Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Rosh HaShanah Evening Sermon on Different Kinds of Learning ...

“A Willingness to Learn”

By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein

Temple Israel of West Palm Beach

Copyright 2012


Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon – 2012


Gut yuntif.

Before attending rabbinical school, I was part of a group that met each week to study the Torah portion of the week.  The group was part of my synagogue, but no rabbi attended, so our eldest, most knowledgeable, participant prepared each week and took charge.

Al was then in his 70’s … he had grown up orthodox, attending cheder [orthodox religious school] as a child, and was later introduced to Reform Judaism by his grown daughters.  He embraced the idea that we could challenge what was in the Torah and it was with him that I first read the Torah all the way through, having attended Torah study every week for an entire year.  It was truly a Shehechiyanu moment for me.

Later, while I was in rabbinical school, I was able to come home and work at my home congregation in Las Vegas for 4 full-time summers and two academic years, and it was then that I became the teacher and Al became my student … but no matter the title conferred on either of us, both of us always said we learned from, and with, each other.

In my last position in Austin, Texas, I had the honor, and responsibility, of meeting with all the B’nai Mitzvah students to help them learn about their Torah portion and help them write their very first D’var Torah. 

During that first meeting, I would ask them, “What is a D’var Torah?” to which they would always say, “It’s my speech.” 

It was then I had to tell them that a D’var Torah is not a speech … and then we would talk about what the words actually mean.

Like lots of words in Hebrew, the word d’var, can mean more than one thing … actually, it can actually mean the word, “thing,” in addition to meaning “word.”  Then I would ask the kids, but what does the word “Torah” mean?

Pretty much all of the kids said it meant the “Five Books of Moses” and I would get to tell them they were sorta’ correct … yes, that is what A Torah is, but what does the wordTorah” itself actually mean?

After helping them understand that some people say the word Torah is related to the Hebrew word Morah, which means teacher, we would work our way backwards to understanding that Torah can also be translated into several different English words … for example, it can mean “Instruction” or “Teaching” or “Doctrine” … and that on the day they became a bar or bat mitzvah, they were going to give things of instruction or words of instruction to the community, in other words, they were going to be writing a lesson and they were going to be the teacher that day. 

And, in order to become the best teacher possible, they were going to have to learn everything they could about their Torah portion … together, we were going to learn from, and with, each other and then, on their big day, they were going to get to be the teacher.


[Formal vs. Informal Learning]

Today marks my 11 week anniversary here at Temple Israel … and, during this short period, I’ve been spending my time doing two kinds of learning from, and with, lots of people here. 

The formal learning I’ve been doing has consisted of adult education classes and Torah study throughout the summer and, for the kids, Religious School began this past week.  By the way, this is a great time to plug Temple Israel’s fabulous adult education program, Temple Israel Learns … you should have received the catalog in the mail by now – if not, make sure to pick one up while you’re here.  Take a look at it and you’ll find classes on so many subjects, like hands-on art classes and art appreciation classes, music appreciation, meditation, yoga, classes on social justice issues, information on our book group, TI Reads, and, of course, lots of fun classes on different aspects of Judaism … I’m even teaching a Hebrew class for people who think they can’t learn Hebrew … anything sound interesting, yet? 

But probably much more difficult than the formal learning we choose to do like taking classes through TI Learns is the informal learning each of us needs to do just to navigate our lives. 


[Informal Learning … “What Makes People Tick”]

For me, the informal learning I’ve been doing this summer here at Temple Israel has been so much more than just learning people’s names … it has been about learning about the culture of Temple Israel and figuring out how to avoid accidental potholes … I’ve been trying to figure out people’s passions and interests, what they want help in making a success, what makes our congregation tick, what ticks people off, and how can I help them understand that, if I don’t happen to be doing exactly the same thing that’s always been done, perhaps I might have a reason for doing it … this is the hard kind of informal learning going on in my daily life … it’s probably not so different than the relationships in yours.

What’s another way of looking at informal learning about relationships?

Informal learning is sometimes that kind of learning you might say happens TO you after the fact, only after looking backwards, as we might say, with hindsight.  It might even be a kind of accidental learning, a kind of learning you didn’t do willingly, perhaps even a kind of learning you did more learning from an experience rather than learning during the experience?  It’s that kind of learning where you wish you had a roadmap or a manual or a set of instructions to look at before starting on the journey … oh wait, we Jews do have that, it’s that life instruction manual we have called the Torah … the Torah instructs us regarding how we are supposed to treat ourselves and others.


