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.
Once upon a time, people used to sit at home and wait for Ed Sullivan or Oprah Winfrey to decide what was inspiring and worth viewing. But now with so many diverse choices and so little time to waste, many people have become more selective as to what they find inspiring and what they want to spend time viewing.
One of the benefits of being involved in a community of intelligent and creative adults in West Los Angeles in 2010 is that you get to learn about new and interesting ways of being inspired. For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood/Westwood, a diverse community founded in 2003 and based on the idea of "One People, One Torah, Many Teachers," there are numerous choices each month that can connect you with artistic, spiritual, intellectual, and joyful moments of celebrating life in all its diversity.
SOME WONDERFUL OPTIONS
If you just look at the two months of October and November 2010, you will find that there are an amazing number of ways to nourish your soul, your mind, and your health by the offerings of this small but very active congregation.
On October 10th there was a salon discussion with two remarkable poets. One is Jean Katz, the former President of Ahavat Torah Congregation, who for many years has been writing and publishing well-crafted poems that sort out the chaotic feelings of being a wise and vulnerable woman and she turns these emotions into thought-provoking word portraits that capture what all of us go through during the ups and downs of life. The second poet at that sold-out salon on October 10th was Florence Weinberger, the aunt of Ahavat Torah member Judith Weinberger, and the author of numerous highly-praised books of poetry.
On Tuesday night October 5th and Tuesday night October 12th from 7-9 pm, there is a prayer-meditation-movement workshop with Ahavat Torah member Paulette Rochelle-Levy, entitled "Dancing with the Divine." In the Fireside Room of the Temple at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, she explores how to combine breathing, movement, prayer and meditation to draw closer to the One who connects us all. RSVP to Paulette at 310 453-4053 or Paulette453@earthlink.net.
On Tuesday nights October 26th, November 9th, November 16th, November 23rd, and November 30th from 7-9 pm in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane, there will be a class and discussion about Martin Buber, the author of "I and Thou" on how to find ourselves and deepen our aliveness and purpose through our relationship with the Eternal One. It will be led by Ahavat Torah member Sophia Avants, currently a graduate student at American Jewish University. The first class is open to all and Sophia will begin with a biographical introduction to Buber and the Chassidic influences on his theories. RSVP to Sophia at 323 934-4757 or email@example.com.
On Sunday, October 31st from 2-5 pm at the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane, there will be a viewing of the Israeli film "Sweet Mud" (Adama Meshuga'at with sub-titles) and then a discussion of how it compares and contrasts to the film "Never Let Me Go," which participants should go see prior to October 31st at a local theatre. RSVP to Aharon at 310 827-4902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Sunday, November 7th at 2pm at the Electric Lodge in Venice, the play "The Survivor" will be performed. Written by Ahavat Torah Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, who has written numerous produced scripts for live theatre and for TV and film, it is based on the memoirs of holocaust survivor Jack Eisner and it is the true story of a gang of teenage smugglers in the Warsaw Ghetto. To reserve seats, send a check for $28 per person to Shoshi Wilchfort at 2354 Roscomare Road, Los Angeles 90077. There will be a wine and cheese reception and discussion after the play with some of the actors, Rabbi Miriam and the playwright Susan Nanus.
If all those creative choices make you feel like taking a relaxing break, then you'll definitely want to sign up for the Ahavat Torah Retreat Weekend which will be from Friday night November 19th until Sunday afternoon November 21st at the beautiful Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino. Imagine yourself unwinding and being nourished by good food, inspiring services, great discussions, quiet moments, and fun arts and music activities with a welcoming community that weekend in a tranquil setting where there are ducks, trees, strolling walking trails, and a sense of holiness away from the city streets.
Please see the weekly newsletter for details on the Retreat and all the other events listed above.
Ahavat Torah Congregation meets each Saturday morning at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood for a Mussar (ethics) class at 9 am prior to the lively participatory Shabbat services at 10 am followed by a pot luck dairy lunch. All are welcome.
For more information, please log onto www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or call 310 362-1111.
--the soul-stirring melodies,
--the chance to look at one's life and the upcoming year from a big-picture perspective,
--the opportunity to go deeper into healing some old or new wounds from people who hurt us recently or long ago,
--the sacredness of pouring out your most heartfelt concerns and your hopes to the mysterious One who is beyond words, yet feels like an even stronger Presence on these days of awe,
--and the joy of being part of a caring community that seeks to repair the world in creative and effective ways.
No wonder the vast majority of Jews show up for the High Holy Days even if they've felt somewhat estranged from organized religion for much of the year.
ONE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD AND AWE-INSPIRING MOMENTS
Possibly the most misunderstood moment of the High Holy Days is the Yizkor (memorial) service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The word "yizkor" comes from the word "zakhor" (remember) and it refers not only to the act of remembering and honoring our loved ones who are no longer in physical form, but also to remember to perform acts of loving-kindness in their memory.
According to Dr. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University, "Originally, Yizkor was recited only on Yom Kippur. Its primary purpose was to remember the deceased by committing to give tzedakah (charity or justice) funds on the theory that good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. It also enhanced the chances for personal atonement by doing a deed of loving-kindness."
Yet there has also been a long-standing superstition about the Yizkor service that many people recall from their childhood. At many synagogues, the Yizkor prayers and ceremonies tend to have a very somber, fearful, or anxiety-provoking tone. There is a superstition in many congregations (even today) that the children in attendance (or anyone whose parents are still alive) must leave the room and avoid this sacred moment because it might tempt the "evil eye" if someone with two living parents is in the sanctuary remembering and honoring the dead publicly.
However, most rabbis say there is no legal requirement for those whose parents are alive to leave the service. In most 21st century congregations, everyone is invited to be part of this holy moment of honoring those loved ones who have come before us and to offer moral suport to those sitting near you who are releasing on this holiest of days another layer of the sadness, resentment, or ambivalence they feel toward a close family member or friend who died either recently or long ago.
