As we approach the turning point of January 1st, 2010, many Jews are in the habit of making New Year's resolutions or vows to improve something that needs a bit of improvement.
This year it might be a resolution to spend more time with cherished friends, family members, and loved ones. Or a vow to follow through on your health and fitness goals. Or a quest to finish a creative project that got sidetracked several times. Or a promise to be less judgmental, or more patient and caring with certain challenging individuals who test you every so often. Or a profound wish to live up to your highest ideals.
Sometimes it's a vow or resolution that we made already at the Jewish High Holydays in September. Sometimes it's a new resolution for 2010 or a fine-tuning of an earlier vow.
But since vows easily get broken and human beings are said to be 90% likely to fail at their New Year's resolutions, is there anything you can do this year to not just talk the talk, but somehow to follow through and improve things in actuality? Is there some setting where individuals can clarify how to live up to your highest ideals and how to stay true to your deepest values more consistently?
One possibility is the Mussar class that Rabbi Miriam Hamrell leads each Saturday morning before services at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood. Mussar is the not-widely-known Jewish tradition of individual character refinement and integrity-seeking that was outlined by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter in the 19th century and that has been reemerging in recent years in many liberal and progressive congregations worldwide. It seems the more frantic and overloaded our lives become in the 21st century, the more we can benefit from a discussion group that clarifies how to live each day closer to our deepest values of compassion and goodness.
Popularized in the past few years by several acclaimed books on Mussar (including Alan Morinis' "Everyday Holiness"), Mussar discussion groups are designed to help busy individuals apply the ethics and personal growth insights from the written Torah, the oral Torah, and a variety of great teachers to dilemmas we face in our daily lives and complicated interactions with loved ones and strangers.
A NON-JUDGMENTAL SETTING
At Ahavat Torah, Rabbi Miriam started this particular Mussar class in the Fall of 2006 as an "all-are-welcome," "work-on-yourself-and-don't-judge-others" study and discussion group that meets from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. each Saturday morning in the Fireside Room of the synagogue prior to Shabbat services.
Each week the size of the discussion group varies from 15 early risers to 30-40 lively souls on certain weeks. Some men and women show up consistently, while others come and go and return when they are able. Yet for each person there are several common threads, including:
--A chance to study in depth some highly-regarded Jewish texts on ethics and daily dilemmas that most of us face at home, at work, or in our friendships.
--A chance to learn from the struggles and insights of others who share their spiritual journeys, their questions, and their personal breakthroughs with honesty and humility.
--A chance to learn from Rabbi Miriam how she uses these profound Jewish teachings in her own daily life and holy struggles.
--A chance to ask questions and resolve the concerns you've always wrestled with about the connection between Jewish spiritual teachings and everyday integrity issues.
The Mussar discussion group at Ahavat Torah votes every few months on what text to study next. So far, the weekly discussions have been sparked by studying in depth the following books:
--The first year was a study of Mussar steps and insights as described by Daniel Feldman in his book "The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations."
--Then the class spent several months exploring in detail each of the insights and challenges offered in Chapter Three of Pirke Avot (the Sayings of Our Ancestors).
--Next the class began to read and discuss one of the key books that inspired Rabbi Salanter to develop the Mussar system. It was called "Mesillas Yesharim: Lights Along the Way" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.
--Then the class did another brainstorming session and voted to read and discuss each of the insights and teachings in Chapter One of Pirke Avot, only this time to utilize every so often a version of Pirke Avot that includes the insights on each verse as described in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and other traditions.
--Pretty soon the Mussar class will be brainstorming again on what to study next for going deeper into the connection between Jewish ethics, character refinement, and daily life.
A NEW YEAR'S INVITATION
Please don't feel you have to be a super Jew or a longtime scholar to enter the class and put in your questions and insights. Each week there are visitors and new members who offer wonderful ideas and raise excellent concerns even if they have never before been part of a Jewish study group or a Mussar discussion group.
What matters is that every individual in the Saturday morning Mussar class shows up ready to learn from each person's unique and different life experiences. Each week you will be surprised at how a passage from a Jewish text or a comment from someone you barely know can help shed new light on a dilemma you've been facing in your private life or your spiritual journey. Quite often the Mussar class becomes a safe place not only to grow deeper in your Judaism but also in your quest to live up to your highest values.
The Mussar class with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell meets at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood from 9am until 10am, immediately prior to Shabbat services.
There are no pre-requisites, but mutual respect and confidentiality are mandatory.
For more information about Ahavat Torah or the several other classes and discussion groups that meet regularly, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
NUMBER 10: You have been so careful all year about eating healthy--and now your body deserves to enjoy an exquisite crispy latke with sour cream and apple sauce.
NUMBER 9: The non-stop caroling music in the malls started this year in late October and there have been over 10,000 ads on television about "Black Friday." Would it kill you to have a little bit of Jewish joy this December?
NUMBER 8: A Hanukkah party is one of those rare moments when the grown-ups feel like kids while the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids feel they are a part of living history.
NUMBER 7: This year there has been so much sadness in the world at large and in many of our families. Maybe we do need to light a candle and feel connected with community more than ever.
NUMBER 6: There is an "Antiochus Wanna-Be" in Tehran who thinks it's possible to wipe out the Jews. When you light candles, spin dreydels, dance with joy, and join together as one people this December you are saying to him, "No way. Not this time."
NUMBER 5: This year we enjoy the fact that at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood there is remarkable cooperation and warmth between the lively Jews who use the Gem in the Glen on Saturdays, the lively Lutherans who gather on Sundays, and the lively Muslims who worship on Fridays. This year we celebrate the fact that our Rabbi Miriam Hamrell has been asked to tell our story (of 3 faiths getting along well) at the Parliament of World Religions during the first week of December. Nes Gadol Hayah Po, Miracles are Happening HERE!!!
NUMBER 4: Most kids, teens, and young adults know this year that in the United States of America they celebrate Jewish holidays now in the White House. Michelle Obama's cousin is a rabbi who joined with Rahm Emanuel, Sasha, Malia, their dad the leader of the free world, and a diverse group of Jews and non-Jews for a passionate Seder in April 2009. This year in December 2009 they might also be having dreydels, latkes, sufganiyot, and a menorah at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
NUMBER 3: When we celebrate Hanukkah and joyfully stand up for religious freedom, we honor the memory of every man and woman who has risked their lives to declare, "I am a Jew." We dance and sing this year for Hannah Senesch and Danny Pearl and Rabbi Akiva and our 6 million family members and every Israeli soldier who has ever risked his or her life for our people.
NUMBER 2: You've already watched Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" more times than you have fingers. This year is an opportunity to turn off the TV and come celebrate the freedom and creativity that is yours.
NUMBER 1: The miracle of Hanukkah is not just the oil that burned for 8 days. It's that the inner light of an Infinite Source of Love is still strong in our hearts, in our families, and in our inspiring community.
Please bring some light and joy into this season. You and your friends and loved ones are invited to come celebrate the Festival of Lights with Ahavat Torah Congregation at our annual Hanukkah party, Tuesday night, December 15th at 6:30 pm. All are welcome!
The live music, dancing, festive foods, children's craft table, and amazing desserts will happen at 343 Church Lane (between Sunset Blvd. and Montana Avenue, one block west of the 405 Freeway).
Bring your own Hanukkah menorah and candles to add to the light and celebration. Also bring a book or CD to share.
