Approximately 300 people celebrated Lag b’Omer at David Livingstone Park on May 14. (all images are screenshots from the video by LNP)
Chabad East Van, Chabad of Richmond, Chabad Lubavitch BC, Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel, Tzivos Hashem Vancouver (a Kollel program) and Chabad of Downtown hosted a community BBQ at David Livingstone Park in honour of Lag b’Omer on May 14. Approximately 300 people attended and kids from Tzivos Hashem did a presentation and led a short program. There was food, music, prizes and sports. A video by Lior Noyman Productions, which captures some of the afternoon’s highlights, can be found on YouTube.
The Okanagan Jewish Community Association’s Purim party featured a variety of costumes. (photo from OJCA)
So far this year, the Okanagan Jewish Community Association has held several events, including Shabbat services on more than one weekend, as well as gatherings for Purim and Passover, and the first Ladies Group Meeting.
At the Purim party on March 13, children from all across the community enjoyed making their own batches of hamentashen – Nutella was the overall favourite filling, but strawberry was also popular – and unique groggers. They had a “Hamen-tossin’” battle (Haman-shaped beanbag toss) and put the groggers to good use twice: while OJC members Natalie Spevakow and Steven Finkleman showed them the Megillah and told them the story of Esther, and during the costume parade. There was an eclectic and creative selection of costumes – even the grown-ups dressed up. And there was a mishloach manot basket exchange, with the kids eager to devour the treats they received, as well as a light sushi buffet and a variety of hamentashen that people brought to share. Mark Golbey and Abbey Westbury organized the party.
More than 100 people attended OJCA’s Passover seder at the Harvest Golf Club on April 10. This was the first year it was held there and the chefs created, with the help of her expertise, many recipes that OJCA member Barb Finkleman shared with them. The seder was led by OJCA members Philippe Richer LaFleche and Barb Pullan, with parts of the ritual in English and parts in Hebrew.
On March 4, services were led by OJCA member Evan Orloff with a dairy potluck following. On April 21 and 22, services were led by Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary, who has been coming out on a regular basis; there was a community potluck Shabbat dinner and luncheon. On May 5 and 6, services were led by Cantor Russell Jayne from Calgary, also with a Shabbat dinner and lunch.
On May 11, the first Ladies Group Meeting was attended by approximately 25 women. OJCA members Lillian Goodman, Cindy Segal and Barb Pullan organized the get-together at which attendees enjoyed refreshments and the screening of the documentary entitled The Lady in Number 6. There was a discussion period following and it is hoped that the meetings will continue on a monthly basis.
For information on more OJCA events, including a June 24 BBQ, visit ojcc.ca.
BirthWrong participants in Calanques de Morgiou. (photo courtesy Jewdas)
Marseille, a lively port city sloping down toward the Mediterranean Sea, has a long, rich history of immigration and multiculturalism – including a Jewish presence dating back 1,000 years. Today, France’s second-largest city is home to about 80,000 Jews, or almost 10% of its population, with both newer and centuries-old Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities.
Recently, a group of 30 self-identifying Jews and allies from Europe, North America, South Africa and Israel gathered in Marseille for the second edition of BirthWrong, an initiative started by the London-based collective Jewdas to explore and celebrate Diaspora histories and cultures. (The inaugural BirthWrong took place in Seville, Spain, in 2015.) We spent four days exploring the city and surrounding nature, meeting with locals and partaking in Jewish life, and found plenty to do for visitors.
The city’s Old Port is the classic starting point, with a spacious plaza, boat-filled marina and daily cruises shuttling visitors along the Calanques, a 20-kilometre series of fjord-like inlets surrounded by steep limestone cliffs. With a compact city centre, Marseille is easy and enjoyable to explore on foot; there are also trams, buses and subways. As in Vancouver, there are beaches in the heart of the city (Plage des Catalans, west of the Old Port) and near the centre (Malmousque, Plage du Prophète, Plages du Prado and Pointe Rouge).
