A turkey challah

A turkey challah

Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent out this delightful message to his congregants. I simply HAD to share it with you. There are so many great things in it.
1. There’s a lovely blessing to say at your Thanksgiving table. (Below in italics)
2. There’s the delightful learning about the meaning of a word (Hodu) and the way in which Jewish students & scholars love to dig into the root meaning of every letter!
3. There’s the history story about Turkey and India and America.

So whether you go away charmed, humored or touched, enjoy and give thanks for a life so full of good things.

How should Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?

For starters, let’s begin Thanksgiving with Motzi. If you don’t regularly recite this blessing for a meal, this is certainly the occasion that calls for it.

Now, if you would like to add something special, try this Thanksgiving hymn from the book of Psalms, Psalm 100:

Enter into the gates of the Eternal with thanksgiving
And into God’s courts with praise;
Give thanks to God,
And bless God’s holy name.
For the Eternal is good,
God’s kindness endures forever…

The words in Hebrew are particularly fitting for this holiday. “Give thanks to God” is “Hodu lo.”

Now, here is what you need to know to appreciate this accidental double entendre.

The word “hodu”, give thanks, is also the Hebrew word for India, as in the country. I don’t know why. It just is.

When Columbus arrived on these shores, and saw these strange birds running around, thinking he was in India, he dubbed them “Indian chickens,” which is what turkeys were then called. Turn “Indian chicken” into Hebrew, and you get Tarnegol Hodu, which has, over time, been shortened simply to Hodu.

This should not be surprising. After all, Americans name the bird after one Asian country, Turkey; Jews name it after another Asian country, India.

But, in a coincidence that only God could have planned, this etymology yields the magnificent double entendre of the Hebrew “Hodu lo,” which can mean either “Give thanks to God,” or alternatively, “Turkeys for God.”

And that, friends, is how Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Larry Milder

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Burning house from Pixabay

Burning house from Pixabay

When terrible things happen we want our spiritual leaders to find meaning in what seems meaningless. Rabbi Steve Chester recently sent this message to his congregation of Temple Israel. He leans more on actions than on faith. Maybe you feel that way also.

The last few months have been very difficult ones for many of us. Natural disasters seem to be running rampant. Hurricanes in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico have killed a number of people and left thousands homeless. Fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties also have killed people and left thousands homeless. If this is not enough, human beings have perpetrated horrendous deeds. The massacre in Las Vegas; the mowing down of those in Manhattan; the recent shooting in the church in Texas. Hundreds are dead or wounded. We as a society are reeling because of these events. These tragedies, whether caused by natural forces or human forces cause us to ask many questions-some of the most frequent being “Why did God let this happen; Where was God when these events were happening; or did God have anything to do with these events.” “Were people so bad that God was punishing us in the same way God punished Noah’s generation?”

I recently read an article that attempted to answer these age old questions.The article, in brief, did not give AN answer, but gave many answers. These answers ranged from the most traditional: the people affected by these events, or at least many of them, were leading lives full of sin and thus God punished them through these horrific acts of nature or of humans in order to make them change their ways; to the non-religious response: God had nothing to do with this; to many beliefs in between. Depending on one’s theology, so went the answer.

What do I answer when people ask me what God’s role in this tragic events was? My answer is based on the approach taken by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I agree with him when he says that God is not the cause of the act or event itself, but that God is in the response-in the response of human beings. God was found-was acting through those who risked their lives to save others as the winds roared, the waters rose, the fires raged and the bullets struck. God was in the many people who rushed to volunteer to help the hundreds of thousands who suffered losses of all kinds. God was in all who sent money to get food, medicine and shelter to those whose lives were filled with fear and suffering after each event. God is present when we do Godly deeds. God is present when we become partners with God to help those in need. God is present when we strive to do God’s work of repairing our broken world.

So, where was God in the horrible happenings in the past few months? God was there in the work that we did, in the help we gave, in the prayers we delivered. We are created in God’s image: as God is merciful, so are we to be merciful; as God is caring, so are we to be caring; as God is comforting, so are we to be comforting. May we continue to be merciful, caring and comforting as we do God’s work here on earth.

