Jewish Press (National, print edition)

(Passover, 2015) This is coming a little late to the blog, but still worth the posting.

I vividly recall in my very early childhood standing up and singing the “Ma Nishtana” at the Seder table. While this may be a memory that many of us recall, I believe that there is uniqueness to what we do at the Seder that sets a precedence in the formation of Jewish education and life itself.

The lessons embedded within the ancient text of the Haggadah are numerous with a specific emphasis on “Vehigadta L’Bincha” – “And you shall tell over to your children” (Exodus 13:8); recounting and educating our children about the miracles that  were bestowed upon the Jewish nation during the exodus from Egypt.

Association would normally align Jewish impactful events with the Synagogue, but interestingly, the Seder takes place in the home. This is not mere coincidence, as we realize that the focal point is on our children.  This may be the reason why my memory most prominently recalls the Seder, and my participation in it, far more than other things that occurred during the same time period.

I have often been told by educators, and have noticed for myself as a parent, that children are like sponges; their ability to absorb information and experiences, surpasses that of those who are older. Children are very impressionable, which heightens the responsibility of parents and educators to educate our children in the best possible manner.

In reality, our very existence has depended upon the education we provide for our children. At a recent talk which I attended, Noble Laureate prize winner Elli Wiesel repeated and stressed the importance of teaching our children the meaning of the words “Never Again”. Wiesel emphasized that if we don’t ensure that our children receive the knowledge, the messages that are so important may not be passed on to the next generation. Clearly, this would be a disaster for the Jewish People.

Outside of the High Holidays, Pesach is probably the most celebrated biblical holiday to the majority of Jews. Regardless of affiliation, or lack of, there is something sentimental about Pesach that speaks to every Jew. The ‘Ma Nishtana’ is sung by young and old alike, as are the passages of the four sons to Dayenu. It simply does something to us. It is a reminder of not just who we are as a nation and our history, but more importantly, it challenges us to ask ourselves and each other: “What does it mean to be Jewish?”

Yes, the emphasis must be on the next generation – our children – but what if we are not knowledgeable ourselves?

We live in an era in which many of the things we do, specifically religious, are done out of habit. Why do we do them? For many it is because that is what we were taught, or because that is what our parents did. Understanding why we do things would benefit us in our growth as to whom we are as Jews.

For a deeper understanding, we need to look no further than the Haggadah. The wise son asks: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that God, our God, has commanded to you?” (Deut. 6:20). Why is he the wise son for asking this question? He is wise because he is seeking to attain a greater knowledge. Without asking, he will not get the information.

When sitting around the Seder tale and recounting the events that our ancestors experienced together for the very first time as a Nation, it is just the starting point of the  Haggadah. In essence it whispers to us, “carry on reading, and ask away about your heritage. What brought you this night, sitting at your Seder table over 3500 after these events took place?”

For the children it’s a message we are relaying, but for adults it’s a plea of urgency to learn more about our History and the meaning of being Jewish.

Aside from being the Rabbi of Beth El Jacob Synagogue, I also work with dozens of college students attending colleges in Iowa. The surprise they get when being told that they should continuously ask questions rather than simply accept a custom, mitzvah or tradition simply because “we do it that way” strengthens my own belief that everyone, youth and adult alike, should proactively seek  opportunities to learn more and even challenge their own knowledge of Judaism.

Knowledge is power.

It is important to note that in order to represent the Jewish people, one must first  know what the Jewish people represent. That only comes about by striving to learn more and by passing that knowledge on to future generations.

Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus eloquently wrote “To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” This is more of a reality check for us because, as parents naturally wish for their children to be more successful and knowledgeable than themselves the realization that there is work to be done can an awakening moment. This is challenge very well suited for the Seder table.

Reaching the realization that we wish we knew more, is the goal half accomplished. Realization gives us the ability to take the next step in furthering our education, be it reading more or going to classes at the local Synagogue. It is a simply about taking advantage of the knowledgeable resources that are readily available to us.

