10 Ways to Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

How to Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

1. Dip apple in honey and eat it. This symbolizes the wish for a fruitful and sweet year.
2. Make a nice dinner on Erev Rosh Hashanah and share it with family and friends. Alternatively you can have a nice lunch/early dinner on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. There are a lot of interesting recipes for the holiday, check online.
3. Make a “Rosh Hashanah resolution”: set a goal, commit to something new.
4. Go to services. Here is the schedule for my congregation, Temple Beth Hatfiloh. A great way to connect with community, with God, with yourself. Sing, pray, talk, reflect.
5. Wish people you know “L’shana tova” (a good year). Also wish people you don’t know a “L’shana tova
6. Call up someone you haven’t spoken to in a while and get caught up.
7. Hear the shofar. This is one of the traditional obligations for Rosh Hashanah. But don’t just hear the shofar, listen to what it is trying to tell you.
8. Take seriously the opportunity to do heshbon hanefesh—accounting of the soul. Really look deep inside. What do you want to change about yourself? Remember, the goal isn’t to make yourself feel bad…we all have stuff we need to work on.
9. Do Tashlikh. Go to a body of water and toss some bread on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Empty your pockets and toss out the crumbs. We are casting off our burdens from the past year. (Join your Olympia community at 4:30 p.m. at the Port Plaza or meet at 4:00 p.m. at TBH if you want to walk together)
10. Get outside—visit the beach, the woods, or just go for a walk. Rosh Hashanah is “the new year of the world.” So go give nature a hug.

Graffiti strikes Temple Beth Hatfiloh

For those not friends with me on Facebook, you may have missed this episode. I was walking back to the synagogue from a downtown appointment when I passed our corner sign (which I don’t pass everyday since the entrance and parking lot are on the other side) and noticed some graffiti. I took some photos, filed a police report and cleaned it up, but not before putting it out to the world of social media. Thanks to all who have responded, shared and generally showed support!

Be a Better Cookie

I’m going to be taking a break from writing these next few weeks, or at least give myself the permission not to. As we draw closer to the High Holidays, I am hard at work on all the details of these sacred days, as well as preparing my messages. So I will hold back from these weekly messages. I may put something on my blog, or Facebook, so you can look there as well.

But as we are in Elul, and our thoughts turn to the sacred work of teshuvah, I did want to share some words for the season. About cookies.

I do love to bake, and don’t do it often enough. My mom baked for the holidays (and other times as well) and so as we draw closer to Rosh Hashanah I begin to think of her rugelah and her “oily” apple cake which was a favorite of my grandfather’s and something that any cardiologist would poo-poo. I learned from her, and it was wonderful seeing both my boys bake with her this summer.

Baking is a bit of an exact science. Measurements need to be correct in order for the ingredients to work together and produce the cookies or cake desired. Unlike cooking in which flavors can be adjusted as you go, once the cake is in the oven if the ingredients weren’t correct you may have a flop on your hands.

There are adjustments you can make, of course. Once you have a basic dough you can mix in chocolate chips, raisins, cinnamon, etc. That is why this recent article caught my eye:

The Science Behind Baking the Most Delicious Cookie Ever

The article touches on “cookie science,” which examines the interplay of different ingredients and the resulting cookie. As you can see from the picture above, a tweak in ingredients can result in a different type of cookie. Using the Toll House Cookie recipe as a base, the author gives a brief list of desired results (chewy, firm, etc.) and the requisite adjustment to ingredients needed.

So while the base recipe is the same, a minor change in ingredient can result in a major change in result.

We remember this as we move through Elul. The idea that we turn our spiritual focus inward to examine our past deeds is daunting. The commitment we make to change our bad behaviors and adopt new ones is overwhelming.

But it need not be. Like cookies, it sometimes only takes a minor adjustment in how we are in this life to affect a major change within us.

Wishing you a meaningful Elul and a happy and sweet (extra chocolate chips?) new year.

Pass the Ice Water, It’s Elul

If you are tied into social media, you are probably aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a viral phenomenon in which people challenge each other to dump a bucket of ice water on their head, in the name of raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal degenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Its origins are unclear. According to what I could glean from Wikipedia, there were a series of videos of cold water challenges to raise money for charities, then at some point it got picked up and attached to ALS. It then continued to spread as celebrities, politicians and others got in on the act. The basic idea is this: one is challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water on one’s head or donate money to charity. Once one goes through with it and makes a public video, they can challenge others to do it as well and, in a version, those challenged have 24 hours to follow through.

