Let Us Know: Top 5 “Frozen” Passover Parodies 2014

Top lyrical changes, as determined by MJGDS 4th/5th grade families:







Honorable Menschen:

Embracing All: Parshat Tazria

As a parent of a young child, I can easily get swept up in the competitive comparing and contrasting of kid’s- what percentile for height and weight? what developmental stage are you at? Is she walking? Is she talking? Is she multiplying and performing long division yet? I know I am naïve, but I hope that these milestone moments do not become breeding ground for unnecessary rivalry, with failure never being an option. For while we all are created in image of God, a seemingly perfect image, we all have had issues as we travel through life. Some we can overcome, others we just hope we can keep in check. I hope that whatever challenges come our daughter’s way, she will not battle them alone.

As I think of her early milestones, I think of my own childhood. I was a late talker. A very late talker. I was just about four when the talking finally began. At 3, my parents took me to a neurologist, who diagnosed me with oro-motor dyspraxia, a delay of the muscles around the mouth. He also said that I probably missed stages of sound formation due to a number of ear infections as a baby. Subsequently, I spent most of my elementary school years working with a speech therapist, finally conquering my “r” sounds when I could pronounce my therapist’s name, Mrs. Sotiropolis. This delay was coupled with a later diagnosed auditory processing issue, where the ideas were moving so fast in my head that they got jumbled coming out. This disconnect between my receptive and expressive language skills was aided through specialists who strategized ways to narrow the gap. I was already the introvert, the late one to talking. It took a while to lose the self-consciousness not knowing what words would get jumbled, not knowing how I’d be perceived by others.

5,000 years ago, Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Moses, the reluctant leader of the Jewish people, suffered from a speech impediment as well. God saw through his disability to appreciate his ability to lead and his passion and loyalty to God and community.  Today, Would Moses be given a leadership role in our communities? Would he be granted acceptance in the first place?

In thinking of our own community, what is our gateway to full membership and engagement? Is it your wallet? Is it your ability to read Hebrew and follow a service? Is it your capacity to sit respectively for a 3 hour service? Or is it merely the desire to actively engage in a prayer community, in educational and social opportunities within a group framework?

Our text from this week’s torah portion focuses on those let in and those let out of community. If we take the text quite literally, it paints a darker picture of our ancestors and how they perceived the other. Tazria, states the following in Leviticus 13:45-46:

And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

The Rabbis link slander (lashon hara) with tzaraat, this peculiar skin infection. Earlier in our storyline, God afflicts Miriam with tzaraat as punishment for challenging Moses’ authority. The Rabbis try to interpret this difficult section under the rubric of lashon hara because it’s hard to grapple with notion that the ancient Israelites had a fear of the unknown, a fear of the other.  Even worse, how could they shamefully embarrass someone, making them scream out, “I’m unclean” to the masses?  How could the Israelites masses make those inflicted take their journey alone?  While Talmud teaches that the community is called upon to offer support and prayer during this period of illness, the text unabashedly refers to the person as “hatzarua”, roughly translating to “the one who has leprosy.” Not someone afflicted with a disease, but rather someone who is defined ONLY by the disease they suffer from.

We have all heard the labeling of individuals with disabilities, the hurtful remarks transmitted by pity, fear, ignorance and disrespect.  This commentary continues to poison our community spaces that are meant for all. Steps are being made throughout the Jewish community, however, to ensure meaningful experiences for all.

This comes in two stages. Stage 1 is our Jewish obligation to literally not allow a stumbling block before those who are blind, establishing avenues that lead toward an inclusive physical space for all those in need. Stage 2 is our moral obligation as decent human beings: changing the attitude and creating gateways to community through social acceptance and appreciation.

Step 1: Access to Worship, Breaking down physical barriers to inclusion

In our building, we’ve installed ramps and walkways. We’ve provided large print siddurim and assisted hearing systems. We’re lowering counters and installing handicapped entrances to bathrooms. We are creating elevator access for our schools. Within our schools, we’ve started to help children with special needs in with a modified curriculum while trying to be as inclusive as possible. At our local JFCS we’ve hired our first inclusion specialist to work with the different arms of the Jacksonville Jewish community.

On the national level, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium partners with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Council for the Jewish Disabled, Union for Reform Judaism United Jewish Communities, and the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies to provide a unified resources as well as a unified approach to inclusion.

The Ruderman Foundation’s Global Innovators in Inclusion Competition is looking to support fully inclusive programs that ensure everyone can participate together, without stigma or imposed limitations.

These accomplishments, in our school, shul and community, should be CELEBRATED. When we complete a project such as our elevator construction, this is a holy moment ensuring no physical barriers to any child receiving an education here. This is indeed sacred work. But these milestones are only Step 1.

Step 2: Remove barriers of attitude and communication to enable all people to participate fully in worship, learning and social activities. Without this, it doesn’t matter many special programs or enhancements we make.

  1.    Initiate outreach to people with disabilities to identify and serve their needs.
  2.    Advocate and inform our community of the needs as people move through the life cycle of the synagogue.
  3.    Changing the rhetoric. Sensitivity to language used. Eliminating certain words from our vocabulary.

We all experience being left out or put down. We all have been left out of the inner circle at one point or another. How do we respond? What is our action point so others feel included? The following are action items we may incorporate into our community.