When we find ourselves sitting around the Seder table this year wondering “What are the Testimonies, Statutes, and Laws,” What are we really celebrating? I will say Mazal Tov! As you are someone who is on the path to becoming more educated in our beautiful heritage and history, and b’ezrat Hashem, will take the opportunity to pass this priceless knowledge on to others.

Rabbi Bolel has been serving as the Rabbi of Beth El Jacob Synagogue, Des Moines -Iowa for four years. In addition to serving as Community Rabbi, he is the founder of JSOC (Jewish Students On Campus) an outreach program on multiple University campuses in Iowa, heads the Chevra Kaddisha and the only pulpit “Ironman” triathlete Rabbi in the world. Rabbi Bolel is married to Devorah and has two boys.

Beth El Jacob Synagogue, the only Orthodox Synagogue in Des Moines was founded in 1885. With a rich heritage and legacy, it continues to thrive seeing over fifty percent growth since 2011 with a concentration of young families. Beth El Jacob will be celebrating a Hachnasat Sefer Torah for the first time in 100 years in May. Des Moines offers full time Jewish education up until Kindergarten age and an after school program up until 12th grade as well as having a fine Deli with an array of Kosher food available in town.With a strong economy and low cost of living, Des Moines continues to be a sought after city to live in.

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Don’t Fear: Inspire – Yom Kippur 5776

One of the most stirring prayers we recite on Yom Kippur,  which we will be saying soon is the Unetane Tokef prayer.

Composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz . As a friend of the Archbishop of Mainz, Rabbi Amnon was pressured to convert to Catholicism. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer; immediately he regretted intensely giving even the pretense that he could possibly accept a foreign religion. After spending the three days in prayer, he refused to come to the archbishop as promised, and, when he was forcibly brought to the archbishop’s palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin of creating the perception that he would consider converion. Instead, the archbishop ordered his hands and legs amputated — limb by limb — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. He was sent home, with his severed extremities, on a knight’s shield.

This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. On that holiday, as he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue, where he recited the original composition of Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath. Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam (died 1096), one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, and begged him to record the prayer and to see that it was included in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus, the legend concludes, Unetanneh Tokef became a part of the standard liturgy.

Taking a closer look at the text itself gives us time to pause and think:

“Who will live, and who will die, who at their predestined time and who before their time, who will rest and who will wander…..”

The natural tendency we have when reading and comprehending these realities of life, such powerful words, naturally strikes fear into us.

The challenge with fear……. is that it is debilitating.

Franklin D Roosevelt famously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

On Yom Kippur is it really “fear” that we are supposed  to experience?

A few days into the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the great sage  Rav Chaim Shmulevitz living in Israel was giving words of encouragement to his devoted students. One of the points he related to them was, that the greatest danger of war is fear. When the people are in fear, the enemy immediately has an advantage.

He notes that Jacob when running away from his brother Esav  was informed that his brother was approaching him with an army of 400, the pasuk tells us (Gen 32:8) מאד יעקב ויירא “and Jacob became very frightened”.

Not only was it detrimental to him but he was criticized for fearing Esav despite the fact that his brother Esav had a great army.

Fear can cripple us. One can look at a certain situation and either be intimidated by fear or be inspired to beat the item at hand.

A couple of instances come to mind:

On the afternoon of 9 October 2012,  a young girl boarded her school bus in the northwest Pakistani district of Swat. A gunman asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her and fired three shots. One bullet hit the left side of this girls forehead, travelled under her skin through the length of her face, and then went into her shoulder. She survived.

This girl could have either lived a life of constant fear, she was well known by the Taliban whom reiterated their intent to kill her after their botched attempt, or as we know her today as having overcome her fear and becoming one of the worlds greatest advocates for female education and  the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. Her name is Mallala Yousifazi.

One may say on a different scale of fear, some people have the fear of public speaking. I have seen it myself, seeing someone freeze in a very public forum due to this fear. The choice of being able to confront it and inspire us to use our platform of speech for success can be the ultimate definition of success or failure.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett was “terrified” of public speaking. He was so nervous, in fact, that he would arrange and choose his college classes to avoid having to get up in front of people. He even enrolled in a public speaking course and dropped out before it even started. “I lost my nerve,” he said.  At the age of 21, Buffett started his career in the securities business in Omaha and decided that to reach his full potential; he had to overcome his fear of public speaking.

