What exactly can change the feeling of being a stranger and turn it into the feeling of being appreciated, cared about deeply, and included consistently?
ONE SUCCESSFUL WAY TO BECOME LESS ISOLATED
At Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, there are numerous ways that this not-very-large but extremely-warm-and-welcoming group of people break down the barriers and make it possible for intimacy and connection to occur. Several members of the congregation will volunteer to host a variety of small but lively Shabbat dinners at their homes. Numerous members and non-members will be signing up and joining them as welcomed guests to enjoy the candles, the food, the conversations, and the intimacy of an at-home Shabbat gathering.
But how does it work? How in a large spread-out city like Los Angeles and in a medium-sized congregation like Ahavat Torah can the feeling of isolation and distance get transformed into a beautiful and memorable feeling of enjoying Shabbat with 6 or 10 or 14 people in a warm and welcoming home-cooked setting?
THE EXQUISITE LOGISTICS
The idea of creating at-home Shabbat dinners for members and non-members to enjoy in small groups began soon after Ahavat Torah formed 8 years ago. Arlene Rosenblatt started the tradition and she recalls, "It just seemed to be consistent with who we are. That we want to be able to get to know each other better and care about one another in a more personal way than you find at many larger temples." Arlene also wanted to make sure that the gatherings help people get to know men, women and families who live not too far from one another so that friendships and closeness could naturally develop.
Then for several years, Judy Weintraub helped to organize these Shabbat circles of warmth and celebration at various homes. Two or three times a year she would put out the word that several people were opening up their homes for honored guests to join them for a Shabbat gathering. Then during the candles, the songs, the conversations, and the sense of holiness, some friendships would begin or deepen, and many of the feelings of distance or isolation would dissolve away for those who were relatively new to the congregation or who had not yet found the chance to connect intimately with other participants from the congregation.
MEMORIES AND NEW EXPERIENCES
Many members of Ahavat Torah Congregation can recall the wonderful feeling of being at the Shabbat dinners hosted by Gene, Marvin, and Kimball Marsh for many years at their home in the Fairfax district. At these warm and thought-provoking gatherings, the food, the songs, the conversations, and the sense of extended family created soulful memories that numerous congregants will never forget.
THE SOONER THE BETTER
Most of all, I hope you have a joyous and memorable Shabbat experience on an upcoming Friday night (watch the newsletter for details) and that it becomes the beginning (or the deepening) of some nourishing friendships.
First, a quiz. As you think about your own personality and preferences, do you consider yourself:
--a joiner or an extravert who draws strength and energy from being part of a group or from connecting with numerous other people.
--a loner or an introvert who draws strength and energy from being apart from groups and having quiet solitude or you prefer one-on-one conversations rather than groups.
--a hybrid of the two, in which sometimes you turn on the gas to be part of a group and sometimes you cruise comfortably in private or alone moments.
THE JOINER'S POINT OF VIEW
In Judaism there is a lot of emphasis on the healing power of community. We bring mass quantities of food and conversation to people who are in mourning. We bring lots of family, friends, and strangers to our Seder tables and Shabbat dinners. We study the Torah together, we study Mussar ethics and character-improvement together, and we learn from one another constantly how to bring holiness and repair into the world. Especially in a loving community like Ahavat Torah Congregation, we reach out to one another during illnesses, setbacks, and tragedies. We also join together to celebrate and appreciate each other's birthdays, life cycle events, and triumphs over adversity.
THE BENEFITS OF SOLITUDEOn the other hand, many of us (myself included) are by nature introverts who re-charge our batteries more by quiet time alone or with one person at a time, rather than being thrust into group situations where the extraverts are more comfortable than we are.
In my own case, I was so much of an introvert when I was a teenager and my mom was dying of cancer, that I remember two songs on the radio for which I had a very strong reaction. The first was Barbra Streisand's "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world" (which I and many other introverts found to be the most threatening and uncomfortable idea imaginable). The second song was Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a rock, I am an island...and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries" (which I admit I secretly aspired to when I was a teen trying to become self-reliant).
Fortunately, time and experience have helped me to become more of a hybrid who still prefers alone time or one-on-one conversations, but I am finding that I learn more and grow more when I push myself to be part of group classes, group activities, or group prayers and meditations.
One of the things I love most about Ahavat Torah Congregation is that each month there are several choices of activities that appeal to the healing power of community along with respecting the diversity and uniqueness of each individual, whether we tend to be an introvert, an extravert, or a hybrid combination of the two.
CHOOSING WISELY EACH MONTH
Every seven days Dr. Julie Madorsky sends out a newsletter that is filled with beautiful illustrations and enticing descriptions of a variety of opportunities to nourish one's soul through the classes, activities, celebrations, discussion groups, and lively spiritual gatherings of Ahavat Torah Congregation.
Some people don't open the newsletter attachment. Some people open it and feel overwhelmed by the array of choices. Others pick and choose carefully so that each month they enjoy one, two, or more of the inspiring options being offered by this intimate but extremely active congregation.
