What is your wish/prayer for the Birthday of the World? How will you put it into action? A Rosh Hashanah press inquiry
Hayom Harat Olam – Today the world stands at birth
If Rosh Hashanah is the World’s birthday, then what do you wish for it?
Can you help me out?
I am sleuthing for good sources for another feature on a tight deadline (September 15) for the High Holiday issue of the Detroit Jewish News. And, if you help me out and write to me about your wish, in turn, you are helping yourself focus on the meaning of the High Holidays:
Kids and adults: What is your special individual hope, prayer or wish for this world?
And, what, in the New Year, will you to do to work towards making that wish come true? Will you volunteer? Tutor a child? Check in on an elderly neighbor? Collect food and water for the hungry? Start a whole new organization for your favorite cause?
According to Genesis, when God created the world, God knew it would be incomplete. Imperfect. That’s why he created us: humans, to enter into a partnership with Him to keep the earth and repair it.
These days, the Earth – from the global to the most local levels, needs lots of healing. From the broken schools in Detroit where only 47 percent of adults are functionally literate to our polarized and ugly presidential election cycle.
From the fires in California, floods in Louisana and Zika in Florida.
Genocide in Syria and Iraq.
In the Jewish world, we face growing anti-Semitism from the college campus to a global level as the world grapples with growing radical Islam.
Indeed, the problems are overwhelming.
Are we truly up to the task of being God’s partner in a time like this?
But we must. Today’s problems provide us with plenty of food for thought as we approach the month of Elul and we prepare spiritually for the Jewish New Year of 5777
How can we as one individual live up to the task of being God’s partner in a time like this? But we must. Today’s problems provide us with plenty of food for thought as we approach the month of Elul and we prepare spiritually for the Jewish New Year of 5777?
So, let us, you, Jewish Detroit, and I, start this conversation together.
Ask yourself and ask your children: What do you hope/wish/pray for this Rosh Hashanah for the world’s birthday wish?
And, how will you plan to fulfill this wish? Leave me a reply in the comments, 100 words or less, and your contact information. If I select it, I will let you know and will need a photograph of you for publication in the DJN.
Email me at email@example.com or leave me a reply in the comments, 100 words or less, and your contact information. If I select it, I will let you know and will need a photograph of you for publication in the DJN.
And, if you choose to act on your wish, as prayers should lead to action, I will feature you and your social action cause further this new Jewish year as a mensch of the month.
I look forward to reading, and writing about, your birthday wishes for the world.
Another school year is off to a running start. Let us make a New Years Resolution of keeping our Jewish kids connected to their Judaism beyond Hebrew School and their coming of age Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony.
For me, Hebrew school is where I learned, but Jewish Youth group is where it all came into play. And meet my partner for life, there’s that too.
So, find ways to get your kids involved – whether it be USY, NFTY, BBYO or NCSY. These are the ties that bind for life. It was a pleasure to speak to so many committed young staff committed to nurturing our Jewish youth.
Jake Provizer of Farmington Hills remembers being “anti” Hebrew school. After his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel, the incoming Michigan State University freshman begrudgingly attended Monday night school. It was not until he found himself encircled by his newest friends during Havdalah at his first NFTY convention in Chicago that he felt his Jewish identity taking hold.
“I was in the eighth grade, and it was my first youth group experience,” recalled Provizer over a phone interview from Camp George in Canada, where he is spending his second summer as a counselor. “Then and there, I realized there was no place I would rather be. I went to every NFTY event all through high school. Involvement with Jewish youth is the best way to build your Jewish identity while you pick up the skills to become an independent adult.”
There are about 4,400 Jewish teenagersin Metro Detroit, but only about 1,000 — or 25 percent — think like Provizer and are active in Jewish living. The rest of this age group, though they value things like Jewish holidays and being with Jewish friends, are pulled in different directions in a post-religious society that values secular pursuits as they look to build their college application portfolio.
As teen free time dwindles, Jewish youth programming needs to be more meaningful to fulfill the teens’ social action desires as well as their need to socialize in a realm outside of social media.
The above findings are from a 2014 study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Task Force on Jewish Engagement. Recognizing that a robust Jewish community can only continue by nurturing the next generation, Detroit is leading the nation in financial commitment to Jewish teen engagement with its Teen Network Weavers (TNW) initiative. The TNW term was coined by Rabbis Jen Lader and Josh Bennett of Temple Israel.
“It is crucial that we re-invest in our teens to connect them to their rich heritage that can offer so much guidance as they navigate their way through the many modern challenges they face,” said Jeffrey Lasday of Federation’s Education Department.“Success to us at the end of this second year will look like 90 percent of Detroit’s Jewish teens participating in at least one Jewish youth program.”
The three weavers function at the highest community level instead of the individual congregation level as they are guided by a Teen Network Weaver administrator on Federation’s staff. The initiative strives to keep Jewish teens in the fold by meeting them where they are — both literally and spiritually.
