Teach Them Well

On Monday morning, our Early Learning Center opened its doors for the first day of school. On Wednesday afternoon, our Jewish Learning Center did the same.  Thank God!  It had been way too quiet around here without the kids.  It’s great having them back around.  Our tradition has always appreciated the presence of kids in communal life.

In this week’s portion, we read about the “Hak-hel” ceremony in which the whole Torah was read in one sitting (which makes High Holiday services seem downright brief!!).

The generation that left Egypt was gone and the next generation was now preparing to enter the Promised Land.  God instructed Moses: “Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere Adonai your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 31:12-13).”

The children are mentioned twice.  Including the children and telling them the story was central to the Israelites’ preparation for settling in the Land of Israel.

This is reinforced in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:5-9) which we recite in our daily liturgy.  “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”  In other words, we should walk away from our prayer experience thinking about how we can pass the tradition down to the next generation of our community.

In fact, the rabbis wrote a prayer which is part of the preliminary service that makes this even clearer.  The prayer is called “V’ha-arev Na” and it says: “May the words of Torah, Adonai our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and to study Your Torah on its own merit.  Praised are You Adonai, who teaches Torah to Your people Israel.”

This is why I am so looking forward to spending time with the children of our community during our Family Service and Community Service over the course of the High Holidays.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with the grown-ups.  As the youngest child in my family, I had to scratch and claw to get to the “grown up” table at family functions.  However, I think that George Benson (first) and Whitney Houston (later) had it right when they sang, “I believe the children are the future; teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Looking forward to worshiping with our community – regardless of age! – next week.


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Harvey & Irma

Although the Jewish community is gearing up for the High Holidays, this week’s Torah portion feels a lot more like Passover. We are not reading from the Book of Exodus. No seas are split. No rivers are turned to blood.

However, as we turn to the very end of the Book of Deuteronomy, we read the words of a liturgy that was recited by Israelites when they brought their first fruits. It was eventually re-purposed by the rabbis when they designed the Passover Seder. Deuteronomy 26:5-8, beginning with the words “My father was a wandering Aramaean…. “ were most likely the earliest version of the Passover Haggadah.

These four verses very succinctly describe how, at their lowest point, our ancestors called out to God and God responded. In words that are familiar to those who have attended Seders year after year, God freed the Israelites from slavery with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Now, as a modern Jew, even when I am at my lowest point, I don’t expect to feel a hand or an arm somehow intervening in my life. However, I do believe that God, our traditions and our community can replenish my strength when I don’t think I have anything left in the tank.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “But when we reach the limits of our own strength, and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”

And so, as I think about those who are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey in Houston last week and those who are waiting anxiously in the path of Hurricane Irma as I type these words, I hope that they have the strength to withstand whatever comes next. And when they feel their supply running low, I hope that our prayers and good wishes combined with God’s presence will somehow help them to keep on going.



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Take a Trip

A married couple, together with their four kids and one of their mothers, went on a trip to five national parks.  (No, this is not the description of a National Lampoon movie!)  Some members of the group had been to the parks in question and some had not.  Despite being different generations with different interests, everyone fell in love with the parks.  Everyone wants to go back.  I know this because I am describing my most recent family vacation with Jodi, our kids and Jodi’s mother.

Different experiences appealed to different members of our group.  Some liked the early morning hikes in search of wildlife.  Others liked the bubbling, steaming geothermal features.  Everyone loved the raft ride down a river.  I’m not saying that each one of us was happy every minute of every day.  Yet, somehow, the magic of our national parks reached each and every one of us at some point during the trip.

It’s a pretty good trick and it’s tough to replicate.

However, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with our High Holidays.  We’re trying to create something that will appeal to everyone.  We’re trying share the magic of our tradition with members of different generations with different interests.  We’re trying to appeal to everyone who is willing to step foot in our building.