Whether you are by nature a joiner, a loner, or a hybrid combination of these two traits, here is a suggestion on how to respond to the weekly newsletter sent to you through cyberspace and the weekly announcements you hear at the end of Shabbat services:
--Start by a kavannah or intention that says to yourself silently, "Somewhere in this list of activities and options is something that will be uplifting, memorable, and transformative for my soul in the next few weeks. Sh'ma, listen silently and carefully to which of these choices calls to my soul."
--Then make a commitment to yourself, write on your calendar, and RSVP for the one, two or three activities that call deeply to you.
--Make sure to invite one or two friends, relatives, or colleagues to join you at one or more of these events so that their souls also will be nourished and you will deepen your connection to these individuals through sharing these meaningful and inspiring moments with them.
--Without overcommitting your calendar or burning out, make sure you add to your life each month something that opens your mind, opens your heart, adds to your depth of Jewishness, and connects you with the Source that flows through each of these activities and each of these moments of connection. We are extremely blessed that we have so many exquisite choices in our busy lives. Even if sometimes you feel as if there is too much happening or too many choices, as Rabbi Miriam would say, "These are holy struggles."
Shavuah tov. May you and your loved ones have a very good week.
Every year at Passover Seders worldwide, the Haggadah tells of a child (or a part of ourselves) that says skeptically, "What does all this have to do with me?"
In response, the Seder participants say more than once, "Because we were oppressed, we need to stand up for those who are currently oppressed."
For many hundreds of years, Jews and non-Jews who attend Passover Seders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) have been inspired by these words to find their own voice and their courage for speaking up against various forms of oppression that still exist in our modern age.
MAKING IT COME ALIVE IN YOUR OWN SITUATION
How exactly do you "stand up for those who are currently oppressed?" And what if it takes you beyond your comfort zone? Or what if you are a polite and conflict-avoidant person who doesn't like to make waves? Have you ever felt tongue-tied or unable to find the right method for doing something about a situation that touched your heart?
On Saturday, March 26th at 2 pm at Ahavat Torah (343 Church Lane in Brentwood near Sepulveda and Montana) you will have a rare opportunity to meet, talk with, and learn from two modern-day examples of how to stand up effectively and help people who are being oppressed.
Here's just a glimpse into the dramatic story of how two people from a small town in Texas have given us clues as to how to repair the world by refusing to sit idly by.
"SOMETHING DIDN'T FEEL RIGHT ABOUT THIS"
In July of 1999, the very popular sheriff of Tulia, Texas (population 5,000) rounded up 47 people (including 37 African Americans) and put them in jail as suspected drug dealers. The courts quickly sentenced these low-income individuals to long jail terms (some of them up to 90 years). Hardly anyone seemed to mind that all the accusations came from one undercover officer named Tom Coleman who didn't use a wire to record any conversations and who had major inconsistencies in his testimony, but who was then awarded "Lawman of the Year" by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (who later became a well-known Senator from Texas).
In Tulia there was a white couple who felt uncomfortable with this rush to justice. Both Alan Bean and Nancy Bean were Baptist ministers. Nancy had grown up in Tulia before moving to Louisville, Kentucky where the two of them met during seminary school. Then Nancy and her husband Alan moved back to her hometown of Tulia in 1998 to raise their children and enjoy a simpler life.
But in 1999 when they admitted to themselves that "something didn't feel right" about this mass arrest of 47 local African Americans, they began asking questions and they formed a group called Friends of Justice.
At first their search for answers got them ignored by several national organizations that didn't want to get involved. Nancy and Alan were also shunned in their own community. Alan was unable to find work. Nancy described how, "I was teaching at the high school and the other teachers would rather stand during a meeting than sit at a table near me. We were even unwelcome at family gatherings of several of our relatives in Tulia."
Eventually their efforts to examine the evidence and seek justice for the 47 prison inmates led to two books, a documentary film, coverage by '60 Minutes' on CBS, and a new trial that exposed the faulty evidence. Currently there is a film being made about the arrests in Tulia, directed by John Singleton and starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton.
A CHANCE TO LEARN WHAT IT TAKES AND HOW IT'S DONE
Laurel Gord is a member of Ahavat Torah Congregation who has been active for many years in efforts for reforming the criminal justice system. After reading a book written by Reverend Alan Bean, she decided to invite him to be the speaker at a fundraiser for the Friends Committee on Legislation in California (which is a small organization trying to make an impact in criminal justice reform). Laurel contacted Alan and Nancy Bean, inviting them to stay in her guest room in Venice, and offering to have them lead a conversation at Ahavat Torah Congregation on Saturday March 26th.
According to Laurel, "I wanted to meet these two people and learn from them face-to-face how they did what they did. I tend to be very conflict-avoidant. So I wanted to hear their insights about how do we each stand up for what we feel strongly to be right, especially when a lot of people close to us disagree with us. How do we find a voice for what we sense needs to be done to stop what we know is wrong?"