Heading up the TNW team is Barrett Harr, Federation’s coordinator of Jewish teen engagement. Harr moved here from Texas after 15 years of congregational Jewish youth fieldwork and this spring completed the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.The weavers’ jobs demand a much more proactive expertise than their part-time counterparts of previous generations. TNWs have backgrounds in social work and teen crisis management as well as a depth of knowledge of Judaism.
“Somewhere along the line, society has lost that village where every adult in the neighborhood looked out for one another’s children,” Harr said. “The Federation is determined to nurture more Jewish teens and we, as Jewish youth professionals, are blessed to have such a financial commitment from this community.”
Shortly after she graduated college, Jacki Honing, 26, found herself at a dinner meeting with a potential employer on a Friday night.
“As a 20-something, I realized I had some choices to make: Do I opt for the corporate life, or do I want to work in the Jewish world?” said the Las Vegas native who moved to Detroit for the weaver job in January and works with teens in the Conservative movement.
She dropped her corporate ambitions and committed her professional pursuits to the Jewish community. Honig channels her memories attending Jewish preschool, day school and socializing in United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah as she mentors teens making personal choices of how to live more Jewishly. Well-versed in the teen mindset, she takes a “one-size-does-not-fit-all” strategy for finding just the right opportunity to spark a teen’s interest in Judaism.
“We realize that what may work for one teen will not work for another,” Honig said. “We are not proprietary to the particular youth groups we represent. What is most important is making these teens realize they are the future of our community by nurturing and mentoring them now. Then, when they are adults, they will want to give back, not only to the Jewish community, but to Detroit as a whole.”
“Without her, who knows whereMCUSY would be, and I’m so fortunate I got to work with her this past year as MCUSY co-president,” said Bloomberg, who has held leadership roles locally and regionally. “USY has been an essential part of my high school experience. USY has taught me valuable leadership skills, and has introduced me to a plethora of friends I consider family. It has also given me the opportunity to further my Jewish education. I’ve had the opportunity to lead programs regarding lessons in the Torah as well as lead part of Shabbat services at every regional convention.”Allison Bloomberg, 17, of Farming-ton Hills, who will be a senior this year at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, said Honig has been “a huge help” in supporting MCUSY (Motor City USY) during a transitional phase and helped keep the Conservative-based chapter growing in the right direction.
Programs like this over the last year have attracted a core group of 10 kids, plus 35-40 others who have attended at least one program over the year. Other successful programs last year included Havdalah at the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse in Detroit with TBE’s Rabbi Mark Miller.Joseph Unger, the only native Detroiter of the weavers, works as the youth adviser at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. Much of the NFTY programming at TBE focuses on social justice and volunteering, such as monthly trips to soup kitchens or other work coordinated by Repair the World Detroit.
At 25, Unger likes to be honest with the teens, telling them he wishes he had taken his own religious schooling more seriously. He did get involved with Michigan State University Hillel and traveled with the group on a life-changing Birthright Israel trip.
“That trip really made me think more about Judaism and how I wanted to give back to my community,” he said.
Building Israel Ties
If Ethan Bennett, TNW for Temple Israel, had his way, he would make sure each teen understands the connection to the Jewish homeland — not during Friday evening services, but by taking them on a hike into the Negev Desert and then studying a text that sources the very trail where they had just walked.
Bennett tries to do the next best thing by facilitating informal Thursday night programs at Temple Israel where teens can learn and discuss topics pertaining to Israel.
“Israel has shaped who I am and it is an important part of my work,” Bennett said. “Today’s Jewish teens need resources to define their own relationship with Israel. When they get to college they will be challenged, and that is OK. But they need to be prepared.”A native of St. Louis, Mo., Bennett was active in NFTY and spent a gap year in Israel, where he bolstered his skills in working with Jewish teens. He also finished his studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied Hebrew and Arabic and worked on youth partnership programs between Arab and Jewish teens in Israel.
Bennett finds his job as a weaver very fulfilling and says he is very grateful for the wide support he and his cohorts are receiving.
He began his position in October 2015 after working with Jewish teens throughout the country. However, he said he has never seen the devotion and commitment of a community for teen outreach as he has witnessed in Detroit.
“It is rare a community invests so much in its youth advisers and allows us to have so much influence in the community,” he said. “We have been given license to take our ideas and passions and run with them.”
My first short-lived job out of college I worked for a small weekly newspaper in a rural county in New Jersey. So rural that the grounds for the county fair, complete with livestock competitions with pigs and cows, was right out the back door of the newsroom.
That weekend, the staff worked a booth to promote the paper and increase circulation. I was in charge of blowing up helium balloons and handing them out to children who stopped by to visit.
With each child I gave a balloon, parents were sure to ask that child in a prodding manner:
“What do you say?”
