Category Archives: Rav

Items of interest to those who follow the ‘Rav’ side

I was in the Wall Street Journal

If you saw the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, you might have seen an ad signed by 400 Rabbis calling on Fox News to sanction Glenn Beck.  I’ve been asked, why would I sign such a letter?  Here’s my response:

Whether or not one agrees with Glenn Beck and his usual writings, his behavior recently invoking the Holocaust and the manner in which he attacks George Soros is inappropriate. George Soros, who was hidden by a Christian family when he was a boy in Nazi Germany, tells of his stories of having to accompany his “father” (the man who hid him) to confiscate Jewish property.  However, Beck describes Soros as a Jewish boy who sent Jews to the death camps.  Glenn Beck has been inappropriate in how he refers to the Holocaust in his report.  We do not need more people who are trying to deny they Holocaust ever happened or seek to lessen the significance of these events as time moves forward.

It has been noted that after being confronted with the evidence of Beck’s constant misuse of Holocaust rhetoric, (in his first 18 months on Fox News, Beck and his guests invoked Hitler 147 times, Nazis 202 times, and the Holocaust 76 times, usually to attack ideological rivals), Roger Ailes and Beck’s producer committed in writing to Jewish leaders and the Jewish community to show “the ultimate sensitivity” when referencing the Holocaust and Nazis. “The Puppet Master,” the three part series by Beck, made a mockery of this commitment.

Here are some articles of interest:

The Tapestry Woven By Debbie Friedman, z’l. Rabbi Heidi Cohen’s Eulogy

And sing unto God she did.

My name is Rabbi Heidi Cohen, and as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom and Cheryl Friedman, we welcome you. I am honored to share the officiation for this service with Rabbi Richard Levy of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

We are a community in shock, disbelief, and great sorrow.  Yet, here we are gathered to say goodbye and pay tribute to a woman who was our teacher, our mentor, our inspiration, our strength, our artist, our composer, our liturgist, our friend – Deborah Lynn Friedman. And while we are in shock and each of us are grieving our great loss and the loss to the Global Jewish Community, we are gathered here to love, support and mourn with Debbie’s family. For while she was all of this and so much more to many of us, Debbie was first and foremost, a daughter to Freda and her father of blessed memory, Gabrielle; a sister to Cheryl and Barbara; a niece to Ann and Irlene; and a cousin to Amy, Debbie, Leeza, and Gary and Randy of blessed memory. Today, we are hear supporting and loving each of you – gathering your tears with our own and holding you so as not to let you fall in this time of overwhelming grief.

Today, we will cry, but we will smile as well at the memories of a life that brought so many gifts and blessings to not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people. Yet how awesome that each of those individuals feel personally connected to Debbie, calling her “theirs.” And while she might look at all of this – at all of us, gathered here and think, ‘what’s the big fuss? I don’t need all this,’ as someone commented to me earlier, ‘well, SHE started it!’

Today, we weave a tapestry of memory that will only be completed over time and by many hands. Our threads will be woven on the loom with the warp being the foundation of Debbie’s life and family. The threads are multicolored and multi-textured, provided by each weaver who shared in a moment of Debbie’s life, in a time in which she learned more about the world and herself. Each thread is essential to the tapestry for each brings depth and character to the completed piece. Yet, as with any tapestry, it is never fully completed, there is always one piece that is left undone. This is true today, for Debbie’s life was ended too soon and there is still so much that remains to be added.

Debbie’s foundation begins with her childhood. Stories written by Debbie herself tell of the difficult life she faced as a child being born in Utica, New York. Her family made a modest living and as a teenager, Debbie worked with her Mom, Freda, as a salad preparer. Her parents, Freda and Gabrielle always reminded Debbie that she would have to take care of herself someday and she truly took that to heart.

Debbie and her sister’s, Cheryl and Barbara, spent many days laughing and sharing stories together. The family’s laughter then and now created tidal waves of joy that would pass over all those around them.  Music was an important language in the home and while Barbara never wanted Debbie to watch her play, Debbie would spend hours listening through the door as Barbara played the piano.

Debbie looked for an escape from the chaos in the home and found a synagogue youth group. She became very involved in youth group and synagogue life and after much negotiating, her parents allowed her to walk to shul for Shabbat services rather than ride. While in the synagogue, a teacher spent time reviewing the Shema and V’ahavta. He seemed to emphasize the word “bam” every time they recited the prayer. Debbie understood this as, ‘it’s YOU, YOU have to do this!’