Children under 10 can celebrate for free, Adults and Teens are asked to contribute $10.
To RSVP or if you have questions, please contact Blanche Moss at 310 271-4042 or email@example.com.
Why do good people stay on the sidelines even when some horrific situation grabs their attention?
It's a question many people asked during and after the Holocaust. Then in 1964 in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York, a woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked repeatedly and murdered while 38 neighbors did nothing.
During the next few decades, many psychologists (who said they were moved by the Holocaust and the Kitty Genovese murder) created research studies to understand why good people stand idly by. They discovered that most good people tend to stay on the sidelines if:
--they thought someone else was going to take care of the situation for them.
--they felt powerless to do anything that might make a difference.
--they refused to let themselves feel distressed enough to truly care and take action.
A JEWISH CALL TO ACTION
Like most American Jews, I've read newspaper reports during the past 20 years about genocides and "ethnic cleansing" in various parts of the world. Because I am the child of a Holocaust survivor, I want to believe that the passionate words "Never Again" apply not just to Jewish survival but to preventing or stopping genocides for any group that is being targeted by a vicious attacker.
But I will be honest. Besides writing a few small checks and attending a few cerebral conferences, I didn't do very much about these horrific atrocities. I assumed that someone else was probably in a better position to take care of these situations than I was. In addition, I felt somewhat powerless and skeptical about doing anything effective that might make an impact.
Then a few years ago I picked up my son Steven from Sunday School and saw that on this particular Sunday there were a few volunteers from a group called Jewish World Watch who had taught my son and many other kids how to do a very practical thing:
--to make decorated pot-holders and back-packs that were going to be sent to the Darfur region of Sudan to be used with free solar cookers so that women in the war-torn region could take care of their families without having to walk several miles for firewood and most likely get raped by marauding groups of government-backed militias.
I found out from one of the Jewish World Watch volunteers that these women in Darfur had a horrible choice to make--a lot like Sophie's Choice. If they sent their husband or brother to leave their camps to get firewood for cooking, the men would be killed by the violent militias who were targeting their ethnic group for extinction. If the women decided not to risk the life of their husband or brother, but chose to go on their own or with a sister or daughter to get firewood, then they would likely be raped and possibly murdered by the militias who were trying to intimidate and destroy their people. If they did nothing, they would starve.
I began to wonder, "Who are these individuals at Jewish World Watch? How do they decide which genocide situations in the world can be stopped? How did they get so creative that they came up with a very do-able way to save the lives and prevent the rape of tens of thousands of African women? Besides providing tens of thousands of solar cookers, what other leverage are they able to exert? Could a Jewish organization located in Southern California truly be effective in saving hundreds of thousands of lives in a land not far from Israel?"
THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING SMALL, NIMBLE, AND FLEXIBLE
On Saturday morning, November 21st at Ahavat Torah Congregation (located between Westwood and Brentwood near Montana Avenue and the 405 Freeway), Naama Haviv of Jewish World Watch will be describing the next action steps her organization has come up with to respond effectively and creatively to the most horrific genocides currently taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in other heart-wrenching areas of the world.
I interviewed Naama recently at her small office in Encino (which is the size of a middle-class living room and has a staff of five professionals who can hear each other's phone conversations constantly) to find out how Jewish World Watch is able to mobilize tens of thousands of Jews (mostly from Southern California) to take effective steps for using leverage and creative approaches for stopping genocides, rapes, mass murders, and ethnic intimidation tactics. Frankly, I have never before experienced an organization that does so much good without a lot of overhead or wasteful spending.
According to Naama, who is the mother a four month old child and is a brilliant scholar/activist trained at the Genocide and Holocaust Studies Program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, "When Rabbi Harold Schulweis started Jewish World Watch in 2004, he wanted to make sure that our experience and values as Jews could be utilized to save lives in a major way. Our director Janice Kamenir-Reznick has a law, business, and hands-on activism background which helps her to frequently come up with practical ideas like the solar cooker project in Sudan to get immediate and crucial help to people who are in desperate situations. Since our organization has such a small, nimble, and flexible staff of five people, but we also have the ability to mobilize huge numbers of passionate volunteers, fundraisers, and team-builders at more than 60 local congregations, we are able to try out new ideas and innovative approaches that larger organizations with big national offices can't do."
One of the reasons Jewish World Watch has been so effective in such a short amount of time to save lives and influence legislation and media attention is because they know how to work with already existing temples, social action committees, activist groups, and numerous allies. Naama explains, "We didn't try to build a big organization, but instead we found ways to mobilize and empower numerous congregations who felt the urgency of what we are addressing but they became far more effective when they combined their talents and passion through carefully-designed projects that can help save lives and influence public opinion immediately. For instance, even though Ahavat Torah Congregation is not a large temple, it has been extremely active and helpful far beyond what anyone could have anticipated. As a result of the many people who contribute to our programs and show up for our activism events, we have been able to influence important legislation, develop three medical clinics and maternity wards in Darfur, purchase and build numerous wells to provide life-saving drinking water to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and significantly reduce the number of rapes and murders in war-torn areas."
"IT'S A VERY PERSONAL DECISION"
Vivian Gold is a psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and an Associate Clinical Professor at the UCLA Medical School. Active on the social action committee of Ahavat Torah Congregation, Vivian became interested in doing more for Jewish World Watch because, "When I heard that 5 1/2 million people have been killed in recent years in the Congo, that number was so close to the 6 million that we all remember so strongly. It was like a bell went off in my head that said, 'Wake up. This is happening right now and we need to do a lot more to stop it.'"
Vivian adds, "Then when I learned how frequently rape is being used as a weapon to terrorize women and humiliate men in these countries, I knew as a woman that this is a very personal issue. We are probably the first generation in history to stand up for the fact that rape is no longer permissible as 'the spoils of war' or 'business as usual during war-time.' And then when I heard that the genocide in the Congo is related to militias trying to displace people from mineral-rich lands so that these war-lords can make millions of dollars selling the raw minerals that are used in cell phones and computers sold in affluent countries, I knew I couldn't just stay uninvolved."
THE CELL PHONE CONNECTION
At the November 21st presentation and discussion, Naama Haviv will explore recent discoveries about the horrible violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the efforts of Jewish World Watch to get cell phone manufacturers and distributors to start tracing what mines were tapped for their cell phone materials, especially the tin, tungsten, and tantalum that are sold illegally to some of the major companies that make many of our cell phones and electronics components.
According to Naama, "Jewish World Watch is taking a leadership position right now to get the United States Congress to pass legislation requiring cell phone makers to trace and identify whether their phones are profiting the vicious militias in the Congo who are raping women in large numbers and chopping up bodies to intimidate people to vacate certain areas where the minerals are being mined illegally."
She explains, "Just like blood diamonds are no longer permissible and there is a careful certification process in place for any diamond ring you buy today, so will we be able soon to trace the exact mine origins of the minerals in each cell phone we buy. But for now we need to work quickly with our congressional representatives and our cell phone executives to correct a horrific situation where many of us are financially aiding some of the most awful atrocities in the Congo that we've ever witnessed in human history."
WHO SHOULD ATTEND?
