Services and Service

userpic=tallitSome take delight in the majesty of the language of prayer during the High Holy Day services. Some find the spiritual in the worship connection; creating that everlasting link between Adonai and themselves. Me? Not so much.

What I enjoy — perhaps surprisingly — at the services are the sermons and the personal stories (especially this year when we are talking about TAS’s 50th anniversary as TAS (it really is the 64th anniversary if you go by the oldest constituent congregation, but they split back out, so we don’t talk about that… but I think about it because I know some of the founders of that original congregation).

So, while getting ready for the HHD services — and again during the services last night and this morning — I thought about what creates the connection between me and Judaism. It isn’t the spiritual. It isn’t the language. It is the service, not the services.

I get the most pleasure — and the most “good feelings” — from being of service to the congregation. Whether it was — in my Beth Torah days — doing Religious Practices, Tot Shabbat, Newsletter, IT support, Publicity, and all that rot; or whether it is like it is now — at Temple Ahavat Shalom — being president of the Men of TAS. Through service I get to know the members of the congregation. Through service I make connections with the congregation. Through service, I can help others and help the community.

In the era I grew up in, Jews came together in communities. The 1950s and 1960s saw an explosive growth of congregations. There was just a reunion of the congregation of my youth (Temple Israel of Westchester/Temple Jeremiah) — and what people remember are the people that did things for others. Today, listening to the stories of long-time congregants, the same thing came out: people remember the people that did things for others. Even when I did the 50th Anniversary of Beth Torah, that’s what people remembered.

You want authentic Judaism? Be of service to the Jewish community in some way. Be active in your congregational groups. I personally don’t care if you have that spiritual connection. That may or may not come; it comes and goes. But take the values — the value of doing service, the value for doing for others — and go out there and do.

Our congregation is running a campaign this year called “Count Me In”. We haven’t had the details yet, but my guess is it is a fund raising program. That’s all well and good for those that can afford it (and if you can, do give — congregations need your help). But you can always give your time. Help a program. Volunteer to share your knowledge. Build a community. Get to know someone in the congregation and make a friend.

I think you’ll find that doing the service may bring more meaning to your life than those two hours standing and sitting. It certainly will move you to a better place.

L’Shanah Tovah. Sometimes these musings just have to come out.

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L’Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year – 5776

Apple in Honeyuserpic=tallitRosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts Sunday night. Thus, it’s time for my annual New Years message for my family, my real-life, Blog, LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook friends (including all the new ones I have made this year), and all other readers of my journal:

L’Shana Tovah. Happy New Year 5776. May you be written and inscribed for a very happy, sweet, and healthy new year.

For those curious about Jewish customs at this time: There are a number of things you will see. The first is an abundance of sweet foods. Apples dipped in honey. Honey cakes. The sweet foods remind us of the sweet year to come. Apples in honey, specifically, express our hopes for a sweet and fruitful year. Apples were selected because in ancient times they became a symbol of the Jewish people in relationship to God. In Song of Songs, we read, “As the apple is rare and unique among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved [Israel] amongst the maidens [nations] of the world.” In medieval times, writes Patti Shosteck in A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking, apples were considered so special that individuals would use a sharp utensil or their nails to hand-carve their personal hopes and prayers into the apple skins before they were eaten. And the Zohar, a 13th-century Jewish mystical text, states that beauty – represented by God – “diffuses itself in the world as an apple.” With respect to the honey: honey – whether from dates, figs, or apiaries – was the most prevalent sweetener in the Jewish world and was the most available “sweet” for dipping purposes. And as for the biblical description of Israel as a land flowing with “milk and honey,” the Torah is alluding to a paste made from overripe dates, not honey from beehives. Still, enjoying honey at Rosh HaShanah reminds us of our historic connection with the Holy Land. Although the tradition is not in the Torah or Talmud, even as early as the 7th century, it was customary to wish someone, “Shana Tova Umetukah” (A Good and Sweet Year).
(Source: Reform Judaism Website)

