June 2017 - "It is good to give thanks to God."

    “It is good to give thanks to God.”  This is the beginning of Psalm 92, which we sing both Friday evening and Saturday morning.  I have taught you my favorite melody, composed by my teacher, friend and colleague, the well-known Cantor Sol Zim, and we sing it at almost every Shabbat service.  This Psalm for Shabbat is basically one of thanksgiving and praise for God’s faithful love in caring for the world, the marvelous works of God’s hands.

    This summer we will sing it together at our monthly Friday evening “Shabbat in the Park” services.  These are always delightful events for all ages, casual, and fun.  This summer these services are on the 4th Friday – June 23, July 28, and August 25. 

    There is a Midrash (a story) that says that Adam sang this psalm with great joy after his first night on earth on the first Sabbath.  Supposedly, he had been sitting in the dark and crying, and when he saw the sun in the morning, he composed this psalm of thanksgiving.  Because of this, the psalm is recited when the Sabbath is welcomed at sunset on Friday night and again in the morning on Shabbat when the sun shines.  In the course of time, this psalm was forgotten until Moses re-introduced it with other psalms.

    In these lazy, hazy days of summer, let’s reflect on the things we have to be thankful for.  One, I can suggest, is our own Beth Samuel community.  Whether we come together to a picnic on a hot summer night or at Yom Kippur services, we have each other, our synagogue family.  When Roger Segeleon first invited me up to Ambridge, he told me, “Come and meet the people.  You will like them.”  Well, he was right!  I am grateful to you for your friendship and your faith in me as your Spiritual Leader, and I thank our Creator for opening this path to me. We go where life takes us, and I am happy it took me here.

 

May 2017 - Spring is here

Spring is here!  As I write this message, we have just celebrated Chag Ha’aviv, the Festival of Spring.  This is one of the names for Passover, which I described at our well-attended, and wonderful community seder.  From Passover to Shavuot, we count 49 days, and then, after celebrating our liberation from slavery, we celebrate z’man matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of the Torah.   This occurs on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which is May 31.  Remember, we count the days, AND we should make every day count!         

It is also appropriate during this season of recognizing the Torah that we welcome our new Religious School students to the study of Torah with a Consecration service.  We do this every few years to mark the beginning of their Jewish studies and their commitment to learning Jewishly, here at Beth Samuel Jewish Center.  We will offer special blessings to these young people and invite them to participate in the service and to receive recognition of their dedication.  It is a joyful time for their families and for our congregation.

Our children are gifts and blessings to us all.  They are the continuation of the chain of our ancestors from the earliest of times to the present.  Consecration is the first of several events in the life of a Jewish child, followed by bar/bat mitzvah, and then Confirmation in High School.  We hand down our teachings l’dor vador, from generation to generation, as we have done for so many generations.  

I invite everyone to attend this year’s Consecration service on Friday, May 19, 2017, at 7:30PM.  It promises to be a beautiful event.  We will offer songs and prayers and a certificate to each of our students.  May we all witness this special moment in their lives.

L’hitra’ot, until next time!      

April 2017 - Freedom

     One of the central experiences of us as a people is the journey from slavery to freedom.  We recall this event each Passover when we recall the story of the exodus from Egypt as we read the Haggadah and sing the songs at the seder.  In the retelling, Judaism elevates economic, social, and psychological freedom to a religious principle.  Freedom is an ongoing endeavor.  As individuals, we need continually to reflect on the ways we get stuck – in other words, how we live imprisoned lives and how we are thereby diminished.
 
     Judaism gave us an opportunity to reflect at the time of the High Holidays, and then again now, halfway through the year, we have another chance.  How can we free ourselves from limitations which constrict our spirits?  How can we help others tear down the barriers which limit their freedom?  Though we haven’t experienced slavery first-hand, it is such a pivotal event in our history as a people that it is never far from the surface, and the exodus and its wonderment appear in all of our prayer services.  In our daily morning prayers is a blessing that says, "Praised are You, Adonai, for making me free,” that is, for not making me a slave.
 
     This year, as we convene in our homes for our family seder or here at synagogue for our community seder on the second night, may we be ever mindful of the freedom in which we live, and may we extend its blessings to those who still live under external and internal oppression.  We sing “Dayenu,” it would have been sufficient, as we thank God for the many miracles bestowed upon us.  Best wishes for a chag sameach!
 

