I am beyond fed up.
Really, I have had it.
There has been a LOT of anti-Semitic (it doesn’t sound harsh enough, so let’s just say it for what it is: Jew hating) incidents in the last several months.
Bomb threats called into JCCs and Jewish Day Schools. Yes, they were called in by a Jewish teen sitting in his room in Israel, but they were and still should be dealt with as a hate crime.
Desecration of cemetery headstones in Jewish cemeteries in several cities. In fact, the headstone of a great grandfather of one of my daughter’s friend was vandalized in Rochester, NY.
Hate emails going out to Jewish students at the University of Michigan. My friends’ son was the recipient of one of them.
And now, a former colleague of mine posts that his front door mezuzzah, which belonged to his wife’s grandmother, was ripped off from the door of his apartment in an inside hallway in a security enclosed building.
The Mezuzzah. Let’s explain to you – and if you are a warped hate mongering ignoramous who knows nothing about Judaism, let’s get you Hebrew Schooled, shall we?
I am no Hebrew scholar, and I don’t know if there is a direct translation to English, but a mezuzzah is a piece of parchment paper where, written in hand by a scribe, is the Shema – the Jewish affirmation calling all of Israel to listen and understand that there is only One Gd and this Gd commanded us to post this prayer into all our door posts and teach it dilligently to our children. There are three paragraphs rolled neatly into a tiny scroll, that is the mezuzzah:
“And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20). What is to be inscribed? Divine instruction is very clear: “The words that I shall tell you this day”: that you shall love your God, believe only in Him, keep His commandments, and pass all of this on to your children.”
So, listen up, haters, you mess with a Mezuzzah, you mess with Gd.
The mezuzzah encasement, artistically, is open to many interpretations. Some are simple, some are more ornate. But they clearly mark and distinguish that in that dwelling dwells a Jew.
You may, in old apartments in Brooklyn, that once had a lot of Jewish tenants, see the slanted remnant, now covered in layers of paint. My African American neighbors who lived across the street from me in Rochester still had a mezzuzah on their front door, left by the previous Jewish owners of the house. I asked them why they never took it down. They said, they felt protected by it.
Indeed, some interpret the mezuzzzah they post to one’s doors as a sign of protection. Often, the Hebrew Letters, Shin Dalet and Yud – spelling Shaddai, a name for Gd, is translated to “Protector” or Guardian.
It is customary, when one Jewish family sells their house to another Jewish family, to leave their mezzuzot behind, or at least one as a symbolic gesture.
Though, in Nazi occupied Europe, Jews started taking them down for fear they would be turned in. Sadly, in Europe today, Jews are thinking twice before affixing this quintessential symbol of a Jewish home to their doors.
But this isn’t Nazi Germany or 2017 Europe.
This is America. And I’m not taking my mezuzzah down.
Here is my front door Mezuzzah.
It was given to us as a wedding present nearly 24 years ago by a college friend. From the day we got it, my husband and I decided it would be our front door mezuzzah, and it has held this status for four different homes now. And there it will stay. We are not moving or removing it for anyone.
In addition to our front door, every doorpost in our home, except for the bathroom doors, have a mezuzzah attached.
Most were gifts and I can remember each person who gave us each of our mezzuzot.
So, here is the social media experiment:
In solidarity with my friend’s mezzuzah which was just vandalized, let’s show the haters we are not afraid.
Please email me photo of your front door mezuzzah to firstname.lastname@example.org. And please share this widely with your friends, family and community.
Let us bring light into this dark world.
What is your wish/prayer for the Birthday of the World? How will you put it into action? A Rosh Hashanah press inquiry
Hayom Harat Olam – Today the world stands at birth
If Rosh Hashanah is the World’s birthday, then what do you wish for it?
Can you help me out?
I am sleuthing for good sources for another feature on a tight deadline (September 15) for the High Holiday issue of the Detroit Jewish News. And, if you help me out and write to me about your wish, in turn, you are helping yourself focus on the meaning of the High Holidays:
Kids and adults: What is your special individual hope, prayer or wish for this world?
And, what, in the New Year, will you to do to work towards making that wish come true? Will you volunteer? Tutor a child? Check in on an elderly neighbor? Collect food and water for the hungry? Start a whole new organization for your favorite cause?
According to Genesis, when God created the world, God knew it would be incomplete. Imperfect. That’s why he created us: humans, to enter into a partnership with Him to keep the earth and repair it.