With that goal in mind, we are changing things up a bit this year.  We’ve added a new service that will make it easier for whole families to sit together for a meaningful service.  We’ve creatively labeled it the “Family Service.”  For a second year, we are having a community “Tot Shanah” service in the afternoon for families with very young children.  We are keeping our Traditional Service largely unchanged from previous years with participation from many members of congregation.  Further, we’ve acquired new Machzors (prayer books) with every word of the service transliterated and translated to make it easy for everyone to participate no matter which service one chooses.

I’m not saying that every one of us is going to love every change.  However, I do believe that there will be something for each and every one of us.  If you come to services with an open mind and an open heart, I think you’ll find it meaningful and I hope you’ll begin planning your return trip.


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Farewell to a Friend

One of the striking aspects of this week’s portion is the way in which Moses warns the Israelites about the people they will find when they enter the Land of Canaan.  He told them – not once but twice – not to follow in the ways of those other people.

I am grateful that our modern interpretation of Judaism does not require us to be so skeptical of our neighbors when we arrive in a new place.  Otherwise, we would miss out on meeting – and learning from – some amazing people.

Twelve years ago, I came to Summit, and among the many people to extend a warm welcome was Pastor Murdoch MacPherson.  At that point, his congregation – Faith Lutheran Church – and my new congregation – the Summit JCC – had been meeting annually for over ten years in order to create relationships among the two communities of faith.  I was thrilled to continue that tradition.  Over the years, we discussed some specific issues like our traditions’ views of war or the use of technology in religious life.  Some years, we included our Muslim brothers and sisters from Basking Ridge.  Sometimes, we just talked with no overarching theme or topic.

In truth, the topic didn’t really matter.  It was all about the relationships.  I knew it was a successful program when I would be in a store and a member of Faith Lutheran would come up to me, give me a hug and say, “Hi, Rabbi!”  (I can’t count how many times this has happened.) I had become their rabbi.  And members of our community felt the same way about Pastor Mac.  He was their Pastor.

When anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in New Providence a number of years ago, there was no question to whom we would turn.  We called Pastor Mac, who stood up in front of the entire community at a Borough Council meeting and taught us about tolerance, understanding and love.  Then, he insisted on placing a Menorah on the lawn of Faith Lutheran Church each year for the eight days of Hanukkah.  Even when Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas, the Menorah stood next to the Nativity Scene. He was not just Faith Lutheran’s pastor.  He belonged to all of us.

This past year, at our most recent dialogue before his passing, we watched “Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent,” a film about a courageous and inspirational religious leader.  It was a fitting theme for Pastor Mac’s final session with our congregation after nearly 25 years of dialogue and relationship-building.

What set Pastor Mac apart, though, was the way he treated people in one-on-one situations.  In Pirkei Avot – a 2,000-year-old collection of wisdom – the great sage Shammai reminds us to “greet every person with a cheerful countenance (Avot 1:15).” I can’t think of anyone who was better at this than Pastor Mac.  I can still hear him calling everyone his “friend,” and then making each person feel like a friend.

Our community is greatly diminished by the loss of Pastor Murdoch MacPherson, but I know that he will live on in our memories as well as in the acts of kindness and justice inspired by his example.



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As a rabbi, I always think that our weekly Torah portion has something to say about the current condition.  However, sometimes I am struck by how on-point the Torah portion seems to be.  For example, this week as we are all wrestling with the fallout from Charlottesville, the Torah portion starts off with the words: “See – I place before you a blessing or a curse.”  The Torah goes on to clarify that the blessings are the results of choices we make and so are the curses.  Now, as modern reader, I know this is not always the case.  Sometimes, a curse – such as illness – comes seemingly out of nowhere.  It is NOT the result of a choice.  However, in the face of such a curse, we still have an opportunity to make a choice.  After witnessing Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists march publicly without hood or mask, chanting the words “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” the rest of us had a choice.  Here in Summit, we chose to make it a blessing.  We chose to come together as a community, celebrating our differences and showing our strength.  It was truly a blessing to be a part of such a gathering last night.  See – we have the power to transform a curse into a blessing.  Let’s make that choice again and again until those who would curse us have crawled back under the rock from whence they came.

