“My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.”

I grew up in Succasunna, New Jersey. It is a small town in the middle of northern New Jersey. My father served as the Reform rabbi in the local synagogue. Back then, the Jewish community in Succasunna was small. Our congregants lived not just in our own town, but from a radius of 20 miles or more around us.

I was one of just a few Jewish students in my grammar school, middle school and high school. But since my involvement in my synagogue was such an important part of my life, my non-Jewish friends would often spend time at our synagogue with me and I would attend their church functions with them. It was my first introduction to “interfaith dialogue”.

Interfaith Dialogue
Interfaith Dialogue

We celebrated each other’s holy days, life-cycle events and milestones. We learned what was important to the other. Most importantly, we learned to respect our differences and to rejoice in what we shared in common.

When my parents both died four years ago, one of my dear friends sent me a letter, telling me that when we were in 8th grade, she went to visit my father in his office. She explained to him that even though she was raised Lutheran, she felt more closely connected to Judaism and really wanted to convert. He treated her as an adult. He listened. He encouraged her to read, to speak to her parents and to wait. He never shared with me anything about her visit. Only after his death did I learn of their discussions. She told me that he had a tremendous impact on her and that he taught her so much: about religion, about life, about patience. In the end, she did not convert. But her respect for Judaism continues to this day, because of that dialogue.

Today, I am engaged in another kind of interfaith dialogue, one that sustains and nurtures the work I do on a daily basis. Congregation B’nai Torah consists of four buildings on the shore of Lake Michigan. One of the buildings is an old mansion, which is now used for our office space and some meeting rooms.

Congregation B'nai Torah - White Building. Highland Park, Illinois
Congregation B’nai Torah – White Building. Highland Park, Illinois

On the top floor, is a large apartment. Many years ago, the space had been used to house Cambodian boat-refugees seeking asylum. But in recent years, the space has been used to house graduate students from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the campus of Trinity International University. The students live on our premises rent-free while they are in school, in exchange for doing 10-15 hours of maintenance work on our large property.

The mission of Trinity International University is to offer rigorous academic programs in many disciplines (both undergraduate and graduate) that are grounded in Scripture. Their faculty are committed to teaching and research that integrate faith and life.

The students who live and work at B’nai Torah are a wonderful, diverse, talented and extremely interesting group of young men. They are all deeply committed to their faith traditions and are passionate about their “mission” and I am learning a great deal from all of them. They are very respectful of the Jewish tradition and are interested in what we do here as well. (As an aside, those who are studying for a Master’s in Divinity, also learn Hebrew and Greek. It was great when they were helping me unpack my Talmud set and other books and they could put them away in the right order because they could read the Hebrew!)

Josh T., who is now studying for his PhD in Egyptology, is a gifted and talented musician. He writes, directs and produces musicals for fun in his spare time. But he also researched all of our Jewish museum artifacts: ritual objects and ancient scrolls. He prepared a proposal documenting the best way for us to display and preserve these.

Dan is working on his Master of Divinity. He’s also a computer whiz. His brother has his PhD from our very own Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in Ancient Near East studies and his sister-in-law works at HUC’s library!

Josh W. grew up in a missionary family who travelled all over the world. He and his parents spent a number of years in the FSU and he speaks fluent Russian. He is unwavering in his commitment to social justice and serving others. Josh’s goal upon graduation is really “grass roots community organizing mission work”. He would like to build his own church community in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the most diverse urban neighborhood in the country – and he’ll start from scratch. He runs 1/2 marathons, 10Ks and does many other things for fun – but his church work is paramount in his life.

Matt is originally from Anchorage, Alaska. He has his undergraduate degree in Communications and competed in collegiate athletics in Track and Field as a 110m hurdler. He will be graduating this May with a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies and will also be starting up his own church from “scratch” and is working on getting his 501c3 now. He’ll be staying locally to do so. Matt is also a runner. Like most of the other guys who live here, Matt grew up as an Evangelical his entire life, but eventually as he grew older, his faith developed in deeper and more personal ways. He helped lead youth ministries through grade school. Today, he travels as an associate evangelist for “On the Go Ministries”, speaking with people around the world about faith in God. He works with many other ministries as well. One of the reasons he’s excited about living at B’nai Torah, for him, is that Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Matt feels that the more he learns about Judaism, the more he learns about Christianity.

