Category Archives: Hazzan’s Monday Morning Quarterback

Combatting Hate with Joy

As Jews, we are keenly aware of the role symbols play in the celebration of our calendar. Our symbols have withstood the test of time, and although they have been reinterpreted and reinvented for modern day relevancy, their core purpose remains.

Not all symbols avoid the wrath of those who bastardize and reinvent, creating new brands that connote hate, exclusivity, and shameful acts of violence.

Derived from the Sanskrit meaning “good to be making,” this once was a symbol of eternal life, emblematic of the element of earth- a seemingly appropriate symbol for our harvest festival. It was a symbol of good luck. That all changed when the swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920. And now, the symbol of hate permeates our news feeds. Swastika found painted on a concrete wall in an enclosed courtyard of a Spokane Washington synagogue. On the same night, Swastikas are found plastered to the entrance of an Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity House at Emory University. We cannot wash away the fear we feel when Graffiti is on our walls and hateful speech fills the streets.

A few weeks ago, my sister, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, encountered a similar bout of hatred. Swastikas etched into the wall right outside her apartment door. The only Jewish person in her complex had been the victim of a hate crime. The Hate Crimes Division, of which there is only one in all of the five boroughs of New York, did their best to find the perpetrator to no avail. No cameras in her complex, no fingerprints on the etching meant no answers for the police or for my sister. Could it have been a delivery guy who got a bad tip? A disgruntled neighbor? Or was a deep hatred of Jews the real motivation? It is tough not knowing the circumstances surrounding the act. We are overwhelmed with what this symbol means given its associations for us as Jews.

Fear. Angst. These feelings are compounded.

We hear of rallies across the globe, acts of ignorant masses. Anti-Semitism is an object in our rearview mirror, much closer than it once appeared. Vandalism, and more specifically hate crimes, rob us of our choice to freely express our Judaism lovingly and outwardly. We are intimidated. We second-guess. We fear the unknown motivations. We shutter ourselves because these cowardly defaming acts etch themselves in our memory.

As Jews it is our obligation to erase the negative imagery of the swastika, to focus on all of the positive reminders we are instructed to use so that we may practice Judaism to the fullest extent- the reminders of tefillin, of tallit. The minhag of kippah. The reminder of mezuzah as we enter and leave a space. The mitzvah of Sukkah- reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, we can find shelter in each other and in the divine. We show our true selves in our response to the darkest of moments.

Here’s a first hand account to a Sukkot experience, some 70 years ago, at a time and place where Swastika reigned supreme:

“Hassag. It was called a labor camp, but it was a slaughterhouse- no more, no less. We were the remnants of the Chenstochover ghetto. Our families had been sent to their death. Only a few remained- like limbs torn from their bodies, writhing in pain, living a life without life…

Sukkot, the festival which brings farmers and city-apartment house dwellers alike into temporary huts, somehow found its way to Hassag. We discovered an unused corner between two factory buildings. Lumber was piled up, as if in storage, for the sukkah walls, and somewhat above these walls, branches were unobtrusively stacked for the sukkah. We slide in and out of this temporary dwelling with our treasured crusts of bread, thinking of the protective booths in the wilderness.

So we had our Sukkot in those stolen moments, for the experience of eating in the sukkah, no matter how makeshift it was, was a genuine experience…”[i]

Even in the ghettos of the Shoah, Jews felt an obligation and spiritual connection to Jewish practice. As we approach each day knowing that hate crimes and anti-semitism are rising up again, we cannot retreat to the ghettos of our inward selves, fearful of our outward Jewish expression.  We may think IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY, the anti-semites, the haters, WILL COME. How do we combat this?

Ecclesiastes states, “lakol zman v’et lchol cheifetz, tachat hashamayim”-a season is set for everything, a time for ever purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to laugh, and a time to cry.

Our poet, King Solomon, prescribes a formula to overcome adversity. We combat loss with a search for meaning. We combat hate by fostering love. We combat those who break down by building up. We battle hatred and ignorance, key ingredients meant to break us as proud individuals and communities, by building up…

To paraphrase the Modizbozer Rebbe:

On Rosh Hashana, Yom Hazikaron, our day of remembrance, we pray with our minds

On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we pray with our hearts

On Sukkot, Chag Ha’asif, the in gathering festival, we pray with our hands

On Simchat Torah and its energized Hakafot, we pray with our feet

Zman Simchateinu, our time of happiness encompassing both Sukkot and Simchat Torah, is linked to our hands and our feet.