ALL ARE WELCOME TO MEET THESE GENUINE AMERICAN HEROES
On Saturday afternoon at 2 pm you can attend whether you've been at Shabbat services (which start at 10 am), or if you've arrived in time for the pot-luck dairy lunch at 12:30 pm, or if you simply show up just prior to 2 pm. Please feel free to invite or bring anyone in your life (children, teens, young adults, or mature adults) who might also be inspired by meeting two people who have been successful at changing the way our society deals with questions of justice and fairness. Sometimes it only takes meeting one or two genuinely courageous individuals to strengthen our own courage and commitment that we all need for dealing with tough situations in our own lives.
THEN MAKE SURE TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON THE ISSUES THAT HAVE TOUCHED YOUR OWN HEART
During the next few days and weeks, there will probably be several opportunities to seek the right words and the right actions to deal with situations that matter deeply to you. For example, the Social Action Committee of Ahavat Torah is inviting us all to participate in two extremely moving and inspiring events that are coming up very soon:
--A FILM THAT BUILDS BRIDGES BETWEEN SEVERAL TYPES OF SURVIVORS.
At the Museum of Tolerance (co-sponsored by Jewish World Watch and Uri L'Tzedek) on Sunday night March 27th at 7 pm there will be a screening of the award-winning film "The Last Survivor," which tells the stories of four different genocides and the need to make sure we don't stand idly by. The film follows a few survivors of four different genocides (the European Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, and Congo) to awaken each of us to the need to take effective action whenever possible. The film screening will be followed by a question and answer session with the filmmakers and various activists in Genocide Prevention and Awareness.
--A CHANCE TO WALK TO STOP THE CURRENT GENOCIDES IN AFRICA. On Sunday morning April 10th at Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills there will be a major walk and rally to let the world know that we won't sit idly by while women are being raped and innocent people are being tortured in the attacks on innocent civilians in Darfur, a part of the Sudan, and in the Congo, where tribes that are trying to control the minerals that go into our cell phones and computers are using violence against innocents to gain access to these precious minerals. You will recall that last year Ahavat Torah Congregation held an all-day information session about how to be more effective in making sure that Conflict-Free Minerals become the norm in affluent nations and that the rape and torture in the Congo is stopped.
Last year over 2,000 people from several synagogues, schools, and other groups participated in this walk sponsored by Jewish World Watch. We are hoping for an excellent show of support on April 10th so that the media and the political leaders will recognize this as something "that has a lot to do with us."
Even though Ahavat Torah is a relatively small congregation, we have had a large presence at many Jewish World Watch events and once again this year we will be meeting and walking together under the yellow Ahavat Torah banner created by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell. We will meet at 8:30 am at the Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills (there is free parking at 21725 Califa Street in the AMPCO parking facility) or you can meet up at 8 am at the Ahavat Torah parking lot in Brentwood to carpool.
Or if you cannot attend but want to donate to Jewish World Watch for their excellent work to build even larger coalitions for a reduction of violence in Darfur and the Congo, please visit the Jewish World Watch website or http://www.walktoendgenocide.org/
For more information about the inspiring presentation by Reverends Alan and Nancy Bean at 2 pm on Saturday, March 26th, you can contact Laurel Gord at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the April 10th Walk to End Genocide, you can contact Sasha Firman at email@example.com or Vivian Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But most importantly, don't let your tongue be tied by fear or hesitation when something touches your heart. We now have several teachers and several opportunities on how to get our voices heard.
Next Friday night, February 25th from 6:30 until 9 pm, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus will be leading the first-ever "Soul Shabbat" evening, sponsored by Ahavat Torah Congregation and open to anyone who has a soul, some taste buds, and a desire to try something new and different.
Originally scheduled for January, this creative approach to doing Shabbat in a new way had to be rescheduled for logistical reasons. But now all the elements are coming together for a beautiful evening in which numerous congregation members, friends, relatives, guests, and new acquaintances will join together to experience what Rabbi Miriam has described as, "The warmth and friendliness of a home-cooked Shabbat dinner with all the delicious foods, spiritual meaningfulness, and soul-nourishing conversations. But at a 'Soul Shabbat,' it will be done in a warm and welcoming room large enough for everyone gathered to feel the sense of love and peacefulness of Shabbat together as one."
The dinner, music, conversations, and celebration will be held in the Westwood Hills Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Boulevard, 90025, which is on the corner of Westwood and LaGrange between Olympic and Santa Monica Boulevards. The gathering will include:
--delicious food prepared with love, including kosher chicken for the omnivores and numerous delicious choices for the vegetarians, along with appetizers and desserts from both the European and Sephardic traditions of Shabbat recipes. In other words, everything from soup to rugalah will be offered.
