Shabbat Message

Rabbi Sharyn Henry, Rodef Shalom Congregation
January 10, 2014                   9 Shevat, 5774

Make a Joyful Noise
Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16

The public radio program “Radiolab” recently aired a story about a man expressing pure joy. The man, Aleksander Gamme, is an adventurer; the event happened on day 86 of his three-month trek to and from the South Pole. On that day, Gamme discovered a bag he had stashed under ice at the start of his trip. He was famished, exhausted and weary, but when he found two bags of cheese snacks and some
candy, his cries of joy were unchecked, unrestrained and complete.
Why even mention such a thing? What’s so interesting about an expression of joy that the program devoted 10 minutes to it? The hosts of the show were taken aback by the man’s expression of joy, and commented that it is rare that we see such expressions of happiness. I agree. In fact, I have often noted this myself. Each time we come to Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea), in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, I imagine that the joy of the Israelites was total, exuberant and loud. And then I wonder why we are so restrained upon reading the account. Where are our shouts of joy, our spontaneous songs, our unchoreographed dances?
I have the same reaction with every repetition of Psalm 150, Hallelu-yah, the final psalm, the one that calls us to praise God with all of the musical instruments, all of our voices, all of our souls. Where is our joy? Why don’t we clap and sing out? Where are our outbursts of laughter?
A story about two rabbis and their families who spend a Shabbat together on vacation tells us something about what we might be missing: These two families, camping in the mountains ate, their Shabbat meals together, and afterward they sang zmirot (Shabbat songs).
After lunch, the two rabbis took a walk. Along the way they encountered a man, head completely shaven, who stopped and introduced himself. He told them that he was a Buddhist monk, and that he had been meditatingnear the building where they were staying. While
sitting under the tree, he had heard them singing zmirot. At first, he thought his soul was experiencing heavenly chants; then he realized that the sounds had a more earthly tone.
As they continued to speak, the monk revealed that he had been born Jewish and had the Hebrew name Yaakov. He had had a bar mitzvah many years before, but had found Judaism “lacking beauty and spirituality.” He admitted that he had tried, on numerous occasions, to attend synagogue services, but found each experience uninspiring. Therefore, he went searching among other religions until he became a
Buddhist monk.
After hearing his story, the rabbis assured the monk that what he thought was a great revelation was indeed just that. It was the zmirot of Shabbat calling him back home, showing him that life abounds with radiance and beauty and that our practice of Judaism provides a means by which we can express our gratitude and our joy.
What would happen if we allowed ourselves to truly show our feelings of joy — for Shabbat, for our families, for our friends, for the abundance in our lives? As we read the liberation narratives in our weekly Torah portion, this week and for the next several weeks, let’s see what happens if we allow ourselves to express our joy. We can start by singing out with our voices. Who knows? Next year we might even clap our hands!

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.


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February 15, 2013 5 Adar, 5773

Teruma: Benefits of group worship
Teruma, Exodus 25:1-27:19

What benefit does a person obtain from attending services in his or her synagogue? After all, can’t a person pray anywhere and anytime?

This week’s Torah portion, Teruma, reminds me of a story. A man told his rabbi that he did not make it to synagogue much anymore since he moved into a new neighborhood. He said he believed he didn’t need it as much.

Replied the rabbi: “You’re only thinking of yourself. Perhaps there may be someone else there who needs the strength that you can give.”

When we are in synagogue, we are connected — to G-d above and to each other. It is this sense of connectedness that many people describe as spirituality. They feel a sense of higher purpose, and of being part of something larger than oneself.

Yes, we could say the same prayers in the convenience of our own living rooms. After all, G-d is everywhere. But we would miss the inspiring and symbolic architecture of the synagogue, the voices of others singing and praying with us, and the social interactions that are so important.

The Torah portion of Teruma describes in detail the construction of the Mishkan, the portable temple that the Jewish people used in the desert. It describes the Holy Ark, the table with the showbread and the altar. All of the individual furnishings were important, but the most important was the overall impact on those who went to worship in that place.

It was a place that carried the holy name of G-d. It was a house of G-d. Not a house for G-d to dwell in. He needs no such structure. But it was a house in which we could tangibly feel the presence of G-d and a place to connect to His people.

Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Eli Seidman, Jewish Association on Aging
January 4, 2013 22 Tevet, 5773


The Three Signs
Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

Moshe was called by G-d to be the leader of Israel, and to take out the Israelites from Egypt. But he objected that the Israelites would not believe him when he would tell them that G-d had called. Nor would Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

To forestall this possibility, G-d gave Moshe three signs to show Pharaoh and the Israelites that he was indeed called by G-d to lead this holy mission. First, G-d had Moshe throw down his staff and it became a snake. When Moshe picked it up, it became a staff again.

Second, G-d told Moshe to put his hand in his robe. He did so, and his hand became as white as snow. Then it returned to normal.

Lastly, upon G-d’s instructions, Moshe took water from the Nile and poured it on the ground, whereupon it changed into blood.

It seems to me that G-d could have told Moshe to do any miracles to show that he had sent him. So why were these three chosen? Perhaps, writes Rabbi Yaakov Peterseil, because they each had a message.

The first, turning the stick into a snake and back again, demonstrated that the mighty Egyptian army would later become as powerless as a lifeless stick in G-d’s hand. The second — of the hand as white as snow — demonstrated that G-d is the only true healer. He alone can make us sick or healthy. He would bring plagues and disease upon the Egyptians and their cattle. Third, just as the water turned to blood (but not back again), Hashem was saying that the Israelites would leave Egypt and never return.

In this sense, the three signs became an introduction to what was to follow: an epic confrontation between Pharaoh and Egypt versus G-d and Moshe. The story of Exodus inspires us year after year to strive for true freedom, and to put our trust in G-d. For it is always in Him that we can rely, and on His power we can always depend.

Shabbat shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.


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Rabbi Eli Seidman, Jewish Association on Aging
December 28, 2012 15 Tevet, 5773
Flour and Torah

There is a famous Hebrew saying: “Without flour, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no flour.” (Pirke Avot 3:21)

The first part means that a person needs to be realistic when it comes to his (or her) economic life. We must make a living and have the ability to make ends meet. Unless we are able to be financially self-sufficient, we will not be able to afford to support ourselves, or our community institutions.

The second part of this phrase means that financial sustenance cannot be our entire raison d’être. If our values were limited to amassing money, we would be neglecting our primary mission of being a holy nation. The values of Torah must be reflected in everything we do.

Life is a balancing act of these physical and spiritual factors. We must be able to support ourselves, and still be in tune with our spiritual needs.

The importance of both flour and Torah are illustrated in this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi. The tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun were partners. Tradition says that the tribe of Zevulun consisted of merchants who traveled by ship to buy and sell merchandise. The tribe of Yissachar had many Torah students and teachers.

These two tribes came to an understanding: Zevulun agreed to support Yissachar financially, in return for a share of the spiritual merit of Yissachar’s Torah study. Jacob blessed them and their arrangement, saying, “Rejoice Zevulun in your going out and Yissachar in your tents.” (Genesis 33:18)

At the end of the Torah, Moshe our teacher also blessed the 12 tribes. Moshe also makes reference to this unique partnership between Zevulun and Yissachar. The Torah is telling us that we all have a share in the Torah study of our community. We can and should study Torah ourselves. But  pressures of livelihood keep us from devoting as much time and effort to it as we should. The solution that we can derive from this Torah portion (and others) is that we can support Torah study financially and share in the merit created by that study.

Every individual, on his (or her) own level, should study Torah. In addition, we are stakeholders in community Torah study and it deserves our support.

Shabbat shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.


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Alexis Winsten Mancuso, Assistant Executive Director
December 14, 2012 1 Tevet, 5773


As this holiday season continues, the needs of our community’s senior adult population are amplified. Many of them will find themselves alone, having lost their spouses, neighbors, friends and relatives. The number of Jews older than 65 is growing at unprecedented rates and the most rapid growth is among the oldest of the old.

AgeWell Pittsburgh, a collaboration between the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Association on Aging and Jewish Family & Children’s Service with the goal of providing seamless delivery of services to Pittsburgh’s Older Adults, providing support to live as independently as possible, is positioned to respond during the holiday season. Serving more than 4,000 senior adults, AgeWell Pittsburgh operates a number of programs and services. A sampling of those is provided below:

CheckMates: Coordinated by the JCC, a peer-led telephone reassurance program for older adults staffed by senior adult volunteers. It provides an opportunity to identify seniors who may be at risk or in need of services to help them remain independent. Volunteers are trained to recognize individual needs and may contact a professional from AgeWell Pittsburgh to connect seniors to appropriate services.

J Cafe: An innovative kosher congregate meal program funded in part through Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Area Agency on Aging, open Monday through Friday from 11 am – 1 pm at the JCC, providing an array of healthy, nutritious lunch offerings.

Information & Referral: AgeWell Pittsburgh operates an Information and Referral line in response to questions from seniors, family members and loved ones related to the aging continuum @ 412-422-0400. We also offer a senior friendly web site www.agewellpgh.org, and have an Information and Referral Specialist on staff at the JCC.

Elder Express: A senior adult transportation system that caters to the activities of daily living for the senior adults in our community. ElderExpress, operated out of the JCC, runs daily routes throughout the week to the Giant Eagle, the Squirrel Hill Health Center, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, Senior Adult High Rise apartments and other community-based services.

Care Coordination: Licensed clinical social workers with decades of experience, JF&CS care managers provide thorough needs assessments, home visits, advocacy and support to ensure that older adults are receiving the services that will keep them safe and independent.

Caregiver Connection: Having a reliable, trustworthy and caring caregiver is often critical to keeping your aging loved one safely at home. Through JF&CS' licensed homecare registry, Caregiver Connection provides fullyscreened, trained and experienced caregivers for shortor long-term engagements, with 24/7 back-up coverage as needed.

Community Nurse: Operated out of the JAA, AgeWell Pittsburgh’s community nurse travels to local senior high rise apartments in the eastern area providing blood pressure screenings, diabetes screenings, wellness education and information & referral services.

Adult Day Services: The JAA offers a supportive environment for older adults who need supervision throughout the day at Anathan Club. What can you do? In the spirit of Tikun Olam, take a moment out of your busy, hectic schedule to check on a senior neighbor, relative or friend. Should they be in need of services, refer them to AgeWell Pittsburgh, 412-422-0400.

Perhaps now, more than ever, in the spirit of Chanukah, we should “rededicate” ourselves to helping those in need by caring for those who cared

Shabbat Shalom


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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
November 9, 2012 24 Heshvan, 5773


In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), it is written, "anyone who works for the community, let your work with them be for the sake of heaven."
How fortunate we are in Pittsburgh that we have been able to serve community in a regular and routine way these past several weeks. So many of you have been transfixed with images from the east coast and concerned about family members and friends who are coping with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Many of our sister JCCs in New York and New Jersey are in the midst of real crisis, attempting to serve people while unable to operate their facilities at this time. Last week, a note from a close friend who operates a JCC in lower Manhattan captures the essence of so many: “All my sites are without power. One of my residential programs needed to be evacuated Sunday. I have two senior apartment buildings that have no power or water. We are all working remotely with staff on site in our residential programs Not fun. No sense of when power will be restored.”

Our hearts reach out to them and there are many ways to contribute support for those in need through the Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund at 234 McKee Place, Pittsburgh PA 15213 or at www.jfedpgh.org

Yet, In the midst of our everyday JCC life, we still play a vital grass roots role in helping people and linking them to critical services right here in Pittsburgh. In these difficult times, our role in serving community becomes even more critical. I thank the members of our staff for their regular dedicated service and commitment to serving community. Their sense of values and purpose transform our community each and every day. An example of our care for community was brought to my attention over a situation last week:

“A young man came into our building and said he was homeless. He was soaking wet and his hands were ice cold. He had walked in the rain from the Waterfront to Squirrel Hill. Someone at one of the coffee shops suggested that he come to the JCC for help. He had no money or ID and no family or friends in Pittsburgh. I called RESOLVE (a mobile crisis unit) and they came about 3 hours later due to other emergencies. In the meantime, I made some calls to look for dry clothes. Jewish Family & Children’s Service contacted their refugee department and they found some dry clothes to fit a very tall (over 6 ft) man. Security personnel escorted the man to the locker room, while he took a hot shower and put on the dry clothes. We also got him a hot meal from the JCafe (the JCC’s congregate meal program). Later that day, RESOLVE assessed him and gave him a ride to their drop in shelter, where they assured him that they would be able to help connect him to the appropriate resources.”

