Hopes for a Shabbat Shalom

Since Wednesday I have been at Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp (Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps) in Malibu. This is my 8th summer spending a week with not only our campers from TBS, but with campers from all over Southern California and Arizona. (I’ll share more thoughts later about why it’s so great to send our kids to Jewish camp, but for now, our thoughts are with Israel.)

I spent today with the older campers at CHK engaging in a discussion about the matzav, the situation, in Israel. All of them were aware of it before they came to camp but now, with a no screen rule (meaning, they are not allowed to have their phones or connection to the internet), the campers and staff are disconnected from the news so that we can be fully connected to our own camp community. While it’s good to be disconnected from our devices our thoughts and hearts continue to turn to the east with friends and family who are in Israel.

There is a collective concern in our community for the 50+ campers now in Israel and for the many shlichim, Israeli counselors, who have worked at CHK in years past. The Israeli staff with us this summer are concerned about their own family and friends, some of whom are on the front lines at this time. Everyone has a connection to Israel. And being people of action, they want to know what can they do? A question we all ask.

For this Shabbat, here are a few things for all of us to consider doing:

  1. Join in the efforts by the URJ to bring relief and support to those in Israel by visiting: http://urj.org/israel/ and stay informed locally through our own Jewish Federation of Orange County.
  2. Stay informed, but also know when to take a break. I’m just as addicted as the next person to Social Media, but sometimes the amount of information becomes overwhelming. This Shabbat, rather than spending time reading all the posts about Israel, TALK to your family and friends about what Israel means to you. Rather than connect via the internet, connect personally. I promise, the internet will be there after Shabbat is over.
  3. Add an extra Shabbat candle to bring light to a darkened time and include a prayer for peace. Either the one below or the words of your own heart.

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from camp and together, we all pray for peace for all people, in Israel, for those in Gaza and for all people throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

As we gather this Shabbat…

As we gather this Shabbat, each in our own community, we will be united in our grief and pain over the violence this week in Israel. We weep, as our mother Rachel wept: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping! Rachel is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for them, for they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)

To our prayers this Shabbat we add a prayer for Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel – and for her people, our brothers and sisters.

From Psalm 122:6-9

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper! Let there be peace in your homes, safety within your borders. For the sake of my people, my friends, I pray you find peace. For the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I will seek your good.

Eternal God, grant blessing to the State of Israel, created to fulfill an age-old dream and to be a haven for the oppressed. Protect her people with Your grace, shelter them with Your peace, and grant them deliverance from the violence that surrounds them. May they live in harmony with one another and with their neighbors. May the bonds of faith and fate that unite the Jews of all lands be a source of strength to Israel and us all.

Libi B’Mizrach – My Heart is in the East

Libi b’mizrach – My heart is in the east.

It has been an intense nine days. It even started before that with the tragic killings of three Israeli young men and a Palestinian boy, all by extremists on both sides. We as Jews can’t say we don’t have extremists too, that would be ignorant.

For nine days rockets have been and are being directed into Israel from Gaza. Israel attempted peace by leaving Gaza in 2007 in hopes that the people within that area would begin to build a foundation for living independently and in peace with its neighbors. However, instead of building homes and a responsible government, Hamas has built a society that longs to bring terror to Israel, and in their words, “replace Israel in its entirety with a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled state.”

We turn on the news and we cannot avoid hearing about what is taking place in Israel and Gaza. Yet, having lived in Israel and knowing the people and the land, we must not always rely on what we see on all the major news channels. (Even John Stewart, a nice Jewish boy, frustrated me last night! – not saying that he is the most reliable news source, but there are enough people who use him for their daily dose of news rather than parody. But a cultural influence just the same.)

All of us need to have part of our hearts in the east. All of us need to feel some kind of connection with the Jewish people and the Jewish state who at this time hear the sounds of sirens going off many times an hour depending on where they are in the country. All of us need to be aware of what Israel means to us as Jews and the world. All of us need to be connected. We cannot let Israel be or feel alone. Our hearts should be in the east.

I’ve recently downloaded the app, Red Alert: Israel. It alerts me on my phone that a siren is going off in Israel because of an impending rocket. Yes, you can turn the sound off, however, there is something about having the sound on while in meetings, Torah study, and yes, even Shabbat services last week. It provides a slight feeling of being disturbed in the middle of an activity or even the middle of the night and know there is less than one minute to get into a shelter.

Read the news coming out of Israel. Read the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz or Times of Israel, all very good sources that will give you a good sense of what is really happening. Join the Jewish Federation Family Services of Orange County who have partnered with the Reform and Conservative movements, and make a donation that will help provide emergency aid to Israel’s citizens and soldiers.

