50 Years After Standing at Sinai

50 years ago my Dad entered into the covenant of the Jewish people. 50 years ago he stood at Sinai. But he was there long before that. He was at Sinai with all of us when we received Torah.

This is the blessing I wrote for him to be given to him at Temple Sinai in Denver, as he celebrates his 50th anniversary from when he chose to become a Jew. Thank you Rabbi Rheins and Chazzan Brian Zyve for sharing this blessing with him and being my hands.

On the 50th Anniversary of My Dad, Chuck Williams, Avraham ben Avraham v’Sarah, Choosing to enter into the Covenant of the Jewish People

June 1, 2014

Normally at this point Dad, I would look deep into your eyes and just talk to you. But I’m not able to be there with you tonight, so Rabbi Rheins, Cantor Zive, please look deep into my Dad’s eyes and share this with him.

51 years ago, you and Mom were married by a Justice of the Peace in Georgia. There was no Chuppah, as you were not Jewish. Your parents were not with you, as you eloped. But it was true love and you both knew you wanted to spend the rest of your lives together.

During that first year, you made a decision, fully encouraged by and supported by your Mom, who was Catholic, a religion you never fully embraced. You started learning with a Rabbi in Miami and you completed the conversion process. And on your one year wedding anniversary, you and Mom were married under the chuppah by a Rabbi. Mom was very pregnant with Shelly but you both wanted your children to enter into this world with two Jewish parents.

Dad, this is the Shabbat before Shavuot, when we all stood at Sinai together receiving Torah. We are taught that every soul was present, even those who were yet to be, stood there listening to the words as they came forth from Sinai. You were there; you stood next to me and held my hand.

On Shavuot we read from the Book of Ruth for many reasons, but the greatest, because she was a woman who never left her Mother in Law, Naomi, after the greatest tragedy befell her. Her husband was taken for her and Naomi told her that she should return to her people as Ruth was not an Israelite. But Ruth said, No. “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and Your God my God.”

Ruth was the first to choose to be a Jew; to embrace Torah and the Jewish people, just like you did 50 years ago.

Dad, you held Torah in your arms, recited the Shema and announced to the congregation then and your congregation now that you are a Jew. That this is your people. Then, you held Shelly and me in your arms and along with Mom promised to raise us as Jews, giving us Torah, bringing us to Chuppah and ensuring that we would do acts of loving kindness. And you held your grandchildren, Dahvi, Mason, Yoni and Anna, and made that promise to guide me and Matt, Shelly and Mark, so that we too may give our children the same gift you gave to us.

It is from your gentle arms and your strong heart and soul that you have blessed Shelly and me, and especially Mom, with a loving Jewish home and a promise that we always know we are never alone. You entered into the covenant of the Jewish people and not only accepted for yourself the gift of Torah, but you gave that gift of Torah for generations to come.

You stood at Sinai with us, I know, you held my hand there. And tonight, you stand with the congregation where you raised Shelly and me and together, we all bless you. As Rabbi Rheins and Chazzan Zive place their hands on your head and bless you with words of Torah, please feel my hands, Shelly’s hands, Mom’s hands, the hands of your grandchildren, and the hands of generations past and future as you are blessed because you Dad, blessed us when you said, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” you blessed us with the greatest blessing of all, Torah.

With all of our hearts and souls, we love you and are grateful to you and we celebrate with you.

Mazal tov Dad! With love and blessings – Heidi

Healing and Strengthened with Friends


I come to the CCAR Convention every year for many reasons. I want to learn, refine, rediscover and build rabbinic skills, and I want to spend time with my colleagues and friends. And this year especially, I not only wanted to but truly NEEDED to be with my colleagues and friends.

It’s been a long six weeks since the fire at TBS that not only destroyed our kitchen, but also brought our building to its skeleton because of the smoke and soot damage.  For me, my entire staff and amazing lay leadership, days have been long and involved, and to be honest, we are all exhausted. Coming to CCAR was a welcome moment to step away and hope to fulfill the goals I set out with every year. But this conference would become something more.

As in this week’s Torah portion during which the priest is called to the house or bedside of someone with tza’ara (a visible growth or skin disease) he was expected to investigate if the person was in fact clean once again, in other words cured. This portion is one of two that is challenging because we automatically fall into the “gross factor” and challenge the portions relevance. However, there are positive blessings as the priest was not only the spiritual practitioner for the people, he was also the physician, seeking healing for anyone in his community. He brought support and strength.

