Messages from Rabbi Russo

February 19, 2016 - 10 Adar

Shabbat Shalom
February 19th - 20th

In Parashat T'zaveeh we learn about the sacral vestments for the Priests as the Israelites continue to work on the Tabernacle. In the Haftarah portion we learn about Ezekiel's prophecy after the destruction of the first Temple. In Ezekiel 43:13 the great altar is called both an "altar" and a "table." There is a fascinating commentary in the Etz Hayim that recalls, "Yohanan and Elezar both taught:  'As long as the Temple existed, the altar provided atonement for Israel, but now (when the Temple is destroyed) a person's table provides atonement '"  (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a, Etz Hayim, p. 520). What a beautiful concept about the power of the table.

As I write this message, it is the 9th of Adar, a date in Jewish history when two schools of thought - Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had a fatal fallout. You can learn more about it here. Some people fast on this day to remind ourselves that  dialong should be respectful, safe, an constructure. We will explore this more on Friday night. it reminds me of a quote: "It is better to build a bigger table than a higher fence." When we disagree with someone, inviting them to our table literally and metaphorically for constructive dialogue can be very healing. In an age without the Temple, but with just as many differences of opinion, the table can provide atonement and ease isolation.

May we all be blessed with Shabbat guests, Shabbat time with family, and good meals around our tables.

Shabbat Shalom.



January 29, 2016 - 19 Shevat

Our weekly Haftarah class this week shared a moment of inspiration when we read:
"Holy, holy, holy!
The Lord of Hosts!
His presence fills all the earth!"
from Isaiah 6:3 in the Haftarah for Parashat Yitro.  We recite this line as part of the K'dushah in the Amidah prayer.
In the narrative, six Seraphim angels are calling out to one another.  The commentator Rashi notes that the calling is an angelic invitation, performed in unison (like how we recite it in shul) to sanctify God.  The Etz Hayyim notes "that the recitation of the K'dushah by a congregation on earth parallels the praise of the angelic host.  The Sages also stress that the human recitation precedes the angelic one and that this leads to the coronation of God who ascends the highest throne in heaven.  The visionary experience of Isaiah thus has become a communal ritual, uniting heaven and earth in a chorale of divine praise."  This beautiful and vivid description helps us to understand the intention of holiness we seek to emulate from the angels and create during the K'dushah.
I realize that sometimes it is challenging when people arrive at synagogue and are asked to wait until after the K'dushah to enter the synagogue.  I hope that by learning about the holiness we cultivate during this part of the service, it might change how we view (what can be perceived as unwelcoming) waiting outside the sanctuary until we finish the K'dushah.
This Shabbat as we recite the K'dushah in shul or pray at home, we hold the kavanah/the intention of how together we can praise God and parallel the angels. 
Shabbat Shalom.

January 22, 2016 - 12 Shevat

We are looking forward to Shabbat Shira this week as we read two poems. We read Shirat HaYam in the Torah reading, Parashat Bishallach, and in the Haftarah, we read Deborah's song.   
I want to focus on manna in this message, the sustaining food that God gives to the Israelites in the desert.  We learn about moderation and fair distribution of resources.  The Israelites run into trouble when they hoard or they take too little. The text explains (Exodus 16:17 - 19): "The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little. But when they measured it by the omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no deficiency: they had gathered as much as they needed to eat."  God evens out the portions so that everyone has what they need to eat, not too much and not too little.  God provided two portions of manna on Friday so that the Israelites would have food for Shabbat.      
Today, it is much harder to ensure that everyone is provided with enough food. We are participating in People to People's program "It's In The Bag" to provide weekend meals for children from low-income families who get meals in school.  The students go to the after-school programs at the Nyack Center and Haverstraw Center.
We are collecting food items (the list follows below).  Please bring these food items to the synagogue during office hours on Tuesdays - Thursdays from 9 am to 5 pm and Fridays from 9 am to 2  pm.
We will be creating bags of food on Sunday, February 28, at 11 am.  Please join us with your children as there will be ways for everyone to be involved.  Our preschoolers can decorate the white paper bags; the Hebrew School students can write letters to the students receiving the food, and the adults will help sort the food into the bags. We envision this intergenerational program to be a learning experience for our community and a way we can give back to the larger Nyack and Haverstraw communities.
We will also need volunteers during the week to drop off the donations with us at People to People.  Last year we had a lot of fun with the preschool students at the food pantry there.    
We are collecting:
Oatmeal in individual packs
Single-serving cereal boxes
Cereal bars and graham crackers
Cans of tuna
Boxes of macaroni and cheese
Shelf-stable milk, plain and chocolate
Juice boxes
Chips packs
Cookie packs
Fruit cups
If you are interested in helping with the planning of this event and other social justice programming in the synagogue, please contact me or Dustin Hausner.  
Shabbat Shalom.

