Mt Kilimanjaro – Symbol of Strength, Fortitude and Resilience

Last Friday evening, I had a conversation with a congregant about overcoming personal obstacles to achieve personal goals.  He shared with me that one of his goals was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Mt Kilimanjaro
Mt Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Tanzania, Africa and the highest ‘walkable’ mountain in the world. The trek to the summit is a magnificent and spectacular five-to-nine day undertaking. It ranks amongst the greatest outdoor challenges on the planet.  One needs to train in a very specific way in order to reach the summit, as often people get altitude sickness and cannot make it to the top.

I thought about Mt. Kilimanjaro as a symbol this past week. A symbol of strength, fortitude and resilience.

This was a difficult week on many levels.

1. Strength of the Human Spirit:  Earlier this week, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Berkinau. As we recalled all those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, we remind ourselves that we still live in a world filled with hatred, xenophobia and violence.

The Jewish people survived, despite the Nazis. We are testament to the strength, fortitude and resilience of the human spirit in the face of incredible evil.  We can overcome the obstacle of long-held enmity if we work together, just as everyone needs to work together to reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. We must pledge to renew ourselves to the task of making this world safe for all who dwell upon it.

2. Fortitude: The Northeast of the United States was clobbered by a severe winter storm. In parts of Massachusetts and Long Island, as much as 24-33 inches of snow fell,  high winds raged and power outages blacked out peoples’ homes. As people hunkered down to brace for the weather, they reached out to their friends and neighbors to make sure everyone was safe, warm and had enough food. People showed their fortitude and solidarity for their neighbors by helping clear driveways and walkways and cars without being asked. We cannot control “Mother Nature”, but we can deal with its effects with our patience, fortitude and helping those around us.

3. Resilience: A few days ago, I learned that a colleague and friend  was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the senior rabbi of a major North American Reform congregation. The letter she sent out to her congregation was filled with grace, dignity and eloquence.

She wrote: “Resilience is a distinct kind of strength. It has something to do with the ability to cope when hardship comes along…Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future…”

She spoke first of the Jewish people, then of her congregation, then of her personal challenge. Her personal “summit” which she now needs to climb – is to overcome the hurdle of breast cancer. She is the very model of leadership and inspiration for her community.

As we approach the days, weeks and months ahead, we will each face our own challenges, our own Mt. Kilimanjaro’s: either by choice or by happenstance.

If we find strength, fortitude and resilience, along with faith in God’s abiding presence in our midst, we too, can reach that summit and rejoice in the beautiful view at the top.

Esa enai, el he-harim, me-ayin ya-voy ezri?

Ezri, me-yim Adonai, oseh Shamayim, va’aretz.

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. (Psalm 121)


Why I am a Reform Zionist – Vote for Me and Vote for ARZA!

I became Bat Mitzvah in September of 1973, immediately after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. I desperately wanted to be able to go to Israel, volunteer and do something.

I have been a fervent Zionist from the time I was very young. My beloved paternal grandmother, Florence Sobel, of blessed memory, an ardent Zionist and passionate Hadassah member and leader, gifted my mother, aunt and me with Hadassah Life Membership in 1967 when I was 7 years old. I was the very first child Hadassah “Life Member!”

I have strong memories of attending meetings and learning about the wonderful work that Hadassah accomplished both in Israel and the United States. My grandmother was one of the strongest influences in my life: her strong Zionist ideology, her passion and commitment to volunteering for Hadassah, her synagogue and the Jewish community all inspired me to study for the rabbinate and pursue a career as a Jewish communal professional.

So the summer following my Bat Mitzvah, I used the financial gifts I received and went on a six-week teen tour in Israel. I absorbed the history, the sights, smells and sounds. Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel was now forever deeply implanted in my heart and soul – more strongly than ever.

Since that time, I have lived in Israel for two years: the first time when I was 17, immediately following high school. I lived on a kibbutz for a year, doing volunteer work and studied Hebrew. The second time, I lived in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

I served for nine years as the Executive Director of ARZA Canada, the Association of Reform Zionists of Canada and organized and led many study trips to Israel. I learned first-hand about the wonderful, critical and important work that the Israeli Reform Movement is doing to impact Israeli society on so many different levels: social, religious, economic, political, humanitarian and so much more.

I helped to facilitate, deepen and strengthen the connection of the Canadian Reform Movement to the Israeli Reform Movement. Along the way, I developed a strong network of friends and relationships in Israel that are so important to me to this day.

For eight years in a row, I participated in a fundraising bike ride in Israel to raise funds and awareness for the Israeli Reform Movement (known as the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, IMPJ), raising the most funds of any individual each and every year.