Action Items (taken from a myriad of online resources):

  1.    Continuing our work in the schools: Children may engage in hands-on, multi-sensory Jewish education that builds on social skills enhancement and enables them to feel proud of their Jewish identity. This model can flow between schools and shul. We can ALL benefit from a multi-sensory prayer experience.
  2.    Create an area on the application form for High Holiday Tickets, membership and other congregational programs for people with disabilities to indicate what assistance they require to participate.
  3.    Create a Special Needs Fund to help with costs of improved access to the building, prayer books for those with visual disabilities, a better sound system and other accommodations.
  4.    Write a statement of welcome and inclusion that is added to all congregational membership materials. An example:

i.     They are friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, volunteers, and teammates.  They are people with developmental disabilities.  The Jacksonville Jewish Center encourages everyone to get to know someone with a developmental disability and you’ll find out he or she has a lot to offer to our community.  Recognize ability, not the disability and picture their potential.

  1.    Include the universal symbols of accessibility in all publicity and marketing for our congregation (ie: the icons for wheelchair access, assistive listening devices, etc.)
  2.    Create a program or open forum that will allow congregants to discuss any attitudinal barriers to inclusion that may exist in your congregation. Explore why those attitudes exist and develop a list of strategies to address and eliminate them from our congregational community.
  3.    Push our chesed committee to go a step further, asking members to assist family members of the congregants with special needs with grocery shopping and other errands on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Also ask congregants to provide rides to and from the synagogue for programs and Shabbat services for congregants with special needs.

As the tagline importantly states, “People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people.” One out of every five individuals has a disability, yet we can and should focus on the ways in which our communities may be enriched through their participation.

Serving as a Rosh Edah, Rosh Tefillah and Music staff at Camp Ramah in New England, I saw the direct impact that inclusion brings not only to those who have developmental disabilities, but to the campers and staff that directly engaged in meaningful moments that include all. It is not a burden of our time or resources. Involving everyone as valued citizens of the circle encapsulates the potential depth that community can offer.

In altering the attitudinal landscape, inclusion becomes the game-changer that can define our community. Inclusion is a gift.  The tzaraat, this troubling Tazria narrative, is turned on its head. Our fears and inhibitions of the unknown are left outside the circle, the cold and insensitive acts are left to be proclaimed, “Unclean Unclean.”

We are much more than a Not-for profit organization. As my former co-counselor and charitable startup founder Adam Braun pens it, we are a “for purpose” organization. Our purpose should be obvious.  Although 84 percent of people with a disability report that religious faith is important to them, less than half attend a religious service at least once a month.  There is a spiritual need yet to be realized.

The Arc, a community based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, highlighted today, March 29 on their calendar in a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  What is the act? Simply make plans to go out somewhere in public today. That’s all. Just plan a day out and about enjoying the things you like to do. And, in the process help raise awareness and generate some conversation during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Just to socialize, that’s all. It seems fairly straightforward, but what this teaches is that the communal needs are not being met, that the stigmas and preconceived notions still exist.

Our purpose is to meet those needs; to include those who have the spirit and desire to be part of a greater community; to exclude the preconceived bigotry. May we support and learn from one another. May we all grow to learn that it is more than just being aware. It is more than merely being sensitive and accepting of others. It is about embracing all in our community, and in doing so, embracing ourselves.


Shabbat Shalom


Shabbat Shira 2.0: A Day to Celebrate the Arts

With last night’s Golden Globe Awards and this Thursday’s Academy Award nominations, we find ourselves in a period in which all forms of theatre- on stage, on television, and on the big screen, are put under the microscope.

What do we look for in a nominee? What makes us get beyond one person or the other? It is not an answer reserved solely for the arts. In any scenario, we look for believability. We hope that this person can transport us to their world- through costumes, through dialogue, and through acting. It is believability and vulnerability that catch on with the people, allowing them to begin to believe in something greater. In the bible, there is no greater moment for us as a people than the triumphant song delivered by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. This Shirat Hayam (song of the sea) is more than a melody. It is great theatre. It encapsulates the baggage that years of slavery places on a people, the fear that a sea that will not part as an Egyptian overlord does not give up in his pursuit. It is the literal crying out to a God that finally listened. It is a cry of relief, a cry of hope.

The reciting of the epic-lyric poem Shirat Hayam during Parshat B’shalach is the main reason we call the portion Shabbat Shira, a Sabbath of song.  As we see, beyond the melody, it is the backstory and theatrical nature of the moment that make it meaningful generations later. Each morning we recount the Shira experience in our tefillot. We realize that the song can only be a triumphant one if we had each person play their part: To Nachson, who took the first steps in the water; To Moses, the most unlikely of leaders who played the role so well;  To an Almighty that created that shock and awe that made a people believe for the first time. Shabbat Shira is more than just a Sabbath of Song- it is the backstory, the appreciation of what it took to get to that moment in time. It is a time to appreciate the artistry of that moment, when we became one for the first time.

Through Your Eyes: The interplay of the changing views of our tradition with the changing ways we examine our own lives

The following appeared in the January edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News:


This month we celebrate the Jewish Holiday Tu B’shvat, also known as “Rosh Hashana L’ilanot” the birthday of the saplings.  A few weeks later, Leora and I will celebrate the first birthday of our own sapling, Rena.  This is Rena’s first Tu B’shvat, just as she has celebrated holiday firsts after holiday firsts this past year.

Having an addition or loss in one’s family always puts a spin on liminal moments throughout our Jewish calendar. To celebrate holidays when someone is missing is tempered by the joy we feel when we see a new addition experiencing Jewish communal life for the first time. Our own holiday moments have blossomed seeing them through Rena’s eyes.  As each year passes, the snapshots of Jewish time will change as well. This goes beyond the holiday gatherings. Our lectionary cycle of Torah reading remains the same year to year, but our lives change our interpretation of the text, as we are never the same person year to year. We empower ourselves to make the words come alive and find relevance in for us today. In the month of January, four vastly different Torah portions are read over the course of four Shabbatot. Each of them teaches us something different about ourselves, giving us the tools and instructions to build a better tomorrow. Imagine one take a way a week to guide your life. One value set to work on. In each Torah portion, I look for inspiration to make me a better parent, a better husband, a better leader, a better Jew, a better human being.