According to most Jewish scholars, the Yizkor memorial service is not about the fear of death, but rather about celebrating life, creating a holy way to honor the memory of those we learned from, and to search for meaning and renewal despite the many losses and mysteries of life.
A MOST UNIQUE AND MOVING YIZKOR SERVICE
As a child at my grandfather's traditional shul in Detroit, I remember the anxious faces, the hushed voices, and the sense of worry that happened each year as the elders sent the children out of the room before the Yizkor service. Later as an adult, I'd often found the Yizkor services at most congregations to be quite tense and stiff, almost as if the congregation was holding its breath because the topic of death was being mentioned.
Then six years ago I attended for the first time the High Holy Days of Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets each week during the year in Brentwood but also rents a larger synagogue in Santa Monica for its larger Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
I'd never before experienced such a moving, creative, and uplifting Yizkor ceremony. To my surprise, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell warmly asked the congregation in a friendly and comfortable tone of voice, "How do you remember the essence of your loved ones who are no longer alive?" She then invited the congregation to meditate for a few minutes and remember the cooking, the smells from the kitchen, the holiday tables, the words of wisdom, the conversations that truly mattered, and the unique qualities of a complicated individual that you struggled with, loved, and learned from recently or many years ago.
Suddenly the room came alive with emotions and memories. Each person in a silent moment of reflection was truly remembering one or more loved ones from recent years or long ago.
Then Rabbi Miriam opened up a fascinating conversation to let 10 or 20 spontaneously selected congregants speak to the entire gathering for one minute each. What a radical idea! To let the congregation (dues-paying members, guests, family members, friends, and many first-time visitors) pour out their memories, their joy, their sadness, their humor, and their vivid recollections about specific loved ones they had come to honor.
After a few minutes of crying, laughing, kvelling, and learning together from the brief one-minute stories about these precious souls (who are no longer physically present but are still alive in our hearts), the sanctuary seemed abundantly filled with so much sense of community and belonging. We were all diverse and unique big-city individuals in the room, yet we had joined together in remembering and honoring many of the fascinating characters that had inspired us and helped us become who we are today. It felt in that moment as though we were all one connected, supportive family (even those who were attending for the very first time).
HOW A NEW IDEA GETS STARTED
I recently asked Rabbi Miriam Hamrell how she got the idea to do something new and inspiring as part of the traditional Yizkor service. She told me, "I didn't plan it. Sometimes when I am completely in the moment with the prayers and focusing on the sincerity of the Ahavat Torah congregants singing so passionately, something just comes through me and I decide to go with it. Many of the most beautiful moments in our congregation seem to happen spontaneously and I had no idea how profound and deep this new ritual would become."
At the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of Ahavat Torah in September 2010, there will be many traditional moments that are just like every other congregation in the world. Some of the sacred melodies and meditations go back many hundreds of years.
Yet there will also be some spontaneous moments of exploring new interpretations, new wisdom, and new ways of making the holidays come alive. If you or someone you know has ever wanted to find a way to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more meaningful, more life-changing, and more understandable, I hope to see you at the Ahavat Torah gatherings in Santa Monica which are only a few weeks away.
This medium-sized community called Ahavat Torah: One Torah, One People, Many Teachers consists of men and women from diverse backgrounds--Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Secular, and Unaffiliated. I've found that no one gets judged or told what they must do in this creative and supportive congregation. Instead, each participant in the weekly services and the High Holy Day gatherings tends to have a few things in common--a respect for each individual's different path in life, a warmth for each unique soul in the room, and a strong desire to go deeper into both the traditional and the modern ways of connecting with Jewish wisdom.
One of the reasons why Ahavat Torah, which was founded in 2003, keeps attracting more and more people each year is because their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are balanced between what is ancient holiness and what is contemporary holiness. These are holiday services where I can bring along my father-in-law who likes the traditional melodies and prayers, but it's also a service where I can invite family members and friends who are much younger and who enjoy the creative intrepretations and deep discussions that make the holidays far more understandable and meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are much earlier this year than in most years. Please reserve a spot for yourself and the people you care about in the next few days. The prices of tickets are relatively inexpensive compared to most congregations and they are available right now on http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or by calling 310 362-1111 or in the weekly newsletter. Your ticket request should be sent before September 1st if possible.
The services and special events are:
--Erev Rosh Hashanah Wednesday night Sept. 8th from 7-9 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Rosh Hashanah Day on Thursday Sept. 9th from 10 am - 1 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Erev Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre Service, Friday night Sept. 17th from 7-9:30 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Yom Kippur Day and Yizkor Services, Saturday Sept. 18th from 10 am - 7 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
Also please watch the congregational newsletter for information about several other special events for going deeper into the inner work of the High Holy Days (if you want to get on the newsletter list please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111). The additional holiday events are:
--Monday morning August 30th, join Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and several from our congregation in the holy experience of the Mikveh (immersion in living waters) at American Jewish University to release and prepare for the High Holy Days. Please contact the Rabbi as soon as possible if you plan to attend.
--Tuesday night, August 31st in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, a lively class and discussion led by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus on "Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays." Please RSVP to Leslie Tuchman at email@example.com if you might be attending.
--Saturday night, September 4th in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane is the Selichot (forgiveness) service with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Cantor Gary Levine. It is an inspiring and traditional way to clarify the steps you can take to heal your heart and resolve your unfinished emotional business before the holidays.
--The Tashlich Service at the Ocean just south of Pico (for letting go of resentments and opening up to a healthy new year) will be held along with a friendly luncheon gathering after Rosh Hashanah services at around 2 pm on Thursday September 9th. Please RSVP to Rita Reuben at firstname.lastname@example.org if you might be attending because the Rosenblatts will be preparing a beautiful lunch at their home near the beach and we need to make sure we get you a parking pass.
--The Break-the-Fast Dinner (for anyone who makes a reservation) will be immediately following Yom Kippur services on Saturday night September 18th at around 7 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica. Please make sure you note on your ticket forms if you will be there for the break-the-fast dinner.
Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose." But if you think about it, a calendar is not a calendar is not a calendar. In fact, most Jews living in the United States have at least two different calendars that sometimes are telling us quite different things.
For example, as American Jews living in a mostly-accepting country that is 90% Christian and that has its roots in Rome, we tend to think of a year as something that is organized into 365 days. This solar calendar format was created arbitrarily (first by Julius Caesar in ancient Rome and later revised by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century) into 12 months of varying lengths--31 days in some months, 30 in others, 28 in February with an added day every four years. These Roman and Christian leaders issued decrees saying everyone must follow the Julian/Gregorian Calendar which begins each year a few days after Christmas.
So if we want to function well in a business or social world where most cell phones, iPods, Blackberry's, wall calendars, and pocket calendars are organized according to the Julian/Gregorian rules, then we probably need to utilize this Rome-decreed solar format that says confusing things about the Jewish holidays such as, "Rosh Hashanah is in October during some years and in late September in other years, but in a rare few years the Jewish new year is as early as the evening of September 8, 2010 and the day of September 9, 2010." For our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, that means this year that the shofar is blowing at the same time they are purchasing new pencils and erasers.
WHAT DETERMINES THE HEBREW CALENDAR?
The reason for this annual disparity between the calendar of the American marketplace and the calendar of the Jewish soul is that in Judaism there is a profound and holy system of counting the days. Unlike the Julian/Gregorian calendar that forces each solar year into 365.25 days with months of varying man-made lengths, the Hebrew calendar connects us with the natural cycles of the moon and the agricultural seasons.
Each month there are a few dark nights when the new moon (and the new Hebrew month) have just begun to reflect the hidden light. Then there are a few weeks of increasing light in the night sky, followed by a full moon that makes the oceans and our pulses vibrate a little stronger than usual, and then a slowly declining amount of brightness at night until another new Hebrew month (and another hard-to-see new moon) occurs.
The Hebrew calendar is based on the Torah teachings of the spiritual, agricultural, and deeply personal cycles of our lives. Every 19 years there are 235 lunar months, with an extra lunar month added every 2 or 3 years. The ancient rabbis created a carefully-calibrated mathematical formula to add these extra lunar months every few years to make sure that natural events (the ripening of crops, the annual harvests, the arrival of the morning dew, the cycles of the rainy months, and the celebrations of the world-wide Jewish community) occur at the same time each year.
A TRICK QUESTION: IS ROSH HASHANAH REALLY EARLY THIS YEAR?
If you stop for a moment and think about the fact that Rosh Hashanah is much earlier in 2010 (showing up on September 8th and 9th according to the Julian/Gregorian calendar), it feels odd from a solar/American viewpoint. But on the Hebrew calendar, the holy day of Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) shows up exactly where it always has been showing up for thousands of years--right there on the First of the month of Tishrei (a Hebrew word that means 'the beginning') when we step out of commodity time and instead find a holy way to appreciate the awe-inspiring Creative Flow that is continually taking place with every act of kindness, creativity, and renewal that we experience daily.
In ancient times, Rosh Hashanah was always on the First of Tishrei. In Los Angeles in 2010 it will also be on the First of Tishrei of the year 5771. Try telling that to your iPod or your Blackberry way of viewing time, which on some deep level might be freaking out and saying things like, "Wow, it sure seems early this year" or "Where do I get the apps for knowing clearly that a new chapter of my life can begin on the First of Tishrei 5771?"
YOU STILL HAVE TIME TO GET READY
Even though the beautiful melodies, the deeply insightful teachings, and the soul-stirring meditations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will show up much sooner than your American mind-set might have been expecting this year, please don't worry. There is still time to get ready for your honest and revealing one-on-One chats with "the still small Voice within" or with "the mysterious Presence that is creating the world constantly and eternally." The Jewish calendar gives us several inspiring ways to start doing the profound inner searching of exactly how we want to repair what's out of synch in our lives so we can enter the new year with more clarity, compassion, and strength.
For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation on the Westside of Los Angeles, there are going to be several "everyone is welcome" opportunities to go deeper into your own inner life and clarify what will make the new year even more fulfilling and meaningful than the previous year. Led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Cantorial Soloist Gary Levine, Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, and others, the pre-holiday classes and the Days of Awe gatherings are designed to celebrate the precious gift of life, the struggle to deal with our human distractions, and the chance to turn toward an even more connected and positive life during the New Year 5771.
WHAT'S ON YOUR CALENDAR?
Specifically, there are several events that will be extremely inspiring and useful for anyone who has celebrated a traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur before and also for those who are going deeper into Jewish spirituality and personal growth for the first time in your adult life. These gatherings (for members and non-members of this diverse and non-judgmental congregation) are:
(No guilt trips here. You can attend some or all of these upcoming events...)
TWO SPIRITUAL PREPARATION OPPORTUNITIES. On Tuesday night August 17th and Tuesday night August 31st from 7-9 p.m. in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane in Brentwood. These classes with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus will focus on "Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days" and will deal with huge questions such as the background of the High Holy Day prayer, "Who by Fire" which explores the mysteries of what is free will and what is determined. Make sure to check the Ahavat Torah weekly newsletter for details. (If you want to receive this colorful and informative weekly newsletter, please contact Dr. Julie at email@example.com)
LETTING GO AND BEING RENEWED IN THE MIKVAH. Rabbi Miriam Hamrell will once again guide a group of members and non-members to experience the holy waters of the Mikvah at American Jewish University (near Mulholland and Sepulveda) during the first week of September. There's nothing quite like immersing yourself in living waters to begin the new year in a profound way (especially if you've never done it before). Watch the weekly newsletter for details and how to sign up for this unique opportunity.
SELICHOT SERVICES. In a beautiful and intimate prayer service and discussion on the Saturday evening (7-9 p.m. on September 4th) the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, we will gather to explore the deeper meanings and sacred melodies of forgiveness and the steps for turning in a more positive direction. All are invited. For details, watch the newsletter.
