Author Archives: Hazzan Jesse Holzer

Who is like you? (Sermon 7th Day Passover 2022)

Today we recreate history: the history of Roman soldiers who in 200 BCE, took matzah in their hands, added oil and cheese, thus creating the first ever matzah pizza. Yes, today is the 7th day of Passover, and thus the return of matzah pizza! 

Today, Shvii Shel Pesach, the 7th day of Passover, we celebrate a journey, a journey from avdut lecheirut, from slavery to freedom. Each of us appears somewhere along this path towards freedom, each day our position changes.  

Today, Shvii Shel Pesach, we read of the splitting of the red sea. “The red sea split itself in two…”

 Normally, in English we say “the splitting of the Red Sea.” But the rabbis call this moment kriyat yam suf,  קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means “to tear”, the tearing of the sea.” 

Here in the book of Exodus, the verb used to describe the splitting of the sea is (bokei yam lifnei moshe) baka ,בקע (think bokei yam lifnei Moshe recited each night during the Maariv service).  The root Baka means “to split.” So why did the rabbis switch to kriya? By changing to kriya, the rabbis acknowledge a change in perception of the nature of the event.

The Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (1799-1866), was once asked this question: why Kriya as opposed to Baka?

The Shulchan Aruch HaGraz (Orach Chaim §340:17) defines korea as the act of ripping apart two things that were joined together, but were once separate. The Midrash says that when G-d first created the world, He stipulated with the water that when the time comes, they will split in order to allow the Jews to cross the Yam Suf. Because of this prior stipulation, the water can be seen as having already been split from the time of Creation. Thus, when the Jews came to the Yam Suf and G-d split the sea for them, He was actually splitting something which had already once been split. For this reason, the Oral Torah uses the word korea when talking about splitting the sea.

There is another theory: while the Torah uses the word baka, it is most often used to describe the splitting of a solid, hard object, (like a rock or a block of wood). That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (think funeral service). This most likely would’ve been a natural reminder for us to be sad about the death of the Egyptians.

 According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired and restored, so too the sea would return to its original status. 

The Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So let us reimagine that moment of Mi Chamocha once again- Kriyat yam suf– it could be a moment of great relief, a moment of extreme exhaustion, or maybe it was a moment of exultation, or maybe it was a moment of sadness and loss (the kriya for all who were lost, for the comforts they left behind)…or maybe, the kriyat yam suf is a call to action, of reconciliation; that this tearing is only temporary, that God saved us from the waters to repair and rebuild…or maybe, just maybe, the kriya was symbolic of a moment of loss, when we don’t have the words to express ourselves; and in that moment, only one thing can get is through this time- to burst out into song. 

So what was it like to sing at the edge of the waters? What kind of song did the Israelites chant? This kriyat yam suf moment, while collective, meant different things to different people. We hear this reflected in the melodies we use for this text. 

A few weeks ago, I joked about some of the melodies associated with Mi Chamocha, a prayer we recite two(three) times a day. I imagined that day as a day of joy and exuberance, and so my ear is drawn to a high energy melody.

Listen to Cantor Richard Silverman’s interpretation of  Mi Chamocha, a now standard of our Friday night service.

Such joy and excitement at a moment of freedom!

I have vivid memories of interviewing the music teachers at the Hadassah Primary School in Uganda. They explained the power of rhythm to tell a story. There are rhythms for all life cycle moments- from going to battle to performing a brit milah. As I listened to this Zulu melody below, it reminded me of the “prayer rhythm” explained to me back in Uganda. 
Siyahamba is a South African hymn that became popular in North American churches in the 1990s. The title means “We Are Marching” or “We are Walking” in the Zulu language. Elana Jagoda took the melody and fit it to that space of marching/walking into that Mi Chamocha moment.

Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song expresses this feeling of “space.” We focus on slavery as restricting our chance for sacred time, but we shouldn’t discount that we finally have the space to move!!! This melody makes us want to get up and dance in a giant hora!!

At the same time, we are exhausted. We feel broken by the moments that led to our freedom, and Shir Yaakov’s Mi Chamocha emotes this sense of exhaustion.

The melody for Mi Chamocha is also often the song of the Holiday – marking sacred moment/time. Each time we sing the “tune of the day”- we affirm our faith in the power of a calendar- here once again the post-slavery door opening to freedom, in this case the freedom to mark sacred time.

And finally, a melody that seems to encompass many of these emotions- beginning with exhaustion and despair, culminating with the voices of young people, unjaded by years of slavery, expressing joy and hope in a better world for tomorrow. There are so many layers to ‘When you Believe” from the Prince of Egypt.

All of these melodies are distinct, unique. They are deeply embedded into the text, not some random melody superimposed over a random text because we like the way it sounds. They tell their own version of the story. They paint a different picture of the events of Yam Suf.  

So let’s take that Mi Chamocha moment seriously…and personally. Each time we are at that threshold moment- we make a conscious (or subconscious) decision to say “Where am I today?” Am I walking in the light of God? Am I still stuck in the narrow depths of mitzrayim? Am I ready to act boldly? I invite you to take our Mi Chamocha as a portal to resetting oneself, each day. May the text inspire a sense of transition to sacred time, may the melody ring as anything from a battle cry to a cry for help, and everything in between. Mi Chamocha? Who is like you? No one is. Shirat Hayam, Kriyat yam suf, captures each of our stories, unique and beautiful. We can find the melody that unlocks our own story, and in doing so, be our most authentic self each and every day we cross the sea.

Going for Gold

There’s a lot to unpack in our torah portion this week, but I’ll begin with one of the more troubling stories. Moses ascends the mountain to take down the law on two tablets. The Israelites simply don’t know what is going on. Did Moses slip and fall? Was he negotiating on their behalf for a generic, less expensive set of tablets? The growingly impatient Israelites take Aaron’s instructions to remove their gold earrings so that they might create a tangible, see it to believe it God to worship as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Following the egel hazahav, the Golden calf, are plagues, violence, mistrust and unrest. This isn’t the gold standard for nation and community building. The calf may have been beautiful and maybe it was what the Israelites thought they needed for that moment, but what we as a people remember is their impatience, their loss of faith, and less than ideal leadership. 

And yet, this negative storyline is surrounded by positive acts- a second chance to write the tablets, sharing the foundational laws of Shabbat as a tangible way to see God’s creations as everyday miracles. But it is in the opening lines that we find the anecdote that reveals leadership, patience and faith in one another. 

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒

“When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment” (Exodus 30:12) We see that this census meant that each person, regardless of status, provides a hatzi shekel, a half a silver (not Gold) coin. We focus on this idea that each of us counts, but I want to zero in on the term the text uses to conduct this census. כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ (Lit. “lift up the heads”) harkens back to an earlier story in the book of Genesis.

Joseph, interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, states “In three days Pharaoh will pardon you**pardon you Lit. “lift up your head.” (יִשָּׂ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ אֶת־רֹאשֶׁ֔ךָ) and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer. (Genesis 40:13) Dignity is restored to the cupbearer because Pharaoh, the old Pharaoh, lifts up the cupbearer’s head. They see each other face to face, just as in our parsha, Moses lives the head of each of the Israelite men. He sees them, as he has seen God, face to face. It is not merely the act of taking their half shekel, it’s seeing and acknowledging the purpose each of us has in this journey. And in raising the heads of the Israelites, one by one, he ilfts their spirits and ours in seeing this dignified example of raising others.

I was thinking about this notion of raising others the past few weeks. You see, a torah portion about Gold, Silver, (and yes there is even a reference to a bronze basin), seems like it was destined to be read during the Olympic Games, at least in a quadrennial cycle of torah reading. 

