Thoughts for a Happy Father’s Day!

Four Men Who Made a Difference in My Life

Man and young boy kicking a soccer ball on a grassy field

Father’s Day was not a day of celebration for me as a child.

I never knew my father. My parents divorced when I was an infant. I was raised in my grandparents’ home in Chicago, with occasional visits from my mother, who was often away singing opera in New York and Milan.

All the other kids at my synagogue had fathers. They always talked about “dad” and looked on with pride as their fathers took positions of leadership and moved about the bimah (synagogue podium or platform). I felt a certain sense of inclusion by proxy, but, of course, it was not the same as having your own father present.

As I prepared for my bar mitzvah, I attended the synagogue’s Tefillin Club, where 12-year-old boys of our traditional congregation learned how to put on tefillin (small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah and worn in prayer) and master the elements of the adult worship service.

One of the four Jewish male mentors in my formative years was Harry Schlitten, a senior member of the congregation. At the Tefillin Club, he would come over to each of us individually and share a bit of his wisdom. I had no idea what he did for a living, but to this day I can still see the diamond-encrusted pin he wore proudly on his lapel, his symbol of being a 33rd-degree Mason. What that meant we didn’t know, except that it was a sign of exceeding accomplishment. He regularly told us so. He also seemed to know the details of my life and, with a caring hand on my shoulder, would tell me: “The most important thing is to be a mensch.”

The second of my mentors was my Boy Scout leader, Harold Robbins (not to be confused with the bestselling author). He and the other men he brought together to take charge of our synagogue’s Troop 635 knew they had the awesome task of teaching us responsibility. Preparing for the annual Scout Jamboree, held every June in Marquette Park, was one of those times when responsibility counted. If you shirked the tough jobs, Mr. Robbins would simply ignore you. If you accepted the responsibility to bring the equipment up from the synagogue basement storage room, you were doing the right thing. If you accepted the responsibility of leading the annual service at the Jamboree – usually my job – you again were doing right.

I well remember his line-marked face reflected in myriad campfires as he let each of us know individually that being a Boy Scout was a key step on the road to becoming a man, that fun should follow work, and that the “jobs” had to be done right.

We were the only Jewish troop among scores of others sponsored by churches and fraternal organizations. Mr. Robbins taught us that we had to be at least as good as the best of them – that our tents, our equipment, should always be in top condition and “look smart.” Jews needed to behave that way.

And then there was my Orthodox rabbi, Mordecai Schultz. Right after I became a bar mitzvah, he would often call and tell me I was needed to complete a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum). Would I come? My bar mitzvah counted. I was needed. Imagine that!

The fourth seminal male figure in my life was David Fox, my Hebrew school teacher. He would always arrive in his plumber’s truck about 15 minutes before class to toss around a football and share an experience intended to teach us a life lesson.

One summer, while I rested in my bunk at Camp Moshavah, some 250 miles away, the door parted, and David Fox’s face appeared. I was ecstatic to see him. I learned later that he had made the long trip to see a friend, but, as an 11-year-old, you never could have persuaded me of that. To me, he was like a father, representing all that was important and right.

I learned from David and the other men who had given me a sense of belonging that you don’t have to be someone’s father to be a positive influence and role model, especially for boys who don’t have a dad in their home.

As the director of a camp for most of my adult life, I have the good fortune to have been a mentor to many young people.

And as for Father’s Day, having two loving daughters has made it one of the brightest days on my calendar.

The Quest of a True Leader: Hope and Renewal

DAVAR ACHER BY:
RABBI GARY P. ZOLA

A flower growing in a crack in the road

This week’s Torah portion, Korachreminds us that the bitter partisanship and political infighting that typify the contemporary political scene are as old as the Bible itself.

We read how Korach — who clearly longed for Moses’s job — lambasted Moses for elevating himself above the rank and file. Pushing back hard, Moses impugned his challenger’s motives by suggesting that what Korach, a Levite, really wanted was more power! Moses surmised that Korach was angling to become one of the high priests — a position of greater privilege and authority (Numbers 16:10).

Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s political allies, also challenge Moses’s authority by refusing to meet with him. “We will not come!” They defy Moses and accuse him of exploiting “those [who are your] subordinates” (Numbers 16:12-14).

The history of American politics is littered with recapitulations on this same theme. From the beginning of the republic, the competence and rectitude of governmental leaders have been impugned by their opponents. The party of James Madison accused President John Adams of being “partial to the opulent.” The Federalists rejoined by referring to their opponents as a “horrible sink of treason” and an “odious conclave of tumult” (Bruce S. Thornton, Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama [Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014), p. 90.

Even the leadership skill of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most venerable presidents, has been called into question. While in office, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of being, among other things, an imperialist, a materialist, and an overall administrative incompetent (See John McKee Barr, Loathing Lincoln; An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present [Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2014]). Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the URJ and HUC, once criticized Lincoln for “his thousand and one demonstrations of imbecility” (Gary Phillip Zola, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, [Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2014], p. 208).

Since partisanship and political posturing are as common as muck, how can we decide whom we should follow or support? After all, this is an important question: our portion demonstrates that those who sided with Korach, Dathan, and Abiram not only ended up on the wrong side of history, but also ended up on the wrong side of the earth’s surface!

Our portion offers us an answer to this question toward the end of the sedra when we learn that Aaron (the Levite) is proven to be the indisputable leader of leaders. Aaron’s stature as a leader becomes apparent to the entire community when his staff “brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” overnight. Moses placed Aaron’s fructified staff in front of the other chieftans’ staffs as a visual reminder of Aaron’s singular worthiness (Numbers 17:23-25).

What does the almond-blossomed staff teach about undisputed leadership?

According to the 11th century sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak (Rashi), the almond is always the first tree to blossom (Rashi on Numbers 17:23). Its beautiful flowers and pleasant aroma are harbingers of springtime’s dawning — an insignia symbolizing the concepts of revitalization, renewal, and hope for the future.

In other words, the scepter of true leadership is forever abloom with fragrant flowers of hopefulness and expectation that should keep us focused on the vision of a land that flows with milk and honey — for all.

Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. He also serves as the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH.

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7 Jewish Essays to Help Us Remember Fallen Soldiers

Gravestones with American flags in front of each one

Although Memorial Day – which Americans will observe this Monday – is not a Jewish holiday, the idea of remembering and honoring those who died in service to our nation is certainly a Jewish value. With that idea in mind, we’ve rounded up these stories and prayers to share with you ahead of the long holiday weekend.

1. 5 Jewish Readings for Memorial Day

Including both ancient and contemporary texts, this compilation of prayers and readings offers a selection to enrich your holiday observance.

2. Why I Serve in the Military

Although the two never met, Aaron Rozovsky shares why he thanked Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Heath Robinson, z’l, each week before Shabbat in Petoskey, Michigan.

3. Hatred and Bigotry Have No Place in “The Purest Democracy”

Rabbi Dan Bronstein, Ph.D., writes about Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, who, as a chaplain for the United States Marine Corps, delivered what became an historic eulogy, following Iwo Jima, one of the most devastating battles of World War II.

4. Rethinking Memorial Day

Rabbi Douglas Kohn reconsiders his own patriotism and relationship with the military in today’s America – and helps readers use a Jewish lens to do the same.

5. Yom Kippur in Vietnam

Mike Rankin, z”l, a military physician, shares his remembrances of a Kol Nidre service aboard a destroyer following a battle with the North Vietnamese Army that resulted in many deaths.

6. The Normandy Kaddish Project

Alan Weinschel recounts how a trip to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach reminded him of his responsibility – and ours – to remember these fallen soldiers by saying Kaddish for them annually.

7. From Battle to Metaphor: The Meaning of Waterloo in Modern Jewish History

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. writes about what connects the Battle of Waterloo – which took the lives of 26,000 souls in one day – and Reform Judaism.

May those we remember on this Memorial Day rest in peace and may we, taking to heart the teaching of the Prophet Isaiah, continue the sacred task of beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.