EREV ROSH HASHANAH and ROSH HASHANAH DAY. Come experience the powerful music, the profound questions, the warmth of the congregation, the sacred prayers and meditations, the respect for diverse viewpoints, and the chance to begin the New Year with forgiveness, healing, and strength. Please plan ahead of time to bring a friend, loved one, or colleague to join our passionate participatory singing and the inspiring, easy-to-follow services held in the beautiful sanctuary of Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica. Wednesday night, September 8th from 7-9 p.m. and Thursday, September 9th from 10 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. Visit the website at http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111 for details and low-cost fees for members and non-members. Please RSVP for yourself and your guests as soon as possible so that the planners of the services will be able to prepare for a sizeable gathering.
TASHLICH AND LUNCH. On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, join us for a friendly and enjoyable lunch at the Rosenblatt's home near the beach in Santa Monica followed by a stroll to the ocean where we will make tangible and mindful the specific things we choose to let go of this year and the things we want to renew or strengthen. The lunch is at approximately 2 p.m. and the Tashlich ocean-front service and meditation (while tossing bread crumbs into the waters) will follow the lunch and be over by approximately 4 p.m. Directions and parking permits will be given out at the Rosh Hashanah morning services.
KOL NIDRE on EREV YOM KIPPUR.
YOM KIPPUR DAY and YAHRZEIT MEMORIAL SERVICES.
BREAKING THE FAST after Yom Kippur Services.
Many people have told us that the Ahavat Torah services for Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur, Yahrzeit (Remembrance), and the Break-the-Fast Dinner are the most accessible, welcoming, thoughtful, and uplifting gatherings they've ever experienced for High Holy Days. Everyone is welcome to attend,whether you are a lifelong Jew or someone who has kept your distance from organized religion or someone who has explored several spiritual traditions but there is still something very Jewish about your soul. Please visit the website http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111 to get more information and low-cost fees for these awe-inspiring moments held in the sanctuary of Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica. ALSO, PLEASE SEND IN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE YOUR NAME, YOUR MEMORIAL LIST OF NAMES FOR THE BOOK OF REMEMBRANCE, AND ANY GUESTS WE SHOULD CONTACT SO THAT WE CAN ALL BE AN EQUAL PART OF THIS HOLY AND SACRED GATHERING.
YOUR CALENDAR/YOUR SELF
Whether you tend to live primarily according to the solar calendar or the Hebrew lunar calendar, or both, the Jewish New Year is a time to re-set your internal clock. Do you want another year of feeling rushed and disconnected? Or would you prefer a New Year of deeper meaning, connection, caring, and fulfillment?
In Judaism, the tone for the upcoming year (and how you want your next chapter in the Book of Life to be written) get influenced strongly during the weeks leading up to the sacred Days of Awe and at the holy moments of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Please make sure you clarify what might be out of synch in your life right now, and take steps to establish the tone and the quality of life that you deeply desire. And may you and your loved ones have a wonderful and healthy New Year.
Now it's the 21st century and a wonderful hybrid version has blended the best features of a rabbi-led congregation with the best features of a congregant-led Judaism. It could be called "Grass Roots Judaism" or "More Participatory Judaism." Or it could be called "One People, One Torah, Many Teachers," which is the motto of Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, a growing community that was formed in 2002 with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell not only leading the congregation but also finding ways to encourage and empower each unique individual who wants to bring their gifts forward.
In June 2010 there will be two events where you can witness this new hybrid version of "More Participatory Judaism" with your own eyes and ears. The first event is this Saturday, June 19th at the inspiring Community Meeting after Shabbat services. Co-presidents Jean Katz and Ron Estroff will be describing the huge variety of activities that the congregation has cooked up from its own creativity and passions. Then there will be an election of new board members and a chance to talk about the upcoming year.
The second event is an all-are-invited Celebration on Saturday night June 26th that will have live musical performances, dancing with anyone or everyone (you don't need to be coupled-up to have a great time), a beautiful Havdalah service, and a special honoring of four individuals who have contributed their creativity and caring to Ahavat Torah in many ways: Sasha Borenstein, Russ Hannan, Arlene Rosenblatt, and Sid Rosenblatt. There are details in the weekly newsletter. To RSVP and attend, call Rena Jaffe at 310 450-5225.
WHAT GRASS ROOTS JUDAISM LOOKS LIKE
At both the Community Meeting on Saturday afternoon June 19th and the Dinner Dance on Saturday night June 26th, you will notice that participatory/grass-roots Judaism is quite diverse and multi-faceted. For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation the creativity and caring includes:
--Some members who have a strong sense of art, food, aesthetics and how to encourage each member to participate in creating a beautiful buffet lunch. At Ahavat Torah Congregation for many years, Beth Devermont has brought her interior design background and her organizing skills to the congregation as she took charge of making sure there was an abundant lunch buffet after services each week (and now her role is being given to volunteer coordinators Leslie Tuchman and Nadine Colla). For a not-so-large congregation, there is consistently and dependably each Shabbat a quite-large buffet of lox, bagels, dairy lunches, vegetarian delights, and salads brought by members. Plus on many weeks there is a nutritious and delicious soup cooked and contributed by Rabbi Miriam. Where else in the Jewish world do you get inspiring Torah teachings and exquisite vegetarian soups from the same rabbi, along with an abundant free buffet from all sorts of health-conscious friends?
--Some members who like to sing and who bring their music to Ahavat Torah events. Joel Warren sets up the sound system each week and accompanies the congregation on piano. On some weeks there is Kabbalistic drumming from Eli Lester and lots of shaking of davvening-enhancing instruments from Pattye Asarch, Marion Klein, Sherry Modell, and others. Plus the passionate participatory singing led by Gary Levine and Kimberly Haynes. Plus the Torah tropes by long-time members like Rena Jaffe, Sasha Borenstein, Jonathan Troper, and others, along with Torah tropes by new members like Janice Batzdorff. In addition, Vivian Gold and Phil Danufsky have started an occasional Saturday night kumsitz/sing-a-long/hootenanny that welcomes members, non-members, friends and family to join in lots of inspiring songs from musicals, beloved performers, and protest marches from the past several decades (Watch the newsletter for the next sing-a-long).
