Maccabi in OC – Be Proud!

This past Sunday, Orange County’s Jewish community welcomed over 2300 youth from around the United States, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain and Israel for this year’s Maccabi games. Started in 1982, the Maccabi games bring the Jewish community together in the spirit of competition, sharing talent, and developing lasting friendships.

Sitting in the stadium Sunday evening, I was in awe of the energy and emotion all around me. Everyone knew each other in some manner – through synagogue or Jewish community involvement. Out of town guests were welcomed with open arms and the questions of, “do you know…” penetrated every conversation.

What moved me the most was watching all of the athletes, artists and coaches march into the stadium. Orange County youth who participated in the Jr. Maccabi games earlier this spring held the signs for each delegation. Many teams took these youth and hoisted them on their shoulders. Each delegation was proud to be there and showed it through either a brief choreographed greeting, to throwing beads, sunglasses or other hometown gifts into the crowd. And the fans in the stands cheered them all on as if they were our own. And finally, the crowd jumped to their feet as the Orange County delegates entered the stadium.

The thousands of hours of preparation for this moment was finally realized.  Organizers like our own Irv and Nancy Chase, Hersh Cherson, and Sam Cohen, from the JCC, began to see the fruits of their labor coming to life.  And we, as a community should be so proud to host this week! This is our opportunity as the Orange County Jewish Community to show off what an amazing and welcoming community we are.

But my pride swelled the most as I watched all our TBS youth marching in to the stadium ready for a week of not only hosting, but competing and celebrating with thousands of other Jewish youth from around the world. Each of them is amazing in their own right but even more incredible as a group. Many of them are on teams, some are competing in individual events, but all of them are making connections with other Jews from various communities that will last a lifetime.

I am grateful and thrilled that our own TBS community is so involved in the events of this week.  Many of you are hosting, coaching, and volunteering in many different capacities. Thank you! Your gift of time and energy is truly priceless and ensures the success of this week.

The oath of the games recited by the athletes, artists, coaches and spectators included the importance of having rachmanus, compassion for all! And from what I experienced on Sunday night, to what I am hearing throughout this week, there is so much compassion being shared by all. Be proud TBS! You are truly a part of an historical week in which we continue to build community and connections. Yasher Koach!

(Follow this week’s Maccabi events)

One More Step Toward Equality

There was a late anniversary present for my parents last week – Doma, the Defense of Marriage Act was declared unconstitutional and Prop 8 was declared void and unconstitutional. My parents celebrated their 50th anniversary two days before and as the court handed down their decisions, I cried tears of joy. Finally, we are on the right road toward marriage equality.

This ruling means that the 13 states in which marriage is legal for GLBT, the Federal government must recognize the marriage and the over 1138 rights and benefits afforded each couple.

I’ve read and heard the stories of families overjoyed when they told their children they were finally equal and legal. No family should have to fight for the basic rights each of us should be afforded. No child should have to defend the love of his or her parents to peers.

Why was this an anniversary present for my parents? Because they have always taught me that every individual should be treated equally and with dignity. When my mom moved to Florida as a teenager, she was outraged at the sight of separate water fountains, one for whites and one for blacks. Just to spite them, she drank from the water fountain marked for blacks.

I am proud that we are a congregation who believes and states that we are a congregation for all. We put this on the front of our website:

We celebrate our rich diversity as a congregation, a community of many communities. We are a great intergenerational family in a place where we care for and about one another. We are newcomers and old-timers, children and adults, individuals and couples and families, multi-racial families, LGBT and straight, Jews by birth and by choice, non-Jewish partners and spouses. Interfaith families are always welcome.

We know that there is still much to do toward bringing marriage equality and adoption rights to each state. There are still 33 states in which one can be fired for being gay. No, the fight is not over. But last Wednesday was a wonderful beginning.


B’Midbar – Who’s Counting?

I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately. In just the past couple of weeks, I have been honored to help families give seven children Hebrew names! This must be a record! One family of three, one set of triplets and a baby boy. But still, to offer seven Hebrew names in such a short time, awesome! These are the names that each of them will be called upon when they are called to Torah; these are the names that they will sign the ketubah; these are the names that God and Israel know them by as they perform acts of loving kindness in making our world a better place.