It seems the thing you teach your kid to say, that kindest phrase, cannot be said enough in life.
Just saying thank you. Showing gratitude for every experience, some good, some not so good, but recognizing that each moment teaches and shapes you.
In addition to nurturing this practice in our children, for saying thank you for getting material things when they are younger, we hope that as our kids grow into adults, they keep saying it for the intangible things too.
So there I was, out at the Crofoot, a nightclub in Pontiac, Mich., trying to make eye contact with my 17-year-old son as he opened for touring folk-rock bands The Mountain Babies and The Cactus Blossoms, mouthing the words:
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
Now, I am not saying that he did not say thank you to his audience, or to the headlining band. But you just can’t say it enough.
This is the summer that my 17-year old son, soon to be a high school senior, truly hustled to get out his music as a solo guitarist and songwriter. The band that he and his mates tried so hard to get off the ground during sophomore and junior year never took off. There were too many conflicts. Too many SAT prep classes and cross-country meets. Too many mothers filling up weekends with family obligations.
This summer, he did not get a job at Kroger, or Old Navy, or a summer day camp. It was not from a lack of trying.
What he did get were a few paid gigs.
So I just want to say, thank you.
Thank you to the Teen Council of Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for fostering creativity through your rap and songwriting workshops, your uncensored teen Open Mike nights.
Thank you to the Farmington Civic Theater for letting my son busk (yes, this is a verb that you learn when you know a starving up and coming musician) on a couple of Friday nights for dollar bills and pocket change, and a free drink and two movie tickets.
Thank you to Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak and all the tea sipping folks there who listened and cheered for my son on open mike nights.
Thank you to The Hopcat who, though he was underage, let my son open up your open mike night a little early at your upstairs bar before he had to get thrown out. And, of course, thank you for Crack Fries.
And all along the way, I am thankful for the friends here, people I did not have in my life only three short years ago since moving to Detroit, who not only have come out to hear him play, but who ask me when he is playing next.
So, my son, I know you are never more comfortable than when you are up on stage playing, but when you are up there, you know what to say, and you cannot say it enough. Plug the band for whom you are opening. Give praise to your audience. You just cannot do it enough.
While I’m at it, I would be humbly thankful if you check out my son’s music here.
Next time a Detroit-area mohel is called upon by the Jewish community in Windsor, Ontario, to conduct a ritual circumcision, he may want to consider attaining a work permit from the Canadian Department of Immigration. Or, hire a good international labor lawyer.
Without the right credentials, he might get turned around at the border.
That was what Dr. Craig Singer of Bloomfield Hills, a board-certified dermatologist, pediatrician and mohel, encountered at the Windsor Tunnel crossing on Thursday, May 19, as he traveled to perform a circumcision for a family in Windsor.
Unfortunately, once he stated his purpose for visiting Canada, he was further questioned by immigration officials who denied him entry into the country because he did not present any work permit or Canadian credentials to perform a circumcision in Canada.
While there have been the occasional delays, clergy on both sides of the border — and as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia — agree this is the first time they can recall that an American mohel was denied entry into Canada.
Canadian immigration officials told Singer, who received his mohel certification through Hebrew Union College, that the circumcision was medically surgical in nature and if he ever attempted to perform a bris in Canada again, he would be “reprimanded and possibly prosecuted.”
A central rite of identity for Jewish males, the ritual circumcision, barring any serious health concerns, occurs on a baby boy’s eighth day of life and takes precedence over any other holiday or occasion in a Jewish community, including a funeral, Shabbat or Yom Kippur.
“Windsor does not have a mohel and, therefore, we rely on our nearest town over the river — Detroit — to bring in a mohel to conduct a brit milah,” said Rabbi Sholom Galperin, head of Windsor Chabad for seven years. “Having access to a mohel is essential for any Jewish community to be able to bring a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life into the covenant made between Abraham and God.”
Singer says he had talked with the family about plans for the bris several months ago as well as a few days prior to the brit milah.
While detained at the border, poor cellular service prevented him from calling the family. When he asked to make the call or have the officer call the family, the officer refused.
At press time, the JN was unable to make contact with the family to see how the issue was resolved.
In the 15 years Singer has been a mohel, he has made many one-day trips to Windsor to perform circumcisions. Mohalim such as father-and-son rabbis Avraham and Ezra Cohen of Southfield for decades have also crossed the border to perform the ritual for nearly 40 years with little incident.
Border Service Response
A general statement released by the Southern Ontario Region of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) about the incident read:
“Every person seeking entry into Canada must demonstrate that they meet the requirements to enter the country.
“Admissibility of all travelers seeking to enter Canada is considered on a case-by-case basis, and based on the specific facts presented by the applicant in each case at the time of entry.
“The onus is on the traveler to understand and meet the entry requirements.
