teaching a community unfamiliar with Judaism how we ought to treat our neighbors.  

But we cannot rely on others to secure our community. It begins with us…today.

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