Buffett didn’t let the fear control him, he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course with another thirty people who, like him, were “terrified of getting up and saying our names.”

The rest is history.

Today we as Jews and proud American citizens are faced with challenges that have instilled fear in some of us.

We are blessed to live “in the Land of the Free”. However, this poses some serious challenges that we are currently faced with.

Our liberties are a testament to this great country we live in. What we can say, protection of our privacy etc…

Over the last couple of decades the paradigm of what is acceptable in certain geographic locations has shifted as to what is acceptable and what is not.

An example to illustrate this, is the BDS movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel; a movement, who’s sole intention is to disrupt the Israeli economy.

Although there have been questions on its success, there have been large companies that have not invested or partnered with Israeli companies for fear of “looking” like a unjust collaborator.

Fear has been struck into Jewish students on University campuses around the country because they are Jewish, and the presumption is if they are Jewish they are associated with everything Israel.

Whether it is Alexis from Arizona State University who says:

“Never in their wildest dreams would my parents have imagined that I would feel threatened or frightened over the fact that I am Jewish on an American college campus…..with the likes of BDS intimidation”


Ariella at Goerge Mason University who says:

“I never said anything bad about Palestinians. And people tell me I hate, I want to kill Palestinian babies because I merely said that there are two sides to every story. “

This manifested itself recently in an ugly way oversees too.

Festival organizers at one of Spains premier music festivals the Rototom Sunsplash festival were driven by intense pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to cancel its invitation to Jewish Reggae singer Mattisyahu because Mattisyahu had refused to comply with their demand to pen a statement or a video message backing “the Palestinians’ right to a state.” Artists scheduled to perform at the event threatened to cancel their appearances if Mattisyahu were to perform because he was “seen to represent Israel.”

Use which ever adjective you may wish to use, but, it was fear perpetuated by the BDS to the festival organizers that initiated cancelling Mattisyahu. There were however others who were not intimidated and used this opportunity to hit back bigger and harder at the BDS movement, and with success. The Rototom Sunsplash festival said in a statement that it publicly apologized for canceling the concert and went and invited Matisyahu to play as originally planned.

If it is fear that is going to stop us, we are in self defeat mode. We do not ever want to be like the Spanish festival organizers who gave in to BDS under fear.

Rosa Parks was quoted as saying:

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Our minds have to be made up that we will never be the victim of fear, we will use any instance that could instill fear, to truly inspire us to overcome any notion of fear, which will lead us to true accomplishments, not hindrances.

It is the Mallala’s, the Warren Buffets who were and are able to beat their fears and succeed.

The prayer of Unetaneh Tokef, we look at it, and yes we can read it and get scared and fearful, but no. Fear hinders us. We will be inspired to do things better this year, we will be inspired to stand up for what is right and that will truly bring us to an upcoming year where our inspiration will reflect off each other.

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Ridding Ourselves of Religion – Kol Nidre – 5776/2015

Anyone sitting here this evening that grew up and went to school here over 50 years ago, have memories of the Jewish education that was received. For some, it was the foundation of their Jewish life and how they would capitalize on the education taught to them, yet for others, it was the very reason why they never wanted to be affiliated with Observent Judaism again.

The methodology in Education as a whole during that time period was entirely different than of today. The rigidness of some teachers, combined with what was acceptable uses of discipline, were on a different scales entirely than in more recent times.

Not even going back twenty years ago, that I recall the tall thin piece of bamboo that decorated the principal’s office of the school that I attended, it, was not just used as décor only. Just the smell of bamboo instilled fear into us.

The mentality of striking fear into students today, especially when there is a physical element to it, for the most part and in most educational institutions is non-existent. Were uses of physical discipline that was accepted those many years back be used today, it would be the teacher that would have to provide some answers.


When defining Judaism, you may here the use of different adjectives: culture or history, with the most associated word being religion.

