Smashing the Idols of Today’s Jew-Hatred: Lessons learned from Lech Lecha
I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend.
For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.
It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.
Here’s mine from yesterday:
Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?
When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?
This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:
Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.
And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”
Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.
God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.
This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel. Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.
From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.
We are Am Yisrael.
The Nation of Israel.
The Children of Israel.
Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El, dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.
There is a theory that is being peddled around: that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.
To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.
IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.
AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”
In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries. That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.
For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.
Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.
Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.
Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”
Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.
Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.
Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.
But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.
Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.
Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.
Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
It’s all in Chapter Four.
Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”
This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.
Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish.
Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:
Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.
Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America. In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.
So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?
For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.
Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:
Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:
Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..
Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…
But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.
We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.
A Rosh Hashanah message to parents of Jewish babies from a parent of Jewish Adults: Do Jewish all year long.
For my daughter’s very first Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, we dressed her up in a frilly, off white outfit complete with a pill-box hat. I think it also had a fuzzy white boa. We found a matching pair of white framed cat-eyed sunglasses and she popped them on willingly for a pre-shul photo shoot.
It was hilarious.
I’ll spare posting a photo because she is a cool 20something now donning a black trench coat and Doc Martin combat boots through the streets of London and has a reputation.
You’ll just have to use your imagination.
On her second Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the Torah service, she screamed with joy
“Mommy, look, IT’S THE TORAHS!”
We were asked promptly by the usher to remove my enthusiastic Jewish toddler from the sanctuary. But that is a different topic that you can read about in other blogs.
This post is for YOU. The 20 or 30 something Jew, Jew of Choice or someone married to a Jew who is raising a very small child in the Jewish faith.
Don’t mean to scream, but stick with me here. Let me continue.
When the daughter was slightly older and was attending a Jewish preschool, I took her brother, about 2 1/2, on a shopping outing at Michael’s. It was springtime and the aisles were cluttered with those big, faux pottery urns.
“Mommy,” my baby duly noted from his vantage point in the shopping cart seat.
“They got really big Kiddush Cups”
Next, the youngest came along.
He was about 22 months and we were celebrating my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary on a cruise.
It was Tuesday night.
Formal night on the boat. Everyone was dressed up in tuxedos and gowns and other formal fashions. And in true cruse fashion, everyone was crowding outside the Starlight dining room, cattle-call style, for the doors to open. Because they had not eaten in 30 minutes at least.
All of a sudden, my 22 month old, in my arms dressed up in an instant-cute 3 piece suit of his own, yells at the top of his lungs.
It was a Tuesday, remember? But seeing people dressed up, to this almost 2 year old, it had to be Shabbos.
Funny thing is, a woman in her 60’s in a floor length black sparkly gown turned around and said Good Shabbos right back.
She was from Dix Hills. She knew my in-laws.
So now, it is many years later. That babe in my arms is a high school freshman. His brother is a freshman in college and his big sister is spending a semester abroad in London.
So where am I going with this?
During his freshman parent/student orientation, there were separate schedules for parents and students and I had not seen my son in a few hours.
Where did I catch up with him? At the student activities fair. He was checking out the Chabad table.
My son after a week of school told me he switched around his classes because one ran too late on Fridays and he did not want to miss out on Shabbat dinner and services. He’s toggling between Hillel and Chabad.
He may not get to services on both days of Rosh Hashanah, but he sought them out, knows where and when they are and it will be up to him to set his priorities.
He had a chance to perform in a pit for a show and get paid, but it takes place on Erev Yom Kippur, so he turned down the gig.
My daughter had to scramble to figure out her Rosh Hashana plans only days after landing at Heathrow to start her semester at University College of London. The “mandatory” orientation day and first day to pick classes? The first day of Rosh Hashanah.
She panicked. Does she miss orientation, a mandatory orientation, to find a place for services? Or does she go and try to catch up with services later?
These are adult choices. Jewish adult choices every Jewish adult must make in a world that does not make concessions or conveniences around the holiest days of our calendar.