Me and my group on the Israeli Reform Movement's "Ride4Reform" bike ride in 2008.
Me and my group on the Israeli Reform Movement’s “Ride4Reform” bike ride in 2008.

My life-long relationship with Israel and with the Israeli Reform Movement has taught me that it is critical for us as North American Jews to be involved with our beloved Jewish homeland.

Our voices matter more than ever. Our Israeli brothers and sisters need our support, they want to hear us speak out on issues, they want to see us as partners in their lives.

And the time for us to use our voices is NOW.

Right now elections are taking place for seats in the World Zionist Congress – the supreme body that allocates funds and makes decisions about multiple issues that affect the future of the life of Israelis.

As Americans, we have an opportunity to vote between now and April 30th. In the US, ARZA  represents the Reform Movement’s voice and has put together a slate for the elections.

I am on that slate, with over 200 other Reform Movement affiliated individuals who care deeply about Israel’s very soul.

These elections are so critical to the Israeli Reform Movement. Your vote for me and the ARZA slate could lead to the distribution of approximately $27Million dollars for the Israeli Reform Movement. This will be distributed over four years and will be used for programs, services and our beloved Reform organizations and congregations in Israel.

This election is our opportunity to make change in Israel. We are working for an inclusive Israel, a pluralistic Israel and a democratic Israel. An Israel that is a better place for all its citizens.

To vote, you must be:

  • Jewish
  • 18 years old
  • You must be a resident of the United States
  • The registration cost is $10 USD (or $5.00 for those under 30)

I have already voted for ARZA in the World Zionist elections. Please join me by voting NOW to help make Israel a better place for all its citizens. Click this link to register and vote:

Vote for ARZA and Make a Difference!

Who Will be the Moses of Today? Some Thoughts on the Crisis in France

Go down Moses

Way down to Egypt land

Tell ole’ Pharaoh, to

Let my people go!

This week, we begin reading the book of Exodus in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). The narrative begins with the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. We’re told how God chose Moses to go back to Egypt to help free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grip.

This week, we are reminded that there are still Pharaohs who exist in this world. They rear their ugly heads under the guise of whatever extremist religion/ideology they tout.

The massacre in France at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in which 12 journalists were murdered by Muslim extremists is reprehensible. The world was, rightfully, outraged. Journalists should be able to freely express their ideas and thoughts without fear of reprisal or revenge.

All over social media, people were uploading images of solidarity and support “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) – even in Hebrew (“Ani Sharlie”).

Then just as the two assailants who perpetrated the heinous crime were caught and killed, another anti-Semitic hate crime occurred in France. This time, it is thought (still to be confirmed) that an associate of the first two militants took hostages at a kosher market earlier today, on Friday, right before Shabbat. Four hostages were killed and five were injured before the rest were freed and the attacker was finally killed in the final rescue.

The Jews in France were told today to “close the doors of their businesses, to stay home from their synagogues.” Is there a fear of more anti-Semitic attacks? Can Jews in France not live safely in their own country any longer?

Over the past few years, anti-Semitism  has been rapidly growing in France. Until today, the world has not expressed its horror and indignation in the same manner that it has since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. 

An attack against one peoples is an attack against all peoples. As we are told in Genesis: God made humans in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27). We are all created equally and we all are created in God’s image. If you commit a hate-crime against one people, you commit a hate-crime against God.

Where is the outrage when hate-crimes are committed against Jews? Against women and children in Syria? Against so many others? Does it take an attack against journalists to make us raise our eyebrows about anti-Semitism in France?

Who will be the  Moses of today to lead us out of the slavery of the hatred and violence caused by extremists and fanatics?

When will Jews, Muslims, journalists, African-Americans and all people be able to live our lives in peace – and not be afraid?

Moses had the courage to stand up to Pharaoh. He did not back down. We too, need to find the courage and the strength to stand up to the forces of evil, of hatred and violence and not back down.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif. Je suis Musulman. Je suis African-Amerique. Je suis journaliste. Je suis… humain.

I am Charlie. I am Jewish. I am a Muslim. I am African-American. I am a journalist. I am… a human-being.

May the days, weeks and months ahead enable us to find the Moses within each of us. Let us find the words, actions and deeds to rid our world of the Pharaohs , so that each of us may live in this world as a free human-being.

Shabbat Shalom.

In Praise of Nurses…Unsung Heroes

We have a lot of Registered Nurses in my family (and a few physicians as well).

My mother was an RN. My sister-in-law  Marilyn, is an RN (and is certified in Palliative Care nursing). My cousin Lynn is an RN (and is a Nurse Practitioner as well).  My Aunt Libby is an RN.

All of these women have multiple degrees and a great deal of theoretical and practical training. They are all highly skilled in their fields and take courses every year to maintain their licenses and keep up with the latest in medicine.

