Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

It’s a Knitzvah

Our Hebrew high school offers core classes and elective classes in small units.  When we were approaching the new unit, the educator asked me if I would be willing to teach a knitting class.  I agreed to do it on two conditions: that we were able to somehow create a class that also involved serious Jewish learning, and that there was enough interest to make it worthwhile.  As it turned out, eleven students signed up for the course (including four boys!), and I was having no trouble coming up with good topics for learning that related to both knitting and Judaism.

We called the class, “Knitzvah.” The course has three primary goals: To learn the craft of knitting; to complete a blanket (made in squares) to donate to the charity of their choice; and to study Jewish texts that tangentially or directly relate to the craft.  All of this in a 30 minute time-slot!

For our first class, the students selected the color yarn they wanted to use and learned about knitting charities.  The chose, as a class, “Project Linus” to be the beneficiary of their knitting.

By the second class, we had our supplies in hand, and I spent the entire class going around the room teaching the basic stitches.  I handed out a text study about the 39 categories of labor that went into producing the Tabernacle.  I hoped that the students would discuss how much love, skill, and craftsmanship went into the building of a holy place.  The reality was however, that since this was their first day with yarn and needles and the class was only thirty minutes, the text study was largely ignored.  This class was pretty much a skill-building class alone.

I worried that that would be the norm, and that the class would fail as a “Jewish” course even if it succeeded as a knitting course.  In planning for the third class, I realized that I needn’t have worried.  The topic was keva and kavannah.

Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. When we learn the Hebrew text, the keva, and know it well, we have an opportunity to get lost in the kavannah.  Hebrew prayer can work as a mantra, and it actually helps if you aren’t fluent in Hebrew!  If I am praying the Yotzeir prayer, for example, I know that this is a prayer about creation, nature, and light.  As my mouth recites the Hebrew words, my mind and heart can meditate on their meaning.  If the prayer was in English, I would be far more wedded to the actual written words of the text.

After we discussed the concept in class, we talked about it how it applies to music.  I sang the chorus of Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” twice.  The first time I sang it, I tapped out the rhythm on my thigh and gave a clean rendition of the notes on the page with no inflection or prayerfulness.  Then I sang it again, praying for peace as a I sang the words.  We talked about the importance of prayerfulness.  We discussed the difference between the notes on the page and a musical interpretation – kavannah.

After all of that, I brought the subject to knitting.  I explained that we were beginning our knitting with a swatch just for learning, but that we would discard these swatches.  These are about learning the keva of knitting.  Once we have all mastered the stitch, we will begin work on our blanket squares.  In making these, we can add the kavannah.  These blankets are for sick children.  We will knit our love, caring, and our prayers for healing into the stitches.  Having mastered the keva, as they have with their prayers, they will have the attention left over for kavannah.

Charlie's BlanketMy sister had a baby recently.  Her first child had been born very sick and this new pregnancy was frightening for our family as we all worried for my sister’s health and that of this new baby.  I began a baby blanket almost as soon as she told me that she was pregnant.  As that tiny baby developed, I knit his blanket, adding love, hopes, and prayers to every stitch.  Her older daughter, now a beautiful five year old girl, still sleeps with the blanket that I knit for her.  I dreamed of seeing this new, hopefully healthy baby, wrapped in the thousands of stitches that I knit for him.

Charlie was born in October.  He is a beautiful, healthy, happy baby.  The favorite plaything of his big sister, and loves to nap on all of us.  His blanket came out perfectly.  I hope he can feel all the love within the stitches.

The Eighth Candle

Today’s synonym for light is (last, but absolutely not least) inspiration / spirituality.

There was a machloket (a disagreement) between the houses of Hillel and Shammai as to what order the candles on the Chanukiah should be lit on Chanukah.  The house of Shammai stated that the holiday should begin with all eight candles lit, decreasing by one candle each night until there was one flame on the last night of the holiday.   This was because, according to Shammai, one begins with the “days remaining;” – the “maximum potential” of the commandment. Or, another interpretation is that it represented the waning power of the Greeks over the Jewish people.