Raising Resilient Teenagers: Resources That Can Help

May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Barefoot young man sitting on floor against a wall, knees up with face tucked in and arms wrapped around his knees

Being a teenager is difficult. It is a time filled with all types of changes – biological and physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. What’s more, thanks to the expectations placed on them by society, parents, peers, and, frequently, the pressure they put on themselves, today’s adolescents are extremely prone to stress.

With days (and nights) filled with academics, extracurricular activities, sports, community service projects, religious studies, and homework it’s no wonder that today’s teens are more overwhelmed and worried about failure than their peers in past generations. All this pressure only drives teens’ desire for perfection and fuels their need to be the best – at everything – to keep pace with the competitive world of college admissions.

The number of teenagers who struggle with mental health issues increases daily. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least 20% of the teenage population has been diagnosed with conditions related to mental health. I can only imagine how many others face anxiety, depression, and other challenges that remain undiagnosed.

Despite its widespread presence, many of us still speak about mental illness in a whisper. Just as the word “cancer” made us uncomfortable in previous generations, the words “mental illness” often do the same to us today. Worst of all, they prompt negative stereotypes and stigmas, as well as judgmental, discriminatory, and exclusionary behaviors that can blind us to the Jewish concept that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of the Divine). Such behaviors, especially in light of the rash of school shootings in our country, can be culprits that prevent teens from seeking the help they may need.

In a similar vein, as last week’s Torah, B’midbar, reminds us, all of us count. Each of us is part of a greater whole and we matter. Our uniqueness is not simply what makes us human; it is the place in which we find our inner, divine sparks.

Of course, most of us understand that mental illness it is treatable – and, in fact, may have sought medication to help us better manage our own anxiety or depression. We are aware, too, that symptoms can be triggered by situational events or be part of a genetic or neurological disposition. Thankfully, our government recently has increased funding for the treatment of and education about mental illness.

And yet, much remains to be done.

I am hopeful that this month’s promotion of mental health awareness will remind us all that caring for each other is an integral Jewish value and that teens, in particular, need reassurance that they are not alone when facing strife. The ability to rebound from adversity and problem-solve in overwhelming or stressful circumstances are important life skills and it is crucial that teens develop them on the way to becoming successful and confident adults.

Although schools increasingly provide opportunities for teens to develop these skills, a sense of a meaningful, deep connection with Judaism also can help foster teens’ positive development. Of course, being Jewish is only one facet of identity, but when it meets individuals’ needs, it can be of tremendous value, especially during adolescence. It is our responsibility, then, to ensure that the Jewish community is a place of belonging and welcoming for teens and for all who seek a place in our midst.

These books and online resources may prove helpful in this critically important endeavor:

During Mental Health Awareness Month, and always, may our hearts be open, and may we be empowered to reach out to those who in their darkness, need more light. May we feel brave enough to share our own struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.  And, may all of us feel safe, loved, and cared for, knowing that we are not alone.

Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and other online resources.

Is There a Blessing for a Blintz?

Three blintzes on a plate garnished with peach slices and a dollop of sour cream

When you marry someone, you not only get a spouse, you also get another family. When I married my husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, I inherited his mother and father, his siblings, their children. I even inherited his grandmother: Jeannette Multer. Jeannette wasn’t “Nana” or “Bubbie” or “Safta” or “Gramma.” She was “Grandmother.” Grandmother. And the properness of “Grandmother” embodied who she was: exacting, precise, and at times a bit rigid.

But Grandmother was also a voracious reader (she had once owned a bookstore), an astute student of politics and world affairs, a lifelong, dedicated Reform Jew, and a passionate Democrat left-wing voter who wrote letters to politicians with whom she both agreed and disagreed. Her cooking was legendary and holiday tables were overflowing with family favorites: matzah farfel muffins and an almond torte for Passover, assorted fruit pies for Thanksgiving, an amazing sour cream coffee cake, and for Shavuotthere were Grandmother’s blintzes.

Shortly before Grandmother died, she shared the secret to the blintzes with me and my friend Rachel Andress-Tysch. We stood alongside Grandmother in her Beverly Hills kitchen and watched her mix and pour batter and flip from pan to plate the “bletlach” (Yiddish for crepes). Two, small aluminum steep-sided pans moved back and forth across the stove’s gas flames and with a quick “zetz” (Yiddish for smack or hit) to the pan’s handle the blintz turned.