Parashat B’midbar is an accounting of the people who were in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. We are gathered together and God instructs Moses to take a census of all the tribes. The tribal leaders come forward by name and share the count of those who are with them. While the count only includes the men, we know the women stood there with them and today, that count would be very different, very inclusive. But why count? The numbers are great! 603,550 men – again, include the women and children and you have a whole new number!

This great number marks stability amongst the Israelites. They are so great in number that they are not going away, no matter how much some of the surrounding nations wish they would. The people are flooding the desert like a great river flowing through a canyon. They extend for miles, as far as the eye can see. Truly, the Israelites are a stable and growing nation.

We too are growing, we welcome new children and people into our community at all times. There is stability within the count of the Jewish people. And how appropriate it is that we read this portion the Shabbat prior to Shavuot, the holy day during which we celebrate when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. We are taught that every Jewish soul who lived then and who was yet to be born but would be a part of the Jewish people (born into and those who choose Judaism) stood at the mountain together. All of us, together, in the shadow of a great mountain and with the potential of what is yet to even be fully realized.

We are still at that mountain and we still receive Torah today. While the words might be fixed on the parchment they are still fluid in understanding and inspiration. It is each of us, called by name, who are responsible for reading, embracing and sharing these words of Torah. It is each of us who are called by name to hold these words and the traditions shared by each generation, given to us, and then share them with the next generation. It is each of us, called by our name who are to stand up when called, be counted as a part of the Jewish people, and know that the gift we are given in our names is a precious one, one that should not be forgotten, for every name, every person, is a blessing.

Passover is to Celebrate Freedom for All

I am inspired that today, the first day of Passover, one of the holiest days of the Jewish year, the day that we celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt and not take for granted our own freedom today. But we do take so much of our freedom for granted, especially the freedom to love and be loved. Today, on this first day of Passover, arguments are being heard in the Supreme Court regarding marriage equality for all and tomorrow, DOMA.

In 2003, I was 7 months pregnant with Yoni and had to get doctor’s clearance to fly to Washington DC so I could perform the wedding of my two friends, Sarah and Rachel. I walked into a colleagues synagogue that was bustling with activity that Sunday. Sarah and Rachel were already upstairs taking pictures and quickly walking past me, was an orthodox Rabbi heading straight for the Rabbi whose synagogue we were in. Seemed that he was here for a bris taking place downstairs. He stopped to glance at me, in my maternity suit, kipa on my head and talit in my arms. He gave me a once over and seemed even more perplexed. He went to my colleague and asked, ‘what else is happening here today?’ Calmly and with a bit of over excitement in his voice, my colleague said, ‘oh there’s a wedding today! And she’s the rabbi, pointing to me.’ The orthodox rabbi looked at me again, and then back to my colleague, ‘I saw the two kalot, where are the grooms?’ And without missing a beat he said, ‘no, no grooms, my colleague there is marrying two women together!’ You could have seen the steam from his ears! I smiled and headed straight upstairs to celebrate with Sarah and Rachel!


Almost 10 years later, Sarah and Rachel are proud moms of adorable children. They live a life like any other married couple, except for the fact that Federal Law still prevents them from having the same rights as Matt and me or any other heterosexual married couple. This is not freedom!

Today, Passover, is about freedom for all! We are all created in the image of God and we all deserve the same rights to love and be loved by the one we want to spend our lives with.

I’ve since performed other weddings for same sex couples and I am proud to stand under the chuppah with each of them and those yet to come. Today is about celebrating our freedom, I just pray that everyone can share in that freedom as well.

L’Shalom or B’Shalom

At the bottom of most emails there is a “signature” consisting of our name, maybe our company and some with a poignant quote from a favorite author or text. Depending on the type of email we send there is the salutation – ‘sincerely,’ ‘see ya soon,’ ‘ttfn (ta ta for now!),’ or any other host of salutations. In many of my letters, you see my salutation of either ‘kol tuv’ (be well), or ‘l’shalom.’ However, I see many use ‘b’shalom’ and I feel a bit uncomfortable. Why? Because there really is quite a big difference between the two salutations. On the surface, they both seem innocent enough – ‘to peace’ and ‘in peace’ respectively.