January 15, 2016 - 5 Shevat

This year I have been studying the weekly Haftarah readings with an incredible group of congregants.  Each week, our understanding of prophecy broadens as we read about different styles and tactics of the prophets.
This weekend we memorialize Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who witnessed the injustices of the world and dedicated his life to addressing racism, poverty, and violence by holding America accountable through nonviolence.  Part of the Jewish narrative is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the iconic picture of him marching with King in Selma, Alabama.  Both King and Heschel can be viewed as modern-day prophets who constructively used their rage to bring about meaningful change.  
As we think back to our legacy with the Civil Rights Movement, we have to ask ourselves are we doing enough?  We honor King this weekend, and we also reflect on the progress that still needs to happen to actualize his dream.  Are we continuing Heschel's legacy of doing everything we can to recognize and combat racism in our country?  
In Parashat Bo we learn about the mitzvah to celebrate Passover, the holiday of freedom.  It encourages us to think about freedom, equality, and justice and the role we can play today.  We are working on organizing social justice initiatives within the synagogue that will be intergenerational.  If you would like to become involved in the planning process, please let me know.  I also hope that if you have off of work on Monday, you will find a volunteer opportunity for you and/or your family.  Here are some volunteer opportunities for MLK Jr. Day in the area:
Meanwhile, enjoy this video produced by the two a cappella groups - Naturally 7 and the Maccabeats - in honor of MLK Day.
Shabbat Shalom

January 8, 2016 - 27 Tevet

Parshat Vaera begins with a moment of prophetic vision and encouragement from God during a difficult time of slavery in Egypt.  Last week we ended in a bad place as Pharaoh denies Moses and Aaron's request to free the Israelites. Instead he decrees that the enslavement will be even more harsh.
Vaera, the name of the parashah, means "appears," as in God appeared to our forefathers. This teaches us about the importance of vision and prophetic vision.  The first line of the parashah draws on another sense, listening and hearing.  We read, "God spoke to Moses and said to him, "'I am the Lord'" (Exodus 6:2)."  Vayidaber, "God spoke," indicates that in order to have vision we must listen for it first.  Attuning ourselves to enable us to hear God can enable us to find greater vision.  
When we are sad or under distress, it can be harder to discern God.  When Moses tells the Israelites that they will be redeemed, the text tells us "they would not listen to Moses because of their shortness of spirit and harsh physical labor" (Exodus 6:9).
This Shabbat, let's try to make time to seek out God, in whatever that means for us, especially when we might be stressed or not feeling well or just down (something that often occurs in the winter months).  One way we seek out God is through prayer and meditation.  Whether you are in shul or not, we can attune ourselves to listen for God.  
Shabbat Shalom.  

December 18 - 6 Tevet

Shabbat Shalom
December 18 - 19
Pharaoh and Jacob meet for the first time in this week's parashah, Parashat Vayigash. The Torah captures their first words (Genesis 47:8): "Pharaoh asked Jacob, 'How many are the days of the years of your life?'" The commentators wonder about the reason for Pharaoh's direct question and this exchange.  How many of us enjoy conversations that begin with our age?  What prompts Pharaoh to inquire about Jacob's age? 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch looks at the text's inclusion of the words "days" and "years" to indicate that for a few select people, each day is important and has special meaning.  He makes the point that Pharaoh specifically asks about Jacob's days because he lived each day to the fullest.  This is a message we can all take to heart.  
There are a lot of ways to live each day with significance. One way is by engaging in mitzvot.  It is a mitzvah to help make a minyan of 10 people at prayer services.  We need a minimum of 10 people present so that mourners and those observing yahrzeits can recite the Mourner's Kaddish. We have added the yahrzeit lists to our Shabbat announcements to make the community aware of yahrzeits and who needs a minyan to say kaddish.  Please help out your friends and fellow congregants by attending Friday night services, Shabbat morning services, and shiva minyanim when you are able to do so.  It makes a big difference and it is a meaningful way to honor our loved ones.  
Shabbat Shalom.

