Neighborhood focus groups

Focus On the Future

As the search for a new settled Rabbi at Temple Emanuel has started, we are looking for your input. For this reason, we invite all congregants (over the age of 12) to participate in a focus group in your neighborhood!* At these focus groups, a member of the Settled Rabbi Search Committee will facilitate a structured discussion about Temple’s future. You will be receiving a personal invitation by email and phone; but in the meanwhile, please mark your calendars and plan to attend one of the following:

Crafton/Carnegie/Bridgeville/McDonald/Oakdale – At the home of Stacy and Jared Tafeen on Sunday, May 6 at 4 p.m.

Peters Township/Washington, PA – At the home of Adit and Oded Green on Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m.

Downtown Pittsburgh/East End/ Mt. Washington – At the home of Meredith and Dave Cohen on Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m.

Sewickley/Coraopolis/Imperial/Robinson – Hosted by Sandee Connors-Rowe at the Anchor & Anvil Coffee Shop in Coraopolis on Thursday, May 10 at 10 a.m.

Nevillewood Area – At the home of Irene Luchinsky on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

Bethel Park/South Park/Whitehall/Pleasant Hills – At the home of Robin and Steve Hausman on Sunday, May 20 at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Dormont/Brookline – At the home of Mary Cothran on Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (15216)/Greentree – At the home of Rikki Hommel and David Weisberg on Sunday, May 6 at 4 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (15228 and 15234) – Three Options:

At the home of Claire and Mel Vatz on Wednesday, May 16 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Sarah and David Levinthal on Tuesday, May 8 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Lori and Dan Rothschild on Tuesday, May 15 at 7 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (Cedarhurst Area)/Scott Township – Two Options:

At the home of Beth and Matt Schwartz on Monday, May 7 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Pauli and Jason Green on Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (Virginia Manor) – At the home of Rita and Stuart Zolot on Wednesday, May 2 at 7 p.m.

Upper St. Clair – Three Options:

Hosted by Rob Goodman at the Upper St. Clair Rec Center on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Susan and Richard Hommel on Thursday, May 17 at 11 a.m.

At the home of Georgia Kent on Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m.

In addition to these focus groups, the following will be held at Temple and are open to all congregants over the age of 12:

  1. Sunday, May 6 at 10 a.m.
  2. Wednesday, May 23 at 7 p.m.

*Note:  In conjunction with these focus groups, we request that all congregants over the age of 12 also complete the anonymous Settled Rabbi Search survey, which will be distributed via email. A paper version will also be available at Temple Emanuel’s office.

Nothing Beats Sharing A Good Story

One of our focal points in the Torah Center this year has been building community – looking for opportunities for students of all ages to learn and grow together.

This past Sunday, the 5th grade class joined the Kindergarten students for story time in the Sifriyah (the library). This was the third time they have joined classes during this school year to read Jewish books together. Sometimes the 5th graders read the books, and sometimes, our newest readers like to show off what they can do! Is there anything better than sharing a good story?!

 

One Soul Residing in Two Bodies

Thank You Shabbat Six

April 13, 2018/30 Nisan, 5778

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler 

One Soul Residing in Two Bodies

 

            The list is long of famous people we know simply by their first name.  Elvis and LeBron, Madonna and Beyonce, Ringo and Yoko are a few of the many.  But how many of us know Lucy?  All of us should.

            Lucy is our great grandmother, with “great” repeated to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago.  Her official bionomenclature name is Australopithecus afarensis.  However, she was given her name “Lucy” by the paleoanthropologists who discovered her bones in Ethiopia in 1974.  Where did they came up with her name?  From the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  Every person on earth, now approaching 8 billion in number, is descended from Lucy.

            The question I asked myself recently is what about Louie, our great grandfather to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago?  I’ve named him Louie not only for its assonance with Lucy, but also in the same Baby Boomer spirit, for the frat party classic “Louie, Louie.”  Science is silent on the question of Louie’s identity and whereabouts, but the Torah has a well known answer, a single name known far better and far longer than Elvis, etc.: Adam.

            Yet, for the Torah, this answer is far from sufficient.  The Torah explains exactly why: “It is not good for the man – Adam – to be alone.”  God then promised to make for Adam an “Azer Knegdo.”  This Hebrew term is found nowhere else in the Torah or the entire Bible. As unique as it, it also has challenged and confounded generations of commentators and translators.  English translations vary: a “fitting helper,” a “helper corresponding to him,” or two translations that elude my comprehension, a “help meet,” and a “helper over against him.”

            Regarding the word “Azer,“ “helper,” the Torah is not – repeat not– offering a job description for a domestic employee.  God Himself is called “Ezrat Yisrael”, The “Helper of Israel!”  “Azer” is an expression of esteem.

