Tiles, Flooring, and God’s NAME

So we started the floor a little over a week ago.  At first we planned to make do with the floor that was there, just scrubbing it very well to get old paint and certainly the old dirt off of it.  We even had the youth help scrub it to get it cleaner – and for them to have a true sense of being part of the building.

Fortunately, one of our members recognized that a new floor would do so much for the sanctuary and social hall that she and her husband made a very generous donation to purchase the tile.  And like everything else that we have done that could possibly be done by members, we decided to lay the floor ourselves.  There was a moment, at the very beginning, where the realization that laying the floor tile meant bending over more than 2000 times (not counting the edges, corners, etc) to cover the main floor….

Being an optimist, I thought, well, if we could lay about 180-220 tiles each day, then in ten days (not counting Shabbat), we could have a new floor down.  That was the optimist in me.  Among other things, that did not count the time it would end up taking to get the tile TO the Temple.  Ahhhh, but that, too, is part of the journey.

There have been many goals along the way that have not been met and others that have.  As I write this blog, we are still waiting for the next 11 boxes of tile to be delivered – or perhaps a wild drive to pick them up somewhere north or south of Port Saint Lucie.  We have already emptied the local stores of this tile and even their staging warehouse.  I guess Temples are bigger than most everyday tiling projects….

Ah, yes, I remember that slightly envious moment when we were picking up one of the orders and I looked at the person next to us who was embarking on a remodeling project.  He had about a third of the tile that we had on our cart – and he was calling that a big project.  But we were committed to the project; we had started earlier that week.  The first order was being loaded and the next load was being ordered.  We would do that several more times before getting as close as we are now – and there is still more to order.

And that does not even count the cork, the carpet, and of course, the remainder of the painting.  Oy, what was I thinking?  Well, we did have some very good days where much more than 180 tiles were put in place.  And it is looking pretty.  And because we are laying it diagonally, there will be quite some cutting of the side pieces.

Yes, somewhere along the line, like after the very first day, we decided to lay all of the tile that does not need cutting – or at least most of the the main tile – first.  Then we would do the more tedious cutting and fitting around the edges.  Some of our neighbors, like the man who did marble tile work in Israel for over two years, or one of our members, like the man who once owned a hardware store, have remarked that we are doing the easy part.  We agree with them – we know that both from a logical standpoint and from the little bit of cutting we have done so far.

But we are working toward priorities – fix the funky uneven parts of the floor, and get the majority down as quickly as possible, especially in the places that get heavy foot traffic.  And it is working.  We have had Torah Yoga and Shema Yoga on the new floor twice so far, even though the edges are not yet done.  Of course, we have had Shabbat services, Hebrew School and Sunday Religious School on the new floor.  We want it in place (as in finished) for the Purim carnival this coming Sunday, the Purim Dinner & Show this Saturday evening, and of course, Lucie Purim Shabbat this Friday.  We hope to make it.

But that means all of the cutting, the rest of the floor repair (about three places to build up the floor – the high spots are leveled now) – and finishing the painting of the doors into the Sanctuary.  We do NOT expect to have the kitchen finished, just neat and organized hopefully.  There are two more walls to paint there.  The anteroom (aka green room) will be carpeted, and there are two doors to paint before that happens, so it may not be finished.  Then there is the bathroom, my office, and a few “little” areas.  My office will be the final project because it is now the storage room for much of what will go elsewhere once the painting and flooring are complete.

So the project becomes a cascade puzzle, with one piece following after another, each with special bits and pieces.  By Pesach (Passover), we hope to have it all done. So what does all of this have to do with God’s Name?  To answer that question, we need to look at what it takes to write a Sefer Torah – a Torah scroll.  —

It is a very sacred task to write a Torah scroll.  The scribe is expected to pray and then declare the holy purpose of writing the scroll.  As a test of the quill, the scribe writes the word “Amalek” on a piece of parchment, which he then blots out with scratches and perhaps by washing it away, to fulfill the requirement to blot out Amalek’s name (see Deut 25:17-19). The writing of God’s Name, however, is the most holy part of the writing.  Before writing God’s Name, the scribe must immerse in a mikvah, a ritual bath.  Because of this extra requirement, plus the requirement to make and extra prayer and declaration regarding the writing of God’s Name, some scribes leave a space for God’s Name in the writing and fill in several of these spaces at one concentrated time.