These days, the Earth – from the global to the most local levels, needs lots of healing. From the broken schools in Detroit where only 47 percent of adults are functionally literate to our polarized and ugly presidential election cycle.
From the fires in California, floods in Louisana and Zika in Florida.
Genocide in Syria and Iraq.
In the Jewish world, we face growing anti-Semitism from the college campus to a global level as the world grapples with growing radical Islam.
Indeed, the problems are overwhelming.
Are we truly up to the task of being God’s partner in a time like this?
But we must. Today’s problems provide us with plenty of food for thought as we approach the month of Elul and we prepare spiritually for the Jewish New Year of 5777
How can we as one individual live up to the task of being God’s partner in a time like this? But we must. Today’s problems provide us with plenty of food for thought as we approach the month of Elul and we prepare spiritually for the Jewish New Year of 5777?
So, let us, you, Jewish Detroit, and I, start this conversation together.
Ask yourself and ask your children: What do you hope/wish/pray for this Rosh Hashanah for the world’s birthday wish?
And, how will you plan to fulfill this wish? Leave me a reply in the comments, 100 words or less, and your contact information. If I select it, I will let you know and will need a photograph of you for publication in the DJN.
Email me at email@example.com or leave me a reply in the comments, 100 words or less, and your contact information. If I select it, I will let you know and will need a photograph of you for publication in the DJN.
And, if you choose to act on your wish, as prayers should lead to action, I will feature you and your social action cause further this new Jewish year as a mensch of the month.
I look forward to reading, and writing about, your birthday wishes for the world.
If you are a seder leader, you work a tough crowd.
Just as the Children of Israel complained in the desert to Moses, all gathered at the seder table will level their pre-meal kvetching at you.
Fear not. The Passover seder is the ultimate multi-sensory teaching tool that asks each of us to think of ourselves as going on a journey and leaving Egypt and slavery behind for freedom in the Promised Land. Long before any educational theorist came up with the idea of teaching to multiple intelligences, the Hagaddah text clearly states that all who participate in a seder must feel as they themselves experienced the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of redemption.
“From sports to music fans, you’ve got to know your audience,” said Jeff Lasday, director of Alliance for Jewish Education. Lasday has led family seders for the past 30 years. When Passover falls during the annual NCAA basketball tournament, Lasday emails his family in advance a Jewish-themed “bracket” of favorite Passover foods, Jewish traditions and Jewish heroes. Before the seder, he compiles the results and intersperses reports between different parts of the Hagaddah.
STEP AWAY FROM THE SEDER TABLE
In the 2005 Passover comedy, When Do We Eat?, a dysfunctional Jewish family celebrates Passover in a Bedouin tent pitched on a suburbanite Long Island lawn. Though it is not necessary to go through such lengths, setting the stage visually will get your seder guests in the right frame of mind for the evening. At the beginning of the seder, don’t even bother with the table. For one seder, I brought the whole family into the tiny front storage area of my parent’s basement. This subterranean start symbolized that we were about to go on a journey and the dark basement represented just how low we felt during slavery and how we were about to rise to freedom. Amy Newman, director of leadership development for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, suggests hanging blue cellophane from doorways to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. She also recommends giving permission for kids to draw on the dining room walls — covered carefully with butcher paper — to depict scenes from the Haggadah. “The more experiential you can make your seder, the more meaning it will have for your guests, no matter their age,” Newman said.
YES, YOU CAN EAT
Nibbling is permitted during the first half of the seder after reciting the blessing for karpas (green vegetable, often parsley). Pass around bowls of dried fruits and nuts, even crudites with guacamole to stave off hunger during the seder.
Prior to the seder, get them invested by asking them to think about their own interpretation of slavery, freedom or plagues. Newman also suggests providing older kids and young adults with a lunch bag filled with different items to be used during the Maggid section of the Haggadah to tell the Passover story. From food insecurity to the environment to human trafficking, teens and young adults are passionate about causes. The internet provides great supplementary Haggadah readings that can spark conversations on all of these topics to bring the messages of the holiday into a contemporary light. When it comes to including a discussion about Israel, organizations from AIPAC to J Street publish Haggadah supplements. For example, last year, a friend of my niece joined the IDF as a Lone Soldier. I was able to find a Hagaddah reading online that offered short profiles of Lone Soldiers and what it meant to them to serve in the Israeli army.
