An Open Letter to My Friends Who Survived – on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

To my dear friends Howard and Margot, Dow and Fredzia and so many others:

I think about you often, but my heart is with you especially today – on Yom Ha’shoah V’ha’gevurah,  Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Each of you survived the Holocaust and made it through those terrible years. Each of you has your own unique story of war, struggle, anguish and survival.  And each of you has not merely “survived” – each has gone on to create lives of meaning and purpose, gratitude and love.

You are the epitome of the definition of ‘resilience’. You exemplify by how you live your lives that ‘good’ will triumph over ‘evil’ and that the human spirit cannot be broken. And you show us how an affirmation of God’s presence during difficult times brings us strength and courage to persevere.

You help us to understand that we must use our voices to speak out against racism and against evil. We must be the ones to ensure that ‘never again’ will the world experience such unspeakable heinous acts committed against our fellow human beings.

The world still has its share of hatred and violence and evil. There are those who exist who do not acknowledge that every human being is made “b’tzelem Elohim”  – in the image of God. And they choose to try to harm, hurt or destroy those they view as “less than human.” But you are the inspiration that we do have the ability to affect change. We have the power to use our voices, our deeds and actions to eradicate the evil in our midst. As Elie Wiesel said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”

Tonight we will light candles in memory of those who perished. We will remember in silence, we will reflect, we will pray.

And then inspired by you – and in memory of those who perished, we will continue to work to change our world.

Zichronam livracha – may their memories be for a blessing.

Candle

Gratitude – A Lesson from Love and Loss

59 years of marriage.

Two children.

Three grandchildren.

A life filled with the blessings of love, friendship, joy, shared passions.

A life filled with meaning and purpose, community, Jewish living and serving others.

A few days ago, as we sat and ate lunch together, I listened to the beautiful story of my congregant and his wife. How he served in the Armed Forces, how they raised a family, worked hard in their professions and how they gave back to their community in so very many ways.

His wife died this past November after almost 59 years of marriage. He told me that at first, he would wake up in the morning and turn to her side of the bed, look for her…and realize that she wasn’t coming back.

She tried to prepare him for this moment when she first became ill. She taught him how to cook, how to cope on his own.

His children and grandchildren call him every day. And he realized that even though his beloved is gone, he is still alive.

His wife is still with him each and every day. She lives in his heart, his mind and his memory. Her presence reminds him that he must live his life to its fullest. So he is trying his best.

His overwhelming feeling now is a sense of GRATITUDE. Gratitude for the years they spent together, for the life they built, for the children they raised, for the works of their hands and the deeds of their hearts.

He puts one foot in front of the other. He finds fulfillment in his many friendships,  music and community. His children and grandchildren are great sources of pride and joy, who share some of his passions and sense of adventure. And now that he has time, he is volunteering again. For him, “gratitude” means opening your heart and hands to others.

Despite his sadness and pain at the death of his beloved wife, my beautiful congregant exemplifies our Jewish custom of reciting “modeh ani” – “I thank you” to the Eternal each and every morning. When we recite “modeh ani” each morning, we thank God for allowing us to awake once again to a new day, to live our lives with meaning and purpose, with joy and contentment, and to make a difference in this world.

May he have many more years of living life with gratitude, joy and meaning. May we be inspired to do the same.

 

Passover: Liberty and Freedom are the Inalienable Rights of Every Human Being

On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

We retell the story of the Exodus each year to remind ourselves that the gift of freedom comes with great responsibility: the responsibility to take care of others. Our freedom means we have the responsibility to work to free those who are still bound by the shackles of poverty, war, famine, hatred, racism…whatever issues are still plaguing our world.

 “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” (Morris Joseph)

 During my 26 years in the rabbinate, I have been blessed with many different seder experiences that exemplify this notion of “liberty” and “freedom”.  Not long after Glasnost and Perestroika, I went to the Former Soviet Union for two years with congregants during Pesach. We brought in much needed medical supplies, taught about Pesach and led Pesach seders in Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and Mogilev (all in Belarus). After the first seder, one woman approached us with tears streaming down her face, “I am 40 years old and this is my first Pesach seder. Thank you!” Up until then, the Jewish community had not been allowed to celebrate, and there was no one who knew the rituals.