RN_symbol_webMore than that, however, they are all extremely nurturing, compassionate and responsive individuals. They know how to be fully present for their patients.

I know we think that all nurses are supposed to behave in such a way, and physicians as well. However, in my work as a rabbi and pastoral caregiver, I observe many instances when some  health-care workers are so busy that they are harried, insensitive or seemingly uncaring.

Sometimes they forget that the “Leukemia in Bed #2″ is not an illness, but a living, breathing human being, with thoughts, feelings and emotions. That person has an entire life that exists BEYOND the hospital and is much larger than his or her illness.

And when someone is ill and in the hospital, it affects their family as well. Treating the patient includes bringing their family into the process.

Our Jewish tradition places high value on the mitzvah (commandment) of g’mi’lut hasadim – doing acts of lovingkindness. We are taught that the act of caring for others is fundamental to how we live out our relationship with others in our lives, both personally and professionally.

Therefore, if someone is sick in the hospital, it’s incumbent upon both the medical professionals, as well as the rest of us, to care for that person and their family physically, spiritually and emotionally.

Nurses are generally “on the front lines” of care for those in the hospital. They are the ones who provide most of the patient care and don’t receive enough credit for their hard work and efforts. Additionally, they often get the jobs that are not always pleasant and they are not always thanked for their efforts.

A few nights ago, I sat with my congregant at the hospital as her mother was in the final hours of her life. The nursing staff could not have been more incredible. They were so completely compassionate, sensitive and caring.

The nurses facilitated an end-of-life experience that was as life-affirming, merciful and tender-hearted as was possible. They helped take a difficult and painful experience and made it less so, by their actions, deeds, words and their very presence.

Truly these nurses are a great gift to this hospital, the patients and their families. We are so blessed to have them in our midst.

These nurses – and so many others –  exemplify the Jewish concept of g’m’lut hasadim – doing acts of lovingkindness.

To all of you, I say: Todah rabbah – Thank you so very much!


Unpacking Boxes…New Year’s Lessons from My Grandfather, Harry Sobel

Today is December 31,  2014. At midnight we will usher out the year that “was” and welcome in the year that has yet “to begin”.

This is the time of year when people begin to unpack their “boxes” from the past year (or two, or three…)

Some of the  “boxes” are metaphorical. They represent the events that took place in our lives over the past year.

For some of us, these events are life-altering and bring us joy, sorrow or growth. We want to take these events out of the box, place them in their proper perspective and use them as inspiration and motivation for the year ahead.

Some events are so difficult, we bury them deep inside the “box” and can’t think about them, or don’t want to think about them for a very long time. So we keep them packed away for a very long time.

And yet, this act of “unpacking boxes” and reflecting on their contents is a very Jewish notion. As a Jewish people, the gift of memory is important to us. It’s important for us to reflect on the past. Our spiritual life does not only consist of reactions to the present and hopes for the future, but also what we can recall in our minds and hearts of what has been. And not only to reflect, but to turn our reflections into actions and deeds of love.

“We cannot overstate our debt to the past, but the moment has the supreme claim.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letters and Social Aims, 1876)

As we unpack our metaphorical boxes at this time of year, some of us are also unpacking physical, actual boxes. Yet, what’s inside represents so much more than the actual contents themselves. Contents which can inspire us for the year ahead. 

Earlier this week,  my sister and one of my brothers both sent me an email (ok – my sister will correct me: she sent me a text message. My brother sent me an email.) Unbeknown to the other, they had each decided to finally unpack the boxes they had from five years ago when both my parents died, 10 weeks apart from each other (my father died first, on December 26, 2009 and my mother died 10 weeks later, on March 15, 2010. They had been divorced for 37 years).

As they each unpacked their boxes, they found a treasure-trove of items. Memorabilia, family photos, artwork, books (my beloved copy of the book “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, held together by Scotch tape, since I read it so many times. My sister’s eight-year old will now read it!), silver, china and so much more. Things that have meaning to our family.

One of the items my brother unpacked, however, was a newspaper article that was written in 1949, just after my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, died at the age of 45.

Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z"l (of blessed memory)
Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z”l (of blessed memory)

He died from a rare form of Juvenile Leukemia, after being ill for only 8 days. My father was 12, his brother was 9 and his sister was 6. All of a sudden, my grandmother was left alone with three young children to raise. We knew my grandmother as a strong, capable woman.

She was the epitome of a modern woman, who was audaciously hospitable, philanthropic, charming, artistic, generous, loyal and kind. She was also very modest about her achievements and did not like to accept accolades for her work. She was a role model for all of my siblings, my cousins and me.

And apparently, my grandfather was a similar kind of person, modest and unassuming. But this article about my grandfather reflects for us how very special he truly was.