            Where the term “Azer Knegdo” gets tricky is with the second word, “Knegdo”; hence the confounding various translations.  If we are confused, we should appreciate that God also was apparently confused.  God needed two tries to remedy Adam’s aloneness. God’s first try was to give Adam all the cattle, the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field for Adam to name. This first try failed.  God’s second try succeeded precisely because Adam had to give up a part of himself to eliminate his aloneness, a part from deep within himself.  God cast a deep sleep upon Adam and took one of Adam’s ribs, then fashioned it into a woman and brought her to Adam.  Adam welcomed her with “This one at last is bone of my bone” – indeed she was literally – “and flesh of my flesh.  This one shall be called ‘Woman’ for from man she was taken.”  The Torah text then declares, “Hence a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”

            Thereafter Adam gave a proper name to the woman.  Dollars to doughnuts, many more people on earth recognize her name than Lucy’s name: Eve, “Chava,” in the original Hebrew, meaning “the mother of all life.”  Paired with Adam, they likely are humankind’s most famous single names.

            According to the Midrash, God did not merely bring Eve to Adam, God officiated at their marriage, with the ministering angels serving as witness and then rejoicing with the bride and groom.  From all of the above, we might learn the following.

            First, nothing bespeaks the fact that we are created in God’s image more than the notion that is not good for us to be alone.  This is reason why God created us in the first place: it was not good for God to be alone.  God wanted to love something, someone, who could love God in return.  The creation story in Genesis Chapter one, rises day upon day until God fulfills this need, this fundamental desire to love and to be loved, in the creation of man and woman.  In turn, as Martin Buber so beautifully described in “I and Thou,” when we acknowledge one another’s existence in deep meaningful relationship, we also experience a finite part of the Infinite One dwelling in each of us. Buber would also teach that such connection can and should be sought in any relationship, but every human relationship began with Adam and Eve.  The father and mother of all life were also the first husband and wife.  Today we have several definitions of deep and committed relationships, any one of which can fulfill this intrinsic need that is both human and divine.  However we may define them today, they all began with Adam and Eve.  To our traditional commentators, they were one soul dwelling in two bodies, and so the commentators maintained for every couple whose love is sanctified in God’s Name.

            Second, Adam and Eve were also the first parents.  Given the tragic fate of their two sons, Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve may not have been the best parents.  Neither were Adam and Eve role models for reciprocating God’s love.  God gave them one simple command to keep as the expression of their love for God.  Keeping this one command was all it took for them to remain happy ever after in the Garden of Eden.  They blew it. Banished from paradise, Adam and Eve experienced many of the woes too familiar in our world.  But they always had each other.  And herein lies the real meaning of “Azer Knegdo.”

            An anecdote and analogy….

            With my retirement now seventy-seven days away, I will acknowledge something to you that I would only acknowledge to you seventy-seven days from retirement.  I’m getting older.

            The other night, Alice and I were out to dinner together, and we were talking about our undeniable signs of aging.  I then offered an analogy that describes our relationship and what Alice has meant to me, not only at this point in my life but throughout our many years together, soon to be forty-four years of marriage and counting.  I likened my life to a sail boat with myself the captain at the helm. The winds of life range from gentle, to steady and strong, to turbulent and torrential.  The seas of life range from calm to tsunami.  But Alice is always there as the keel that runs deep into the waters, the ballast that always steadies the boat whatever the conditions.  This may not be a literal translation of “Azer Knegdo,” but to me it captures the essence of its meaning and its importance.   Moreover as Alice is the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in my life, I am the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in hers.

            And so I speak now especially to those of you who have come tonight in response to my invitation to the many brides and grooms for whom I officiated at their wedding ceremony. When we first met to discuss your love and marriage, especially if you were a young bride and groom, I am certain that I said that I hope you discover what I have discovered, that the longer you are together the deeper your love will grow.  Such is the gift of being one another’s “Azer Knegdo.”  If so, Mazal Tov!

            I also want you to appreciate that as I combed through the Temple directory looking for all the members for whom I officiated, I found any number whose marriage ended sadly between Scylla and Charybdis, which is Greek mythology’s equivalent of the devil and the deep blue sea.  That you safely traversed the occasional straits that challenge every life also merits a hearty Mazal Tov!

            Next, I want to thank you for having me be a part of that most sacred and incomparable moment in your life.  At the same time, I must confess that I approached every wedding with the burden of the highest expectations, stressed with the anticipation that I will be standing with you as God stood at Adam and Eve’s wedding, and this moment must be one of the happiest moments in your life, if not the happiest.  Please know that I always strived to make it so.  And please know that I was deeply gratified by your kind expressions of gratitude for the ceremony that I had led you through, as well as the kind comments I received afterwards from your families and friends in attendance.  Thank you for making me feel that my burden and my striving ultimately measured up to your highest and happiest expectations.

            Before I conclude, I must tell you a little story that tickled me.  In a way, who knows wedding ceremonies better than photographers and videographers? Over the years, many have told me that my wedding ceremonies are the best.  I’ve been to too many weddings over the years where other rabbis have officiated to accept such a compliment at face value.  However, several years ago, one photographer asked me if I would officiate at his daughter’s wedding because he believes my ceremonies are so beautiful.  The funny thing that tickled me: Neither the photographer, nor his daughter, nor her groom were Jewish.  I accepted this invitation as a compliment … but because I am a rabbi, not a justice of the peace, I declined to officiate.

