Rabbi Susan Tendler, her husband Ross Sadoff and their daughters Sofia and Daniella moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Richmond, where Tendler is the new spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Congregation. (photo from Rabbi Susan Tendler)
Moving to a new city and starting a demanding and highly visible new job would be a challenge in the best of times. For Rabbi Susan Tendler, the recently arrived spiritual leader at Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Congregation, and her family of four, it was a little more complicated.
Not only has the COVID pandemic added complexity to every detail, the family was moving from the United States. This meant that, once they made it to British Columbia after a long, though enjoyable, drive across the continent, during which they took in some national parks and historical sites, they had to go into two weeks of quarantine in their new home.
The lemons of COVID were turned to lemonade by the reaction of the Beth Tikvah community. Tendler calls their reception “extraordinarily unbelievable.”
They arrived at the house, which had been equipped with bedding, toiletries, kitchenware and small appliances, a stocked pantry and refrigerator, and almost everything the new arrivals could want.
“People would from a distance greet us and somebody brought us dinner every single night that week. And people checked on us and would just drop off some milk or whatever we needed for the next week,” she said. While her husband, Ross Sadoff, returned to the States to collect their other vehicle, the rabbi and her daughters, 10-year-old Hannah Sofia and Daniella, who is 8, settled into quarantine.
“My girls and I sat in kind of a tent in our driveway,” she said, while congregants brought socially distanced greetings. “They drove by, honked at us and welcomed us. They had signs and balloons to make us feel welcome. The community, honestly, has gone above and beyond and really demonstrates what a caring community could be and just really made us feel welcome.”
The family moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Tendler had been rabbi for eight years at the Conservative B’nai Zion Congregation. She also served on the faculty of Camp Ramah Darom, in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
She grew up in Virginia and previously held positions in congregations there and in North Carolina. Her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia is in religious studies with concentrations on Islam and Judaism. At the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, she received her rabbinical ordination and her master’s of education in informal Jewish education. She also completed a two-year rabbinic track at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She describes herself as “an ardent Zionist.”
Coming to Canada generally and Beth Tikvah specifically seems bashert. Tendler and Sadoff met at a wedding at the Richmond shul. In fact, that was one of three coincidental meetings that happened before Tendler decided maybe she should consider them an omen.
“I started thinking, wow, maybe I should pay attention to this,” she said. “Why do I keep running into him?”
She had first met Sadoff in New York, when she was en route to Israel and he was rooming with a friend of hers. On a different trip to Israel, for a cousin’s bar mitzvah, the pair met again. The Beth Tikvah meetup was third time lucky.
Relocating to Canada was not in the cards until recently, but it was something like a long-held dream.
“My husband used to say to me years ago, hey, do you think we can move to Canada?” Tendler recalled. “I’d say, Ross, I’m a female rabbi. The chance of that, at this point in time, is very slight. A decade ago, there were many fewer female rabbis in Canada.”
In fact, Tendler is the first female pulpit rabbi in a Conservative shul in British Columbia.
A few factors account for the family’s attraction to Metro Vancouver. For one thing, they wanted a Jewish day school, which Chattanooga has not had for a number of years.
“We are very excited about RJDS [Richmond Jewish Day School] because we think it will offer the flexibility that our kids will greatly benefit from,” she said.
The family loved Chattanooga, but even at one of the most diverse public schools in town, not being Christian was sometimes an issue.
“In some ways, we felt like we were undermining our family values,” said Tendler in the context of raising their kids. “We just wanted them to fully embrace and love who we were raising them to be and the values we were raising them to honour and realizing that, in some ways, we were undermining them constantly.”
A lockdown that took place after false alarms of a threat at the kids’ school made Tendler and her husband ponder school security and the prevalence of gun violence in their country.
“We say things are going to be different but nothing changes,” she said. “I went to Washington, D.C., after the shooting in [Parkland] Florida and we say things are going to change but nothing changes. At some point, you have to do something different. The lobbies are too strong and we can’t even talk in the States about gun safety. It’s all like, you’re taking away my rights. Well, what about public safety?”
Possibly above all, the family just thought that British Columbia would feel like home.
“I think that, in many ways, my family moved here for holistic health reasons,” she said. “We just wanted a place that felt healthier and was more aligned with our values.”
Even comparatively small things like an efficient recycling program make Tendler feel kinship with her new hometown. “It’s a small thing but, in general, I just feel that our values and what we want to teach our children are more in line with Canada, at least with British Columbia and Vancouver, with open-mindedness and, I would say, respect for other people.”
While the transition to their new hometown was complicated, they made the best of it. During the transcontinental road trip, they stopped at sites like the St. Louis Arch, the Badlands, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.
“We took some little hikes and saw bison and prairie dogs,” said Tendler. “It was fun.”
The new black granite memorial wall at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery in New Westminster allows people to memorialize loved ones buried in other cities. (photo from Schara Tzedeck)
What’s new at the cemetery? Not a question one tends to ask, but the Schara Tzedeck cemeteries in New Westminster and Surrey have seen some significant upgrades and additions in recent months.
At the New Westminster cemetery, which saw its first burial in 1929, 50 graves that did not have headstones have received permanent markers. More than 100 others will ideally also see stone markers added in the coming years as the cemetery board’s Chesed Shel Emet Fund is replenished.