The house of Hillel argued that we should light the candles the opposite way, beginning with one flame and working our way up to eight (nine if you count the shamash).  Hillel believed that you begin with the “realized potential” of the mitzvah.  As the Maccabees purified the Temple during those eight days, the presence of G-d in the Holy Temple increased.   Or, you can also see it as representing the Maccabees.  What began as a small band of rebels grew to a large group.  As we well know, Hillel won the argument, and as a result, the days of Chanukah grow increasingly warm and beautiful with each passing night.

The eighth night of Chanukah often strikes me as a particularly lovely, inspiring, and spiritual time.  On the first night of Chanukah, the two lonely candles were barely able to pierce the darkness of the room in which they burned.  But on the eighth night, the room dances in the reflections of the flames.  As the warmth and light has grown, so too can our spiritual connection as we move past the holiday into the cold, but steadily lightening days of winter.

May you share your winter in the warming presence of loved ones and friends and may your secular new year be a sweet one.

Happy Chanukah!

The Sixth and Seventh Candles

I got caught up with family celebrating Chanukah this weekend, and so am posting candles six and seven together this evening.  Watching my nephew squeal over the “wheel” toys we bought him was well worth it!!

Synonym number six for light was “beacon.”  A beacon is a light signaling safety or home that can be seen from some distance away.  Synagogues try to be beacons for the Jews in our neighborhood by welcoming newcomers with open arms.  We also try to be beacons to our community by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, hosting Alcoholics Anonymous, teaching our children, and more.  The synagogue, of course, does not do these mitzvot alone.  Our best actions come from the creative minds of our members.  What will you do in the coming year to be a beacon of light and of Jewish values to your community?

This question leads us beautifully into synonym number seven – ignite.  This word has two definitions.  1. To catch fire or cause to catch fire and 2.  To arouse an emotion.  This synonym for light is about inspiring others toward holy acts.  When I discuss their mitzvah projects with my students I often talk about how they can show their friends and neighbors how simple and wonderful it is to do a mitzvah.  That through doing things they love, they can add holiness to the world.  Have you ever seen a mitzvah that inspired you to do one too?  Can we share some examples in the comments?

Here are come examples that I found particularly inspiring.

1.  I had a student who did a bike-a-thon to raise money for the Heifer Foundation.  He and his friends got sponsors to join him.  After his Bar Mitzvah, he did the bike-a-thon every year until he graduated High School.

2.  Another student of mine made hand-made bracelets and sold them during snack time at Hebrew school to raise money for Pennies for Peace.

(Okay, I could go on about my students all day.  Here are two that are NOT from my students)

1.  The story of RandomKid.  In 2005, two teenagers “reached out to rally U.S. youth to aid survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast. Their effort ended up ranking the giving power of U.S. school children with the top FIVE U.S. corporate donors, coming in at over $10 million.”  They then founded the company, RandomKid which helps kids join together in major efforts to make the world a better place.

2.  Chana and her knitted hats for Israeli soldiers(if you are interested in knitting hats for Israeli soldiers too, you can find her website with instructions here.)  Be sure and tell me that you did!

The Fifth Candle

Today’s synonyms for light are clear / lucent.  It has become a common practice today for people to greet one another throughout the month of December by saying, “Happy Holidays.”  It is wonderful that we live in a culture that is so inclusive and understanding of the multitude of faith traditions that live in our world.  Unfortunately, we have become such a faith melting pot, that we have begun to see our symbols meld, and in towns across the United States we see the “holiday tree”  adorning the town square.  I think as part of exploring the theme of light, it is important to bring some clarity into what the tree is meant to represent rather than viewing it as merely a symbol of the season.  Symbols are an important enrichment to the holiday and overly neutralizing them can dilute the character that makes a holiday enriching to those who celebrate it.