SONGS OF FREEDOM, REDEMPTION
My earliest Passover memories are steeped in song. Growing up at my no-nonsense Hebrew school, teachers taught us how to lead the seder by singing our way through the Haggadah. The more singing and music you add to your seder, the more enjoyable it will be for all guests. My husband’s own “Passover Rappin” YouTube video has not gone viral like those of the Maccabeats, but in our family, it has become a seder standard. If you are fortunate to have Jewish preschoolers coming to your seder, your evening will ring with the wonderful songs they learn. For older guests, if you want to divert a bit from the traditional Haggadah text but still stay on topic, Newman suggests having a sing-down. How many songs can those around the table think of about slavery, freedom, spring or redemption?
My grandmother used to tell me stories of being shushed at the seder table as a child while a bearded elder quickly mumbled through the whole Haggadah. As time went on, American Jews started to read from the Maxwell House Haggadah in a round-robin fashion, but they were still bored with the formal English and cumbersome sentences. One year, my brother-in-law proclaimed, “This is awful. Why do we use the same boring Haggadah with these ‘thines and thous’ year after year?” Before the next Passover came around, I researched and found other Haggadot, such as A Family Haggadah (Kar Ben Copies) and A Different Night by Noam Zion. Do not be afraid to cull different passages from different Haggadot. But when all is said and done, don’t permanently retire your Maxwell House Haggadot. As corny as it is, my kids and their cousins still love to use them to read Hallel: “Thine yea thine, thine only thine” … verse after verse late into the night. There are many new traditions to enhance your seder, but sometimes the old standbys are the ones that truly create family seder memories.*
It was an honor and a pleasure to interview and feature these often unspoken heroes of our shuls for this cover story in the March 16th issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Next time you go to synagogue for services, don’t forget to thank the custodian for their service.
Longtime non-Jewish staffers help make their synagogues special.
By Stacy Gittleman
They are often the first to open up the building in the morning and the last ones to lock up at night. They work hard to make sure the furnace runs in the winter and the air conditioning is cool — but not too cold — in the summer. Because of them, the floors shine and the carpets are fresh right before the High Holidays and the start of Hebrew school.
Their years connected to a congregation often outlast many Jewish members and even the clergy, making the synagogue or temple custodian not only the caretaker of our holy Jewish spaces, but a congregation’s unofficial historian.
Many of Detroit’s synagogues and temples owe much gratitude to the dedication of their custodians, who take much joy in watching Jewish preschoolers grow into young men and women and return to synagogue with their own children. When they fall ill, they receive visits from congregation members and congregational clergy. For that, they say, working as a synagogue custodian is like being part of a big extended family.
Murphy Ealy, 67, of Oak Park, worked in a scrap metal recycling facility when, in 1999, he got a call from an employment agency about a custodial position at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. His work at the recycling yard was “grimy.” Ealy loves to clean, so he said he was “strongly encouraged” to take on the new opportunity.
Seventeen years later, he still loves his job of preparing the building for services, meals and other programs throughout the Jewish calendar cycle.
“The favorite part of my job is welcoming in the congregants when they come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Ealy said. “I watch the kids grow older every year, and a lot I’ve known since they were preschoolers are now coming back married with their own kids. I have both celebrated and at times mourned together with the families here.”
Ealy arrives at Beth Ahm most days at 5:30 a.m. to open up the building for minyan. He then spends the rest of the morning cleaning and setting up for the week’s programs or services until his shift ends at noon. Many times, he will return to the building for evening functions and is especially instrumental during special occasions such as building the sukkah and helping the congregation’s sisterhood during its annual rummage sale.
As Ealy polished the brass railings of the bimah in the sanctuary on a recent morning, he considered the holiness of his work.
“For six days, I spend most of my time in a Jewish house of worship,” he said. “There is certainly something special about doing my work inside a synagogue. When I’m in here and it is peaceful and quiet, I feel safe.”
As keeper of the synagogue’s keys, a custodian is also on call for various emergency circumstances, like responding to an emergency alarm or a power outage. But it is not often that a custodian is called upon to determine the results of a local election.
Beth Ahm serves as a polling location for Precincts 9 and 10 in Oakland County. One election night, Ealy returned home after work only to receive an urgent phone call from a local government official. The polling workers left the voting sheets in the locked synagogue, and they could not call the election until Ealy opened the building to count the votes.
“He is a one-man show who knows us all and knows the inner workings and routine of our congregation and can anticipate what needs to be done without even asking,” said Beth Ahm Executive Director David Goodman. “He is here for us all and is an integral part of our success.”