There are plenty of reasons why a grave might not have a permanent headstone, according to Howard Jampolsky, executive director of the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery Board.
“Sometimes, somebody had no family, maybe they were destitute, alone in the world,” he said. “Sometimes, the families just don’t have money; sometimes, one spouse dies and they get a headstone and the other spouse dies and there is no one to put the headstone.”
Whatever the reasons, the graves, some dating back to the 1950s, had temporary markers.
The Chesed Shel Emet Fund was set up primarily with donations from cemetery board members, Jampolsky said, and the first batch of 50 headstones was purchased for these unmarked graves and placed in the last few months.
“We were hoping to do a big unveiling ceremony, where all the graves would be unveiled and we would invite the community,” he said. But COVID intervened. He hopes such a ceremony will occur in the future.
The headstones cost about $525 each and the board is welcoming donations from the community to the fund so they can proceed with placing more stones.
Also at New Westminster, a new black granite memorial wall has been created to commemorate people who are buried in other places.
“Sometimes, someone lives in Vancouver their entire life and they die and get buried in another place, maybe they’re sent to Toronto or Israel or somewhere else,” Jampolsky said. “This is an opportunity to memorialize somebody who lived in the city and contributed to the city’s life and they don’t have a headstone here. The other possibility is people who have parents or family buried in other places where they live and don’t have the ability to go and visit. If you want to come on the yahrzeit, you can come and put a rock on top of that.”
The New Westminster cemetery also has seen a green irrigation initiative recently completed.
“We spend a lot of money irrigating our green grass here, a lot of water,” he said. “We used potable city water.”
They have now drilled a well and are also capturing rainwater, which is pumped through the irrigation system. Not only is this better for the environment, Jampolsky said, but the $150,000 cost will be recouped in about eight years at current water rates. He sees the greening initiative as in keeping with Jewish burial tradition, which is respectful of the land, rejects concrete casings and does not include embalming.
In other significant news, the Surrey cemetery, which had its first burial about a dozen years ago, now has a chapel. Until now, funerals at the Surrey site were graveside only. A sad irony is that the pandemic has meant that, after the first couple of funerals in the new chapel, services had to be again curtailed to graveside only, and with limited attendance.
The $500,000 structure was completed in late 2019 and reflects the philosophy of the board, Jampolsky said, that all members of the community be treated equally. Those being buried in New Westminster had funerals in a chapel, while those in Surrey did not. The new Surrey chapel was funded within the existing budget, but, if a community member wanted to contribute to the chapel, Jampolsky said, naming opportunities could be considered.
“The other thing we’re doing in Surrey is spending more time and effort and money to make Surrey look a lot nicer,” he said. “We are doing more landscaping work, we’re planting flowers and doing things that make it look very, very nice. We’re putting a lot of effort into that property.”
The Surrey cemetery contains about 2,000 plots while the much older New Westminster site has about 10,000. While approximately 5,000 of the New Westminster plots are filled, Jampolsky acknowledges that he can’t accurately predict how long the cemetery has before it is full.
“It really depends,” he said. There are about 80 burials annually in New Westminster. That would suggest about 60 years before it is full. But the community is growing quickly, so perhaps it would be only 50 years. At the same time, a plot may be purchased and not used for decades, he said. If a young family purchased plots today, it is reasonable to assume some burials might not occur until the 22nd century.
We often use the High Holidays for self-reflection. Consider, we’re urged, the year that has passed and the future. For me, the pandemic and its uncertainty has made me less focused on the year to come. Instead, I’ve been taking a positive accounting of things I’ve experienced this year – and it’s actually quite a lot.
First, there’s been more time for our family to do Jewish learning and “attend” synagogue at home. It’s been easy to turn on Saturday morning services or a special lecture or a concert and expose the family to more Jewish content. The internet has made us feel welcome everywhere. This a huge leap ahead of what we often got out of “business as usual,” pre-pandemic.
Learning in general has changed. As someone who used to teach, I was wary of homeschooling. To be fair, I’ve met some very bright kids who’ve been homeschooled. I’ve also met some odd folks, so focused on their (often evangelical) religious views that it got in the way of making other connections. As but one example, once, I drove with my husband to visit a local farm that advertised sheep fleeces for sale. I’m a hand spinner, and we thought the drive would be fun. I met a large family living in a series of rundown buildings and trailers, wearing an interesting assortment of “traditional” clothing. These isolated, homeschooled evangelical kids led me into a trailer full of both wool and wasps, all eagerly telling me about their visions of the end-times. I left with some wool, but only because my husband and I couldn’t find any other way to politely extricate ourselves.
I’d been scared that, if I ever homeschooled my kids, it would become claustrophobic, bad for the kids and hard for me to catch a break. This was the case when remote schooling started in March. Getting the kids onto the online school meetings and keeping things afloat with a poor internet connection and somewhat spotty assignments from teachers was awful.
When school ended, we were relieved. I kept doing some learning with them each morning, though. Reading, math, cursive, Duolingo (online language learning for Hebrew), art, architecture and design, music and science/STEM learning have kept us busy, along with long walks, playing outside, swimming and more. Sure, I don’t have much alone time. Time for work (or even work to do!) has been limited, but that’s OK, in the circumstances.
Our kids are supposed to go back to school in person this fall, and we’ll see how long that lasts. I don’t dread homeschooling as much now. Setting our own agenda resulted in kids who may be more socially isolated, but they’ve learned a lot. They read better now in two languages, and their math has improved.
