Repairing this World is Our Obligation

Rabbi's Message - November 9, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon taught: Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin l’hibatel mi’mena. It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it.  

As Jews, we are not permitted to back down from confronting the ills of our community.  We are taught that we must take an active role in finding solutions to bring us closer to the world as it should be.  It is a big weight to bear, considering the enormity of the work to be done, but we are not to be disheartened.  Even if our efforts may not single-handedly fix all of our societal ills, we must remain committed.  We must continue to engage in acts of tzedakah, justice, ma’asim tovim, good deeds, and Tikkun Olam, mending the world. 

Sometimes the work can be discouraging.  There will be moments in our lives when we struggle with the efficacy of our impact.  It could be because of the magnitude of the work to be done or a lack of capacity for effecting change.  But we are comforted knowing that even the smallest of our efforts will make a difference.  When we drop off a bag of dry goods at a food drive, we understand that, although the handful of items we contribute will not eliminate hunger in our entire population, it will nourish the bodies of individual families.  And every ripple we produce through our efforts has the possibility to become a massive change-enacting wave.   

When it comes to systemic issues in our society, these also can feel like climbing insurmountable mountains.  Documents, interactions, personal experiences, and testimonies - they help us understand the depth of the problems our society faces.  And it, too, is a lot.  But, just like our hands-on work of tzedakah, we must keep at it, even if we don’t see the immediate results of our work.  Policy change often takes years.  And we are not free to refrain from the work, just because we may not be able to finish it in our lifetimes.

This is why the work of the Religious Action Center is so important to our congregations.  It offers us a mouthpiece to address larger societal issues as a community and helps us to feel supported in our individual efforts.  

This year, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) has committed itself to issues surrounding racial justice.  Here in Ohio, we are specifically addressing one of many of these issues, in particular, the death penalty.  We are working closely with Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) to help pass bills that will abolish the death penalty in our state.  With RAC-OH, our congregations are empowered to work in coalition to bring about real, lasting change in our communities.  And together, our ripples will gain incredible force.

On Thursday, you have the opportunity to hear from a powerful panel of speakers to learn more about why we are being called to abolish the death penalty.  Wise Temple is hosting an evening (via Zoom) to hear from State Representative Jean Schmidt, founder of the OTSE Hannah Kubbins, and Jonathan Mann, a family member of a victim.  Following this panel there will be time for us to discuss how we can move forward together as a congregation.  I hope that you will join me for this meaningful conversation.  When we work together, we help carry the weight of this task more evenly and move closer to a world of wholeness and peace.

Our Civic Duty as Jews

Rabbi's Message - November 2, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” – Talmud, Brakhot 55a

Today is November 2.  It's election day.  It's not a presidential election year, nor a midterm election, but Judaism still says you should go vote..
Who we elect to positions, even those that seem of little consequence, affects the management and governance of our communities.  Our voices, as citizens, matter.  As a Rabbi, I cannot, and would not, tell you who to vote for; but I will tell you to go vote.  It is our duty as Jews and as good citizens of our communities.  
We pray (and often sing) the words of the Geulah prayer (think: Mi Chamocha) daily as Jews, which thanks God for redeeming Israel, for making us free.  For centuries, Jews were not full citizens of their countries and had no voice in the secular/national leadership.  Speaking for myself, it is all too easy to see voting as another task, or perhaps even a burden, on today's busy schedule.  It is.  It is also a privilege to make an informed choice - to be consulted - about who our leadership will be.  The "minor" offices that are decided today could be the candidates in more prestigious elections of tomorrow.

If you want a little more help reframing voting in terms of our Jewish selves, check out this article for more sources and a blessing to use before voting.  If it's the first year you are eligible - don't forget to add a Shehechiyanu!

To Trick or Treat?

Rabbi's Message - October 26, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As a child, Halloween was about dressing up, getting candy, and coming up with new torturous swim practices in the name of Halloween “fun”.   Good, clean, fall fun – right?   For Jews, the answer might be a little more nuanced.  The issue boils down to the prohibition for Jews to worship idols.  As a monotheistic religion, we take the whole ‘no idols’ thing pretty seriously.