Rabbi Chester
Temple Israel in Alameda

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First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church

Reflections on Texas Attack

During our services this past Shabbat, I offered a prayer: that the sense of normalization we feel around acts of senseless violence soon end. It feels as though each month is punctuated with unimaginable pain. After last week’s attacks in New York and Texas, words fail us. There are no words that explain the murder of the innocent, and our hearts break at the stories of children whose lives were cut short.

Last month, after the senseless attacks in Nevada, I wrote,

“As we learned over our High Holy Day season, the Jewish tradition teaches that prayer is effective only when it leads to action and that while our prayers allow us to atone before God, only our deeds can restore ruptures among people. The epidemic of mass shootings across America is a public health crisis of massive proportions; this year alone has witnessed 270 incidents with multiple victims. If our prayers today are to ring true, we must call on our leaders to create policy solutions that curb violence and create a safer nation.”

I continue to believe in the need for our nation to address gun violence in meaningful ways. And while prayer is called for–especially after tragedies in a house of prayer–I believe that prayer is not enough.
This past Shabbat, when we reflected on Abraham’s activism in Sedom, I shared the words of a prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer. He writes, in part,

We cannot merely pray to You O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

I join with our community in praying for the day when we become a safer nation and a safer world.
Rabbi Stein
B’nai Shalom, Walnut Creek

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Yom Kippur white tallit

I can’t fast this year. I’ve been sick for about five days and I know that fasting with result in my falling face first onto the synagogue floor. Everyone who rushed to me would end up scolding me for being so ridiculous. So, I’m circumventing that and not fasting.

A lot of people think that fasting for Yom Kippur is right up there with total holiness. But if you read the teachings of the rabbis, you’ll see that taking care of yourself – and the one body God gave you – is way up at the top. I knew my friend, Rabbi Ruth Adar, had written about this a few years ago and I went to find her article, Physical and Mental Health During the High Holy Days. In it she articulates the commandment to “choose life” and how to go about doing so.

I also read an article, How to Do Yom Kippur Without Fasting, by a woman who has an eating disorder and must never fast. I liked the ideas she gave herself to keep the day forefront in her mind, like eating round foods.

Third, I read and loved this article, 4 Ways Kids Can Participate on Yom Kippur! These four suggested behaviors are significantly more meaningful than merely fasting. I shared the articles I found with my friend, Rabbi Ruth, who said, “I am glad you are taking care of yourself. I like to remember what Isaiah says about the fast God desires: not the forgoing of food but deeds of righteousness and care for those who are suffering.”

Wishing you a healthy and happy year.

Gemar chatimah tovah

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seeds-of-light Jhos

I want to share with you a beautiful piece that Jhos Singer sent out to his community, Chochmat Halev. It is a reminder to take time to notice the blessings around you. Slow down, enjoy this life.

There are seeds of light planted everywhere if you can see them

Shabbat Shalom Chaverim,

There is a line from Psalm 97 that says, Or zarua l’tzaddik, u’l’yishrei lev simcha. It isn’t the easiest snippet to translate, but here’s my take:

There are seeds of light and gladness planted everywhere, you just gotta be curious and openhearted enough to see them.

During the week we might be driving too fast, working too hard, or stressing too many details to notice that we are literally surrounded by life affirming miracles. Maybe you are trying to get a budget to balance while a bird flies, unnoticed, past your window. Or you are wrangling your squirrely children into the car just as there are strawberries silently ripening in a raised bed near your parking place. You are racing to beat a deadline oblivious that your own body is turning that hastily gobbled lunch into energy and nutrients that fuel your maxxed out brain. And that’s OK for the rest of the week—but on Shabbat, we have an excuse to slow down and take notice of all the incredible points of light that surround us.

