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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.

murphy

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.”

Let the Children Lead us. Mourning together, mourning in isolation

israelrallyLast week, the whole world – rightly so – mourned for France. 

Skyscrapers were lit the color of the French Flag. 

Many  changed their Facebook profile photos to the Eifel Tower in a peace sign. Many of you draped your faces in the French Flag or showed old photos of you perched high atop the Eifel Tower or standing in front of the Lourve

You were horrified at this act of terror. 

You cried for the victims. 

A week later? 

Maybe it is because many of you have no real connection to Israel. 

Maybe it is because you never traveled there. Have family there. Maybe it is because you do not speak the language or simply cannot identify. 

Whatever the case, when Jewish blood spills, unlike last week, you were – for the most part – all silent.

For the most part, you are all demonstrating what most of us already know: we are completely alone. 

And you should feel ashamed of that.  You have no idea how that hurts. Yes, it fucking personally hurts your Jewish friends who are sitting in their houses, stunned, functionless, to learn one of our own, a boy who could have been our own son, friend, boyfriend, brother, was murdered today just because he was Jewish.

There are not many of us. But Israel, I want to tell you what I saw in Detroit last Sunday: some of our own young sons, no more than 16, organizing a pro-peace, pro-Israel rally that was attended by hundreds. They wanted to say: israel – we are here. Our numbers are small but we care, we cry  when you cry.  We are here.

Here is my story about the Israel Rally in this week’s Detroit Jewish News: 

When three local Jewish teens recently witnessed a pro-Palestinian rally on the corner of Maple and Orchard Lake roads, they decided to counter it with their own rally for Israel at the very same spot in the low setting November sun last Sunday, Nov. 9. About 200 Israel supporters capped off a very busy “Fall Fix Up” Sunday by waving Israeli flags, singing and dancing to Israeli music, and visibly showing their support for the Jewish State.

Several weeks ago, Ben Rashty, a student at Frankel Jewish Academy said he was driving to meet some friends for dinner when he passed a “large, well organized anti-Israel rally.”

“From my car I heard them chanting very cruel things about the land of Israel and its people, said Rashty, of West Bloomfield, who has immediate family in Israel and traveled there many times to visit. He pulled into a parking lot and started calling friends to gather on an adjacent corner to counter their protest.  With only minutes to respond, Rashty was only able to get five friends to come out with Israeli flags, stand on an adjacent corner, and sing the Hatikvah.

He decided that was not enough.

“The Arabs were cheering with joy and celebration as if they had ‘won,’” said Rashty.

Rashty realized that planning a counter rally on his own was more easily said than done. So he called on the help of some of his school chums Nisim Nesimov, and Cole Levine. Together, they created a Facebook event, made flyers and spoke to leaders in the Jewish community for publicity. Rashty also contacted the West Bloomfield Police Department to notify them for planning and security, he said.

A big challenge of getting numbers to the rally was it coincided at end of the community-wide “Fall Fix Up” sponsored by Jewish Family Service.  But people came. They traded in work gloves from the day’s work assignments out on Belle Isle, the B’nai David Cemetery, or helping homebound seniors for Israeli and American flags as they pulled into Shops of Old Orchard parking lot.  Passersby in cars honked in support as rally participants waved Israeli and American flags, sang, and danced.

Debbie Szobel Logan, 57, a freelance writer from Bloomfield Hills, came to the rally with her husband Stuart Logan, 59, to “be counted and show their vocal support for Israel.”  She said she did not realize that teens had organized the rally until she arrived.

“It was so heartening and gave me so much hope to learn that teens cared enough about Israel to organize this rally,” said Szobel Logan. “I see and hear so much virulent anti-Israel rhetoric from unsurprising and surprising sources. It was important for me to contribute to the numbers and visibility of pro-Israel supporters, and it was thrilling to see all the smiles and waves from people passing by in their cars.”