It was wonderful to watch our staff and our partners work so closely and so quickly to help a stranger.That's our everyday value system in action.


Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom


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Rabbi Michael Werbow, Congregation Beth Shalom
November 2, 2012 17 Heshvan, 5773

Weigh candidates fairly when voting

Imagine the urgency with which Abraham greeted his guests. As soon as he saw them coming he ran to greet them. Once he welcomed them and offered them something to eat, we are told that he “hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Quick, three seahs of choice flour, knead and make cakes.’ ” He wasn’t even using full sentences to give instructions.

Next, we again hear the word for run as he ran to the herd, picked a calf “tender and choice” and gave it to the servant to “quickly” prepare it. We can look at all this running around in two different ways. Either we see it as Abraham’s desire to satisfy his guests as quickly as possible, or, we can view it as he not giving the preparations the time and attention that they really deserved.

Some things should be easy and quick and some things should take time. Some things we should get right to and some things we should take appropriate time to contemplate our actions before making the first move. Many of us will remember the commercials for Paul Masson wines. (Yes, I thought it was Ernest & Julio Gallo, too.) The key line was, “We will sell no wine before its time.”

It is all too easy to rush through things. Especially in our fast-paced world, where so much information is at our disposal whenever we want it and whenever more appliances are meant to make our lives easier, we can learn a lesson from Abraham. It wasn’t until all the rushing around was done that he was finally able to sit with his guests, spend some quality time and hear the important news that they had come to share. Abraham jumped right into action when he saw the visitors. Many of us jump as well when we are confronted by something that reinforces our opinion about a particular
matter.

Soon we will be casting our votes for state and national elections. Throughout the election season, the various candidates have been courting our votes and in doing so share things that cast themselves in a positive light or, more likely, that disparage their opponent. When we hear this information, if it reinforces our opinion we are quick to embrace it, but if it challenges our thoughts we are just as quick to dismiss it. We are quick to take a stance. How many of us have really put our beliefs to the test? Do we spend time evaluating and re-evaluating these beliefs or do we hold onto them blindly without ever subjecting them and ourselves to scrutiny. And, if we do come up against challenges to our beliefs, are we willing to face these challenges and stand up for our beliefs or do we quickly allow our beliefs to be overcome and find it easier to say we don’t believe? Most of us probably fall in a third category. We just say we are unsure and then we don’t have to take the time to do the hard work either way. It is incumbent upon us to exercise our right to vote. We should do so with the best knowledge of the candidates and their positions. However, in doing so, do not be too quick to accept or reject an idea from one candidate just because you have already made up your mind.

Learn from Abraham’s example in a later episode. When he is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham takes a more methodical approach. He saddled his donkey; he chopped the wood; he went on the journey with Isaac. He didn’t pass any of this off to servants so it would get done quicker. He knew the importance of the act and did it all himself in a thoughtful manner. Let us all approach our responsibility to weigh the candidates in a similar way. Do the appropriate research, weigh all the issues that are important to you and be methodical when making this choice. Some things just shouldn’t be rushed.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Amy Hertz, Rodef Shalom Congregation
October 26, 2012 10 Heshvan, 5773


Become you
Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27


The story of our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah is one of great courage and profound change. Their journey — our journey — begins with God’s
invitation to them: Lech lecha. Hearing God’s call to go forth from Haran, Abram responds affirmatively to God’s request to move into new, uncharted territory. By heeding this call, Abram and his descendents are promised the rewards of God’s covenant — land, wealth and progeny. But what is it that pushes Abram and Sarai, already well established in their lives, to embark on such a different and potentially difficult trek? Lech Lecha. At first, this simple phrase seems just that — simple. God instructs Abram: Lech lecha me’artsecha umimoladetecha umibeyt avicha el-ha’aretz asher ar’eka. (Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.) But a closer look suggests that this is something far more deliberate and profound.

This is not only a call to follow God, but a call to break away from all of the things that, up until this point, have defined Abram’s existence. His land. His birthplace. His father’s home. In fact, the text places these words in reverse physical order knowing that certain ties are harder to break than others. For example, Abram must first leave the familiarity and protection of his family home; however, beyt avicha is actually last on the list of places from which he will break free. It is so hard to forego the hopes and dreams of our family. What about our own expectations, holding us back from taking a chance, making a change? Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy expedition — literally or metaphorically — for our forefather. This is a call to a whole new self — an authentic self. Even our text hints at the importance of this moment for Abram.

According to the Plaut commentary, Haran — the place where Abram heard God’s voice — is literally “a crossroads” in the ancient Sumerian language, a major intersection for the important highways and trade routes of his day. If we re-read the text in this vein, God calls to Abram while he stands at a
crossroads — not only at the crossroads of his physical existence, but at the crossroads of his personal life, his self-understanding.

You and I are wanderers, too, in our own journey of life. We stand at our personal crossroads, waiting to hear God, waiting to feel something, waiting for our own personal “lech lecha.” We want to hear the call. We want to become the people we know we are meant to be. We want to become our best selves. But will we allow ourselves to hear the call? How will we open ourselves up to it? And will we allow ourselves to take the first step.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
October 19, 2012 3 Heshvan, 5773

What Judaism Has to Say About Health and Fitness—Part II
Increasing the Heart Rate During Exercise

You Shall Love the Lord your God With All Your Heart (from the Shema prayer, taken from Deutoronomy 6:5)
The Hebrew word for heart (lev) and its derivatives are mentioned 827 times in the Bible. This suggests that opening one’s heart and acting based on the heart makes one a better person. Tefillin are placed on the arm to be near the heart. Midrash Rabbah describes the heart as a
decision-making organ. Thus, a healthy heart, one that is strengthened through exercise and study, makes you a stronger and better person.

Maimonides’ Prayer of the Physician
“Almighty God, You have created the human body with your infinite wisdom. In the body You have combined ten thousand times ten thousand organs that act continually and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty—the body which is the container of the mortal soul. They are ever-acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. Yet, when the frailty of matter or the unbridling passions interrupts this accord, then forces clash and the body crumbles. You send to people diseases as beneficent messengers to foretell approaching danger and to urge one to avert it.”
The above prayer reminds us that through exercise and fitness we can combat many future illnesses. We must take responsibility for our own health.

Wishing you and your family a Shabbat Shalom filled with health and peace,
Rabbi Donni C. Aaron

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
October 12, 2012


What Judaism Has To Say About Health and Fitness–Part II

Increasing the Heart Rate During Exercise You Shall Love the Lord your God With All Your Heart (from the Shema prayer, taken from Deutoronomy 6:5)

The Hebrew word for heart (lev) and its derivatives are mentioned 827 times in the Bible. This suggests that opening one's heart and acting based on the heart makes one a better person. Tefillin are placed on the arm to be near the heart. Midrash Rabbah describes the heart as a decision-making organ. Thus, a healthy heart, one that is strengthened through exercise and study, makes you a stronger and better person.


Maimonides' Prayer of the Physician "Almighty God, You have created the human body with your infinite wisdom.
In the body You have combined ten thousand times ten thousand organs that act continually and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty—the body which is the container of the mortal soul. They are ever-acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. Yet, when the frailty of matter or the unbridling passions interrupts this accord, then forces clash and the body crumbles. You send to people diseases as beneficent messengers to foretell approaching danger and to urge one to avert it.”

The above prayer reminds us that through exercise and fitness we can combat many future illnesses. We must take responsibility for our own health.

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Rabbi Jessica Locketz, Temple Emanuel of South Hills
September 28, 2012 12 Tishri, 5773

The time is now

This week, we read from Parashat Haazinu. In it, Moses speaks words of poetry, a beautiful poem highlighting his last words to the children of Israel. After Moses finishes speaking, God says to him: “Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan that I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin.” (Deuteronomy 32:49-50)
Moses’ death has been determined as punishment for his lack of faith in God; he will not be the one to lead the people into the Promised Land. His pending death is certain; God told him the time and place — when and where it will occur. There will be no surprises. Knowing that certainly makes Moses unique among us mortals who do not have such information at our fingertips.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 153a) it says, “What does Rabbi Eliezer mean when he says, ‘Repent one day before your death.’ How can one know when that day comes? Since no person can know this, one must repent every day of one’s life.” So we ask: if Moses knew the “day of his death,” did he make teshuva (repentance) before he died? What would we have done if we had known with such startling clarity what lay before us?

During this season, we remember that our time on earth is incredibly precious and not to be taken for granted. We may not know the date of our death, but we can make each day count. Each day is a gift to be used well. We can take advantage of every opportunity to make repentance for the times we have done wrong. We can make teshuva with the people who are important to us.
Yes, Yom Kippur concluded this past Wednesday evening. The liturgy of the ne’ila (concluding) service conjures up a closing gate, a closing window of opportunity to us to repent for our transgressions and return to God’s ways. But it is never too late. The sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. (Lamentations Rabbah 3:43, section 9)
We do not have to wait until next year to make things right; the time is now.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
September 21, 2012 5 Tishri, 5773


The fall time brings many of the Jewish holidays at once. We begin with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), then we continue with the holiday that represents repentance and forgiveness (Yom Kippur) and then we have Sukkot, our harvest holiday that also represents the fragility of life. I have heard many people over the years, jokingly, comment about how these holidays are so scrunched together and wouldn’t it be nice if they were spread out more. Sometimes I have replied, also jokingly, that when the holidays were created, no one asked my opinion about them and if they did, I would have spread them out so it did not feel so stressful because we have to do so much in so little time.

However, tradition teaches us that everything is for a reason. Therefore, there must be a reason for having so many of our holidays in such a small time frame.

I have found one possible answer to this question of timing after I was studying Bible in Rabbinical school. We were taught that every word of the Torah is there for a reason. So when we see a word repeated twice in a row in the Torah, it is not a mistake, but rather a way to express an idea with more emphasis. We were taught to look at the meaning of the word and the context it is written is and to make sure we really understand the importance of the message.

Maybe this also holds true for our Fall Holidays and why they come one after the other. The messages are so important, that we need to pay extra special attention to them, which we are forced to do as these holidays impact our schedules and lives on every level. As our year begins, we must figure out how to make the coming year more peaceful for our families, communities and world. No small task, but if we take it a step at a time and embrace the challenge, next year at this time we will be able to reflect proudly on our year, and then embrace the challenge further for the next year.

Shanah Tovah!
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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
September 14, 2012 27 Elul, 5772


The fall time brings many of the Jewish holidays at once. We begin with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), then we continue with the holiday that represents repentance and forgiveness (Yom Kippur) and then we have Sukkot, our harvest holiday that also represents the fragility of life.

I have heard many people over the years, jokingly, comment about how these holidays are so scrunched together and wouldn’t it be nice if they were spread out more. Sometimes I have replied, also jokingly, that when the holidays were created, no one asked my opinion about them and if they did, I would have spread them out so it did not feel so stressful because we have to do so much in so little time.

However, tradition teaches us that everything is for a reason. Therefore, there must be a reason for having so many of our holidays in such a small time frame. I have found one possible answer to this question of timing after I was studying Bible in Rabbinical school. We were taught that every word of the Torah is there for a reason. So when we see a word repeated twice in a row in the Torah, it is not a mistake, but rather a way to express an idea with more emphasis. We were taught to look at the meaning of the word and the context it is written is and to make sure we really understand the importance of the message. Maybe this also holds true for our Fall Holidays and why they come one after the other. The messages are so important, that we need to pay extra special attention to them, which we are forced to do as these holidays impact our schedules and lives on every level.


As our year begins, we must figure out how to make the coming year more peaceful for our families, communities and world. No small task, but if we take it a step at a time and embrace the challenge, next year at this time we will be able to reflect proudly on our year, and then embrace the challenge further for the next year.

