This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, offers us a choice – blessings if we follow God’s rules, or curses if we don’t. It is up to us to choose and then to accept the consequences that follow. Our behavior, ultimately, our choice, will indicate whether God rewards or punishes us.
Simple, right? We act and God responds. But the idea that we choose between blessings and curses has sparked much debate about our free will to make that decision. Can it really be that God who knows and foresees all, allows us to determine our future?
Our commentators say yes – as it is written in Pirke Avot 3:15: ‘everything is foreseen, and freewill is given.’Maimonides explains by teaching that ‘although God knows all human actions, no one is compelled…to do any particular action amongst all actions; rather, each person decides what they will do.’ In other words, it ispossible for God to both know the future and to allow it to unfold based on how we choose. Blessing or curse, it’s up to us.
The responsibility of choosing well is highlighted this Shabbat as we begin the month of Elul. This is the month leading up to the High Holidays, traditionally the time when we reflect on the past year. We think about how the choices we made impacted us. And we look ahead to the New Year and hope we choose well, that our actions bring blessing into our lives.
Re’eh Anochi notein lifneichem hayom bracha u’klala…Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse….The choice is ours.
Our fall season of holidays came to a close with our wonderful Simchat Torah celebration on Sunday, September 30. With our service led by Rabbi Don and Rabbi Locketz, we marched and danced with the Torahs to music by the Hot Matzohs. Our younger folks enthusiastically waved their flags, while the adults carried the Torahs throughout the Sanctuary. A highlight of the morning was our Torah service with 16 congregants each reading or chanting a line! With our Torah Center teachers and madrichim chanting the aliyot, it was truly a special time for all.
Many thanks to our teen videographer, Harrison Pittle, who captured the spirit of the morning for us in this great video!
Temple Emanuel Worship Team
At every Temple Emanuel Worship Team meeting, we devote a portion of time to listening to the concerns or suggestions from congregants that have been brought to the attention of one of our team members. This feedback is vital to our committee and has helped enact many positive changes throughout the years. So we were delighted when the congregational survey and focus groups that were conducted in the spring brought to us a wealth of information about what qualities our congregants would like to see, not only in our new settled rabbi, but also in the congregation as a whole. The overarching theme of the feedback was that Temple Emanuel members want to see a more welcoming, inclusive environment for all congregants and guests. Towards that end, the Worship Team, including Rabbi Don and Rabbi Jessica, have made several changes that we hope will lead to more inclusivity.
Perhaps the most noticeable of these changes has been to our Saturday morning b’nei mitzvah services. After talking to those in attendance at the first bat mitzvah of the school year, the feedback was very positive. Congregants and guests really enjoyed the warm and inclusive touches that just a few tweaks to the service brought about. Come to a b’nei mitzvah service soon and check them out for yourself! Here are the highlights:
- Friday Evening
- On Friday evening, the family will be called up for the candle lighting and the Kiddush, with parents each reading a prayer in Hebrew or English.
- Saturday Morning
- There will be an opportunity for an English prayer to be read by younger siblings.
- The Torah will be symbolically passed through the generations, involving parents and grandparents, including non-Jewish parents and grandparents if they so choose.
- As the Torah is passed from the parent(s) to the student, a parent may read a brief (250 words) address to their child.
- The first part of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s D’var Torah (speech) will serve as the introduction to the Torah reading.
- There will generally be five Aliyot in a service, the first being the “Community Aliyah” and the rest designated as “Family Aliyot” which can be shared by multiple people:
- Aliyah 1 Community members
- Aliyah 2 Uncles, aunts, cousins
- Aliyah 3 Grandparents
- Aliyah 4 Parents
- Aliyah 5 Bar/Bat Mitzvah student
- The Bar/Bat Mitzvah students will generally be reading or chanting the 4 family aliyot.
- Each Aliyah can be shared by multiple persons. If there are few family members, friends may be called up.
Another area where we’ve made some positive changes is to the High Holiday programming. Those changes include:
- On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will only have one morning service, beginning at 10:00 a.m. The Prek-6 programming and the babysitting will take place during this service. (The family service will take place at 2:45 p.m. each day.)