If you are someone who owns a cell phone, or if you are a Jewish man or woman who is tired of feeling powerless and sidelined about situations in the world that are much too similar to the Holocaust, or if you are simply someone with a compassionate heart, you will probably feel inspired and empowered by meeting and hearing Naama Haviv on November 21st. Born in Israel, she grew up in Illinois, Massachusetts, and California before devoting her studies and her career to the prevention and halting of genocides.
The schedule for that Saturday morning will include:
--Mussar class at 9 a.m. with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell (on how to bring Jewish teachings about living with integrity to everyday situations).
--Lively Shabbat Services from 10 a.m. until 12:20 p.m.
--A friendly and welcoming pot-luck dairy lunch from 12:20 p.m. until 1 p.m.
--Naama Haviv discussing new visions and action steps from Jewish World Watch from 1 p.m. until 2:15 p.m.
Ahavat Torah Congregation meets at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, 1 block north of Montana Avenue and 6 blocks south of Sunset Blvd., 1 block west of Sepulveda and the 405 Freeway. For more information call 310 362-1111 or log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/. Everyone is welcome to be a part of this important event.
A woman walks into the sanctuary of a congregation where she has never been before. She's had a stressful week.
She looks around at unfamiliar faces and sees that many congregants are greeting one another with warm embraces and lively conversation. She feels left out and alone.
Then a stranger gently comes up and says with a caring smile, "Hello. Shabbat Shalom. Here's a prayerbook that we use at services and that was put together by members of our congregation so that it could be accessible for those who know the prayers already, as well as those who are unfamiliar with the prayers but who want to understand the deeper meanings and intentions of the blessings and meditations."
The two women talk for a few minutes--warmly, genuinely, unpretentiously. The new visitor no longer feels so alone. In fact, she's quite surprised at how quickly she is starting to feel at home in this warm congregation called Ahavat Torah.
WHO'S THE GIVER, WHO'S THE RECEIVER?
I've always been fascinated by the volunteer greeters who reach out to those who are new (and also to those who have been to services before but who might enjoy an extra warm "hello, how are you" at the beginning of services). Who are these greeters? Why do they show up a little earlier than most other people? What are they thinking and feeling when they do their volunteer task? And are they always in the role of giving, or do they tend to receive something as well?
Helene Silber works at UCLA Extension on weekdays but on many Saturday mornings she is one of the volunteer greeters at Ahavat Torah Congregation, a few blocks west of the UCLA campus. According to Helene, "I decided to volunteer and be a greeter a few years ago and everytime I say to someone 'Good Shabbos' I feel as though it's coming back to me. The hugs, smiles, and words of recognition transcend me away from the everyday multi-tasking, multi-stressing into a special holy space. I feel myself giving love and getting love from my spiritual community. Ah, being Jewish, it is good, it is very good."
For Helene and many of the other greeters, the sacredness of Shabbat takes on an added dimension due to these moments of kindness. Helene explains, "There have been moments when I knew someone was going through a tough time, and I could reach out. Then there's often a smile or a gentle touch back that feels especially inspiring." Clearly, the greeters are not just chanting the words of the service but living up to the idea of the ancient prayers to open one's heart and be a vessel for Divine compassion.
Barbara Stone, a 5th grade teacher at a Science Magnet public school in Los Angeles, has been a greeter for the past 3 years. She has found, "It's a great way to start the day by saying Shabbat Shalom and making sure that new visitors and long-time congregants have what they need in order for them to have a meaningful experience at services."
Barbara feels, "It's important not to be too invasive when someone enters the sanctuary or is trying to get settled, but rather to be attentive and make sure this person feels welcomed and comfortable. No one wants to walk into a big room where they feel ignored or where they feel too pressured about anything. Many of us have been in exactly that situation in other congregations where you feel invisible or much too pressured right away."
In addition to the warmth she receives from the women and men she greets at services, Barbara finds, "One of the best parts of being a greeter is how much Rabbi Miriam thanks us with so much warmth and sincerity. At this congregation, the brief moments of greeting someone are not treated like a small thing but rather as something that increases the warmth of the services for each person in attendance."
Pattye Asarch, who has worked for ABC Television and other jobs, says that her volunteer work for Ahavat Torah as a greeter "gives me a lot of pleasure. I know what it's like to feel overlooked or left out, so I'm hoping that when I give a welcome to someone, hand this person our prayer book, and help them find their way in our community it makes a difference for that person."
Two of the most consistent greeters are no longer able to welcome people each week. New York native Janice Silberstein was a much-beloved greeter for several years until her sudden death this past year. British-born Lily Taylor greeted guests and members quite often for several years with her gracious, caring style until she recently moved to the Bay Area to be close to her extended family.
THE FORMAL AND THE INFORMAL
For a while, it was somewhat random and unplanned at Ahavat Torah regarding how to greet newcomers. But early on in the history of this 7 year old congregation, Sid Rosenblatt (who was then in charge of the Membership Committee) and Arlene Rosenblatt (who has helped welcome people and make them feel at home in the congregation in numerous ways) decided that being a greeter should be a solid commitment. According to Sid, "When I became membership chairman, Arlene and I did most of the greeting and enjoyed the opportunity of welcoming new worshippers, giving hugs to our members, and being the first to wish them 'Shabbat Shalom!'"
Eventually there was a dependable weekly list for each service of who are the greeters and a shared commitment by several volunteers to make sure each week there is sufficient attention given to making people feel comfortable and helping the Rabbi and Cantorial Soloists by responding to whatever logistics issues arise in the middle of a service. (The greeter list is coordinated by current membership committee director Ellen Dubois).
Quite often there are unexpected moments when the greeters do more than just greet people. One week when the congregational plumbing was "challenged", the greeters and other volunteers were immediately able to come up with creative solutions to make sure congregants were comfortable. At other times when visitors from the Twelve Step meetings in the social hall have entered the congregation, the greeters have been caring and helpful to explain to the visitors what the spiritual service is about and to welcome these individuals who had never seen a Jewish Shabbat gathering before.
But consistently 52 weeks a year at Ahavat Torah Congregation, it's not just the greeters who reach out to newcomers or who volunteer to be helpful. According to Rita Reuben, a social worker with many years of experience in large and small organizations, "One of the things I love about Ahavat Torah is that to some extent everyone feels like a greeter. I've seen so many moments where someone was kind to a newcomer or to a longtime congregant who was going through a hard time. We just seem to attract that kind of compassionate, thoughtful person."
David Rose, an accountant and financial advisor, describes how, "I have never been an actual greeter but I've often helped with putting away our books after services. I especially appreciate the efforts made by many of our members who carry multiple sets of books to me for storage. Some in the congregation just leave their books at their seats and I generally make a final tour of the pews to pick up these books. Michael Josephson in his 'Character Counts' articles and broadcasts, has talked about those who put their shopping carts away and those who do not. And I say hooray to the many people in our congregation whose 'character does count.'"
CREATING AN ENDLESS CHAIN
Quite often the kindness of one person in the congregation leads to an ongoing chain reaction of kindness. For example, Ellen Kimmel is a psychotherapist who describes how, "My first time at Ahavat Torah not very long ago, the greeters were very welcoming to me and made me feel at home. In fact, many congregants at Ahavat Torah were genuine and friendly. We were greeted not just by the official greeters, but by several other thoughtful and interesting people, too. They all made us feel we were a part of the congregation right away. I then began to attend services more often--and soon I decided to volunteer and make someone else feel as included as I was made to feel my first time attending services."
