Temple Isaiah 2016 Mitzvah Day

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” As a Jewish community, this is known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world. Temple Isaiah’s Mitzvah Day is a living example of this concept.

Temple Isaiah, like many synagogues, hosts a congregation-wide Mitzvah Day in the spring. We have activities that take place both inside the Temple building and in the greater community. We engage congregants of all ages from pre-school to “age-of-wisdom” (even those in baby sitting do mitzvah activities).

At the end of the day, we gather together for a communal barbecue, sponsored by our Brotherhood and Sisterhood, to share stories from our day, celebrate as a community and join in friendship, food and fun!

(The photos below were taken by myself, post-Bar Mitzvah student, Cole Bhella; congregants David Lippe, Allison Lebit and a few others.)

Women of Valor – Celebrating the Women in Our Lives

We celebrate the special gifts of the women in our lives, who bring the sense of the sacred to our families, our synagogue, and our communities.

It’s always an honor to address the congregation on our Sisterhood Shabbat. (Sermon delivered on Friday, May 13th, 2016).

On Shabbat, it’s traditional for women to have a special blessing – Eshet Chayil – recited over them by those with whom they share their lives (traditionally, it was their husbands): So today, I offer a modern, liberal rendition of this blessing:

Eshet Chayil: A Woman of Valor

A mother of generations
a woman of valor,
she is precious in the gifts that she has given to our family.
Her children have found trust and truth in these gifts.
We follow in patterns that she taught.
She is robed in strength and dignity,
and she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
We benefit and learn from her wisdom.
May she always be credited
for the fruit of her labor and her achievements.
May she live on in glory.אֵשֶׁת־חַיִלמִייִמְצָאוְרָחֹקמִפְּנִינִיםמִכְרָהּ׃
זָמְמָהשָׂדֶהוַתִּקָּחֵהוּמִפְּרִיכַפֶּיהָנְטַע [נָטְעָה] כָּרֶם׃
טָעֲמָהכִּי־טוֹבסַחְרָהּלֹא־יִכְבֶּהבַלַּיִל [בַ][לַּיְלָה] נֵרָהּ׃
Proverbs 31: 10-31I think of these words every day when I look at the portrait of my late mother, Judith Rosenthal Sobel, z”l, that sits on my dresser. In the photo, my mother sits with a beautiful Shabbat tablecloth and challah cover she embroidered; with brass candlesticks from her grandmoMom with Candlesticksther from the “old country” (which she bequeathed to me). My mother imbued within me a strong sense of my Jewish identity, my Zionist ideals, my independent spirit and so much more. My mother did not have an easy life and yet – she was a survivor. And she found ways to always volunteer and give back to the communities in which she was involved on so many
different levels. She studied Torah and taught Torah. She planted groves and groves of trees in Israel. She bequeathed to me not just candlesticks and things – but my deep sense of spirituality. My mother tried to affirm the words of our parasha this week, “K’doshim t’hi’hu” – be holy – with every fiber of her being. She was a true “eshet chayil”.

I thought of these words this morning as I sat with a dear friend who shared with me that tonight is her mother’s yahrzeit. Her mother was also a true “Eshet Chayil” – a woman of valor. She was the kind of person who only saw the good in people and never complained about anything in life. She was a professional woman, at a time when most women did not work outside the home. This served her well, since her beloved husband died at a young age. Her strength, her resilience of spirit, her zest for living and her keen sense of humor enabled her only child and herself to keep moving forward with living, despite the gloom that death visited upon their home.

She was a role model for her child, her grandchildren, her friends and her community. And when she died in her sleep at the age of 97, everyone who knew her realized they had been blessed by the gift of her presence, the gift of knowing her and having her in their lives for all these many years. This “eshet chayil” has left a living legacy through those that came after her. Their actions and deeds are imbued with all the gifts that she taught and she lives on through them.

I thought of the words of Eshet Chayil as we were busy preparing for our busy weekend with our many activities and Mitzvah Day at Temple Isaiah this week. We are so blessed by the many special “women of valor” (and the men too) who make things happen here at Temple Isaiah. Penny Gentile, Morgan Shapiro, Irva Steinweis and Pam Shulder in the office. Iris Schiff, Shelley Fleit, Sheila Silberhartz and so many others who are working tirelessly to make Mitzvah Day and our day of Tikkun Olam happen.

They are taking the words of this week’s Torah portion to heart:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire community of Israel and say: Be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.
Leviticus 19:1The Torah portion outlines a series of laws detailing what it means to be holy: how to treat other people, how to behave in relationship to God, how to observe Shabbat and the festivals, how to care for those less fortunate. These laws tell us that holiness can be found in daily life, in our treatment of others, in our relationship with the divine.

When we come together on Mitzvah Day this Sunday, we are exemplifying that sense of holiness as a community by working together for common goals, by working together to repair the world, by working together to create community, by working together to build friendships. The key of course, is to remind ourselves that we must be holy each and every day. Our mitzvot don’t take place only on Mitzvah Day – but we need to do these mitzvot every day. Holiness is a way of life.