Rosh Hashanah ImagesAnother traditional food is a round challah. Some say they it represents a crown that reflects our coronating God as the King of the world. Others suggest that the circular shape points to the cyclical nature of the year. The Hebrew word for year is “shana,” which comes from the Hebrew word “repeat.” Perhaps the circle illustrates how the years just go round and round. But Rosh Hashana challahs are not really circles; they are spirals… The word “shana” has a double meaning as well. In addition to “repeat,” it also means “change”. As the year goes go round and round, repeating the same seasons and holidays as the year before, we are presented with a choice: Do we want this shana (year) to be a repetition, or do we want to make a change (shinui)? Hopefully, each year we make choices for change that are positive, and each year we will climb higher and higher, creating a spiritual spiral. The shape of the Rosh Hashana challah reminds us that this is the time of year to make those decisions. This is the time to engage in the creative spiritual process that lifts us out of the repetitive cycle, and directs our energies toward a higher end.
(Source: Aish Ha’Torah)

There are also apologies, for during the ten days starting Sunday evening, Jews examine their lives and see how they can do better. On Yom Kippur (starting the evening of September 22nd), Jews apologize to G-d for their misdeeds during the past year. However, for an action against another person, one must apologize to that person.

So, in that spirit:

If I have offended any of you, in any way, shape, manner, or form, real or imagined, then I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done anything to hurt, demean, or otherwise injure you, I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done or said over the past year that has upset, or otherwise bothered you, I sincerely apologize, and will do my best to ensure it won’t happen again.

If you have done something in the above categories, don’t worry. I know it wasn’t intentional, and I would accept any apology you would make.

May all my blog readers and all my friends have a very happy, healthy, and meaningful new year. May you find in this year what you need to find in life.

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Go Clean Your Room!

userpic=tallitLast week I wrote about the Rosh Hashanah sermons at our synagogue. Last night was Kol Nidre (Erev Yom Kippur), and guess what… another sermon. Nu? You expected I wouldn’t write about it?

Last night’s sermon was given by Rabbi Shawna (I”ll link it here once she posts it) and dealt with death. She was basically building on the notion that Yom Kippur is preparing one for one’s death. Setting the accounts straight, so to speak. Her theme was the things that you need to do now to prepare for your death.

Much of what she discussed was practical device designed to make life easier for those you care about when you get older and cannot make decisions, or when you are no longer there to make decisions. This included the following items, which I presume that everyone is doing (if not, do it):

  • Make an Advance Directive . Figure out what life-saving measures you do and do not want when you are in the final stages of life. Respirators. Pain killers. Intubation. Life support. Investigate all of these things and decide what you want. Write those instructions down, and make sure you children and trusted confidants know where to find the information.
  • Make Sure Your Children Are Addressed. Have children or others you support or take care of? Make sure you leave guardianship and care instructions.
  • Boxing It Up. How do you want to be buried: fancy box or plain pine? What type of service? What cemetary? If you can, pre-pay and make pre-need arrangements, and make sure your loved ones/confidants know where your instructions are.
  • Heirlooms. Do you have family heirlooms your kids will be fighting over. Make sure you leave clear instructions on who gets what.

Shawna also discussed the importance of leaving an Ethicial Will: Ethical instructions you want to pass on for future generations on how to live, and the values to have. More importantly, she stressed that even more important than writing your values down is living your values and teaching your children through your actions. She put it this way:

The way you live your life is how you will be remembered.

This is a very important thing to keep in mind.

However, Shawna forgot two important things:

Clean Your Room. Yom Kippur helps you deal with the spiritual junk you accumulate. You should also work to clean up the mental junk: all those grudges you hold, all the bad attitudes. Get rid of those now, before your children have to deal with the impacts of them on your friends.

More importantly, when you die, someone will have to dispose of all that physical stuff and junk you’ve accumulated. All those papers you’ve kept. All those photos. All those files and collections. All your furniture. All your tchotchkes. We’re still disposing of stuff from my dad 10 years ago! Make your children’s life easy and declutter now! This will also make it much easier for them when you have to move into assisted living or senior living (and more and more are doing).

Here’s an important postscript to this: Remember to clean your porn stash. Yes, most people have one and never admit it. Your children discover it while cleaning your house when you die, and no amount of brain bleach can get rid of those images.

The Electronic World. If you’re like me, you have a large electronic life. Accounts at banks and other financial institutions. Passwords to your email and social accounts. Obtaining access to these things is difficult when you die or become incapacitated, and increasingly they are required to keep paying your bills. Here’s my advice: (1) Get a password manager, such as Lastpass. (2) Make sure your children/trusted confidant has the key passwords they will need — the password to your account on your computer, the master password to your password manager, and anything else they might need to get to the password manager (such as your phone unlock code). (3) Make sure they know how to answer those pesky security questions, or keep a list of them and their answers as a secure note in your password manager.

