Tag Archive | Judaism

France Can Take A Lesson in Religious Tolerance from Detroit’s Interfaith Council

On these snowy days I admit I have done way too much trolling on my Facebook news feed. One alarming video clip that came across my newsfeed was a very disturbing video of Fascists in France waving a red swastika flag, shouting Jews Out! Jews Out!

Do they have the right to march peacefully and express their views in a democratic society? Maybe. Have these French citizens forgotten the history of WWII when the Nazis themselves goose-stepped through the streets of Paris shouting the same hatred? Absolutely. 

Today’s Germany would not stand for such hate marches, free speech or not. In fact, it is illegal to fly the Nazi Flag anywhere in Germany or have a Nazi rally. 

I wonder, in this country which proposes to ban the wearing of any religious symbol or clothing, what they teach their children about religious tolerance. 

A few weeks back, I had the honor of attending and covering a “Face to Faith” Journey to Judaism sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Greater Detroit. Sitting in the massive sanctuary of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield with 150 seventh graders, I felt right at home. And you know something, so did the kids. Even if they never set foot in a Jewish house of worship. Even if they never had a Jewish friend. 

Cynics might wonder if such interfaith explorations organized by Detroit’s Interfaith Council really teach tolerance. But, after you watch the disturbing and disgusting video of Fascists marching down a street of what is supposed to be the world’s most civilized city shouting “Jews Out!” consider the alternatives.

Here is the article which ran in the Detroit Jewish News

What does a rabbi look like?  To the uninitiated, a rabbi wears a long black coat, grows a long beard, and therefore must always be a man.

Temple Israel rabbis, teachers, and other volunteers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield helped to dispel this and many other misconceptions about Judaism as they guided a diverse group of 150 seventh graders from six school districts through a “Jewish Religious Diversity Journey.” The trip was part of a series of explorations into different religions created by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

According to the council’s administrator Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys for the past 11 years has taken young leaders  – 25 handpicked students from each school district – on six trips to a different house of worship to foster understanding and a celebration of cultural differences.  Participating school districts include Berkeley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, West Bloomfield, and Walled Lake.

Gail Katz, a retired Berkeley teacher and the director of Religious Diversity Journeys, explained that the program fits in perfectly with the World Religions unit of the seventh Grade curriculum.

“The Journey only extends what they are learning beyond the textbook and the classroom,” said Katz as she mingled with the students during a morning icebreaker. “We strive to increase respect and understanding among all students.”

Rabbi Josh Bennett – who is clean-shaven and does not wear a long black coat –  kicked off the formal component of the day of learning in the temple’s large sanctuary. Students, impressed by the large golden ark on the bimah, learned about the three different branches of Judaism and the belief in one God, learning Torah and the connection to Israel, which unites Jews across every level of observance

Later in the morning, groups of students took turns touring the building and listening to Rabbi Ariana Gordon explain the cycle of Jewish holidays, the complexity of having a Hebrew calendar that is both lunar and solar, and the odd phenomena this year that was “Thanksgivingkah.”

The students also visited the building’s mikvah and viewed an open Torah Scroll with Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.

“These trips are an invaluable lesson where kids get a hands-on learning experience and are made to feel welcome in different houses of worship,” said Kaluzny after teaching a group about how a Torah scroll is made and written.

Over a Mediterranean vegetarian lunch prepared by Mezza of West Bloomfield and sponsored by Temple Israel, students expressed their appreciation for the program, which allows them to explore other traditions and pose questions that would seem inappropriate or uncomfortable in a classroom setting.

Ben Johnston of West Hills Middle School came away from the program with a better understanding of the different branches of Judaism and the customs and holidays his Jewish friends celebrate.

“This program is important to me because we have a diverse society,” Johnston said. “We go to school with different kinds of kids, and as we get older, these are the people we’ll go to college and work with. We must have the knowledge of their backgrounds so we can be more tolerant and understanding.”

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Ben Johnston, a student at West Hills Middle school, learns about the role of a mikvah in Jewish life during a Religious Diversity Journey.

Ashley Liles and Maddy Merritt, both of Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, do not go to school with many Jewish kids.  The program allowed them to peer into a Siddur and not feel embarrassed to ask why it opens up backwards or why the letters look different than English.

templeisrael 008Maddy Merritt left, and Ashley Liles, right, seventh graders from Clarkston’s Sashabaw Middle school, examine Hebrew letters in the sanctuary at Temple Israel at during a Religious Diversity Journey.