We know that Halloween has pagan origins, so the argument that it could be considered connected to idol worship isn’t so farfetched.  Some Jewish thinkers argue, that there is “no real reason for a child to dress up and collect candy on this specific day of the year.”  Biased as the mom of young children, I imagine if you spun the argument about not having a reason to dress up and get candy around, you’d be hard pressed to find a majority of younger children that would say ‘no’ to the idea of playing dress-up and treats.

But, asking 5-year-olds about free candy might not be the best way to make informed Jewish decisions.  Others would argue that modern celebrations on and around October 31st are so far removed from their pagan origins.  Much like you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of Christian Americans today that would say Christmas trees shouldn’t be part of Christmas because of their pagan origins (which up until even the early 1800s they were in America).   If one believes that something can be separated from its history, that things change, that time changes, then if current Halloween celebrations don’t resemble idolatrous practices, it would be kosher for Jews.

The question may still not be as simple as asking if Halloween is truly about worshipping the devil or chocolate bars.  The stickier part of the discussion in Jewish legal literature comes about through notions of the propriety of engaging in the ways of other, non-Jewish, ethnic/religious groups.  Which, post-emancipation, I think is ultimately a question of how we as Jews respond to modernity and the challenges of living in our modern world.  Would trick-or-treating, a costume party, or a silly sports workout undermine our religious identity and practice as a Jew?  Personally, I don’t think it does, especially in a year where October 31 doesn’t fall on Shabbat.  That said, I also think it’s a great time to use the history and current practice as an opportunity to model for ourselves and our children what kind of thinking goes into making these decisions and reflecting on what values we hold most high.  Perhaps there is a way to elevate your spooky antics with Jewish values – can you reuse a Purim costume instead of buying or making a new one?  Could you donate some of your candy to first-responders, shelters, or somewhere else afterward?  What else could you do?  With that in mind, have a fun and safe last week of October.  (And don't worry - the religious school team has some special spooky-themed fun for our session on Sunday.  See you then!)

Thinking About God

Rabbi's Message - October 19, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Soon after it was published, Rabbi Tuling’s book, Thinking about God, was a fixture on my nightstand.  I remember watching my youngest son, six at the time, pick it up and thumb through it.  As he closed the book he stared intently at the cover, a beautiful celestial scene in midnight blue, covered by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.  He looks at me.  Half stating and half asking he says: “So God is a star?!”

Yesterday, as I drove him home from Hillel Academy, he couldn’t wait to tell me that there are 248 bones in the body, as there are words in the Shema, so if we say the Shema perfectly over and over, HaShem will watch over us and protect us.  He was so excited. “HaShem will protect us from everything!”
One of the most wonderful parts of teaching children in a religious setting has been to see how their God-concepts have changed.  From Preschoolers sharing their answers to “Thank you God for…” in services with Rabbi Sobo to examining contemporary Jewish thought with Confirmands, their responses never cease to amaze me.  
In 1981, James Fowler developed a theory of faith development based on the works of Kohlberg, Erikson, and Piaget.  He was able to “map out” the process by which individuals progress in their faith development.  When I listened to my son describe God as a star, I recognized that he was right where he was supposed to be - in the mythic-literal stage.  Even if I helped, at 6 or 7 he wouldn’t have been developmentally ready to unpack ideas of Buber, Heschel, or Fackenheim that I teach in 9th and 10th grade. 
One of the things I enjoy most about working with teens is watching them explore deeper, more critical discussions of Jewish ideas, to which they will eventually assign personal meaning. This is why it is crucial that students continue to attend Religious School after Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It is at this point that they can synthesize information meaningfully.  They shift from simply repeating information to hopefully understanding why it matters to them.   
Some adults move beyond this adolescent level of understanding.  But, according to Fowler’s research, many adults do not.  It seems to me that it isn’t that we are incapable of doing so, but simply that we don’t take the time to reflect on our beliefs and how our life experiences have impacted them over the years.  That is why I chose to teach “Thinking about God.”  It offers thoughtful questions for various God concepts and encourages us to find ourselves within the array of Jewish thought.  I am excited about our conversations this will evoke and hope you will consider joining the conversation.
Last week we explored basic definitions related to theology, took an accounting of our current beliefs of God, examined Fowler’s ideas of faith development, and turned to Genesis to see what the Hebrew Bible had to tell us about God and Creation.  This Thursday at noon we will continue our journey by looking at the theology of traditional Jewish liturgy.  We hope to see you there.