Globally and across the country, pro-Israel supporters have rallied throughout the fall to show solidarity with Israel as it faces the latest wave of terror and calls to boycott Israeli products and academics in Europe.  Recently, the European Union announced it would start labeling all products created in Judea and Samaria with a special label.

“Everywhere you look in the media there is a lot of anti-Israel propaganda popping up in an effort to destroy the Jewish people and Israel,” said Rashty.  “I felt it was a vital time to hold this rally to show our community’s support.”

 

 

 

 

Never Too Late

batmitzvahadult

Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.

Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer

A group of students sits immersed in  Torah study on a recent Wednesday  at Adat Shalom Synagogue in  Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel  Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully  selected texts that delve into the theme of  coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai  mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer  their insights about what it means to become  a full-fledged member of a community.

No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom  or raises their hand to take a break for a drink  of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge  of gray in their hair or beards.DSCN2211

Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews  in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well  as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While  learning Hebrew and the complexities of  chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a  wealth of perspective and life experiences and  a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than  their younger counterparts.

Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not  the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat  mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is  outdated. Many teens and families see the  ceremony as the final day of involvement  with Jewish education, rather than as an  entry point of a fully participating adult in  Jewish communal life.

Additionally, the status  of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on  the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or  without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare.   The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the  1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com.  Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based  organization doing outreach to unaffiliated  Jewish millennials, launched an initiative  called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own  Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they  had one at all.  If it did not have much meaning the first  time around, would they give it another try,  along Jewish learning and living, now that  they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?

Though reBar is  active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does  not have any activity in Detroit yet.  Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to  recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults  in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study,  finding community and being recognized on  the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.

For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah  instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and  Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns  teaching weekly courses in a group setting.  Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs  and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as  Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of  the selected Torah portion and learning Torah  trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai  mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.

Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for  a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The  next group of students will start classes in  January 2016; new students are welcome.  Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having  an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to  Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults  publicly demonstrating their commitment to  their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an  ancient tradition and carry it into the future.  Adults come from a wide range of religious  backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning  Hebrew and chanting Torah.

“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers,  we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a  different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as  an adult, it may be harder to memorize the  musical motifs of the trope. But what makes  learning with adults enjoyable is that they  truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.”  Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on  to become regular leaders of daily services or  regular Torah readers.

Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate  of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride  in her newly acquired skill of chanting the  Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a  minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years  into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran  minister, strongly urged that she delve into  the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The  desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew  also accelerated the rate at which she learned.

“Through the years, it was my husband  who encouraged me to explore my religion,  and little by little we would take on traditions,  like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday  meals and keeping a kosher home.”

Lee and Lydia became fast study partners.  Both mother and daughter celebrated their  bat mitzvot within the last two years.  “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee  said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of  God.’”

She offers this advice to adults on the fence  about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah  ceremony:

“If you have the slightest modicum  of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away  by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of  identity and community you will gain.”

The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at  Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes  with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving  Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on  the Torah service, learning its prayers and  preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi  Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students  are involved in each learning cycle.

The current group of students will have a service to  celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.

“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to  Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in  life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve  personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to  Jewish adulthood is important to them.”

Gordon said the most important aspect  she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community  within the larger scope of Temple Israel.

Exploring Judaism

Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was  very excited to get a new tallit from his life  partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as  a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said  he never met a Jewish person until his  sophomore year of college.  Though he regularly attended church  as an adult, he disagreed with much of its  teachings.

With little exposure to Jews or  Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo  Levi had an enormous impact on him as  a high school student.

“It made me so curious to find out  who were these people the Nazis wanted  to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on,  in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out  and it made me very upset that so many  Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”

He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish  life-cycle events after he moved to Metro  Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.

“I noticed at these occasions, there  was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever  encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.

In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend  services at Temple Israel when he  decided this would become his spiritual  “home.” As he explored the possibility of  converting, he took introductory classes  in Judaism and Hebrew.  “At a certain point, I realized I wanted  to explore Judaism from the inside  instead of being an outsider.”

He enrolled in the class, where he  felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at  night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah  reading for hours every night. And come  this year’s High Holiday season, he will  chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.

