A Message from Rabbi Stoller
My cousin wading through waist-deep water to pick up his elderly neighbor so she would not have to endure the storm alone.
Houston, Texas is my hometown.
Since Friday, I, like you, have been watching helplessly as Hurricane Harvey has pounded the city that raised me with a seemingly unending torrent of rain. I am grateful to all of you who have asked about my family. Thank God they are all safe and well, but, as we know, there are so many who are not.
My old neighborhood, Meyerland, where much of Houston’s Jewish community lives, is utterly devastated. Tears came to my eyes when I saw footage of our shopping center and the streets where I learned to drive covered in deep, black water. I’ve been hearing unbelievable stories about people I know and love: our family friends who were rescued by boat from their drowning home; my cousin who waded through waist-deep water to pick up his elderly neighbor so she wouldn’t have to endure the storm alone; a plea for help on Facebook from a high-school classmate who was trapped in her home with a baby, no air conditioning, and no working telephone; my sister-in-law’s 92-year-old grandmother who made her way down 18 flights of stairs without her walker in order to get to safety. Often it is in times like these, times of great suffering and devastation, that humanity’s incredible capacity for courage and kindness is revealed.
I have been in touch with the rabbis of my home synagogue, Congregation Emanu El in Houston, to offer our help. Over the coming days, Temple will be collecting gift cards to Target, Home Depot, and Visa in increments of $10 and sending them to the Emanu El clergy, who will give them out to members of the community in need. You will be able to purchase gift cards at Temple during the days ahead; alternatively, please feel free to purchase gift cards on your own and bring them to Temple. For more information, please contact Judy Zweiback, 402-321-1975) or Rabbi Berezin.
The Torah says, “You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brethren in your land” (Deut. 15:11). Today, we have an opportunity to do this mitzvah for a community that really needs our help.
With much gratitude,
Stop. Think. The very next thing you do will tip the scales, either toward the good or toward the bad. Maimonides teaches, “Throughout the entire year, you should always look at yourself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If you perform one sin, you tip the balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and bring bad consequences upon yourself. On the other hand, if you perform one mitzvah, you tip the balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and bring deliverance and salvation to yourself and others” (Laws of Repentance 3:4). Yesterday, we began the Hebrew month of Elul, a time of intense preparation for the upcoming High Holidays. For a full month, we are called to look closely at our lives, open our hearts, and prepare to start anew at Rosh Hashanah. As we enter this sacred time, Maimonides’ teaching is a clarion call: There is no such thing as a “throw-away” action; everything we do and say matters! So this month, especially, let us remember to stop and think before we act. Because at this moment, and at every moment, the scales are perfectly balanced, and the very next thing we do or say will tip them in one direction or the other, for ourselves and for the entire world.
-Rabbi Brian Stoller
“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:9).
As we recite the v’ahavtah every day, we are reminded that we are to take the commandments given to us from Adonai into our hearts, minds, and souls. We are to remember them at every juncture in our lives, teach them to our children, and use them as guideposts to provide a framework for our lives. This past Sunday, our religious school students participated in a Chanukat Bayit, the ritual for hanging mezuzot. Our tradition teaches that we are to hang a mezuzah on each doorpost of our home, in every room of the house with the exception of the bathrooms. We place the mezuzah on the right side of the door frame, approximately 2/3 of the way up, so that it will be accessible to all those who enter. As we enter a room, our tradition is to kiss the mezuzah as a reminder to live our lives with meaning and purpose, guided by the tenets of Judaism and our love of God.
–Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin
I went to Israel Temple last Friday; it was an awesome experience. I am a Muslim person and I have never gone to any other Temple places. As you know, we do not have any other religion in my country Saudi Arabia. So I did not have the chance to go and explore other religion and see what other religion do. How they pray? It was my first time to go to a Judaism temple and I really like the idea of go and see other religion. When I got to the Israel temple there was an old woman who welcome us and told me where should I go, she was so nice. I entered that room where a lot of people were sitting as a circle and there were man and woman who are sitting in the middle. I sat down and look at the people and notice that everybody is holding a book. I though that they were giving them before entering the room, but one lady saw and told me that the book is under the seat so I took it and start following that man. I really loved that lady with that amazing voice and the piano too. The man in the middle told the people to start shake and welcome the guests since there were a lot of guests from UNO and other school and I was so happy when the people come to me and start shaking and welcoming us and say nice words for us, it was a great experience. When they finished and people start to leave, I went to the lobby and met a lot of new people who were thanking us for coming. We had coffee, fruits, and the best thing was the Hommes. I talked with a guy from Boston and he asked where am I from so I told him from Saudi Arabia, he started to say some Arabic words, he surprised me. I asked him how did you know that, he told me that he was in the military and lived in Saudi Arabia for a month to train Saudi army and I had a beautiful conversation with him. That is what can say about that trip, It was an amazing experience and I am so excited to go to other religion temples. Thank you for giving us the chance to visit places like this.
– Muslim, UNO Student
Last December, when the family was in Oakland for Marshall’s Bar Mitzvah, there was a discussion after services of the history of the Torah he read from and Emma will read from tomorrow. At that time Lori asked me to make some remarks at Emma’s Bat Mitzvah to which I replied “you must be kidding, you know I am terrified of public speaking” ……….. Lori can be tough to say no to.
As most of you know, this Torah came from the small Synagogue in Drove, Germany, my mother’s home town. When our family left in November 1938 the Torah was packed with our household possessions for the voyage to our new home in America. It was with us in Missouri, where we first lived, until our move to Omaha in 1945 Sometime after our arrival in Omaha, around 1949, my grandmother, my father’s stepmother, became ill and became a resident of the Dr. Philip Sher home and the Torah went to the chapel there. In 1982 it was moved to the then new Rose Blumkin Home where it resides today.
Since that conversation in Oakland I have been able to reflect a bit on what this Torah has meant to our family and the effect it has had on them. First, of course, is the message its very existence conveys about the importance of Judaism and what saving this Torah meant to our parents. We have no way of knowing what risks were associated with their bringing this scroll to America, but we can be certain that it was important enough to them that they willingly accepted whatever risk there was.
So here we are nearly 77 years later enjoying the freedom and opportunity of this great country that was so important to my parents. Tomorrow morning Emma will be the 8th of their great-grandchildren to read from this very Torah on their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. If Morris and Frieda were able to see this day, how joyful would they feel to know that all they suffered, struggled and worked so hard for was rewarded? To see the closeness these great-grandchildren have to each other would gladden their hearts and reinforce what they already knew-that they had done what was needed to preserve their family and it’s Jewish heritage and I think the outcome would exceed even their wildest dreams.
So …. what does this say to us? I can only define it for myself. To me, it says we must, all of us, remain vigilant to the signs around us that may be reminders of our people’s tragedies of the past or harbingers of potential tragedies in the future. It means we must remember the importance of our support of the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland that did not exist at the time the Torah was brought here. It makes me more aware of the priceless opportunity for family growth and closeness that was made possible for our family in this great country. This beautiful new Synagogue, the vibrancy of our congregation and of the entire Omaha Jewish Community represent for me the values and priorities that my parents held so dear and worked so hard to make possible for their children and their children’s children to enjoy.
To my siblings, cousins nieces and nephews and to all the Miller family, thank you for being here to help Emma celebrate her big day. To Lori and Michael and to Marnie, and also for myself I can only recite the words of the Shehehchehyanu prayer “We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for allowing us to reach this day.”
The relationship of one neighbor to another supersedes politics and religion. It is, perhaps literally, just too close to home. We see our neighbors from our kitchen windows and over our fences. We notice when they neglect their lawn or celebrate their child’s birthday with balloons on the mailbox.
Our Torah makes no secret of the fact that human beings must honor our neighbors. The importance of the neighborly relationship falls no lower than the Golden Rule itself and the tablets God gave Moses at Sinai. Just as the Ten Commandments remind us to worship One God, celebrate Shabbat, honor our parents and refrain from stealing – the same tablets remind us twice, in commandments nine and ten, that we are to honor our neighbors by not bearing false witness nor coveting their possessions. It is clear that the relationships between neighbors are different than any other relationship. It is also clear that it is inherently complicated.
