The three months of the first half of my Sabbatical have flown by so quickly. As I write, I am preparing to return the congregation in a few days. By the time you read this, I will be fully immersed in our work together to build up and share in our wonderful Beth Hillel community. It will be a very busy four months until I embark upon the second half of the Sabbatical on June 1.
As I wrote when I departed, it is hard to express strongly enough how appreciative I am for this opportunity and how grateful I am to the many, many people who stepped up to keep our community going while I was away. From service leaders to event planners, to substitute teachers, to our Leadership Council and committees and Temple staff, I know that the good work we do at Beth Hillel has barely skipped a beat while I was gone. I also know that there must have been times when my absence created some challenges. But, I hope those challenges will be mitigated by the new energy, ideas, teaching and perspective I hope to bring to the congregation upon my return and by the growth the congregation experienced in having to “go it alone.
At his final press conference before leaving office, President Obama said: “I want to be quiet a little bit, not hear myself talk so darned much.” This puts into words, precisely, the primary goal of my Sabbatical. I wanted to set my brain on “input” rather than “output.”
While I did not have a clear set of goals back in October when the Sabbatical started, looking back over these past months, I am pleased at the amount of learning and reflection I have been able to accomplish along with tending to personal and family life. Elsewhere in this issue of Achshav, I have included a summary of the learning I pursued during my Sabbatical time. I know you don’t expect me to account for my time, but I thought some of you might find this summary interesting or may wish to discuss some of the areas of study with me. I would welcome that conversation.
I will be presenting new ideas for future programming, gleaned during the Sabbatical, to our committees and school. Some of my Sabbatical undertakings will enhance services and sermons. And some things will not directly influence what happens here at BHT, but have enriched my life and my rabbinic skills. I can only hope that this too will improve the way I serve the Beth Hillel community.
Most of all, I hope that by taking this time for Jewish and personal self-enrichment, I can inspire more of our Beth Hillel members to take time to do the same. We offer many such opportunities here at Beth Hillel. In the coming months, we will have fascinating speakers on world religions and the worldwide refugee crisis. We will have film nights, “Great Decisions” mornings, Taste of Judaism classes, “Lunch and Learns”, Purim, Passover and Shavuot celebrations, B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation, a concert with the Israeli group Mikolot Mayim, led by Rabbi Or Zohar of our Domim “twin” Jewish community in northern Israel, for Israeli Independence Day in May. And of course, weekly opportunities for prayer and Torah study.
And perhaps the closest each one of you can come to a Sabbatical, if your profession or place of employment does not allow it, is to take that weekly Sabbatical, the original Sabbatical that God took after six days of Creation: Shabbat. Of course, the semantic root of the term Sabbatical is Shabbat: A day to “be quiet and not hear ourselves talk so darn much.” To renew ourselves and reflect. To think and not decide. To rest and not act.
I look forward to reconnecting with all of you in the days and weeks ahead.
The month of Elul, which precedes the New Year, is a month rich with meaning and tradition. First and foremost, it is the month of Selichot, penitential prayers, and a time for a spiritual check-up, when we are encouraged to itemize our misdeeds and misgivings from the past year. A second meaning is that Elul is the month of love. Already in the rabbinic period, the sages noted that if you use the letters that spell out Elul: Alef, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, they can represent the phrase from Song of Songs, “Ani L’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs 6:3). Elul also begins just after Tisha B’av, the sad holiday of the Ninth of Av, when the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and other Jewish tragedies are mourned. Weddings are prohibited, according to traditional Jewish law, in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’av. Therefore, Elul has, for centuries, been the month of choice for Jewish couples.
Perhaps you can imagine that the confluence of our daughter Abby’s soon-to-be wedding on the first day of the month of Elul and the approaching Days of Awe has given me not only an unusually bad case of pre-holiday jitters, but wonderful food for thought on the connection between Elul as the lovers month and Elul as the preparatory month for the High Holy Days. And connections do abound.
Even a cursory glance at the Songs of Songs in the Bible makes it abundantly clear that this is an extended love poem. So how did a love poem get included in the Bible, the holiest book of Jewish literature? The rabbis who determined the canon (official collection) of books in the Bible determined that the Song of Songs was an extended metaphor for the relationship between the People of Israel and God. No matter how these poems might look to us, the rabbis said these chapters really express the devotion between Jewish people and God.
