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


No More Torture

When my sister was about four or five years old, she had long, thick, blonde, curly hair that hung down almost to her waist. Every morning, as my mother brushed her hair (that was in the days when one brushed out curly hair), my sister would cry out in pain: “You’re torturing me! You’re torturing me!” Eventually, my mother could no longer bear to cause my sister such pain (nor could she bear to hear my sister scream every morning), and she cut my sister’s hair to her shoulders.

As Jews, we are no strangers to torture and pain.

From Biblical times through modern times, we have experienced brutality at the hands of others over and over again.

We need not go any further than this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). In the portion for this week, Joseph’s brothers – who despise him for his boastful, arrogant ways and for his favored-son status, torture him by throwing him into a pit (Gen. 37:24) and Joseph is afflicted by not knowing what his fate will be. The brothers’ initial plan was to kill him and be rid of him once and for all.  However, they then decide to sell Joseph to a traveling band of Ishmaelites who eventually take Joseph to Egypt.

Afterwards, the brothers  torment and torture their father, Jacob, as a punishment for favoring one son over all the others. They take Joseph’s special ornamented tunic that Jacob gave to Joseph, tear it, smear it with blood and tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. Jacob is heart-broken and unconsolable with grief.

There are many other instances in the Hebrew Bible of individuals being tortured, either physically or emotionally. Samson, by the Philistines (Judges 16: 21-25), Job, and so many others.

And we are all too aware of the suffering  we endured at the hands of our enemies throughout history: by the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Spaniards during the Inquisition…the Nazis…the list is too long to enumerate.

Yes – we are no strangers to torture and torment. Why am I speaking of torture now?

end-torture_20120626083213Because the United States Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to release its landmark 6000-page report about the CIA’s use of torture post 9/11.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D. California), who spear-headed this Committee, said: “The use of torture has been a stain on our values and our history. We need to show that we are a just and a lawful society.”

The report is complex and complicated, and the Committee spent over five years reading and analyzing over 6.3 million pages of information. Some of the conclusions the Committee reached are:

  • The CIA used “Enhanced Interrogation” which means that they used multiple forms of torture;
  • Human rights investigators found 54 countries who cooperated with the CIA in various ways in renditions, detentions, interrogations and torture;
  • Torture was not an effective means of obtaining desired results;
  • The CIA mis-led the White House, Congress and other agencies about what they were doing;
  • The CIA cites Israeli Supreme Court rulings as justification for their work. However,  the Israeli Supreme Court, in a landmark 1999 decision, banned many of the 1987 torture recommendations referred to in the document. (The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is unlawful to torture the suspect even when we know that a terrorist act is about to take place).

Judaism has much to teach us now about the use of torture as a form of punishment. In our Jewish tradition, we need to balance the values of treating all humans as being created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God with the need for protecting ourselves and taking care of our security and safety.

Sometimes, balancing these two values simultaneously might seem antithetical, contradictory and impossible. How can we treat someone with dignity and respect if they have vowed to commit a heinous crime against humanity?

In 2005, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbis’ body) issued an explanation and statement that elucidates the complexities surrounding this issue quite clearly. This was after 9/11 and after George W. Bush started to imprison people in Guantanamo Bay.  The statement rings true especially now, in light of the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

CCAR Resolution on The Use of Torture or Lesser Forms of Coercion to Obtain Information from Prisoners adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2005.

The United States should be a model of a “just and lawful society”. 

We should read the Senate Intelligence Committee report carefully and take heed to what Senator Dianne Feinstein has to say.

As we are taught in our Pledge of Allegiance: …”with liberty and justice for all.”



Run, Girl, Run! (Taking Care of Our Bodies “Shmirat Ha-guf”)

“Run to Stay Young.”

That was the title of the blog post in today’s New York Times health and wellness section. My brother, Ezra, emailed the link to me, my siblings, my nieces and one of my cousins.