Ellen Kimmel recently became an official new member of Ahavat Torah and she's taken her place several times among the list of greeters who welcome each person at services with a warm 'Shabbat Shalom' and whatever support is needed.
For more information about the weekly Shabbat services, the High Holyday services, or the many social action programs, classes, and celebrations of the congregation, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or log onto http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/ . Or call (310) 362-1111.
Or come see for yourself the Shabbat services (10 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. each Saturday morning) or the weekly Mussar class (on how to use Jewish teachings to strengthen one's character and daily mindfulness) from 9-10 am each Saturday. Both of these gatherings are held at 343 Church Lane (between Montana and Sunset) just west of the 405 Freeway in Brentwood.
Like many Jews, I have been searching for a High Holyday experience that is extremely meaningful and opens up the heart.
When I was a child in Detroit, I attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at a very large congregation where the Cantor had a great voice and the Rabbi was a good person, but their words and their rituals seemed far removed from my daily life as a rebellious teenager.
It wasn't until I became an adult in Los Angeles at a smaller and more intimate congregation that the personal relevance and the healing possibilities of the High Holydays began to reach deeply into my soul.
If you (or someone else you care about) have felt bored, left out, or frustrated at a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service that didn't inspire you in a profound way, I hope this year will be different and better.
After interviewing many women and men of all ages on what causes them to feel uplifted (or to feel let down) by the High Holydays, here are a few specific things that you or someone you care about can do this year to improve things:
Possibility #1: MAKE SURE TO START YOUR INNER EXPLORATIONS EARLIER THIS YEAR
Most people show up on the actual date of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur feeling quite stressed and somewhat distracted from the pressures of their work, their family situation, random traffic jams, their cell phones, the unstable economy, or an emotionally-exhausting health crisis. But I've found that many highly-perceptive women and men who manage to get the most out of these sacred holidays tend to start a little earlier to ask their heart, their soul, and their kishkas, "What are my deepest longings this year? Where am I missing the mark on following through with my soul's current purpose? What are the hurt feelings and miscommunications I carry inside that need to be cleared up? Who do I need to forgive? And is there someone I need to ask for forgiveness?"
At Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets each Saturday morning in Brentwood at 343 Church Lane near Montana Avenue and the 405, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell gives gentle and loving reminders during August and throughout September about the ancient and modern teachings that can help us open up our hearts and begin to heal during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
These pro-active inner explorations are discussed during the Hebrew month of Elul (August 21st - September 18th) and there are some extremely helpful and inspiring teachings at this time of year about how to "circumcise one's heart" and "remove the emotional scar tissue and coverings" that are holding each of us back from the unrestricted love and creative flow that we long for.
It is said by several rabbis that the four Hebrew letters of Elul are the same as the first letters of the heartfelt words from the Song of Songs that we all hear at most Jewish weddings, "Ahnee l'dodee, v'dodee lee, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."
So during the late-summer month of Elul we are encouraged to look closely at each of our loving relationships and to ask ourselves honestly if we are feeling a bit distant or disconnected toward a spouse, an ex, a friend, a former friend, a neighbor, a sibling, a child, a co-worker, a troubled relative, or someone else from long ago who is still in our thoughts. We take a moment to admit if someone has hurt us or if we have (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt someone else, even in the smallest way.
We also are encouraged to take some time during the month of Elul to look honestly at our loving relationship (or our feelings of disconnection) with the hard-to-define "One who is beyond human understanding." The weeks leading up to the High Holydays are an especially crucial time to ask, "Does this mysterious bond between my soul and the creative Soul of the universe feel like a relationship that is fully vibrant and grateful recently?" Or is there some healing that needs to be explored between you and the One who originally brought you to this dance called life?
High Holyday Improvement Possibility #2: PICK ONE OR MORE ACTION STEPS FOR HEALING AND RENEWAL THAT YOU WANT TO EXPLORE DURING THE HIGH HOLYDAY SEASON
What makes this time of year so profound and rich for many individuals is that it's not just about contemplation but also about taking action. During these awesome weeks of honest soul-searching there are many possible options for awakening your higher self and reconnecting with what truly matters in your life. Some actions steps you might consider in the next few weeks are:
--Attending a class about how to use Jewish methods to open your heart and heal on a spiritual level. Rabbi Miriam Hamrell will be discussing how to use Psalms and other profound ways to prepare for the High Holydays during her Saturday morning Mussar classes the next few weeks from 9-10 am at the Gem in the Glen, 343 Church Lane in Brentwood. Everyone is invited, including those who have not attended a Mussar class recently (Mussar is the Jewish practice of working on character/integrity issues using ancient and modern Jewish teachings). Also on Tuesday night August 25th and Tuesday night September 1st there will be classes available for anyone who is interested in how to understand High Holyday prayers and meditations, taught by congregation member Rinat Amir and Rabbi Miriam.
--Attending the beautiful and spiritually-profound holiday of Selichot (a Hebrew word that means forgiveness) on Saturday night, September 12th where Rabbi Miriam will lead a discussion on how to take action toward repairing our relationships with others, with God, and with ourselves. Selichot is celebrated each year on the Saturday night approximately a week prior to Rosh Hashanah to open up our hearts to some sacred melodies and to the relationship-repair steps of the holiday season.
--Reading a book or a chapter of a book that takes you deeper into your personal exploration of the mysteries of faith, doubt, renewal, healing our strained relationships, when to forgive and when to let go, plus how to turn important areas of your life toward a more holy direction.
--Making a commitment to join a Torah study group, a Mussar study group, or discuss with a friend or study partner each week how to stay on track toward the goals and vows that are most important to you.
High Holyday Improvement Possibility #3: SELECT A PLACE FOR ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR WHERE YOU WILL FEEL WELCOMED AND RESPECTED FOR EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE THIS YEAR AS AN IMPERFECT BUT WONDERFUL HUMAN BEING
I remember as a child that for many of the members of my congregation in Detroit, the High Holydays seemed to be about getting dressed up in fancy clothes, keeping score on who's doing well and who isn't, or trying to pretend everything was fine even when it wasn't.
Thankfully, I have found as an adult that at places like Ahavat Torah (which holds its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services each year in the beautiful sanctuary of Kehillat Maarav on 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica), it's not about superficial appearances or clever cover-ups.
There's something positively transforming about walking into a holy sanctuary with bright stained glass windows of Jewish themes, gorgeous flower arrangements put together by Ahavat Torah member Val Eule, and lots of warm and friendly women and men of all ages. Rather than feeling coldly institutional or intellectually rigid, there is a sense of inclusive community and lively participation that can be felt by long-time members and complete strangers who are there for the very first time.
The Ahavat Torah services have both Hebrew and English (with easy-to-follow transliterations of the Hebrew words for non-Hebrew speakers). There are numerous times during the services when members and non-members are invited to share from the heart or to ask questions about the deeper meaning of particular sections of the services.
Rabbi Miriam Hamrell each year speaks eloquently at various key moments of the services about her own "holy struggles" and how she deals with them in a humble and inspiring way. Cantorial Soloist Gary Levine not only has an amazing voice but also is able to bring sincere emotion to the way he phrases and chants the thought-provoking melodies so that each of us in the congregation goes deeper in our understanding of the sacred meditations.
This year the inspiring music will also include at times the exquisite singing of Associate Cantorial Soloist Kimberly Haynes, as well as the Kol Nidre cello of Marion Klein, and the Ahavat Torah volunteer "mini-choir" consisting of Judy Dubin, Vivian Gold, Marion Klein, and Jonathan Troper.