This is not the time for us to just think, ‘Israel is on the other side of the world. What happens there doesn’t really affect me.’ Yes, it does! It affects all of us.

At this time we have a number of our youth touring throughout Israel on TIES and Birthright. They are all safe and having an amazing time. Their leaders are in constant connection with security and their schedule is always being adjusted depending on the moment. And as I’ve said to the parents of these youth, I would not hesitate to have my children there right now. I know they are safe and I know that while there is so much intense action happening, life continues in Israel. People are going to restaurants for dinner, friend’s houses for Shabbat and studying. Yes, life is interrupted by sirens that call them into shelters, but then, when the all clear is sounded (many thanks to Iron Dome), life continues.

Libi b’mizrach, my heart is in the east and I hope all of our hearts are there as we pray for peace for all people! May it come soon! Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu!

Divestment or Dialogue?

This past Friday afternoon in Detroit the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA*, voted 310-303 to divest from three multinational companies, Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard. The PC(USA) chose these three companies because they believe these companies “further the Israeli occupation in Palestine” and that “these companies provide Israel with products that promote violence in occupied Palestinian territories.”

While we might say that this was a close vote, there are so many levels of this that are disturbing. This same resolution was proposed at the last GA of the PC(USA) two years ago and was narrowly defeated by only a few votes. Unfortunately, after much debate on the floor which included speeches made by prominent figures from not only the Presbyterian Church, but also our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the General Assembly has decided to join the ranks of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement that has been very vocal throughout the nation and especially on college campuses.

What is most troubling is that the PC(USA) has chosen to quarantine themselves to a position that closes the door to conversations about creating peace in Israel. This move toward divestment does not send a message of support to the land of Israel, which they profess to care about deeply, rather it sends a message that they are interested in only one voice. If there is a two-state solution, a Jewish state and a state for the Palestinian people, then cutting off one voice is not the way to accomplish this task. The Presbyterian Church has voted to attempt to create economic sanctions to companies that not only have deep connections to Israel, but also play important roles in our lives here in the United States. Are those who voted for this divestment willing to hand over their cell phones, turn off their computers and stop construction because they wish to divest themselves? (I know, I’m being overly dramatic).

What bothers me most about this vote is that there are so many misunderstandings and so much misinformation within documents and speeches. Even the educational document the PC(USA) provides, called “Zionism Unsettled”, is wrought with misinformation and is being used as a teaching tool in their religious education programs. I am nervous when David Duke, long time KKK leader, endorses the PC(USA) movement and there is appreciation of his endorsement by some church leaders. I am concerned that this will create a rift in interfaith relations when we should be working toward dialogue and discussion.

I am grateful to those who fought against the divestment measure and hope that we can raise our voices together to work toward understanding and a lasting peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.

There have been increased instances of anti-Semitism in the past year and months that should cause all of us to be more aware and vocal when it comes to issues like this vote for divestment from the Presbyterian Church USA. We can no longer say, ‘this is something happening in Israel and it does not affect me here in the United States.’ This vote and the BDS movement IS happening here in the United States and I’m concerned for the Jewish community if we ourselves are not aware of these issues and if we disconnect from Jewish community. I invite you…I implore us all, become more aware of what is happening regarding Israel, anti-Semitism, and the Jewish community here and abroad. Be connected to Jewish community, we need this more than ever.

*please note, there are two principal Presbyterian Church organizations in the United States. The second is Presbyterian Church in America who were not a part of this General Assembly.

Articles of interest:

CCAR Statement Condemning the Vote of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly to Engage in Divestment

Divestment Vote Undermines Presbyterian Jewish Relations by Rabbi Rick Jacobs

And May Their Memory Be a Blessing…

 

June 6th marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle at Normandy and Omaha Beach. On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50 mile stretch of beach on the French Coast to fight Nazi Germany. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said of the operation that it was a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” By the end of the day the Allied forces gained control of the heavily fortified beach. But the cost was more than 4000 young lives.

This past September, Alan Weinschel of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, visited Normandy Beach with his wife. They were overcome by emotions when they approached the cemetery and saw the vastness of over 9000 markers with the names and ages of the young men who lost their lives. Their eyes started to focus on the markers with Jewish stars on the top. As he described in his article, The Normandy Kaddish Project on ReformJudaism.org, Alan and his wife started to notice the rocks and even coins left at some of the graves, a reminder that someone visited the site. But there were so many graves left untouched – no rocks or coins of those who came to visit them. They realized there were many whose names are no longer on the lips of those who came after. Many of these young men never had a chance to have a family of their own. But we are their family.