Disconnecting from the school-extracurricular activities-synagogue cycle hasn’t been bad either. Those demands came with a lot of pressure. The need to keep up, fit in, afford it and get there on time is stressful. It is easier to practise piano, play soccer in the yard or turn on the services via Zoom than to get to everything in person. Further, there’s no weird social interaction with other families about what we’re wearing, or just how hip we are. (We’re so not hip.)
Making things ourselves has been a mostly good, too – lots of cooking and other activities. Last fall, I started using my sewing machine, after years off. I took sewing lessons as a kid but never gained confidence. Pre-pandemic, I’d sewn myself a few things and remembered how to do this. Returning to it has been a great gift. I’ve figured out making masks, fixing and making clothing. Better still, because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to shop for supplies online and support small businesses selling sustainable or deadstock fabrics. I didn’t have time to go shopping for this stuff in person before the pandemic. Now, most everything is online. I can make plans for kid pajama pants, and dresses and pants for myself, in the future.
We’ve enjoyed some amazing concerts, held outdoors on our block. A talented musician/producer neighbour with a big front porch invites guests to come set up chairs and blankets, social distance and enjoy. Musicians perform for donations, and we all benefit. We’ve heard baroque, classical, flamenco, jazz, old-time and folk. If we sometimes can’t get outside as a family to hear it, the music floats up into our second-storey windows when the wind blows the right way.
Art has blossomed, not only in our family’s projects, but at the “little free art box,” which is run by an artist in the area. Much like a Little Free Library, one can open the box, take art or put art inside for others. We’ve shared kid watercolours and my handspun yarn, and received gorgeous charcoal sketches, pen and ink, and other delights. We’ve traded and celebrated the skills of others nearby. Our diverse community is rich with talent.
None of these small positive things can compensate for the many deaths and illnesses of COVID-19, nor the economic devastation to so many businesses and workers. The downsides this year have been huge. However, last night, I watched as my kids created a caravan on the blanket spread on the grass. We were listening to live music, as my mind leapt to the text I’d been learning from Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day). The rabbis are trying to explain how to make a temporary boundary around a caravan as one traveled and camped on Shabbat. They mentioned using saddles and camels, and debated how much space each person might need.
The blanket caravan consisted of several toy trains and hard plastic rhinos and elephants, lined up nose to tail in a circle. The tractate Eruvin is about boundaries – what boundaries make it safe to carry on Shabbat? In the time of coronavirus, I was transported to a different kind of caravan and boundary. Our families have “circled the wagons.” We’ve been forced to stay put and look inwards – but also to be outdoors. What value can be found in these new enforced boundaries? What positive things can come from those necessary restrictions? In our house, we can say that art, music, handmade creations and learning can be celebrated as we finish 5780 and begin 5781. It’s been a valuable time, even as illness, hardship, fear and sadness danced at the edges of every day’s newscast.
From my (socially distanced) house to yours – may we all have a happy and sweet new year, full of creation, positivity and, most importantly, good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
Rosh Hashanah greeting cards (above and below) from the author’s family’s collection. The cards are almost 100 years old. The translation of the one in which people are walking is “Into the synagogue.” It is signed by Chaim Goldberg, a well-known artist who also illustrated many children’s books. The party postcard, also done by Goldberg, is a printed rhyme, which translates as, “Boy, girl! Dear, refined! Who is like you? Happy letters, dear writings, I have for you!”
The Jewish calendar is an amazing conceptualization of time that has evolved (what else?) over time.
In his blog on the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot website, Ushi Derman relates that, originally, the Jewish calendar was a solar calendar. But it was not just a solar calendar, it was a holy solar calendar, delivered by angels to Enoch. (See the Book of Enoch, the section dealing with astronomy, called “The Book of Heavenly Luminaries.”) Temple priests had to follow a rigorous schedule – time itself was judged to be sacred. Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem was regarded as both the house of G-d and the dwelling of time.
With the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, the priests lost their power. They were no longer the mediators between G-d and the people. Authority switched to the scholars (our sages) of the Mishnah (edited record of the Oral Torah), Talmud and Tosefta (similar to the Mishnah, but providing more details about the reasons for or application of the laws).
In a bold move, the scholars declared that G-d had handed religious authority to humans. “Each month, envoys were sent to watch the new moon and to determine the beginning of the month. Thus, the ownership of time was expropriated from G-d and delivered to man – and that is why the Hebrew calendar has survived for so many centuries,” writes Derman in the 2018 blog “Rosh Hashanah: The Politics and Theology Behind Jewish Time.”
Here is a lovely story from The Book of Legends, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, illustrating the above change. A king had a clock. “When his son reached puberty, he said to him: My son, until now, the clock has been in my keeping. From now on, I turn it over to you. So, too, the Holy One used to hallow new moons and intercalate years. But, when Israel rose, He said to them, until now, the reckoning of new moons and of New Year’s Day has been in My keeping. From now on, they are turned over to you.”
Perhaps oddly, the Mishnah mentions more than one new year. In fact, it points out four such dates on the Jewish calendar:
The first of Nissan is the new year for kings and for festivals;
The first of Elul is the new year for tithing of animals (some say the first of Tishrei);
The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, sabbaticals and Jubilee, for planting and vegetables;
The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the House of Shammai, while the House of Hillel (which we adhere to today) says the 15th of Shevat, or Tu b’Shevat.