            From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Judaism’s message regarding love and marriage is loud and clear.  It is God’s gift to you and your incomparable gift to each other. Mazal Tov!  And thank you for inviting me to be the rabbi who launched you on your loving voyage.

Who is a Jew? Amiens, France, 1940-1945

“Who is a Jew? Amiens, France, 1940-1945”

A set of photo identification cards of Jews from Amiens, France is now on display in Temple Emanuel’s “Thou Art” Gallery (near the Pollon Family Library). This new exhibit, “Who is a Jew?” is the product of historian David Rosenberg’s research.

As a member of the Adult Education/beit Hamidrash committee, Dr. Rosenberg — who is also a long-time Temple member with his wife Davant — offered to create this exhibit, which explores how French Jews self-identified when forced to register during the Nazi occupation of World War II. His research provides a chilling glimpse into the past and a reminder of a time in history that must never again repeat.

Speaking about the exhibition, Dr. Rosenberg says, “The lessons of the Shoah are important for Jews and non-Jews alike. This research has led to some hopeful developments abroad, including the dedication last October of a commemorative plaque by the city authorities of Amiens at the site of the WWII-era synagogue.”

Stop by Temple anytime during normal business hours to view the exhibit or call ahead to arrange a guided tour for three or more people.

Read more about the exhibit in the Jewish Chronicle. There’s even an article in German that’s mostly based on the Chronicle piece.

For A Sweet and Happy Passover

“Midpoint Musings,” with my best and warmest good wishes to all of you….

 

For A Sweet and Happy Passover

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

 

On January 1, I did what everyone likely does with retirement six months away. I calculated the number of days until my last day of work. I came up with an auspicious Jewish number,180: 18 for Chai, “Life,” times 10 for the Commandments.

Today I sit and write on the second day of Pesach, 90 days from January 1 and 90 days until June 30, a pivotal day perfect for musing.

If there is a sweet spot for these 180 days in any person’s life – feeling good and excited about my decision to retire, but maintaining focus on the tasks at hand while savoring the many moments that surely are the last time for this and that – I’ve managed to find it. I’ve also minimized the uncertain moments when I dig in my heels trying to slow everything down. But one such moment came crashing upon me at our first night Seder.

My son Moshe asked me about memorable Seders in my life. The first memorable Seder I related to Moshe will be the Seder I’ll relate to you at the conclusion of these midpoint musings. But the next two Seders that came to mind were “lasts.”

The first “last” Seder was in April, 1981. When we came to fulfilling the mitzvah of eating Maror, everyone gasped and choked on the hottest horseradish of our combined lifetimes. Alice’s father, Monroe, was particularly distressed because he had only one lung following a pneumonectomy for lung cancer in 1975, and the follow up radiation treatments had burned his esophagus. His gasping and choking struck me as portentous. Indeed, that Seder was his last, as well as the last Seder when all four of our parents, Alice’s and mine, would be together. Monroe died the following June 23, ironically the date of my parents’ wedding anniversary.

The second “last” Seder came two years later. May all of us live long enough that our children see aging overtaking us, and may we then be well advanced in years. Such was the moment for me with my father that Passover, 1983. My father had recently turned 69. Tellingly, my mother and not my father had driven all the way to Pittsburgh. At the Seder and throughout the visit, I could see that age was overtaking my father. When I watched their car pull away with my mother driving, I wondered if I would ever see my father again. I would not. My father died three weeks later.

Talking with Moshe about these “last” Seders, sad Seders, then summoned the thought that this Passover Seder, 2018/5778 was also a “last” Seder, i.e., my last as Temple Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi. The thought that moment saddened me, not as much as the last Seders with beloved fathers, but sad enough to evoke that fruitless feeling of digging in my heels to slow everything down. However earlier that day, I made a rediscovery that lifted me above and beyond that fruitless feeling.

While rearranging my home library to make room for the books I’d brought home from Temple that afternoon, I came across Mark Twain’s classic “Concerning the Jews.” In response to an article Twain had written for the March, 1898 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Twain received a letter from one of the magazine’s readers whom Twain identified simply as “a lawyer” asking Twain to address anti-Semitism here and in Europe where Twain had recently visited. Twain titled his response “Concerning the Jews.” I used the conclusion of “Concerning the Jews” as the unifying theme of my High Holy Day sermons in 1985/5746. Consider Twain’s masterpiece….

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent[1] of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream stuff and passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he has always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

I know the secret of our immortality. I knew it when I wrote that High Holy Day sermon anthology in 1985/5746. Thirty-three years later, I know it even better. The secret of our immortality is Judaism.

Judaism alone sustains the Jewish people. And there it was in all its magnificence at our first night Seder when Moshe asked me about my life’s memorable Seders.

Now, as promised earlier, the first Seder that I recalled in response….

It is my earliest memory of a Passover Seder. The memory is vivid. I am with my family at our Seder hosted by my grandparents at their chicken farm in Toms River, New Jersey. We are all standing around a long rectangular dining table (likely we were making Kiddush). My head hardly reaches to the table top. I am no more than four years old.

Not only is this my first Seder memory, it is also my first Jewish memory. Moreover, it is also my first family memory!

