CAt the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, Incoming President Shirley Davidoff shared her vision for the next two years. Here are Shirley's remarks:
Thank you. It is truly an honor to be the 58th President of Congregation Shearith Israel, following many other dedicated leaders of this synagogue. I want to specifically thank those Presidents who onboarded me to the path of Presidency—Sharon Levin, Todd Chanon, Gail Mizrahi and Jack Jacobsen. And Jack, it has been an honor to be your Executive Vice President and thank you for your leadership.
Little did I know, growing up in Galveston, that I would be following in the footsteps of my parents, Frances and Elihu (Chuck) Klein, of blessed memory, to become a synagogue president. Both my parents were President of Congregation Beth Jacob, our Conservative synagogue, and they individually or collectively were presidents of medical staff and auxiliary organizations, numerous Jewish organizations, and served on both community and nonprofit boards. I saw firsthand how they cared for others and how their commitment positively impacted our Jewish and non-Jewish community. Their leadership, volunteerism and philanthropy shaped my values and I am standing here tonight because they led by example.
I’d like to thank my husband—no—it is not Mark Davidoff—Mark is married to Tina and he is actually my uncle—Bill is my husband. Bill and I met the first day of college moving into a dorm at UT and since that moment he has been my constant supporter who understands my involvement and need for a strong sense of purpose. I am extremely grateful for our partnership and love.
I want to thank my other husbands—yes, I have a work husband Chuck Levin and two shul husbands, Jack Jacobsen and Irving Prengler.
Chuck, you’ve done this before with Sharon, your real wife, so this will be much easier. Thank you in advance and I appreciate your support.
Jack and Irving, my shul husbands, it’s been wonderful working with you—you both are true mensches and dear friends.
Jack—good news—Mark is stepping up as a shul husband so you are now off the hook.
Mark—welcome to the “family” and I’m thrilled to lead this congregation with you and Irving. With the two of you as doctors, and me as a nurse practitioner, I feel confident the “health” of our congregation is in good hands.
I want to thank my children, Eric and Kayla and Jeremy and Tina for being here tonight. I am extremely lucky to have raised two wonderful sons and I now get to nurture two wonderful daughters. I am proud to stand here as your mother so that you see how giving back to an organization is a good investment of time and resources as it can greatly impact and strengthen you personally.
And I want to thank each of you, from the professional staff, to you as congregants.
Thank you to our Klei Kodesh, (Rabbis Sunshine, Wallach and Roffman, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi Mitzner) for your dedication and commitment to move us spiritually, educationally and emotionally. You are true partners that raise us up and steer us on our Jewish journey.
Thank you to Kim West, our COO, and the entire Shearith staff, who work in front of, and behind the scenes, engaging us in programs, teaching us and our children in creative and thoughtful ways, communicating our strengths internally and out to the community, assisting and supporting each other’s work, tracking our budget, greeting us at the front desk, on the phone and in the hallways, maintaining our building, and cleaning up after our many Kiddushes, simchas and programs. You are all exceptional and appreciated.
A few other thank yous…
To the Board of Directors, Board of Education and the numerous committee chairs and members – thank you to those who have served - and to those coming on board, thank you in advance for being forward thinkers.
To our gabbayim and minyan supporters, thank you for your daily and weekly dedication.
To our SISterhood, thank you for your deep commitment and support of Shearith.
To our Men’s Spirited Study Group, thank you for revitalizing our Men’s Club, let’s keep it going.
And to You, our congregants, thank you for your participation and ongoing support. Because of those who came before us, Shearith has been around for 135 years and YOU are the reason we will continue to be here in the future. You make up our Shearith Community—as new members to multi-generational members; singles and families—each bringing commitment, loyalty, enthusiasm, ideas and VALUE to Shearith Israel. One of the many highlights from our Strategic Planning Process was developing new Mission/Vision and Value statements with our core value statement stating—We are: A Caring Community, A Spiritual Community, An Innovative Community, and A Dedicated Community.
These words are not hollow but represent not only what we value but what we can accomplish. As your President, I believe it is my job to help us reach this potential and strengthen us as a community. After working on the strategic plan, “Ma’alot—Ascending New Heights,” as a co-chair with Irving Prengler and Brad Altman along with the planning committee and foundations, I had the unique opportunity to help identify and discuss the many strengths and challenges we have as a congregation. These opportunities and discussions translated into a robust strategic plan document with initiatives that will structure our path moving forward. Our goal is to begin communicating and implementing these initiatives over the next several years, but we will be asking for your help. Don’t shy away—I, along with the officers, board, committees and staff will set things in motion but it is My role/Our role to energize You in this work. This isn’t about just showing up or the new service or program that is being planned for you. This is about partnering to create something bigger. It is about “creating meaningful moments”—moments of joy, wonder, understanding, reflection and kindness both individually and as a congregational community. Too often Presidents, boards or staff get caught up in prioritizing problems over creating moments. As president, I want to focus on creating “moments” through four areas that were so eloquently described in the book “The Power of Moments.”
It is my hope, through these four areas:
ELEVATION INSIGHT PRIDE and CONNECTION
we will see both positive and meaningful outcomes of:
—enhanced value and membership experience,
—increased commitment and volunteerism,
—positive financial trends
—and personal growth.
Our board, committees, Klei Kodesh and staff will work hard to organize events, enhance prayer experiences, and provide volunteer opportunities but You/All of Us have to be the one to create or identify “moments”—big or small. What will you hear, see, participate in that could lift you up, spark discovery and understanding, empower you, and deepen relationships based on shared values?
Here are some ideas of what to look for in regards to creating these moments within our Shearith community:
Elevate – Moments of elevation are experiences that change your expectation; break the script from your everyday, moments that make you feel engaged, motivated, joyful. These don’t have to be “wow moments” but are experiences that still impact you. Elevation is something we even describe in our new Mission statement: Elevate your soul.
Intriguing, but how do we get there? Let us show you.
Creating elevated moments will be in:
—our religious school where new teaching modalities awaken the student that can have a lasting impact for years to come. This year, we plan to take out four Sunday School days moving them to Friday night experiences to ELEVATE the learning of both the child and the parent, trading conventional learning with family-based learning.
—Moments will be available through our evolving prayer options ELEVATING meaningful, spiritual experiences from traditional to innovative. If you want traditional, we have it. If you want music, we have it. If you want young family options, we have that, too. Everyone is welcome to drop in. Make a point to come -to something- to see what it is about. It might be your style or it might not, but don’t formulate an opinion until you’ve tried it.
—Other moments of ELEVATION can be through a sensory boost—having music played tonight as we were eating, Elevates this installation; an alternate reading on Shabbat or even jokes after Shabbat announcements are elevating an experience.
—And look for Elevation through our social action projects. They will trigger your participation and stimulate your core beliefs while, at the same time, ELEVATING someone less fortunate who will benefit from your kindness. I became involved at Shearith through social action—those “moments” spoke to me and ultimately gave me my “voice” as a leader.