- In order to enrich the Yom Kippur afternoon and give congregants a place to continue their observance, Temple is offering several beit midrash offerings starting at 12:30. Here is the schedule:
- “Making Gratitude Jars” in the Art Room with Michelle Dreyfus
- “Maimonides’ Steps to True Repentance” in the WRJ Room with Rabbi Rossoff
- “Making Gratitude Jars: in the Art Room with Michelle Dreyfus
- “What is the Religious Action Center and Why Should I Care?” in the Community Room with Rabbi Locketz and Dave Rullo
- “Conflict Resolution for Yom Kippur and All Year” in the Community Room with Ron Richards
- “The Torah’s Attitude of Gratitude” in the WRJ Room with Rebecca Schwartz
We also have a couple of exciting events coming up:
- On October 13, we will have a Havdalah Hayride at Simmons Farm. This the first in a series of planned Havdalah programs throughout the year. For more information, see the bulletin or website.
- On November 2, we will host a Potluck Shabbat. Families are asked to bring a dairy main or side. We’ll have a wonderful family dinner before heading to services. (More details to follow.)
We hope you are as excited about these changes and events as the Worship Team is. As always, please reach out to any member of the team with questions, concerns, comments, or suggestions. We are always striving to make Temple a place where we can all worship and study in a welcoming environment.
Parashat Chukat D’var Torah
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
According to the traditional interpretation of this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Chukat, between the last word of chapter 19 and the first word of chapter 20, thirty eight years transpire when the Israelites tarried in the wilderness waiting for the old generation to pass and a new generation to arise who would possess the faith in God to enter the Promised Land. Thirty eight years amount to a blank space in the Torah, thirty eight years so utterly wasted that the Torah offers not account of them.
With this Shabbat my next to last Shabbat as Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, concluding my thirty-eight years serving the congregation, Parashat Chukat’s thirty eight year blank-space no-account in Torah opened my eyes wide. I cannot conclude my thirty eight years without making account for them in the annals of Temple Emanuel.
Thus I sat down and thought back through the years to recall, at least to the best of my memory, various religious services, programs and events. Some I masterminded. Some I helped facilitate. Some I leave for Rabbi Locketz to claim such as Torah Growers and Visual T’fila, even if I coined the name of the former and had long advocated the implementation of video screens in our prayer spaces to enhance religious services; Rabbi Locketz indeed implemented them. All were in coordination with professional staff, lay leaders and Temple committees, and various constituencies of Temple members. For when and where you helped me or I helped you, or you benefited in some way, I thank you.
So, off the top of my head, without combing through all my files of committee meetings, Board minutes, lesson plans, teaching materials, personal calendars and message logs over the last thirty eight years….
- A new Torah for Temple (see Teaching below)
- Transition from performance style services to participatory services, especially with music and singing
- Shabbat service every Shabbat morning in addition to every Shabbat evening
- Menu of Shabbat evening services to suit various tastes in services and allow for creativity in Shabbat programs
- Yizkor service on Shavuot morning when Confirmation is Shavuot evening
- Leil Tikkun Shavuot when Confirmation is Shavuot morning*
- Torah for Tots monthly services and programs*
- Monthly Home Havdalah hosted by the Mahlers*
- Sunday Morning Minyan
- Tashlich on Rosh HaShana afternoon