I think of these words of Eshet Chayil as we celebrate the wonderful women of our Temple Isaiah Sisterhood. In the past few weeks alone, Sisterhood has sponsored a Purim hamantashen baking workshop, led a meaningful Miriam’s seder, organized and hosted a rummage sale which provides clothing and goods for people in tremendous need, provided scholarships for our young people to attend our URJ Reform Movement Summer camps and Israel programs, is partnering with Brotherhood in hosting our Mitzvah Day BBQ and so much more. We know that we can count on the Women of Temple Isaiah Sisterhood to greatly enhance the life of our sacred community. Each and every one of you is an “eshet chayil” a woman of valor. Each and every one of you helps bring a level of k’dusha – holiness – to our congregation. We are so grateful for all Sisterhood does in our community.

On this Sisterhood Shabbat, this Shabbat Kedoshim, may we be inspired by each and everyone of these N’shei Chayil – Women of Valor, past and present.

Jewish women, and women who have chosen to link themselves to the Jewish people through friendship and love, from the women of valor extolled in the Bible, down to each and every one of you today, represents faith, strength, loyalty and love.

We are surrounded by others who share that faith and care as we care.

We know each other, not only by name, but by commitment.

We have experienced the strength we can impart to each other when our hearts are joined in spirit.

We know the impact we can have upon our community and society when our minds are of a single purpose.

We have seen the contribution we can make to our community when our hands are united.

We are adding to the voices of our Jewish history when we translate Jewish principles – and the principles of our Torah portion “be holy – k’doshim t’h’yu” into action and concern.

paraphrased from Covenant of the Heart: Prayers, Poems and Meditations from the Women of Reform Judaism, 1993, New York, page 77May we continue to be enriched and blessed by the gift of your presence, the deeds of your hands, the love of your hearts, the ideas of your minds, as we strive to strengthen our community of Valor, our K’hila K’dosha.Shabbat Shalom.

“Everyone Has a Name” – Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

On Yom Hashoah we keep those who perished in the Holocaust alive by giving meaning and significance to their names.

From the time I was 12 years old, I wore two, and then three different stainless steel bracelets on my wrist – for over 37 years: a Vietnam Prisoner of War bracelet for an American Soldier who went missing in action on June 18, 1968, a Soviet Jewry Prisoner of Conscience bracelet , and then later an AIDS bracelet. My arm would clang wherever I would go. People would ask me about the bracelets and it would provide an opportunity to educate and speak about the different causes. I have always been a social activist, and the bracelets on my arm were just one vehicle for educating about causes that were important to me.

People would say: “The US got out of Vietnam in 1972 – why don’t you take the bracelet off?” I would reply, “This is my way of remembering this person – Sgt. James Ravencraft – who was taken prisoner and then killed.” I have a pencil-rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

I was able to meet one of the families who was on one of my Soviet “Prisoner of Conscience” bracelets. In fact, I helped make a connection between a young cancer patient at whose Bar Mitzvah I officiated while I was doing an Internship in Hospital Chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital. He was twinned with a young family I visited while I went to the Former Soviet Union in 1989. I facilitated the Bar Mitzvah “twinning” with these two families. What a powerful and moving moment! I was also able to assist with the Russian family’s relocation to Washington, DC.

I now keep these bracelets in a special box in my home as a remembrance. They symbolize something very important and special for me that is critical for us to consider as a community, especially as we approach Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day which began last evening.

For me, my bracelets symbolize not just my deep and abiding connection to social justice and social action. They also symbolize the importance of the power and importance of memory and the importance of the name.

As a people, our Jewish community places great emphasis on the power of the name. In fact we make lists and lists of names. The Torah records lists of names, we compile our own lists of names every Yom Kippur on Yizkor, we list names of donors and benefactors. Why do we find names so significant and powerful?

Perhaps these questions can be answered if we think of other long lists of names and their significance: on Yom Hashoah we reflect on all those who were killed in the Holocaust. In some communities, we read aloud the names of those family members from that particular community who perished during the Nazi regime.

List of names on a Holocaust Memorial
List of names on a Holocaust Memorial

Some might ask – why read all of those names? The name is so powerful because it survives. We don’t necessarily know the people whose names are listed in the long lists in the Torah, or on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, or on the walls of the many Holocaust memorials or any of the hundreds of places where other such lists exist. We don’t know these people but we do know their names. A name which gives them a place in history, a name which gives them an enduring legacy.

The events of the Holocaust are given meaning only by remembering the individuals who died during that time. We gather as a community, we remember the names of those who died and we affirm their lives by how we choose to lead our lives. So, names, indeed, are very powerful.

A midrash tells us about the significance of our names: “All people have 3 names,” the midrash says, “one which their parents give to them, one that others call them, and one which they acquire themselves. And the one they acquire themselves in most important of all.”

The name our parents give us is our special connection to the past, it takes an empty space and fills it with life, life that has been handed to us by those who came before. The name our parents give us tells us that we were not born into a vacuum, but are part of a rich chain of tradition.

So how do we honour those who came before us and those who perished during the Holocaust? By giving our names – and their names meaning through our actions and aspirations and the way we fulfill them. By the deeds we perform, by the way we live our lives and by our connection to God.

Everyone Has a Name: a Poem for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day

“Everyone has a name”

Poem by the Israeli poet Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.