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Simchat Torah...

Dancing to Honor the Souls of My Ancestors
Have a taste of schnapps. Dance with a Torah or two. Sing Hebrew songs of which you only know every other word. Thank God for giving us the Five Books of Moses.  
 
That’s what you’re supposed to do on Simchat Torah.  So that’s what I did.  Except this time it was different.  I’ve danced with Torahs in Israel and in America but never in Poland.   In 2017, I arrived in Poland to participate in a seminar about Jewish / Christian relations.  I came two days early so that I could celebrate Simchat Torah in a country filled with the neshamot (the souls) of my ancestors.  
 
So there I was, in the Noczyk Synagogue.  The only synagogue to survive WW2.  A synagogue that was inside the walls of the Warsaw ghetto and then as the ghetto shrunk, outside the walls.  The Germans used it as a storehouse and then as a stable.  It survived its travails and today it is the only pre-war synagogue remaining in Warsaw.
 
Within minutes of entering, I was caught up in the frenzy of dancing.  Over 200 people filled the room but most were spectators, either too afraid or too unknowledgeable to enter the insanity of the hakafot, the seven series of dances done with the Torahs.  I didn’t hold back.  I joined the dancers in their revelry.  Within minutes someone handed me a shot of vodka, and then another, and then another…. and then they handed me a Torah.
 
Journal entry, Oct 4 2007:  
“As we circled the bimah, I met expatriates from NYC, Canada, and Israel.  The rabbi himself was from NY.  The crowd included Chasidim, modern orthodox, progressive Jews, “hippies” and everything in between.  I was asked to hold a Torah during the fifth hakafah. As I danced with the Torah in Poland, just blocks from the Warsaw ghetto uprising site, I clutched it tighter and tighter to my chest.  I was dancing with a Torah in a synagogue in a land that had decimated its Jewish population a little over 65 years ago. But not completely.  Jews remained.   I felt privileged to hold a Torah and to dance with the neshamoat of the victims of the Shoah surrounding me.”  
 
I was in Poland.  I was in the home of my ancestors, and as I danced I honored their memories. 

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Sukkot...

Entering the High Holy Days: My First Sukkah
There was no way I was going to Mitzvah Land to purchase a pre-fab Sukkah kit, no matter how many times my wife said to do just that. Where was the fun in using a kit? I was going to design my own. So, I sketched and plotted and planned and then went to Home Depot’s plumbing department where I bought plastic PVC pipes and joints, tarps, and other necessities. Scoffers beware! When I finally erected it, I felt the pride the freed Israelites must have felt after leaving Egypt and setting up their temporary homes in the desert. It was beautiful… and a bit flimsy… but it worked. It was definitely a case of beauty over function but isn’t that what building a sukkah is all about? That night we had our first guests in the sukkah. What a celebration! But, the next morning things took a terrible turn. I was sitting in my home office when I heard a crash. I rushed outside, not knowing what to expect. What I saw reminded me that I should listen to my wife more often. My sukkah had snapped in half. It seems that plastic PVC wasn’t meant to rise horizontally in the sky in order to support walls and a roof. Thankfully, no one was in the Sukkah at the time of its demise. The next Sukkot, my mother-in-law bought me a kit from Mitzvah Land. 

How are you honoring Sukkot this year?

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Yizkor...

My father belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. He’d eat bacon every chance he got and seldomly attended services but when he went, he went Orthodox. His Eastern-European born parents couldn’t see anything useful in any other denomination, and he and his brothers followed suit when they became adults. I was six when my father died, and for the first few years after his passing, my mother continued to take us to his synagogue before moving us to a local Conservative synagogue. In the sanctuary, men and women sat in side-by-side sections with a mechitza that was only three feet tall separating them. My mother, my sister, and I would enter the synagogue together but once we stepped into the sanctuary, I would be handed over to my uncles, Sidney and Ralph, as my mother and sister headed to the women’s section. My uncles would place me between them. Ralph would kibbitz with me while Sid would awkwardly try to explain the service. When the Yom Kippur morning service ended, half the congregation rose to leave. I stood thinking it was time to go. “No, you need to stay,” said Ralph. It was time for Yizkor. Only those who had lost a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse remained for this service of remembrance. I was the youngest in the room but at that moment I felt like an adult, doing a very adult thing, honoring my father like all sons and daughters must do upon their passing. Yizkor has always given me the space to remember - regardless of my age or height. 

Who will you remember during Yizkor services this year?

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Yom Kippur...