With its thrice daily prayers, the synagogue came to replace the Temple. Excluding Yom Kippur, synagogue attendance is higher on Rosh Hashanah than any other time of year. Rosh Hashanah prayers are compiled in a special prayer book, or Machzor.
Amid COVID-19, the following words about Rosh Hashanah have heightened meaning: “The celebration of the New Year involves a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, there is a sense of gratitude at having lived to this time. On the other hand, the beginning of a new year raises anxiety. What will my fate be this year? Will I live out the year? Will I be healthy? Will I spend my time wisely, or will it be filled in a way that does not truly bring happiness?” (See the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, published almost a decade ago.)
Sounding the shofar is one of the special additions to Rosh Hashanah services. According to Norman Bloom – in a 1978 article on Rosh Hashanah prayers in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought – the timing of the shofar blowing weighed in the physical safety and comfort of the congregation. Hard as it may be to comprehend today, scholars considered potential attacks from both local enemies of the Jews and from Satan himself. They also considered the comfort of the infirm, who might not be able to stay through a long service.
Rosh Hashanah has other curious customs. For example, there is a tradition of having either a fish head or, among some Sephardim, a lamb’s head as part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. This is meant to symbolize that, in the year to come, we should be at the rosh or head (on top), rather than at the tail (at the bottom). Vegetarians and vegans substitute a head of lettuce.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews have Rosh Hashanah seder traditions. The symbolic foods include beets, leeks, pomegranates, pumpkins and beans. As Rahel Musleah has pointed out, each food suggests a good wish for the coming year. Thus, before eating each one, people recite a special blessing. Humour is at play, too, as some of the blessings are puns on the food’s Hebrew or Aramaic name. (Read Musleah’s article “A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder” at myjewishlearning.com/article/a-sephardic-rosh-hashanah-seder.) Of course, we cannot neglect to mention that the festive table also includes apples dipped in honey, for a sweet new year, and a round challah, symbolizing both the cycle of life and G-d’s kingship.
Another Rosh Hashanah custom is Tashlich. This ceremony involves going to a body of water to symbolically cast off one’s sins. Breadcrumbs are often used, as are leaves, but, seeing that COVID-19 will be a part of this year’s holiday, here is another suggestion. Originally, this activity was used with youth groups of the Reform movement – participants wrote out their sins and then the papers on which they were written were put through a paper shredder. A dramatic gesture, suited to our current need for social distancing.
My city, Jerusalem, is a land-bound city without a sea or lake in its immediate vicinity. So, what do residents of the capital do? Those who wish to practise Tashlich go to one of the following four sites. Two of the four places are near the Supreme Court: the Jerusalem Rose Garden and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Also in the same general area is the Botanic Garden in the Nayot neighbourhood and, in the Old City, one can go to the Shiloah Springs in City of David.
Wishing all readers a year of blessings and not of curses.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
* * *
• Hebrew has a number of expressions using the word rosh. Here are just a handful of examples: rosh hamemshala (prime minister); rosh kroov, literally cabbage head, or a negative reference to someone who is not very bright; rosh katan, someone who is small-minded; l’kabel barosh, to be defeated; and rosh tov, or good vibes.
• Anyone interested in learning more about the solar calendar should read Prof. Rachel Elior’s article, “Enoch Son of Jared and the Solar Calendar of the Priesthood in Qumran,” which can be found in a Google search.
One of the many names of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. It is the day on which our tradition says the world was created.
Before we can begin to celebrate this “birthday,” however, something is required of us. During the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, we prepare ourselves spiritually for forgiveness and, in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are meant to ask forgiveness of anyone we may have hurt during the year, even unintentionally. We are required to atone for wrongs between people, in contrast to the sins that arise between us and G-d. We cannot make a spiritual “return,” if we remain shackled with unresolved guilt and resentments.
More Jews attend synagogue on these two holidays than at any other time. Many of the prayers praise the mighty and wondrous works of the Creator, in keeping with the theme of “the birthday of the world.” We are to recognize that life itself is a Divine gift and has a sacred purpose.
According to our tradition, everything we do is recorded in the Book of Life. No deed, word, thought, good or evil, goes unrecorded. The record is supposedly kept in heaven. One belief accords this job to Elijah the prophet, keeper of the records of humanity’s deeds. On Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is examined, our acts in the preceding year weighed and judged. On this basis, it is decided “who shall live and who shall die … who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted.” For this reason, we wish for one another, “May you be inscribed for a good year.” We are taught that the only way to avert a severe decree is by “penitence, prayer and charity.”
According to Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah – one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked and one for most of us, those in between. The wholly righteous are inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death and the rest of us are held suspended until Yom Kippur, when we are judged worthy or unworthy. The zodiacal symbol for the Hebrew month of Tishrei is, fittingly, a balance – the scales of justice.
Many people accompany all meals at this time with apples and honey. In addition to its other symbolism, the apple represents the Shechinah (Divine Presence), which kabbalists refer to as an apple orchard.
With the emphasis on creation at this time, it is customary to eat an apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, after the blessing on the wine and bread, and say: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree.” This is followed by: “May it be Your will, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, to renew unto us a good and sweet year.”
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we eat a new fruit – one we have not yet tasted this season – and we recite a blessing over it.