Insight What do moments of insight look like? These would be moments where you feel empowered or reflective.
—Insight can come from one-on-one conversations with our Klei Kodesh, staff, or other congregants that stretch our thinking and empathy.
—You can find insight through a sermon or teaching that awakens you and broadens your understanding and interest. We need to ask: What are the things Judaism needs to say that will be important enough to galvanize you or a younger generation to be involved and connected to Jewish life? Discussing poverty, hunger, human dignity, through a Jewish lens, can stimulate insight. It is important to speak out on anti-Semitism and hatred; and to support inclusion and civility. These issues concern all of us and energize younger generations. Don’t look through a red or blue lens – we are bigger than that, look through a human lens that can ultimately inspire us to live and act Jewishly.
We want to give you the tools to find insight - we can teach and motivate you but YOU will have to pursue what is offered. Imagine what you can learn, achieve, participate in, if you open yourself up and search for insight.
Pride: Shearith Israel has many proud moments of being a strong, vibrant conservative synagogue:
—moments of pride as our members grow as leaders and as philanthropists
—and moments of pride as we stand with Israel, committed to its existence and future.
These moments of pride are sparked by sense of accomplishment, of recognition and of achievement but it can also be about gratitude and telling our story.
Look for moments of pride as we become more “mission driven” in all that we do.
Pride…when we implement initiatives from our strategic plan – setting goals for committees to provide structure and accountability.
WE will have pride… as we embark on an Ambassador program where everyone representing Shearith, from our greeters and committee chairs to our volunteers out in the community, will go through a program to enhance our interactions and to be able to tell our story. This is essential as we connect with each other and the greater Dallas Jewish Community.
WE will have pride… in retiring the debt—not a popular topic but it’s there and not going to go away without each of us. Our pride IS connected to our financial stability. We are fiscally sound with tight checks and balances for us to continue to move forward but in order to strengthen our Jewish life here at Shearith, we need to pay off that debt. Join me and others in stepping up.
And... WE will have Pride in volunteering—I want to put the “Do” back in “Donate.” Show your pride by being on a committee, or volunteering for a one-time project. One person.. and another person.. and another person multiplies, adding pride to our synagogue, pride to the volunteer efforts and pride in ourselves. No successful organization or religious institution can have members with high standards but low commitment. Let’s shoot for high standards and high commitment. We will thank you and I hope you will thank us.
And lastly, moments of Connection: In a world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where connections are brief “likes,” emoticons, shared photos and 140 max characters, moments of connections can be difficult. Our Klei Kodesh and staff truly value and care about each of us, but how to we deepen our relationships with one another?
—Based on our strategic plan, we will be creating engaging opportunities for smaller groups to connect for more meaningful interactions.
—We will work on spotlighting our members—each of you—in unique ways to get to know each other better
—We will reach out to introduce ourselves to younger generations, not forgetting about those of ALL generations that are already here
—And we will connect through shared community experiences, first rolling out a Shabbat program and dinner on Sept 20th to honor and thank our Shearith Holocaust survivors, Holocaust museum docents, volunteers and board members. We will then, after the High Holidays, have a Shearith night at the new Dallas Holocaust Museum to share this museum together, as ONE Shearith community.
Tonight, I have spoken to you about creating moments through ELEVATION, INSIGHT, PRIDE and CONNECTION. You now have your first assignment. You were handed a piece of paper as you were walking in that asks the question, “How can we help create moments with you?” Please give it some thought and let us know.
I am honored and excited to be your President and I look forward to helping you SEEK “moments” as well as YOUR help in creating them. Let’s focus on meaning and moments, not just on membership.
In closing, as I routinely do at Shabbat services, I’d like to leave you with an additional reading from our Siddur. I pick each reading based on what speaks to me that week and tonight I’d like to leave you with an adapted prayer for our congregation.
May the one who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless this holy congregation, men and women, sons and daughters, and all that is ours. May it be Your will to bless us, to hear our voices raised in prayer, and to protect us from any trouble and difficulty. Spread over us the divine canopy of peace and plant within us love and unity, peace and friendship. And let us say: Amen
At the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, President Jack Jacobsen reflected on his two-year presidency at Shearith Israel. Here are Jack's remarks:
Rabbis, Cantor, fellow officers, members of the Board, our staff and our Congregation:
Where to begin? The journey to ascend to president of this sacred institution began over eight years ago when Mark Davidoff asked me to meet him for drinks. I walked into the bar at the Westin Galleria and was ambushed by Mark, Sharon Levin, Todd Chanon and Gail Mizrahi where I was “asked” if I would consider becoming a vice-president; actually I believe I was told I didn’t have a choice, and thus I got on the track to becoming president. And now those eight years are coming to a conclusion.
These past eight years, and in particular the past two years, have been enormously rewarding. I have gotten the opportunity to know so many people throughout the congregation. I have heard your stories — about things you like about Shearith Israel and in some cases what you don’t like.
At my installation speech two years ago, I pledged to ensure that each of you would be heard. I hope you feel that I upheld that pledge. Whether it was the result of our high holiday survey and the actions we took based on the responses we received, or the input we sought in developing the strategic plan. But I’m confident those steps are only the beginning as I know Shirley, Irving and Mark will continue to seek your input as they continue to move the Shul in a new direction.
And while on the topic, when I started my presidency, it of course coincided with Rabbi Sunshine beginning his tenure as our new spiritual leader. Rabbi Sunshine, along with Rabbis Roffman and Wallach, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi, have done an amazing job to establish a direction for our future. And just in the past two years there have been so many new programs that have been implemented, including Torah on Tap, Prayer Rhythms, the Couples Class, Women’s Torah Study and Guys' Night Out and some that just continue to grow like Shababa. And under the leadership of Sarah Lipinsky, our religious school is once again the place where families want to send their children. People again are talking about Shearith Israel in the community for the right reasons.
When I took on the presidency, one of my foremost goals was to retire the debt. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. At this point, the current balance of the loan is $3,475,000 and we have $711,000 in outstanding pledges. I am very pleased to report to you that 91% of our board has made a donation or pledge to the Burn the Mortgage Campaign. Why is this significant? Because when we go to potential donors, we can show that our board is fully behind the campaign and to helping us eliminate this burden. With the help of Kenny and Sherry Goldberg who are chairing the campaign, we will get there. Thank you Kenny and Sherry for all your efforts on this important endeavor.
And now for a few additional thank yous.
To our Gabbayim, the various committee chairs, and the countless members and volunteers who have given your time and helped make the last two years a success, I thank each and every one of you.
To Kim and the entire staff—thank you for all your hard work throughout the year. Many congregants have no idea how hard you all work to make all services and programs appear seamless to us. I would ask the entire staff to please stand so we can all acknowledge and express our appreciation.
To the Klei Kodesh--Rabbis Sunshine, Roffman and Wallach, Cantor Zhrebker and Avi: I have so enjoyed working with all of you these past two years. You all have such diverse perspectives on prayer, but ultimately you ensure that all congregants are touched, enriched and feel special. And that’s what is most important. And to Shira and Adam – thank you for helping to increase our membership with the recent arrival of Rebecca.