One way to combat outward expression of hate is by utilizing these outward actions that express our joy for Judaism. For the observance of Sukkot is the most outwardly expressed moment on the Jewish calendar. Whereas some holidays are reserved for synagogue or the home, by erecting a Sukkah, however temporary, we acknowledge God’s role in our lives and proclaim who we are as individuals by building a sukkah in public view. The sukkah symbolizes God granting us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace by protecting and providing. The pride we feel is coupled with an even deeper humility, knowing that the fragility of the sukkah mimics our own temporary place in this world. It is a sentiment expressed in our reading of Kohelet on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed:

Chapter 2 Verse 11:

“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”

We enter this world with empty hands. We leave this world with empty hands. But what we do with those hands while inhabiting this world is what matters. What we build for one another matters. We can raise our hands to give up. We can raise our pointed fingers to others. Or we can raise our hands to build a joyous experience for one another. Graffiti and slander may fill our minds with scary thoughts, but our hearts and our hands have an obligation, to ourselves and to the Jewish people, to continue expressing our Judaism outwardly- beyond this building, beyond the inside of our homes. It is not a moment of despair. It is not a moment for irrational behavior. It is a moment to show that pride and joy in Judaism can overwhelm those who wish to instill sadness and unrest in our lives.
Like the Sukkah, life is fragile. Life is temporary. And yet we still build a Sukkah knowing that in few days we will disassemble it. No matter how fragile and temporary life is, we still must live it. Fully. We must build a life filled with love of Judaism. We must continue to build a Jewish home with the openness of a sukkah, knowing that God is a shelter of piece.

If you build it, they- the informed neighbors, the future generations, will come. If you don’t build it, they- the hateful, will have won. As a people, our Sukkah has weathered storms far greater than the ones we see today.  Even when the Sukkah falls, it has always been a mitzvah, an obligation, to put it back up. Let us continue to weather the storm. May God bring us peaceful skies in the year ahead and all the years to come.

[i] Goodman, Philip The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology (Holiday Anthologies Series)

Sanctify This Day

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There are three forms of sanctity in this world: sanctity of time, sanctity of humanity, and sanctity of space. As people around the world light a yellow candle in commemoration of this Holocaust Memorial Day, the three forms collide.

By igniting a flame, we create a sacred moment to reflect and to remember. Our task is to remember every day, so that faces take the place of statistics, so that our family story serves as caveat to our history books.  This is the sacredness of time.

By igniting a flame, we recognize the millions of souls whose dreams and aspirations were extinguished by the Nazi regime. We tell their stories. We share with others.

By igniting a flame, we memorialize the sacred spaces of our past: the spiritual centers for European Jewry for hundreds of years; the places marked by death that, while troublesome, are holy places because our loved ones are buried amidst the ashes. We mark sacred space in the present, in order to create a legacy built upon love to those who perished.

May we all find sacred moments, communities and spaces, so that we may continue to learn, to grow, and to heal.

Shabbat Shira 2.0: A Day to Celebrate the Arts

With last night’s Golden Globe Awards and this Thursday’s Academy Award nominations, we find ourselves in a period in which all forms of theatre- on stage, on television, and on the big screen, are put under the microscope.

What do we look for in a nominee? What makes us get beyond one person or the other? It is not an answer reserved solely for the arts. In any scenario, we look for believability. We hope that this person can transport us to their world- through costumes, through dialogue, and through acting. It is believability and vulnerability that catch on with the people, allowing them to begin to believe in something greater. In the bible, there is no greater moment for us as a people than the triumphant song delivered by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. This Shirat Hayam (song of the sea) is more than a melody. It is great theatre. It encapsulates the baggage that years of slavery places on a people, the fear that a sea that will not part as an Egyptian overlord does not give up in his pursuit. It is the literal crying out to a God that finally listened. It is a cry of relief, a cry of hope.

The reciting of the epic-lyric poem Shirat Hayam during Parshat B’shalach is the main reason we call the portion Shabbat Shira, a Sabbath of song.  As we see, beyond the melody, it is the backstory and theatrical nature of the moment that make it meaningful generations later. Each morning we recount the Shira experience in our tefillot. We realize that the song can only be a triumphant one if we had each person play their part: To Nachson, who took the first steps in the water; To Moses, the most unlikely of leaders who played the role so well;  To an Almighty that created that shock and awe that made a people believe for the first time. Shabbat Shira is more than just a Sabbath of Song- it is the backstory, the appreciation of what it took to get to that moment in time. It is a time to appreciate the artistry of that moment, when we became one for the first time.

Welcoming the Familiar Face

A little “Who’s Who”: His aspirations were to become a professional soccer player, but a series of ankle injuries while playing at Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School dashed his hopes. After graduating from high school at age 16, he worked six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching shrimp and sardines The job was “way too tough” for this individual, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic As a 19-year-old, he had to abandon a capsizing 120-short-ton commercial boat, all but convincing him to give up fishing as a career. If the tide had turned, he may have remained in his native Panama, catching shrimp instead of throwing baseballs.