What’s your greatest memory of the Olympic games? That moment etched in your heart because you saw it on tv or heard about it soon thereafter. For me, there are a handful of moments that define the Olympics for me. And none include the names of Olympic greats like Mark Spitz, Usain Bolt, or Michael Phelps (I did appreciate watching the 2008 Phelps show on our new 37 inch HD tv with no other furniture in our possession, just a week after we got married). I also must say that while I would’ve appreciated moments like Jesse Owens defying fascism or the 1908 Miracle on Ice, I wasn’t alive for those moments. And apologizes to Kerri Strug as well as all of competitors in the Summer Olympics of 1996, 2000, or 2004 (I was away at summer camp).

We begin in 1988. Dan Jansen finds out his sister has passed away. Stricken with grief, he competes but falters in his attempt to medal. He continues on to 1992 again without a medal. In 1994, Dan Jansen finally wins the 500m speed skating Gold following tragedy. 

1992: British sprinter Derek Redmond, tore his hamstring in the 400 meters semi-final but continued the race limping. Derek and his father JIm, complete the lap of the track together, with Derek leaning on his father’s shoulder for support following his injury.

For the Olympic games can bring out the best in who we are as human beings, and it may not have anything to do with the world records or medals we win. 

2021 Tokyo: When Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi finished the men’s high jump competition tied, they could have gone to a jump-off to decide the winner. Instead, the two competitors decide to share in the joy of Gold. 

2022: After finishing last in the #CrossCountrySkiing 15km, Carlos Quintana of Colombia was embraced by #Gold medallist Iivo Niskanen of Finland. Niskanen finished a full 8 minutes ahead of Quintana, but as he said, ““All athletes must respect each other, everyone has worked hard to be here.”

And just prior to these Olympics, two local athletes made headlines. From the speed skating capital of the US, Ocala Florida, came two Olympic heroes, Erin Jackson and Britanny Bowe. 

Team USA’s Erin Jackson was ranked No. 1 in the world over 500m when she slipped during the Olympic Speed Skating Trials. She thought her Beijing 2022 dream was over but an act of generosity of her longtime friend Brittany Bowe changed all that. Bowe gave up her spot in the 500m (she competed in two other distance events at the games) so that her friend, the talented former Jax Roller Girl All Star and Florida Gator I might add, could compete, and win Olympic gold, becoming the first Black woman to ever win gold in the 500m speed skating event, and the first American woman since Bonnie Blair in 1994 to medal in the 500m. Bowe, the world record holder in the 1000m, won a bronze medal in that distance.

We tune in every four years to follow the “odds on favorites,” forgetting that their stories are filled with hardships: anxiety, financial difficulties, you name it. But we also forget that during those years, friendships are formed, the Olympic spirit is strengthened, and sportsmanship reigns. Gold medals may tarnish over time for a number of reasons, and these recent games do not come without controversy, but sportsmanship, and the compassion and support for fellow competitors, never withers. Even when we have to google search to remind ourselves of the name of an athlete or the country they represented, that feeling of witnessing something special, remains. We may think we need to see something spectacular, some egel hazahav, but if we allow ourselves to lift our heads, lift the heads of others, we see goodness and greatness all around us. Sure, we can enjoy a golden moment, but one that involves a half-silver? That’s the story that drives our spirit. How can we find instances in our own lives to lift others through selfless acts? How can we be driven to do things that may pull us back to the pack rather than lead us to “victory”? As we approach the festival of Purim, our tradition reminds us through gifts of charity and mishloach manot, that our individual joy is tied to another, that it isn’t me and you, but us. This is the Olympic spirit, and the spirit of our people. 

How Grief and Joy Share Space in Our Sukkah

“I like to think grief is the price we pay for truly loving someone. And it’s worth every penny” – Ted Lasso

Sermon delivered Shemini Atzeret 5782

This past Sunday, I made my semi-annual drop off at our local Goodwill drive thru. I always feel good about the experience, unloading items that simultaneously declutter my own space but hopefully fill someone else’s with joy. During the dropoff, I struck up a fascinating conversation with one of the workers who was helping me out. He noticed my kippah, so over the course of 15 minutes or so, we discussed themes of the Jewish holidays, what it means to have a “calling” as opposed to having a job, and the potentially indelible marks we can leave in this world. I think we both were bummed when someone finally pulled up behind me in the drive thru. He told me, amongst other stories, about his uncle who had recently passed away. We processed this loss outside my car, processed his relationships with his uncle, his aunt and his cousin. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss. 

Where else can we process loss these days? A  few weeks ago, and I found myself on a Zoom call with 4 of my brothers from the NYU Alpha chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, as we were invited to reflect, process, and to be honest, grieve as we marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I had spoken to each of them individually over the years, but we had never talked about our experiences from that day. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss. 

Loss stinks.  It doesn’t matter what silver linings we throw at it. People are taken too soon. It flat out stinks. And those we lose after having lived a long life, are those somehow less tragic? Well, they are also those constants who are suddenly no longer there for us. Pain and grief strike at all who endure loss, but how we all experience that pain, and more specifically that grief, varies in a myriad of ways. We don’t know when it will hit us, or even engulf us, but it will.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share the following written by Lyz Best, the widow of my cousin Jeremy Glick z’l, who perished on board United Flight 93. I shared these words at our healing service on Yom Kippur, and I hope you find comfort in how she deals with the weight of grief, and how each of us takes on that challenge of grief in different ways.  

20 years later – I have made friends with my grief – Lyz Best

I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, ‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’ ‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered, ‘and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing? –Rumi

Twenty years ago, grief barged its way through the red wooden front door of my family’s old farmhouse looking for me. So rude and unexpected grief didn’t even have the courtesy to knock. 

September 11th, 2001, I remember every detail of that morning until 10:03 the moment Jeremy’s plane crashed in a lonely field in Pennsylvania.  The last thing I remember from that morning is my father hugging me.  He was crying.  I was shaking and in shock from spending over 30 minutes on phone with my husband. 

During that fateful call we comforted each while he made a plan to attack the hijackers on his plane.  For hours after the phone went dead, I hid in the bathroom away from everyone in the house.  I didn’t want to know the truth.  I thought if I avoided everyone this nightmare would go away, Jeremy would come home, and I could go back to living the beautiful life in front of me.  When I did finally get up and tiptoe my way into the kitchen I bumped into my dad.

With both disbelief and with certainty I grabbed my father by the shoulders and screamed over and over, “Wait. You think he’s dead?”  Wait you think he’s dead?” He couldn’t form the words to tell me.  He was in shock. Of course, he was he loved Jeremy as a son. We both just cried harder and the last thing I remember is falling to the ground.  I have no memory of the rest of the day. 

I remember the next morning clear as day though.  Shock and pain consumed me.  It was like nothing I have ever felt before. I was pretty certain I would die from the pain I was feeling.  Our beautiful daughter lay in the crib next to me.  She was cooing, looking peacefully up at her mobile just three months old unaware of the horror of the previous day. 

I didn’t think it was possible, but for the next 7305 days the sun has come up and it has set, and I am still grieving, but my grief is different today than it was in the early days.

Over the years I have often wondered what today, twenty years later would feel like?  Would the pain be as sharp?  Would I still feel so alone?  Would my daughter know her father? Would I experience joy again or would life always be so chaotic?

Grief took so much away from me.  Grief took away my husband and robbed him of the opportunity of experiencing life as a father. It took away the man I loved and was supposed to dream with, raise children with and grow old with.  Grief left me a single parent and left my daughter no tangible memories of her father.  Grief left me with fear, debilitating anxiety and PTSD.  It left me angry and exhausted.  I didn’t recognize the new me and I certainly didn’t want to accept or embrace my new life as a 31-year-old widow.