Shanah Tovah!
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Mayda Roth, JCC Development Director
September 7, 2012 20 Elul, 5772
Ki Tavo, Portion of the Week


This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, summarizes the entire relationship between G-d and the people of Israel:
You have affirmed this day that the Almighty is your G-d, that you will walk in G-d’s ways, that you will observe the laws and commandments and rules…and the Almighty has affirmed that you are the treasured people who shall observe all of the commandments. (Deut. 26: 17-18)
I have given to the [needy]…and have…a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 12-15)
In the online eZine, Arutz Sheva comments on the portion by describing the relationship between the Jewish people and their G-d and the reciprocity
between them through an idea made famous in the form of two jingles, the first, that of William Norman
Ewer:
How odd
Of G-d
To choose
The Jews

and the second, the Jewish retort:

Not quite
So odd –
The Jews
Chose G-d

The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is one of abundance and enormous responsibility. Heed the words of G-d and do not stand idly by. In exchange for the magnitude of gifts from G-d, the Jewish people are charged with providing for those who need support. The rhymes are metaphors for the umbrella that arches over the JCC providing access through scholarship opportunities where people of all backgrounds, faiths, abilities and financial means come together. Under the aegis of a code of ethical behavior and as members of that chosen people, the JCC follows in the path outlined in Torah and responds to the task of living up to that duty prescribed more than 5700 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom
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Kelly Gable-LaBelle, Division Director, Early Childhood Services
August 31, 2012 13 Elul, 5772

All parents want their children to learn and practice the values of kindness, respect and responsibility. The JCC’s Early Childhood Development Center focuses on these values through An Ethical Start, a curriculum based on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a source of timeless Jewish wisdom. Teachers, families and children explore the text together at different levels, creating a foundation for lifelong learning, social development and spiritual growth from a Jewish perspective.

Unit 4, “It’s about me and my community,” examines Chapter 2, Mishna 5 Hillel Omer in which Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Pirkei Avot teaches us the value of being part of a community: We grow ethically by contributing to our communities and drawing strength from their resources and support.

Traditionally, a community has meant a group of people who share a social arena, are bound by common customs and values, and are aware of each other’s needs, sufferings and joys. Community has been essential in Jewish life because so much of Jewish ritual and culture cannot be given full expression in the absence of community.

Our teachers ask the children questions such as, “What does the term community mean?” “How do we choose or become a part of a community?” Some of the answers—“We take turns on the climbing bars;” “At my school, everyone learns to swim”—seem simple at first glance. However, when we look deeper, they encapsulate what many of us are looking for in our adult worlds— the sense of connection and knowing that you are a part of something that is meaningful physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

We hope you enjoy the warmth of our community and the richness of Jewish life.
Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
August 24, 2012 6 Elul, 5772


It is that time of year again. We have now entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month in the Jewish calendar that comes before the month of Tishre, when we celebrate the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). During the month of Elul, Jews around the world are supposed to begin to reflect on the past year. This way, when the High Holidays do come, we are ready to atone for our sins and begin the New Year on the right foot.
The question then is, “how can we ready ourselves for this New Year that is upon us”? Below, I have listed some questions and thoughts that we can
ponder for ourselves in our own personal preparations and reflections for the New Year. My hope is that each and every person has the opportunity to reflect and enter this New Year refreshed and excited to make the world we live in a more peaceful place.

  1. If you had to name three choices you made in your life that would have been different than your parents’ choices for you, what would they be?
  2. “We forgive not because we believe that what was done was unimportant, but because we are prepared to put aside our anger long enough to hear words which reflect remorse and regret, long enough to begin to believe that people have the potential togrow.” Rabbi Charles Klein
  3. The essence of being humble is the ability to see ourselves as equals with those around us. As Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not judge another until you are in the same position.”
  4. Whom are we going to forgive this year? How do we let them know they are forgiven?
  5. Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.

Shabbat Shalom

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We Cannot do as We Please
Reeh Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills
August 17, 2012 22 Av, 5772

And God said in Deuteronomy 12:8, “You shall not continue to act as you have done so far, everyone doing what is right in her/his own sight.” But then how should we act? How do we know what is right? We have been endowed with free will. We can choose whether we follow our Yetzer haRa, our evil inclination, or our Yetzer haTov, our good inclination. But, we cannot act as we please. Why? Because we have rules.

God has given us the mitzvot, the commandments, guidelines for a good life. But God’s role in our lives did not end there. God continues to direct our lives through the world around us. As mid-1850s Austrian novelist Leopold Kompert wrote, “God could not be everywhere, so God created mothers.” And others as well.

But, “It’s my life, I can do as I please.” No, we owe our lives to God. At the end of our lives, we return to God. Therefore, we cannot do as we please. Yes, we have a responsibility to ourselves; but, we also have a responsibility to others, to God, and to our world.

Just as parents who give their children choices, God still hopes we make the right one. And how can we know how to act? Not just by following our heart, but rather by learning from others. For we learn in the Talmud, our book of Law, The Ethics of our Ancestors 4:1, “Who are wise?” Not those who think they know everything; but rather “those who learn from everyone.” Listen to the world around you ... God may be talking.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Stephanie Wolfe, Beth Samuel Jewish Center

August 10, 2012 15  Av, 5772
Torah love is more action than feeling
Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:1

Do you remember your first love? The one from high school or junior high whom you thought you would be with forever?

For most of us, that story didn’t come true. We learn as we grow that love has various shades and that we will be “in” and “out” of love many times in our lives (I used to love chocolate ice cream; not so much anymore).

Last week, the Torah told us that we must “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. …” (Deuteronomy 4:5) In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we are again commanded to love. “What does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this, to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul….” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Nowhere in these two verses are we led to believe that there is gray territory about how much we should love, nor is the idea that we should love a suggestion. It is black and white. God demands that we love Him. How is it possible to order a human to feel an emotion?

Herein lies the catch: Love in the Torah is not about an emotion or feeling state. People move in and out of feeling states regardless of what we ask them to do. Love in the Torah is about something else. It is about action. It is about how we behave and what we do. If you search the Torah you will find that each time we are told to love God, we are given the instructions on how to do it. Remember God’s teachings: Teach them to your children, reciting them at home and when you leave, when you lie down and when you rise up (see Deuteronomy 4 and 11). When we behave in a way that shows a respect for Torah and a respect for God, when we personally strive toward a life of holiness, then we are truly loving God.


This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a
service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

Download a PDF of this week's message HERE

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Rabbi Sharyn Henry, Rodef Shalom Congregation
July 27, 2012    8 Av, 5772

Love without reason trumps senseless hatred
Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Last week, The Times of Israel published an article entitled, “Why I’m not fasting on Tisha B’Av this year.” The title arises out of the fact that this year, Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, falls on Shabbat. If a fast day (other than Yom Kippur) falls on Shabbat, the fast is delayed. This year, the fast of Tisha B’Av will take place Sunday, July 29. So, if we are not fasting on Tisha B’Av this year, what should we do?

One answer comes from the sacred texts we read this week. The Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av (this year it coincides with the actual date) is called Shabbat Hazon, after the first word of the haftarah portion for this day. The portion, which opens the Book of Isaiah, prophesies the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem as a result of the people’s iniquity, infidelity to God and false reliance on ritual sacrifices.

The “Etz Chayim” Torah commentary states, “Three separate pronouncements of doom and disaster make up this haftarah. Viewed as a whole, the three speeches present the inverse of what a society should value: the betrayal of covenantal loyalty, the perversion of ritual, and the blindness of moral vision.”

Of course, the teshuva, repentance, of the people would save them. “Hazon” means vision, and the vision described in this passage from Isaiah is  bleak, the people and the land are suffering:
Every head is ailing
And every heart is sick…
Your land is a waste,
Your cities burnt down.
(Isaiah 1: 5, 7)

When members of society as a whole are distracted from a moral life of principles and values, when Jews disconnect from Torah, then we are all  weakened. Just as it was true in the time of the prophet, it is true in our day as well. When we stop to consider the wars, oppression, violence, corruption, hunger and poverty-related disease that exist in our world today, we lament. Every head is ailing and every heart is sick.

But at the end of the passage, we are reminded that we can turn things around:
Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good.
Devote yourself to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
(Isaiah 1:16-17)

What will we do this Tisha B’Av when we cannot fast and on the following day when we do observe the fast? One answer: Let’s start with visioning what our world could look like, if only we learned to do good and devoted ourselves to justice.

Another answer emerges from our history and the history of Tisha B’Av in particular. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the destruction of the First Temple was due to the Jewish nation’s violation of the three cardinal sins: idol worship, murder and sexual immorality. At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, however, the Jews were occupied with Torah and good deeds. Why then, asked the rabbinic sages, was the Second Temple  destroyed? The conclusion presented in the Talmud was that, though they did occupy themselves with Torah, nevertheless there was “baseless hatred — sinat chinam” for one another. The lesson is plain: baseless hatred is equivalent to the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, the second Temple, destroyed by sinat chinam, senseless hatred, will only be rebuilt  by ahavat chinam, love without reason. On this Shabbat, and on Tisha B’Av, may each of us take a few moments to imagine what would happen if we started to practice ahavat chinam — in our homes, in our synagogues and in our communities. And then, let’s begin.

Shabbat Shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.
American Jewish Museum at the JCC in Squirrel Hill
Fabric of Life: Wall Hangings
Textiles created by members of Kishorit, a kibbutz in Israel that facilitates self-sufficiency for those with physical, emotional and mental challenges.  Through July 27.
Kaufmann Building, 5738 Forbes Avenue

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
July 20, 2012 1 Av, 5772

Klal Yisrael on a Wisconsin campground

Every summer, my family drives to Baraboo, Wisconsin, specifically to the campsites at Devil’s Lake. For the last eight years, we have packed our tents, sleeping bags, bug spray and all sorts of other camping items, in order to spend a week with 60 of our closest friends. Don’t let anyone tell you that Jews don’t camp.

All of us know each other through being involved at one point or another with a local synagogue in Chicago, where we used to live. Like us, many families over the years have moved around, but we always make our summer pilgrimage to the same campsite. We are assigned meals to make, and there is even a committee that puts an eruv around the campsite, since we will be there over a Shabbat. Not everyone is theologically aligned with each other, but we have a mutual respect that, in my view, parallels my perfect view of Klal Yisrael.

I share this aspect of my family’s life with you because I believe what we do in part mirrors Parashat Balak; the Torah portion that was read just a few weeks ago. Balaam, king of Moab, gets nervous when the Israelites defeat his neighbors, the Amorites. So he hires Bilaam, the local wizard/prophet, to
curse the Israelites. This backfires, and Balaam blesses the Israelites with the words, ma tovu…“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that Balaam observed how “the openings to their tents were not facing one another.” He was impressed by the high standards of privacy and mutual respect that the people afforded one another, to the extent that they ensured that no one would be able to glance into his neighbor’s home.

Even before my knowledge of this wonderful Midrash, all of us have always set up our tents in this fashion. It was not a spoken rule; it was
just what we did. Maybe it is just part of our DNA, dating back to when we were Israelites in the desert and on this one day, we were blessed instead of cursed.

May everyone here at the JCC, whether we are campers or not, learn to have such mutual respect for one another. And may we all help to create Pittsburgh’s perfect vision of Klal Yisrael.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh RabbinicAssociation.

Download PDF HERE

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Rabbi Martin William Shorr, Temple Hadar Israel
July 13, 2012   23 Tamuz, 5772

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1
Daughters of Zelophehad came before feminism

No need for coming that “long way baby,” G-d already got you there a long time ago. In recent times, more specifically the late 19th to the mid 20th century, women have struggled for equal common ground. And not  necessarily with men, but in actuality, it has been more of a struggle to attain status as a whole for females.

As a man, I certainly am not going to share a whole concept of how treatment of woman, combined with a stereotyped evaluation of their roles in many areas of society, has caused women to be labeled as inferior. I will keep it rather simple and reference a place where there can be no worries of dispute of status involving any group or individual — the Torah.

Also, I will gladly cite this idea from the highest authority on any matter, in a case involving rights for a few “ladies.” That authority would be none other than the Holy One, blessed be He — G-d. In this week’s portion, Pinchas, the very beginning of Chapter 27 tells of five women who are daughters of a man named Zelophehad. He had passed away in the desert following the attempted revolt of Korach against Moses. Zelophehad had no sons.

Thus, Zelophehad’s daughters made their case to Moshe in front of the entire assembly of Israel. They asked for the inheritance due from their father, on par with any of the sons of any of the tribes. There is another concept to be brought out in this case beyond the ruling. Moses was stumped. He turned to G-d for the correct ruling, which was absolutely in favor of the request of all five of Zelophehad’s daughters.

