Friday, March 25, 2016

Tzav: Beware of the Dash!

A quick disclaimer: I am going to rant here a little bit. Some Ohev congregants have already heard me engage in this particular rant (last week, in fact), but I've decided to continue the diatribe here on the 
blog. It may seem inconsequential to you, possibly even a bit silly, but I hope the significance and sincerity of this issue will become clear by the end. Ok, so here goes. A lot of people, especially in the Jewish community, are uncomfortable writing out the word "God." Instead, they write "G-d." I don't like this. In fact, I strongly oppose it. And last week, my disapproval graduated from annoyance to full-blown rant. Let me explain.

When confronted, people will often justify this practice by referring to one of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes God's name in vain" (Exodus, 20:7). Though this mitzvah initially referred to invoking God's Name in oaths and curses, it eventually led 
to the practice of not writing God's Name on anything. If a document or a book contains God's Name, it must be buried in a Jewish cemetery, it cannot simply be thrown in the trash. And I agree with this notion. HOWEVER, there are two significant problems with "G-d." 1) It's the wrong language. Our holy writ is Hebrew, NOT English. The cemetery-burial-rule only applies to God's Name in Hebrew. And 2) "God" is NOT God's Name. In Judaism, God is known as "Adonai" or "Elohim" (and again, I can write those names here, and you could print out my blog, and not need to bury that printout, because it's in English, not in Hebrew...). Every religion has its own names for God or their various gods, but the word "God" is a descriptor, not a name!!

So why was I so bothered by this right now? How did my anger come to boil over? For Purim, Ohev Shalom sent out Mishloach Manot to members of the congregation, and included a laminated card with blessings for various foods. 
To my horror, not only did the card contain five instances of "G-d," but it also included God's ACTUAL Name - Adonai, IN Hebrew, known as the Tetragrammaton - written out completely! The authors were very careful about "G-d," but missed entirely the REAL problem of God's genuine Name spelled out fully; and now all the cards require burial. And THIS is why I'm truly upset. We focus so much on the fake thing, we actually miss the real issue that matters. And we obsess over something trivial, while inadvertently transgressing a true mitzvah. Needless to say, I was infuriated.

In the Haftarah this week, for parashat Tzav, God is speaking to Jeremiah, and in fact, it sounds an awful lot like a rant, maybe even a little similar to my own. On a much more serious topic perhaps, but God states: "... this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you. Yet they did not listen or give ear; they followed their own counsels, the willfulness of their evil hearts" (Jeremiah 7:23-24). Ours is a lesser version of this problem, but I can see how people start out fixating on something irrelevant, and it eventually leads them on a path of real transgression, 
of actually violating something much more severe, much more problematic. I know that "G-d" is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I truly believe it speaks to a blind-leading-the-blind mentality, where we stop thinking about what really matters and accept customs and behaviors simply because "everyone else is doing it." To close out my rant, I want to offer a final, seemingly-silly quote, but which I actually think is true and critical. In the famous "Harry Potter" book series, the powerful villain, Voldemort, is never referred to by name, except by Harry and his mentor, Dumbledore. Early in the series, Dumbledore addresses the stupidity of not using Voldemort's name, stating: "Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." I couldn't have said it better myself, even though unlike Voldemort, God need not be feared. Stop using "G-d." It's a distraction, it's counterproductive, it's pointless. 

Rant over. Thank you.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of
2. CC image courtesy of Aaaaaaaable on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of blessing card courtesy of my iPhone. The blessing card itself came from Party Judaica LLC.
4. CC image courtesy of Karen Roe on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vayikra (Zachor): Remembering Ohev's Claims to Fame!

In 1965, Ohev Shalom moved from the city of Chester to Wallingford, PA. Many congregants today only know our Wallingford home, so I find it important to remind us of our history from time to time. There is evidence of that history all around, but you kind of have to look for it.
For instance, we have memorial plaques in our Main Sanctuary dating back to the 1880s! Back in Chester, Ohev Shalom inhabited a building at 8th and Welsh from 1927 until 1965. But even before that, there was an even older building at 3rd and Lloyd, and before 1904 yet ANOTHER small location had housed the Jewish community of Chester! So yeah, we've been around a while... On this special weekend, called Shabbat Zachor - meaning "the Shabbat of Remembrance" - I would like to share some important (and ground breaking) Ohev Shalom history. Shabbat Zachor, incidentally, is always the Shabbat before Purim; a holiday of merriment, silliness, and satire. But that has absolutely NOTHING to do with these monumental accomplishments that I am about to share with you. I promise...

I have pored over the history books and dug out some amazing unsung heroes of our proud history; read on and be dazzled...

