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Every kid in quarrantine gets a puppy

I have to write this right quick before someone wakes up and starts chewing on the hem of my leggings from under the table.

I have a dog.

I never thought that would sentence would ring true in my life.

I’ve always wanted a dog from even my earliest memories.

I was about six or seven and two dogs were chasing me through an apple orchard somewhere upstate New York. I remember screaming as I ran through the grass and the smell of rotting apples as my grandfather called after me to stand still! The master, the owner of the orchard, also called his dogs to also stand still.

My grandfather caught up with me and explained the dogs, now circling around me, were only trying to play. The more I ran, the more they would chase me.

But once I stood still, they let me pet them. I remember the feel of their shaggy black and brown coats and the warmth of their wet tounges as they licked my palm. One, who must have been a mix of a lab and a German Shepard, had a black face except for its brown eyelids.

I started begging my parents for a dog. But they retorted, reminding me of the long-term, enormous responsibility. Of walks outside, no matter the weather. Or not being able to travel. Or not having enough space.

So, I got my doggie fixes through the canines of others: my friend’s dogs, dogs in the park who didn’t look mean. I’d ogle at puppies in their cages at the pet store in the Staten Island Mall, all the while my parents telling me that buying a dog from a pet store was a bad idea because they were most likely from a puppy mill. I learned that adoption and rescue of a mutt, and not a purebred dog, was always the most humane route to doggie ownership.

My love of dogs never has abated. Not through young adulthood, or motherhood, or later on, watching my brother and wife with their sons and their dogs. 

As it happens, like me, my children have also wanted a dog. Even when my youngest at 18 months was bit in the face by the spooked black lab of a friend and needed a visit to the emergency room and stitches, no, that early trauma never carried over. And the daily persistent pleas for a puppy never ceased for the next 16 years.

“Mom, can we get a dog?

Hey mom, guess what? Can we get a dog?

Mom, if I clean my room for a week, can we get a dog?

Mom, you said after we moved to Michigan, we’d get a dog. It’s been seven years.”

So, why, you may wonder, did I choose a purebred Siberian husky, the first dog I’ve ever had after a lifetime of wanting dogs?  

Turns out, it was not a deliberate choice, just circumstance and fate.

It’s funny how a global pandemic changes all that hesitancy to, yes. Yes, we will look for a dog.

As it turns out, everyone else in the age of Coronavirus is looking to adopt a dog. In fact, right up there with shortages in toilet paper and hand sanitizer, there is a shortage of adoptable dogs as Americans are emptying out shelters as they are ordered to shelter in place.

We searched on Petfinder.com. We asked all our friends and neighbors where they adopted their dog and they gave us listings of local shelters. But none of these shelters were doing in-person visits. And most of the dogs listed were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. I do not mean to offend pit bull lovers, and I have met some loving pittie pups in my day, including those of my brother’s. But living in my neighborhood with many small children, I did not want to take my chances.

A few weeks back on a Tuesday, I walked with my son and husband in the neighborhood on our daily-after dinner jaunt. But we didn’t go our normal route. And as we walked, we talked about how the shelters were not responding to our applications to the dogs we wanted, or how some dogs we wanted required extra medical care, or were not good with children, or required physical fencing.

And there, sitting in a crate in someone’s driveway decorated with sidewalk chalk, sat this guy:

Outside of labs and goldens, huskies are one of my favorite breed fantasy dogs. I’ve always admired their beauty, the way they get along with everyone, and … those eyes.

So, of course, we squealed in delight at the sight of him and asked the owner where he got him and that we were looking to adopt a dog too.

Then, the young man in his 20’s said, “Actually, I need to get rid of him because I live with my mother now and she had an allergic reaction to it.”

No way. You’ve got to be kidding.

We texted our daughter to come by. She put her XC and track skills to use and sprinted over to the driveway in five minutes flat.

So, after the family got to know him, we negotiated on a fair price. And by that Friday, we were dog owners.

So, why a husky, as so many of our friends have been asking? That’s why.

