Friday, November 30, 2012

Jewish Camp Works

Lazy summer afternoons, drought, triple digit temperatures: All part of what many of us faced this summer at camps across the nation. Things have gotten better since the first Jewish overnight camps opened 100 years ago. We now have some fans and AC for most of the staff … But comfort is not we offer at Jewish camps. We make an effort to create Jewish connections. We want every camper to find the commitment to our people, which will last a life-time.
In a recent report, scholars asked Jewish adults about their commitment to Judaism and Jewish causes. They found out some amazing data about the impact of overnight Jewish camps on Jewish identity. The report ("Camp Works") offers the fullest picture to date of the impact of Jewish summer camp. The basic question which framed the analysis was: "Does Jewish camp work?" The report demonstrates that summers at Jewish camp are an important part of the process whereby adults become and sustain a strong commitment to the Jewish community and to Jewish practice.
The report found that Jewish summer camp attendance is strongly related to the likelihood of adult participation and identification. As adults, campers are: 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles; 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more; and 55% more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.
Everyone can take an active role in encouraging our families to consider Jewish summer camps (day and overnight) –regardless of the composition of your family. In addition, we must continue the work of making those Jewish connections at our congregation the rest of the year. The more our members are involved, the more examples we can offer our children of what an adult Jewish life means. We have a golden opportunity to be an example to our youngsters during our “GUCIbat” Service. If you have never been to camp, join us and have a taste of summer. Been a camper yourself? Join us for a trip down memory lane. And of course, if you would like your children to be campers, be sure you and your family join us for our camp-style Shabbat service in January. We welcome everyone; we want everyone there! Let us all show our support for OUR future.
To access the full report follow this link, 

How Jewish camp impacted you and your family? Does the report represent your situation? How can you be part of the report in the future? Do you want to be? Please, leave a comment!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unity and the Next Twenty Years

            During our last Consecration service, we rejoiced in the beginning of a new cycle of reading the Torah as we initiated three new students in the path of Torah study. It was a touching moment to see so many of our children parading around the sanctuary with little plush Torah scrolls. Our 5773 Consecration class made us all proud as they recited the Shema and shared some fun Shabbat songs with our congregation.
            Many of you saw the pictures on our Facebook page. The pictures showed a congregation united in celebration, yet, the pictures only tell part of the story. The view from the bimah was a sanctuary with empty seats. Excluding the families and teachers of our consecrants, other attendees were sparse. While no one is taking “roll call,” I am concerned by the unspoken message this may be sending to the families and to those children of our next generation. Do we truly exemplify the achdut, “unity,” that our founders envisioned when they named our congregation?
            I am proud that our congregational community is comprised of individuals and families with many diverse interests. This diversity extends to the energetic support of both Jewish causes as well as other activities in our general community. However, many of our personal schedules fill up quickly each season, forcing us to carefully prioritize how and where we can be physically present to lend our support. Surely, the event which marks the beginning of Torah study for this Consecration class and their families merits a high priority for our congregation.
            Let me offer a statistical perspective. This year, enrollment in our Religious School is about 30 students –- that is a third of what we had 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, a Consecration class might have been four to five times bigger (I do not have to guess, their pictures are hanging in our hallway). In those days, if we did not have a child in school, and perhaps chose not to attend that particular Shabbat service, our new students would still have been welcomed by a warm and engaged crowd. The sheer number of families and friends was enough. Fast-forward 20 years and that circumstance yields this year’s rather meagerly attended celebration. I do not know how to say it enough: We need your support for our next generation. 

So, how can we engage you to help them on their paths to enrich their lives and to become adults with living Jewish values? What are you willing to do to reach our achdut? Please, feel free to leave a comment so we can continue the conversation.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why Shabbat Matters?