Because Rabbi Miriam and Torah trope guide Rena Jaffe have been encouraging more people to be a part of chanting the sacred teachings, there are several members currently practicing the melodies and words for the Torah and Haftarah portions, including Pattye Asarch, Sasha Borenstein, Beth Devermont, Estelle Fisher, Sasha Firman, Vivian Gold, Rena Jaffe, Aharon Nachshon, Gloria Orenstein, Glynnis Ortiz Golden, Judith Rafael, Rita Reuben, Arva Rose, and Judy Weintraub Warren.
Ahavat Torah is a place where people who grew up Reform, Conservative, Traditional, Non-traditional, or Unaffiliated all can join together in a welcoming and non-judgmental congregation that calls itself "One Torah, One People, Many Teachers." Most of us can remember feeling bored or frustrated at some High Holyday service years ago. That's why so many of us feel extremely glad to have found a growing community that is so lively, friendly, and inspiring. Together this congregation that is only 7 years old has created a safe place to do the important inner work of healing, repair, and renewal that takes us into a new year of blessings.
(Please feel free to forward or give this August/September weblog article to anyone who wants to deepen their experience of the High Holydays this year).
For more information about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or other services and social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation,
please call 310 362-1111 or visit the website http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
This year the High Holydays will be:
--Selichot (exploring forgiveness) Saturday night, Sept 12 at the Gem in the Glen, 343 Church Lane near Montana and the 405 in Brentwood
--Rosh Hashanah Eve, Friday night, Sept 19 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Rosh Hashanah Day, Saturday, Sept 20 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Tashlich (letting go of old habits and opening up to new visions) at the beach in Santa Monica, Saturday afternoon, Sept 20
--Kol Nidre Service, Erev Yom Kippur, Sunday night Sept 27 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Yom Kippur Day (Morning Prayer Service, Torah Teachings, Jonah's Journey, Yizkor/Kaddish, Ne'ilah, and Shofar), Monday Sept 28 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Break-the-Fast Community Dinner, immediately following services, Monday night, Sept 28 at Kehillat Maarav
Every year when September arrives, something mysterious happens. Jewish men and women of all ages suddenly show up at temples and synagogues.
In the Los Angeles area, surveys tell us that there are approximately 500,000 Jews and that 75% rarely attend religious services EXCEPT on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Why do the majority of 21st century Jews in our city make the choice nearly every September to come back into synagogues? Why do they set aside a number of hours to hear the sacred melodies and do the inner work of the High Holy Days (even when they don't consider themselves very religious)?
I decided to ask several men and women who attended holiday services at my temple last year for their honest feelings about this complicated personal decision. I wanted to understand what the High Holy Days mean to them spiritually, psychologically, individually.
All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Here's what I found:
--Bruce is a holistic health practitioner in his 20's who grew up in a home where he recalls "there was a fairly strong sense of Jewish identity but not much religious observance." Bruce felt estranged from Judaism for many years but he came back three years ago to High Holy Day services at Ahavat Torah (a relatively new congregation founded in 2002 that meets weekly for Shabbat services in Brentwood and in September for the annual holy days in Santa Monica).
According to Bruce, "I'd already met Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and I sensed she was welcoming, non-judgmental, and very open to all my questions and mixed feelings about trying to find a place to reconnect with my Jewishness. Then at the holiday services in Santa Monica, I met people of all ages who were friendly, sincere, and quite willing to accept me exactly the way I am. For the first time in years I felt connected again with the sounds of the shofar and the prayers that help me sort out what really matters."
--Rachel is a creative business owner in her 50's who wanted to find a place for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where, "I could bring my widowed father who wants to hear the traditional melodies sung beautifully, but where there also would be a lot of accessible teachings and discussions in English that would address my need for making things meaningful and practical for my busy life. I go to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services on most years because I want a place and a time to check in and ask myself in a deep way whether I'm living up to my soul's highest purpose or whether I need a bit of a tune-up."
Rachel heard about Ahavat Torah from a friend who belongs to the seven year old congregation of Jews primarily from Reform and Conservative backgrounds. As Rachel discovered, "It was so refreshing to see my father loving the sacred melodies led by Cantor Gary Levine's exquisite deep voice, while I was also feeling nourished by the deep inner work and great questions offered by Rabbi Miriam and the other speakers. Not only did it cost much less than at most congregations, but the value from those services stayed with me throughout the year."
--Janet and Stewart have been married (mostly peacefully) for many years but have rarely agreed on where to attend religious services. According to Janet, "Since I grew up in a secular Jewish family, I tend to feel left out in congregations where there isn't much room for dissent or rebellious spirits."
According to Stewart, "I'm also a bit of a rebel, but I want my High Holy Day services to feel and sound like the soulful and moving traditional melodies I grew up with and that remind me of all those times I spent the holidays with my parents and grandparents."
At Ahavat Torah, Janet and Stewart found services that combined both a sacred sense of holiness and an openness to varying points of view. As Janet explained, "I'd never been to a service before where there was so much thoughtful discussion and passionate participatory singing by the congregation. It felt so alive and meaningful, while at the same time there was tremendous respect for those of us who question everything and who need to turn it all inside out a few times before we trust whether it makes sense personally. I was so surprised that at Ahavat Torah the rabbi, the cantor, the active members, and the many guests all seemed to have a sense of being humble and caring, no matter what kind of Jew we are."
--Ellie is a film industry executive in her 40's who says she attends High Holy Day services during most years because, "In my family it was just something you did whether you were very religious or not. Especially the part on Yom Kippur where you say Kaddish for your parents and other relatives who are no longer living."
Ellie admits, "But what I didn't realize until last year when I attended services at Ahavat Torah is that I'm also showing up for my own personal needs. " She explains, "I was unexpectedly brought to tears several times by the singing and the profound teachings. Then there was this congregation member named Marion who played the Kol Nidre beautifully and hauntingly on the cello, which got to me in a deep place like I'd never experienced it before."
Ellie recalls, "Then when it came time for the Yizkor memorial prayers for our relatives who are no longer here, I was surprised that at Ahavat Torah they don't rush through the text like at most places. They take a few minutes to talk about what we each learned or appreciated from our family members who are gone...and what fascinating characters our loved ones were with all their mishigass. It was so moving to be part of a community with so much love and so much inclusiveness. I've always been a bit apart from organized religion, but at Ahavat Torah I felt 100% present and filled up with meaningful holy moments."
--For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation and its High Holiday Services in Kehillat Maarav's beautiful sanctuary at 1715 21st Street (at Olympic) in Santa Monica, call 310 362-1111.
Or for more information about the congregation and its weekly Shabbat services, social action programs, classes, location, and activities, visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
--This year, High Holy Day tickets can be purchased at a relatively low fee either for the entire series or for a portion of the series that includes:
SELICHOT (preparing for forgiveness), Sat. evening Sept. 12
ROSH HASHANAH, Fri. night Sept. 18 and Sat. Sept. 19
TASHLICH (releasing old habits and affirming new visions) at the beach,
Sat. Sept. 19 late afternoon.
YOM KIPPUR (Kol Nidre) Sun. night, Sept. 27
YOM KIPPUR DAY (Including Yizkor Memorial), Mon. Sept. 28
Followed by a community break-the-fast dinner.