This year’s CCAR is filled with many “priests” (aka, colleagues and friends) who seek to bring healing and invite me, and actually all of us to recognize that the tza’arot that plague our lives are not insurmountable. That they can be cleaned and we can be made whole and able to embrace a new normal.

I have been overwhelmed by the love and support of every CCAR colleague and friend who read my post about our TBS fire and have offered support on all levels. Many of you I know and some are new to me. Each of you are a part of my rabbinic family and your compassion is felt deeply. Everyone of you have overwhelmed me in the most amazing way and I am feeling inspired, healed, whole and ready for the next chapter of our congregations journey toward recovery.

And the support knows no boundaries. Last night, 54 rabbis shaved their heads, participating in St. Baldrick’s 36 Shave for the Brave in loving support of our colleagues and friends Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer and in memory of their son, Sammy, z’l, who lost his battle to leukemia in December. Last night we gathered to support those who shaved (and I even wielded the shears for one shavee) as we celebrated raising over $575,000 (and that number continues to grow) toward childhood cancer research. We also mourned because  this event reminds us that too many children are dying. While some may say this is only a drop in the bucket, we know that every drop counts and eventually the bucket will be filled and we pray no family will ever have to lose another child to cancer.

We come to the CCAR convention to learn, grow and yes, to heal. And together, we find it and create the moments. And tomorrow, we will leave stronger, more whole, and blessed. I know I am.

What I Shared with My CCAR Colleagues

I shared this posting with my CCAR Colleagues and am so grateful for their love and support!

Dear Colleagues and Friends,
Six weeks ago our congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, suffered a fire in our building. What started as a kitchen fire has completely destroyed our Sanctuary, Social Hall and Administrative Office building. For those of you who have experienced a fire, you know that the smoke and soot can wreck even more havoc than the flames. Our building is down to the studs. My office has been packed out and I am waiting to hear the fate of my library. All of our Torah scrolls were removed shortly after the fire was extinguished, but they have sustained damage and we are looking at possibly having to replace between 2-4 of our scrolls. All of our prayer books were destroyed and we have since ordered new Mishkan T’filah from CCAR Press. We have also placed an order for Mishkan HaNefesh, but realize that we are going to have a shortage of machzorim this High Holy Days.

Fortunately, our school building is fine and we, the staff, have been sharing space with one another. (Let’s just say, I’ve had a lot of coffee meetings at Starbucks and I should consider switching to decaf!) We are hoping to move into our temporary office trailer next week. For the first few weeks, we were the wandering Jews of Orange County and grateful for the congregations who opened their doors to us to share Shabbat. We have now taken up a more permanent residence with the LDS Stake Center very close to TBS.

I am turning to you, my colleagues asking that if you are able to support our rebuilding efforts in any way, it will be greatly appreciated. We are looking for financial assistance as well as suggestions for grants we should apply for or people we should approach. I am also looking for any congregations who might have any extra Gates of Repentance that we can use for these upcoming High Holy Days to please let me know.

Yes, we were in the middle of a capital campaign when the fire took place. Now we have a large gap we are looking to fill. We are very fortunate that we have a very good insurance policy, but as you might know, that will not fill the full financial void. Not only are we trying to fulfill the original vision that was going to revitalize our education building and administrative offices, but now we have a great amount of work to do to bring our congregation back into the sanctuary. I appreciate that we support one another and I am grateful for all the love and concern I’ve already received from so many colleagues in our region.

Thank you all so much!
Heidi Cohen
Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana, California
www.tbsoc.com if you would like to see more about the fire as well as photos

A Jewish Center of Life, Learning and Connections in Orange County, CA

Arriving at #CCAR14

It’s a gathering of over 700 rabbis in one place.  An awesome experience every year with opportunities to study, teach, pray with, and connect with colleagues.  And it all takes place starting in just a few hours.

Some of us have already arrived and being from the west coast, are wide awake at 1:53 am. Morning will come soon enough and meetings will begin, (I’m honored to serve on the CCAR National Board) and learning will commence. Not to mention, much coffee  will be consumed because we will not be sleeping. Too many people to catch up with as most of us talk throughout the year but this is the one time we get to see one another face to face. And who wants to sleep when someone pulls out a guitar in the lobby and all we want to do is sing all night!

So let the 125th CCAR National Convention begin.  There will be great programs, amazing conversations, and thoughtful challenges to help us be better rabbis. (And I’m feeling good that all this is true, I am on the committee who helped plan it).

Follow us on Twitter – #CCAR14, read my blog and many others and check out what happens when 700 Reform rabbis get together in one place! Yeah, this is going to be awesome!