Here are what the Christmas symbols historically represent:

Decorated Christmas TreeThe evergreen tree – the rebirth of Jesus after the crucifixion.

The wood of the tree – the cross

The 5-pointed star – the star which the wise men followed to find the baby Jesus

The tinsel – angel’s’ hair

The color red  – the blood of Jesus

Christmas presents – the gifts brought by the wise men to the baby Jesus

(special thanks to Rabbi Beal for sharing this information in an article)

Here are what the Chanukah symbols historically represent:

The Chanukiah (or Chanukah menorah) – the miracle of the eight days of burning oil when the ner tamid (eternal flame) was lit to rededicate the Temple

Potato Latkes or Sufganiot (jelly donuts) – foods cooked in oil to remind us of the miracle

Dreidel – a top containing the hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin (or in Israel pey) representing the Hebrew words neis gadol hayah sham (or in Israel po) – A Great Miracle Happened There (or Here).


Happy Chanukah (or if you celebrate it, Merry Christmas)

The Fourth Candle

The fourth set of light synonyms is humorous / cheery.  We can often bring light into our lives and that of others through humor.  Adam Sandler knew it well when he wrote his Chanukah song.  A quick Google or YouTube search will turn up a lot of funny and fun videos and songs about this holiday.  Science has shown us that laughter really is the best medicine.  It lowers blood pressure, raises endorphins, increases blood flow, decreases stress, and can even lower blood sugar (something much needed after eating all those latkes and sufganiot – jelly donuts).  So, get out there and laugh a little – it’s good for you!



The Third Candle


One of the main themes of the holiday season in that of “spreading good cheer.”  As we walk the public streets, malls, supermarkets, etc we hear its refrain.  “’Tis the season to be jolly…”  Now, I’ll grant that the demand for December mirth is geared toward Christmas, but Jews have joy in our holiday as well. 

The third set of synonyms for light is glowing or radiant.  Radiating light means not simply keeping it to oneself, but rather sharing it (or in the spirit of the season, “spreading good cheer.”)  It is a Chanukah imperative to place the lit menorah in the window for passersby to see.  I cracked a window once doing this because of the temperature differential between the flames and the outside winter air, so take care to insure that you give it a little space!

Chanukah is a great holiday to spread light into the world.  It is a Jewish “tradition” to spend Christmas eating Chinese food and going to the movies, but I know an increasing number of Jews who spend this night at homeless shelters and soup kitchens helping others celebrate their holiday and warming that night with the light of mitzvah.  Of course Christmas is a really popular time for volunteering, and I suspect the need for man-power may not be as high as on “normal” days.  But while you are feeling inspired, why not mark your calendar to do this mitzvah on a future evening when help is so much more needed.

We can be radiant by performing extra mitzvot.  You can donate blood (if you are able), time, money, and energy to helping the less fortunate.  I am very proud that Temple Beth Torah is housing the homeless this week (Dec 20-22) through Helping Hands of Rockland County.  This season is very important for charitable organizations.  Not only are people inspired by the holidays, but also by their taxes.  Donations rise as people remember that now is the time to write their tax deductible pledges. 

The Jewish people are supposed to be a “Light Unto the Nations.”  It seems to me that the “Festival of Light” is a good time to get moving on that lofty goal.

Happy Chanukah.

The Second Candle

Some other synonyms for light are  bright or brilliant.  We often become so caught up in gift buying and the children’s version of the Chanukah story, that we forget what the real history of this holiday is.  As I mentioned in last year’s Chanukah post, “The story of Chanukah marks a time when the Greeks were trying to assimilate the Jews.  They wanted us to worship their way.  They wanted us to decorate the Temple their way.  The Jews revolted and took back their sacred space, rededicating it to the Jewish religion.  Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish uniqueness and our ability to maintain our own identity in the midst of the wonderful cultures by which we have been surrounded over the centuries.”

Head on over to one of my favorite websites, MyJewishLearning to learn a lot more about this holiday.  This website gives you history, practical information (like how to light the candles and play Dreidel), holiday vocabulary, recipes, and more.  You can also find wonderful information on the Union for Reform Judaism’s website.