Ahavat Torah welcomes you, whether you are someone who has strong Jewish beliefs, has a moderate involvement with Jewish religion or spirituality, or whether you are quite skeptical or unaffiliated. The lively and inspiring services are conducted in Hebrew and English with easy-to-follow transliterations for those who are unfamiliar with Hebrew.
(Please feel free to forward or give this blog article to anyone you know who might be looking for insights into why most Jews come back for High Holy Day services and where to do so in a welcoming and inspiring place).
On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922, a twelve-year old named Judith Kaplan stepped up to the bimah of her father's synagogue and did something radical. She later admitted, "It shocked a lot of people, including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles." Her father, a Conservative rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan (who later started the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism), beamed with joy.
For several hundred years, the teenage ritual of studying enough Jewish wisdom in order to consciously accept the responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult and being a key part of the weekly prayer service was reserved for men. Even after the first bat mitzvah of young Judith Kaplan, it took more than 50 additional years before human beings with XX chromosomes could fully lead Shabbat services as ordained rabbis (the first ordained woman rabbi was Sally Priesand at a Reform temple in Jackson, Michigan in 1972).
In fact, the vast majority of bat mitzvah ceremonies until the 1970's were either on Friday nights without reading directly from the actual Torah, or they were held on Saturday mornings with a young woman bat mitzvah celebrant reading (like Judith Kaplan had done) from a printed copy of the text rather than from the sacred ancient scroll.
As a result, most Jewish women alive today in 2009 either didn't have a bat mitzvah as a teenager or they had a watered down version that was "different" in important ways from what the young men were encouraged to do for gaining full entry into the historic community of responsible Jewish adults.
According to Sasha Firman, an ESL (English as a Second Language) educator in Los Angeles, "For many years I'd thought the bat mitzvah I had as a teenager was the real thing. But I later discovered it was held on a Friday night for specific reasons and I was only allowed to recite a particular prayer in the early half of the service because women at that time in my synagogue were still not allowed to interact with the sacred Torah scroll."
But now in the 21st century there are new possibilities. At Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, there was a packed house of friends, family, congregants, and musicians on a recent Saturday morning. Two more adult women, Sasha Firman and Rita Reuben, stepped forward to culminate their studies and lead the congregation in a bat mitzvah ceremony of Torah chantings, prayers, teachings, and personal insights on what it means today to become a spiritually-morally-conscious adult. Even though the congregation is only six years old, there have been a number of emotionally-inspiring adult bat mitzvah ceremonies every year since 2005 led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell.
THE DEEPER REASONS WHY
Exactly why does a person in his or her 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, or 70's (with a busy life and lots of responsibilities) decide to spend a significant number of months preparing for this sacred ritual of becoming an adult bar or bat mitzvah?
For Kimberly Haynes, a professional singer who lives in the San Fernando Valley, "As soon as I heard a few years ago that Rabbi Miriam was conducting a class for adult bar and bat mitzvah students, I wanted to say yes. I had just given birth to my son Joshua and I knew he would one day have a bar mitzvah, so I wanted to be able to teach him and inspire him at something I had also done personally. I needed to know what it was all about to stand in front of the congregation and say I'm ready to be part of this great tradition of being a conscious Jew who can take a portion of the Torah, turn it around from various viewpoints, and understand how it applies to our daily lives. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Rabbi Miriam and the other bat mitzvah students in my group, as the Rabbi taught us how to look deeply into a Torah portion that didn't make much sense at first. But she showed us how to find the nugget of wisdom, the guidance that we can apply to our daily lives. I felt so grateful to be a part of such a beautiful tradition."
According to Estelle Fisher, a psychotherapist in West Los Angeles, "Prior to my bat mitzvah I'd been deepening my spiritual experience through my practice of yoga and both Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Though I was still fully immersed in the culture of Jewish practice, my spiritual needs seemed more deeply addressed through these Eastern practices. But when Rabbi Miriam announced the second adult b'nai mitzvah class, I started thinking about how this ritual and the preparatory study could be significant for helping me to deepen and strengthen my spiritual roots as a Jew. Then when I found out Rabbi Miriam would be taking a group to Israel in the spring of 2008, I proposed the idea to her of doing my bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I saw the wheels turning in her head as to how to make it happen. And several months later I was there at the site that would bind me in time to my ancestors...just the thought of it makes me weep."
Rita Reuben, a social worker, mother and grandmother who lives in the mid-Wilshire district, describes how, "I felt as a girl I got short-changed. It had percolated for a long time--my secret desire to want to do a bat mitzvah. But I was a six-time Hebrew school dropout because it had always been too difficult for me to learn a new language as an adult. Yet when I studied with Rena Jaffe from our congregation and with Rabbi Miriam, I was finally able to learn enough Hebrew to understand some of the deeper meanings of many of the prayers, and to get comfortable with the beautiful trope singing of the Torah portion. In fact, I grew to love the Torah chanting--not only because of the beautiful melodies but also from the mystical feeling of reading from the actual Torah."
Arva Rose, an actress and therapist, comments, "I got interested in an adult bat mitzvah when my goddaughter and her mother, my best friend, intimated that they might do it. I'm not sure exactly why, but when I knew it was there, laid out, made available, I trusted that Rabbi Miriam would be kind and helpful and uncritical. So I decided to say yes."
Gloria Orenstein, a professor of comparative literature at USC, recalls, "What I remember from my earlier years is that my brother was given the blessing 'to go forth in life' and I was not. For many years afterward, any time I wanted to engage in some new pursuit, I kind of ran a survey of everyone I knew, seeing whether they thought it was ok for me to do this new thing. I never felt I had the go-ahead to do these things (take risks, go to grad school, get a PhD, etc.) I knew intellectually I didn't need everyone's permission, but I also felt a bit paralyzed. So when I became an adult bat mitzvah, I wanted to speak all that to God. And I discovered by studying for my bat mitzvah, that I am finally able to 'go forth' with a full blessing and to feel so grateful for all that my Jewish background has taught me on how to live in this world."
Ellen DuBois, a history professor at UCLA, explains, "I combined the bat mitzvah with a lavish sixtieth birthday party and it was quite meaningful that my relatives from Seattle, Tucson, Boston, Atlanta and Baltimore all came here to be part of it, since I'm usually traveling to where they are for big events. But what I remember most about my bat mitzvah is that I had a mammoth fight with my sister the night before the ceremony. Even the next morning, I was still struggling with why it happened and what it meant. Then it came to me the morning of the bat mitzvah that my drash about wanting to 'see God's face' was very theoretical and not very personal. Suddenly I decided to end my drash by talking about how we can't see God's 'face' but--thinking about my sister--we can struggle to see God in the faces of other human beings. My point (and I don't think I said it exactly) was that I had lost the image of God in my sister's face and I needed to get back to it."
FEELING FULLY EMBRACED
According to scholars who have studied this coming-of-age ceremony that goes back to the Middle Ages, at its core a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah is NOT about reading perfectly, chanting perfectly, speaking perfectly, or "performing." Rather, most experts say it's about being welcomed and fully embraced into the community of adult Jewish seekers of a moral compass for living a meaningful life. When a teenager (or a mid-life individual) stands up to help lead the congregation in prayer or Torah study, he or she is saying implicitly, "I belong. I'm part of this ancient and modern struggle to understand life's challenges through the ever-expanding wisdom of my tradition."