Additionally, clean your room. Have instructions to your loved ones on how to disburse your electronic files as appropriate. Clean out all those electronic files that go back to the days of MS-DOS that you will never use again. And for heaven sakes, get rid of that digital porn stash as well — or at least encrypt it so they just delete it. A digital stash is better than those disgusting magazines you have under the bed or in the file in the garage, but still … oh, I need that brain bleach!

***

Shawna said, “The way you live your life is how you will be remembered.” I’ll add to that: The last impression you leave for your children is the junk you leave behind that they have to clean up. Make sure they don’t need the brain bleach and the mental floss.

 

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Two Sides to a Story

userpic=tallitAs I wrote earlier, I typically blog about our rabbi’s sermon on the High Holydays. This morning was Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Lutz was up at bat, so… I’m not going to talk in depth about Rabbi Lutz’s sermon, but use it as a jumping off point for something else.

Rabbi Lutz’s sermon (which I’ll link in once it is posted) was, alas, both predictable and necessary. He spoke about Israel and his love for her; in particular, he talked about his reaction about the fighting this summer. He emphasized the importance of learning the truth about the situation: that Hamas, as an organization, states in its charter that “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors. ” and that, according to Hamas, ” the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement”.  He related facts which many of us that support Israel know: that Hamas provoked this summer, that they were launching attacks from civilian areas, and they were using civilians as ammunition in the propaganda war. But I think the most important line the Rabbi said was this: “Remember, all Hamas are Palestinians, but not all Palestinians are Hamas”. He emphasized the importance of seeing Palestinians as people, and working with the moderate Palestinians to bring peace over the fundamentalist side.

Moderates and fundamentalists. Keep that in mind, folks.

When I got home, I was reading my daughter’s tumblr. She posted an interesting link to Jewish Women Watching, a group aimed at “rous[ing] the public to challenge and change sexist and oppressive practices in the Jewish community.” It included the following:

In these days of repentance, ask yourself:

Is the leader of my organization a man?
Is the board of my organization more than 50% men?
Is my rabbi a man?
Why?

This bothered me quite a bit. As President of the Men of TAS, I’ve been reading a lot of literature from the Men of Reform Judaism. A key question on the lips of MRJ leaders is: Where have all the men gone? If you go out to progressive congregations these days, increasingly, the Rabbis are female, the congregation Presidents are female, and much of the board is female. At our congregation, we have a woman rabbi (one of two), a woman cantor, our current and past presidents are women, and much of the board are women. The problem is encouraging men to be leaders. The issue is not that men are better leaders — they aren’t necessarily. However, both viewpoints are important in congregational life.

So I went out to Jewish Women Watching site, and read through their material. Their focus is not the progressive congregation. Their focus is Orthodoxy, and pushing to get women to a more prominent role. This is difficult to do in Orthodoxy with their different view of distinct woman’s roles, but some Orthodox groups (such as Aish and other modern Orthodox organizations) strive to come as close as they can within their constraints. Others are still very sexist; witness the problem of the agunah if you want an easy example.

As I ate my lunch, I was thinking about this and about Rabbi Lutz’s sermon. Both were connected because of the importance of seeing both sides of the story, and realizing that the fundamentalist view does not represent the complete view. The ultra-Orthodox and similar fundamentalist movements within Orthodoxy are all Orthodoxy, but not all Orthodoxy has fundamentalist views. Just as we need to see moderate Palestinians as people, we need to see moderate Orthodoxy as people, and work to encourage the moderate point of view.

In both cases — Israel and Women in Orthodoxy — the problem is unchecked fundamentalism. This is the same problem we have with Islam in general — the actions of groups such as ISIL/ISIS are not representative of all Islam.

Let us strive to learn — and stay informed — on the differences between moderates and fundamentalists, and work to encourage the moderates (both in the Middle East and at home).

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What Are You Comfortable With?

userpic=tallitEvery year (unless I fall asleep*), I try to write up my thoughts on the Rabbi’s sermons. Sometimes it is something that resonated with me; other times, it is things I thought the Rabbi missed. Whichever is the case, this helps cement what I remember about the sermon in my head. Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (if, indeed, that term is correct), and Rabbi Shawna gave the sermon, so guess who is the lucky winner?

There were two main themes that I could discern in Rabbi Shawna’s sermon which, at least to me, weren’t connected as well as they could have been. Both were good points to be making; they just came across a little disjointed. Let’s explore each of them.