“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage  of my life has been fabulous,” he said.  “I consider Temple Israel my home and  could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a  long way to get to a temple.”

Women Role Models

Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield  was one of the first women to become a  bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s.  Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when  girls received a minimal Jewish education  and only boys were called to the Torah,  she credits the memory of conversations  with her grandfather as an inspiration for  picking up her Jewish studies later in life  and becoming a bat mitzvah.

“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was  a very forward-thinking person who  believed girls as well as boys should have  a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I  thought I was crazy for doing it — I was  up to my elbows raising my children —  but I had a lot of encouragement to take  on this challenge.”  Milman said she enjoyed studying  Jewish history and learning how to read  Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has  read Torah at Temple Israel on other  occasions, including on Yom Kippur.

“I feel much more comfortable in  services now,” said Millman, who attends  a weekly Torah study group at Temple  Israel. “When I go to services on a  Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.”  Other women also expressed pride in  ownership of their Jewish learning and  becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role  model, and a study resource, for their  own daughters.

Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew  up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in  Southfield, also at a time when girls  were not called to the Torah. It was only  well into adulthood, and a few years shy  of her own daughters beginning their  bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to  become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41.  She said she did it not only to deepen her  connection to her own spirituality, but  also to serve as a feminist role model of  “breaking barriers” for her children.  “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more  meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who  admits her years of Jewish education at  Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills  equipped her with the skills to quickly  learn and chant from the Torah and  glean insights into the sacred texts.

Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed  into the Jewish community has much  meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a  Birmingham design firm, she has given  her talents to many charitable projects,  including Yad Ezra.

“Judaism is a constant process of  learning and growth, a practice of tikkun  olam and of asking yourself what, as a  Jew, can I do for my community?”  ■

If It came to it, would you hide me?

hiddenchildrenI’ve got an uncomfortable question to ask you.

I feel weird asking it because I am not the kind of person to ask for a lot of help. Hell, I even feel bad asking a neighbor to for an egg or a cuppa sugar to save me from pulling my boots on and heading out  to the supermarket on a snowy day. Or asking you to pick up my kid at band rehearsal if I drive the other way, would you drive the other?

But this is a biggie. A total solid.

If things in this country got very bad for me, your Jewish friend;

if it came to it where laws were put in place forbidding people to do business with Jews, for going to school with Jews, for being treated by Jewish doctors or seeking counsel from Jewish lawyers; if Jews were forbidden from riding in public transportation or eating in restaurants, or going to movie theaters:

Would you hide me?

What about just my kids?

In the height of World War II, there were the few, brave righteous gentiles who imperiled their own lives to hide Jews in their basements, a large closet, a ditch under their barn, and most famously, in an Amsterdam attic. Some of their stories can be viewed here in a video created by the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Pretty dark and drastic, perhaps fatalistic and Pollyannaish all at the same time just a few days away from Valentine’s Day, right?

I know. Sorry if I am freaking you out.

Yet, I am beginning to have my doubts just how many would say yes.

It is evidenced by the alarming silence, or maybe apathy, or maybe just news fatigue I have witnessed ever since this summer.

And I know, for my Facebook friends, you are probably sick of all the stuff I have posted since this summer, starting with the horrible war between Israel and her neighbors in Gaza, followed by the outrageous double standard displayed in media coverage. You are just probably sick to death of me and have most likely hidden all my rantings from your newsfeed.

I have also posted many petitions asking you to stand up against hatred against the only democracy in the Middle East. I have tried to educate the unfamiliar on the history of the formation of the modern state of Israel, lest you are misled by those who want you to believe that Jews are land stealing colonists with no ties to this scrap of land in the Middle East.

I have tried to make you understand that yes, when some say “I have no problem with Jews, it is just the Zionists we hate” that this is just a thin veil, a code word for Jew hatred.

I have tried to teach you the real meaning of what it means to be a Zionist. I posted petitions asking our government to stop forcing Israel into any negotiations with a party who in its very charter calls for the total destruction of the Jewish state, and Jews in general.