Jim is from Canada (YAY – a fellow Canadian, eh?!) He recently got engaged and will be getting married in August. Together, he and Dana will move forward to a life of faith and love.

Ethan is not studying at Trinity, but his father is a pastor in an Evengelical Church. His father has experienced some difficult times due to some church “politics”. My staff and I try to be here to be supportive for Ethan and be that listening ear, as he and his family endure this trying time.

Chris is the one with whom I have spent the most time, engaged in ongoing dialogue. I listened to a sermon that he recently preached in his Church. He and I discussed our very different views about abortion and “pro-choice”. Chris was interested to learn about the Jewish approach to “sin” (since it plays a large part in his faith). So we are continuing our discussion. He reads my blog, he listens to what happens in our services, and we talk, and will continue to do so. What do our faiths share in common? What do we perceive are the most significant differences between us? (I am learning a lot about Evangelicalism). Chris is interested in learning more about how each of us believes that God calls us to relate to those outside our faith and society at large. Chris has a degree in engineering, worked for a few technology companies after graduating undergraduate school, and also did several internships at some churches. He too, is passionate about social justice and serving others. He will earn his Master’s of Divinity and would like to serve as a pastor of a church long-term.

I include these young men in my weekly staff meetings. At the beginning of each staff meeting, we do a “checking-in” to see how everyone is doing, what’s happening in their lives: joyful, sad, difficult, and so on. If we are going to work together as a successful team at our congregation, it’s important to know and understand what’s happening in everyone’s lives.

It was during these “checking in” periods that I learned about Chris’ sermon that he was going to be delivering. I learned about Ethan’s father. We learned that Matt is in the process of finishing his Master’s thesis. Josh T. shared that his grandmother was getting increasingly more frail and he was getting more worried. (We added her name to our Mi Sheberach – our healing – list). As a congregational community – as a faith community – I want my staff to know that I am interested in learning more about them, what is happening in their lives, and what is important to them.

I know that if we take the time to understand each other, and learn about each other, when they leave B’nai Torah and go out to their own ministries, it will be with a greater understanding and sense of open spirit.

As we learn from the prophet Isaiah: “My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.” (Isaiah 56: 7) I look forward to continuing my dialogue!

You and I Can Change the World

When I was in high school, I was part of a Jewish folk-singing trio with two of my friends. We called ourselves “Hashoshanim” – The Roses. We performed for synagogues and other Jewish organizations across New Jersey and New York in the late 1970’s.

One of our favorite songs was a popular Israeli song by Arik Einstein and Miki Gavrielov, “Ani V’atah”: You and I will change the world, you and I, then all will join us.

Together, we can change the world.
Together, we can change the world.

The message of this song was a lesson that my parents instilled within me from the time I was young: each one of us has the ability to make a difference in this world. Not only that, but our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are obligated to do our part to make this world a better place for others, a concept known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world.

We learn from the Torah, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:20). My parents taught us from a young age how to make these words a reality in our lives by:

  • Encouraging us to give tzedakah (charity) from our own money on a regular basis;
  • Taking us to march in rallies in Manhattan and Washington, DC to support Israel, to free Soviet Jews, to fight against the war in Viet Nam;
  • Speaking out for those who are unable to speak for themselves.
  • Keeping social justice issues on the forefront of our congregational agendas and on our agenda for conversation at home.

I continue to be passionate about social justice issues throughout my life. I hear my father’s voice telling me: “Sharon, the Talmud teaches us, ‘once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected. You must ACT.'”

During rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to travel to the USSR with two classmates to visit Refuseniks and bring in much needed supplies. I spent 4.5 months in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, working with Reform congregations there and learning about the situation and what we could do back at home to help ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by Apartheid.

