Category: From the Rabbi’s Desk
The world stands on three things: Torah (Study), Avodah (ritual) and Gimilut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness) (Pirke Avot )
In his book, 40 things You can Do to Save the Jewish People, Joel Lurie Grishaver, suggests creating a coded calendar which highlights all of the opportunities to do Tzedakah in the year. He lists each holiday with its specific traditional Tzedakah project. [Collecting pocket change on Shabbat, Mattanot La-ev’yonim on Purim, sharing our Chametz in Ma’ot Hittim at Passover, Tzedakah bets during dreidel games at Chanukah.]
This calendar creates quite a tapestry of opportunities to do acts of justice and righteousness. In our highly scheduled and efficient world, this type of calendar might help us tune into these moments in a different way. It would help us merge our kavanah, intention to do these acts, with a kevah, a concrete action, in rhythm with the Jewish calendar and community.
As I thought about this calendar in my mind’s eye I wondered, What if we did the same for acts of memory? We could code a calendar with the days of memory, personal and communal. On this calendar, we would have a listing of our family Yahrzeits and the times when we stop with our community to do the prayers of Yizkor for family. We can also mark the days like Yom HaShoah and Tisha b’Av when we fulfill communal acts of memory, reaching beyond our family to honor those who represent all of us or have no one to remember them.
What Joel Grishaver captures with his calendar is that it is not just a day of value, it is a reminder of action. On this calendar of memory, we would not just list the day, who we were remembering and what prayers we might say. We would also add actions that resonate with the memory of our loved ones or that honor the losses of our community. That is an important value in Jewish experience. We don’t think a thought or say a prayer. We add action, so that the movement of our body is in rhythm with the workings of our minds and the flow of our soul. This is why we tie acts of study, ritual or kindness (the three things the world stands on according to the Wisdom of Our Sages) to our times of memory. The sages taught that we should sit, studying our highest values with a community of friends and family; or visit the cemetery and place a stone of memory. What other actions could we put on our calendar? Making and sharing a grandmother’s recipe; washing a car for a friend like an uncle; going on a walk to honor a sister or brother who loved nature. The possibilities are endless. Writing it out on a calendar would help us organize and commit ourselves to these actions.
As we look at a fresh New Year stretching before us, I suggest the idea of a calendar of memory, with the intent to inspire us to map out actions to go with expressions of our heart and mind.
May we all find our way into a new year of blessing, in which our prayers and actions will be for good.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
In life there is the carousel and the roller coaster. The carousel is the part of life in which we go through cycles (or maybe spirals). We revolve through our year with little ups and downs doing our routines of daily existence. There is also a part of life with bigger swings of energy, growth and change. This is the roller coaster consisting of big moments, challenges and simchas, marked by rites of passage. Some are planned: graduations, weddings and B’nai Mitzvah. Others are unexpected like illness, finding a life partner, or changing jobs. If we stop to think about our life experience we can see the carousel and the roller coaster. We can also recognize that the skills and resources we call on to help and guide us through a carousel are different than what we need to navigate and assimilate the experiences of the rollercoaster.
As we enter these summer months, I call attention to this paradigm because this year has had a change in the resources we use for these motions of life. Last August, we started using Mishkan T’filah. Published in 2006, this siddur of the Reform movement has been part of our regular Shabbat worship for almost a full year. We have fully integrated Mishkan T’filah into our congregation’s life: on Friday night, with B’nai Mitzvah services and in our Religious School. We have become familiar with it’s layout and it’s subtle changes from the translations we know from Gates of Prayer. Mishkan T’filah is our resource for the worship that carries us through the carousel of the year.
The name Mishkan T’filah is instructive. Mishkan is a reference to the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting the Israelites constructed and used during their wandering in the wilderness. This meeting was the place of ritual to interact with G!d’s presence. T’filah is the Hebrew word for prayer. The siddur is the tool we use to gather regularly in prayer as a community and connect with the Divine. The title contrasts with the title of the new Machzor we will be using this year on the High Holy Days, Mishkan HaNefesh. Based on Mishkan T’filah, Mishkan HaNefesh updates the liturgy of Gates of Repentance.