Parshat Bo: Our portion states, “Bo el Paro”, come unto Pharaoh. Moses, having been shot down time and time again by Pharaoh, is asked to come to Pharaoh knowing his heart was hardened, knowing seven plagues had not swayed his decision. Parshat Bo, for me, is about taking risks, taking chances in an uphill battle because success is predicated on participation in the challenges brought before us.  Bo inspires us to find meaning and purpose in the discomforting places and moments that fill our lives.

Parshat B’shalach: Parshat B’shalach (falling on Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song) takes us on a journey from Egypt to the Desert by way of the Sea of Reeds. After escaping the Egyptian onslaught, the Israelites break into jubilation. The text states, “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song (Ex. 15:1). Moses, the quiet, humble leader has his first song with backup vocals from the Jewish people. Delivered from slavery, transformed by miracles, the group sang together as one. B’shalach teaches us that moments, both bitter and sweet, are meant to be experienced as community. B’shalach teaches us that while Moses was a risky pick to lead the Jewish people, he was the right pick. Not the loudest, not the most connected. Maybe it’s ok to invest a little time and energy on those who show humility as their greatest strength.

Parshat Yitro: Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, is taken aside to hear the story of the Israelite journey from Egypt. When he hears about the tragedy that befell the Egyptians, the text states, “Vayichad Yitro.” A rare word, Vayichad comes from the word for goosebumps.  The text teaches us about the value of sensitivity.  We must be sensitive to the fact that we all come with our own baggage, our own expectations. Some come from a place of happiness and positivity, others from a place of pain and brokenness.

Parshat Mishpatim: The Torah portion known as “laws”. We get a wide variety of does and don’ts ranging from laws concerning bribery to laws concerning the holidays. Thus is the value of updating our software. The world’s largest law book should inspire us to search for meaning in our daily lives. How will these laws find relevance for us? How will they inform our business practices and our spiritual ones?

Take risks, value humility, be sensitive, and update your software. Not so bad for some monthly goals.

Awareness in Exile: Taking an exodus to bring you closer to home

Clergy have the most interesting lives. Last Saturday night, with no college football game of note, I watched what I’d call a fascinating three hour “documentary.” Five thousand people singing and dancing. Over a hundred choral members leading a congregation in soulful harmony. Inventive prayer services. Bibliodramas, dramatic sermons, rock stars and rock star clergy teaching and preaching the bible to the masses in a relevant and deep manner. This wasn’t a mega-church. It was the URJ (Union or Reform Judaism) Biennial Convention in San Diego, CA.

The alternative service WAS the service. On Friday night, the entire clergy team from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA led the 5k crowd in a musical Kabbalat Shabbat Service. My best takeaway was a one line zinger from Senior Rabbi Joel Sisenwine: “The goal is not to get through the service but for the service to get through us.” It doesn’t matter if it is a 1 hour service or a 4 hour experience: if a service flows, it can flow through us, allowing us to imagine a time when on Shabbat, the period where time is supposed to stand still, we can enjoy the moment rather than peak at our watch to see if the bell has rung high noon.

There were a lot of great takeaways from seeing how services were conducted. One difficult aspect of the pulpit world is that it rarely affords you the opportunity to visit shuls with “best practices.” As clergy, we may hear of what Rabbi X or Cantor Z did in their shul, but until we experience it live (or virtually), it is hard to see it’s truest strengths. As a student, I was able to travel to different communities, to see what was out there in other pews. Even as congregants, we may remain in one service never seeing what other communities are doing- not because we want to trade in our team colors, but because we want to improve our community.

We don’t know what to work on, as a prayer community, until we see what we might be missing. We don’t know what to improve for we are blinded by complacency and the stagnant and even degenerative norm. It is as if we are “unaware” of the potential of our community.

Rabbi Art Green, in channeling the great Hassidic masters in his most recent work, asks the following question about this week’s torah portion, “Where was the Torah cast down at the time? It fell into the “shell” of Egypt. That is awareness in exile, for the Torah represents awareness. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt. To raise up fallen Torah…”

We use this term “light of Torah” because there are times in our lives when darkness can run rampant and other times when our eyes have become so accustomed to the light that we devalue its importance.

In our torah Portion, Shemot, we have 3 examples of individuals or groups acting complacently, as awareness in exile takes form:

Example 1: When Moses encounters an Israelite slave in harm’s way, he looks “Ko Vacho”- this way and that way, not because he was necessarily looking to see if anyone would catch what he was doing, but because there were people there who did not come to this Israelite’s aid. Blinded was the responsibility and need for action.

Examples 2 and 3 go hand in hand. Our opening section of Parshat Shemot states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”

What does this mean “A new king arose over Egypt.” The Talmudic sages Rab and Samuel battled it out to determine whether this was a new king, literally, or if the king had just forgotten all that Joseph had done for him. One could go even further to suggest that it was only through the memory of Joseph’s worthwhile contributions that kept Egyptian hatred below the surface. In any case, both Egypt and her leader were no longer “aware” of Joseph.

