The Muslims of Victoria, a small city in southern Texas, have experienced the healing power of kindness in the face of devastating cruelty. Their mosque, the Victoria Islamic Center, was destroyed by an arsonist on January 28, the morning after President Trump issued his original executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations. While the investigation into the fire continues, officials are not yet able to call the arson a hate crime. [Read more…]
For the book lovers on your Hanukkah gift list, reviewers Rabbi Goldie Milgram and E. Bub offer the following suggestions:
Give Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy on the first night of Hanukkah, and then discuss it on the eighth night. A delightful short volume based in the lifetime of most living grandparents. It’s perfect for grandchildren and grandparents as a shared experience. Through this story, they will love and get to know each other – and Hanukkah – in new and delightful ways. -Rabbi Goldie Milgram
A simultaneously delightful and poignant novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer pulls the curtain back on the competitive nature of academia. Discover how a prominent, fictional female mathematician gets the last laugh in a field of envious male colleagues. The Jewish mourning practice, known as shiva, which ensures those in mourning are softly supported and not isolated, serves as the backdrop for the shenanigans in this spicy offering. -Rabbi Goldie Milgram
New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, edited by Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel, inspires good Jewish values across the generations through contemporary stories by over 40 authors. The book covers the full spectrum of Jewish life, personal orientation and family structure. Each tale is paired with a stimulating guide for reflection, discussion and action. -E. Bub
— by Miki Young
For many spiritual seekers, the complaint about Judaism is that it doesn’t seem like it has what it takes to be a springboard for a life of meaningful relevance. The lack of easily accessible contemporary theology seems to create a great divide between honoring the ancient and finding a way to appreciate the practice of Judaism as an integral part of everyday life. Other traditions and practices such as Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness seem to give both solace and a sense of growing personal empowerment that many Jewish practitioners seek in a harried time.
More after the jump.
Mussar, a daily spiritual practice based on an ethical concern for others does, in fact, tether that bridge between Jewish spirituality and religion. Developed in 18th century Eastern Europe, Mussar which literally means “discipline” offers practitioners a way of looking at the world which transforms everyday actions into moments of holiness.
“I wanted to feel more spiritual about my life,” said Phyllis Jacobs, a student of Mussar Leadership, a program of Beth Zion Beth Israel in Philadelphia for the last four years. “But as a Jew I didn’t really know exactly what that meant. With Mussar, I’ve discovered a Jewish spiritual discipline with guideposts and reminders that help me to look at what’s important to me in the world, how I treat people. Mussar helps me to see something everyday that makes me feel like I am connected to something bigger than myself. In many ways, Mussar helps me to navigate my everyday life in a way that makes me more the person I really want to be.”
The pursuit of spirituality, defined as living a life that seems to offer a sense of something “bigger than oneself,” is a commonly expressed sentiment by those who attend the Mussar Leadership groups, held throughout the area and via videoconference in different parts of the country. The tenuous connection often raised is how does practicing Judaism as an individual or even in a minyan really set the groundwork for that spiritual connection?
“Mussar is an incredible impactful practice for all of us who are living in an ethically, spiritually bankrupt society,” said Rabbi Ira Stone, who is considered one of the few contemporary Mussar theologians and authors in North America. The daily practice creates a very centered sense of mindfulness with regard to how we impact each other and the responsibility we must take for our own behavior and for each other. “Mussar is not the end but the beginning of a spiritual path,” he added. “It is a compelling reason for people to reengage in classical Jewish text and practice in a way that is often missing in the non-orthodox world. And, I think through that engagement, we could actually save the world.”
The practice of Mussar is “catching on.” Synagogues of many different denominations have lectures, workshops and ongoing classes. At Mussar Leadership those classes are offered at synagogues and independent groups that are identified as Conservative, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated. Currently there is also a group of Rabbis in LA who are studying Mussar for their personal and communal development as well as training to be facilitators of the practice.
Many group participants said that their connection to Judaism has deepened as a result of attending Mussar groups. “As part of this group, my level of study and interest in Judaism has certainly increased,” said Carol Daniels, who is training to be a Mussar madrich or group leader. “I now study Torah and have a daily reflection of gratitude that has allowed me to use my own religion as a guide in my life that wasn’t available to me before.”
In addition to the benefit of becoming much more mindful about the responsibility a person has to society as a whole and to the individuals around him or her, participants say that the experience has given them a much deeper connection of community.
For Martin Jacobs who participates in a Mussar Leadership group at Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, what has been most valuable is finding connections with others and opening himself up to share the experiences of day-to-day life in a very safe, supportive environment. “The insights others are able to give me about how I choose to live and act give me a very different viewpoint than I have by myself,” he said. His fellow group member Marianne Adler agrees. “The group is key,” she said. “When I miss it I don’t like it. Being part of the group is essential because I get to listen to everybody else and everybody has different things to work on and everybody brings something different to the group.”