[Learning About, and From, Torah]

One of the things I love about learning Torah is that, fundamentally, it is a story about community. 

It is the story of a man who took his entire family and set off on a journey to an unknown to a land that God would show him and his descendants. 

It is the story about a community figuring out who they were, and who they could become. 

It is the story about a community of people learning how to live according to shared values. 

It is the story about people taking on the obligation to care for each other. 

It is a story about relationships, both good and bad … it is about mending relationships … it is about understanding that one’s tribe or family is a priority, while understanding that those not part of the tribe still matter. 

The Torah is an instruction manual for life.


[You Have to Actually Read the Instruction Manual for It to Be Helpful]

But have you ever tried to put something together without reading the instruction manual?  How about putting an IKEA bookshelf together without at least looking at the pictures?  All those little pieces can feel overwhelming. 

That little instruction manual comes right in the box, but for it to be useful we have to pick it up and read it, maybe even twice or three times or four, we have to really digest it, pick it apart and figure out what parts make sense to apply to your life, and put its teachings into action.

Otherwise, as my B’nai Mitzvah kids used to say, the Torah is just a book.

As I have been getting to know our very special k’hilah k’doshah, our holy community, I have been listening intently to learn about your frustrations, hopes, and priorities … best of all, I have heard a tremendous sense of optimism as we try to discover things we can do to help Temple Israel build upon its successes of the past and become an even stronger community than it has been in recent days.

As I sit with so many of you, I am cognizant of the need to learn from Temple Israel’s past, and, together, we are learning to take the chance to become a renewed Temple Israel, just a little bit different than we were before.  We are learning together to take a few risks to step outside of the box that has a label on it that says, “the way we’ve always done it” … and we have even tried a few things again that might not have worked in the past, this time trying to learn from our mistakes and approach things from a slightly different angle. 

As we continue to experiment, though, please know that I’m pretty certain we are going to make a few mistakes along the way, but I am thrilled with the passion I have heard and experienced regarding a willingness to simply “try.”

Yes, all you have to do is look at me to know that I am different than all of Temple Israel’s prior rabbis ... but I want you to know that I have a willingness to work hard and learn from, and with, you, just as I have seen a willingness from so many of you to learn more about the Rabbi you selected to lead this congregation.


[“Different” Can Be Difficult, But Sometimes Necessary, to Move Forward] 

With that in mind, and in the spirit of the holidays, I’m going to ask you all for a favor … if you decide you’re not quite sure whether I’m doing something “the right way,” meaning the way it’s always been done, I ask you to stop for a moment and consider that different isn’t always wrong (and I’m working on remembering that, too, not just in my work life, but in my personal life as well).  We all have to remember that different isn’t necessarily bad, sometimes different is just different … and, yes, sometimes, different can be a great learning opportunity for everyone. 

Growing up in Georgia, my momma taught me a great old maxim which makes even more sense from an organizational perspective now that I’m a grow-up … she said, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.”  This brilliant simple lesson she taught me is perfect for the HHDs season … in other words, we must be willing to examine our prior actions enough to figure out if and when a change should be made.

Here at Temple Israel, we are being very intentional about making the few changes we have made so far.  For example, there might be a few things that sound just a little bit different this HHDs season … we are intentionally moving Temple Israel toward a more mainstream-Reform-sounding Amidah, so tonight’s Amidah might have sounded a little bit different than you remember … but, once you get used to the very slight liturgical changes being introduced, I promise it will be easier when you travel to other Reform synagogues. 

And then there is the change of the Shabbat service time … and the new philosophy and structure surrounding celebrating Shabbat. 

You know, Temple Israel has been through a lot of different service times in the past 12 years, and I know this because our great Executive Director, Linda Solomon, gave me the times for the past 12 years … and, from speaking with lots of members, we’ve learned a lot about service times … we’ve learned that families believe 730pm is too late for bedtime, which is why it has been a rarity to see children at services.

