Accompanying Others on Their Sacred Journeys-The Life of a Rabbi

Birth is a beginning, 

And death a destination;

But life is a journey,

A going – a growing

From stage to stage. (by Alvin Fine)

“Death is a destination….” My text message ‘pinged’ at 2:30 am: “I just received a call from hospice that mother has passed.” I quickly woke up. If my friend and congregant was sending me a text at 2:30 am, it was ok to phone her back right away.

J’s mother was 97 years old. She had lived a long life. J was an only child and now it was up to her and her husband to make all the arrangements. We talked about what she wanted and needed to do. And we made plans to get together the next day.

Hands from a well-lived life.
Hands from a well-lived life.

The funeral was a graveside service with only family and close friends present. But the shiva was filled with family, friends and so many loved ones who came to support J, to share memories, stories and offer condolences. The house was filled to overflowing until almost 1:00 am.

It was truly a cathartic process for J, who felt embraced, strengthened and loved by her community and family.

“Birth is a beginning…” While I was planning the funeral for J’s mother, my good friends were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their baby who was one week overdue. He finally made his appearance as his friends and family rejoiced from around the world!

New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).
New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).

I was invited to officiate at his “Naming Ceremony” to be held at his grandparent’s home in Madison, Wisconsin (I am also friends with the baby’s grandparents). The family’s cantor, who officiated at the new dad’s Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation and I – who am the new dad’s first rabbi as an adult – were to co-officiate together. The baby’s aunt participated in the ceremony from Israel via Skype.

One day after the Shiva for J’s mother, I drove to Madison and we welcomed baby A into the Covenant of the Jewish people. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt promised to love and nurture him and raise him in the traditions of our people. They wished him a life of Torah (learning), Chuppah (loving relationships) and Ma’asim Tovim (deeds of lovingkindness) as we bestowed upon him his Hebrew name, surrounded by friends, family and community from near and far.

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age.

From innocence to


And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to


Or strength to

weakness –

And, often, back again.

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again. (Alvin Fine)

“From health to sickness…” My text message ‘pinged’ again in the middle of the night at 1:41 am in between the death of J’s mother and the birth of G’s baby boy. “I have sad news to tell you. My mother-in-law had a stroke and then was quickly diagnosed with leukaemia. That’s not the worst part. She has bleeding in the brain and they don’t know if they can save her.”

 ….”and back, we pray, to health again.” The family didn’t want me to visit, because as she became lucid, they thought it would scare her if she saw me – her rabbi – at the hospital. She didn’t know how bad it was. She has now – thankfully – turned a corner and the worst is over. They are thinking that she will get through the immediate crisis. I am staying in touch several times a day by text and phone. As soon as the family is ready, I will visit. (I also have bronchitis, so a hospital visit at this time is not advisable).

..Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage 

Made stage by stage

From birth to death

to life everlasting. (Alvin Fine)

Such is the life of a rabbi. As each of us makes our own journey along the path of life, our Jewish tradition teaches us that it is our obligation to be present for each other on this journey: supporting each other, guiding each other and caring for each other.

My many years of rabbinical experience have taught me that the greatest privilege and weightiest challenges of the rabbinate are multifold: to help every individual find meaning and comfort at times of joy and sadness, to enable people to find a sense of k’dusha ­– the sacred – in the everyday, ordinary acts in which we participate, and finally to work to make our synagogues places of meaning, connection and purpose. It has always been my hope that I can point to the sacred potential in each moment that we experience along our life’s journey.

Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital, help parents welcome a new child into our Jewish tradition, connect with our Jewish youth and engage them in words of Torah, share in the joy of a wedding and hold the hand of someone who has suffered a loss – I am affirming why I chose to become a rabbi.

Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage

Character Counts!

If you drive down the road in Highland Park, Illinois, on many street corners you are likely to see a half-folded “Stop” sign with with the words: 


In Highland Park

The sign then highlights one of six “Pillars of Character” which the Highland Park local government and educational community feel are an integral part of our communal philosophy: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. The Highland Park “Character Counts Campaign” aims to integrate classroom learning, “on the streets” learning and communal learning to instill the values implicit in these six pillars.

"Character Counts" Stop Sign in Highland Park, Illinois
“Character Counts” Stop Sign in Highland Park, Illinois

Each stop sign lists a different “pillar”. As you are driving around town, you can’t help but to notice and read these wonderful messages.