How did we find such an incredible puppy in a pandemic?

That’s how. 

Did we truly look for and want to adopt a shelter mutt? Yes, but there were none to be had that was right for us.

Is a husky the most practical and easy breed for first-time dog owners? No, not exactly. More of that in my next post. Each day, we are making it work and learning as we go along.

This little guy (getting bigger by the day), who shares a birthday with my grandma (“zl), well he just fell into our laps.

In the age of Coronavirus, school as we know it has been canceled.

Plays and performances have been cancelled. Sporting meets have been canceled. Graduations have been canceled. Summer internships and summer camp, that’s all been canceled too.

But dogs?  No. Dogs don’t get canceled.

So let it be. Let this be the summer of the dog. The summer of Simba.

And let sleeping dogs lie.

Dear High School Attendance Line

Hello, this is the mother of ***********, a freshman at **HS.

****** will not be coming into school today.

Yesterday he complained of a stomach ache and had no appetite. I felt his forehead and the back of his neck with a brush of my lips, just as I have been doing for him for the past 14 years since he has been on this earth, backed by my overall 21 years of experience I have been a mother thanks to his big brother and sister. My husband declares I have never tested a forehead or back of the neck that was not burning with fever.

But in any case, I think he had a slight fever last night and this morning, indicated by his grogginess, his continued lack of energy and that he …kind of.. threw up this morning.

I am sure the vomiting was more due to his acid reflux than any one of the viruses floating around your high school, but still I am going to keep him home today.

He will return to school tomorrow.

That’s the message I left on my kids high school attendance line this morning.

But it was only half-true.

Want to know what I really wanted to say?

I am keeping my son home because he might be sick. But he has been sicker than this and he’s gone to school.

The real reason I kept him home today is because what happened in a high school in Florida yesterday.

And what happened at a high school in Kentucky last week.

And in schools in New York, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Maryland.

And what happens every 60 hours on average that has become the norm.

Another school shooting.

I am keeping him home because I do not think the fact that you have to get buzzed in and sign in to your school is going to prevent someone with an assault rifle from coming in and shooting up my son’s school.

I am not comforted by the woman who smiles at me as I sign my name into a notebook.

I am not comforted that, yes, you have to get buzzed into the building between the hours of 7 and 2:30 but after that, during after school activities, pretty much anyone can walk in.

I kept him home because politicians bought by 2nd Amendment Rights fanatics the like of the NRA think thoughts and prayers and NOT passing legislation to preserve MY kid’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are part of their job description.

I kept him home because my state, the state of Michigan, has some of the most lax gun controls in the country. Because the state is a popular grounds for hunting, the Michigan law on guns is very lax in regards to rifles and shotguns. A permit is not required to purchase or carry such firearms, and there is no gun license or registration required as well.

I kept him home because it really just seems like it’s only a matter of time before it happens in the town where no one could ever imagine something so horrible happening because nothing ever happens here.

I kept him home because of fear of copycat crimes.

I kept him home because there seems to be no end in sight to this madness of inaction by our government.

I kept him home because my son’s brand new high school, with its corporate open air feel and modular classroom layout, has mostly glass walls and not many places to hide from a shooter.

So, he won’t get the perfect attendance award at graduation.

Today, we made waffles and he read me a few chapters of his Global History textbook. We discussed Locke, Rousseau and the difference between mercantilism and laissez faire economic systems.

He found his homework assignments for the day and submitted them on Google Classroom (I think. I hope.)

And he was fine. Bored, missing his friends a bit, but as it turns out, he was not sick at all.

So, tomorrow, he will be back at school. Even though the kids at the high school in Parkland, Fla. will not. And some of them will never be going back.

And like most parents in America, I will be glad and thankful to see him at the end of the day. students

Detroit Jewish Community Comes to Aid of Syrian Refugees Near and Far

I do believe it is true. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In this time of devisiveness, it is good to know there are many who are coming to the aid of families from Syria who have fled their country because of the brutal civil war.