There it is in one brilliant stroke of spiritual genius. The experience of a people’s suffering and salvation more than three-thousand years ago, families huddled in their homes on a fretful yet hopeful night, all relived by successive generations of families through rituals instilling hope and courage, joy and justice, in prayers and praises, melodies and memories across the decades, the centuries, the millennia, altogether sounding a sacred and eternal symphony orchestrated by God, with Moses the conductor, and the Jewish people the performers.

And do not doubt. Just as this sacred symphony was encored on a New Jersey farm in 1951, and encored most recently in your home and mine to begin this Passover, this sacred symphony will be encored for the next three-thousand years. And more. If anything earthly can be eternal, we Jews are it, thanks to Judaism.

No question, the various accomplishments of the Jews in Twain’s day that inspired his praises were considerable, yet they surely pale in comparison to the accomplishments of individual Jews in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. However, as inestimable as these more recent accomplishments may be, none of them contribute to the immortality of the Jewish people. Only Judaism can accomplish this feat, both human and divine, that flows so sweetly between the mundane and the miraculous.

All of us had a taste of it at our Passover Seders. Its sweetness is here to nourish us every day, mitzvah by mitzvah on any day.

Wishing you and yours a happy Passover!

[1] Actually, among the world’s 7 billion people today, our 15 million Jews constitute much less than Twain’s conjecture. We are but .02% of the world’s population.

Thanksgiving Interfaith Service

November 21, 2017

Where Thanks are Due

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

Sometime during my senior year in college, while walking along the lake in the neighborhood park across the street from the home where I grew up, I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm to myself. I knew the Psalm by heart not because of my religious education but because of my public school education. My experience will sound familiar to all of you educated in American public schools prior the Supreme Court’s 1962 and 1963 rulings that ended prayer in public school.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, each morning began with the teacher leading us in the pledge of allegiance and then the Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father,” Pater Noster. The teacher or a student would then read a Psalm of his or her choosing. Whenever a student chose Psalm 117, all the other students would giggle. It is the shortest Psalm, all of two verses. But when a student chose Psalm 119, the other students would all groan. At one-hundred seventy-six verses, the longest of all Psalms provoked the wrath of the class. Psalm 1 and Psalm 100 were popular, but the Twenty-Third Psalm was chosen most often, clearly the class favorite, corresponding with its overall renown as the world’s most famous poem. By third grade, I knew it by heart. Many years later, the Psalm remained so deeply embedded in memory that I easily recalled it as I walked in the park.

The verses of the Psalm resonated with that moment when I would soon make the momentous transition to true adulthood signaled by college graduation. What better guidance at that moment than “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?”

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me besides still waters.” Walking in the park, a 3,000 year-old poem had come alive.

“He restores my soul. He guides me in straight paths for the sake of His Name.”

Now comes that subtle yet profound transformation of God from the third person, “He,” to the second person, “You.” God comes closer, giving strength in the face of life’s greatest challenges. “Yea, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

If you had asked me as I began that stroll through park what I plan to do with my life, I would have said, “I want to be a doctor.” But as I recited the Psalm’s final verse to myself, my life changed forever. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I was suddenly seized by a thought I had never had before: “I want to be a rabbi.”

I hearken back to that pivotal and inspirational moment in my life this evening because, come next June 30, I will be retiring after forty years in the rabbinate, thirty-eight years here at Temple Emanuel, along with thirty-eight Interfaith Thanksgiving services, tonight being my last. As retirement draws closer, I find myself looking back over the years. At that pivotal and inspirational moment in the park, I could not begin to imagine this particular dimension of being a rabbi – interfaith work – nor could I imagine the gratification I have found in these interfaith endeavors over the years.

For my first Interfaith Thanksgiving service, memory takes me back to a planning meeting I attended in the fall of 1980 with Monsignor Conroy of Our Lady of Grace Church, Reverend Phillippi of Bower Hill Community Church, Reverend Isch of the then South Hills Interfaith Ministries, and Rabbi Sajowitz, Temple Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi. Surely these names stir fond memories for many of you.

More to be said about my thirty-eight year history with this service shortly. In the meantime, more to be said about that pivotal moment in the park, and the pleasant surprise that evolved from it.

As I pondered the role of a rabbi, I understood that the title “rabbi” means “my teacher.” I assumed naturally that this meant teaching Jews about Judaism. However, to borrow from Psalm 133, Hinei mah tov u’mah na-im, “How good and how pleasant” it has been to have countless Christians also as my students.

Over the years, I have been invited to teach in many churches throughout greater Pittsburgh. I was an adjunct professor in the Theology Department at Duquesne University for three years until the University decided to make this a full time faculty position. I taught at Seton Lasalle High School for eight years. I have been invited to teach Christian children either in their churches or when their church schools or youth organizations have visited Temple Emanuel. A Catholic nun, a Lutheran pastor and several Christians have been on-going participants in my Shabbat Torah Study sessions. Whether here or there or everywhere, my subject has always been Judaism. And my curricular goal has always been simple: teaching Judaism to Christians should only deepen their Christian faith because Christian faith ultimately derives from Judaism.