Six years later, he’d make his major league debut with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. Today, we know him as the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.

As Rivera is set to retire at the end of the season, opposing teams have honored him in their respective ballparks during his farewell tour.

The Boston Red Sox, my Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the NY Yankees, honored Mariano Rivera Sunday night on the occasion of his final regular-season game at Fenway Park.

A few of the highlights from the evening (as depicted by the Boston Globe):

  • When Rivera was introduced, he jogged to the mound, where the entire Red Sox team awaited him. He received hugs from players David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and some gifts from the club.
  • First, the Red Sox presented Rivera a painting of the unscripted and delightful moment in April 2005 when he was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans during pregame introductions on the day the 2004 World Series flag was raised at Fenway.
  • Rivera, who realized that the fans were thanking him for his two blown saves in the 2004 ALCS — along with his two blown saves in the Yankees-Red Sox series that opened the ’05 season — broke into a big smile and raised his arms in bemused thanks. It was that moment that was captured in the painting.
  • The Red Sox also presented Rivera the panel from the manually operated Green Monster scoreboard that had his number “42” on it. It was signed by every current Boston player.
  • Rivera also received a Fenway Park seat from 1934, a pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen and an undisclosed donation for his charitable foundation from the Red Sox owners.
  • Rivera then shook hands with the Red Sox players as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s theme song) played over the loudspeakers and highlights of Rivera succeeding against the Red Sox came up on the centerfield scoreboard. Earlier, the Boston Cello Quartet played “Enter Sandman” to open the ceremony after finishing the national anthem.

What a beautiful night for both Rivera and Boston. There is something special about appreciating a player who made your team sweat, who made your players lift themselves to a higher level and outperform, brought an entire Red Sox Nation from years of frustration into years of plenty, years of championships. A nation that ascended because one player brought the best out of them.  There is something sacred about treating your guests in the highest regard and the greatest respect. Although I am surely biased, the classy Red Sox exhibit the value of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests, a mitzvah highlighted on this festival of sukkot. It is the value of ushpizin, welcoming guests into Fenway Park, what is for many of the players and staff a home away from home, a temporary dwelling, a holy place, a sukkah.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite these Ushpizin, one of seven exalted individuals to take up residence in the sukkah with us. The Zohar states,

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith (sukkah) the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him? A person should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests. Upon entering the succah, Rav Hamnuna Sava would rejoice and, standing inside the doorway, say “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” Then he would remain on his feet and bless them, saying, ‘IN sukkot you should dwell. Be seated exalted guests, be seated; be seated guests of faithfulness, be seated.’ He would then raise his hands in joy and say, ‘Worthy is our portion, worthy is the portion of Israel, as it is written: For God’s portion is his people.’ Then he would sit down.” (Zohar Emor 103b)

Each day we welcome not only an individual, but the ideals that they embodied.

The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:

First day: Chesed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “ Love”—personified by Abraham.

Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.

Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,” “Harmony” and “Truth”—embodied Jacob.

Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.

Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.

Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.

Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David

In modern times, we welcome seven female figures in Jewish history who embody similar positive attributes. While the selection of these 7 individuals often differs, here is one assortment of female leaders that we recognize as Ushpizot.

1) Eve, for her passions and connection to the Earth

2) Sarah, for nation building and destiny

3) Leah, for motherhood, giving and selflessness

4) Miriam- for vision, initiative and expressiveness

5) Deborah – for leadership, strength and power

6) Beruriah- for intellect and wisdom

7) Ruth- for unconditional love

It is in stark contrast with our High Holiday liturgy in which we often speak of our transgressions rather than the values that SHOULD define our lives. Values of vision, strength and initiative empower us to go forth into a year of “Yes I can” rather than “No I’m sorry.” No more beating our chests for the sins in our lives, but rather the positive attributes we should all embody. All this from harkening the call of our ancestors, the heroes of yesterday. From Moses to Miriam to Mariano.

One might be confused why I can devote a speech to the evil empire with the knowledge of my Red Sox affiliation. In our evening prayers we recite the Hashkiveinu prayer asking for a “sukkat shalom”, a shelter of piece from our enemies. Isn’t Mariano Rivera my enemy? At the end of the day, Mariano Rivera is not my enemy. In a few weeks time, he will be something other than a baseball player. But to any Red Sox fan, “Mo” is what I’d call a “familiar face.” He hasn’t shared our clubhouse, our traditions, the inner workings of our organization, but we invite him into our sukkah, into Fenway, because maybe he has something to teach us about ourselves; reveal to us what we are made of. He is a frequent guest, a respected guest, a familiar face.