‘As Important As The Rabbi’
On the other side of town, Beth Shalom of Oak Park loves to brag about its “one-man maintenance team,” Vasile Havrisciuc.
Vasile Havrisciuc, maintenance manager, spruces up the Beth Shalom sign.
For 11 years, Romanian-born Havrisciuc has worked as the synagogue’s maintenance manager. He has a background in electrical, plumbing and HVAC skills and is “constantly finding ways to save the synagogue money,” according to building committee chair Allen Wolf of Bloomfield Township.
Non-Jewish custodians of synagogues take on unique job responsibilities such as learning about Jewish laws and observances surrounding Shabbat, kashrut and other customs.
According to Wolf, Havrisciuc is a devout Catholic who knows more about Judaism than most Jews do.
“When Pesach comes around, no one needs to tell Vasile how to kasher the kitchen,” he said. “When the High Holidays approach, he knows how to re-arrange the shul and pull out the appropriate machzorim. On Shabbat, he knows we can’t turn on ovens or lights, so he makes sure these things are handled.
“Congregation Beth Shalom is a very heimishe [down-to-earth] shul and Vasile is an important part of that. He is as important to the success of Beth Shalom as the rabbi, the cantor or the office staff.”
An ‘Honorary Jew’
Charles Criss, 57, of Detroit, has worked for Temple Emanu-El for 34 years. From those decades of experience comes the knack for anticipating the needs of the synagogue’s day-to-day operations, according to Executive Director Fredrick Frank. Criss said he has become an expert on the temple’s roof, forecasting where leaks may spring up and advising contractors during roof renovations.
He knows the congregants just about as well as he knows the building. Like his counterparts working in other synagogues, he echoes that the best part of his job is watching the kids grow up over the years and coming back to temple with their own children.
Charles Criss keeps Temple Emanu-El is in top shape.
Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Klein would play an “informal” game with Criss each week, and each week, Criss would beat him at it.
“A day before a special event or program, I would remind Criss of what I needed set up,” Klein said. “No matter what, he would be way ahead of me and with a smile he would say, ‘Already done.’”
Though he cannot attend services at church as much as he would like — as the week’s busiest day is Sunday when Hebrew school is in session — over the years he said he received much “spiritual guidance” from the clergy and others at Temple Emanu-El.
“I have had the opportunity to be spiritually uplifted when I sit back and listen to the services, and I have been honored with the duty of serving as a pallbearer at funerals of congregants. Because of this, Rabbi Klein described me as an ‘honorary Jew.’”
A Spiritual Feeling
Marvin Brown of Southfield worked in the landscaping business when he got a call from Alan Yost, executive director of Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, about a custodial position the day before Christmas Eve in 1984.
After working for 33 years in a Jewish environment, words and phrases like shalosh seudos and mezuzah easily roll off his tongue. A cook at heart, a favorite part of Brown’s job is preparing meals, especially breakfast for morning minyan.
Over his years at Adat Shalom, Brown said he has prepared the building for “thousands” of weddings and bar mitzvahs. During one bar mitzvah party, the synagogue lost power. Brown stepped in and saved the evening by walking back and forth to get diesel fuel at the Shell gas station on Northwestern Highway every hour or so to keep the backup generator running.
Marvin Brown is a cook at heart and loves preparing minyan breakfast at Adat Shalom.
When Brown started his job, he did not know much about Judaism and the rules of keeping kosher. He didn’t realize that bringing in outside food — including ribs from his favorite barbecue place in Detroit — is completely forbidden. But now, as the primary food shopper for the synagogue, he knows how to select food with the correct kosher certifications and how to cook without mixing up the meat and dairy utensils in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen.
Brown said he gets a decent amount of vacation time, including Christmas and Easter. And when Brown needed hospitalization in 2005, the nurses on his floor asked him if he was Jewish because of all the Jewish clergy who continually paid him visits.
Brown was raised in a Baptist church. Though he says he does not get to church formally, he says the rabbis over the years like the late Rabbi Efry Spectre and the late Cantor Larry Vieder taught him that he can also “have church” right in the synagogue.
“I grew up listening to gospel choirs,” Brown said. “Though I don’t understand the Hebrew, when they really get to singing around here [during services], it sounds very nice.”
Some synagogues are bigger than others and require a crew of maintenance staff to keep the building running. With 15,000 square feet of space and the ability to host 1,500 worshipers, Congregation Shaarey Zedek is one of the largest in the Detroit Metro area. The custodial staff, headed by Keith Armbruster, facilities director, keeps busy throughout the year by not only preparing the building on Shabbat and for special occasions, but also for large community functions that can host hundreds of people at a time.