To understand the differences let’s start with this week’s parasha, vayeshev. Jacob sends Joseph off to check in on his brothers while watching the flocks. Joseph, donning his brand new beautiful multi-colored coat, a gift from his father, goes out to the fields. But the brothers have had enough with this “favored son” and decide it’s time to be rid of him. There, in the wilderness, a band of merchants just happens to pass by and the brothers sell Joseph to the traders. Returning home with the coat soaked in blood, the brothers tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild beast, never to return again.

For the brothers, they were saying to Joseph, ‘go in peace’ instead of ‘go to peace’ – a hope that they would never have to see him again. But we know that eventually, they will see him again and be very grateful as he saves their lives.

The salutation the brothers might have given their brother, ‘lech b’shalom’ is almost the equivalent of saying, ‘drop dead.’

In tractate Berakhot 64a, we read where Rabbi Avin ha-Levi says, “When you take leave of a friend do not say, ‘lech b’shalom’ but say ‘lech l’shalom.’ This is what Jethro said to Moses (Exodus 4) and Moses went on to success; David took his leave of Absalom by saying ‘lech b’shalom’ (2 Samuel 15:9), and Absalom went and got himself hanged! Rabbi Avin ha-Levi further says: when you take leave of the deceased (at the graveside) do not say ‘lech l’shalom’ but rather ‘lech b’shalom’ (based on Genesis 15:15) (From Rabbi Simchah Roth as quoted in From Aleph to Ze’ev.)

As we sign off in a letter or an email, the simplest of salutations can mean more than we think. Each of us should go l’shalom, with the blessing that every journey and every experience should be that of peace and success.


Rabbi Heidi Cohen

Today is the day…

One opinion was that the character of the generation is determined by its leader. According to the other opinion, the character of the leader is determined by the generation.” (Talmud, Arachin 17a).

Today is one of the greatest days of the year as citizens of the United States of America. Today is the day each of us are responsible for having our voices heard.  No matter who one votes for, what proposition one agrees or disagrees with, today is the day during which we are called upon to speak our mind and vote our conscience. This is a great responsibility and one that should not be cast aside.  And while it is easy to say, ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’ we must realize that every voice counts. Pirkei Avot teaches us, “Don’t separate yourself from the community,” therefore, we must get out there with the community and vote.

And in doing so, may all people maintain a respectful level of civility. Unfortunately, this election cycle has groups and individuals on all sides acting in ways that reflect bullying and harassment. This is not how we should treat one another. We are taught that each individual is created in the Divine Image and as such, each person should be treated with dignity and respect.  Through our civil discourse, we may not always agree with one another, but in the end, we must respect each other.

Please, get out and vote, have your voice heard because you DO matter. And later tonight, tomorrow, or the weeks ahead, no matter the results, we need to remember, we are one country and one people and we have a lot of work to do to care for one another.  Let us not be complacent, but let us be respectful, true and kind, today, tomorrow and the weeks ahead so that we can be proud of our community and our country.

Four Great Words from Camp

This has been a tremendous week at Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of the camp community for a week each summer. To get to know the campers and to experience life here is truly amazing and gives a glimpse to our future Jewish leaders and community.
There were four words shared throughout this week that summarize camp.
Last night, Rabbi David Eschel asked the campers at Hess Kramer what do History and Memory mean? The campers shared thoughts about how one is long standing and will continue for years to come while another might eventually be lost. That history involves the pictures and documents passed down, but memory are the stories that are shared over generations. That both are a part of l’dor vador, and that we are expected to pass them on.
While at Hess Kramer, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Leadership, most especially on the final leg of their leadership hike. For three days, these campers traveled the Santa Monica Mountains, up on to ridges, down into a grotto and sleeping under the stars. On the final leg, a walk along the coast back to camp, this group was not so exhausted that they walked in silence. No, they chanted. Their energy building as they approached camp and the promise of a tradition passed on, to share the adventure with the other campers by literally giving each of them some of the earth they brought back. (All with some help of the mud pit created on Fitch Field).
Last night, Leadership Night, many alumni of previous Leadership years descended upon camp and shared their history and their memories of their Leadership experience. And together, the entire camp and guests sang our closing night songs, Shema and Hashkiveinu/Shelter Us. To hear all the voices together as one created more memory moments.

