Maybe you noticed?

I have not posted a blog at all in all of 2016.  Not one.  And not because I had nothing to say.  That has never been my problem.  (Yes, I can hear you chuckling….)

It was a very challenging time, not for me personally, except for not being able to blog, but for the congregation.  And even now, there are many things I will not say about that time.  We terminated our lease at the Lakeside location amicably with the landlord.  The mutual release agreement was signed Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat, our first Shabbat in our new California Blvd location.  The deposit we had made to the landlord for the Lakeside location is being overnight delivered (God-willing) to our attorney Monday.

We had expected to move in to the Lakeside location on November 11, 2015.  The process to terminate the lease or complete the buildout to our needs started in the very last days of 2015 (just as I posted my last blog).  For many days, neither I nor the Board could tell which way it was going to go or even which way we truly wanted it to go.  Opinions shifted and changed seemingly by the minute sometimes.  New information would come to light, new ideas, new possibilities, and new challenges.

For all of those reasons, I could not say much.  Whatever I might say could and probably would be wrong within minutes – and blogs live forever.  Members were kept up to date, but no blogs were published.  Interestingly, no one on the Board said anything to me about publishing or not publishing.  It is indicative of the trust and cooperation on our Board that they neither needed to nor did so.

It was a crazy time and a crazy-making time.  I wanted to say so much, to tell everyone what I was thinking, how I was processing the thoughts.  That, after all, was part of the reason for this blog, to document the thoughts and processes that go into birthing a congregation and being the rabbi of a congregation at its very, very beginning.  Certainly not every congregation will go through the exact problems we face, but every community will face similar challenges.  The details and the personalities will differ, but the types of challenges will be surprisingly similar, I believe.

Perhaps that is the engineer in me, the systems analyst.  The person who steps back to look at the bigger picture, trying not to get too wound up in the minutia, the ego traps, the snares that make me want to say, “oh this is SO special” when I know in my heart of hearts it is so basically human.  When I remember the humanness of the situation and that there is always a deeper lesson in the situation, then, and perhaps only then, can the higher purpose become clear.

And so, in this crazy time of absolute silence.  In this blogging of no posted blog, there, too, there was a message.  The silence itself said what needed to be said.  The scenario had to play out without a blow-by-blow, without the the deep analysis of the moment.

Now that all is said and done, the lessons can be harvested.  The fruitful ones will be mined for their juice and what they can offer, the lesser ones put aside to see if they turn out to offer a seed or not.  In the franticness of the month too swiftly swirling and changing by the minute or even second, we were able to keep our goal of making the right decisions for the greatest good of the congregation and its members at the heart of our efforts, although there were many times when we were not sure what that ultimate decision would be, even to the point of moving out the furniture.

I know there were many minds and hearts hoping that things would work out where we were and others that were ready to move on and start again.  And in the next moment, the  hearts and minds holding each position changed places.  It was a most fluid time.  And then we came together.  It became clear that we could not reach the goal by staying, we could not reach agreement with the landlord on what that goal would look like and what the timetable to that goal would or should look like, so we, after much discussion, agreed that amicably parting ways was the best solution for all concerned.

Fortunately, at the same time, a group of us found a very nice location that is even closer to our planned future more permanent home.  It is one that needs very little work, has most of the amenities we want in a temporary location, although it definitely needs painting and some other “prettying up.”  So that is the plan.

We have learned a lot, and I am returning to blogging.  At least when I am not painting……  Happy Adar all!




Rabbi, is it Okay to Celebrate Christmas?

It is a question I have had to face every year.  As American Jews or Jewish Americans (or perhaps both…..), it is a question that needs to be answered, even if the answer changes from year to year or over time.  We knew it even before the recent PEW study told us – mixed faith families are a big part of our community, and will be from now on, as long as there are Jews.  Ah, that’s the rub, the fear, the “bigger” issue, isn’t it?

We are afraid at many levels that we may well be seeing the end of our tradition.  I am confident that it is not the end of Jews – and I am confident that what being Jewish means in 100 years will be very different from what we understand today.  As a rabbi, these issues and concerns are not idle “what if” kind of questions – they are real, everyday issues and concerns.  This year, I faced the title question from a congregant who came from a family Christmas celebration (both parents Jewish, no current significant other……..) to join us in Shabbat.  I also faced a board member worrying that we were somehow not respecting the Christian family members within our congregational family as we planned our December 25th Mitzvah day/Chinese food/Movie/Shabbat events.