But little by little I made a choice that there had to be something better than where I was at.  So, I chose to embrace grief rather than fight it.  I had no choice.  I had a daughter to raise and life in this state was pretty unbearable.  So, I did the work.  

At first, I tried to find the old me, that carefree, fun adventurous person – but soon I learned that she had changed.  She didn’t exist anymore.   I found that the best way for me to work through grief was to let it out.  I cried, screamed, yelled and occasionally would curse and throw something as I hard as I could.  I also wrote letters to Jeremy, talked to him often and used writing as an outlet. 

I kept an open mind and worked hard in my weekly therapy sessions and went to a support group for widows.  I read a lot and practiced self-care.  I ran a lot of miles and even completed a marathon. I spoke of Jeremy often and found ways to honor him and his memory that made me feel good. 

Slowly over many years grief became my friend.  I began to accept it rather than bury it deep inside where only I could see and feel it.  It took me many years to realize that if grief remained my enemy and if I didn’t look it in the eye, I would be blind to the many gifts that grief would bring me.  So, one day, I invited grief to take a seat next to me on the couch and he’s been a more welcomed companion ever since.

Grief has taught me the importance of gratitude and as a result senses for beauty and joy are stronger and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  Grief has taught me that love will never die, but grow stronger and be honored in ways that are sacred.  Grief has taught me that pain and the tragedy of 9/11 will never go away, but it will change, and it will be different. Grief has shown me the true relationship between mind, body and spirit and the importance of self-care. 

Most importantly I have learned that grief is both personal and universal at the same time.  It has reinforced that the most important thing that we can experience as humans is compassion and how we care for others.  If we let it, grief and sorrow can prepare us for joy.  It can awaken us to a peace and freedom we would not have been able to see and feel otherwise.  This is my blessing.

A powerful message- that our zman simchateinu, this time of joy, isn’t shrouded in the darkness of grief, but that we are better prepared for joy because of our grief. 

Judaism sketches a roadmap directing us toward comfort and renewal after we’ve experienced loss. There’s no rule that we have to connect with all the elements of our grief cycle, no more than we are expected to connect with every piece of liturgy or every holiday. But we have enough material that, hopefully, we do find that time and place to process that works for us. Maybe it’s during shiva, or shloshim. Perhaps it’s seeing our loved one’s name etched in stone at an unveiling, or in hearing our loved one’s name at a yahrzeit. Maybe it’s the first yahrzeit, or the tenth. And maybe its not in our formal Jewish mourning calendar. Maybe it’s in a space prior to death, when we may find peace while our loved one is under the care of hospice. Maybe it’s on a Zoom screen or in a parking lot, but we all need that space to process, and to embrace grief. 

If we don’t find space in the mundane moments or in our own personal mourning timeline, we do have a time set in our collective calendar, the time we have set before us this morning. Yizkor, remember. Nestled between the joy of Sukkot and the revelry of Simhat Torah, the highs and lows of life are reflected in the Yizkor service. I invite you to consider grief as a passageway to comfort. Whether you have lost recently or years ago, I hope that you’ll take today to pray but also to process, to sit in silence and to share in memory. 

We are completing the festival of sukkot- in which we welcome shared space, however fragile that space is. We fill our sukkot with stories to bring joy to this season. Share a story of a loved one with a friend or family member. May you take not just these next 20 minutes, but this day, to share in memory. We remember today, to help us, to guide us on how to remember, tomorrow. 

May we always remember those who came before us. Just as our grief knows no boundaries, so too may the power of memory. 

Write our own story. Parshat Korah

An opening disclaimer: I love my parents…. back to the sermon

Outside Berlin, you’ll find a cushy summer estate, a  longtime favorite vacation spot of the German elite. The suburb is called Wanssee, now famously known as the site of the Wansee conference held there in January 1942. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the implementation of the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” Today, the estate houses a museum that tells the story of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Amidst the documents, letters, correspondence planning the expedited murder of millions is a room filled with quotes on the wall- not of Nazi generals, but of children of survivors, and children of Nazi leaders.

 Ulrike Krüger, whose father was Director of the SS “Ancestral Heritage Society, writes, “”Yes, this guilt of my father is part of my life. I live and therefore I have responsibility. I can only endure this if I am willing to face this past again and again and thus take this horrific event seriously from a physical and psychological point of view. My challenge is to implement this awareness in my everyday life and to try to counter prejudices, disregard and destruction of humanity.”

Katrin Himmler, born 1967, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, writes “”When I was fifteen, one of my classmates suddenly asked in history class whether I was actually ‘related to Himmler’. I said yes, with a lump in my throat. The class was as quiet as a mouse. Everyone was wide awake and tense. But the teacher got nervous and carried on as if nothing had happened. She missed a chance to make us understand what still connects us, who will be born after, with these ‘old stories’.”   

Parents aren’t perfect. Ancestors and History in general are not perfect. But there comes an often uncomfortable truth when we learn that those who came before us had questionable pasts, when their actions and motivations hurt others. How each of us responds to that truth, matters. For the family who do wrong for the wrong reason, and more confusingly those who do right for the wrong reason. To those who fill their mouths with abusive rhetoric and their fists with abusive right hooks. 

To those who do not embrace or include,to those who live in a world in which “the good ‘ol days” were good for everyone, how do we speak to those truths? How do we recite Yizkor for the abusive parent (side note-click here)? How do we act in a way that distances us from those words and those actions, while simultaneously empowering us to follow a path filled with compassion and love?

I was thinking of this recently when I read about a young woman named Avery Sanford. Her father was not thrilled to be paying child support. When Avery turned 18, her father dumped 80,000 pennies in front of his daughter’s home as his final payment. Once Avery and her mother picked up the pennies,Avery and her mom decided to flip the coins, and the script. They donated his last child support payment – every penny – to Safe Harbor, a domestic abuse shelter. 

We can get sucked down that rabbit hole of cancel culture, of hearing something so bad we cringe, we cancel that person, but we continue to say nothing or do nothing to change our own path. But If we look at the words of Ulrik and Katrin, the actions of Avery, the focus isn’t on canceling that relative. Rather, they modify their personal algorithm, their own story, to speak to truth, and more than speak or write, they ARE better. They live and are committed to a life of purpose, a life of agency. 

So this week we’re talking about Korah, right? We know the story. Korah, who happens to be Moses and Aaron’s first cousin, wants power. The rabbis go back and forth as to why Korah is punished, many focusing on the intention and reasoning behind the power grab. In the end Korah, along with 249 co-conspirators were punished for their rebellion when God sent fire from heaven as the earth opened up, consuming all 250 of them. Immediately following, there is a plague that killed an additional 14,700 men. Ouch! And yet there was one group not included in that mass of 15,000: namely,  the sons of Korah.

For those who are unaware, my Saturday afternoon teaching for the past 6 months has focused on the book of Psalms. When our people look for healing, we go to the Psalms, a collection written primarily, but not exclusively by King David. Since I teach roughly every three weeks, Those keeping score we will learn Psalm 8 next Saturday afternoon! Not to jump the gun, but I wanted to focus on a few psalms that we’ll probably encounter in the next 2-5 years, Psalms 42—49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, i.e. the psalms written by the sons of Korah.