Let us take a look and see what ‘religion’ is.

The Miriam Webster definition of religion is:

  • the belief in a god or in a group of gods
  • an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
  • an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

While culture and history are associated with Judaism, religion fits into that same bracket…..association. Yes generically ‘religion’ is a word most use, but, it is not’s it’s definition.

Let us take a look at the entire biblical scripture, from Bereishit/Genesis documenting the creation of the world all the way through to the end of Ketuvim/Writings which the reign of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who conquered Babylon in 539 BC is spoken about,(most commonly accepted that this was written between 350BCE and 300BCE .) An approximate span of 1000 years of biblical writing encompassing the Tanach, Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets and Ketuvim/Writings and never except just once, is the word religion in Hebrew ‘Dat’- דת mentioned. When it is mentioned it has no remanence to any definition of what Judaism is. It is actually in the Book of Esther that דת is mentioned when Haman tell King Achashverosh “וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם”, “and their religion is different from those of every people”.

So, what is Judaism?

I started off by reminiscing and alluding to various forms of discipline of old in the educational environ. To many I believe, it is this perception of either living a life of consequences that, if one’s life is not led in the manner prescribed, there is punishment – which ultimately equates to a life of restrictions, to a life of limitation, to a life of limited opportunities and close mindedness.

This is wrong, self-detrimental and counterproductive on so many levels:

There are other religions that categorically call themselves a religion, but Judaism does not.

So, what is Judaism if not a religion?

Let us look and see, how does G-d, how does Hashem describe us?

Shemos 4:22:” ני בכורי ישראלב”  – ‘My firstborn son is Israel’

Yirmiyahu 31:19 :” הבן יקיר לי ” –  My favorite son

Shir Hashirim 6:3 : “אני לדודי ודודי לי”  ‘ I am to my beloved and My beloved is to me’

These three versus that I have just quoted are just a fine snippet as to how we are defined. G-d refers to us as relatives, as loved ones.

The theme with these versus and dozens if not hundreds more, is that He so to say indicating to us directly, get rid of the word religion and see what Judaism is…..Judaism is not a religion but a Relationship.

Miriam Webster: Thank you but no-thanks

Correct definition of Judaism – Relationship

In a healthy relationship when a husband asks his wife or Vis-versa if they can do a favor, the answer isn’t ……“well what is it”, it is first “sure honey” and then inquiring on what the request is.

This is the very reason why the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai when receiving the Torah responded “we will do and then we will listen”. Why would they do this seemingly naïve thing? Would it not be more logical to first inquire the details?

This is precisely the point: God said “I want this relationship with you, yes, Me and you….and no intermediaries” and the response was, just like in a relationship, yes, we want this relationship with You too.

We have to break loose of this perceived hard line notion and really rid ourselves of the restricted Jew, coming back drunk at 2am in the morning while in a relationship in most cases wont cut it, not being able to do so is not a ‘restriction’, but it contributes to the relationship not doing so.

Any healthy relationship has guidelines to ensuring it to work, if there are non, the odds of the relationship blossoming are slim.

Religion is the dictatorship demanding how you live your life.

A relationship is working in a way that is unconditional yet a two way partnership.

On Yom Kippur we have been taught that we ought to be remorseful for actions that we have done, but there is something far greater than that.

We may beat ourselves over our heads in looking at the mistakes that we have made this year, and adamant in making better choices in the upcoming year, but, as in a relationship it is not just about correcting our mistakes, but so much more than that, it is about bringing the best out of each other.

Imagine meeting a friend of yours after twenty years of not seeing her, and everything is the same as twenty years ago. That is a tragedy. Why you may ask?

If we look at what time has to offer, it gives us the opportunities of refining the character traits that we can refine and improve on those that can be improved on.

Imagine meeting a friend of yours after twenty years of not seeing her, and she is smiling that little more than twenty years ago, she is more patient, more optimistic. That is obviously someone who has been in tune with themselves, who have traveled a journey and been in a relationship, be it with themselves or someone else.