According to this blog, research shows that running (or any other physically taxing activity), rather than simply walking, may reverse the aging process. It contends that we should “pick up the pace” of our workouts to gain the greatest benefit for our health and fitness levels. Simply walking quickly is not enough to reap benefits for our health and fitness – we need to be much more physically active from a cardio-vascular perspective.

Ezra is probably the quietest, or most introspective, of my four brothers. Yet over the past year, he is the one who has been quietly inspiring me, motivating me, pushing me and challenging me to return to my full level of health and physical fitness.

He knows that I am not a natural athlete. That I have to work hard to achieve my goals athletically. When I discovered my passion for cycling in my 30’s, I worked really hard to train for each and every one of my cycling trips.

When I would run to train for a race, I trained tenaciously, but my running  would always be slow and steady. So when I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg and foot resulting from breaking my leg in a cycling accident three years ago, it impeded – and still impedes – my ability to just “do what I want” athletically. I get frustrated. I don’t feel like working out because my feet and legs hurt. They don’t behave as I want them to.

And then I remember: I am so fortunate: I CAN STILL USE MY LEGS. My feet are still functioning.  Many people with my condition cannot even walk at all. So I persevere – I train when I can, until my legs/feet hurt too much, and then I back off. I try different brands of running shoes. Which ones will be the magic ones that will keep me the most pain free?

My new Hoka running shoes, recommended by my friend, the podiatrist.
My new Hoka running shoes, recommended by my friend, the podiatrist. Are these my “magic bullet?”

I have my team of professional advisors: my kinesiotherapist who is an Ironman and who has done multiple marathons and other events; my friend the  podiatrist who has done 8 Ironmans, is an Ultramarathoner and many other events; my neurological chiropractor who has made a huge difference in how I feel simply by changing my diet and my neurologist. They have each given me all of the exercises I should be doing to try and stay pain-free and healthy. I stretch and “foam roll.”  But the bottom line is, even though my feet/legs always hurt: I am walking, I am running, I am learning how to swim (not an easy thing to do at my age), I am cycling. Two steps forward, one step back.

And then, a little less than a year ago, I happened to mention to my brother Ezra that one of my long-term goals was to eventually run a half-marathon – in the distant future. This was on my “bucket list.”(eg – maybe, 2-3 years from now).  I asked if he would do it with me, since he was a multi-time marathon runner. Ezra said, “Let’s do a it now! In the next few months. It will give you a goal to work toward and keep you motivated.” If I say to him, “I don’t think I’m going to make it, (due to my injuries)” he won’t let me back out. He says: “You’re the reason we’ve all signed up for this half-marathon, so no backing out now!” He’s doing this to support me. And one of my cousins is joining us on this endeavor, possibly my step-brother-in law, and one of my other brothers might do his second 5k run with us. So, I am in – no backing out now!!

The half-marathon is February 22nd in Tampa, Florida. Now that I’ve made it public, I must keep up with the training!

Ezra, without realizing it, is making sure that I am living up to the ideals of our Jewish teachings on caring for our bodies. He wants to make sure that I won’t neglect my responsibility to myself.

We are taught in our Jewish tradition that our body is a gift from God and that we must take care of it, by exercising and eating properly. The concept of caring for our bodies in Judaism is called “Shmirat Ha-guf” – Guarding our Bodies.

Medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said: “as long as a person exercises and exerts himself [sic], sickness does not befall him and his strength increases. But one who is idle and does not exercise, even if he eats healthy foods and maintains healthy habits, all his days will be days of ailment and his strength will diminish.”

And as the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo said: “The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” (20 BCE-40 CE)

Thank you, Ezra, for helping me to live up to my obligation to fulfill the commandment of “Shmirat ha-guf” and for making sure that I will be “running to stay young” hopefully for a very long time! You are an awesome brother!

Who wants to join us for the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon on Sunday, Februay 22nd, 2015? We’d love to have you be part of our team!

Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon




Thanksgiving and Ferguson, MO: Seeking Justice

Tonight, I will join with the Three Village Interfaith Community of  Suffolk County for our joint Thanksgiving Service. With prayer, reflection, and music we express our gratitude for the many blessings in our lives: food, family, friendship, freedom and faith.