Now having a basic storyline of Korah and his rebellion, aka Korah engulfed into the earth, we read the following:

Psalms 46:2-3(2) God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. (3) Therefore we are not afraid though the earth reels, though mountains topple into the sea—

תהילים מ״ו:ב׳-ג׳(ב) אֱלֹהִ֣ים לָ֭נוּ מַחֲסֶ֣ה וָעֹ֑ז עֶזְרָ֥ה בְ֝צָר֗וֹת נִמְצָ֥א מְאֹֽד׃ (ג) עַל־כֵּ֣ן לֹֽא־נִ֭ירָא בְּהָמִ֣יר אָ֑רֶץ וּבְמ֥וֹט הָ֝רִ֗ים בְּלֵ֣ב יַמִּֽים׃

The sons of Korah thank God for being their refuge. They won’t be afraid even though the earth trembles. They say this having just felt the earth literally tremble. They are guided by faith,….They put their trust in a divine being that swallowed their father. In exploring the other Psalms, we learn that this isn’t out of fear. This is their response to Korah. This is their intentional and thought-out legacy.

Psalm 84 we read:

Psalms 84:2-5(2) How lovely is Your dwelling-place, O LORD of hosts. (5) Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they forever praise You.Selah.

תהילים פ״ד:ב׳-ה׳(ב) מַה־יְּדִיד֥וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶ֗יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃ ׃ (ה) אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃

Ashrei. While we get Bilam’s curse-turned-blessing in two weeks, here we have an intentional blessing to recognize joy to those who follow in God’s path. And finally, in one of their last Psalms, the sons of Korah write:

Psalms 85:10-13(10) His help is very near those who fear Him, to make His glory dwell in our land. (11) Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss. (12) Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. (13) The LORD also bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce.

תהילים פ״ה:י׳-י״ג(י) אַ֤ךְ קָר֣וֹב לִירֵאָ֣יו יִשְׁע֑וֹ לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן כָּב֣וֹד בְּאַרְצֵֽנוּ׃ (יא) חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ (יב) אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ (יג) גַּם־יְ֭הֹוָה יִתֵּ֣ן הַטּ֑וֹב וְ֝אַרְצֵ֗נוּ תִּתֵּ֥ן יְבוּלָֽהּ׃

What amazing poetry. Truth springs up for the earth, from the same earth Korah is swallowed, justice from the heavens that sealed Korah’s fate. Korah’s sons focus on blessing, on righteousness, on lovingkindness,on truth on justice, words that inspire, that once again get us as a people through the dark times, through the despair of illness and loss, we use the words of Bnei Korah to HELP us remember that God is good and while our path isn’t always straight, it leads to a brighter tomorrow, for as the sons of Korah write in Psalm 84, “God is our sun and our shield, God bestows wisdom and honor.” The wisdom, that With truth, justice, and agency, we are masters of our own story, our own destiny. 

Praying with our full bodies

We are a call and response people. Our call to worship, the Barchu, contains within it a formula in which we affirm each other’s intentions.

Leader: I would like to lead y’all

Congregation:  I hear you, I see you up there as our leader. Please lead us.

Leader:  I hear you, I see you congregation, thank you for allowing me to lead us in prayer. 

This formula continues with our torah and haftarah blessings, and today, in moments of our special shira torah reading. The reader pauses, acknowledging the public, hearing the public respond, and then repeats what we have said aloud. But our formula goes beyond the verbal commitment.

Let’s look into the torah portion for a moment. 

 וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ׃
Exodus 14:31
And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses.

This is our preamble to our “Az Yashir” moment. In order to sing, we need the material to write our individual songs. The Israelites must see God’s prayer in order to sing out.

אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:1
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea

At the conclusion of the Shira, Miriam takes center stage with her reprise of “Shiru Ladonai”. 

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
Exodus 15:20
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:21
And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

And Miriam chanted. SHe answered THEM- men and women. She continues with a reprise of our opening number. (While the text cuts it short, we assume from its placement that she sings the song once again, in its entirety.) And what was the formula, the code for Miriam to begin her song?  She gathered her percussion instrument, her tof. Seeing this, the women went out and danced with their timbrels. 

From these two passages, we realize that our “call and response” formula is not just a verbal contract between individual leader and people. We use our bodies, our sightline, our dancing shoes, to confirm that we as a community are on board.

As we come upon almost a year of living with half of our faces covered, I wanted to take a moment to think about how we use our eyes, our feet, and the rest of our bodies to communicate with the world. Masking will and should continue for some time, but how we pivot with the rest of our bodies matters.

We look to our youngest for guidance. When they don’t have the words to say, they use the vocabulary of their bodies. I know that when my son rolls his arms back and forth that it means “Wheels on the Bus.” When he stomps on the ground, it means “We are the Dinosaurs” by the Laurie Berkner Band. 

Looking at photos  from this past year’s s’mahot, celebrations, we can see what happens to our eyes when we smile. We’ve learned to interpret moods based on how much squinting takes places. It reminds me of a show Leora and I loved watching- the short lived but well loved series “Lie to Me”  in which Dr. Cal Lightman teaches a course in body language and microexpressions, acting as a consultant for law enforcement on a number of cases. That’s one way of looking at body language.

How we stand in conversation gives us an idea of our own interests in what’s being talked about. We look at our feet. If our feet are pointed towards the person we are talking to, we are engaged, if they point elsewhere, probably not so much. We really do let our feet do the talking. And of course, if on a cold winter day we sit in a folding chair, ars crossed, the internet reads that s a grumpy man upset that the synagogue isn’t serving kiddush yet. We live in unnatural times. We step off the sidewalk onto the street, we take a step back rather than embrace, because we love one another. 

And we know that body language is literally that: language. 

I have to admit that I got teary eyed at the inauguration ceremony a few weeks ago. It wasn’t from any speech. It happened when Georgia fire captain Andrea Hall, paying homage to the deaf and hard of hearing community, to her late father who was also deaf, signed as she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge and its message is significant to all. Not surprisingly, news came out this week that  An American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter will attend every daily White House press briefing. The decision will make the briefings more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

When we use our bodies to speak, to move, to engage, we deepen our connection to one another. 

In Jewish tradition, there are countless ways to make our bodies communicate in a way that makes the text come alive. Our trope system itself, taamei hamikrah, began as hand motions, known as chironomy. Before there were the written “Mapach” and “Pashta”, there was the Gator chomp and the two handed jumpshot. This comes into play not only in the teaching of trope, but in the day to day reading. If a torah reader gets stuck on a word, a symbol hand gesture would remind them of the melody.  

Some of my most meaningful prayer moments from this past year involve movement of body. Those who have joined us for Friday night services may have seen a certain family member of mine join the screen for Yismichu Hashamayim, a time when everyone puts their video on so that for one word, “hashamayim” we can put our hands up in the air to show that we “do care.” Early on in the pandemic, we used to rotate with a few melodies for the Psalm, but it became apparent that this was a place where our bodies could do the praying and singing.

Last Spring, I remember each Shabbat morning on Zoom looking out to find shul regular Joe Schmuller clapping away. And when it comes to end Shabbat, you might have seen members of my family circle dancing on Facebook or Zoom. 

This is my first dvar torah of the livestream era. I have memories of 20+ years ago, taking a public speaking class at NYU. We recorded ourselves reciting speeches and watched them back as a class. What I thought had been a very expressive, was more of a tiny armed dinosaur situation. Now, I watch myself conduct a service or an event for hours every week. I listen back not only for the sound quality, but for how I moved by body. A few months ago I began standing for all of these online events because I felt more active, more present. This was one way for me to change my body language to be more engaged.

We are a call and response people. I hope that you’ll take a chance in the days ahead to think about ways in which our bodies can tell a story, especially in this new age. 