Keith Armbruster at Shaarey Zedek
Armbruster, 60, of Livonia just celebrated his 40th anniversary last October working at CSZ. He says the unique architecture of the synagogue poses certain challenges, such as using a catwalk 100 feet above the sanctuary to change the lightbulbs and carefully maintaining the one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, woodwork and custom-made large wooden doors that adorn the building. Thankfully, he said, the soaring stained glass windows do not need cleaning.
“It is a challenge getting up to that catwalk,” Armbruster said. “It is like climbing a mountain to get up there.”
Over the years, he has most enjoyed meeting the many interesting and prominent members of the Detroit community who have been members of CSZ. A good day for him means receiving good feedback when a special occasion or function goes off without a hitch. Most of all, he has enjoyed learning about Jewish traditions and takes pride of the knowledge he has gained over the decades.
“In my social circles, I am kind of like the rabbi to all my non-Jewish friends,” Armbruster said. “When someone has a question about something Jewish, they always come to me.”
At Beth El Shabbaton, Joey Weisenberg will empower guests to unlock their musical and spiritual potential.
(originally published in the Detroit Jewish News)
To harness the community-building power of singing, Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Township welcomes the young and the young at heart to lend voices both harmonious and imperfect to a Shabbaton featuring renowned musician Joey Weisenberg. The uplifting event will be Feb. 26-27 at the Bethel Community Transformation Center (BCTC), 8801 Woodward Ave., the former home of Temple Beth El in Detroit.
Weisenberg, 34, the creative director of the New York-based Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music and author of Building Singing Communities, will introduce melodies and methods of singing that blend Old World Chassidic niggunim with old-time American flair.
Working in the context of Renewal Judaism, Weisenberg has worked for the past decade to empower communities around the world to unlock their musical and spiritual potential, and to make music a lasting and joy-filled force in shul and in Jewish life. Now residing in Philadelphia with his wife and four young children, Weisenberg grew up in Milwaukee in a family with Midwestern roots that trace back to before the Civil War.
His parents were both trained musicians, and he grew up listening to classical piano from his mother as well as classical flamenco guitar from his father. Raised in a multi-generational traditional Jewish home, he remembers going to Shabbat services with his grandfather in nine different synagogues that spanned the spectrum of Jewish observance.
“My grandfather taught me there is something to be taken and learned from every denomination of Judaism,” said Weisenberg, who ditched a pre-med program at Columbia University to pursue the life of a professional musician, composer and teacher. “Above all, people connect to music because it does not speak in dogma but instead speaks in the language of the soul. [Singing] is the way we all become a collective heart, and we all become strings of David’s Harp in harmony.”
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Weisenberg’s musical career started with playing guitar as a studio recording session artist and then touring the country and parts of the globe with musicians playing Brazilian samba, American blues and Klezmer.
After a while, he wanted to see what would happen if he moved the singing and playing music offstage to be where the people are, and to bring the audience into joining in with song. As he travels around the country teaching Jewish communities how to energize prayer through singing, including pockets of Jews in Alaska, Weisenberg wants to dislodge the notion that music and singing is just for kids.
“Some of the best teachers I have learned music with are two and three generations older than me,” Weisenberg said.
Rachel Rudman, 28, Temple Beth El program director, says the Shabbaton, the first of its kind in Detroit, is a way to “create bridges between suburban synagogues and younger, urban Jews.”
She said hosting the Shabbaton in the historic Beth El building enables TBE to reach out to millennial Jews seeking a neutral space to practice a highly spirited form of Jewish prayer. Weisenberg can deliver just the thing, she said.
“I have had several opportunities in my life to learn from and sing with Joey,” said Rudman, who recently returned to her native Detroit in 2014 after living in New York.
“When services are conducted in a tight circle and everyone is looking at each other and investing their voice in the prayer, you feel the energy coming from the people next to you. It really becomes a spiritual experience.”
The Shabbaton will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and finish with Havdalah, plus an extended song session on Saturday evening. Participants are welcome to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses to spend the evening. Services on Friday and Saturday will be a cappella style, but Havdalah and beyond will include drumming and strumming of guitars so participants are welcome to bring their instruments as well as their voices.