How do we know on what day of the year the world was created? We know that the first word of the Torah is Bereishit, in the beginning. When the letters are changed around, they read: aleph b’Tishri, the first of Tishrei, when G-d began to create the heaven and the earth.
May we all be inscribed for a good year.
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Reboot’s annual 10Q annual reflection project, which sends participants a question a day for 10 days will return for the 13th year this month. But, with the challenges, grief and fear of COVID-19 weighing heavily on the world, this year’s 10Q will include additional questions to offer a space for exploring and preserving feelings and experiences of this unique time in a digital time capsule.
Each year, for 10 days, the 10Q project from the nonprofit Reboot captures daily insights, experiences and beliefs from tens of thousands of people, many of whom have been participating since 10Q’s founding in 2008 and have amassed a personal archive.
“It has been found again and again that, when difficult circumstances hit, the simple experience of taking a pen and paper and allowing our inner voice to speak through our pens is in itself a healing and regenerative act,” said Nicola Behrman, 10Q co-founder (in partnership with writer Ben Greenman and educator Amelia Klein). “We know from 13 years of answers just how meaningful the 10Q experience is for so many, but, this year, when the foundation of everyday life has shifted so seismically and we are desperately attempting to find meaning in the madness, this simple act of reflection is both anchoring and essential.”
For 10 days, starting Sept. 18, and coinciding with the traditional period of reflection during the High Holidays, participants of all backgrounds will get the 10Q questions by email, leading them to their private digital portal, where the answers will be stored. The annual 10Q questions are not intrinsically religious and are focused on life, personal goals, plans for the future, relationships, our place in the world and more.
The answers are returned to participants the next year before the project starts again. The 10Q vault serves as a digital time capsule, and answers to the new questions will serve as a chronicle of experiences through COVID-19 that can also be shared by participants with future generations. For some people, this is a one-time experience; for others, 10Q has created an annual tradition of building a personal archive for future years and mapping personal growth.
Although the project is rooted in the Jewish idea of ethical wills and runs during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the last decade, more than 70,000 people of all backgrounds and ages have turned to 10Q for a meaningful and modern spin on the centuries-old tradition of introspection, atonement and self-change during the High Holidays. The questions have scrolled on the jumbo screens at Times Square in New York City and on the Las Vegas Strip.
“It has never felt so important to pause and reflect on ourselves and the world around us,” said Reboot chief executive officer David Katznelson. “We are living in such a unique moment of human history, a moment that is worth turning to the individual to ask big questions about what we can learn to take us into the future.”
Like many of you, I approach the New Year and Yom Kippur with a heavy heart. Ashamnu. We have sinned. Much is not well, not as it should or can be. Our communities are filled with anger, fear, hatred, pain, and acrimony.
Our tradition placed a heavy burden on us. Atonement is only attainable when accompanied by a commitment to change one’s behaviour. The burden is doubly heavy, for we are not merely responsible for our individual failings, but for our societal ones. Ashamnu. We have sinned. Yom Kippur is not merely a day of prayer in search of Divine forgiveness, but a day of taking responsibility for the world that we have created.
There are so many places to start this process and, for those who don’t know where, the Jewish prayer book provides guidance. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Gazalnu. Dibarnu dofi. We have sinned. We have betrayed. We have taken that which is not ours. We have spoken evil.
This year, I will begin with the sin of certainty. The certainty that I have the truth and others do not. The certainty that I am right and others wrong. The certainty that I am good and others bad. The certainty that I love my country and others do not.
“Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in your presence that we are righteous, without sin; for we, like our ancestors who came before us, have sinned.” (Yom Kippur Machzor)
Inherent to every social structure is the reality of difference. Members, adherents, citizens, who join or are joined together by blood, race, gender, ideology, religion, culture or nationality, inevitably find themselves disagreeing over issues both minor and major. Differences are a permanent and inevitable reality of life. By themselves, they do not undermine social cohesion. What threatens unity is how we respond to the reality.
The three conceptual tools for reflecting on difference are pluralism, tolerance and deviance. When those who are different are classified as deviant, the possibility of a shared society with them comes to an end. It is here that the sin of certainty spreads its destructive poison. The hubris of certainty allows one to shun and shame those who do not share in the truth as you know it, and to move them to the margins of society, if not outside it. Armed with certainty, acts of blatant aggression are clothed with the garments of self-preservation and sanctioned as acts of group loyalty.
A certainty of a different form is played out in the category of pluralism. We are pluralistic toward those differences that we assume to be of equal value to our own positions – “These and these are the words of the living God.” With pluralism, we accommodate difference that we believe is equally authentic and that we can associate as being on par with our truth, our knowledge and our beliefs. These and these are the words of the living God, but not those and those. And the one who decides is us.
Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong?
The danger that lies with the sin of certainty is that it attempts to create social life around the categories of pluralism and deviance alone. Difference to which I ascribe value is accommodated and welcomed as my friend. Difference that I do not, is rejected and ostracized as my enemy. I and my certainty are the ultimate arbiters of who is in and who is out, who is valued and who is not, who is to be cared for and who is not, who is to be respected and who vilified.
It is tolerance, the often-derided category, that is most absent in much of contemporary social discourse. One does not tolerate that which one values, but rather that which one thinks is wrong. Tolerance can only take root in those places where we are able to relinquish our claim to certainty. Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong? Because I know it is possible that my belief may also be wrong. Because I believe that truth, knowledge and enlightenment will only grow when I expose my certainty to the critique of others; when I am open to learn from others’ truths, knowledge and experience.
Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong? Because I and those like me do not have a monopoly over the “true” identity of our society. It is theirs just as much as it is ours. We are destined to live with those who believe and do that which we hold to be intolerable. In some cases, judgment of deviance is both called for and necessary and, without boundaries, our societies will dissolve and lose any purpose, meaning and identity.
Which difference do we tolerate, and which do we not, is the question. The sin of certainty both blinds us to this question and renders us incapable of such discernment. The price? The price is the dysfunctional harmful social discourse and behaviour dominating our lives today.
“Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in Your presence we are certain.”
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartmanis president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the 2016 book Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Articles by Hartman and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.
Sarah Hurwitz will help launch Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign on Sept. 8. (photo from Jewish Federation)
Sarah Hurwitz, who for seven years served as head speechwriter for former first lady Michelle Obama, will be a featured speaker at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign opening on Sept. 8, which will be held virtually.
Hurwitz spoke to the Independent about her new book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), and her upcoming Vancouver talk, which, before the pandemic, she had planned to deliver in person.
Here All Along traces Hurwitz’s personal journey back to her Jewish roots, a journey that began after an introduction to Judaism class in 2014. Before that time, she said, her main points of contact with the faith had been at “dull, incomprehensible” High Holiday events and a “lifeless” seder.
Her book delves into such areas as the Jewish traditions of questioning, debating and interpreting religious texts, “freeing God from his human-shaped cage,” and marking holidays and lifecycle events.
“What most surprised me (after taking the class) was the depth of spiritual and ethical wisdom Judaism had to offer,” she said. “I had always been proud to be Jewish and considered myself a ‘cultural Jew,’ but I knew almost nothing about Judaism. Once I started learning, I discovered thousands of years of profound wisdom about what it means to be human – how to live a worthy life, how to be a good person, how to find spiritual connection, and so much more.”
When asked how this discovery has affected her life, she explained: “My Judaism informs how I live every day of my life. It informs the ethical decisions I make each day about how to treat others, especially when it comes to the words I speak to and about them. It’s helped me develop an adult spirituality – beyond simplistic notions of the divine as a man in the sky who controls everything and punishes us when we’re naughty – which allows me to feel greater awe, wonder and gratitude each day. And it’s brought me into an amazing community of people, not just in the U.S., but across the globe – spiritual leaders, scholars and Jewish professionals who’ve become my dearest friends, mentors and teachers.”
Study, Hurwitz said, is a big part of her Jewish practice these days, though she would not label it an “intellectual pursuit.”
“Law school was an intellectual endeavour. Jewish study is deeply spiritual and emotional for me. I don’t study Jewish texts to gain information or facts, or to hone my analytical skills. I study them to glean the deepest wisdom of my ancestors about how to live my life,” she explained.
Currently, she is studying Psalms in chavruta (partnership) with a friend. Every week, they connect on Zoom and discuss the language and themes of the Psalmists. She also had a recent series of one-on-one study sessions with a rabbi that focused on Chassidic texts.
Selected last December by the Forward as one of the 50 most influential Jewish Americans, Hurwitz helped the former first lady put together many well-received speeches – including her 2016 Democratic National Convention address – and traveled with Obama around the world. She also worked on policy issues, as a senior advisor to the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Before working at the White House, Hurwitz was chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary campaign. She then joined the Obama campaign, serving as a senior speechwriter for then-Senator Barack Obama and helping Michelle Obama draft her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech.
Prior to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, Hurwitz served as deputy chief speechwriter for Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run and also worked as a deputy chief speechwriter for General Wesley Clark’s primary bid, as well as for Senator Tom Harkin. Earlier in her career, she was a lawyer at the Washington, D.C., office of WilmerHale. Presently, she is working on a proposal for another book and, while she does not write speeches at the moment, she does “help people out with remarks they’re giving, or offer edits.”
Hurwitz’s Vancouver talk will explore a wide range of subjects, such as working for Michelle Obama in the White House, spiritual and ethical insights in Judaism that have most transformed her life, and some thoughts on the future of Judaism. She will be joined at the virtual launch by fellow keynote speaker Nigel Savage, president and chief executive officer of Hazon (jewishindependent.ca/the-world-needs-us-to-change). To register for the Sept. 8 campaign opening, visit jewishvancouver.com/faco2020.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Services in the Schara Tzedeck auditorium, with social-distancing measures in place. (photo by Camille Wener)
In early March, Canadians were just beginning to take COVID-19 seriously. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the province shut down all places where people gather. Religious organizations were forced to close their doors – in some cases for the first time in more than a century – and rethink everything about how they engage with their congregants.
In a survey of rabbis and synagogue leaders across British Columbia after a summer of COVID, what emerges is not so much a story of hardship and difficulty but of resilience, creativity and a paring away of the superfluous to rediscover the most elemental things that we seek from spirituality and community.
The loss of life, the horrible illness and difficult recovery have directly affected thousands of British Columbia families, but we have fared better than many other jurisdictions. Even those not directly affected by the virus itself have had heartbreaking occasions, such as losing loved ones to other causes without family beside them, funerals and shivahs conducted online and, of course, the various burdens and isolation experienced by older people, those who live alone or others who are especially vulnerable.
