The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life.
Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare. The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all. If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?
Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet. Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome. Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.” Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years. “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony:
“If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle.
The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college. Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings.
With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew. “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.” Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.” Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children. “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?” ■
Tinkering in Michigan is hot. Once again, people are starting to make things with their hands, right in the state where making things for the masses got its start. Here is my article on the new maker space at Hillel Community Day School.
| by Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Tinkering in Judaism goes all the way back to Mount Sinai. After all, Sinai was the place where the children of Israel declared they would learn about the Ten Commandments through doing. Growing out of this tradition, Hillel Day School’s new Innovation Hub and Makerspace, part of the Audrey and William Farber Family IDEA Collaborative, provides a resource where students apply the tried-and-true methods of trial and error to deepen their understanding of everything from kinesthetic energy to kashrut.
Tinkering is trendy throughout Michigan. As the state once again reenergizes its can-do spirit of innovation, makerspaces are popping up in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Northville. Think of them as a spot where enterprising inventors can come together to collaborate and share overhead costs of rent, tools and materials.
Just in its first few months of operation, the Hillel makerspace has inspired several projects and events. They include a schoolwide Makerspace Faire and a Shark Tankstyle entrepreneurial competition, where local businesspeople and innovators sat on a judge’s panel while students pitched their product ideas and marketing plans. Some product ideas included a multicolored crayon and a smart-chip golf club.
One judge was local entrepreneur Arik Klar, owner of Toyology, who also spent several months working with fifth-graders in creating a school store where kids of all grades can sell their creations. As they learned what it takes to run a small business, the fifth-graders applied their math skills and learned basic economic concepts such as supply and demand. They will donate their sales to tzedakah.
“I loved working with the kids to give them my feedback on what makes a product successful,” said Klar, 25, of Berkeley. “The makerspace is the perfect setting to inspire ingenuity.”
Sol Rube, Hillel’s dean of Judaic studies, said that in addition to their hours of daily Torah study, all of Judaism’s great sages did things with their hands. Rashi was a French winemaker. Maimonides was a physician.
“Creativity and collaboration are all core aspects of Jewish learning,” said Rube as he sat in the new sunlit area of the school that houses the makerspace.
In the room, one child was programming the 3D printer to create a geometric toy. Other students worked with their Judaic studies teacher in front of a green screen to film a video based on the week’s Torah portion. Some of the school’s youngest kids looked through the bins of recycled materials to upcycle them into a sculpture.
Teachers harness the makerspace’s hands-on appeal to enhance their students’ exploration on a variety of subjects. They work with the space’s innovation director, Trevett Allen, as how to best apply the makerspace to their lessons. Seventh-grade students built a shakeable table to study the impact of earthquakes on buildings for earth science class.
Eighth-grader Lily Collin, 14, Farmington Hills, used the makerspace as part of her social studies project about culture in the 1960s. “I love the music from the British invasion,” said Collin as she showed off a wooden prototype of a guitar designed to resemble the one played by the Who’s Pete Townsend. To design the guitar, she first penciled a blueprint of the guitar using precise mathematical measurements, drew another colored rendering before she set to work on the wood. She carved the shape herself using a circular saw. And, of course, her training mandated that she use safety goggles.
“STEAM is the new STEM,” said Hillel’s Director of Curriculum Joan Freedman, referring to the importance of adding the arts back into science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills to create a well-rounded education. “In some ways, the makerspace is undoing what kids have been taught in the culture of standardized tests: to be compliant, to learn for a test,” she said. “We are seeing the beginning of a time when education is turning back to project-based learning. The makerspace teaches students to think critically and use applied sciences and the arts to prepare them to be global citizens.” ■
By Stacy Gittleman|Contributing Writer
At Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, all students learn to click, drag and research in fully wired media labs equipped to educate in today’s digital age. Far away, in a remote village in eastern Uganda containing a large percentage of the country’s 2,000 Abayudaya Jews, the Hadassah Primary School expects to open a computer lab for its 800 Jewish, Christian and Muslim students as early as February 2015 — thanks to the efforts of grandfather and granddaughter duo Jerry Knoppow and Miriam Saperstein.