The “journey” gave them a better perspective of the history and origins of the Jewish people.  Not only did it widen their understanding of Jewish holidays beyond Chanukkah, but the lesson with Rabbi Gordon also gave them a broader understanding of a holiday they would otherwise only know as a “Jewish Christmas.”

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Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, displays a Torah scroll to seventh graders on a Religious Diversity Journey with the help of parent volunteer Janet Cummins of Birmingham.

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The most Interesting Teens in Detroit raise $$ and awareness for Downtown

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Jonah and Sophie Erlich with the “Daven Downtown” T-shirts they are
selling to help the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit. (photo credit: Detroit Jewish News)

Never underestimate the impact of a school field trip.

Last spring, Sophie Erlich, 14, of Birmingham took a trip to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue with
her eighth-grade classmates from Hillel  Day School in Farmington Hills. There, she learned about the synagogue’s past.  There, she also became inspired about contributing to Detroit’s comeback and an urban Jewish future.

This September, Sophie, now in ninth-grade at Birmingham Groves High School, and big brother, Jonah Erlich, 16, kicked off a fundraiser for the synagogue, founded in 1921, with their “Daven Downtown” T-shirt fundraising campaign. They sold more than 35 T-shirts for $36 each on their website designed by Jonah, www.davendowntown.com/ collections. All proceeds go directly to
help the synagogue.

Throughout the whole process, which is earning them required community
service credits for school, the teens also are learning valuable lesson in keeping inventories, marketing for nonprofit organizations on social
media and running a business.

“I am very energized about the idea of Detroit coming back,” said Sophie, who has friends with older siblings who are moving into the city. “It’s where I hope to live and work when I am an adult and out of college.” Jonah echoed his sister’s sentiments.

“If more Jewish young adults move into the city, they will need a thriving synagogue within walking distance where they can pray and just hang out with other Jews,” he said. “I would be so excited to work and live in Detroit someday.”

To create the right vibe, they asked local designer Kathy Roessner to  donate her time and talents to create colorful logo with a “V” in the middle. The T-shirts, printed in Troy, are available in crew and V-neck styles and come in gray and white.

To boost sales, Jonah recruited some video-savvy classmates at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield where he is a sophomore, as well as local leaders and Detroit entrepreneurs, to film themselves around town wearing
the T-shirts. The “world’s most interesting man,” a character from a Dos Equis beer commercial, provided
inspiration for the video’s only scripted line:

“I don’t always daven. But when I do, I daven Downtown.”

Anna Kohn, the executive director of the Downtown Synagogue and one of only two paid staff members, said the excitement and entrepreneurship of the teens toward the synagogue proves that young people can make things
happen when they are passionate about a cause.

“We were looking for a way to merchandise, and they beat us to it,” she said. Kohn said she has used the logo
on the synagogue’s website at www.downtownsynagogue.org. The egalitarian Conservative synagogue’s Facebook
page has 1,000 fans. It also distributes a newsletter with a circulation of 1,600 informing congregants and the general public about weekly Shabbat services, a Thursday morning minyan and a variety of programs that provide social
outreach for Jewish urbanites and those just curious about Judaism.

The T-shirt sales have become so successful that they are on back order as the Erlich siblings, children of Craig
and Renee Erlich, wait for the next shipment. They also plan to sell the T-shirts through area synagogues and
Jewish youth groups. ■

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Staying Close, Hanging Together – One Detroit Family stays put for seven generations

Rebecca Nodler, 10, Oak Park; Seymour Zate, West Bloomfield; Adele Nodler, Oak Park; Danielle Nodler, 6, Huntington Woods; Alvin Nodler, Oak Park; and Gladys Zate, West Bloomfield

Above: 

Rebecca Nodler, 10, Oak Park; Seymour Zate, West Bloomfield; Adele Nodler, Oak Park; Danielle Nodler, 6, Huntington Woods; Alvin Nodler, Oak Park; and Gladys Zate, West Bloomfield

 

I’ve lived in my house for nearly four months now. And for the most part, my walls are blank.