The first dealt with getting outside of your comfort zone, and the importance of doing that if you are going to achieve any form of personal growth and improvement. This is something I understood well–it is the main reason I accepted the mantle of leadership in $mens_club. Handling the logistics and running organizations isn’t a problem, and is well within my comfort zone from my work on ACSAC. However, going out there and interacting with strangers to sell an organization: that’s extremely uncomfortable. Being in a position where I have to occasionally say “no” to people. Outside my comfort zone. Making blind telephone calls to congregants to welcome them. Very outside my comfort zone. Yet these are skills that will serve me well in the future.

So I strongly agreed with Shawna’s call for people to get outside their comfort zone. I wish it had gone a little further — in particular, calling people to get more involved with organizations at the synagogue. It is far too comfortable to go to synagogue twice a year or for the occasional service, never get to know anyone, and be hidden in the corner. It takes effort — especially for introverts — to go out and get involved with groups like $mens_club or $sisterhood or $committee. Yet these are just the small groups where you can meet people easier and try on leadership capabilities.

Shawna, instead, used the notion of going outside your comfort zone to connect to the recent NFL scandals, and to the importance of speaking out against domestic violence. She connected this to Jewish notions about defending the downtrodden, and how we have imperatives to prevent this. Again, I didn’t think she went far enough. We need to realize how our actions reflect to others statements not only about us as individuals, but us as groups.

Last week, I listened to a wonderful “This American Life” titled “A Not So Simple Majority”. The prologue described the show thusly:

Before the war in the East Ramapo, New York school district, there was a truce. Local school officials made a deal with their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbors: we’ll leave you alone to teach your children in private yeshivas as you see fit as long as you allow our public school budget to pass. But the budget is funded by local property taxes, which everyone, including the local Hasidim, have to pay — even though their kids don’t attend the schools that their money is paying for. What followed was one of the most volatile local political battles we’ve ever encountered.

What followed was a story about how the Orthodox community took over the school board, refused to listen to community input, decimated the public schools seemingly to move forward in the Yeshivot’s best interest, and thoroughly divided the community. Listening to the piece (which everyone should do) raised numerous discussion issues about who was right, who was wrong, and so forth. Related to the sermon, however, is one more issue: appearance.

Irrespective (and that’s the prefix “in-” as an intensive) of the “rightness” of the O side, what did their appearance and how they behave say about them and about the Jewish community. Did it project a bad image that opened the door to antisemitism? On the other hand, would such an argument be analogous to the claims that women need to restrain how they dress and act because men can’t control themselves. Where is the balance between how our behavior says something about us, and how latent attitudes come out with respective of behavior?

The answer, of course, it that we should not restrain our behavior because of how it might impact others, but more so, because our behavior is a reflection of our values. The Orthodox behavior was wrong because it showed that their value was their own self-interest over the interest of the down-trodden in the community (which may have been a behavior outside their comfort zone — caring about someone not in your own community). Similarly, tolerating domestic or physical abuse and not speaking out or doing something is wrong, because it reflects an acceptance of those values. Being ethical comes from within, and must be reflected in everything we do. (Or, as I say in MoTAS (Men of Temple Ahavat Shalom, otherwise known as $mens_club), because we’re the role models).

Let’s connect this back to the first idea of comfort zones and getting involved in synagogue life. Often, we don’t get involved because we had a bad experience, or we feel the synagogue is a “Marble House full of Plastic People”. That’s comfortable, but that also sends the message that such behavior is acceptable in a congregation. Act up. Fight AIDS (oops, wrong musical). Act Up. Get on those committees and boards and force change from within (a palace revolt) so that our Jewish institutions can reflect Jewish values of today.

People ask me why I got involved with MoTAS. It certainly wasn’t for power or glory, or even (completely) to learn skills. It wasn’t for “male bonding”, as I still have no idea what that it. Rather, it was to help make MoTAS, and hopefully the congregation, the place I believe it can be. A place where the esteem in which you are held is based on what you do and how you live, vs. how many zeros you can write on a check. A place where fundraisers can involve everyone — from those for whom $10,000 is noise, to those for whom $18 is a significant outlay. When your organization only asks for the large contributions, what does it say about your attitude towards those who can’t make large contributions? People often don’t realize those subtleties (just, as I’m sure some friends of mine will point out, those benefitting from “white privlege” often don’t even realize it).

Get out of your comfort zone and your complacency at your congregations. Get involved, and make those organizations reflect the values and attitudes that care about the poor members as well as the rich members, the moved as well as the movers, the shaken as well as the shakers. Be the example this coming year about how to do things right.