The Ushpizin are not unfamiliar characters- they are some of the more prominent individuals from our Tanakh.  They are meant to be familiar faces. For familiar faces have the opportunity to drive us to improve ourselves, to teach us, to remind us of some important values that can drive our lives.

In its temporary nature, the sukkah acts as an open book, a glass house where everyone, close friends and even the casual acquaintance see right through. We are exposed.

We can treat the sukkah like a shark proof cage- giving us a glimpse of the outside world while protecting ourselves from the harsh realities? We can glance at the gloomy cloud above dampening our chances to invite our acquaintances in to our lives. We can worry about spreading ourselves too thin. Or, our sukkah, in theory, can act like its counterpart, the chuppah, open on all four sides, ever expanding our social network in tangible, authentic way. Of all the ushpizin and ushpizot, of all the values that we are reminded of, be it wisdom, strength humility and so forth, two values ushpizin stick out. Our first male guest, Abraham, and our final female guest, Ruth, share the same value, unconditional love.

We are taught “Vsmachta B’chagecha”- that you should rejoice in the holiday; our joy based on inviting friends and family but also giving to the needy in our community. We are often reminded of these two polar relationships in Judaism- those closest to us, and those on the fringes. Rarely, however, do we focus on those in the middle- the familiar face, the friendly acquaintance. Maybe it is time to bring them close to us as we gather in for our harvest season.

May this holiday’s harvest be plentiful, may we share that plenty with all who we come in contact. May we seek out those familiar faces in our lives and deepen our relationships with them, for we never know what values they may teach us, what lessons we can learn. May we offer up unconditional love to all who enter the temporariness of our lives.  If we are reminded of the values of Abraham and Ruth, of unconditional love, then next year, we can look at our Sukkah, acknowledge those Ushpizin who shared their love with us and joyfully proclaim, “This is the house that (Abraham and) Ruth built.”

 

 

 

 

 

As a side note, here are the 7 “Rivera”ism that we can welcome on Sukkot:

First day- The value of The Cutter; the out pitch. The cutter’s movement is created by Rivera’s long fingers and loose wrist, which allow him to impart more spin on the ball. Over 80% of his pitches are cut fastballs. To know that you have a way out when you are in a tough spot

Second day:  The value of Relief. He is the majors’ all-time regular season leader in saves (651)

Third Day: The value of consistency. Rivera saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons

Fourth Day:  The value of Longevity. 19 seasons

Fifth day: The value of clutch moments. 16 Postseason records

Sixth day: The value of yesod, foundation. The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which helps provide underprivileged children with an education, distributes more than $500,000 in the US and Panama through church-based institutions

Seventh day: The value of composure. Rivera, the closer, comes into the game at tense moments. 3 outs to go. Game on the line.

Rosh Hashana, Vampire Slayer

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Friday the 13th and its correlation to Kol Nidrei evening. These Days of Awe can be filled with darkness. We can  often act like zombies in shul feeling disconnected to our liturgy. We can often feel like ark opening after ark opening, responsive reading  upon responsive reading suck the life-blood out of the service. If only there were such a concept as a Jewish vampire slayer (Does Buffy  count?!)

Last Friday I taught an early morning class entitled, “High Holiday Playbook” as we highlighted the value of Torah study on the second day  of Rosh Hashana. While covering the 4 major themes of High Holiday liturgy (Kingship, Creation, Judgment and Remembrance), our  conversation took a turn for the unusual when we somehow started talking about connections between our Jewish lunar calendar and  vampires coming out at night. To get us back on track, we looked for a connection to light.  In covering the topic of “Creation”, an obvious  theme for the birthday of the world, we came across the theme of light found in the opening section of our Shaharit morning service:

 

orolam

“Infinite light stored away in life’s treasure house; ‘Light out of darkness’ said God- it was so.” The theme of light is common to every morning service, as we make reference to a divinity that fashions light and creates all. The line above, found only on the High Holidays, reiterates this notion but focuses on “Orot M’ofel”- creating light out of darkness. As we go through these days of awe, it is comforting to know that no matter what darkness seems to envelop our lives, we can create light even in the darkest of moments. No matter how scary life is, it becomes more and more significant that the light isn’t at the end of the tunnel, but in our very own hands. We have the capacity to create a year filled with light if we mimic the actions of God in this verse- if we create the mantra and affirm it.  We will affirm to create light out of darkness, and it will be so.

Shabbat Shirah: Musical Memory and A-Ca-Power

Musical memory- where does it come from? 