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Jews & Food

Although we like to joke about the relationship between Jews and food, God’s provision of sustenance is an important theme in the Torah, and particularly in this week’s portion – Ekev.  Consider these five verses:

  • “[God] will bless the fruit of your soil, your grain, your new-wine, and your shining-oil, the offspring of your cattle and the fecundity of your sheep…” (Deut. 7:13)
  • “So [God] afflicted you and made-you-hungry, and had you eat the mahn which you had not known and which your fathers had not known in order to make you know that not by bread alone do humans stay-alive, but rather by all that issues at YHWH’s order do humans stay-alive.” (Deut. 8:3)
  • “When YHWH your God brings you into a good land… a land in which you will never eat bread in poverty… when you eat and you are satisfied, you are to bless YHWH your God for the good land that He has given you.” (Deut. 8:7-10)
  • “When I [Moses] went up the mountain forty days and forty nights: food I did not eat, water I did not drink; but God gave to me the two tablets of stone, written on by the finger of God…” (Deut. 9:9-10)
  • “…the soil that YHWH swore to your fathers to give them and their seed, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut. 11:9)

Food is the subject of our most basic prayers.  We pray that we will continue to have enough to sustain ourselves and our families and then we thank God when we are blessed with enough.  In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 3:17, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah took it a step further when he taught, “Without flour, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no flour.”  We cannot possibly focus on anything else when our most basic need is not being met.  On the flip side, when we have all that we need, we make too much food and invite friends and family to join us.

This tendency to prepare too much food for holiday meals is not a new phenomenon either.  In a collection of rabbinic teachings based on the Book of Esther, Rabbi Eliezer taught:  “If you intend to invite 20, prepare enough for 25, and if you intend to invite 25, prepare enough for 30 (Esther Rabbah 2:4).”  So, stop making fun of your mother or grandmother or whomever does the cooking in your family – they’re simply following an ancient tradition.


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Feeling Happy and Holy

For quite a few years now, after the last Bar or Bat Mitzvah in June, we move our Friday night service to 5:45pm, and we keep it at that time until Labor Day.  We would usually get a Minyan – the ten people we needed in order to recite all the prayers.  However, we didn’t get much more than that most weeks.

This past June, the Cantor suggested that we “borrow” an idea from her parents’ congregation.  She described the “Happy Hour” reception that her parents’ synagogue has on Friday nights before services.  It sounded good.  So, we decided to give it a try.

We have now put on our own version of “Happy Holy Hour” for the past four weeks.  We have not gotten fewer than 30 people on any of the Friday nights, and over forty people attended one week.  While a few people have come each time, there has also been variety of different people attending.  It’s been great.  This is higher attendance than we might get in the winter when people are not on vacation down at the shore (which is why we have scheduled some Happy Holy Hours throughout the rest of next year!).

It’s caused me to think about why it has drawn so many people.  Is it because the kosher wine that we serve is so fabulous?  Are our gourmet cheeses not available anyplace else?  Is the ambience of our foyer beyond compare (the aroma of fresh paint is a bonus this week!)?

We are all familiar with the programmatic axiom: “Feed them and they will come.”  Nonetheless, the answer to all of the above questions is, of course, “No.”  The wine is fine, the cheeses are delicious and our foyer is as nice as a foyer can be.  However, to my mind, that’s not why people have been coming.

It seems to me that people are coming because we are supplying three things or scratching three itches.  Yes, we are providing some sustenance.  I cannot deny the significance of food and beverage.  After all, one only needs a single glance at me to know that I value food and beverage!

In addition, though, we also provide the opportunity to interact with other members of the congregation.  We call that community.  Lastly, we do, in fact, put on a service in order to nurture people’s spirituality.  The physical, the social and the spiritual combine to make us whole.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moshe was preparing the Israelites to go on without him, he reminded them of a message that he had delivered to them earlier: “Take exceeding care of yourselves and guard your souls (Deut. 4:9).”  That’s the physical and the spiritual.  He, of course, expected that they would do these things together as a community.

So, if you’re in Summit on a Friday in the month of August at around 5:30pm, come be a part of our Happy Holy Hour.  It’s good for your body and your soul AND it plugs you into our community.


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