After going through the home selling and buying process, I guess I’ve grown used to the “staged” look of a house.

No clutter.

Keep it impersonal.

The seller shouldn’t display too many family photos lest the potential buyer cannot envision their own life in the house.

Every few evenings, I hear a banging sound: it’s my husband’s vain attempt to hang a few more pictures on the wall, only to have ME take them down. No. I’m not ready. I don’t want that picture there. I never liked that baby picture from SEARS in the first place.  I’m going to develop more photos on Shutterfly. Big ones. I promise. That was for the old house, now we’re in a new house.

Wall arrangements have become somewhat of an obsession of mine. My blank walls have become empty canvasses I don’t want to screw up. I’ve taken out library books about decorating walls. When I watch TV shows or commercials, I find myself ignoring the dialogue of the characters but looking instead at the set. I know there are set designers who have perfectly adorned the walls with the right balance of small and large frames. More than any other decor, the stuff you hang on your walls makes your house a home.

Maybe I’m not home yet. Because a few weeks ago, I visited a house that was just that. 

Adele and Alvin Nodler’s house in Oak Park, the place where I interviewed Adele and her cousins over tea and homemade cookies for an article in the Detroit Jewish News,, is not big or fancy.   But it’s been their home for nearly 50 years. No designer was hired to decorate, but what it is decorated with is love. There are family photos from many generations on every possible surface. 

I came away from that interview not only with a great story on the importance of keeping family ties,, but a lesson learned in how to make a house a home.

Here is just a little of their story, published in the October 17 issue of the Detroit Jewish News: 

Families come in many sizes.

Then there are families like the Levins that are so large and tightly knit that they have their own anthem. And a custom-designed logo.

Last Sunday, Oct. 13, the Levin clan, with most of its 200 members residing in Metro Detroit, sang their anthem and performed an original variety show in their logo T-shirts as they celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Levin Family Club at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

Joshua Chynoweth, 13, of Livonia lights a candle on the anniversary cake.

Joshua Chynoweth, 13, of Livonia lights a candle on the anniversary cake.

“We have lots of writers and performers, but no directors,” joked Adele Levin Nodler, 72, of Oak Park, who has been treasurer of the club for 48 years.

The Levin story is familiar to many Jewish American families. They are descendants of immigrants who fled persecution in Eastern Europe and wove themselves into the fabric of American society. What is unique about the Levins is how strongly they held onto family ties and Jewish traditions for seven generations.

“Family togetherness is a legacy that was given to us by our grandparents and is one we will pass onto our grandchildren and beyond,” said Nodler, as she sat with her husband of 49 years, Alvin, brother Seymour, 81, and her cousin Gladys Zate, 87, in her Oak Park home.
The love of kin was evident on the walls and bookcases adorned with family photos from every generation.

The Levins can trace their Detroit roots back to 1905 when Adele’s father, Morris Yellen, escaped Poland at age 16 to avoid the Polish draft. Yellen changed to Levin at Ellis Island. Working for years as a baker, he saved enough money to return to Poland and bring the rest of his family to Detroit. The Levins became established bakers and grocers and had stores on Chene Street.

The family would often gather on Saturday nights after Shabbat to play cards. In 1948, those casual card games evolved into the Levin Cousin Club.
Early Detroit Memories Adele and Gladys also recall living upstairs from one another in the same big house on Elmhurst Street. Adele was the oldest of five siblings; Gladys had three sisters. It was there the cousins started writing and performing shows about the funny antics that went on in their family.

The cousins recall fond memories of celebrating Jewish holidays in Detroit.
On Simchat Torah, they danced with flags toped with apples in Beth Jacob synagogue on Pingree Street and dined at kosher restaurants on 12th Street after Shabbat.

They also remember having large family seders — as many as 75 people — at the home of their uncle, Meyer Levin.

“As a kid, you’d have to sit very still at my Uncle Meyer’s seder. If you moved, you would get a knibble, or a pinch on the cheek,” said Gladys, who recalls her mother making gefilte fish for the seder from fish she kept in her bathtub.

The pace of life — and the state of Detroit — has changed since 1948. Parts of the family live out of town. The bakery on Chene Street and the old house on Elmhurst Street are no longer there.