You’ll Get Through This

As I laid next to JediYeled, putting him to bed, he looked at me and said, “you’ll get through this!”

Does he see the stress on my face and hear it in my voice over these past two weeks since the fire at TBS? Yes, he’s acutely aware of where I am.  So often my little boy knows exactly how I’m feeling.

I looked at him and said, “Yes, I will…we will. This will only make me stronger.”

And then he said, “Chazak, Chazak, v’neet’chazeik – be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened!”

Dang, he’s smart! This Shabbat we finished reading the book of Exodus. And as we finish reading a book of Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, v’neet’chazeik – be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened!” I don’t think JediYeled knew we were reading Parashat Pekudei, but he sensed it. And we start a new month, Adar 2. Another ending.  And a new secular month, March.

While there are endings, there are many great beginnings too – a new book of Torah, two new months, and a new future.

JediYeled, I’ll get through this, we’ll get through this and yes, from strength we will be strengthened!

A Tabernacle from the Flames and Smoke – Vaykahel

ner_tamidThis past Shabbat our congregation was touched by that which we never thought could happen to us. An early morning electrical fire destroyed our kitchen and the heat and smoke found their way to every corner of our sanctuary building. No space was left untouched by smoke or soot. And while the flames are extinguished the reminders of this tragic Shabbat morning linger. And they will linger for a long time to come.

We find gratitude in that no one was injured. The building was empty on that early morning, February 15 and our Torah scrolls were relocated and are safe. Responses about the news still come from near and far with the same message of hope: ‘we are here to help however we can and thank God no one was injured.’ ‘It’s only stuff and stuff can be replaced, a life cannot.’ Yet still we mourn because while it is only “stuff” it is Our stuff that we take great pride in and love with all our hearts and souls. Our home has been touched by the flames of destruction and our hearts break. There are those of you in our congregational family who understand this all too well and I know this event opens wounds yet again.

This week’s parasha is almost ironic, but then again, we experience that there are times in our lives that the Torah portion for that week is the one we need at this moment.

Vaykahel is a beautiful story detailing exactly how the Tabernacle was to be built. With the artist’s direction of Bezalel and his partner, Oholiab, inspired by God, the people go to work creating the architectural plans and building to God’s exact specifications the place the people will gather, pray and learn. The details are breathtaking and the clear descriptions of the materials and colors used leap off the parchment. The people bring the treasured offerings to build the Tabernacle in great quantity. Everyone wants to participate, everyone wants to be a part of building not only God’s home, but their spiritual home. No one is left out and no one holds back their gifts. It is an expression of the ultimate love for community and peoplehood.

Over the past 72 hours our community has called out asking…wanting to help. Messages of “what can I do?” “let us know what you need” and “we’re here to help rebuild” have flooded our email and voicemails. And for now, as we are just starting to strategize that plan I continue to return the messages with, “thank you, please stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. We will rebuild together.”

We are the Israelites in the parasha wanting to come forward to bring our gifts. We are the Israelites today wanting to rebuild our syngagoue; our beit k’nesset, beit t’fillah, beit midrash – house of gathering, prayer and learning. And together, we will!

Even in the midst of this tragedy there remains a beacon of hope still shining bright in our sanctuary. A light that needs no electricity, no power except that which God gives to us. Our ner tamid, eternal light, is still shining! Powered by the sun and unaffected by what has befallen us, the ner tamid calls us to remember that no matter what, no matter where, God is always here with us. God has not left us. If anything, God has protected all of us. It is the beacon of hope to remind us that our congregation is not the building but rather the people who make up the Temple Beth Sholom family. We are a house of peace (Beit Shalom) and we will be a complete and whole house (Beit Shalem) again.

May each of us hold on to the light of our ner tamid within our hearts and may we be strengthened to rebuild our home as our community is strengthened with the love we share for our congregational family.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May it be God’s will and May it be ours!

Add a Little Beauty

Every Shabbat I try to do something special for the family. I’ve made it my custom to bake challah every week. I admit, there are some weeks that slip past me and I can’t get the dough up, but at least it’s a goal. Our family, like all families, is very busy. With Dahvi in high school, Yoni in fourth grade, and my Shabbat schedule, we seem to be going in too many different directions. When they were younger, it was so much easier to get the family together for Shabbat, have dinner, light the candles, say Kiddush and enjoy the challah. But today, dinner is optional. However, Shabbat is not. Even if it means we gather in the kitchen at 3:30 pm on Friday afternoon, we have to find time to celebrate Shabbat together somehow. These few minutes are precious to me and I want them to be meaningful and beautiful. That’s why I bake challah every week; carefully braiding it and baking it just the way we like it.