When I first moved to Highland Park, I was impressed with these signs all around town. “Wow!” I thought, “The messages on these signs are very Jewish in nature.”

The rabbis of old taught:

“Rabbi Elliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. How so? This teaches that even as on looks out for his fellow’s honor, so should he look out for his own honor. And even as no man wishes that his own honor be held in ill repute, so should he wish that the honor of his fellow shall not be held in ill repute.” (Rabbi Elieler ben Hyrcanus, in Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, paragraph 15; commentary from Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, chapter 15.

Our Highland Park “Character Counts” Campaign is about preserving honor and dignity. It is about teaching us to respect ourselves and those in our midst. It teaches the value of community and what it means to be an active and participating member of community.

I’ve been watching my 7th grade Religious School students live out these “Six Pillars of Character” all year.

I teach them on Wednesday late afternoons. They come to me after a long day of regular school. They are tired, hungry and now have another 1.5 hours of Judaic studies. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to sit still, they love the social time with each other. Many of them have been together as a group since kindergarten or first or second grade.

They are a terrific group of young teenagers. Each one of them has committed to remaining in Religious School after his or her celebration of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Each of these students, like many B’nai Mitzvah across North America, participates in Tikkun Olam or Mitzvah projects during this year of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. These are special social justice projects chosen by each student. The goal is for them to personally engage in the work of caring for others and repairing our world. Becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah implies accepting the privileges and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. Those responsibilities include continuing one’s Jewish learning, participating in the life of the Jewish community, celebrating Holy Days and taking care of our world. It also means that “Character Counts.”

One of my students, Chloe S., is the true exemplar of our “Character Counts” campaign. She is as much my teacher as she is my student. She conducts herself with graceful dignity. She volunteers as a “machonik” (student teacher) in the religious school. She has a wonderful way of being present with others. She and her family participate fully in the life of our congregational community. She takes it upon herself to learn new things, if she feels that her education was lacking.

Her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah talked about the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites built and carried with them in the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. Chloe said to herself, “I never learned about this Mishkan before!” So she and her father decided to build one, to help themselves learn more about it, to understand more deeply what it symbolized and what it meant.

On the morning of her Bat Mitzvah celebration, they surprised me and presented the completed model to me as a gift. So that I could use it to teach others about the Mishkan, its purpose and meaning.

Side view of the model of the Mishkan.
Side view of the model of the Mishkan.
Model of the Mishkan - the Portable Sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites carried in the wilderness
Model of the Mishkan – the Portable Sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites carried in the wilderness

If the future of our world is in the hands of these young people, we are in very good hands indeed!

Zachor – Remember

Purim begins this Saturday evening, March 15th. Purim is our Jewish holiday of merry-making, silliness and fun. It commemorates the victory of the Jews in the city of Shushan in Persia, thousands of years ago, over the evil Haman who wanted to annihilate all of the Jews. We read Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, retell the story, celebrate with carnivals and games and have lots of fun.

This particular Shabbat immediately preceding Purim has a special name: Shabbat Zachor – The Sabbath of Remembrance. This Shabbat, we read a section of the Torah from Deuteronomy (25: 17-19) in which the Israelites are commanded to destroy the Amalakites from their midst. The Amalakites were enemies of the Israelites who attacked the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

The evil Haman from our Purim story, is said to be a descendant of the Amalakites. Thus, we remind ourselves this Shabbat that if we do not fully eradicate evil from our midst, evil could once again arise to plague us, just as Haman arose to threaten the Jews of Shushan. So, we hear the Torah being read and we remember. (For an excellent essay on the difficulties encountered with this text, click here: Is It Ever Okay to Hate? A Lesson for Purim, by Rabbi Evan Moffic)

We then go on to celebrate Purim with light hearts and full spirits.

(For my take on the Purim story, click here to read my brief essay: “Esther: Going Beyond the Biblical Text: A Purim D’var Torah)

For me, this year, this Shabbat is also about another kind of remembering. This year, Purim happens to fall on the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. She died on the evening of March 15, 2010, five days before her 70th birthday, just 10 weeks after my father died. (They had been separated/divorced for almost 37 years).

Her Hebrew yahrzeit (anniversary of death) will fall on April 1st this year – just prior to Pesach (Passover).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my mother died between Purim and Pesach. She LOVED all of our Jewish holidays and everything about them: preparing all the special foods, getting the house ready, the home celebrations, the rituals in the synagogue, helping all six children to organize ourselves.