Ari—I was lucky to start my presidency at the same time as you started here. I would joke to many people that we had our honeymoon period together. I have truly enjoyed working with you but will also forever value the friendship we have developed these past two years.
Mark--I am so pleased that you are coming on board as an officer. The bond that you will develop with Shirley and Irving is something truly special--I am just jealous that I won’t be a part of that circle with you all.
Speaking of bonds--Shirley and Irving--I’m not sure I have the right words to describe the love and admiration I have developed for the two of you. We truly were a team, we had lots of great laughs, mostly from Irving’s jokes, a few difficult moments, but I cannot think of two other people I would have wanted to serve my term of president with. You know I will be here for both of you--just as you were always here for me. I love you both very much. Shirley --all the best as president. I know you will do an amazing job.
To my kids--Elliott and Emma. Elliott, who just completed his second year at Colorado and Emma who just yesterday returned from her gap year in Israel, I am so proud of you both. But I also want to publicly apologize to you. I know that many times when you guys were still living at home and I had shul meetings, I got home later than you would have preferred. I know we can’t get those times back but please know I was always trying to do the best I could as your dad. You have both grown up so much and are remarkable kids. I love you both so much.
And lastly--to the Congregation—thank you for the opportunity to serve as your president these past two years. It has been a true honor and privilege.
I would like to close with a passage from the Torah, from this week’s parsha Bemidbar, chapter 27:15:27:
“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, 'Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like a sheep without a shepherd.”
How is this relevant? While Shirley will be taking over as the leader and shepherd of our community, shepherds work not only from the front of the flock but also from within and at the rear as necessary. While I will no longer be leading this sacred community, please know that I will continue to be in the middle and at the rear, continuing to offer guidance and support to help our congregation move forward into its future.
It is with extreme gratitude that I say Toda Raba.
At the Annual Meeting on Wednesday, June 5, Rabbi Ari Sunshine thanked outgoing President Jack Jacobsen for his exemplary service. Here are Rabbi Sunshine's remarks:
Jack, Pirkei Avot offers us another teaching that speaks of the derekh tovah, the good path in life to which one should cleave. Among the characteristics that are listed, we find “chaver tov,” a good friend and colleague, “ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad,” foresight, and “lev tov,” a generous heart. All three of these characteristics befit you to a "T."
Throughout your presidency you have partnered and collaborated expertly with your fellow officers and lay leaders and with our Klei Kodesh and staff team, making for an extremely smooth two years that has seemingly flown by in the blink of an eye as our congregational life has flourished. You have the gift of foresight, trying to stay one step ahead of things and plan for our congregation’s exciting future with the development of Ma’alot, our new strategic plan, during your tenure.
And you most certainly have a generous heart. You are generous with your time, always finding ways to carve out the space for meetings or to deal with an issue on the phone or via text or email amidst your incredibly busy professional commitments with your day (and night and weekend!) job. You are generous with your resources, leading by example both a couple of years ago, and again last month, with your meaningful and significant donations to our Burn the Mortgage Campaign. You never seek accolades or credit for your efforts, you’re comfortable just doing what needs to be done, because our community needs it. And you are generous with your friendship, the nexus between chaver tov and lev tov, caring and unwaveringly loyal to those you care about. You readily make space for them to be a part of your life, as you have done so warmly for me and Jen and our family over these past two years since we arrived here in Dallas. It has been a real honor and a pleasure and, quite frankly, a lot of fun. Jack, working with you during your tenure, I’m personally grateful for all of your support and for your friendship which I know will long outlast these two years of our partnership. I’ll miss my Chai Tea Latte and Blueberry Muffin on Wednesday mornings, but I know there will still be many shared l’chaim’s in our future.
On behalf of the Klei Kodesh, I’d like to present you with this gift of a beautiful wine fountain. We know how much you like to host others in your home for Shabbat and holidays, and with this fountain you can easily share kiddush wine with all of your guests just as you have shared with us so much else as president of our shul. We hope you will enjoy this and use it often in the months and years ahead.
Jack, we extend a hearty and heartfelt yasher koach to you for all of your efforts as president of Congregation Shearith Israel over these past two years, and we know you won’t be a stranger as you continue to be an integral leader in our community. With that, I now formally discharge you from your position as president of our congregation and welcome you to the “past presidents club!”
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
For those of you who attended my installation here at Shearith Israel back in December of 2017, you might recall that I was installed by Rabbi Murray Ezring from Temple Israel in Charlotte, NC. Murray is my rabbinic mentor, the Senior Rabbi I worked with at the beginning of my rabbinic career, and a dear friend and trusted advisor and confidant throughout the years since. This past weekend I was privileged to return the favor and celebrate with Murray and his wife Barbara and their kids and grandkids in Charlotte as he retired from Temple Israel after 25 years of service. I was honored to be able to offer him a charge during Shabbat morning services, and I wanted to share with all of you what I shared with Rabbi Ezring and the assembled congregation, reflecting on his impact on my life and rabbinate and on his entire congregation.
It’s a real treat to be with all of you today back in this beautiful sanctuary and on this bimah that was the first pulpit I ascended when I was a “baby rabbi”. Moreover, it’s a special privilege to be able to stand before you and before Rabi Mori, my rabbi and teacher, my mentor and dear friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, to honor him on this milestone weekend celebrating his retirement after 25 years of faithful and dedicated service to Temple Israel.
Where to begin? How about we start with 5 things I learned from Rabbi Ezring in those first 5 years of my rabbinate:
1) When you write a sermon, first come up with the message you want to give and then look for the text that will reinforce that message. People want to hear about real life and want to hear Torah that is relatable and impacts the way they think and the choices they make.
2) Never be afraid to experiment when it comes to synagogue services, programming, or initiatives. Rabbi Ezring used to say he was always willing to try something once, and I have followed that advice in my own rabbinate.
3) Be accessible as a rabbi and a human being and always go out of your way to be there for, and with, people. Rabbis should not be distant from their community. The way we celebrate with a family at their simcha or are fully present for them when they are in crisis or after a loss is vital to building relationships and being the pastor congregants need us—and deserve for us—to be.
4) When clergy colleagues earn your trust, partner with them and work together to create an effective clergy team. Empower each other and encourage each other to do what each of you does best and the congregation as a whole will benefit. Among other things, this is partly why Murray gave me flexible time on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings when I worked here so that I could play in the JCC basketball and softball leagues and build important relationships that way.
5) Seek out partnerships in the interfaith community and cultivate them, and not just for the sake of educating each other and our congregations about different religious traditions. We live in a world that is much larger than the walls of any one synagogue, church or mosque, and we need to work together to make that world better. The faith community can play a vital role in that effort. The relationship Rabbi Ezring has with Dr. James Howell at Myers Park United Methodist Church and so many other local clergy has been a model for me to follow in the congregations I have served since I left here.