--Some members who like a great discussion group. At Ahavat Torah, Gloria Orenstein started a Salon that has speakers, artists, and discussions every few months. Jean Katz has put together some great discussions of various Jewish poets. Ellen Dubois has brought the congregation some fascinating speakers and discussions. Debra Estroff has organized a book group where all are invited. Aharon Nachshon has organized a movie-going group where all are invited. Please keep your eyes on the newsletter each week to see when the next chance to connect will arrive.
--Some members who like to repair the world. The social action committee currently led by Estelle Fisher and Sherry Modell has been coming up with a variety of ways to make a difference, and have helped many members of the congregation to overcome feelings of powerlessness when you see something that truly needs changing. In addition, our congregation has been helping the Sova food pantries for distressed families for many years and now more than ever they need our financial help and our weekly bottles of cooking oil, which are now transported each week by congregant Fred Summers.
--Some members who see a need and just get it done. Arlene Rosenblatt saw that at High Holiday services many people needed a transliteration of the prayers, so she sat down at her computer and created one. Sid Rosenblatt saw that we needed a website and so he helped to design one. Russ Hannan saw that the congregation needed a proper place to put the Torah so that it could be read easily each Saturday morning without making people strain their backs bending over. Then he applied his woodworking and boat-building skills to create the slightly-tilted, perfect-height Torah table that we use each Shabbat.
--Some members who keep their hearts open and love to reach out to others in the community. At Ahavat Torah there is a Bikkur Cholim committee and phone tree by which Blanche Moss and Rabbi Miriam make sure that those who are ill or in need of support get a boost of strength and assistance from a sizable number of members without having to beg for it. Shoshi Wilchfort and Estelle Markowitz make sure that each month on the second Shabbat there is a Simcha Shabbat celebration (with cake, flowers, and special blessings) for anyone who is celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, or some other big event. Numerous congregation members take turns volunteering to be the greeters at Shabbat services and to make new visitors and guests feel welcomed and included.
(I apologize for not listing more examples of how congregants come forward with their creative gifts. As Billy Crystal used to say, "Don't get me started...")
COMING FORWARD WITHOUT ARM-TWISTING
What has been truly remarkable about the first 8 years of Ahavat Torah is that Rabbi Miriam's role modeling has created an atmosphere in which lots of people tend to come forward with good ideas and creative additions without there being a lot of noodging and arm-twisting. Maybe it's because the rabbi is so generous and compassionate. Maybe it's because the congregation is filled with individuals who don't want to sit back and be "entertained" or "lectured at" in a large, impersonal synagogue. Maybe it's because one act of grass-roots creativity by one person tends to lead to another act of grass-roots creativity by another person.
Whatever is causing this continual flourishing of participation and mutual helpfulness, the Community Meeting on June 19th and the Celebration Dinner Dance on June 26th are intended to keep the flow going strong for years to come. So please make sure you will be at both of these inspiring events where you will experience "Grass Roots Judaism" directly and where you might get some ideas on how you want to offer your own gifts and wisdom to this growing community.
The Community Meeting will be held in the Social Hall after Shabbat services on Saturday, June 19th at around 1:30.
The Celebration Dinner Dance will be held at the Marina City Club in Marina Del Rey on Saturday night, June 26th. Please check the recent newsletters for details and how to RSVP.
For more information about the various programs and activities of Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, log onto www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com.
On May 22nd at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood/Westwood, there was an extremely full sanctuary because three fascinating women were having an Adult Bat Mitzvah. All of these three diverse women were extremely articulate and inspiring about their complicated and non-linear spiritual path in life that resulted in their mature decision to explore their Jewishness more deeply.
One of the women, Laurel Gord, said something which has spun my brain around and caused me to wonder what is random and what is connected in the way things happen in this world. Here's what she explained:
Like many modern Jews, Laurel was raised in a household where her one Jewish parent emphasized the importance of repairing the world but this parent was very skeptical about religion or belief. So Laurel became a helping professional and volunteer working for many years on numerous heartfelt social issues, but she stayed away from temples or synagogues for the most part.
Then a few years ago when Laurel had just begun to start learning more about Judaism, she was talking with a Sufi Muslim friend named Noor-Malika Chishti at an Interfaith event. When Noor-Malika heard that Laurel hadn't yet found a congregation or a rabbi that felt comfortable to her, she decided to tell Laurel about the "wonderful and welcoming Jewish congregation that shares the same building on Saturdays with a church group that worships on Sundays and with a Sufi Muslim Masalah that meets there weekly on a different day as well."
That one informal conversation between a compassionate Sufi Muslim woman and a compassionate secular Jewish-by-birth woman resulted in Laurel showing up a while later for the 9 am Saturday Mussar (ethics) class at Ahavat Torah. Then Laurel found that she enjoyed the singing and the warmth at the weekly Shabbat services. Eventually she became interested in studying with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the congregation's in-house Bat Mitzvah tutor Rena Jaffe to prepare for an extremely empowering and life-affirming Adult Bat Mitzvah.
As they say in Yiddish, "Go figure." If you connect the dots, you will find that Noor-Malika has been in a "Cousins Club" dialogue of Jewish women and Muslim women for the past 8 years with a number of remarkable women who belong to Ahavat Torah, including Jean Katz, Vivian Gold, Linda Schorin, Rinat Amir, Shayna Lester, and Rabbi Miriam Hamrell. The women in the "Cousins Club" mostly thought they were building bridges for peace and mutual understanding. Probably no one imagined that the Jewish-Muslim Women's Dialogue would result in a referral for a wonderful new member for the congregation.
Laurel's spiritual journey to reclaim her Jewishness and the unexpected match-making by Noor-Malika got me thinking and wondering--what key events in our lives are random coincidence and what key events are a holy moment of beshert ("meant to be") that mysteriously connects us to some awesome higher energies? What is "accidental" and what is part of a bigger picture that we humans can't fully fathom?