While at one point it seemed that the water dumping was supposed to be a way of getting out of giving a donation, the challenge has changed and now it is to dump water and give money—it is a way of raising awareness and funds. And it has been very successful: The ALS Association raised over $40 million in July and August alone, which is almost double what it raised in all of last year.

And yes, I got in on the act. I was challenged to do it by Rabbi Cheski Edelman, our local Chabad rabbi. And I enlisted my boys to help me get a bit creative:

The Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its detractors. Some see it as a lazy form of engagement that doesn’t really engage one in the work for social change. Others see it as drawing attention away from other worthwhile causes. Some have more deeper issues with the challenge: that ALS research uses animal testing, or ALS research involves stem cell research, or that doing it in California is problematic because of the drought. Still others kvetch that while raising the money is good what we really need is government support and research grants.

I can’t deny that privately raised funds should go to augment publicly funded research and not replace it. And I recognize that there are philosophical and even theological reasons for shunning an ice water bath. But the criticisms that it is a lazy form of social action leave me cold.

The criticism strikes me as perhaps driven by envy. One of the interesting things about the internet and social media is that we never know what is going to go viral and what is not. (Like an actual virus, how it will spread, who will catch it, are difficult questions for which to anticipate answers.) The Ice Bucket Challenge happened to start out as a small thing, then happened to get connected to ALS, then happened to go viral. And because it went viral fundraising for ALS became tremendously successful. Sure there are other worthy causes. But in this case the stars aligned a particular way, and the result is that millions of dollars were raised for a disease that often goes overlooked. The ice bucket challenge may not have created world peace, but it did a world of good.

What struck me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the fact that what was going viral in this case was not a silly cat video, or a dance craze, but an act of tzedakah. Yes it was funny and fun, but ultimately it was a mitzvah—a sacred obligation and good deed—being passed along from person to person. A text in the ancient Jewish collection Pirke Avot, “Teachings of our Ancestors,” teaches mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” i.e., engaging in one mitzvah conditions a person to engage in another, and then another. In this case, because of the challenge’s public nature, it’s not just the one person doing a mitzvah who is conditioned to do another, but one person conditions another person to do a mitzvah. The mitzvot grow exponentially. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, tzedakah grows exponentially.

This week we have just entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and so ushers in the High Holiday season. Once we reach Elul, we begin to do the spiritual work of the High Holidays: looking inward, noting where we have been on our journeys, and noting where we want to go. We acknowledge the missteps we took, we make amends when necessary and we make commitments to do better in the future. This is the work of teshuvah (repentance) that we are called upon to do at this season.

We do not do this work alone. Yes, we have our own individual atonement to make. But we are all doing this work at the same time, and so are joined together in common cause as a community of reflection.

So we can take a cue from the Ice Bucket Challenge. During the High Holiday season we publically declare our intention to improve ourselves and our world. One good deed can inspire others to do likewise. An act of teshuvah can also inspire another to do likewise. Teshuvah grows exponentially. No water required.

A Week at Camp

I just returned from a week serving on the faculty of URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Reform movement up in Arlington, WA. This was my first time serving as faculty, though I have visited camp plenty of times as Yohanna has served on faculty in the past and both of my boys attend as campers. And TBH sends several kids to Camp Kalsman, in addition to Camp Solomon Schechter located in Tumwater.

It was a great week of fun and creativity. Four other rabbis were with me this same week, and we had a great time leading services, developing a creative Torah study, tutoring b’nai mitzvah students, telling stories, giving divrei Torah and just spending time with the kids. The week was doubly productive because during my down time I was able to do some reading, planning for the High Holidays and the year, and connecting with the other rabbis about ideas, issues and topics of mutual interest. (Unfortunately, the timing was such that I wasn’t able to get a column out last week! Apologies!)

The Jewish summer camp experience is such a wonderful opportunity. It provides kids (and the young-and not so young-adults who serve as counselors and staff) the chance to live in a completely immersive Jewish community where time is based around Jewish time, the schedule includes opportunity for song and prayer, the activities are infused with Jewish values and experiential Jewish learning is the framework. And those at camp get to develop connections and friendships with other Jews.

