Paving the Way

Rabbi's Message - March 1, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

“The idea that it’s possible to move from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light and from despair to hope – that is the greatest Jewish story ever told.”  Rabbi Sharon Brous, co-founder of innovative IKAR community, shares the idea that our Jewish story is irrevocably connected not only to the unfailing hope and belief that the future can be better than the present, but that we are responsible for being partners in making it so.

Today, as we welcome in Women’s History Month today, I want to affirm this hope and belief, amid the chaos of the modern world around us, and also take a moment to honor those who took strides to bring about freedom, light, and hope in our history – particularly women who have made it possible not just for myself and other female-identified individuals to be rabbis, but so many others as well.  

This year will mark 50 years of female-identified women in the North American rabbinate.  On June 3, 1972 Sally Priesand became the first ordained female rabbi in North America, upon her ordination from HUC-JIR.  That moment was made possible by her perseverance and persistence through all kinds of challenges to becoming the first female rabbi in an all-male profession – challenges most others would consider insurmountable.  Her courage paved the way for a changed vision of who could be a Rabbi: the rabbinate was no longer “just” for the stereotypical older white male with a beard.  Rabbi Priesand’s ordination was, and is, symbolic not only of her personal virtues, but the empowerment of so many Jewish individuals to share leadership within our Reform Jewish world and beyond – it is certainly worthy of celebration this month, this year, and always.

We are currently working with Rabbi Priesand to have the opportunity to hear her speak about her own journey and the experience of women in the rabbinate in a larger sense, including Regina Jonas, ordained in 1935 in Berlin and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.  Keep an eye out for an official announcement of the program.  In the meantime, there will be an exhibit beginning this spring, entitled Holy Sparks, will be on display at the Skirball Museum at HUC in Cincinnati from May 19-September 4, with an opening reception on May 19.  This exhibit marks highlights of the journey of women in the rabbinate from Regina Jonas’ and Sally Priesand’s ordinations through many other firsts for female-identified rabbis through today.  I’d encourage you to take a trip to go see it while it is more or less in our neighborhood. 

I encourage you to take some time this month to explore the rich contributions that women have made in our country’s history and in our religious history.  Through their bravery, and through retelling their stories may we inspire ourselves and empower the future.

Speaking Out Against Hate

Rabbi's Message - February 22, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

“What can I do about antisemitism?” I’ve been asked variations of this question more frequently over the last couple of years, as hate-based actions, sometimes violent, are on the rise – The World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency’s joint statement as part of their annual review of in 2021 showed that antisemitic incidents increased by 50% or more – doubling in 2021 over 2020 in New York City.  Even without the data, I’d say many of us just “know” based on an intuitive feeling that antisemitism, extremism in general, is rising in our country, which leads to the question of what we can do about it.

The hostage situation in Colleyville gave impetus for some to attend the two Secure Community Network trainings, "Be Aware" and "Countering an Active Assailant" to refresh our own skills.  But, antisemitism happens in mundane forms.  Just yesterday morning, I noticed several congregants from the Centerville area had shared an image from the high school depicting a swastika on a Jewish Student Union flyer, which in turn led to a flood of comments from others about past incidents of antisemitism in that particular district or others.  It brought back memories of a friend’s locker in my high school being graffitied with a swastika… and the school doing little about it, because, if I recall correctly, ‘they had bigger problems to deal with than graffiti.’  

It is disheartening to me to see students today dealing with the same issues as the adults in their lives, to see hatred on the rise when we should have learned from that past.  But I’m also grateful that we have the ability to speak out against hate when we see it.  We can report incidents like this one to the Anti Defamation League, to local authorities, and more.  I’m hopeful that this school will respond differently than mine did.  But I also know we cannot only rely on others – we must speak up for ourselves.  This coming weekend, Temple is furthering our partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council as an UPSTANDER.  This program was introduced at Chanukkah and our training this weekend, facilitated by the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center will provide a deeper look into what it means to be an UPSTANDER.