We’ve also learned that people like the idea of making an “evening out” of seeing their friends and praying as a community, so we are working on creating an entire “Shabbat experience.”  To that end, Michael Jonas brought us the idea of a pre-service Oneg, which we call a “Proneg” as a way of having a light bite and maybe a glass of wine, to help folks wind down from the busy week before Shabbat services. 

With a 530pm Proneg, people can come straight from work and have something to tide them over until after services at 630pm, then they can stay for our fabulous dessert Oneg.  But, 6:30 is also flexible enough so that, if someone wants to go home after work, they can pick up their family and still have time to come back for services … and we’ve learned that people who like to eat dinner after services can do that, too.  Being both family-friendly and adult friendly … we’re trying to learn from our experience about what people say is important to them and we’re trying something new to see how it works out … together, we are learning to be open to taking some risks.

Temple Israel is also being intentional about helping members learn how decisions are made and how things get done around here.  In seven sessions from February to May, we will be inviting interested folks to participate in our new Leadership Development Program, chaired by our Past President, Roslyn Leopold.  The goal of this program is to give people an insider’s view regarding how Temple Israel works: how our Committees get things done, how the Board is selected, and how we will be working together with other Jewish institutions in the future to strengthen the entire Jewish community, so please consider stepping outside of your box and trying something new this winter … please let me and Roslyn know if you are interested.  We think this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone involved and can only strengthen Temple Israel and secure its future.


[The World Stands on Three Things:  Torah, Worship, and Acts of Lovingkindness]

There is a wonderful, often-quoted, line from a section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot, which is usually translated as the “Ethics of our Fathers,” which says the following:

Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omeid:  On three things, the world stands … al haTorah, v’al haAvodah, v’al G’milut Chasadim:  the world stands on three things:  on Torah study, which means learning, on worship (or service) to God, and on acts of loving-kindness.

The sages taught that, when the second Temple was destroyed, there was no place for the sacrifices God had commanded us to do to be performed.  In their stead, and I would say thankfully, our way of communicating with God, showing God respect, and continuing our relationship with God, changed from acts of sacrifice to these three acts upon which the world stands:  acts of studying Torah, that is, learning about our relationships with ourselves and others; acts of worship or service to God; and acts of loving-kindness.  Like a three-legged stool, we are taught that all three of these are needed to maintain balance in our relationship with God.

Tomorrow morning, we will discuss the second of these three items on which the world stands:  what it means to be in service to God and, on Kol Nidre, we will discuss the third item, the impact of acts of loving-kindness for ourselves, our families, and the greater world. 

Tonight, though, when you leave, I want you to think about Torah being an instruction manual for our lives, and how we can incorporate Jewish values and traditions into how we make decisions, how we act, how we treat others each and every day … .

I want you to think about how we can incorporate intentional, proactive learning into our daily lives and how intentional, proactive learning can bring greater meaning to how we see the world … .

I want you to think about how we can learn from, and with, each other in order to better navigate the world in our personal lives … I want you to think about how we can learn to appreciate differences we find in others and the things that make each of us unique … and I want you to think about how we can learn new things together and move forward united as a stronger community.

Yes, even though it’s only been 11 weeks, I’ve already learned so much from, and with, so many of you … as we continue to learn together, maybe taking a few risks here and there along the way, stepping outside our comfort zones along the way, and maybe, just maybe, if we are willing to check out God’s little instruction manual every once in a while, I think we’re in for one heck of a ride.

Gut yuntif.

My Morning Rosh HaShanah Sermon on the Working Poor and Our Obligation to Help Our Neighbors ...

“Lighting Up the Neighborhood”

By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein

Temple Israel of West Palm Beach

Copyright 2012


Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon – 2012


            Gut yuntif.

            I want to start this morning by telling you a story about a little girl I know. 

She’s from a nice middle class family, her dad has a special skill and works for a government contractor and her mom stays at home, volunteering with the PTA and running a troop of Brownies and being the team mom for her son’s little league baseball team. 

They live in a medium-sized house in the suburbs and have two cars, one a couple years old and the second a few years older than that. 

They have reasonably nice, but not too extravagant, furniture in their medium-sized house, and the kids get new toys on a somewhat regular basis, but not so often that they are spoiled.

But then dad loses his job through no fault of his own … and the bottom falls out of their family financially.