AN ENTHUSIASTIC CONVERSATION
Laurel's story of how she found her way to a congregation and a rabbi that she grew to love, caused me to remember the moment when I first heard about Ahavat Torah. In the summer of 2004, I was giving a workshop to a group of Jewish adults about my recent book "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People." Two of the people attending the workshop told me enthusiastically during the snacks portion of the event, "Hey, there's this relatively new congregation called Ahavat Torah that has an extremely warm and approachable Rabbi, terrific music, some great classes and celebrations, along with a very warm, creative membership and not a lot of egos."
A few weeks later my wife Linda and I decided to sample one of the congregation's events that was being held at the Rabbi's home. We were amazed at how participatory, unpretentious, welcoming, and deep in wisdom the event was. A few weeks later we began attending High Holyday services and Shabbat services with this new congregation and eventually we became members.
I sometimes stop and wonder, "What if those two people hadn't told me their enthusiasm for Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the 'One Torah, One People, Many Teachers' approach at Ahavat Torah? Linguistic scholars say that the word "theos" or "God" is contained in the word "enthusiasm." But can we know for certain if those two enthusiastic people were doing God's work, or was it just a random event completely devoid of any meaning or beshert-ness?
What do you think? Do you believe that you are sometimes a vessel or a conduit for specific awesome energies that are bigger than we'll ever know? Do you ever wonder if our heartfelt conversations (or our I-Thou moments as described by Martin Buber) contain sparks of the Divine Presence? Do you ever feel as if you are part of a holy chain of events when you tell someone about a beautiful work of art, an exquisite piece of music, a wonderful Rabbi or congregation, or a possible soul mate that he or she should meet? Or is it just random luck and trivial small-talk, but nothing more?
OPEN OUR LIPS THAT OUR MOUTHS MAY DECLARE
Whether or not you believe you are an instrument that is breathed into each day by an Infinite Breath is up to you. I can't prove it to you one way or the other. In fact, in Judaism there is a lot of room for varying beliefs. Some Jews believe it is all orchestrated. Other Jews believe there is a Presence which gives us clues, but that we are quite free to miss or rebel against the clues. Other Jews believe we are guided by the teachings of a Great Teacher who usually does not intervene in daily life. Other Jews believe there is a Shefa or flow from a compassionate Source, but that it is up to us to align ourselves with that flow.
The one thing that nearly all Jews agree upon is that we human beings don't yet know the whole picture. In the Kaddish prayer and in many other places, it says that the Eternal One is "beyond any words or concepts that we humans can describe." It's quite humbling to be a human being.
So when you tell someone about a beautiful work of art, an exquisite piece of music, a wonderful Rabbi or congregation, or a possible soul mate that he or she should meet, there probably needs to be both enthusiasm and humility. Enthusiasm means being open to the possibility that a spark of the Infinite Creative Source is contained in your conversation. Humility means you don't know for sure and you therefore have the gracefulness to not twist someone's arm mercilessly because of your enthusiasm.
But it still seems like one of the great mysteries of life how we find a mate, a creative path, a spiritual home, or a wonderful series of friends because of one humble and enthusiastic comment from another human being at an unexpected moment.
If you think about Laurel Gord's story or your own unique story, does it make you wonder how each of us finds a place that eventually becomes an inspiring spiritual home? Over the past few months I've asked many members of Ahavat Torah, "How did you first hear about the congregation?" Depending on your belief system, the answers can sound extremely random or extremely beshert and mystical.
One congregant told me she heard about this lively place to sing, learn, and connect from a doctor who liked to converse while she was in stirrups.
Another congregant told me she happened to spontaneously ask her neighbor to suggest where might be an inspiring place to reconnect with High Holyday services after many years away.
Yet another congregant told me she was dating a divorced man who told her about his wonderful rabbi and an extremely friendly and unpretentious congregation. This woman eventually got free of the guy but became very involved with the congregation.
Another congregant told me he was at a social activism event and he was curious about why such a small and new congregation had such a sizable presence at this important event.
Finally, another active member of Ahavat Torah told me she was congregation-less for many years (and happily so, she said) until she happened to come to an Adult Bat Mitzvah several years ago where she was inspired by the honesty, the depth, and the caring she saw in the congregation. She said, "I don't usually join groups," but this time she made an exception.
In the next three months, lots of women and men in Los Angeles will begin trying to figure out where they could feel most comfortable and most inspired for the High Holydays this September (especially since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive quite early on the calendar this year). Some of these individuals are our family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Others are complete strangers with whom we might be sharing a meaningful conversation at the most unexpected moments.
If you happen to be talking to any of these individuals and you want to share your enthusiasm about the pleasures you have found at an inspiring congregation where there is abundant singing, learning, celebrating, and a healthy sense of community, please be humble and graceful in your enthusiasm.
And if it is meant to be, we can all look forward to meeting these individuals at the Mussar class, or at Shabbat services, or at other upcoming events, or at High Holydays services.
Maybe even in a few years you will be sitting in a packed sanctuary at an Adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration and hearing this individual tell the story of a surprising moment when someone talked about a growing congregation and a light flipped on for this person. Will it seem random to you or will it seem blessed by a Source that is beyond words?
For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation, please visit www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or request a free weekly newsletter of events by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or if you are interested in learning the steps toward an inspiring Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah, please speak with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell or Rena Jaffe.
Or if you want to sample the weekly Mussar/ethics class (9-10am each Saturday) or the lively Shabbat services (10am-12:30pm each Saturday followed by a free pot-luck dairy lunch), please visit the congregation at 343 Church Lane (near Montana Avenue and the 405). During the Sunset Boulevard construction, it's best to go north from Wilshire along Sepulveda until you reach Montana. Turn left on Montana and go under the 405 Freeway. Then turn right on Church Lane and look for parking.
A few months ago a friend told me, "I feel guilty sometimes. I belonged to one well-known congregation for many years and recently I've been attending events and getting to know people at a different congregation that is much more warm and welcoming. Am I the Jewish equivalent of a Carolina politician (maybe John Edwards or Mark Sanford)? Or is it o.k. to enjoy two different communities?"