“A temporary foreign worker seeking entry to Canada may require a work permit.”
The CBSA also pointed to its online guidelines for Refugees and Citizenship/Canada Temporary Foreign Workers. There, in a paragraph especially deemed for temporary clergy (R186), the regulations state that a foreigner is permitted to work in Canada without a work permit as clergy defined as a person who is “responsible for assisting a congregation or group in the achievement of its spiritual goals and whose main duties are to preach doctrine, perform functions related to gatherings of the congregation or group or provide spiritual counseling.”
Still, the CBSA did not offer a clear explanation as to why Singer was turned away, nor did they explain why the immigration officer would threaten to prosecute Singer if he returned to Canada to perform a bris.
“The immigration officer asked me if I knew of any Canadian legislation that would permit me to enter the country to perform this ‘surgery,”” Singer said. “I explained this is not surgery, but rather a religious rite, and I told him there are religious freedom laws protecting and enabling Canadian citizens to fulfill their religious beliefs.”
While still widely practiced in Canada, views on circumcision — ritual or medical — seem to be shifting out of favor.
In 2015, the Canadian Pediatric Society released a statement reaffirming its recommendation against the routine circumcision of newborn males but also maintained that families need to make the best decision for their children based on family, religious and cultural beliefs.
Canadian clergy maintain that Canada holds religious freedom in the highest regard and that this matter, however unfortunate, is more about who is allowed to work in Canada and less about infringement on religious practices. And that all comes down to the whim of the immigration officer on duty.
Rabbi Don Pacht, head of school of the Vancouver Hebrew Academy in Vancouver, B.C., who has practiced as a certified mohel in both countries for 17 years, said there is no official governmental certification in either Canada or the U.S. for mohalim. They train either under doctors or rabbis, and their training is not regulated by any government.
Finding a mohel in the wider Jewish community in North America is a practice based on references and trust. Pacht speculated Singer’s being a medical doctor is what may have been the determining factor for the immigration officer’s denial of entry.
“Canada is very liberal in regard to protecting religious rights, perhaps even more so than the United States,” said Pacht, who holds dual citizenship. “As an American, however, you cannot practice medicine or surgical procedures in Canada without proper documentation; and this immigration official perhaps deemed a circumcision, even though ritual, as surgery.”
Singer said he will be hesitant to return to Canada if asked to perform a bris. And if he does, he said he might have to “hire a good labor lawyer” to work through the wording of Canada’s labor laws for foreign clergy.
He remained remorseful for the family waiting for him to welcome their baby officially into the Jewish community.
“A beautiful lifecycle event was completely soured for this family,” Singer said. “I was wearing a kippah as I went through customs. I could have just said I was visiting a friend in Canada, but with a carrying case containing circumcision surgical equipment in my trunk, I wanted to be completely honest.”
By Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
If you are like me and you comment a lot – I mean a lot – to refute false claims and narratives that are piled upon Israel – you may have felt the virtual masking tape gag your mouth as I did by Jewish Voice for Peace.
In an effort to increase its membership and its own voice, #JewishVoiceforPeace recently cleansed its Facebook page of any facts that counter their lies.
It wasn’t enough to be called a Hasabra troll, with people spewing lies that I get paid to Stand Up for Israel online.
It wasn’t enough to be called stupid, racist, ignorant, bigotted and a hateful Zionist pig by the self-righteous over at Jewish Voice for Peace
But about a month ago, JVP completely shut down my account. They blocked me from commenting. From “liking” their page. From sending private messages to their admins. And from what it appears, all the others who tried to refute the lies and anyone else who tried to address false claims of JVP’s posts, their tireless garbage of calling Zionists oppressors and occupiers anyone whose comments did not fall in line with their twisted way of seeing Israel, was also blocked from commenting.
The last post I was ever able to make on JVP’s Facebook page was a post on May 11 where, in a sympathetic nod to the fate of teen terrorist Ahmed Manasra as he faces 20 years in prison. They showed the video of Mansra, 13 at the time, lying bleeding in the street of the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood while people cursed at him. Jewish Voice for Peace in the post called for the release of the poor Palestinian
What the post failed to do – as do many who tell only half-truths about the Arab/Israeli conflict – was to pull back the lens.
JVP failed to mention that back in October, this kid, along with his big cousin, went on a Jew hunt, taking knives from their mom’s kitchen to go stab some Jews to bring some dignity to their people.
What the post failed to do was to show the security video of Manasra and his cousin, who was shot dead, running through the streets stabbing Jews, including a 12-year-old boy on his bicycle who lost so much blood he had to be put into a medically induced coma to survive.
So, I posted the video.
Shortly afterward, I was blocked from commenting anywhere ever again on JVP’s Facebook page.
But that’s okay.
I am old. Old enough to remember a time of activism long before the invention of social media.
It’s called phone calls.