The Hebrew is transliterated. The translations are clearer. It has commentary to supplement our worship experience and most importantly, we will all be using the same edition. While Mishkan HaNefesh is based on the layout of Mishkan T’filah, it has a signficant difference. Mishkan T’filah has multiple options for any one prayer on its two page layout. It is designed so that as we go through the carousel of weekly prayer, we can make small adjustments to match the variety of life. Mishkan HaNefesh is for the roller coaster of the High Holy Days. Rather than multiple choices for any one reading, Mishkan HaNefesh includes more commentary and poetry at each stage to enrich the experience as we move through these High Holy Days. We only go through the each stage of the holiday once, so each step must have resources to enrich the soul and build the energy of these days.
Summer is the perfect time to reflect on the carousel and roller coaster. We have a few months leading up to the High Holy Days. Join us for a few Shabbatot and feel the rhythm of our community as we use Mishkan T’filah to move through the regular cycles of life. Reach out to me and make a time to join me in reviewing the new Machzor (holiday prayerbook). Join us for a Curious Class on Mishkan HaNefesh, or help set up the honors for the High Holy Days. Both are great ways to see the new book and think about how it can be a resource to move our souls to a place that high and holy.
Beyond experiencing the siddur and machzor, as the days start to get shorter and we go through our weekly cycle and start to build toward the climax of our High Holy Days, take time to be conscious of how you move through time and space. Consider the flow of energy from day to day, week to week and month to month. Don’t just go through the motions, feel them, let them empower you and make the most of them.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
At the annual meeting, Rabbi Birnholz shared an article from Hadassah Magazine, entitled “Group Hug.”
You can search on the internet for the article, or you can find a PDF version on our Temple Website.
Below is the written version of what he shared at the meeting based on that article.
My job is to guide through the “between”, to teach theology, ritual, artifact and text, to help the members of our congregation go through between, and to give people opportunity to create connection between and with others in our congregation. I do this in classrooms, on the Bimah, in the Garden and in your homes…
To create this sacred community, it is not just the role of the Rabbi or the staff or the Board. The article makes that clear. The whole community, at so many levels, members, children, board, staff, even folks who come to help us take care of our campus, have to make the effort to bring this value and connection to life.
This “Relational Judaism”, this attending to the between as a collective, is what takes a Temple from being a building to a human community. We all know that there are plenty of places to learn Judaism and do Judaism. What is different is that all of our efforts at learning and doing are as a community, humans working together. We use the power of Chevruta, fellowship or minyan, critical mass, to reinforce or enrich the experience. We all know that when there is someone to inspire, witness, share, support, it makes it different.
This is not just my vision. I see it all around. In just the past Shabbat cycle in mid-May: I saw this happening as we offered a prayer of caring during our Shabbat Motzi, as a family blessed a new Bar Mitzvah, when I made a caring call that turned into someone offering me the caring support I needed in that moment. We have embodied that sense of sacred and caring community through our study, worship and acts of loving kindness.
Now it is time to do it more! with more people, more energy, more deliberation… consciously and collectively. We have to create the sense of Shalom, build the Home full of Wholeness, harmony, and peace between all of us.
I have officiated at countless funerals here on the Treasure Coast, but during my tenure here I have never followed up on my research from my thesis. Mississippi and Louisiana are far away. Our congregation has had other needs from toddlers to teens to empty nesters. I have been teaching students, visiting the sick, being present in the community. Over the last few years I have been in contact with Jerry Morton who is the chair of the Beth El Cemetery in Fort Pierce. This cemetery is one of two Jewish burial places in the area that our congregation uses. Originally it was managed by the Beth El Congregation (which merged with another St. Lucie congregation to become Beth El-Israel). Recently, with changes in laws ,the committee overseeing the cemetery decided to create a separate legal entity for the continued care of the cemetery. Like many institutions in our community, Beth El Cemetery suffers from age and retirement. It might not be in the way you would think. The demographics of our community skew to a more sage population. Also, many of us are not native, instead moving to the Treasure Coast from other areas. These two factors affect the cemetery greatly. First, many of us have burial places or home communities away from Florida. If one does not have a loved one buried in the cemetery or a burial plot there, the chances that one feels connected to the cemetery and its maintenance are lowered. Because so many are older when they arrive, even as people have gotten involved in the Cemetery committee, the group is constricted by members getting sick, disabled and even passing away. Jerry has been reaching out to bring folks from Beth Shalom, to support the group from Beth El-Israel who have been caring for the cemetery.