The same lack of awareness can be submitted in the case for the Israelites themselves. Would they fall into slavery if they had remembered the hard work of Joseph, the committed partnership he had created within the Egyptian political system? Israel forgot Joseph as much as Egypt! The community separated itself from Joseph, as Moses had been born separated from the community. It would take both Moses and the Israelite nation a generation to realize the phrase: Al tifrosh min Hatzibor- Do not separate from the community. We assume this means that in order to NOT separate from our community, we must live in a bubble, when in fact we realize we can serve our community better by keeping our eyes open to the outside. It is easy to be complacent, it is much harder to remain alert and aware of the different tools we can use to better ourselves and our community.

How can we avoid “awareness in exile”? It’s an active conversation within our community- shabbat regulars, lay leaders, and professional staff talking about what we are missing. We assume that everything the needs of our core.

We must be aware of the myriad of individuals our community serves. We must be aware of the fact that no two individuals come to worship here for the same reason. We must be aware that while Shabbat is a day of rest, we must push ourselves spiritually and emotionally. We must be aware of the idea of stepping out of our normal routine in order to grow as community.

Take an exodus from your own needs for a second. Explore what makes you come to services. Why are you here? Maybe it’s for social reasons, maybe its because a life cycle event brought you closer to community, maybe its the cantor! We all come for different reasons. May we find awareness of ourselves and our community, so that we can answer the greater questions: Why is that seat next to you empty? Where is your friend who used to come? You know why you come today, but what will get you here tomorrow?

Welcoming the Familiar Face

A little “Who’s Who”: His aspirations were to become a professional soccer player, but a series of ankle injuries while playing at Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School dashed his hopes. After graduating from high school at age 16, he worked six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching shrimp and sardines The job was “way too tough” for this individual, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic As a 19-year-old, he had to abandon a capsizing 120-short-ton commercial boat, all but convincing him to give up fishing as a career. If the tide had turned, he may have remained in his native Panama, catching shrimp instead of throwing baseballs.

Six years later, he’d make his major league debut with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. Today, we know him as the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.

As Rivera is set to retire at the end of the season, opposing teams have honored him in their respective ballparks during his farewell tour.

The Boston Red Sox, my Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the NY Yankees, honored Mariano Rivera Sunday night on the occasion of his final regular-season game at Fenway Park.

A few of the highlights from the evening (as depicted by the Boston Globe):

  • When Rivera was introduced, he jogged to the mound, where the entire Red Sox team awaited him. He received hugs from players David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and some gifts from the club.
  • First, the Red Sox presented Rivera a painting of the unscripted and delightful moment in April 2005 when he was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans during pregame introductions on the day the 2004 World Series flag was raised at Fenway.
  • Rivera, who realized that the fans were thanking him for his two blown saves in the 2004 ALCS — along with his two blown saves in the Yankees-Red Sox series that opened the ’05 season — broke into a big smile and raised his arms in bemused thanks. It was that moment that was captured in the painting.
  • The Red Sox also presented Rivera the panel from the manually operated Green Monster scoreboard that had his number “42″ on it. It was signed by every current Boston player.
  • Rivera also received a Fenway Park seat from 1934, a pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen and an undisclosed donation for his charitable foundation from the Red Sox owners.
  • Rivera then shook hands with the Red Sox players as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s theme song) played over the loudspeakers and highlights of Rivera succeeding against the Red Sox came up on the centerfield scoreboard. Earlier, the Boston Cello Quartet played “Enter Sandman” to open the ceremony after finishing the national anthem.

What a beautiful night for both Rivera and Boston. There is something special about appreciating a player who made your team sweat, who made your players lift themselves to a higher level and outperform, brought an entire Red Sox Nation from years of frustration into years of plenty, years of championships. A nation that ascended because one player brought the best out of them.  There is something sacred about treating your guests in the highest regard and the greatest respect. Although I am surely biased, the classy Red Sox exhibit the value of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests, a mitzvah highlighted on this festival of sukkot. It is the value of ushpizin, welcoming guests into Fenway Park, what is for many of the players and staff a home away from home, a temporary dwelling, a holy place, a sukkah.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite these Ushpizin, one of seven exalted individuals to take up residence in the sukkah with us. The Zohar states,

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith (sukkah) the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him? A person should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests. Upon entering the succah, Rav Hamnuna Sava would rejoice and, standing inside the doorway, say “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” Then he would remain on his feet and bless them, saying, ‘IN sukkot you should dwell. Be seated exalted guests, be seated; be seated guests of faithfulness, be seated.’ He would then raise his hands in joy and say, ‘Worthy is our portion, worthy is the portion of Israel, as it is written: For God’s portion is his people.’ Then he would sit down.” (Zohar Emor 103b)

Each day we welcome not only an individual, but the ideals that they embodied.

The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:

First day: Chesed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “ Love”—personified by Abraham.

Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.

Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,” “Harmony” and “Truth”—embodied Jacob.

Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.

Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.

Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.

Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David

In modern times, we welcome seven female figures in Jewish history who embody similar positive attributes. While the selection of these 7 individuals often differs, here is one assortment of female leaders that we recognize as Ushpizot.

1) Eve, for her passions and connection to the Earth

2) Sarah, for nation building and destiny

3) Leah, for motherhood, giving and selflessness

4) Miriam- for vision, initiative and expressiveness

5) Deborah – for leadership, strength and power

6) Beruriah- for intellect and wisdom

7) Ruth- for unconditional love

It is in stark contrast with our High Holiday liturgy in which we often speak of our transgressions rather than the values that SHOULD define our lives. Values of vision, strength and initiative empower us to go forth into a year of “Yes I can” rather than “No I’m sorry.” No more beating our chests for the sins in our lives, but rather the positive attributes we should all embody. All this from harkening the call of our ancestors, the heroes of yesterday. From Moses to Miriam to Mariano.

