Are You a Joiner, a Loner, or a Hybrid?

Usually each month this weblog describes one of the upcoming activities of our congregation. But this month it will explore why some of us are very active in group activities, why some of us prefer quiet and solitude, and why many of us enjoy a combination of quiet time and connecting time.

First, a quiz. As you think about your own personality and preferences, do you consider yourself:

--a joiner or an extravert who draws strength and energy from being part of a group or from connecting with numerous other people.

--a loner or an introvert who draws strength and energy from being apart from groups and having quiet solitude or you prefer one-on-one conversations rather than groups.

--a hybrid of the two, in which sometimes you turn on the gas to be part of a group and sometimes you cruise comfortably in private or alone moments.


In Judaism there is a lot of emphasis on the healing power of community. We bring mass quantities of food and conversation to people who are in mourning. We bring lots of family, friends, and strangers to our Seder tables and Shabbat dinners. We study the Torah together, we study Mussar ethics and character-improvement together, and we learn from one another constantly how to bring holiness and repair into the world. Especially in a loving community like Ahavat Torah Congregation, we reach out to one another during illnesses, setbacks, and tragedies. We also join together to celebrate and appreciate each other's birthdays, life cycle events, and triumphs over adversity.


On the other hand, many of us (myself included) are by nature introverts who re-charge our batteries more by quiet time alone or with one person at a time, rather than being thrust into group situations where the extraverts are more comfortable than we are.

In my own case, I was so much of an introvert when I was a teenager and my mom was dying of cancer, that I remember two songs on the radio for which I had a very strong reaction. The first was Barbra Streisand's "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world" (which I and many other introverts found to be the most threatening and uncomfortable idea imaginable). The second song was Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a rock, I am an island...and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries" (which I admit I secretly aspired to when I was a teen trying to become self-reliant).

Fortunately, time and experience have helped me to become more of a hybrid who still prefers alone time or one-on-one conversations, but I am finding that I learn more and grow more when I push myself to be part of group classes, group activities, or group prayers and meditations.

One of the things I love most about Ahavat Torah Congregation is that each month there are several choices of activities that appeal to the healing power of community along with respecting the diversity and uniqueness of each individual, whether we tend to be an introvert, an extravert, or a hybrid combination of the two.


Every seven days Dr. Julie Madorsky sends out a newsletter that is filled with beautiful illustrations and enticing descriptions of a variety of opportunities to nourish one's soul through the classes, activities, celebrations, discussion groups, and lively spiritual gatherings of Ahavat Torah Congregation.

Some people don't open the newsletter attachment. Some people open it and feel overwhelmed by the array of choices. Others pick and choose carefully so that each month they enjoy one, two, or more of the inspiring options being offered by this intimate but extremely active congregation.

Whether you are by nature a joiner, a loner, or a hybrid combination of these two traits, here is a suggestion on how to respond to the weekly newsletter sent to you through cyberspace and the weekly announcements you hear at the end of Shabbat services:

--Start by a kavannah or intention that says to yourself silently, "Somewhere in this list of activities and options is something that will be uplifting, memorable, and transformative for my soul in the next few weeks. Sh'ma, listen silently and carefully to which of these choices calls to my soul."

--Then make a commitment to yourself, write on your calendar, and RSVP for the one, two or three activities that call deeply to you.

--Make sure to invite one or two friends, relatives, or colleagues to join you at one or more of these events so that their souls also will be nourished and you will deepen your connection to these individuals through sharing these meaningful and inspiring moments with them.

--Without overcommitting your calendar or burning out, make sure you add to your life each month something that opens your mind, opens your heart, adds to your depth of Jewishness, and connects you with the Source that flows through each of these activities and each of these moments of connection. We are extremely blessed that we have so many exquisite choices in our busy lives. Even if sometimes you feel as if there is too much happening or too many choices, as Rabbi Miriam would say, "These are holy struggles."

Shavuah tov. May you and your loved ones have a very good week.



Every year at Passover Seders worldwide, the Haggadah tells of a child (or a part of ourselves) that says skeptically, "What does all this have to do with me?"