Cost is $36 for the entire Shabbaton or $20 per day and includes homecooked vegan meals and lodging at BCTC. For more information, contact Rachel Rudman at rrudman@tbeonline. org or (248) 325-9706. *
After centuries of assimilation and isolation from the rest of the Children of Israel, pockets of Jews in China, India, Spain, Portugal, South America, and far-flung regions of the former Soviet Union are rediscovering their Jewish heritage. Thank you to Laura Ben-David of Shavei Israel agency for the photos and your visit to Detroit to teach us all about the amazing work you do. Here is my story from the December 17 issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
Reclaiming Judaism Shavei Israel agency helps “lost” Jews find their heritage.
By Stacy Gittleman
Whether the people it helps live in China, India or Brazil, an Israeli agency called Shavei Israel (Israel Returns) is helping “hidden” or “lost” populations of Jews reclaim their Judaism.
Times of Israel blogger and Shavei Israel employee Laura Ben David made a Detroit stop Nov. 14 at Young Israel of Southfield during a multi-city North American tour to promote awareness and explain the “incredible phenomenon” of Jews previously thought to be lost to the rest of mainstream Judaism returning to their Jewish heritage.
Shavei Israel works with pockets of those claiming Jewish ancestry in nine countries and counting. It is comprised of a team of academics, educators, and rabbinical figures and has the support of rabbinical authorities in Israel and the United States.
“We find it humbling that, in spite of all the problems the Jewish people face, there are emerging hidden people who identify themselves as Jewish and who want to throw their fate in with the rest of us,” Ben David said to a group of 30 at Young Israel in Southfield.
She spent her childhood summers visiting her grandparents and extended family in Detroit. Her grandmother, who is 100, lives at Fleischman Residence in West Bloomfield. Now living in Israel, Ben David describes her job as her “life’s work of reconnecting people to Israel and their Jewish heritage.”
“We find no matter where in the globe we go, there are people who feel very strongly a connection and a love for Israel,” she said. “The very least Shavei Israel can do is help them find their way either by strengthening their Jewish connections while they live in their current countries or helping them make aliyah.”
Ben David focused her talk on the Jews of India or the Bnei Menashe. It is the largest group of “lost” Jews who claim to be direct descendants of the Lost Tribe of Menashe. In recent years, Shavei Israel has brought 3,000 Bnei Menashe to Israel. Another 7,000 remain in India waiting to make aliyah.
The transition to life in Israel and acceptance of their Judaism is a challenge. Although the Israeli rabbinate visited Indian Jewish population centers to verify their authenticity, Ben David explained the Bnei Menashe still must go through a brief yet intensive course of study for conversion. However, because of India’s anti-proselytization laws, they must first move to Israel and undergo conversion there to become full Israeli citizens.
Shavei Israel works with pockets of those claiming Jewish ancestry in nine countries and counting. It is comprised of a team of academics, educators, and rabbinical figures and has the support of rabbinical authorities in Israel and the United States.
Regardless of red tape, Ben David said groups of students greet the arriving Bnei Menashe with open arms. The Bnei Menashe spend three months in a resettlement community in Jerusalem where they learn Hebrew and enroll in a rigorous Judaic study to prepare them for the Beit Din, or the Court of Rabbis, for conversion.
Eventually, they go on to live in “carefully selected” towns throughout Israel where they receive training and education that will lead to sustainable employment. Though they retain “the flavor and culture” of their home country, they become full Israeli citizens and eventually their children will serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Our social workers stay in touch with our new olim [immigrants] and we are constantly revising our program to meet their needs,” Ben David said.
“We give them as much support as possible with a goal to facilitate their economic independence.” Young Israel’s Rabbi Yechiel Morris said the talk was eye-opening because it is “fascinating for Ashkenazi Jews like us to know there are other pocket populations of Jews in the world we are only starting to discover. “We are truly a scattered people who are only now starting to make our way home from all the corners of the Earth,” he said.
All over the country this summer, you could hear a plea of GenXer parents to their Millennial children that sounded something like this:
“Get off your screen. Stop playing Angry Birds. Go outside and look at some real birds.”
Screen addiction is as real as that YouTube video of a person walking into a fountain in a shopping mall because they had their head down in their smart phone. Jane Brody, health blogger for the New York Times dedicates many posts to overuse of mobile devices. In July, PBS aired the documentary Web Junkie, which followed Chinese families taking the draconian step of sending their gaming-obsessed teens to a rehabilitation center not unlike a center for drug addiction.