As we approach High Holidays that are assured to be unlike any we have experienced before, there is an air of anxiety, but more evident is a flexibility and commitment to make the holidays as meaningful as possible. Although close coordination has taken place through RAV, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, every congregation is finding its own way and the holidays in most cases will occur along a spectrum of hybrid in-person and online services, most with multiple smaller, shorter programs. Services that routinely occur outdoors, such as Tashlich, will be joined in some cases with shofar-blowing and other services held out of doors. Despite all, reaction among rabbis is that community engagement and flexibility have made these months far better than could have been predicted in March.
“From day one, our motto was, we are not ramping down, we are ramping up,” said Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. His Conservative shul, Beth Israel, had not previously done programs or services online but, within 24 hours of the shutdown, all activities had moved online.
Zoom, an online meeting platform that almost no one had heard of before the pandemic, has proved a lifeline for individuals and communities, including almost all synagogues in the province. The platform’s interactivity allows individuals to participate in services, make virtual aliyot, engage in back-and-forth with teachers and guest speakers, and participate from home in numbers that rabbis say are routinely higher than in-person programs in “normal” times. “The social community of the synagogue’s remained intact,” said Infeld.
Most of Beth Israel’s congregants will experience the High Holidays from home, online. “It’s only the people who are leading the services and/or their families who will be in the building,” he said.
Provincial regulations permit a maximum of 50 people in any gathering, with social distancing enforced. For synagogues, that number varies based on the size of a sanctuary and the reality is that, to ensure two-metre separation, smaller synagogues will be able to accommodate far fewer than 50.
For the Orthodox Congregation Schara Tzedeck, however, online Shabbat and holiday services are not an option.
“We’ve had to think very creatively,” said Camille Wenner, executive director of the synagogue. “This was the first time in 110 years that our doors closed for davening,” she said.
People who had made minyan every week of their life suddenly couldn’t.
“That was really difficult,” said Wenner. “That’s why it was so important for us to mobilize a chesed committee to connect with everyone and make sure that everyone was OK. That’s how the idea of Shabbat in a Box developed and the idea of feeding people and making them feel that that ritual of Shabbat is still very much alive, you don’t have to be here to do it, we can still do it together.” That concept will be extended to Rosh Hashanah in a Box, which will go to more than 300 households.
Schara Tzedeck was the first Orthodox synagogue in Canada to reopen to limited in-person services, on June 1. “It was nerve-racking,” Wenner admitted. The usual single Shabbat service has been increased to two. Hand sanitizers and masks are required. Those who do not bring their own siddur are handed a newly cleaned one. Additional custodial staff are on hand to wipe down the entire sanctuary between services. An online registration program allows congregants to see how many of the 50 seats remain available.
For the holidays, services will be expanded to meet demand, she said. Rabbis and cantors who work in day schools and elsewhere in the community have volunteered to lead smaller services, which will occur in various places throughout the building and may even take place under a tent in the parking lot, if need be.
“The services will be condensed to about two hours instead of the regular five,” she said. “Right now, we’re looking at six or seven services back to back starting at 6:30 in the morning.”
The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture normally doesn’t run programming through the summer. But, this year, the Sholem Aleichem Speakers Series has continued every Friday on Zoom and Exploring Jewish Writers, on Saturday mornings, also has continued through the summer, said Donna Becker, the centre’s executive director. “Both of them are better attended on Zoom than they were in person,” she said.
Peretz Centre holiday services will feature Stephen Aberle singing Kol Nidre, but the usual musical program, which sees the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir interspersed with the audience, is obviously out of the question.
This year’s High Holidays will be the first since the inception of the progressive congregation Ahavat Olam in 2004 that will not be held at the Peretz Centre. Said board member Alan Bayless: “We would prefer not to use computers for Shabbat or High Holiday services, but we believe that virtual services are necessary for our community this year given the danger of the coronavirus.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch BC, said the 10 Chabad centres in the province are all adopting protocols appropriate for their congregants’ needs. He worries that, with daily infection reports often heading in the wrong direction, the province may re-impose stricter regulations by the time the holidays roll around. Either way, he suspects many or most people will be marking the holidays at home. “It’s the reality,” he said. “It’s a question of what works and what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
On the positive side, online learning has skyrocketed.
“The amount of study that’s going on by Zoom is absolutely unprecedented,” Wineberg said. “That’s the silver lining. I have a feeling that it will continue once this pandemic is over, God willing as soon as possible, I think people are going to continue learning that way. You have the convenience of sitting in your home and participating almost as if you are there – that’s the new reality.”
The Reform synagogue Temple Sholom had a running leap at livestreaming services, so some of the infrastructure was well in place before the pandemic. The difference now is the effort they are going to not just to allow people at home to observe, but to participate in the services. Classes, webinars and other programs have been expanded online. The Men’s Club and the Sisterhood have moved their programs onto Zoom. The accessibility means Temple Sholom programs are reaching new audiences, often far outside Vancouver.
The summer weather has allowed the synagogue to hold some events in parks and in the courtyard behind the shul. Still, Rabbi Carey Brown has no illusions that these High Holidays will be like any other. For one thing, only clergy will be in the sanctuary.
“It will be really different,” said Brown, who is the synagogue’s associate rabbi. “We are working really hard to put together High Holiday services and experiences that will help people feel the sense of the season, both the newness of the new year and the reflectiveness of the season.”