When I sat down in a room at JTS with Rabbi Ezring and David Miller back in the spring of 2002, I was already a finalist for several associate rabbi positions and the three of us had a frank discussion about whether Jen and I could see me taking the job and us moving to Charlotte. I told them, of course we could see it happening, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it and considering an interview weekend. But it’s important that you all know what the single biggest reason was that I chose to take this job at Temple Israel back in 2002. That reason was Rabbi Murray Ezring. Having met with several different senior rabbis that were looking for associates, and then having spent time talking with Murray that night in NY and then here during my interview weekend, I quickly became convinced that Murray would welcome me as a trusted partner and provide me the opportunity to learn and grow, and succeed and fail, as a “baby rabbi”. I knew he would be the right mentor for me. And I am so incredibly grateful for the choice I made, and for the relationship and friendship that developed between us in those 4.5 years and continued to thrive in the 13 years since. Murray and Barbara and their kids and grandkids came to Maryland to celebrate Jonah’s BM with us back in 2016, our families vacationed together in Orlando for Pesach one year, Murray and Barbara came to Dallas in December of 2017 to install me as Senior Rabbi at Shearith Israel, and they also came to visit us this January for several days. That’s not to mention the time I flew down to Charlotte to take Murray and his family out to dinner to make good on a bet after the Yankees beat the Orioles in the 2012 ALDS. Moreover, Murray and I still talk frequently and if I’m ever in a pinch and need Rabbinic advice, I’ll always pick up the phone and call him.
Being a congregational Rabbi is an incredibly demanding job, one that never really stops or yields even late at night or when on vacation. It can be exhausting and there are days when it can feel burdensome for a rabbi and his or her whole family who pay the price for the rabbi needing to be available sometimes on a moment’s notice to help with a crisis. In today’s parasha, Bechukotai, we find a juxtaposition of 11 verses of blessings God will provide us if we do what we’re supposed to do, followed by 32 verses of curses in case we choose not to follow the plan. At first glance one might think the curses—the burdens—of a pulpit rabbinate might outweigh the blessings, which at times could appear to be fewer in number. But at the end of the day the blessings that we experience as rabbis when we become an important part of your lives are so much deeper, richer and more powerful than those burdens or curses. And likewise it is a tremendous blessing for a congregation to be in relationship with their rabbi for such a long time, reflecting the importance of mutual care for each other as human beings. Temple Israel is so fortunate to have experienced Rabbi Ezring’s leadership, wisdom, wit, and warmth, over this last quarter century—yes, 25 years. We’re all better off for being able to call him Moreinu Rabbeinu, our rabbi and our teacher, and our friend.
Murray, thank you for all you’ve done for me over the years, thanks for trusting me, for laughing with me and occasionally at me, for advising me, and for being my very good friend. And thank you for all you’ve done for Temple Israel over these last 25 years of partnership. Mazal Tov to you and Barbara, to Aviva, Tami, Adam, Ron and Gil, and to Addison and Kobe of course, for reaching this amazing milestone. May the years ahead bring you as much fulfillment as these years you are concluding now. Love you, buddy.
Parashat Emor 5779
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Friends, Thursday night marked the end of an era. No, unfortunately I’m not talking about Dirk Nowitzki’s last game after 21 seasons, since the Mavs didn’t manage to make the playoffs, so that was over a month ago already. Actually, I’m talking about the end of another memorable 12 season run, one that was marked by stellar performances week after week, consistently entertaining the fans. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Now, I have to confess, for the first 6 seasons I watched the show religiously either live or on DVR and was always laughing throughout. Then, through no fault of the show, just a matter of life getting in the way, I stopped keeping up with the show, and haven’t watched in the last several seasons, but when I noticed that Thursday was going to be the series finale, I made sure to record it and watch it when I came home from work. I promise I won’t provide any spoilers, but I will say that I jumped right back into the feel of the show and found the conclusion very satisfying even after several years away.
I also listened to an interview on NPR with Mandalit Del Barco the other day about the show and found it quite interesting as well. One of the executive producers of the show, Chuck Lorre, noted that the show was always for and about geeks and nerds, and that’s why it worked. He said: “The characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other—they created a surrogate family.” He added that he is proud that the show connected with viewers who didn’t always fit in, commenting “this is for the rest of us who weren’t the king and queen of the prom”. His co-creator of the show, Bill Prady, who used to write computer software, once talked with Lorre about how brilliant his coworkers were at programming, but how bad they could be interacting with people, and women in particular. When Prady told him about a programmer who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn’t manage to tip the waiters in a restaurant, Lorre said, “Hang on, I’ve never seen that guy on television”. Then they made their protagonists scientists instead of programmers, and they were off to the races in creating a successful show. In the NPR interview this week, Prady became emotional and commented that “all of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn’t fit in—that was me”.
The disappointment and frustration of those on the fringes of society, those who feel like they don’t fit in or are marginalized, is not a modern-day phenomenon. It is a problem almost as old as, dare I say it, The Big Bang, or at least since human community began in ancient times and in the Bible. Take the disturbing narrative of “the blasphemer” as recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Emor: A man came out among the Israelites whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. This man, for reasons unstated in the text, gets into a heated argument with another Israelite and blasphemes the name of God. He is brought by witnesses to Moses for adjudication, after which God instructs the people, “V’samchu kol ha-shom’im et y’deyhem al rosho”, all those who heard the man curse God must lay their hands upon his head, and then the whole community must stone him to death.
Why did this man, known as the Ben-Isha Yisraelit (literally “the son of an Israelite woman”), instigate a fight with another Israelite? A 5th century C.E. Midrash [Leviticus Rabbah 32:3], rabbinic legend, imagines a vivid picture of the events preceding this altercation. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit, who as I previously mentioned had an Egyptian father and a mother from the Israelite tribe of Dan, attempted to pitch his tent in the quarters of Dan. He is rejected by his presumptive tribesman and told that since tribal affiliation is determined through the father, he has no place amongst the tribe of Dan. Even though the Ben-Isha Yisraelit clearly saw himself as an Israelite, others were unwilling to accept him. In fact, according to the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, he was the first child of intermarriage in Israelite or Jewish history. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit takes his case to Moses, thinking that perhaps because Moses also grew up as an outsider in Egypt, he will have empathy for his predicament. However, Moses ruled in favor of Dan, and the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, angry and dejected, responds by blaspheming God’s name.
Imagine this man’s utter disappointment in what he believed to be, wanted to be, his community. He had a religious crisis and lashed out with a religious response. As a sympathetic reader, we cannot help but feel troubled by this narrative. This is not to trivialize this man’s offense per se— after all, the Ben-Isha Yisraelit violated the prohibition of desecrating God’s name, a law stated explicitly just a few verses earlier. But what are we to make of the community’s seeming lack of compassion? As my colleague and friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, NY, points out, a careful reading of this narrative suggests that the Torah seems unsettled by this as well.