“The first one you throw away…it’s greasy and it’s useless…but taste it, “she said.

It was light and airy and not too sweet. And as if we were in our own Food Channel episode, she taught Rachel and me how to make blintzes. The kitchen was perfumed with toasted butter as we poured and flipped and filled and rolled and fried again. We stuffed half the thin pancakes with a cream cheese-farmer cheese recipe and the other half were filled with Grandmother’s recipe for a cheese-less fresh fruit filling. And those crepes that were not perfectly round and browned – we sprinkled them with powdered sugar and devoured them standing around the stove.

At the end of the cooking lesson, Grandmother gave me a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. Inside were the two aluminum pans additionally wrapped in plastic bags: “You take them. Use them. Make blintzes for your friends with them. Just throw away the first blintz. Always throw it away.”

When we moved to Israel – made aliyah – in July 2013, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we were moving from a large, four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment. But I kept Grandmother’s pans. They were a link to the past: to heritage, to history, to family. They were carefully placed in a box filled with lots of other kitchen paraphernalia: wooden spoons, a flour sifter, drawer dividers, a colander I especially liked for draining pasta, an orange zester, a variety of baking pans, a set of plates for serving asparagus, and other items I was convinced I’d never find in Israel. (Indeed, I’ve never, ever seen asparagus plates here in Jerusalem.) But when our cargo container finished its voyage from Los Angeles to China and into the port of Ashdod, that box was missing. The pans (along with the asparagus plates and my favorite colander) had disappeared.

Last year, I was cleaning a cupboard above the refrigerator when I noticed a Nordstrom’s bag pushed back into the corner of a shelf. Inside was a plastic bag and inside that were the blintz pans. How they got there is a still-unsolved mystery. At the bottom of the shopping bag was a note in Grandmother’s distinctive cursive penmanship that said:

2 blintz pans.
Use them for Shavuos – or whenever.
Wherever you may be.
Love, Grandmother

I’ve used the pans for Shavuot – and on other occasions. And now, “wherever you may be” is in Israel – in Jerusalem. As I mix that first batch of batter and melt the butter in the pan (” Never use oil!!”), the spirit of Don’s grandmother stands next to me thousands of miles from that kitchen in southern California and her unseen hand guides my fingers as I pour those first spoonsful of batter into the pan. I wait for the bubbles to appear on the surface indicating the bletlach is almost ready. As I see the edges of the blintz brown, I take the spatula and gently pull it from the pan but as I place it on the plate covered with a tea-towel, I instantly remember Grandmother’s cardinal rule of blintz making: “Throw out the first one!” But rather than tossing it away – I roll it up, sprinkle it with a bit of powdered sugar, and in lieu of a blessing (I wonder, is there a blessing for a blintz?) say to myself:

Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu umah naim goralinu umah yafah y’rushateinu!
Happy are we; how good is our portion; how pleasant is our lot; and how beautiful is our inheritance!

That, for sure, is a suitable blessing for a blintz handed down with love and care through the generations.

Chag sameach!

Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways

Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways

B’HAR – B’CHUKOTAI, LEVITICUS 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

D’VAR TORAH BY:
RABBI DAVID A. LYON

Hands lifted to hold the sunlight

Freedom is an ideal for humanity that we constantly strive to reach. In 1986, Elie Wiesel (z”l), on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, said:

“As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”1

To be truly free is to possess the human power to choose to live by the rules that bind us. To be free of any rules is to be lawless; therefore, the rules that bind us should, at best, hold us fast to principles and ethics that lead us to our greatest human potential. For Jews, the rules that bind us are Torah. Milton Steinberg, writing for the Traditionalist and Modernist, as he categorized them (us), explained:

“Torah becomes everything which has its roots in the Torah-Book, which is consistent with its outlook, which draws forth its implications, and which realizes it potentialities. Torah, in sum, is all the vastness and variety of the Jewish tradition.”2

In Torah this week we read B’har/B’chukotai, a double portion that brings us to the end of Leviticus. In B’har, we find the famous verse, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). Inscribed on the Liberty Bell with the word “freedom” instead of “release,” it, nevertheless, connotes the expectation that humanity thrives in places where freedom from hunger, redemption from bondage of any form, and release from tribulations unleash our greatest human potential. Freedom from toil reflected in the weekly Sabbath and cyclical Jubilee year, were chief among the commandments that the Israelites would observe in order to know God’s greatest blessings.