It shows that our years on earth may be many or few, but what ultimately matters is what we have done with our time to make a difference while we are here.

So here are the  important lessons for each of us to take into the New Year from my grandfather Harry Sobel, z’l (may his memory be for a blessing).

  1. Be a good friend
  2. Become involved in your community
  3. Be fair and honest in business
  4. Open your door to others: Embody the notions of “Audacious hospitality” and a welcoming home – especially if you know others don’t have a place to go.
  5. Have a fair and generous spirit (tzedakah – literally means “justice” – helping those in need)
  6. Help others to help themselves so they won’t need to rely on the assistance of others any longer (according to Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, this is the highest level of philanthropy).

As I read this newspaper clipping and reflect on its message, I feel connected to my family, those who are with me only in heart, mind and memory and those who are still present. I feel inspired to continue in the path they walked before me and hope I can achieve the heights they scaled.

Happy New Year!

No Virginia, there is no “Chrismakuh”

Today is December 24th – Christmas eve.

I love to help my non-Jewish friends celebrate their holiday, just as they love to help me celebrate mine. But I don’t observe their holiday in my home. It doesn’t belong to me.

I am Jewish. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and identity.

Set of jewish religious holiday vector symbolsWe can draw an analogy to birthdays: Just as I can help you celebrate your birthday, help you eat cake and mark the day of your birth, I know full well that your birthday is not my birthday. I would not expect to receive birthday gifts on your birthday, nor have a party, nor receive cards. Therefore, I can help you celebrate your holidays in your home, but they are not my holy days, they are not my celebrations, they are not my festivals.

I was dismayed, therefore, earlier this month, to see that several of my Jewish friends and acquaintances had adopted “Chrismukah”: a made-up conglomeration of Christmas and Chanukah. Somehow, they wanted to have a tree in their home, experience the glittering lights and music that surround Christmas.

They rationalized the tree by saying: “it’s not religious!” And, “we made it blue and white! So it’s a Jewish tree!”

First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Christmas and Chanukah are not analogous. Christmas is one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. It celebrates Jesus’ birth.

By Jews adopting some of the symbolism of Christmas and saying “it’s not religious” we are demeaning the true meaning of what Christmas is all about. It devalues the holiness of the day for our Christian friends.

Second, Chanukah is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. E of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. This festival is not very important on our Jewish calendar. In fact, it is not even mentioned in our Hebrew bible! It was a festival declared by Judah Maccabee. The rabbis of old tried to minimize the celebration by focusing on the lighting of the Chanukiyah. (see my post from last week).

The only commonality between Christmas and Chanukah is the time of year that the two take place: they both occur around the winter solstice. They both include a “festival of lights.” But the similarities end there.

As a Jewish community, we do a dis-service to ourselves when we feel we must adopt the holy days of other religions as our own.

Our Jewish tradition is rich with festivals, holy days and Shabbat (Sabbath) observances. If we take pride in our own traditions, if we are able to know and understand what our rituals and traditions mean, then there will be no need to adopt/adapt other traditions as our own.

To my non-Jewish friends, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

To my Jewish friends, enjoy the day off, go to the movies, spend time with your family, or celebrate with your friends. Shabbat begins on Friday: I wish you an early Shabbat Shalom.

Chanukah- Bringing Light to Others

When I was growing up, Chanukah was literally a “festival of MANY lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multi-branched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Chanukah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, plus one for the “shammash” – the helper candle that is used to light the other candles).

Every morning during Chanukah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of Chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitvah – the commandment of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!

My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah - one of my favorites!
My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah – one of my favorites!


My mother's Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.
My mother’s Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.

I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Chanukah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Chanukah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.

It is no accident that Chanukah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: we are approaching our winter solstice. Once again, Chanukah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.

Let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Chanukah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Chanukah celebration to a family tzedakah project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek – which means “justice” and “righteousness”. We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.

There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Torah, all further clarified by the rabbis in the Talmud. They all center around one basic principle: no matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honour or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.

Tzedakah is not something that is limited to one night of the year. Perhaps you can use this opportunity as a family to figure out a family tzedakah project that will be meaningful for your family to participate in all year long. This is something that both parents and children can research, donate time and funds to, educate others about, spend a little time at the Shabbat dinner table reflecting on and do some type of culminating event at the end of the year. (It is customary to donate tzedakah every Shabbat right before Shabbat begins). I think you will find that no matter what project you and/or your family choose, this year-long involvement will not only make your Chanukah candles glow more brightly for others, but enable them to glow all year long for you as well.

Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!

Click here for some links for helpful Chanukah resources:

Chanukah resources from Rabbi Sharon Sobel @ Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY


Food for Mind, Body and Spirit


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