It is worth noting that we looked at the scroll we were reading this Shabbat and could tell with reasonable certainty that the scribe who penned that scroll did that exact process when that scroll was written.  Before we read the scroll most Shabbat mornings, I invite people to come look at the open scroll so that they can see up close what one looks like.  I expect that I will still do that when our Torah Cam is installed soon, because even with a Torah Cam, there is something about looking at the actual scroll that is so powerful.

SO….back to the floor.  Well, the sides and edges and all the tricky parts that are not done yet DO remind me of the process of writing a scroll.  Certainly, a floor is not holy, although it will make our congregation feel better and more complete.  And because we are the ones putting it down, our youth, our members, board members, and the rabbi, it IS part of our Torah, part of what makes our community so special.

There is a mitzvah that says each person must write (at least part of) a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll.  That act binds a person to the larger Jewish community and links in to the ancient heritage that defines us as a people.  Perhaps laying a tile or three helps bind our youth and our members in a very special way.  When we cut those edge tiles, we will need to remember that even laying a tile floor can be a holy mitzvah, the mitzvah of being a powerful part of our Jewish community, being part of the foundation of OUR congregation.

So, if YOU want to lay a tile or two, you will need to contact the rabbi this week, while we finish the sanctuary and social hall (and maybe the gift shop).  There may well be later opportunities to do some of the kitchen and other rooms, but please let me know, so I can contact you when we are doing it.  In fact, as I write this, I will make the commitment to work with you to find a time that will allow you to be a part of it.  It is not writing God’s Name in a scroll, but it is helping and contributing to our congregation.

Gam zeh Kadosh – This, TOO, is holy.  That very phrase was part of the Yoga meditation this past Shabbat……..

Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

Who are You? An Important Question….

There is a legend in Masonic lore about the Forget-me-not and its role in Nazi Germany.  The legend says that the Masonic order was threatened by Hitler and the Nazi regime and that they wore the forget-me-not pin as a means of identification during the Third Reich’s treacherous years.  This legend, in a number of variations, is perpetuated with heartfelt stories of those days.

There are certainly challenges in the story – no one would have been permitted to wear any pin not specifically sanctioned by the Nazis once they came to power.  The legend also has people in concentration camps wearing it to be able to identify each other in those terrible conditions.  In a concentration camp, any pin – any metal – would have meant terrible things, most likely death of the person(s) wearing the pin.

A little researching brought out the story about the winter “charity” drive collected by the Nazis which they implied would be used to help people in need, but which was actually used to help fund weaponry.  This annual drive featured pins given to those who had donated so that they would not be required to do so a second time.  One year, the Nazis picked this little flower pin for that collection, using an existing mold at a local foundry.  Here the story gets a little Masonic – the foundry had the mold because in 1928 this pin was used as a secondary “brotherly friendship” pin.  The Masons who had these pins would likely have worn them during this collection period to avoid this “charitable tax,” but probably not after that time.  Sometime after the war, these pins became symbolic of the clash between modern Masonic ideals and the now known practices of the Nazis.

There were certainly “Old Prussian” lodges that supported Hitler and would not admit Jews.  There were also documented clashes between Lodges of other countries that were open to all having challenges with some German lodges over the admittance and treatment of Masons who were Jewish (and other non-Christians).  It is not my purpose here to delve into any of these issues and the related truth and rewriting of legend, other than very peripherally as it relates to the point I am seeking to explore in this particular blog.

There are several important pieces that fell together over the last few days.  The events spanned many years, but as is often the case in such insight moments, it was the interconnectedness that sparked the topic.  It started with a veteran telling about his military and masonic experiences in post-War Germany and his own experience of the forget-me-not.  What struck me the most of his talk was something that he said happened just a few years back.