My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)
My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)

I remember my parents every day, not just as their yahrzeits, or their secular anniversary of their deaths and birthdays approach. They are with me each and every day. But on those special moments, I tend to be more self-reflective. My siblings and I check-in with each other and share our thoughts and feelings. My parents would be so proud of what everyone has accomplished. They would kvell (Yiddish for “rejoice” and “beam with pride”) at everything their eight grandchildren are achieving.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us: “As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore are our few days in eternity. The good things in life last for limited days, but a good name endures forever.”

My parents live on in the good names they created for themselves over the course of their lives, in the deeds they have done and most importantly through us, their children and grandchildren.

Mom with her grandmother's brass candlesticks brought over from "the old country" and a challah cover that my mother embroidered
Mom with her grandmother’s brass candlesticks brought over from “the old country” and a challah cover that my mother embroidered

My parents were the biggest influence in my life Jewishly. I grew up with the synagogue as my second home. My earliest memories revolve around Shabbat and holiday celebrations. I would not be a rabbi today, had it not been for both my mother and my father guiding me, nurturing me and instilling within me a deep and abiding love for our Jewish culture and heritage.

Judaism also teaches us about the sacred duty of memory. It is through our memories that our loved ones will always live on. Through our actions and aspirations, we carry forward the heritage entrusted to us by those who came before us.

My mother bequeathed many things to me. But what I value most, she gave to me from the time I was born: a deep sense of connection with God.

From the time I was born, my mother began to sing the “Sh’ma” to me and my siblings at bedtime:

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”

It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God. My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day, just as it sustained her and nurtured her.

12 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She had three kinds of cancer in one breast and was told that it was 95% certain that it was metastasize to the other breast. She opted to have a bi-lateral radical mastectomy. She also needed intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

The night before her surgery, she held a “bye-bye boobie party” for herself. My non-Jewish sister-in-law, Marilyn, who is a palliative care nurse by profession and a textile artist by avocation, presented my mother with a surgical cap that she made. On the outside she printed photos of all my mother’s children and grandchildren. Inside – in Hebrew – she printed the words of the Sh’ma.

Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Inside of surgical cap - with the Sh'ma inside - for my mother to wear into surgery
Inside of surgical cap – with the Sh’ma inside – for my mother to wear into surgery

The tears streamed down my mother’s face. Marilyn knew that my mother was a deeply spiritual and religious person, whose connection to God was an integral part of her very being. She understood that if my mother could have something that represented both her family and God’s presence with her simultaneously while she was undergoing surgery, my mother would find the strength to overcome any obstacle in her way. My mother wore that cap into surgery, and kept it with her any time she went into the hospital. She felt embraced by her connection to God, her family, her congregation and the greater community. It gave her the conviction and the hope to recover with flying colors.

Following her cancer treatment, my mother lived to celebrate Purim and Passover and many other holidays, Shabbatot and life-cycle events for eight more years.

If she were here this weekend, I know that she would be sitting in the second row of her sanctuary, she might even be chanting Torah. She would have baked hamantaschen (triangular cookies filled with different fillings to symbolize Haman’s hat/pockets) for the holiday, and she would be celebrating with joy and gladness.

So on this Shabbat Zachor, this Shabbat of Remembrance, I remember the traditional things I am supposed to think about, but more importantly, I am remembering my mother: Judith Rosenthal Sobel. Zichrona livracha – may her memory always be for a blessing.

Happy 17th Birthday, Sarah! An Open Letter to My Niece

March 3, 2014

Dear Sarah,

Happy 17th birthday! It seems like just yesterday – and also like forever – that you came into our lives. But really, you have been with us now for six-and-and-a half years: from the time you were 10-and-a-half.

Your mom and dad, my brother David and sister-in-law Marilyn, were so excited when they told us about you. “Sarah loves people.” They told us. “She’s so warm and friendly and she’s looking to be loved. She wants a family and a place to call ‘home.’ We can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Sarah with David and Marilyn on one of their early visits with each other, prior to their becoming a family.
Sarah with David and Marilyn on one of their early visits with each other, prior to becoming a family.

You moved in with them on December 21st, 2007. Everyone was so excited! You are their only child. They had been “Big brother/Big sister” to others, but never had a child of their own. You chose them to be your parents and they chose you to be their daughter. All of us could not have been more thrilled when you became part of our large family!