As Rita Reuben explains, "I had imagined I would be up there on the bimah singing the ancient words and melodies, trying to do it 'right.' But at my bat mitzvah a few weeks ago, I felt as if the ancient words and melodies were singing me. It's hard to describe, but it was an other-worldly feeling of being at one with the beautiful melodies and the words of the Torah. I also felt a deep connection with my father and the whole history of the Jewish people--those who were in the congregation, plus those who came before us and those who will follow us, including my grandchildren."
Kimberly Haynes recalls from her adult bat mitzvah three years ago, "I was nervous that day about going up to the front to read from the ancient Torah and giving a speech. But looking out at the sea of people--there were so many loving faces and so much good feeling in the sanctuary. It was like this enormous embrace from all the people there in the room. To receive all that love and support, I feel as if everyone was so proud of us bat mitzvah celebrants for who we truly are as individuals. And that's been a rare feeling in my life."
Please feel free to forward or give this article to anyone who might find it inspiring or useful in their own spiritual journey.
Or if you are interested in possibly having an adult bar or bat mitzvah, you are welcome to talk with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell in person.
Or if you would like additional information about the participatory prayer services, classes, and social action programs of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood, log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or visit http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/.
Every day in the mail you probably receive several pitches from worthwhile charities. But how does an individual or a congregation decide where to donate their limited time and resources? How do you make sure you are choosing wisely in trying to repair some broken aspect of the world we share?
Here's one true story about choosing creatively on how to make a significant difference even if you are few in number:
IT PAYS TO BE CURIOUS
Kimball Marsh, who grew up in Los Angeles and was trained as a social worker, was walking near his home a few years ago to do some errands. He saw a blue building near Pico and Robertson from which people were carrying bags of food, even though the building was clearly not a corner grocery store or a supermarket.
Curious about what goes on in his neighborhood, Kimball went inside and found out the blue building contained a non-profit called SOVA (a Hebrew word which means to eat and become fulfilled). Kimball soon learned that SOVA distributes nutritious free food to financially-struggling people of all races and ethnicities, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.
Raised in a family where Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) was discussed often, Kimball thought that doing something for SOVA might be a good solo volunteer project. But then a few weeks later, he attended a brainstorming session of the social action committee of the relatively-new congregation he had joined, Ahavat Torah, which gathers each Saturday morning in Brentwood for lively discussions and Sabbath services.
Even though Ahavat Torah is not a large congregation, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the social action volunteers said at this brainstorming meeting that they wanted to make sure they picked social action projects for the congregation that could spark a significant impact. Kimball wondered if possibly he could make more of a difference for SOVA and its food distribution program if he got his congregation involved in the project as a group effort.
"NOT TRYING TO REINVENT THE WHEEL"
According to Jean Katz, a trained educational consultant who was facilitating that particular brainstorming session, "There are many different ways to pick social action projects. Yet we knew we didn't want to be trying to reinvent the wheel. So we decided to focus on ways of making a sizeable difference where we could give a unique and needed boost to some excellent non-profits that were already in existence."
At the brainstorming session, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell described the enormous impact that could be accomplished if the congregation donated clothes and raised funds to purchase computers and other education tools for students at an innovative school in Israel, called Pardes Hana, that trains young people who have been abused, homeless, or neglected.
Two other members of the social action committee, Estelle Fisher and Sherry Modell, also suggested setting up field trips and personal moments of connection with the residents of a shelter called Grammercy Place in mid-city Los Angeles which supports homeless families and children.At a later brainstorming session, Sherry Modell also outlined what she learned from other non-profits on the specific steps that could make Ahavat Torah more consistent at using recycled and renewable materials, along with ideas on how to make each congregational event greener and more eco-Kosher (a growing form of Jewish mindfulness and action that honors our human role in taking care of this holy planet).
At several of the social action committee meetings, two other members, Judy Dubin and Vivian Gold, suggested specific ways to get Ahavat Torah aligned with Jewish World Watch and other groups that were responding to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, including the carefully-organized efforts of Jewish World Watch to help rural women in Darfur to be able to obtain free backpacks with enclosed solar cooking devices that would allow them to avoid travelling for supplies to places where kidnappings and rapes were occuring frequently.
LISTENING TO WHAT'S NEEDED (RATHER THAN ASSUMING)
As a result of these small-group conversations on how to give a unique and needed boost to innovative non-profits that were already in existence, Kimball Marsh went back to SOVA at Pico-Robertson and interviewed the pantry manager, Hessie Axelrod, asking her directly and openly, "What exactly do you need that others aren't yet giving you?"
Hessie Axelrod replied, "We have a lot of volunteers who help pick up and sort donated food items from markets and wholesale food companies. But we always seem to have less cooking oil than is needed for the hundreds of families who rely on us each week."
So Kimball and his mother, Gene Marsh, began to let people know at Sabbath services each week at Ahavat Torah that the congregation would begin collecting quarts of cooking oil every Saturday morning for SOVA to distribute to families in need. At first only a few congregants remembered to bring oil with them to the weekly services. But over time the number has grown.
According to Kimball, "Currently each week for the past two years, a sizeable number of the members of our congregation voluntarily remember during the week to purchase one or more quarts of cooking oil to bring on Saturday morning. I honestly don't know who brings and who doesn't because the bottles of cooking oil are lined up on the congregation's kitchen counter each Shabbat by the time we enter the social hall for our pot-luck meal after services. But I do know that each week there are at least 100 and maybe 200 kids and grown-ups from struggling families who have better tasting food and more dignity as a result of the quarts of cooking oil we take to SOVA to be distributed for free."
As Jean Katz explains, "What's remarkable about Kimball and Gene Marsh is that they keep making the weekly deliveries to SOVA even when one of them is ailing. In addition, Kimball somehow finds a way to announce each week to the congregation in a new and refreshing style how SOVA and its clients at Pico-Robertson depend on our relatively-small congregation for its supply of cooking oil. On some weeks, Kimball makes the announcement in a poem, other weeks in prose as a tie-in to the weekly Torah portion, and still other weeks in a personal story about the lives and families that are counting on us."
THE CURRENT NEED IS GROWING
According to Fred Summers, a recent new member of Ahavat Torah Congregation who is also the overall Director of Operations for the three SOVA sites (Pico-Robertson, Van Nuys, and Beverly-Fairfax), "SOVA has seen a dramatic increase in the number of individuals and families seeking food and resouces in the past nine months--close to a 50% rise. We currently provide free groceries to over 7,000 people each month, which means we need to cultivate additional food donors, additional financial donors, and many more volunteers to help serve the needs of our clients."
Fred explains, "Because we are able to leverage our buying power with food banks and supportive wholesalers, SOVA can typically turn one donated dollar into five or six dollars worth of food. When someone living in poverty describes being hungry or needing to be part of SOVA's weekly food distributions, they're not referring to a growling belly that occurs when it's been three hours since breakfast. Their hunger is about empty cupboards, empty refrigerators, empty wallets, and empty stomachs. Their fear is that their children will not have enough to eat that day or any day. But living in poverty does not mean living without hope. Each month, 7,000 men, women, and children receive help from the people who volunteer and donate to SOVA, so that all who are hungry might have enough food to eat."
If you want to learn more about how to help SOVA feed the hungry among us, contact www.jfsla.org/sova.