- One of the first Jews to settle in Chester was Isaac Steinziger, who arrived in the 1890s. His son, Joshua, was the first person to tell his out-of-town friends that he "basically" lived in Philly.

- In 1891, the Jews of Chester organized and formed their very first congregation, "B'nai Israel." Their president at the time, Simon Berg, was the first person to be outraged that the Jewish Exponent wouldn't cover news of anything happening in Delaware County.

- In 1905, the Ladies' Sheltering and Aid Society was formed. They mainly focused on giving food, lodging, and money to Jews in need. One week later, their president, Sadie Rosenberger, was the first person to complain that the men of the congregation mainly just played poker, stickball, and "claimed to help members of the community resell old, useless rubbish."

 - When the new synagogue building was opened in 1927, on the morning of the grand dedication, morning minyan attendee, Moshe Mosesson, was the first person, in the country, to walk into a Kiddush luncheon and say, "Again with the tuna and egg salad? This is the best they could do?"

- Perpetual board member, Geraldine Silverberg, was the first person to coin the term "Ohev time," in reference to people showing up 15-20 minutes late for everything. She was also the first to think it was "definitely a Jewish thing," and "definitely doesn't happen elsewhere..."

- By the end of the 1920s, Ohev Shalom was one of the first congregations to have its rabbi preach in English instead of Yiddish. In a passionate letter to Ohev members, president Aaron Aronovitch wrote: "If he's going to chastise us for not coming to shul more often, at least we should understand what he's saying." Later that same year, on Yom Kippur afternoon, shortly after the rabbi had delivered a 74-minute sermon, Aronovitch was impeached and asked to leave the congregation before the break fast was over.

We are so proud of all the contributions that Ohev members have gifted to the Jewish world over the course of our storied history. Perhaps next year, again on Shabbat Zachor (leading up to Purim...), we will dust off the ol' history books and discover together many more wonderful memories. For now, I hope this has been enlightening and entertaining. Happy Purim, everyone!!

Photos in this blog post (all from the Ohev Shalom dedication book of 1965):
1. Photograph of our Wallingford building in the early 1960s.
2. A drawing of immigrants coming to the US.
3. Ohev Shalom's Sisterhood, ca. 1965.
4. Ohev Shalom board members and Rabbi Louis Kaplan, ca. 1965.
5. Chester Hebrew School, 1927.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Pekudei: Making Our Own Breastplate

"America is a melting pot." We hear that phrase a lot. Many of us even subscribe to its claim; the idea that people come to the U.S. from all over the world, and, once settled, wholeheartedly adopt American ideals. Whoever they were before, 
whatever they left behind, they are now red-blooded Americans, with common values, goals, and aspirations. And yet, inevitably, many of us struggle with this image. Certainly in the current political climate - but really in every age and stage of our nation's history - our differences are significant. So instead we try to think of other metaphors: Perhaps we're more of a salad bowl than a melting pot? Well, I'd like to offer yet another symbol that can, I think, encapsulate who we are, and which relates to a central artifact in this week's Torah reading.

As many of you know, we are right now working on a major congregational art project here at Ohev Shalom. On the walls of our Main Sanctuary, we now have twelve incredible mosaic panels, each representing one of the Ancient Tribes of Israel. The central image of each panel was created by a gifted artist, Heather Bryson
In addition, members of the congregation were able to assemble Heather's artwork together, and even embed personal memorabilia (pendants, pottery shards, judaica, etc.) into the final product. Just this past Sunday, I had the privilege of joining a group of congregants in assembling a thirteenth panel, depicting the breastplate of the Ancient Levitical Highpriest. How appropriate, then, that this week's Torah portion should feature God's instruction to create... you guessed it... the breastplate! We read in that section: "They set in it [the breastplate] four rows of stones... The stones corresponded to the names of the sons of Israel; twelve, corresponding to their names; engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes" (Exodus, 39:10, 14). Now let me share with you a metaphor within a metaphor within yet ANOTHER metaphor!

So the breastplate from this week's parashah represents all the tribes. The Highpriest wore it to remind him of his responsibilities to ALL the people, not just his own family or tribe. 
And the breastplate purposely contained twelve stones - each of a different distinct material, shape, and color - to remind the priest, and everyone, that each of us brings something special and unique to the table. And the breastplate of Levi is only one of our synagogue mosaics, which all together will form the fourteen panels of the Children of Israel Collection. The art collection - like the breastplate itself - is a metaphor for community. Just as the breastplate contained disparate objects to represent the various groups that made up B'nai Yisrael, so too our mosaic panels are filled with trinkets and memory-shards that signify the people who placed them in the artwork. 

