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.
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.
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
One of the things about the Shearith community that has always impressed me the most is our staunch, steadfast, and vocal support for Israel and AIPAC. At one of the busiest times of the year, so many of our congregants make the time in their schedules to fly to DC, to show up with more than 18,000 pro-Israel Americans, including Congresspeople, college students, and synagogue delegations, to pray with their feet—to demonstrate the seminal importance of maintaining an educated and supportive relationship with our homeland. My work responsibilities have always kept me here in Dallas; but I am so grateful for our robust professional and lay representation each year.
I don’t have to tell you how AIPAC’s ongoing efforts have saved Israel time and again; from taking newly elected officials to Israel and teaching them the beautiful nuances of her strength, to advocating for continued funding for the Iron Dome, to standing up for Israel and her interests in negotiating the Iran Deal. Perhaps most importantly and impressively, AIPAC has ensured that Israel remain a non-partisan issue.
But that is no longer a given.
I am terrified that MoveOn and other far-left voices are trying to make Israel a partisan issue, that Israel can be the newest strategic wedge between different factions of Democrats. I am mortified that new Congresspeople who lack context and history are making irresponsible claims about both Israel and Jews, betraying their lack of education and understanding. And I am flummoxed that it is so easy for evangelicals to make bold and sweeping statements about Israel’s sovereignty and right to defend herself, when many Jews find it much more difficult.
And this is why I have AIPAC PC FOMO. (For the non-millennials reading this, FOMO stands for “fear of missing out.”)
I want to hear the conversation in the breakout sessions, with the rabbis and cantors, with the politicians, the college students, and the non-Jewish supporters of our state. I want to understand how the most recent political discourse is affecting the future of Israel’s safety and security. I want to know how our 18,000 partners are digesting all of the presenters’ material and what they will bring home to their communities. I want to understand how this moment in history stands in the larger context of our narrative.
And … Rabbi Sunshine also told me about the kosher chicken and waffles … which sealed the deal for me. I have to get to the AIPAC PC next year. There’s too much at stake to be away from the conversation.
Rabbi Shira Wallach
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
The weather outside may have been frightful, but inside we made the best of it! This weekend, our most adventurous families made their way to Waxahachie to brave the cold, the wind, and the rain, so that we could experience a beautiful Shabbat together.
I want to give you a couple of glimpses into the sacred time that we shared.
On Friday night, Rabbi Roffman led his annual Bibliodrama session, in which he takes a beloved story from the Torah and allows parents and children to work together in order to retell and understand it from new perspectives. The story that we tackled was that of sending Moses down the Nile: how did his mother feel? What was his sister thinking? Why did Pharaoh’s daughter rescue him? And at each meal after that, if you looked over at the kids’ area where they could play when they were done eating, you could see them continuing to work out the story.
On Shabbat morning, after morning tefilla, Sarah Lipinsky led an exploration into the weekly parasha by asking our children: What is your favorite room in your house and why? Do you think God would also enjoy that kind of space? What kind of a home would you build for God on earth? And then, our children led their parents in thinking through beautiful spaces for God. Some of their creations even boasted bounce houses, swimming pools, fully-equipped kitchens, lovely strings of lanterns, and glimmering jewels.
On Saturday night, as we watched the sky grow dark, the temperature dropped and rain threatened. We sang a beautiful Havdalah inside, and then, most of us threw caution to the wind and went outside to toast marshmallows and enjoy the delicious nostalgia of s’mores. In the end, the crackling campfire and sheltering trees protected us from the elements. Back inside, we sang everything from “Brown-Eyed Girl” to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Let it Go” to “Sweet Caroline.”
In the morning, I asked families to talk about what they’d like to bring back to Dallas from the weekend, and then illustrate it on a large puzzle piece. Of course, we all loved the campfire, the music, and the company, but I also saw sketches of God’s house that the kids designed, Sarah’s incredible indoor obstacle course, a deck of UNO cards, and even one of the Shabbat-o-grams that we exchanged at the beginning of the weekend. You can see our assembled puzzle in the group photo; come by our offices soon to see the final laminated image!
I want to thank our volunteer team Rachel Alexander, Shari Birnbaum, Amanda Franklin, Melissa Goldberg, and Julie Yochananov, and of course, none of this would be possible without the incredible Sarah Katz! Thank you to everyone who came, who helped create the special bonding and memories that will continue giving us joy. Let’s do it again next year!
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
This past Shabbat, we welcomed our new class of Tiny Treasures—babies born in the year 2018—and their families into the warm and loving embrace of the Shearith Israel family. If you were there, thank you for helping us create such a wonderful space in which to share in the simcha of new life.
Many of you have heard me talk about my zaydie, the rabbi, who was born in Germany and marked his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power. You’ve heard me talk about his Bar Mitzvah tefillin, one of the only possessions that made it through the journey north to Liverpool, across the Atlantic to Toronto, to Saskatoon, to a suburb of Cleveland, and then finally, to Orlando, where my zaydie sat with me when I was just eight years old, and gave them to me.
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
On Monday night, I participated in the Faith and Grief Ministries Multi-Faith Service of Comfort at Klyde Warren Park, an annual gathering of people who wish to pay homage to loved ones around the holiday season. The organizers of the service asked me to reflect on the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting and how we keep our faith intact after tragedy. I wanted to share my remarks with you:
The joy and serenity of our Shabbat was pierced this morning with the news of the killing of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This afternoon, what we no doubt suspected was confirmed by city officials: that this heinous act of cruelty was borne out of hatred for our people, our values, and our way of life.
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
You’re probably being bombarded with messages from TV, social media, friends, and random strangers to make sure you have a voting plan. I’m here to provide one more, as voting is a Jewish imperative.
Pirkei Avot 3:2 teaches us that we must “pray for the government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive.”
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share