In a city of 40 synagogues, the oldest and grandest is aptly called the Grande Synagogue de Marseille. Opened in 1864, it’s a three-storey Sephardi synagogue (with a basement Ashkenazi chapel) that hosts Shabbat services on Saturdays, followed by Provençal-style kiddush including green olives, anchovies and pastis, which is a local anise-based liqueur. The small congregation is predominantly Algerian-French Jews, and the impressive sanctuary – with the men’s section on the ground floor and women on the second floor – has shining marble floors, chandeliers, Romanesque arches and jewel-toned stained-glass windows. To attend services, be prepared to bring ID and have your bag searched, and women are asked to wear a dress or skirt.
A plaque outside commemorates that, in 1943, Jews were deported from the synagogue to Nazi death camps. In Marseille, 23,000 Jews were deported – with French police aiding the Nazis – and about 1,800 were killed in camps.
Prewar Jewish history in Provence dates back to the first century, with a more documented presence starting in the sixth century. After the Inquisition, Sephardi communities arrived from nearby Spain and Portugal and, in the Middle Ages, when the Vatican controlled the Avignon-Carpentras area, the Juifs du Pape (Jews of the Pope) acted as its financiers. At the time, Jews were banned in most other parts of present-day France.
Today, much of the Jewish community in Marseille came from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in the late 1950s and early 1960s, following the countries’ independence from France. The city is also home to large Italian, Armenian and North African communities (resulting in delicious cuisines to choose from).
A local guide, Lou Marin, gave us a custom walking tour of the city centre focused on 1939-1945, and has encyclopedic knowledge of Marseille’s history. He leads hours-long or multi-day walking tours with flexible rates. (Contact [email protected] or 33-486-954576 to inquire about a tour.)
Just outside the city, Calanques National Park offers more than 85-square kilometres of stunning coastal walks through pine forests, which were planted by the Romans, and ridges above the cliffs, with bushes of wild rosemary and thyme dotting the landscape. Our group did a four-hour hike with local guide Felix Altgeld (provenceapied.wordpress.com), who offers customized walks and has extensive knowledge of the local flora and geography.
Food-wise, Marseille is an affordable city within France, with ample fresh produce coming from sunny Provence and varied cuisines to relish, including North African kebab shops, Lebanese delis and 30 kosher eateries (including the pizza food truck L’imprévu). On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, look out for the market in La Plaine plaza, a community institution with independent food stalls and other shopping. The neighbourhood, which holds an annual carnival and is filled with colourful street art, is fiercely resisting gentrification, and maintains an inspiring multicultural, multi-class spirit day and night.
We got the sense that many non-Jewish Marseillais are aware of Jewish history and culture. At the annual May Day rally, multiple locals (both Jewish and non-Jewish) approached our group to ask about our trip and the Yiddish songs we were singing. Both Marin and the local historian Alessi Dell’Umbria, who spoke to us about Marseille’s history, knew a lot about Marseille’s Jewish history and culture through both their work and their personal lives.
Given France’s culture of secularism – where religious identity isn’t generally part of public life – the local Jewish activists who hosted us found it refreshing and unusual to meet Jews who bring our religious identity to politics, wear Stars of David and kippot and are openly Jewish in public. We, in turn, were fascinated to visit a bustling but laid-back city with a rich left-wing history, near-constant sun and diverse communities carving out an inclusive collective identity.
Marseille is just over three hours from Paris by high-speed train (visit sncf.com/en).
Tamara Micneris a playwright and journalist from Vancouver who lives in London, England. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal and London Review of Books.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on April 28. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“There is one thing about Judaism for which we were mocked for centuries, whose wisdom is just becoming clear in the 21st century,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told a packed Schara Tzedeck synagogue on April 28, after describing the world as “a terribly dangerous place” in which religion has “returned in some of its most violent and aggressive forms.”