It has been another rough week in our country—sigh. It’s easy to obsess and stay tapped into the madness when our political and gubernatorial systems seem so completely broken. Yet without some respite from it we grind ourselves down to dust with worry, over exertion, stress and anger. And then we miss the light show. We miss the way the trees are growing regardless of what happens in Washington, we don’t take time to stick our feet in the frigid Pacific and feel the sand shift to hold our weight, we forget to marvel at the delightful curve of our best friend’s smile, or the way a perfectly ripe peach is impossible to eat with out making a mess. We miss the or zaruah, the glinting, sparkling light that revives our hearts—so, here we go, friends. Shabbes is upon us. Stow away meddlesome things, take a deep breath and look around for the dazzling array that surrounds you.

Blessin’s—Jhos

You can sign up to receive Chochmat HaLev’s email newsletter at the bottom of their home page.

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Have you ever felt out of step with those around you? Sometimes, even among those we love most, we feel “different.” I witnessed several experiences of that this week. In the first, I read Cantor Jennie Chabon‘s beautiful drash, “Is God the one thing?

Jennie Chabon singing

When my brother was in college, he and his friends began what became a years-long search for one thing-one place, one food, one anything- that everyone in the world either loves or hates. No one can be neutral about it or it doesn’t count. He would ask this question whenever he was hanging out with new people, to see if someone could come up with an answer.

New York? That has to be a place that people either love or hate. But no, it turns out that some people have neutral feelings about NYC.

Anchovies? I am firmly planted in the hate category with anchovies, but apparently some people could take them or leave them.

Camping? That is such a love-hate activity! I love camping, but I certainly know people who can’t stand it. Alas, some people like it just fine.

My brother and his friends never did find their one thing, and over time the question stopped being very interesting. But I have found myself thinking about it again lately as we have been diving into interfaith work here at Congregation B’nai Tikvah.

We have had two interfaith dialogues over the past several weeks, the first with members of the United Church of Christ in Orinda, the second with members of the Sam Ramon Valley Islamic Center. These two communities are obviously very different from each other–one Protestant, one Muslim–but there was one striking similarity between them: a love of God is at the center of their communities and their faith.

As liberal Jews, we are taught that belief in God is an optional part of our spiritual and cultural identity. You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, or even to be an observant Jew. I have clergy friends who don’t believe in God and who were outspoken about their atheism in seminary. They are happily serving congregations and leading prayers that praise God week after week, even though they don’t actually believe what they are saying. For them, God is a magnificent character in the greatest story ever told.

This concept is absolutely unfathomable to a Muslim or a Christian. God IS their faith. Which makes me wonder, would Christians and Muslims say that God is the answer to my brother’s question? Is God the one thing, the one being about whom no one has ambivalent feelings?

I think the reason I love doing interfaith work is this: when I spend time with people of other faiths, people who are unashamed of their love of God, I feel like I fit in in a way that I don’t among liberal Jews. I was at an ice cream parlor yesterday with my son, when I noticed a young couple walk in together, hand in hand. Around the girl’s neck was a large key chain with “I love Jesus” written all the way around it. My heart sang for that girl and her shameless faith.

It’s true that we are not a people that publicizes our Judaism or proselytizes in any way. That caution has grown out of centuries of needing to protect ourselves. But sometimes, I wish I could shout out my faith like that girl with her ice cream cone. I wish I could exclaim my love of God without feeling like I need to defend it to my own people.

When Jews believe in God they are often assumed to be fundamentalists. Most likely, they are not. Why? Because highly educated Jews don’t believe there is ONE way to interpret or experience God. Don’t let someone who lacks knowledge to make you feel bad. Take a look at the book, Finding God: Selected Responses, by Rabbi Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. The book was originally titled, Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses.

* * *

PJ Our Way logo

My second experience was during a discussion of a PJ Library book with 9 and 10 year olds. We were talking about Confessions of a Closet Catholic, a book for PJ My Way kids. The kids were puzzled and then pleased as they realized that each of their families does Judaism a bit differently. I think that being young and not yet stuck with a TRUTH, they were quite comfortable letting others be different from themselves. Some keep kosher, one doesn’t drive on Shabbat, another family does the opposite. I’d like to see us adults strive to be open to the different practices and choices of others.