As I reflect on the particular incident on social media this week, or those from my past, or others I’ve heard of – what bothers me is considering how many people walked by the flyer, laughed at an inappropriate joke, awkwardly smiled and shrugged a comment off, or more.   If you are not already registered for the UPSTANDER training, Federation is still accepting additions to a waitlist.  If you registered and will no longer be able to attend, please cancel your reservation to allow others to attend in your place, as the training is full. I hope this training builds our toolkits to have the confidence and language to speak up to hate and to make change in this world. 

The Cost of Safety & Security

Rabbi's Message - January 25, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

There are so many of us who are still processing the events at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.  The feelings of “that could have been me/us” are very real.  The anger and hurt because we don’t live in a world where people can pray in peace.  We must be on alert, even in our houses of worship.  I thank God that Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his congregants stayed strong and calm and survived physically unharmed.  I pray for their mental well-being.  I pray that everyone affected is able to return to wholeness and heal from this trauma.

This event has reminded us of the importance of vigilance.  But what is troubling to cope with, is that the perpetrator appeared as a person in need of shelter, shared a cup of tea with Rabbi Cytron-Walker, and then took them hostage.  Should this unknown visitor have been invited in?  But also, what might have happened had Rabbi Cytron-Walker not created that personal connection?

The Talmud, in Baba Batra 7b, takes up a question of what is, in essence, an HOA battle, that still remains today: Can those who share a courtyard (think: neighborhood) be forced to contribute to build a guardhouse, gates, doors into the community?  The initial response is that yes, they can.  Communal safety is an imperative – a security guard, barriers, and other defense mechanisms against existing outside threats improves safety, reduces the “nuisance” of beggars, those experiencing homelessness, and more; it will let those who are in the neighborhood live more comfortably, securely divided from others who would pose a threat or nuisance.  

Then the Talmud shares an interesting anecdote of a righteous man who would regularly encounter Elijah the Prophet – envisioned as an impoverished man who will herald the Messianic Age.  The righteous man contributed to a guardhouse and Elijah stopped visiting him.  The Talmud presupposes this is because the guardhouse prevents the poor from entering and asking (and receiving) charity that is due to them.  Rabbi Josh Ladon comments on this section in the Jerusalem Post, following the incident in Colleyville, “The Talmud is uncomfortable with the implications of fortifying one’s home when there are others living on the streets.  The juxtaposition of the two voices in instructive: Our safety and wellbeing come at a cost.  We have the right to build safe barriers, but we need to ensure they do not deafen our ears or blind our eyes to those who are most in need.”

What happened in Colleyville should not blind or deafen us to those who enter our doors in need of shelter, connection, or anything else.  Right now, we can remind ourselves of the Jewish imperative to treat others without prejudice and with the benefit of the doubt.  At the same time, we must take our safety and security seriously.  Just as I was retrained and re-certified annually in First Aid as a swim coach and life guard, it is important to retrain regularly in other life skills as well.  One opportunity to do that is by engaging in the Secure Community Network (SCN)’s virtual training on January 27 at 1:00 pm EST to refresh our skills to help keep ourselves, our community, and our guests safe, just in case.  In the words of our tradition: “Pray as if everything depended on God” – may we never need this skills; “Act as if everything depends on you” – but learn and refresh them anyways.

Legacy: From Yesterday to Today and for Tomorrow

Rabbi's Message - January 11, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

The proximity of Tu Bishvat (the 15th of Shevat, essentially what has become “Jewish Earth Day”) and the national recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr. is fairly common based on the inner workings of both calendars.   That said, these two days are very different from one another.  Most would connect the two holidays based on their shared theme of tikkun olam (repairing the world).  Dr. King' s vision and leadership were staples in the Civil Rights Movement to advance equality and justice in our world.  Tu Bishvat, the Birthday of the Trees, is born out of a Jewish legal need to know how old a tree is.  This information tells us what tithes are necessary and if it is permissible to eat its fruit.  The holiday has grown to be a day about paying attention to our dependence on the earth and mindfulness of using its bounty; thus its ecological and environmental themes tie in with issues of climate change and sustainability quite nicely.