Throughout the week we also talked about Keva and Kavannah with both camps. Keva, the words of the prayers that we read from our prayerbooks. Kavannah, the meaning we find within the prayers either through word, song, or even art. Todd Silverman, the educator at Hilltop asked the campers what the differences were between keva and kavannah and how they can create kavannah when they pray. How can each individual find meaning in the service that goes beyond the words in the siddur but also in how each moment is an opportunity to reaching out to God and also to ourselves. To recognize and hold on to the moments that each of them create at camp. I led a special t’fillah during which I asked the campers to think about their favorite prayer and illustrate it only with paper and glue sticks. Their creations, filled with kavannah, said so much for how they internalized these words and their connections to God and the world.

Today, I picked up JediYeled from his 8 days of camp and the first thing he said, “I don’t want to leave!!!!” the best five words I could hear! I’m so excited that JediYeled had the opportunity to learn the history of years past and create memories of his own. While the campers sang they not only sang the words to prayers and farewell songs, but the emotions surrounding these moments were amazing!
This is camp! This is the foundation for so many years yet to come. These are moments that will last a life time!
Thank you Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp! Thank you to all of the staff and to all of the campers! You created this! And it is very good!

It’s Good to Be Back at Camp!

Last year, while on Sabbatical, we didn’t have the chance to come to camp (Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp) because we spent the summer in Israel. But coming back to camp this summer is a reminder as to why I love it so and why our kids do too.

When I first arrived and got settled in my room I heard a strange sound for Southern California in the summer – rain! It was just enough to get the outside chapel too wet for us to have evening services outside. I was disappointed that we were moved to Baruh Hall.

I took the time before services to go on a walk to the Menorah. For those who have never been here before, the Menorah at Hess Kramer overlooks the ocean and is appropriately named “Rabbi Alfred Wolf’s Inspiration Point.” And inspirational it truly is. There, as I stood overlooking the waves, a rainbow appeared, arching between sea and mountain. Absolutely spectacular!

I returned to Baruh Hall for services and in came over 200 campers and staff. As with any large group in a room with strong acoustics, it took a while to get them settled and ready to pray. No prayerbooks were passed out, rather, there was a screen with the prayers projected in the front of the room. Tonight, while we might not be outside we had the opportunity to experience prayer in a different way – looking up!

Services began and the camp community sang out. While I know that there is a strong level of participation in services at camp, tonight, everyone had the opportunity to truly hear how their prayers sounded. Usually, in the outside chapel, the sound dissipates into the surrounding trees and valley. But tonight, being in this enclosed space, we had the opportunity to really listen to our voices sing out in praise.

While I would not want every camp service to be inside – that’s just not camp – it was a great opportunity for the camp community to truly hear our voices.

And finally, in this space, within the walls of Baruh Hall, we were surrounded by the work of a great woman, Geri Schusterman, z’l, and the spirit of her beloved husband, Mel, z’l, who passed away this past year. Both of them dedicated years of their lives and their creative spirits to Camp Hess Kramer. Geri’s artwork is all around camp and for the most part, the colors have not faded. They tell a story of campers and a community now 60 years old. The campers and I’m sure most of the staff have no idea who created these beautiful pieces of art that adorn the camp – I wish they did. They would have loved to spend time with both Geri and Mel. But I would like to think that Geri and Mel are still here, still a part of Camp Hess Kramer, and lending their creative spirit still today.

And this was just the first day!

Go Out and Play! B’haalot’chah

For two years the Israelites lived at the base of Sinai. It was there that Moses brought Torah and the Ten Commandments down to them. It was there that they set up their tents and established a regular routine after having left Egypt, crossed the Sea of Reeds, and saw Pharaoh’s army swept up in the waters, leaving them to be free. But now, two years later, it is time for the people to move again. And only a few days into the next journey from Sinai into the desert, do the Israelites begin to complain again.

