Friday, April 23, 2010

April 14th
Visit to the URJ, NYC
The URJ -Union for Reform Judaism provides vision and leadership to Reform Jews and congregations on spiritual, ethical, social justice and management issues. I was invited by Rabbi Elliot Kleinman to visit the URJ Headquarters located in Manhattan. Elliot and I were first year rabbinical students at the Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem during the year of 1987-1988. All first year rabbinical students are required to live in Jerusalem for one full year. We spent a lot of time together and became lifelong friends and colleagues throughout the years. I am truly proud of what Elliot has accomplished and all he does for the URJ. Elliot is the director of Advancing Reform Judaism and he gave me a “VIP” tour of the URJ offices. I had the opportunity to say hello to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is the president of the URJ. I also met many people whose names that I have known for years but never met face-to-face including the publisher of the Reform Magazine and the NFTY-Youth Staff. So now I have a better sense as to how this organization runs as it serves over 900 Reform congregations within North America.

April 16th-17th
Visit to Rodeph Sholom, NYC
Congregation Rodeph Sholom was founded on the Lower East Side of New York in 1842. The eighty founders were members of a Bikkur Cholim society known for its care of the sick and needy. Rodeph Sholom’s rich history includes two moves: to Lexington Avenue at 63rd Street in 1891 and to our present home at 7 West 83rd Street in 1930. This Temple House and Sanctuary, designed by renowned architect Charles B. Meyers, was dedicated on Purim, March 1930. The architectural style follows the Romanesque of the 11th and 12th centuries. Beautiful, yet simple in design, the Sanctuary enhances our sense of reverence, as attention is directed to the Ark housing our Torah scrolls and the engraved Hebrew words: “Know before whom you stand.”
Remaining true to our name, which is Hebrew for “pursuer of peace,” Rodeph Sholom takes great pride in our history and is hard at work to fulfill the promise of our future. Congregation Rodeph Sholom is a welcoming spiritual community, which strives to educate and inspire children, youth and adults to participate actively in worship, Torah study and Jewish life experience, and to put Reform Jewish religious and ethical principles into action. We seek to enrich the lives of our members, contribute to the continuance and vitality of the Jewish people, and Tikkun Olam ― to help “repair the world.”
Entering into the sanctuary of Rodef Shalom was like going to back to European times. There was an aura of beauty as I slowly walked up to the bimah to see where I was presenting my sermon. The mosaic tiles that surrounded the Ark were magnificently filled with colors of sparkling gold and blues. This congregation has 1800 families, four rabbis and two cantors!

The entire clergy team was there to conduct Friday night Shabbat Services while I was their guest speaker. The music was uplifting and there were definitely some familiar melodies that we use at TAE. When I first came up to the bimah, I said…I am speechless as I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the sanctuary. I was also blessed to be in the presence of my cousins and an old friend of mine who moved to NYC a number of years ago. The lights were shining bright on me so I could not really see the entire congregation but any bimah with the Shabbat candles burning brightly on my side is definitely my comfort zone.

After services, there was a Freedom Seder held downstairs in the Social Hall. Rodef Shalom and a local Baptist Church have met for over 20 years for this joint effort to create a sense of community. To my delight, I heard such wonderful gospel music plus I heard a powerful presentation on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. It was very moving and to experience how the Jews and the African American community make efforts to join hands for peace and freedom. We ended with a friendship circle singing – We Shall Overcome! This evening was all about removing obstacles built by others because of how one may look or act different from others.

Saturday morning I had breakfast with a group of congregants committed to inclusion within the Rodef Shalom community. The discussion was intense and passionate, as people truly want to make a difference. The message was to focus on in-reach first…to be sure that all congregants feel welcome within the community and then do outreach to others. The reality is that each congregation cannot respond or solve all the challenges of inclusion but rather it is important to focus on who walks into their community and how to respond to their needs. Following this discussion, we went to services on the 4th floor where at least 200 people were in attendance. Keep in mind there were three bnei mitzvahs happening that day in the main sanctuary that is on the main floor. I gave an interactive d’var torah and the congregants responded enthusiastically. Their thoughts and comments were excellent and I learned so much from their participation.