This year, on the eve of the first seder, I led a seder at an Assisted Living facility at noon for about 30 Jewish residents, their families and some of their non-Jewish residents who wanted to learn more about our holiday.

I met George, who moved into the facility two months ago. George is a Holocaust survivor, the only member of his family to be liberated from Auschwitz. He showed me his number tattooed on his forearm and briefly shared with me his story of captivity, liberation and survival.

He came to live in the Assisted Living facility two months ago because he outlived all his friends and was no longer able to get out and about. He stayed home by himself all day and all night. His children worried about him. He was isolated, lonely and depressed. So his children wanted to find a place for him where he would be safe, where he would be surrounded by other people and where he would find stimulation and activity.

Since moving into the facility, he feels a new sense of “liberation”. He told me he loves living there. He has made friends. He has a new lease on life, he has activities to keep him busy every day, people with whom to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves playing cards and bingo. He was smiling from ear-to-ear.

Sometimes LIBERATION and FREEDOM are “big concepts” – how to save the world from a nuclear Iran, how to stop human trafficking, how to end poverty and war.

But what I saw this afternoon, was that “liberation” and “freedom” are concepts that affect each and every one of us personally. George was enslaved in the shackles of loneliness and isolation. He had almost given up on life. After the Holocaust, he experienced LIBERATION and FREEDOM and was able to build a beautiful life in the United States.

And now, once again, he is experiencing a different kind of “liberation” and “freedom” – a personal sense of “joie de vivre” that enables him to live each day to its fullest with meaning and purpose. He told me that Pesach this year was particularly meaningful to him and he was so glad to celebrate it with his new friends.

 This Pesach, our “Festival of Freedom,” I hope we all can do our part to make “liberation” and “freedom” lasting realities, both on the larger scale world-wide and personally, for our friends and family.

I wish you and all your loved ones a sweet, wonderful and meaningful holiday. Next year, may we all celebrate in peace, liberty and freedom.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy  Pesach!

Mikvah – Waters of Hope, Waters of Renewal (a shared blog by Rabbi Sharon Sobel and Cindy Morris)

Rabbi Sobel’s Story:

It was a beautiful day for a ferry ride on the Long Island Sound. The sun was shining. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air was crisp and cold. The sunlight glistened and bounced off the water in golden hues. The gentle calm of the water was soothing to the soul.

Cindy, one of my congregants, and I were taking the ferry so I could bring her to the mikvah.  She had approached me looking for a spiritual way to acknowledge her recent divorce. After some reflection, I suggested immersion in the mikvah. (The mikvah is a ritual bath. For more information about mikvah, click here: Mayyim Hayyim)

Our first experience in life is surrounded by the nurturing waters of our mother’s womb. Those waters envelop us, nourish us, sustain us before we enter this world pure and innocent.

Throughout Jewish tradition, water has always been viewed as a life-giving force, as a source of renewal and purification. In Biblical times, water was used to welcome guests who traveled from afar into one’s home (the tradition was to have the host wash the dust of the road off the guests’ feet). Water was used to refresh and renew.

Rituals can be transformative. They enable us to separate from what existed before, mark a boundary and help make an emotional, inner transformation to a changed status.

Think of the importance of a wedding ritual, or a funeral, or a baby’s brit milah.

As Cindy and I sat on the ferry crossing the Long Island Sound to go to the mikvah, I realized that crossing the water symbolized the emotional journey Cindy was taking: she was leaving her emotional baggage from her marriage on the shores behind her. She was crossing to a new frontier, full of hope and potential.

When we arrived at the mikvah, Cindy went into the luxurious changing room to get herself ready and I prepared the mikvah room:

Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength
Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength

Unbeknown to Cindy, I created a havdalah ceremony, a ceremony of distinction, of separation, to begin the experience, prior to her stepping into the “living waters.”