For Zoomers, it’s putting our video on, knowing that the comfort of being in our pajamas may not be as important as the comfort of knowing what we do for another by being on screen. For our texters and eye wanderers, it’s looking up and engaging in physically distant but not socially distant conversation. Choosing how we communicate, choosing THAT we communicate differently, is all that matters. It’s giving a thumbs up, a toe tap, clapping our hands, or typing a kind word on a chat.

Our smiles are often covered, our voices often muted, but the rhythms of Jewish life need the rhythms of artistic expression – song, dance, a body that moves and communicates. In this era of uncertainty and angst, when we can’t sing the way want to, congregate the way we want to, we must pivot, to the left to the left, to the right to the right. 

We must move to the beat of Miriam’s timbrel, sharing with one another, so that I see and hear you for you, you hear and see me for me. Back and forth back and forth, a beautiful song expressed through our entire being.

Express Yourself- Jewishly

Leora and I moved to Jacksonville 11 years ago, one week after our wedding. There was a lot to get acclimated to during that first year: living outside a mass-transit city like New York, renting and eventually buying a house, moving far away from family, finding the balance between work and home. On seemingly minor scale, I got used to wearing my kippah everywhere I went. As a student living in New York, I may have gotten away with wearing a baseball cap when eating at an unhekshered restaurant, given the rabbinic concept known as maarit ayin, which states that certain actions which might seem to observers to be in violation of Jewish law, but in reality are fully permissible, are themselves not allowed due to rabbinic enactments that were put in place to prevent onlookers from arriving at a false conclusion (thanks Wikipedia). Living in Jacksonville, when at the time we had no kosher restaurants to speak of (also known as the Dark Ages), wearing a kippah became a connector, an identifier to those who saw me. Rather than have someone think “what is the cantor eating?”, they would say “oh hey Cantor, how’s it going?” Despite an occasional uncomfortable comment about my headwear from someone who may never have met a Jew before, wearing my kippah and living in Jacksonville have been a symbiotic relationship. 

When I took a group of congregants to Germany on a Cantors Assembly Mission in 2012, I didn’t think twice about walking around by myself while wearing a kippah. Fast forward a few years we find the climate rapidly changing. This past summer, German government officials warned Jews to not warn a Kippah in public for fear of anti-semitic attacks. A German newspaper responded by printing a picture of a kippah and urging readers to cut it out and wear it in solidarity. All of this came on the heels of my Cantors Assembly Mission to Uganda. While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, the 11of us were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver, wearing colorful, oversized kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. There is a tension between the fear of being outwardly Jewish and the pride we feel when showing off our wearing very Jewish accessory. Which brings me to this high holiday season. Given that I face the ark most of these Days of Awe, you’ll notice a special kippah. This was purchased from a young man, Samuel Kyeyune from the Uganda Abayudaya community, so moved by the Tree of Life tragedy that he created his own Kippah design to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh, to proclaim that we are a people that are strongly rooted in our heritage, that our tree will continue to bring forth life in this world for generations to come. May we all have the opportunity for growth. In the year ahead, I encourage you to look inwardly so that you might express your Judaism outwardly in whatever way you find meaningful. As  the great Kabbalistic sage Madonna once put it, “Express Yourself.” 


Remarks from Pride Shabbat

Pride ShabbatThere are moments that we etch into our collective memory. For myself, those moments include the Challenger explosion, the assasination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the morning of 9/11. While moments like these may be followed by moments of bravery, of community coming together, the moments themselves are initially moments of collective pain and sorrow. 

There are also moments of collective memory having overcome adversity, adversity often sowed from tears, adversity following generations of struggle. These moments begin not in pain but in pure unadulterated joy. 4 years ago, I stood on a crowded street in historic Charleston, South Carolina, waiting to attend the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney had been brutally murdered a few days earlier along with 8 others who had gathered to worship and to study, to join in fellowship. 

A joyous cheer broke out in the crowd. A crowd of mourners broke out in shouts of joy. The Supreme Court had just ruled that the fundemental right to marry is guarunteed to same-sex couples. Marriage equality throughout our country. People of every walk of life- every age, every ethnicity, every gender, every religion, every sexual orientation, in line to pay their respects to a respected and beloved minister and leader, screamed for joy.  I was proud to be a part of such a moment. I am proud of what we can do when we acknowledge the beauty of all humanity, when we recognize that Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. I was proud in that moment of collective joy. I am once again proud today.

On this Shabbat, we celebrate love. We celebrate diversity. We celebrate the dream, the hope for a more inclusive and embracing community. This Pride Shabbat, literally SHabbat Ha-gei-a-va, is our collective embrace of all: pride in all individuals, pride in our community for making today a reality.

The fact that we mark today with the vibrant colors of the rainbow, here in the sanctuary of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, is truly a celebration. There was a time, not that long ago, when anyone who had what may have been coined an alternative lifestyle had to find an alternative place, an alternative community. We’ve come a long way on our journey towards inclusivity, but we have a long way to go. 13 years ago, as the Conservative Movement passed a ruling to allow ordination of Gay and Lesbian rabbis and cantors, our congregation was still making the giant leap towards fully egalitarian worship. When our city debated the passing of a fully expanded Human Rights Ordinance, our 3 clergy were the first handful of faith leaders to sign on in support. At at time when Pride parades battle with intersectionality, when members of the LGBTQ Jewish community feel like they have to fight off a rise in anti-semitism, I hope that today is affirmation that we can be a haven, a home..a place and community where one’s Judaism and one’s sexuality do not have to be at odds with one another.  Leading up to this moment, perception and reality have been greatly unaligned. Yet, I am proud of where we are going. I am proud that when you google “Pride Shabbat” that the Jacksonville Jewish Center pops up as the #2 response. I am proud to be here with members of the LGBTQ community, with allies, friends and family. And I am proud to be here this morning, to have this platform and share this bima with our member Frieda Saraga, who through her own journey, has made it her life’s passion to embrace all. We are blessed by her presence, her commitment to push for growth in our own congregation and for all of Jacksonville. 
For access to our Pride supplement click here.

Reflections from Uganda Part 1

10773845920_IMG_9628.JPGThe following were my remarks for our congregation’s Shabbat celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Boy Scout Troup 14.  (Thanks to Cantor Jack Chomsky and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. for their background info/wording)

For a few minutes, I want to take us back 100 years to a far different place than Jacksonville Florida. It’s 1919. Religious conversion is a key component to the British colonization of Africa. Tribal chief and military leader Semei Kakungulu, who had founded the town of Mbale, Uganda, was evangelized by Anglican Church missionaries. He hoped to use his connections with the British so that he might be recognized as ruler of Uganda’s eastern region. When the British didn’t give Kakungulu what he desired, he returned to Mbale and rejected the Anglican church. He joined a group known as the Malakites who took a literal reading of the bible- Saturday was the Sabbath, they would eat no pork; eventually breaking from the group to follow an even stricter reading of the text, all while studying the Luganda translation of the Hebrew bible. In 1919, he and his followers embraced circumcision. Kakungulu created a Sabbath liturgy that included reading selections from the Hebrew bible in Luganda, chanting selections from the Song of Moses, the penultimate section of the Hebrew bible. The community, known as the Abayudaya, persisted for some years with little contact with the outside Jewish world, at first not even aware that there WAS such a world.

In time, though, they crossed paths with a few Jews who were living or working in Africa and shifted their practice to resemble the outside world. A quantum leap in their connection to the Jewish world came in the 1960’s when an Israeli graduate student named Arye Oded learned about the community and established connections with it. He later became Israeli ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, including Uganda. Oded died two weeks ago at age 89, a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University.