Mussar Leadership groups are held at Beth Zion Beth Israel in center city and around the area. For more information, email info@Mussarleadership.org or call 215-735-5148.
Additionally, Reclaiming Judaism is offering distance-learning certification programs for Jewish Educators that incorporate training in Mussar title 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah and Mussar.
New Skills for Jewish Educators through Distance Learning
3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar is a new distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders. This two-year program is designed to advance the skills of Jewish educators, camp counselors, and youth leaders yearning to effectively engage students and transmit the meaning, relevance and joy of Jewish learning and living. Training will focus on the skills of Jewish storytelling and spiritual development (hashpa’ah), coupled with depth studies in the texts, practices and methods of mussar (ethical development) and mitzvah. Core faculty are Peninnah Schram, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Arthur Strimling (and colleagues). Contact: email@example.com.
Details after the jump.
Sessions will be weekly, via experiential video-conference-call learning, monthly one-to-one supervision calls, and an annual retreat. 52 mitzvot will be coupled with middot (character attributes that can be cultivated) and matched with a significant repertoire of stories drawn from midrash and folktales, as well as contemporary Jewish literature.
This is a great way to deepen learning, make new friends with colleagues and delight in the methods of experiential education that will be provided by our team of master teachers.
Option: In addition to providing Maggid Certification, those who wish Maggid Educator Ordination through the lineage of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi will remain a third year in supervised practice and study with Rabbi Goldie Milgram and other ReclaimingJudaism.org clergy members.
The first 3 Mmm training cohort will commence with an opening retreat late in the summer of 2013. For information as it becomes available e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Peninnah Schram, storyteller, teacher, author and recording artist, is Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She is author of twelve books of Jewish folktales, including The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and recorded a CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery. Mitzvah Stories (Reclaiming Judaism Press) was published in her honor. Peninnah is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator (1995) awarded by The Covenant Foundation. She has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award “For sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.”
- Arthur Strimling is Maggid HaMakom at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Performer, writer, director, and author, he has appeared at venues including Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, and across the US, Europe, and Latin America; and has been featured on NPR and the PBS series “In The Prime.” He is the Founding Artistic Director of Roots&Branches Intergenerational Theater and author of Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater. He has been in residence at MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Jewish Museum.
- Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founded and directs the 501(c)(3) non-profit Reclaiming Judaism. A Covenant Award Finalist for excellence as a Jewish educator, she is best known for her inspiring programs and innovative resources that prepare Jewish educators, clergy and families to guide students towards more meaningfully living and loving their Judaism. A widely published author, internationally acclaimed storyteller and workshop leader, who has served as a religious school teacher & principal, BJE director, Federation executive & faculty member of several seminaries as well as a seminary dean, NBC innovator/anchor/producer and presently as Judaism Editor for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.
Reclaiming Judaism offers innovative resources & programs for meaningful Jewish living world-wide. The newest book from ReclaimingJudaism.org, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning is presently being featured on the Moment Magazine Blog here: http://momentmagazine.wordpres…
To receive an application or inquire about 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar a distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders e-mail Rabbi Milgram at email@example.com.
Editor’s Introduction: The statistics in the article by Tami Lehman-Wilzig that follows point to the mitzvah-centered courage that it takes to adopt. The range of feelings and vignettes she shares help us all appreciate the mitzvah of kavod habriot, honor for all who are created.
The Other Side of Adoption
— by Tami Lehman-Wilzig
For over a decade my husband has been urging to me to write the book The Other Side of Adoption. “You’ve got to tell the real story – that it’s no picnic.” Shuddering at the thought, I always answer: “Too painful, too personal and it will only hurt the boys.”
More after the jump.
I have continually shrugged off the suggestion even as we endured unimaginable nightmares from both sons, including criminal activity, heavy drug use followed by rehabilitation and (thankfully) entry into a normal life of marriage and family, forced hospitalization in a mental institution due to extreme psychosis (leading to a diagnosis of a severe mental illness), followed by a long and complex rehabilitation process.
Have you caught your breath? Because these few examples only represent the height of the pain. What preceded was years of unpredictable ADD (son 1) and ADHD (son 2) behavior going way beyond the norm, often including thrill and danger seeking adventures that would lead any mother to her own private mental ward.
Fortunately, along the way I discovered that I am not alone. Long-term studies show that 75% of all adopted kids have serious behavioral problems, including various forms of addiction. Even worse, 25% of all adoptees suffer from mental illness. Based on modern-day research, scientists have discarded the theory that environment makes all the difference. Forget nurture over nature. It’s mostly genes, genes and more genes with just a smidgen of socialization.
Do I love my boys? Of course. Despite all the pain, we have never given up on them. And that’s a good thing because two recent back-to-back events with one of our sons finally gave me reason me to write The Other Side of Adoption – the side I’ve been patiently waiting for.