* * *

Rabbi Steven Abraham

Rabbi Steven Abraham

Third, I received an article from a colleague; the article is written by a Conservative rabbi titled It’s Time to Say Yes and describes his personal decision making process to determine that he will officiate at interfaith marriages. My colleague assumed I would be thrilled with this article, after all, I refer interfaith couples to rabbis who will officiate at their wedding all time. But I was not thrilled, because the rabbi argued that the Right thing to do is to officiate at interfaith weddings. That means that rabbis who choose otherwise are “wrong.” Like my nine year old friends I strive to see the path that I have chosen while acknowledging that there are other paths that are valid for other travelers.

Jewish tradition teaches that there are 70 paths up the mountain to God. The number 70 is a metaphor for “many”. Seventy is also used when referring to all the humans on earth, i.e. the Seventy Nations. Thus, Judaism teaches that there are different AND VALID paths (religions). In fact there are as many paths as there are different kinds of people.

Shouldn’t Jews allow other Jews to be different? I am delighted to have a large list of rabbis who will perform an interfaith wedding. Do I need to condemn those who are not on my list? Nope. I believe that diversity is a good thing — even among Jews!

Speaking of all different kinds of Jews, try to get over to see the photo exhibit, This Is Bay Area Jewry. It will be showing at the Marin JCC from June 12 to Aug. 25, 2017.

Giacomini-Takasaki family

Giacomini-Takasaki family

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Rebecca Gutterman's family

The number of Jewish and interfaith families who are adopting children is significant. Often these children are not Caucasian. As one very sweet Catholic social worker put it, “Jews don’t seem to mind what color their children are.” We take that as a big compliment!

How do parents give their adopted child a feeling of wholeness, helping them integrate their story of origin with the religion and culture they are being raised in? Adoptive parents raising Jewish children have this and unique questions to answer depending on their family situation, such as:

Will we formally convert our child to Judaism?
Will we have some kind of Jewish welcoming ceremony?
How will we honor their culture of origin and give them a rich, secure Jewish identity?
If our child is a different race from us, how will we handle it? How will we respond to his/her questions at different stages, as well as questions or reactions from people outside of our family?
Join adoptive parents and adoption professional, Susan Romer, for a warm and supportive discussion.

April 20
7:30 to 9pm
Congregation B’nai Tikvah, 25 Hillcroft Way, Walnut Creek
Free, but an RSVP would be most appreciated. You can sign up here.

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Oshman JCC Logo

Several bay area JCC’s have received bomb threats and had to evacuate their facilities. When the Palo Alto/Oshman Family JCC was the victim of a threat they got a wonderful response from the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Group. Here’s what the JCC posted on their Facebook page.

Today we had a personal visit from a remarkable group of women—the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Group. Thank you for your support, and thank you to the Evergreen Islamic Center, the Mayor’s office and the many other organizations and individuals who have offered an outpouring of encouragement. #IStandWithTheJCC

PA JCC letter

Did you note the sentence, “Your suffering is our suffering; your children are our children.” No matter what faith tradition you follow there is always talk of God’s children. We are the single family of humankind. How beautiful this letter is!

Be ready to stand as a protective presence for Muslims, immigrants, LGBT. As Rabbi Menachem Creditor said at gathering at the Good Shepherd Church, “We are ready to make a circle around this church.”

Go out there and say something kind to someone. Maybe even to 4 or 5 someones.

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Purim at East Bay JCC

Purim at East Bay JCC

Dear friends, it has been an extremely difficult couple of months for those of us with multiracial, multi-ethnic families. Many of us are related to immigrants and some of us ARE immigrants. Please know that the Jewish community is acutely aware of what it feels like to be harassed and fearful. (There have been more than 60 bomb threats to Jewish community centers and Jewish schools in the last month.)

I was heartened to read the email Amy Tobin, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay sent to the JCC members. I asked permission to share it with all of you. Here it is.