If you want to learn more about the weekly Shabbat services or the social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets on Saturday mornings at 10 am at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood (just west of the 405 Freeway between Sunset and Montana), log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
Or if you want to know more about the current activities and future brainstorming sessions of the social action committee of Ahavat Torah, contact Estelle Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sherry Modell at email@example.com.
It's 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The passionate singing all around me has been building for almost an hour. While most of L.A. is at Starbuck's sipping coffee or on crowded streets running errands, there is a growing congregation called Ahavat Torah just west of UCLA that is singing ancient and modern melodies with intense participation and emotion.
As a psychologist by training, I step back for a moment from the beautiful melodies and the voices around me that are pouring out their gratitude, their longings, and their desires for peace and healing. I make a mental note to interview on Monday a few experts to find out exactly what might be the health benefits and the factual truth about this kind of passionate singing.
Can it really help improve a person's respiratory system and emotional well-being to be part of a lively congregation like this? Can it truly take a person to levels of awareness and connection beyond the usual mundane reality of urban living?
THE AEROBICS OF SINGING TOGETHER
On Monday morning I make a phone call to Joanna Cazden, a licensed speech pathologist and voice rehabilitation specialist for many years at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (and now in private practice in Burbank and Santa Monica). I ask her to teach me what exactly goes on physically when people sing their hearts out like this on a Saturday morning.
Cazden explains that, "Passionate singing, especially in a non-judgmental group setting, involves a physical/aerobic activity where meaningful words and music are synchronizing with deep layers of the body, especially the breath system and the throat. This activity not only integrates the body and mind, but it also strengthens a positive social bond within a group."
That sounds healthy, but can it actually improve our immune system or our physical well-being?
Cazden is realistic as she comments, "There are no guarantees, but based on what I've seen with my voice clients and from various professional journals it's clear that each one of these components (the aerobic activity, the integration of body and mind, and the sense of being connected to a supportive group) has been shown in medical studies to promote health and resilience, so a combination should be expected to pack a mega-dose of wellness."
TRAVELLING TO BE INSPIRED
One of the most passionate participants at the Ahavat Torah weekly service of intense singing is Michael Stevens, a commercial real estate specialist in the West San Fernando Valley. Stevens was an early member of Ahavat Torah six years ago when it first began holding these highly-participatory singing and study events each Saturday morning on the westside of Los Angeles.
According to Stevens, "I loved the incredible singing and the warmth of the people in the new congregation, but I also wanted to find a similarly passionate service closer to where I live in the West Valley." So three years ago, Michael and his wife Lynn began to search for an inspiring community that would involve less time driving on area freeways.
But after a few months, Michael Stevens returned to Ahavat Torah and has been there almost every Saturday morning since. He explains, "There's something amazing that happens to your heart and your energy each week from being surrounded by interesting, loving people you care about deeply. Even though we're not a huge congregation, the passionate singing and the sincerity of caring and support are far beyond anything I've seen at other places. It's the highlight of my week to feel so alive and connected to something so meaningful and holy."
Michael Stevens is not the only person who travels a long distance to be a part of the passionate singing. Some congregants travel from Glendale, mid-Wilshire, the beach cities, and Topanga Canyon to be there for the weekly service in Brentwood of Ahavat Torah Congregation (which describes itself as "One People, One Torah, Many Teachers").
The Saturday morning gatherings consist of silent meditation and lively participatory singing and blessings led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Cantorial Soloists Gary Levine and Kimberly Haynes, along with volunteer pianist Joel Warren and Kabbalistic drumming teacher Eli Lester. In a recent article in the Jewish Journal that also described Gary Levine's weekday career as a creative development executive at Showtime Television Network, the reporter explained that Levine's powerful opera-trained voice has the ability to carry a congregation along in participatory chanting, prayer, and meditation that reaches deeply into the soul.
THE BONES AND THE MUSCLES
In order to understand further how these "deep layers" of soulful, participatory singing work in practical terms, I decided to interview Anny Eastwood, a licensed therapist in Santa Barbara, who is also a voice physiology researcher and who developed a powerful healing method called "Miracle of Voice." I asked her to explain to me what goes on in the body when you're part of a lively congregation of passionate singers.
Eastwood told me she has found repeatedly that, "When we are singing whole-heartedly, we are rhythmically vibrating our physical structure to the deepest level. Our bones are like empty shells and act as a sound box for our voice, much like the hollow body of a guitar receives and projects the sound of its strings being strummed. When we sing passionately in our natural voices, we literally vibrate our bodies back into resonance."
According to Eastwood, "One essential way to improve our health and well-being is to release all the tensions from our week. Singing does this. We know that tense muscles cut off energy flow and interrupt healing. When we sing passionately within a group setting, the sound vibration not only loosens tension from each individual's muscles and bones, it also permeates the boundaries of skin and muscles to reach into the bones of others. As the song grows stronger, our voices naturally move toward harmony all on their own. We are literally resonating together bone to bone. The experience 'takes us' and we feel uplifted."
In her facilitation of various groups, Eastwood has found that, "A lively group singing with a lot of energy can harmonize their different rhythms and create a profound sense of community." She teaches her "Miracle of Voice" students (including professionals and those who can't carry a tune but love to sing) that "Talking is the voice of the mind; however, singing is the voice of the soul and opens us up to energies beyond limiting beliefs to the infinite realm of the spirit."
A SURPRISING RESULT
A skeptic still might be wondering if in a 21st century metropolis as large and spread out as Los Angeles, is it likely that singing passionately on a Saturday morning can truly make a difference? Several Gallup studies have shown that finding an inspiring community of passionate singers, study partners, and warm friendships is one of the best ways to stay healthy and reduce the stressful side-effects of a busy urban life. That's what Jane Best, a financial advisor and coach from New York, discovered a year after she moved to Los Angeles in 2007.
According to Best, "It had been many years since I'd attended Shabbat services, but when my new neighbor Ellen DuBois (a history professor at UCLA) invited me to services at Ahavat Torah in 2008, I was amazed at the warmth of the people and the intensity of their soulful singing. Rabbi Miriam, Cantor Gary, and the congregation create a space of 'No Holding Back' and it takes us each Shabbat to a place beyond limits." As a result, Jane Best soon became one of the newest members of the congregation and she recently invited one of her friends and several family members to join her at Shabbat services to participate in the passionate singing.
The neighbor who first invited Best to attend services, history professor Ellen DuBois, also found the singing at Ahavat Torah to be a surprisingly important part of her life. She admits, "Years ago when I was attending Sunday school, I tried out for junior choir and was told I couldn't sing well enough. I used to make a joke about the fact that I'd been turned down by junior choir."
According to DuBois, "But now as an adult, I find that when I participate in the passionate singing each week, especially during one of the most beautiful songs L'dor Va-dor (which means 'From Generation to Generation'), it connects me emotionally with my father and my grandmother. It's a welcome relief from the competitive and stressful pressures of the week. I've found in this congregation people are warm and not judgmental, so we can each sing out the ancient and modern melodies without being too self-conscious."
For more information about vocal therapist Joanna Cazden, log onto http://www.voiceofyourlife.com/.
For info about Anny Eastwood and the "Miracle of Voice" workshops, contact 805 682-7006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or for more information about the services, classes, and social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation, log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/. Or you can bring your imperfect voice and your passionate soul to the 10 a.m. Saturday morning services at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, just west of the 405 freeway between Sunset Blvd. and Montana Avenue.