I have shared petitions about lending your voice to speak out against the rapid rise of Jew Hatred in Europe and even right here in our own country as college student governing bodies pass ruling after ruling asking their university administrations to stop doing business with any business that does business with Israel, to stop RESEARCH and PROGRESS if it means collaborating and learning and working with Israeli researchers.

Post after post, I pretty much knew who would share, or who would comment, or maybe who would just click “like.” Same people. Same choir.

Otherwise, silence.

Those who know their history understand what silence in the face of evil brings. That is why I am asking you that very uncomfortable question:

Would you hide me?

It is not only me who feels this way. Just this week, clinical social worker Carla Naumburg, PhD wrote  in “Jewish, American and Scared” how she is making sure that all her ducks are in order: passport, bank statements, title deeds to house and car, just in case she has to flee with her family to Israel. As many French Jews have been fleeing after anti-Semitism in that country has nearly quadrupled over the last few years. I shared and posted about that too, mostly to seemingly deaf ears.

How many of you have dared to tweet #JeSuisJuif?

So, if you are Jewish, please share this post and ask this question of your friends.

If you are not Jewish, check in with your conscience and think back to a time when you (hopefully) watched a Holocaust documentary, or Schindler’s List, or visited a Holocaust Museum, and asked yourselves how the hell could this have happened??  Ask yourself what you are doing right now, in the 21st Century, to prevent this from happening again.

Silence and apathy of the majority of the good allowed evil to take over and murder millions.

Silence and apathy, that’s how it happened.

It is a good thing there is now a place I can go, if it comes to it.

 

 

Stuck on Israel

Last night, I volunteered at Detroit’s evening of Solidarity with Israel. After attendees passed through a strict security screening process, I gave them each a sticker bearing the logo shown above. Fellow volunteers gave out over 2,700 stickers to Israel supporters.

While the world looks bleak now for all world Jewry, and while radical Islamists spread their fiery hatred for Jews just like the Hitler Youth did in the 1930’s, it soothed my soul to see so many: Jewish, non-Jewish, black and white, coming together for a few hours to support the United State’s biggest ally in the Middle East in her war on terrorism.

By the way, my daughter is still on her trip in Israel. She just returned safely to Jerusalem after a sea-to-sea hike in the North.

 

Last weekend, she did spend some time in a bomb shelter. She heard the Iron Dome obliterate an incoming misile.  But then, after they got the clear, she and a family she was staying with went on with life.

Here is my most recent piece published in the Detroit Jewish News.

A few weeks ago, my parents, husband, son and I were riding down the Belt Parkway in New York to take our 17-year-old daughter to JFK. She was about to embark on Ramah’s six-week Israel Seminar, a trip she knew she wanted to do since she was about nine years old. The news that Hamas murdered the three teenaged boys was less than 24 hours old. Seated in the middle row with my mom, I curled my hand into hers. I just kept squeezing it.
The scene at the departure terminal, though chaotic, was almost healing. Hundreds of Jewish teens about to leave for Israel on one trip or another greeted each other with smiles and hugs.
Expressions on the faces of the parents revealed one thing: we all knew our relatively carefree Jewish American kids were headed to Israel in a time of national mourning. Who could predict that a war would unfold in just days after their arrival?
What have I been doing since she left?
It has been a surreal time. While the program posts photos of the kids having fun on hikes and gazing over the Haifa skyline, while my daughter calls me from Jerusalem telling me about the fantastic time she had working with the children at the Ramah Israel Day camp in Jerusalem, friends in Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Be’er Sheva post on Facebook about dashing for stairwells or shelters when the sirens blare.
On my wrist, I wear a blue Stand With Us rubber bracelet showing my support for Israel. My watch is set to Jerusalem time so I know the best time to call my daughter. My cell phone has become an appendage to my body. I pray daily for her safety, for all of Israel and her Defense Forces.
I thank Ramah Seminar in Israel for their tireless efforts of keeping our kids safe and having as an enjoyable and educational experience as possible while constantly keeping parents in the loop of the changing security situation. After an extended stay in their northern base in the Hodayot Youth Village, the “seminarniks” finally traveled safely to their home base in Jerusalem on July 15. In fact, a parent conference call to update us on the matzav started just as the IDF launched their ground offensive into Gaza.
But life goes on. I have taken the cue from my Israeli friends who endure this daily threat to keep moving on through routine and simple distractions. If my Israeli psychologist friend, an olah from New York, can help spread calm by teaching Yoga to women in a bomb shelter in Sderot, I too will try to find Zen on my mat. I work in my garden and take walks.
Even as the bombs fall, and the inevitability that she may spend some time this summer in a bomb shelter is very real, I have no regrets that my daughter is in Israel. I will not deny the danger or my worry. I know that this time in Israel will be a transformative one for her that can only strengthen her understanding of what it means to be a Jew and never take our Jewish homeland for granted.
When midnight here rolls around, my mind is already seven hours ahead wondering what the dawning day on the other side of the planet will hold for Israel. If you too have a loved one in Israel and find yourself up in the middle of the night, I’m sleepless right there with you.

Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av

downtown

view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.

Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.

This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.

A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”

My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul.  It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.

Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.

We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?

Hardly.

The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us.  The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here.  As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.

The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us.  An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”

We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.

My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.

The third synagogue I went to alone.  It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.

I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.

 

I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.

And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.

An ancient, outdated story?

As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.

But then, in the last chapter, hope.

In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young.  These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.

In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.

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Don’t Forget to Dance

I hate ends.

I don’t like when books, or series of books, end.

Ask my kids about this.

Just last week,  after years of them prodding, teasing, begging and bribing me, and even going through lengths like borrowing books on CD from their school libraries.  I finally, finally finished the entire Harry Potter series.

I don’t even like to eat the ends of a loaf of bread.

Even when it comes to one of my favorite activities in the world – dancing – I prefer not stay for the last dance.  Call it a Cinderella syndrome, but I hate when the music ends.  I leave about 10 minutes each week before the session wraps up. As the music lingers in my head while I start up the car in the parking lot, I envision my folk dancing friends dancing on into the night, so the dance is never over.

But end it did, for me, at least in Rochester.

I have been taking Israeli Folk Dancing on Sunday nights at the Rochester Jewish Community Center for about 10 years now. When I first started I knew nothing about Israeli Folk Dancing outside of Hava Nagilah. Seriously.

But Israeli Folk Dancing is not your Bar Mitzvah Havah Nagilah. Blending music with Greek, Latin, Middle Eastern and the random Irish (yes IRISH)  influences, Israeli Folk Dancing has something for everyone. At every age.

And you don’t have to be Jewish to do it. There are Israeli Folk Dance sessions held the world over, including places like Tokyo and Beijing.

At first, Israeli Folk Dancing can be frustrating.  All these people whirling and jumping around you are having all this fun and really know what they are doing. And the beginner, well, the beginner fumbles. And watches.

Week after week I went.  I made sure I got there for the beginner hour. I watched feet. I danced on the outside of the circle not to get in the way of the experts. Then, with increased confidence that I would not crash or trip anyone (or myself) I moved in. I’m grateful for great guidance from the teacher to long timers who called out steps for me.

I have gone from stumbling through each dance, to learning the steps, to a point where I’ve actually become pretty good! Good enough to call the steps to newcomers who give it a try. Good enough to teach it to children in area Hebrew schools and camps.

Here are reasons why dance, any dance, but particularly Israeli Folk Dancing is good for you:

  • It’s a  great cardio workout. Dancing burns on an average of 375 calories per hour.
  • IFD is also great for your brain. Each dance is a sequence of choreographed steps. All this memorization improves brain function, especially for some of us who are, emmm, getting up there in age.  It takes about six lessons and going on a consistent basis to get the basic steps down. Before you know it, your feet are moving to each familiar dance without even giving it much thought, which comes to the next benefit….
  • Israeli Folk Dancing is a great social outlet. While your feet are moving, catch up in conversation with friends old and new.
  • If you are Jewish, or simply have a love for Israel, IFD connects your feet and ears to the Holy Land. During Israel’s peaceful times, dancing to the latest Israeli dance is a dance of celebration. In times of war or terror, the dance becomes one of solidarity.