December 4, 2015 - 22 Kislev

When tragedy strikes, as it did this week in San Bernardino, we can feel trapped like Joseph in the pit.  For unknown reasons, a killer opened fire at a holiday party.  Just last week Planned Parenthood was under fire.  We might feel deep in the pit of despair.  Why do people choose death and destruction? What will it take for us to rise out of the pit?  We pray for safety and calm.  We use the light of the upcoming Hanukah holiday to contemplate our own light and how we will use our power to bring more calm.  We navigate between prayer and action as we seek healing following more loss of life and more heartbreak.
This Shabbat we will come together as a sacred community to seek comfort and inspiration from each other.  How will we pray as if our lives depend on it?  How will we be moved to action to try to repair a fractured world with heartbreaking gun violence?  As we enter
Shabbat this week, we hold these questions and our loved ones tight as we pray for calm.  

November 20 - 8 Kislev

Shabbat Shalom
November 20 - 21

We ended last week on a tragic note as the news broke at the start of Shabbat of two violent acts of terrorism in Paris and Beirut.  Sadly this week brought more violence with deadly attacks in Israel in Tel Aviv and Alon Shvut.  Some of us are connected with 18 year old Ezra Schwartz z''l who was killed while volunteering on a gap year program.  He was active in USY, Camp Yavnah, and graduated from the Jewish Day School Maimonides in Boston which is how many American Jews know him.  Just when we felt our hearts could not take anymore pain, we woke up to a terrible hostage take-over in a hotel in Mali this morning.  It feels like the world is spiraling out of control and it is frightening.  

As a religious leader, I am aware that our community -  together with many communities all over the world - is raw and vulnerable right now.  I encourage you to listen to your own authentic reactions to these terrible acts of violence.  Learn more about the victims.  Make space to cry and make space for fear.  Rabbi David Hoffman, a talented rabbi and Randi Shebitz's nephew, wrote a meaningful article after the Paris attacks.  He writes:
"The attack on Paris—and all that Paris represents—has shaken many of us because we are reminded of our profound vulnerability in a violent world.  There is a wise statement of Jewish law that declares: 'One whose dead lies before them is exempt from the saying of the Shema prayer, from wearing tefillin and from all of the other mitzvot of the Torah.' This dispensation extends broadly to other commandments at the moment of such intense personal tragedy...At such moments, our tradition asks us to pause and simply feel." 

My prayer this Shabbat is that we can come together as a community to feel the immensity of the loss and seek healing and hope in each other and our tradition. As prepare to bring in the light of Chanukah in a few short weeks, may we each seek the light in the world during very dark times.  

We will be celebrating Chanukah at the synagogue by lighting the candles each night.  We also have the Lots of Latkes party on December 9th from 5 pm - 7 pm.  You can make your own ceramic Hanukiyot that will be fired in a kiln afterwards.  Please RSVP to the office ASAP if you would like us to order you one.  The cost is $20 to make one and the proceeds go towards supporting our school.  The Vodka, Latkes, and Karaoke event will be on Saturday night, December 12th.  

May it be a Shabbat of peace.
Shabbat Shalom.

November 13 - 1 Kislev

Shabbat Shalom.
We have had a full week in the secular and Hebrew calendars. On Monday we remembered Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.  We marked the anniversary of an evening of escalated Nazi violence where Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were vandalized and 30,000 Jews were arrested.  Two days later our country showed its support for our veterans who keep us safe in America every day through their service.  Veteran's Day recognises the men and women who protect and fight for our freedom and the opportunities awarded to us in America.  On Thursday and Friday we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the new month of Kislev, which indicates that Hanukah is coming.  The ups and downs of the week bring us right into the protective embrace of Shabbat.
In Parashat Toldot we will read about the place of blessings in the narrative about Jacob and Esau.  Both Jacob and Esau receive a blessing from Isaac in the end, and it is complicated as we will discuss more on Shabbat.  After a week of remembering violence, bravery, and joy, we may feel that blessings have their own nuances.  I invite you to dwell upon the blessings in your life this Shabbat even if they have not always felt like a blessing at every moment. 

Shabbat Shalom.