--live Klezmer music (with Gustavo Bulgach and his Klezmer Juice musicians who combine Eastern European, Latino, and world music rhythms), along with Hasidic storytelling and a lively discussion led by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, who is also a renowned playwright and storyteller (her plays include "The Survivor," "The Orphan Train," and the stage version of "The Phantom Tollbooth.")
--inspiring teachings and conversations led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, who has been hosting wonderful dinners in her home for many years and now is bringing her wisdom and her warmth to a larger gathering.
--a participatory candle lighting and lots of participatory singing, including a guest cantor and the always-passionate voices of Ahavat Torah members and friends.
--a suggestion to wear white and feel a connection to your pure soul.
DETAILS: The dinner and evening costs $18 per person by mail (sent to Ahavat Torah Congregation, Post Office Box 442, Santa Monica CA 90406. Please note on your check that this is for the Soul Shabbat. Or you can pay by credit card with a 3% processing fee added if you call Arlene at 310 429-6817). Or there is a $20 charge per person at the door.
--VERY IMPORTANT: Please RSVP as soon as possible to make sure the volunteer shoppers, cooks, and balabusta team of women and men know how many people to cook for on Friday February 25th. Let Arlene and the team know the number of people who will be joining you (friends, family, colleagues) by calling 310 429-6817.
DON'T MISS THIS: Whether you've enjoyed two thousand Shabbat evenings or this is your first opportunity to experience the joy of letting go and breathing in holiness on a Friday night, you are welcome at this memorable and inspiring "Soul Shabbat." Until then, have a good week...a week of peace.
----For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation or its celebrations, the weekly Shabbat services, ongoing classes and study groups, social action programs, and cultural events, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/. Or call 310 362-1111 to receive the free weekly newsletter of events, classes, holidays, celebrations, and relevant teachings.
So Rabbi Miriam talked with the Board of Directors of her congregation and then brainstormed with Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, who happens to be a Broadway playwright and Jewish storyteller along with being a soon-to-be rabbi. (Among Susan's many writings are The Survivor, The Orphan Train, and the stage version of The Phantom Tollbooth)
Together they came up with a new and different way of experiencing a unique "Soul Shabbat" that is happening for the very first time on Friday night, (at a date to be announced soon but not the January 28th date that needed to be rescheduled) from 6:30 pm to 9 pm. All are welcome, whether you are a long-time congregant, an occasional visitor, a first-time guest, or someone who has never fully tasted the foods and spiritual depth of what Shabbat is capable of being.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A SOUL SHABBAT?
I interviewed Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus to ask them, "Why is this Shabbat different from most other Shabbats?"
Here's what they described as the key ingredients to this first of many "Soul Shabbats" (that will be held on the last Friday night of each month with a different creative theme each new month):
INGREDIENT #1: THE FOOD TO BE PREPARED WITH LOVE
Rabbi Miriam and Rabbinic Intern Susan have come up with a diverse menu for the Soul Shabbat as "the full spread from soup to rugalah, from hummus to brownies." There will be kosher and tender "balabusta" chicken for the omnivores and numerous delicious choices for the vegetarians. There will be Israeli appetizers and desserts that bring in the flavors of both the European and Sephardic traditions of Shabbat recipes.
But the rabbinic planners insist the key aspect of the food will be the love, wisdom and teamwork in the preparation process. In the weekly newsletter of Ahavat Torah Congregation recently, there was a small item that said, "Shabbat Cooking with Rabbi Miriam. So you always wanted to learn to cook and set-up a wonderful Friday night Shabbat table and dinner? Here is your opportunity at 2:30 pm on Friday (on the date of the rescheduled Soul Shabbat, but not on the January 28th date that needed to be rescheduled). For this class, group size is limited to the first 6 callers."
Since this is an egalitarian congregation (especially when it comes to cooking and cleaning up), therefore men and women, great cooks as well as klutzes are all welcome in the cooking class. These 6 volunteers at the first Soul Shabbat will probably bond for life from braiding the challah bread and preparing the many courses of the meal together. Please don't worry if you aren't one of the first 6 callers to the Rabbi to RSVP to be at the first cooking class; your next chance will probably be in February and then you will be able to bond for life with your own cooking team of volunteers.
Rabbi Miriam also explained that because the food is being prepared with love, enjoyment, and teamwork, it will also be served family style at each table with every person who attends the Soul Shabbat being an equal partner in serving one another and being served these delicious treats.
INGREDIENT #2: THE ATMOSPHERIC STORY-TELLING AND MUSIC
In addition to the food, this Soul Shabbat will include an eye-opening and thought-provoking Hasidic story from Isaac Bashevis Singer, passionately adapted and told by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus and accompanied with traveling music from the well-known musical group Klezmer Juice. (The bandleader of Klezmer Juice is an Argentinian born Jew named Gustavo Bulgach who now lives in Los Angeles and travels internationally playing the melodies of Eastern Europe as well as Latino and world music rhythms).