In response, the Seder participants say more than once, "Because we were oppressed, we need to stand up for those who are currently oppressed."

For many hundreds of years, Jews and non-Jews who attend Passover Seders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) have been inspired by these words to find their own voice and their courage for speaking up against various forms of oppression that still exist in our modern age.


How exactly do you "stand up for those who are currently oppressed?" And what if it takes you beyond your comfort zone? Or what if you are a polite and conflict-avoidant person who doesn't like to make waves? Have you ever felt tongue-tied or unable to find the right method for doing something about a situation that touched your heart?

On Saturday, March 26th at 2 pm at Ahavat Torah (343 Church Lane in Brentwood near Sepulveda and Montana) you will have a rare opportunity to meet, talk with, and learn from two modern-day examples of how to stand up effectively and help people who are being oppressed.

Here's just a glimpse into the dramatic story of how two people from a small town in Texas have given us clues as to how to repair the world by refusing to sit idly by.


In July of 1999, the very popular sheriff of Tulia, Texas (population 5,000) rounded up 47 people (including 37 African Americans) and put them in jail as suspected drug dealers. The courts quickly sentenced these low-income individuals to long jail terms (some of them up to 90 years). Hardly anyone seemed to mind that all the accusations came from one undercover officer named Tom Coleman who didn't use a wire to record any conversations and who had major inconsistencies in his testimony, but who was then awarded "Lawman of the Year" by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (who later became a well-known Senator from Texas).

In Tulia there was a white couple who felt uncomfortable with this rush to justice. Both Alan Bean and Nancy Bean were Baptist ministers. Nancy had grown up in Tulia before moving to Louisville, Kentucky where the two of them met during seminary school. Then Nancy and her husband Alan moved back to her hometown of Tulia in 1998 to raise their children and enjoy a simpler life.

But in 1999 when they admitted to themselves that "something didn't feel right" about this mass arrest of 47 local African Americans, they began asking questions and they formed a group called Friends of Justice.

At first their search for answers got them ignored by several national organizations that didn't want to get involved. Nancy and Alan were also shunned in their own community. Alan was unable to find work. Nancy described how, "I was teaching at the high school and the other teachers would rather stand during a meeting than sit at a table near me. We were even unwelcome at family gatherings of several of our relatives in Tulia."

Eventually their efforts to examine the evidence and seek justice for the 47 prison inmates led to two books, a documentary film, coverage by '60 Minutes' on CBS, and a new trial that exposed the faulty evidence. Currently there is a film being made about the arrests in Tulia, directed by John Singleton and starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton.


Laurel Gord is a member of Ahavat Torah Congregation who has been active for many years in efforts for reforming the criminal justice system. After reading a book written by Reverend Alan Bean, she decided to invite him to be the speaker at a fundraiser for the Friends Committee on Legislation in California (which is a small organization trying to make an impact in criminal justice reform). Laurel contacted Alan and Nancy Bean, inviting them to stay in her guest room in Venice, and offering to have them lead a conversation at Ahavat Torah Congregation on Saturday March 26th.

According to Laurel, "I wanted to meet these two people and learn from them face-to-face how they did what they did. I tend to be very conflict-avoidant. So I wanted to hear their insights about how do we each stand up for what we feel strongly to be right, especially when a lot of people close to us disagree with us. How do we find a voice for what we sense needs to be done to stop what we know is wrong?"


On Saturday afternoon at 2 pm you can attend whether you've been at Shabbat services (which start at 10 am), or if you've arrived in time for the pot-luck dairy lunch at 12:30 pm, or if you simply show up just prior to 2 pm. Please feel free to invite or bring anyone in your life (children, teens, young adults, or mature adults) who might also be inspired by meeting two people who have been successful at changing the way our society deals with questions of justice and fairness. Sometimes it only takes meeting one or two genuinely courageous individuals to strengthen our own courage and commitment that we all need for dealing with tough situations in our own lives.