For many in our congregation, the vote by Countryside Community Church to join the Tri-Faith effort was the answer to our prayers and the realization of our now decade-old dreams. For others, it symbolizes a movement we feel distanced from or even opposed to. But for all of us, the vote in April for Countryside Community Church to move into Sterling Ridge and the subsequent announcement for the American Muslim Institute to break ground in the coming days, is notice that our Sterling Ridge property is about to become a neighborhood. Let us not be naive. This, too, is complicated.
Since planting our foundation at 132nd and Pacific two years ago, we have lived the simple life. We have lived alone. We have lived without worry of how we are perceived or how we perceive others. We have lived with no test of our human nature to covet or judge. We have lived alone for two years with no one to test the Golden Rule on beyond ourselves. Now, we enter a time of elevated awareness and responsibility. We will need to ask questions we could not ask before. Questions that will begin the day our neighbors move in. If welcoming a new family to our residential neighborhoods is a call for a knock on the door and homemade cookies, what on earth is the appropriate welcome for two entire congregations?
I am certain that there will be many invitations to welcome and get to know our neighbors as our neighborhood takes shape just as there will be invitations to learn together, pray together and eat together in the years to come. I urge every one of us to take these invitations not as suggestions, but as mitzvot. I urge us all to feel the obligation that was not just put into the 613 commandments, but into the Ten Commandments and into the one Golden Rule. The neighborly relationship is one we live with and one that requires nurturing. When the American Muslim Institute breaks ground, I hope all of us will be there. And when Countryside Community Church opens their doors for the first time, I hope that foundation is tested by the sheer weight of every member of our neighborhood standing on their front porch with cookies in hand.
Whatever ones feelings are about our Tri-faith efforts, whether we think it is a great distraction or the beginning of a messianic era, we must not confuse the deep responsibility, the mitzvah, of being a good neighbor, with the dreams or disappointments of personal opinions. Living in a neighborhood is a complicated endeavor. It requires faith in the other and it tests our most deeply held vices like envy and gossip. I am certain there will be times when we covet our new neighbors. We will look wantonly at their new homes and wonder if ours is already outdated? We will hear their worship and feel challenged to adapt ours. They will do the same. But living amongst neighbors is also an elevated endeavor. We will live with a greater responsibility. We will live with a greater sense of self-awareness; a greater sense of who we are and why we love our Judaism. And as we come to know our new neighbors, crossing paths in parking lots, visiting each others’ sanctuaries and social halls, we will live out those very ideals set out in the Torah; that the relationship between neighbors, while complex, is precisely what we have been learning to do since our tablets were given to us at Sinai.
It is hard to believe that with the arrival of spring, the midpoint of my term as President of Temple Israel is quickly approaching. The High Holidays, Chanukah and Purim have come and gone, and Passover is here. It seems we hardly skipped a beat with the move and the congregation has seamlessly settled into continuing the traditions from our years at Cass Street, while also starting new ones at Sterling Ridge. I hope we all feel quite at home as we look forward to starting our third year in our new building in August.
Looking back over the past few months it is worthwhile to highlight some important accomplishments. First and foremost, the sale of the Cass Street property has been completed and the building will become the new home of the Omaha Music Conservatory. I think we can all be glad that the Cass Street building will be preserved and provide a wonderful home for the Conservatory. The Art Committee, under the guidance of Todd Simon, is continuing its work on implementing its plan for display of both art and archival material. The new sculpture at the entrance to the building literally creates links to our congregants’ lifecycle events and will be a wonderful new tradition for Temple Israel over the years to come.
As many of you know, there have been challenges with maintenance of the Temple Israel Cemetery grounds, due in large part to the demise of the irrigation system serving the lower level of the cemetery. I am very pleased to report that with generous funding from the Ike and Roz Friedman Foundation at the direction of Donald, Adam and Sarah Yale and Susan Cohn and an equally generous donation from Tom and Darlynn Fellman, a new irrigation system will be installed this spring. The new irrigation system along with some important changes in the maintenance schedule and engagement of a new service to provide quality groundskeeping care, should maintain the cemetery in a state respectful for those who are laid to rest there and their families. On behalf of our congregation, I extend our deep appreciation and thanks for their generous contributions.