I remember as a kid making phone calls to “Let my People Go” to the Soviet Consulate. I remember marching in Soviet Jewry rallies.
Look what we accomplished.
I told you, I’m old.
This week, after watching their Facebook page put up post after post of lies and distortions, I called up their office in Oakland, Calif. at (510) 465–1777
I expressed my dismay and disappointment that JVP has decided to censor all dissenting viewpoints that counter theirs on their Facebook page. I asked the woman why that was and she said they take off comments that are hateful, violent and abusive.
I guess being hateful and violent and abusive against Zionists is perfectly fine.
All I did was post facts.
Facts that do not mesh with the Palestinian narrative. Because a narrative is not history.
Unsafe space facts.
And as I talked, I realized what I wanted to say, and it was not as much as what I wanted to say was what I wanted to ask.
What was the thing that JVP hates most of all?
So I asked: Do you know what the Hebrew word Tziyon means?
She replied: No, I don’t.
It means Zionism. Do you know what Zionism translates into, I am talking about the meaning of the word?
No I really don’t.
And I explained. It means excellence. It means treating others with excellence and living up to standards of excellence. It means that Jewish people have the right to live independently in their ancient homeland.
She then said: We have different interpretations of what it means to live in a homeland.
I then questioned her about JVP’s stance on a two-state solution. She said that JVP does not believe in a two-state solution, that all people should share the land with freedom and dignity and that the apartheid occupation had to end.
I said there is already a two state solution. It is called Jordan.
She said she found that remark very insulting.
I said, you may be insulted but it is a fact.
I questioned her more.
She did not know anything about the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Or the San Remo Conference of 1920.
She did not know that half of the land of the British Mandate of Palestine that was meant to be set aside for the Jewish state was used to create the country of Jordan the same year that the State of Israel was created.
She told me that she and I held different interpretations of history.
I’m thinking, this is not an interpretation. These are historical dates. Facts.
It was when I corrected her claims that Israel is an apartheid state and I mentioned that 1.5 Million Muslim Arabs live in Israel with full rights, she said she and I had a different interpretation of rights, and she would need to end this conversation.
And there you have it.
Because JVP does not want to bother with history.
Or the truth.
But that is where we come in and that is where we, Jews, have gone oh so wrong. If the folks at JVP truly are Jewish, they are the Jews are are the product of a weak Jewish education that dismisses learning history at the price of convenience and reduced hours of instruction.
So, call JVP. If you’ve been blocked. Find a post you strongly disagree with them. And now that they’ve blocked you, just call and tell them what you were going to write.
Just do it with civility. And you had better come knowing your stuff.
Because they certainly don’t.
If you are a seder leader, you work a tough crowd.
Just as the Children of Israel complained in the desert to Moses, all gathered at the seder table will level their pre-meal kvetching at you.
Fear not. The Passover seder is the ultimate multi-sensory teaching tool that asks each of us to think of ourselves as going on a journey and leaving Egypt and slavery behind for freedom in the Promised Land. Long before any educational theorist came up with the idea of teaching to multiple intelligences, the Hagaddah text clearly states that all who participate in a seder must feel as they themselves experienced the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of redemption.
“From sports to music fans, you’ve got to know your audience,” said Jeff Lasday, director of Alliance for Jewish Education. Lasday has led family seders for the past 30 years. When Passover falls during the annual NCAA basketball tournament, Lasday emails his family in advance a Jewish-themed “bracket” of favorite Passover foods, Jewish traditions and Jewish heroes. Before the seder, he compiles the results and intersperses reports between different parts of the Hagaddah.
STEP AWAY FROM THE SEDER TABLE
In the 2005 Passover comedy, When Do We Eat?, a dysfunctional Jewish family celebrates Passover in a Bedouin tent pitched on a suburbanite Long Island lawn. Though it is not necessary to go through such lengths, setting the stage visually will get your seder guests in the right frame of mind for the evening. At the beginning of the seder, don’t even bother with the table. For one seder, I brought the whole family into the tiny front storage area of my parent’s basement. This subterranean start symbolized that we were about to go on a journey and the dark basement represented just how low we felt during slavery and how we were about to rise to freedom. Amy Newman, director of leadership development for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, suggests hanging blue cellophane from doorways to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. She also recommends giving permission for kids to draw on the dining room walls — covered carefully with butcher paper — to depict scenes from the Haggadah. “The more experiential you can make your seder, the more meaning it will have for your guests, no matter their age,” Newman said.
YES, YOU CAN EAT
Nibbling is permitted during the first half of the seder after reciting the blessing for karpas (green vegetable, often parsley). Pass around bowls of dried fruits and nuts, even crudites with guacamole to stave off hunger during the seder.
