Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chanukah 2014

Happy Chanukah everyone! I hope everyone is enjoying their latkes.

These are great links to get everything you need for Chanukah- kids coloring sheets, recipes, how-to light etc. Check them out.
Chanukah -
Hanukkah -

Also, a great article about the heroines of Chanukah - a must read.
Chanuka: What do girls have to do with it?

And to wrap it up, some older articles I've written.
Chanukah: The Holiday of Miracles (2008)
The Natural Miracles of Chanukah (2010)
Happy Thanksgivikah! (2013) - great ideas for how to involve your kids in giving gifts

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is a special day for all Americans and especially for American Jews. For thousands of years we were chased from country to country and murdered at every opportunity.

The United States gave us safe haven to live our lives freely as Jews - to be able to publicly wear symbols of our religion, to pray safely in our synagogues and at the same time be full members of society at large. The USA is a special place and we are certainly grateful to G-d for all that we have been given.

President George Washington wrote a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island discussing that idea of religious liberty. Amazing letter. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington

Monday, November 24, 2014

Holy Jews

This past week we witnessed a terrible event, the massacre of four holy Jews during prayer, simply because they were Jewish. We also mourn the loss of a brave Druzi policeman, a father of a four month old daughter.

These were great people. I knew one of them, Rabbi Goldberg, a special man with a special family.

There is truly so much to say, but at the same time, nothing to say. I will leave it to bigger people to comment.

Reflections from a Har Nof Neighbor

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parshat Chayei Sarah - Welcome to the Journey

This past Shabbos, we read the portion of Chayei Sarah. It begins with the death of Sarah, our first matriarch.

I've always found the first sentence of this parsha a fascinating way to start,
"Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years..."

According to Rashi, one of our major Torah commentators, explains that each mention of years refers to different portions of her life - which totally makes sense. We can easily subdivide our lives into parts, when we were kids, before marriage, before having kids, after having kids, after the kids move out... etc. you get the idea.

What we can learn from the Torah making a point to break down her life is to take note that every part of our life is significant.  It's not just the destination, but also the journey. Each portion of our lives is a piece of the puzzle that is us.

Every portion of our life in significant. Every choice we make builds on itself - even and especially those choices we make as children and young adults. Those choices and their consequences create the people we become as adults. Did we take candy without paying for it? Did we sneak a peek on an exam or fudge a little while telling a story? Did we help a friend when they needed us? Did we clean up our toys without being asked? What seem like small choices as children becomes ingrained in our character as adults.

Take a moment to enjoy the journey - discover yourself. Appreciate the daily choices and options that present themselves to you - remember these seemingly insignificant choices (obviously not all choices - Coke vs. Pepsi, not of ultimate significance) help build the person you are and who you want to be at the end of it all.

Take the time to appreciate the moment as it presents itself. Enjoy the portion of your life that you're in. If you're raising kids - enjoy the craziness of it all. "Growing kids" is the hardest thing I have ever done and will do -- but I absolutely love the insanity of it all. The jumping off the couches, coffee table, chairs - ok, off of anything horizontal...  it's fantastic to think that these are human beings that are ultimately going to change the world for the better, and I have a hand in that.

Have a great week everyone!
Love the life you're in.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Shabbat Project

The Shabbat Project is a fantastic idea. In this crazy world, we need a little bit of unity and where better to find it than in G-d's hidden gem given to the Jewish People. Shabbat, a little bit of sanity in a turbulent world. Jews around the world are going to unplug and just "be" with our friends, family and even just ourselves - quite a feat in a 24/7 go, go, go mindset.

Enjoy the time off everyone.
Shabbat Shalom.