The perfect example is the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” or Pater Noster.

Needless to say, with the Lord’s Prayer recited every morning of my elementary school education, I knew it by heart by second grade. While I am not an advocate of bringing prayer back into public schools, I am living proof that a Jewish boy can learn the Lord’s Prayer and recite it each morning and still grow up to become a good Jew, a rabbi no less! And what I have learned as a rabbi is that the Lord’s Prayer indeed is a good Jewish prayer.

“Our Father who art in heaven.” In the ancient world, Judaism was unique in describing God, the One God, as “our Father in heaven.” The gods of all the pagan religions could care less about humankind. But our God was a loving God who created us in His own image, a protective God who freed us from slavery in Egypt, a father-like God who guides us in creating peace on earth as He created peace in the heavens.

“Hallowed be Thy Name.” God’s Names indeed are sacrosanct. It is precisely the holiness of God’s original Hebrew Names – Adonai, Elohim, and El Shaddai among them – that make the Bible altogether holy.

“Thy Kingdom come” is an expression of the yearning for God’s reign of peace on earth as envisioned by the ancient prophets, and the coming of the Mashiach, God’s anointed, the “messiah” that the great Jewish theologians at the turn of the common era offered to give hope to a people suffering under cruel Roman rule.

“Thy will be done.” This is the essence of Judaism: Keep the commandments.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” To realize our full spiritual and moral potential, created in God’s image, we first need to tend to our physical needs.

“And forgive us our trespasses.” We are frail, imperfect. Forgive us.

“As we forgive those who trespass against us.” May we be forgiving, as well as forgiven.

And so it continues, theological principle upon theological principle, fundamentals of Judaism through and through, some of Judaism’s incomparable gifts to the world, and giving rise also to what I have called “Judaism for Gentiles, Part One,” known more commonly as “Christianity.” “Judaism for Gentiles, Part Two” would arise a few centuries later; it is called Islam.

What I find particularly gratifying is that invariably, I have been invited back to the various churches and Christian schools where I have taught, or the various Christian groups who have visited Temple Emanuel have come back again.

Most gratifying, I believe that we are blessed to live in an age of philo-Semitism. Anti-Semitism had been the eternal blight on interfaith relations. Today, anti-Semitism still persists, indeed it has spiked here in the United States in the last year, and world wide in recent years. But my own positive experiences are only a fraction of the overwhelming evidence that philo-Semitism has far surpassed anti-Semitism, bringing Jews and Christians together as never before in our history. Thank God. Thank you. And thank community programs and services that have brought us together as never before such as this Interfaith Thanksgiving service.

For our South Hills community in particular, beyond our respective houses of worship we must also recognize the vital role of the South Hills Interfaith Movement: for this Interfaith Thanksgiving service, for the Interfaith Holocaust Memorial service, and for the many endeavors that transcend all faiths in particular and unite all faiths in general.

I conclude by once again expressing my gratitude, but also offering a plea. This may be my last Interfaith Thanksgiving service, but let me call upon our community that this not be the last Interfaith Thanksgiving service altogether. Over the decades the numbers of participants have declined significantly, while the ages of the participants have risen correspondingly. These facts do not bode well for the future of this service.   Indeed in years past, we clergy have discussed whether or not to continue holding this service. Certainly the novelty of an interfaith service has worn off. But the need for this service may be greater than ever. Religions no longer divide us, but deep and dangerous chasms now divide the country politically. Racism remains the great American tragedy. Violence, mass shootings and massacres are our American plagues. In their wake, communities come together to mourn. For fifty-one years, our community has come together to celebrate and give thanks for life’s bounty and the blessings promised by the better angels of American nature.

Several years ago, we bolstered our numbers by welcoming Good Shepherd Church to our celebration. I believe that Beth El Congregation would welcome participation. In years past, we have sought to include the Muslim community in our service. That our efforts proved fruitless does not mean that such efforts should end. I checked the website calendars of various Washington Road churches, believing that they hold their own Thanksgiving service together. If they once did, they no longer do.

The point is that there is still great potential to revitalize this service, and there certainly is the need.

Nowhere can such needs be answered as well as in our shared traditions’ sacred literature. So let us return to our service folder, and please join me in the reading of the Twenty Third Psalm.

Thank You Shabbat Two

“Thank You Shabbat Two”

November 24, 2017/7 Kislev 5778

 

The Top Ten Reasons that You Should be Proud and I am Grateful for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at Temple Emanuel

 

Number 10 – You should be proud and I am grateful for the good taste that our b’nei mitzvah families exhibit in celebrating their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Modern Jewish culture abounds with tales of extravagant b’nei mitzvah celebrations, occasions that compel rabbis to lament that there is “too much bar and not enough mitzvah.” A business magnate flew all 200 guests at his son’s bar mitzvah to the French Riviera for three days of festivities highlighted by performances by Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli. …Small potatoes compared with the bar mitzvah invitation instructing the invited guests to bring a suitcase packed with warm weather clothing and outdoor gear to the service. After the service, buses transported all the guests to the airport where a chartered jet airliner took everyone to Africa for a safari. Even if Temple Emanuel members could afford it, they have too much good taste and good sense to do it.