Each week, we recite the names of those in our congregation and in our families who we remember this Shabbat and over the next week. And then I say, ‘we stand together as we remember those who are no longer with us – for those who gave their lives al Kiddush ha’shem, for the sanctification of God’s holy name and for those who have no one to say Kaddish for them. For they are a part of our family.’

70 years ago 4000 men gave their lives and we know that at least 149 of them were Jewish. It is possible that more were more, but these are the names we have.  These are the men who we take into our hearts with our own, for they may not have anyone to say Kaddish for them. They are the heroes who stormed a beach to protect our freedom and to fight one of the greatest evils against our people that we’ve known in our present history. They deserve to be remembered as do all of those who have served our country and died for our freedom.

This Shabbat, when we rise to say Kaddish for our loved ones let us take these men into our hearts as well and ensure that they are not forgotten. And may their memory be a blessing.

 

50 Years After Standing at Sinai

50 years ago my Dad entered into the covenant of the Jewish people. 50 years ago he stood at Sinai. But he was there long before that. He was at Sinai with all of us when we received Torah.

This is the blessing I wrote for him to be given to him at Temple Sinai in Denver, as he celebrates his 50th anniversary from when he chose to become a Jew. Thank you Rabbi Rheins and Chazzan Brian Zyve for sharing this blessing with him and being my hands.

On the 50th Anniversary of My Dad, Chuck Williams, Avraham ben Avraham v’Sarah, Choosing to enter into the Covenant of the Jewish People

June 1, 2014

Normally at this point Dad, I would look deep into your eyes and just talk to you. But I’m not able to be there with you tonight, so Rabbi Rheins, Cantor Zive, please look deep into my Dad’s eyes and share this with him.

51 years ago, you and Mom were married by a Justice of the Peace in Georgia. There was no Chuppah, as you were not Jewish. Your parents were not with you, as you eloped. But it was true love and you both knew you wanted to spend the rest of your lives together.

During that first year, you made a decision, fully encouraged by and supported by your Mom, who was Catholic, a religion you never fully embraced. You started learning with a Rabbi in Miami and you completed the conversion process. And on your one year wedding anniversary, you and Mom were married under the chuppah by a Rabbi. Mom was very pregnant with Shelly but you both wanted your children to enter into this world with two Jewish parents.

Dad, this is the Shabbat before Shavuot, when we all stood at Sinai together receiving Torah. We are taught that every soul was present, even those who were yet to be, stood there listening to the words as they came forth from Sinai. You were there; you stood next to me and held my hand.

On Shavuot we read from the Book of Ruth for many reasons, but the greatest, because she was a woman who never left her Mother in Law, Naomi, after the greatest tragedy befell her. Her husband was taken for her and Naomi told her that she should return to her people as Ruth was not an Israelite. But Ruth said, No. “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and Your God my God.”

Ruth was the first to choose to be a Jew; to embrace Torah and the Jewish people, just like you did 50 years ago.

Dad, you held Torah in your arms, recited the Shema and announced to the congregation then and your congregation now that you are a Jew. That this is your people. Then, you held Shelly and me in your arms and along with Mom promised to raise us as Jews, giving us Torah, bringing us to Chuppah and ensuring that we would do acts of loving kindness. And you held your grandchildren, Dahvi, Mason, Yoni and Anna, and made that promise to guide me and Matt, Shelly and Mark, so that we too may give our children the same gift you gave to us.

It is from your gentle arms and your strong heart and soul that you have blessed Shelly and me, and especially Mom, with a loving Jewish home and a promise that we always know we are never alone. You entered into the covenant of the Jewish people and not only accepted for yourself the gift of Torah, but you gave that gift of Torah for generations to come.

You stood at Sinai with us, I know, you held my hand there. And tonight, you stand with the congregation where you raised Shelly and me and together, we all bless you. As Rabbi Rheins and Chazzan Zive place their hands on your head and bless you with words of Torah, please feel my hands, Shelly’s hands, Mom’s hands, the hands of your grandchildren, and the hands of generations past and future as you are blessed because you Dad, blessed us when you said, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” you blessed us with the greatest blessing of all, Torah.

With all of our hearts and souls, we love you and are grateful to you and we celebrate with you.

Mazal tov Dad! With love and blessings – Heidi

Healing and Strengthened with Friends

 

I come to the CCAR Convention every year for many reasons. I want to learn, refine, rediscover and build rabbinic skills, and I want to spend time with my colleagues and friends. And this year especially, I not only wanted to but truly NEEDED to be with my colleagues and friends.