He related that he was telling his story at a Holocaust Survivors event one day.  After his talk, a couple of women survivors came up to him and explained to him that part of the story could not be true: no one could survive the camps wearing such a pin.  Instead, one of the women explained, they would weave a single blue thread in their prisoner clothing to identify each other.  Before you say anything – it is most likely that these women would have been members of Eastern Star, one of the coed Masonic-related orders.

Yes, there were Eastern Star members who would have been Jewish back then, and certainly such a means of identification might have been possible, although even that would have been bold and a measure of defiance in the camps.

Part two: the anniversary of the internment of American citizens who were of Japanese ancestry along with other Japanese immigrants in the wake of Pearl Harbor at places like Manzanar.  For a youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fqd-Kh_zpdA

For a view of Manzanar today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb4EeFEV5zM

For a brief talk by George Takei on this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yogXJl9H9z0

What struck me in my research on Manzanar and similar camps was the differences and the similarities of the pictures with what was happening at the same time in Germany.  Here are some pictures of the rounding up and internment at Manzanar.

Yes, there are vast differences – and yet, it also opens a window, perhaps, into the mindset of that time – that people thought it was okay to round up citizens and others and put them in camps.  It may possibly explain why Americans and others were not as horrified as some of us might have wanted them to be at what was happening in Germany.

I find it most disturbing that events such as these are not taught to our children.  It is hard to find much at all about such times and events in American history.  Manzanar and similar camps are just the tip of the iceberg on things we have done as a country that are not shining examples.  However, we risk so much by not teaching about these things and making sure that their “Never Again” is just as important as others.  When we ignore such things, we make it possible for history to repeat itself.

This leaves the question of how should we teach and treat such things?  I talked today at the Four Chaplains Service at Veteran’s Park that we are a country that has made the commitment to keep working on our ideals and make America the country it can be.  We are not there yet – there are still too many injustices and fears and prejudices rampant today – but we are better than we were.  And we are still working on it.

Part 3: From my Tucson days.  There was a group of German officers who came and spent a painful and yet healing day talking with survivors.  Much of the activities that day centered around the Jewish History Museum in Tuscon and I was on their Board.  I spent a fair amount of the day talking with several of those officers as one of the organizers of the event.  The conversation that has stuck with me the most out of that day was a bit of candor from one of the senior officers.

He was talking about how, particularly in the military, they struggle with how Germans could have been complicit in such things, recognizing full well that the military played key roles in making it all happen.  For him, such things do not sit well with his own perception of the things that define German identity (today).  To him, allowing someone like Hitler and his ilk to come to power and do such devastation, would be unthinkable.  While we might wonder why there was not more resistance, he wondered why there was not more objection and resistance on the part of the general population and its leaders.  He was part of a group that was working to see what needs to be done to put safeguards in place so that such a thing could not happen again in Germany.

Part 4: Talking with a colleague in Bern, Germany.  We were talking about the forget-me-not pin, what is likely true, what is likely post-war legend building.  She, too, is the daughter of survivors, only she was raised in Germany after the War.  She is also a member of Eastern Star and comes from a family that has a long Masonic tradition.  Interestingly, the service organizations in Europe are struggling in many of the same ways that such groups struggle here in the US.

When I related the story about the survivors and the blue thread, she paused for a moment and we talked about resourcefulness in extremely adverse circumstances.  She could see such a means of identification being used and being a source of strength for prisoners.  Today, she could see it as an important piece to relate to others as well.  Today, that bit of possibility will become part of a shared identity for those that will hear about it and incorporate it.

Conclusion:  All of the parts are different bits and pieces that connect to how each of us shapes and molds our own identities.  We each have multiple and our identities serve very important basic needs of our being.  We construct our identities out of who and what we are and do, both in the past and in the present time.  We add depth and character by acknowledging the challenges, sifting through our own legends, as well as the things we wish could have been true and are not.  When we build a true identity, it is not perfect, yet it is perfectly us.