I’d like to focus on a different connection: legacy.  Dr. King had a dream, a vision, that we would be seen as peers and not judged by the color of our skin.  He sought to leave his mark on this world to create, without violence, enough pressure to cause systemic change.  We inherited this legacy, and strive to march it at least a few steps forward towards fruition to bring equality, to bring equity, to all in our days.  On Tu Bishvat, we tell the story of Honi the Circle Maker (from Taanit 23a) who questions the purpose of a man planting a carob tree (known to not reliably bear fruit for many years), when he himself won’t benefit from the tree.  The lesson of the story is that the seeds we plant today are what we leave for the next generation, just as the past generations planted for us.

As we enter this weekend into “Shabbat Tzedek” – Justice Shabbat - may we reflect on the legacies of those who came before us and benefits they provide today.  Let us also think about the legacy of the actions we engage in today and how they impact the next generation.  May this world be a little bit better because we were in it.

Devastation and Plagues

Rabbi's Message - February 4, 2022

Rabbi Tina Sobo

In our weekly Torah reading last week and this week, we are reminded of the 10 plagues in Egypt; though it hardly feels like we need such a reminder.  Over the past week I have seen the news reports of 1,600 acres of land being consumed by a wildfire in Boulder County, Colorado.  The pictures are heart breaking.  

For me, sitting here, at a safe distance, it is a reminder.  NBC News quoted Colorado’s governor saying, “It’s like the neighborhood you live in.  It’s like the neighborhood that any of us live in.  1,600 acres near a population center can be – and is, in this case – absolutely devastating.”  It’s a reality we know – the Memorial Day tornadoes of 2019 tore homes and lives apart and wrecked devastation on our own community.

What stands out about these wildfires is the rapidity with which they spread.  Climate scientists believe this is due to the severe droughts that the West coast areas have experienced due to climate change (global warming).

We are commanded in the Bible to have empathy and compassion on the most vulnerable because we were once slaves in Egypt.  The implication being that we know what it feels like to be oppressed, to be more vulnerable to devastation from natural events.  We carry that legacy as Jews and as a community that experienced a similar event.

And for many of us, it hits even closer to home.  Alan Halpern, our former executive director, who now lives and works in Boulder, lost his home to the fires.  He and his family escaped unharmed, but will be rebuilding in the weeks and months ahead, along with so many others.

The plagues of Egypt are not just fantastical stories of the past.  And as much as I may have joked over the past two years about swarms of locusts, killer bees, and COVID being a new set of plagues, there are very real, very devastating events.  It is not up to us to complete the work of rebuilding and supporting the victims, but we cannot stand idly by.

We have been in contact with Alan, and he has told us the best way to help right now is to donate to The Community Foundation of Boulder County or to the relief fund established by Jewish Colorado.  These organizations are assessing the needs of those affected and working quickly to help.  We are grateful that Alan and his family are safe and healthy, and we pray that he and all those affected find the support of community and feel at home while rebuilding physical homes.

Reflecting on Our Past for the Sake of Our Future

Rabbi's Message - December 14, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

There’s a Talmudic tradition that, “Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a).  This statement is brought in the Talmud as proof that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same calendar date (the 9th of Av) as the First Temple.  Today is not Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av), but a different fast day: Asara b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet.  While major tragedies in Jewish history are ascribed to Tisha B’Av, today is a minor fast, traditionally marking the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE.  This siege eventually led to the destruction of the First Temple two years later.  This day marks the beginning of the chain of events that lead to an unfathomable catastrophe for Jews at the time – the loss of Temple, sacrificial service, and religion as they knew it.  As historians, we might see the almost two-year period from the siege to the destruction as a series of political and military acts.  In Jewish tradition, we are told that prophets foreshadowed the imminent destruction of the Temple if the Jews did not change their behavior.  Unfortunately, they didn't listen.