This morning she emails me. She found another Jewish girl on her floor with English relatives and would be spending part of Rosh Hashanah.
And the university, in an email, in true English spelling, stated:
“We are aware that tomorrow is a Jewish holiday and that some of you may not be able to attend the above meetings. Please do let us know if you are unable to attend and we will organise an alternative meeting to catch you up.”
So, really, Jewish parents, where am I going with this?
Because this post is not just about me. It is about you and the Jewish community that is seemingly hanging on by a thread outside Israel.
Just a little bit.
Get Jewish Books from the PJ Library Read them with your kids, if just 10 minutes a day.
Make Shabbat. Even if it is only challah and grape juice on a Friday night followed by pizza or take out.
Please, for the love of Gd, make Jewish learning a priority. Take them to Hebrew school when Hebrew school is in session.
And bring them, if only once a month, to Shabbat Services in the years before they become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Bring them when they are unruly babies and toddlers. Let them climb up around the bima. Let them hear the melodies. Shlep them into the sanctuary and if they whine too much or cry, take them out and then take them in again when they are calm and keep doing it! To hell with what the old people say and complain. Synagogue is not supposed to be a quiet tomb.
Because little Jewish moments every day, over months and years, stick.
Then, when you are an old(er) Jewish parent like me, you get to watch your own kids make those hard choices for the sake of being and doing Jewish come Rosh Hashanah.
I wish you all a Sweet, Good New Year and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Wedding Tip: Personalize your Wedding Canopy
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As they exchange their vows and listen to the reading of a ketubah, sheltering them above their heads are customized canopies woven together from heirloom wedding gowns, a greatgrandfather’s tallit or even the cloth napkin from the restaurant where the proposal took place. Understanding the significance and holiness of this moment as the beginning of a new marriage and family, today’s couples seek to bring more personalization into the design of their one-of-a-kind chuppot.
Chanukkah: Why It’s so Important Right Now
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It’s not about presents or the number of Chanukkah songs there are compared with Christmas songs, or how a humble nine-branched candelabra can compete with a freshly pine-scented ornament adorned Christmas tree.
Chanukkah, the holiday that celebrates history’s first victory for religious freedom, is about not giving into tyranny. In any generation.
Mother Rachel is Crying Again: Why skimping on teaching Jewish History is a dangerous thing
When I penned this last week for the Detroit Jewish News, Joseph’s Tomb had not been set on fire by Palestinians twice. Yet. The thought of the Palestinians petitioning UNESCO that the Western Wall should be declared a Muslim holy site went beyond the pale of imagination.
But here we are. According to the world authorities, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Machpelach have no Jewish connection. Will this be enough of a shakedown to shake us out of our complacency?
On Oct. 8, The New York Times published an article that disregarded any Jewish historical claims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Ask the average pre-bnei mitzvah adolescent attending a supplementary congregational Hebrew school why this is so troubling and you may get some blank stares.
In a 2007 study from the AVI CHAI foundation, one Jewish educator lamented that in the ever-shrinking hours of a child’s Jewish education, “we have lost the battle for time.” The paucity of contact hours spent at Hebrew school means that our Jewish kids are getting a minimal Jewish education. They learn to decode Hebrew enough for Hebrew prayer and bnei mitzvah preparation. Through experiential learning, they get the basics of the Jewish holiday cycle and maybe a sprinkling of Torah stories. Teachers need to accomplish this within five or less hours of weekly instruction, all the while dealing with the disruption of kids arriving late or leaving early because of extra-curricular activities.
That means teaching Jewish history – from our most ancient beginnings in Judea, through the Roman exile and all the way up to the birth of the modern State of Israel – has mostly met the chopping block. If you need evidence, visit the resource room or library of any temple or synagogue and you will see volumes of history textbooks printed in the last decade languishing on the shelves.
I speak from experience. I have taught Hebrew school in one capacity or another here in Detroit and in Western New York for 13 years. I have been trained on several curricula that attempt to infuse experiential history lessons into the classroom using both traditional and the most up-to-date methods of the Digital Age, only to scrap carefully constructed lessons for the sake of time.