I wanted to do more than make that appeal for help. While I have not worked on my thesis material in many years, its lessons certainly have stayed with me. The cemetery plays a crucial role in the life of a Jewish community. It is often one of the first Jewish institutions to come into existence. It holds incredible value to the history of the community. The cemetery
is more than a place of burial. It is a place of story, love and loss. I know some of the families who have loved ones buried there. I know when it was incorporated. I know some of the stories about its care; times when its care was neglected and times when renewed effort made it the place of beauty it is today. It is not just a cemetery, but our cemetery. Even if our loved ones are not buried there, the founders of our Jewish community, those who have lived as part of our community and made it the place of vitality and caring are buried there. I reach out to our congregation with twin goals: I need some to help me learn and record its history, the stories of those who are there. I also need folks to join with the Blocks, the Bergs and Schwartz’s in the efforts of the Cemetery Board to ensure that it is cared for in perpetuity.
We have a sacred story to preserve and share. We have a sanctified ground to maintain. Help us weave this thread of life and memory into the fabric of our Jewish community.
Sometimes you get to experience a Hannukah miracle in April. For the last few weeks, I have been leading our Tel Gator archeological simulation with our Fourth and Fifth Grade class. They made artifacts, which we buried in a tub of sand. Each week they “excavate” and find an artifact. I have written stories and activities to go with each artifact, so that students can learn about Ancient Israel history and geography, as they have the experience of an archeological dig. In the third week of the project, the students unearthed an olive oil lamp. While this was part of my original plan, I had never finished the associated story or activities. By coincidence, that week part of our activity was to walk the campus looking for Mezzuzot. While on our walk, the students explored the gardens and came across cotton that was ready to harvest. As they excitedly pulled the cotton seeds from cotton ball, I had a brainstorm. If we have cotton for wicks, and olive oil to burn, was there someone who could help us make the lamps? I reached out to Bev Swatt, a member of our congregation who does pottery. She agreed immediately, and set us up to make pinch pot lamps. She took our creations, glazed and fired them and returned them to us. We made a wick from the cotton, added oil and walla…our olive oil lamp was lit. How long would it burn? As we watched, we all joked about feeling like Maccabees waiting to see how long the oil would last.
After class, as I put away supplies, I realized that it wasn’t quite a miracle, but it was an experience that embodied something powerful in our congregation. Each of the elements was a contribution of time, resources, creativity, and knowledge from members of our community. The Lupin family, Bill Compton and Harold Levy were instrumental in creating the Olive press. The Heyers bring us the olives. Neal David refines the oil. Countless minyans/minions help us mill and press the olives. The Zoffer’s shared the cotton seeds. The Stenn’s helped set up the garden where it grows. Then, Bev helped make the lamps. Finally, students and their teacher, Josh Hurwitz (with help from Jacob Hoekzema and Jeff Hurwitz) brought the projects all together.
We are living out, in our day and age, the pattern of our ancestors as they constructed the Tabernacle and then the Temples of Jerusalem. In Exodus, in Samuel, Betzalel or Solomon, someone has an idea, someone has knowledge, someone contributes resources, someone offers energy, time and labor and a community builds a sacred project or space. We keep doing it here at Temple Beth Shalom: Caring Community and the Mishloach Manot bags, Sisterhood rummage sale, Enrichment programs…In each case different, disparate parts of our congregation each invest a little piece and we end up with a final product that brings a smile, enlightens a soul or brings a little bit of wisdom.