My husband was in the States on business. I invited two young adult, female relatives to “cousin sit” me for Shabbat and included our younger son and his girlfriend for the Friday night dinner. They arrived early, bearing in hand the first surprise – flowers.
“Don’t expect me to do any of the bracha (blessing) things,” my confirmed atheist muttered, handing me the bouquet.
“Don’t worry,” I replied.
To my second surprise, they joined the girls and myself for a rousing rendition of Lechah Dodi, after which we adjourned to the Shabbat table. Shalom Aleichem finished, I turned the Siddur (prayer book) page, noting that “since there’s no one to say Eshet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor” traditionally sung by the husband to her wife before Friday night dinner), I’ll say Kiddush (the blessing over wine).”
Then came surprise #3. “Who says there’s no one to sing Eshet Chayil to you?” With all his heart, my troubadour sang my praises while I unsuccessfully tried to hold back the tears. Finished, he rose and recited the Kiddush, then mumbled: “You can do the motzi lekhem (blessing over bread).”
A cloud-nine Shabbat? You bet, only to be bested on Motzei Shabbat when he initiated a mother-son talk on relationships. “You know,” he said in the middle, “don’t take this wrong but it’s sad you never had your own children. You and Abba moved from one country to another. You had to adjust to a new culture, speak a different language… and… you’ve gone through a lot with us. Still, you stood up to all the challenges. It’s a shame you could never hand down those strong genes to another generation.”
Well, blow me over. How do you respond to such raw honesty, clarity and insight? By telling the truth. If we hadn’t adopted these two children we never would have understood what it really means to accept the other in our midst. We would never have truly understood the pain of abandonment, the agony of mental illness. We never would have learned how to persevere, how to turn bad situations into positive experiences and how to give unconditional love in the deepest sense of the word.
“You know,” I answered, “you’re right. It’s too bad that we never had children of our own, but if we had, then we never would have had the zechut — privilege — of bringing you up.”
That’s The Other Side of Adoption.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig is an award-winning, Jewish content children’s book author. Visit her website.
What Jewish person can live with the knowledge over 18% of Philadelphians live below the poverty line? Many suffer malnutrition due to poverty; over 12% of Jewish Philadelphians are impoverished to the point of needing help with affording food. There are things you can do immediately, beginning with watching the 4 minute video on the right.
List of things to do follows the jump.
- Consider volunteering for, or, establishing fresh produce Gleaning projects that ensure food banks have more than canned and dried food to offer.
These projects bring volunteers to glean for the poor what the machine harvesters miss, which is tons of fresh produce! After gleaning, the food is brought to food banks that are accessible by public transportation, unlike most farms. Those making the food accessible to poor individuals, families and elderly. These gleaning projects are great to engage your congregation, youth group, Hillel, fraternity, etc. Living on cheap canned goods, which are full of salt and low in fiber, is a huge nutrition issue for our poor and elderly. Two initiatives require your attention, both can make a huge difference:
- Letter writing and calls: to allow a higher savings ceiling for those seeking the $35/week Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers that are provided under Pennsylvania State supervision. The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition is taking the lead, and with them the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia continues to work with the United Way of Eastern Pennsylvania and the Coalition Against Hunger to influence Governor Tom Corbett and Gary Alexander, who heads Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, to have vastly greater compassion and program regulations here in Pennsylvania.
What if we ask these two men to volunteer to live for a few months on the levels of savings and possessions they are recommending. Lobbying efforts have already affected them slightly, moving their initial proposal: $2,000 total savings per regular household and for households with elderly or disabled members, no more than $3,200, up to $5,500 and $9,000. Imagine, that’s all you can keep as your personal “safety net” for the rest of your life to qualify for help with fresh vegetables! An impoverished 87-year old Jewish Torresdale resident has even filed an on-line Change.org petition to increase the power of protest.
- A third step is to support green space and communities gardens, such as through CityHarvest.org, and to supply food pantries city-wide, such as
The Raymond & Miriam Klein JCC Mitzvah Food Project Pantry, where “Clients are welcome to access our Northeast Philadelphia pantry once a month on Tuesdays from 1:30-3:00pm. Please call in the morning before coming to the pantry. For more information on how to access the pantry or make food donations, please contact Lisa Sandler at 215-698-7300 x197 or firstname.lastname@example.org“.
Consider Gleaning Projects and immediate activism with the legislature as your next mitzvah. The state hearing on SNAP is March 15th – the time to send your letters and make calls is now.
In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light
When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?
A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.
More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.
Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.
Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.
Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.
Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding
As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.
To the best of my recollection the questions were:
1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and their meaning to the best of your knowledge.
2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.
3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?
4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?
5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?
Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.
What Do These Symbols Tell Us?
It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.
The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.
We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.
Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It
Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.
More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor
Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.
The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.
What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.
The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.
On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.
Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.
Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable
We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.
To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:
On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…
Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…
Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…
The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?
By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…
The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…
The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…
The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.
How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure
My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.
My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.
Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.