In utero, a child sits in what one might describe as its easy-chair-position- easy living for the child, not so much for the mother. It encases itself in a world of surround sound- listening to the motions and rhythms on the outside. After birth, the baby remembers certain rhythms, and even shows a preference for certain sounds. In fact, studies have shown that within the first three days of life, newborns already recognize and prefer hearing their parents’ voices over others.

This musical muscle memory, of rhythm and sound, continues throughout our lives. When walking down the aisle during a wedding procession, one could easily speed up the process by, of course, speeding up the music, as the body instinctively wants to follow the rhythms it hears.  Athletes use songs with different tempos during interval training, alternating between periods of high and low intensity.

This is muscle memory for rhythm. When it comes to listening for and recognizing musical intervals, our brains work a little differently.

For terminology, I’d like to simplify our use of a major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) by using a number system. Do is 1, Re 2 is, etc. See below

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While studying music theory and sight singing, a teacher of mine presented a list of what he referred to as “Musical Mnemonics.” Looking at a scale of notes, how do you sing the interval of a minor second up, the 7th and 8th notes, the ti-do of a major scale? Our list suggests the theme from “Jaws.” And what about the opposite direction? What about Do-ti? “Kol Nidre.” For a fun read, you can try to read an article entitled, “Temporal entrainment of cognitive functions: musical mnemonics induce brain plasticity and oscillatory synchrony in neural networks underlying memory. “

We find an interesting musical lick from today’s Parsha. “Ashira Ladonai Ki Ga’o Ga’a, Sus V’rochvo Ramah Vayam”

Breaking it in two, we start off  having “Ashira Ladonai”, “1, 2, 3” or “ya da dai”- taken from the traditional melody for Ashamnu, “we have sinned.”

Shira Melody

Second half “sus v’rochvo Ramah vayam”-“ Shir Hashirim Asher Lshlomo” –cantillation for our festival megillot.

At a time when we are rejoicing our freedom when our enemy perished, our musical tradition subtly combines remorse/repenting/sadness with the festive nature of the moment.

Of course these musical mnemonics only mean something to us if we recognize these melodies. Our reference points are influenced by our childhood, our environment growing up.

I’d like to focus on 3 notes and the intervals that connect them.

Do Mi Sol, The 1st 3rd and 5th note major triad of a scale. A Major Triad. We’re going to try a little musical interval training.

5 3 1 Major Triad: High Holiday Aleinu

Other direction: Jesus Christ Superstar

Patriotic aficionados: You’re a grand old flag, Star Spangled Banner

In this case, Rhythms/tempos/meters dictate our interpretation of music

1-3-5

Kumbaya,

Friday Night nusah: Arbaim Shana,

Tu Bishvat standard: Hash’kediyah porachat veshemesh paz zorachat,
tziporim merosh kol gag mevarshot et bo hachag,

Some nights I wake up

High Holiday fans: Hallelujah,

Classical music fans: Opening of Mozart “simple sonata”

3-5-1 Circle Game: Yesterday, a child came out to wander. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

We could go on and on dissecting  3 1 5,  1 5 3, 1 3 5, 5 1 3. Mnemonics get a song in our head, they take us back to a place and time, but if we are to go the next step, to be moved by these 3 notes, there is a simple action to transform them into a meaningful music moment. In the Shira melody it too was unclear as to how to interplay the 3 players: the prayer leader, the congregation, and instrumentation in one meaningful music moment. The simple action is to combine all 3 notes as one. A chord with the foundation of a bass, the coloring of the Major 5th, the defining character of our Major 3rd.

Let’s try for a moment. (No video to post- imagine this created by a congregation of singers)

Chorale music, notes working together rather than separate entities, is a powerful vehicle for Jewish musical expression. We are blessed this morning to have the A Cappella group Pizmon with us.  Having sung with Pizmon a number of years ago, traveling t communities across the Jewish world with other energetic and creative college students, I am a believer in the “a-ca-power.” I would prescribe it to anyone.

A cappella music fills those voids- choral singing, instrumentation, soloists all in one. Our musical muscle memory may not instinctively recognize the chords we build. We may only recognize a triad as 3 separate notes. But if we work hard, my hope is that through these examples, we will start to remember, we will feel the music, feel the harmonies, as we continue to build musical bridges whenever we join together in song.

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There is famine in the land- Food Stamp Challenge reflections

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In our torah reading this week, there is once again famine in the land, different from the famine Abraham experienced and a far cry from the famine Joseph and his brothers will endure in just a few weeks. In Parshat Miketz, Joseph provides food not only to the Egyptian population, but also to the entire world.

There always seems to be famine in the world. Who will be that Joseph to provide for all? As individuals, we lack the capacity to play that role of Joseph coming to the rescue, feeding the world. We can in fact collectively combat hunger.