My initial reaction was to admit to my friend that I've been in the same situation several times myself. Even though I've been monogamous with my beloved wife Linda for over 30 years, I've enjoyed learning from several different congregations and teachers (sometimes as a full member and sometimes as a visitor paying a la carte). In addition, there were many years when my wife and I joined one congregation for our adult spiritual needs while belonging (at a reduced rate) to a second congregation for our son's educational needs.
What about you?
In the bountiful spiritual buffet of greater Los Angeles, should it be considered an act of disloyalty or an act of spiritual integrity to enjoy the diverse offerings of more than one congregation during the same time period?
To explore this question, I interviewed several women and men from the relatively new congregation, Ahavat Torah in Brentwood/Westwood, where I've been a member since 2004. I wanted to ask specific individuals (who sometimes say in more than one venue, "Mah tovu, how good are your dwelling places") to let them clarify why they do what they do. Their names and identifying details have been kept confidential. But you might find their insights and experiences helpful as we each explore our own journey for finding wholeness, wisdom, community, warmth, support, and Jewish aliveness in this diverse City of Angels.
Here is what I discovered from these interviews:
A FEELING OF 'HOME' AWAY FROM HOME
Several people told me they consider Ahavat Torah to be their "home congregation" while another community feels like "the congregation where I have a historical connection, but it doesn't feel as warm and welcoming now."
For instance, one woman admitted, "I was active at a particular congregation for many years and even got involved in the Sisterhood and other committees. Yet it didn't satisfy my developing needs of more intimate settings for study, prayer, and social action. So I began to consider Ahavat Torah my home because I have felt far more warmth there for my particular experiences, ideas, and personal needs. I can express my more spiritual and creative sides at Ahavat Torah and there's freedom to think 'outside the box' in this open-minded community, much more than at my other congregation."
Another woman suggested, "I had always felt like an outsider in a few particular large temples where there was so much pressure to look fancy and compete for status. But then a few years ago I found out it's possible to build a new kind of community that is more about honoring each person's unique soul and creative gifts. I finally feel like I've found a place that is 'home' now whenever I show up and join in with the passionate singing and the genuine conversations with people who truly care."
JUGGLING MORE THAN ONE FEE
Another man told me, "I grew up at a very prominent congregation where for many years I didn't enjoy much of what was going on, but it was my familiar and slightly-dysfunctional community nonetheless. I still have a bit of an allegiance to that congregation and so I pay an associate member fee to them. Then I began to connect with the way Gary Levine leads the services at Ahavat Torah with so much enthusiasm and joy. And I love the fact that Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and each of the other teachers are so inclusive and open in making the Torah portions extremely relevant and interesting. I decided to join their smaller congregation as a full member because Ahavat Torah dues are relatively inexpensive and my involvement with them consistently helps me to connect with Jewish insights and celebrations in a much more heartful way than I've ever done before."
Another woman explained, "I still meet with a monthly study group from another community and I pay an associate membership fee to that synagogue as a way to support the rabbi and her work. But Ahavat Torah is my home synagogue because of Gary's music and Rabbi Miriam being such a model of compassion, kindness and support to so many members. Plus I love the Social Action projects we do at Ahavat Torah and how the salons and classes and cultural events enrich my life."
IT'S ABOUT WARMTH AND BEING APPRECIATED FOR WHO YOU ARE
One woman who has sampled several local congregations commented, "The love, support, friendships, and creativity of the people I meet at Ahavat Torah have made me far more involved here than at the other places where I sometimes go for a specific event or lecture. Plus the fact that we as a congregation have designed our own easy-to-follow prayer book that makes it a lot more enjoyable to participate in Saturday morning services. More than anything, I feel a sense of family here."
I also interviewed a married couple at Ahavat Torah who attend lectures, music and cultural events at various temples throughout Los Angeles County. Yet they pay dues just at one congregation, Ahavat Torah, as they explained, "We love being part of a diverse and interesting Jewish community in Los Angeles, but we feel there's only one place where the warmth and genuine friendships occurred most easily. It's about much more than stimulation for the mind; it's about finding a group of people who respect the diversity of each individual soul."
One other woman admitted, "My parents were anti-religious so I didn't grow up attending Jewish services. Much of my adult life was involved in interfaith groups. But at Ahavat Torah I felt welcomed and included from the start, probably because it is such a grounded, functional, caring community. I very quickly started to feel a sense of being seen and appreciated for the unique person that I am. So I began to focus on doing more at Ahavat Torah and cutting back somewhat on my other spiritual involvements. Yet I have never felt judged or pressured at Ahavat Torah while I gradually decided to become a full member."
IS IT GEOGRAPHIC OR SOMETHING MORE PERSONAL?
I only found one man who had felt judged or criticized for participating in two different congregations. He told me, "I used to attend services sometimes at a place that was very near to where I live. But I rarely felt a personal connection to the Rabbi or the big machers who were always telling people what to do. So then I began to look at other congregations and when I returned one week to my neighborhood synagogue there were a few people who treated me like I'd done something disloyal or immoral. That was the week I decided to keep going the extra miles and become more involved with Ahavat Torah. The Rabbi, the Cantor, the board members, and the many volunteers each have a strong sense of openness and warmth that make it meaningful and enriching each time I come to an event. What a relief to find a congregation that is supportive and inclusive for every type of individual, whether you have money or not, whether you have a lot of Jewish experience or not, and whether you are a big macher or a humble and gentle soul."
For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation: One Torah, One People, Many Teachers, you can visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or read the personal weblog articles at http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/.
Lively, inspiring, and interactive Shabbat services are held each Saturday morning at 10 am at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, 2 blocks west of Sepulveda, 1 block west of the 405 Freeway, between Sunset Blvd and Montana Avenue.
Prior to the Shabbat services, everyone is welcome at a Mussar ethics class that meets from 9-10am in the Fireside Room adjacent to the Sanctuary.