Debbie began to weave the language of music and the bonds to synagogue life together. She picked up the guitar at 12 and when her mother spoke to the music teacher about what she saw as Debbie’s musical gift and the need for her to learn to read music, the teacher quickly said, ‘please don’t do that…it would only ruin her amazing gift to play from her heart.’

Through these humble beginnings and the love of family, especially shared over these past few years so closely with her mother, Freda, her sister, Cheryl, and her Aunt Ann, Debbie’s tapestry begins to unfold before us this day and we begin to see each color and texture in full array.

Read prior to Eil Malei at First Night Shiva

Debbie shared with us her own words that are so poignant today. She wrote in her article, “Shattered and Whole,”

“Our time in this world is limited and we must journey honestly, accepting that our gifts are not for us alone, but meant to be put forth in this world as a way of reconstructing the once whole, now shattered vessel whose shards, the mystics tell us, are scattered all over the universe.”

Debbie’s journey throughout her life was filled with sharing her gifts with so many. Just look around today, listen to so many voices tomorrow and the days ahead, and we will hear the stories of those whose lives Debbie touched.

While our souls our shattered at the loss we experience today, we gather the shards together and we create the whole memory that will continue to not only bless us, that will bless her family and that which will bless generations to come.

New Year’s Resolutions – Vows for the Soul

The secular new year brings about the infamous New Year’s Resolutions, promises for what one hopes to accomplish over the next year or change about one’s self.  There is the usual New Year’s resolution: I promise to eat healthier, lose weight and go to the gym more often. As expressed on the morning news shows, the lines for the treadmills are extremely long this week, however if you wait until next week, they will quickly diminish.

This is not a new concept – making vows for the benefit of one’s self. This idea of neder, or a vow freely made, is seen throughout the Bible. From Jacob promising that if he is delivered safely from the hands of his very angry brother and that his family will be safe, he will follow the God of his father and grandfather; to the Israelites at the border of Canaan who promise that if they are able to enter the land safely, they will follow God’s commands. There are those individual vows, such as that made by Hannah when she prayed that if God blesses her with a child, she would devote that child to the service of the Temple. These autonomous invocations made by individuals requesting to be delivered safely or be given a reward of some merit, are found throughout history.

Today, we seek a modern theology in regard to the making of vows. How do we as individuals embrace this concept? And to whom are we responsible for when we make them?

In a theological sense, we are asking about what are the vows that we make for our own religious lives today? We seek to learn the formula of commitment to God, Torah, and the people of Israel. But we also seek to find the commitment we are making to ourselves in deepening our own religious lives.  The beauty of nedarim, vows, is that they are meant for the individual. The individual initiates it, makes it privately, speaks the words alone, and then evaluates where they are in fulfilling or editing the vow in order to be successful.

We initiate new vows for ourselves throughout the year – the High Holy Days, Birthdays, and the secular New Year. There are always moments in which we are able to evaluate our lives and set personal goals to better ourselves and enrich our lives. So along with eating healthy and going to the gym more often, what will be the vows you are going to make for your spiritual self?  Remember, these are your vows, these are vows that are a gift you give to yourself to enhance not only your body but your soul as well.

Vayigash – Dark Moments Lit by a Candle

Each day it gets darker earlier in the evening. As the sun sets in the late afternoon, things seem to get quieter, more subdued. The lack of sunlight seems to bring a type of mellow melancholy to the end of the day as we don our jackets heading out into the crisp evening air. But over this past week, we have gathered together as families and friends to break the quietude of the evening with light and song. The light of the Chanukah candles warms us in their glow and the joy of this festival lightens the darkened mood of our winter nights.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, reminds us that even in darkness, there is light. Joseph was cast into the dark pit by his brothers during their jealous rage against him. Yet, while he was sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph emerged from the darkness to the light of success and substance. It was through the light of understanding and Divine inspiration that Joseph was able to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams, hence allowing Egypt to emerge from the darkness of famine as a light to the nations by providing for those who are hungry. It was Joseph’s brothers who came down from the darkness in Canaan, where the famine was great, and be given a new chance to life. Joseph lifted the veil of his secret identity and showed them that while his world was darkened because of their relationship, that everyone deserves another chance toward redemption and forgiveness.

Joseph emerged from the darkest times of his life and found new meaning in his world and his place within it. From him and from this season, we know that life is ever changing. From light to darkness; from joy to pain; from ups and downs and left and right – our world is never static. Our world is never what we always think it to be. One light, one flame can change a moment.