- Kabbalat Shabbat services, starting at an earlier time, originally 6 pm, now 6:30 pm. When I arrived in 1980, Shabbat services started at 8:30 pm
- Monthly Family Shabbat service with Torah Center students participating in the service, preceded by Shabbat LaMishpacha Dinners for individual grades and then the congregation at large*
- Special music Shabbats highlighted by Kol Emanuel, Music with the Mahlers and Diskin Music Fund programs
- Zamarim Choir to enhance Shabbat services*
- Lamed Vav-niks; 36 Temple members chosen to participate in regularly in Shabbat services and then to assess what the experience has meant to them
- College Homecoming Shabbat services*
- Kabbalah, Meditation, Chanting
- Cancelled our own Shabbat service on April 28, 2000 so that we could attend at Beth El Congregation which had been attacked by Richard Baumhammers earlier that day
- Impromptu Jewish community-wide service September 11, 2001. Attendance was so large that we opened the Sanctuary’s folding doors, set up additional seating in the Social Hall foyer; many people had to share a prayer book because we didn’t have enough for all in attendance
- Flight 93 Memorial service in Shanksville, Chanukah 2001
- Memorial and Healing Service for Jewish volunteers working to identify the remains of those who perished in the crash of USAir Flight 427, 2004
- A new Torah for Temple (see Worship above)
- Torah Study every Shabbat morning preceding services
- Torah and Tangents, weekly reading and discussing every word of the Torah, starting in 1985 and concluding in 2011
- T’hillim and Tangents following Torah and Tangents, concluding in 2017
- Monthly Downtown Lunch & Learn
- “Midrash in the Morning”*
- Renaming Temple’s religious school “Torah Center”
- Family Days for Religious School families on Sundays and Shabbats
- “Judaism for Gentiles and Inquiring Others”
- “Life’s Long Journey: From Conception to Resurrection” What Judaism teaches about life’s many stages
- “Jesus the Jew”
- “The Napoleonic Sanhedrin and the Emergence of Modern Judaism”
- Jewish Parenting Programs and programs on the spiritual development of children, along with Alice
- “Talmud Torah Teaching Shabbats”; the “how to” of praying
- “4,000 Years of Jewish History in 8 Hours”
- Dor-Ways special leadership development sessions for selected members of the congregation
- Promoted and hosted Melton Programs; at one point Temple had more members who had completed Melton than any two synagogues together in greater Pittsburgh
- Special adult education programs featuring Dr. Ron Bronner, Rabbi Danny Schiff and various speakers and educators
- Introduction to Judaism, History classes, the course team taught by Pittsburgh area Reform clergy
- Taste of Judaism
- Monthly Lunch and Lectures*
- Member of National Association of Temple Educators and Coalition for Alternatives (now Advancements) in Jewish Education during my tenure as Temple Educator
- Conducted National Association of Temple Administrators’ certification course when NATA convened here in Pittsburgh
- 38 years of Temple Bulletin articles
- 38 years of sermons, Divrei Torah and High Holy Day sermon anthologies
- 38 years of teaching our Confirmation students
- 38 years of helping to train our B’nei Mitzvah students
- 38 years of teaching Torah at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah
- Created Temple’s Interfaith Outreach program in the 1980s, the first in Greater Pittsburgh which served as the prototype for other Reform congregations*
- Interfaith Dialogues; many over the years, currently hosted at Westminster Church
- Speaker at area churches: Mt. Lebanon United Methodist, Southminster, Westminster, Christ United Methodist among many others
- Sustaining SHIM’s prominence at Temple and in the community, including participating on the Holocaust Observance planning committee and the Interfaith Thanksgiving service and promoting important SHIM activities such as their food bank and garden.