November 6 - 24 Cheshvan

Shabbat Shalom
November 6 - Cheshvan 24
A majority of the Torah reading this week in Parashat Chayei Sarah focuses on Abraham's servant finding a wife for his son, Isaac.  Right before the first-time meeting of Rebecca and Isaac, the Torah tells us (Genesis 24:63): 
"and Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening" 

It is a small detail within a very plot driven narrative, yet it is significant.  Some commentators say Isaac went out to meditate or pray.  The rabbis in the Talmud assert that Isaac went out to converse with God.  After such a beautiful fall week, it is a good reminder that we should take time to appreciate the beautiful scenery and weather.  It is gift to pause before life events and busy schedules.  We should carve opportunities to seek the calm in meditation or in our conversations with ourselves and/or God.  

One message within Parashat Chayei Sarah is the reminder to slow down and be more present with nature, ourselves, and God.  While this beautiful weather lasts, I encourage you to seek calm in nature and in our lives.  It can be as simple as taking a walk this Shabbat.  

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom. 

October 30, 2015 - 17 Heshvan

Shabbat Shalom.

An act of hospitality, Hakhnasat Orchim, opens up this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayera. We read that Abraham: 
Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant's way." They replied, "Do as you have said." (Genesis 18:2 -5)

The midrash in Genesis Rabbah 48:9 adds that the tent was open on all four sides.  In providing a purposefully open tent, Abraham signalled to all passersby that he would greet them with an open heart and home.  We strive to emulate this openness here at CSI with our Big Tent affiliation.  Becoming truly welcoming has gotten harder in today's world.  One way we can work towards greater openness is to pursue interfaith work.  The Hazzan's Peace Ensemble and everyone who attended and participated was one way to promote this work.  Yesterday, I met with colleagues from the Interfaith Clergy Association of Nyack at the Islamic Center of Rockland where we worked on the upcoming Interfaith Thanksgiving Service (coming up on November 24 at the Reform Temple of Rockland).  We are lucky in Nyack to have a collaboration with other faiths in the Village with the awareness that it is not always easy.

The Jewish community mourned the death of Richard Lakin this week, an activist and supporter of coexistence in Israel, who taught at the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.  He died after succumbing to injuries following a violent terrorist attack while he was on a bus in Jerusalem.  While he was in the hospital, teachers from the school brought prayers of healing in Hebrew and Arabic.  

When I read about Abraham's openness in Parashat Vayera, I yearn for a world where we can be truly welcoming without reservation.  Today we can take steps towards collaboration and interfaith dialogue both here and in Israel with programming by overcoming preconceived notions to truly seek out God in all our neighbors.  

Shabbat Shalom.

October 23, 2015 - 10 Heshvan

Shabbat Shalom
Abraham and Sarah go forth in Parashat Lech Lecha, travelling ahead physically and spiritually, as the narrative charts ahead. They learn that their family is growing with the birth of Ishmael and the announcement that Isaac will follow in next week's parashah. Isaac and Ishmael do not always get along as children. Sadly, their conflict has continued over time with periods of tension between the descendents of Isaac and the descendents of Ishmael. Over the years, it has not always been a struggle. Along the way there have been examples of successful coexistence and teamwork that resparked the hope for a peaceful resolution
The past few weeks have been hard with mounting and heartbreaking terrorism in Israel. In a time of unrest, it is important to acknowledge the small victories. For example, read here about a restaurant called Hummus Bar, in Kfar Vitkin, that is offering 50% off of their hummus dishes when Jews and Arabs eat together. Or familiarize yourself with Daniel Ben-Shabbat, a young Israeli soldier, who initially became fearful when a young Arab woman sat next to her on a bus. She texted her mom who told her to get up and move. Instead, she took out her cell phone and took a selfie picture with her. You can read her story here.
ust as Isaac and Ishmael came together in the Biblical narrative at the end of their father's story, so do we pray for a peaceful resolution in Israel. This Shabbat I encourage you to seek out the small victories that fuel our hope.
Along other lines of collaboration, it was beautiful to be at the Rockland Clergy 4 Social Justice Interfaith Prayer Service at East Ramapo High School last night.  It was inspiring to come together in prayer as one response to the district's difficult realities.  We ended the evening with the Shabbat blessing over the children where teachers placed their hands on their students' heads in soulful prayer.  I found the experience to be extremely powerful.
This Shabbat we will bless our children on Saturday morning during our Hebrew School siddur ceremony with the same blessing.  I am excited to see all of our children sing a prayer or song and receive their siddurim.  Since I teach the oldest group on Wednesdays, I am particularly looking forward to hearing them speak about and sing Hatikvah this Shabbat.  I hope you will join us.  
Shabbat Shalom.