The question was a big concern for the member who came from the family celebration.  The rationale was that we are Reform, after all.  And we are.  We are many labels in our group.  Some of us are Reform, some of us are Reconstructionist, some are Conservative, many also enjoy the renewal flair for our services and events.  Do any of those labels come with Christmas?  No.  But being American does, and being in mixed families certainly does.  And very few American families are not mixed – at some level.

The “all Jewish” family still has Christian friends or colleagues, and almost everyone has some relative who is Christian.  And I am including those who call themselves Jews, and who worship Jesus, as Christians.  The text book I teach religion from defines Christianity as: “… based on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”

Google defines it as: “the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.”  Certainly there are many more definitions.  Both of these definitions exclude Islam (which considers Jesus as both prophet and messiah, but does not base itself on the person or resurrection  of Jesus) from Christianity and still includes many newer less “mainstream” Christianities.

Obviously there are also the huge questions associated with the origins of Christmas and the popular appropriation of other celebrations in surrounding cultures. While puts this practice at a somewhat later date, there are other indications of such practices in the Jewish community.

From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings.

The Jewish indications come from such things as the modern Seder at Pesach (Passover) which had to change with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; it became a blending of Nowruz and its Haft Seen symbolism with the Roman symposiums to take the modern form we know today.

Chanukah, the very minor Jewish festival that comes around the time of Christmas is generally misunderstood by both Jews and non-Jews.  It is minor partially because its celebration comes after the TaNa”Ch (Jewish Scriptures) are closed and because it is also a challenging theme.  It was the rededication of the Temple (II Maccabees 10:5-8).  In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus calls the holiday the “Festival of Lights.”

They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles. The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters [Sukkot] wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple. Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year.

So Chanukah is far from a Jewish Christmas.  The shift into a larger gift-giving festival IS a response to Christmas, however.  The more traditional annual gift giving season Jewishly is spring.  So let’s take a hard look at realities in the US.

As stated earlier, Christmas IS everywhere.  I remember being a small girl and loving the lavishly decorated tree in the lobby of the building where my father went to record a TV show.  I would, with parental permission, pick up the little pieces of tinsel that had fallen to the ground and place them gently back on the tree.  Did it have an deeper significance to me?  No.  I liked shiny things and it seemed to me that the tinsel belonged on the tree.

I knew it was called a Christmas tree and that we, as Jews, did not believe in or celebrate Christmas.   In retrospect, I am not sure I understood what “believe in” or “celebrate” meant at that age.  I saw no conflict and my child mind thought of my actions as helping my Christian neighbors.  I never did ask my parents what they thought of it at the time.

I grew up with a strong sense that Christians were certainly allowed to celebrate Christmas, and that I also had the inalienable right not to do so.  I also felt an obligation to supporting both parts of that equation.  For me, my Christian friends – and I had Christian friends from school – were to be assisted in any way that did not involve my own religious involvement in their festival.  So I could enjoy their trees, their tinsel, their sparkly stuff.  I did not believe in Santa; I think I wore that as a badge, actually.  I had no interest in sitting on anyone’s lap, even if there were long lines everywhere implying that others wanted to do so.  I had no trouble telling my parents what I wanted for Chanukah and they told me what they wanted from me.  I saw no need for Santa; love and gifts were (and are) magical in their own right.

There is another blog here about what does it do to “outsource” generosity, giving, and love to a fictional character….but that is for another time.

My feelings toward the right of Christians to celebrate Christmas took an interesting turn during one of the times I lived in Israel.  I was attending the American College in Jerusalem.  The classes were all in English and it had a large number of Christian and other religions represented among the student body.  A number of the students were children of ambassadors to Israel.  As Christmas approached that year, two trees appeared.  One went to a private room and one was set up in the student lounge adjacent to the cafeteria.  One tree came from two students (no questions as to where it came from….) and the one in the lounge was actually a gift from the Israeli government (to reduce the number of trees “liberated” from nearby forests).

One of the students (a Buddhist, I think), went into town and bought big boxes of Elite brand kosher chocolate Santas and these were hung all over the tree.  A side bar: it was from these Santas that I learned that chocolate Maccabees and chocolate Santas were the same under their wrappings…..