The two went to Uganda on their own and aim to create a bridge of cultural understanding through the Internet between the Hadassah school and fifth- and sixth-graders at Hillel Day School.
This summer, Knoppow and Sapirstein left the comforts of their West Bloomfield and Huntington Woods homes and spent a week with the Abayudaya Jews of Nabagoya Hill in the village’s guest house and a second week touring the country.
In their suitcases, they packed not only prayer shawls, tefillin and siddurim to better connect their hosts to Judaism, but also laptops fully loaded with the latest software to connect them to the world.
For Saperstein, 16 and a student at Berkeley High School, the visit offered a hands-on exploration of a Jewish community she knew little about until she discovered them in a fifth-grade social studies class at Hillel. The school continues to teach about the Ugandan community on both religious and cultural levels and last year raised money for a clean drinking water supply for the Hadassah school.
This trip is nearly a decade in the making. In 2005, after learning about the Abayudaya Jews through Kulanu, a Baltimore-based organization involved in research, education and donations to those in developing Jewish communities, Knoppow arranged for the leader of the Abayudaya, J .J. Keki, to visit the Jewish community of Detroit.
Keki, a convert to Judaism, visited here for a week in March 2005 to teach the Jewish community here the customs, prayer melodies and other traditions of his community back in Uganda.
Knoppow said the goal of their high-tech project is not just to “pour in money to get the school wired and fitted with laptops and Internet connectivity and then walk away.” It is to help the villagers be able to become financially independent to sustain and update the technology.
He backed his passion for the project with statistical evidence from the Bill Gates Foundation, which shows that the introduction of technology to rural communities changes lives by motivating people to pursue higher levels of education.
The long-term cost of establishing this project is $40,000-$50,000, Knoppow said. In the latest update, he plans to pack six suitcases with additional laptops and get them to New York by Nov. 11, where leaders of the Ugandan community will be putting on a benefit concert for subsistence farmers.
For details on volunteering or making a tax-deductible donation to this project, or for those wishing to contribute through upcoming b’nai mitzvah projects, go to http://tinyurl.com/ok9rhxp or contact Knoppow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for Saperstein’s take-away from the experience, she knows that most of her peers in suburban Detroit grow up in a “privileged bubble” where there is a b’nai mitzvah culture of short-term mitzvah projects. At home, she admits she is happy to be surrounded by creature comforts while also dedicating many hours as a PeerCorps volunteer at Detroit’s James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
After her visit to Uganda, she learned what it means to enter another community very different from her own with humility and the capacity to listen.
“Any time you enter a community as an outsider, you should not have preconceived notions that you know what will be best for them,” Saperstein said. “The Jews in Uganda are not there for us to pity or for us to feel good about ourselves by making a monetary donation. We must work together with them as a team to map out a sustainable plan that will enable both the teachers and students to compete globally.”
The trip was not all about work. During her stay, Saperstein also had fun “hanging out” and making friends with her Ugandan peers. A leader of teen discussions at B’nai Israel Synagogue of West Bloomfield back home, Saperstein felt honored to lead parts of the Shabbat morning services in the village’s traditional egalitarian synagogue.
“Though they prayed in Hebrew and their native Luganda language, I felt so connected to the melodies and the words,” Saperstein said. “I know I can go anywhere in the world and know I can feel connected to the rituals and prayers that unite us as Jews. That is very powerful.”
Knoppow said, “As I listened to my granddaughter lead the prayers, I could not see the words in my siddur from the tears of joy in my eyes.”
Last night, I volunteered at Detroit’s evening of Solidarity with Israel. After attendees passed through a strict security screening process, I gave them each a sticker bearing the logo shown above. Fellow volunteers gave out over 2,700 stickers to Israel supporters.
While the world looks bleak now for all world Jewry, and while radical Islamists spread their fiery hatred for Jews just like the Hitler Youth did in the 1930’s, it soothed my soul to see so many: Jewish, non-Jewish, black and white, coming together for a few hours to support the United State’s biggest ally in the Middle East in her war on terrorism.