That is how we built the Tabernacle, this is how we built the two Temples of Jerusalem, this is how in our day and age we build a synagogue- not the edifice but the sacred human community. Whether study, ritual or act of loving kindness, each member has something worth contributing to help our kahal stand higher or bring us closer together in a sense of caring community. May each one of us find and weave the thread of Jewish experience that pulls you in, and draws our community closer together.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
In this month of Passover, as we talk about the people of Israel marching through the divided waters and crossing the Sea of Reeds, it is a great time to reflect on one of the significant rites of passage here at Temple Beth Shalom. Much of my time is spent on the Bar and Bat Mitzvah experience. As I watch our students and families, we have the rite down, but we are having trouble with an important part of the passage. This may be an unexpected image, but at the end of a funeral, the community of support forms two rows so that mourners can pass between the people and receive comfort from friends and community. If we do this in a moment of tzuris, why aren’t we doing this in simcha? Don’t get me wrong, people come to B’nai Mitzvah here, but often not our congregants. It is the friends and family of the student. While there are bodies in the seats, it has a different energy. Our members don’t witness our young people, who we invest so much time and resources into, becoming Jewish adults. In turn, students don’t see the adults of this congregation, welcoming them.
Over the years, I have heard many reasons why folks don’t come to Bar or Bat Mitzvah services. People assume that if they don’t have an invitation they would be intruding on the event. A few years ago we started placing an announcement and biography of our students in the Scroll for the sake of signaling to our congregants that they are welcome. While the service is centered around a particular Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidate and his/her family, it is still a service for our congregation. The students are leading for the sake of the community. We were hoping that with this announcement, some of our members would come to show support, or at least be aware who is becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
Others have said that if they are not invited and come to the Kiddush, they will be placing a financial burden on the hosting family. This is certainly a consideration, but should not constrain us from a minyan of our congregation coming to support our students. In fact, we tell families that 10 people from our community come on Saturday morning. We have had this in our head for a long time, we just have never said it out loud in this fashion.
Finally, I have seen over the years that Saturday morning is a hard time to draw a minyan together. Whether Shabbat at the Shore, Torah Study or the Conservative Minhag service, we average 7-12 people. People say that 9:30 is early, or that the golf course beckons, or we have to go to the grandkids. All of these statements are true and yet, too many people are finding reasons not to come and are denying us of a minyan. We don’t need everyone all of the time, or most people most of the time, just some of the people, each and every time. Just like when we call for a minyan of memory, somehow ten to fifteen people convene to create a community, even if it is for a stranger. We need that same energy for our simchas as well. You might think that you are just one, that it won’t make a difference. One person makes the difference in a completely irrational way. One Shabbat morning, we only had nine people. We were just short of our minyan and would not have had the Torah service or been able to read Kaddish for mourners. So I stepped out to call my daughter, Anna, who had recently become Bat Mitzvah to help us complete the minyan. Of course by the time she arrived, we had not only ten people, but 3 more had arrived and we were up to fourteen people. She gave me the “Dad” grief. “You said you needed me.” I have a feeling that if I had not called, and Anna had not agreed to come, somehow the forces that brought the others to our services would not have done its “magic”, and we would have still been stuck at nine people. Yes, it is irrational, magical, but intuitively I feel that it is true. When a minyan of folks make an effort to make community, God meets us halfway, partners with us and draws more participants for our community forward.
As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge and success lies in not being afraid to cross.” We are the bucket brigade. We need the individual participants to act collectively and carry the energy of our community forward. In this case, we need your help to lead our youth into a hopeful, meaningful and peaceful future, full of possibility.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
At home and away, I have had opportunities to re-imagine words of prayer that I say all of the time: “in the house and on the way” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
First, standing at Robinson’s Arch during the B’nai Mitzvah service in Jerusalem, I saw these words and the world from a different perspective. There we were, on a Roman era street, running along the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. We were just south of Western Wall plaza, in a place set aside for egalitarian and inclusive Torah reading. (Read here: Bar/Bat Mitzvah services and Women’s groups.) It was the last day of our trip. We were counting down the hours before departure, and I was thinking about what memories I wanted to take home. There I was, standing with these young adults, as they read Torah facing the Temple Mount, with rubble from the Roman destruction of the second Temple all around us. We started with Eddie and John putting on tefillin. During this ritual they said the Kriyat Shema (including V’ahavta). I happened to be looking up at the Wall as they recited the familiar words. There was a sudden flash of insight, Beit HaMikdash…House of Holiness. I was thinking, “There, here; Israel, Jerusalem, Temple is a Home and we are departing and going on our way.” In Deuteronomy, G-d instructs us to say these words when you are at home and on your way. What if it’s not just my house and while I am out in the world going about my business, but maybe in Israel and in Diaspora? We find G-d in wandering, and when settled in the land of our ancestors.