At this season of Elul, the entire Jewish people are working toward a better relationship with God, singing, if you will, our Song of Songs to God. We are all vowing to return to God, presenting our best selves so that we can find oneness with God before Yom Kippur comes to an end. We even dress up in our best clothes when the holidays finally come, sometimes even white like the bridal gown, for this all- important coming together. So, what better season than Elul for a young couple, just starting out, to make their commitments to one another?
They have the collective energy of the entire Jewish people behind them, seeking to be sincere in their promises and devoted in their goals. Perhaps when a wedding falls in Elul, the bride and groom can sense, as they stand under the chuppah ( the marriage canopy), not only the good wishes, but the good intentions, of all those who come to celebrate with them.
Please do join our family on Sunday, September 4 at 4:45pm to wish Abby and Zak Mazal Tov at a backyard reception. They will have just exchanged rings under the chuppah in a private ceremony in the Beth Hillel sanctuary and whether you can be present or not, we know that the best hopes, goals and promises of every Jew that are first uttered in the month of Elul will be with them as they start their married life together.
Thank you all for your many good wishes for Abby and Zak. And now a wish for all of you:
May your Elul be rewarding and the New Year 5777 be joyous and fulfilling.
At the beginning of February, I spent the weekend at OSRUI with our 5th and 6th graders at an annual retreat for small congregations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. One of the teens we hired to serve as a counselor for the kids (along with our own Emily Birz) was a high school senior from my hometown, Janesville, WI. When I asked the young man which high school, and then told him I too attended Janesville Craig, he thought I was pulling his leg. (Breaking out into the school fight song helped to convince him it was true!). As the only Jewish kid his age in the entire school system (the same experience I had there), he was incredulous that a rabbi could have risen out of that same environment many decades ago.
But, to us here at Beth Hillel, it’s not so surprising. In a few weeks, during the culmination of our 90th anniversary observances at Beth Hillel, we will be celebrating our wonderful community, and a big part of it will be focusing on the strong Jewish identities that a small Jewish community like ours can build. Your presence at our March 20th “A House for All People” gala dinner at “Circa on Seventh” and some other activities that will happen during the morning at BHT, along with the school’s Purim Carnival, will shine a spotlight on the Jewishly committed young adults who have grown out of our congregation and the crucial role that Beth Hillel played in their lives.
The highlight of this sharing will come from three rabbis, Rabbis Dan Selsberg, Benjy Bar-Lev and Monica (Meyer) Kleinman who rose out of our congregation to serve the Jewish people as congregational rabbis. The mere fact that they are choosing to be with us and give up time with their own congregations and families to do so, says a great deal about how much they value Beth Hillel. Their bios are found elsewhere in this newsletter, and by reading them, you will discover a bit about how BHT influenced their Jewish lives and the choice to become rabbis. Much more will be shared when they headline the March 20th evening event. But, as remarkable as it is that Beth Hillel has seen 3 rabbis come from its ranks, our trio of rabbis still does not tell the whole story.
In preparing for the March 20 celebrations, we have also reached out (and we are greatly indebted to Esther Letven and our BSBH 8-9 grade students in the Midrasha Oral History elective for this effort) to young adults who are in college or beyond, to ask them to reflect on the role that Beth Hillel played in their Jewish identities and to share about their Jewish lives as they step out on their own into the world. Here, too, we are blessed to have a group of college age and “20 somethings” who credit Beth Hillel with their positive Jewish identities, for inspiring them to live and act as Jews in the world, and, for several, even leading them to jobs and careers within the Jewish community. Many speak of their social relationships and extra-curricular choices as having been highly influenced by BHT and the opportunities afforded them here to learn, to socialize with Jewish youth both within and beyond BHT, to go to Jewish camp and youth group, on trips to Israel, and to internships in Jewish settings.
Some may not be active in Jewish life right now, but think back fondly on their time at BHT and believe they will want to pass on what they had to the next generation. This too says a great deal about who we are as a Jewish community and the importance of what we do at BHT.
Creating positive and joyous, meaningful and relevant Jewish experiences for our youth and adults and making people feel good about what happens when they are within the walls of our synagogue has always been a priority for me personally, and it is what motivates our school staff and lay leaders as well. It is gratifying to have those who have left our community confirm that we have succeeded in that endeavor many times over. Growing and shaping Jews who engage in Jewish life and build meaning in their lives through the practice of Judaism and on the foundation of Jewish values should make us very proud of what we are doing here at Beth Hillel. It is truly something to celebrate. Join us on March 20. And if you have a story to share about what Beth Hillel has meant in YOUR life, please share comment below.