We are known as “The People of the Book” because of our great tradition of study and learning – so go study.  And then head over to the comments section and tell me one new thing that you learned about Chanukah from your study.

Happy Chanukah!

The First Candle

Last week, a group from our Women’s Club gathered to celebrate Chanukah (a little early).  As part of my teaching, I prepared eight meditations on the theme of light.  I looked up the word in a thesaurus and discovered that the many synonyms for this word made interesting concepts on which to create a theme for each day.  The group suggested that these would make a good blog post, and so I will attempt over these next eight nights of Chanukah to share with you eight reflections on the theme of light.


Light – Polished / Resplendent / Rich

Chanukah is a great time to indulge in the tradition of chiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah.  Our tradition derives the concept from Rabbi Ishmael’s comment on Exodus 15:2 “This is my G-d and I will glorify G-d.”  Rabbi Ishmael wrote, “Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator?  What this really means is: I shall glorify G-d in the way I perform mitzvot.  I shall prepare before G-d a beautiful Lulav, a beautiful Sukkah, beautiful tzitzit and beautiful t’fillin.” (Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter III)  The Talmud adds to this list with a “beautiful shofar and a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks.” (Talmud B., Shabbat 133b)  The midrash suggests that it is not only the mitzvot that are enhanced by making them beautiful and special, but also the Jew who performs them (Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1.15).

When you go to a Judaica store, it is easy to observe that beautiful and interesting chanukiot are a typical way to observe the tradition of chiddur mitzvahThey come in every shape, size, color, and theme.  But, Chanukah is a messy holiday.  Even if you purchase “dripless” candles, it is difficult to really keep your chanukiah (or Chanukah menorah) clean and looking fresh.

So, as we approach this first night of the holiday, let’s concentrate first on shining the light on our chanukiot and on the many ways we can make our holiday polished / resplendent / rich.  Remove last year’s wax, buy some beautiful dripless candles, polish up your menorah to make it look new.  If you are like me, you’ve probably received a lot of Chanukah themed gifts over the years.  By the time you receive them, it’s too late to use them and quickly they get put away and forgotten.  Get them out!  You’ve got eight days to use your  Chanukah themed hand-towels, mugs, socks, and apron.

Chiddur mitzvah isn’t only about appearances, though.  You should try to appeal to all of the senses: sounds, smells, tastes, textures, colors.  There is more to Jewish music for Chanukah than “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Ready for a new generation of cool and contemporary tunes to light the menorah by?  Check out “Chanukah Today.”  You can get the CD hereor purchase mp3s for download here.  You can also visit oysongs.comto look for new music.  Or if you just want to listen, I highly recommend Jewish Rock Radio (they also have apps).  Go to YouTube and view some of the fun videos.  Two of my favorites are by the Maccabeats and Six13.

So, as we approach this first night of Chanukah let your senses be your guide.  May this first night be polished and fresh, may it bring you joyous sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Happy Chanukah!

Synonyms for Inspired

I am writing these words onboard an Amtrak train returning from Washington DC where I attended the most moving, uplifting, and fulfilling URJ biennial conference that I have ever attended. At this largest URJ biennial ever, we heard inspiring words from world famous statesmen. We welcomed and greeted the 2 Baraks (Barak Obama and Ehud Barak) with barak (hebrew for thunder) in the form of applause and ovation. I cannot explain how moved I was to be present as the leader of the free world declared to the Jewish people, “Hineini” I am here. But hineini isn’t about just being present, it is about “presence” in the deepest sense of the word. It is about dedication to stand with and up for something. He declared that he would continue to stand with Israel and with the Jewish people. In the living memory of some of those in the room were the times when Jews were not welcome at their local country club, and here we were listening to the President of the United States, an African American, talk to us about issues of substance and meaning, having heard our voices, our cries for social justice, healthcare reform, gay rights, equality for women, and Israel and declaring to us (in Hebrew no less) “Hineini!” Unreal.