And now, now that I am leaving town, the JCC of Greater Rochester offers Israeli Folk Dancing FREE to members, $6 per week for non members.

Last Sunday was my very last dance session, for now, with my dear friends from Israeli Folk Dance in Rochester.  It was a big part of my life and brought me happiness each Sunday night.

And last Sunday, I managed to make myself stay for the very last dance:

Do you dance regularly? What does it bring to your life? Leave a comment below, and don’ t ever stop dancing.

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Israel ministry of Tourism: Don’t cancel your travel plans to Israel this winter

Got plans to visit Israel this winter?

I am so jealous … I mean….you are so lucky! So happy for YOU! 

A year ago Chanukkah I was there, with the whole mishpucha (family). We toured, we ate falafel, we hiked, we sang and we cried.

We enjoyed every minute (okay, maybe not the flight…)

One of the worst byproducts of when Israel is embroiled in conflict with her neighbors is that tourism drops.

Israel’s Arab neighbors know this. Israel’s neighbors want this.  Don’t give them what they want.

I’ve been in Israel in 1982 during their invasion with Lebanon. In 1989 during the first intifada. I did not notice the conflict.

I know several families who are planning a trip to Israel this summer with their children. I can’t wait for when they return to hear all about it and how this trip transforms your life and perspective on the Jewish people like no other.

So Go! And take lots of pictures.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the official statement from Israel’s ministry of tourism:

Dear Friends and colleagues,
I am writing to update you on the current situation and to thank you sincerely for standing with us during the recent challenging period.

During the last week, and despite the headlines, thousands of tourists continued to arrive in Israel undaunted. No airline flights were cancelled and while certain tour itineraries were necessarily adjusted to meet the exigencies of the situation, there was neither panic nor overt concern. Altogether, some 100,000 tourists continued traveling in our country and we in Israel were honored by their presence.

Moreover, we were deeply moved by how the travel industry worldwide displayed admirable confidence in Israel tourism. You trusted our country’s ability to keep our travel industry operating, safe and intact. And, most importantly, you showed faith in our determination to ensure the security, safety and well-being of our visitors. We sincerely appreciate this trust.

As we move ahead, please be assured of the commitment of the Israel Ministry of Tourism and the Israel travel industry to maintain the momentum that, with your dedication, has made 2012 the best year ever for tourism to Israel.

Shalom,
Stas Misezhnikov
sarm@tourism.gov.il

How to celebrate Rosh Hashannah with style!

she’s a busy woman, she is counting the weeks until she’s a bride, so when this Wegman’s chef blogs, we all better listen. This is my friend’s take on the Rosh Hashana menu… i’m going to try and make the geen beans with shallots and the spiced rice – how nice!

chuzpahinthekitchen

It is your turn to host the holiday. Sigh. What to make this year? You look at old recipes and nothing seems all that exciting. Brisket? Been there, Done that. Roasted chicken? Boring. Turkey? We are gonna have enough of that in November. If you feel like you are in a rut, and you are looking for some new ways to spice up your new year, try these recipes!

MIDDLE EASTERN CHOPPED SALAD WITH SEARED AHI TUNA AND TAHINI DRESSING:

Middle Eastern chopped salad:

3 small cucumbers- small diced (or one large- seeded)

3 roma tomatoes- small diced

1 yellow pepper- small diced

½ a bag of shredded radishes

3 scallions (green onion)- chopped

1 red pepper – small diced

¼ cup fresh parsley- chopped finely

Combine it all together and let it sit together at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. (Can be made up to 6 hours…

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“No, you may NOT tip, Young Man!” And other things heard and seen in a Canoe in Muskoka

With absolute awkwardness, I got in the canoe, rented from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, at the front. I don’t remember canoes being so wobbly, probably because I hadn’t been in one in at least 20 years.