What I find significant about this fast is that it makes us look further back in the chain of events.  We are not supposed to eat, but it is more than that.  Think about Yom Kippur – we set aside the attention we would give to our physical needs to focus on our spiritual needs.  We repent and promise to change ourselves and our behavior.  The point of today's fast is not primarily to evoke grief and mourning, but to recall our own deeds.  We are encouraged to be mindful of our actions and the chain of events that could occur because of these decisions.  We also reflect on those behaviors of our ancestors as a guide to change our ways before it is too late.  It is as much about remembering our past as it is about changing our future.

In the last week, the devastating images and news of the tornadoes from Arkansas through Kentucky have been a reminder.  I cannot help but wonder how climate change and our societal carbon footprint are enabling some of the more recent super-storms.  Those images make me think back to the tornadoes that devastated our own community right here in Dayton.   There was one story that stood out among the others – the individuals who were working at the candle factory in Dayton, who asked to leave, to find a safer spot, when the tornado warnings went off and were allegedly threated with being fired if they left.  It is hard to imagine feeling so trapped, so stuck, so vulnerable, that one would have to choose to risk their own life to keep their livelihood.  For me, that is a bigger call to action to protect not just our earth, but also all people who dwell upon it.  The Biblical rationale for us protecting the most vulnerable in our community (the widows, orphans, poor, resident aliens, etc.) is that we were once slaves in Egypt and know what it was like.  We have a higher capacity for empathy and sympathy based on our own experience.  There are so many who are vulnerable in our days due to inequity based on intrinsic parts of identity (race, sexuality, gender, and more).  The tornadoes are devastating in and of themselves, and they highlight even more devastating parts of our society.  The siege on Jerusalem was devastating, and in hindsight, it was indicative of more to come.  If we can listen to the warnings, we can change.

So whether you are fasting or not during the daylight hours today, may it be a day of reflection, a day to consider your own behavior, and a day to use our past to change the future.  In addition to prayer and fasting, we can also acknowledge the tragedies of our days, the things that we are doing now that could be part of the beginning of larger chain of disaster.  We can begin to heal ourselves and our world.   If you’d like to contribute to the tornado victims, you might join the Jewish Federation of Louisville’s efforts in partnership with the American Red Cross.

I pray for strength, healing and comfort for all the victims of the tornadoes and their families, for our earth, for all its inhabitants.  I pray that we hear the call of this day, and every day.  Borrowing from the words of Cantor Leon Sher in his famous song Heal Us Now, “We pray for healing of the body.  We pray for healing of the soul.  For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.  We pray to once again be whole… We pray for healing of our people.  We pray for healing of the land.  And peace for every race and nation; every child, every woman, every man.

Shining a Light, Making an Impact

Rabbi's Message - December 7, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Dear Friends,

As I clean the wax from the crevices of my menorah where just two nights ago the candles shone in all their brilliance, I realize that December is upon us, and I can’t help but wonder where 2021 went.  Last year, at about this time, we so readily prepared to say ‘good riddance’ to the notorious year 2020, with its uncharted territory and held dear the hope that the COVID vaccines were our ticket to normalcy.  Yet, here we are, a year later, and it feels like this past year has been nearly as uncharted as the one before it.  Our environment is ever-changing as always, but it has been a comfort to navigate the storm together as a congregation.

Our success in continuing to fulfill our mission to serve our congregants and the Jewish community, is possible because of you.  Over the pandemic, many have been able to continue to participate and give as much or more than you previously had.  These contributions always support the work of our clergy and staff, and enable us to provide the programs and services that impact you - all our members, friends, neighbors, and the community at large.  We’ve continued our outreach efforts to foster connection between congregants, as isolation and loneliness remain heightened.  We’ve been able to begin coming back together in-person at Temple, while also providing connections through Zoom and YouTube streaming for those who are unable to join us in person.  Things still look different than “normal”, but we’ve learned so much about what it means (and how) to connect. We know that the pandemic has impacted everyone and we are truly grateful for your time, creativity, and generosity.