The student explained that it was a custom in her country to share the chocolates over the course of the season.  Other students strung popcorn into garlands (this was tasty as well) and made other decorations.  With the TV Christmas tree strongly in my own mind, I was disappointed to learn that the tinsel that had been everywhere for Sukkot had completely disappeared.  I volunteered to take chocolate bar wrappers and cut them into tinsel, making sure to grind one into the fabric at the base of the tree.

Chanukah, by the way, had been earlier in December.  We celebrated it with college student enthusiasm and it was long gone before the tree showed up.  All was looking fine, until that fateful night…….

We walked into the lounge for breakfast to find the tree upturned, the glass ornaments shattered, and the chocolate missing.  The generous student was devastated.  A group of us tried to comfort her and set out to rebuy (collectively) the various things that had been destroyed or taken.  We managed to restore the tree (mostly) to its previous appearance.  Then things got nastier.  A group of students declared that it was against their religion (Judaism) to walk through the lounge on the way to the cafeteria because of the presence of the “pagan” tree.

The ensuing student meeting turned heated between Jews defending the right of the Christians to have a tree and those against it.  There were basically two camps opposed to the tree – those who objected on religious grounds of it being a pagan worship item and those who said that because this was Israel, “they” should learn what it feels like or  because this was Israel, we (Jews?) do not have to put up with having a tree there.  It wasn’t too far into this heated meeting that the non-Jews left, some angry, some in tears.  I will always remember that meeting and how astounded (and embarrassed) I was at the language and positioning of fellow Jews.  The Jews who objected to walking through the lounge were given an alternate entrance to the cafeteria that was usually not open.  Unfortunately, the student body never did really recover from that incident.

Many years later, I was ordained and then served a small community in Tucson.  One year, Chanukah overlapped Christmas (as it will in 2016).  We had Chanukah dinner (or so I thought) at a member’s house.  A group of us then went on a wagon ride through Winterhaven, a nearby non-gated community in Tucson served by a Housing Association that requires all residents to decorate with lights the second half of December.  They charge admission to see the many ornate decorations and give that money to charity.  Some nights cars are allowed through, but most nights only horse drawn carriages and foot traffic are allowed.  It was fun, especially since most of us on our wagon were Jewish.  We tried to guess which homes belonged to Jewish families.

The following year, we were invited again for dinner on the 25th of December, only this year it was not still Chanukah.  It was then that I learned that this member always has Christmas dinner on the 25th (not Chinese) and that the dinner was indeed a celebration of Christmas.  I did not go that year and was never invited back for another Christmas dinner.

But I have gone to Christmas dinners at the homes of Christians or to a restaurant Chinese or otherwise on the 25th.  Was I celebrating Christmas?  Did we celebrate it by having our Mitzvah day/Chinese food/Movie/Shabbat?  After all, Christmas IS a national holiday.  With the exception of some restaurants, bars, gas stations, and drug stores, much is closed.  Whether I want to or not, my activities are different on the 25th.  Isn’t that a form of observance?  And if we are partying, is it not a celebration?

In many ways yes.

And for those families who have members who are Christian, supporting them as beloved family will require some form of celebration.

So as I talked with the congregant who asked me the question that titles this blog, I held all of these thoughts in my head.  I told that person that I believed it was okay to celebrate in secular ways, it was okay to gather and enjoy family and friends, a good meal.  Should it be called Christmas?  That is the name of the national holiday.

And yet, my answer troubles me.  What troubles me?  I know there is a line there that distinguishes us from Christians.  I am pretty clear in my own mind where that line is for me.  I am very sure it is not nearly so clear for those who do not know  Judaism well and for those who do not know Christianity well.  I am not bothered by the pagan roots of trees or reindeer – I get it that they are not worshiped over God.  These traditions are more about nature than anything else.

It is not about having a good time or a tasty dinner.  It is about what makes me distinctly Jewish and not Christian.  It is the part of me that insists that Jews (and everyone, actually) NOT be forced to do ANY part of Christmas that makes them uncomfortable.  It is the part of me that wants public events to be holiday celebrations or winter celebrations – and a special hurrah to the St Lucie Chamber of Commerce who came to me without my saying a word to tell me that next year, it WILL be that way (it was not this year).