L’hitraot –- until next time.

March 2017 - Purim

    This month we will all join in the merriment of the Purim holiday.  The day before Purim is the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar, and it is what we call a minor Fast Day.  A minor fast day begins at daybreak and lasts until sunset, unlike Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av, on which the fast is observed from sunset to sunset.
 
     The 13th of Adar, known as the Fast of Esther, is in commemoration of the 3-day fast undertaken by the Jews of Persia at the request of Queen Esther prior to her pleading the cause of her people before King Achashverosh.  Fasting has several purposes, all relating to the theme of the particular day.
 
     Long ago the prophet Isaiah realized that it is not the fast itself that is important, rather what it means to accomplish.  Perhaps we could take the money we save by NOT eating on this Fast Day and give it to someone who needs it.  We could make an extra donation to any organization fighting hunger, in our own community or beyond.
 
     The merit of a fast is the charity it produces.  May we all be conscious of the needs of those less fortunate, and may our deeds of tzedakah reflect this awareness.  And remember, each of us needs only to do our part, and in doing so, we will accomplish a small bit of Tikun Olam, repairing the world. 


L’hitraot –- until next time.

Feb 2017 - Leonard Cohen, Part 2

As promised, this is the second in the 2-part series on the life and works of Leonard Cohen.  The grandson of a Rabbi, he was born in Canada to a middle class Jewish family in 1934.  From what I gather, they were Orthodox, and observant and knowledgeable about Judaism and its traditions.  Cohen remained connected to Judaism all his life, even as he was open to other streams of religion.  And yes, he was a Kohen. 

 The bright and talented Cohen became a singer, songwriter, musician, poet, novelist, and painter.  Writing was his first career, in the 1950's and 1960's.  In the late 1960's he released his first album, to be followed by many more.  His final one was released just 3 weeks before his death.  If people hadn’t been singing his “Hallelujah” all along, they certainly were then. 

 He attended McGill University and then Columbia graduate school in NYC, and went back to Canada and later to a semi-reclusive life on a small Greek island.  In the late 1960's he moved back to the US to pursue a career in folk music and Judy Collins recorded his song “Suzanne” (referred to in last month’s column).  Things turned around for him at that time and he became a big name.  His Jewish background was a large influence on his words and music, and you can find many liturgical and Biblical references in his lyrics. 

 He toured in this country, Europe, and Israel.  His style expanded to include jazz and Gypsy violin, and other influences, and he continued to tour with his band.  His well-known “Hallelujah,” first released in 1984, has since been performed by almost 200 artists, and in various languages.  Critics have compared Cohen to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.  Cohen was described as a Sabbath observant Jew, who also practiced Zen Buddhism.  Cohen did not find the 2 philosophies mutually exclusive.

 In a 2009 concert in Israel, Cohen sang Jewish prayers and blessings in Hebrew and opened the show with Ma Tovu and closed with the Priestly Blessing, the Birkat Kohanim.  He passed away this past November, and was laid to rest in a simple pine casket, in Canada with a Jewish service, and in a family plot.  He is survived by 2 children and 3 grandchildren, and a large legacy of poetry and song, known the world over.  May Leonard Cohen’s memory be for a blessing.

 

 

 

 

Jan 2017 - Leonard Cohen Part 1

This is the first in a 2-part series devoted to the life and works of Leonard Cohen, a topic which some of you requested when I spoke about him recently and taught some of his songs.  We lost a sage of our era with his recent passing.  His absence has prompted me and so many others to revisit his words and to absorb his wisdom. 
 
Leonard Cohen was a prophet of brokenness, a seeker of the light who did not ignore the inherent frailties of the human condition.  In my column last month I quoted his “Anthem,” about how the cracks/imperfections let the light in. 
 
Cohen’s words echo the teachings of Jewish mysticism.  The Kabbalists of the 16th century explained the brokenness of our world with the story of its origins.  Accordingly, when God attempted to create our world, God poured infinite Divine light into the vessel of creation, but it was impossible to contain all that light.  This caused the vessel to crack, and while much of the light escaped and rejoined the Divine source, much also remained hidden in the shards of our broken world.
 