To compensate for the distance, Adele and her siblings and their descendants chat on a weekly Thursday teleconference call to “catch up and wish each other a good Shabbos.”

“No matter what anyone is doing, we stay committed to that call. Even my grandchildren participate, and the one thing they notice is there is a lot of laughter,” said Adele, who taught middle school in Oak Park for 30 years.

“Though we don’t see each other all the time, there is a constant feeling of togetherness because of the Jewish family traditions we have built over the years,” said Michael Nodler, 43, of Oak Park. He offers backstage support to the show with his brother, Harold Nodler, 44, of Huntington Woods.

The family show is all the more meaningful to Michael this year as his son, Joshua Nodler, 12, a seventh-grader at Norup International Middle School in Oak Park, approaches his bar mitzvah.
Joshua created a PowerPoint slide show for the evening that traces his family’s history.

The show comes every five years; every year, they meet for a summer picnic, a summer hot dog roast, Chanukah party and Purim party.

The secret to a close family, Adele advised, is never hold a grudge.

“Our parents taught us you don’t stay angry at each other,” she said.
“Yes, we had fights and disagreements.
Sometimes someone would not play fair at a family card game. But you work it out and stay close — that is what’s most important.”

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A Warm Embrace

athomedetroitThe first month of the school year is almost over, and with it a month that marked the Jewish High Holidays. Though the early mornings and late nights are starting to take their toll, though the unfamiliar hallways I walked through in my son’s new high school make me sometimes wish we were back in our old digs and routines in Rochester, things are going well so far in Detroit. 

One part of my Rochester life I am sorely missing is my weekly routine of writing my newspaper column.  Fortunately, I have picked up several writing assignments in the Detroit Jewish News. 

Here is my first piece, and it’s about (what else?) being a transplant. 

With the sound of the shofar, the High Holiday season signals the promise of a New Year.  We pray for a sweet year of new blessings and opportunities. For the rest of Jewish Detroiters, all this “newness” will happen in the same old familiar surroundings among family and old friends you’ve known for years.

For my family of five freshly-minted Michiganders, everything about 5774 is new.

Last year, as my family prepared to celebrate Sukkot, General Motors announced it would be closing the Rochester, N.Y., research facility where my husband worked and moving his job to Pontiac.  We lived in Rochester for 14 years. It was the only home our three children, ages 16, 14, and 10, had ever known.

After the shock of the news settled in and after my three children realized that no, their friends’ families in Rochester could not adopt them, it was time for us to pull together as a family.  The year 5773 was a journey filled with months of living apart from my husband, long-distance house hunting in a fiery-hot Detroit suburban real estate market, researching school districts, and many long and emotional goodbyes.

Moving can be a curse. In the Book of Deuteronomy, however, the Torah challenges Jews to find the blessing within the curse.

Contrary to what many of my New Yorker friends think, moving to Detroit is not a curse. Beyond the headlines of Detroit’s bankruptcy, we are enjoying the brighter sides of Michigan culture. In the short time we have lived here, we traveled to take in the beauty “up north,” savored homegrown cherries and blueberries, and climbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I am learning how to make a Michigan left, which is scarier than a New Jersey jug handle.

We even stood on the curb of Woodward to witness the ultimate show of car culture in last months’ Dream Cruise

We found the blessing in the warm reception we received throughout Detroit’s Jewish community.  During a house-hunting trip that fell smack in the middle of Pesach, friends here hosted us three times for meals. Our children, also blessed with long-standing friendships forged at Camp Ramah in Canada, were invited for Shabbat meals and out to the movies to meet other new kids.   These friends have acted quickly to enfold our children into their social circles even before the moving vans arrived.

While we unpacked and set up our physical home with only one kid in tow (my oldest left Rochester on a bus headed for Camp Ramah), time was ticking for the quest to find a spiritual home. Belonging to a synagogue has been and will always be a top priority to our family. Not because we have to get High Holiday tickets, or have kids who need Hebrew school or a Bar Mitzvah date.   It is because here in Michigan, far away from family, we need a community.

During our “shul shopping,” we were happy to learn that we have many choices. Every congregation we visited this summer gave us warm welcomes on a level we never experienced in other communities. We were showered with greetings and given honors on the bimah within every sanctuary. Everywhere we go, people simply rave about their synagogue

One night, before going to sleep in our new home, I expressed to my husband about my worries of finding employment. He had his work. My kids had school. Once again, like many in my position who move to another town for a spouse’s job transfer, I would have to reinvent myself.