Our communal experience is enhanced because we work together to share experiences from our different backgrounds and faith traditions: Muslim, Jewish, Christian. Our skin colors range from palest of pale to darkest of dark.

We celebrate joys and triumphs together, we weep together during moments of sadness and pain.

But as we gather tonight in Thanksgiving and celebration, our hearts feel broken and bereft for the family of 18-year old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed on August 9th by police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MO. We also cry in anguish for what is taking place in Ferguson right now.

Ferguson is burning. Violence is raging all around because of the grand jury decision yesterday not to indict Wilson for Michael Brown’s murder.

We are taught: “tzedek tzedkek tirdof – justice justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Where was justice for Michael Brown? For his family?

Justice Justice Shall You Pursue
Justice Justice Shall You Pursue

What does the grand jury decision in Ferguson teach us about police and racial divides in Missouri?

We are obligated to seek out justice – but not via violence and unbridled rage.

This Thanksgiving there will be many interfaith groups coming together in prayer and unity.

Let our prayer inform our thoughts and deeds. Let  us reflect on the magnitude of the injustice affecting millions around the world. Let our prayer sensitize us to hear the voices of those whose blood cries out from the ground, whose voices cry out when they need help. Let us use our prayers as an opportunity to ask the Divine to help us combat injustice all over the world.

But let us keep in mind that prayer alone is not enough. The Talmud teaches us that “once the eye has seen, and the ear has heard, one cannot pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.” What does this mean? This means we are obligated to act to eradicate injustice and evil. We must use the tools that God has given us  – our voices, our financial resources, our political power – to end injustice by fighting with all our strength.

Next year, we pray, that justice will come to Ferguson.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Jerusalem of Gold, of Pain, Fear and Hope.

Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer/

Jerusalem of Pain, Fear and Hope by Rabbi Sharon L Sobel

The mountain air is clear as wine

The city air is thick as smoke

And the scent of pines

And the scent of blood and terror

Is carried on the breeze of twilight

Is carried on the lips of those at dawn

With the sound of the bells.

With the wails of the sirens and the cries of the innocent.

And in the slumber of tree and stone

No tree can slumber, no stone remain silent while the river of blood spills forth on the ground.

Captured in her dream

She remains captured – but no longer in a dream. She is captured in a cycle of violence with no end in sight.

The city that sits solitary

Because the world remains silent:  is not Jewish blood red? Is not Druze blood red? 

And in its midst is a wall.

A wall of hatred, a wall of suffering, a wall of injustice, a wall of violence, a wall of terror.

And yet..we are a people of hope. Jerusalem means “Iyr shel Shalom – City of Peace”. So hope must prevail.

Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light.

Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. (Psalm 122:6-7)

Building A Sacred Community Together With Each of Our Unique Gifts

This past weekend, I was installed as the new rabbi of Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, New York.

It was not just a wonderful celebration for me, my friends and family from out of town, but for my entire synagogue community.

The congregants and staff worked tirelessly to ensure that the weekend would be one of joy, celebration and community-building. They know I am a “type-A” personality but didn’t want me to worry about all the details and planning of the celebrations, so they made sure that everything was perfect – and it was!

Havdalah - with Judy and David Gershon, my niece and nephew (Sydney and Xavi Marks) and Clara, Harry and Jacob Rosenzweig
Havdalah – with Judy and David Gershon, my niece and nephew (Sydney and Xavi Marks) and Clara, Harry and Jacob Rosenzweig

Conventional wisdom tells us that the relationship between a rabbi and congregation will only succeed in how well the congregation says “good-by” to their outgoing rabbi and in how well they welcome their new rabbi. I feel very welcomed indeed!

My thoughts and feelings are reflected in my Installation Address:

We Build Sacred Community Together When Each of Us Shares Our Unique Gifts

“For the sake of Zion, I will not remain silent.” Remembering Yitzchak Rabin.

Yesterday marked the 19th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. Rabin’s legacy is legendary: a military hero, who served twice as Prime Minister of Israel, Nobel Peace Price Winner and leader extraordinaire.