It’s been a long six weeks since the fire at TBS that not only destroyed our kitchen, but also brought our building to its skeleton because of the smoke and soot damage.  For me, my entire staff and amazing lay leadership, days have been long and involved, and to be honest, we are all exhausted. Coming to CCAR was a welcome moment to step away and hope to fulfill the goals I set out with every year. But this conference would become something more.

As in this week’s Torah portion during which the priest is called to the house or bedside of someone with tza’ara (a visible growth or skin disease) he was expected to investigate if the person was in fact clean once again, in other words cured. This portion is one of two that is challenging because we automatically fall into the “gross factor” and challenge the portions relevance. However, there are positive blessings as the priest was not only the spiritual practitioner for the people, he was also the physician, seeking healing for anyone in his community. He brought support and strength.

This year’s CCAR is filled with many “priests” (aka, colleagues and friends) who seek to bring healing and invite me, and actually all of us to recognize that the tza’arot that plague our lives are not insurmountable. That they can be cleaned and we can be made whole and able to embrace a new normal.

I have been overwhelmed by the love and support of every CCAR colleague and friend who read my post about our TBS fire and have offered support on all levels. Many of you I know and some are new to me. Each of you are a part of my rabbinic family and your compassion is felt deeply. Everyone of you have overwhelmed me in the most amazing way and I am feeling inspired, healed, whole and ready for the next chapter of our congregations journey toward recovery.

And the support knows no boundaries. Last night, 54 rabbis shaved their heads, participating in St. Baldrick’s 36 Shave for the Brave in loving support of our colleagues and friends Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer and in memory of their son, Sammy, z’l, who lost his battle to leukemia in December. Last night we gathered to support those who shaved (and I even wielded the shears for one shavee) as we celebrated raising over $575,000 (and that number continues to grow) toward childhood cancer research. We also mourned because  this event reminds us that too many children are dying. While some may say this is only a drop in the bucket, we know that every drop counts and eventually the bucket will be filled and we pray no family will ever have to lose another child to cancer.

We come to the CCAR convention to learn, grow and yes, to heal. And together, we find it and create the moments. And tomorrow, we will leave stronger, more whole, and blessed. I know I am.

What I Shared with My CCAR Colleagues

I shared this posting with my CCAR Colleagues and am so grateful for their love and support!

Dear Colleagues and Friends,
Six weeks ago our congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, suffered a fire in our building. What started as a kitchen fire has completely destroyed our Sanctuary, Social Hall and Administrative Office building. For those of you who have experienced a fire, you know that the smoke and soot can wreck even more havoc than the flames. Our building is down to the studs. My office has been packed out and I am waiting to hear the fate of my library. All of our Torah scrolls were removed shortly after the fire was extinguished, but they have sustained damage and we are looking at possibly having to replace between 2-4 of our scrolls. All of our prayer books were destroyed and we have since ordered new Mishkan T’filah from CCAR Press. We have also placed an order for Mishkan HaNefesh, but realize that we are going to have a shortage of machzorim this High Holy Days.

Fortunately, our school building is fine and we, the staff, have been sharing space with one another. (Let’s just say, I’ve had a lot of coffee meetings at Starbucks and I should consider switching to decaf!) We are hoping to move into our temporary office trailer next week. For the first few weeks, we were the wandering Jews of Orange County and grateful for the congregations who opened their doors to us to share Shabbat. We have now taken up a more permanent residence with the LDS Stake Center very close to TBS.

I am turning to you, my colleagues asking that if you are able to support our rebuilding efforts in any way, it will be greatly appreciated. We are looking for financial assistance as well as suggestions for grants we should apply for or people we should approach. I am also looking for any congregations who might have any extra Gates of Repentance that we can use for these upcoming High Holy Days to please let me know.

Yes, we were in the middle of a capital campaign when the fire took place. Now we have a large gap we are looking to fill. We are very fortunate that we have a very good insurance policy, but as you might know, that will not fill the full financial void. Not only are we trying to fulfill the original vision that was going to revitalize our education building and administrative offices, but now we have a great amount of work to do to bring our congregation back into the sanctuary. I appreciate that we support one another and I am grateful for all the love and concern I’ve already received from so many colleagues in our region.

Thank you all so much!
L’Shalom,
Heidi Cohen
Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana, California
www.tbsoc.com if you would like to see more about the fire as well as photos

A Jewish Center of Life, Learning and Connections in Orange County, CA
tbsoc.com

Arriving at #CCAR14

It’s a gathering of over 700 rabbis in one place.  An awesome experience every year with opportunities to study, teach, pray with, and connect with colleagues.  And it all takes place starting in just a few hours.