As you have undoubtedly noted, Beth Hillel has been celebrating its 90th Anniversary with special events over the past few months. We had a photo and artifact display in Founders Hall and a historical facts scavenger hunt for the kids at the Annual Picnic in August. We also had a program about the anniversary on the first day of BSBH school, the highlight of which was Bud Lepp sharing memories of what BHT and the school were like when he was young. We had wonderful group story-telling at a pot-luck dinner in November. Over the next few months, there will be more. Look in the Upcoming Events section and for articles and flyers in this issue of Achshav for details.
In June of 1925, Beth Hillel Congregation was officially incorporated as an organization. Its mission was to be a congregation with a modern type of worship so that Kenosha’s Jewish families would have the opportunity to affiliate with Reform Judaism, instead of only having the option of Orthodoxy at the already-existing Bnai Zedek shul. In the 1920s and for the next several decades, one of the hallmark features of Reform Jewish worship was organ accompaniment, choral and soloist performance pieces, and praying in English, using formal, “King James” or Early Modern English, thought to be of high literary quality. (Lots of “thee” and “thou” and “est” on the ends of verbs.) The Reform Movement’s Union Prayer Book was used for “Sabbath” worship.
Those of us in the Baby Boomer or older age groups used this prayer book and experienced this type of worship through the mid 1970s, when the Gates of Prayer siddur was published by the Reform Movement. Around the same time, guitar and piano accompaniment, the influence of folk-style music popularized at Jewish camps, and a cappella singing, using more of the traditional chanting, came into style. The performance soloist gave way to congregational singing. The organ was phased out in most congregations (there are some Reform congregations that still use it), and the language of the English prayers became more colloquial and less formal.
Beth Hillel’s worship history is in keeping with these historical styles and modes. We thought it would be interesting, as we observe the 90th anniversary, to try to capture a bit of our past by holding services in the style of those earlier eras. While the organ still stands in our sanctuary and its pipes are hidden in a closet nearby, we stopped using it regularly in the mid 1980s. It is no longer functional. But, on Friday, January 15th, we will be holding a “retro” service with a musician playing pieces from that era, using our keyboard on the “organ” setting. And we will bring out our remaining copies of the Union Prayer Book for our worship that evening. For some of us, it will be nostalgic. But, if you have never experienced a “Classical Reform” service, it may be an eye-opening moment.
We will also go back to the Gates of Prayer for a service on Friday, February 12. This is the prayer book that many of our 20-50-somethings grew up with. It was the prayer book in use when I came to Beth Hillel 30 years ago and was the first prayer book to offer a variety of types of readings, acknowledging that worshippers of differing theological positions were present in the congregation. A great deal more Hebrew was included in the siddur, and it opened from right to left, which was a significant change from the Union Prayer Book.
Join us on these two special Shabbatot, both for services and for the potluck dinners preceding. Above all, we want this 90th anniversary year to be a time of community building, and there is no better way to do so than to break bread with one another, perhaps sitting with folks we do not know as well, and, in so doing, finding new bonds with our fellow Beth Hillel members.
The last special 90th anniversary Shabbat pot-luck and program will be on Friday, March 4. It will feature our past presidents. Watch for more details in the next edition of the Achshav. The 90th anniversary celebration will culminate on Sunday, March 20, when Beth Hillel’s “Three Rabbis” – young leaders of today’s Jewish community who grew up at Beth Hillel -- will headline a special program you won’t want to miss!
Some of you know that I am a fan of the “God Squad” column that appears in the Kenosha News and in many other newspapers. Aside from the great sense of humor that Rabbi Gellman displays in most columns, I like the gentle interfaith message and accessible teaching of religion in the syndicated advice column. “God Squad” was originally co-written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and his priest friend, Monsignor Thomas Hartman. Unfortunately, the Monsignor was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and Rabbi Gellman had to continue the column without him. But, it is still a column in which people of any faith can send in a religious or theological question, and receive an answer. Last week’s column was inspired by the Pope’s visit, and highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue and friendship. Gellman wrote: “interfaith dialogue is about learning that there are many paths up the same mountain….” In other words, we have much to learn from others whose faith is different than our own, and even though we may take different paths, we are all seeking the same truth.