Looking forward, in May, Temple Israel will be hosting the OTYG Spring Chavurah and will be welcoming some 200 youth for this gathering. This is a great opportunity to showcase our wonderful new synagogue, support our teens and enhance Temple Israel’s respected reputation. I encourage everyone to volunteer to help with this event in whatever capacity they are able.
Finally, in the next few months, the congregation, led by the Board of Trustees, will embark on the search and selection of a new senior Rabbi. The planning is underway for this monumental task, which the Board has elected to call, “A year of Reflection and Celebration: Moving from Strength to Strength”. In preparation for this work, Rabbi Stephen Einstein, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA, has been invited to lead a Board retreat in April. The retreat will focus on issues related to Senior Rabbi transition and will help the Board contemplate and prepare for its work and leadership of our congregation as we go forward with our transition. Subsequent to the Board retreat and completion of the planning of the transition process, I will be sharing the details in a letter to our congregants.
Our synagogue is alive with a great number of activities each month. I urge all to come and experience any and all of these that may interest you! Take advantage of our wonderful building and the energy inside its walls. It is my privilege to serve as President of our congregation and I want to extend my thanks to our clergy, professional staff, teachers, volunteers and congregants for their support and for their dedication to the work that enhances the life of our congregation. I wish you all a Happy Passover!
Recently a group from Temple Israel ventured out to the Bluebarn Theatre to see BAD JEWS. First of all if you have never been to the Bluebarn off of 11th Street in the Old Market, you really should, it is a real gem and I’m sure their new facility is going to be even better. Now I am no theatre maven, I leave that to my son, Avi. Truth is I know very little about what makes good or bad theatre. So with that said, as a middle age Jewish male, I found Bad Jews, to be a very complex and a thought provoking play. Please allow me to explain.
The play is now a couple of years old and was written by Joshua Harmon. The ideas for a production here in Omaha came from Susan Clement-Toberer, Artistic Director at the Bluebarn, reading the script in a trade magazine. The premise of the play surrounds four young adults, two brothers, a first cousin and the girlfriend of one of the brothers. All except the girlfriend are Jewish. They have all gathered in New York City after the death of their beloved grandfather.
At first you think that each character is simple and not very focused but as the play progresses and even later when the play is over and you are trying to make sense of what you have just experienced, you see that they are really much more. Jonah, the brother of Liam and first cousin of Dafnah appears unattached and kind of “parve,” not wanting to rock the boat. Liam is complex and self-centered who has rejected formal Judaism but in truth has much more of a Jewish soul than he wants to believe. He has a dislike for his cousin and the feelings are mutual. Dafnah thinks that she has found herself Jewishly having returned a year ago probably from a Birthright Trip to Israel where she has fallen for one of the soldiers attached to her unit. In truth she is very naïve, mispronouncing Hebrew and the name of her “boyfriend.” She wants what she wants and has like compassion or understanding of her cousins and Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody. Melody is a stereotype of what we as Jews may think of as the anti-Jew. The girl that we want to date or marry because you do not want to marry a Jewish girl.
Bad Jews, could also be titled Today’s Jews. Bad Jews maybe the way Jews of the past view Jews of today. In reality Jews have always adjusted to the culture and society that they are living in. Today we have gotten what we wanted in America. We are Jewish Americans and American Jews. We have assimilated into American culture to the point of putting mayo on our corn beef sandwich on white bread.
The problems revealed in the play are real and true in many Jewish families. We should not be afraid of our new reality but should embarrass it and grow from it. In the play Dafnah states that if we keep living as we are today, there will be no Jews in the future. Truth is in every generation this has been the worry. I want to believe that this is not true and that as long as we continue to realize that Judaism does not exist in a vacuum and that we recognize the always changing face of Judaism we will be fine. Bad Jews was well worth seeing and I truly love that I cannot stop thinking about it.