- Jewish Chautauqua Society adjunct professor teaching Judaism in the Theology Department at Duquesne University, 1986-1990
- Teaching at Seton Lasalle High School, 2006-2016
- Hosting church groups at Temple, highlighted by St. Louise De Marillac sending their 6th graders here for annual visits starting in the 1980s
- Conducting model Passover Seders for students at various church schools, highlighted by St. Anne’s
- Clair Hospital Annual Memorial Service
- University of Pittsburgh Medical School Annual Memorial service
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speaker at Trinity Cathedral for the National Conference of Christians and Jews
- Joint programing and pulpit exchange with the Ebenezer Baptist Church
Funds and Programs
- The Sajowitz Endowment Fund underwriting Temple programs, NFTY and Israel scholarships
- The Louise “Sissie” Sperling Fund subventing Temple’s operating expenses
- Diskin Music Fund to create and enhance various music programs
- Ettenson Annual gifts and bequests to Temple
- Larry and Brenda Miller Caring Community Fund to assist in the good efforts of the Caring Community
- Temple Cemetery Fund to maintain and beautify our cemetery
- Shelly Cohen Memorial Classroom Fund to maintain our ECDC classrooms
- Margarie Weiner Fund to support Temple’s youth programs
- Cohn Scholarship Fund for outstanding Temple high school graduates
- Zolot Fund providing scholarships to adults for Temple Israel Missions
- Jacob’s Ladder Fund to support programs for healing and well being*
- Mark Levin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Torah Center students
Social Action/Tikkun Olam
- Recruited an entire busload of Temple members to demonstrate on behalf of Soviet Jewry on the Mall in Washington DC, Freedom Sunday 1987
- Organized Temple members to serve as hosts and sponsors for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union coming to Pittsburgh under the Passage to Freedom program
- Mitzvah Day; 500 Temple members participated in the first Mitzvah Day in 1997 until…
- Mitzvot Days became the subsequent and more accurate name, but participation flagged until they were dropped from Temple’s calendar*
- On-going pipeline for SHIM activities such as food and clothing drives
- Family Promise participants in aiding the homeless in the South Hills
- Organized city-wide Mission to Washington following 9/11 to advocate for Israel, then the largest such Jewish Mission to DC in history; sessions with elected representatives and State Department officials
- Organized a Temple Mission to Washington conducted by the Religious Action Center, 2012
- Established lines of communication with the superintendents of area public school systems, both proactively and reactively, to help remediate various issues that arose
- Cheerleading our self-motivated and dynamic Social Action Team to pursue activities ranging from crocheting caps for Cancer patients to participating in rallies and demonstrations for Tikkun Olam causes
- Organized six Temple Emanuel Missions to Israel, and guided upwards of 100 people around the places I know so well and love so much
- Co-led a unique Jewish, Christian and Muslim interfaith Mission to Israel, 1996
- Participated in a Union for Reform Judaism Mission to Israel, 2001
- Participated in a Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Israel, 2006
- A strong voice of Israel advocacy, a sober voice of Israel criticism
Healing and Well Being/Tikkun Olam
- Caring Community to respond to our members in life’s varied experiences
- Crisis counseling coordinated by Alice after community tragedies and traumas
- Jacob’s Ladder programs focusing on various special needs
- Monthly Bereavement group
- Monthly services of healing*
- Including the Mi Sheberach prayer of healing to Shabbat evening services and the Sunday Morning Minyan
- Torah Yoga and Hatha Yoga
- From the original Gates of Prayer to the revised (gender neutral) GOP
- To Mishkan T’filah, including the wise decision to buy the two volume edition, separate Shabbat and Weekday/Festival prayer books, rather than the one volume edition
- From Gates of Repentance to Mishkan HaNefesh, the first Reform synagogue in Greater Pittsburgh to adopt it for the entire congregation
- Hundreds of baby namings and Brit Milah
- 300 weddings
- 1200 b’nei mitzvah
- 700 Confirmands
- 950 Funerals
- Countless tears
- Innumerable smiles
Physical Plant Expansion, Improvement, Maintenance and/or Beautification
- 1991 expansion of Temple adding bath rooms, elevator and access ramps making Temple fully ADA compliant, even though we were not required
- 2001-2002 major expansion of Temple to alleviate “Temple moments” with the building bursting at the seams; 13,000 square feet added to the building including the Beit HaT’fila, Pollon Family Library, community room and an entire new wing with classrooms, youth lounge and WRJ Room.
- Cooper Gardens
- Mahler Garden
- Holocaust Memorial Garden created by Marga Randall
- Soodik Walkway
- New Torah covers in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila
- Tree of Life/Paradise woodcut in the Sanctuary Ark
- Introduced the first computer to Temple, and Apple ii+, part of my studies in the MSIS program at the University of Pittsburgh; the rest as they say has been a veritable explosion of information technology here at Temple
- Shabbat Shel Home dial up access to religious services, innovative in its day
- The Temple Bulletin had been mimeographed for years before I arrived
- Transitioning our b’nei mitzvah recordings from cassette tapes to MP3s.
- Video cameras in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila for recording our b’nei mitzvah services
- Overseeing the installation of sound system for the Beit HaT’fila and a new sound system for the Sanctuary
- When will we start streaming our services?