This is the story of a family that had done everything right … they actually had the recommended 6 months of savings in the bank … and, still, everything fell apart.

To make ends meet, mom babysits kids all day, every day, in their home.  Dad takes a job working in another field, at a salary significantly lower than his skilled trade paid, just to try to make ends meet.

But no matter how much they both work, things get worse and worse over time … they tighten their belts, but they can never seem to catch up … and, even though they both work, and even though they had the suggested 6 months’ savings in the bank just like they were supposed to … even though … .

And so they go to get food stamps … and every once in a while they receive government surplus food like green beans in great big, huge cans and jars of peanut butter and boxes of dry milk … and when the little girl is asked what her favorite food is, she answers:  “Government Cheese,” saying, “nothing makes a grilled cheese sandwich like government cheese.”

The people I’m describing are the working poor, people who struggle to make ends meet and keep food on the table, even though they work hard every day to do everything right for their families.  They pay taxes and they volunteer in their community but, in their “new normal,” they just can’t seem to get ahead.


[What Does it Mean to Serve God?]

Last night, I introduced a piece of text from Pirke Avot, often called the Ethics of Our Fathers, which says, Al shlosha d’varim haolam omeid:  On three things the world stands:  Al hatorah, on the study of Torah (and learning);  v’al ha’avodah, and on worship or service to God;  v’al g’milut chasadim, and on acts of lovingkindness.

We talked about learning last night … this morning, we focus on the word, avodah, yet another Hebrew word with more than one meaning.

When hearing avodah, I first think of the word “worship” as its translation, but then again, I’m a rabbi.  I think most non-rabbis, though, would initially translate the word as “work” … avodah is your sorta’ plain ordinary work … it’s your “job.”  That doesn’t sound much like worship, does it?

And then there's my favorite definition for avodah … I love translating avodah as service.  I like that being “in service to others” for God’s sake is one of the three things necessary for our world to be in balance.

Worship, work, and service … three very different definitions for a single Hebrew word.

I once asked a group of kids which one of these three God might want us to do the most of … and almost all said worship.  They all thought God wanted us to pray more than anything else.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love seeing all of your faces out there this morning, but if I could only do one thing to express my Judaism, I would think of the Haftarah text we read on Yom Kippur from the book of Isaiah … when God, speaking through Isaiah, says:


-       Is this the fast I have chosen?  A day of self-affliction?

-       Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?

-       Is not [instead] THIS the fast I have chosen:

-       To unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to tear every yoke apart?

-       Surely it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, never withdrawing yourself from your own kin.


When I read a prophet like Isaiah, who in modern times we would just think of as schizophrenic or just plain crazy, I hear God saying we have a call to action greater than fasting on Yom Kippur … my mind immediately goes to verses from the Torah about how we choose to treat each other, thinking not just about the people we already know, but also the people we not only don’t already know, but also probably people we really don’t WANT to know.


[Sources in Support of Our Obligation to Act in Service to Each Other and God]

            I hear this verse in my head:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [i]  And then I hear the unspoken answer, “Of course, I am.”

And I hear this verse in my head:  “Love your neighbor as yourself” [ii] … although I think that some of us might need to love our neighbors better than we love ourselves, because some of us don’t treat ourselves very well.

            And I hear this verse in my head:   “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” [iii]

            And, because of this focus on how we treat our neighbors, I have been forced to ask myself … who is my neighbor?  Why do I have to treat them so well?  Why should I feel obligated to do anything for a stranger?

            One simple answer is repeated over and over again in the Torah … because you were strangers in the land of Egypt and you didn’t like it so much when no one stood up for you … you didn’t like it so much when no one helped you … and if you didn’t like it, don’t do it to anyone else.


[Who are the People in Temple Israel’s Neighborhood?]

So let’s take a look at our neighborhood here at Temple Israel, zip code 33407 … or, as the old Sesame Street song goes, “who are the people in the neighborhood?”

I’m sure all of you know this, but I recently learned that the neighborhood next to where Temple Israel sits is called “Pleasant City,” right near the now-revitalizing area of Northwood … so close to us, where so many of the people in our neighborhood are struggling, that maybe it isn’t so “pleasant.” 