This additional concept proves a simple, but often misinterpreted one, and at times a debated issue in some venues of religious belief. No matter how high G-d elevates a human being in spiritual leadership, they are never equal, nor will they ever be, to G-d almighty. In this case, when you look at the word mishpawton the third word from the end of verse 5, the final nun in that word is written in a special way. This usually means that a special lesson is to be learned from sucha letter or word. In this instance, Rabbaynu Berachahstates that 50 gates of understanding were created by G-d in this world, and Moshe knew all but one of them. The one gate of understanding he lacked prevented him from ruling on his own in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, and he needed to inquire of G-d. It is another example of G-d making it clear to us that, while we should indeed love, cherish and follow the rulings of our rabbis, that it should be done with the understanding that even the greatest leading human being of all time, Moshe Rabbaynu, Moses our great teacher, is not at all comparable to G-d.

The ruling by G-d certainly makes a few things clear involving women and Judaism, such as inheritance. If you examine the case carefully,  Zelophehad’s daughters by no means come across as strong advocates for woman’s lib. There is actually no certain display of their stance, other than what is rightfully theirs to claim. Therefore, I will stop short of producing the case as any sort of ryah, a talmudic term for proof of reference on matters, as to what women’s roles in the minyan and in Judaism should be in today’s world.

Perhaps one day in the future there will be another Moshe appointed by G-d among us, and perhaps once again G-d will have to be called in for that ruling as well.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a ser vice of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

American Jewish Museum at the JCC in Squirrel Hill Fabric of Life: Wall Hangings
Textiles created by members of Kishorit, a kibbutz
in Israel that facilitates self-sufficiency for those with physical, emotional and mental challenges.
Through July 27.
Kaufmann Building, 5738 Forbes Avenue

Click here to download PDF

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Ben Tabas, JCC Digital Communication Specialist
June 15, 2012 25 Sivan, 5772

Sh'lakh L'kha
Numbers 13:1 - 15:41 

Mapping Possibility in the Unfamiliar

“When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is.’” -13.1

This week’s parsha shows us how social realities are not static. They are in constant flux, a perpetual state of transformation. Even though our Jewish traditions and values come from a genealogy of ancient histories, conventionalities, and lived experience, they are constantly changing and adapting to new challenges. There is not just one correct way to interpret a Torah passage. Unfamiliar, poetic ambiguity enables the lineage of tradition to flourish. 

The parsha opens with Moses and Aaron at the border of Canaan. Ahead lays uncertainty and new, potentially dangerous territories. Every moment for the Jewish people in the desert is a step in a random walk. They are teetering on the brink of a civilizational shift as they travel to the Promised Land. New traditions and histories are being actively created and changed. Their nomadic movements through the desert are predicated on possibility, emerging from the uncertainty of the new lands. When Moses sends scouts to Canaan, the Jewish people are navigating new terrain and mapping its uncertainties into a new cultural cartography. 

Life is uncertain; we can never predict where the subatomic particle will appear, or what will flash across the synapse. Once thrown, however, the dice are destiny. 

Nonetheless, it’s our own decision as to how we calibrate the consequences of the roll. The way we navigate foreign, unfamiliar, and new events engenders our worldview and lived experience; weaving a fabric in which any number of connecting routes could exist—possibility. Later in the passage G-d protects the Jews from danger and presents a list of commandments for his followers. In this act we can see what structures of knowledge support what social realities, as new traditions are created.

Just as Moses sends men to scout an unknown land, exploring the unfamiliar enables new ways of understanding that cultivate conventional structures of knowledge and imagine new ways of being in the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

PDF 

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Rabbi James A. Gibson, Temple Sinai
June 8, 2012 18 Sivan
5772 Be’ha-a-lot-cha
Numbers 8.1-12.16

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So Charles Dickens wrote in his epic “Tale of Two Cities,” his novel of revolutionary France. We could say the same thing about so much of what is happening in the Jewish community today. It was the best of times. You don’t believe me? More Jews in America and the world study Torah than at almost any time in Jewish history. On Aug. 1, it will take the Meadowlands Stadium to hold all who will complete studying the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day for seven years (check out mysiyum.com for the details of this year’s festivities). American Jews who are involved in their synagogues are more knowledgeable about their faith than at virtually any period on record. This holds true across the movements in Jewish life (from Steven M. Cohen, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ for American Jews,” Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, November, 2006). Jews make up the single most popular religious group in American consciousness (Robert Putnam, “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Americans,” Simon & Shuster, NY, 2010). Forty-five years after the Six-Day War, Israel ranks number 10 in the military rankings of world powers, right behind Japan and just ahead of Brazil, with Iran ranked at number 12 (according to globalfirepower.com). And yet, it was the worst of times as well. Don’t believe me? Israel’s 20-year goal of forestalling Iran from gaining nuclear capability may well fail, despite powerful economic sanctions and even more powerful cyber weapons aimed at Iran. Anti-Semitic attacks against innocent Jews are increasing in Europe, especially in England, France and Norway. For those who are not involved in Jewish life, the chances of producing Jewish grandchildren are around 10 percent (refer to Dr. Steven Cohen again). Many American synagogues are facing daunting, if not crippling challenges of diminishing Jewish populations and resources. In Israel, even some Modern Orthodox Jews feel intimidated by some of their Charedi neighbors (check out my “View From Jerusalem” blog post from Jan. 31, on the Temple Sinai website entitled, “What does it mean to be Charedi? A visit to Beit Shemesh”). The violence by some Israelis in Tel Aviv against African immigrants takes our breath away as surely as the violence by some settlers against Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. And yet, we have seen this before, the good and the bad together. In this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha-a-lot-cha, there is strife and contention among our people and a mixed multitude. Instead of showing thanks for God’s bounty of manna, our ancestors rail against Moses for the foods they miss from Egypt (Numbers 11.4-5). In the very same chapter, Moses and the 70 elders are blessed with a profound experience of God, leading to mass prophecy. When Eldad and Medad, two commoners, find their way into this elevated spiritual state, Joshua complains, but Moses smiles and says, “Would that all God’s people were prophets and God put the Divine Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11.29) Our mothers and fathers in the Torah lived with terrible extremes of blessing and hardship. So did our more recent generations. And now, so do we. Count me among those who embrace both our blessings and challenges. Knowing our past, we join together to ease suffering and hurt, to increase justice and peace for as many of God’s children as we can. Despite setback and challenge, I thank God for this sacred task. Give me manna from the desert over the artificially sweetened fruits of slavery, slavery of all types, any day and twice on Shabbat.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association. American Jewish Museum at the JCC in Squirrel Hill
Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Artists Illustrations by 14 artists who produced artwork for Singer’s stories.
Robinson Building, 5738 Darlington Road.

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Rabbi David C. Novitsky Beth Israel Congregation, Washington, PA
June 1, 2012 11 Sivan, 5772
Lesson from the greater northeast
Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89

I was born and raised in the largest shtetl in Pennsylvania known as northeast Philadelphia. The neighborhood was lined with a whole host of synagogues whose members were similar theologically and were mainly comprised of Conservative, traditional Jews, and Holocaust survivors. When it came to the practice of the religion there were not many observant Jews, but at first there were few totally unaffiliated Jews either. There was also very little diversity in the belief and practice amongst these Jewish residents of the northeast.
Over the years, the composition of northeast Philadelphia Jewry began to change. There was a change in the level of observance, in the level of Jewish identity and in their practices and observances as the Jews in the middle began to disappear. The new Jews on the left were unaffiliated with any denomination or movement; they were assimilated and had a very limited knowledge about Judaism. Many of them skipped becoming a bar or bat mitzva and other important lifestyle Jewish events. Few held seders in their homes or observed Yom Kippur, Yizkor or even Chanuka (except for gifts). There appeared many Jewish families where one sibling would observe Christmas while another embraced Chabad or another Jewish Orthodox Baal Teshuvah movement.
Jews on the right who were ultra-Orthodox began building a wall between themselves and the rest of the Jewish population unless it was for Orthodox outreach programs. In many Orthodox synagogues, worshippers were banned from membership and from all honors if they drove to shul on Shabbat or were not fully frum. G-d forbid, if you were a Jewish male who went around the neighborhood and did not constantly wear a yarmulke or if one was a non-Orthodox woman who preferred to wear a yarmulke when attending shul.
Jews could no longer pray or socialize together even when they were part of the same household. They were akin to two distinct ethnic groups that were living in the same community but in two very different worlds. Unfortunately, as time passed both groups of Jewish people began to disappear as the Great Northeast’s many synagogues were converted to churches, and all the Jewish shops evolved into Korean and Indian restaurants of Castor Avenue.
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, cautions us against the pursuit of Jewish lifestyles that are of opposite extremes. When it comes to the choice of a religious lifestyle, either extreme path can lead to sin and/or the abandonment of Jewish practice.
This week’s Torah portion discusses two polar Jewish opposites. It first discusses the sota or wayward wife who follows an extremely liberal path to sexuality, passion and pleasure. Her lifestyle gave her husband a good reason to suspect her of adultery. The Torah provides for us a miraculous process to prove that she was faithful and as a result, their marital relationship would be restored.
On the other extreme, the Torah portion discusses what occurs when a man or woman choose the beliefs of the extreme right and its far-reaching religious restrictions and prohibitions, and begin to abstain from participating in that which is permitted. The Nazarite voluntary refrains from some of life’s simple pleasures such as consuming wine.
These restrictions make them believe that they will be protected from the same enticement that doomed the wayward wife. At the end of the Nazarite period the Nazarite is required to bring to the temple a sin offering because of this self-imposed deprivation from the permitted pleasures of life.
Judaism is not a religion of abstinence and deprivation but a religion of life; a religion of restriction is not what Judaism teaches. In Deuteronomy, G-d informs us that in the future the Jewish people will be punished because they did not serve Hashem amid gladness and joy of heart when their material resources and good things were abundant. Let us go back to the Judaism of our bubbas and zaidas who practiced their Judaism in a religious and traditional manner. Despite their Torah commitment, they never became fanatics or zealous, they learned how to properly divide their time between life and shul. Our bubbas and zaidas, whether they lived in the shtetles of Eastern Europe or western Pennsylvania, were relatively tolerant, open minded and accepting all. Let us return to the tolerant traditional Judaism of the past.
This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the
Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
May 25, 2012                                              4 Sivan, 5772

God said to Moses,
“Come up to Me, to the mountain, and be there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the commandment that I have written for the people’s instruction.”
- Exodus 24:12

Shavuot marks the end of the seven week counting of the Omer cycle starting from Passover and is a culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. On Passover we celebrate the birth of the Jewish people, the birth of our nationhood. On Shavuot we have a double celebration, the celebration of our inheriting the Land of Israel and the celebration of the Revelation at Sinai, a celebration that was added in the post Talmudic period. The celebration of inheriting the Land of Israel was marked by a pilgrimage to the Temple and the bringing of the first fruits. Later on when the festival became a celebration for the Revelation and the receiving of the Torah this second aspect of Shavuot became the primary facet of celebration with Shavuot becoming dedicated to Torah study.

When my family first came to Pittsburgh, just three short years ago, we were pleasantly surprised with the experience of celebrating Shavuot here at the JCC. Never before had we seen such a beautiful coming together of all segments of Jewish life, studying under one roof.

Throughout the year, there are countless opportunities for us to focus on what makes us different from one another. However, it is so important for us to also focus on what makes us Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

When we celebrate Shavuot this Saturday night here at the JCC with our annual Tikkun Leil Shavout, we are truly embodying both Am Yisrael and Am Pittsburgh!

We should all be so proud!

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Cantor Richard Berlin, Parkway Jewish Center
May 18, 2012                                                 26 Iyyar, 5772

What’s it Worth to You?
B’har/B’hukkotai Leviticus 25:1 –27:34

We live in a time of materialism. We put a value on everything, whether a financial portfolio, the financial burden and impact of welfare and food stamps, or the crushing impact on unemployment and underemployment. Our society explicitly defines everything by its price.

Within that world, it seems inevitable that we humans succumb to enumerating our own value in the same way: “I’m worth it; I’m worthless…” or “I deserve it; I don’t deserve it” and other such litanies of self-exultation/self-excoriation that infect our minds and degrade our souls.

This week’s double parashat B’har/B’hukkotai are the penultimate and ultimate parshiot of Vayikra (Leviticus). In Torah, text placement is often a key to delving below the p’shat (the plain meaning of the text).