President Obama wished us “Shabbat Shalom” and 6000 people gathered for Shabbat dinner (they’ve contacted the Guinness Book of Records on that one). Much to my shock, it was beautifully coordinated and we didn’t have to wait hours for our food.

Pre-Shabbat we had attended sessions on concrete issues: congregation management, B’nei Mitzvah teaching, dues structures, etc. (more programs on offer for each time slot than you can imagine!), but with Shabbat we turned our hearts to music and the study of Torah. Worship was conducted in a sanctuary of thousands and was projected on giant screens. The Rabbis and Cantors who lead the tefillot did so movingly (a special shout out to Cantor Frost and Cantor Novick who both sang so beautifully!) Into the wee hours of the night we rocked out at song sessions and in the morning, I was moved to tears by the speeches, sermons, and Torah study from the URJ leadership.

At this biennial, we said goodbye to Rabbi Yoffie as he ended his term as the president of the URJ. I have been often deeply touched by his sermons and was very sad to see him go. I consider him to be one of MY Rabbis and will truly miss how he consistently motivated me to be a stronger Jew and a better leader. Then we said hello and “Baruch Haba” (welcome) to Rabbi Rick Jacobs who will be taking the helm. He is dynamic with a lot of tremendous ideas. I am excited to see what he will do. We initiated the campaign for youth engagement, which I think has a great deal of promise.

In the mean time, I encourage you to view the recorded webcasts of the plenary sessions and Rabbi Yoffie’s and Rabbi Jacobs’s sermons at this link.

An Inspirational Moment

Hello!  As you’ve probably noticed, I took a little break from blogging for a few months.  I think I’m back now.  I’ve had a bit of writers block, and I think that one good way to get past it is to have a guest blogger write for me Smile.

At B’nei Mitzvah services at Temple Beth Torah, students deliver a creative prayer.  The Rabbi and I do not see or edit these before the Bar or Bat Mitzvah because we don’t believe that we have a right to edit people’s prayers.   These prayers are often both beautiful and inspirational.  A little while back, a student delivered one that I thought my blog audience would particularly enjoy.  I asked her permission to share it with all of you.  She said yes, but only on condition of anonymity.  So, I can’t tell you who wrote this beautiful piece, but I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Photo Credit: Fotolia via

Creative Prayer

I pray that everyone can have a special connection with God, no matter what your religion. Say you were born into an atheist family and you were raised not to believe in God. This does not mean that you cannot change your view on whether God exists, and if He does what is He like? Is He mean or kind? Is He fair or unfair? Is He even a He? I strongly believe that you can choose for yourself. However, this is usually not the case. Most people are born into a religion that drills into your head that God exists, resulting in blind support for a significant portion of your life. Then, as you experience more trials and become wiser, you might begin to question God’s existence. The idea of some mysterious person you cannot see hear or touch controlling you and the people around you could be hard to accept. You might also ask yourself a commonly asked question: If God exists and is generous and fair, then why are there so many misfortunes in life like hunger, homelessness, sickness, and life changing events like the Holocaust? As a believer in God, I argue that God must show us the worst, in order for us to recognize the best.

I might also add that I personally went through this journey, questioning what I was taught to believe by my parents and in Hebrew school. But after going through some experiences and figuring out my views on God and Judaism, I can proudly say that I believe in God. The way I see it, God works through the people He created. What I mean by that is say you are nervous for a test coming up in school. You do not know if you will do well, even though you studied extra hard because you know this is not your best subject. Then, a friend observes your worries and says, “I know you will do well on the test because you studied a lot, you are a great student, and I have faith in you.” I believe that God was showing Himself through that friend’s words, so that pep talk was really from God. This has definitely happened to me before, and sometimes I wonder if God ever sent a message to someone through me. Because of these beliefs, I have a strong connection with God and I pray that everyone can experience what I did with Him.