Some of us have already arrived and being from the west coast, are wide awake at 1:53 am. Morning will come soon enough and meetings will begin, (I’m honored to serve on the CCAR National Board) and learning will commence. Not to mention, much coffee  will be consumed because we will not be sleeping. Too many people to catch up with as most of us talk throughout the year but this is the one time we get to see one another face to face. And who wants to sleep when someone pulls out a guitar in the lobby and all we want to do is sing all night!

So let the 125th CCAR National Convention begin.  There will be great programs, amazing conversations, and thoughtful challenges to help us be better rabbis. (And I’m feeling good that all this is true, I am on the committee who helped plan it).

Follow us on Twitter – #CCAR14, read my blog and many others and check out what happens when 700 Reform rabbis get together in one place! Yeah, this is going to be awesome!

You’ll Get Through This

As I laid next to JediYeled, putting him to bed, he looked at me and said, “you’ll get through this!”

Does he see the stress on my face and hear it in my voice over these past two weeks since the fire at TBS? Yes, he’s acutely aware of where I am.  So often my little boy knows exactly how I’m feeling.

I looked at him and said, “Yes, I will…we will. This will only make me stronger.”

And then he said, “Chazak, Chazak, v’neet’chazeik – be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened!”

Dang, he’s smart! This Shabbat we finished reading the book of Exodus. And as we finish reading a book of Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, v’neet’chazeik – be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened!” I don’t think JediYeled knew we were reading Parashat Pekudei, but he sensed it. And we start a new month, Adar 2. Another ending.  And a new secular month, March.

While there are endings, there are many great beginnings too – a new book of Torah, two new months, and a new future.

JediYeled, I’ll get through this, we’ll get through this and yes, from strength we will be strengthened!

A Tabernacle from the Flames and Smoke – Vaykahel

ner_tamidThis past Shabbat our congregation was touched by that which we never thought could happen to us. An early morning electrical fire destroyed our kitchen and the heat and smoke found their way to every corner of our sanctuary building. No space was left untouched by smoke or soot. And while the flames are extinguished the reminders of this tragic Shabbat morning linger. And they will linger for a long time to come.

We find gratitude in that no one was injured. The building was empty on that early morning, February 15 and our Torah scrolls were relocated and are safe. Responses about the news still come from near and far with the same message of hope: ‘we are here to help however we can and thank God no one was injured.’ ‘It’s only stuff and stuff can be replaced, a life cannot.’ Yet still we mourn because while it is only “stuff” it is Our stuff that we take great pride in and love with all our hearts and souls. Our home has been touched by the flames of destruction and our hearts break. There are those of you in our congregational family who understand this all too well and I know this event opens wounds yet again.

This week’s parasha is almost ironic, but then again, we experience that there are times in our lives that the Torah portion for that week is the one we need at this moment.

Vaykahel is a beautiful story detailing exactly how the Tabernacle was to be built. With the artist’s direction of Bezalel and his partner, Oholiab, inspired by God, the people go to work creating the architectural plans and building to God’s exact specifications the place the people will gather, pray and learn. The details are breathtaking and the clear descriptions of the materials and colors used leap off the parchment. The people bring the treasured offerings to build the Tabernacle in great quantity. Everyone wants to participate, everyone wants to be a part of building not only God’s home, but their spiritual home. No one is left out and no one holds back their gifts. It is an expression of the ultimate love for community and peoplehood.

Over the past 72 hours our community has called out asking…wanting to help. Messages of “what can I do?” “let us know what you need” and “we’re here to help rebuild” have flooded our email and voicemails. And for now, as we are just starting to strategize that plan I continue to return the messages with, “thank you, please stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. We will rebuild together.”

We are the Israelites in the parasha wanting to come forward to bring our gifts. We are the Israelites today wanting to rebuild our syngagoue; our beit k’nesset, beit t’fillah, beit midrash - house of gathering, prayer and learning. And together, we will!

Even in the midst of this tragedy there remains a beacon of hope still shining bright in our sanctuary. A light that needs no electricity, no power except that which God gives to us. Our ner tamid, eternal light, is still shining! Powered by the sun and unaffected by what has befallen us, the ner tamid calls us to remember that no matter what, no matter where, God is always here with us. God has not left us. If anything, God has protected all of us. It is the beacon of hope to remind us that our congregation is not the building but rather the people who make up the Temple Beth Sholom family. We are a house of peace (Beit Shalom) and we will be a complete and whole house (Beit Shalem) again.

May each of us hold on to the light of our ner tamid within our hearts and may we be strengthened to rebuild our home as our community is strengthened with the love we share for our congregational family.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May it be God’s will and May it be ours!