When was the last time you went to a dinner that had live Klezmer music, Hasidic stories, and a beloved storyteller stirring up a lively discussion? By the end of the evening, you might be able to see your life's journey and your soul's longings in a new light as a result of this atmospheric story-telling.
INGREDIENT #3: THE BEAUTIFUL DEEPER MEANINGS OF EACH PART OF THE EVENING
At various moments during the evening, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell will make each aspect of the Shabbat come alive for you and the people you are meeting at your table with a few words about the kavanot (or deeper meanings and holy intentions) of the candle lighting, the prayers, the connecting rituals, and the songs we will enjoy together.
It doesn't matter whether this is your first Shabbat dinner or your two thousandth Shabbat dinner. The brief teachings, discussions, and deeper meanings will be accessible and inspiring no matter what background or experiences you bring to the evening. You will probably find that your future Shabbat dinners (that you host or attend in your own style) will be enhanced by what you learn at this Soul Shabbat.
INGREDIENT #4: THE SENSE OF BEAUTY AND WHOLENESS
One of the themes of any Jewish Shabbat is to envision and practice what it will feel like when the world is healed and we are all living in harmony. So at this Soul Shabbat evening, you are encouraged to wear a white shirt or a white blouse or outfit. You will see flowers and other special preparations to make this night a bit different from the other nights of the week. You will look into caring faces and hear inspiring words that you might not be seeing or hearing on most other nights. You will be part of a unique gathering where each voice is treated with respect and each person's point of view is heard with openness.
Ahavat Torah Congregation was formed only eight years ago with the intention of creating a community of "One Torah, One People, Many Teachers." With participants from all branches of Judaism, this new congregation has been growing each year because it keeps coming up with innovative ways to respect the diversity among us while at the same time honoring and learning more about the wisdom of our traditions. In this congregation, there doesn't tend to be a hierarchy of insiders and outsiders, big makhers and little makhers, because each person is treated as someone with gifts and insights to share.
HOW TO RSVP (and please respond AS SOON AS POSSIBLE because space is limited):
If you would like to experience the first ever Soul Shabbat dinner and evening, or to invite a few friends or family members to join you, all you need to do is call Arlene at 310 429-6817 or email email@example.com. The suggested donation at the door is $18 per person for the food and the sacred space we are creating together. If you are feeling generous, you are welcome to donate more than $18 toward the creation of this new event. Or if you are feeling concerned about funds lately, please give whatever you can afford, and you can trust that someone else will make up the difference.
DIRECTIONS TO AHAVAT TORAH CONGREGATION AT 343 CHURCH LANE IN BRENTWOOD:
The social hall of the building at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood 90049 is just west of the 405 Freeway a half mile south of Sunset Blvd., one block west of Sepulveda Blvd, and one block north of Montana. If you are travelling north on Sepulveda you pass Wilshire and turn left a half mile north of Wilshire onto Montana (which has a traffic light). After taking Montana Avenue under the 405 bridge, you turn right quickly on Church Lane. You will see the building in one short block and there are two small parking lots that fill up quickly as well as street parking.
PLEASE NOTE ONCE AGAIN: The January 28th Soul Shabbat had to be rescheduled. Details for the next Soul Shabbat date will be coming soon.
--For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation, please visit the website at http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
--To receive the free weekly newsletter of events, classes, services, rabbinic teachings, and social action projects, please visit the website or call 310 362-1111.
What about you? Did you grow up in a family or a congregation where they explored with you the many fascinating Jewish teachings and tools on how to have integrity, strength, and compassion even in very difficult situations? Did you learn how to examine and improve the character traits (such as anger, impatience, moodswings, pride, judgmentalness, being a pushover, or being too rigid) that were causing trouble for you or the people you interact with in public or in private? Did you know there were brilliant writings and useful steps on how to make sure you were walking the walk and not just talking the talk?
Here in a quick summary is some information about the Mussar (character refinement) practices of Judaism and where you can find out more on how to study Mussar in an enjoyable and life-affirming way:
THE MYSTICAL ASPECT--WHY IT'S SOMEWHAT LIKE A WEDDING
On one level, Mussar or character improvement is extremely practical. It's about how to stay centered, compassionate, and effective, even when life or an irritating person is testing you.
At the same time on a mystical or spiritual level, Mussar study is like a holy wedding or a joining together of two beloved partners. One partner is you the human being who has a pure soul and a few complicated personality traits (that could definitely still use a little improvement no matter what chronological age we are). The other partner at this moment of joining together is the Eternal One, the creative Source of the universe, and this beloved One needs us to examine and repair what's broken between us or blocking the flow of light, so we can keep repairing the fragile world which is still somewhat unfinished.