The Okanagan Jewish Community, which does not have a permanent rabbi, has depended on volunteers to deliver programs and services. The Kelowna-area centre has seen significant growth, and is running an 11-person conversion class and various adult education programs on Zoom. As great as all that is, Steven Finkelman, the centre’s president, thinks this might be a tough year financially for the group, a concern expressed by several interviewees. Revenue generated at the High Holidays and through in-person galas or other fundraising events in normal years is likely to suffer this year.
While online programming has proven hugely popular, there can be no denying that this experience has resulted in some missed opportunities. Rabbi Philip Gibbs of West Vancouver’s Conservative shul Har-El, has pangs of regret when he thinks back to the grand plans the synagogue had in January for a year of innovation and new initiatives.
“I was very excited about both the scale and the types and the variety of programming – more cooking events or culturally focused programs that really were going to give our community the chance to gather and engage in a really fun, exciting and meaningful way,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost that opportunity.”
The challenges and opportunities of the High Holidays will be met with one or more services on different days, he said. While he and his congregation are making the best of the situation, Gibbs laments the loss of in-person collective connection.
Similarly, Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, grieves the loss of some in-person connections. However, she feels that Zoom can provide an intimacy that a large group gathering might not. As well, not only are out-of-towners joining Or Shalom’s offerings, but the rabbi and others are surfing programs throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
“I just think it’s a time when the world is our oyster,” said Dresner. “Spiritually you can look for whatever kinds of workshops you want, so people are experimenting a lot more.”
Or Shalom will hold successive Tashlich services at False Creek, each accommodating congregants in limited numbers. For the well-being of ducks and other birds, Or Shalom members drop leaves rather than bread in the water.
“I love the creative challenge, but I can’t say it doesn’t keep me up at night,” Dresner said, laughing. “I hear a lot of rabbis say, I didn’t sign up for this. There’s nothing that we’re doing that I signed up for.”
This extraordinary time has forced and invited rabbis and others to reconsider everything. The changes have made her reflect on “what’s at the heart of the service, what do we really need, what’s extraneous, what makes it tedious? Because it cannot be tedious. It’s got to be tight, shorter and beautiful.”
Rabbi Levi Varnai of the Bayit in Richmond concurs that the crisis forced a reckoning. “If a synagogue is not doing services – and we don’t do services online – what do we do? It got us thinking to the real core of what a synagogue is really supposed to be about,” he said.
As an Orthodox shul, the Bayit cannot stream services on Shabbat or the holidays, but they have expanded classes throughout the week and held socially distanced events at Garry Point Park. Pre-Shabbat events help people prepare for the Sabbath and regular phone calls and visits by the rabbi and volunteers to speak with people from a distance and drop off packages keep a sense of community alive.
Now that limited in-person gatherings are permitted, the shul’s size permits 25 congregants. But even that is not quite as it was. “It’s coming in, praying and going, which is great because it’s more than we had before that,” he said, but there’s no food and no kibbitzing.
The holidays will see multiple services and people can arrange to be there specifically for Yizkor but perhaps not come for the entire day.
The chaos of shifting suddenly from the way things have always been done has not left Varnai a lot of time to reflect. But, when pressed, he acknowledged how surreal it is.
“It’s a huge change to the regular Jewish life that I’m accustomed to since I was a young boy, since my bar mitzvah, praying three times a day with a quorum of others,” he said. It’s a stunning transformation, but entirely within Jewish tradition. “We always put safety and well-being and health first.”
He puts the whole thing in perspective. “Our people came out of the centuries and had to go through a lot worse,” he said. “Not going to synagogue is not fun but, thank God, other generations were challenged with much greater hardships and we’re relatively blessed.”
Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardi synagogue in Canada west of Toronto, counts among its congregants Dr. Jocelyn Srigley, a microbiologist who is a director with the infection prevention and control branch of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Rabbi Shlomo Gabay and shul president Eyal Daniel credit Srigley with helping guide them through this difficult time and say it was on her advice that their synagogue was the first in the city to close.
Despite the challenges, however, engagement is better than ever, said the rabbi. Daniel added that synagogue membership has actually jumped 20% since the pandemic began, something he credits to an increased desire for meaning, and also a direct outreach he began when he became president in June to encourage occasional attendees to commit to membership.
The strange situation has also helped strengthen relations between Beth Hamidrash and the two Sephardi congregations in Seattle. They virtually co-hosted an Israeli historian speaking on Medieval Spain, for example.
Probably no rabbi has had an experience quite like Rabbi Susan Tendler. The new spiritual leader at Richmond’s Conservative shul Beth Tikvah arrived in the midst of the lockdown with her family from her previous posting in Chattanooga, Tenn. The family then had to quarantine for 14 days, with community members dropping off prepared meals and greeting the family from a distance. Despite that unusual arrival, or perhaps because of it, she has reflected on big things.
“While I would never wish the pandemic on this world or on any person, really, this is an opportunity for renewal,” she said. “We do all have to reconsider what we’re doing and what our goals are and find new paths for reaching them.”
While hoping that services might return to normal in the not-too-distant future, she acknowledged that the very term sanctuary implies that every congregant must feel secure. “At a minimum,” she said, “it has to feel safe.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Or Shalom is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, not the Reconstructionist movement, as stated in the original online and print versions.