Our task is to find the countless sparks of Divine light (as I spoke about in December in my talk on Chanukah and sparks of holy light).  As we do this, we are participating in tikun olam, repairing the world. 
 
As Cohen taught us in his song “Suzanne,” we need to “look among the garbage and the flowers,” to find the holy sparks of light.  They can be anywhere.  As we enter the secular new year of 2017, that is our task!
 
More next month about Leonard Cohen.    

Chanukah - Sparks of Holy Light

“I see Chanukah as a time when, as we light the candles, we pause in awe before the Jewish people, whose survival through diversity brings light into the darkness of the human soul.”  Jewish feminist writer Anne Roiphe wrote these words in Tikkun magazine, and they certainly express an appropriate message for us this month.  The sense of awe is not only reserved for the High Holy Days! 

Every year, as December rolls around, we are bombarded with holiday pressures for all religions, from the secular world.  While we seem to want to withdraw from all the hoopla (or maybe you like it!), at the same time we gather together with our own family and celebrate our blessings.  That celebration can take many forms, and many of us celebrate in different ways with more than one religion represented.  Chanukah is family time to share food, fun, songs, and the light in the darkness, both literally and figuratively.

 This is a time to drink deeply from our own spiritual reservoir, and to remember that it supports us throughout the year.  We have our own compelling symbols: the sukkah, the seder  table, the Purim costumes, the shofar blasts, the eight candles in the Chanukiah, and even the two stately white candles we light 52 Friday nights a year.  Please come to Shabbat services on Friday, December 16, when I present a short musical sermonette for this season, entitled “Chanukah –  Sparks of Holy Light.”

One of the prayers we recite as we light the menorah is, “Blessed are You, who accomplished miracles for our ancestors in ancient days, and which we experience, both at this time of the year and throughout every year of our lives.” As Leonard Cohen (of blessed memory) wrote:

 “Ring the bells that still can ring,  forget your perfect offering;

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

 May the light of the Chanukah menorah bring peace and light to you and yours this season.

Blessings & Gratitude

A well-known Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, said, “The older we get, the greater becomes our inclination to give thanks, especially heavenward.”  I know many of us can identify with this!  Our tradition has many prayers of thanks, teaching us that showing gratitude is part of our way of life.  One such example is the modim anachnu lach paragraph in the Amidah, when we bend to bow deeply and show reverence.  Interestingly enough, the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word modim is equivalent to the numerical value of 100, hinting that we are thankful to God with the 100 blessings we are supposed to say each day.   

Nearly all Americans celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, with all the traveling to be with family and the usual smells and tastes to enjoy together.  When I was growing up (in an Orthodox family), we also sang secular songs of Thanksgiving!  This holiday does not feel particularly “Jewish,” but since the pilgrims celebrated their good fortune by thanking God for all with which they had been blessed, the original Thanksgiving dinner was also a kind of religious one. 

Although our table will NOT be set with any religious artifacts or rituals, the act of sharing prayers and words of thanksgiving can give a Jewish meaning to the gathering.  We can make a motzie and share reasons for being grateful.  When we do mitzvot of donating food and funds to local charities, helping to feed the poor and the hungry, we are doing tzedakah and tikun olam, charity and repairing the world. 

Blessings allow us to pause and give gratitude, and to acknowledge beauty, goodness, and God’s presence in our lives.  May we all once again celebrate our gratitude for the many blessings we have, on Thanksgiving.   

Until next time –- l’hitra’ot!

How shall we live?

By the time you read this, the intense period of the Days of Awe will be over, and we will be preparing to celebrate and express our gratitude for God’s blessing, bounty, and protection.  Our next holiday, Sukkot, is referred to as “z’man simchateinu,” the season of our joy.  We eat, sing, and dwell in the sukkah, a temporary structure, and we realize the fragility of life.  The sukkah  is open to rain and wind, easily shattered and broken, and the roof is open to see the stars.  It conveys a paradoxical notion of protection, suggesting that perhaps true shelter comes from the celebration of God’s eternal safeguarding.

On Sukkot, it is traditional to read from Ecclesiastes, which I will do at Shabbat  morning services.  The well-known song “Turn, Turn, Turn” is based on part of chapter 3 from this book.  The verse begins, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.”  We read about experiences from birth to death, from love to hate, and from war to peace.  A central theme of Sukkot  is the reaffirmation of one’s part in the cycle of life, and this text reflects this theme.  Certainly, life need not be as flimsy as the temporary walls of the sukkah.   Life becomes significant when we DO something meaningful with it.