During a Shabbat Symposium held in 2007, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz said, “Let’s start with the main problem. We don’t take God very seriously. If we took God seriously, we would want to say hello once in a while. If we took the covenant between God and the Jews seriously, we would want to renew our [covenantal] relationship with God and with the Jews as a community every once in a while. And if we did that, if we cared about that, we would have a little sense of what it means to have a day that is holy. Holy has something to do with God. And that it has to be on Saturday is because this is a Jewish community thing and not just an individual thing, even though you are doing it by yourself.
Shabbat observance was crafted by our ancestors with one purpose in mind: to connect us to God and to lead us to be ethical, moral human beings. But in the last 200 years, we, as a people, have struggled with keeping Shabbat. Decades ago, our response to the challenges of Shabbat observance led our Reform movement to emphasize, “Make Friday night Shabbat.” Limiting our observance of Shabbat to Friday night (or to Sunday in some cases) allowed us to avoid many of our conflicts with American culture (shopping, errands, sports, which take place on Saturday).
In the book of Exodus, the Torah uses superlatives for Shabbat –words like covenant  (B’rit) for all time and a sign (ot) for all time. The implication is that we should take this mitzvah very seriously. Yet, what the Torah requires of us regarding Shabbat seems a bit different than what our Sages suggest. In the Talmud we read, “Shabbat is committed to your keeping, not you to its keeping. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b). A great midrash says, “Six days you will labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). But is it possible for us to do all our work in six days? Rather, we should rest as though all our work were finished.” (Midrash M’chilta, Yitro 7).
The rabbis understood that we need a more attainable goal: Keep Shabbat but not at the expense of your own well-being; work but do not rush to finish everything before Shabbat –lest you are too tired to enjoy it! Observing Shabbat means being nice to yourselves: take a shower, put on clean, nicer clothes, and make time to study and eat special food. In the year ahead, I invite everyone of us to face the struggle of keeping Shabbat head on; I would like that each one of us, as individuals as well as a community, can find our place in the chain of Shabbat observance. Stepping back from our lives to see the “bigger picture” doesn’t come naturally to us. The day of Shabbat was created to help us do just that: It can be an antidote to so much of what worries us about the world in which we live today.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon 5773: Zocher shabbos and How to Make Shabbat