According to one of the early Mussar teachers, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, we human beings become sh'lemut (whole or complete) when we examine and transform our individual self by connecting more deeply with the expansive and unlimited Self that we call HaShem. Like most holy weddings, this search for a deeper connection, unification, or beloved partnership is an exciting and somewhat risky process that includes something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue, such as:
Some of the brilliant writings and guidance that we study in a Mussar class or discussion group are thousands or hundreds of years old. They come from the Torah, the Mishneh, the Talmud, the Medieval sages, and the many modern teachers of how to live each day with integrity, goodness, and perspective. What the Mussar scholars and teachers have done is to arrange these sayings, debates, and teachings in a way that it speaks to the personality traits and character struggles that you and I face in our lives today. When you study in a Mussar class how to be more patient, more effective, and less reactive with your awkward brother-in-law, or your less-than-sensitive neighbor, or an ex-spouse, or a noodgy person in the market, you discover that there are gems of wisdom and useful guidelines from ancient sages that can be applied to your everyday dilemmas here and now.
For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation in the Mussar class and discussion group that has been meeting each Saturday morning from 9-10 a.m. in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane in Brentwood prior to Shabbat services, there have been some fascinating conversations about how to deal with real-life situations in which someone in your family or a long-time friend says or does something which gets on your nerves.
Each week Rabbi Miriam Hamrell (or Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus when Rabbi Miriam is out of town) leads the discussion group in exploring many relevant ancient and modern gems of wisdom on how to deal with here-and-now challenges and dilemmas. The Mussar class each week is not only an enjoyable way to learn more about many centuries of practical Jewish wisdom, but also a focused way of exploring what habits and tendencies we each want to keep improving in ourselves.
Every participant in the discussion class (whether this person has been attending often, not so often, or is there for the first time) is treated with respect and each person's insights into these ethical and interpersonal dilemmas are taken seriously. Over the past four years of Ahavat Torah's Mussar class, there tends to be great diversity of opinion and background in each of the conversations, yet an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring has been consistent in these weekly discussions.
(Please note there is no Mussar class on Saturday morning, January 1st and Shabbat services will begin at 10:30 a.m. on January 1st only).
The new development is that starting during one of the upcoming Saturday mornings in January from 9-10 a.m. (before Shabbat services), the Mussar class and discussion group of Ahavat Torah Congregation will begin a new phase of bringing a very modern 21st century perspective to the ancient teachings. Members, non-members, and guests are all welcome and there is no payment or prerequisite necessary for showing up at a Mussar discussion group.
Starting as soon as the discussion group completes its current exploration of the varieties of "tikkun olam" (based on the writings of Rabbi Elliott Dorff of American Jewish University), the weekly Mussar class will be using a relatively new book entitled EVERYDAY HOLINESS: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, which was written by Alan Morinis and published in 2007. Please feel free to show up at the next Mussar class on January 8, 2011 and be part of the conversation about the deeper meanings of "tikkun olam," which will soon transition into the topic of "Everyday Holiness and the Path of Mussar."
Every few months for the past four years, the Mussar class has looked at a different book to spark each week's discussions of how to live with integrity and wholeness during challenging moments. Based on the recommendation of Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, and several of the participants in the Mussar class, it was decided in December to start reading and discussing Alan Morinis' teachings on how to refine one's character in the 21st century using Mussar wisdom.
In his books and his workshops, Alan Morinis draws from thousands of years of Jewish writings and teachings to come up with 21st century options for dealing with tough situations and stubborn character traits within ourselves. In a sense, he borrows from the best rabbis, teachers, and study groups in Jewish history to bring a very accessible and useful set of steps to our modern lives and daily challenges.
As described in his earlier book "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (published in 2002), Morinis was raised in Toronto in a family that was culturally and politically Jewish but not very religious or spiritual. During college and as a Rhodes scholar in England, Morinis studied anthropology, Hinduism, and human pilgrimmages, which he then taught at a university in Vancouver while raising two daughters with his wife who is a medical doctor. Then he became involved in a charitable foundation and eventually became an award-winning documentary film producer. But despite numerous successes and cinematic awards, Morinis hit a low point when his film corporation went through a financial tailspin that resulted in bitter disputes between various executives and investors.
According to Morinis, being raised in an ethical Jewish home and knowing what it means to be a mensch didn't quite prepare him for the extremely stressful pressures of coping with a company on the brink of ruin and the tensions it placed on his personal life and friendships. So he began to look deeper into various Jewish teachings on how to live with integrity and wholeness even when life becomes quite chaotic.
In "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" he describes how, "One evening I came to a chapter on the Mussar movement and I wanted to know more about it. As I continued my reading, a new (and very old) world opened up before me. I learned that Mussar is a path of spiritual practice that had developed within the Orthodox Jewish tradition over the last thousand years. It tells us that at our core we are all holy, and it shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through. It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right now, but that we can make the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light. And it provides a tool-bag of personal, introspective, and transformative practices that will lead us, step by step, along the path of purification and change."