25% of Temple Israel’s zip code lives in poverty.  The median per capita income in this zip code is around $18,000 per year and over 50% of the people in our neighborhood are eligible for food stamps.[iv]  These are people living in a darkened world.

For months now, our partner, CROS Ministries had been planning to open a new West Palm Beach Food Pantry, at a multicultural center just 4 blocks from Temple Israel … but, even though the Food Pantry had been requested to be put in Pleasant City by city officials because of desperate need in our area, a different city agency is now questioning whether CROS’ efforts would draw additional homeless people to the area … and now the plan is on the backburner. 

Consequently, and until this food pantry is allowed to open, people in West Palm still have to figure out how to get to Lake Worth or Riviera Beach because of the “not in my back yard” issues.   By the way, you should know that only 2% of the people served by CROS food pantries are actually homeless since food pantries generally have very little ready-to-eat, no-cooking-required food … you should also know that all of CROS’ food pantries primarily serve people already in the neighborhood or in neighboring communities. 

But what really gets me is that having a food pantry in the neighborhood could actually help revitalize the area … if people could get food so they can eat, perhaps crime would go down … and when children receive proper nutrition, they might even pass in school.  Sounds like a “win-win” to me.


[The National Circles Campaign]

            Recently, I attended a "poverty simulation game” sponsored by the Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County, introducing a new program called the National Circles Campaign.  The simulation was held at a community center maybe two miles from here, but in reality, it was a lifetime away.

            The “game” if you will, went like this … each person was assigned a role to play simulating a month in the life of a real family … everyone had a role and my role was to be the 8 year old daughter of a single mom with two kids.  Because it was a poverty simulation, of course, the expenses of the family outweighed the income, but the best thing about the simulation was that it helped explain how a low-income makes choices, week by week, and how they move through “the system.”

            For example, try getting yourself to a government agency which is only open from 8:30-5:00 when you actually ARE a working person. 

And what if you are in line, but you haven’t been helped, and the clock turns 5?  Too bad, you are told to come back tomorrow … and that’s possibly another day not working. 

Or how about getting yourself to the County Human Services office because you can’t pay your rent and being told they can only give you $50?

Or how about trying to get food stamps?  Most people don’t apply until they are already desperate … and then, if they are eligible, it takes1-2 months before you get them.  What are you supposed to do to feed your kids between now and then?

            And, by the way, if you do qualify, the average is $31 per person in the household per week … how many of us can eat an even-close-to-healthy diet on $31 per week?  I tried to figure it out based on what I usually eat and I couldn’t do it.  I am a pretty good little shopper and I would have run out before the week ended.

            So how do you navigate the maze of getting yourself out of the cycle of poverty?

The National Circles Campaign creates circles of people in poverty working with middle and upper-middle class allies on their journey towards self-sufficiency.

The program works like this:  what if we trained people choosing to get out of poverty to learn the hidden rules of socio-economic classes?  What if we taught them how these hidden rules can serve as barriers to effective communication and advancement?  What if we helped them understand the long-term ramifications that poverty has on their health, their children’s future, and their communities?  What if we helped people develop a plan for a stable, secure future for their family?

I think about what a simple concept this is … and yet how profound. 

Already in 70 cities, I think participating in a program like this is really one of the most true examples of loving your neighbor as yourself, and not standing by while your neighbor bleeds … if we but choose to help to break the cycle of poverty one family at a time.


[Can We Ever Really Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes?]

            I can hear some of your voices in my head right now … “but Rabbi, didn’t a lot of these folks make bad choices and shouldn’t they suffer the ramifications of their bad choices?  Why is it my responsibility to help them?”

            Yep, some of them made some really bad choices.  Absolutely, they did. 

But there’s an old saying … never judge someone else until you walk a mile in their shoes … but I’m pretty sure none of us want someone else judging every choice we make regarding how we spend our money and, really, what it comes down to is that no one can really walk in someone else’s shoes.

Which brings me back to that story of the little girl at the beginning of my talk. 


That little girl was me. 


My dad was a union aircraft mechanic who was laid off for four years and, thankfully, got a job at our synagogue being sort of the Assistant Building Manager, which was probably someone like Earnton’s supervisor, but he did all of Earnton’s job, too. 

My family got food stamps and my favorite food in the entire world is government cheese.

It could happen to anyone. 