For some perspective, last week I, along with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars, attended 2/3 of their game against the Indianapolis Colts. I spent $20 on dinner, which would translate into roughly 2/3 of my $31.50 allocated to me this week during our 2nd Food Stamp Challenge.

The Food Stamp Challenge is now in its third year but 2012 is of particular importance. The Farm Bill, the massive bill under which SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is authorized, is up for renewal this year. Given the massive budget cuts that may be looming due to the fiscal cliff (or to prevent it), there is fear that SNAP may be drastically reduced, with tragic results to the millions of families who depend on food stamps to survive. Already, SNAP benefits do not last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year. The hope is that the Challenge will raise awareness of these issues among its participants and others who they
interact with.

Over 150 Jewish clergy around the country took the challenge this past week. Colleagues found creative ways to involve congregants- holding Food stamp dinners feeding 20 people on a $30 budget, very different than trying to spread out the same amount for one individual over the course of the week. This being our second challenge in less than a year, I believe I ate healthier and heartier than in our first challenge. I used new tricks for soups, eggs, and tofu. I was under budget. I was able to mix and match foods so no food went to waste and I didn’t feel like I ate the same meal twice. It didn’t help that I lacked some much needed nutrition while battling a case of laryngitis Next time, I may try for two weeks, given the fact that it is easier to budget when you can buy in bulk. I may try out the Jacksonville Farmers market, one of only markets in the state that accept the SNAP program, with its affordable fruits and vegetables. And, of course, as the challenge comes to a close, so too does my need to spend $31.50 a week on food. It was a choice to be on a challenge, and I’ll choose to take myself off next week. It’s a sobering thought that the challenge, while making participants more self-aware and empathetic to the causes of hunger, does little to battle hunger unless it inspires myself and others to combat hunger through advocacy, volunteerism, and donations.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, I tried to view every motion, every event, and every unfolding story through the lens of hunger.

On Monday we celebrated Veterans Day. How does hunger affect our veterans and their families?
Veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
• About 1.5 million veterans are considered at-risk of homelessness. At risk is defined as being below the poverty level and paying more than 50% of household income on rent. It also includes households with a member who has a disability, a person living alone, and those who are not in the labor force.
• Research shows that the greatest risk factors for homelessness are lack of support and social isolation after discharge. Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates; and, currently, 1 in 5 veterans is living alone. Social networks are particularly important for those who have a crisis or need temporary help. Without this assistance, they are at high risk for homelessness.
• Nearly half a million (467,877) veterans are severely rent burdened and paying more than 50% of their income for rent. More than half (55%) of veterans with severe housing cost burden fell below the poverty level and 43% receive food stamps.
• Nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans, as of December 2011.
• While only 8% of Americans can claim veteran status, 17% of our homeless population is made up of veterans. In 2010, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets.
• More than 4 in 10 homeless veterans were found unsheltered.
• $31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger.

What about those currently enlisted?

The most recent quality control survey by the Agriculture Department found about 1,000 military members receiving food stamps.
The Defense Department argues that if housing allowances are included in pay, most service members don’t qualify for food aid. However, a benefits consulting company called BeneStream.com, which studied the issue in 2009, estimated then that 130,000 service members actually would be eligible for the help.
Jacksonville is a military town. This should be our issue.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, an Action News Jacksonville story ran about the issue of Panhandling in certain Jacksonville neighborhoods. One City Councilman hoped to ban in his district, while others were worried the pan handling would push into their neighborhoods. “It’s been a very bad problem” the councilman remarked. The story made the “panhandlers” the issue, not the fact that people in our community feel the need to resort to “panhandling.” Hunger and homelessness in our area are the very bad problems.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Deuteronomy 15:7 instructs on how we should treat those in need.

If there be among you a needy person, of your brothers, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord gave you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother.

What does this passage teach us?

1) The responsibility for poverty relief is an obligation not a choice
2) Even the poorest member of society possesses inherit dignity; each member of the community is responsible for preserving the dignity of others
3) Jewish law does not propose a full redistribution of wealth, but rather, institutes controls against the gap between the rich and the poor become too wide
4) There is a need for both “immediate assistance” and “long term advocacy”
5) Later the text states “the poor will never cease” There is always never enough food. There will always be hunger. It is how we respond to such needs that defines who we are.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, in her book “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition”, sites one word in the biblical text as being the cornerstone of the Jewish attitude toward the needy: “achicha”, your brother. With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Hunger has no rules or provisions of when and where it strikes. As we approach 3 weeks since Superstorm Sandy, there are those without heat, those without water, those without food. Part of the money we raise this week goes to those victims.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In reflecting on our brothers and sisters in Israel, we think of those who lack the supplies, those in harms way, those living in uncertainty. I think of my visit in December with other Jewish educators- how we might be able to help those who are in need?