B’har focuses on the principles of land tenure in the Promised Land — the sabbatical year, the jubilee and their attendant regulations. B’hukkotai shifts our focus to the incipient inhabitants of the land — our ancestors and us.

Why the juxtaposition? For me, the two parshiot express one concept.

First, B’har: We are not the land; we do not own the land. We are responsible for the land; the landlord demands that of us. God says: “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Lev. 25:23) Implicit in this: The land will sustain us only if live up to the terms of our Covenant with God.

Then, B’hukkotai: The only place in Leviticus where neither legal nor ritual laws are the focus, this is the epilogue to the Holiness Code. We are not God; only God is God. The final parasha of Leviticus express two basic principles: we humans have free will; exercise of that will has consequences, is subject to both blessings and curses. Our Covenant with God is a two-way street. God may provide either blessings or curses, but (as the High Holy Day liturgy states): prayer, return to God’s ways, and righteous caring for others can avert the severe decree.

We emulate God when we “walk in God’s ways;” we devalue our selves — our souls, if you will — when we eschew God’s ways.

Knowing ourselves is hard work. Some may find that task virtually impossible. Knowing God is equally hard work. Finding God is always possible.

We live in a time of hope and despair. It is incumbent upon us to do the work that lessens despair and fosters hope — in others and ourselves. Such is the way of tikkun olam.

May the one who established peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel and to all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a ser vice of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
May 11, 2012                                      19 Iyyar, 5772

I had the pleasure this past week of attending the Biennial Convention of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America. Nearly 900 delegates from about 150 JCCs around the country gathered to renew our sense of mission and purpose.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to attend six other JCC conferences of this nature. This year’s biennial stood out in that the association articulated its first comprehensive statement of principles in over two decades, mirroring on a continental level what has occurred on a local level for the past several years including here in Pittsburgh. We affirmed that JCCs have the ability to create a sense of belonging that is infused with meaning for a community of individuals. We also vowed to embrace a JCC of diversity, of accepting our constituents as they are, and to partner with individuals as they grow as people and Jews in this century.

Within this framework, we expressed a collective commitment to strengthen Jewish life built upon the following principles:

  • Creating a Jewish identity is a unique and individual life-long process.
  • Respecting and supporting diverse Jewish opinions, beliefs, and practices are essential for strong and enduring Jewish communities.
  • Interaction between diverse groups of Jews is critical for the well-being and future of the Jewish people.
  • Jewish living and learning sit at the heart of the JCC.
  • Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people, linking us to our past and to Jews around the world today.
  • Strong Jewish communities benefit, and benefit from, their larger communities.

The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh has been traveling this path for a number of years and has accelerated our pace of change for the past 24 months. We have listened to and responded to your feedback as to how we can enhance your sense of community and Jewish learning. We are reaping the fruit of this broadened, inclusive, and pluralistic approach to Jewish life and look forward to our emerging role as a field leader within the JCC movement nationally.

Shabbat Shalom!
JCC Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh Fitness
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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
May 4, 2012                                                  12 Iyyar, 5772

As the Jewish Educator of the JCC, I am blessed with the opportunity to have many wonderful and meaningful conversations with so many of our members. One of the most common conversations that I have surrounds the topic of what it means to be Jewish in today’s world. I have these conversations with our Jewish members as well as our members who belong to other faith groups.

I tell them that there is not one definition and depending on our conversation and the interests of the individual, we discuss various aspects of Jewish tradition. However, many people want to know if there is some kind of list that shares the do’s and don’ts of Judaism. This had led to discussions of the Ten Commandments as well as looking at such texts from later Jewish sources such as Pirke Avot, which teaches us some of the ethical laws we need to consider. Making such a list could have infinite possibilities.

However, while studying this week in the class I have on the Torah portion, I found another list that I want to share with you.

But please remember, as I just stated there is not one definitive list that tells us everything about what it means to be a Jew but the following words given in our Torah portion this week could help us explore this question further.

  1. Honor your parents
  2. Observe the Sabbaths and festivals
  3. Refrain from worshipping idols
  4. Offer sacrifices acceptably (prayer has now taken the place of sacrifices)
  5. Leave the corners of the field and parts of the vineyard for the poor
  6. Do not steal
  7. Do not deal deceitfully
  8. Do not swear falsely in God’s name
  9. Do not defraud others
  10. Do not commit robbery
  11. Do not keep the wages of laborers overnight
  12. Do not insult the deaf
  13. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind
  14. Do not render unfair decisions in court
  15. Do not favor the poor or rich in court decisions
  16. Do not pass on rumors or stories about others
  17. Do not profit from the difficulties of others
  18. Do not hate others
  19. Do not suffer guilt for truthfully warning others about the consequences of their actions
  20. Do not take vengeance
  21. Do not bear a grudge
  22. LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

B’Shalom, Rabbi Donni

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Liza Baron, Director, Chidren, Teen and Family Division
James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp
April 27, 2012                                                         2 Iyyar, 5772

There is power in our speech

One man spread a rumor about another. He later felt regret, and went to the rabbi to ask how to make amends. "Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds," said the rabbi, "then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week."

The man did as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. "Now," said the rabbi, "go back to the field and pick up all the seeds."

The man protested "those seeds have scattered far and wide! I’ll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!"

"Exactly," explained the rabbi. "Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone."

Our words are powerful. We can build our friends and family up, providing praise, encouragement and love through our kind and thoughtful statements. We can make them feel important and special. We can also be destructive and hurtful with our words, causing pain to people we care deeply for. In this week’s Torah portion we are instructed not to speak Lashon Hara, the prohibition against saying anything negative or derogatory about another person, even if it’s true.

At the JCC we offer programming to children and families who can come together from all walks of life. We create a community for our members to join with one another, regardless of (and maybe even because of!) the diverse backgrounds they bring to the table. We encourage the building of relationships and friendships through our camps, our early childhood center, our after school program, our fitness center. We are an organization offering Abraham’s tent- a place where all are welcome to join the community.

Within all of the wonderful programming options are opportunities for us to teach our children about speaking the truth and speaking kindly to others. We teach the same things to our early childhood teachers, our teenage counselors, our young adult fitness staffspeak kindly to others and you will get the same in return. The Talmud tells us to judge others favorably first and to concern ourselves with our own improvement rather than worry about how others are living.

We are in the season of redemption- Passover celebrated the Jewish peoples’ emergence from slavery into freedom and now we are counting the Omer, on our way toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. As the summer camp season approaches and hundreds of young people converge towards EKC in Morgantown and J&R in Monroeville and Day Camp in the South Hills, there is no better time to continue to undertake the challenge of teaching these values to our children, our future community leaders.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Michael Werbow, Congregation Beth Shalom
April 20, 2012                                                     28 Nisan, 5772

Something to chew on
Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

The pursuit to find reasons for the mitzvot is long standing. As far back as the Mishna, the Talmud and Midrash, (second century B.C.E. to fifth century C.E.) the rabbis were looking for “ta’amei ha’mitzvot,” the reasons for the mitzvot.

This week’s parasha of Shemini contains descriptions for what animals we are permitted to eat, and which ones are prohibited. Many of these laws are framed in categories. We are only allowed to eat land animals, which have split hooves and chew their cud. Animals in the waters must have fins and scales and birds are not to be birds of prey or scavengers.

These categories give us the basis for the dietary laws known as kashrut. However, there are no reasons given for these specific descriptions. In fact, some of our great rabbis indicate how arbitrary these categories are. In some ways, the rules about land animals, having split hooves and chewing their cud, could have been just the opposite. Those that are kosher could have been ruled out instead. Maybe only one of these two characteristics would have been enough. There is no definitive reason given as to why these mitzvot were given the way they were.

Philo of Alexandria, living at the change of the millennia and the beginning of the Common Era, said, “The dietary laws are intended to teach us to control our bodily appetites.” This is different than Rambam, the 12th century philosopher, who asserted that the dietary laws all have our health and well-being at the core of their rationale. These are two among many different ta’amei ha’mitzvot given for the laws of kashrut.

Philo adds a more refined rationale to his statement when he looks at the specifics of animals needing to chew their cud. In his section on “The Special Laws,” Philo teaches that the animal that chews its cud needs to slow down the process of eating and digestion. He likens this to our need to process material we learn. We must take in the material from a source, be it a teacher or a book, and then, before truly making it our own, turn it over and over, looking at it in many different ways.

We know a common idiom in which we may say that we need time to “chew that over.” We would say this when we need to think about something more deeply before coming to a conclusion. It would appear that kashrut is teaching us about more than what we should or shouldn’t put in our mouths. Through these laws, we are taught not to jump to conclusions. We should wait until we have really focused on an issue before stating our opinion.

If we want to make some piece of knowledge ours, we must “chew it over” again and again. This is essential for us to take hold of the teachings of our tradition. Ongoing learning can only happen when we set aside time to ruminate on a particular topic or text. Doing this with a partner is a traditional means of Jewish learning called chevruta study. Through this process we gain the benefit of having two people tearing at the material, bouncing ideas off one another and getting to the “meat” of the matter.

In Pirke Avot (“Sayings of our Ancestors”) we learn the following: Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.”

Let us follow the insight of Philo and Ben Bag-Bag and devote ourselves to ongoing chevruta learning so we can find more opportunities to acquire our spiritual nourishment.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a ser vice of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Rodef Shalom Congregation
April 6, 2012                                                       14 Nisan, 5772

Heed Kafka’s words this Passover
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Franz Kafka, a 20th century Jewish novelist, famously wrote, “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

Kafka’s poignant reminder that much of our own suffering may be due to the all-too-human propensity to seek to avoid suffering serves as a counterpoint to the Passover haggada’s injunction to locate ourselves within the story of our people’s deliverance from suffering under Egyptian bondage. Indeed, we are enjoined to imagine that our forefathers’ and foremothers’ experiences as slaves in Egypt is our own; further, we are commanded to re-experience our people’s redemption as if we ourselves become free from Egypt. This is our raison d’etre as Jews.

Recall that time and again our tradition implores us both to empathize and extend ourselves to others precisely because we know the experience of having been slaves to Pharaoh. The command to place ourselves in the experience of another is at the heart of a Jew’s spiritual life’s work. Or, to paraphrase Kafka, we can “hold [ourselves] back from the sufferings of the world. That is something [we] are free to do and it accords with [our] nature,” but consider what we stand to lose — in Kafka’s words, what we stand to “suffer” — for a failure to step outside of our own comfort zone and into the shoes of another.

Passover is the celebration of freedom, but surely not a freedom that separates us from the experience of others. To the contrary, any notion of freedom that distances us from the pain of the world is no freedom at all. Indeed, we retreat from the world at our peril. After all, it is in the very act of empathizing with others and in our embracing the opportunity to be part of solving for life’s challenges that allows us to realize the promise of redemption in our own day.

For this reason, if we approach the seder table with a bemused detachment as opposed to seeing it as an opportunity to expand our appreciation for all we have; if we focus only on what we stand to lose as opposed to all we have to share; and if we feel ourselves oppressed for remaining open to the existential pain of another, as opposed to hearing in their lament a call to action, then for our taking the path of least resistance, we shall miss the opportunity to embody the essential message of our faith. And at this time of year, especially, it is precisely this act of ostensible self-defense that is “the one suffering [we all] could [and ought seek to] avoid.”

May each of our Passover celebrations move us closer toward alleviating suffering — everywhere.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a ser vice of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, New Light Congregation
March 30, 2012                                    7 Nisan, 5772

Broken Hallelujah
Shabbat Hagadol 5772

“When do we eat?” my Aunt Florence would always ask 15 minutes after we began the seder.

It is a source a disagreement in my family whether we should start early or late on seder night. Some argue that we should start before nightfall because they just can’t stay up so late; they worry that when the meal is finally served, their faces will fall into their soup.

Others say that we should take naps so we can begin properly, go late into the night and after all the prayers and songs are sung, we will end maybe at 2 a.m. Then we will get bragging rights the next morning at shul as to whose ended the seder the latest.

It turns out that the debate is an ancient one centering around whether one says the Hallel or not. Beit Shammai ruled that one should aim to sing the Hallel at midnight (before the meal) because this was the exact time the Israelites felt that the redemption from Egypt was truly in their hands. God had finally defeated the Egyptians with the death of the firstborn. The Israelites then celebrated by tasting the meat of the sacrificial lamb after midnight!