Most of us don’t have to make this choice in life. We are born into our families of origin, our families of birth. We grow up with our birth siblings, parents and grandparents. But your life circumstances did not turn out that way. Your story is yours alone to tell. But your life led you to us, and for that we all feel so eternally blessed.

In many ways, your kind of story is one that has been part of our Jewish tradition for thousands of years. We have many tales in our Jewish history where people longed for children of their own, but were not able to have them. Our bible shows how people prayed to God asking for children to come into their lives. Some were blessed to eventually give birth to children of their own. Some found a way to use surrogate mothers to bear children for them. And of course, adoption has always been part of our Jewish culture. When a parent adopted a child, they would bounce the baby on their knees and name that child. Those two acts together would embody the ritual of adoption. Bouncing a baby on one’s knee symbolically represented the physical care and nurturing that parents would now bestow upon the child entrusted to them. The act of naming symbolized the idea of “ownership” or acquisition. When I bestow a name upon someone, that person is now a part of me, it belongs with me, that person is now “my family.”

Children represent continuity for the future. You will carry on our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations after we are no longer alive. You will inherit a legacy of family keepsakes and traditions and imbue them with your own meaning and your own values. And you will keep our memories alive, long after we our gone. Our children, our tradition teaches us, are our guarantors.

Sarah, I’m writing to you on your birthday, because I want you to remember all those things. And above all, I want to remind you that you ARE a special person and have many gifts to offer. You are so very loving, gentle, kind and caring. You have an uncanny ability to relate to young children. Your love of animals knows no bounds – whether it’s caring for your beloved Greyhound, Sweet, or your pet chickens, or a wounded bird. Your heart has the capacity for tremendous empathy and love.

And in turn, you are loved by so many others. Your mom and dad love you to the moon and back. And we, your extended family – your aunts, uncles and cousins, also love you and care about you and want to see you happy, healthy and successful.

My mother, aka, "Bubbie," David, Sarah and Marilyn, the day Sarah's adoption became official.
My mother, aka, “Bubbie,” David, Sarah and Marilyn, the day Sarah’s adoption became official.

Bubbie (my mother), was there to celebrate with you when your adoption became official on April 2, 2008. She was SO thrilled to have you join our family and to sign the “Zeved Ha-Bat” (“Gift of a Daughter”) adoption covenant that your mom created to commemorate that moment:

"Zeved Bat - Gift of a Daughter" Certificate, Creating a Covenant between Sarah and David and Marilyn.
“Zeved Bat – Gift of a Daughter” Certificate, Creating a Covenant between Sarah and David and Marilyn.

In this covenant, your parents promise to take you as their daughter, to love you every day and to keep you forever.

You promise to take David and Marilyn as your parents, to love them every day and to keep them forever.

The three of you promise to celebrate the flow of the seasons and the passages of life with your family, your friends and one another, as well as to care for one another always.

I remind you of these words, Sarah, because sometimes, we take family for granted. Sometimes, it is easy to forget to show love to the ones who love us the most.

Loving a child unconditionally means accepting who they are as a person, helping them to overcome any obstacles in their life and guiding them toward a life of love, success and fulfillment. Sometimes, loving a child means setting boundaries and saying “no.” Loving a child means helping them to achieve appropriate educational goals so that they can take care of themselves later on in life. Loving a child means understanding their pain, their frustration as well as their joys and hopes and aspirations. Loving a child means laughing with them, celebrating with them, crying with them and putting band-aids on their boo-boos (or sitting with them in hospital ER’s at all times of day and night).

Loving your parents means accepting that your parents want what is best for you, even if you don’t always recognize what that is. Loving your parents means recognizing that they are people too, with feelings and emotions. And sometimes, it means remembering that “it isn’t always about you.” Loving your parents means that the covenant you signed at the time of your adoption is a three-way partnership: the three of you need to work at your relationship each and every day to show each other how much you love each other – even when you are upset. Loving your parents means learning how to be patient and learning how to breathe. Just like they are trying to be patient and learning how to breathe too.

Sarah, you might be your parents’ only child, but your dad has three brothers, two sisters and you have seven Sobel cousins. Your mom has one brother and one sister – and you have more cousins on that side as well. Your extended family is even larger. You have also reconnected with some of your birth family. The circle of people who love you and care about you is large.

When you are happy, we are all happy. When you are sad, we’re all sad. When you’re in pain, we’re in pain.