In announcing the punishment of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, God commands the Israelites: “Let all those who heard [the blasphemy] place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him.” Generally, the placing of hands is a symbolic gesture whereby one transfers sin onto another; such is the case with sacrifices such as the burnt offering listed at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, and also with the Yom Kippur ritual enacted by the High Priest back in ancient times, when he would place both his hands on the head of a live goat — the scapegoat—and confess the sins of Israel onto its head before it was sent off to die in the desert. The people who witnessed the blasphemer, most likely the very people who banished him from their midst, were obligated to atone for their lack of compassion by means of s’micha, placing their hands on his head. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit died for his transgression, but he also became the scapegoat, sent to his death because of the sins of his neighbors.
That the community was at least partially responsible for the sin of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit is further evidenced by the juxtaposition of this story to the upcoming portions of the Torah that describe our responsibility to help integrate the lonely and downtrodden. The Torah emphasizes our obligation to take care of the impoverished, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
The Ben-Isha Yisraelit is the paradigmatic outsider. He is someone who does not fit in, someone out of sync with societal expectations, a newcomer who cannot find his place in the community. The genesis of the Big Bang Theory show and the biblical story of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit remind us that in our society, ancient and modern, it’s often hard to connect and find a way to fit in and become “accepted”. Sometimes it’s because we are newcomers to a country or community, school or house of worship. And sometimes we may already be settled in and yet are still having trouble finding kindred spirits who accept us for who we are without judging our background, parentage, skin color, sexual preference, gender, religion, or interests. I would reasonably guess that many, if not all of us, in this sanctuary have experienced this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point or another in our lives. It’s never a good feeling to be an outlier to a group or a community. But sometimes all it takes is one person, or a small group of people, to help break down those barriers and obstacles to connection. And remembering that we’ve experienced moments like these may be just the push we need to keep an eye open for others who may be struggling on the periphery.
In a synagogue or church community, or in a school setting, a sense of belonging should mean more than just pitching your tent like the Ben-Isha Yisraelit attempted to do on the land of the tribe of Dan, saying you want to be a part of the community; it should mean that people INVITE you to pitch your tent and even lift up the flap periodically to check on you and see how you’re doing. Perhaps had the Israelite community embraced the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, rather than pushed him away, he would not have felt compelled to blaspheme God’s name. How would this man have felt here in Shearith Israel, or in the houses of faith of others present here today, or in the schools of our students here in the room? It’s a question that merits serious reflection. Do we treat these various settings as our home, and anyone in it as our personal guest? While we’re in these settings, who are we talking to, and who AREN’T we talking to? Who are we stopping to greet in the hall, or sitting next to in services or at kiddush lunch or in a cafeteria at school, and who are we passing by and ignoring? Are each one of us taking a share of the responsibility for making OUR communities—faith or school—more inviting, or are we leaving that job for someone else? Our actions and inactions, kind words or harsh ones, truly do make an impact on others whether we realize it or not.
Can we step up to our responsibilities to be pleasant, friendly, inviting, and concerned, to do our part to help more people in our respective faith and school communities feel like insiders instead of outsiders? Individuals’ feeling of belonging and sense of self-worth, and the vibrancy and even the very essence of these types of communities and our society is what’s at stake.
A 19th century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda of Berlin (the Netziv), once taught that each individual has immeasurable potential and excluding the outsider or the outlier means the world may miss out on untapped greatness. He wrote, “Never underestimate the human potential of the stranger. Never forget that he or she could also be destined for greatness and, hence, never be responsible for the suppression of another’s potential. Rather, open your heart to the stranger in love so that you can enable him to flourish and realize his potential.” Maybe that’s why Sheldon and Amy won the Nobel Prize in Thursday night’s Big Bang Theory finale (oh shoot, that was a spoiler): they reached their maximum potential because they were surrounded by a group of friends and surrogate family who embraced them for all of their quirks and loved and supported them all the same. It’s all any of us can ever ask for from others, and something we can give freely in return if we only choose to.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Thank you all, so much, for the good wishes and the joy you’ve shared with us after the birth of our new daughter. As today is the eighth day of her life, we’d like to share with you the names that we’ve chosen for her as she enters into the Covenant of the Jewish people—Rebecca Joelle, Rivka Yael bat HaRav Shira Esther vHaRav Avraham Elimelech.
Rebecca is named for Adam’s mother’s cousin, Ruth Ginsburg, or Ruthie as everyone called her. She was a kind, deeply spiritual, unapologetically eccentric woman who just happened to be a highly respected professional advocate for women, patron saint of progressive causes, and all-around fun-to-be with, easy-to-love soul. One year, on a visit to her home in Boston, Ruthie and Adam spent the day whale watching. He was maybe eight or nine years old, and yet, his mother trusted Ruthie to keep Adam occupied through the five- or six-hour cruise on the Atlantic. They spent the time chatting about how whales poop, counting the number of baby teeth Adam had left, and snapping photographs with his disposable camera. In other words, the kind of conversation any eight- or nine-year old might share with a buddy, except in this case the buddy was three decades older than Adam. No matter what they talked about, Ruthie was absolutely fascinated by the smallest details, each one a jumping off point for a conversation that could last minutes or hours.
We pray that Ruthie’s memory will inspire and remind Rebecca that the best way to earn someone’s trust, and respect, and love is to be deeply invested in them—in what they fight for, in what they care about, in what makes them laugh, and think, and wonder, and smile—no matter what those things are. Ruthie taught us that if something is important to someone you care about, you have to make it important to you. If you do, that person will never leave you, not even after they’re gone.
Rebecca’s middle name, Yael in Hebrew, Joelle in English, honors two remarkable rabbis.
First, Shira’s zaydie Rudy Adler, Yosef in Hebrew. When Shira reflects on his life, she marvels at his strength and perseverance, his sustained faith, and the drive that led him to touch so many lives, bringing as many people as he could closer to the Torah. She wonders how he survived with his relationship with Judaism and God intact as he traveled north from Nazi Germany to Liverpool, England with his yeshiva, leaving his parents behind, how he endured during the tumultuous voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto, eating only pickled fish and gasping sea air. She can’t fathom what it does to a person to finally make it safely to North America, only to be thrown into an internment camp for German nationals and always having to sleep with one eye open.
But through all of this, Shira’s zaydie kept his faith in God and in people. In Germany, in 1933, which was the year Hitler rose to power, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. In Liverpool, England, he learned to be a brilliant student of Talmud and earned semicha, rabbinic ordination. In the internment camp in Canada, he kept pages of Talmud folded in his sock so that he could retreat to a secluded part of the forest and study. And when he was finally released, he met Shira’s bubbie, Rose, at a young Judea meeting in Toronto, and she took on his life so whole-heartedly that his relationship with faith turned into a team effort. With her by his side, he moved from pulpit to pulpit until ending up in Orlando, with three beautiful children in tow. He lived to see his kids grow up, he spent wonderful quality time with his grandchildren, and near the end of his life, he met his great-granddaughter Hannah Rose, who we named for his beloved.