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “I’ll make the living. You go out and make us a life here.”

Wise and true were his words. While my husband worked at his office, I worked at finding doctors, pediatricians, dentists and orthodontists. I finalized details of moving out of one house and moving into another. I phoned school counselors on both sides of the move to assure the proper transfer transcripts and my kids would be signed up for the proper course work for high school. I did all I could so when they got off the bus in Detroit, sad to leave camp and even more saddened to be leaving all that was familiar, their biggest worry in their first days here would be how they were going to get through all that dirty laundry.

This year of transition has taught me many things. My kids are capable of stepping up more around the house. I can trust my husband to buy our next dream house even if I only saw it on Zillow. Most importantly, this move has reaffirmed for me the importance of keeping connected to the Jewish community. You never know where the road may take you, but our kehilah kedosha, our holy community, will always be there to take you in.

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

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view of Downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

An ancient, outdated story?

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

But then, in the last chapter, hope.

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

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

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The Smithereens vs. Shabbat

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a band with a great garage sound, the Smithereens started out in New Brunswick, my college town. They played a free show last Friday night at the Rochester Lilac Festival. 

A very long time ago, in a New Jersey city far far away, a young girl dressed in all black stood pressed against a mob of  other darkly clad classmates waiting for the Smithereens to take the stage. In one hand was a pen. In the other a skinny reporter’s notebook. She was covering the concert for the daily student newspaper for Rutgers University. Her very first concert review. She wondered: could writing for Rolling Stone be far off?

She didn’t have to pay because she had a student media pass.  She felt so COOL!

Her date, well, he had to pay.

Fast forward, em, several decades later.

She can’t even remember who her date was that evening or who ditched who.

That student reporter jumping up and down in the Rutgers Student Center while covering that great local New Brunswick band? The band she loved so much she played a tape recording (yep, tape recording) of their album Especially for You in her dorm room until it broke?

That would be me.

I’m all grown up. But I still love the Smithereens – the honey smooth baritone voice of lead singer Pat DiNizio. The timeless garage band sound.

So when I learned the Smithereens were playing the Rochester Lilac Festival for free, I thought:

“I’ve GOT to go!”

Then I checked on the date.

Friday night.

7 p.m.

Hmmm.  Being Jewish, practicing Judaism makes you make some tough choices.

I really wanted to have my eardrums blown away by this band who got their start in my college town. But you see, it was Friday night.  And the grown-up me — the wife and mom with three kids — has a rule. Friday night is Shabbat. Friday night is family night.

And for nine years now, my family has spent every other Friday night celebrating Shabbat with a chavurah, pretty much a circle of friends who has served as our extended family in a city where we have no family. And with the move coming, we really only have three more gatherings like this left.

Now, our communal Shabbat celebrations start at 7. And, the host’s home was a hop skip and a jump through the lilacs from the stage where the Smithereens would play. And on such a beautiful Rochester night. And who knows if or when I would ever get a chance like this?

I’m a grownup, right? I can make my own decisions, I could have just walked over to listen to one of my fave bands to take me back to my college days, right?

But I made my decision. To set an example for my kids, who have sacrificed many a social outing to be together to celebrate Shabbat.

And, to see my teen kids leading our prayer services with the other teens in the group….

To hear them sing the prayers for years I had begged, prodded and NUDGED for them to follow along?

As I sat and listened to my kids lead the adults in prayer, I knew I made the right choice.

To Pat and the rest of the Smithereens, I’ll have to catch you another time. And in the meantime, I promise to buy your latest stuff.

This time, I’ll just download it.

Have you ever had to make a choice because of the religion you practice? 

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If you have a child approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, some Inspiration from Space

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The astronauts from the ill-fated Columbia Space Shuttle. 10 years ago, Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli in space, and he had to take this Torah scroll with him.

My latest student sat before me sullen. Sad even. Completely disengaged. The chid complained of a headache, even a stomachache and could NOT find the strength to sing.

The child had not a chance to review the sentences given to it to study months ago. The child’s iPod had also mysteriously stopped working, so he/she could not listen to the melodies of the chanting either.