“We did not try to conquer or convert the world,” he explained. “Why? Because we believe that God made a covenant with Noah before he made a covenant with Abraham and, therefore, you don’t have to be a child of Abraham to be in a relationship with the Holy One, blessed be He.
“We believe that the righteous of every nation have a share in the World to Come and, therefore, we never sought to conquer or convert the world. Christianity and Islam sought to become, and did become, world powers, and they achieved great things, but right now their clash, which is threatening in some ways to take us back into the age of crusades, is so dangerous because our powers of destruction are so great.”
Sacks was introduced to the crowd of approximately 700 people by Schara Tzedeck Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, who talked about Sacks’ importance as an embodiment of the ethos of Modern Orthodoxy, which Rosenblatt said combines fidelity to Orthodox tradition with openness to the world. He commented on Sacks’ ability to bring Jews of all kinds together, quipping, “Tonight, we have here rabbis from all stretches of Oak Street.”
That was far from the only joke of the evening. When Sacks, who lives in London, England, took the stage, he asked the audience to forgive him if he rambled a bit, saying, “In my body clock it is now almost two in the morning and I am feeling very much like the man who once dreamt he was giving a speech in the House of Lords and woke up to discover that he was.”
After saluting the relative unity of the Vancouver Jewish community, Sacks took up his theme, which was the value of Judaism to both Jews and non-Jews, and the need for Jews to move confidently in the world as ambassadors of Jewish wisdom.
He noted how often it seems that non-Jews appreciate our strengths more than we do, and then he focused on seven things he felt Judaism has to offer the world: a sense of purposeful identity; a strength of community; the centrality of family; the prioritization of the intellect; a belief in the dignity of difference and an acceptance of religious and cultural pluralism; the sacred value of protest; and the importance of hope.
Sacks spoke of the essential human need for identity, pointing out that Moses’ first question to God was, “Who am I?”
Of community, the rabbi cited research showing that “regular attendance at a house of worship extends your lifespan by seven years.” He followed this up with a joke, saying that he told his wife, Elaine, “Maybe it just feels as though your lifespan has been extended by seven years.”
With regards to family, Sacks shared the story of taking Penelope Leech, a childcare expert in the United Kingdom, to a Jewish school in London on a Friday morning. There they watched a mock Shabbat, complete with “5-year-old abba and ima, 5-year-old baba and zaida shepping naches [feeling proud].”
Sacks said Leech asked one of the boys, “What do you not like and like about Shabbes the most?” The boy responded, “What I don’t like is not getting to watch TV! What I do like is it’s the only time Daddy doesn’t have to rush off.”
Leech apparently told Sacks, “that Sabbath of yours is saving their parents’ marriages.”
To illustrate Judaism’s appreciation of the intellect, Sacks told the well-known story of Nobel laureate physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, who said his mother had made him a scientist by asking him every day when he came home from school not ‘what did you learn today?’ but ‘Izzy, hot du fregn a gut kashya [did you ask a good question]?’ What do we teach our children?” asked Sacks. “The Four Questions. Do you know how rare that is, to teach your children to question?”
Addressing one of his favourite themes, the dignity of difference, Sacks said, “You will meet with more diversity on a city street in one hour today than an 18th-century anthropologist would in a lifetime. We have to live with difference; we have to learn to respect difference. We have learned that the miracle of monotheism is not ‘one God, one people, one book’ – the miracle of monotheism is that it is the unity up there creates diversity down here.”
On his sixth point, Sacks said, “Many faiths teach the virtue of acceptance – yes, there’s injustice and suffering in the world, but in Olam Haba, in the World to Come, it will be OK; or, in Nirvana, where you escape from the sufferings of the world. Judaism is a religion not of acceptance but of protest.” Rather than accepting the pain and injustice in the world, God tells us to be partners in making the world a better place, he said.
And, lastly, Sacks described Judaism as “the voice of hope in the human conversation.”