As a parent, a Jewish educator, and a writer who has been observing media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict since college, I cannot help but notice an ominous connection between the neglect of teaching Jewish history and the rise of the distortion and demonization of Israel and of Jews in Israel, on the American campus and throughout the world.
American Jewish kids with a minimal education, or no Jewish education after their bnei mitzvah, are blindsided when they reach the college campus and do not know how to respond when confronted with organizations on college campuses calling to boycott “apartheid” Israel.
As parents and Jewish professionals, we are doing ourselves a disservice when we let our children’s Jewish education take a back seat to our many other priorities. Our children need to learn Jewish history – to see where we have come from and what past generations endured to maintain their Judaism – to shape their own Jewish identity and destiny.
This year, after much soul searching, I decided to “home Hebrew school” my own child. I do not recommend this for everyone. Ideally, Jewish learning needs to take place in a communal setting and with lively discussion. Believe me, getting your own kid to take you seriously as a teacher is no cakewalk, but with the promise of a treat after a certain amount of studying has been accomplished, we settle down and get to work.
Each time, we get through one chapter from an age-appropriate textbook. Fortunately, there are many educational resources and videos online to make ancient Jewish history come alive. Right now, we are working our way through learning about ancient Judea and the Jewish revolts after the Romans conquered Jerusalem.
Even as Israel works hard to preserve its antiquities, there are some who wish to erase them. As we sat learning the other night, an online news source reported that Palestinians had destroyed a 1,900-year-old cave in the Gush Etzion region that dated back to the Bar Kochva revolt. If you had never heard of this era in Jewish history, I encourage you to look it up.
Leading Prayer in a prayerful time
With the #Pope visiting the United States, and the Jewish High Holiday season in full swing, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote published in the Detroit Jewish News’ High Holiday edition.
Two days ago, my wonderful congregation spent 26 hours in intensive prayer, fasting and reflection. Prayer is hard work. It does not come easy. That is why I am thankful to those in the community – in my synagogue, and in yours, or maybe in your church, temple or mosque – who volunteer their time to learn how to lead prayer.
Have you ever led a prayer service? If so, how did you learn? Why did you decide to lead? Did it feel different than sitting in the pews? I’d love it if you comment below.
During the Middle Ages, an unknown cantor, humbled at the task of praying on behalf of the entire congregation so that God would inscribe them into the Book of Life, penned the prayer Hineini, meaning “Here I Am.”
Before the invention of the printing press, leaders of tefilot, or Jewish worship, carried the weighty responsibility of keeping an entire congregation engaged and focused.
Fast forward several centuries, and not much has changed. Although the words of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy are widely available in printed machzorim or even transmitted electronically onto large video screens, it is still the task of the leader to be the shaliach tzibbur (lit. “messenger of the community”) in shepherding today’s Jews through the most prayer-intensive time on the Jewish calendar in an increasingly secular society.
Throughout Metropolitan Detroit, many consider it an honor to volunteer leading services alongside professional clergy as an ultimate expression of contributing to the Jewish community.
Rachel Jacobson, 28, of Silver Spring, Md. each year returns to her hometown congregation of B’nei Israel in West Bloomfield to be with family and to lead various parts of services. Inspired from her years in Jerusalem learning from pioneering women leading tefilot in egalitarian congregations, she was one of the first female prayer leaders for the B’nei Israel during the high holidays.
“I never was formally trained to lead,” said Jacobson. “It is something I picked up over the years in school, at Camp Ramah, and living in many different Jewish communities. It is when I can do my best praying because I am not only responsible for my own davening, but for the congregation before me.”
Jacobson credits her singing ability to her school days performing in musicals, though it is not necessary to be able to carry a tune in order to lead tefilot. But just as in show business, services must go on, even when the prayer leader is sick.
“Sometimes I think God does not want me to daven,” Jacobson jokingly said, thinking about leading Rosh Hashanah services while fighting a cold. “It is moments like that when I really must remind myself that I am not up there (on the bimah) to sound pretty. I am an emissary of all the congregation’s tefilot to deliver them to God. That is what leading prayer is all about.”