When Idi Amin outlawed other religions during the 1970s, the Abayudaya community suffered as most of its population converted out of Judaism. Beginning in the 1980s, the community revitalized under the leadership of one family in particular, brothers JJ, Aaron, Seth and Gershom, who infused new music and energy into the community. There were more connections with the rest of the Jewish world, especially through the Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) Movements, and the international Jewish organizations Kulanu and B’chol Lashon.

In recent years the community has been led by one of those brothers, now RABBI Gershom Sizomu, who trained for the rabbinate at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Rabbi Sizomu not only leads his congregation and the organized Jewish community of Uganda, he is also a member of the Ugandan Parliament, serving as a minister in the opposition party. Rabbi Gershom, a true mensch, gives much of his state salary to provide for his community. His brother Aaron Kintu Moses runs the Hadassah Primary School. Another brother JJ is leader of another community in the village of Putti. Brother Seth Jonadab runs the Semei Kokungulu High School and played in most of the services we attended.  

Recently, the community has finally been recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, although there are those in Israel that questioned their Jewish identity because of their community’s conversion through Masorti/Conservative rabbis. And while most of the community do not speak about making aliyah, there are a number of individuals who have fought to obtain study VISAs in Israel.

Our Cantors Assembly mission began as two part solidarity and one part musicological: to record not only the music of the community, but to hear their story through personal interviews and recordings. We recorded these interviews under the framework of the Haggadah- a retelling of the journey from the slavery of Idi Amin to the modern freedoms they have to express their Judaism. This was a listening tour- a strange endeavour for cantors, similar to a silent retreat for rabbis. I also felt the need to follow what the series Star Trek referred to as the “prime directive”- to not disturb people in their element- to just listen and observe. Knowing full well that Rabbi Gershom and his family lived in the States for a few years, that visitors have brought in their own melodies, we had some idea that the music was already a hybrid of what came before western influence and the melodies that we hear each and every Shabbat here in the U.S.

As we prepared to board our 15 hr flight to Nairobi, each of us was interviewed about why we chose to come along for this journey. I spoke about this notion of about a miracle- how I was looking to figure out how this tiny group in the most remote of places is not just surviving but thriving. How 2500 Jews make a name for themselves amongst 40 million Ugandans. We think of ourselves as a minority at 2.5 percent in this country. Imagine being .00006% of the population.

Our time was spent meeting with many of the community leaders. I spent a few hours each day doing in depth interviews learning about the collective experience being Jewish in Uganda. We talked to the generation who had revitalized the community in the 1980s and the younger leaders who have a great thirst for knowledge. Uganda, and this community, are young. Very young. 77% of Uganda falls into the Generation Z range. Walking into services, the average age of the congregation may have hovered in the low 20s. For while the community is 100 years old, they have seen a rebirth in the last 10-15 years.

We found the answer to this miracle. We found it in the beaming joy of our hosts who wore large, beautiful, colorful kippot that community members had hand knitted.

10788197152_IMG_0544 (1).JPG

While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, we were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver who wore their kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip.  As a heads up, I brought back a number of kippot that will soon be on sale in the Center gift shop, proceeds going to support the Abayudaya.

We found the miracle in the depth of the questions and answers of the Abayudayan youth. We interviewed a few 20somethings who are starting a community in the capital of Kampala. We asked each of them what questions they had about Judaism. One of 20somethings thought for a brief second and asked, “Why isn’t Tisha B’av, a day in which we mourn the loss of our temple, a more prominent holiday in the Jewish world?” I could ask any 20something from our community what questions they have about Judaism, and I’m fairly certain Tisha B’av would not crack the top 100 questions.

Life is hard for the Jews of Uganda. The only area schools in the early 20th century were started by Catholics and Protestants. They required conversion for entry. This meant that those who chose to keep their Judaism public, that entire community, lagged some 20 years behind the rest of their neighbors. Today, some 90% of the population is unemployed, making ends meet by selling crafts or produce. A teenager attending one of our morning learning sessions was asked why he wasn’t in a rush to get to school- he mentioned that his family couldn’t afford the fees.

Many do not have access to drinkable water, often making long treks to the local unclean water tap. You’re lucky if you have two meals a day. Most do not have access to electricity. Yet we saw an example of the extraordinary work of the Tobin Health clinic when we met a youth who attended Kabbalat Shabbat who had just received an IV for Malaria treatment who was up and around after just 24 hours. We visited with amazing NGOs connected to the United States and Israel who are slowly bringing access to clean water and electricity to communities one by one- and you can see the palpable difference it makes- you see it in the schools- in improved test scores, in enabling girls to continue schooling because they have private and clean bathrooms.    

We found the miracle in the faith of the community. It didn’t matter if some of the synagogues lacked electricity. In one case, in the small village of Nalubembe, the synagogue, a brick structure with no roof, doesn’t survive from season to season. We asked what would it cost to build a synagogue- a brick building with a roof, no electricity: the equivalent of $2000. $2000 for a prayer space. In another synagogue in the village of Namatubma, as they await approval for a new clean water source, we asked the community’s spiritual leader, Shadrach, what his community needed most. Shadrach, for context, is studying to be a rabbi under the ALEPH program. He came to his role as leader when the elder of the community stood up one day and proclaimed that he was retiring- he looked to find a new leader who fit 3 criteria- someone who was engaged or married, over a certain age, and had a college degree. Shadrach was the only person in the community who checked all the boxes. So we asked him this question, what do they need?…and he replied “A Torah.” A community that does not have access to clean water, wants a Torah. Torah is water.   

We found the miracle in the joy of a group of singers in the village of Nasenyi, home of the chairman of the Abayudaya. We were greeted by such beautiful music and dancing wherever we went, but the face of one of these singers stayed with me (show picture). The featured singer of their “choir” began losing her voice as the group sang Psalm after Psalm in their native Luganda, but as I filmed and photographed, I’ve never seen a more passionate singer in my life- it was a full body experience, and her full smile brought all of us to tears.  


Most of our prayer experiences took place in the main village of Nabogoye Hill. Services were often co-led by Cantors and the local community. We heard familiar melodies, new melodies, and new languages. We listened to an entire congregation sing. Sing well. Sing in hebrew, in Luganda. We saw cultural differences, as most of the torah and many of the psalms were chanted in Luganda, shoes were removed outside the synagogue,


and women often chose to sit separately- however, this was a cultural difference, not a religious one, as each community is extremely egalitarian.  

We found the miracle come full circle during a special ceremony on Super Bowl Sunday. Following a World Wide Wrap Shaharit service, our delegation assembled by the village guest house. One of our colleagues,Jerry Berkowitz, a cantor serving a congregation in Manitowic, Wisconsin, had procured one of his congregation’s five torahs to be donated as a gift to future generations of Abayudaya.

Jerry stood under a chuppah as we processed towards the synagogue singing and dancing with the Torah. From the other direction, members of the community processed towards our group singing their own songs of welcome and celebration. As two separate colleagues said, “it was right out of the musical Music Man.” A seemingly random reference, I’ll be performing as Salesman #5 in the Martin J Gottlieb Day School production of  Music Man Jr during the first weekend of April.

As we came together, our voices joined in one song as we took the torah into the synagogue to be read. Rabbi Gershom chanted the penultimate chapter of the book of Devarim in Hebrew, the same chapter that Semei Kokungulu had memorized in his native Luganda (this had been memorized by the early Abayudaya as a song since the Torah says we are supposed to memorize it. Their minhag had been to recite it in Luganda by memory). The cantors shared an aliyah. Our hosts shared aliyot. It was a morning filled with expressions of pride, depth, faith, joy and passion.