Prior to the seder, get them invested by asking them to think about their own interpretation of slavery, freedom or plagues. Newman also suggests providing older kids and young adults with a lunch bag filled with different items to be used during the Maggid section of the Haggadah to tell the Passover story. From food insecurity to the environment to human trafficking, teens and young adults are passionate about causes. The internet provides great supplementary Haggadah readings that can spark conversations on all of these topics to bring the messages of the holiday into a contemporary light. When it comes to including a discussion about Israel, organizations from AIPAC to J Street publish Haggadah supplements. For example, last year, a friend of my niece joined the IDF as a Lone Soldier. I was able to find a Hagaddah reading online that offered short profiles of Lone Soldiers and what it meant to them to serve in the Israeli army.
SONGS OF FREEDOM, REDEMPTION
My earliest Passover memories are steeped in song. Growing up at my no-nonsense Hebrew school, teachers taught us how to lead the seder by singing our way through the Haggadah. The more singing and music you add to your seder, the more enjoyable it will be for all guests. My husband’s own “Passover Rappin” YouTube video has not gone viral like those of the Maccabeats, but in our family, it has become a seder standard. If you are fortunate to have Jewish preschoolers coming to your seder, your evening will ring with the wonderful songs they learn. For older guests, if you want to divert a bit from the traditional Haggadah text but still stay on topic, Newman suggests having a sing-down. How many songs can those around the table think of about slavery, freedom, spring or redemption?
My grandmother used to tell me stories of being shushed at the seder table as a child while a bearded elder quickly mumbled through the whole Haggadah. As time went on, American Jews started to read from the Maxwell House Haggadah in a round-robin fashion, but they were still bored with the formal English and cumbersome sentences. One year, my brother-in-law proclaimed, “This is awful. Why do we use the same boring Haggadah with these ‘thines and thous’ year after year?” Before the next Passover came around, I researched and found other Haggadot, such as A Family Haggadah (Kar Ben Copies) and A Different Night by Noam Zion. Do not be afraid to cull different passages from different Haggadot. But when all is said and done, don’t permanently retire your Maxwell House Haggadot. As corny as it is, my kids and their cousins still love to use them to read Hallel: “Thine yea thine, thine only thine” … verse after verse late into the night. There are many new traditions to enhance your seder, but sometimes the old standbys are the ones that truly create family seder memories.*
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As they exchange their vows and listen to the reading of a ketubah, sheltering them above their heads are customized canopies woven together from heirloom wedding gowns, a greatgrandfather’s tallit or even the cloth napkin from the restaurant where the proposal took place. Understanding the significance and holiness of this moment as the beginning of a new marriage and family, today’s couples seek to bring more personalization into the design of their one-of-a-kind chuppot.
It was an honor and a pleasure to interview and feature these often unspoken heroes of our shuls for this cover story in the March 16th issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Next time you go to synagogue for services, don’t forget to thank the custodian for their service.
Longtime non-Jewish staffers help make their synagogues special.
By Stacy Gittleman
They are often the first to open up the building in the morning and the last ones to lock up at night. They work hard to make sure the furnace runs in the winter and the air conditioning is cool — but not too cold — in the summer. Because of them, the floors shine and the carpets are fresh right before the High Holidays and the start of Hebrew school.
Their years connected to a congregation often outlast many Jewish members and even the clergy, making the synagogue or temple custodian not only the caretaker of our holy Jewish spaces, but a congregation’s unofficial historian.
Many of Detroit’s synagogues and temples owe much gratitude to the dedication of their custodians, who take much joy in watching Jewish preschoolers grow into young men and women and return to synagogue with their own children. When they fall ill, they receive visits from congregation members and congregational clergy. For that, they say, working as a synagogue custodian is like being part of a big extended family.
Murphy Ealy, 67, of Oak Park, worked in a scrap metal recycling facility when, in 1999, he got a call from an employment agency about a custodial position at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. His work at the recycling yard was “grimy.” Ealy loves to clean, so he said he was “strongly encouraged” to take on the new opportunity.
Seventeen years later, he still loves his job of preparing the building for services, meals and other programs throughout the Jewish calendar cycle.
“The favorite part of my job is welcoming in the congregants when they come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Ealy said. “I watch the kids grow older every year, and a lot I’ve known since they were preschoolers are now coming back married with their own kids. I have both celebrated and at times mourned together with the families here.”
Ealy arrives at Beth Ahm most days at 5:30 a.m. to open up the building for minyan. He then spends the rest of the morning cleaning and setting up for the week’s programs or services until his shift ends at noon. Many times, he will return to the building for evening functions and is especially instrumental during special occasions such as building the sukkah and helping the congregation’s sisterhood during its annual rummage sale.
As Ealy polished the brass railings of the bimah in the sanctuary on a recent morning, he considered the holiness of his work.
“For six days, I spend most of my time in a Jewish house of worship,” he said. “There is certainly something special about doing my work inside a synagogue. When I’m in here and it is peaceful and quiet, I feel safe.”