I think the bottom line is what helps keep Judaism vibrant, distinct, and the contributor of quintessential Jewish values and ideals.  When we focus on that requirement, how does it impact what we do and how we do it? How do we transmit that fire to our youth so that they WILL know the differences and understand them while being loving and supportive to our neighbors who are not Jewish?  The answers today may not be the answers tomorrow.

And with that – may 2016 be a year of happiness, joy, good health, and peace.


New Jew, always a Jew

The process of becoming Jewish is an old ritual, with very ancient parts, community saving habits or traditions, and even surprising new customs.  It is a worthy comment that I have joined more souls to our people through conversion than through Brit Mila (for boys) or Simchat Bat/Naming (for girls).    Easily of the magnitude of 5 times more, perhaps even more.

Yes, there have been the traditional new child joys, and they are always a great pleasure for so many reasons.  Unfortunately, the birth rates for most Americans, and certainly for Jewish Americans, is quite low.  To quote an article from Jan 2013:

The overall 2011 USA average is 1.86 children per Jewish woman, compared to Israel’s 2.98, from 2.53 in 1995. … Had the 3.3 children in “modern Orthodox” families, 6.6 within Haredi and 7.9 among Hasidim, not been factored in, the US number would decline to 1.4. Furthermore, only 12 percent of the Jewish community is eighteen and under. And among synagogue-affiliated Jews, the Orthodox sector already contains more children than the Reform or Conservative.

And I am pleased to add to my comments about conversion, that I have been privileged to include a fair number of children and infants among those I have trained and facilitated in their conversions.

Here in Port Saint Lucie, I am pleased that I have been part of that process for a number of local individuals and families and that I am part of a larger online world where conversions are sought, notably through Darshan Yeshiva.  Some of the people have come to the congregation where I am the rabbi (both my previous one and already a number have come to Congregation Eitz Chayim).   Some are friends of friends and some are complete strangers before they start their journey.

So what is involved to convert?  Certainly much more than simply saying that one wants to be Jewish….  Yes, there was one woman who came to my previous congregation that thought all she had to do was declare such intentions and we would immediately “make her Jewish.”  When she learned that doing so involved a commitment to learn and study, then…, she lost interest and disappeared.

So yes, there is certainly study involved.  How much?  That is always the hard part to answer.  It depends……  Yes, that wonderful phrase.  And it does depend.  It depends on many things, such as the life journey of the individual and the knowledge they have already gained before coming to me.  If they go through Darshan Yeshiva, there are wonderful courses and study material they will complete along the way and these help.  I do highly recommend Darshan for anyone not a part of my congregation, providing that the person lives in one of the areas served by Darshan (there are some parts of the world where their program is not available).

I can also say that there are several components to both educational aspects and acculturation aspects.  For example, it is one thing to know that latkes are potato pancakes, it is another to know that they are savory and not simply blueberry pancakes with potatoes substituted for the blueberries.  It is also important to learn that what we call Challah is really not the Challah, but rather bread from which Challah has been taken.  There is certainly much more to challah baking than making a delicious loaf of bread.

If you are Jewish and the above comments puzzle you, then there is still something to be learned within your tradition (yes, I offer those classes as well through our congregation  – and Darshan has them as well for those who are more distant).

Aside from the study, learning, and acculturation, there are 2-3 ritual components that are part of the process.  For men, there is a requirement of ritual circumcision; if the man is already circumcised, then the requirement is Hatafat Dam, the drawing of a ritual drop of blood.  That ritual is done by a Mohel who certifies that it is satisfied.  If the ritual is done in the Temple, and I am in the Temple, the Mohel will usually show me the swab – the actual ritual is very private between the man and the Mohel.

For both men and women there are two other parts – mikvah (ritual immersion) and meeting a Beit Din (House of Law), a Jewish court.  Here is Port Saint Lucie, there are currently no available mikvah facilities (yes, there are already plans in place to change this concern in the not-so-distant future), so we have two choices: mayim chayim (living waters) such as the ocean, or the closest available mikvah in Maitland, Florida, a two-hour drive away.  Most of the time, the trip to Maitland is the choice for a number of reasons (which I will discuss in a future blog).