“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better,” he said. “Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better. It takes no courage, just a kind of naiveté, to be an optimist. It takes great courage to have hope. Let us go out and do what we are called to do, to be Hashem’s ambassadors to the world. Let us, and not only non-Jews, recognize the value of what it is we’ve got.”
Sacks’ talk, which was sponsored in part by Cathy and David Golden to mark their 30th anniversary, was followed by services and dinner.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Eliezer Sobel created L’Chaim: Pictures to Evoke Memories of Jewish Life with his parents in mind. (photo from Shutterstock)
Eliezer Sobel’s new book, L’Chaim: Pictures to Evoke Memories of Jewish Life, was born from personal experience.
Sobel is an artist at heart and has spent his life finding ways to interact with people – through writing, facilitating workshops and running retreats over the past three decades. Three years ago, on his parents’ 67th anniversary, things took a turn for the worse.
“My mother is in her 17th year of Alzheimer’s and is 93,” Sobel told the Independent. “My dad was fine and taking care of her at home until he was 90. On their 67th wedding anniversary, he fell down the stairs. He fell on his head and almost died. Overnight, there were two dementia patients in the house.
“Prior to that, he was driving, cooking and shopping, as well as hiring and handling the payroll for a team of seven aides. He was amazing with it. Suddenly, overnight, I had a brain-damaged dad at 90 years old.”
Sobel and his wife lived in Virginia at the time, which is seven to eight hours away from New Jersey, where his parents lived. After the accident, however, they moved into his parents’ home.
“We stayed in the house for 10 months, taking care of my parents and trying to get the right kind of help in the house that would enable us to eventually move out,” explained Sobel. “But we stayed nearby so we could monitor and manage the scene.”
His dad recovered a substantial amount of his cognitive and physical ability, but passed away this past November.
The work on the book goes back to 2011. “She didn’t speak English words anymore,” said Sobel of his mother at the time. “She would sometimes make up her own language and sounds. She stopped reading, as far as we knew.
“One day, I came upon her accidentally…. She was flipping through a magazine and I overheard her reading the big print headlines out loud, in English, correctly. I was totally floored. Mom can still read, even if it’s just a three-word phrase.”
Sobel wanted to run out and buy his mom a picture book, one designed for Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers, but he couldn’t find one anywhere. His next thought was to use a children’s picture book, but he was unsure whether his mother could negotiate a book with a storyline. He wanted each page to stand on its own, so it would not require the reader to recall what had happened on a previous page.
“I called up the national Alzheimer’s association and spoke with their chief librarian for the whole U.S. and her response to me was to say that there were 20,000 books for caregivers of those with memory loss,” said Sobel. “I said, ‘I am not looking for [a book for] the caregiver, I’m looking for my mother, the patient. There was dead silence on the other end of the line. She couldn’t think of any such book. Eventually, she did mention one other author who has since become an acquaintance of mine who had a few books, but they weren’t really what I wanted, so I realized I had to do this myself.
“I first did a book that wasn’t just for Jews. It was for anyone with memory loss. It was called Blue Sky, White Clouds, and came out in 2012.”
Sobel – who has also written a novel and a memoir – received such a positive response to this first picture book that he decided to make it into a series.
“My mother got to enjoy the first book a lot,” said Sobel. “Her aides would use it with her almost daily. We would observe that she would zero in on particular photos, ignore certain pages, find a photo – particularly one of a married elderly couple – and contemplate it for 20 minutes and caress the faces.
“These books are for a particular stage of dementia,” he said. “They’re appropriate for someone who’s got enough memory loss and dementia that they won’t be offended or have awareness that this is kind of a simplistic picture book, they’ll just be interested. But they can’t be too far gone, like my mother now, who can’t even look at my face, let alone my book.”
Caregivers often struggle with how to engage people with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s very hard to find activities to do with someone in that condition,” said Sobel. “So, what I was trying to accomplish was to give caregivers something they could share with the patient … or give patients something they could use on their own…. It was an opportunity for sharing to occur, an activity of quality time. For certain pages, in the earlier stages [of dementia], it stimulates memories, conversations, reminiscences or free association.