While Chanukah will come to an end on Thursday and the last candle will be lit on Wednesday night, and while the darkness of the evening will descend upon us again, we must hold on to the light of Chanukah and the light that is caused by just a moment, a touch, a word. We must recognize that life is never one or the other, it is made up of all the opposites, all of the possibilities that exist.

One of my favorite Chanukah songs is, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out.” It represents for me the idea that we are the bearers of the light. That each of us has the responsibility to carry the flame with us throughout these dark winter days and allow it to inspire us. May each of us emerge from dark moments in our days to ones that are lit by the flame of compassion and understanding. And may each of us hold that candle for one another.

Wrestling Toward Transformation

Night is supposed to be the time that we are able to lay our heads down and rest. A time to let go of everything from the day, rest our bodies in order that we may rise up in the morning, renewed and refreshed in order to begin a new day.

We recite the blessing, hashkiveinu ADONAI Eloheinu l’shalom, cause us O God to lie down in peace that we may rise up again in peace. And then the final words on our lips as we go to sleep are Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI  echad, listen Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is one.

But sometimes night is not as restful as we hope it to be. In the quiet we are sometimes awakened by all the activity in our heads and there is nothing we can do but lift ourselves up from our beds and wander through the halls of the house.

Jacob, Ya’akov, was not a very sound sleeper either. He could not sleep as he awaited his reunion with his brother, Esau, whom he stole his birthright and blessing from so many years before. Jacob’s life, up until this point, had been one of deception and trickery. From his birth when Esau pulled Jacob back into the womb in order to be born first, to his mother’s hand in helping Jacob procure the blessing meant for Esau from their father Isaac, to the deception of his father-in-law, Laban who tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah first, rather than the one Jacob loved, Rachel. And now, here he slept on the shores of the Jabbok awaiting the brother he was sure wanted to kill him. No, he could not sleep soundly that night.

When Jacob wandered the shore we read:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Ya’akov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:25-29)

Jacob was finally freed of from this life of deceit and fear. Our Sages teach us that names in TaNaKH, the Bible, are connected with a person’s characteristics, personality and destiny. The change of Jacob’s name to Yisrael is a final purging of his challenged past to a new beginning of his life that will be blessed and that we will be blessed by.

When we lie down and recite the Shema, we know that there are times in our day that we struggle. And when we say, “Listen Yisrael” it is our personal reminder that we are allowed to rest. It is a reminder that throughout our lives, we experience change and renewable moments. It is a call that while we wrestle through the challenges of our days we also find blessings in the works of our hands. Yet through our day to day wrestling, we are transformed, for every experience is an opportunity to learn, grow and prevail.

Flooding our World with Bullying

Can you imagine – God says to you, ‘I’m not happy with how things are going in the world. People are mean. No one’s listening to each other. And no one has respect for one another. Listen Noah,  you seem to have it together. You’re not getting caught in the middle of all the bickering. I’m going to destroy the world and you and your family get to start all over again. Oh, and by the way, make sure to take two of each animal so they can start over too.’

Why did it get so bad? Why did the people not take care of one another? Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why were they so quiet? Why didn’t Noah speak up?

Over the past three weeks, five teens have taken their lives after bullying and public disclosure regarding their sexual identity. There is an epidemic in our nation and we have to listen. Seth Walsh (13), Asher Brown (13), Tyler Clementi (17), Billy Lucas (15), Raymond Chase (19), all took their own lives because of bullying.  Today, 1 in 3 gay teens attempt suicide. Teens are harassed for being gay or lesbian or even perceived as being such. Our teens are facing more criticism today than ever before and we must act now if we want to see this end.

Facebook, email, instant messaging are all convenient ways we stay in touch with one another, but they are also tools for bullying and harassment. It’s easy to go on line, make snide comments about others while remaining distant and even nameless. It’s convenient to criticize and tease someone when you can remain faceless and not directly confront another. It seems harmless to joke about someone’s appearance, behavior or even post pictures on a public sites like Facebook or MySpace. We can easily justify it because someone is “asking for it” when they make themselves vulnerable by even allowing themselves to be on these public social media sites. But there is no excuse for what is going on in the lives of our youth.

We must do something. We must speak to our children, no matter their age, about the destruction bullying and teasing can cause. Encourage our children to speak out when they see someone is being targeted by others at school or on the internet. Remind them that they should talk to a teacher, counselor, or best of all, their parents rather than remain silent and hope that it all blows over. This isn’t easy, especially when our children do not want to be perceived as do-gooders or teacher’s pets.