By the way, my daughter is still on her trip in Israel. She just returned safely to Jerusalem after a sea-to-sea hike in the North.
Last weekend, she did spend some time in a bomb shelter. She heard the Iron Dome obliterate an incoming misile. But then, after they got the clear, she and a family she was staying with went on with life.
Here is my most recent piece published in the Detroit Jewish News.
A few weeks ago, my parents, husband, son and I were riding down the Belt Parkway in New York to take our 17-year-old daughter to JFK. She was about to embark on Ramah’s six-week Israel Seminar, a trip she knew she wanted to do since she was about nine years old. The news that Hamas murdered the three teenaged boys was less than 24 hours old. Seated in the middle row with my mom, I curled my hand into hers. I just kept squeezing it.
The scene at the departure terminal, though chaotic, was almost healing. Hundreds of Jewish teens about to leave for Israel on one trip or another greeted each other with smiles and hugs.
Expressions on the faces of the parents revealed one thing: we all knew our relatively carefree Jewish American kids were headed to Israel in a time of national mourning. Who could predict that a war would unfold in just days after their arrival?
What have I been doing since she left?
It has been a surreal time. While the program posts photos of the kids having fun on hikes and gazing over the Haifa skyline, while my daughter calls me from Jerusalem telling me about the fantastic time she had working with the children at the Ramah Israel Day camp in Jerusalem, friends in Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Be’er Sheva post on Facebook about dashing for stairwells or shelters when the sirens blare.
On my wrist, I wear a blue Stand With Us rubber bracelet showing my support for Israel. My watch is set to Jerusalem time so I know the best time to call my daughter. My cell phone has become an appendage to my body. I pray daily for her safety, for all of Israel and her Defense Forces.
I thank Ramah Seminar in Israel for their tireless efforts of keeping our kids safe and having as an enjoyable and educational experience as possible while constantly keeping parents in the loop of the changing security situation. After an extended stay in their northern base in the Hodayot Youth Village, the “seminarniks” finally traveled safely to their home base in Jerusalem on July 15. In fact, a parent conference call to update us on the matzav started just as the IDF launched their ground offensive into Gaza.
But life goes on. I have taken the cue from my Israeli friends who endure this daily threat to keep moving on through routine and simple distractions. If my Israeli psychologist friend, an olah from New York, can help spread calm by teaching Yoga to women in a bomb shelter in Sderot, I too will try to find Zen on my mat. I work in my garden and take walks.
Even as the bombs fall, and the inevitability that she may spend some time this summer in a bomb shelter is very real, I have no regrets that my daughter is in Israel. I will not deny the danger or my worry. I know that this time in Israel will be a transformative one for her that can only strengthen her understanding of what it means to be a Jew and never take our Jewish homeland for granted.
When midnight here rolls around, my mind is already seven hours ahead wondering what the dawning day on the other side of the planet will hold for Israel. If you too have a loved one in Israel and find yourself up in the middle of the night, I’m sleepless right there with you.
- Why we’re letting our daughter stay in Israel in wartime (haaretz.com)
To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.
Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.
This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.
A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”
My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul. It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.
Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.
We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?
The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us. The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here. As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.
The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us. An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”
We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.
My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.
The third synagogue I went to alone. It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.
I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.
I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.
And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.
An ancient, outdated story?
As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.
But then, in the last chapter, hope.
In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young. These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.
In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.
I hate ends.
I don’t like when books, or series of books, end.
Ask my kids about this.
Just last week, after years of them prodding, teasing, begging and bribing me, and even going through lengths like borrowing books on CD from their school libraries. I finally, finally finished the entire Harry Potter series.
I don’t even like to eat the ends of a loaf of bread.
Even when it comes to one of my favorite activities in the world – dancing – I prefer not stay for the last dance. Call it a Cinderella syndrome, but I hate when the music ends. I leave about 10 minutes each week before the session wraps up. As the music lingers in my head while I start up the car in the parking lot, I envision my folk dancing friends dancing on into the night, so the dance is never over.