Beit Hillel questions whether Hallel should be said at all because the exact time of the redemption did not occur until noon the next day when they actually departed. He concludes that we should say just the first two psalms of Hallel sometime on seder evening before the meal and it doesn’t have to be midnight. The psalms (113 and 114) conclude with “Bzeit Yisrael Mimitzrayim” (“When Israel came out of Egypt”) to praise God for the next day’s redemption. No formal blessing before Hallel is necessary.

Another mishna adds to Hillel’s ruling saying that we “complete” the Hallel after the meal with four more psalms. Scholars believe this broken structure preserves Hillel’s ruling while reflecting the fixed form of the complete Hallel sung at Sukkot and Shavuot. In any case, we end up with a broken Hallel interrupted by the sacred feast.

I’ve often reflected on that brokenness as family members fall asleep on couches or retire to their rooms following the meal. Is our praise somehow mitigated by our feast? Or does the brokenness point to the incompleteness of our soul’s journey? Songs of the spirit interrupted by the desires of the flesh. When do we eat?

The Chassidim have a saying: “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” It occurs to me that this wholeness is none other than our capacity to contain brokenness within our souls. That brokenness is our wounds, our despair, our anger, our fears, our loneliness. The typical Israelite slave carried this brokenness prior, during and after the redemption. He carried that brokenness into the world as a gift that he would later share with others and other nations. If I am lonely, says the Jew, I know where to find others who dwell in darkness. If I am wounded, says the Jew, I know how to be with you in your pain.

Leonard Cohen, in his beautiful song “Hallelujah” says that “Love is not a victory march – it is a cold and a broken Hallelujah.” If God is love then we can never completely ask God to “pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not know You” (Haggada). It is not a victory march. We break Hallel before we break bread (matza) to represent that present day redemption comes with an embrace of our own brokenness as part of our soul’s capacity to bring love to God’s world. Be’tayavon.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
March 23, 2012                                      29 Adar, 5772

Judaism and its institutions have always been built around passing tradition and community from generation to generation (l’dor va’dor). Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman have studied the millennials and brought us a provocative paper, “The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives.” They write:

“We are caught in a generational hex, knowing the traditional Jewish organizations we love are not engaging young Jews despite our most steadfast support, yet these new forms of Jewish organizing are not in our vernacular and many of us find them borderline uncomfortable. Which path are we to pursue?”

The discomfort is understandable. Since when has Judaism been “cool”? Even knowing that it worked, would Jewish communal institutions take limited resources that fund education and social welfare for the elderly and vulnerable and invest in Jewish reggae if it had a following? It is not only about money. The debate is also about commitment.

Traditionalists complain that the younger generation feels more entitled, expects much but gives less of themselves and don’t pay their dues. Younger Jews contend that older generations overemphasize loyalty at the expense of happiness, are too judgmental, and point to age as a sign of immaturity.

The authors’ suggest the following as mechanisms for strengthening Jewish peoplehood:

  • Connecting more Jews to other Jews, both as individuals and as communities
  • Providing multiple venues for discovering meaning in Judaism
  • Advancing the notion of responsibility to one’s family, community, people and world in language that younger people understand and respect.
  • Modeling warm and inclusive Jewish leadership.

In its essence, I believe it is possible to bridge the gaps between generations and foster a constructive climate for Jewish connectedness and engagement.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
March 16, 2012                                      22 Adar, 5772

Judaism and its institutions have always been built around passing tradition and community from generation to generation (l’dor va’dor). Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman have studied the millennials and brought us a provocative paper, “The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives.” They write:

“We are caught in a generational hex, knowing the traditional Jewish organizations we love are not engaging young Jews despite our most steadfast support, yet these new forms of Jewish organizing are not in our vernacular and many of us find them borderline uncomfortable. Which path are we to pursue?”

The discomfort is understandable. Since when has Judaism been “cool”? Even knowing that it worked, would Jewish communal institutions take limited resources that fund education and social welfare for the elderly and vulnerable and invest in Jewish reggae if it had a following? It is not only about money. The debate is also about commitment.

Traditionalists complain that the younger generation feels more entitled, expects much but gives less of themselves and don’t pay their dues. Younger Jews contend that older generations overemphasize loyalty at the expense of happiness, are too judgmental, and point to age as a sign of immaturity.

The authors’ suggest the following as mechanisms for strengthening Jewish peoplehood:

  • Connecting more Jews to other Jews, both as individuals and as communities
  • Providing multiple venues for discovering meaning in Judaism
  • Advancing the notion of responsibility to one’s family, community, people and world in language that younger people understand and respect.
  • Modeling warm and inclusive Jewish leadership.

In its essence, I believe it is possible to bridge the gaps between generations and foster a constructive climate for Jewish connectedness and engagement.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
March 9, 2012                                          15 Adar, 5772

Parashat Ki Tisa

I think the following scenario may sound familiar to all the parents out there:

One of my children did something our child was not supposed to do. When my husband and I confronted our child, our child spent the next 5 minutes or so rattling off a myriad of excuses and rationales for why this behaviour happened. We then spent the next 10 minutes or so trying to help our child understand what was wrong with the action. After a frustrating amount of time, which felt like an eternity, we finally said to our child that if he or she would just own up to the mistake, we would have more respect for our child and we would be able to move forward past this incident with the goal of learning from the mistake and not letting it happen again. The arguing and excuses were almost as bad as the misbehaviour.

When preparing to write my thoughts about this week’s Parashah, Ki Tisa, I came across a commentary from Hillel E. Silverman based on the Torah text that says,

“When Moses asks Aaron why he allowed the people to create an idol, he protests that he never intended to fashion a golden calf. It was all a tragic accident. He simply threw the gold into the fire to be melted down, and ‘there came out this calf.’ He could not foresee the consequences of his acquiescence to the demands of a rebellious people.”

After reading this commentary, I immediately thought about the situation I described above with one of my children. The golden calf incident has been talked about for centuries. There are countless commentators that try to explain why this incident happened. Some blame Aaron, some blame the Israelites, some blame Moses, etc.

However, most commentators agree that whoever may be to blame, the one thing in common that set this event in motion was “fear.” Remember, Moses was gone for forty days and nights. They were probably thinking that either Moses abandoned them, or even maybe Moses died on the journey on Mt. Sinai. There is a midrash I once read that said Aaron made it out of fear when the Israelites threatened to kill him unless he made them this “god.”

No matter what the reasoning, Aaron’s initial response seems to be one of trying to duck what actually happened. Whether it was his fault or not, own up to what happened. Instead he reminded me of a fearful child trying to squirm his or her way out of trouble. That is dishonest.

The lesson I want my children to learn from this parashah is that we are all human. We make mistakes and even if there is no excuse for something that happened, there is always a reason. Own up to the reason, be honest, learn from the mistakes and make better choices in the future.

Shabbat Shalom

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
March 2, 2012                                               8 Adar, 5772

How do we find God when God’s face is hidden?

Purim teaches us how to relate to God in a time when seas don't split and when bushes don't burn.

The story of Purim occurred after the destruction of the First Temple, when the era of prophecy was coming to a close. People no longer saw open miracles. It was a time of concealment.

Have you ever felt God clearly in your life? A time when you felt a force greater than yourself somehow shaping and leading events?

Each event in the Megillah is natural and possible, and seems to be orchestrated entirely by human beings and their choices:

  1. A king gets drunk and decides to call for his wife to appear before the guests. That could happen.
  2. The wife, Vashti, refuses to appear before the king. The king decides to kill her. Esther is chosen queen. That's possible.
  3. Haman chooses to kill Mordechai and ask permission from king. Could be.
  4. The king has insomnia one night and remembers an old favor he needs to repay to Mordechai. Possible.

But when ALL of these incidents happen to coincide, when ALL the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle come together in one huge "coincidence," they form nothing short of a miracle.

It may be hidden, but a directing force becomes obvious all the same.

Each event that Haman thought he controlled turned out to bring about his downfall.

Throughout the Megillah story, God directs events and takes advantage of people's free will choices to form a tapestry of purpose and destiny–the redemption of the Jewish people.

Throughout the entire story of Purim, the name of God isn't mentioned. It is an era of hiddenness of God's face. But more than ever, it is clear how God is running the show. There are simply too many "coincidences." The links fit together too well.

Another point to keep in mind: The Megillah spans a nine-year period. When it is compressed into one book and we read it in half an hour, we see with perspective and hindsight how every painful event was working towards a purposeful end. However, when we're in the midst of a difficult situation, we tend to see only the darkness and confusion.

The particular message of the day, then, is to understand God's guiding hand in history and in the mundane affairs of this world.

Olam, "world," comes from the root ne'elam, "hidden." God's name doesn't appear. But when all is said and done, God’s presence is recognized everywhere. God is not concealed. God only appears to be. It is up to us to find God in every event of our lives.

We need only read between the lines.

Hag Purim Sameah!

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
February 24, 2012                                          1 Adar, 5772

As an organization committed to enhancing Jewish community life in Pittsburgh, I was struck by a passage in a book I read recently entitled, The Case for Jewish Peoplehood – Can We Be One? by authors Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Misha Galperin.

They discuss the dynamic of going beyond “big tent” Judaism – a vehicle to encourage universal participation in Jewish life as a portal – to an entry point for deeper engagement with the community. The two are, by no means, mutually exclusive. In fact, it takes open and welcoming entry points to build more significant and lasting connections.

Our JCC is committed to being both a place of welcoming entry and building a threshold to enrich and deepen that relationship.

What does success look like at the JCC as we intensify the experience of peoplehood?

Our activities need to:

  • Create contexts where Jews of different walks of life and orientations can come together and cross the boundaries of difference
  • Strengthen Jewish meaning and be inspiring
  • Affirm the beauty and necessity of community
  • Support, teach and demonstrate Jewish values
  • Reflect warmth and enhanced intimacy
  • Demonstrate a concern for the world’s betterment through tikkun olam.

While the JCC has been in existence since 1895, our purpose today is not merely surviving for our own sake.

We are resolute to follow our agency’s proud tradition and future purpose of creating a meaningful and better community for people throughout our region.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills
February 17, 2012                                           24 Shvat, 5772

Do it to them first, or turn the other cheek?
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18

“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”— Sgt. Stan Jablonski, Hill Street Blues, 1981 TV series)

Sounds terrible, does it not? I remember when Sgt. Jablonski took over for Sgt. Phil Esterhaus and “Hey, let’s be careful out there” became “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” Each and every show began with these words (the end of each of their daily morning announcements).

Now, that is not very politically correct, is it? Would not “turn the other cheek” be better? According to the book of Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

But, that is them and this is us. In Exodus 22:1 of Parashat Mishpatim we read, “If a thief is caught while breaking in and he is beaten to death, there is no blood-guilt.” This is the source for justifying self-defense under Jewish law. What is the reason one may kill a burglar? Because the thief must be thinking, “If I go in there, the owner may try to stop me, and if he does, I’ll kill him.” So this is how the Torah reasons, “If the thief has come to kill you, you must act first and kill him.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a)

We are not a religion of conscientious objectors. Life is sacred, our lives as well. Self-defense is not murder, even the defense of another. “The following must be prevented from committing their crime, even if they must be killed to do so: A person who pursues another to kill him or her.” (Sanhedrin 8:7)

I recently saw a bumper sticker that read “What Part of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ Didn’t You Understand?” Understand this — the Ten Commandments never say, “Thou shalt not kill,” they say “Thou shalt not murder.” Some killing is commanded. You may even say that it is a mitzva (commandment) to kill, if it is in selfdefense or in the defense of another. We are much more the religion of “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us” than “Turn the other cheek.”

Shabbat Shalom!

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
February 10, 2012                                            17 Shvat, 5772

As an organization committed to enhancing Jewish community life in Pittsburgh, I was struck by a passage in a book I read recently entitled, The Case for Jewish Peoplehood – Can We Be One? by authors Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Misha Galperin.

They discuss the dynamic of going beyond “big tent” Judaism – a vehicle to encourage universal participation in Jewish life as a portal – to an entry point for deeper engagement with the community. The two are, by no means, mutually exclusive. In fact, it takes open and welcoming entry points to build more significant and lasting connections.

Our JCC is committed to being both a place of welcoming entry and building a threshold to enrich and deepen that relationship.

What does success look like at the JCC as we intensify the experience of peoplehood?