And, as you might expect from a cantorial mission, they brought us the miracle of music. In between each aliyah, the Abayudayan congregations welcome the person taking the aliyah with a Halleluyah song.  Not only does it celebrate the individual having an aliyah, it reminds those in the pews that they are very much a part of the torah service, when often it can seem like a very frontal portion of our worship. Throughout our time in Nabogoye, our hosts prayed, prayed well. They were insightful and inspiring. I’ll be speaking more about their music next Friday night.           

All the Abayudaya are searching for is what any community or really any individual ever wants from others: acceptance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever questioned this group’s commitment to Jewish life and practice. As we taught them about Jewish practice and song, we learned ten fold on how to bring community to life. Abayudaya is Luganda for “Jew”. We are all Abayudaya. We all have the potential to bring these attributes into our own practice of Judaism. The torah portion during our visit was Mishpatim, a section in which we read the words, Naaseh V’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” This is the story of the Abayudaya. They created unbelievable traditions and are ready to listen, thirsting for a greater understanding of Judaism. And, in turn, by listening and learning from this remarkable community, I hope that I and we can do Judaism as well as they do.  

Finding What Speaks to You This High Holiday Season

To my knowledge, I’ve only really butchered one interview question when applying for a job. It was my first phone interview for a cantorial position as a graduating cantorial student at JTS. Not having the aid of skype, I can only imagine the faces of those in the committee meeting who were on the other end of the phone line. I was asked the question, “What made you want to be a cantor?” You would think that after years of cantorial school, having this question asked at my own school audition for that matter, that this would be an easy one to answer.

I spoke about my journey to New York City as an aspiring sports journalism student, how 9/11 changed the trajectory of my life as it did for so many others. I continued on a tangent of how felt “disenfranchised” by the sports journalism world. I felt like I didn’t have a voice in sports journalism because writer after writer insisted that sports would bring us together. I searched for something deeper. A committee member pressured me on my use of the word “disenfranchised” (definitely a misuse of the word) and the interview felt forced and fell flat from that moment on. I hadn’t been able to articulate why I wanted to be a cantor because I had presumed that “the weight of 9/11” was a strong enough answer without having to unpack it; that my disdain for sports journalism at the time was a good reason to explain why I wanted to do something else, let alone a sacred calling. Over time, I’ve unpacked what that day meant for me as Jesse and me in my role as clergy.

When it seemed like the world insisted that sports would heal all wounds, I was still hurting. I was hurting from the loss of a cousin, Jeremy Glick z’l, who fought back on United 93. I was hurting from that feeling of uncertainty when I didn’t hear from my close friend working on the 100th floor (luckily he hadn’t gone in that morning because he was starting hebrew class that day). I was hurting from the craziness that was lower manhattan, our suite turned into refuge, the air quality below 14th street unbreathable. I was hurting from the months of struggling to attend classes, being in a funk, struggling to battle depression, struggling to make sense of my place in the world. And as I read articles and listened to newscasts, I would hear the voices suggesting either the perfect prescription to return us all to some normalcy, or the perfect escape to take us all away from this horror. Neither worked for me, and so I rejected both of them as being over simplified and meaningless. What I didn’t realize is that those suggestions that didn’t resonate with me, offered an antidote for someone else’s pain, to those directly affected by the events of 9/11 or to any of the  ⅓ of the world’s population that saw the events of 9/11 unfold on television screens across the globe. We all experience grief differently, and the cocktail needed to address that grief is also concocted differently for each person.

“One size doesn’t fit all” is an important lesson as we encounter hardships in our own lives, and when we are called upon to console and comfort friends and family. While well intentioned, sharing a mantra or technique that works for you may not work for someone you try to comfort. Even something that has worked in the past may not work this time around. This often leaves us feeling like we have either all of the answers or no answers at all.

I share this as I’m returning from a rollercoaster family gathering over Labor Day. My cousin Jojo, the sister of Jeremy Glick z’l, got married over Labor Day weekend in New York City. That evening and into the next day began the 23rd of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, or as I know it, the Hebrew yahrzeit of September 11, 2001. In recognition of this juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, my sister and I visited the 9/11 memorial, which included my first visit to the 9/11 museum. What we didn’t realize when I booked the tour was that September 3, the day of our visit, would’ve been Jeremy’s 48th birthday. 

The museum is currently housing a special exhibition entitled, “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11.” You can probably guess why I thought that wasn’t my cup of tea. The exhibition was small but powerful. It captured the mixed multitude of emotions that sports conjures up. It included a Sportscaster broadcast in which Bob Ley stated, “Sports is an afterthought,” as baseball player player Chipper Jones was quoted as saying that the games became “a very, very small blip on the screen.” Washington Post sportswriter Jennifer Frey wrote upon the return of baseball, “Tonight there will be reason to sit next to strangers and feel connected by something other than fear and horror and sadness.”  


My sister and I had access to the Family Room, a collection of stories, letters, photographs, and messages of hope and love that were left at the World Trade Center viewing platform on West Street following 9/11. Eventually the tributes were moved indoors and eventually housed in a private viewing space for families. While the message writers once displayed these publicly, their tributes are deeply personal and no longer accessible to the general public. The tributes continue to pour in. Two letters caught my eye- from two children of 9/11 victims- one who was only a few years old when her mother passed away, the other never got a chance to meet his father. Their letters are gut wrenching- sure they are filled with words of teenage angst, but what they lack is a feeling of dispair; they are only filled with sadness that their parents can’t be there in person to watch them thrive, to answer life’s biggest questions.

IMG_2458Into the depths of the museum and into the depths of ground zero, you’ll see a quote from the Roman poet Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The quote, formed from the wounded remnant steel of the World Trade Center, is accompanied by an art installation composed of 2,983 individual watercolor drawings, each a distinct attempt to remember the color of the sky on the morning of September 11, 2001. Every square is unique. We are tasked to remember individuals- their stories written and unwritten, each never to be erased from our collective memory. Each is remembered differently, each is mourned differently, and each of us, the living, remnant steel, must find our own ways to remember and mourn.

The high holidays are a season of searching. Some may find answers in the modern poetry of our mahzor prayer book. Others may hear an answer in a musical piece in the sanctuary or in the teachings of the alternative service, in the powerful sermons of the sanctuary or while getting feet sandy at our tashlikh on the beach. Our hope is that we create as many pathways to searching for those answers here within our community. One such entrypoint is our healing service, which will take place on Yom Kippur afternoon at 4pm. We will offer new melodies (found here ) and an opportunity for those who are experiencing pain or loss to share in each other. If you know of someone who would benefit from this short and intimate service please share the information with them. May we all find healing and wholeness in the year ahead.

The Old Boys Club: Mens’ Club Shabbat and Shabbat Shira 2018

It was my first week on the job. As the list of yartzeits were called off, I did a double take. Hyman Schulman? THE Hyman Schulman? Well in fact it wasn’t THE Hyman Shulman, spelled S H U L M A N.

I glanced through the Center yearbook and did a double take again. Charles Moskovitz? THE Charles Moskowitz is a member here? No, not THE charles moskowitz, who spelled his name with a W” and who was born in the 1880s.

You see, I was looking for a connection- to family; to my brothers. Long before I worked alongside my sister-in law, I worked alongside two of my brothers, Brother Jesse Olitzky and Brother Howard Tilman. Brother Charles Moskowitz, along with Hyman Shulman and the rest of the “Immortal 11” founded Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity 115 years ago on the campus of New York University.   