The Shabbos Project  #KeepingItTogether

You don’t need to be religious to observe the Shabbat Project
This weekend, Jews in some 460 cities all over the world have signed up to turn off their phones and tune in to the Jewish day of rest

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cuteness Abounds

I never quite got the hang of the hand motions for Dovid, Melech Yisroel (David, King of Israel) when I was a kid. Yesterday, the idea popped into my head that YouTube probably had it - I was right, here it is. I've learned it now and my daughter R (3.5 yrs) is into learning it too. Y (2 yrs) is trying his best to join in. Cuteness abounds.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Yizkor Thoughts

This was the first year (unfortunately) that I said the Yizkor prayer for my mother. I said it at home, there was no way I was getting to the synagogue. I remember all the years that those of us who hadn't lost anyone would file out of the sanctuary and hang out in the lobby. A few minutes later someone would pop out and let us know that it was time to come back.

I always thought it must have been a big-time prayer - long and difficult to read. It wasn't. It was two paragraphs long. Truthfully, I was surprised.

It's interesting to me that so many people who aren't regular shul goers come to the synagogue special just to say those two paragraphs. I think that it must be about a need for connection to those we've lost. Even those who only come to shul every so often, I think, make a statement of belief when they come for Yizkor - speaking directly to G-d, asking the Almighty to watch out for their relatives.

I'm not saying that they should be limiting their time in shul to only when they can say Yizkor. In fact, I think they are losing out on building a relationship with G-d and with their community - but I do think that I have to re-evaluate what I used to think about those who do that.

Wishing everyone a healthy, happy New Year!
Time to get ready for Sukkot! Happy Sukkah building!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Yom Kippur Resources

Wishing everyone a Gmar Chatima Tova - a healthy and happy year ahead.

And a fantastic article for those of us stay-at-home moms who won't be anywhere near the synagogue.

Hoping all the Jewish People have a meaningful and easy fast.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Quick Overview of the High Holidays

Good day everyone!

I've started a new book, Toward a Meaningful Life, and I wanted to share a piece giving a fantastic overview of the Holidays we find ourselves in the midst of --
On Rosh Hashana, we learn that we have the power to still the trembling world and assist in the birth of a new one. The tremors of the old world are the birth pangs of the new. It is within our power to help bring about that rebirth, by taking steps to renew our own spiritual lives (xiii) 
The message of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is that renewal is possible even after loss and destruction.... Rebirth can be more powerful than the initial birth. The first revelation of the Law on Mount Sinai took forty days, but Moses spent twice as long to persuade G-d to yield to his entreaties and replace the broken tablets. The effort required to rebuild after destruction is much greater than the work of building in the first place. But the rebuilt structure, when it is finally completed, is stronger than the original and can never again be destroyed...Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the year because it is the day when life's essential element, Hope, was born. The message of Yom Kippur is unequivocal: even after great loss, we can repair, rebuild and regenerate... Yom Kippur makes clear how we can achieve these things: by connecting to G-d, to immortality (xiv-xv). 
The festival of joy, Sukkot (Tabernacles), follows in the wake of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with a vital lesson of its own for today's difficult circumstances. Joy is an external sign of the soul's innate celebration of life. Awareness of our indispensable purpose, that we are connected to our Divine mission, is cause for celebration. Conversely, if we are cut off from this awareness - that is, if we feel that our lives lack purpose and direction - we are prey to feelings of insecurity, fear, uncertainty, and despondency... The joy of Sukkot is an extension of the hope born on Yom Kippur. Joy cannot be experienced to the fullest until we have encountered loss and begun to recover, as happens on Yom Kippur. With hope regained, after our broken spirits have revived and we have started to rebuild after loss, we celebrate (xvi).
This is only the beginning of the book. I'm looking forward to reading and learning more!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy New Year 5775!

How time flies. We're back at the beginning - Shana Tova to all! Happy New Year!

It's the beginning of the Jewish New Year! A celebration completely different than the secular one, we spend the day thinking about G-d as our King.

For me, Rosh HaShana and the upcoming holidays are a bit tough to get my head around. I am blessed with three small people, 3.5 years, 2 years and 3 months old. Getting in the mood and to synagogue is more than a small challenge (more like a bad joke). Happily, I found someone in my building who blew the shofar for me.