[so folks know, I often never know where these posts will end up until I write them — the message just seems to want to get out on its own.]

* P.S.: As I’m now on the Board at temple, I was honored by sitting on the bimah last night. Little known fact: The people on the bimah can see you when you are sleeping during the sermon. Yes, you. Fourth row, end of the aisle. And you, in the back.

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L’Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year – 5775

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts tomorrow night. Thus, it’s time for my annual New Years message for my family, my real-life, Blog, LiveJournal, Google+, Tumblr, and Facebook friends (including all the new ones I have made this year), and all other readers of my journal:

L’Shana Tovah. Happy New Year 5775. May you be written and enscribed for a very happy, sweet, and healthy new year.

For those curious about Jewish customs at this time: There are a number of things you will see. The first is an abundance of sweet foods. Apples dipped in honey. Round challahs. Honey cakes. The sweet foods remind us of the sweet year to come. As for the round challah. Some say they it represents a crown that reflects our coronating God as the King of the world. Others suggest that the circular shape points to the cyclical nature of the year. The Hebrew word for year is “shana,” which comes from the Hebrew word “repeat.” Perhaps the circle illustrates how the years just go round and round. But Rosh Hashana challahs are not really circles; they are spirals… The word “shana” has a double meaning as well. In addition to “repeat,” it also means “change”. As the year goes go round and round, repeating the same seasons and holidays as the year before, we are presented with a choice: Do we want this shana (year) to be a repetition, or do we want to make a change (shinui)? Hopefully, each year we make choices for change that are positive, and each year we will climb higher and higher, creating a spiritual spiral. The shape of the Rosh Hashana challah reminds us that this is the time of year to make those decisions. This is the time to engage in the creative spiritual process that lifts us out of the repetitive cycle, and directs our energies toward a higher end.
[Thanks to Aish Ha’Torah for these insights]

There are also apologies, for during the ten days starting this evening, Jews examine their lives and see how they can do better. On Yom Kippur (starting the evening of October 3rd), Jews apologize to G-d for their misdeeds during the past year. However, for an action against another person, one must apologize to that person.

So, in that spirit:

If I have offended any of you, in any way, shape, manner, or form, real or imagined, then I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done anything to hurt, demean, or otherwise injure you, I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done or said over the past year that has upset, or otherwise bothered you, I sincerely apologize, and will do my best to ensure it won’t happen again.

If you have done something in the above categories, don’t worry. I know it wasn’t intentional, and I would accept any apology you would make.

May all my blog readers and all my friends have a very happy, healthy, and meaningful new year. May you find in this year what you need to find in life.

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TQM for the Soul – Some Lunchtime Thoughts

userpic=tallitA dear friend of mine, Rabbi Sheryl Lynne Nosan-Lantzke, has been posting over on Facebook at teaser about the High Holy Days: First “Getting…”, then “Getting ready…”, then “Getting ready for…” and so on, at a speed of about one per day. This would make the National Slow Talkers of America (and Australia) proud. She does, however, have a point — the High Holy Days start Wednesday evening (even in Australia), and now is the time to get ready. In that spirit, I went to TAS’s recent S’lichot study and service (although we didn’t stay for the service, as my wife wasn’t feeling well). There were some interesting ideas discussed in the study that I want to share, for they reminded me very much of the only useful thing I ever got out of TQM.

Normally, as one prepares for the HHD, one focuses on what one has done wrong in the past year, and how to “right the wrongs”. This is very much a “repent ye sinners” tone, and it is off-putting to many. The approach taken during S’lichot at TAS, however, was based on the approach over at Let It Ripple — and focused more on character development and character traits. In particular, we discussed the periodic table of character strengths. We discussed where were were already strong, and what character strengths we might focus on in the upcoming year to improve.

Here’s the TQM connection: the only thing I ever got out of TQM was the notion of +/Δ: when evaluating a program, don’t focus on what went wrong. Focus on what went right, and those areas where you can improve. The character strength approach is similar: identify those character strengths you have. Identify those strengths you want to improve. Don’t focus on your failures: be positive, move forward instead of looking back.

This is a notion I can support, and it doesn’t even require that you buy into the spirituality side. What a wonderful way to explore making yourself better in the coming year. I suggest looking at the table of character strengths, and seeing where you can be stronger.

 

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Learning from Political Compromise

userpic=tallitFor the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.

This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.

So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.

So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.

So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.

[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]

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