To paraphrase Judah Halevi,” My heart is in the east, my stomach at the ends of the west, my twitter feed in #jjcfoodstampchallenge and my facebook wall reads “Am Yisrael Chai.”

It is difficult to take a challenge not knowing what will take place in the world that week. It may seem mundane to focus on a challenge when thousands run for cover as sirens fall on most of Israel. Unfortunately, it may never be convenient to raise the issue of hunger. We can’t wait for the sirens to stop, for hunger to take a halftime break. Hunger is constant in our lives. Hunger has a face. It is the homeless veteran. It is the Hurricane Sandy victim still without clean water or electricity. It is the It is the young child eating rations in a bunker outside Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is a peddler. It is a congregant. It is a friend. It is a brother.

On Yom Kippur, our holiest day of introspection, we chant the words of Isaiah, “It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. “ We deepen our own understanding of self by opening our hands to others. May we strive to open our mouths to advocacy, our wallets to generosity, our hands to building a world attentive to the needy. May it be a world of sustainability, a world without famine.

8th Grade Tanakh- Fantastic (Jew)Duo

Our First Competition in our Fantasy Jewish Draft is in the World Jewish Tag Team  Competition. Feel free to read more about the history of the WWE tag teams here.

Ranking my top 3 dynamic duos, we have

1) Ax and Smash (Demolition) with the longest reign

2) Earthquake and Typhoon (Natural Distasters) with the best place to win a title (Worcester, MA)

3) British Bulldog and Owen Hart

Let’s get to the matchups. Each student was able to write “Pros” for their own selections and “cons” for other competitors. One key ingredient to Tag Team success is communication. I’ve created the seating at random so that two teams receive a first round bye.

The first round byes are

(1) AL’s team of Bar Kochba (led rebellion, deemed a “hero”, archer) and Ishmael (also an archer, fiery heart, survived in harsh places like the dessert)

(2) JK’s team of Cain (strength and knows how to hunt, but lacks moral fiber) and King Solomon (prophet, war leader, wise man, but may not have been the best of the best when it comes to Kings of Israel)

Round 1

(3) JP’s team of Josephus and Ramses II

Josephus Pros: Defeats Roman Army, Trickster; Ramses II Pros: power, trash talker, “magic”

Josephus Cons: “Betrayal” Ramses II Cons: doesn’t play well with others

VS

(6) AK’s team of Judah Ibn Tibn and Saadya Gaon

Judan Ibn Tibn Pros: Awesome Name

Saadya Gaon: Linguist- good trash talker, “just awesome”

Next matchup:

(4) RM’s team of Cyrus the Great and Sascha Barron Cohen

Pros: (Cyrus the Great)-military experience, persian king, strong (Sascha Barron Cohen)- trash talker, funny, man of many disguises

Cons: (Cyrus the Great)- compassionate (Sascha Barron Cohen)- doesn’t play well with others, inconsistent (with his quality of movies), wild

VS

(5) RS’s team of Eliezer and Hillel ben Elyakim

Pros: (Eliezer)- has endurance, lives in rough terrain (Hillel ben Elyakim)- learned from the best-Rashi, writing skills make him a great smack talker

Cons: (Eliezer)- lives in shadow of Moses

Second round:

RM(4) vs AL(1)

JP (3) vs JK (2)

Finals

JP (3) vs AL (1)

In the finals, the tag team of Bar Kochba and Ishmael use their archery skills to take out Josephus and Ramses II. Both of JP’s teammates ended up tricking each other rather than the other team. That’s what happens when you have trust issues!!

Mazal tov to AL on his victory in our first installment of Tag Team Jewo!

8th Grade Tanakh Class-Fantasy Draft

As a Tanakh teacher for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, I have the privilege of teaching 8th Graders the Book of Esther.  The Megillah is chanted on the holiday of Purim (meaning lots), given its name because of the “lots” that Haman drew to find the day to massacre the Jewish people.  In the spirit of “lots”, our class recently conducted a Fantasy Draft with 3 separate categories: Biblical figures, Rabbinic Figures, and Miscellaneous Jewish Figures throughout History.