Not unlike our Israelite ancestors, we are also bound to the covenant of teachings and laws within which we seek God’s favor and blessings over the course of our own lifetime. In B’chukotai (Leviticus 26:3ff) we read, “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments…” then God will cause you to prosper and be blessed.

Our Sages responded. They knew well that prosperity and blessings flowed from God, but they also observed suffering despite faithfulness to God’s covenant. They cited Job, who suffered blamelessly. We find, “His days are determined; You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). (Midrash Tanchuma, B’chukotai 1).3 In citing Job, they raised the question: what, if anything, would forestall the end of our days if all was, indeed, foreseen, and if our days were limited even when we did God’s commandments?

Our Sages affirmed their faith that all life is a gift from God. They embraced what was revealed to them by God, and what they could do with what was revealed to them. Rather than be disillusioned about what remained concealed from them, they grasped for opportunities to do mitzvot, to respond to God’s command, and to know that, even when judgment came instead of mercy, it was God’s will, too. They cited God’s goodness to King Solomon, even above that which God gave to his father, David, “And I grant you also what you didn’t ask for, both riches and glory all your life … and I will further grant you long life, if you will walk in My ways and observe My laws and commandments…” (I Kings 3:13).4

Leviticus ends with a list of curses. “But if you don’t obey me…” (Leviticus 26:14), begins the list of ways that God will spurn the Israelites if they fail to keep faith. Today, biblical injunctions and admonishments have lost their sway over us, whether we’re Traditionalist or Modernists. Instead, we’ve learned from rabbis like Harold Kushner, who taught us in his ubiquitous book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” that instead of expecting from God what we thought we deserved, God also grants what we didn’t know was available in addition. Life is hard, and when (not why) it hurts, we can seek and find compassion, unconditional love, and lessons for living. They are God’s “riches and glory,” too.

In “Gates of Prayer” we read, “Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”5 Freedom from that prison doesn’t come from seeking immortality; rather, freedom continues to be the privilege to choose the rules that will bind us. As Jews, we still choose to bind ourselves to the b’rit, the “covenant” that God made with our ancestors and with us for “our life and the length of our days” (Deuteronomy 30:20).

Now, at the end of the Book of Leviticus, we say, chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other.” As one book closes and another book opens, our studies of the Bible continue. We have been taught to learn so that we may teach. Let us be teachers of our sacred texts that the world may hear our words, benefit from our deeds, and be inspired by our hopes.

Thank you for joining me in the Book of Leviticus. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik!

1 Elie Wiesel, acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, December 10, 1986
2 Milton Steinberg, “Basic Judaism” (NY: Harvest, 1947], p. 22)
3 Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat B’chukotai 1
4 Ibid.
5 Gates of Prayer (New York: CCAR Press), p. 625

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Upcoming Dates to Remember for May

 

 

2 Last Day of Hebrew School

4  Lag Ba-Omer Cookout

5  Saturday Service, Tisch with Rabbi & Carrie

6  Last Day of Sunday School

11  Kabbalat Shabbat with Dr. Mark Packer leading services

12  No Saturday Service

13  Mother’s Day

16 Hadassah Closing Meeting

18  Sisterhood Sabbath

19  Saturday Service

20  Temple Board Meeting

20 Yizkor Service & Blintzes

25  Kabbalat Shabbat

26  Saturday Service

Rabbi Liebowitz in the Community

The Rabbi and Pastor Paul Harmon performed at a fundraiser for Spartanburg Ministries at St. John’s Lutheran Church on April 26.

The Spartanburg Interfaith Alliance along with The Spartanburg County Foundation and our Rabbi traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Pilgrimage of Peoples. Approximately 40 people visited the Holocaust Museum, the National Museum of the Native American, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

 

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