Someone asked the famous rabbi of Rymanov, “Where lies the superiority of Yom Kippur, that it is called Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths? Is not Shabbat also called Shabbat Shabbaton, unto the Lord? The rabbi replied, “I see that you do not read the Torah with care … indeed of Shabbat it is written “Shabbat shabbaton unto the Lord,” but about Yom Kippur it is written Shabbat shabbaton hu lachem, to you [for the people]. On Yom Kippur we draw the Presence of God down, closer to us!
At most congregations, Yom Kippur must be the best attended Shabbat! Yet, Shabbat is a Jewish holiday that comes every week!
Shabbat is the only Jewish holiday that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In the book of Exodus we read, "Zachor … Remember Shabbat to keep it holy," (Exodus 20:8). In Deuteronomy the wording is different. In chapter 5 we read, "Shamor, keep Shabbat to make it holy," (Deuteronomy 5:12). 
The first stanza of the well-known Friday evening prayer, L’cha dodi, reads:
Shamor ve-zachor be-dibbur echad, hishmi’anu el ha-m’yuchad
keep and remember: A single command the Only God caused us to hear;
What does it mean that God “caused us to hear” two commandments as ONE? According to a famous midrash, at Sinai, God did what no human being can do: God uttered two distinct words, zachor/shamor at the same time. Let me demonstrate with the help of our wonderful choir [have them do it].
Tradition teaches us that shamor/observe, refers to mitzvoth instructing us what NOT to do; those things we should not do on Shabbat. In traditional terms, they include working, kindling fire, cooking, washing, conducting business. On the other hand "zachor/remember" refers to those mitzvoth that we should do; those things that we do on Shabbat such as lighting candles, reciting kiddush, attending services.
In traditional circles, someone who observes all the restrictions of Shabbat is called a shomer shobbes. For more than two hundred years now, our Reform movement has rejected being shomer shabbes. In some cases, we even went as far as declaring Sunday as our day for services.
Although in recent years, our movement has welcomed a rapprochement to tradition it is clear to me that the paradigm of shomer shabbes has not appealed to Jews who choose to join Reform congregations. The restrictions concerning work, shopping, and participating in secular activities is meaningless to most of us. Yet, Shabbat can still be relevant. Celebrating Shabbat was crafted by our ancestors with one purpose in mind: to connect us to God and to lead us to be ethical, moral human beings. You could say, “Shabbat is as Jewish as a corn-beef sandwich,” so we need to find a place for Shabbat in our lives.
Like many Jews before me, I went through a period when I wanted to experiment with Shabbat. Everything seemed to come together during my first year of rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. I rented an apartment that was all set up for Shabbat –including a Shabbat timer. Basically, you set it up so that the lights go off right before bedtime on Friday night. Since I had everything I needed for a “true” Shabbat experience, my roommate and I decided to be shomer shobbes for a year. We reasoned that being future rabbis, we should have the experience of being shomer shobbes at least once in our lifetime. We did everything: No cooking, no TV or radio or computers, no traveling –I walked 45 minutes each way many times, on Shabbat morning, to attend HUC’s services. I did Kiddush, 3 meals, havdalah, attended the local Orthodox synagogue, and took lots of naps!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests a way to describe non-Orthodox Jews who are serious about Shabbat, as zocheir shabbes. Rabbi Kushner teaches, “One who is zocheir Shabbat would remember throughout the day’s duration that it was Shabbat. (Not as easy as it […] sounds.) We say to one another, do anything you want—as long as you will remember it is Shabbat and that will insure that whatever you do will be lichvod Shabbatfor the honor of Shabbat.”
I am glad I was able to experience being shomer shabbos. I learned a lot about Shabbat and it made me put “keeping Shabbat” into perspective. Although being a shomer shabbes is not for me, I developed an appreciation for the “DO mitzvot” of Shabbat. I see myself as a zocher shabbos for sure.
Being a zocher shabbos means making time to “make Shabbat” on a regular basis. For instance, honoring Shabbat: doing things lichvod Shabbat, because Shabbat is coming. They can include preparing for the upcoming Shabbat by bathing, having a haircut, and cleaning and beautifying the home -with flowers, for example. We can have a haircut any day, right? Why not have it in honor of Shabbat? Then, on Shabbat itself, we may choose to wear festive clothing and refrain from unpleasant conversation. Of course, we can go the whole “nine yards” and recite Kiddush and light candles … and attend services.
I know that for some of us, doing any of these Shabbat things might be quite foreign. But they need not be. In this New Year I would like to offer my help.  I want to help our families and individuals to feel a sense of ownership of Shabbat. In the coming year, I’ll begin a “pilot” program, “Shabbat Basket.” Once a month or so, I will come to your home on Friday at around 5 or so, with a “Shabbat Basket” containing all the necessary elements for making Shabbat: Kiddush wine, grape juice, challah, candles, etc, and of course, a rabbi! Remember: It is not about the food or how fancy your house might be. It is about doing something to remember Shabbat. It will open to every one of our member households, NO matter your age or knowledge, or what side of town you live in. It will be a great learning opportunity for you as well as a good way for me to get to know you a bit better. I pray that you will consider it. There is a sign up sheet in the lobby –I would love to see as many names as possible! I will get in touch with you with more details and to set a date [Pause].
You may say, “but rabbi, doing Shabbat on Friday night just does not work for me.” It’s fine, I understand, sometimes it doesn’t work for rabbinical households either! During the first five years I served the Jewish community of Lima, Ohio, I lived in Cincinnati –about two hours away. I traveled to Lima 3 weekends a months, so it was not possible for Kris to come every time. I soon realized that Kris and I could not have regular Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings. So, we decided to REMEMBER Shabbat on Thursday evenings. We would do a special dinner on Thursday in honor of Shabbat, and spend that special time together.
Where there is a will … there is a way. It might not be the Orthodox way –it might not even be the way that other people are doing Shabbat, but if we CHOOSE to remember Shabbat every week, we WILL find a way that works for you and for your family.