And when we as adults see or hear children or anyone being teased or bullied, we must speak up! No one deserves so much pain that the only outlet to be found is to end their life. Life is too precious to be cut short because of bullying and hate.

There is an epidemic in our world and we need to act now to save the lives of our teens.  Our world is not perfect and after Noah and the flood, God promised never to destroy the world again. Yet, if we remain silent while our young people are in pain, we flood our own world in hurt and destruction of the human spirit.

Life is Short – Slow Down!

(from my High Holy Day message in TBS Kol Sholom)

Summer is here and I look back and wonder what happened to the rest of the year.  Time seems to be moving more quickly and each month is a passing memory.  I listen to children speak about how long the school year has been and that it seems like forever since their last summer break.  And with these comments I wonder, where have I been?  Why is time moving so quickly – one day into the next, one sunrise into sunset before I can even realize that the day is already a memory?

It was only yesterday that we gathered together last High Holy Days, reflecting on the year that was and setting goals for a new beginning.  And here we are again, a time to reflect, a time to contemplate, a time to dream.

As life would have it, we try to move through everything as quickly as we can in order to get as much into our days and nights as possible.  It seems that the more we can do, the faster we can move, life will be more fulfilling.  But instead, the Talmud teaches us: Life is short, we must move slowly.

Too often life seems to be a race – the one who is able to get through everything first, wins.  But the Talmud reminds us that this is not the case.  Life is not a race during which we should be moving so fast that we forget to enjoy the moment we are in.  Rather, life is short, we should slow down and enjoy it.

How often do we look at our watch hoping for a program to be over?  How often do we look to the clock to see when one hour will end and we can get on to the next?  How often do we check the schedule to see when one event will conclude so that we can rush to the beginning of the next?  It seems that life has become a race that has no finish line in sight except for the finish line that no one wishes to reach.

But we are in too great of a hurry, wanting to check our to-do items off the list and move on to the next.  What happened to the joy of just being IN the moment?  What happened to being present?

The High Holy Days are here again and we are asked to reflect on the year that was and set goals for the year yet to be.  We are at the beginning of a new year and the question is posed for us again; what will you do this year?  How will you live your life and what changes do you hope to make?  How will these visions for this next year not only affect yourself, but also your family and your community?  How will you move more slowly?

Life is short, we must move slowly.  Enjoy this moment and the next.  Do not wish it away so that you can get on with the next item on the list, for if we do, the list will run out and so will time.

May this new year be one filled with precious moments that each of us pause to truly savor its sweetness.

L’Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Sh’ma and the Voice Inside My Head

Ever since we got back from Colorado last Sunday, my right ear has been completely stuffed. I can still sort of hear out of it, but when I talk, I feel like I am in an aquarium.  It’s been quite annoying this past week, but tonight, I noticed something very different about this stuffed ear syndrome that brought some interesting meaning.

This past Shabbat’s Torah portion included the Sh’ma – Hear (Listen) Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is One. This is the watchword of our faith as Jews. We say it when we wake up, we say it when we’re going to bed. It get’s it’s own page in the prayerbook. And when we say this prayer, we are encouraged to close our eyes in order to remove the distractions we see with our eyes and truly listen to these important words.

Tonight, at services in the beauty of the Camp Hess Kramer chapel, surrounded by the large trees and plants, I closed my eyes preparing to say the Sh’ma, when I heard something quite different. This time, I heard my own voice inside my body. Rather than having my voice commingle with all the other voices, I heard my own voice singing the Sh’ma, calling me to listen to my self and hear  these words in my voice. Tonight, it was a call not just to all of us as a community to listen, this was a call to me that I have to take the time and listen for God’s voice in the world.

You Never Know the Impression You’ll Make

Last summer, during my time at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, I told a story during Shabbat about a rabbi who loved to be out in nature and found himself getting lost, being found by some bandits, learning a nigun (a tune with no words) from them and having to take it back to teach to others because it was too great to forget.  During the story, as I was talking about all the amazing things the rabbi saw in nature, two deer just happened to literally jump into the middle of the outdoor chapel. The campers were amazed, as was I.  After the deer took their leave of us, I continued the story, including teaching the camp the nigun.