Being Together is a Good Place to Be

Rabbi's Message - October 12, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Just a couple weeks ago, we restarted our annual cycle of Torah reading.  After Adam and all the animals are created, Adam feels lonely, and we read God’s observation, “It is not good for adam to be alone.”  We can read the Hebrew word adam as Adam’s name, or we can read it more generally, a person, people – it is not good for people to be alone.  From our very creation, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with one another – whether that is in our familial and romantic connections, or friendships, work relationships, and more – it is not good to be alone.

Navigating relationships is easy at times, stormy at others.  It can be easy to think throwing in the towel and walking away is the best option – it’s not.  Jewish tradition wants us to be with others.  We are called to “love your fellow as yourself,” and that “all Jews are responsible/accountable to one another.”  

As religious school has resumed in-person learning this year, I’m shocked by how much our students have grown.  On the one hand, physically, I have to look up to see some of them now!  But in maturity, self-confidence, how they carry themselves, and more.  They are the same people as before, but they are also not the same.  When we see people frequently, it is harder to see that growth.  In our relationships with one another, we cannot just do things the way we always have, because everyone is growing, changing, developing.  

This week at Temple, we have sessions with RAC-Ohio, we might attend the JCC's Cultural Arts & Book Series presentation on Jewish parenting, we might be starting or continuing in one of our learning programs at Temple (shameless plug for Hebrew classes tonight and Talmud on Tuesdays with me, and Thinking about God with Rabbi Bodney-Halasz on Thursdays).  I hope that these opportunities and more give us the perspective to stop and take stock of our own growth and development and that of those around us, as we continue to love and support one another to always be growing in holiness together.

Why doesn’t the Sukkah need a mezuzah?

Rabbi's Message - September 21, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

We are commanded to dwell in Sukkot at this time of year.  But why is it, that unlike all other Jewish dwellings, the sukkah does not have a mezuzah?  On the 15th day of Tishrei, possibly with break the fast dinner feeling like it is still in our bellies from Yom Kippur, we begin the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths).  Traditionally we erect a sukkah, a shelter that reminds us of the booths in the desert when we left Egypt and in the fields during the harvest.  Sukkot is the time of our rejoicing, of feasting, of giving thanks, particularly for the abundant harvest.  From an agricultural perspective we celebrate that we are “set” after a year of harvest for the winter.

The mezuzah that we put on our homes symbolizes permanence.  This is our home, where we live, where we store our possessions.  Why would a sukkah, which the Bible tells us to dwell in, not also fall in this category?  Precisely because one aspect of Sukkot is to bring us more in tune with the impermanence that exists in life.  The Sukkah is supposed to leave us vulnerable to the elements, unlike the walls of a permanent house.  It can not be left (completely) in tact from year to year.  Its roof cannot provide full coverage, but rather let rays of the sun through, and thus also the rain, or even snow!  It is for this very reason, that although it is our dwelling for the week, it is not a true home.

 Within Jewish law, the definition of permanence for a dwelling is what distinguishes the need for a mezuzah from what qualifies as a sukkah.  We explore our permanence versus transience, rootedness versus wandering.  By drawing our experience closer to nature, we likely will come to appreciate the safety and security of our permanent home.  

One’s level of privilege often translates in our society into one’s perceived sense of security and safety.  Perhaps, this Sukkot, as we spend time in our Sukkahs, whether Temple’s, your own, a friend’s, or even something sukkah-like, take a moment to consider the vulnerability we feel when the sheltering elements of our life are set aside.  When we open up to vulnerability, what do we find?

The Time Is Now

Rabbi's Message - August 31, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

"The time is now. We’ve gathered ’round. So bring all your gifts and bring all your burdens with you.

No need to hide. Arms open wide. We gather as One. To make a Makom Kadosh (a holy place).

We come to tell. We come to hear. We come to teach. We come to learn. We come to grow. And so we say.

The time is now. Sing to the One. God’s presence is here, Shechina. You will dwell among us.

We’ll make this space a Holy Place, so separate, so whole. Rejoice every soul who enters here."