Special Events or Celebrations
- Temple’s Double Chai 36th Anniversary
- Temple’s 50th anniversary year featuring Temple’s “Alumni Rabbis” Harold Silver, Jon Stein and Jim Bleiberg
- Israel’s 50th anniversary when we turned the Social Hall into Jerusalem’s Old City where we ate a Middle Eastern Shabbat dinner in our “Shuk” and then celebrated Shabbat and Israel Independence Day at our “Kotel” constructed, painted and decorated by Temple members to look amazingly like the actual Kotel
Fundraising and Financial
- Capital Campaign 1991-1992, solicited and secured lead gifts
- Capital Campaign 2001-2002, solicited and secured lead gifts
- Capital Campaign 2013-2017, solicited and secured lead gifts
Temple Long Range Planning Committees
- Joshua Mission I, 1998-2000
- Joshua Mission II, 2007-2008
- Secured a $1 million contribution to the Jewish Federation
- Secured a $25,000 contribution to SHIM
- Served on the Jewish Federation’s 1984 Demographic Survey committee
- Served on the search committee for the Educator to lead the Agency for Jewish Learning
- Jewish Family and Children’s Service Board member
- United Mental Health Board member
- Founder of the Greater Pittsburgh Reform Rabbis’ group, 1986
- Chair of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Fellowship, 1986-87
- Resolutions Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
- Israel Committee of the CCAR
- Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America
- Journal of Judaism; publication of Temple members’ various expressions of how they have lived as Jews and what Judaism means to them.
- Cheshbon HaNefesh, “Surveys of the Soul” to gather information about Temple member’s Jewish knowledge, beliefs and observances; a treasure trove of who and what we are*
- Emanuelites to integrate new, young Temple members into Temple life*
- Made a photographic log of Temple’s 2001-2002 construction and expansion project
There’s likely more, but I just can’t quite recall all of them. Time to retire!
* Examples of something we instituted but ultimately fell by the wayside, whatever the reasons may have been
Last Shabbat we gathered in Bird Park for a “welcome to summer” picnic and service. It was a beautiful evening in a beautiful place, surrounded by friends of all ages. For many of us, it was truly the start of summer break – a perfect way to begin the ‘lazy days of summer.’ Running through the park, sharing a meal, talking to each other as the the evening cooled and the busyness of the week faded… Shabbat, and the sense of calm that it brings descended as we prayed together – led in worship by Rabbi Mahler, Rabbi Locketz and Rebecca Schwartz. We were inspired through singing songs and sharing the spirit of Shabbat with each other. Thank you to Rebecca for a powerful message about the work that needs to be done within a community; and for reminding us that we should all be proud of our contributions to it.
After the service, it was time for s’mores….what could be better than that?!?!?!
Join us for our next Service in Bird Park on Friday, September 7th. We will once again come together for a picnic dinner at 5:45 pm followed by a brief Shabbat service at 6:30 pm. And of course there will be S’mores….yum!
Mark your calendars; be sure not to miss it!
Thank You Shabbat 7
April 20, 2018/6 Iyar 5778
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
The Leader of Synagogue Leaders
Revisit with me three memorable meetings of our Board of Trustees.
May 22, 1980 is the first. Temple’s rabbinic search committee had unanimously recommended to the Board of Trustees that I be appointed Temple’s new assistant rabbi. The Board then had to give their approval, contingent on the Board interviewing me. My memory of that interview will always be vivid.
First, it was not as rigorous as I was prepared for. The person who asked me the most questions by far was the president of Temple’s youth group, Ron Wolfson. It struck me as more than interesting. There is an axiom in show business that an entertainer never wants to follow a kids’ act. I wondered if the same axiom holds true for synagogue business. In light of today’s nationwide student walkout, kids taking the lead is sometimes a good thing. Sometimes, no doubt, but most of the time? Still, the most memorable moment of that interview was an exchange I had with past president, Irv Levine.