“I’m from the creative right brain of things, so I could find things to do with my mother, like empty a box of coins on the table and we’d spend an hour playing with them – pennies over here, stacking the quarters, making a picture of a house with the dimes. Then, I’d say to my dad, ‘See, Dad! There are lots of things you can do with Mom. You could put these coins away and do the same thing tomorrow. She won’t remember.’
“He would call me the next day, and say, ‘Ah, it didn’t work. She didn’t know the difference between a penny and a nickel.’ That was the point. He’s a mathematician and very linear … [he] could not break into the play mode. If you’re someone who’s good with little kids, you can do that with someone like my mom.”
In some ways, Sobel often finds himself feeling grateful to Alzheimer’s, because it made it possible for him and his mother to grow closer – at least for the first 10 years of her disease.
At the beginning, Sobel saw her become more available. As a Holocaust refugee, she had always been very insulated, private and afraid of others. Sobel said he went to a psychic early on in her disease, worried that his mother was losing her memories, and the psychic thought she’d be happier without them.
“It was true,” Sobel reflected. “She transformed from that scared refugee into an open, childlike, loving, laughing angel. People would feel blessed to be around her. She was delightful – greeting strangers and striking up conversations that made no sense. She and I laughed about who knows what. She and my father would dance to music. A lot of things were happy about her Alzheimer’s experience.
“I’m not saying there weren’t nightmarish times. We had our share of those as well,” he added. “She went through a violent period where she was chasing people with steak knives. We had to put her into a psych ward for 10 days.”
That was the exception, though, and Sobel said, “I had an opportunity to finally heal my relationship with her.”
Today I arose early and took a few minutes to look at the pearly dawn through my bedroom window. A bit later, I walked to the nearest grocery store and bought fresh bread for breakfast before I began my work day. All trivial, mundane things? Yes, but there is a difference, for I was doing them in Jerusalem.
No matter what ordinary events shape my day, the fact that they are happening here, in the Eternal City, somehow endows them with an extra dimension.
Jerusalem got its name because it has been the city of the Jewish people since the days of King David and his son Solomon, who built the First Temple here. Generation after generation continues to pray: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” Devout Jews the world over turn towards Jerusalem three times a day in prayer, as the focus of their longing.
Five thousand years ago, a group of settlers chose to make their homes on the steep ridge called the Ophel, south of today’s Old City. Two thousand years later, David captured it from the Jebusites and, by bringing the Holy Ark here, he established forever its sanctity for Jews.
Jerusalem’s history spans 4,000 years. In 2000 BCE, Abraham offered his son Isaac for a sacrifice on Mount Moriah – ready to carry out the ultimate renunciation until the angel stayed his hand. A thousand years later, David captured the city and, from 961 BCE to 922 BCE, Solomon constructed the First Temple. In 537 BCE, Jews returned from Babylon, where they had been exiled by Nebuchadnezzar and, in 517 BCE, the Second Temple was completed. After that, Alexander the Great took the city and then Antiochus ruled it, until the Maccabees liberated it. In 63 BCE, Pompey captured Jerusalem and, over a period of 33 years, Herod reconstructed the Second Temple.
Jerusalem’s history continued to be a story of conquest and destruction by a chain of occupiers lusting for this precious jewel: the Romans, the Greeks, the Crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the Jordanians … a succession of nations who wanted to rule this battle-worn city that possesses no material riches – no gold, no precious metals, no minerals, no oil, nothing to enrich their coffers. So what does it possess?
I don’t know the answer but, in 1907, Hermann Cohen, in his Religiose Postulate, put forward the idea that they had no choice: “All nations, without exception, must go up with the Jews towards Jerusalem.”