When Clergy get sick, congregants step up
Last Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Norman Roman of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield found himself not on the bimah but in the hospital. It was then that the congregation showed its strength and proudest moments according to congregant Diane Siegel Di Vita of Northville, who helps coordinate monthly lay-led services at Kol Ami throughout the year. She said the entire executive board filled in to lead the services and deliver sermons under the facilitation of Cantor Tiffany Green. Rabbi Roman’s stepson Chad Rochkind delivered the Yom Kippur sermon.
“What happened at Kol Ami last year was very community affirming,” said Green. “It was important for our membership to see fellow members stepping up to the plate at a moment’s notice, and showed how they care for their community through their leadership,” said Green. “Leading prayers shapes and grows our small congregation. It shows that our members care about what happens here.”
In an effort to bring to his fellow congregants the meaningfulness of the season, Bruce Plisner, an active congregant at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, designed with Rabbi Mark Miller a one-hour text study for Yom Kippur afternoon that will focus on the central themes of the day: the sounds of the shofar, fasting, repentance and forgiveness.
Plisner, 68 of Farmington Hills, said that Jews for generations have recited prayers such as the Ashmamu and the Unetana Tokef but may not know their origin or significance. Through text study and rabbinical and contemporary commentaries, he hopes to enlighten the worshippers by offering them something less passive and more participatory.
“During Yom Kippur, we say certain prayers over and over again which few people understand what or why we are saying them,” said Plisner, who said he tries to get to services during the year as much as he can to usher and lead. “We thought it would be meaningful to take a different approach to reading about the prayers through rabbinical interpretation. We will also examine the tradition of fasting and through various texts, will explore who fasts and who is pardoned from fasting.”
In synagogues and temples that do not have a chazzan, rabbis such as Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield rely upon a deep core of capable and willing congregants to lead prayers. This year there will be some new Torah readers joining the ranks of volunteers, he said.
“Leading tefilot is a big part of our congregation’s culture,” Rubenstein said. “Leading gives people the opportunity to be invested and involved in congregational life. It makes services more enjoyable, not only for the High Holidays but throughout the entire year.”
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.”
Uganda School primed for the Digital Age thanks to Detroit Grandfather/Granddaughter duo
By Stacy Gittleman|Contributing Writer
At Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, all students learn to click, drag and research in fully wired media labs equipped to educate in today’s digital age. Far away, in a remote village in eastern Uganda containing a large percentage of the country’s 2,000 Abayudaya Jews, the Hadassah Primary School expects to open a computer lab for its 800 Jewish, Christian and Muslim students as early as February 2015 — thanks to the efforts of grandfather and granddaughter duo Jerry Knoppow and Miriam Saperstein.
The two went to Uganda on their own and aim to create a bridge of cultural understanding through the Internet between the Hadassah school and fifth- and sixth-graders at Hillel Day School.
This summer, Knoppow and Sapirstein left the comforts of their West Bloomfield and Huntington Woods homes and spent a week with the Abayudaya Jews of Nabagoya Hill in the village’s guest house and a second week touring the country.
In their suitcases, they packed not only prayer shawls, tefillin and siddurim to better connect their hosts to Judaism, but also laptops fully loaded with the latest software to connect them to the world.
For Saperstein, 16 and a student at Berkeley High School, the visit offered a hands-on exploration of a Jewish community she knew little about until she discovered them in a fifth-grade social studies class at Hillel. The school continues to teach about the Ugandan community on both religious and cultural levels and last year raised money for a clean drinking water supply for the Hadassah school.
This trip is nearly a decade in the making. In 2005, after learning about the Abayudaya Jews through Kulanu, a Baltimore-based organization involved in research, education and donations to those in developing Jewish communities, Knoppow arranged for the leader of the Abayudaya, J .J. Keki, to visit the Jewish community of Detroit.