In Tucson, where there are nine congregations, convening a Beit Din was a very routine event.  We usually tried to gather as many candidates as we could handle for each such gathering.  I can remember one day long Beit Din, where we examined 12 such candidates, including some children.  I want to thank my fellow rabbis for taking a full day and working with me through that process.

Here is Port Saint Lucie, the process is a little more challenging, due to the much lower number of congregations and rabbis in the area, but we do gather from time to time to address such events.  I have convened courts in Temples and in homes, providing proper privacy can be achieved.  My colleagues north and south have similarly convened Batei Din (the plural of Beit Din) at their Temples.  Sometimes I have traveled to them with candidates and asked them to convene the Beit Din at their location.

If three rabbis cannot be gathered for the Beit Din, then other clergy (such as a Cantor), or learned Jews (yes, we do have a few here in greater Port Saint Lucie that the rabbis consider sufficiently learned to be considered eligible) can be called to be part of the court.  One of the purposes of the court is to examine the preparations of the candidate and make sure that the instructional rabbi has properly instructed the candidate.  Another purpose of the court is to examine the sincerity of the candidate and make sure that there are no improper incentives being applied (and release the candidate from any binding vows connected to such incentives if appropriate), because seeking conversion MUST be a free will action, which has no material physical benefits attached.

The Beit Din session is not a quick procedure.  It takes a while.  And there are Batei Din that say no to a conversion, although that is quite rare, since very few rabbis would bring a candidate before them who is not prepared and ready.  I have not served on such a Beit Din, although I have talked with colleagues who have, and even some colleagues who say they were the one who said no.  And as with many such things, the no is not final, it is simply not yet, unless the candidate makes it a complete no.’

And one could argue that if a no from a Beit Din is taken by a candidate as a final no, then perhaps the Beit Din was accurate in saying no.  But again, such events are rare and I truly hope that I never sit on such a Beit Din, for several reasons (but that discussion is perhaps best served in a later blog).

Mostly, the Beit Din verifies that the candidate is converting of his or her free will and is, indeed, prepared to formally join our people.  Certainly the informal joining has already taken place much earlier.  And, not surprisingly, the convert often knows more Jewish history and customs than the person who is raised Jewish.  Some of that comes from the interest attracting the person in the first place and some of it comes from the need to insure that the convert has sufficient knowledge upon which to base the decision to formally become Jewish.

So once the Circumcision/Hatafat Dam (if male), Beit Din, Mikvah are complete, the person has met all of the requirements to be called Jewish and in that instant, when all of the ritual requirements are complete, that person  not only becomes Jewish, but is now considered as having always been Jewish.  The members of the Beit Din will not speak about who or when or disclose any of the many things discussed.  The appropriate certificates are signed and, in many ways, a wonderful birth has taken place, even if many years earlier.  The soul is welcomed home.

It is holy work, truly holy work.


Rabbi, the ladies room … I smiled

The Chanukah party was in full swing.  The latkes were tasty, the music wonderful, the ambiance all we could want.  It was the very first party in our new home, the Beit Kinyon, coming just the night after the amazing ribbon cutting the day before.  It had been a wonderful Shabbat and now we were partying to help usher in Chanukah, which would be starting the next night.

I moved from table to table, making sure everyone had a dreidel or two, enough delicious gelt with which to (shhhh) gamble, and that everyone was having a good time.  I had danced a few times.  The kids were engaged, playing, doing things I would learn about later, but this was now.  I moved around the room and a woman flagged me over.

“Rabbi,” she said softly, “the ladies room needs some toilet paper.”  That was not what I was expecting, but I thanked her and assured her I would take care of it immediately.  And I walked to the bathroom, with a smile on my face, hoping that there would indeed be toilet paper under the sink.  There was.  The same two rolls we had put there before the start of the party.  I took one and placed it on the holder, replacing the now empty roll.

I was grateful that the woman had flagged me down.  Yes, she could easily have replaced the paper itself, but she probably felt uncomfortable poking around.  In any event, her alerting me to the problem allowed me to do something to make sure that something as simple as switching out an empty roll with a full one could help make sure that a) it got done quickly; and b) someone was not going to have the memory that being in the stall without paper was the first thing they thought of when thinking of the Temple or the party.

So I was indeed quite grateful.  Time spent: less than five minutes.  I returned to the party and thanked the woman for alerting me so that I could do something.