Prior to that, in 1882, Peretz Smolenskin wrote, in Nekam Brith, a prophecy about its conquerors: “This shall be our revenge; we shall quicken what they shall kill and raise what they shall fell…. This is the banner of vengeance which we shall set up, and its name is – Jerusalem.”
Jews and non-Jews alike have always felt a magnetic pull towards the Holy City. It is written in Midrash Tehillim 91:7: “Praying in Jerusalem is like praying before the Throne of Glory, for the gate of heaven is there.” Every Jew who prays at the Western Wall feels an unusual closeness to G-d. Judah Stampfer, in his book Jerusalem has Many Faces (1950), expressed it poetically: “I have seen a city chiseled out of moonlight / Its buildings beautiful as silver foothills / While universes shimmered in its corners.”
There are many enchanting cities in the world, and I have visited many – Venice, Avignon, Bruges, Hong Kong, Paris, all have a magic that transforms the senses. Yet there is something extra in Jerusalem that I simply can’t define. It is a beautiful city, but there are many that exceed it. It is dignified, ancient, historic – all adjectives that can be applied to other cities, like London and Rome. Jerusalem, however, is an emotion, a state of mind even more than a place. It arouses dormant passions. It nurtures the soul. It is spiritual and inspiring.
To call Jerusalem home for the past 46 years is, for me, an enormous privilege. I am always aware of the history under my feet. I never forget the nameless heroes who fought to retain it for the Jewish people. And so, let us pay homage to the Maccabees, to those who withstood the Crusaders and Saladin and the Ottomans. And, in our own time, our Jewish soldiers who reunited Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967, 50 years ago. So many heroes, who made the ultimate sacrifice so that those of us in Jerusalem today could live out our lives in the Eternal City.
Dvora Waysmanis the Australian-born author of 14 books. She came with her family to live in Jerusalem in 1971. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, during its annual meeting, on March 28, overwhelmingly approved an expansive resolution affirming the full inclusion, equality and welcoming of all transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals.
The resolution commits the RRA to work for “full inclusion, acceptance, appreciation, celebration and welcome of people of all gender identities in Jewish life and in society at large.” The document also “strongly advocates for the full equality of transgender, non-binary and gender non-confirming people and for equal protections for people of all gender identities under the law, at all levels of government, in North America and Israel.”
In keeping with the ethos of Reconstructionist Judaism, the resolution’s passage followed a democratic and deliberative process. Over the past year, representatives from Reconstructionist congregations, as well as the board of governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, approved similar resolutions. All of the central organizational bodies representing Reconstructionists have now raised their collective moral voice.
The RRA vote comes about a year and a half after the Union for Reform Judaism passed its Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. The RRA is pleased to join the ranks of a growing number of Jewish religious and cultural institutions formally affirming transgender inclusion and establishing new policy guidelines.
The resolution aims to be a blueprint for action. Already, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has graduated rabbis who identify as transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Individually, congregations have been taking steps toward the full inclusion of people of all gender identities. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, for example, is in the process of creating a fully inclusive chevra kadisha (burial society) that will ensure that Jews of all genders will have access to respectful and traditional rites throughout their entire lifecycle. Other congregations have been experimenting with methods of calling people up to Torah using non-binary and gender-neutral language.
Under the March resolution, efforts will be made to aggregate and share these innovations among the approximately 100 congregations and 350 rabbis of the Reconstructionist movement. In addition, the movement’s website for ritual resources, ritualwell.org, will be expanding its existing resources giving expression to all-gender-inclusive values.
Levi Mochkin celebrated his third birthday and his first haircut last month. (photo by Shula Klinger)
On March 26, Mendy and Miki Mochkin of Chabad North Shore celebrated their son Levi’s upshernish (or “cutting”). This occasion marked both Levi’s third birthday and his first haircut.
In the Orthodox tradition, a boy’s hair is not cut until his third birthday. This is because the Torah compares the little boy to a tree – the tree does not bear fruit until it has grown for three years. The upshernish is a community affair; all of the guests are invited to cut off a section of the child’s hair.