We are told to make Shabbat and all of the mitzvot beautiful – chidur mitzvah. This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, makes a big deal out of making something beautiful. Almost half of the portion is spent carefully describing in great detail, the garments for Aaron, Moses’ brother and appointed High Priest for the Tabernacle, and his son’s. The ephod of gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns. The lazuli, amethyst, emerald, and sapphire stones. The woven work of the tunic that will then be adorned with gold threads and bells all along the edges so that God might hear him when he enters the sanctuary. These adornments are meant not just to identify who the Cohanim are, but rather, to make the mitzvah of their work elevated because of the beauty of how they are adorned.

On Shabbat, we hope to make things a bit different than the rest of the week. We hope to adorn it with a table set with the candles, Kiddush cups, and challah. We braid the challah to show that this is not just an ordinary loaf of bread. We braid the challah to bring some beauty to our Shabbat. Even though the meal might be as simple as ordering pizza, because that’s what we have time for, how can we add something beautiful to our Shabbat table for that moment? How can we make the mitzvah of observing Shabbat that much more beautiful so that it does not just roll into the rest of the week?

I know not everyone has time to bake challah every week – I put the dough up on Thursday afternoon and bake it that night. But, we all have time to add a little something different and beautiful to our tables, our kitchen counter, our home, to physically acknowledge the beauty of Shabbat is with us. This coming Shabbat, consider bringing out the candlesticks you might not have used in a while. Or fill the Kiddush cup and offer the blessing for just a moment. Or even set a tzedakah box out as a reminder at the end of the week that the change we have in our pockets or wallets can go to do some good for someone else bringing beauty to their lives.

Yes, life is busy and sometimes we are going in so many different directions that we don’t think one small act of making Shabbat beautiful will make a difference, but try it. You might be pleasantly surprised that a little chidur mitzvah, making a mitzvah beautiful, can make such a difference in a week.

If you want to try baking your own challah, here’s the recipe I use each week. Then get creative and try some other ingredients to your liking. Make it your own.

1 cup hot water
2 Tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons yeast
Mix them all together in a bowl and let the yeast start to do it’s work.

In another bowl:
½ cup oil
½ cup honey
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
5-6 cups flour. (I sometimes use wheat or combine wheat and white flour)
Add the yeast mixture.

I mix it all in a Cuisinart. Put the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a cloth and let rise till doubled or when you can get to it.

Divide the dough into 3, 4 or 6 and braid. Here’s one link to get your started to braiding your challah.

Brush with egg wash – 1 egg scrambled with a little water.

Oven 350 degrees for 45 minutes (or less if you like it a little underbaked). Tap on it, if it sounds hollow, it’s done.  However, pay attention to the challah as it bakes. If it starts to get a little too brown on top, put a piece of foil lightly over the top.

Shabbat Shalom!


Don’t Forget To Breathe!

Stand tall, feet squarely on the mat.
Feel the earth below your feet.
Breathe in and out slowly.
Let go of the to-do lists and everything that’s in your head.

Wait! I have to let go of what!?!? I need my to-do list. What if I forget to call someone? I have a list a mile long that needs to get done today. It’s my one day off of the week and I need to be productive! If I let go of the list, then what will happen to it?

Then it appears in front of me, a suitcase. It welcomes me to put the list in there. Don’t worry, it will be safe. I put my list in the suitcase, it closes and locks itself. I swear it smiled at me letting me know that it will come back after this hour that is just for me.

As you begin your balance pose, remember to breathe!
We’re not holding our breath.
Breathe in deep from your nose down through your body.
Feel the breath as it courses through you and opens not only your muscles

Feel the breath as it courses through you.

I take deep breaths, trying to hold the balance pose. One foot on the ground, the other crossed over my knee, bending with hands at heart center. Now I know why I had to put everything into the suitcase. I needed to focus on not falling over! And then I realize, I’m supposed to breathe! I’ve been holding my breath. Not just at this moment, but I’ve been holding my breath all week. How beautiful breath is – not just life sustaining, but life affirming. It flows in and out of me. When something is stuck in my head or my muscles, I breathe. Then it loosens itself just enough to move so I can see it more clearly and not let it take a strangle hold on me.

Breath, it is the neshamah, the soul that flows within me. The breath is not only in my lungs, but it is every part of me. Don’t forget to experience it. Don’t take it for granted and dismiss it. Let the neshamah flow.

Savasanah – just lie on the floor and breathe.