This has not been the only time of late when the use of these words has found its way into my teaching. Many of you have stopped me on the way to the Oneg Shabbat and asked about this translation from Mishkan T’filah, “Do not leave them at the doorway of your house, or outside your gate.” (Page 37) A number of you have been bothered by this alternative translation. “Does it really say that we are not supposed to have a Mezuzah,” you ask?” We all know that is the opposite of what G-d tells us in Deuteronomy, so why would someone translate it that way? It doesn’t actually mean to stop putting a mezuzah on your door post. It is a provocative statement: “Don’t stick the mezuzah there and forget.” An artifact only works when you interact with it. It is like the tree falling in woods. If no one is there to hear it, the air moved, but does not become sound. Treasure only has value if it is discovered and used. One has to push the mezuzah and take the feeling of loving G-d into the world or into your house. It is like crossing a threshold of bubble or spider web and taking it with you.
I share these two teachings with you not just to broaden your experience of the V’ahavta. I am hoping that you will take up the energy and make the effort to wrestle with the texts and their meanings yourself. So many of us are intimidated by rituals, texts or artifacts. We give up because we don’t know how to perform the ritual or use an artifact; we don’t understand or agree with the assumed meaning of a text; We lack the immediate, strong or the assumed connection that we are “supposed to” feel, when we bring these three worship experiences together. So often we give up or turn away and tune out, and then, we miss something important. I will be the first to tell you, the more I do stuff, the more I see, feel and connect. Yes, I am a Rabbi, and some of this may be training and personality. I am also just another fellow human traveler too. This insight happens because I work at it and am open to it. I assure you, that I too, struggle with language, rituals and theology.
I challenge you and offer my support. Join me in this endeavor. Open your eyes, play, expand and strengthen your connection to words and rituals items and actions of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
For my February article, the first after the Israel Trip, I wanted to share the stories ofone place that encapsulated some of the most powerful moments/lessons of the Israel trip. We stopped for a bike/golf cart ride at Agamon haHula, in the Northern Finger of Israel. (http://www.agamon–hula.co.il/index) This area is wedged between the Golan, the Sea of Galilee, and Lebenon. This part of the Syro-African Rift Valley is a major stopping place for birds migrating from Asia, Europe and Africa. It was highlighted as one of the stops on the trip that we would get to see my favorite bird, the Doochifat(Hoopoe Bird), the state bird of Israel. The fresh air and bike ride were a change of pace from our tour of history and time spent in the cities of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
The time at Agamon haHula did not disappoint. As we departed the bike depot on bicycles and golf carts, we heard a full roar in the back ground. We could not imagine what machinery could make such a racket. As we came closer, we heard gunshots and trucks zooming by. Were we under attack? Our guide said for us not to worry, this is normal for Agamon haHula. Finally, we approached the wetlands and the roar refined into the squawking of birds. Thousands of birds were flying, feeding, and playing. They were enjoying the beauty of the wetlands nestled in the valley, like we were.
Dayenu; It would have been a great morning if we just saw and heard the cranes, the Doochifat, and all the other birds. Yet, our trip never had a stop that centered on a single layer of experience. Each stop in its own way captured the multiple facets of the Israel story we were witnessing. Agamon haHula was no different.