“The people took to complaining bitterly before the Eternal.” (Numbers 11:1) “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘if only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)

It seems natural, according to Rashi and Nachmanides, for the Israelites to be complaining. They are out of their comfort zone. While they were enslaved in Egypt, at least they knew they had shelter and food. But here, in the desert, the Israelites are lost. They rely on this simple white sticky substance, manna, to nourish them and they are only permitted to take enough for that day (unless it is Shabbat and they are allowed to take a double portion). They must rely on God to care for them – God, who they just reentered into a relationship with after 400 years.  And they must have confidence in Moses, to ensure their safety. Where is the trust, the confidence?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers another interpretation of the Israelites behavior.  Like all children, they’re bored! Their needs are met; they have shelter, they have sustenance, but the manna is just not cutting it. While we hold the legend to be true that manna will taste like anything you want it to, Rabbi Hirsch argues contrary to that – this manna is boring! The people seek substance, flavor, and variety!

Today, we seek the same thing, variety. We don’t want standard, boring, or tasteless. We want life and our activities to stimulate us. We cry out when we’re bored and we don’t feel like we are being entertained. But we cannot only rely on others to stimulate our senses or to peak our interest. We are all responsible for quenching  our thirst for stimulation.

Rather than saying, nothing excites me anymore and hope that someone else will fix it or entertain us, we are the ones who must take action. No one is a mind reader; no one can fulfill those of your needs if those needs are not shared. We are all partners in this world and in our community who seek the same thing – to be challenged and moved.

Summer is upon us and now is the time to be inspired. Our children will soon be done with school and it will take less than 24 hours for them to turn to us and say, ‘I’m bored!’ And as God, our parent told us in the desert, and as we tell our children, it’s time for us to listen to our own advice, ‘go out and play – entertain yourself.’

Do you want to keep your brain active? Come to Torah study on Shabbat morning. Participate in some of our summer class opportunities. Join us for an inspiring book review.

Do you want to explore your spiritual side? Join us for Shabbat services at 6:00 pm in the Sukkah plaza every Friday night.

Do you want to stay in touch with people or meet new friends? Join one of the many Reservation Only events still open.

Your TBS staff and congregational family are available to hope you not be ‘bored,’ but you have to take responsibility for yourself and go out and play!


Will you jump into the fire? Acharei Mot

Nadav and Avihu, two boys who some would argue, should not have played with fire. As Aaron’s son’s (Aaron, Moses’ brother and High Priest), they should have known better. They should have known that they were not to make the offerings they did without permission. But they did. Hence, why some commentators suggest they were killed.

However, another way to read Nadav and Avihu’s death is that through their passion about making an offering to God they stood too close to the fire.  As God accepted their offering they too were consumed by the fire God sent for their offering.

This week’s parashah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, begins with the offerings Aaron must make in expiation for his family. These offerings are meant create a strict structure of worship for the priestly clan as they served God and the people.  The detail of each of the offerings is carefully laid out in order to ensure there is no confusion as to what is expected of the Cohanim.

There are two thoughts toward achieving holiness: First, from Leviticus 10, where Nadav and Avihu were killed because of their offering, to later, these passages in Leviticus 16 setting a very clear structure and order for sacrificial offerings. Nadav and Avihu were overjoyed in their desire to make offerings to God. But is that passion considered to be dangerous? For the Priestly writers, those who took the job description of the Priests very seriously, yes. Nadav and Avihu were giving permission to others that if their sacrifices offered with such passion, were accepted, others would be free to do the same. The Priests were very concerned with anyone who went outside the religious practice box. Hence, why the commentators will suggest that they were killed because they were not following the rules.

On the other hand, is it wrong to be passionate about prayer? Of course not. Prayer is a way of expressing gratitude and seeking guidance and strength from and with God.  For some, being able to quietly reflect and focus on each word of prayer is a passionate way of speaking to God. For others, it is through singing out with full voice and body that brings the relationship with God ever closer.

These words in Leviticus are most challenging because we struggle to find meaning in a practice that is no longer relevant in our lives. We are challenged to take these words and find how we are able to bring them into our world. Where do you fall on this continuum of prayer? Where does prayer speak to you and how are you able to express it? We no longer live in Temple times when offerings to God were left to the Priests. Rather, it is each of us who have the responsibility to offer our prayers to God. How do you accept this responsibility?