Meanwhile, the children (and I am including those who are old enough to be considered young adults, but who were not choosing to act as such that evening).  Ah yes, the children.  A couple of them had found a red dolly that was used to help cart furniture around during the move a few days prior.  It was still in the room that will soon be my office.  It became a go cart that they used to ride around the lobby. (or perhaps even outside as the doors were propped open on this balmy December truly Florida evening.

In any event, they crashed into the freshly painted wall and left a marvelous red gash on one side and a cut in the dry wall on another.  Some time later, another youth called me to see what was happening in the lobby as they had found tape and a variety of other items with which to play/decorate.

By this time, the party was starting to draw to a close.  The band had finished playing and here I was, trying to figure out what had happened in the lobby.  Cleaning up the tape and other items went relatively easy, but the red gash was much more stubborn.  Having no idea what it was, I was trying a few different things to repair it.  As I was working on it, a few adults from the party helped me figure it out by commenting that they had seen the cart play earlier.  The primary rider was identified from the description and then a couple others commented that they had seen him on the dolly.

Should the parents have been better supervisors.  Yes, but they weren’t.  Could another adult have said something to them before the damage was done?  Yes, but they didn’t.  Should the children have known better?  Yes, but the temptation was obviously stronger than the knowledge.

I caught myself wishing someone had been like the lady with the toilet paper.  If I or a more responsible adult could have been notified that this activity had started or was ongoing, the wall might not have been damaged.  I know that I will smile any time someone tells me that toilet paper is needed.  The little interruption is certainly not a problem – it is part of a solution and needs to be understood that way.

A little note: the contractor fixed the walls as good as new (ok, I can see the patch – but no one else will notice it).  Fortunately he was still working in the shell the coming week and for him, at that time, the gouge and the cut were simple fixes while he was working on the rest of the painting.


Plans, Lists, and Laughter……

Finding a planner for a Thanksgiving meal, even a large and extensive one, is easy.  Finding a planner for how to move from a small house-based congregation to a larger semi-permanent location, not so easy.  But then, there has been nothing about our new little and yet fast growing congregation that was easy, just exciting.

I confess that I had expected things to settle down after “the chaggim,” the Holy Day season, the recognized crazy period of “Rosh HaShanah-Yom Kippur-Sukkot-Hoshanah Rabbah-Shmini Azeret-Simchat Torah-Now you can breathe [gasp]” time, but that was not to be.  We were certainly surprised when our religious school had more than a dozen students in it (we had expected 4-5) and we have open enrollment ongoing even now, even though we know that on most occasions we will only see about half to two thirds that many for many reasons.

Services were indeed settling down, but everything else was not.  Our events and meetings were bursting at the seams.  And while the services were “settled,” they were not what we wanted.  We wanted to be able to offer so much more, yet the limitations of the space were the issue.  And so we knew that the option to move HAD to be made.  There was the window in the lease that allowed for it that month, right after Yom Kippur, a crazy time indeed.  We had never thought we would be making it.  Another lesson in never……….

And so we asked the congregation were we ready?  Did we want to sit it out until we could build the permanent Bayit Gadol (big house) nearby, later this next year?  With a resounding no, that frankly surprised us, the Kahal (congregation) said no, that we were ready to take on the bigger commitment of a larger rent payment (+utilities, etc) and move into larger, more public, more usable space.  We talked about the choices, the options, the locations, everything we knew in the moment – which was not as much as it should have been, but we were not wrong in anything critical, thankfully.

So the Board and a few interested members started scouting the area looking for a future home.  Oy!  We trudged here and there – there are some not pretty places for a congregation, let me tell you!  Some were upstairs, down stairs, behind this building, in this area….  you get the idea.  Some were away from things, hard to find, with not much parking, needing LOTS of renovation, MUCH too expensive – and some were empty fields.  Many of the “options” became no choice at all very quickly.  I imagined a reality show with the picture of the caravans of cars going from site to site, people pouring into an out of cars, looking here and there, faces, — you get the idea….

We wanted to be within a five mile radius of where the permanent home will be if at all possible.  So the search was on.  We were lucky enough to find a spot that we thought would work.  It is a little farther from the area we really wanted, near Gatlin and Rosser, but still close enough to there to be central for the people who have joined us: Port Saint Lucie Blvd and Airoso Blvd in Lakeside Center.  We ended up taking a three year lease with an option to renew it.