When Cindy came out in her robe, I softly sang:

Ozi, v’zimrat Yah, va’yi li, li-y’shua-Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah
Ozi v'Zimrat Yah Hebrew text
My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation (Psalm 118:14, Exodus 15:2)

I used the Havdalah symbols: wine, spices and fire to represent the transition that Cindy was marking. I spoke of finding a new-found sense of of strength and purpose, joy and peace. We asked God for a life filled with compassion and understanding.

I wanted Cindy to be able to smell sweetness in life once again,  to go forward from this moment on with renewed hope for herself, for her boys and for the bright future that was before her.

(Click here for: Rabbi Sharon Sobel’s Havdalah Ceremony at Mikvah to Mark Finalization of Divorce)

And when we completed Havdalah,  Cindy silently entered the mikvah, the waters of transformation, hope and renewal. She emerged with a new-found sense of peace and strength. (The ceremony used for the immersion was by:  Mayyim Hayyim, “After Finalizing a Divorce”)

And when it was all done, we took the ferry back across the Sound, sailing to a new shore of  promise and possibility.

Cindy Morris’ Story

When I first approached Rabbi Sobel about needing to feel God’s blessing for my divorce, I realized that sounded a little crazy. Who blesses a divorce? However, I  felt like my marriage had been blessed by God, that it was not a waste, and that my life was better for it. But I also wanted to ask God to bless my future without my marriage. I wanted to acknowledge to myself that my life without my ex-husband was one full of possibility and light.

All I could think throughout every mediation was that this was the man who had veiled me, stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with me, and who I called my b’sheret (soul-mate). This was the man who I married with God’s blessings.

But when we signed the documents that ended our marriage, we weren’t even in the same room. It felt dirty and shameful, like we were hiding from one another and from all the people who celebrated our lives with us. The same God who we invited into our wedding, our children’t brises, our holiday celebrations and our daily lives, was very obviously not invited into our divorce proceedings.

When Rabbi Sobel suggested that I go to the mikvah with her for a ceremony of transition, my first thought was about being naked. I had never been to a mikvah before, and it felt overwhelming and intrusive. However, when I thought about it, being naked was important. For years, I had built up walls and shields to protect myself, refusing my right to be vulnerable again, to risk pain. I was refusing to open myself up to the possibilities of my life because I felt a need to protect myself. If I were going to live a full life, I had to find a way to risk that vulnerability again, and that moment in the mikvah, naked, was as vulnerable as I could get.

As I sat in the candlelit room, in front of the water, Rabbi Sobel performed a Havdalah ceremony that didn’t acknowledge going from the holy to the unholy, but instead talked of my transition. It talked of strength, courage, and passion. It spoke of finding my life’s path as a mother, a woman and a person.  And then, I silently entered the pool and dipped three times.

I know that my life is blessed, and that whatever my future holds is mine. Some will be good; some will not. My divorce taught me about me, perhaps more so than my marriage ever did. Stepping from the waters, we sang the Shehechiyanu together, acknowledging that moment was a moment of gratitude and a moment of uniqueness.

And then I was in the changing room, so aptly named. I slipped on my skirt and blouse. I brushed my hair. I put on my shoes, and I went out to the world again.

Never Give Up – Reflections on the Israeli Elections

Yesterday, I awoke to find my Israeli friends expressing a sense of despair, anguish and sadness at the result of the Israeli elections.

One wrote that she wasn’t sure how she could find the strength to get out of bed to continue the [excellent] work she does in her position as director of an interfaith organization. She works with people of all faiths on a daily basis to build bridges toward peace, dialogue and understanding. She strives to develop an Israeli society where all peoples can live with dignity and in harmony. Yesterday was a difficult day for her.

Friends were greatly  saddened by the racism that pervaded the election campaign. They were grievously disturbed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s choice to rally his supporters on election day by creating an atmosphere of fear over the participation of Israeli Arabs in the elections, rather than celebrating democracy at its best.

I am not going to do an analysis of the elections – there are enough political pundits, armchair critics and others who are already doing that.