We have a busy 25 hours or so coming up. Just like we think about the relationships we are in, be it personal or family, let us realize that we can be open and transparent, ridding ourselves of the terminology ‘religion’ and realizing how fortunate we are to be in a relationship.

One that will never cease.

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Tick Tock (published in the Jewish Press of Greater Des Moines)

Two elderly Jews who haven’t seen each other in fifty years meet, slowly recognize one another, and embrace. They go back to the apartment of one of them to talk about the days long ago.

The conversation goes on for hours. Night falls. One asks the other, “Look at your watch. What time is it?” “I don’t have a watch,” says the second.

“Then look at the clock.”

“I don’t have a clock.”

“Then how do you tell the time?” “You see that trumpet in the corner? That’s how I tell the time.”

“You’re crazy,” says the first, “How can you tell the time with a trumpet?” “I’ll show you.” He picks up the trumpet, opens the window and blows a deafening blast. Thirty seconds later, an angry neighbor shouts out, “Two-thirty in the morning and you’re playing the trumpet?” The man turns to his friend and says, “You see? That’s how you tell the time with atrumpet!”

The philosopher and great Rabbi of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, gives us similar perspective as to why we blow the Shofar through the month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah.

The blowing of the Shofar is a wake-up call, a wakeup call to our accountability toward the productivity of our lives. God is, so-to-say, asking each and every one of us, “Have you utilized the time I have given to you well? Has it been spent selfishly or to help others? For positivity or negativity?” We go to Synagogue on the High Holidays and connect with God. We thank Him, communicate with Him and make requests of Him. We may even make a commitment to ourselves to go beyond our regular scope of goodness in order to merit the life we wish for, be it health, happiness or financial.

The Shofar is the wake-up call challenging us all to access how we have conducted our past year, used the opportunities presented to us, and managed the challenges.

With the fast paced society that we live in, it is often time itself that hinders the visions we have for ourselves. We are constantly clock watching: How much time do I have left at work today? and What things do I need to check off my list today? How much time do we spend on the latest technologies, be it social media or spending endless hours on XBOX’s?

I have never heard from anyone who is coming to the end of their lifecycle that they wish they could have spent more time in the office, or played more video games. What I have heard is the wish that they would have spent more time with their friends and family, been involved more in good causes, explored life more then they had and made more of a difference.

Once a year, we need a trumpet-call–the Shofar—to remind us of the value of time and how we have the opportunity to spend it……..wisely.

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Change/Friday Night (R’H Day2)

My children, when asking what day of the week it is, regardless what day it is there intuitive question when learning what day it is “so how many days until Shabbat”.

This is not something unique to my children. We all know that Shabbat is a different day from the other days of the week.

What makes Shabbat different and what does the difference make to me.

Historically in our Shul, when talking to adults who have grown up here or have moved out of state but have memories of thirty plus years ago, they remanence to me of how they used to run up and down the hallways Friday night. How there was only standing room because the sanctuary was so full.

The memories they share are fond, heartwarming…….. yet heartbreaking.

The planned Shabbat Ruach’s we have here, are lively, energetic with lots of little one’s running around, but the other weeks it is lonely. The walls cry out “what happened to all those that were here once, are they still in town, did they forget about the importance of coming to Shul”?

Shabbat is about the power of connection. It holds our lives together. It connects us with Hashem and holds our families together. Its rhythm unites Jewish communities around the world; we all read the same parsha together during the day and there is a universal structure of the week, which holds the Jewish people together, and creates a wonderful, warm, loving atmosphere at the center of our lives.

The entire system of Judaism, says Rav Shlomo Wolbe, can be crystalized into one overarching principle: olam hayedidut – “the world of loving friendship”, between us and G-d, between us and our fellow human beings and between us and ourselves. This description applies to all of Judaism. As we know, a major portion of the Torah’s commandments are mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro, between a person and another; this is olam hayedidut, a world of loving friendship, between people. Another major portion of mitzvot are those bein adam laMakom, the responsibilities that we have towards G-d; a world of loving friendship – between us and Hashem.