It is this last part perhaps which is the most valuable. For one, this is one of the few opportunities that these campers will be able to experience an environment in which they are not the minority, that their experience is the normative and they don’t have to make accommodations for living Jewishly.

Additionally, over the one, two or three weeks campers attend camp they build community based on shared values and mutual concern for one another. They learn to live with each other, share with each other, respect each other and support each other.

Camp fosters such an experience. It is why, as tensions flare up again in Israel/Palestine, that one of the things that gives me hope is Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youths for an opportunity to live together and learn from one another-simply to recognize the humanity of one another. The opportunities that camp creates are so vital to our society, not just internationally-as racial violence rears its ugly head once again in Ferguson, we are reminded that we so desperately need to find new ways of being in community and fellowship with one another.

I never went to Jewish summer camp growing up, though I did go to camp. I went to two different camps, first in Connecticut then in upstate New York, for 8 weeks over the summer starting when I was 10. (They were somewhat “Jewish” camps because most of the staff and campers were Jewish!) I can look back now and admit that I did not always have a great camp experience, primarily when I was younger. I was bullied, though we didn’t call it that then. And although my camp experience got better as I got older, that early experience still stays with me.

Camp Kalsman has everyone sign an anti-bullying pledge, and consciously addresses bullying in training the staff and in programs with the campers. It is in this way among others that camp not only has evolved and changed to meet changing norms, but that camp takes a very conscious effort to affirm the value of each individual and create a strong community at the same time.

I look forward to returning next year to again have the opportunity to do something that was so personally and professional enriching. And I hope those of you with kids of camp age consider sending your child to Jewish camp. Your child, the Jewish people and the world will be better for it.

Love and Spirit: Tu B’Av

While in February we tend to have a conversation as to whether Jews should celebrate Valentine’s Day, we may miss the fact that Judaism itself does have a day celebrating romantic love-Tu B’av, the fifteenth (“Tu” = 15) of the month of Av, which this year falls this week on August 11.

Tu B’Av is first mentioned in the Mishnah, tractate Ta’anit: “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What they were saying: Young man, consider who you choose (to be your wife).”

Later Talmudic interpretation would connect Tu B’Av to the grape harvest and other events, but it was the connection to this event of the matchmaking among the grapevines that gave the day its meaning of love and led to the development, especially in contemporary Israel, a holiday much like our Valentine’s Day.

The language of love is not unfamiliar to us as Jews. One of our central biblical commandments tells us to “Love our neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) The centerpiece of the liturgy, the Shema (also a biblical passage) says we must “love God with all our heart, with all our soul, will all our might.” This love speaks of the fidelity, trust and responsibility that comes from being in a covenantal relationship with each other and with God.

Which is not different than what we seek in our romantic relationships. When we find someone with whom we fall in love, we seek a connection that is founded upon fidelity, trust and mutual responsibility. The challenge has always been how we find and maintain these relationships.

love illuminatedI recently read a book called Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones, the editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. The column, which runs in the Sunday edition of the paper, features personal essays, reminisces and observations written by contributors about the many manifestations and challenges of love. Jones, having read nearly 50,000 submissions, sets out to analyze and break down what it means to find, nurture and keep love in our modern lives.

One observation Jones makes is that increasingly taboos and societal-imposed limits on who one can marry are dropping away (note the rate of Jewish intermarriage) while at the same time the internet is making the number of people one can meet much greater. And while this freedom to marry and large pool of potential mates makes finding a partner easier, Jones notes, it also increases the pressure on making the “right choice.”

What is interesting is the parallel to our spiritual lives.

Like in love, we are spiritual free agents today. Rather than just follow the practices of our upbringing, we seek our own connection and relationship with the divine. And much in the same way the internet has changed the way we meet people, so too has it changed how we learn, where we receive information, how we create spiritual community and how we form our identity. Like in love, this presents an opportunity and challenge-we have so many ways to make meaning, so how do we know which is the “right way”?

We each must find our own answer, but we again can take a cue from Jones’s book in which he writes, “love is for suckers, not for skeptics.” In other words, those who seek love need to be vulnerable, seeking, daring, diligent, self-limiting and self-critical. So too for those who seek meaning. Be open, and it will find you. Something to reflect on, and celebrate, this Tu B’Av.