As keeper of the synagogue’s keys, a custodian is also on call for various emergency circumstances, like responding to an emergency alarm or a power outage. But it is not often that a custodian is called upon to determine the results of a local election.
Beth Ahm serves as a polling location for Precincts 9 and 10 in Oakland County. One election night, Ealy returned home after work only to receive an urgent phone call from a local government official. The polling workers left the voting sheets in the locked synagogue, and they could not call the election until Ealy opened the building to count the votes.
“He is a one-man show who knows us all and knows the inner workings and routine of our congregation and can anticipate what needs to be done without even asking,” said Beth Ahm Executive Director David Goodman. “He is here for us all and is an integral part of our success.”
‘As Important As The Rabbi’
On the other side of town, Beth Shalom of Oak Park loves to brag about its “one-man maintenance team,” Vasile Havrisciuc.
Vasile Havrisciuc, maintenance manager, spruces up the Beth Shalom sign.
For 11 years, Romanian-born Havrisciuc has worked as the synagogue’s maintenance manager. He has a background in electrical, plumbing and HVAC skills and is “constantly finding ways to save the synagogue money,” according to building committee chair Allen Wolf of Bloomfield Township.
Non-Jewish custodians of synagogues take on unique job responsibilities such as learning about Jewish laws and observances surrounding Shabbat, kashrut and other customs.
According to Wolf, Havrisciuc is a devout Catholic who knows more about Judaism than most Jews do.
“When Pesach comes around, no one needs to tell Vasile how to kasher the kitchen,” he said. “When the High Holidays approach, he knows how to re-arrange the shul and pull out the appropriate machzorim. On Shabbat, he knows we can’t turn on ovens or lights, so he makes sure these things are handled.
“Congregation Beth Shalom is a very heimishe [down-to-earth] shul and Vasile is an important part of that. He is as important to the success of Beth Shalom as the rabbi, the cantor or the office staff.”
An ‘Honorary Jew’
Charles Criss, 57, of Detroit, has worked for Temple Emanu-El for 34 years. From those decades of experience comes the knack for anticipating the needs of the synagogue’s day-to-day operations, according to Executive Director Fredrick Frank. Criss said he has become an expert on the temple’s roof, forecasting where leaks may spring up and advising contractors during roof renovations.
He knows the congregants just about as well as he knows the building. Like his counterparts working in other synagogues, he echoes that the best part of his job is watching the kids grow up over the years and coming back to temple with their own children.
Charles Criss keeps Temple Emanu-El is in top shape.
Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Klein would play an “informal” game with Criss each week, and each week, Criss would beat him at it.
“A day before a special event or program, I would remind Criss of what I needed set up,” Klein said. “No matter what, he would be way ahead of me and with a smile he would say, ‘Already done.’”
Though he cannot attend services at church as much as he would like — as the week’s busiest day is Sunday when Hebrew school is in session — over the years he said he received much “spiritual guidance” from the clergy and others at Temple Emanu-El.
“I have had the opportunity to be spiritually uplifted when I sit back and listen to the services, and I have been honored with the duty of serving as a pallbearer at funerals of congregants. Because of this, Rabbi Klein described me as an ‘honorary Jew.’”
A Spiritual Feeling
Marvin Brown of Southfield worked in the landscaping business when he got a call from Alan Yost, executive director of Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, about a custodial position the day before Christmas Eve in 1984.
After working for 33 years in a Jewish environment, words and phrases like shalosh seudos and mezuzah easily roll off his tongue. A cook at heart, a favorite part of Brown’s job is preparing meals, especially breakfast for morning minyan.
Over his years at Adat Shalom, Brown said he has prepared the building for “thousands” of weddings and bar mitzvahs. During one bar mitzvah party, the synagogue lost power. Brown stepped in and saved the evening by walking back and forth to get diesel fuel at the Shell gas station on Northwestern Highway every hour or so to keep the backup generator running.
Marvin Brown is a cook at heart and loves preparing minyan breakfast at Adat Shalom.
When Brown started his job, he did not know much about Judaism and the rules of keeping kosher. He didn’t realize that bringing in outside food — including ribs from his favorite barbecue place in Detroit — is completely forbidden. But now, as the primary food shopper for the synagogue, he knows how to select food with the correct kosher certifications and how to cook without mixing up the meat and dairy utensils in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen.
Brown said he gets a decent amount of vacation time, including Christmas and Easter. And when Brown needed hospitalization in 2005, the nurses on his floor asked him if he was Jewish because of all the Jewish clergy who continually paid him visits.
Brown was raised in a Baptist church. Though he says he does not get to church formally, he says the rabbis over the years like the late Rabbi Efry Spectre and the late Cantor Larry Vieder taught him that he can also “have church” right in the synagogue.
“I grew up listening to gospel choirs,” Brown said. “Though I don’t understand the Hebrew, when they really get to singing around here [during services], it sounds very nice.”