As the year comes to a close, the path forward still remains uncertain.  What remains true is our commitment to overcome those obstacles together and provide financial, religious, social and emotional support and services to all our families and the community.  I invite you to make a year-end contribution to Temple Israel so that we may continue to be beacon of Torah (teaching),  Avodah (service), and G’milut Chasadim (kind actions).

Jewish ethics teaches that even the smallest of actions is integral to the success of the whole.  Each and every act of giving makes an impact, no matter how small.  From one tiny flame of the shamash, the entire Hanukkah menorah is lit.  Be that light.  Make an impact.  

Thank you for considering a contribution to Temple.  May we all move forward in strength, health, and holiness.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Giving Tuesday

Rabbi's Message - November 30, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

It’s been a big weekend for Jewish Americans.  First there was Thanksgiving, with its meal prep, traditionally large gatherings, or pandemically small ones.  Then we could take advantage of Black Friday deals (last minute Chanukkah shopping anyone?).  Then Shabbat.  Then Chanukkah began on Sunday.  Then perhaps we also took a look at Cyber Monday deals from the COVID-safety of our homes.  And now, it's Tuesday.  But its still not just a regular Tuesday, its #GivingTuesday, which much like the American Thanksgiving traditions and commercial “holidays” around it, has grown in prominence over the last several years.

Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving.  The Tuesday which, as Rabbi Paul Kipnes writes, “moves us away from the popular narcissistic ‘gimme-gimme’ culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns us outward.  We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives.  If only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun… [Giving Tuesday] is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better, brighter world.”  And this year, may it feel especially bright as we light our menorahs.

Whether you are waiting for online orders to arrive, or looking at a shiny new something purchased this weekend or not.  Whether you, or those in your household, are excitedly opening presents for Chanukkah, take some time today to give.  Be that monetarily to your preferred charities, donating new or used goods to others, or be that a simple act of kindness, or something else – use today to think about balancing the gratitude we have for the blessings in our lives represented by Thanksgiving, and for the freedom that Chanukkah represents, with acts that turn us outward to bring freedom and blessings to others.

I hope to see you tonight at Temple Israel to celebrate Chanukkah on this Giving Tuesday at our drive-thru and outdoor menorah lighting.  We encourage you to bring some donations from St. Vincent’s needs list, as we partner with them on this Giving Tuesday along with our Chanukkah fun!

Lighting the Way

Rabbi's Message - November 23, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As we approach the start of Chanukkah (beginning sundown on Sunday), we retell the story of the Maccabees who fought for their religious freedom and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days (and the deliciousness of latkes, jelly doughnuts and gelt!).  In recent years, the ancient message of Chanukkah resonates more strongly – the Maccabees fought for the right to live and practice peacefully in a culturally diverse empire.  We too, live in a diverse nation, and yet, we recognize that the freedom to live and practice peacefully without persecution due one’s faith, race, sexuality, or gender, are not equitable across Americans nor the world.  The Maccabees fought not only for the ability to practice their own faith openly, but against the creation of a homogenous culture in general. We too, remember that diversity is important. We especially recall our commitment to fight and persevere against intolerant forces and evil in order that redemption and freedom will prevail.

But in true Jewish fashion, how we do this has been subject to debate – and not just if one should put applesauce or sour cream on latkes. (In case you were wondering, this Rabbi says either is completely acceptable).  An interesting teaching from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, gives two opinions on how to light the Chanukkah menorah.  The students of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai (both first-century C.E. Rabbis in the Land of Israel) disagreed. The Babylonian Talmud records this debate stating that Beit Shammai (Shammai’s students) maintained that one should light the menorah with eight candles on the first night and reduce the number each night following, ending with one candle on the final night. Beit Hillel (Hillel’s students) maintained that on the first day one should light one candle and increase the number of candles, ending with eight on the final night. The Talmud then supposes reasons for the practices: Shammai’s practice of decreasing the number of candles corresponds to the days still to come (or perhaps parallels Sukkot, but that’s a different lesson), while Hillel’s increasing number of candles corresponds to the days that have past.  Do we count what has already happened, or anticipate what is to come?  Do we mark how many days of the miraculous oil have occurred already, or are left?