Now that might sound like pretty long term for a temporary space and it would be if we didn’t think that there was a longer term use for the space that fit our mission.  More about that as our permanent space takes shape and we transition out of this space.  Right now, let’s worry about getting INTO it…..

Okay.  So one of our criteria for selecting a space was that it had to be ready to move into or almost ready.  That meant it only needed a little bit of renovation to be usable right away, ideally November first, since the window out of the Bayit use meant that we had to completely out of the house on October 31st.

We noted with a bit of irony that the use of the Bayit started on August 1, a Shabbat, and ended on October 31, also a Shabbat.  Perfection to perfection, completion to completion.  So fitting.

Okay, the new space met those criteria – or at least it did in theory.  The shell was vacant, that meant it could be rented in time.  It was the right basic shape, needing only a little work for a child’s room (sound damping) and a kitchenette for the basic usages we were planning.  The realtor for the owner said one to two days, maybe three and it would be ready for us.  So we thought, a week.  That could work.

The next question, of course, was the security payment.  A large commitment certainly.  Could we ask our baby congregation to come up with that amount this quickly after managing to fund the High Holy Day services and their related expenses?  Well, we asked.  And we asked the owner of the center to work with us.  And the answer on both ends was yes, it could and would work.  The pieces were clearly falling together.  Not with much to spare, not with anything to waste or be careless with, but enough to make it work.

So we went ahead.  And God laughed.

The lease execution was supposed to be smooth, but it was not.  No reason to go into all of the details.  They are funny in retrospect, but much gratitude is owed to Stuart, Carol, Mia, Tommy, and Bill for catching bits and pieces of this and that and putting in extra hours to make sure no glitches stayed in the lease.  And also to Beth, Elyse, Ken, Jeanne, Rachel, Steph, Caren, Hallie, Pat, Erik, Ginna, and others I might not be naming who picked up the pieces we had to drop to grab things relating to the lease.  So many extra hours were put into the lease execution – hours on the phone at the Bayit, in banks, at homes, on the phone in parking lots, Oy!  I actually started carrying a spare battery charge for my cel phone during this time……………….

We managed to sign the lease (at a bank) on Wednesday afternoon (the 29th) with one of us coming from school and and one of us going to school.  Then it was picked up at Stuart’s office with the deposit that Thursday (thank you Carol and Stuart for a VERY IMPORTANT coordinating phone call between the meeting at the shell and the meeting in the office noting an essential error – again!) afternoon and a final meeting with the realtor and owner.  It was finalized the following morning and a signed copy emailed to me late Friday afternoon.  The lease said we would have the keys by the 11th of November – Veteran’s day, right after Kristallnacht.  We announced it to the Kahal that Friday at services and again Saturday morning and during the truck packing.  We sent out the E-Kol notice Saturday evening.

We organized and managed to move out of the Bayit.  Despite the challenges on that end, things went fairly smoothly.  After services on Shabbat, we loaded everything onto the U-haul in the driveway.  Later, the truck was parked at a safe location.  A couple of days later, we unloaded it at the center into another shell awaiting ours being ready.

So it was clear that we would have a “gap” Friday.  Okay.  We made plans.  Friday at Mia and Saturday at Ken and Jeanne’s.  We were invited by URJ to watch the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat from the Biennial, which we would not have been able to do at the Bayit anyway, so holding a dinner at Mia’s worked well.  It was great and everyone who came enjoyed it.  There were several people there that were commenting on FB and we could read their comments as we watched the service.  They sang a number of renewal melodies and traditional ones as well.

The realtor, who is also the property manager for the owner, took much longer than expected to sign with the contractor.  Work has met with a few challenges, such as incorrect drawings (we have corrected that challenge probably going on at least six times so far) and other “little” details.  But we are getting much closer now.  The visit just yesterday showed them almost complete with laying the new plank flooring (it’s called “Lakeshore Pecan”), paining mostly done, lighting and new ceiling tile in place and new thermostats installed.  The only work remaining is the last bits of flooring (the hard parts, like the bathrooms and the moldings,  the child’s (sound) room, the bit of plumbing (a drain and hot/cold water for a sink/fridge/ice maker to be installed later), and the one wall for the kitchenette.