— Debbie Friedman z”l and Tamara R. Cohen 

We will sing these beautiful lyrics for the first time in two years when we gather on Monday night.  They are words of welcome, inviting us to bring our whole selves into our sacred space and embrace the holiness of this time together.  Last year, we excluded this song from our online services.  This year we’ll reinstate the liturgy to what it was before the pandemic.  We pray that coming back together will offer us a renewed sense of normalcy and gratitude.  

I must acknowledge, however, that we welcome 5782 during another period of profound change.  Even as we return to the Great Hall, a sense of normalcy will be hard to find.  Not only will it feel different physically, as we’ll be smaller in number and further apart, but emotionally it will feel different.  So much has changed in the world since we last met, including ourselves.  How will we find grounding when the sea of normalcy is so turbulent?  

Things will change and our goals will change, but our Jewish values will remain steadfast.  We must look to the elements of our holiday that are eternal.  Like the generations who came before us, whether we are at home or together, we must find the space and time to do the work of teshuvah: reflect on the past year, look deep within our souls, engage in repentance, commit to the path forward.  Though we still yearn for the past; we must appreciate what we have now, even if it isn’t the normalcy we crave.  

Our gratitude is what keeps us going.  Can we commit to feeling grateful this year?  Grateful for our loved ones.  Grateful for our health.  Grateful for our congregation.  Traditionally, we are expected to recite 100 blessings a day.  Each blessing is a recognition of God’s goodness and appreciation for our bounty.  It is important to say “thank you,” especially when it would be easy to lose sight of those blessings, especially mixed blessings.  

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein recently composed a new year’s benediction after inquiring of her congregants: “what will you never take for granted again?”  It resonated with me and I share it with you as an invitation to reflect on your blessings and to add your own words of gratitude.   May we enter this new year filled with appreciation, hope, and a commitment to that which we hold sacred.

May we never again take for granted - 
Breathing deeply without a mask
Making plans for the future,
Crossing a boarder,
Ease of travel,
A busy airport
A birthday party with hugs
Having loved ones hold your children,
Sharing a sandwich
Human contact
Coffee with a friend
Physical touch
Our belief in science
Fact-based public discourse
The sacredness of connection
Life itself.

This year, may we become the people we
wanted to be last year.
May this coming year be better
than the one which has past.
May we stay strong for each other
because we have experienced weakness.
May we stay bound to each other
because we have experienced isolation.
May we stay close to each other
because we have experienced distance.
May our new normal be better than the one
we think we will return to.

-Rabbi Elyse Goldstein


Turning Inward to Find Ourselves

Rabbi's Message - August 24, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

We turn our attention inward during the Hebrew month of Elul.  We begin our journey back to our truest, most pure selves.  The process takes time.  We can’t just show up for Rosh Hashanah (in-person or online) without beginning our soul work and expect to instantly be transformed into who we would like to be.  How far in advance we begin this work differs from one community to the next.  In the Sephardic community, Selichot (“forgiveness,” Jewish penitential poems and prayers) begin on the second day of Elul.  In the Ashkenazic community, we begin selichot on the Saturday night right before Rosh Hashanah, with minor exceptions depending on what day the holiday falls.  Here at Temple, we have recited Selichot at our Elul Shabbat services.  On this Saturday night, we will also participate in an evening Selichot service during which we will change out our Torah mantles to reflect the elevated importance of the High Holidays.

As we approach the holidays, the most common question being asked is about where each of us will be – at Temple or at home.  Ultimately, we will each make the best decision for ourselves and hopefully have a meaningful worship experience wherever we are physically.  Yet, this is the same question we should be asking every year, but not in the physical sense.  It is the question that God called out to Abraham before the akedah (the binding of Isaac). “Where are you?” To which he responded “Hineni,” here I am.  Hineni carries a deeper connotation of emotional presence.  I like to translate it as “Here I am, at the ready.” 

Spiritually, we must be prepared to respond to the same question: “where are you?”  God knows where you physically will be.  God wants to know where you are existentially, spiritually.   To be ready to answer, I suggest we ask ourselves the following questions:  How have I shown up for my loved ones this past year?  How have I shown up for my community?  Am I showing up and being seen in the way that I want to be seen?  Where am I now in relation to where I was last year?  What are the gifts I bring?   Am I living up to my potential? Am I fulfilling my gift as a human being?