October 16, 2015 - 3 Heshvan

Shabbat Shalom

A colleague introduced me to this to quote by Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azoulai (Chida, 18th century).

The characteristics of God are not like those of human beings. For the human being, a keshet (bow) is a sign of war. And God gave the keshet (rainbow) as a sign of peace.

These past two weeks have reopened the wounds of war (bows and knives and guns) as Israel has dealt with an onslaught of terrorist attacks.  In the past two weeks, Palestinian terrorists have attacked more than 50 Jews.  8 people have died as a result of these attacks.  Included among the wounded are a 2-year-old baby, a 13-year-old riding his bike, and a 70-year-old woman waiting for a bus.  

My friends in Israel tell me that they try to continue with daily routines.  A very dear of friend of ours got married today.  The balance between safety and trying to stay calm with a sense of a normal routine is impossibly hard.  We will be discussing this more during Shabbat for Parashat Noah.  I found this article in Tablet Magazine to be a particularly interesting take on how young people are coping with humor.  The long-term psychological damage from living with terrorism will be felt long after the immediate threat subsides. You can read about it here.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Women's League, and the Rabbinical Assembly have all encourages this Shabbat to be designated as a special Shabbat in solidarity with Israel.  We will recite the following prayer when we stand in front of the open Ark:

Special Kavannah for Unity with Israel Shabbat
By Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, CA
We invite people around the world to recite this kavannah in unity with the State of Israel this Shabbat, October 17, 2015.

El Maleh Rachamim -- Compassionate God,
We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.
Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.
Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one
Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks
Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.
Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.
Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers
And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.
Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.
We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,
Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,
And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

I encourage you to call your friends and family in Israel to check in.  Follow the news, make donations to Masorti Judaism and other organizations concerned with Israel's security. Pray this Shabbat.  Pray that this new wave of violence will end quickly.  Pray for healing of all the victims and their families.  Pray for the Keshet of peace, of the rainbow, and that the guns, knives, and bombs disappear from Israeli daily life.  Pray for a Shabbat of calm.         

Shabbat Shalom.

October 9, 2015 - 26 Tishrei

Shabbat Shalom. 
I recently came across a t-shirt online that reads, "Rabbis love Heshvan." For a chuckle, you can see the t-shirt here.

The month of Tishrei is full of meaningful and hectic holidays followed by the month of Heshvan, referred to by the rabbis as Mar Heshvan, "bitter" Heshvan because there are no Jewish holidays in the entire month.  This Shabbat, Parashat Bereshit, is also Mevarchin HaHodesh, where we announce the new month of Heshvan in the coming week.
The holidays were both energizing and exhausting.  We soared with one incredible holiday after another.  Simchat Torah felt particularly joyous this year as we had a truly intergenerational crowd with lots of ruach - spirit.  To everyone who participated and volunteered including those who became parking attendants, honor givers, sin admitters, synagogue cleaners, Torah cover changers, singers, daveners, chair arrangers, usherers, donation pledgers, Torah readers, service leaders, greeters, preparers of break-fast, Torah holiday text finders, soap dispenser purchasers, Torah dancers and carriers, Ark beautifiers, music makers, shofar blowers, email responders, phone call responders, meal makers, sukkah builders, food preparers, youth educators, food donators, Torah word correctors, vow abiders, Simchat Torah shot distributors, tashlikh breadcrumb throwers, and more...thank you!   It is remarkable and humbling to see how people work so hard during this time of year to ensure smooth holidays.  

On that note, if you have specific, actionable feedback from the High Holy Days, we want to hear about it!  We are always looking to improve upon our services and our systems in the future.  Please email Helaine at with your constructive feedback and/or positive feedback about the High Holy Days.  She will compile a list to be shared with the synagogue leadership, rabbi, and ritual committee.  If you would like your comments to remain anonymous, please indicate that in your e-mail, and your name will be removed from your comments.    
Shabbat Shalom.

October 2 - 19 Tishrei

Shabbat Shalom
As we discussed last Shabbat, the sukkah was understood by our rabbis in two ways.  One position holds that the sukkot in the Torah refer to God, the clouds of glory.  Another stance is that the sukkot are actually the physical booths.  Talmud Sukkot 11b has the conversation:
(We apologize, but Hebrew text is unavailable.)