Here is my cover story on how Jews in Detroit are bringing awareness to the plight of the refugees and helping them settle into their new life.

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Wedding Tip: Personalize your Wedding Canopy

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.

Keepers of the House: The Dedication of non-Jewish custodians in Detroit’s Synagogues

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

Marvin Brown takes his cooking seriously at Adat Shalom, where he prepares and serves a morning minyan meal.

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.

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Murphy Ealy shines the brass on the bimah at Congregation Beth Ahm.

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.”

Jewish Knowledge

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.”

The Power Of Singing

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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. *

 

 

Justice Justice you Can Pursue, through PeerCorps

This winter, the headlines have been filled with two bleak stories coming out of Michigan: The Flint water crisis and the crisis in Detroit Public Schools.

At the center of both stories, the ones hurt the most are kids. Our kids.

In the sick-outs of Detroit, teachers have rightly refused to teach in buildings with overcrowded classrooms, schools that have no heat, or mold, or infested with rodents.  They are doing this not for selfishness but they believe that their students deserve better.

This winter,  Michigan made international news because of Flint.  There is now confirmation that state workers purchased gallon after gallon of purified water to drink iin their offices as recently as January 2015 as they assured Flint residents that the water coming out of their own tap was safe to drink.  It is a pretty safe bet that every child in Flint will have some degree of lead poisoning – poisoining that will forever alter their ability to learn and develop normally.

These two stories scream out injustice towards the poorest and powerless population in our state: black kids and their families.

Is it any wonder that we then hear the cries of injustice and the charges of systematic environmental racism? It is hard to turn a blind eye or ear to injustices put upon our children.

You may say: “Wait a minute, not my kid. Those are someone else’s kids. We live somewhere with great schools and wouldn’t you know it,  but we can actually drink and brush our teeth and bathe with the water coming out of our tap.”

But these kids indeed are our kids. They live right up the road in the same state.

This year, my suburban kid is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. His Torah reading has one of the most significant lines in the whole Torah: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue.

Justice. So important it had to be said not once but twice. How do you pursue it? How can one person, one kid, living in a nice suburban cul de sac world, face down injustices that have gone on for decades? What can really one person do?

Sitting pretty here in suburban Detroit, it is pretty easy get comfortable in our isolation, our separateness or “otherness” from those living in our urban cores. I have come to know something after living in the Detroit ‘burbs for almost three years: the disconnect between urban and suburban, between the haves and have nots is palpable.

Sitting pretty here in suburbia can make one feel powerless to turn the injustices around.  And downright angry. But sitting around will do nothing. We may not be able to solve everything, but we have to contribute and try something.

There are bridges we can build, and one, in fact, is built right in with PeerCorps Detroit.  PeerCorps is a year-long mentorship program inviting Jewish teens, b’nai mitzvah students and their families from all denominations to build deep relationships with one another and perform community-based work in Detroit.

Last year, my son participated in one Track  of Peer Corps’ community building work in Detroit. Every other week, he would trek with a van full of other middle schoolers and their high-school aged mentors to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. There, he helped out with the younger kids in after-school care, played with them, read to them and most of all, got to know different kids in a different part of the city and to realize they all like to do the same things together.

This year, as he studies for his Bar Mitzvah reading which concentrates on pursuing justice, he will be tutoring elementary-age kids with Mission:City.

These are just two areas in where Peer Corps is building bridges into Detroit and doing what we can to let people living in the city know that someone cares and, however seemingly small a step we are making, we are trying to make it a step in the right direction.

To learn more about Peer Corps, come to Gesher Day at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Sunday, Feb. 28 to find out here how you and your middle-schooler can be a bridge between urban and suburban Detroit.

 

 

Sitting on the Floor. Thinking about Jerusalem’s ashes of yesterday and tomorrow. But please not tomorrow.