During the next few days and weeks, there will probably be several opportunities to seek the right words and the right actions to deal with situations that matter deeply to you. For example, the Social Action Committee of Ahavat Torah is inviting us all to participate in two extremely moving and inspiring events that are coming up very soon:


At the Museum of Tolerance (co-sponsored by Jewish World Watch and Uri L'Tzedek) on Sunday night March 27th at 7 pm there will be a screening of the award-winning film "The Last Survivor," which tells the stories of four different genocides and the need to make sure we don't stand idly by. The film follows a few survivors of four different genocides (the European Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, and Congo) to awaken each of us to the need to take effective action whenever possible. The film screening will be followed by a question and answer session with the filmmakers and various activists in Genocide Prevention and Awareness.

--A CHANCE TO WALK TO STOP THE CURRENT GENOCIDES IN AFRICA. On Sunday morning April 10th at Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills there will be a major walk and rally to let the world know that we won't sit idly by while women are being raped and innocent people are being tortured in the attacks on innocent civilians in Darfur, a part of the Sudan, and in the Congo, where tribes that are trying to control the minerals that go into our cell phones and computers are using violence against innocents to gain access to these precious minerals. You will recall that last year Ahavat Torah Congregation held an all-day information session about how to be more effective in making sure that Conflict-Free Minerals become the norm in affluent nations and that the rape and torture in the Congo is stopped.

Last year over 2,000 people from several synagogues, schools, and other groups participated in this walk sponsored by Jewish World Watch. We are hoping for an excellent show of support on April 10th so that the media and the political leaders will recognize this as something "that has a lot to do with us."

Even though Ahavat Torah is a relatively small congregation, we have had a large presence at many Jewish World Watch events and once again this year we will be meeting and walking together under the yellow Ahavat Torah banner created by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell. We will meet at 8:30 am at the Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills (there is free parking at 21725 Califa Street in the AMPCO parking facility) or you can meet up at 8 am at the Ahavat Torah parking lot in Brentwood to carpool.

Or if you cannot attend but want to donate to Jewish World Watch for their excellent work to build even larger coalitions for a reduction of violence in Darfur and the Congo, please visit the Jewish World Watch website or

For more information about the inspiring presentation by Reverends Alan and Nancy Bean at 2 pm on Saturday, March 26th, you can contact Laurel Gord at

For more information about the April 10th Walk to End Genocide, you can contact Sasha Firman at or Vivian Gold at

But most importantly, don't let your tongue be tied by fear or hesitation when something touches your heart. We now have several teachers and several opportunities on how to get our voices heard.



Have you ever longed for an evening where your soul got nourished, your taste buds were smiling, and you felt transported to another place with a sense of timelessness?

Next Friday night, February 25th from 6:30 until 9 pm, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus will be leading the first-ever "Soul Shabbat" evening, sponsored by Ahavat Torah Congregation and open to anyone who has a soul, some taste buds, and a desire to try something new and different.

Originally scheduled for January, this creative approach to doing Shabbat in a new way had to be rescheduled for logistical reasons. But now all the elements are coming together for a beautiful evening in which numerous congregation members, friends, relatives, guests, and new acquaintances will join together to experience what Rabbi Miriam has described as, "The warmth and friendliness of a home-cooked Shabbat dinner with all the delicious foods, spiritual meaningfulness, and soul-nourishing conversations. But at a 'Soul Shabbat,' it will be done in a warm and welcoming room large enough for everyone gathered to feel the sense of love and peacefulness of Shabbat together as one."

The dinner, music, conversations, and celebration will be held in the Westwood Hills Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Boulevard, 90025, which is on the corner of Westwood and LaGrange between Olympic and Santa Monica Boulevards. The gathering will include:

--delicious food prepared with love, including kosher chicken for the omnivores and numerous delicious choices for the vegetarians, along with appetizers and desserts from both the European and Sephardic traditions of Shabbat recipes. In other words, everything from soup to rugalah will be offered.