For some, this is a difficult concept. What would we have to learn from someone whose faith is different than ours—except something with which we do not agree or has no relevance to us? Many people think that the way they were taught is the “right” way, and that there is really no point in knowing what others believe, except to, perhaps, pump up their confidence that they are right and others are wrong or to convince the others that they are misguided. In this view, it is best to avoid a discussion of religion and beliefs with most people because, once you go down that road, you are asking for trouble.
Obviously Rabbi Gellman is presenting a very different view here and it is one that he lived out in his life by starting his shared column with the priest. And I believe that most liberal-thinking people of many faiths embrace the view of “many paths up the same mountain.” But, the actual practice of true, interfaith dialogue is entered into by few. This year in Kenosha we will have a marvelous opportunity to enter into real and meaningful religious dialogue during an entire weekend devoted to that topic. In mid March, Beth Hillel will be the site of one of these events, and I hope that our members will attend not only that special Shabbat evening, but the entire weekend of activities.
A well-known Christian theologian coined the term “sacred envy” when speaking about the importance of interfaith understanding. Bishop Krister Stendahl, who taught at Harvard Divinty school, used this term to describe “being rooted in one spiritual place… while… realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held…in others.” He said that “sacred envy” “allows us to learn from others without becoming them….” (Brad Hirschfield in Sh’ma, May 10, 1996)
“To learn from others without becoming them:” That says it all. It is this idea that has inspired and group of faith leaders in Kenosha to work together over the past year to bring an outstanding Jewish-Christian scholar of international stature to our community. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a faithful Jew who is an expert in New Testament, and a professor at Vanderbilt University, will speak at Beth Hillel and also at Carthage College, First United Methodist Church, and Holy Rosary Catholic parish on the weekend of Mar 10-13.
You may ask yourself why would the rabbi be sharing this information so many months in advance? Or you may wonder: “What exactly can I learn from a faith different than my own?” To answer both of these questions, I would like to flesh out Bishop Stendhal’s idea of “sacred envy,” of “being rooted in one place while realizing the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”
You will never find a greater proponent than me for the idea that Judaism is a complete religion with richness and depth and an ability to give comfort and inspire that is rivaled by none. I am, in Stendahl’s words, “rooted in one place.” How could I do the work I do each day if I were not? My life is devoted to teaching others that Judaism is a fulfilling and meaningful system for living that will make its adherents’ lives better and fuller. Not only am I rooted in Judaism, but my career and calling is to inspire all of you to be rooted in Judaism as well. And, of course, proponents of every religion feel the same about their own faiths. The interfaith endeavor thrives on the acceptance of the principle that we are all happily “rooted in our own places.”
At Beth Hillel we often play host to Christian groups who want to see what Jewish worship is like. We are proud to share our traditions with them and feel gratified when they love our prayer book, when they “ooh” and “ah” over seeing the Torah up close or marvel that we pray in Hebrew. Many of us invite non-Jewish guests to our Seders because we want to share what is beautiful and thought-provoking about our story and culture. It is easy for us to herald the interfaith endeavor when it is about others appreciating us. I am not sure, however, that we are so welcoming of the experience when it goes the other way. We do offer a class on understanding other religions in the teen Midrasha program of our school. But, as adults, we do not go out on Sunday mornings to see how Christians pray, giving ourselves a chance to “ooh” and “ah” over their communion customs and enjoy their hymns. Speaking from experience from an earlier period at Beth Hillel when we had an pulpit exchange with the AME church, Coleman Chapel, I am willing to bet that few of our members are interested in such an excursion. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.
We are all rooted in and fed and strengthened by our own faiths, and that is how it should be, but we can still admire and learn from and even be inspired by others’ faiths. This is, of course, the second half of that statement by Bishop Stendahl: The part where we “realize the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”
When we did have that pulpit exchange with Coleman Chapel, I know I can speak for the few of us who did attend-- that we were “wowed” by the rocking church choir and organ music that filled the space and got people in the pews moving and shaking. I loved the fact that when I delivered the sermon, the congregation actually responded at regular intervals to what I was saying—not just politely nodding their heads like I see here, but shouting out “you tell ‘em Rabbi” and things like that. (I had to warn the pastor when he spoke here that no one was going to respond to his sermon, but they were still listening!) We were totally impressed with how members of the congregation got up an offered their own spontaneous prayers in front of others. By the way, this opportunity to give a spontaneous prayer happens all the time at interfaith meetings, and I am learning, but, let me tell you, the Christians at the table, even the lay people, are much more skilled at this than I am, after my many years of trying. We are used to a book telling us what words to pray, so dredging them up from inside ourselves is a skill few of us have developed.