But end it did, for me, at least in Rochester.
I have been taking Israeli Folk Dancing on Sunday nights at the Rochester Jewish Community Center for about 10 years now. When I first started I knew nothing about Israeli Folk Dancing outside of Hava Nagilah. Seriously.
But Israeli Folk Dancing is not your Bar Mitzvah Havah Nagilah. Blending music with Greek, Latin, Middle Eastern and the random Irish (yes IRISH) influences, Israeli Folk Dancing has something for everyone. At every age.
And you don’t have to be Jewish to do it. There are Israeli Folk Dance sessions held the world over, including places like Tokyo and Beijing.
At first, Israeli Folk Dancing can be frustrating. All these people whirling and jumping around you are having all this fun and really know what they are doing. And the beginner, well, the beginner fumbles. And watches.
Week after week I went. I made sure I got there for the beginner hour. I watched feet. I danced on the outside of the circle not to get in the way of the experts. Then, with increased confidence that I would not crash or trip anyone (or myself) I moved in. I’m grateful for great guidance from the teacher to long timers who called out steps for me.
I have gone from stumbling through each dance, to learning the steps, to a point where I’ve actually become pretty good! Good enough to call the steps to newcomers who give it a try. Good enough to teach it to children in area Hebrew schools and camps.
Here are reasons why dance, any dance, but particularly Israeli Folk Dancing is good for you:
- It’s a great cardio workout. Dancing burns on an average of 375 calories per hour.
- IFD is also great for your brain. Each dance is a sequence of choreographed steps. All this memorization improves brain function, especially for some of us who are, emmm, getting up there in age. It takes about six lessons and going on a consistent basis to get the basic steps down. Before you know it, your feet are moving to each familiar dance without even giving it much thought, which comes to the next benefit….
- Israeli Folk Dancing is a great social outlet. While your feet are moving, catch up in conversation with friends old and new.
- If you are Jewish, or simply have a love for Israel, IFD connects your feet and ears to the Holy Land. During Israel’s peaceful times, dancing to the latest Israeli dance is a dance of celebration. In times of war or terror, the dance becomes one of solidarity.
And now, now that I am leaving town, the JCC of Greater Rochester offers Israeli Folk Dancing FREE to members, $6 per week for non members.
Last Sunday was my very last dance session, for now, with my dear friends from Israeli Folk Dance in Rochester. It was a big part of my life and brought me happiness each Sunday night.
And last Sunday, I managed to make myself stay for the very last dance:
Do you dance regularly? What does it bring to your life? Leave a comment below, and don’ t ever stop dancing.
You know that piece of furniture in your kitchen, the one with the round or sometimes square flat surface? How many times do you eat at it with all family members present and accounted for?
I’ll fess up: Now that my family is in transition, it’s boiled down to the weekends.
In American culture, the days where families gather at the table to eat dinner on a nightly basis are going the way of Saturday mail delivery.
Eating on the fly, wherever and whenever, has become the norm, right? We eat walking, driving, or even standing up at elevated tables because we didn’t get a table with seats at the mall food court.
We can go on and on in school about nutrition, but often our kids are rushed through their meals at their lunch period, that’s if they HAVE a lunch period. My high school daughter eats lunch in class nearly every day. She can’t fit in lunch because of her electives.
The proof in the pudding (a food substance I would highly implore be eaten at a table) is a conversation I had with a bunch of my 7th Grade Hebrew school students as we prepared to study the Birkat Hamazon. This is a long Hebrew blessing known as Grace after meals, but it actually translates to: the blessing of nourishment.
I think that hundreds of years ago, those wise rabbis who constructed this prayer were onto something: eating together and then SINGING together at a table gives us nourishment that goes way beyond the physical.
Before we got into the nitty-gritty of the Hebrew vocabulary of the prayer, I asked a general question that can be asked to any kid regardless of their faith:
How often do you eat together as a family?
The general response was, “not much.”