Immediately after services, I greeted people, took a sandwich, grabbed a taxicab and went directly to the airport. I could not miss the TAE Chai Event! In fact, my plane arrived 30 minutes earlier, so I quickly went home, changed my clothes and off I went to Camarillo Airport. The TAE Chai event was amazing! So much spirit and it was so good to see everybody especially my Michael who was eagerly waiting for my arrival after being away for 10 days. The following day, I joined Arielle to go to the JWW walk to end genocide and it was so good to be there among the TAE community for such an important cause. It was also so good to be home!

My final visit will be to Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona this coming weekend. I will be visiting Cantor Peter Halpern’s congregation. It will be great to see him again and to see how much Nathan-his son- has grown. I will be speaking on the bimah both Friday and Saturday and participate in a panel about Jews who have faced interesting challenges in their lives.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I took a break from traveling to cook a beautiful Seder for 20 people in my home. It was sure nice to be home with family as we celebrated one of my favorite holidays of all times. The day before I returned home, I was at Galluadet University celebrating Shabbat with several Jewish deaf students and adults who are a part of the greater Washington DC community. I presented a short teaching on the blessings that we recite for Shabbat and then we ate a delicious kosher meal including chicken soup, potatoes and chicken. Apparently everywhere I go, there is always someone that I know. This time, a Deaf couple came in with their beautiful little boy and I realized that I was their rabbi at their wedding awhile back. When they found out that I was coming, they wanted me to meet their newest bundle of joy! I was humbled by their presence and truly blessed to see them again. In addition to learning more about these students and their interest in Judaism, it was apparent that their desire to learn and study is very strong and committed. Perhaps with the incoming new president of Galludet who is Jewish, the opportunity to offer courses and programs related to Judaism will become more available especially for the students. Most of these students do not have any formal Jewish education so this would be a way to open an important door for them to become a part of the greater Jewish community.
During that evening, Serena, and I presented a gift on behalf of Helene Oppenheimer who made a beautiful ceramic piece with the Shema in ASL. They were moved by this beautiful artwork and look forward to hanging it up in the Hillel office so that others can see it as they walk by. Interesting fact: There will be approximately 20 Jewish deaf students that will attending the Birthright Trip to Israel this summer. I met several of them and they are very excited for a trip of a lifetime experience!

My Next Stop: New York
Woodlands Community Synagogue
White Plains, New York

My hosts for this weekend were Jackie and Nelson Leight- their children are Eric and Amy Leight along with those four great boys who are longtime members of TAE. It was lovely to visit their home and to see where Eric grew up. There were plenty of pictures all over the house and I actually saw Eric as a little boy and of course, pictures of Amy and Eric's wedding! Eric and his family have been active members of Woodlands Community Synagogue for many years. It is a Reform synagogue in White Plains. Rabbi Billy Dreskin, the spiritual leader, at this synagogue invited me to speak on the bimah during "The Joyful Noise Service". This is a musical Shabbat service which includes a full ensemble of drums, bass, guitar, sax and keyboards and several singers including the rabbi and the cantor! What is significant about this service is the fact that it is a visual service and no prayer books are needed. All prayers and readings are projected on large screens. It was strange not to hold a prayer book however it was enlightening to be looking up all the time watching the screen and joining others in music and song. Of course, I clapped alot! In addition, there were sign language interpreters who incorporated much of the music into sign in an inspiring way. An interesting fact about this synagogue is that there is no bimah and it creates a holy space with a sense of no barriers whatsoever.

Now I am on way to the City and will visit the Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion. I will meet with the rabbinical students shortly after T'filah and do a text study on Jews with Disabilities. The question in this text is how do we actually respond when we see someone with a disability? In the Talmud, there was a discussion about reciting blessings when we see someone with a disability. The question remains, should there be different blessings for different people or one for all?