Purim begins on the evening of Wednesday, March 4, and we will hold our service, spiel and carnival at that time. Absent from the list of Torah holidays (chagim) are Chanukah and Purim, and they are therefore considered “minor” holidays.
Scholars guess that Ahashueras was Xerxes I of Persia, since Megillat Esther occurs during the fifth century BCE. “Pur” is an Akkadian word that means “lot,” as in casting your dice for chance or fate. Haman cast lots to fix the date for the destruction of the Jews, and this date was the 13th of Adar. This became now the Fast of Esther in remembrance of her fast before coming to the King to plead for her people.
Purim was celebrated as early as the second century BCE and gained in importance after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The 15th of Adar is called Purim Shushan due to the fighting between the Jews and those who backed Haman in Shushan (Susa) which was Persia’s capital. The fighting continued throughout the 14th and the Jews were granted an extra day, thus ending the fighting on the 15th. This is celebrated only in other walled cities, such as Jericho and Jerusalem.
Megillat Esther is a Talmudic tractate, and carries with it the laws for observance of Purim and its own cantillation and blessings. The most important rule for Purim is to read the Megillah both evening and morning in the synagogue. Most synagogues have a carnival spirit to their celebrations of Purim. Greggers, which is Yiddish and means “noisemaker,” are whirled whenever we hear Haman’s name. This is to “blot out the memory of Amalek” who allegedly was Haman’s ancestor. The Amalekites, who attacked us from behind in our journey through the Sinai, are mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 for Shabbat Zachor (Remembrance) just before Purim. As on
Chanukah, we insert the thanksgiving prayer Al Hanissim into the service. There is no Hallel (prayers of praise) because the events of Purim took place outside of Israel.
Another Purim rule is to exchange gifts of food with friends or give to a charity, called mishloach manot. We eat Hamentashen (“Hamen’s pockets”) and many children receive Purim gelt. A further rule is to literally drink until one cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. The obscure reason goes like this: the prayers Baruch Mordecai and Arur Haman, both taken from the “lily of Jacob” hymn sung after reading Megillat Esther, have the same numerical value of 502. Therefore, the rabbis said we drink until we don’t know any better.
Have a designated driver on hand!
Music for Purim tends to be either satirical or informational, such as long songs with many stanzas that describe the Purim story. Amnon Shiloah, the author of Jewish Musical Traditions, said: “…people felt they should forget, even if only for a short time, the drabness and afflictions of the dispersion and on happy occasions released their pent-up tensions.” He adds that “dance has a vital function in the Jewish community on two important holidays: on Purim and Simchat Torah.”
Zvi Idelsohn also discussed Purim in his book, “Historical Development of Jewish Music.” He maintained that song and rejoicing were already in place during the Talmudic era, largely consisting of vernacular songs. Purim was the exception to the ban on play-acting. In the time of the Gaonim in Babylonia, it was common to dramatize the story of Esther. The spiel as we know it today originated in the early 18th century. The first recorded one was in 1708, published in Frankfurt, Germany, and called “Ahasveros Spiel.” Idelsohn maintained that the spiel was the beginning of Jewish theater and melodrama.
by Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Read these ten vows carefully. First seek only to understand their meaning and intent. Then ask yourself whether or not they speak to you. Do they challenge you to live up to the principles they espouse? If they do, read them aloud as an affirmation of intent. Speak them as an act of ownership and commitment: This is what I am about as a religious person. These are among the core ideals I seek to manifest in my life through my actions. These are the pillars of truth I lean upon in my quest for spiritual awakening.
1. YHVH, the Unnamed and Unnameable Reality, is God, the Source and Substance of all Being and Becoming.
Aware that the ego forever creates gods in its own image for its own profit, I vow to recognize all ideas about God as products of human culture, bound by history and circumstance, and forever incapable of defining and describing the Reality Beyond Naming. Aware that the human being is capable of encountering God and of articulating that encounter through myth, metaphor, art, and music, I vow to enter into dialogue with other faiths and their followers to appreciate and experience more fully the depth of human spirituality, insight, and creativity. In this way do I vow to establish a common bond with all spiritual seekers recognizing that we are each particularist practitioners of a Universal Truth.