We pray that Rebecca experiences Shira’s zaydie’s long life and many joys. We also pray that she is inspired by his deep commitment to faith, to optimism, and to light. He always believed that blessings would come to him.
We also hope that she will take after Shira’s zaydie in his humor and lightheartedness. One of the best photographs ever taken of him is Rudy sitting next to Shira’s mom, when she was pregnant with her, each of them with tea mugs comfortably balanced on their round and buoyant tummies. We recreated the photo this Pesach with Shira’s dad, Hannah and Rebecca’s zaydie. When Shira was three years old and loved dancing around in her ballet tutu, he dressed up with her and did his best to keep up with her plies, arabesques, and jetês. And each year in his shul, he gave an annual sermon on Jewish humor—he would start a joke, remind himself of the punchline, and start laughing so hysterically that the rest was completely undecipherable as he dissolved into a mess of giggles. People would come from all over to watch this.
Rebecca's middle name, in English, changed from what we had initially decided on the night she was born, after we realized that she came into the world on the same day as Shira’s childhood rabbi’s 5th yartzeit. Unlike Shira’s zaydie, Rabbi Joel Wasser wasn’t given the opportunity to live out his days, but his legacy shines just as brightly.
Joel came to Tampa when Shira was 9 and brought with him a version of Judaism that centered around wholehearted passion and delight, unbridled faith and commitment to torah. His favorite teaching was from psalms: ivdu et hashem besimcha, serve God with joy, which soon became emblazoned in shining gold letters above the ark at Shira’s shul. When he entered a room, he would bellow “Shalom my holy friends,” in a way that made each person feel important, part of a sacred encounter. His charisma bounded off the walls on Purim, his voice carried all of the hakafot on Simchat Torah, his spirit filled the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. He spent his summers at Camp Ramah Darom and though he could have chosen the nicer staff housing (which his family would have appreciated), he insisted on rooming in the dilapidated shack with no AC in the middle of camp so that he could run into everyone as they were huffing and puffing up the hill. You wouldn’t expect it, but being short of breath was a great condition to insist that someone stop for a while, have a drink, and discuss whatever esoteric Jewish idea Joel was thinking about at the time. Or more often, he’d look right into your soul and ask: how’s your neshama?
Instead of traditional bat mitzvah lessons, Joel taught Shira how to study Mishnah. You can probably imagine that in 6th grade Shira was used to knowing everything and being right all the time . . . so after reading their first passage together, he asked Shira if she had any questions. She said “no, of course not, I understood everything.” And in the next 30 seconds, he asked Shira 50 questions to which she had no response. A perfect introduction to rabbinic literature, a perfect representation of how Joel illuminated Shira’s path forward.
We pray that Rebecca Joelle learns these lessons from Rabbi Joel Wasser:
Don’t do anything half-assed. If you care enough to do something, throw your entire self into it. And if you can throw in a couple of SAT vocabulary words, even better.
Figure out who you are and live out loud. Then, create space for others to do so.
Believe in the possibility of holiness. If you don’t see it around you, it’s your job to kindle it.
Understand that strength and fragility often go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to give someone permission to have both.
And finally, ivdi besimcha. Do your life’s work, express and receive love, and envelop it all in joy.
Before we were married, we each insisted that the other share in an experience that reflected an essential part of who we are as individuals and what our life together would look like. Naturally, for Adam, that meant taking Shira to his favorite sacred place, his most beloved sanctuary—Oriole Park at Camden Yards, so that we could watch the Red Sox throttle the Orioles. Shira insisted that we do something she could not believe Adam hadn’t done—watch the movie version of the Sound of Music. He was pleasantly surprised by the movie, but even more surprised by what happened last week, the afternoon we brought Rebecca from the hospital. Adam swaddled her in a blanket, and fulfilled his life-long dream of putting his newborn daughter in his lap as he sat at a grand piano in the music room of his own home. When he reached for the sheet music, it wasn’t “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler or “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd that he instinctually took down from the shelf. Instead, it was a score from a show he never really understood until he held Rebecca Joelle in his arms and gently played his heart out on an instrument that we hope will echo in her soul and her children’s soul forever, just as it echoes in ours.
Somehow, despite the emotion of moment, his fingers found the right keys, and his voice clearly whispered the words—with a few, small changes:
Our home is alive with the sound of music
With songs we have sung for four thousand years
These walls fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a shofar that flies
From a shul on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray
I go to my home when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
Your heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And together, you and me and your mother and your sister, will sing once more.
Welcome to our home, Rebecca Joelle.
Sermon--Acharei Mot 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
The title of our parasha today, Acharei Mot, literally “after the death of,” refers to the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were struck down by God a few chapters earlier in parashat Shemini for bringing an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, to the sacrificial altar. There Aaron reacts with stunned silence and he and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are unable to mourn their loved ones formally and ritually because they must maintain their pure sanctified state to be able to fulfill their priestly duties for the Israelite people. Instead, the rest of the Israelite community mourns on their behalf. Ultimately Moses instructs Aaron and his two other sons to resume their sacred work as priests. Here in our parasha the reference to the deaths from several chapters ago serves as a warning to Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, not to enter the innermost part of the sanctuary improperly in the context of his fulfilling the annual Yom Kippur atonement ritual for the community. The words “acharei mot” here teach that, after we’ve experienced death and loss, we have to take something away from that devastation. To say we could justify death or explain away loss by saying we can “make the loss worth it” or “make someone’s sacrifice worth it,” is itself an overstatement that potentially trivializes the depth of the loss or suggests a direct connection between a death and something positive that comes about in its aftermath or is allowed to continue by virtue of a person’s or people’s ultimate sacrifice. And yet, it’s also true that, when we’re in pain and have a permanent hole in our heart that cannot be filled because of a loss or losses we’ve suffered, we may find at least some measure of comfort in knowing that something positive came about as a result, some kind of silver lining to carry us forward.
Friends, the idea of “acharei mot” could not be a more appropriate parasha for today in light of the shooting at Chabad of Poway last Shabbat morning, that claimed the life of Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. A congregant was gunned down on Shabbat and the 8th day of Pesach in her synagogue, just as 11 congregants were gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat in October. Both shootings were perpetrated by anti-Semitic murderers, and last week’s shooting was carried out by a 19-year-old. How do we respond “after the death?" We can seek inspiration from Rabbi Goldstein, who, after he had already seen his beloved congregant lying dead in the synagogue lobby, and with his hands bloody from being shot, managed to help evacuate children from the building and then, amazingly, after the shooter had fled, even spoke to his community outside the building. In his opinion piece in the New York Times this week, he wrote that he didn’t “remember all that [he] said to [his] community, but [he did] remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And he remembered shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” He commented, “I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.” And then Rabbi Goldstein added:
“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish. From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue—especially this coming Shabbat.”