Our activities need to:

  • Create contexts where Jews of different walks of life and orientations can come together and cross the boundaries of difference
  • Strengthen Jewish meaning and be inspiring
  • Affirm the beauty and necessity of community
  • Support, teach and demonstrate Jewish values
  • Reflect warmth and enhanced intimacy
  • Demonstrate a concern for the world’s betterment through tikkun olam.

While the JCC has been in existence since 1895, our purpose today is not merely surviving for our own sake.

We are resolute to follow our agency’s proud tradition and future purpose of creating a meaningful and better community for people throughout our region.

Shabbat Shalom!

_____________________________________________________________

Rabbi Ron Symons, Temple Sinai
February 3, 2012                                                     10 Shvat, 5772

Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16

Recently, while preparing for the 92nd Street Y Satellite Broadcast of Walter Issaacson speaking about his relationship with Steve Jobs, I was touched by Steve Jobs’ words: "Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

While each of us might enjoy the promise of a well-mapped future, Jobs reminds us that we can look back to history for guidance, but we cannot expect to forecast the future. He reminds us that we need to take educated steps forward into the future with a bit of faith.

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, brings us back to the shore of the sea just after we passed from slavery to freedom. The Torah teaches us, "And Moses made Israel move on from the Reed Sea" (Exodus 15:22). We can read this verse and wonder why would Moses make us move forward. Wouldn’t we have moved forward on our own? Rabbi Tanhuma helps us understand the circumstances:

"Moses had them move against their will, for they were not ready to leave the shore. Why not? Because when Israel left Egypt, Pharaoh, together with all those hosts, set out to pursue them. What else did he do? As he set out in pursuit of Israel with his chariots and horsemen, he adorned all the horses with precious stones and pearls. When they reached the sea and the Holy One drowned them, all these precious stones and pearls floated on the surface and were cast on shore, so that every day Israelites would come down and gather them. That is why they did not wish to move from there. Moses, perceiving this, said, "Do you think that the sea will continue to bring up precious stones and pearls for you every day?" So, against their will, Moses had them move on. (Tanhuma Buber, Beshalach, #16. (fifth century C.E.)

After passing through the waters of the Sea of Reeds, we thought that we could live in the past, reaping the rewards of yesterday into tomorrow. According to this midrash, Moses teaches us that life requires us to move on with faith.

Our sacred studies teach us how to connect the dots of history with the hope that we can draw lines that connect the dots of yesterday with the dots of tomorrow. I call that faith.

Shabbat shalom

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Melissa Hiller, Director, American Jewish Museum at the JCC
January 27, 2012                                               3 Shvat, 5772

In this week’s parsha, Bo, we learn that God inflicts onto the Egyptians locusts and darkness, the eighth and ninth plagues. Finally, at the onset of the tenth plague, the killing of firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh demands that the Israelites leave. We are freed from slavery, which as we know, will bring complications.

God cautions Moses that the plagues were wrought so we would tell our children and grandchildren that God punished the Egyptians to let Jews know it was God that was acting on our behalf. After more than 200 years of oppressive bondage, God frees us and expressly commands that we will make sure our descendents don’t forget that we were once slaves.

Anticipating this freedom of will and destiny will bring a new relationship to the concept of time and the ways it is spent, God also commands Moses and Aaron to establish a new calendar that considers the Exodus the beginning of the months. This is remarkably profound; every day, month and year is experienced in relation to the most important story of the Jewish people. We are committed as a community to contextualize our freedom of time in juxtaposition to our enslavement. Establishing this way of segmenting time also forces us to actualize that being in control can be really scary.

The beleaguered Jewish immigrants in Eugeen Van Mieghem’s drawings included in the exhibit One Foot in America, reinforce this. Having gotten themselves any way they could out of Eastern Europe and Russia, they wandered the streets of Antwerp in absolute transition waiting to board American-bound ships. Unwilling to return to the deplorable conditions they were living in, they were utterly uncertain about their future and whether it would be better than the past. Yet, they were empowered to take the risk and live with their decision.

Taken by the incredible and historic plight he was witnessing, Van Mieghem incisively rendered distilled drawings that focused on the immigrants’ emotional states. Rather than romanticize, Van Mieghem depicted the fear, exhaustion, bewilderment and poverty he observed.

Still, while Van Mieghem’s immigrants are stirring, it’s difficult to channel the desperation they felt as they plunged into the unknown. What is important is being present with how our own decision-making about the future comes with the promise of improvement but also with burdens and consequences.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
January 20, 2012                                              25 Tevet, 5772

On Friday evening, February 3, we will be celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the holiday that celebrates the birthday of the trees, with a Tu B’Shevat Shabbat dinner from 5:30-7:30 pm.

Please enjoy the excerpt below that explains this holiday. From “The Jewish Earth Day” by Candace Nachman:

Nearly 38 years ago, the first Earth Day was observed in the United States. Twenty million people, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 grammar and high schools and 1,000 communities mobilized for the first nationwide demonstrations on environmental problems. The response was nothing short of remarkable, and the modern American environmental movement began.

Long before the beginning of the environmental movement, Judaism recognized our moral and ethical obligation to protect the Earth. On Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, let’s look at some of the Jewish teachings related to the environment.

The most basic understanding of this obligation comes from the fact that God created the universe. Environmental protection is required so as not to destroy God's Earth.

A healthy environment in turn allows for healthy humans. The great sage Maimonides, who was also a physician, saw the ill effects environmental degradation could have on human health, and he proposed regulations to counter them in his Treatise on Asthma.

Rabbi Yitzhak ben Sheshet of the early fourteenth century wrote responsa on the topic of noise pollution and its effects on urban dwellers. These are all topics which can be seen in environmental court cases in this country over the last century.

The task of repairing the environment and returning it to a completely healthy state certainly cannot be achieved overnight. However, this should not be a free pass to do nothing. As Rabbi Tarfon says, "We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it" (Pirke Avot, 2:21)."

I am not suggesting that you can change the world tomorrow, and I certainly do not want anyone to believe that you must go the road alone. Judaism is a religion based on community. Why then can we not make protecting the environment a communal Jewish effort as well?

As it says in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah: "When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: 'Look at my works! See how beautiful they are–how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.'"

Shabbat Shalom

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Brian Schreiber, JCC President and CEO
January 13, 2012                                                  18 Tevet, 5772

Having just returned last week from Israel, I can't help but to reflect on one of our agency's core values—to foster meaningful connections to the land and people of Israel. We demonstrate that value in so many ways at the JCC and my most recent experience reflected just how central this value is to my life and my motivation to advance our mission at the JCC.

While this was my 25th or 26th visit to Israel (I lost count somewhere along the way), it was my first with my two children as well as the families of two close friends – an experience that I will always cherish.

An Israel experience provides a great opportunity for first-timers and veterans alike to learn, grow and feel Jewish life. I was amazed how my kids were walking freely around Jerusalem within hours and taking in new sights, sounds and smells of a complex modern and ancient city.

If you are considering a first ever family trip to Israel or are a veteran Israel traveler, I strongly urge you to give serious consideration to partaking in this June's Federation of Jewish Pittsburgh mission. There are still a few spots available and our Federation partners are committed to an unparalleled experience for people of all ages in a first class manner. Our JCC staff is more than happy to serve as a resource if you are interested.

I always feel at home in Israel and try to make time each day to do something different and challenge myself in a new way. It's the same at the JCC where we strive to step out of familiar and comfortable territory and venture into the world of the new and the possible. Despite complex issues of politics and religion, the people of Israel continue to advance their society and improve a country that was practically built from scratch less than a century ago. It remains an inspiration to me and I feel ever so fortunate to have shared this with my family and transform this JCC core value with our board, staff, members and friends.

Wishing you and your family Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Eli Seidman, Jewish Association on Aging
January 6, 2012                                                          11 Tevet, 5772

Jacob’s Ethical Will

Jewish Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26

In my work with Sivitz Jewish Hospice, I often help patients review the events of their lives and pass along wisdom and advice to the next generation.

People discuss the decisions they made, the regrets they have and how they might have done things differently. Sometimes, they attempt to reconcile with estranged family members. They want to settle matters and to feel at peace before they depart this world. They also want to leave a spiritual legacy.

One way to do this is to prepare an ethical will.

Just as a will passes along ownership of the person’s property to his (or her) family, an ethical will is a written document in which a parent would summarize what they wanted most for and from their children. The person passes along the life wisdom they had acquired to the next generation.

According to Rabbi Jack Riemer, to write an ethical will one must try to summarize “the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures and consider what are the things that really count.” Common motifs often include: faith in Hashem, commitment to mitzvot, concern for the family and for Jewish continuity.

The words of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion are seen as an ethical will.

At the end of his life, he called his children and his grandchildren together so that he could give them his final blessing.

He said “O G-d, before whom my ancestors walked, G-d who sustains me. … May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless these children, and may my name be declared on them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac.” (Genesis 48:15-16)

Jacob said that his children should always be aware of the great spiritual legacy left to them by his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. They should continue to be inspired by their family heritage.

Secondly, he said that his children’s achievements should always be a sanctification of G-d’s Holy Name. When people see the loving-kindness in their deeds, they will praise and bless the Name of Hashem.

We ought to constantly remember the deeds of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We are all Jacob’s children. We read his last words each year to remind ourselves that they apply to us as well.

Shabbat shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Alexis Winsten Mancuso, Assistant Executive Director
December 16, 2011                                                         20 Kislev, 5772

As this holiday season approaches, the needs of our community’s senior adult population are amplified. Many of them will find themselves alone, having lost their spouses, neighbors, friends and relatives. The number of Jews older than 65 is growing at unprecedented rates and the most rapid growth is among the oldest of the old.

AgeWell Pittsburgh, a collaboration between the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Association on Aging and Jewish Family & Children’s Service with the goal of providing seamless delivery of services to Pittsburgh’s Older Adults, providing support to live as independently as possible, is positioned to respond during the holiday season. Serving more than 4,000 senior adults, AgeWell Pittsburgh operates a number of programs and services. A sampling of those is provided below:

CheckMates: Coordinated by the JCC, a peer-led telephone reassurance program for older adults staffed by senior adult volunteers. It provides an opportunity to identify seniors who may be at risk or in need of services to help them remain independent. Volunteers are trained to recognize individual needs and may contact a professional from AgeWell Pittsburgh to connect seniors to appropriate services.

J Cafe: An innovative kosher congregate meal program funded in part through Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Area Agency on Aging, open Monday through Friday from 11 am – 1 pm at the JCC, providing an array of healthy, nutritious lunch offerings.

Information & Referral: AgeWell Pittsburgh operates an Information and Referral line in response to questions from seniors, family members and loved ones related to the aging continuum @ 412-422-0400. We also offer a senior friendly web site www.agewellpgh.org, and have an Information and Referral Specialist on staff at the JCC.

Elder Express: A senior adult transportation system that caters to the activities of daily living for the senior adults in our community. ElderExpress, operated out of the JCC, runs daily routes throughout the week to the Giant Eagle, the Squirrel Hill Health Center, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, Senior Adult High Rise apartments and other community-based services.

Care Coordination: Licensed clinical social workers with decades of experience, JF&CS care managers provide thorough needs assessments, home visits, advocacy and support to ensure that older adults are receiving the services that will keep them safe and independent.

Caregiver Connection: Having a reliable, trustworthy and caring caregiver is often critical to keeping your aging loved one safely at home. Through JF&CS' licensed homecare registry, Caregiver Connection provides fullyscreened, trained and experienced caregivers for short- or long-term engagements, with 24/7 back-up coverage as needed.

Community Nurse: Operated out of the JAA, AgeWell Pittsburgh’s community nurse travels to local senior high rise apartments in the eastern area providing blood pressure screenings, diabetes screenings, wellness education and information & referral services.

Adult Day Services: The JAA offers a supportive environment for older adults who need supervision throughout the day at both Council Care/Irving Spolan Center and Anathan Club.

What can you do? In the spirit of Tikun Olam, take a moment out of your busy, hectic schedule to check on a senior neighbor, relative or friend. Should they be in need of services, refer them to AgeWell Pittsburgh, 412-422- 0400.

Perhaps now, more than ever, in the spirit of Chanukah, we should “rededicate” ourselves to helping those in need by caring for those who cared for us!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

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Rabbi Michael Werbow, Congregation Beth Shalom
December 9, 2011                                                                    13 Kislev, 5772

What’s in a name? A lot!
Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43

“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
by any other name
would smell as sweet.”
— Shakespeare

Each one of us received a name when we were born. Our parents thought long and hard to give us a name that was meaningful to them.