For it was taught in a Baraita: “That I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot” (Leviticus 23:43).  The “sukkot” were clouds of glory that accompanied and protected the Israelites according to Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says the Israelites made for themselves actual booths.

We balance the abundance of God with the fragility of the sukkot.  This Shabbat Hol HaMoed feels particularly vulnerable as news of two instances of murder - in Oregon and the West Bank - weigh on our hearts.  In times like these, we pray for the Divine sheltering over each other.
Another way we are exposed is with the threatening forecast.  If you are concerned that your sukkah could damage your property or your neighbor's property, it is permissible to take it down.
We follow the Town of Clarkstown and the Clarkstown Police weather advisories. The safety of our congregants is our number one priority.  Please go to this website and sign up for alerts.  If there is an advisory not to travel, then please stay home.  We will close the synagogue if there is a report from the police indicating that it is not safe to travel.  Hopefully this will not happen and all of our services and programs will continue as planned. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach. 

September 18, 2015 - 5 Tishrei 5776

I am overwhelmed with gratitude as we pause this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Shabbat Shuva. So many people work so hard to ensure that services are meaningful and run smoothly. We are blessed with dedicated staff and lay leaders who work tirelessly all year and especially during the High Holy Day Season. This Shabbat, I share with you a prayer for the New Year:    

A Prayer For the New Year  From: "The World of the High Holidays"*

During this coming year:
May you enjoy good health and happiness.

May peace reign over our country
and throughout the world.

May you have a kiss from your beloved,
a smile from a child,
a warm cozy house
with the aroma of good food baking in the oven.

May you have wise governors and merciful tax collectors,
good friends and neighbors.

May you enjoy the fruits of your labors,
celebrate birthdays and anniversaries,
and may the sun shine on your face...but not too much.

May you see a rainbow.

May your team score a touchdown.

May the Sabbath Queen enter your home,
and enable you to follow the teachings of Torah with love.

May you enjoy peace of mind, and may all your dreams be sweet ones

May the world be a better place because you are in it,
and may you find delight:
in reading a good book,
finding a bargain,
doing a good deed,
and giving charity with a free and open hand.

Whenever it rains--as it will--
may you have an umbrella.

And may we meet on the streets of Jerusalem
in the year to come.

We wish our CSI family all this and more.
Shanah Tovah.

*With thanks to my home synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom, who introduced me to this prayer.   

September 12, 2015 - 28 Elul 5775

Shabbat Shalom and L'Shana Tova

As we prepare to enter the sacred space of Shabbat, I am reminded of the tragic events fourteen years ago when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked in a horrific act of terrorism.  As American Jews, this date is part of us, and is integrated into our national identity.  It is hard to believe that it has been fourteen years since our lives were changed by hate and violence.  We humbly express gratitude to the first responders, the police, and firemen who endangered and gave their lives to save others.  As our tradition teaches us that to save a life is akin to saving an entire universe, we are blessed by their actions that saved so many. 

At the tenth anniversary, a book was published called "The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11 Family Members" which published letters from family members to their beloved family who died in the attacks. When you read it, make sure you have a box of tissues handy.  The book recognizes how their loved ones' memories are a blessing for their family.  The 100 letters published look back and forward with stories and memories of hope, grief, loss, courage, and blessing.  I encourage you to take time today to recognize the immensity of the loss we experienced fourteen years ago and to pray for a world with less hate.    

We go from sorrow to joy as the safety of Shabbat embraces us even when our hearts are heavy.  In this week's Torah reading, Parashat Nitzvam, God instructs Moses that the Torah is relevant and reachable to the Israelites.  The text reads (Deuteronomy 30:11 - 14):   

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

As we enter Shabbat and prepare for the High Holy Days soon afterwards, let's focus on how we can bring the Torah into our lives.  Sometimes the Torah can feel far from us.  This week's Torah reading reminds us that it is within reach.  We can access Torah because it is within us and our hearts. Prepare to open your heart for the Torah and spirituality of Shabbat and the High Holy Days.  I look forward to celebrating with you.  I want to thank you for your support of me and our synagogue this year. Your love keeps us going.   Thank you for your support by making High Holy Day pledges, by showing up, by volunteering, and by the gift of presence and time. Let's usher in 5776 together with joy and love.      

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a L'Shana Tova.