But I can talk about “hope.” So many of us love the land and people of Israel and wonder if there can ever be hope for the future in that region.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was on a long car ride. And I happened to be driving for 45 minutes on a highway behind a car whose license plate read: NEVRGVEUP

Never give up.

Never give up…hope for peace.

Never give up..hope for the future.

Never give up..hope that justice will ultimately prevail.

One of my friends, Cantor Evan Kent, who now lives in Israel full-time wrote: “in spite of the elections, I am proud to remain an irrational optimist. The philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr informs my work and life. MLK said: ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice..’.”

Evan – and so many of us –  will not give up hope that justice and peace WILL ultimately prevail in Israel. It will be a long, slow and sometimes painful road.

As Anat Hoffman (Executive Director for the Israeli Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center) said, “We will find ways to be effective and successful despite a very challenging reality. Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time to fight even more determinedly for the future.”

So, too, WE must not give up hope. We must use our voices, our actions, our words and deeds to speak up for justice and peace.

We must educate ourselves about the critical issues, we must remain united in our commitment to Israel’s security and do our part to make justice prevail and hope a reality.

One way we can impact Israel is to Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress. If you have not already voted, you can vote by clicking on this link here:

Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress

For some additional understanding about the elections, here is a wonderful blog, by Israeli Reform Rabbi Stacy Blank:

A Modest Post-Election Perspective

For the Reform Movement’s Response to the Elections, click on this link:

Reform Movement Leaders React to the Elections in Israel

As we are taught: “As long as there is life, there is hope.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9:1)

Esther vs a Hamantashen: What Would You Rather Be on Purim?

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen (a three-cornered triangular cookie, filled with jam or some other sweet filling) for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

She would cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style. She would also make a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, tied around my neck with a string.

An example of a hamantaschen costume!
An example of a hamantaschen costume!

As Purim approached, I dreaded getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume. I hated it! I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway? Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther. For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives. Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic! I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine. Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes. The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.

We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers. Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate. If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Because the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and since we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.

Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman. And, she is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her! Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls. Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people. This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit. And because God’s spirit was with her, the rabbis say, all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure. They attribute to her great courage and authority. They portray her not only as the savior of the Jewish people, but also as an halachic authority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure. The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine. For the actual text of the Book of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner. It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is andocentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine. It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children. It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models who exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did: we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.

We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti. Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself. Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.

Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!

“Press HERE for Power!”

I ran my first half-marathon (13.1 miles) this past Sunday: the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon.

Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015
Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015

For me, this personal milestone was about overcoming obstacles. I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg after I broke it in a cycling accident three years ago. This impedes my ability to run and train as I would like. I was determined not to let my leg “weigh me down”. I was determined to cross that finish line, despite my leg. And I did!

All along the race route, people held up posters and signs to encourage the racers. One poster in particular caught my eye. The sign said: “Press HERE for Power!” There was an arrow pointing to a star for us to “press.” The woman holding it stood along the trail with a huge smile on her face.  Each of us who passed her sign, touched her star.

This sign, and the woman holding it, made me smile. She gave me that little extra “boost” of encouragement to keep on running. And I smiled again when I saw her a second time holding her sign, cheering us on, during the last half of the marathon as well.

I’ve been thinking about this sign “Press HERE for POWER!” since this past Sunday.

Each one of us needs to find a source of strength – a source of “power” to help us through life’s struggles, life’s challenges, life’s daily strivings.

For some of us, our metaphorical “power button” is our connection to our family and friends. For others, we find strength in our connection with God. For some, that faith is strengthened even further when we establish deep and abiding relationships with a sustaining community. At times, we find “power” in the beauty of nature.  We can even find strength when we reach out a hand to help others.

For me personally, my strength comes from all of the above. I am so grateful to have wonderful family, friends and community who strengthen me, nurture me and support me.

I was able to get through the half-marathon with the wonderful support of my brother Ezra, and cousin Heidi, who ran the race with me.

My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!
My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi with our medals after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!

In my every day life, my faith is an important part of who I am and informs how I interact with the world around me.

As Psalm 121 states:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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