In addition to honoring Shabbat, it is a mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat; it’s what we call oneg Shabbat. Yes, I know oneg shabbat means the refreshments after Friday night services, but oneg Shabbat is much more than that. Oneg Shabbat is a great way of being a zocher Shabbat. Oneg Shabbat means engaging in pleasurable activities such as eating, singing, spending time with the family and friends … and attending services (have I mentioned that before?).
I believe that whatever each one of us decides to do to remember Shabbat, it must be a personal decision. As Jews, we all need to develop our own personal way of making Shabbat a special day. Since Shabbat is at a personal choice, let me give you a personal example of what I mean by “remembering Shabbat.” This is certainly an example of oneg Shabbat!
Some of you may know that I like opera. As an opera fan, attending the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is a must. I attended for the first time in 2003. Just being there was impressive, but I wanted it to be really special. So, I did some research … I found out that during the 2003-2004 season the Met, after 70 years, was going to put up a production of an opera composed in 1835 by a Jewish composer, on a Jewish theme. I had to go! But when I looked for tickets for La juive (The Jewess), the only day that worked for us was a Friday evening. I did hesitate but then I thought, “how appropriate!” So, that Shabbat I had my special evening: First time at the Met, listening to an opera by a Jewish composer, on a Jewish theme … and did I mention that the tenor, Neil Schicoff, was the son of a cantor and former student at HUC cantorial school, and that he performed the most famous aria from the opera wearing his dad’s tallis?
So, I wonder, was I keeping Shabbat that evening? Probably not, but I was very aware that it was Shabbat –I was honoring and remembering Shabbat. For me, that evening at the Met, was a religious experience, very shabbesdik. I can tell you: I surely was a zocher shabbes. The fact that it was Shabbat made it so much more meaningful to me.
Many of us were taught that being a good Jew is doing what the Orthodox Jews do, and that IF I were to be a “religious” Jew, I would do what they do. Keeping Shabbat is not more important, or more authentic, than remembering Shabbat. I do not believe that the real Jews are ONLY those who keep Shabbat. What we do for Shabbat is a personal matter, but that does not mean that it ought to be self-centered. One of the main components of Shabbat is sharing it with a community. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but attending services on Shabbat is a way of both honoring Shabbat and enjoying Shabbat. [Pause] It gets lonely around here on Shabbat …
The beauty of Shabbat is that all generations can participate and find a meaningful experience here at our congregation during the year. If you travel, I encourage you to attend Shabbat services wherever you go; you’ll meet interesting people and will experience the richness of the Jewish worlds.  Summer is a great time for getting a full dose of Shabbat, our youngsters do so at Jewish camps –if you knew how much they enjoy Shabbat at camp you would want to be a child all over again! I would …
This summer, after a 15-year hiatus, I decided to spend time working at a Jewish camp, you might have heard of it, it’s called GUCI. I happened to pick the last two weeks in June thinking the weather would cooperate. Yet, Indiana’s early summer broke all records (mind you dry heat!). Despite the weather, I doubt that any of the campers had a less exciting summer than otherwise. I know I had a great time being part of the faculty and enjoyed the legendary ruach at GUCI.
After a week of shvitzing at breakfast, at lunch, during programs, at t’filot, etc., it was hard to visualize the transformation the camp experiences as we welcome Shabbat. Visitors from all over the country flock to camp for Shabbat: former campers, counselors, staff as well as spouses, children of those working at camp –a spot at the Shabbat table is highly sought after months in advance.
So, what’s all the fuss about Shabbat at camp? I have experienced Shabbat at other camps before, but the great anticipation given in everyone’s descriptions of the evening confirmed that this was special. I could not fathom how campers had managed to save a set of clean clothes! But there they were, all prepped up and ready to welcome Shabbat. At GUCI, Shabbat begins with a “Shabbat Walk,” from the upper regions of the camp, to the “lower” cabins section. As our Shabbat walk winded down to the various areas of camp, I wondered how could they all look so radiant and happy? I knew, in my mind, that they were the same campers and counselors, but I could perceive that something had changed them: Shabbat had worked its magic –tears well in my eyes. I am happy with my age and my life’s journey, but at that instant, I wished I had had their opportunity if for a second I could be a camper … and welcome Shabbat.
A midrash explains that when God was preparing to give the Torah to the Jews, God said that God had something extraordinary to give them if they would accept the commandments and the Torah. The Jews asked what that could be, and God replied that it was the “world-to-come.” The Jews wanted to know what it was like, and God answered that it was just like Shabbat because the world to come is simply one long Shabbat. I may add, one long Shabbat Camp-style!
The image the midrash conjures is indeed beautifully simple: Shabbat is me’ein olam habah, Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. On this Yom Kippur, this Shabbat shabbaton, when we attempt to bring down God’s presence among us, let us realize that the opportunity for connecting with God, with our people, with each other, presents itself every week, when Shabbat enters.
As we begin a New Year, we are called upon to do t’shuvah, repentance, return. True t’shuvah can be reached when, placed in the same situation, we do not miss the opportunity to do what’s right. True t’shuvah is a resolution NOT to repeat our past mistakes, NOT to repeat our past omissions, BUT to choose wisely. Whether you were born Jewish or not, you have chosen to be Jewish. You are here tonight, Judaism matters to you, and Shabbat is an essential way of expressing Judaism. Remember the famous words, “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” Let us resolve to choose Shabbat again. Let us all resolve to be zocher shabbos, to remember Shabbat, in whichever way it speaks to us, whether it may be hosting a “Shabbat Basket,” or having a special meal with family or friends, studying Torah with your rabbi or, yes, attending services … In the year ahead, may we all have a taste of that world that may one day come, but that we can bring down here every week as we remember Shabbat together. L’shanah tovah, and tzom kal, an easy fast!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of "Judgment Before Nuremberg" by Greg Dawson