The Talmud gives a second rationale for each opinion.  Shammai’s decreasing candles might be a parallel to the number of bulls sacrificed at Sukkot, which also decrease over eight days, while Hillel’s increasing number can be attributed to the principle that, “in matters of sanctity one increases and does not decrease.”  

My Rabbi growing up (Rabbi Jeff Glickman) would always say, “May you grow in holiness”.  I’m reminded of this each year as I watch the flames increase over Chanukkah.  In a way, Hillel “won” the debate – that’s how we light.  But preserving the debate reminds us that both methods have merit.  I’m sure we have all counted down the days until something happens.  May we too, be able to take some time to count “up” our blessings that we have too.  As we count those blessings, may we grow in holiness, and share the light we have with others.

I’ll conclude with my favorite – not Jewish-sourced – thought: A candle that lights another candle loses nothing, it just makes the world a better place.

The Struggle Within

Rabbi's Message - November 16, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about the night before the long-awaited reunion between Jacob with his brother, Essau.  He lays down by a stream that’s name itself means “struggle,” implying that, after coming to terms with his uncle, Jacob is now ready to struggle with conflicts that have long haunted him.  Once he falls asleep, Jacob wrestles with an ish, an adversary; he prevails and is given the name Israel, “one who struggled with God and man and prevailed.”  Jacob awakens transformed and ready to reconcile with his brother.  

There are numerous theories about who the ish was that Jacob faced that night.  Some commentaries suspect that he wrestled with his brother, others believe it was a struggle with God.  I prefer to lean into the modern commentaries who suggest that the ish with whom Jacob wrestled was, in fact, himself.  His better impulses were facing off against his darkest fears, sins, and guilt.  It becomes a story that teaches that strength emanates from within and often begins with personal struggle - perhaps many, followed by years of confrontation. 

At Torah study this past week, I mentioned one of my favorite interpretations of Jacob’s journey.  In Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, points out that the first time Yaakov encounters an angel (in his first dream with the ladder), he stopped ki vah hashemesh, or “because the sun had set.”   When he awoke from his wrestling match, found in this week’s portion, he left with ahlot hashachar, “the rising of the sun.”  Anchored in midrash, Zornberg suggests that these markers of time are functions of Jacob’s personal sense of time.  It appears from this connection between the setting and the rising of the sun as if Jacob remained twenty years in one long period of darkness - a spiritual darkness.  

But God was always there, even in the darkness.  It seems, rather, that Jacob wasn’t ready to face God.  It was only after his process of self-discovery, wrestling that night with his evil inclinations, that Jacob finally overcame that which was keeping him from coming closer to God.  It was through his process of self-reconciliation that Jacob, of his own volition, finally could pull himself out of his darkness so that the sun could rise again. 

How Jacob wrestled with himself and with his life experiences feels especially pertinent this week.  I spent much of today participating in the “Love Epidemic II,” a virtual program put together locally to help community leaders to better respond to communal and individual trauma.  One of the presenters shared: “Self-awareness is the gateway to healing.”  How true it is and, if we accept Zornberg’s interpretation, it is what our Torah portion teaches as well.  The struggle, the wrestling match of confronting our own pain and trauma, may sometimes translate to 20 years of pain and suffering, or perhaps longer.  But, by looking to Jacob’s story for guidance, we learn that something holy and transformational may come from our efforts and there are sources, and resources, to help us.  

Even though it may be painful, we would all benefit from self-reflection and self-awareness.  Becoming more mindful will help with our healing and, hopefully, lead us closer to God. As God remained with Jacob throughout his complicated life, especially through his personal and spiritual struggles, we pray that God will be with us as well. We also have one other.  If you ever find that you need support, know that your Temple rabbis and community are here for you.  May we continue to move from strength to strength and support one another on the journey between.