Keki, a convert to Judaism, visited here for a week in March 2005 to teach the Jewish community here the customs, prayer melodies and other traditions of his community back in Uganda.
Knoppow said the goal of their high-tech project is not just to “pour in money to get the school wired and fitted with laptops and Internet connectivity and then walk away.” It is to help the villagers be able to become financially independent to sustain and update the technology.
He backed his passion for the project with statistical evidence from the Bill Gates Foundation, which shows that the introduction of technology to rural communities changes lives by motivating people to pursue higher levels of education.
The long-term cost of establishing this project is $40,000-$50,000, Knoppow said. In the latest update, he plans to pack six suitcases with additional laptops and get them to New York by Nov. 11, where leaders of the Ugandan community will be putting on a benefit concert for subsistence farmers.
For details on volunteering or making a tax-deductible donation to this project, or for those wishing to contribute through upcoming b’nai mitzvah projects, go to http://tinyurl.com/ok9rhxp or contact Knoppow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for Saperstein’s take-away from the experience, she knows that most of her peers in suburban Detroit grow up in a “privileged bubble” where there is a b’nai mitzvah culture of short-term mitzvah projects. At home, she admits she is happy to be surrounded by creature comforts while also dedicating many hours as a PeerCorps volunteer at Detroit’s James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
After her visit to Uganda, she learned what it means to enter another community very different from her own with humility and the capacity to listen.
“Any time you enter a community as an outsider, you should not have preconceived notions that you know what will be best for them,” Saperstein said. “The Jews in Uganda are not there for us to pity or for us to feel good about ourselves by making a monetary donation. We must work together with them as a team to map out a sustainable plan that will enable both the teachers and students to compete globally.”
The trip was not all about work. During her stay, Saperstein also had fun “hanging out” and making friends with her Ugandan peers. A leader of teen discussions at B’nai Israel Synagogue of West Bloomfield back home, Saperstein felt honored to lead parts of the Shabbat morning services in the village’s traditional egalitarian synagogue.
“Though they prayed in Hebrew and their native Luganda language, I felt so connected to the melodies and the words,” Saperstein said. “I know I can go anywhere in the world and know I can feel connected to the rituals and prayers that unite us as Jews. That is very powerful.”
Knoppow said, “As I listened to my granddaughter lead the prayers, I could not see the words in my siddur from the tears of joy in my eyes.”
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.
- Why we’re letting our daughter stay in Israel in wartime (haaretz.com)
Minding Those Manners on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Circuit
Minding Your Manners Young people learn the rules for sharing in their friends’ big day
Stacy Gittleman | Special to the Jewish News
PHOTOS BY JERRY ZOLYNSKY
On a typical Shabbat in any Jewish American house of worship, there is a young man or woman seated on the bimah. Dressed in a brand new suit or dress, these kids try to calm the butterflies in their stomachs before being called to the Torah for the very First time. You may think they are the only one in the building going through a rite-of-passage ritual. However, their peers sitting in the sanctuary are also enduring their own coming-of-age test as they navigate the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and party circuit. It may be their first exposure to a formal occasion in an increasingly informal society. Bar and bat mitzvah etiquette starts with getting that invite in the mail (and responding in a prompt manner) and ends with knowing whom to thank at the end of the evening (the parents), and how many favors you are allowed to take at the end of the party (hint: one per guest). Fortunately, there are businesses like Joe Cornell Entertainment in Southfield, co-owned by sister and brother team Steve Jasgur and Rebecca Schlussel, to help these young adults learn the unwritten rules they are expected to follow.
On a Wednesday evening Hebrew school session back in February, around 35 sixth- and seventh-graders at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills were treated to an afternoon off from their regular studies to a 90-minute Joe Cornell Entertainment workshop. The workshop, complete with a candlelighting ceremony, cake and dancing, was a highly condensed sampling of a 12-week course offered by the company that teaches adolescents the fine points of attending a dance or other social occasion. Schlussel has been offering b’nai mitzvah etiquette for many years. Having just planned a December 2013 bar mitzvah for her own son, she now spoke through the lens of her personal experience. “When you get that invitation in the mail, find the family calendar.