Nothing to do with opera, but it is my first published book review and I thought you may want to read it. It's a review of a new book about the Holocaust in Ukraine. A somber topic but very informative book by an Indiana native. Follow the link:

Dessay Teaches Humility during Traviata's Met HD

The last broadcast of the 2011-2012 Met's HD operas, La traviata, was disappointing on many accounts and sublime on others. Firstly, W. Decker's direction was uninformed by Verdi's own work and overall unfulfilling. Honestly, I do not mind stark minimalist stagings. I did not mind that, in the opening scene, everyone on stage was dressed in black suits (including the female singers); all except for Violetta -dressed in red. I can appreciate when the stage director expands my understanding of the standard repertoire, so I liked the androgynous choir.
However, when the staging goes against the libretto, one must draw the line. At the beginning Act II Violetta's pantomime did very little to alleviate her presence on stage. Violetta is not supposed to hang around while the tenor sings about his love for her and, most certain, not when he finds out that Violetta has sold her jewels to sustain their idyllic countryside life. Violetta does not belong in the scene, period. In the next scene, at Flora's party, the bailaoras and toreros were missing in action. Never mind that the lines sung by the choir did not match the actions; I want my ballet back! To top it all, Act III was absolutely incomprehensible for someone who might not be familiar with the plot, and confusing, at best, for the rest of us who have a fairly good grasp of the story. For the benefit of those who did not have the pleasure: There was no bed, no window to open, and los carnavaleros erupt on stage -is there anything sacred? Ah, and the doctor is death. Confused?
There were some  welcome new understandings provided by the staging. The ubiquitous camellia harkening back to Dumas' novel was a clever touch, as was the massive clock on stage ticking away -representing Violetta's impending death. The old man standing around and interacting with Violetta was a bit confusing. In Act III, "death" sang, and it was no other than Dottore Grenvil. Can anyone explain that one to me? The healer is death? The imagery (metaphor, metonym, economy?) eludes me.
If instead you closed your eyes, you were in for a treat. Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo was surprising revelation. I had heard him in Zauberfloete and Meistersinger as well as many times with the May Festival in Cincinnati, but I did not know this side of him: He was in great vocal shape and I enjoyed his interpretation -I saw a naive side of Alfredo which I had not noticed before; so, thanks! Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont was imposing but not exciting. 
The real interesting story was Natalie Dessay's Violetta. I had the pleasure of hearing her live as Violetta, in Santa Fe, on my birthday, and she was wonderful (but again, I think she is wonderful no matter what, after all she is Jewish and loves Callas ... ). However, that day in August 2009 in Santa Fe, I noticed that she struggled in Act I. On Saturday, she struggled again. During Act I, Dessay's acting was phenomenal but she missed the high E flat at the end of "Sempre libera." It happens: Great stars are entitled to make mistakes. 
But what rarely happens is that great stars admit their mistakes in front a worldwide audience. Dessay did just that. Right after she missed the high note, Voigt interviewed Dessay on camera. It was evident how upset Natalie was. Dessay said, "I missed the high not, I'm sorry." I never expected that from an artist at the pinnacle of her profession (she offered no excuses). I almost cried. It made me think about what our our tradition teaches during the High Holidays about asking for forgiveness and I realized that often I have assumed that during the rest of the year we are exempted. But we are not ... With her example, Dessay showed me that we must practice humility and self-contrition daily, in everything we do. What a remarkable artist and human being! Dessay's exemplar humility made her portrayal of a conflicted dying woman who forgives so much more poignant and believable -that I truly enjoyed, admired and appreciated.