You should also be proud and I am grateful that the same applies to our b’nei mitzvah kids themselves. Snoop Dogg, one of the originators of Gangsta-Rap, once performed at a bar mitzvah celebration. While he was cleaning up his lyrics to make them age-appropriate for this most atypical audience in his career, all the 12- and 13-year-olds were singing the original profane lyrics. Eventually Snoop just handed the kids the microphone and let them go. Imagine: Snoop was shocked! You should be proud and I am grateful that this could never happen at Temple Emanuel.

Number Nine – You should be proud and I am grateful that Temple Emanuel has asked more of our b’nei mitzvah kids than any other Reform congregation. I know this from my own experience when I’ve attended Shabbat services elsewhere. I know this from discussions with colleagues. And I know this from Temple members who have attended b’nei mitzvah services at other congregations.

Temple Emanuel kids basically lead the entire heart of the service, from the Bar’chu to the Silent Prayer ending the Amidah.   Temple kids do the Maftir; if they are very ambitious, we add verses to their Torah passage. Temple kids do the entire Haftarah, whether it’s the shortest at eighteen lines or the longest at ninety-three lines. Of course in cases of special needs and I.E.P.s, we adjust our expectations accordingly. Temple kids deliver a D’var Torah that demonstrates their understanding of the Torah portion or the Haftarah. They grasp the central ideal, and then they teach it to the congregation. They talk about their Mitzvah Project, a task they invariably take seriously and meaningfully. During my first decade here in the 1980s, kids twinned with their peers in the Soviet Union, becoming b’nei mitzvah proxies for Jewish kids suffering religious oppression under Communism. More recently, many of our kids twin in memory of peers who perished in the Holocaust.

Which leads to Reason Number Eight that you should be proud and I am grateful for our teachers and b’nei mitzvah tutors. While our teachers are too numerous over the decades to mention all by name, our tutors have basically and amazingly numbered one for the past forty years and counting: Jacob Naveh. Jacob is the one person who has prepared more b’nei mitzvah kids at Temple than I have; also more multi-generation b’nei mitzvah – parents and then children – than I have too. In recent years, Adele Sufrin has also served as b’nei mitzvah tutor, maintaining the high standards set by Mr. Naveh.

All this in turn leads to Reason Number Seven why you should be proud and I am grateful. All of our kids are well prepared the day they become bar or bat mitzvah.   Alice and I were once seated at a service next to the rebbetzin of the congregation. As the bat mitzvah girl stumbled her way through the service, the rebbetzin turned to us and said, “She’s not very well prepared.” I cannot imagine someone making such a comment here. Most important, our kids all devote the time to practicing and preparing. Some kids plug away slowly and steadily, and some kids wait until the last moment when their adrenalin kicks in (as I did at age 13), but all of our kids prepare. How well our kids may do at the service is another matter. Their actual performance may be a function of their ease with a foreign language. It may also be a function of their poise being in the spotlight. The first is relatively rare; the second is much rarer still.

Which leads to Reasons Number Six and Five….

Reason Number Six why all of you should be proud and I am grateful…. All of our kids with few exceptions, meaning a handful among upwards of a thousand kids here at Temple, try to do their very best on the morning they become a bar or bat mitzvah. In rehearsals, I always impress upon the kids that I do not expect them to be perfect, I only expect them to try to do their best. And all of them, almost without fail, do indeed try to do their best … and then they do their best!

Thus, Reason Number Five that you should be proud, and frankly, I am proud of our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. I am proud of the little pep talk that I perfected over the years to conclude each rehearsal. I tell the kids the different ways to handle mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable; they are not catastrophic. I then address the emotional reality that they are going to be nervous. I tell them, “Don’t be nervous about being nervous.”   I reassure them that being nervous is natural, normal, healthy and helpful. Most of all, being nervous means that you care about it. Being nervous is your body’s way of telling you that you want to do well. I then talk about all the famous performers who get nervous every time they perform; “stage fright” is what they call it. I then tell the kids that I will be nervous too, nervous precisely because I want to do well for them and for their family, and for Temple Emanuel. I always conclude my pep talk with a little sermon about how your bar or bat mitzvah prepares you to do your best when life challenges you and makes you nervous.

And then on the morning of their bar or bat mitzvah, after I introduce them and invite them to the pulpit to lead the service, Reason Number Four then comes. Did you ever notice that as the bar or bat mitzvah walks by me to the pulpit, I whisper in their ear? Do you know what I always say? “Have fun!” Suddenly all those nervous feelings are reframed in a way that a 13-year-old can embrace. When nervousness becomes excitement the whole experience becomes fun. Thus, our kids are ready to make all of you proud and grateful and make me proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.

Reason Number Three… After every bar and bat mitzvah, guests always walk up to me – family members a friends, Jews and Gentiles – and tell me how much they loved the service. Here’s what I typically here. “If I lived in this community, I’d join this congregation.” “I wish I could come here every Shabbat.” “I’ve never attended a synagogue service before; this was wonderful.” After our last bar mitzvah here at the beginning of November, a man walked up to me and said, “I’m a synagogue goer; I’ve been to services all over; this was the best Shabbat service I’ve ever attended.” So too the parents relate to me the countless compliments they receive. Of course, all of us should be proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.