I get it.

To many emerging young Jewish adults, studying for one’s B’nei Mitzvah may not be your thing. You’ve got a life, for gosh’s sake! That life is full with homework and friends and sports and has nothing to do with chanting a strange language in a building you hardly go to!

And what does all this Hebrew mean that I can barely read and hardly understand?

And how am I going to find the time to study?

When it comes to hunkering down and preparing for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, many obstacles can get in the way. In a recent post on the Jewish culture blog Kveller, a rabbinical student even honestly put it out there: why put your kid through the motions of having this Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony if it is devoid of meaning, when a small percentage of Jewish adults even volunteer to read from the Torah after they reach that milestone day.

Here is why.

Like it or not, kid, you are the next link in this 5,000 year chain that cannot be broken.

Last night, after my student left and after dinner and dishes, I watched a PBS special: Space Shuttle Columbia: A mission of Hope,  about the 10th anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. What made it all the more tragic was it was the first time an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, son of Holocaust survivors, took a trip to space.

And on this unique mission to space that bonded this unique multicultural team of astronauts was

a tiny Torah.

A Torah that survived the Holocaust.

A Torah that had been used to prepare a boy for his Bar Mitzvah in the hell of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A boy that survived and grew to be an old man living in Israel still in possession of this tiny scroll.

A Torah that, when Ilan Ramon heard of its story, he knew it had to accompany him in space.

For all of the Jewish people.

I’m not going to retell the story here. I won’t do it justice. But if you can, watch with your family Mission of Hope, and you will understand the Big Picture of why joining the Jewish community as a fully participating adult is an incredibly precious honor.

If that’s not inspiration enough, then look at this photo below:

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this is a recent picture of men, Holocaust survivors, who never got to be Bar Mitzvah boys. Until today.

Now, stop kvetching, stop whining, and go study.

When you’ve got Friends in Holy Places


The year mark of my most recent visit to Israel quickly approaches.  It was my fourth journey to the Jewish state. It won’t be my last. In fact, if I could, I’d have no hesitation to go there on the next plane.

A few things made last year’s trip during Chanukkah very special.

The first is family. Unlike my first two trips to Israel, this time I went back as a wife, a mother of three children accompanied by their grandparents, both sets. Seeing Israel’s historical and religious sites through the eyes of three generations was once-in-a-lifetime goosebumps every single minute.

Secondly, we have Israeli friends. Friends from teaching. Friends made in summer camp. These friendships deepened our connection to the land of Israel more strongly than any tourist or archeological site.

Nearly every day of our trip, friends met us for dinner or lunch in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My son reconnected with his friend, son of two rabbis, who met us for lunch after we celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah.

Friends came and met us wherever we were on tour.

They hung out with us on the beach near our hotel.

My good friend from Modi’in met up with our group not once but twice.

She’s An artist. A teacher. A true intellect. We have shared our different perspectives and deepened our understandings of what it means to be a Jew in America and what it means to be  a Jew in Israel.  I’ve connected with few people in my life as I have with her, though we will seldom see one another face to face. On a wintry day by Tel Aviv standards, we chatted on beach chairs with our spouses and watched our daughters play in the waves.

two friends: one American, one Israeli, play at the beach on Tel Aviv

Or they accompanied us to the Israel museum in Jerusalem.

There are the friends we did see and the friends we couldn’t see. I spent one night on a very long phone conversation with a friend from high school now living in Modi’in. At the time, she was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. All the plans we made almost a year in advance to get together, to spend time, to celebrate Shabbat, were reduced to that one phonecall.  I was thankful just to be in the same time zone as her as I listened to her talk about the hard choices and treatments that lay ahead.

Now. Now the bombs fall.

When you have friends and family in Israel, focus on anything else has been nearly impossible. Eating? Making meals? Even taking walks? Just a temporary diversion until I can get back on the computer again and check in.

I read an update from my tour guide who heard the bomb sirens and made it on time to the nearest shelter.

I read updates from people who sleep with shoes on and who get tips on how to get to sleep again after they settle into their cot in their safety room.

I read an update from my Modi’in friend, now done with chemo treatments but who must now train her daughters how to run to safety depending on where they are when the siren sounds.