As soon as you know that date is clear, you respond ‘yes’ and put the response card in the mail, or email your reply,” she instructed the students, seated around a dance floor where they would soon show off their best moves. “Your friend really wants you to come to their bar mitzvah, and the parents really have to know how much food to get — and how many napkins to order from the caterer.” I must offer you full disclosure here: In addition to being a writer, I am also the sixth-grade Hebrew school teacher at Adat Shalom. Throughout the year, I’ve watched my students mature from an energetic bunch of little kids into inquisitive, emerging young adults who demonstrate that they are prepared to do the work and studying required to become a bar or bat mitzvah.
As their teacher, I get an inside track on the mindset of the preb’nai mitzvah scene. At the start of class, a student will enthusiastically share the news with me that they received their bar/bat mitzvah date and Torah portion. Others will tell me how they recently attended a bar/bat mitzvah and to avoid getting “bored,” they actually made an effort to follow along with the service and the Torah reading. Or look up their Torah reading. This is music to a Hebrew school teacher’s ears. Continuing to focus on the ritual aspect of the b’nai mitzvah, Rabbi Rachel Shere led the students through a question-and-answer session of how to conduct oneself at Shabbat services.
She advised the students to tell their friends that it is acceptable to arrive to synagogue an hour later than indicated on the invitation. It is not acceptable to use any electronics in the building on Shabbat, so students accustomed to being constantly wired may have to arrange pick-up times with parents earlier or, at least, use their phones outside the building or in a quiet corner.
“We know that cell phones are a fact of life. But on Shabbat we try to avoid these distractions as much as possible so we can pray with our community. If you must use a cell phone to contact your parents for a ride home, please be discrete about it,” Shere said. Shere added that options for “boredom” during services include taking a short break outside the sanctuary in the synagogue’s youth lounge, where there will be snacks to fend off mid-morning hunger. It is also expected of them to be gracious guests.
“Always remember to introduce yourself to the parents of your friend and thank them for inviting you to this very happy family occasion,” she said. After the more serious lessons, it was time to have some fun. Students played roles of the “bar mitzvah family,” in a mock candle ceremony and were then taught the hora and other dance moves.
According to Jasgur, dancing at a b’nai mitzvah party is not optional. “Dancing for your friend is a fun obligation that shows your friend how happy you are to celebrate with them on their big day,” Jasgur said.
At Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Rabbi Marla Hornsten said that Joe Cornell Entertainment offered similar workshops to adolescents, and proper dress and behavior in the sanctuary are discussed in the classroom. “Most of all, I hope this is a conversation parents are having with their children long before they are dropped off for the morning service,” Hornsten said. Andre Douville, executive director of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, said the congregation prepares the entire bar mitzvah family for the occasion with a few meetings with the clergy that start 18 months prior to the big day. At these meetings, families are encouraged to come to services in the months leading up to the bar or bat mitzvah to become familiar with services and to understand what will be expected of them.
During these meetings, a family may want to share some information on the kinds of kids who are coming to the temple for services. If there will be a large amount of non-Jewish kids, the families have the option of inserting a one or two-lined “synagogue primer” in their invitation envelope about behavior and dress expectations.
The temple has also adjusted the start time of services on Friday nights from 8 to 7:30 p.m. to accommodate sleepy middle schoolers who have been waking up early all week for school. Also, Shir Shalom will “ramp up” the number of ushers depending on the number of young guests.
“We know times are different now. We expect a level of decorum in temple, such as no cell phones and limited conversations. But kids are kids, and we know they are going to be antsy. Sometimes, you have to be a little forgiving,” Douville said.
So, to my young friends in the bar/bat mitzvah circuit, and you know who you are: Do yourself a favor. Learn how to sit in services. Take the time to follow along with your friends’ Torah reading to give them your support — after all that’s what you are there for. There will be a bagel with your name on it waiting for you at the Kiddush as your reward for good behavior.