“Everyone has sports so people eat at different times whenever.”
“My mom doesn’t make dinner so i just grab something from the fridge and eat it in my room.”
“My dad works late so we eat without him lots of the time.”
I listened to these honest yet sad confessions just one week after hearing a recent report on National Public Radio of the demise of family time around the table.
On a positive side, because of Jewish camping, some of my students were quite familiar with the Birkat Hamazon. And in the summer, they do sit and eat meals with others and then sing this prayer together, complete with all the campy hand motions. Thank you camp!
And even if we ARE around the table, we often bring some kind of electronic device with us to further distract ourselves from the people in our lives who really count.
As Passover and Easter approach, who will be around your table?
The year mark of my most recent visit to Israel quickly approaches. It was my fourth journey to the Jewish state. It won’t be my last. In fact, if I could, I’d have no hesitation to go there on the next plane.
A few things made last year’s trip during Chanukkah very special.
The first is family. Unlike my first two trips to Israel, this time I went back as a wife, a mother of three children accompanied by their grandparents, both sets. Seeing Israel’s historical and religious sites through the eyes of three generations was once-in-a-lifetime goosebumps every single minute.
Secondly, we have Israeli friends. Friends from teaching. Friends made in summer camp. These friendships deepened our connection to the land of Israel more strongly than any tourist or archeological site.
Nearly every day of our trip, friends met us for dinner or lunch in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My son reconnected with his friend, son of two rabbis, who met us for lunch after we celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah.
Friends came and met us wherever we were on tour.
They hung out with us on the beach near our hotel.
My good friend from Modi’in met up with our group not once but twice.
She’s An artist. A teacher. A true intellect. We have shared our different perspectives and deepened our understandings of what it means to be a Jew in America and what it means to be a Jew in Israel. I’ve connected with few people in my life as I have with her, though we will seldom see one another face to face. On a wintry day by Tel Aviv standards, we chatted on beach chairs with our spouses and watched our daughters play in the waves.
Or they accompanied us to the Israel museum in Jerusalem.
There are the friends we did see and the friends we couldn’t see. I spent one night on a very long phone conversation with a friend from high school now living in Modi’in. At the time, she was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. All the plans we made almost a year in advance to get together, to spend time, to celebrate Shabbat, were reduced to that one phonecall. I was thankful just to be in the same time zone as her as I listened to her talk about the hard choices and treatments that lay ahead.
Now. Now the bombs fall.
When you have friends and family in Israel, focus on anything else has been nearly impossible. Eating? Making meals? Even taking walks? Just a temporary diversion until I can get back on the computer again and check in.
I read an update from my tour guide who heard the bomb sirens and made it on time to the nearest shelter.
I read updates from people who sleep with shoes on and who get tips on how to get to sleep again after they settle into their cot in their safety room.
I read an update from my Modi’in friend, now done with chemo treatments but who must now train her daughters how to run to safety depending on where they are when the siren sounds.
I read an update from my neighbor, now visiting in Israel describing what it was like to see the Kotel plaza evacuated.
Is this any way to live a normal life? What is normal? Why must this be accepted as the status quo?
What to do? Whether you’ve been to Israel a dozen times, or have never been there, whether you can name dozens of Israeli friends or never met anyone from the Middle East’s only true democracy, there is something we as freedom loving Americans can do.
We can tell the world the truth. We can expose Hamas for their lies and their brainwashing. Social media can expose how Hamas truly operates as nothing more than a brain-washing hate cult that glorifies death enough to seduce its women and children into becoming human shields.
When you have Israeli friends and family, the latest flare up between Israel and her Arab neighbors is not just a news story, it’s a personal attack.
I know I’ve been posting about this nonstop if you follow me on Facebook. But please, don’t ignore Israel’s fight for hearts and minds. Their war on terror is ours. Do what you can do from far away to defend her.
A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.
As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.
Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.
But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.
In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.
So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).
So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?
I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well? Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?
With what other country do we identify?
I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.
So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.
So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.
A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.
This is the hat of our heritage.