These are examples of, in Stendahls’ words, the “sacred gifts of others,” that we can admire and emulate even while being rooted in our own place. But, we cannot do so if we never leave our place and venture into another.
We learn not only from others’ worship style, but also from others’ theology. Some of you know that I gave a High Holy Day sermon this year based on the words of a Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, and even borrowed the tune to give new life to the prayer Avinu Malkeynu from our mahzor. I also raised up the theological term “grace” that is widely used in Christian parlance, but not so much in Jewish prayer and discussion, and explained that grace is an idea that we Jews have as well, although its theological shading is somewhat different in Judaism and Christianity. (If you want to know more about what I said, you can go to the Beth Hillel website where that sermon and the others from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are posted.) This is just one example of how, through interfaith dialogue, we can realize “the sacred gifts that are more deeply held in others.”
I find that Jews are often dismissive of other religion’s ways of looking at life’s big questions, just as much, if not more so, than people of other faiths. We may not want to convert others to our way of thinking, but many of us do not think that the other faiths have anything that is worth considering. This is a very narrow and closed-minded point of view. We hold this view because we have not really explored what others have to offer. Learning from a highly sought-after, world-class scholar, Amy–Jill Levine, who is coming to Kenosha in March, will be an opportunity to begin such an exploration. Why would a committed Jew become a New Testament scholar, devoting her entire academic career to educating Jews and non-Jews about what they can learn from each other? Because she believes in Stendahl’s principle. Over 4 days in March, moving from Lutheran Carthage College on Thursday to Beth Hillel on Friday for Shabbat to Holy Rosary Catholic parish after Mass on Saturday night, to First United Methodist on Sunday morning, Dr. Levine will speak on the following topics:
“Mistakes Jews and Christians Make about Each Other” “Jesus and Judaism: Why the Connection Matters” (this is the one at BHT) “The Parables of Jesus as Jewish Stories” “How Jews and Christians Read Scripture Differently”
I hope these topics peak your curiosity enough to come not only on Friday night to Beth Hillel, but to one or more of the other events. All of the programs and the services at the congregations will be open to the public.
In an interview with Rabbi Gellman of “God Squad” fame, Gellman spoke of his work with Monsignor Hartman. He said: “When we were together, we were like a band. He had his own music and I had my own music, but there was something about the way we played together that was better than his music and my music alone.” I think this could be said about what all people can do together when they open themselves up to the interfaith experience.
Gellman also said in that interview:
“Tom and I were very aware there was no way we were ever going to agree on Jesus and so we didn’t talk a lot about Jesus. What we realized is that our ethical orientation to the world was the same and that the world was broken and in need. If people who are engaged in interfaith dialogue need to focus on their ideological differences rather than their ethical similarities, they are betraying the promise of interfaith dialogue.” (Palm Beach Daily News Jan 13, 2013)
My feeling is that we have to talk about Jesus in interfaith dialogue, and that we can learn a great deal from the stories Christians tell about Jesus that inspire them and by listening to how their belief in Jesus as the Christ feed them. By listening to Dr. Levine in March, we will even find that many of Jesus’ stories are really, in essence, Jewish stories, akin to midrash.
But, I think I know what Gellman was saying: As friends, Marc and Tommy did not have to talk about Jesus because they knew they disagreed, and that was okay. The rest of what Gellman said in that last quotation is very important—that as people of differing faiths, there are many more areas in which we agree than disagree, and there is much we can do together, when we come together in true dialogue.
I invite you to join me in this interfaith dialogue endeavor, in which I have been blessed to be immersed for over 30 years. You can begin by setting aside the weekend of March 10-13 to learn from Dr. AJ Levine. It will be a way to begin experiencing what Bishop Stendahl called “sacred envy,” a very positive kind of envy--which we should all cultivate. I hope to see you there.
In addition, feel free to bring unopened "chametz" before Passover begins--through April 9 only please. The non-perishables will be taken to the Shalom Center Food Pantry before the holiday begins. click for more information