AEPI started as a fraternity based in Jewish values, as many of its early members were barred from joining other fraternal orders. Today, alumni total over 100,000. As a sophomore and junior, I held the position of Master, or President of the Alpha chapter at NYU. Some of my closest friends from college stem from this experience, and while we all attended different universities, the four clergy who share this brotherhood share both pride and fond memories of being a lifelong brother of AEPI. But the fraternity, as you may imagine, was not always all about the comroderary, fellowship, and call to improve our community. I entered as the second pledge class following a “reformation” of the chapter following a probationary period. National would God forbid cut ties all-together with its Alpha chapter.  Our pledge period had what I’d call “hazing light” under tight scrutiny. Within a few years of graduating, the chapter had disbanded once again due to a number of issues and restarted once again. For while the vision of the Immortal 11 may have focused on togetherness and brotherhood, the modern chapters have been dealing with a pressing issue since the age of Animal house- “boys will be boys.” Even in our own pledge class, I remember the sense of acceptance because we thought to ourselves “well, compared to what we could have done…”

I’ve seen the acceptance of this world of the  “old boys club” in other places. It’s taken over a decade to slowly change the culture of my own Cantors Assembly, where conventions used to be marred by inappropriate language or behavior. The back room, where colleagues share in a cigar, a drink, and conduct unfit for a person of the cloth, exists for many organizations. There are typically two reactions to this- You can be shocked, or not surprised all.

I say this in recognition of the sentencing this week of Dr. Larry Nassar. As Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins writes:

“It’s only the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports, and maybe in the history of this country. USA Gymnastics not only allowed serial pedophile Larry Nassar unsupervised access to the scores of girls in its charge over 30 years, it required them to submit to him and his utterly unjustifiable (vaginal) examinations. There was no saying, ‘I don’t like this doctor, I want my own.’ The organizations systematically deprived them of any right to say no, to ask for alternate treatment. It makes Hollywood rapes look principled.”

Charles Pierce of Sports Illustrated contends:

Burn it all down. That is the calm and reasoned conclusion to which I have come as one horror story after another unspooled in the courtroom. Nobody employed in the upper echelons at USA Gymnastics, or at the United States Olympic Committee, or at Michigan State University should still have a job. If accessorial or conspiracy charges plausibly can be lodged against those people, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those people should come out of civil courts wearing barrels. Their descendants should be answering motions in the 22nd Century.”

These fraternal orders have abused a power that should’ve been used for good. The relationships that could have improved this world are used to exploit not just those on the margins, but those taking center stage. In the Jewish world we’ve seen this abuse not just from the abusers themselves, but the communal space that allowed the inappropriate acts to continue. I’m not talking about Hollywood. I’m talking about the world of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the world that knew of his misconduct with underage girls and yet allowed it to continue under the guise of “its part of the times.” The same excuse would be made for those in leadership positions in our national youth movements in the 80s and 90s. “It was part of the times.” The dangerous excuses that have dangerous consequences.

So where is the model for leadership amidst the blindness and complacency?  

Over the past few years, we have looked at Shirat Hayam through the scope of musi and of theatre, but the Song of the Sea, and song in general, has a power to strengthen us as a call to action. Through song, we have the strength to push on, to make our case known.

The Shorashim (roots) of song illustrate this power. Nigun- Nun, Gimel Nun translates to melody, but it is also the word for shield, or defense (Magein).

Rena means joyous song, but it is also a shout for joy, a wake up call. Zemer means “to prune.” Moses’ famous line “Ozi V’zimrat Ya” can be translated as either “God is my strength and song,” OR “God is my strength and my cutting force.’” Song is a cutting, loud and defiant call as our defense against the silence and dismissive language.

We can’t understand the magnitude of the moment without being witness to what happened in Egypt. So where were we before this jubilant song?

The 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 -1746) writes

“This is the advice of the wicked Pharaoh, who said: “Let heavier work be laud upon the men and let them keep it and not pay attention to false words” (Exodus 5:9). He intended not only to leave them no spirit whatsoever, so that they might not think or plan against him, but he attempted to deny them any opportunity for reflection through the constant and incessant burden of labor.”

In Egypt, we were denied the option of living without fear, of having the space to reflect. Freedom, at the other end of the sea, is the ability to sing our song, to shout our words, to reflect and praise. THIS is the message. To remember the exodus from egypt, the journey. The miracle that we could finally shout from the mountaintops in praise of being in that moment following the parting of the sea, when Pharaoh and all that he represented was behind us. This is the reminder for this shabbat and every shabbat in fact, zecher litziyat mitzraim, to appreciate what we have.  

But our Shabbat is not just for the appreciation of our ability to relax and contemplate the world. In remembering the journey out of egypt, we have a constant reminder that we too must shout as witness to what is right in the world, and what is wrong; to find the enslavements of those around us and treat them as our own. No more dismissals.

This song, this wake up call, the putting of Pharaoh and his Egyptian fraternity on notice, was orchestrated by a team of leaders.

The Prophet Micah 6:4 states,

In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”

The three siblings are intertwined, but Moses and Aaron share a unique brotherhood given the political power both would acquire. Moses’ and Aaron’s uncomplicated reunion signals a vastly different relationship than the brothers of the book of Genesis. There is no sadness for what could have been; no long embrace. Rather, they are constant communicators, their relationship harmonious.  

As for Miriam,

Exodus 15:20-21 states,

(20) And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (21) And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He is highly exalted: The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

Her line שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ parallels the earlier verse אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃, where I sing to God about the handiwork God has done to place horse and rider in the sea. Now, through Miriam’s words, we all sing to God for the horse and his rider are in the sea. This isn’t the celebration of the Egpytian deaths. Think about that image- horse and rider; elevated, in power. Hone in on that image- in which the Egyptians thought that we were lower, treated us as lower beings.

With a timbrel in her hand, Miriam elevated all of us, as she stood and bore witness that moment. With a timbrel in her hand, the message was loud, portable and palpable. We are not lower, we will call you out for what you did. Even from a young age, Miriam beared witness to the world around her. Exodus 2:4: And his sister stood from a distance to know what would happen to him.

In the Talmud, Sota 11, we learn that Miriam and another character from our story, Puah, are one and the same. “Puah” refers to “cooing” and rocking a baby, perhaps a reference to her nuturing of young Israelites. But Shemot Rabah, the midrash of our Exodus story, cites another meaning of Puah as she was insolent (hofi’ah panim) toward Pharaoh and looked down her nose at him.  This was Miriam standing up to Pharaoh by saying “no.” She looked down her nose at him long before she did the same at the horse and rider at the Sea of Reeds. She was a whistleblower protecting the most vulnerable Israelites, its children.

Through this narrative, we end up with a positive model for leadership fueled by brotherhood of all things. In Moses and Aaron we learn that in a society of questionable brotherhoods, groups of men can build healthy relationships, turning the old boys clubs on their head.

Most importantly, we end up with a prime example of being elevated by the women around us. Miriam stands up, calls out what is wrong, and the community and the rest of the leadership acknowledge the sacred words she proclaims as Miriam Hanivia, Miriam the prophet.    

So let us be like our male leaders, Moses and Aaron, like the organization we honor this morning, our Men’s club, that uses their relationships to build bridges while also building sukkot, who brings men of all ages together to enhance their own lives as well as that of their own families; who on the national level teaches and engages our men in a series of workshops entitled “Hearing men’s voices”; a group that prepares its members to help facilitiate shiva minyanim during a family’s most trying hours; a group that is open to being real and raw, spiritual and religious, and above all else, the farthest from the old boys club.

Let us be like our timbral bearing leader, Miriam the prophet, who called a spade a spade and shouted that change was upon us. And when it isn’t our turn to be like her, allow those prophets amongst us to share their stories so that we ourselves will be elevated. May their stories enable us all to find holiness in the communities we are a part of, to repair and reclaim that which is broken, to not only act like but BE the brothers and sisters that we can and should be.