When G-d gives us commandments He is not instructing us as a legislator imposing laws upon his submissive and fearful subjects. Rather, He is like a loving parent who instructs and guides out of care and concern, to give us, His children, the best opportunity to live the best life possible. When we keep His mitzvot, it is within the context of this world of loving friendship. Just as we do things for people we love – a husband for a wife and a wife for a husband, parents for children and children for parents – so too, says Rav Wolbe, we keep the mitzvot in the context of our relationship with G-d, in the world of loving friendship.

These ideas are captured perfectly in the words of the siddur, which describes Shabbat as “a rest of love and generosity … peace and tranquility, calm and trust.” The essence of Shabbat is love and generosity, harmony and unity. It brings people together in a social sense but also in a spiritual, existential sense as it strengthens our relationships to each other and to G-d, the connections which define our very essence.

Memories of thirty years ago cant obviously be applied today, of course times have changed. Our community has evolved in certain ways. We have been faced with adversity and challenges, yet on most aspects we have learnt to be strong and most importantly united when it has come to changes.

Over the last few years we have seen an approximate 100% growth in membership. Numbers tell us one thing, however, reflective of these numbers are the programming opportunities we have to offer to our members, and the participation in these programs are the real testament to the trajectory in which we are traveling. This phenomenon is unprecedented in small communities like ours in the USA and we all should take pride.

Friday night though, is an area where we as a Shul need to embrace the importance for the aforementioned reasons, bring your children, bring your parents, bring your grandchildren, bring your friends and bring your wives. Women play and integral part to this Synagogue. Even with the way minyan is constructed, woman are the core of so much, please do join us and then go home for a Shabbat dinner, or invite each others over for Shabbat dinner, and these memories will be shared proudly in thirty years’.

This is a change that is important for us as a Shul,  as individuals and family, which will only make us stronger.

I can tell you too, having had the fortune of working with Jewish college students for close to ten years, the students that have the extra strength to hold onto their Judaism are the ones who attended services and events in their synagogues outside of the High Holidays.

If we look at our own Jewish history, change is something that has been a common theme. Be it in the desert where the Jews were instructed to move from where they had settled at a whims notice, to the changes that Israel has adapted to as a country, be it surprise wars, or grabbing opportunities it can excel in with the likes of the technology,  solar power or bio-mechanic industries.

Change is something if embraced; can enable one’s self to seeing the productivities within it. This does not only help with explicitly the change, but being able to see the benefits change can make will be that much easier too.

Friday night as I mentioned is such a change. Yes even with all our busy lives, if embraced, will only benefit us.

With us seeing some changes made over the last few years and the benefits it has provided us with, do expect to see some more changes over the next year, be open to them, embrace them and we will continue to see the success of Beth El Jacob grow and you as members will benefit more so than you have done so in the past.

Shabbat, as we say in ‘Lecha Dodi’ on Friday night is “the source of all blessing”.

Shabbat starts with Friday night, changing our Fridays to get in on some blessing, is something we can all embrace.

Let’s embrace change.

L’Shana Tova

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What ‘Label’ Jew are you? (R’H Day 1)

After months of negotiation with the authorities, a Talmudist scholar from Odessa was granted permission to visit Moscow. He boarded the train and found an empty seat. At the next stop a young man got on and sat next to him. The scholar looked at the young man and thought: This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peasant he probably comes from this  district. If he comes from this district, then he must be Jewish because this is, after all, a Jewish district.

On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I’m the only Jew in our district who has permission to travel to Moscow. But just outside Moscow there is a little village called Samvet, and Jews don’t need special permission to go there.

But why would he be going to Samvet? He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families there, but how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? Only two – the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins are a terrible family, and a nice looking fellow like him must be visiting the Steinbergs. But why is he going? The Steinbergs have only daughters, so maybe he’s their son-in-law. But if he is, then which daughter did he marry? They say that Sarah married a nice lawyer from Budapest, and Esther married a businessman from Zhitomer, so it must be Sarah’s husband. Which means that his name is Alexander Cohen, if I’m not mistaken.