Entering the High Holy Days: Wearing White
We were crammed around Craig’s kitchen table, eight grown men hoping to be rabbis one day. Having already spent a month studying Jewish texts together, we were comfortable being shoulder-to-shoulder. But, on this night, our intensity increased ten-fold. Tensions ran high. “I’m all in,” I announce. The pot was large, and I was bluffing. One by one they folded, blessing me with whatever new Hebrew curse they had learned on the streets of Jerusalem. I pulled in my winnings. It was a good night. I was up some 800 shekels, about $40 back in 2003.  The next day, as I wandered Ben Yehudah Street with my family, I passed a shoe store. In the window, speaking to me, were a pair of white sneakers. They had my size. From poker chips to white shoes, it seemed like the appropriate way to spend my winnings. A few days later, I dressed for Yom Kippur, all in white with my new sneakers adorning my feet. I flowed into the street where Jews of every denomination were heading to their services, also dressed in white. As I walked to services, I ran into one of my classmates. “What did you do with your winnings?” “New shoes for Yom Kippur of course.” What else would a rabbinic student spend his winnings on? 

Will you wear white this Yom Kippur?

At Kol Tikvah, our High Holy Day services are open to the community, with required advance reservations.  Visit koltikvah.org/HHD for a full schedule of services and to request your tickets.

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Rosh Hashanah...

Entering the High Holy Days: The Best Seats
We arrived at my stepfather’s modern orthodox temple later than expected. Of course, my mother never ran on time so being thirty or forty minutes late was actually considered on schedule in my family.  Having never been overly fond of Orthodox liturgy, the delay seemed like a reward. When we arrived, my stepfather fumbled for our tickets. Every congregant had an assigned seat with the best seats, those on the eastern wall, being the most expensive since they were the closest to Jerusalem. The community believed that our prayers were going directly from Louisville to Jerusalem and then on to the heavens. Heaven forbid you should sit on the western side where your prayers would be last to be heard by God. My stepfather led us to our seats amidst a packed synagogue. He kept walking forward oblivious to those watching our entrance. He moved us closer and closer to the front and the eastern wall. “Here are our seats,” he shared. We were in the eastern section, third row, behind the Cantor’s family. As a 13 year old boy, our location was less than thrilling. Just as we were settling into our seats, an usher came forward. “Are you sure you’re in the right seats?”  he asked. My stepfather handed him the tickets. “I’m sorry, but you’re in the wrong section… and the wrong row.” Just as we had to cross the community to get to our seats, now we had to cross back, to the other end of the sanctuary. Embarrassed, yes. Happy to be placed in a back section where no one was watching me pray, ecstatic. Assigned seating for an entire community – it raised funds but it didn’t raise my soul that Rosh HaShanah. Balancing the need to raise money, the holiness of the day, and a person’s inability to read their own tickets, can create quite a conundrum on Rosh HaShanah. 

Where will you sit for the best spiritual experience over this High Holy Day season?  

At Kol Tikvah, our High Holy Day services are open to the community, with required advance reservations.  Visit koltikvah.org/HHD for a full schedule of services and to request your tickets. 

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Selichot...

Entering the High Holy Days: A Glass of Tea
My alarm went off at 4:00 am, an unholy hour where I was expected to do the holy. As I stumbled out the door of my third floor apartment on Rehov Jabotinsky and onto the still dark street, my classmates began to file out of their nearby apartment buildings. A few hellos but mostly silence as we headed to a waiting bus that sat in front of the seminary campus. Bouncy twists and turns through narrow Jerusalem streets led us to our destination, a Sephardic synagogue willing to allow a group of Reform Ashkenazic Jews to join them in their month of Elul tradition. As we entered the sanctuary, our sleepy demeanors were awakened by the lively men who filled the first floor and the women who sat upstairs. Within moments, a nosh and cup of tea were in my hand, appearing there from a congregant who could only communicate with me through a large grin. Shmoozing. Eating. Drinking. And the sun still had not risen. People began to take their seats so we did the same. A moment later a Hazzan began chanting the morning prayers with a daily inclusion that only occurs during the month of Elul, the month prior to Rosh HaShanah. After the Amidah, the Hazzan sang special penitential prayers and poems. Without being familiar with the words that came from his mouth, without knowing a single congregant beyond a shared smile, I felt the power of repenting, the power of repenting with a community while listening to a melodic cantorial voice. Of course, the hot tea that I was allowed to sip throughout the service aided my ability to focus. The prayers ended. We departed. The sun rose. Yes, at an unholy hour I participated in the holy. 

Selichot and the month of Elul are meant to prepare us for the High Holy Days. Will you be ready?

Wed, May 29 2024 21 Iyar 5784