Irv asked me what are some of the topics that I speak about in sermons. My eyes lit up. It seemed that Irv had thrown me the proverbial fast ball down the middle. I answered that I had recently given a sermon entitled “The Synagogue and the Super Bowl.” The Steelers had just won their fourth Super Bowl the previous January, and here I now stood in this acclaimed “City of Champions,” offering a sermon title that was sure to be a home run. Irv then responded, “Tell us what you said.” Irv’s fastball down the middle suddenly turned into a curveball. Clearly Irv was asking me to give the sermon then and there, in effect to audition me before the Board. But I knew what I didn’t know if Irv knew. Such a request was, and I understand still is, explicitly forbidden in the rules of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was an awkward moment. If I had then invoked this rule, it might have made Irv look ignorant or made myself look condescending to the Board. So I did what people sometimes do to diffuse a tense moment: I tried a little humor. I said, “One of the nice things about changing pulpits is I get to reuse sermons I’ve already given.” I thought people would laugh. No one did. That was the nadir of my interview with the Board of Trustees. But no harm done. As the minutes of that Board meeting duly record, the Board unanimously approved me. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This was also a fitting introduction for me to Irv Levine. Irv’s follow up question was shrewd. Irv had a repertoire of pitches, from the swing and miss curveball to the high and inside fastball. He threw all of them out of his love for Temple and his conviction that he had Temple’s best interests at heart.
I made it a point to get to know all the past presidents of Temple. All of them shared that same love for Temple and the conviction that they had Temple’s best interests at heart. Some of them were often around and easy to get to know, for example Dave Cohen, Temple’s first David Cohen president, who regularly attended Shabbat services with his wife Edith. Following the service, Dave was in his element shmoozing with everyone at the Oneg Shabbat. Irv and Millie Rosenberg also were frequent attenders at Shabbat services. Also Norman and Jean Gordon, and Jack and Ruth London, who were united by family ties as well as their love for Temple. My first years here were Peter Cooper’s final years spent in a nursing home, but his wife Charlotte carried on here as a volunteer until her 100th birthday.
I also made it point to have an occasional lunch with certain past presidents, to seek their counsel and share concerns: Jack London, Rip Isaacs, Dean Hirschfield and Bob Shapiro.
With the exception of Dave and Edith Cohen who passed away after they had relocated to California, and Bob and Sophie Shapiro who thankfully live on in their new residence at Country Meadows, I officiated at the funeral for every one of these past presidents, and their spouses too. I did my very best to honor all of them in death as they honored Temple with their love and commitment in life.
Iz Rudoy was the president who first offered me the job here while the two of us stood at the railing on the overlook platform on Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington. High above the sweeping Pittsburgh panorama, Izzy said to me, “Rabbi, we’d like you and your family to come to Pittsburgh. We’d like you to be our rabbi. And if you refuse, I’m going to throw you off this platform.” It was the offer I couldn’t refuse. Izzy died last November. I officiated at his funeral too.
Shirley Bleiberg, the first woman to serve as Temple’s president, was the first president I served when I came in 1980. With her son Jim then studying to be a rabbi, I also became a surrogate son to Shirley, all the more so with Shirley’s husband Mel and I celebrating our birthdays on the same date. When Shirley died almost two years ago, I did not officiate at her funeral in Florida, but I did compose a eulogy, my heartfelt words of fond remembrance, which her grandson by marriage, a rabbi, read at Shirley’s funeral.
A final amazing factor uniting all of these presidents is that each one of them was blessed with long life, the lion’s share into their 90s. The youngest among them was Izzy Rudoy who passed away at an age that exceeded the Bible’s standard of four score years by another three years. According to biblical theology, the great length of days of these Temple presidents is a measure of their righteousness. And according to modern medical studies, their great length of days can be directly attributed to their involvement in a house of worship.
Which takes me to December 14, 2016, the second Board meeting we revisit.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of the Board’s silence that greeted my reading the letter I sent out that morning informing the congregation of my decision to retire come this July 1. But I knew very well what I myself realized that evening, a realization that lingered for weeks thereafter. I found myself thinking back to when I was a young man and I decided to become a rabbi. Reflecting back upon that moment in 2016, the decision I had made in 1972 filled me with happiness. Of course, the years following that decision did not always fill me with happiness, but the decision itself was a happy one. And whatever challenges I faced in following through on that decision never once made me regret that decision.