Dear Friends,

Over the last two months, Jewish organizations around the United States, including JCCs, have received threatening phone calls. While the JCC East Bay has not received such a threat, we remain vigilant and committed to the security and safety of our community above all else. We maintain strong security protocols and evacuation procedures, and the JCC continues to work closely with local and federal law enforcement.

In recent weeks, the rise in anti-Semitism has received increased national attention. This is, in part, due to the terrible desecration of two Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia. The number of threats against Jewish institutions has grown. At the same time, the Jewish community has increased its public pressure on government leaders to take a strong stand against hate and to step up its investigation of these incidents.

We know that these events have been painful to absorb. We recognize that members and program participants may have specific concerns and encourage you to continue to share them with us. This is your community center, a place that vibrates with life and learning because of you.

At the JCC East Bay, we are concerned not only about the rise in anti-Semitic behavior, but about the rise in hateful rhetoric and crimes against many sister faiths and communities. We have seen arson attacks at two Islamic Centers. Latino and Muslim individuals are concerned for their safety and freedom, both in their communities and at the borders. In the last two years, we have seen unspeakable acts committed against the African-American community at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and against the LGBTQ community in Orlando.

This moment is not just a Jewish moment. This is a cultural moment, in which we are challenged to stand united against hatred and discrimination. This is an opportunity to work for our shared values: freedom, safety and equal rights for all.

As Jews and as Americans, we take inspiration from past generations. Our history has taught us to find strength under difficult circumstances. Our community will not be intimidated by hatred. We will work more passionately for tolerance among all people. We will celebrate and thrive in community.

Thank you for being a part of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

Warmly,
Amy Tobin
Chief Executive Officer

You are not alone. I am not alone. Together we will support and protect each other. I hope you have a community – whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim, whether religious or a group of friends – that is supporting you. If you don’t, it’s time to get one now. Contact me if you need help.

May we all reach Shalom – peace and wholeness.

Dawn
dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org

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B'nai Tikvah's window

B’nai Tikvah’s window

This Shabbat Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman of B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek sent the following email to her congregation. You probably all know about the sequoia that fell in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Rabbi Gutterman draws a connection to this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi. Reading it gave me the shivers. For those of us who have lost loved ones and can remember places that don’t exist anymore this piece will be bittersweet.

“Brought down by California Storm,” the headline read.

The article that followed was not about anyone’s homes, moods or daily routines. It was about the Pioneer Cabin Tree, a sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Given that sequoias can easily live over 1,000 years, this particular one had seen horses and carts, cars and pedestrians pass through. The idea of such a giant falling as a result of this most recent spate of wind and rain seems unreal. But it’s true.

“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch,” wrote Rabbi Chaim Stern of blessed memory. Yet these are exactly the circumstances under which we live and love, always. Loss is disorienting to say the least, and never more so when the person, thing, or grounding reality we lose is one we thought would always be here. Perhaps the mark of true resilience lies in finding new paths to walk and new sources of meaning, even with hearts forever altered.

Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion, marks the ending of the first book of the Torah. Appropriately enough, it concludes with the blessing of Jacob’s sons, immediately followed by both Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. These losses were not only significant for their families, but also life altering for their descendants – the tribes who would become an enslaved people in Egypt.

That’s part of the reason why the closing lines of Vayechi are so significant. Joseph extracted one last promise from his brothers: that when their time of deliverance came, they would carry his bones out of Egypt with them. And so their descendants did, hundreds of years later. This gesture was a way of symbolizing that the most important parts of our pasts come forward with us into our future. As long as we guard our memories, tell our stories, create our legacies, then long ago fragments can be made whole again, even if differently so.

Ancestral bones. Remains of ancient trees. Let us set aside some time this Shabbat and during the coming week to think about what is most enduring in our lives, even in the midst of dislocation or loss. What is most worthy of being held inside and carried forward?

I leave you with a poem by Howard Nemerov that brought me solace and inspiration this week. I hope it brings the same to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Gutterman

TREES

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one’s own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One’s Being deceptively armored,
One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.

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