He understood, as was stated by his dear friend Shimon Peres at this week’s 19th Annual Memorial Rally held in support of bringing about a peace agreement, that it was better to have a “cold peace than a hot war.” Rabin signed the Peace Treaty with Jordan’s King Hussein in 1994. That same year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with then-Israeli-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat. (Side note: a second Memorial Rally will be held on Saturday evening on the theme of “Tolerance”. The speaker will be Israeli President Reuven Rivlin who is fighting against the growing racism and intolerance in the State of Israel).

The prophet Isaiah said: “For the sake of Zion, I will not remain silent. For the sake of Jerusalem, I will not rest.” (Isaiah 62:1) Rabin fought tirelessly on behalf of his beloved Zion. He worked endlessly to ensure that all peoples in Jerusalem and her surrounding neighbors could live in peace and harmony.

Yitzchak Rabin
Yitzchak Rabin

Even 19 years later, his tragic murder leaves us with many questions: would we be any closer to peace now if he were still alive? Would he have been able to act as a stabilizing influence on a region with a growing sense of fundamentalism? Would the disasterous events of this past summer’s war in Gaza and the  continuous acts of terror still be taking place?

The two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem this past week leave us feeling shaky and uncertain. How do we secure Israel and her people while finding our way toward a just and lasting peace at the same time?

Shimon Peres has inherited Yitzhak Rabin’s mantle. He too speaks the language of the prophet Isaiah. Like Rabin, he neither remains silent nor rests. (Read the text of Peres’ speech at the 19th Memorial Rally here:)

But this not enough. If Rabin’s legacy is to be an enduring one, if Rabin’s murder is not to be in vain, we too must not remain silent. We too must find a way to speak out for a peaceful and just solution. We too must work tirelessly until the terror is no more, the guns are silent and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

If God Would Go On a Sick Leave: A Poem of Peace

By Rabbi Zoë Klein

Nowhere is there more prayer.
The Nuns at the Holy Sepulchre.
The faithful at Al Aqsa Mosque.
The worshippers at the Wall.
The call to prayer at dawn and dusk
Warbling from the citadels.
The church bells,
The Persian trills,
The passion spilled over texts
From every major/minor religious sect.

Nowhere is there more prayer than Jerusalem,
Thanks be to God, Hamdilala, Baruch Hashem.
And yet,
I’m starting to think that it’s You and not them,
God, what’s the point of prayer?

If there’s nowhere where
There’s more prayer,
And terror reigns
Then, Who’s to blame?

If suddenly, without a whisper goodbye,
Jesus, Allah, Adonai,
The three men they admire most
All took the last train for the coast,

And the Moslems got up from their knees
And the Christians put down their rosaries
And the Jews stayed their hands from kissing
Their mezuzahs,
And everyone looked up,
And realized something’s missing…

God is missing.
Stop the praying! No One’s there,
They’d arrange a party to search everywhere.
They’d look for God
But there’d be no Presence
In Holy Books or stars and crescents
Or steeples and crosses.
People’d be at a loss,
Is He ever coming back?

They’d be so distraught,
Their searching for naught,
There’d be nothing on high
So they’d turn to on low,
There’d be nothing above
So they’d turn to below,
And they’d finally see there,
In the face of the other,
A semblance of sister,
The eyes of a brother,
They’d turn and they’d lean
Upon one another.

You see, every group can’t believe that they’re the ones chosen,
Every group can’t believe that the Holy Land’s owed them,
Sometimes faith in You, God,
Builds insurmountable walls,
And everyone falls.
Everyone falls.

How wise are the secularists for whom the dead aren’t martyred
But, quite plainly, murdered…

This might sound like an absurd,
ungodly thing to say,
A truly heretical supplication to pray,
(I say this only out of the deepest respect)
But if for a few days, God, You’d just give it a rest,
If You’d take a sick leave and just go away
And let Israel work this out without You in the way,

God, for that kind of peace,
You’re a small price to pay.
(Rabbi Zoë Klein)

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit


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