Let me cite only one of those challenges, a lesser one at that, but none the less a challenge. It is not unique to synagogue life, but it is a challenge that I experienced and we shared mutually.
In preparing this sermon, I tried to find out when a Board of Trustees became part of a synagogue’s structure. I found nothing. In general, a Board of Trustees ensures the perpetuation of an organization, above and beyond any individual. This structure is therefore especially well suited for the transition, with its inherent challenges, that Temple Emanuel now faces. But there is another challenge in the synagogue structure that a rabbi and the Board of Trustees face, on the one hand together, but on the other hand from totally different perspectives. How shall I put it?
When I told my parents that I had decided to become a rabbi, they said, “Mark, if you become a rabbi you’ll have five-hundred bosses telling you what to do.” This was not borne out in fact. No, a rabbi does not have five-hundred bosses, but he or she may likely have five hundred members who sometime, somewhere and somehow have a definite opinion about how the rabbi should be a rabbi. Invariably they express their opinion by a frequently employed method of communication called “triangulation.” They offer their opinion to the people who are closer in fact to being the rabbi’s boss: the Board of Trustees.
On this Shabbat more than any other Shabbat, when the Torah portions, Tazria-Metzora, address the human fault and frailty of gossip, this dynamic must be called what it too easily and too often becomes. In the meantime, if a rabbi is like the rabbi I’ve tried to be over the last forty years, we’re doing our best, 24/6 & 1/2, to be the best rabbi we can be. Herein lies a potential disconnect.
Parents are familiar with the proposition that they are only as happy as their least happy child. A similar proposition may apply to Boards of Trustees, that they are only as happy as their least happy Temple member. For certain, the same applies to rabbis, which has been one challenge I sometimes experienced at Temple Emanuel for these thirty-eight years. Whenever we addressed your challenges and mine together these thirty-eight years made me appreciate all the more the happy decision I made to become a rabbi.
In truth, a healthy synagogue has two bosses: 1a and 1b, the president and the rabbi rotating between 1a and 1b, depending on the circumstances. But the healthiest of synagogues have only one boss.
Now the third and final Board meeting.
On January 18, 1984, one month after Rabbi Sajowitz announced his retirement eighteen months hence, I was interviewed by Temple’s Board of Trustees to succeed Rabbi Sajowitz. The Board peppered me with questions about my vision for Temple’s future. That we revisit this meeting this evening more than thirty-four years later indicates that the Board was well satisfied with my answers. Tonight I do not recall a particular question asked by Jack London, but I do recall my answer. I said, “I do not have a new Torah to teach. But I do have Torah to teach as it has been taught and learned and followed by the Jewish people for the last twenty-five hundred years, and I promise to carry on that sacred tradition for as long as I serve as rabbi of this congregation.”
So this evening, I thank all of you who have helped me fulfill this vision by your service on Temple’s Board of Trustees. And I especially thank the fourteen presidents with whom I served and with whom I led – starting with Shirley Bleiberg of blessed memory, then Ted Goldberg, Marc Silverman who served for four years during the major transition in rabbis, then Nancy Berkowitz who served for four years during the capital campaign and building expansion of 1990-91, then Marty Katz, Bonnie Cossrow, Alan Ross who served for four years creating the capital campaign and building expansion of 2001-02, then Betty Jo Hirschfield, Mel Vatz, David Cohen, Joan Rothaus who served for four years because, although many were able, no one else was then willing to take on the task of the presidency, then Lynn Richards, Eric Bernstein, Dan Rothschild, and now David Weisberg who, in a time when Temple faces another rabbinic transition, will serve for four years. All of you understood that a synagogue and the Jewish people have only one boss whom we all serve together: God.
Now I ask everyone to please to rise. I invite members of Temple’s Board past and present to form a line, starting with Temple presidents before the Ark. As you pass the Torah from one to another, I thank all of you for helping me pass the Torah in teaching, learning and following Torah for the past thirty-eight years.
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.
“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 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!
 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.
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”
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.