But Reason Number Two truly delights me, and I hope you too. What we have accomplished together – the kids and I, Dr. Cohen over the years, and recently Rabbi Locketz, Cantor Rena or Janet Mostow, musical accompanists, our tutors and our teachers – keeps Judaism alive, bright and beautiful, gives everyone a glimpse of God’s presence in our lives and a taste of the sublime sweetness of Shabbat.

Thus, Reason Number One why we should all be proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. At the heart of all this is the genius, the heart and the soul of Judaism. Our tradition takes our young people at this most awkward age and asks them to assume all these enormous responsibilities, and invariably they succeed! Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah becomes the most powerful transformative moment in a young person’s life.

The question that our generation must ask is what can we do to make it last for the rest of their lives?

In a few months, I will leave Temple Emanuel with thirty-eight years of memories of a thousand b’nei mitzvah kids and their families and our wonderful Shabbat mornings together. Over the many years, people have told me that they marvel at how I have been so spot-on in addressing each kid individually as they become bar or bat mitzvah. It’s been easy. They are all special, each in his or her own remarkable way. I have loved working with Temple Emanuel’s kids and officiating at this major Jewish milestone in their lives and in their family’s lives. That I have been spot-on in addressing every kid reflects how much I’ve loved them.

Thank You Shabbat One

“Thank You Shabbat One”

October 13, 2017/24 Tishrei, 5778

 

Tribute to My Students/Teachers, Teachers/Students Over the Years

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

Have you ever met a Nobel Prize winner? I had the privilege to meet Elie Wiesel in 1991. I was part of a small group of people invited by the Jewish Federation to meet with Wiesel before he spoke at Duquesne University’s commencement ceremony. You might expect a meeting with a Nobel Prize laureate to be memorable. It was, and much more.

The setting was intimate. Our group numbered perhaps ten people. We met in a small conference room at the University. Enhancing the intimacy, Wiesel was so soft spoken. Rather than straining to hear Weisel, the softness of his voice pulled all of us closer to him. We hung on every word.

More intimate still was the conversational tone of our meeting. Wiesel didn’t lecture. He had no formal topic to present. Rather, we discussed timely events, the recent war in the Middle East – Desert Storm – and the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Wiesel asked us if we had questions. I was quick to respond.

Wiesel had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, but he equally could have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his career as an author, Wiesel wrote fifty-seven books. So my question addressed his life’s work as an author. “What is your muse,” I asked. “Where do you find your inspiration when you write.” Wiesel responded, “My muse is Torah. I find inspiration in Talmud Torah, the study Torah.” Of course, I wanted to leap across the table and hug him, but better judgment restrained me. Wiesel then elaborated.

For many years, he met regularly with his rabbi in New York City to study Talmud. Starting in 1976, Wiesel held the position of Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, teaching in both the Religion and Philosophy Departments. Thus he would often commute weekly from Boston to New York for the sake of Talmud Torah. Wiesel then told how he once scheduled a flight to Israel from New York, so that he would have another opportunity to meet with his rabbi to study Talmud before departing for the airport. When the time came for Wiesel to end their study session and call a taxi, the rabbi asked him to stay and study just a little longer. And so they spent fifteen more minutes studying. Again Wiesel said he needed to leave for the airport, but the rabbi insisted that they study some more. Ten minutes later, Wiesel said he must leave or he’ll miss his flight, but the rabbi again insisted that they study just five minutes more. Five minutes later, Wiesel put on his coat to leave, but the rabbi pleaded for just a little more study. Finally, after just a little bit more study, Wiesel bid his rabbi farewell and left for the airport. He barely made his flight. When he arrived in Israel hours later, he learned that his rabbi had died.

Such is the place that Talmud Torah, the learning of Torah and the teaching of Torah, held in Wiesel’s life, a prominence underscored by the passion for Talmud Torah of his rabbi and teacher.

So too in mine. But there is another essential part.

As the time now quickens to my retirement next summer, people have peppered me with questions about what I plan to do, how I feel about retiring and what challenges may lie ahead in this major milestone and transition. Let me share with you what I appreciate will be far and away my most significant challenge.

A little anecdote will illustrate. A few nights ago, I picked up a new book to read, “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. On Yom Kippur, I spoke about Harari’s most recent book, “Homo Deus, A Brief History of the Future.” I found “Homo Deus” so powerful and provocative that I was eager to read the prequel. So a few nights ago, I sat down and opened “Sapiens” with a yellow highlighter in hand, as I have done with the literally hundreds of books I’ve read over the many decades that I have been a rabbi, in addition to the many journals, periodicals and magazines. The technique is simple: I highlight to learn in order to teach. When a book is especially informative, I highlight my yellow highlights with an orange highlighter, and with exceptional books such as “Homo Deus,” I then highlight my orange highlights with a blue highlighter. But it all begins with a yellow highlighter. When I opened “Sapiens” the other night, I looked at the yellow highlighter in my hand, and I then put it down.