“Are you sure that this canoe isn’t extra narrow?” I called back to my teen son.

My son climbed into the canoe with ease. The one who earned his golden oar after canoeing for five summers straight at camp. I let him take the back.

It was the last morning together with the boys. It had been a blessing in disguise that we couldn’t drop them off for Session II of the summer at Camp Ramah in Canada as early as we planned. That way, we had this one more adventure before we dropped them off for a whole month at camp.

On the first half of our trip, we divided the boys per canoe: My husband and younger son, 8 in one, and myself and my 13-year-old in another. That worked well. My husband and my teen took control, telling the less experienced rowers (my youngest and I) which side to paddle, and actually how to paddle.

Before  that morning’s canoe ride  with my 13-year-old son, I did not know there was such a thing as a C stroke or a J stroke. To me, it was all one thing, put your oar on the left side or the right, put it deep in the water, and pull back. I also did not know that, several times a week at camp, my son would wake up extra early to go canoeing with a small group of campers. Imagine that, a teen getting up extra early, when at home on vacation, I can barely get him out of bed by 10.

He said at camp he also played his guitar in a canoe.

He also told me one of his most spiritual moments at camp was when he and his other campers brought their prayer books and conducted morning services on the canoe.

Prayer books. On a canoe?

Clearly, the campers knew there were times for tipping the canoe, and other times, carrying precious cargo, times to keep the canoe perfectly balanced.

We rowed along a calm lake that had many inlets and narrow passages, so much that it seemed to have a current like a river. We passed quaint houses with well cared for and decorated docks.

We passed under a freight train bridge where a man working on the rails shouted greetings (and advice) to us from above. (You’ll just have to use your imagination here. I didn’t photograph him. Taking pictures, managing an oar,and trying not to tip over proved to be very challenging!) 

“Great day for a canoe ride, Ay? You should steer a little away from the side, Ay? I say, Ay, I think you’re headed for a rock, steer clear, Ay?”

Was my ineptitude that apparent? All those “ays.” I definitely knew I was in Canada.

Things were going well until, exploring the second half of the lake,  my older son insisted we switch. My son wanted to take his little brother under his wing and show him the ropes of rowing. He offered the argument that his edah (Hebrew for group) of campers never socialized with my son’s age group on waterfront activities and this would be his only chance to have some brother bonding on a boat.

Begrudgingly, (but I knew it was a bad idea) we agreed.

First, they got stuck going around a curve in a bramble of branches.

Then, they kept turning in circles as they got stuck in a current.

My older son overestimated my younger’s experience with the  oar. In his mind, he had to be an expert by now. After all, little brother had been canoeing for  an entire hour with dad. It was a lesson in brother bonding, and resisting the urge to throw little brother overboard.

Now that I was in the canoe with my husband, I wasn’t doing much better. Apparently, sitting in the front of the canoe, I pull my oar out of  the water way too fast and was splashing my husband at every stroke. He was clearly the one in charge in this canoe, the backseat rower.

“Stop splashing me, please! ”

“Three more strokes on your left, please!”

When I was in the canoe with my son, his main suggestion to me:

“Mom, just sit there and let me do the rowing. We’ll be better off that way.”

I did do some rowing, at my insistence. I needed the workout. Was it my fault I didnt’ spend five summers learning how to canoe as a child?  Also, my son didn’t complain that I was getting him was wet when I oared in his canoe! Getting wet was half the fun, just as long as we didn’t tip. Actually, in the heat, I wouldn’t have minded getting tipped, except I had a new camera on board.

Finally, at a private cottage dock with a little white dog barking at us the  whole time, we regrouped and switched back to our original rowing arrangements.

Rowing taught  us several things. For one, when you are in a boat with someone, squabbling just makes you go around in circles. To get anywhere, you both have to paddle in perfect harmony.

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