Rabbi Goldstein powerfully teaches us that, “acharei mot,” after Lori Kaye’s death and the deaths at Tree of Life Synagogue and after so many other deaths at the hands of anti-Semites throughout history and into modern times through the Shoah, the Holocaust, which we coincidentally also commemorated this week, and even in the 70+ years since, we must continue to say to anti-Semites and to the world that you are not going to erase us from history. You are not going to erase our story or our narrative. And you will never stop us from living as Jews and proudly carrying forward our traditions and our peoplehood.
This theme of acharei mot carries forward into next week when we will observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on Tuesday evening, immediately followed the next day by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. When the government of the State of Israel established the date of Yom HaZikaron in 1963, they deliberately and intentionally placed it immediately before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on the calendar, starkly reminding us of the “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter of which renowned Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote, referring to the men and women who sacrificed their lives so that the modern State of Israel might be established and so that it would survive in the face of any and all threat that has come its way since. As we celebrate the miracle of Israel’s independence, we can never forget the price that was paid, and continues to be paid, to secure a homeland for our Jewish people. In this vein, I was shocked to learn yesterday that a prominent synagogue in Washington, D.C., the 6th and I Synagogue, will be observing an “Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day” this coming Tuesday night on the evening of Yom HaZikaron, describing it on their synagogue website as a “memorial based on the values of hope, solidarity, and non-violence” in which people will “hear from Israelis and Palestinians as they share their families’ stories of loss." When I learned about this event at 6th and I, I dug a little deeper and found that sadly this is not the only example of dilution of sacred Jewish days and ceremonies into something that obscures or devalues the Jewish heart of the commemoration itself. For example, Jewish Voice for Peace has created a Pesach Haggadah that makes equivalences between the Israelite experience in Egypt and the Palestinian experience, and a Tisha B’Av ritual that compares the Palestinian reaction to the establishment of the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s reaction—and millennia-old day of mourning—for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, expulsions from European countries in the Middle Ages, pogroms and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
Now, let me be clear—I do very much hear and recognize the narrative of loss experienced by Palestinian Arabs, and I very much want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is an appropriate time to focus on those sentiments and hopes. But on Yom HaZikaron, Pesach, Tisha B’Av? Sacred days of our people are NOT that time. We deserve our day, or days, to have them be just about our unique experience, our narrative. When we water down that narrative, as 6th and I Synagogue is doing this coming Tuesday night, it makes it harder for us to stand up to anti-Semites like the murderers in Poway and Pittsburgh because we are devaluing ourselves and we are devaluing our own story and our own right to exist! Why are we doing the work of the anti-Semites for them, making it easier to say our story doesn’t matter, our religion doesn’t matter, our people doesn’t matter, the State of Israel doesn’t matter? Like Rabbi Goldstein said in his opinion piece, we need to proudly stand up for ourselves and assert our right to exist, our right to gather safely and securely and practice our rituals and traditions here in the U.S. and in any country, and our right to have a national homeland in the land of Israel, “lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion Yerushalayim,” to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem, as the words of Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah proclaim. This is us, the Jewish people. We will not back down from anti-Semites or from anyone who would seek to devalue us or the sacrifices we’ve made or eliminate us from history.
Acharei Mot. After the deaths. How do we respond to the deaths of Lori Kaye, the 11 Pittsburgh victims, the multi-thousand Israeli soldiers fighting to establish, secure and defend Israel, the countless victims of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, and the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah? We respond by living proudly as Jews, by testifying through our actions that Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish statehood is somehow worth the unimaginable and impossibly high cost we’ve paid and still pay to this very day. I hope you’ll join me in our Dallas Jewish community’s commemoration of Yom HaZikaron this coming Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm at Anshai Torah, as we gather and remember some of these sacrifices that have been made in the name of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People. May the memories of those who have paid this price for us, our “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter for our Judaism, continue to bless us and inspire us to treasure the Judaism and the Jewish state that meant so much to them. AMEN.
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
There’s an incredible moment in the new Avengers movie (don’t worry, no spoilers!) in which all of the women superheroes suddenly materialize on the screen together, united in their collective duty to protect the object that is the lynchpin of the final battle…you might say… the Endgame. And though there are certainly other parts of the film that are meant to draw tears, I found myself suddenly and deeply moved by the moment of feminist solidarity.
In the universe of superheroes, women have only recently begun to take center stage. Usually these comic books, television shows, and movies exalt the masculine form: the übermensch of brawn and sometimes brains through which audiences can vicariously experience the satisfaction of vanquishing evil. But we have seen a shift in the approach lately: women are no longer there just for eye candy; rather they are essential to the plot. Perhaps they’re even the protagonist! And they bring both brains and brawn. After so many decades of the male-centric superhero universe, it was poignant to watch the strong and beautiful women take up the whole screen.
Tomorrow will bring to a close our second year of Women’s Torah Study, a weekly class in which we reflect on how Judaism engages women. This year, we took a deeper dive into the presence and absence of women’s voices in our tradition, tackling hard questions like:
The Torah seems to posit that a woman’s value lies in her ability to give birth. How can women become worth more than that?
As preparation to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah instructs: “do not go near a woman.” Does this mean that women are not the Torah’s intended audience?
Women’s involvement in Jewish practice often seems as a supporting role for her family, rather than for her own fulfillment of mitzvot. How can a woman create her own relationship with God and with Judaism, regardless of whether she chooses to marry and have children?
Traditional Judaism relegates women to their own side of the mechitzah and off the bimah. How do we encourage women to step forward and lead?
Our conversations took us to places expected and unexpected, unearthing deep questions that were always present but never acknowledged. We explored modern Midrashim written by women scholars and rabbis, we learned about societal trends that gave rise to waves of both Jewish misogyny and feminism, and we reflected on how to raise our own voices in response. And though we all emerged at the end with a different image of how we each express our Jewish voices, we are all united by the same approach: that becoming a Jewish feminist means having the freedom to challenge foundational assumptions about gender roles in Judaism.
I am profoundly grateful to the group of committed, insightful, passionate women who inspired me every Wednesday. You are all superheroes—and when you assemble before me, I know that our Torah is in good hands.
On Erev Pesach last year, I left the cheerful hubbub in my kitchen for a few moments, hoping for good news. Instead, after the then-familiar three minutes of waiting, I gazed upon yet another negative pregnancy test.
I thought that this month would be different—I thought that somehow, God would see us in our anguish, that our journey from slavery to freedom that year would be about abandoning the counting, the hormone pills, the cyclical emotional roller coaster every 28 days. I pictured the nurse from the fertility clinic administering the IUI two weeks prior, flashing us a big congratulatory smile, saying how she couldn’t wait to hear from us when we finally got positive results.
But it was not to be that month, or the next, or the next. I held Adam and Hannah close, exalting God for the abundant blessings I already had in my life, cried with my mom in the laundry room ... and we all put on joyful faces and celebrated our Festival of Freedom that centers around the idea that we are duty-bound to explain to our children why and how we were liberated from our oppression in Egypt. Exodus 13, for example, teaches us: “Seven days you shall eat no unleavened bread…and you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”
Children have a special job on Pesach. They are the catalysts of our gatherings, the instigators of our storytelling. The entire Seder is designed with them in mind; the rabbis teach us that we must set out dishes of nuts and candies to keep them awake and occupied, that we must place strange objects on the table so that they will ask why. The youngest guests at the Seder have the sacred task of asking the Four Questions, providing a framework for the conversation, and they also have the very important job of finding the Afikomen, without which we couldn’t conclude.