The journey of your life Sarah, will be filled with many twists and turns, as you know only so well. There will be smooth sailing at times, as well as rocky patches. Sometimes you’ll encounter bumps and curves that you don’t expect. But through it all, you have each other – your mom and dad, and your loving extended family. We are your guideposts along the way. We will help you steer your course. And through it all, we will always be here for you, loving you with open arms and full hearts.

Sarah, as you celebrate your 17th birthday, we wish for you wisdom and strength and the maturity to make healthy decisions. We wish you laughter and joy, success and fulfillment. Most of all, we wish you a lifetime of love, health and contentment. May you and your parents continue to be blessed by the richness and beauty of your loving relationship with each other!

I am so glad that you are part of our family!

Happy birthday, gorgeous! I love you lots!

Auntie Sharon

Sarah today - my beautiful 17-year old niece! Happy Birthday!
Sarah today – my beautiful 17-year old niece! Happy Birthday!

A Warm Shabbat (Sabbath) Dinner for a Cold Winter Night

In Judaism, our Sabbath (Shabbat) begins at sundown on Friday evening and ends when three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening. For us, the Sabbath is celebrated both at home and in the synagogue.

As a rabbi, my Fridays are usually spent preparing for services and the teaching I will do on the weekend. But it’s important to me that I, too, experience the home aspects of our Shabbat rituals and celebration. I love hosting people in my home so we can welcome Shabbat together: good food, good company and wonderful conversation.

As you can probably imagine, cooking for these Friday night dinners might make my life a little frenetic. I try to alleviate the stress by preparing for services as much in advance as possible and by preparing for these dinners as much in advance as possible as well.

And since I need to leave home by 7:00 pm in order to get to the synagogue on time, I invite people for dinner for 5:00 pm. It might seem early, but it allows us time to eat a leisurely and enjoyable meal without being rushed.

I also have a “secret weapon” that allows me to do all this as graciously as possible: my housekeeper Rebecca. She arrives at 4:30 pm and helps with last-minute preparation and does the clean up and dishes. This permits me to truly be present for my guests, and also lets me leave on time without worrying about putting food away or returning home late at night to a dirty house. Rebecca makes it possible for me to truly experience Shabbat.

My great-grandmother's brass candlesticks from "the Old Country"
My great-grandmother’s brass candlesticks from “the Old Country”

As my guests gather around my table for the Shabbat blessings, I light the brass candlesticks that belonged to my mother’s grandmother which she brought with her to the United States from “the Old Country”. My mother used to light these same candlesticks every Friday night. So I have a part of my mother with me every Shabbat.

I use the Kiddush cup – the cup for wine that we use to usher in Shabbat with a special blessing that sanctifies the day – that I received as a gift for my Bat Mitzvah. I think of my father who officiated at my service and blessed me on that day, so he too is with me each and every Shabbat as well.

My Kiddush cup I received as a gift when I became Bat Mitzvah in 1973.
My Kiddush cup I received as a gift when I became Bat Mitzvah in 1973.

My house is filled with art and Jewish ritual objects that resonate with memories from so many different times and places. I love to share these with those who come to visit.

And so it is with my cooking. I pour myself into the dishes I make, trying to think what will most please my guests and make them feel honoured and special.

This past week I wanted to make something warm, fragrant and satisfying. Something that would warm our hearts as well as our souls – that would lift us up and help take our minds off the dreariness of these cold winter days.

Here is my menu for a “warm Shabbat dinner for a cold winter night.” Enjoy! (Click on the green links for the recipes)

Bat Mitzvah Presents Special Gift (March, 2014)

A bat mitzvah student brings her Torah portion to life and constructs a miniature Tabernacle, as a surprise gift for her rabbi, Sharon Sobel, which she presents to her toward the end of her bat mitzvah service. (Watch “Bat Mitzvah Presents Special Gift” below, or on YouTube.)

Bat Mitzvah Presents Special Gift

About bar/bat mitzvah (from Wikipedia):
Bar (בַּר) is a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic word literally meaning “son” (בֵּן), while bat (בַּת) means “daughter” in Hebrew, and mitzvah (מִצְוָה) means “commandment” or “law” (plural: mitzvot). Thus bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah literally translate to “son of commandment” and “daughter of commandment”. However, in rabbinical usage, the word bar means “under the category of” or “subject to”. Bar mitzvah therefore translates to “an [agent] who is subject to the law”. Although the term is commonly used to refer to the ritual itself, in fact the phrase originally refers to the person.