Team JP:

Biblical: Moses, Jonah, Pharaoh, Josephus, Sarah

Rabbinic: Rabbi Lubliner, Hazzan Holzer, Rabbi Lief, Rabbi Gaffney, Rabbi Nuri

Miscellaneous: Stephen Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Golda Meir, Hank Greenberg, Omri Casspi

Team JK:

Biblical Isaac, King Solomon, Ruth, Cain, Leah

Rabbinic: Shammai, Shimon Bar Yochai, Ramban, Rabbi Fisch, Rabbi (Rafi) Cohen

Miscellaneous: Rachel’s Dad, Woody Allen, Harrison Ford, Kenny Bernstein, Bob Dylan

Team AL

Biblical: Abraham, Isaiah, Joseph, Miriam, Ishmael

Rabbinic: Maimonides, Rabbi Yehuda, Bar kochba, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Miscellaneous: Albert Einstein, Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Red Auerbach, Billy Joel

Team AK:

Biblical: Aaron, Mordechai, King Saul, Esther, Tzipporah

Rabbinic: Rashi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, Judah ibn tibbon, Saadya Gaon, Hillel II

Miscellaneous: Adam Sandler, Natalie Portman, Anne Frank, Mark Spitz, Daniel Radcliffe

 

Team RM:

Biblical: King David, Joshua, King Hezekiah, Cyrus the Great, Samuel

Rabbinic: Hillel, Rabbi Gamliel, Shimon ben Gamliel, Yochanan ben Nuri, Hazzan Mizrahi

Miscellaneous: Jesus, Sandy koufax, Sascha berrin Cohen, Dolph Schayes, Amare Stoudamire

Team RS:

Biblical: Jacob, Noah, Elijah, Eliezer, Malachi

Rabbinic: Akiva, Yehuda III, Joseph Caro, Hillel ben Elyakin, Rabbi Zalmen

Miscellaneous: Ben Stiller, Barbara Streisand, Scarlett Johanssen, Rivka Cohen, Burt Hofner

 

Taking suggestions for possible battles each of these 3 teams can compete.

Inclusivity in Action: Opening the Gates for Prayer and Community this High Holiday Season

ver the summer, I, along with 300 members of a Cantors Assembly Mission, traveled throughout Germany exploring Jewish life before, during and after the Shoah. One stop of significance was in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. A villa with a view of the Wannsee beach hosted the Nazi’s Wannsee Conference in January 1942. The conference dealt with the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” Heinrich Himmler led a discussion on “Who is a Jew?” to determine who would be spared and who would be massacred. Millions perished because of a need for a supreme and exclusive race. It is a reminder to love and appreciate each day we have as a Jewish people in spite of this vicious plot to end those days. Some might find it a stretch, but I find these proceedings at Wannsee to be the most welldocumented case of bullying in modern history. How can one compare bullying on the playground to the massacre of the Jewish people? Even on the playground, the bully loses a sense of right and wrong; the crowd loses a sense of right and wrong, while the victim questions their self worth and whether or not they belong anywhere. Creating such an arbitrary exclusive group harms everyone. It

Shuts the lines of communication, and inhibits growth and development within a community. The Jewish community, in its own right, is often seen as an exclusive fraternal order, when in fact, it is inherently inclusive. A few thousand miles away from our Germany mission, two very important initiatives were taking fold in the Jacksonville community. The Galinsky Academy, the educational arm of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, was planning to unveil its Community of Kindness program to combat bullying and raise selfesteem in the student population. The Center created a Keruv task force so that its community could be more inclusive of interfaith families. These are hot button issues within the community at large. Inclusion, in all its shapes and forms, is a call to action for both those on the outskirts looking in and those on the inside of the bubble. How can we be a better we this new year? As we approach the High Holidays, we can often get caught up in the individualized moments – asking God for forgiveness for things I have done. But the High Holiday season is filled with a mixture of both “me” and “we” moments. It’s an opportunity for personal introspection, within the context of community. Even our liturgy reflects this “we” sentiment. Even in the most individual of tasks, we mark the occasion by saying Shehechiyanu, “Blessed is the one who has kept us alive.” We recite Avinu malkeinu, our parent, our sovereign. Those on the outside proclaim Ki anu rayatecha, “We are your beloved.” Let us as a community return with v’ata dodeinu, “You are our beloved.” It is the season of reflection. May we be inclusive not only in thought but in practice, in our literature and in the way we speak to one another, so that the term, all-inclusive, isn’t just reserved for a vacation getaway, but a way of life for our community. And so when we reach Neilah (literally “the locking of the gates”) on Yom Kippur, typically the last chance to ask God for forgiveness, may we close the doors of the ark knowing full well we do not need to ask for forgiveness for the greatest of High Holiday transgressions – having a closed door. May we all as individuals find the season to be personally meaningful. May we open our hearts and souls to the message to live Judaism in whatever shape or form works for us. No matter which prayer center you frequent this season, may you find it respectful of your core values, spiritually relevant and inclusive of all. May we all have that Shehechiyanu moment when we realize we have reached the day when we sustain and keep Judaism alive by leaving the door wide open to all forms of Jewish experience.