For the rest of my time up at camp, the campers sang the nigun and talked about the deer.  I later learned that I was nicknamed the “Deer Whisperer!” It was a great honor to have such an experience with the campers last summer – so much so, that I even used it in one of my Rosh Hashanah Sermon. But I never really realized what kind of impact the whole experience had on the campers.

Today, after Matt and I dropped off DovLev for her camp experience, Matt, JediYeled and I headed to Camp Hess Kramer. Upon our arrival, campers and staff alike, were approaching me and telling me how great last summer’s story was and how excited they were to see me.  Some came up seeing the nigun, others told me about how incredible it was for them to have the deer in the service. Another told me about her morning run and seeing some deer along her route and realizing how incredible the world is all around her.

It’s amazing to think how one little story, one nigun and two deer can impact the lives of a lot of incredible youth and adults alike.  It’s a reminder that what we do and what we say will be remembered for a long time. Therefore, we must take advantage of the moments that we have to say something, do something, or just be someone that will inspire another.

How the Others Will Bless or Curse

(D’var Torah written by me for CCAR Webinar on Task Force on Intermarriage)

One of most common questions I get from visitors to Temple Beth Sholom is: where’s the front door?  TBS’ design is such that the front door is on the main street side, but the parking lot leads you to the back of the building.  And while we have signs pointing visitors where to go, it is still a challenge to figure out how to get in to the building.  Yet, once inside, especially in our sanctuary, guests remark how beautiful it is, how good it is to be in a space that feels so comfortable.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael. How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

Each of us can speak about how good our communities are and how beautiful our places of worship inspire prayer and moments of peace.  Yet, how difficult are they to navigate when trying to find the entry point?  How foreign do they look to the new comer and how does one navigate their way into the community?

Each person who enters the community comes in with certain expectations and a history of what they experienced in the past.  For some, it was the experience of the synagogue of their youth.  In that place, there were certain customs and expectations as to how to act, where to go and what to do.  For others, their point of reference for a religious community comes from outside Judaism yet they may enter with a Jewish partner who is either already comfortable in the space or is navigating it for the first time.  And there are those who enter a Jewish community completely alone but are just curious.  How will each individual react and speak of the community they experience for the first time? Will they bless or will they curse?

Balaam was hired to curse the Israelites by Balak, King of Moab, who feared that they would overtake his land.  Yet, Balaam was only able to speak words of blessing over the people.

Rav Yohanan offers us a midrash: “What did he (Balaam) see? He saw that the openings of the Israelites’ tents were not directly oriented toward one another. He then said: ‘These are worthy of having God’s presence (Shekhinah) rest upon them.’”

But why were the openings of the tents not directly oriented toward one another and why would this be worthy of blessing?  Rav Yohanan explains that the Mishnah states: “Within a communal courtyard, a person may not open a door directly facing another door, nor a window directly facing another window.”

Yet it is still a communal courtyard and the tents are all gathered together in one place.

Today, as we engage in our conversation regarding the presentation of the Task Force on Intermarriage at the CCAR convention, we take away two reflections.

First, is the perception of the community from on high.  Balaam stood high on the hill and looking down at the tents, he saw them gathered together as one large camp.  It was strong and it presented a sense of order.

Second, when entering the camp directly, while the tents are gathered together, they are still separate in that no one can see into another person’s dwelling place from their own.  There is still a sense of personal space and autonomy.

To those who enter our communities today, they hope to find a strong, unified community.  One, that when standing together is consistent in principle.  Yet, when one enters our communities, they do not want to lose the self.  One wants to know that they are still able to hold various opinions and thoughts and not just be a part of the collective where everyone agrees blindly.  There is hope for open dialogue and discussion and even disagreement.

We rabbis of the CCAR represent over 900 congregations. We are all a part of the Reform movement, hence the collective.  Yet, each of us is an individual thinker and leader in our communities.  Each of us holds our own opinions to personal practice on and off the pulpit.

Our congregants enter the community looking for stability and a place where they can also express their individual beliefs and opinions.  They look to the community for support and blessings.  And in return, we pray that they too bless us.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael – these were the words spoken by one looking in to the community.  These were blessings offered by someone experiencing the community for the first time.  These were words given when only looking from the outside.  What might Balaam’s blessings have been had he entered in to the heart of the community and experienced the vibrant life within?  What are the blessings we hope others will speak of us when they experience our communities from not only the outside but also when they enter our doors?

Allow each of us to create a strong unified community yet allow us also to always promote individual thought and practice.  Then will we be able to appreciate, how beautiful are our tents O Jacob, our dwelling places O Israel.