I'm revisiting the idea of learning something Jewish for 5 minutes a day. For anyone who thinks that 5 minutes is no big deal should come visit my home. I'm hoping to find that 5 minutes block - rather, I think it may have to be broken up into parts.

I'll share with you a series of books that I enjoy. There are at least six books in the series so far, each focusing on different parts of the Torah. I just finished Let Me Join Your Nation by Yosef Deutsch. (Took me three months, trust me, it's not a long book). It's a novelization of the Book of Ruth. Using commentaries and midrashim, he weaves a coherent narrative, fleshing out the story. What I like about it is that he includes footnotes, so if you were so inclined, you could actually check out the details. I feel like you are learning by reading a book without working too hard.

The next book I'm going to be working through is one I've read before, but it's been about six years since I've cracked it open. It's called, Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It's got a universal message, so anyone from any faith should get something out of it - but obviously geared toward Jews. I don't remember much from the last time I read it, but I do remember enjoying it. I am excited to give it another read (as slow and painful as that may be).

So again, I'm going to try to write a weekly dvar Torah, and hopefully I won't peter out like I did last time. Try, try again!

A healthy and happy Shana Tova to all!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Stark Contrasts

This article is written by a friend of mine, Yehuda Poch, who lives in Israel.

Israel is a land of stark contrasts.  On most street corners in Jerusalem you can find black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews standing next to T-shirt-clad secular Jews, waiting for the light to change.  It is a country with precious few natural resources and a relatively small population, yet it has one of the strongest economies in the world, driven by a high-tech industry that is the envy of everyone.  It is an island of democracy and stability in a sea of despotism and strife.  Its people are brusque and audacious, yet sweet and welcoming at the same time.  The headlines often contain issues of world drama, yet it’s the small and mundane that makes the news.

Yet nowhere are the contrasts of Israeli society more pronounced than in the mid-Spring when twice, one week apart, we bring our entire national ethos into sharp contrast.

A loud and mournful cry goes up from every corner of the land. The entire country collectively cries out in pain and anguish, and stands in silence - remembering.

Our cry echoes that of our nation 70 years ago, as six million of us were murdered in cold inhumanity.  We remember the victims of the Holocaust, the ultimate denouement of our long and bitter exile from our national homeland.  And then, a week later, our cry is our own, in memory, respect, and longing as we remember those who gave their lives so that six million might return and live in that homeland as free people.

The Jewish nation never loses sight of its past.  For it is that past that forms the foundation for our present strength, and that is the source of hope and inspiration for our future.

The State of Israel – the rebirth of the Jewish nation.  Born out of the ashes of the greatest destruction known to mankind, and strengthened through the fire of war and struggle, the State of Israel grows and our nation stands.

It is exceedingly difficult to turn, literally in one minute, from deep mourning, contemplation and memory to intense celebration with a passion that is unmatched in any other culture.  Yet it is precisely that most stark of all contrasts that enables us to celebrate our Independence Day with far greater meaning, and with far greater appreciation for the miracle that is Israel.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yom HaShoah - Never Again

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's easy to get lost in the details - how many Jews were murdered, how were they murdered, the different death camps, those in charge, those who passively resisted, those who actively resisted, those people who were bystanders within Nazi borders, the World who stood by... all important information to be aware of - but not the most important detail. The Why. Why were we murdered?

We were murdered because we were Jewish. Whether secular or religious, city folk or shtetl folk - the Nazis saw us as Jews. Period. That's what they saw and all they cared about.

The Jews brought G-d given morality to the world. There is "right", there is "wrong". That every human being has a purpose, that no one is disposable - not even the disabled that the Nazis made sure to rid themselves of - the basic idea that we can make this world a dwelling place for G-d, a Holy Place. The Nazis wanted nothing of it.