My tikkun olam work since ordination has been broad and varied. It has included:

  • starting the first Jewish AIDS Committee in Canada;
  • continuing to visit the FSU and working with the Jewish communities in Belarus to bring in much needed medical supplies; teaching about Pesach and leading Pesach seders;
  • organizing and starting the first Mitzvah Day at my former congregation in Connecticut – a program that has been going on for almost two decades now and has the highest congregational participation outside of High Holy Days;
  • Working with the Canadian Reform Movement on a National program to stop Human Trafficking;
  • Partnering with the Canadian Reform Movement and ARZA Canada on many Israeli social justice programs.
  • And so much more!

I therefore feel so honoured and thrilled to be selected to participate in the American Jewish World Service (AJWS.) Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbis for the 2014-2015 year.

American Jewish World Service
American Jewish World Service

The fellowship is done in conjunction with our work in our own congregations. AJWS feels that congregational rabbis play key roles in our own communities when it comes to coalition building, community organizing and raising awareness about critical issues.

The program includes an 8-10 day educational trip to Kenya in August. We’ll learn from extraordinary local human rights activists who are using grassroots organizing tactics to fight discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls and the LGBT community. Back at home, we will engage in innovative training sessions to develop skills in community organizing and advocacy. The goal is to mobilize and organize our communities in support of the wonderful work that AJWS does across the globe and other efforts to promote global justice, as we advocate for human rights and try to end poverty across the world.

As I begin this fellowship this March, I will be blogging about the work I am doing. I hope you will follow my blog and join in our efforts.

“Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam – together, you and I CAN change the world!”

To learn more about American Jewish World Service and the wonderful work that they do across the world, click here.


Love Is In the Air

My friend Pedie Wolfond is a gifted and talented artist. She’s part of a modernist tradition called “abstract expressionism.” She uses colour and light to to express her feelings and emotions. Mostly, Pedie wants people to feel joy, happiness and love when they reflect on her paintings.

In fact, she has a whole series of paintings that consist of just hearts. Bright, bold, beautiful, colourful hearts .

One of Pedie Wilfond’s Hearts, which she gifted to me. A large 30-foot version of this is displayed in the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario.

Pedie’s intention with her “Heart Series” is: “to create more love and more kindness in this world. It is my wish that you will feel joy and happiness as you look at these hearts and share with others a desire to love and be loved.” (Pedie Wolfond, Introduction to “Find Your Heart”, 2011).

Pedie’s hearts are displayed in hospitals, galleries and homes all over the world.

She has published two books with her images, called “Find Your Heart.” Each two-page spread contains an inspirational quote, across from one of her heart paintings.

Pedie’s motto is simple:

  • live live to the fullest
  • care about friends
  • smiles are like sunshine
  • remember to give back
  • cherish those you love
  • create from your heart
  • count your blessings
  • giving makes the heart sing.
Hearts From Artist Pedie Wilfond’s “Heart Series”

I was thinking about all of this as we approach February 14th – Valentine’s Day. A day of hearts and flowers. A day when the hype in the media tends to make people who are not paired up seem to be left out.

Valentine’s Day has it’s origins in Christianity. St. Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. Eventually it did evolve into the occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering candies, sending cards.

Even though Valentine’s Day is Christian in origin, the concept of “love” is a very Jewish concept indeed. In fact, we even have a Jewish Valentine’s Day on our own calendar! It is called “Tu B’Av” – the 15th day of the month of Av. This was a spring-time day of matchmaking for unmarried women during the time of the 2nd Temple before it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD.

Now, Tu B’Av is celebrated much like our own Valentine’s Day, dedicated to romance, friendship and LOVE.

As we approach February 14th, I think we need to view the concept of “love” more broadly than just as a day devoted to romantic love. If we do this, February 14th, Valentine’s Day, will be more inclusive and not so exclusive. We can look to our Jewish tradition as our guide and model.

How is “love” viewed from our Jewish tradition? Here are a few examples:

  • In the V’ahavta – we are commanded to LOVE God,(V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha);
  • Torah is a symbol of God’s love for us;
  • Husbands and wives love each other (in the creation story in Genesis, we are told that a man leaves his mother and joins with his wife). And then, further on in Genesis, this is explained in the Isaac and Rebecca story (Gen 24:67): Isaac took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her.
  • In the Book of Ruth, we see the ultimate love of a widowed daughter-in-law, for her widowed mother-in-law, when Ruth says to Naomi, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)
  • And probably, one of the most famous uses of the word “love” is from Leviticus: V’ahavta l’re’echa ka’mocha: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). This is known as the “Golden Rule”.