September 5, 2015 - 21 Elul 5775

Our schools are getting ready for the new year! Our Preschool began this week, and our Hebrew School teachers met for a staff meeting in preparation for next week's Back-to-School Night. Coincidently, I was fortunate to participate in a retreat at Ramah Nyack as an alumna of the Davidson School of Education on Thursday.    

Rav Shimi bar Ashi used to frequent the classes of Rav Papa and used to ask him many questions. One day Rav Shimi observed that Rav Papa fell on his face (in prayer), and he heard Rav Papa saying, "May God preserve me from being disgraced by Shimi!" Rav Shimi thereupon vowed silence and asked him no more questions (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 9B).

Rav Shimi was a student of Rav Papa. The educators at the retreat had a strong negative reaction to Rav Papa's response. Rav Papa's approach of not speaking to the student directly was damaging. He silenced Rav Shimi. This text led to a broad and holy conversation about how we engage learners and redirect them with love when necessary.

People get on our nerves sometimes. The Soncino translation of this text adds that Rav Shimi used to annoy Rav Papa. Our theory of education at CSI is to nurture and care for each other and all of our students. We learn from this episode in the Talmud how destructive it can be when we shut someone down. 

With a little more than a week before the Yamim Noraim, let's enter Shabbat with more patience and respect for the people in our lives who may push our buttons. It is a message that speaks to me as a rabbi, an educator and a human being.      

Shabbat Shalom.

August 29, 2015 - 14 Elul 5775

August 29, 2015
14 Elul 5775
The last few lines of Parashat Ki Tetzei are a reminder to blot out the name of Amalek, "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25:17 - 19)

Amalek is identified as a continuous enemy against God and Israel. He attacks Israel when they are vulnerable. Yet there is something disturbing about the hatred prescribed in the Torah. The Torah mandates that every last Amalekite should be killed. It seems like an extreme response. Certainly Amalek is not the first person to mistreat the Israelites. The Egyptians enslaved and oppressed the Israelites for years. Concerning the Egyptians, the Torah tells us, "You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land" (23:8). What is it about Amalek that elicits such a strong response from God? I do not see an obvious answer in the text.  

Many of us have one (or two) people in our lives that evoke strong feelings of hate. There are times when we might want to blot out their name or wish ill on them. People can hurt us deeply. It is even worse when we are already feeling raw. Perhaps the lines about Amalek in the Torah can serve as a reminder for us to let go of our hate and anger towards the people who know how to push our buttons. It is worth noting God's response and to explore this text more. As we get closer and closer to Rosh Hashanah, I encourage you to think about if anyone has sinned against you this year. My mentor, poet Merle Feld, poses these questions during Chodesh Elul: 

  • Has anyone sinned against you this year, hurt you?
  • How?
  • What do you need from them to achieve healing?
  • Is there something you can do to help bring about that healing, justice, reconciliation?

Perhaps that won’t be possible; if it’s not possible, how might you help yourself to find inner peace and move on?    

I encourage you to contemplate these questions as we prepare for Shabbat and do Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul. Please join us tomorrow at 9:30 am for our special kavanah service for Chodesh Elul.

Shabbat Shalom.

August 22, 2015 - 7 Elul

August 22, 2015
7 Elul 5775
From the depths of the month of Elul, we continually work on ourselves as we prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days. One of the lessons we glean from this week's Torah reading, Parashat Shoftim, is an awareness and appreciation for the natural environment. Within a discussion of laws during wartime, we read:
“When you lay siege to a city for many days, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the (fruit) trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; because you may eat of them, do not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (Deuteronomy 20.19)

One way of reading this verse is to protect the environment, and we also learn ba'al tashchit from this, that we should not be unnecessarily wasteful. My Elul challenge for you this week is to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of nature. Go to the Nyack Farmer's Market next Thursday. Walk one of the beautiful hikes in our county. Pray or meditate outside one morning. Buy or select bulbs to plant in the fall. Take note of the produce that nature yields. Choose something that is meaningful for you to take yourself outside of your interests and acknowledge the awe around you.  

Another way you can prepare for the High Holy Days is by attending a Kavanna service next Shabbat, August 29. Please see the information about the service below. 

A Shabbat Morning Service of Kavanna in Preparation for the Days of Awe
Congregation Sons of Israel invites the entire community to join us Shabbat morning, August 29, for a mindful Shaharit service to usher in the Yamim Nora’im.

Come chant with us, meditate with us, reflect with us, and connect your soul to the Creator of All. The service will begin promptly at 9:30 am.
Shabbat Shalom.