With the start of his formal education, the 3-year-old can begin to share his unique gifts with his family and community. And, just like the tree, a child must be nurtured consistently if he is to flourish in later life.
This is the time when the son receives his kippah and tzitzit. He also begins his Jewish studies in earnest. Along with learning the aleph-bet, he is taught to recite blessings and say the Shema.
At Levi’s upshernish, a booklet shared Torah passages from Deuteronomy and Genesis. These were a selection from the 12 verses that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught children to recite each day. According to Rabbi Mochkin, “they contain many of Judaism’s foundational beliefs and principles.”
The Mochkins hosted the upshernish at their West Vancouver home, with members of their extended family from New York. Members of the Chabad community from Vancouver, East Vancouver and the University of British Columbia were also present, along with many local families.
Shula Klingeris an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.
Imagine, for a minute, that you’re throwing an open house for a children’s sports team. You’ve invited a lot of people. You don’t know them all. Yet, you’re the host. It’s a beautiful, sunny, warm day. You’ve set up your yard for a party. The lemonade and cookies are out, the welcome banner is flapping in the breeze.
As people drift up your sidewalk, you see they’re nervous or ill at ease. “Welcome!” you say, and your family smiles at them. “Come on in. Join us.” You offer them food and drink. Then, you ask guests gentle, kind questions. “How long has your kid been playing soccer with our team?” or “Where does your kid go to school?” “Have you met our dog?” and so on.
Before long, you’ve learned new things about these strangers. You’ve made a few connections. As other people join the party, you lead a parent, Gabriel, over to talk to Morley, who shares Gabriel’s interests in dog training or hockey. You help all these people to relate to one another. Then, they can begin friendships. Soon, they will be hosting the next encounter – for their new friends and acquaintances.
Many people are rusty at this kind of face-to-face socializing. In the social media age, we “friend” people online long before we meet in person. We’re more likely to chat online than we are to approach strangers in person. It’s a cultural shift that can make people feel more awkward and self-conscious when they actually get together in person.
If you’ve never moved from one community to another, you’ve got family and friends built in – people who likely knew you in kindergarten or as a teenager with acne. These are longtime friends. You don’t have to do any work to know them. Why bother meeting new people?
Because we’re obligated as Jews to be hospitable. It’s our obligation to make new connections with others! (Both Jews and non-Jews.)
I recently heard a great story about a Passover seder. A young Jewish woman from Indiana was studying and working in London, and alone for the holiday. She followed the Twitter feed of London-based CNN reporter James Masters. He tweeted and asked if anyone needed a seder to attend. Samantha Gross, an intern with the Evening Standard, responded. She thought he was offering to find her a spot somewhere at a community event. Instead, he and his wife picked her up and brought her home to a Pesach table with grandparents and the kind of family love and embrace that really moved her. (To tears, although she claimed it was the horseradish!)
A Winnipeg congregation, Shaarey Zedek, is sponsoring a special speaker next week named Dr. Ron Wolfson. I could claim that I’d read everything he’s written (not true). I could boast that my mom has taken classes with him (true) and that he’s spoken at my parents’ Virginia congregation (true). I could mention that he’s collaborated with Rabbi Larry Hoffman (true) who came to speak at Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom recently (true), and whose daughter went to summer camp with me long ago (true). However, none of that background or Jewish geography matters.
What matters is that Dr. Wolfson is coming to Canada to speak – and it’s well worth reading his books or finding a way to hear him in person. Why?
What he teaches is a profoundly Jewish message. It’s about building relationships and connections that might be new, and take work. For many Jews, going to shul is like going home – most of the people there are your family and friends, you’ve known them forever. It takes no work to relate to them. However, our society is transient. There are a lot of newcomers at every congregation. We need to do both the right thing and the Jewish thing, and practise “audacious hospitality.”