And the outer-most ring of metaphor is the notion that our entire country is actually a mosaic. It isn't meant to be filled with identical artifacts, each one precisely like the next. We're not trying to 
mass-produce Americans who think, feel, and act the same. Right??? Our goal is not a melting pot, where each added element loses its individuality, but rather a tapestry... or a mosaic panel, that highlights each of our contributions, without needing them to blend together. But when we come together, we can form something beautiful, unique, and awe-inspiring. And it would never have looked as good if any one piece had been removed. The real question is, how can we celebrate our common aspirations AND our essential differences? The breastplate, the newest mosaic panel, and our art collection as a whole, all serve as reminders for us all. We don't have to merge into a single organism, and we certainly shouldn't live in separate silos, with no connections or points of contact between us. Can we, instead, live in the mosaic? Our history reminds us we were able to do it once. I pray that we can someday (soon...) learn to do it again.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Magnus Manske on Wikimedia Commons
2. Assembling our newest mosaic panel, Levi, with Ohev congregants and their family members. Photo courtesy of Steve Levinstein.
3. CC image courtesy of Pikiwikisrael on Wikimedia Commons
4. The first six panels (and first six tribes) in our Children of Israel Collection. Photo courtesy of my iPhone.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Vayakhel (Shekalim): Learning to Count in Israel

"Not very long ago, a kindergarten was opened in one of the Masorti [Conservative] Movement’s communities in northern Jerusalem. The 
community’s female rabbi, Rabba Chaya Rowen Baker, told the children a story featuring a Rav (male rabbi). When she finished, one of the children raised a hand and asked: What’s a Rav? She thought about it for a moment and replied: "A Rav is a Rabba who is a man."

This wonderful anecdote was written by Yizhar Hess, the head of the Masorti movement in Israel; the partner-movement of Conservative Judaism. This weekend, around the world, communities are celebrating Masorti Shabbat. 
I thought I would use the opportunity, here on the blog, to speak a little bit about Masorti Judaism in relation to this week's Torah reading, focusing especially on how every Jew "counts."

The not-so-long road to Pesach has begun. On the Jewish calendar, we know Passover is close when we celebrate the first of four (really, five) special Shabbatot. And indeed, that season has begun; this week is 
Shabbat Shekalim. The name refers to a tax that was collected during the Exodus, and which was used as a census to determine how many adult, male Israelites were actually wandering through the desert. The Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim mirrors the special Torah reading by recounting a similar tax taken generations later for the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. It seems appropriate to me that Masorti Shabbat should take place on Shabbat Shekalim, because it's about the efforts and the strength of the community as a whole; when everyone COUNTS and everyone's contributions are valued. 

Today in Israel, the non-Orthodox movements struggle. The state only condones Orthodox marriages, divorces, and conversions, and the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate frequently bullies the other denominations. It's easy to get discouraged. The struggle of Women of the Wall to gain acceptance at the Kotel; news headlines about women being forced to the back of public buses; special needs Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies being canceled because of their affiliation with non-Orthodox rabbis - these are all depressing stories. 
But there are hopeful signs as well. Over 75 Masorti congregations exist in Israel today; many having been founded in just the last few years. Masorti communities are changing the way Israelis understand religion and religious observance, and the word is getting out. According to Hess: "One poll after another in recent years show that the Israeli public has changed; that it has become more open in terms of its Jewish identity to a much greater extent than some people want us to know, that it does not fear different models of Jewish practice, and that it is happy to experience them."

It only takes one generation for a child to grow up thinking rabbis are mainly women, and for that child to be surprised to learn men can do it too! But change is only going to come when we PUSH ourselves and one another to be better, and to expect better things from our leaders. 
The oppressive religious fundamentalism in Israel is beneath us, and it's antithetical to the notion of EVERY person's contribution being important. We all count. In the Ancient world it was just the battle-ready men who gave a half-shekel, but that is not our world anymore. All people - men, women, straight, gay, trans, white, non-white, of all denominations, secular, and no affiliation - all of us contribute to the totality of Jewish life, in the Diaspora AND in Israel. But it is not a passive act, to be counted. We must count ourselves, and we must include all our fellow Jews. So stand up, add your half-shekel, and make your voice heard for pluralism, inclusion, and diversity in Israel today.

Photos in this blog post:
1. A classic photo from the Jewish Theological Seminary, showing several women wearing tefillin.
2. The Masorti Israel logo.
3. CC image of a Judean half-shekel courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc at
4. CC image, "Pride Minyan," courtesy of נמר ערבות סיבירי onWikimedia Commons
5. CC image courtesy of Pc84 on Wikimedia Commons