--live Klezmer music (with Gustavo Bulgach and his Klezmer Juice musicians who combine Eastern European, Latino, and world music rhythms), along with Hasidic storytelling and a lively discussion led by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, who is also a renowned playwright and storyteller (her plays include "The Survivor," "The Orphan Train," and the stage version of "The Phantom Tollbooth.")

--inspiring teachings and conversations led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, who has been hosting wonderful dinners in her home for many years and now is bringing her wisdom and her warmth to a larger gathering.

--a participatory candle lighting and lots of participatory singing, including a guest cantor and the always-passionate voices of Ahavat Torah members and friends.

--a suggestion to wear white and feel a connection to your pure soul.

DETAILS: The dinner and evening costs $18 per person by mail (sent to Ahavat Torah Congregation, Post Office Box 442, Santa Monica CA 90406. Please note on your check that this is for the Soul Shabbat. Or you can pay by credit card with a 3% processing fee added if you call Arlene at 310 429-6817). Or there is a $20 charge per person at the door.

--VERY IMPORTANT: Please RSVP as soon as possible to make sure the volunteer shoppers, cooks, and balabusta team of women and men know how many people to cook for on Friday February 25th. Let Arlene and the team know the number of people who will be joining you (friends, family, colleagues) by calling 310 429-6817.

DON'T MISS THIS: Whether you've enjoyed two thousand Shabbat evenings or this is your first opportunity to experience the joy of letting go and breathing in holiness on a Friday night, you are welcome at this memorable and inspiring "Soul Shabbat." Until then, have a good week...a week of peace.

----For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation or its celebrations, the weekly Shabbat services, ongoing classes and study groups, social action programs, and cultural events, please visit Or call 310 362-1111 to receive the free weekly newsletter of events, classes, holidays, celebrations, and relevant teachings.



For several years, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell has had an idea that kept reappearing in her mind. Her recurring idea has been, "What if there were a way to experience the warmth and friendliness of a home-cooked Shabbat dinner with all the delicious foods, spiritual meaningfulness, and soul-nourishing conversations. But what if it could be done in a warm and welcoming room large enough for congregants, guests, good friends, and brand new visitors all to feel the sense of love and peacefulness of Shabbat together as one."

So Rabbi Miriam talked with the Board of Directors of her congregation and then brainstormed with Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, who happens to be a Broadway playwright and Jewish storyteller along with being a soon-to-be rabbi. (Among Susan's many writings are The Survivor, The Orphan Train, and the stage version of The Phantom Tollbooth)

Together they came up with a new and different way of experiencing a unique "Soul Shabbat" that is happening for the very first time on Friday night, (at a date to be announced soon but not the January 28th date that needed to be rescheduled) from 6:30 pm to 9 pm. All are welcome, whether you are a long-time congregant, an occasional visitor, a first-time guest, or someone who has never fully tasted the foods and spiritual depth of what Shabbat is capable of being.


I interviewed Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus to ask them, "Why is this Shabbat different from most other Shabbats?"

Here's what they described as the key ingredients to this first of many "Soul Shabbats" (that will be held on the last Friday night of each month with a different creative theme each new month):


Rabbi Miriam and Rabbinic Intern Susan have come up with a diverse menu for the Soul Shabbat as "the full spread from soup to rugalah, from hummus to brownies." There will be kosher and tender "balabusta" chicken for the omnivores and numerous delicious choices for the vegetarians. There will be Israeli appetizers and desserts that bring in the flavors of both the European and Sephardic traditions of Shabbat recipes.

But the rabbinic planners insist the key aspect of the food will be the love, wisdom and teamwork in the preparation process. In the weekly newsletter of Ahavat Torah Congregation recently, there was a small item that said, "Shabbat Cooking with Rabbi Miriam. So you always wanted to learn to cook and set-up a wonderful Friday night Shabbat table and dinner? Here is your opportunity at 2:30 pm on Friday (on the date of the rescheduled Soul Shabbat, but not on the January 28th date that needed to be rescheduled). For this class, group size is limited to the first 6 callers."