Seventy four years later, since the beginning of World War II, we find ourselves left with a slogan "Never Again". We have ongoing trips to Auschwitz and other death camps for ourselves and others to remind us all of the atrocities which occurred not so long ago. But to what end? Sure, we must remember what happened to our People - but this is not the first slaughter of Jews in history, in fact it is one of many. What is special about this Shoah is that it is the first one that the World as a whole could have done something about and did absolutely nothing. What is special about this Shoah is that while we talk about "Never Again" the Jewish assimilation numbers are scarily high - that Jewish affiliation to any Jewish causes, Temples, synagogues and even Israel is waning.

The problem stems from people's perception of "Judaism" - bagels and lox, whitefish, Sunday morning Hebrew school, memorized bar/bat mitzvah Torah readings. There is no inherent significance given to the Torah or Torah concepts - not that anyone is necessarily "against" the Torah, it's just not relevant to today's life, or so some think. Shabbat, kosher food, mitzvot (commandments) - all old school, for only those who are "orthodox" to care about. There is no real thought about any of it at all, none of it is even a small blip on the radar screen of most Jews.

That is the sad thought. It's not even that most Jews have debated the concepts and decided that it isn't for them - rather that it isn't even a thought that has crossed their mind. At the Passover seder we say the Ve'hee Sheh'amda paragraph written hundreds of years ago,
And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us! For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation  they rise against us to destroy us - and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand! [emphasis mine]
Why does this keep happening? One would think that even this simple question might get the ball rolling - why the Jews? What is so special about Judaism that might have brought on this hatred?

I hope that on this evening of Yom HaShoah that we all seriously consider our personal commitment to our Judaism. That "Never Again" should mean more than standing aside as bystanders while a genocide is occurring - we should also not be a bystander while our own spiritual genocide is going on as well. What does Judaism mean to us personally? What do we want it to mean to our children and grandchildren? Why does it mean so little to us when others are willing to murder us because of it?

Have a thoughtful and meaningful Yom HaShoah.

Anne Frank's Stepsister
Holocaust Studies

Monday, March 31, 2014

Jazz Up Your Seder

Our seders were never boring. Over the years the seders went from "a seder" to a "great seder". I want to take a minute to pass along a few ideas that worked for us - and perhaps if you have a moment to contribute your ideas - that would be fantastic.

First of all it's important to have your children involved - that is really what it's all about... the next generation. It's written in the Hagaddah: "B'chol dor vador chayav adam leerot et atzmo k'eelu hu yatza mi'Mitzrayim". Every generation is obligated to see themselves as having left Egypt. In other words, the concept of 'Jewish continuity' is nothing new.

When children are involved in Passover preparation - it means more to them. It's obvious since this is the same thing for adults, the more you have invested, the more it means to you.

Project idea:
A nice and relatively easy art project that I used to do with my 3rd graders (about 8-9 years old) was to create a Pesach "coat" that they would wear at the seder. Take a white, or a single colored, pillowcase - take permanent fabric markers and let them decorate the pillowcase with scenes they could imagine from Egypt... slavery, hardship etc. By the way, make sure to place newspaper inside the pillowcase so the markers don't bleed through to the other side, ruining the work there. Cut the pillowcase in four places to create holes for the child's neck and arms and cut down the middle of the pillowcase so it opens up. (I hope that this makes sense.) The idea is create a jacket or a "coat" that they will wear at the seder. The thought behind this is for the child to wear it at the beginning of the seder until the dinner section of the Hagaddah symbolizing that they were slaves, but by finishing the parts discussing the slavery - we became free and they take their "coats" off. As an aside, I must thank my mother for coming up with this project.

While I'm actually typing this - I'm revising my thinking slightly - instead of making the "coat" only about slavery, why not decorate it half and half - half in the theme of slavery, and half in the theme of freedom -- pyramids vs. leaving Egypt. Pictures of the plagues, matza and kiddush cups etc. This way the child can wear their "coat" the entire seder (as long as they are managing to stay awake) and have something special of their own.