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man puts his head in his hands, inside a synagogue that was attacked by two Palestinians earlier in the morning in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem on November 18, 2014. Two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the bloodiest attack in the city in years. AFP PHOTO/ JACK GUEZ        (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man puts his head in his hands, inside a synagogue that was attacked by two Palestinians earlier in the morning in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem on November 18, 2014. Two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the bloodiest attack in the city in years. AFP PHOTO/ JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Tisha B’Av. I am well into my fast.

Now is the time of the day when the stomach really starts to grumble. Mornings of a fast are okay. That is the time when the faster says to themselves: What is eating anyway? Eating is more habitual than anything. I even made it to my garden to do some work this morning.

I am not observing an absolute fast this Tisha B’Av – literally meaning, the ninth of the month of Av. I’ve been drinking water and coffee throughout the day. But still, now that late afternoon is here, the hunger is sinking in. But I will dig in deeper. Mentally, I have not taken a fast from thinking deeply, and my troubled thoughts I allow to linger on this day, the saddest of the entire Jewish calendar.

Last year’s memories of Gaza’s war with Israel linger. Last week’s agreement with Iran, and what disasters it could hold for the future of not just Israel but the whole world, weigh heavily on my mind. As it should with yours, dear reader, however or wherever this lovely summer day finds you.

The outsider must see observers of this fast day pretty much as religious fanatics out of their mind.

Are you the average outsider? I’ll test out my theory. Check it out; Here is the crux of this day and the reason why some Jews fast and mourn today:

Over two thousand years ago, we the Jews had the Great Temple in Jerusalem.

On this day, a bit over two thousand years ago, on this very same day a few hundred years before that, not one but BOTH Great Temples were destroyed. One built by King Solomon, then another one five centuries later, built by King Herod . Both destroyed. The city of Jerusalem ransacked, on the same day.

Lots of other bad stuff happened to Jews on or around this day.

Through the centuries, some of our greatest leaders were killed in and around this date.

Through the centures Jews were expelled, from Jerusalem, from England, France and Spain, in and around on this date.

Because of that, that is why we fast. And in the days leading up to the fast, we don’t have fun in pools. Or chow down on burgers at barbecues. At the height of the summer.

So now is your turn to respond: You are in mourning in 2015, in modern times, for the destruction of a building? And the destruction happened

HOW many years ago? But that was then and this is now. That has NOTHING to do with today. Seriously, get over it! 

My I am getting dizzy now. 

I’m a religious nut, right? You’re thinking this. But the older I get, the more the messages of Tisha B’Av have to do with today.

In all honesty, I didn’t even know about Tisha B’av when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island. It was a summer holiday, and let’s just say that with an afternoon congregational Hebrew school education, it is safe to say that any Jewish commemoration that takes place in the summer is glossed over. Even not taught.

I only learned about it from friends who went to Jewish summer camp. So when my own kids went to summer camp, I decided to observe Tisha B’av.

You start the fast at synagogue sitting on the floor. Mourning brings you mentally to a lower, less comfortable place and you want to match this mood physically.  So you sit on the floor.

It is customary for the sanctuary lights to dim. Some bring flashlights or light candles to follow along in their prayer books.

Then, in a mournful melody, a leader or a group of leaders chant the entire book of Lamentations. Eicha in Hebrew.

The imagery in Lamentations is so very sad and graphic. There is no comfort. Gd has abandoned His Chosen People to be starved, stoned, burned, raped and humiliated by our worst enemies. There is no one to comfort them and no one to answer Jerusalem’s cries.

There are mothers sitting in the ashes of what were once the glorious golden-paved streets of Jerusalem. The passage of babies suckling the empty breasts of their starving mothers always gets to me. I can hear the cries of the starving in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem as the Romans attempted to starve them out from behind the walls. You can smell the burning and feel the heat.

“The tongue of the suckling cleaves to its palate for thirst. Little children beg for bread. None gives them a morsel.” 

Fast forward a few centuries. Are the images that the author of Lamentations paints in the reader’s head any different or remote than those from the ghettos of Rome? Prague? Warsaw?

The foes set upon our sanctuaries…Our steps were checked. We could not walk in our squares.