Sounds pretty easy, right. Not so much. Savasanah requires us to lie there without thinking about anything. Is my suitcase still there? Wait! Let go! Breathe! And I breathe. And then, the bell – roll on to our sides and come to a sitting position. The hour is over. I’ve stretched and strengthened and my muscles are reminding me of that. I’m grateful for the hour and the reminder to breathe. My suitcase returns and opens itself before me. Yes, everything is still there. But it’s all a little more clear and not so overwhelming.

Breathe! I must remember to breathe all week and honor my body and soul.


Changing my Profile Picture Doesn’t Mean I Forget

Jewish supermanI struggled with trying to find the right time to change my Facebook profile picture. For the past couple of months my picture was one to send love and support for a family and a little boy battling refractory acute myeloid leukemia. But on Shabbat, December 14, Sammy Sommer lost his battle and we lost an amazing little boy who will forever be eight years old and in the short time he lived, he  changed the world.

There are thousands who follow Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer’s blog, Superman Sam.  They invited us to join in their journey-truly a precious gift. They took us through each moment and were never shy about expressing times of hope and tragedy. We laughed and we cried together.

Many others changed their profile pictures to ones resembling Superman. I was excited to find the Jewish Superman logo. It was a common bond amongst so many friends I do know and now friends recently created because a little boy brought us together.

But when do I change my profile picture? If I change my profile picture will it mean I am choosing to let go? No. It does mean that life moves forward and we take Sammy’s memory with us. It means that our work is not yet done and we have to fight with all of our strength to ensure that no child, no family ever endure what Sammy and the Sommer’s have over the past 18 months.

Today, there are those who have changed their profile pics to: 36+ rabbis are shaving their heads for a little known organization called St. Baldricks Foundation – “a volunteer-driven charity committed to funding the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers and give survivors long, healthy lives.”

While I am not shaving my head I am trying to help raise money and awareness in order that we can help find a cure.  Find a cure so that other ‘Sammy’s’ may live and change the world through their actions. Please, click on the link to St. Baldrick’s Foundation and give.

Yes, I’ve changed my profile picture but I have not nor will I forget Sammy, z’l. He’s changed my life in ways he never knew. He brought me closer to so many and for that, I am grateful. Loss is painful and life is beautiful. Now, it’s time to write the blessings for a new tomorrow.

What Matters Most

I don’t know a parent who wouldn’t sacrifice everything for their children. We don’t realize the impact children will have on our lives until they are first placed in our arms. We would do anything to ensure they are safe, cared for and given every opportunity to have a full and good life. Yet what is frustrating are the moments when we might become powerless.

Joseph’s brothers stand before him in Egypt, Benjamin being accused of stealing a silver goblet from the palace. The man who stands before them is their brother, yet he has not revealed himself as of yet. This “Egyptian official” threatens to imprison Benjamin and the rest of the brothers are free to return to their father, Jacob, in Canaan. Judah, the fourth brother in line, steps forward and speaks for his brother, Benjamin, and pleads on behalf of his father. He asks that this “Egyptian” take him in place of this younger brother, son of his father’s dead wife, Rachel. Jacob made them promise to bring Benjamin safely home and Judah knows that if they return without him, it will literally kill their father.

Judah is in the place to feel the pain of losing children. Judah lost two of his sons early in their adult lives, both married to Tamar. He knew all too well the pain of losing children and did not want his father to endure this again, for Jacob already believed he lost Joseph years earlier.

Judah therefore makes the ultimate sacrifice and tells this ruler in Egypt, whom they do not yet know is Joseph, that he cannot let his father endure the pain of losing yet another child. Judah’s compassion for his father was so great especially as he was able to empathize with him in such a personal manner.

Yes, parents have buried their children and the pain seems too great to comprehend let alone survive. Some pour their energy into sharing their children’s story and others do all they can just to get out of bed every day. I can’t even begin to understand the pain a parent feels when s/he must bury a child.  But the lesson I learn is that ultimately, nothing else matters but our families for it can all be taken away in an instant. While we pursue our own goals and dreams, we do so with our family at our side. We do so in hopes that these moments are such that we create memories to last a life time, and even the most stressful or chaotic will some day be fantastic stories to be shared with grand and great grandchildren.

Be it child, spouse, or friend, there are those moments in our lives when we would make the ultimate sacrifice so that they may live. We recognize and are aware that there seems to be an order to life. But when that order is disrupted, we pray that God provides strength. We pray that one should never feel alone, and that even in the most painful of moments, mourning can be turned into dancing. And we pray that every day, we remember what truly matters.