But if he comes from Budapest, with all the anti-Semitism they have there, he must have changed his name. What’s the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? Kovacs. But if they allowed him to change his name, he must have some special status. What could it be? A doctorate from the University. At this point the scholar turns to the young man and says, “How do you do, Dr. Kovacs?”

“Very well, thank you, sir.” answered the startled passenger. But how is it that you know my name?”

“Oh,” replied the Talmudist, “it was obvious.”

We have tendencies as homosapiens to judge and derive circumstances, as well as people, reaching our own conclusions which some times may turn out to be right but other times can have dire consequences.

The Torah tells us in Sefer Vayikra/Leviticus 19:

You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness.   טו לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ:

While this is in reference to a court that is judging on legal matters not to give preferential treatment or a more lenient ruling to the wealthy or powerful man over less well to do person, the idea is powerful on the very human level.

Don’t fall into the trap of judging people based on what they look like, dress like or what you may have heard about them.

There was a time when within the Jewish community when someone associated with a specific stream of Judaism, people understood the values that were associated with that said stream, and if it were different from what association you associated with, there was an automatic distance created.  While this tendency is wrong, we find ourselves in a worse predicament today.

Most Jews do not know the differences between the different streams of Judaism. It goes something like this:

There are three or four more well know streams in Judaism:

  1. Orthodox
  2. Reform
  3. Conservative
  4. Reconstructive

I would like to focus on us living here in Des Moines. This is not a sermon for splurring out challenges the general Jewish community faces, rather if we can absorb some of todays message and use it productively, this will only strengthen us a Jews and as a community.

Ask the average unaffiliated Jew in Des Moines if they know the differences between Reform, Conservative or Reconstructive streams of Judaism.

The majority will not be able to give you a definitive answer, however there may be some variance. From the answers that are given, pragmatically there would be no reason to even have separate streams. Believe me, there are differences, but to the average person justifying why there are these streams, based on their very own reasoning it would not make sense to have these different streams due to the minimal differences.

Orthodox, and I have heard it many times, are not in that same bracket because………..and you will hear some reasons, sometimes very creative.

I believe this phenomenon of firstly not knowing the differences philosophically and, misjudgment of what should be so important to all of us, shows us the challenges the Jewish community is faced with.

Try and envision what our Jewish community will look like in 15 years.  Historically there has been an approximate 2500-3000 Jews in the Des Moines Metro, while we have been blessed and fortunate to be a growing synagogue here at Beth El Jacob, the strength and identity of us Jews, especially younger ones are on the decrease.

As a community and as Jews, there are two critical points that if we are serious, will change the makeup of our community specifically in strengthening us all.

Firstly: I have always believed  that labels are for products in the supermarket, not for people.

There is a lot more to being Jewish than being labeled an Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew etc…..

As I started off, we have the tendency to self-deduct and assess the “Jewishness” of another Jew based on affiliation, which synagogue they belong to etc….

The Talmud in Pesachim 50a tells about:

R’ Yose the son of R. Jehoshua ben Levi once fell in a trance, and upon awakening was asked by his father what he had seen while in his apparently lifeless state, and he answered: “I saw a reversed world: Those who are at the head in this world were at the bottom there, and those who are at the bottom here were at the head there”.

As Jews we cannot focus on the labeling, all that does is puts us into a box, being put into a box is not something we ought to be doing, and boxing ourselves into a box what we don’t really understand, is dangerous.

Secondly: Now that we have stripped ourselves of the box and its packaging, it is the product itself that will speak volumes and really make us what Jewish is.

Our Holy Torah talks to every one of us, to those that are not observant and those whom are. There is something for every person that can strengthen us as Jews individually and collectively. Just as the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi saw a reverse of people “rankings” up in heaven, the small things that we have the ability to do, don’t see them as small things. It is the small things that can majorly impact us. I have heard people belittle themselves in saying “I only do…….such and such” and that I’m not a good Jew because……..

Not only is that self-detrimental, but, considering that a hurricane is simply individual water molecules harnessed together we become empowered and can attain the reality of becoming a more caring and stronger Jew by valuing the “seem to be” smaller things.