Anyone in this room … anyone in this neighborhood … anyone in your neighborhoods. 

My parents were amazing people who worked hard to raise good kids and who were hit by a job loss and a recession.

Our Christian friends and neighbors use the phrase, “there but the grace of God go I,” but in Judaism, we aren’t passive saying, “thank you that we have not been affected,” because when one of God’s children is affected, all of us should feel affected.


[A Call to Action]

And so, as we stand together during this holiday season, no, this holy day season, where we believe we will be judged by our actions … our action or inaction of whether we shared our bread with the hungry, our action or inaction of whether we housed the homeless, our action or inaction of whether we clothed the naked … I ask you to consider some very simple things you can do to help alleviate hunger in our community, you might even call it your fairly painless "High Holy Days' To Do List”:


-       Buy an extra … when something nutritious is on sale, buy an extra and leave it in your car for your next trip to Temple Israel.  Or, when you see a buy-one-get-one-free deal, bring the second one when you come … after all, that mitzvah wouldn’t even cost you a penny.

-       When you are thinking about donating food, consider the staples that we will be focusing on each month for the food pantry … think about things like dry milk, beans, peanut butter, tuna, 2 pound bags of rice … and think about cleaning out your pantry between now and Yom Kippur and bringing in not just one bag, but two or three … when I volunteered at the Riviera Beach Food Pantry recently, I learned that a family of four gets two bags of food … only once every two months at the Riviera pantry because they get 50-60 families each day they are open … if they had more food, they could open more often and they could give food out to a family in need every month.

-       But, if you prefer to “do Jewish” from your house with your giving instead of giving to CROS, donate to Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger.  You can find them at on the internet and make a direct donation there.

-       On the other hand, if you want to make sure your gift stays really “local,” the best thing you can do is to donate to CROS.  While CROS is sorting out the politics, we will be helping them get ready to open the new West Palm Beach Food Pantry with our Annual High Holy Days' Food Drive, and then helping to restock them throughout the year with our special donation “focus item” each month … and, because Temple Israel is taking on the responsibility of being a “Founding Supporting Congregation,” I’d love for folks to think about bringing even one can of something to each meeting you attend, think about bringing one package of mac and cheese to services each time you come, and think about bringing a package of dry beans to every class you take.  To most of us in this room, it’s not much, but to one of those children who make up 40% of the clients of the Riviera food pantry, it could be the difference between going to bed with a full stomach … or going to bed hungry.


Well, I’ve outed myself. 


I went through my early life knowing poverty as it exists in America pretty well … and I know some of you out there did, too … but no matter how bad we think our situation is currently, all of us here are probably better off than our neighbors and there is still something we can give to help end poverty and its effects.  For the Circles Campaign, it is the gift of time.  For our hungry neighbors, including the working poor, we can donate food and volunteer in the new Pantry when it opens.  You see, we do have the power to lighten our neighbors' darkened world.


[There are No Valid Excuses for Not Acting]

Remember, no child ever caused him- or herself to be poor or to be hungry.  Poverty and hunger are never the fault of a child.  Never.  Not ever.

And no matter whose fault you think these things might be, no child should ever have to go to bed hungry in any of our neighborhoods.  My family was lucky that we sorta’, eventually, figured out how to manage with our “new normal” … but not all families can figure this out on their own. 

Sometimes families need a little help through difficult times and sometimes they need a little help up … and it is up to us, as Jews, to do it because, if nothing else, because we know it’s the right thing to do … it is the right thing to do to be in service to God by being in service to those in need.


But if that doesn’t motivate you, try this … we should all help because we never know who one of those kids in our neighborhood might turn out to be … she could turn out to be your new rabbi.


Gut yuntif.


[i] Genesis 4:9.
[ii]  Leviticus 19:18.
[iii] Leviticus 19:16.
[iv] Interview with Reverend Pam Cahoon, Director of CROS Ministries.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On an Unexpected Path This New Year ...

So many last minute pieces to finish the puzzle ... as I said in my sermon this past Friday: "The HHDs are coming!  The HHDs are coming!"

Tonight we begin celebrating the Jewish New Year, the year of 5773 to be exact.  We eat round challah to remind us of the circle of time.  We dip apples into honey in hopes of a sweet year, and we celebrate with family and friends.  More importantly, though, this is a time for reflection.  The season change is upon us. 