Love takes many forms: There’s romantic love, love for parents and children, love for the others who live in our midst, and love between the Divine Presence and ourselves.

With loving hearts together, we can create a better world.” –Pedie Wolfond

The Miracles of the Every Day

Today it is gray and the temperature is again 16 degrees F. The snow has been falling steadily since 6:00 PM last night. Driving is a nightmare because the roads are a mess.

The polar vortex, with its record-breaking cold temperatures, and endless snow, is beginning to get everyone down. “I’m so OVER this weather!” “I can’t wait for spring!” These are the common refrains we hear from our friends and family on a daily basis.

One of the people in our office slipped on black ice outside her gym, fell between two parked cars, and hurt her back, knee and ankle. She is definitely not having a good time walking around with a leg brace and crutches on the ice and snow.

And yet, despite the weather, despite the bitter cold and the dryness of the air inside, I have found some incredible beauty outside each and every day.

I am very fortunate that my synagogue sits on lakefront property on the North Shore of Lake Michigan. I also happen to live on the lake as well. Each and every day I feel so incredibly blessed to look out on a stunning view – no matter what the weather – and see something beautiful, new and unique. The water constantly changes colors: from gray, to blue, to green to turquoise. Now, it is white: frozen and covered with snow.

Congregation B'nai Torah view of Lake Michigan. The Lake is frozen and covered with snow.
Congregation B’nai Torah view of Lake Michigan. The Lake is frozen and covered with snow. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

In Jewish tradition, as part of our morning ritual, we recite a series of blessings called “Nisim B’Chol Yom – For Daily Miracles”. We think about the miracle of our own physical being: the fact that we are able to open our eyes, have clothing to wear and have purpose in life. And then we express our gratitude to God. At the same time, these blessings remind us, that life is indeed MIRACULOUS. Wow! I woke up and my body did indeed work as it was intended to work! They remind us that we are all made in God’s image, as free people. These blessings nudge us to celebrate that freedom. These blessings remind us, too, that the earth on which we live is a gift to us from God, and we must nurture it and protect it.

One of these morning blessings thanks God who “stretches the earth over the waters.”

A view of Lake Michigan from B'nai Torah on a sunny and cold day. Still beautiful!
A view of Lake Michigan from B’nai Torah on a sunny and cold day. Still beautiful! Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

I live out this blessing on a daily basis. I never grow tired of looking out my window at this beautiful view. It definitely is one of my daily miracles, this beautiful work of creation.

In addition to the “Nisim B’Chol Yom – The Daily Miracles” blessings we recite in the morning, there’s a tradition in Judaism of reciting 100 blessings a day. There are blessings to say upon smelling a lemon, or seeing a rainbow, for taking a journey, or for study, among others.

Two of my favorite daily blessings thank God for the “Wonders of Nature”. They go hand-in-hand with reminding us about our daily miracles. The first is recited upon seeing large-scale wonders of nature, such as mountains, hills, deserts, oceans, rivers, lightning and the sky. And the second is recited upon seeing the small-scale wonders of nature, such as beautiful trees, animals and people.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation.


We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, that all things such as these are in Your world.

I think that both of these blessings would be appropriate when we saw the sunrise at Congregation B’nai Torah last week, early one morning:

Our Daily Miracle: Sunrise on Lake Michigan as seen from Congregation B'nai Torah. Photo credit: Chris Engelman
Our Daily Miracle: Sunrise on Lake Michigan as seen from Congregation B’nai Torah. Photo credit: Chris Engelman

Or, when we happened to look out the window during our 7th grade class last Wednesday and happened to see this magnificent sunset:

Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B'nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel
Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B’nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

These are just some of the “miracles of the every day”that brighten up my dreary winter days. They make me smile and feel warm inside. They remind me that I am truly blessed to be living in such glorious splendor.

I know that each one of us has our own “miracles of the every day” in our own lives. May they warm your heart and spirit and bring you light on these dark, winter days!