What’s that? Well, in Genesis 18:1-18, there’s a story that is uniquely ours. Abraham and Sarah are in their tent when three strangers walk by. Abraham rushes out to them, welcomes them in and, with Sarah, he helps them wash and offers them food and hospitality. Abraham knows what it is to be a traveler and to be hot, tired and hungry. He knows that he should reach out, it’s the right thing to do.
The strangers (angels) bring messages to them. One is that even though they’re old, Sarah will have a child and Abraham will become the patriarch to a great and populous nation.
The message is clear. It’s incumbent upon us to be like Abraham and Sarah, and like Masters’ family, too. We need to welcome others, build real relationships with them, and offer them our (Jewish) hospitality. This may make all the difference. Will we be Abraham’s “great … nation” or lose Judaism to assimilation?
Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in an interfaith “green” religious service. The interim Anglican priest who ran the service bumped into me at the farmers market a few days later. I thanked her for the opportunity, and invited her to my Shabbat table. That was her very first dinner invitation in Bowling Green, Ky., and the start of many more happy hours at my table and hers. We are still good friends. She told me that it figured a Jewish person would be first to “invite her in,” as Abraham and Sarah did.
This pastor (and friend) both reminded me and taught me more about my obligation to be hospitable as a Jew. Abraham knew how to do this. It’s high time we did, too.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
T-Jex after-school supplementary program is a partnership between Schara Tzedeck Synagogue and Shalhevet Girls High School, where the older students mentor the younger. (photo from Shalhevet)
When friends approached Gila Ross several years ago to start a new Hebrew school in Vancouver, Ross turned for inspiration to a program she had previously run in Calgary for college students, refitting it for children.
The program, T-Jex – the Jewish Experience – is built around mentorship and is based out of Schara Tzedeck Synagogue. Vancouver’s Orthodox Shalhevet Girls High School (grades 8 to 12) sends carefully selected mentor volunteers to T-Jex to work one-on-one with students or in groups of two or three. The mentors work predominantly on building Hebrew-language skills with the children. Children also learn as a class with Ross, who is the main teacher and program director, and takes the lead teaching Jewish values, holidays and Torah study.
T-Jex, now in its fifth year, involves about 10 students a year. “It is an amazing opportunity,” Rivka Abramchik, principal of Shalhevet, told the Jewish Independent. “A big part of the Shalhevet curriculum, and the goals we set for our students during the five years they are with us, is to stand up and take leadership. This is an opportunity to take responsibility, to learn the concept of giving back to the community.”
She added, “The girls get to really see how one person can make a meaningful impact. T-Jex so beautifully intertwines with the desire the girls have to be part of Jewish continuity and gives them a chance to give in a way which also gives to the girls themselves. It’s a big commitment – to give up 90 to 130 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon is give up a lot of time for these girls. You would think teenagers would be reluctant but, actually, the idea of teaching a child, students get more inspired than you might think. We have repeats every year.”
Ross gives a presentation at Shalhevet annually to introduce the program to the school’s new students. The importance of committing for a whole year is stressed, as is the importance of engagement, motivation and responsibility.
“I really enjoy working with the kids at T-Jex,” said Grade 11 student Hadassa Estrin. “The gratifying feeling you get when you see them learning about their heritage is so special … like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.”
“Most of our students have been coming from word of mouth, from all over Vancouver and from across the Jewish spectrum,” said Ross. “They have heard from others that kids enjoy coming.”
Ross started a Facebook group for Jewish moms a year or so ago, which has become a virtual community. The group has also helped spread word about the Hebrew school.
Ross, who has six kids of her own, is the youth director at Schara Tzedeck, where she has spearheaded the synagogue’s Families That Give social action projects. She also teaches at Torah High, an after-school program, and works with her husband, Rabbi Samuel Ross, the director of Vancouver National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
“The most wonderful thing to see,” said Ross, “is the students wanting to be here and having fun. To see them take joy in learning and Jewish activities is what it’s all about.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.