One might be confused why I can devote a speech to the evil empire with the knowledge of my Red Sox affiliation. In our evening prayers we recite the Hashkiveinu prayer asking for a “sukkat shalom”, a shelter of piece from our enemies. Isn’t Mariano Rivera my enemy? At the end of the day, Mariano Rivera is not my enemy. In a few weeks time, he will be something other than a baseball player. But to any Red Sox fan, “Mo” is what I’d call a “familiar face.” He hasn’t shared our clubhouse, our traditions, the inner workings of our organization, but we invite him into our sukkah, into Fenway, because maybe he has something to teach us about ourselves; reveal to us what we are made of. He is a frequent guest, a respected guest, a familiar face.

The Ushpizin are not unfamiliar characters- they are some of the more prominent individuals from our Tanakh.  They are meant to be familiar faces. For familiar faces have the opportunity to drive us to improve ourselves, to teach us, to remind us of some important values that can drive our lives.

In its temporary nature, the sukkah acts as an open book, a glass house where everyone, close friends and even the casual acquaintance see right through. We are exposed.

We can treat the sukkah like a shark proof cage- giving us a glimpse of the outside world while protecting ourselves from the harsh realities? We can glance at the gloomy cloud above dampening our chances to invite our acquaintances in to our lives. We can worry about spreading ourselves too thin. Or, our sukkah, in theory, can act like its counterpart, the chuppah, open on all four sides, ever expanding our social network in tangible, authentic way. Of all the ushpizin and ushpizot, of all the values that we are reminded of, be it wisdom, strength humility and so forth, two values ushpizin stick out. Our first male guest, Abraham, and our final female guest, Ruth, share the same value, unconditional love.

We are taught “Vsmachta B’chagecha”- that you should rejoice in the holiday; our joy based on inviting friends and family but also giving to the needy in our community. We are often reminded of these two polar relationships in Judaism- those closest to us, and those on the fringes. Rarely, however, do we focus on those in the middle- the familiar face, the friendly acquaintance. Maybe it is time to bring them close to us as we gather in for our harvest season.

May this holiday’s harvest be plentiful, may we share that plenty with all who we come in contact. May we seek out those familiar faces in our lives and deepen our relationships with them, for we never know what values they may teach us, what lessons we can learn. May we offer up unconditional love to all who enter the temporariness of our lives.  If we are reminded of the values of Abraham and Ruth, of unconditional love, then next year, we can look at our Sukkah, acknowledge those Ushpizin who shared their love with us and joyfully proclaim, “This is the house that (Abraham and) Ruth built.”






As a side note, here are the 7 “Rivera”ism that we can welcome on Sukkot:

First day- The value of The Cutter; the out pitch. The cutter’s movement is created by Rivera’s long fingers and loose wrist, which allow him to impart more spin on the ball. Over 80% of his pitches are cut fastballs. To know that you have a way out when you are in a tough spot

Second day:  The value of Relief. He is the majors’ all-time regular season leader in saves (651)

Third Day: The value of consistency. Rivera saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons

Fourth Day:  The value of Longevity. 19 seasons

Fifth day: The value of clutch moments. 16 Postseason records

Sixth day: The value of yesod, foundation. The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which helps provide underprivileged children with an education, distributes more than $500,000 in the US and Panama through church-based institutions

Seventh day: The value of composure. Rivera, the closer, comes into the game at tense moments. 3 outs to go. Game on the line.

Rosh Hashana, Vampire Slayer


I’ve been thinking a lot about Friday the 13th and its correlation to Kol Nidrei evening. These Days of Awe can be filled with darkness. We can  often act like zombies in shul feeling disconnected to our liturgy. We can often feel like ark opening after ark opening, responsive reading  upon responsive reading suck the life-blood out of the service. If only there were such a concept as a Jewish vampire slayer (Does Buffy  count?!)

Last Friday I taught an early morning class entitled, “High Holiday Playbook” as we highlighted the value of Torah study on the second day  of Rosh Hashana. While covering the 4 major themes of High Holiday liturgy (Kingship, Creation, Judgment and Remembrance), our  conversation took a turn for the unusual when we somehow started talking about connections between our Jewish lunar calendar and  vampires coming out at night. To get us back on track, we looked for a connection to light.  In covering the topic of “Creation”, an obvious  theme for the birthday of the world, we came across the theme of light found in the opening section of our Shaharit morning service:



“Infinite light stored away in life’s treasure house; ‘Light out of darkness’ said God- it was so.” The theme of light is common to every morning service, as we make reference to a divinity that fashions light and creates all. The line above, found only on the High Holidays, reiterates this notion but focuses on “Orot M’ofel”- creating light out of darkness. As we go through these days of awe, it is comforting to know that no matter what darkness seems to envelop our lives, we can create light even in the darkest of moments. No matter how scary life is, it becomes more and more significant that the light isn’t at the end of the tunnel, but in our very own hands. We have the capacity to create a year filled with light if we mimic the actions of God in this verse- if we create the mantra and affirm it.  We will affirm to create light out of darkness, and it will be so.

Parshat Korach: Talking About The Man in The Mirror

photo (8)

Yesterday, our daughter Rena turned 3 months old. Every day is a new sound, a new sensation. Rena continues to dictate our schedule.  She enjoys interacting with others much more than the tummy time we force her through each day. Her favorite pastime, other than starring deep into her daddy’s eyes, is starring playfully into her mirror. Every time she looks it is as if she is finding herself for the first time. Whatever she may be thinking, and whether or not she realizes that it is herself on the other side of the mirror, she is playfully mesmerized as she looks back and forth.