We all have more to learn, more to improve.  Good judgement comes from experience.  Often, experience comes from poor judgement, sometimes from simple errors or happenstance.  When we own the different possibilities and work toward being who and what we truly want to be and can be, then we are doing the most important part of healthy identity work, even Godly work.

Thanks for reading!

Torah Scrolls, 70 F, 3+ Mi, Great Day

Torah walk 1

If we had put an order in for a perfect day for walking the Torah scrolls from the Lakeside almost home to our Oak Hammock Plaza (California Campus) home, the only thing we could have done differently was to make it one or maybe two degrees warmer.  However, the actual temperature was truly perfect for the walk.  No one who walked was cold or hot, no one suffered any ill effects from the weather – and THAT is NOT something I expect from an outing like this, so it really was perfect.

A three mile walk.  Long?  No, not really.  We walked it quite leisurely with two major stops for drinks and snacks (and other necessary things) along the way.  The walk was timed to be over the “regular” Religious School time so that the students would be able to participate with parents and any other adults who work during the week.  We had made provisions for people to “shadow” us with cars and carry water and snacks, especially for the two planned major stops along the way.

The distance between the two locations was not that great, just over 2 and a half miles if we could have walked straight from one to the other.  But we needed to cross the turnpike (safely) and chose a relatively simple route with sidewalks, good roadways, crosswalks, and other good safety features.  That added almost a mile to our walk, but it was easily done within the two hours of school time.

The turnout for walkers was lighter than I had hoped, with less than a third of the students arriving.  Some parents were concerned that the forecast temperatures would be too cold (they turned out warmer than the forecast), others were out of town, or “with the other parent,” so, as is often the case, there were good reasons for those not walking.  Some young adults, some parents, a small, but motivated group gathered.

A brief safety talk, a reminder about why it is traditional to walk Torah scrolls and other ritual objects from Temple home to Temple home, and we were off on our way, only a few minutes after the designated 10 AM start time.  The two-year old was snug in his stroller.  We even had a retired/rescued Greyhound and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi accompanying us that we declared as symbols of the animals that walked with our ancestors.  A blast on the shofar and off we went.

Along the way, there were many interesting discussions.  One interesting one was about handling a fear of heights (as we walked the bridge that crosses the turnpike) and how to help each other face fears and accomplish tasks anyway.  Another interesting talk was about Iguanas, Key West, climate in PSL, how long it took for the particular Iguana we saw to get as big as it was, and why it needed to sit on the abutment to collect some warmth.

As we turned north on Del Rio, we took our first stop for water refills and snacks.  We also decided that the Corgi, with its much shorter legs, should probably ride the rest of the way.  The rest of us set off.

The next leg pleased me even more in that the youth started picking up some of the litter and collecting it in bags.  They announced that it should not be along the road and that as long as someone was not carrying one of the scrolls, they could be picking things up.  One the first leg, only I had picked up a few pieces and thrown them in trash cans without saying anything.  That the youth started doing this on their own made me very proud of them.

At our next stop, they threw away the sizable bags of trash they had collected, refilled water and snacks, rested a bit, and then we set out for the final leg – California Blvd.  Amid adult cheers of “California Dreaming,” we knew we were getting close.  Some of the young adults started talking about local memories since they had lived nearby.

A brief discussion with a police officer in an unmarked car earned us a wonderful escort from an officer in a patrol car the remainder of the way.  PSL police made sure we arrived safely and easily.  We thanked them as we entered the parking lot of Oak Hammock Plaza and entered our new home.

We put the Torah scrolls in the Ark and placed the menorah and chanukiah on top of the Ark.  A final blow on the shofar marked we had completed the journey.  We acknowledged the gift of our new home and our safe arrival by singing “Shehecheyanu,” (A source of blessing are You, Adonai, sovereign of time and space, who has sustained us and kept us alive through this season).

Then, of course, we feasted on pizza!  It was a great day!

Thank you to everyone who helped in any and every way.

 

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 biblicalarchaeology.org 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.

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/

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.

http://nleresources.com/2013/01/the-jewish-birth-rate-crisis/

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.