And so what happens, when we find ourselves deep in discourse about the birthing of our nation, the miraculous grace by which God took us out of Egypt on eagles’ wings, the mitzvah of sharing this story with the next generation—and simultaneously—feeling the pangs of emptiness that we cannot live up to the expectations that we set for ourselves? As a community, we must become aware that one out of every eight of our families contend in some way with infertility, and that as joyful as our holidays can be, that many times, they are tinged with sadness. Just as we look around the table, seeing in our mind’s eye those from previous generations who are no longer with us, we also look around and see the members of the next generation who could be there, who could be helping us shape and inspire the Seders of the present and the future in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine.
In your Pesach preparations this year, as you make donations to JFS, Mazon, and other organizations that support Jews who find the holiday to be a financial hardship, I also ask that you donate to the Hebrew Free Loan Society or the Priya Fund, non-profits that provide spiritual, educational, and financial support to families going through fertility treatments. For those who are still in their narrow place—their Mitzrayim, let us bring their stories to the forefront of our consciousness and let us support them as they struggle toward their liberation.
May we all be freed from our straits this year, and may we all come together in discovering our personal and communal paths to freedom.
Parashat Tazria 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Lilly definitely struck gold when it came to the Bat Mitzvah parasha lottery. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they find out they get to speak about contagious skin diseases in front of a large crowd of family and friends? Lilly did a great job giving us a contemporary perspective on this vis-à-vis inclusion and exclusion from community, so I’m going to spend a few minutes on a related theme that emerges towards the end of this parasha and appears in similar form in next week’s parasha of Metzora, and this is the issue of what happens when this same disease referred to as “tzara’at” manifests not on human skin, but instead contaminates fabrics and leather or even plastered or mud-covered building stones in houses. Most of our rabbinic commentators on the Torah tend to see the spread of these contagious diseases to inanimate objects such as clothing or houses as something natural, as if the object were just falling prey to a fungus or rot. But there are a few commentators who look at this somewhat differently, including Nachmanides from 13th century Spain. Commenting on the infection of clothing in this week’s parasha and on the “house plague” in next week’s parasha, Nachmanides says, “When the Jewish people are at one with God, God’s spirit is always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes and homes in good appearance. When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears on his flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him.” Nachmanides goes on to say that this only occurs in Israel, because only there could we be fully prepared to know God and have God’s Shekhinah, God’s presence, dwell amongst us.
Rashi, our medieval biblical commentator par excellence, from 11th century France, offers us a different explanation for the house plague right out of the Midrash, rabbinic legend—that the Amorites dwelling in Canaan, ultimately the land of Israel, had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses throughout the period of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, which the Israelites would find when they knocked down the ugly, moldy, “infected” houses upon their arrival in the land. Needless to say, the Israelites would be very pleased at the results of their cleanup effort.
That’s a fascinating midrash—and an outlandish one. Maybe instead of focusing on Rashi’s take that God infecting the houses was a roundabout way to reward the Israelites (and punish the non-believing Amorites,) we should instead think about a common thread between Nachmanides’ and Rashi’s comments. Nachmanides suggests that our clothes and our houses, if infected, would testify to the moral decay of the person wearing them. And if we look a little closer at Rashi’s take, perhaps he’s also criticizing the Amorites for hoarding and hiding wealth, seemingly prioritizing saving and protecting their wealth at all costs. Furthermore, if we set aside Rashi’s fanciful midrash altogether and just focus on the biblical text itself, we see that if an Israelite’s house is afflicted with this plague, then all the property within must be removed from the house, and the house must be diagnosed. Then a Kohen, a priest, tries to assure its ritual purity, and if that fails, the infected stones must be removed. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire house is supposed to be destroyed. Maybe we can’t picture this literally, but metaphorically this could be teaching us that our homes can theoretically decay morally to the point of destruction, to the point of holiness departing from their midst. That kedusha, holiness, should ideally find expression in our homes, should not surprise us on any level. Our ancient sages liked to encourage each of us to make our homes a “mikdash m’at,” small sanctuary, a sacred space for our family and for anyone else who enters into its confines. By the way, this is why we traditionally take the step of salting our challah every Shabbat, because in the times of the Ancient Temple, we used to salt the sacrifices that were brought to the altar, and now we salt our challah as a stand-in, helping transform our Shabbat tables into sacred altars. We can also think about the symbolism of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is open on all sides, reminding us not only of the importance of inviting others into that space, but also that we have the responsibility to fill in the walls of our home, so to speak, to frame our home symbolically with the values that we want expressed both within the house and outside of it when we interact with the world.
It’s on this point that the midrash about the Amorites hoarding gold and treasure in their walls again becomes useful to us. Thinking about the recent college admissions scandal that rocked—at least in the short term—the confidence of many in the college admissions process, we have to ask a crucial question, which is, “How did this happen?” And by that question I don’t mean how did these specific individuals cheat the system and take advantage of wealth and access, because for that, we can all read the many articles on the details of the case and perhaps be surprised, and perhaps not, at the brazenness of the scheme. No, I’m asking a different question, which is, “How did our society get to this point where parents are demonstrating to their children that the only thing that matters is getting ahead of others, getting what you want, and “winning,” not whether you got there fairly and on your own merits?” And while I don’t presume to say there’s only one answer to this troubling question, I’ll offer one now. Over a period of time too many people have succumbed to this temptation to cut corners and game the system, perhaps because they are convinced that what matters most in our society is THAT you get ahead, and that money can solve any problem. But even if it may be tempting to go down that path, our Jewish tradition reminds us that there is always another path, even if it runs counter to what others in society may be doing at the time. We always have a choice when we frame our home and shape the character of the space inside. At our dinner tables, sitting on the couch watching TV, or on our patio having an iced tea or another beverage on a nice spring evening, we can share our values with our children, our grandchildren, and our friends and neighbors. Yes, we could emphasize that anything goes as long as you end up getting ahead and getting what you want, or we can instead choose to frame things differently: that how we act matters. That dedication and hard work yields fruit. That happiness in life is not just about getting ahead professionally or financially. That kindness and generosity and helping others should not be an afterthought, but where it begins and ends for us. We have tremendous power to impact society and its values by way of first laying a strong foundation within the walls of our own houses. And while Nachmanides may have believed that both holiness and its absence, brought about by the decay of our morality and values, were limited to the land of Israel, I’ll respectfully disagree with him and say as clearly as I can that, going forward, what happens in our homes here in the U.S. can either validate the moral decay suggested by the occurrence of the college admissions scandal, or serve as a counterweight of kedusha, of holiness, that can inspire us and those around us to be our best selves and our best society and invite God back into our midst. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it soon be so.
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