Somewhat ironically, we use mirrors to reflect not only our outside appearance, but speak to our inner selves, to reassure ourselves that our mind, body AND spirit are engaged.


Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken, is the Saturday Night Live Tony Robbins inspired self help guru who once got Michael Jordan through battles with self confidence.  His catch phrase, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dogone it, people like me” was one of the first mantra’s I ever heard.

If only Korah had the good fortune to meet Stuart Smalley. Korah exuded confidence, but his mission lacked a few key ingredients to success.

Our torah portion follows Korah’s mutiny from the gathering and later consuming of 250 men  to the plaguing of his 14,000 supporters.   To understand why Korah failed in his coup de tat, we have to travel back for clearer context.

In last week’s torah portion, our “scouts” were sent out to survey the land of Israel. As history would have it, we now refer to many of these scouts as “spies.” As a punishment for their distrust or lack of faith in the divine power, the people of Israel are told that their generation would not enter the land.

Contextually, the Israelites have every right to be upset- they have been walking around in circles, given the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Our last torah reading prior to Parashat Korah gives us the commandment of “tzitzit,” the fringes of the prayer shawl. Tzitzit, symbolize the bringing together of the four corners of the world. It is meant to be an act of community building.

Now the stage has been set. We arrive at  Korah’s challenge, a single sentence hurled at Moshe and Aharon by 250 leaders:

“It has been enough leadership for you [Moses and Aaron]; all the people in the witness community are holy with the Lord in their midst. Why must you set yourselves up to be on a higher plane than the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3)

We are ALL holy. What a powerful statement.  Korah used this “one liner” to rile up the people, but did he truly feel that everyone is holy or just that he should be held in higher esteem? The text states,“Vayikach Korach,” and Korah took. He attempts to take by force, to capture, to seize. Korah, does not embrace, he does not squeeze, he does not hold close. I agree with Korah’s half-hearted statement that we are all holy creatures, but I’d also like to think that holiness is not a privilege, it’s an obligation. We learn that Korah was a Rebel without a cause.  He could’ve seen the laws of tzitzit as an avenue leading towards a sharing community. He could look in the mirror and truly find holiness in everyone, not just himself.

What can WE do as holy vessels to look at ourselves, to question why we do things, question who are we surrounded by?

A few weeks ago, I had that look in the mirror. I attended my 9th Cantors Assembly convention. It was great to catch up with colleagues and classmates, and the late night promenade concerts are always a highlight. This year I attended 4 day workshop entitled, “Song leader Boot Camp” led by Jewish Rock musician Rick Recht. Most of our workshop hours involved body movement, asking questions, and reciting mantras. Very little time was devoted to singing. How ironic that at the conclusion of our convention, The Cantors Assembly unveiled a new motto for its marketing campaign: “singing is just the beginning.” It put’s the cantor beyond the pulpit, beyond the classroom. Then people might respond, “Cantor, you can do that?” Yes I can!

As an individual, it’s hard to undergo a  radical transformation, a rebranding of ones self. It is hard to change, to grow, to ask tough questions, when you are comfortable.  It’s tough to run through a workshop where you break down every form of how you might teach, how you might take over a space, and start a new with fresh ideas. It is a battle against the still existant perception that a cantor is there to sing, to be a minister for music and nothing else. It is also hard to try to change it up when you’ve created a certain persona, a certain style of cantorate in your pulpit position in a loving community. Why send in for a recall if it ain’t broken? Our group of 30 or so embarked on a 4 day journey to achieve what Recht called “Star State” :Super-charging yourself to make a quick and radical change in your physical and psychological state so you can deliver at peak levels.  How could I as a leader walk into a room and exude confidence and engage others in a meaningful way.

We took the Psychological approach:

Radically change your psychology by changing your FOCUS.

• Change your FOCUS by concentrating on your Sense of Purpose.

• What is my PURPOSE?

To Teach

To Learn

To Inspire

To Create Community

To teach Judaism

We asked tough questions:

Why am I SO fortunate to have this opportunity to lead?

What is this group expecting? What am I expecting?

To strengthen our leadership skills, we were encouraged to

Get focused

Get modest

Get humble

Get ready to learn

Get ready to observe

Be Genuine!

Be Authentic!

BE Myself!

To build rapport, foster respect and share with my community.

We recited Mantras so many times that we began to believe they were true and take on the responsibilities that came with them:

I am here to learn

I am here to teach

I am here to celebrate

I am blessed to have this community

Exceed expectations

Set a new standard

I am a leader

I am a leader

I am a leader

We saw the power of tone: “I am a leader, I AM a leader.”… Successful mantras don’t give a false sense of accomplishment.  Rather, they force us to push ourselves, to be that leader, to be present in the moment. These are all Mottos to live by-. None are rocket science.  But it is important to embrace them every day.

We moved our bodies and talked about the forms of Non-verbal communication and how to utilize the space you have:

55%-95% percent of your effective communication comes from your physical communication

38% our tone of voice

7% the actual words we use

Tone and body language.

There are techniques that I hope to utilize in the future to be a better leader, to build a stronger community. I hope to be in a true STAR state the person who makes OTHERS the stars, who transfers energy, kavod, respect, and honor to others. All before I even open my mouth to sing.