Is it any different now? As Jews are afraid to openly show their Jewish identity and safely walk in the streets  In Paris? In Brooklyn? Even Jerusalem?

And the hardest lesson to swallow from the book of Ecclesiastes, is that the Jews of Jerusalem had no one but themselves to blame for their destruction. Gd turned His face from the because of their baseless hatred and pettiness towards one another. We were punished because, according to the author, we showed no regard for priests (we had priests, not rabbis during the time of the Temple) and no respect for tradition or our elders.

And how is this different now? In an age where commitment to Jewish education falls to the bottom of priorities, upstaged by everything else from soccer to scouting? Where learning about Jewish history has been scrapped for a bare-bones Jewish education that leaves nothing more than some tutoring lessons to learn how to pronounce some transliterated gibberish for a kid’s big day on the bimah?

I am hungry now. But the hunger has not made me melodramatic. I’m speaking from true experience here. And this is going widely unreported, why I don’t understand. Are we afraid to admit that in our comfortable complacency we are failing to transmit to the next generation their rich heritage?

Ask your typical Jewish kid if they can name one Jewish leader from modern times or ancient times. Ask if they know what countries border Israel, Ask them what Hebrew letters spell basic words like Shalom, Shabbat, and even Moses, and you might get a lot of blank stares.

Will these same kids, once they get off the bimah and for the most part, exit their Jewish education and find themselves in college five years, will they know how to answer in college to cries that Israel is a pariah of a nation, an apartheid state? Who will teach them their heritage and history then?

“The mouthings and pratings of my adversaries…Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the sky.” 

And now, we are faced with Iran becoming legitimized as a playing power, as a nuclear entity, in the eyes of the world. You don’t have to read every page of this deal to know this deal is a bad one. Will the world wake up in time?

“Our doom is near our days are done – Alas our doom has come.” 

The way I see it, those words could have easily been written today.

A most strange and beautiful dream on the eve of a most horrible morning

Last night I had a dream. 

Now, I know that sounds cliché, especially on a morning such as this where the world is waking up to the horrible event in Charleston, S.C.

It has been a long time since I have posted on anything outside my feature stories. But sometimes you have a dream so vivid which juxtaposes the events of reality so much I just had to write it down so I would not forget.

I was going to investigate some old house in Detroit that was said to have been part of the underground railroad.

It was a huge old tutor styled home with a wall around it, a circular driveway with ivy-covered landscape.

I knocked on the door and a very tall slender black woman in her 50s opened it to greet me. She had a dark purple dress on with flowers on it, very old-fashioned, as a dress taken from the 1940’s. Her hair was in corn rows and then coiled into a neat bun. She wore wired spectacles. She welcomed me in with a warm smile.

I told her I wanted to learn about this house’s history with the Underground Railroad.

She said she would give me a tour of the house, but first, invited me in for Shabbat lunch.

Told you this was a strange dream. 

The house was a series of elaborately decorated rooms, all in the Victorian style. Think flowered wallpaper and intricately carved crown molding along the ceiling.

Each room was filled with people, black and white, seated around huge dining tables eating cholent (a thick stew served on Saturday afternoons) served in large silver tureens and studying Hebrew.

It was not clear if all those there were all Jewish, but they were all studying, singing, laughing and eating in complete harmony.

After a while, I approached the woman to tour the house again.

She led me up a broad staircase, and then a narrow one up to the attic.

We climbed up another ladder, and there, in a loft, were bunk beds where slaves would hide for a few nights or days on their journey to freedom to Canada. It was quite hot and the air stuffy in the attic and I imagined those who hid in that attic and how uncomfortable they must have been, hiding for their lives on their way to freedom.

I woke up this morning only to learn that a white man shot and killed nine worshippers at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, a church described by the Washington Post as a “site of struggle, resistance and change” for the past two hundred years.

The murderer sat there for an hour among his victims before he opened fire. What was going through his head in that hour? How could he not have a change of heart as he sat and listened to people studying the Bible?