At an overlook, we met a local docent who oriented us to the area and started pointing out bird species. I asked about the Doochifat. He made a face. “Oh, theDoochifat is little, ugly, smelly bird”. He voted for Spur Winged Plover! I had forgotten that the Doochifat became the state bird of Israel in an online vote. Here, years later, this guide was framing the vote for the state bird into a Hillel\Shammaidebate. Like our rabbinic sages, Israelis have infused discussions of everyday stuff with Jewish learning style and debate. As the docent disparaged Doochifat, he demonstrated ways that Jews have used wrestling over issues through communal study to bring us closer to G!d and strengthens our sense of love and compassion for otherhuman beings. Like the debates of the Talmud, this style of debate challenges the mind, highlights values, demonstrates the importance of minority perspectives, and allows all of those engaged to wrestle with everyday issues in a way that pushes us to seek a higher, holier community. By framing the state bird vote in this style of debate, we saw that the line, “Torah study leads to them all”, is woven into Israel’s culture from it’s very beginnings.
As much as I gained insight by seeing the rabbinic debate in the state bird election, the docents answer was instructive as well. Why did he think the Spur Winged Plover was a superior choice to the Doochifat? It has a spiked elbow on its wing. If something comes to threaten or challenge the bird, it pokes out the elbows to defend itself. It fits the self image of Israelis. Whether in response to a sense of being pushed around over centuries of European history or the challenges of asserting a renewed Jewish presence in the Middle East, the Plover embodies the Israeli ethos of stand up for oneself, don’t just slink away. You see this in lots of places in Israel. Israelis don’t tend to line up. When you are walking in places, you have to ver embodies the Israeli ethos of stand up for oneself; “don’t just slink away”. You see this concept in lots of places in Israel. Israelis don’t tend to line up and when you are walking in places, you have to fill the space or you will get run over. It was interesting. It wasn’t angry or violent. Like the Spur Winged Plover, the society as a whole, and individuals routinely assert themselves and make their presence known. If you defer or pause, you will lose ground or opportunity. You are providing others an opportunity to dominate you.
Finally, in this bird sanctuary we saw the principle of “We build the land, the land builds us.” In the past, the birds were a nuisance. A lot of energy was expended to shoo them away. They were undermining Israel’s efforts to make the desert bloom and the swamps grow grain. Over time, something has changed. Now these birds are seen as a national treasure. These migration routes are part of Israel’s unique place in the world. Israel’s relationship to the land has matured. They used to force the land to conform to their vision. Now, Israelis listen to what land tells us about being in balance with creation. The migration of birds is a barometer, a sign of Israel’s importance as a link between Europe, Africa, and Asia. As much as the Israelis want to control the nature of land, they now revel in how the land and its unique geography, topography and ecosystem have shaped the values, rituals and perspectives of the people of Israel.
There are of course more places and more lessons. I look forward to sharing these over the next few months. I thank our congregation for the time to go on this trip and to the families: Jacobs, Wardlow, Bass, Feldman, Walsey and Ripple for making the trip a reality.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
Two ways to participate with Temple Beth Shalom
in The Martin Luther King Jr. Parade
The theme for the Parade is:
Stand For Something or Fall For Nothing,
Make That Change
Our “float” will feature the verse from Pirke Avot: Wisdom of our Sages “The world stands on three things, Study, Worship and acts of Kindness.”
Marchers: IF you want to walk with the group in the Parade and hand out pomegranate puckers packets, or drop off marchers, meet: at 9:00 am at Charlie Fischman’s office parking lot, which is 1600 36th street just south of Atlantic Health Care Park. We will then walk as a group to the Parade line off of 37th street and meet the TBS Vehicle. At the end of the parade, you can arrange a pick up at Gifford Youth Activity Center (it will be crowded). We can also carpool back to 36th street to pick up vehicles to get all of the parade walkers back from the Gifford Youth Activity Center.
For wavers (those who cannot/don’t want to walk in the parade but want to be present). You will meet at: Gifford Middle School which is on 45th street at 28th court (4530 28th court) at 9:30 am. You will set up a site near the parking lot along the route to wave as the parade goes by. After it has passed, you can follow to Gifford Youth Activity Center for festivities there, or go your own way.
Bring chairs, water, and wear proper clothes for the day.
The parade lasts until about 11:30am.
We will be decorating banners after Services at the Oneg, on January 16th, for the TBS Vehicle and for people to hold