What was Korah’s tone and body language?  We can only speculate. Maybe Korah could’ve used Star State, making others the star. We all, like Korah, have the inclination to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, to fight the status quo ONLY if our best interests are in mind.  The Korach in each of us is only that more dangerous because we fail to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves important questions. Each day we recite the words “Yihiyu L’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi lifanech”- May the words of my mouth AND the meditations of my heart. Our intention is just as important as our action.I hope you find that you don’t need the High Holidays to have a moment of introspection, a moment to look in the mirror, to remember that you are holy, and it is with that holiness that have the obligation and capacity to inspire, to learn, to teach, to grow, and to create a loving community.

Shabbat Shirah: Musical Memory and A-Ca-Power

Musical memory- where does it come from? 

In utero, a child sits in what one might describe as its easy-chair-position- easy living for the child, not so much for the mother. It encases itself in a world of surround sound- listening to the motions and rhythms on the outside. After birth, the baby remembers certain rhythms, and even shows a preference for certain sounds. In fact, studies have shown that within the first three days of life, newborns already recognize and prefer hearing their parents’ voices over others.

This musical muscle memory, of rhythm and sound, continues throughout our lives. When walking down the aisle during a wedding procession, one could easily speed up the process by, of course, speeding up the music, as the body instinctively wants to follow the rhythms it hears.  Athletes use songs with different tempos during interval training, alternating between periods of high and low intensity.

This is muscle memory for rhythm. When it comes to listening for and recognizing musical intervals, our brains work a little differently.

For terminology, I’d like to simplify our use of a major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) by using a number system. Do is 1, Re 2 is, etc. See below


While studying music theory and sight singing, a teacher of mine presented a list of what he referred to as “Musical Mnemonics.” Looking at a scale of notes, how do you sing the interval of a minor second up, the 7th and 8th notes, the ti-do of a major scale? Our list suggests the theme from “Jaws.” And what about the opposite direction? What about Do-ti? “Kol Nidre.” For a fun read, you can try to read an article entitled, “Temporal entrainment of cognitive functions: musical mnemonics induce brain plasticity and oscillatory synchrony in neural networks underlying memory. “

We find an interesting musical lick from today’s Parsha. “Ashira Ladonai Ki Ga’o Ga’a, Sus V’rochvo Ramah Vayam”

Breaking it in two, we start off  having “Ashira Ladonai”, “1, 2, 3” or “ya da dai”- taken from the traditional melody for Ashamnu, “we have sinned.”

Shira Melody

Second half “sus v’rochvo Ramah vayam”-“ Shir Hashirim Asher Lshlomo” –cantillation for our festival megillot.

At a time when we are rejoicing our freedom when our enemy perished, our musical tradition subtly combines remorse/repenting/sadness with the festive nature of the moment.

Of course these musical mnemonics only mean something to us if we recognize these melodies. Our reference points are influenced by our childhood, our environment growing up.

I’d like to focus on 3 notes and the intervals that connect them.

Do Mi Sol, The 1st 3rd and 5th note major triad of a scale. A Major Triad. We’re going to try a little musical interval training.

5 3 1 Major Triad: High Holiday Aleinu

Other direction: Jesus Christ Superstar

Patriotic aficionados: You’re a grand old flag, Star Spangled Banner

In this case, Rhythms/tempos/meters dictate our interpretation of music



Friday Night nusah: Arbaim Shana,

Tu Bishvat standard: Hash’kediyah porachat veshemesh paz zorachat,
tziporim merosh kol gag mevarshot et bo hachag,

Some nights I wake up

High Holiday fans: Hallelujah,

Classical music fans: Opening of Mozart “simple sonata”

3-5-1 Circle Game: Yesterday, a child came out to wander. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

We could go on and on dissecting  3 1 5,  1 5 3, 1 3 5, 5 1 3. Mnemonics get a song in our head, they take us back to a place and time, but if we are to go the next step, to be moved by these 3 notes, there is a simple action to transform them into a meaningful music moment. In the Shira melody it too was unclear as to how to interplay the 3 players: the prayer leader, the congregation, and instrumentation in one meaningful music moment. The simple action is to combine all 3 notes as one. A chord with the foundation of a bass, the coloring of the Major 5th, the defining character of our Major 3rd.

Let’s try for a moment. (No video to post- imagine this created by a congregation of singers)

Chorale music, notes working together rather than separate entities, is a powerful vehicle for Jewish musical expression. We are blessed this morning to have the A Cappella group Pizmon with us.  Having sung with Pizmon a number of years ago, traveling t communities across the Jewish world with other energetic and creative college students, I am a believer in the “a-ca-power.” I would prescribe it to anyone.

A cappella music fills those voids- choral singing, instrumentation, soloists all in one. Our musical muscle memory may not instinctively recognize the chords we build. We may only recognize a triad as 3 separate notes. But if we work hard, my hope is that through these examples, we will start to remember, we will feel the music, feel the harmonies, as we continue to build musical bridges whenever we join together in song.


There is famine in the land- Food Stamp Challenge reflections

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In our torah reading this week, there is once again famine in the land, different from the famine Abraham experienced and a far cry from the famine Joseph and his brothers will endure in just a few weeks. In Parshat Miketz, Joseph provides food not only to the Egyptian population, but also to the entire world.

There always seems to be famine in the world. Who will be that Joseph to provide for all? As individuals, we lack the capacity to play that role of Joseph coming to the rescue, feeding the world. We can in fact collectively combat hunger.

For some perspective, last week I, along with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars, attended 2/3 of their game against the Indianapolis Colts. I spent $20 on dinner, which would translate into roughly 2/3 of my $31.50 allocated to me this week during our 2nd Food Stamp Challenge.