My point is that Torah has been my muse, but so too have you. Over the years, most of what I’ve read or heard and learned, I’ve filtered through a thought process of “Can I teach this at Temple? Will you find it interesting? Will Torah then come alive in you?”

For me, Torah has been a microscope to see the aspects of existence that the naked eye cannot see. Torah has been the telescope to view the big picture parts of existence that fill us with awe. Torah has been the pillow that teaches how to soften life’s blows. Torah has been the backbone that steels us with strength and courage, and the heart that feels compassion and love. And when I say “Torah” I mean it in the particular sense of the Five Books of Moses, in the traditional sense of the vast library of Jewish sacred literature, as well as in the generic sense of the intellectual landscape that all these writings still can nurture in the Yiddish kop and neshama, the Jewish head and soul. For example, when I read today’s news, I automatically see Torah in the Iran Nuclear Deal, the plight of Puerto Rico after Irma and then Maria, the suffering in the ashes of the California fires, or I see the lack of Torah in all of the above, or in the sad, sordid saga of Harvey Weinstein. In turn, my mind automatically asks, how can I teach this or that to you. If I were to quantify it over the many years of my rabbinate, I’d speculate that well-more than half of my thoughts have been, “Can I take this thought and teach it to you.”

So whether we have studied together in any of the programs I listed in my e-mail invitation to the congregation this week – a list which I simply gathered from memory rather than combing through all my file cabinets filled with folders of the many programs that I led, or participated in, or created over the years – or whether you just happen to be here tonight because Noah Stein is our bar mitzvah boy this Shabbat, you have been my muse.

Thus, the obvious…. Come next July 1 and retirement, I must say “Shalom” to my muse. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness must recognize this as a challenge. But this evening, so perfectly timed as Shabbat B’reshit that begins the annual reading cycle of Torah, and until next June 30, I wish only to express my gratitude to you, my wonderful muse and inspiration. Truly if any muse and inspiration can be God-given, it is Torah and it is you. …Not only my God-given muse and inspiration, but also my teachers for the countless times, in a classroom, at a meeting, on the Bima or simply in conversation, when you became the teacher and I became the student, and you taught me so much. From the bottom of my heart to the top of my head, to my soul that is my personal piece of heaven and eternity, I thank you.

Focus on the Future

The Settled Rabbi Search Committee (SRSC) held its initial meetings and a timeline is now in place. We would like to share with the congregation a brief overview of what we have accomplished and what our plans are, going forward.

In March, we defined the process for a congregational self-study. As a result, the SRSC is launching “Focus on the Future” and a congregational survey. As part of Focus on the Future, we plan on hosting focus group meetings in your neighborhoods beginning in late-April. There will also be opportunities to participate in focus group meetings with people of similar interests and backgrounds that will take place at Temple Emanuel in May. Through these meetings, we hope to have a better understanding of what the congregation thinks is the most important issue our new Rabbi will face, dreams and visions for Temple Emanuel, and more. So if you see a phone number on your caller ID that you do not recognize, please consider answering it because it may be a member of our committee reaching out!

The information we gather through the Focus on the Future Project and a congregational survey will be used to shape our rabbinic search and will provide information critical to complete an application required by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) as part of the search. In conjunction with this application, committee members are working together with Temple Emanuel’s Communication team to create a vibrant, fun video that showcases Temple Emanuel, its location, and features our youth. This video is slated to be completed by August so that it can be posted on our website when we submit our application.

We hope to then receive resumes from applicants in August/September so that the first round of interviews can be completed by October/November. If all goes as planned, we will select a Rabbi in January/February.

As Michelle Markowitz stated in our initial blog post, our primary goal is to listen to the input of our congregation. Please be sure to reach out if you have anything you’d like to share or have any questions along the way.

Rabbinic Transition blog

Settled Rabbi Search Committee

Michelle Markowitz, Chair

Spring is here, which means it’s now time to turn our attention to the search for a rabbi to lead Temple Emanuel beginning on July 1, 2019.  Thank you to all who responded to the request for volunteers. It is my pleasure to introduce to you the members of the Settled Rabbi Search Committee (SRSC, for short): Melissa Bihary, Adam Brufsky, Michael Bleier, Sandee Connors-Rowe, Rob Goodman, Pauli Green, Steve Hausman, Susan Hommel, Georgia Kent, Judy Kirklin, Sarah Levinthal, Kate Louik, Sally Lebowitz, Marsha Morgenstern, Dan Rothschild, Beth Schwartz, Linda Scott, Samara Steinfeld, Mel Vatz, David Weisberg, and Rita Zolot.

This group is already hard at work on the first phase of this search, which is to determine what we, as a congregation, are looking for in a rabbi. Our primary goal is to LISTEN to you, so please be on the look out for information in the very near future about how YOU will be able to provide your input. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me (mrm0530@gmail.com or 412-512-3513), or anyone else on the committee with questions.

We will continue to update the congregation through this blog; information will be posted elsewhere as well.