For the next several years, Morinis realized he needed a rabbinic guide and a deeply honest discussion group in order to truly learn and practice Mussar. So he began to travel for days at a time to study with a revered teacher in New York, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr. While Morinis' first book "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" describes his many years of learning, wrestling with, and living the Mussar teachings, his second book "Everyday Holiness" spells out the steps involved in "making the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light." Currently a widely-requested speaker and teacher worldwide, Morinis has become a bridge-builder between the modern perspective of those raised in liberal or secular Jewish homes and the many centuries of Jewish teachings and debates on how to practice Mussar character refinement.
Now here comes the important first step if you want to be a part of this holy wedding between your soul and the Soul of the universe. Whether you decide to become a consistent participant in the weekly Mussar discussion group, or an occasional participant, or a once-in-a-blue-moon participant, you will benefit enormously by purchasing as soon as possible a copy of "Everyday Holiness" and bringing it with you to the class. This blue and gold book containing Jewish wisdom and practical steps for wholeness is available at a significant discount on Amazon.com and you can arrange a quick link giving a share of the cost of the book to the fundraising of Ahavat Torah Congregation.
You will find at Amazon.com that there are used hardcover copies for $8-$16 or new copies of the paperback edition for $13-$18. Since it usually takes Amazon 4-6 days to send a book to you, or it might take a week or two if you order the book through your local bookstore, make sure to order your own copy of "Everyday Holiness" as soon as possible so that you'll be ready when the Mussar class begins its conversations of these inspiring teachings.
Morinis' book has chapters on how to improve the way you find balance in many character challenges, including: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, lovingkindness, responsibility, trust, faith, and yirah (fear/awe). There are also clear directions on how to set up a daily, weekly, or yearly accounting of how you are doing on the soul traits that you want to improve while there's still time.
Please don't feel you are locked into a permanent obligation if you come to the Mussar class at Ahavat Torah Congregation when and if you are able. No one judges anyone in this class (especially since one of the character traits we explore is judgmentalness). You will be welcomed each time you show up and if for any reason you don't have a copy of the blue and gold book in your hand you will most likely find someone offering to share his or her copy.
But you might find (as many other Ahavat Torah members, non-members, and guests have found) that there is something exquisitely transforming about arriving at 9 a.m. on a Shabbat morning and starting the day with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell leading us in an opening meditation where we let go of what's outside the room and we then connect with the joy of being able to study the words of our tradition together for the pursuit of peace and wholeness.
May you be blessed with a healthy and wonderful new year, guided by the wisdom that is available to us if we find the right teachers and study partners to help us keep learning and growing in every decade of life.
---For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation and directions to 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111 and ask to be put on the free list for receiving the weekly newsletter of classes, events, and celebrations.
Does that ever happen for you? Have you ever been sitting in a Shabbat service and specific words of the prayer book seemed formal, distant, or alienating?
Or do you know someone who has had trouble opening up to the passionate prayers and songs that are one of the key Jewish ways for connecting with the ever-flowing mysterious Presence that is beyond human words and concepts?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Fortunately, there are several ways to make progress on this lifelong opportunity for experiencing more moments of transcendence and joy. One way to look at the Shabbat services is to envision that each week (or each time you are at a prayer service) is a chance to use specific phrases and melodies to connect your individual soul with the hard-to-describe creative Soul of the universe. Each Shabbat service is a chance to shift our narrow human awareness into a more expansive awareness in order to notice more of the blessings and goodness that are easy to overlook or take for granted during the hectic pace of 21st century living.
Here are a few options for you (or the person in your life who struggles with prayer and ritual) to go deeper into the many layers of richness that can be found in the Shabbat prayer service:
--OPTION ONE: PICK A SPECIFIC PHRASE OR WORD THAT MOVES YOU ON THIS PARTICULAR WEEK AND THEN SPEND A FEW MOMENTS EXPLORING WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU. Quite often at Shabbat services at Ahavat Torah Congregation, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell asks all who are in attendance to pick one or a few words that have an extra dose of meaning and significance on this particular day. It might be a phrase in the prayer book that you've always raced through habitually, but today it comes alive with new meaning and emotion because of Rabbi Miriam's invitation to go deeper. Or it might be a word or phrase that never touched your soul previously, but today it brings up memories, discoveries, aspirations, or a sense of curiosity that sets you on an inspiring string of positive thoughts and actions. Suddenly the prayer service begins to connect with your kishkas and your heart.
--OPTION TWO: SELECT A WORD OR PHRASE THAT BAFFLES YOU, OFFENDS YOU, OR LEAVES YOU FEELING DISTANT. You can also begin to explore the deeper meanings and possible re-visioning of those particular words that formerly frustrated you. If a word or phrase in the prayer service is problematic for you, you can talk with Rabbi Miriam, or with Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, or with another person in the congregation who also takes these words to heart and connects with them deeply. From your conversations at the oneg lunch, or during the week, you might then be able to understand a formerly-baffling phrase in a new light and with a strong sense of inspiring meaning that it never had for you previously.