After services, there is a dairy pot-luck lunch buffet that is free and welcome to all.
To get on the email list to receive weekly announcements of classes, events, holiday celebrations, salon discussion groups, music events, book groups, social action projects, and other ways of connecting, please send your address to Dr. Julie at email@example.com.
(Translation note: A "Zayde" is a grandpa)
Every Spring for several thousand years an event takes place in small intimate groups around the world that stirs up trouble for the status quo and awakens the rebelliousness and compassion of many good people. It's called a Passover Seder and numerous social scientists consider it the most effective and enduring grass roots organizing event in human history. (Primarily because each year millions of small clusters of women and men gather to talk about what it means to be oppressed, what it takes to be free, and how to bring more empathy and courage into the world. In fact, many social change activists--both Jewish and non-Jewish--admit they got a crucial dose of their inspiration at Passover Seders).
Unfortunately, some people have never been to an inspiring Seder. They've only been to the boring kind where an inflexible patriarch goes on for 4 or 5 hours with little or no participation. Ironically, the essence of the Seder is to let each person (believer, skeptic, religious, or non-religious) ask questions and wrestle with the profound ideas for how to break out of our human mitzrayim (a Hebrew word that means not only Egypt but also can mean narrowness, constriction, enslavements, addictions, aggravations, confinements). Yet many Seders around the world have nice silverware and china, but are closer in leadership style to Pharaoh's hard-heartedness rather than the rebellious and compassionate style of Moses, Aaron, or Miriam, and the midwives who risked their own freedom by breaking the law and saving the condemned babies.
ASSESSING YOUR OWN SEDER HISTORY
In your own life thus far, have you ever been to a Passover Seder that truly inspired you and opened up your heart for doing good in the world? Have you ever heard the ancient story of personal and group liberation told in a way that empowered you to break out of some old ruts?
I remember as a child enjoying the foods at my beloved grandpa's Seder each year. It was wonderful to see how passionately he conducted the Seder and I especially loved the Hillel sandwich that combines matzoh, horseradish, chopped walnuts, apples and wine to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. Plus the half moon shaped jelly desserts in bright colors from Manischewitz that my sister and I split equally--she liked the yellow and green ones, I liked the orange and red ones.
I didn't fully realize, though, until age 16 that my beloved Zayde's Seder, conducted entirely by my very traditional grandpa from the old country for almost 5 hours with no questions allowed, was missing something. Only at age 16 did I find out from a close friend that the Seder was not intended to be a passive experience of listening to one's grandpa explain everything in a language no one at the table could understand. Rather, it's about asking questions, discussing various viewpoints, and honoring that each person has a unique and different way of understanding the struggle for freedom and integrity.
Ever since age 16, I've made sure each year to attend at least one creative Seder during the week of Passover meals to explore different ways of understanding God's assistance and the human search for the courage to break out of our enslavements. Some of these creative Seders were focused on rethinking gender roles and equal rights for women. Other Seders were focused on liberation and equal rights for African-Americans. One year I attended a Seder where there were Israelis, Palestinians, hawks, and doves praying together for peace and mutual respect. Another Seder was about the enslavements of our addictions and self-damaging habits with discussions of the crucial steps toward genuine freedom.
A UNIQUE GATHERING ON APRIL 3RD
This year there will be an original, creative and inspiring Seder at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood. The ancient story of moving out of narrowness and enslavements will be told with modern applications to our personal lives and our world today. There will be participation from each person in the room as well as Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah Congregation, Reverend Doctor Janet Bregar of Village Lutheran Church, and Karima Kylberg of Mussallah Tauhid.
The 2010 Ahavat Torah Seder is entitled "Three Communities Celebrate Their Common Roots with a Community Passover Seder" and all are welcome to attend even if this is your very first Seder, or even if you are a veteran at eating more matzah and haroseth during Passover than your gastro-enterologist thinks you should.
The festive meal and inspiring discussion will take place immediately after Shabbat/Sabbath services on Saturday, April 3rd in the social hall at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood (1 block west of the 405 Freeway, 2 blocks west of Sepulveda, between Sunset and Montana) starting at around 12:15 p.m. (You are also invited to be part of the passionate singing, meditations, and Torah reading at the Shabbat services which begin at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary) .
A CUSTOM-MADE HAGGADAH
Many years ago when Arlene and Sid Rosenblatt were members of Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, they enjoyed the shortened and easy-to-understand Haggadah (mostly in English) put together by Rabbi James Kaufman. Then for several years, Arlene and her daughter Julie did what many modern Jews do--they cut, pasted, and photocopied some additional spiritual teachings, diverse interpretations, and inspiring questions for experiencing the Seder on deeper levels each year with their family and friends.
Now in 2010, Arlene and Sid have made copies of these accessible customized Haggadot so that each participant on April 3rd can have a meaningful connection to the ancient story and its current applications in our own lives and communities. You will discover not only the traditional order of the Seder but also some heart-opening and thought-provoking modern interpretations that will make the holiday come alive for you and your loved ones.
No one knows exactly what will happen at this year's Seder because it all depends on each one of us showing up with our questions, our concerns, and our individual holy struggles on how to find positive ways to break out of enslavements and move successfully toward genuine freedom and integrity. Quite possibly something you say to the entire group or just to one person with whom you will be "breaking matzah" will create ripples of awareness and understanding that might last for a lifetime. Please know that this is a gathering where all points of view are treated with respect and that your own particular journey is welcome and honored at this unique gathering. We hope that this Passover will be a joyous time for meeting one another in a common search for personal growth and peace among all peoples.
For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation, please visit the website at http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
Because of the dietary restrictions associated with Passover, you are requested to sign-up ahead of time if you are interested in bringing one of the potluck dishes. For a list of foods that will be part of the festive meal, please see the Ahavat Torah weekly newsletter. To sign-up for bringing a specific food item, or to simply RSVP that you will be a part of the celebration of Passover, contact Pattye by March 30th at 310 391-4301 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.