  • Mezuzot on one’s doors,
  • Candle lighting every Shabbat
  • Saying Shema yourself and with your child before going to bed
  • Bless your children Friday night…they will remember this forever….not only is it sentimental but the love they will feel can transcend the already existing love from parent to child.

On a larger scale and dividends that pay off:

  • making a conscious efforts we put into giving our children a Jewish education
  • sending them to a Jewish camp
  • if you are out of that age bracket, help enable children to be given this opportunity.

A shepherd named Akiva saw drops of water wearing a hole into solid rock, and understood — and went to study until the words of Torah penetrated his mind.

It is the small things that make a difference.

Labels should not dictate how we conduct ourselves as Jews. It is the actions that will make the difference whom we are, which will truly affect us in a positively meaningful and transformative way as, stronger dedicated Jews.

Remember, over  3000 years ago when all the Jews, close to two million were at Sinai, there was no Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or Orthodox sections. There was one section and that was the section of “How am I going to grow and become a better Jew”.

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Wake up to militant Islam’s agenda

The following appeared in the Des Moines Register Feb. 3 2015

We are blessed and privileged to live in a state and country that is strong and committed to the safety of its citizens. Is this something that can be maintained with the trajectory of determined militant Islamists?

What we have witnessed over the last few weeks in Europe must be a wake-up call for us all, one that propels us to educate the tolerant society we live in that we are not immune to the infiltration of radicals. If we don’t, the cost will be devastating.

On Jan. 7, the world was collectively captivated by the acts of the Kouachi brothers when they killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Another operative killed a policewoman, followed by the killing of four Jews in a Kosher supermarket. One needs to note the differentiation in whom the victims were in the two attacks.

The first attack on Charlie Hebdo was in retaliation to its publication of caricatures portraying the Prophet Mohammad, an act that cannot be justified by any Western values, most notably freedom of the press. The murders of the four Jews can only be attributed to anti-Semitism. But where is the correlation in the targets picked for these attacks?

It is critical to realize that the motivation and ambition of terrorists carrying out such attacks have one goal in mind, to eradicate any society that is not in line with theirs. We have seen and continue to see this in Iraq and Syria with the annihilation of Yazidi and Christian communities; thousands are murdered because of their faith.

The threat is growing. In Africa and parts of the Middle East, Christians are being targeted and victimized. In Europe, it is the Jews.

It is crucial to acknowledge that in the psyche of militant Islamists, each act of terror is a means closer to having a society governed by militant Islam and its ideologies, as well as a religious act in and of itself. This doesn’t start and end with a targeted annihilation of one or two groups. Rather, its part of a longer-term strategy towards accomplishing the very foundation of their doctrine. This ultimately means, you, the reader are on their “to-do list,” just a little further down the list.

I am fearful to say that anti-Semitism is so strong in parts of Europe it may be too late. British Home Secretary Theresa May noted recently that she “never thought she’d see the day where members of the Jewish community” would be “fearful” of staying in the U.K. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmerman and others have echoed the same concern.

A country that faces daily threats by militant Islamists and yet continues to encourage freedom of expression and speech is Israel. While Israel is not perfect, it has maintained a democracy in the face of militant Islam.

How? First, less than 80 years ago the world saw an attempt to exterminate the Jews, hence Israel’s commitment to never see a repetition. Second, the awareness that Israel has of its past makes it imperative to give freedom to even those who do not align themselves with Israeli values. Third, and most important, history and its lessons are taught rigorously. Emphasis is on balancing the freedoms of speech, action, press and civilization from actual acts of terror. This can be modeled by instilling within our education the reality and the effects of brutality and its regimes.

I believe that to maintain the safety and greatness of our country for generations, schools and parents must continuously educate our children about the lessons that history has taught us. History for some is unfortunately the reality for others. The recent acts of terror in France on two very different targets was just a mechanism to progress the agenda of militant Islam. If our next generation is not consciously aware of this agenda, we will be caught off guard before we know it, and too late.

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