I read an update from my neighbor, now visiting in Israel describing what it was like to see the Kotel plaza evacuated.

Is this any way to live a normal life? What is normal? Why must this be accepted as the status quo?

What to do? Whether you’ve been to Israel a dozen times, or have never been there, whether you can name dozens of Israeli friends or never met anyone from the Middle East’s only true democracy, there is something we as freedom loving Americans can do.

We can tell the world the truth. We can expose Hamas for their lies and their brainwashing. Social media can expose how Hamas truly operates as nothing more than a brain-washing hate cult that glorifies death enough to seduce its women and children into becoming human shields.

When you have Israeli friends and family, the latest flare up between Israel and her Arab neighbors is not just a news story, it’s a personal attack.

I know I’ve been posting about this nonstop if you follow me on Facebook. But please, don’t ignore Israel’s fight for hearts and minds. Their war on terror is ours. Do what you can do from far away to defend her.

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It’s Heritage Day at my Son’s School. What are we, anyway?

A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.

As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.

Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.

But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.

In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.

So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).

So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?

I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well?    Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?

With what other country do we identify?

I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.

So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.

So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.

A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.

This is the hat of our heritage.

Two great websites for a little Jewish learning each day

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From the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv

It’s been a month since the Hebrew school where I teach has let out and I guess you can say I’m going through a bit of teaching/classroom withdrawal. Yes, I love having my Sunday mornings to myself once again and don’t miss the late afternoon juggle of teaching and then rushing home to figure out dinner at 6:15 (I figured teaching at this hour will train me for the day when I actually do return to work full-time. Someday.)

But what I do miss is the discussions, watching and helping my students as they work through some Hebrew reading; watching them make their own discoveries as they decode a Hebrew sentence and have an “ahah!” moment about their emerging Jewish identities and the cool way the Hebrew language  itself is constructed. 

Sure, I see some of them in this post-Hebrew school twilight between the end of Hebrew school and the end of secular school. I see them at my kids’ track meets, on baseball fields and evening school concerts. We are happy to see each other, but I can’t exactly ask them a question on the week’s Torah portion in these secular settings. 

I’ve gotta teach SOME Jewish kids, so I turn to my own. Namely, my youngest. 

Each morning, before the school bus and after a bowl of cereal, we have been checking out this great website called Israel365. On it’s Facebook page, it states:

Israel365 promotes the beauty and religious significance of Israel. Featuring the stunning photographs of more than 30 award winning Israeli photographers alongside an inspiring Biblical verse, Israel365 connects you with Israel each day.

The photos are inspiring.And, each day there is a sentence from the Torah in English, Hebrew, and Hebrew transliteration. I scroll down the page with the transliteration part so my 8-year-old son has to read the Hebrew. 

“There!” I say to him, after he reads the sentence. “You’ve done a mitzvah of learning just a little bit of Torah today!” 

“I did?” 

“Yup!” I proudly reply, and I feel like I’ve validated myself as doing my job as a Jewish parent for the day. 

Check out the site with your kids and tell me what you’ve learned. 

Another site, this time dealing directly with the Hebrew language is My Hebrew Dictionary which can help you with Hebrew verbs, useful vocabulary and word pronunciation. It even breaks words into themes, like Food, Animals, and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah resource center. 

Over the past week, I referred this site to my cousin in Seattle, who is preparing to sing some Hebrew songs in an upcoming choral concert. If she takes the quality of her singing as seriously as she takes which syllables are accented and word pronunciation, this is bound to be a concert that is Metzuyan (excellent!)

Last night, I attended a great working gathering with about 80 other  20, 30 and 40something Jews in Rochester who are very concerned about carrying Jewish continuity here into future generations. This grassroots group, in its very infancy, calls itself ROC Echad (one Rochester) and I wish them all the success in the world in infusing energy back into our Jewish community. 

At this meeting, we learned the biggest issue that is keeping people up at night: Providing quality Jewish education in our community.

At the end of the meeting, I challenged those who were there to go out and seek for themselves in the next day some Jewish knowledge for themselves.

While there is no substitute for learning and doing Jewish in the company of others, these websites are a good start for some independent Jewish learning.

If you are reading this and decide to do some Jewish learning, tell me what you find out and I will share it on my blog so others can learn. Thanks! 

 

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