Feel the Beat

An all-volunteer Salsa Dance group is heating up the salsa dance scene in Detroit.  I am not exactly all left feet (you can actually see my left foot in one of the photos below taken by the very talented Jerry Zolynsky), but gave it a try one freezing February night. Here is what I found out for my cover story from the March 26 issue of the Detroit Jewish News

Feel The Beat

Jewish dancers join the crowd for weekly salsa dance parties

by Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer

Photos by Jerry Zolynsky

kraftdancing

Jeff Abrams of Wixom and Sherry Kraft of Southfield share a laugh and a dance.

groupsalsa

Sherry Kraft of Southfield, Bert Green of West Bloomfield, Tessa Goldberg of Farmington, “Mambo” Marci Iwrey of Novi and Laura Segal of Franklin

The temperatures outside the American Legion hall in Farmington, where YA Salsa holds its monthly socials, plummeted into the single digits on a Sunday evening this past winter. But with the dance floor heating up with more than 200 dancers, no one inside seemed to mind that a door had been propped open to let in the chill. On the last Sunday of each month, salsa enthusiasts gather for a dance social organized by YA Salsa, an allvolunteer organization dedicated to the growth of this dance style in Detroit. Within its circles is a dedicated group of Jews who love Latin dancing. They have found a great sense of camaraderie and exercise in the years they have danced and are always welcoming beginners to try it. To widen the appeal to the Jewish community, YA Salsa will host free workshops led by international salsadancing stars to JCC members March 27-28 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield before its next social in Farmington. For more information go to www.yasalsa.org. Evening Of Fun YA Salsa socials start with beginner and intermediate lessons.

In the center of a circle of rotating beginner couples, “Mambo” Marci Iwrey, 52, of Novi capably leads the beginners though basic steps and how to work with a partner, when to hold hands and when to let go. A dancer all her life, she fell in love with the rhythms of Latin music around 15 years ago. Private and group lessons in studios around town eventually led her to salsa dance floors and workshops around the world. Now a longtime professional and volunteer teacher of salsa dancing, she defies anyone who hears this infectious music to sit still.

mambomarci

“Mambo” Marci Iwrey

“We are all here to dance,” she instructs. “Don’t be shy to introduce yourself to someone else and say you are a beginner as the evening goes on.” On the other side of the room, more advanced dancers, who seem to be more attached to the partners with whom they arrived, review dips and more complex dance combinations.

“The volunteers work very hard to put on these socials,” said Iwrey, who, when not dancing, works at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield as b’nai mitzvah coordinator. “We are all bonded here for the love of what we do, to bring the joy of dance no matter your race, religion or age.”

After an hour of instruction, the floor opens up for three hours of dancing. Some beginners hang around the sides watching the eclectic gathering of dancers while others brave it out and look for a dance partner.

Sherry Kraft, 34, of Southfield has a background in swing and ballroom dancing. She enjoys the social and less-formal aspects of salsa dancing compared to ballroom and started taking lessons in 2006. “When I started out, I had no idea there was such a large salsa community here in Detroit,” says Kraft, a photographer-turned ultrasound technologist from Southfield who says she enjoys meeting people of all backgrounds who have come together to dance and socialize.

Jeff Abrams describes himself as an “advanced beginner.” The 37-year-old computer technician said he has been attending salsa socials for two years now. “Dancing helps me relax from the stresses of everyday life,” Abrams says as he takes a break between dancing partners. “I love connecting with people through the nonverbal medium of music.” Abrams admits it does take some time to gain experience and confidence in this type of dancing, especially when you are the man.

“The pressure can be on because you are always thinking of what steps you want to try to lead next instead of just relaxing and enjoying the music.” Still, Abrams would rather be dancing over any other kinds of exercise because of its social aspects. “When you dance, you can forget everything else that is going on in your life,” Abrams says. “When I get home, my mind is clearer.”

■ For times, cost, address and upcoming events, go to the websites www.yasalsa.org or www.mambomarci.com.

 

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