When I think back to where I was a year ago, I cannot believe the journey I have taken.  Interviewing all over the country and having the luxury to be able to choose the community I wanted to work with was definitely one highlight of the past year, but there were so many others ... there were the sweet and bittersweet goodbyes from all those I loved in Austin, seeing my first B'nai Mitzvah kids there enter high school, and watching the babies I met graduate from pre-school.  Austin helped me find myself and who I wanted to become ... it changed me forever.

And now I begin a new year in West Palm Beach.  In a million years, I could never have imagined that my journey would lead me all over the country from my childhood home in Georgia, to come back to a place my dad always wanted to live (he even went so far as to buy a lot here for our family to build a home on someday).  It is strange the paths we end up on, unintentionally sometimes, but West Palm Beach is beginning to feel like home.

Shanah tovah u'metukah ... may we all have a good and sweet year to come ... who knows where our journeys will take us?   : )

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Standing on the Bimah with a Wonderful Partner ...

I often say that I am the luckiest Rabbi in the world ... and I mean it.  Tonight was another example of being at a great place in my life with great people. 

When a Rabbi retires from a congregation, they sometimes "disappear" to give the new Rabbi "space" to establish themselves within their new community ... tonight, I am particularly thankful that Rabbi Shapiro accepted my invitation to lead S'lichot services with me. 

A consummate gentleman, he has been nothing but supportive of my rabbinate here in West Palm Beach.  More importantly, I believe the two of us leading services together was a wonderful showing of continuity here at Temple Israel ... and so, as we begin the new year together, my prayer for our entire Temple Israel community is that we all can continue to learn from him, and with him, for many years to come.  : )

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Discombobulation ...

Psychologists say that moving and starting a new job are two of the most stressful activities a person can undertake.  (I believe marriage, divorce, and death of a loved one are the others included in the top five.)  While learning the names of new streets, new people, and new places has definitely been an adventure, I think the most interesting part of beginning my new position at Temple Israel of West Palm Beach has been stepping into people's ongoing narratives. 

I have to remember that I jumped into folks' lives mid-stream.  They were in the middle of summer vacation, in the middle of illness, and the middle of their jobs.  I've jumped into a synagogue going through transition for several years now, where folks are excited about beginning anew, yet really it is also mid-stream since synagogue communities are always in the process of re-newing themselves. 

Trying to get "caught up to speed" regarding not only people's lives, while also learning the how-to's of "how things have been done" has been challenging ... and, despite my best efforts to be intentional about learning it all as fast as I could, I have to admit that I've accidentally missed a few things here and there along the way.  Yes, there have been a couple of potholes, small ones, but potholes nonetheless.  Unfortunately, these (thankfully few) accidental gaffes have been minor, but they have reinforced the idea of the importance of narrative in my life ... and the challenges of jumping in mid-stream into someone else's.

My hope is that folks will engage in the teachings of the month of Elul and realize that these gaffes and, more importantly, any differences in the ways are now done are not personal .. and that they realize they have also jumped into my life mid-stream.  There will be a "new normal" here at Temple Israel while we figure each other out and it will take a little bit of patience to build trust with each other ... but we will figure each other out. 

I looked at the calendar today and realized it has been a tad more than 2 months since I moved from Texas to Florida ... I also reminded myself to have a little patience because it will take a little longer than I expected before I feel like I didn't step in mid-stream and before I feel like I am part of the story.  However, I am confident that, working together, I will become part of, and we will build, a great new narrative for Temple Israel.   : )

Monday, September 3, 2012

What is the Meaning of Labor Day These Days?

Labor Day has become a day full of sales, with everyone looking for the best deal on pretty much everything.  But today, I stopped to think about the meaning behind the day, and thought about how the union my dad belonged to negotiated a contract with my dad's employer that put braces on my teeth and gave our family good enough health insurance such that when his heart began to give out, he received good medical care which eventually meant he received a new heart.  Without his union membership, I'm not sure these things would have been available to me and my family. 

Labor Day celebrates the accomplishments of the American worker to organize himself with others to ensure a safe workplace and to earn a fair wage.  This is so much more meaningful than Labor Day being all about getting a good deal at a sale.  Food for thought.