On Sukkotwe are reminded that the world is a delicate place and that impermanence is the way of all things.  Life is full of changes and unexpected turns, so our task is to make meaning of it.  On Yom Kippur, we asked, “Who shall live?”  On Sukkot, we ask, “How shall we live?”   Come to synagogue and celebrate both Sukkot and Simchat Torahat Shabbat  services on October 21/22.  I look forward to celebrating with you.  Chag sameach!

 Until next time, L’hitra’ot!

The High Holidays Are Upon Us

Shalom, Friends!  We are in the month of Elul and the High Holidays will soon be upon us.  This will be my first set of these holidays with you and I am eagerly looking forward to sharing them with you.  Our services will be essentially similar to previous years, although every leader brings his/her own special touches.  I may teach a couple of new melodies, but primarily we will be singing the traditional ones which we have always sung.
 
Many of you will be seeing people you haven’t seen in awhile, and you will spend special time with family and friends.  You will share the tastes and smells and sounds and rituals of the holidays, and the feeling of being home, whether you are in the synagogue or literally at home. The following words of a song by Shlomo Carlebach come to mind:

“Return again to the home of your soul.
Return to who you are, return to what you are,
Return to where you are born and renewed again.” 

These few lines summarize the driving force behind what is bringing us back to the high holidays.  We want to return -– it is a natural instinct.  We want to come home and to start anew together, as a community. 

I’m excited to teach you this song and we will sing it together at our Selichot service on Saturday evening, September 24.  This promises to be a beautiful evening of wine and cheese, of dedicating the new menorah donated by our dear Isaac Shina, and including a short service of prayers, which you know from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to get us ready for the High Holy Days.

One of the themes of the season is atonement, and the recipe for atonement is very simple.  It has not changed in 2000 years.  Take a liberal dose of prayer, add full-hearted remorse, the charitable giving of tzedakah, and loving acts of kindness toward others.  Sounds easy, yet we know how difficult it is to accomplish.  We are motivated by the feeling that a new year brings hope for the future – for us, our families, and Beth Samuel Jewish Center.  May we sing together with a full heart, and may you all be inscribed for a year of good health and happiness.  Shana tova tikateivu.

Until next time, l’hitra’ot!    

Shalom, Friends!

This is the first in a series of articles I will offer, as the new Spiritual Leader at Beth Samuel Jewish Center.  From time to time I will write about Jewish traditions, issues, practices, and other timely topics.  I will also include some of my own experiences which have led me to this position, and I must say at the outset that I am very proud and honored to be here.  You are a wonderfully warm, and interesting community, with a rich history.  I look forward to helping you continue to be an important Jewish presence here in Ambridge and the surrounding area.

Since I am a Cantor and you have had Rabbis heretofore, I was invited to explain a bit about the differences and similarities between these two roles.  It seems like a very good place to begin.  The short answer is that a Rabbi is a teacher and spiritual leader, and a Cantor is a trained musician who leads the services and who is also knowledgeable in Jewish law and practice.  Both professionals study at seminary and must be ordained or invested, with a certificate to attest to that.  Both provide leadership that reflects Jewish values which are being taught to the congregation.

Some congregations employ both a Rabbi and a Cantor, and some small synagogues hire only one professional.  The seminary from which I was ordained (and later taught at) trained Rabbis and Cantors for many different situations, including the one in which there is only one professional leading a congregation.  This position is called Kol Bo in Hebrew, and it literally means “everything within,” or “the one who does everything.”  That sounds like a tall order, but there are many, many places who have a Kol Bo, as we now do.  At school I had to take courses with Rabbis on halacha, or Jewish law and customs, and the Rabbis had to learn how to lead services and chant, so either person can be the sole spiritual leader. 

Over the years I have led hundreds of funerals and unveilings, many weddings, baby naming ceremonies, too many b’nai mitzvahs to count, and services in both Reform and Conservative settings.  I have also been trained in Pastoral care and have done a great deal of this work in my previous congregation.  Incidentally, another forte of mine is Interfaith initiatives, which I have already been doing in the greater Ambridge area, representing Beth Samuel.

Until next time – l’hitra’ot !