In 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Excessive screen time is bad for a child’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Childhood risks include obesity, a rise in blood sugar, poor posture and the inability to develop proper socialization skills. GenXers, who are the last generation to talk to their friends through a telephone lassoed to the kitchen wall with a corkscrew cord, find a chasm between themselves and their Digital Age native children wider and deeper than any other in history.
Do we let our teens Skype in their bedroom with members of the opposite sex with the door closed? How do we trust our children to independently stay on task and complete their homework on their tablets, now a mainstay school supply, when distractions are only a click away?
WEANING AWAY FROM THE SCREEN
The methods of curbing screen time vary for each family. Some have short-term experiments like kicking the habit for a solid week. Others find that observing Shabbat provides a weekly refuge from every ping and tweet from their mobile devices.
Whether they spent it in day camps or overnight camp, hiking out West or splashing in a neighborhood pool, summertime is the perfect time to rein in a child’s screen habits and think about ways to continue minimizing screen time into the fall.
Brandon Solomon, 15, of West Bloomfield says he uses technology “a lot.” The rising Bloomfield Hills High School sophomore plays video games with his friends up to four hours daily, either hanging out in person or over the Internet. During the school year, he keeps track of homework assignments on his smart phone. Calling Facebook a “bit old school,” he prefers texting and using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch with friends.
The day before a 35-day Tamarack Camps Western travel program that would take him and more than two dozen area Jewish teens to hike, raft and camp out in national parks like Bryce, Zion and Yellowstone, his phone broke.
“It was just as well because we weren’t allowed to take them along anyway.” Between their treks out in the wild, the teens traveled for long stretches at a time by bus. Without their phones, instead of texting to friends far away, they were better able to get to know the kids around them through old-fashioned conversation.
When they weren’t chatting, they read, looked out at the passing landscape or just slept. Now that he is back in civilization, Solomon said he learned a lot about what life can be like away from a screen.
“I realize now that playing video games is not a very productive hobby, and I’m going to try very hard to cut back on that,” Solomon said. “This coming school year, I will try to be more in touch with my friends by getting out, taking a walk and riding bikes. It would also help to be more in touch and on top of my homework.”
TOO MUCH TEXTING?
A few weeks into the trip, the teen tour stopped in St. Louis, Mo. Solomon noticed a group of local teens who texted and stared down at their smart phones screens as they shuffled down the street.
“They looked like a bunch of zombies!” Solomon said. “It made me realize: That is how I look most of the year when I have my phone.”
Indeed, teens prefer texting over talking on the phone or in person. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, half of children aged 12-17 send or receive 60 or more texts a day on average, and researchers at the JFK Medical Center in New York found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts from bed. Does all this texting and the abbreviations that go along with it signal the downfall of the written English language?
Kim Lifton, president of Wow Writing Workshop LLC, says not so. Lifton teaches college-bound students how to be reflective as they approach their college essay and application.
She said with training, teens have no problems creatively expressing their thoughts in their writing. Abbreviations commonly used in texting do not find their way to the essays she edits. However, if you are her student, do not text that essay to Lifton to edit. She embraces texting, but she has her limits.
As far as texting, this GenXer sees it as a communication tool just as her generation used the phone to keep in touch with her United Synagogue Youth pals in various cities across the Midwest when she was in high school.
“I remember my mom scolding me that I would never develop good communication skills because I spent so much time talking on the phone,” Lifton said. “Today, I keep up with these same USY friends on Facebook. It is the evolution of communication, but these tools must be used in moderation.”
What concerns Lifton and other professionals who work with teens is not their grammar but interacting with people in real-time. Some local therapists say that when both teens and adults are overly reliant on texting, they are just venting their feelings and frustrations and are not necessarily having a quality two-way conversation. In seeking immediacy in responses from others, teens are also having difficulty with working things out on their own.
Abby Segal, LCSW, does not always have her cell phone with her. When she sees patients — often teens coming to see her to work through anxieties associated with overuse of technology — her phone is off. According to Segal, the digital age is causing us not only to lose our ability to be present with others without distraction; we are also losing the comfort of solitude. Many of her young clients fear they feel excluded from their friends if they do not immediately answer their texts. Several have been so sleep-deprived from late-night texting or video game sessions that they overslept through their appointments.
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more,” Segal said. “Getting out in the neighborhood on a walk with a friend — that is the kind of communicating kids need the most.”