Some synagogues are bigger than others and require a crew of maintenance staff to keep the building running. With 15,000 square feet of space and the ability to host 1,500 worshipers, Congregation Shaarey Zedek is one of the largest in the Detroit Metro area. The custodial staff, headed by Keith Armbruster, facilities director, keeps busy throughout the year by not only preparing the building on Shabbat and for special occasions, but also for large community functions that can host hundreds of people at a time.
Keith Armbruster at Shaarey Zedek
Armbruster, 60, of Livonia just celebrated his 40th anniversary last October working at CSZ. He says the unique architecture of the synagogue poses certain challenges, such as using a catwalk 100 feet above the sanctuary to change the lightbulbs and carefully maintaining the one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, woodwork and custom-made large wooden doors that adorn the building. Thankfully, he said, the soaring stained glass windows do not need cleaning.
“It is a challenge getting up to that catwalk,” Armbruster said. “It is like climbing a mountain to get up there.”
Over the years, he has most enjoyed meeting the many interesting and prominent members of the Detroit community who have been members of CSZ. A good day for him means receiving good feedback when a special occasion or function goes off without a hitch. Most of all, he has enjoyed learning about Jewish traditions and takes pride of the knowledge he has gained over the decades.
“In my social circles, I am kind of like the rabbi to all my non-Jewish friends,” Armbruster said. “When someone has a question about something Jewish, they always come to me.”
At Beth El Shabbaton, Joey Weisenberg will empower guests to unlock their musical and spiritual potential.
(originally published in the Detroit Jewish News)
To harness the community-building power of singing, Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Township welcomes the young and the young at heart to lend voices both harmonious and imperfect to a Shabbaton featuring renowned musician Joey Weisenberg. The uplifting event will be Feb. 26-27 at the Bethel Community Transformation Center (BCTC), 8801 Woodward Ave., the former home of Temple Beth El in Detroit.
Weisenberg, 34, the creative director of the New York-based Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music and author of Building Singing Communities, will introduce melodies and methods of singing that blend Old World Chassidic niggunim with old-time American flair.
Working in the context of Renewal Judaism, Weisenberg has worked for the past decade to empower communities around the world to unlock their musical and spiritual potential, and to make music a lasting and joy-filled force in shul and in Jewish life. Now residing in Philadelphia with his wife and four young children, Weisenberg grew up in Milwaukee in a family with Midwestern roots that trace back to before the Civil War.
His parents were both trained musicians, and he grew up listening to classical piano from his mother as well as classical flamenco guitar from his father. Raised in a multi-generational traditional Jewish home, he remembers going to Shabbat services with his grandfather in nine different synagogues that spanned the spectrum of Jewish observance.
“My grandfather taught me there is something to be taken and learned from every denomination of Judaism,” said Weisenberg, who ditched a pre-med program at Columbia University to pursue the life of a professional musician, composer and teacher. “Above all, people connect to music because it does not speak in dogma but instead speaks in the language of the soul. [Singing] is the way we all become a collective heart, and we all become strings of David’s Harp in harmony.”
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Weisenberg’s musical career started with playing guitar as a studio recording session artist and then touring the country and parts of the globe with musicians playing Brazilian samba, American blues and Klezmer.
After a while, he wanted to see what would happen if he moved the singing and playing music offstage to be where the people are, and to bring the audience into joining in with song. As he travels around the country teaching Jewish communities how to energize prayer through singing, including pockets of Jews in Alaska, Weisenberg wants to dislodge the notion that music and singing is just for kids.
“Some of the best teachers I have learned music with are two and three generations older than me,” Weisenberg said.
Rachel Rudman, 28, Temple Beth El program director, says the Shabbaton, the first of its kind in Detroit, is a way to “create bridges between suburban synagogues and younger, urban Jews.”
She said hosting the Shabbaton in the historic Beth El building enables TBE to reach out to millennial Jews seeking a neutral space to practice a highly spirited form of Jewish prayer. Weisenberg can deliver just the thing, she said.
“I have had several opportunities in my life to learn from and sing with Joey,” said Rudman, who recently returned to her native Detroit in 2014 after living in New York.
“When services are conducted in a tight circle and everyone is looking at each other and investing their voice in the prayer, you feel the energy coming from the people next to you. It really becomes a spiritual experience.”
The Shabbaton will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and finish with Havdalah, plus an extended song session on Saturday evening. Participants are welcome to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses to spend the evening. Services on Friday and Saturday will be a cappella style, but Havdalah and beyond will include drumming and strumming of guitars so participants are welcome to bring their instruments as well as their voices.
Cost is $36 for the entire Shabbaton or $20 per day and includes homecooked vegan meals and lodging at BCTC. For more information, contact Rachel Rudman at rrudman@tbeonline. org or (248) 325-9706. *