For example, many times when I was younger and had hair on my head, I would read during services a prayer that spoke of "God's majesty" and the only interpretation that came to mind was an anthropomorphic image of a king who was harsh and arbitrary in his decrees. I would recoil a bit because I felt this image of a human-like king was a bit old-fashioned.
Then several years ago I was intrigued by a workshop I took about Hebrew prayer meanings and interpretations. I learned that one of the many ways to hear the traditional words describing "God's majesty" is to envision the beauty of creation that is unfolding daily, or the majestic order and brilliance of the earth, lunar, and star formations, or the amazing compassion and love that comes from a mysterious Source and spreads through the acts of kindness by human beings near and far.
Now when I am in a prayer service and I come upon one of the many phrases that praise God's majesty, I usually feel an immediate connection to either the smells of night-blooming jasmine in the Springtime, or the color of the leaves falling in Autumn, or the smile on a loved one's face, or the creative flow that is continually expressing itself in humans, plants, animals, and the ever-changing winds and tides. Suddenly the prayer service is no longer about a king issuing decrees, but rather about giving thanks and praise to a creative Source that surrounds us with blessings constantly and that we can remember to stop and notice these awe-inspiring gifts from an ultimate Source.
--OPTION THREE: JOIN A NEW CLASS BEING OFFERED TO BOOST YOUR FLUENCY WITH PRAYER BOOK HEBREW OR TO HELP YOU DISCOVER MORE OF THE SPIRITUAL MEANINGS OF THE TRADITIONAL PRAYERS OF OUR PEOPLE. Right now Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rena Jaffe are leading a new very-accessible and enjoyable weekly study session on Tuesday mornings from 10-12:15 at Rena's home in Santa Monica entitled, "The Ahavat Torah All In One Class." The first portion of each week's class will explore "Decoding the Spiritual Meaning of Shabbat Prayer" with Rabbi Miriam. The second portion of each week's study session will include "Learning to Read Hebrew" with Rena Jaffe. The third portion of each week's gathering will explain how to learn and review Torah trope. Some people attend all three portions and others focus just on one or two of the topics. In addition, those who are interested in having an Adult B'nei Mitzvah celebration in June 2011 will get a good portion of their training at these study sessions. For information about the class and the low-cost suggested fees for members and non-members, please see the weekly newsletter or call Rena at 310 450-5225.
(Please note that if enough people express an interest in this much-requested class on going deeper into the words of prayer, Torah, and blessings, Rabbi Miriam and Rena might add a second class at a different time of the week. Please let them know if you are interested).
--OPTION FOUR: DON'T BE SHY ABOUT ASKING FOR DIVERSE WAYS TO CONNECT WITH THE HOLY WORDS OF OUR PEOPLE. Remember, the word "Yisra-El" means to wrestle or strive with the One that is beyond human description. If you ever feel distant or alienated from a particular word or phrase of prayer or Torah, we Jews are supposed to wrestle with it and dig deeper rather than shutting down your heart or mind. In Judaism, it's perfectly appropriate to discuss and explore your doubts, your uncertainties, and your concerns about how to connect with HaShem, the mysterious One that we humans are seeking to emulate.
In the 1990's book "Stalking Elijah" by Rodger Kamenetz (who earlier wrote "The Jew in the Lotus" about the Dalai Lama learning from several Jewish rabbis how to keep a spiritual tradition alive even when many of one's people are in exile from their homeland), the author came to Los Angeles several times to study with various rabbis about how to open up his heart. As described in the book, Kamenetz had felt somewhat shut down emotionally and cut off spiritually from Jewish prayer and ritual ever since he and his wife lost an infant child and they felt their prayers were unanswered.
In "Stalking Elijah," Kamenetz describes a specific prayer suggested to him by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man for reconnecting with the One whom Kamenetz had longed for but felt had not responded. Omer-Man said essentially that the best way to reconnect with Jewish spirituality is to say as strongly and sincerely as possible, "Please God, open my heart." Even if you have doubts about God and prayer, this calling out from a deep wounded place of profound longing in order to re-experience the flow of blessings and love that had felt out of reach is a key Jewish method for reawakening your spiritual life. Kamenetz tried this out for several months before he finally experienced the prayers of Judaism in a new light.
As described by Jonathan Omer-Man and many other Jewish teachers, when we offer up prayers of longing, thanks and awe for the blessings that surround us daily, we begin to heal some of the scar tissue that surrounds our hearts from all of our losses and disappointments. When we say with sincerity and passion, "Please God, open my heart," we begin to connect with an ultimate Creative Source that is beyond words and concepts.
May your hearts be opened substantially by the classes you take and the questions you ask about how to continually deepen your connection to prayer and Jewish teachings. And may it lead toward the healing of whatever wounds and longings that you carry on your heart.
(Please feel free to forward this blog article to anyone in your life who might find it useful or thought-provoking).
--For more information about Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Ahavat Torah Congregation: One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community, please log onto www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or call 310 362-1111. Be sure to request the weekly newsletter that has numerous creative options for celebration, study, and connection.