Decorating your house, or at least where you are hosting your seder:
* Frogs: Throughout the year, try and pick up a stuffed frog or two. If they have velcro on their "flippers" even better - hang them from your light fixture (not too close to the lightbulbs, avoid fire hazards please). The other ones you should try to place around the room - on couches, on the coffee table, tops of bookcases - make sure that they are noticeable.

The Plagues:
Obviously the Jewish People were not the focus of the plagues - the Egyptians were, but it's good to bring these things to life - children are experiential beings, in order for things to seep into their little brains, it has to be fun and something they can touch and feel.
* Ping-pong balls: While setting up for the seder, place about 5ish ping-pong balls in a cup next to each dinner plate. After you have read through the 10 Plagues - take a few minutes to whip those balls at each other... and behold, you have the plague of hail. Someone in charge will have to call a stop at some point, but before they do, give everyone a few minutes to enjoy themselves.
* Sunglasses: Get all-purpose cheap sunglasses and put them next to each dinner plate. Have everyone put theirs on before reading the 10 Plagues.
* Small plastic animals: Buy a package of small plastic animals and spread them around the table. Don't stand them up - this is the plague where G-d kills all of the Egyptian domestic animals.

Try to learn some of the songs for the seder in advance. There are plenty of CDs and downloads of the classic (and more modern) songs that will move your seder along in a more enjoyable way. Singing is not only for the shower - let your kids see you involved as well.

Reading the Hagaddah:
Let everyone take a paragraph or two - go around the table, give everyone a chance to participate... it's a long night otherwise.

We have a collection of different kinds of Hagaddahs - each with a different commentary on the seder. Everyone at the table had a different one and when we came across a commentary that we found interesting, we would stop the seder, read the short commentary and take a few minutes to discuss what we had found. Everyone will find something different that will interest them... then switch Hagaddahs the next night. No one will be bored.

Just an interesting side note: Don't pour your own glass of wine/grape juice - we are a free people discussing the amazing things that G-d did for us. Slaves certainly don't enjoy a full meal where they can sit around, explore ideas and drink wine. Free people do. Slaves have to do everything for themselves - free people have others pour for them. Just a thought.

More information on the how-to, the what-abouts, the recipes of Pesach:

Have a wonderful, uplifting Pesach everyone. Oh, and remember - the holiday of Shavuot is 7 weeks after the first seder - a most important holiday where we received the Torah -- pure freedom without responsibility is just chaos.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Jewish Superheroes of the Holocaust

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember the liberation of Auschwitz -Birkenau concentration camp - a solemn day for all people especially for the Jews. Many of us have relatives or neighbors who survived those awful years in concentration camps, having their families wiped out.

What is most interesting are these photographs that put the enormity of the Holocaust into a more individual perspective.

20 Photos That Change the Holocaust Narrative

To be honest, I have always had trouble learning about the Holocaust, the evil of mankind, the depravity, the depths that people are able to sink to - but these pictures also remind us of the amazing people who were in these camps, those who survived and those who did not. We are reminded of their individuality. They were not just the numbers tattooed into their arms designed to take away their humanity, but real people, real individuals.

These were amazing people who did amazing things while in the camps, the self-sacrifice to stay alive, the self-sacrifice to to help each other, extraordinary things to keep their faith in G-d, to do mitzvot under incredibly hellish circumstances that we can't even imagine. The amazing people who were tortured and murdered simply for being Jews… were individuals.

For those surviving, the ability to put on plays and shows in the DP camps, needed a strength that is unimaginable. To move on with their lives and build new families even when they already had a family that was wiped out needed a strength that is beyond incredible.

When we think about the Holocaust we are overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction, a third of the Jewish People wiped off the face of the earth. Over 6 million people gone - along with their descendants. But these pictures are an opportunity to break down that number into faces, friends and relatives… individuals. Special individuals - our Jewish superheroes.

We honor them.