Since this is an egalitarian congregation (especially when it comes to cooking and cleaning up), therefore men and women, great cooks as well as klutzes are all welcome in the cooking class. These 6 volunteers at the first Soul Shabbat will probably bond for life from braiding the challah bread and preparing the many courses of the meal together. Please don't worry if you aren't one of the first 6 callers to the Rabbi to RSVP to be at the first cooking class; your next chance will probably be in February and then you will be able to bond for life with your own cooking team of volunteers.

Rabbi Miriam also explained that because the food is being prepared with love, enjoyment, and teamwork, it will also be served family style at each table with every person who attends the Soul Shabbat being an equal partner in serving one another and being served these delicious treats.


In addition to the food, this Soul Shabbat will include an eye-opening and thought-provoking Hasidic story from Isaac Bashevis Singer, passionately adapted and told by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus and accompanied with traveling music from the well-known musical group Klezmer Juice. (The bandleader of Klezmer Juice is an Argentinian born Jew named Gustavo Bulgach who now lives in Los Angeles and travels internationally playing the melodies of Eastern Europe as well as Latino and world music rhythms).

When was the last time you went to a dinner that had live Klezmer music, Hasidic stories, and a beloved storyteller stirring up a lively discussion? By the end of the evening, you might be able to see your life's journey and your soul's longings in a new light as a result of this atmospheric story-telling.


At various moments during the evening, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell will make each aspect of the Shabbat come alive for you and the people you are meeting at your table with a few words about the kavanot (or deeper meanings and holy intentions) of the candle lighting, the prayers, the connecting rituals, and the songs we will enjoy together.

It doesn't matter whether this is your first Shabbat dinner or your two thousandth Shabbat dinner. The brief teachings, discussions, and deeper meanings will be accessible and inspiring no matter what background or experiences you bring to the evening. You will probably find that your future Shabbat dinners (that you host or attend in your own style) will be enhanced by what you learn at this Soul Shabbat.


One of the themes of any Jewish Shabbat is to envision and practice what it will feel like when the world is healed and we are all living in harmony. So at this Soul Shabbat evening, you are encouraged to wear a white shirt or a white blouse or outfit. You will see flowers and other special preparations to make this night a bit different from the other nights of the week. You will look into caring faces and hear inspiring words that you might not be seeing or hearing on most other nights. You will be part of a unique gathering where each voice is treated with respect and each person's point of view is heard with openness.

Ahavat Torah Congregation was formed only eight years ago with the intention of creating a community of "One Torah, One People, Many Teachers." With participants from all branches of Judaism, this new congregation has been growing each year because it keeps coming up with innovative ways to respect the diversity among us while at the same time honoring and learning more about the wisdom of our traditions. In this congregation, there doesn't tend to be a hierarchy of insiders and outsiders, big makhers and little makhers, because each person is treated as someone with gifts and insights to share.

HOW TO RSVP (and please respond AS SOON AS POSSIBLE because space is limited):

If you would like to experience the first ever Soul Shabbat dinner and evening, or to invite a few friends or family members to join you, all you need to do is call Arlene at 310 429-6817 or email The suggested donation at the door is $18 per person for the food and the sacred space we are creating together. If you are feeling generous, you are welcome to donate more than $18 toward the creation of this new event. Or if you are feeling concerned about funds lately, please give whatever you can afford, and you can trust that someone else will make up the difference.


The social hall of the building at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood 90049 is just west of the 405 Freeway a half mile south of Sunset Blvd., one block west of Sepulveda Blvd, and one block north of Montana. If you are travelling north on Sepulveda you pass Wilshire and turn left a half mile north of Wilshire onto Montana (which has a traffic light). After taking Montana Avenue under the 405 bridge, you turn right quickly on Church Lane. You will see the building in one short block and there are two small parking lots that fill up quickly as well as street parking.

PLEASE NOTE ONCE AGAIN: The January 28th Soul Shabbat had to be rescheduled. Details for the next Soul Shabbat date will be coming soon.

--For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation, please visit the website at

--To receive the free weekly newsletter of events, classes, services, rabbinic teachings, and social action projects, please visit the website or call 310 362-1111.