2. YHVH cannot be imagined and must not be imaged.
Aware of the suffering caused by allegiance to dogma and creed, I vow never to make idols of ideas or to mistake any ism for the Is. All religious teaching is human in origin and therefore subject to error, illusion, prejudice, pride, and politics. All religions are false insofar as they claim to be true. All religions are true insofar as they recognize and admit to being false. I vow to practice meditation as a means of emptying the mind of thought and image and thereby awakening to God.
3. Do not misuse religion or spirituality by taking God in vain.
Aware of the suffering caused by the misuse of God and religion in the quest of power, I vow never to mistake my path as the Path, my truth as the Truth, my idea of God as God, YHVH, Reality, but to surrender my opinion to the greater unknowing that is the One Beyond Knowing. I dedicate myself to humility in matters of the spirit, recognizing that at best I glimpse but an infinitesimal slice of the infinite Whole.
4. Remember the Sabbath and set it apart.
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful living, I vow to cultivate Shabbat as a weekly day of mindfulness and attention, setting it aside for rest, renewal, reflection, and re-creation. I vow to cultivate the Sabbaths of the seventh year and the seventh cycle of years. In the sabbatical year I vow to rethink my priorities and reassess the decisions I have made that have brought me to this place in my life. I vow to make the changes that may be necessary to set my life firmly on a just and compassionate path. In the jubilee year I vow to free myself of debt and to help free those who are indebted to me. I vow to work toward a just world where all are free to develop their fullest potential.
5. Honor your mother and your father.
Aware of the suffering caused by old age, illness, and death, I vow to care for my parents to the best of my ability. Recognizing that no parent is perfect, I acknowledge the sacrifices that were made on my behalf and the role my own behavior played and continues to play in my family’s evolution. I vow to cultivate reconciliation with my parents and to merit their respect by living according to the highest that is in me. I vow to promote the well-being of all elderly people, doing what I can to honor and respect both aging and the aged and seeing in the old a repository of wisdom and experience necessary for right living and a healthy and honorable society.
6. Do not murder.
Aware of the suffering caused by the needless and wanton destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and justice and learn ways to protect the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to murder, not to let others murder, and not to condone any act of murder in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life. I recognize that murder refers not only to the literal taking of life, but to the killing of dignity. I vow to practice gentleness and respect toward all, learning how to struggle for what is right without falling prey to what is wrong.
7. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate sexual responsibility and not to engage in sexual relations without compassion and commitment. I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children and adults from sexual abuse and to eliminate sexually transmitted disease. I vow to honor my body and the bodies of others by treating all beings with respect and dignity. I vow to hallow pleasure and the senses by seeing the wonder of life within and around me. I vow to uphold the holiness of sexuality by never degrading it, myself, or another through violence, ignorance, or deceit.
8. Do not steal.
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, theft, and oppression, I vow to practice acts of loving-kindness toward all things. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those in need. I vow not to steal or keep anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, yet work for the wise use of all earthly resources. I vow to cultivate peace by refraining from acts of violence (both verbal and physical), doing whatever I can to protect others from violence, and working with others to end violence in society as a whole.
9. Do not lie.
Aware of the suffering caused by wrongful speech and shallow listening, I vow to cultivate compassionate speech and attentive listening. I vow to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, compassion, justice, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain or to share information that will cause needless harm. I vow not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure and to cultivate an open mind. I will refrain from uttering words that cause needless division or discord, and I will make every effort to reconcile differences peacefully and compassionately and resolve all conflicts, however small.
10. Do not covet.
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate ethical eating, drinking, and consuming, to promote both personal and planetary well-being. I vow to live simply, to enjoy what I have before seeking to have more, and to labor for that which I desire honestly and justly. I vow to honor the differing gifts of people and to respect the property of others, seeing in another’s success inspirational lessons for my own efforts.