A NOVEL EXPERIMENT
Jen Lovy of West Bloomfield made national news on Good Morning America this summer when the show learned how in March of 2014 she and her family decided to avoid screens for an entire week. Lovy was “fed up” with the amount of time her three sons, then ages 8, 9, and 11, spent with their technology. So, they kicked the habit for a week. Doing homework, however, on a computer was OK. During the experiment, there was a snow day, plus one of her children caught a late-winter bug that left him home sick for a few days. Still, they
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more.” — Social worker Abby Segal
managed by building with Legos, reading and working on some crafts projects.
“One important lesson my kids learned is that they did not die of boredom,” Lovy said. “And we actually got outside to enjoy the snow.”
The unplugged week showed the Lovys just how much they normally used their screens. After the week, the kids went back to plugging in, although Lovy said she tries her best to limit nonhomework screen time to an hour.
Miriam Svidler, LLMSW of Southfi eld, who works as a counselor at the Cruz Clinic in Livonia, said it is no wonder that kids have a hard time being pried away from their games. According to Svidler, games are designed to make the brain feel good, and this is why children and teens display great irritability when they are asked to stop playing. Noting the extremely addicting nature of computer games and the constant updates on one’s social media newsfeed, Svidler advises no more than two hours a day of screen time if that screen is used for things other than homework.
“Game programmers know exactly how to design a game to make our brains feel good when we use them and bad when we are abruptly torn away from them,” Svidler said. “You need to tell the child that restricting screen time is not a punishment but a motivation to find other pursuits or to spend time with other people face to face.” Svidler advises that sometimes getting that last text from a friend can be reassuring before bedtime. But teens should not rely on texting as a main form of communication with friends.
“It is always best for a teen to have open communication with their parents,” Svidler said. “But if that one text from a good friend can help them get through the night before bedtime, that is OK, too.”
Like many Jews who have become observant, Svidler knows that Shabbat, a 25-hour rest, can be the best weekly break from technology. “For 25 hours, I am able to be present and in the moment, which I have learned is hardest thing for teenagers to do,” said Svidler, who gradually became Shabbat observant through her adulthood. “Before Shabbat, if I want to be with my friends, we make a plan, pick a place, and they just have to trust that I am going to be there.”
When it comes to teaching and learning prayer, Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, said there are a multitude of apps and technology to help students young and old. But trying to fi nd that meaningful moment during religious services, she added, becomes increasingly more challenging. Too much screen time is only partly the reason.
“We do not know how to slow down,” said Ser, who takes full advantage of the time Shabbat gives her and husband, Sam, to enjoy a day of unplugged time with their three children. “The world has picked up pace so much in the last few decades, and one no longer has to search and research to fi nd answers. The art of prayer asks a person to dig down into various layers of thinking, and this is something we are not accustomed to doing anymore.”
The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life.
Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare. The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all. If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?
Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet. Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome. Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.” Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years. “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony:
“If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle.
The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college. Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings.
With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew. “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.” Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.” Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children. “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?” ■
This summer, my husband and I celebrated our 20th year of marriage with our first European vacation. In the cold clutches of the polar vortex, we asked ourselves, what is the one European city known to be one of the world’s most romantic destinations?
Why, Paris, of course!
Gleefully, we dreamt of a Paris vacation. In the evenings, we played a Paris Jazz Café station on Spotify. Without a single semester of French between the two of us, we spoke sweet nothings to each other in fake Parisian accents.
I dug out my college art history textbooks and plotted my visit to the Louvre.
Then we checked in with the news coming out of France, and our dreams crumbled like a stale baguette.
Anti-Semitism in France has been on a steady incline in recent years, even before Hamas’ most recent war with Israel. In 2012, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that 40 percent of approximately 1,200 French Jews said they avoided wearing Jewish identifiers such as kippot or Jewish stars. For me, all it took was one YouTube video filmed on Jan. 26 with throngs of protesters repeatedly shouting “Jews Out” through the streets of Paris, to rethink our plans.
So, forget Paris. We instead spent 10 memorable days in Italy touring Tuscany,
eating fresh pasta
Italy was far from a consolation prize to France.
However, all that wine did not cloud my awareness that war was still raging in Israel (my daughter spent the summer in Israel), and anti-Semitism was all around us in Europe. Still, I refused to be afraid to be outwardly Jewish. In the Jewish ghetto of Venice, I purchased a star of David made of Murano glass and wore it for the duration of my trip.
In Italy, an appreciation for Judaism’s contributions to humanity on the surface outweighed any animosity towards the Jews. An orchestra in Venice’s St. Mark’s square played Klezmer music.