Local Congregation Embraces Green Philosophy

Shmita_Banner[1]— by Gari J. Weilbacher

Since biblical times, the Jewish people have taken every seventh year in the land of Israel as a Shmita, “sabbatical,” for the land and for forgiving debts.

At Mishkan Shalom of Philadelphia, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, with the partnership of Rabbi Yael Levy, staff, President David Piver and the many lay leaders and teachers, will lead the congregation through a year where each aspect of congregational life will embrace the Shmita philosopy.

“Our strategic plan has been aligned with Shmita in all facets of life, including adult education, religious school, spiritual practice, social action and sustainability,” Zevit said.

If we can eat more locally grown food; get our students to recycle more; have our religious school families carpool more; use recyclable products for our meals and onegs, “joys,” then as a congregation and as a Jewish community we will be able to reduce our footprint on the earth.

In addition to adopting Shmita principles and practices for the year 5775, the congregation is joining the Jewish Environmental Network to explore ways to embrace the fundamentals of Shmita in everyday life and living, not just during a Shmita year, but for the foreseeable future.

247954_365651916850399_757209207_nMore information about Mishkan Shalom’s Shmita initiatives, and a complete schedule of services for adults, teens and children, can be found at the congregation’s website.

To learn more about Shmita, read Hazon’s Shmita Sourcebook, written and compiled by former Shmita Project Manager Yigal Deutscher, with the support of Anna Hanau and Nigel Savage.

The Shmita Sourcebook is designed to encourage participants to think critically about the Shmita Cycle – its values, challenges, and opportunities – and how this tradition might be applied in a modern context to support building healthier and more sustainable Jewish communities today. The Shmita Sourcebook is a 120-page sourcebook that draws on a range of texts from within Jewish tradition and time, tracing the development and evolution of Shmita from biblical, historical, rabbinic, and contemporary perspectives.

The Shmita Sourcebook is designed to be accessible to people with little Jewish background, as well as rigorous and challenging for someone with more extensive Jewish learning. Our intention for the sourcebook is to offer an educational background so we can collectively be exploring the possibilities of Shmita together. We do hope this will serve in establishing a shared, common ground. From this place, we can continue the work, expanding upon our own curiosities and understanding of Shmita, and creatively apply the values of this tradition to our own lives in all the diverse ways that are possible. We hope you enjoy the sourcebook, and it finds good use in your hands, and in your community.

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.

Open Your Tents

IHN Executive Director Rachel Falkove reads to one of the children in the Interfaith Hospitality Network program.

— Elisha Sawyer

At this time of renewal, follow the teaching of Abraham and Sarah.

A number of synagogues around the Greater Philadelphia area are actively participating in a creative solution to the growing problem of family homelessness and in doing so are following in the Abrahamic tradition of offering hospitality. Through their involvement with Interfaith  Hospitality Network/ Family Promise and its affiliates throughout Pennsylvania, synagogue members are bringing about Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).

An example of such a network is Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (NPIHN), which formed 19 years ago. Germantown Jewish Centre, along with several area churches, banded together to take turns opening up their buildings to homeless families. Since then the non-profit organization, with a core staff of three and a modest network of support staff and area congregations, has moved 275 families – approximately 770 individuals – from homelessness to stability. The program proves to be successful as over 92% of families that have completed the NPIHN program do not return to homelessness.

More after the jump.

Germantown Jewish Centre member Ellen Ufberg helped Octavia decorate her new home upon relocation to permanent house from staying at Interfaith Hospitality Network congregations. She continues to mentor Octavia and her 3-year-old son Keyon.

Rachel Falkove, Executive Director of NPIHN, attributes this success to congregational involvement. “Without the congregations, we wouldn’t be able to do this work,” says Falkove. “We wouldn’t have local space within the community to accommodate the families. But more important than the congregational space are the congregational volunteers who offer companionship, encouragement, mentoring, and networking opportunities.”

After being accepted into the NPIHN program, families are offered career and education planning, financial literacy instruction, parenting education, individualized therapy, and material support. During their stay with the program, calm and quiet emergency housing is provided by a network of 30 synagogue, church, and mosque congregations. Congregations that do not have the physical space to host families may also participate as a co-host or a partner congregation. “It’s a great way to get to know who your neighbors are,” says Falkove.

“We are the custodians of a building that can serve quite well as a temporary home to homeless families,” says Rabbi Kevin Bernstein, Education Director of the Germantown Jewish Centre, which has been working with NPIHN since its inception. Rabbi Bernstein cites references in the book of Genesis to Abraham and Sarah’s commitment to hospitality to strangers.

Falkove, a member and former president of the Germantown Jewish Centre explains, “The injunction to ‘Remember you were a stranger in the land of Egypt’ means something. These programs help remind us why we’re here, why we’re in the city, why it’s important to continually put attention into our own community and to use the community as a springboard to make the world a better place.”

With the contribution of members of two synagogues in the network, Mishkan Shalom and Germantown Jewish Centre, NPIHN’s families are not simply given a temporary place to stay. Members cook dinner for the families (12-15 individuals) every night during their stay with the synagogue. They dine with the families and spend the evening at the residence, helping with homework or simply socializing. A volunteer from the congregation also stays overnight at the host residence, acting as a liaison between the families, NPIHN, and the congregation.

“Though our regular contact with homeless families, we have become familiar with the real faces of the individual homeless,” says Rabbi Bernstein. “This has helped dispel the myth that the homeless are emotionally or physically disabled or incompetent. They’re simply poor and without a home.” Raising awareness about the reality of homelessness in Philadelphia and nationally is crucial, as family homelessness is on the rise, creating a host of other social and economic problems.

The children in these families have switched schools multiple times. Children from homeless families often lack the resources to participate fully in school and fall behind their peers or simply become truant altogether. “Every time a child needs to relocate to a different community, change schools, change friends, and lose connections, the child loses several months of academic progress. There is also a great deal of psychological damage done when combined with stressed parents, and the prevalence of reactive attachment disorder, that is difficulty in forming lasting relationships,” explains Falkove.

Approximately 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness at least once a year. Families with children make up 34% of the homeless population and this number is growing. The City of Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing estimates that on any given night in Philadelphia, 1,000 children stay with their families in a shelter. Countless others wander around uncounted, couch-surfing to avoid being in shelters.

“Children who grow up homeless are more likely to experience homelessness as adults,” says Falkove. “Our ultimate goal is to end the tragic cycle of homelessness for each family. As the Talmud teaches us, ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’ And so we celebrate every success story.”

Other IHN’s in the Greater Philadelphia area with synagogue involvement include the Mainline IHN, which works with the Beth David Reform Congregation; the Ambler IHN, which works with Beth Or and Or Hadash; and the Delaware County IHN which worked with the Suburban Jewish Community Center B’nai Aaron.

For those interested in helping to end family homelessness, Rabbi Bernstein recommends getting involved with your local IHN (for a list of local affiliates, visit www.familypromise.org), volunteering at community kitchens and shelters, and identifying advocacy campaigns involving aimed at public policy solutions to homelessness. For more information on NPIHN, contact Rachel Falkove.