There is one major glitch remaining.  The drawing needed for the permit is still not ready, but hopefully it will be soon.  The work itself really should be only a day or at most two.  We are still hopeful that the scheduled open house on Friday, Dec 4th will happen as planned.  Please join us for the Ribbon cutting.  It is at 1PM.  We will gather in front of City Hall with our Torah Scrolls and other religious objects and walk them across the street, cut the ribbon on the Beit Kinyon, place the Torah scrolls in their home in the Ark, recite the Shehechiyanu (thanking God), rejoice, party, and then get ready for Shabbat.

Having the space ready for the 4th is also important because we are already deep in plans for the Rock ‘n Roll Chanukah Bash – 6PM – Saturday night – December 5th – Latke and Chicken dinner (with the fixin’s), Great LIVE MUSIC, dreidels (not really gambling, cause its CHOCOLATE gelt…), fun – and you can see the beautiful new place!  Check out the FB page:    or our web site:


We hope God is not laughing too hard…….




Why don’t Jews have to Believe in God, She Asked

colored tree

It’s a common question, actually.  I am asked it in almost every world religion class I teach and in almost every introduction to Judaism lecture I give.  And we talked about it today, in fact.  Today’s lecture is was wrapping up the last bits on Judaism and starting Christianity in the World Religions class.

Typically, this lecture is one of the lightest attended lectures in the semester.  Since the majority of students are Christian, or at least think they know Christianity, they often see little reason to hear a Jewish rabbi talk about it.  And yet, I find that the discussions in this class to be quite interesting, and today was no exception.  Perhaps it was because the start of the class was the end of the material on Judaism that there were so many comparison questions, or perhaps it was just that kind of class.

The question about belief was the opening question to my usual, “any questions?” inquiry as I start the computer and prepare for the class.  We talked about Judaism being behavior based rather than motive or belief-driven and that discussion led wonderfully into the topic of holidays and festivals, the last major remaining topic in Judaism.  Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, the top, the beginning of the seventh month, for which I draw six months up and then six months down, illustrating a “head” at the beginning of the seventh month.

Then we took the leap (sorry, I could not resist….) into Yom Kippur, coming before God.  Fresh start, but…..  and the class took the clue and worked well with it.  So we talked about restitution – “What’s that?” one young person asked.  Rabbi John, thank you for your lawn mower example.  Here in Florida, they do understand mowing (Arizona, not so much).  Another chance to drive home that it does not matter why you make it up to the person you wronged in the lawn mower example, only that you do – and that you do it well.

Judaism does not care if you make it right because you love God, because you fear God, or simply because you are wise enough to recognize that it is the right thing to do.  Judaism teaches that you are expected to do what is right, not for reward, although being rewarded is okay, the Jewish thing is doing it simply because it IS the right thing to do.  Na’ase v’nishma, the principle we discussed at the beginning of the Judaism lecture.  And I see some looks of getting it.

In Judaism, we call that being a mensch, being a person.  Because doing anything less than that is being less than a person, less than being Jewish.  And that makes me think of our congregation.

In our congregation we spend time talking about just those points as well.  We especially like teaching our children about them and exploring ways to give back to our community as we teach each other how to put these principles into action.

We are an interesting group of Jews, from many diverse backgrounds.  We have many different Jewish understandings, desires, beliefs, practices, needs.  Some of us like Friday nights, some of us like Saturday mornings.  Some us like Torah study, most of us like to eat.  We like to play, do things, party, share our Jewishness.  Together, each in our own way, we come together and help each other.  We work together and we help the larger community.  We do things that matter.

We have not been a congregation for very long yet.  We are still transitioning from our first little Bayit (house) to the bigger, newer, still temporary, new Beit Kinyon (our Center – based Home).  And one thing we can clearly say.  We strive to do what is right – because it is right.  That is important to us.

It was important to us since that first day a few months ago when we decided to launch and it is important to us today.  Even before we have the keys to the new Beit Kinyon, we are already making plans for how we will conduct ourselves as part of the center, part of the local community, and part of Port Saint Lucie (such as family reading days, holiday giving programs, mitzvah days), as well as part of the larger Jewish and non-Jewish world.  Happy Kislev!