The Food Stamp Challenge is now in its third year but 2012 is of particular importance. The Farm Bill, the massive bill under which SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is authorized, is up for renewal this year. Given the massive budget cuts that may be looming due to the fiscal cliff (or to prevent it), there is fear that SNAP may be drastically reduced, with tragic results to the millions of families who depend on food stamps to survive. Already, SNAP benefits do not last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year. The hope is that the Challenge will raise awareness of these issues among its participants and others who they
interact with.

Over 150 Jewish clergy around the country took the challenge this past week. Colleagues found creative ways to involve congregants- holding Food stamp dinners feeding 20 people on a $30 budget, very different than trying to spread out the same amount for one individual over the course of the week. This being our second challenge in less than a year, I believe I ate healthier and heartier than in our first challenge. I used new tricks for soups, eggs, and tofu. I was under budget. I was able to mix and match foods so no food went to waste and I didn’t feel like I ate the same meal twice. It didn’t help that I lacked some much needed nutrition while battling a case of laryngitis Next time, I may try for two weeks, given the fact that it is easier to budget when you can buy in bulk. I may try out the Jacksonville Farmers market, one of only markets in the state that accept the SNAP program, with its affordable fruits and vegetables. And, of course, as the challenge comes to a close, so too does my need to spend $31.50 a week on food. It was a choice to be on a challenge, and I’ll choose to take myself off next week. It’s a sobering thought that the challenge, while making participants more self-aware and empathetic to the causes of hunger, does little to battle hunger unless it inspires myself and others to combat hunger through advocacy, volunteerism, and donations.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, I tried to view every motion, every event, and every unfolding story through the lens of hunger.

On Monday we celebrated Veterans Day. How does hunger affect our veterans and their families?
Veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
• About 1.5 million veterans are considered at-risk of homelessness. At risk is defined as being below the poverty level and paying more than 50% of household income on rent. It also includes households with a member who has a disability, a person living alone, and those who are not in the labor force.
• Research shows that the greatest risk factors for homelessness are lack of support and social isolation after discharge. Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates; and, currently, 1 in 5 veterans is living alone. Social networks are particularly important for those who have a crisis or need temporary help. Without this assistance, they are at high risk for homelessness.
• Nearly half a million (467,877) veterans are severely rent burdened and paying more than 50% of their income for rent. More than half (55%) of veterans with severe housing cost burden fell below the poverty level and 43% receive food stamps.
• Nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans, as of December 2011.
• While only 8% of Americans can claim veteran status, 17% of our homeless population is made up of veterans. In 2010, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets.
• More than 4 in 10 homeless veterans were found unsheltered.
• $31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger.

What about those currently enlisted?

The most recent quality control survey by the Agriculture Department found about 1,000 military members receiving food stamps.
The Defense Department argues that if housing allowances are included in pay, most service members don’t qualify for food aid. However, a benefits consulting company called BeneStream.com, which studied the issue in 2009, estimated then that 130,000 service members actually would be eligible for the help.
Jacksonville is a military town. This should be our issue.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

This past week, an Action News Jacksonville story ran about the issue of Panhandling in certain Jacksonville neighborhoods. One City Councilman hoped to ban in his district, while others were worried the pan handling would push into their neighborhoods. “It’s been a very bad problem” the councilman remarked. The story made the “panhandlers” the issue, not the fact that people in our community feel the need to resort to “panhandling.” Hunger and homelessness in our area are the very bad problems.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Deuteronomy 15:7 instructs on how we should treat those in need.

If there be among you a needy person, of your brothers, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord gave you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother.

What does this passage teach us?

1) The responsibility for poverty relief is an obligation not a choice
2) Even the poorest member of society possesses inherit dignity; each member of the community is responsible for preserving the dignity of others
3) Jewish law does not propose a full redistribution of wealth, but rather, institutes controls against the gap between the rich and the poor become too wide
4) There is a need for both “immediate assistance” and “long term advocacy”
5) Later the text states “the poor will never cease” There is always never enough food. There will always be hunger. It is how we respond to such needs that defines who we are.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, in her book “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition”, sites one word in the biblical text as being the cornerstone of the Jewish attitude toward the needy: “achicha”, your brother. With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

Hunger has no rules or provisions of when and where it strikes. As we approach 3 weeks since Superstorm Sandy, there are those without heat, those without water, those without food. Part of the money we raise this week goes to those victims.

Vayihi Raav Ba’aretz – There is famine in the land.

In reflecting on our brothers and sisters in Israel, we think of those who lack the supplies, those in harms way, those living in uncertainty. I think of my visit in December with other Jewish educators- how we might be able to help those who are in need?

To paraphrase Judah Halevi,” My heart is in the east, my stomach at the ends of the west, my twitter feed in #jjcfoodstampchallenge and my facebook wall reads “Am Yisrael Chai.”

It is difficult to take a challenge not knowing what will take place in the world that week. It may seem mundane to focus on a challenge when thousands run for cover as sirens fall on most of Israel. Unfortunately, it may never be convenient to raise the issue of hunger. We can’t wait for the sirens to stop, for hunger to take a halftime break. Hunger is constant in our lives. Hunger has a face. It is the homeless veteran. It is the Hurricane Sandy victim still without clean water or electricity. It is the It is the young child eating rations in a bunker outside Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is a peddler. It is a congregant. It is a friend. It is a brother.

On Yom Kippur, our holiest day of introspection, we chant the words of Isaiah, “It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. “ We deepen our own understanding of self by opening our hands to others. May we strive to open our mouths to advocacy, our wallets to generosity, our hands to building a world attentive to the needy. May it be a world of sustainability, a world without famine.


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