None of these are easy questions.  Nevertheless, we need to be ready to answer them.  We want to show up on Rosh Hashanah knowing exactly where we are and, having spent this month of Elul reorienting ourselves, be ready to respond “hineni.”

Finding the Heroes

Rabbi's Message - June 29, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Rabbi Bodney-Halasz reminded us that during a tragedy and amidst darkness, we can find light by looking to the heroes.  We aren’t ignoring the bad situation around us, but we balance it in our minds with hope and light.  

Last Thursday in the early hours of the morning and in just 11 seconds, 55 condo units were destroyed in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida.  The news stories about this event that have crossed my eyes include videos of the collapse, pictures of destruction, and headlines of hope fading for those who remain missing.  Our hearts are broken by this tragedy, our thoughts are with the victims and their families, and it is easy to remain in a state of shock and despair.  So I wanted to take a minute to shift our perspective and look to some of the heroes – beyond the first responders and other rescue workers that ran toward the rubble.

In one article, Nicholas Balboa was highlighted as someone who was out walking his dog when he felt the ground shake and rushed towards the building. He reported that the first thing that came to mind were the images of the twin towers on 9/11.  With that in mind, he heard a boy crying for help and saw a hand sticking up through the debris.  With the help of another bystander and eventually other rescue workers, Balboa was able to free this little boy and his mother from the rubble.

Balboa was not being paid to run towards the building.  He was walking his dog and could have continued walking.  He chose a different path and because of that choice, he saved a young boy and his mother.  Who knows how long that child would have remained under the rubble if it weren’t for Balboa stopping.  But, he heard a noise, and stepped aside to pay attention, saving lives in the process.

We may not get daily opportunities to be a hero amid a building collapse, but we do have daily opportunities to give one another hope, to look for the light, and reach out a helping hand.  Jewish bravery isn’t about having superpowers.  Jewish bravery comes, as Pirkei Avot (4:1) teaches, when one can conquer their inner impulses and reach past their selfish instincts, to do good in this world.  

Who will you be a hero for this week?

If you would like to donate to help the people affected by the Surfside building collapse, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has established an emergency assistance fund that will aid with short-term and long-term needs.

Together Again

Rabbi's Message - June 8, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים, שבת אחים גם יחד

Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.

Behold how good and how pleasant it is for us to be together.

This past Saturday a small group of us gathered in our sanctuary for our first in-person Shabbat together in more than a year.  Appropriately, we began our service with a moment of prayer.  We recited Shehechiyanu together, thanking God for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach that moment.  

I have spoken those words on numerous occasions, but this Shabbat they were sweeter on my lips than usual.  It felt like an authentic expression of gratitude – it felt like a deep breath.   There was something especially meaningful and holy in helping create that sacred community.  And it felt wonderful.  This pandemic year has offered us time – lots of it – to think about the things that matter to us, including faith.  I have enjoyed reflecting with so many of you about what elements of our prayer services are most important to you and why.  Unfortunately, we have had to go beyond our comfort zones. But the conversations that ensued as a result provided insight and appreciation of experiences that we once took for granted.  

Zoom services, though they allow us to be connected and feel a part of an online community, have their limitations.  We enjoy wishing each other a Shabbat Shalom and checking in with one another.    We like that it is an alternative for those who do not drive at night or who travel all the time.  But it did not allow for physical connections, which is the element we most appreciated this past Saturday morning.  

I know many of you have shared that it is hard to connect with the congregation electronically. If this is you, I strongly urge you to take advantage of our summer in-person prayer opportunities.  Being together will fill your heart and bring joy to your soul.  Our next service will be in two weeks on June 19.  We hope to see you and would love to see all 20 spots filled.

I am also looking forward to this Friday when we will gather again for our last Taste of the Jewish Cultural Festival celebration.  If you have not had the opportunity to stop by, this is the time!  It will be fun to wish a Shabbat Shalom to one another in person, and who doesn’t look forward to a visit from El Meson's food truck?  I have been touched by the large numbers of people from the non-Jewish community who have made the effort to come to our Taste programs to support us.  Let’s show our appreciation by showing up in strong numbers, as well.  After all, how good it is for us to be together.