We are often named after a loved one. In Ashkenazic tradition it is common to name after someone deceased as a way of honoring this relative and keeping them with the living family. It is also a way for the parents to raise expectations for the child to emulate values and actions of their ancestor.

In Sephardic communities, it is not uncommon for a child to be named after a living relative. There is talmudic support for this from a story when a child was named after a scholar who was still living.

Both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions are customs. They certainly carry much weight in their communities, but they are customs nonetheless. These customs give parents some direction in giving names to their children.

There is often much deliberation when deciding upon a name — an act that Judaism holds in high regard. Rabbinic texts indicate this by mentioning that parents giving their child a name obtain 1/60 of prophecy. We can look at this teaching and either interpret it as names being given by God, through our parents, to us or that by giving a name our parents had insight into who we would be in the future.

People obtain a name when they are born but make a name for themselves as they grow. While our parents have the gift of prophecy in choosing our name, through our actions, we determine the value of our name. We are told in Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of our Ancestors), “One who acquires a good name has acquired something precious.”

In this parsha, Jacob acquires a new name. He is told that he will no longer be called Ya’akov, but instead will be Yisrael. Rashi sees these two names as two different ways that Jacob presents himself in the world. Other people, specifically Abraham and Sarah, whose names are changed, are no longer referred to as their original name but throughout the remainder of the TaNaCh Jacob is called both Yisrael as well as Ya’akov.

We know that we are called different things by different people in different situations. We may be called by our first name, a nickname or even a title. Sometimes what people call us may even be contradictory. We can be both mother and daughter, we can be grandpa and dad.

Our different names are an expression of the relationship that we have with the individual person or group of people who use them. We all have the ability to live up to the names we were given, to fulfill the prophecy of our parents and to make a good name for ourselves. When we do, we truly have acquired something good.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
December 2, 2011                                                                                     6 Kislev, 5772

Around this time of year a few years ago, I was listening to NPR. They had a discussion about the holiday of Hanukah and one of the topics discussed was the spelling of the holiday in English. It was fascinating to listen to in particular for me because it is a question I get numerous times every year. “Rabbi, what is the correct spelling of Hanukah?” Well, here’s the story about that…

There's so many different ways Hanukah is spelled in English. The interviewer said that he ran some different spellings through Google and found that the most common spelling there by far is C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That spelling produced 2.8 million hits. In second place, the same spelling minus the initial C: H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That turns up 691,000 Google hits.

The electronic greeting card site, BlueMountain.com and others, go with H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. That spelling takes the Google bronze with 650,000 hits. And there are some others. A Web site called Judaism 101 goes with C-H-A-NU- K-K-A-H. Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of songs for the holiday and, at woodyguthrie.org, they use the spelling: H-A-N-U-K-A. That spelling produces 143,000 hits on Google. But that number includes an evidently very talented illustrator named Tomer Hanuka, as well as some mentions of the Jewish holidays in Hungarian. And finally, there is the spelling used by the Jewish Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and jewishmag.com, among some 110,000 others on Google.

That spelling: C-H-A-N-N-U-K-A.

First of all, the word Hanukah means dedication. It's the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the revolt of the Maccabees.

The issue with the spelling is because there' are several different difficult letters in terms of the transliteration. And all translations are interpretations.

The Hebrew letter at the beginning of the word is the most problematic. It makes a sound that does not exist in English. It makes a sound like someone clearing their throat. But some people put a CH there which is pronounced differently in English. Some people put H there, which is better because if you cannot pronounce the Hebrew letter correctly, the H letter is the closest in terms of accuracy. Some fancy people say H but put a dot under it to signify the Hebrew pronunciation.

Double N. Now why this? There's only one Hebrew letter and it sounds like the letter N.

No idea of why there would be a double N at all.

But the double K can have an explanation. Hebrew has two different ways of making the K sound. So perhaps for people that know Hebrew, they go with the double K to show that this is the CAF letter with the dot in it as opposed to the other Hebrew letter (KOOF).

Better than none in any case.

Now at the end of Hanukah, in Hebrew there's the letter HAY which sounds like an H usually, but at the end of the word you generally do not hear it.

And this raises the question of whether or not you should have an H at the end.

I think there should be an H at the end, because the HAY in Hebrew closes the word. So I think the H tries to capture that.

I believe the best transliteration is H-A-N-U-K-A-H. This gives people the best chance at pronouncing the holiday correctly. However, because there's no uniformity in transliteration, whatever you decide to do, I suggest being consistent.

Happy Hanukah!

Rabbi Donni

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Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Temple Shalom, Wheeling, W.Va.
November 18, 2011                                                                 21 Cheshvan, 5772

Chaye Sarah, 23:1-25:18

In circle of life, loved ones come and go
We are all familiar with the phrase “circle of life.” I couldn’t help but think of this idea in relation to this week’s Torah portion, for life and death are intertwined. As Jews, we have a wide range of rituals to mark our various life cycle events, including ones for death and mourning.

I mention this because this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah, even though it is called “the life of Sarah.” The opening verses of the parsha say, “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba — now Hevron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”

With such an opening, why isn’t the Torah portion called, “The Death of Sarah?” Perhaps it’s because it’s the life of an individual, rather than the circumstances surrounding one’s death, that deserves our focus and attention.

While death and loss cause pain for the living, our rabbinic tradition offers a comforting perspective — one that suggests death is not the end — rather, just the end of one chapter of our life. In Pirke Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), we read, “This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come.” In other words, when we lose a loved one, he is not gone — rather, he lives on — just in another realm.

An American Jew, Colonel David Marcus, helped Israel defend herself during the 1948 War of Independence. A poem about a cargo ship sailing out to sea was found in his pocket after he was killed in battle. It reads:

I am standing upon the seashore.

A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

At that moment some one at my side says, “There! She’s gone.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,

“Here, she comes!”

This poem captures the essence of what our Jewish tradition teaches about death: while one’s physical presence — the body — may no longer be visible, the essence of a person — the spirit of an individual, his values and teachings — remains intact and live on. In a manner of speaking, our deceased relatives are like the ship in the poem — no longer in view, but still there.

After Abraham mourns the loss of Sarah, he looks forward to the next generation and focuses his attention on the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham understands the circle of life, and he finds the strength and courage to move forward, and keep living. When we are faced with the loss of a loved one, may we, too, remember the circle of life. And may we find comfort in the image of the ship sailing across the ocean, being seen by those on the other side.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, New Light Congregation
November 11, 2011                                                                         14 Cheshvan, 5772

Genesis 18:1-22-24
On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Akeida, the nearsacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, taken out of the context of the Genesis narrative. We weave Abraham as hero into the High Holy Day themes of justice and mercy as one who acknowledges God as the final authority of his life (and the life of his son) and at the end of the story, comes to a full understanding of God’s mercy. So too should we feel on Rosh Hashana our relationship with the Lord of all existence and the balance of strictness and compassion.

Not every commentary on the Akeida agrees that Abraham was a hero. Many believe Abraham took a leap of faith and trusted in God. He kept Isaac in the dark and soldiered his way through to the top of the mountain as a knight of faith. Others believe that God’s order was a challenge to Abraham to argue the case for justice. If Abraham could bargain with God over the sinners of Sodom and Gomorra, saying, “Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice” (Genesis 18:25), could he not save the life of Isaac, his “miracle” son born in his advanced age? Say these commentators: Abraham loses the test of faith with his blind obedience and God never speaks to him again.

Is it possible to read the Akeida in the context of Abraham’s life narrative and not as a mark in either the win column or loss column? I believe we need to honor Abraham’s humanity and know — at all times — that his is up against something that is larger than himself. Abraham’s gestures betray a kind of slowing down of the events of the days after he is called. There are long silences between himself and the boy, a threeday journey into the wilderness, the presence of servants as “witnesses,” and specific details about finding the right place and arranging the wood. This is the way the weak often act in the presence of the strong as an act of civil disobedience. If we cannot fight the strong, let us delay the inevitable as gesture of spiritual resistance. We will overcome someday.

At the end, the ram appears instead of the expected lamb sacrifice and the ram and its horn becomes a symbol for embattlement and spiritual resistance within Jewish life. The British, during their mandate over Palestine, forbade Jews to pray out loud at the Kotel

(Western Wall) lest one upset the Arab residents who lived close to the area. It was forbidden to read from the Torah; it was forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur of 1930, Rabbi Moshe Segal was at the Kotel and, as it was getting close to Neila, thought to himself, “Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar, which symbolizes the redemption of Israel?” He opened the drawer in a prayer stand and slipped the shofar into his shirt, wrapped himself in his tallit and thought, “All around me a foreign government prevails, ruling over our people on their holiest day; but under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my father in Heaven; here I shall do as He commands me, and no other force on earth shall stop me.” When Neila concluded, Rabbi Segal took the shofar and blew a long, resounding blast and the British police grabbed him before he was finished.

He was released, but for the next 18 years, before the Arab conquest of the Old City, other rabbis would follow, piping the wail of the shofar, facing arrest, as an act of spiritual resistance of the weak over the strong. The British well knew that the shofar would bring down their authority as the walls of Jericho crumbled before the shofar of Joshua, and they did everything to prevent it from happening.

Abraham needs to be understood in this way as a kind of hero that did not succumb nor fully protest the authority of a God who makes absurd demands. He reached into his humanity and found a dignified way of bearing the weight of the demand — slowly, slowly — until he met the true God Who embraced him with His compassion. Abraham’s act was an act of civil disobedience.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is aservice of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
November 4, 2011                                                                                     7 Chesvan, 5772

One of the great mysteries of the Torah is why God chose Abraham to be the first Jew. No information is given in the Torah to explain God’s selection process. Instead, we have to go through all of Abraham’s actions during his lifetime in order to figure this out.

Once we do a little digging, we find out that Abraham is not without his flaws. In this Torah portion, Lech L’cha, we find out that Abraham lies to Pharaoh about his wife Sarah and in the process puts her in harm’s way. Several commentators criticize Abraham for his actions or, in this case, his inactions.

This is just one of many times we question Abraham’s actions. The Binding of Isaac story later in the text is probably one of the most well-known stories about Abraham and the choices he makes.

So what can we learn from Abraham’s conduct here in this Torah portion?

One lesson we learn is that Abraham is a flawed leader. Maybe he was chosen by God despite the fact that, or perhaps because, he was not a perfect man.

Many of us today are put in leadership positions at times. Maybe we can learn from Abraham that we are not expected to be perfect. As we go along life’s journey, we strive to do our best and learn from our mistakes as we go.

B’Shalom

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
October 28, 2011                                                                                        30 Tishrei, 5772

This week’s Torah portion is one of the most well known, focusing on Noah and the flood. While the story is a favorite among children, the message of the destruction of the world and its many interpretations are meant for the adult audience.

Noah’s steadfast adherence to his beliefs, while isolating him from the society in which he lived, made him a Biblical role model. Noah’s strength was his conscience—an innate sense of right and wrong, of morals and values that allowed G-d to choose him to build the ark.

Noah’s profound sense of morality not only saved his own life and that of his family but of all humanity. G-d’s covenant with Noah was that he would never destroy humankind again.

Our task is to protect the sanctity of life, of nature and of our fellow beings. The responsibility to heal and repair the world is at the heart of Judaism and a mitzvah (commandment) to fulfill in times of plenty and scarcity.

Noah’s story has a message for the JCC as well. It is incumbent upon board and staff to adhere to our principles, in good times and in bad. While living our values can be lonely, challenging and even isolating, the Torah portion validates the purposecentered existence. As we continually strive to build a better JCC and improve the community in which we live, I have found new meaning in Noah and in our task of creating a world worth preserving each day.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
September 28, 2011                                                                                     29 Elul, 5771

Holiday Message

Fall is the time of year for many of the Jewish holidays. We begin with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), then we continue with the holiday that represents repentance and forgiveness (Yom Kippur) and then Sukkot, our harvest holiday that also represents the fragility of life. The holiday season concludes with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.

I have heard many people over the years jokingly comment about how these holidays are so scrunched together and wouldn’t it be nice if they were spread out more. Sometimes I have replied, also jokingly, that when the holidays were created, no one asked my opinion about them and if they did, I would have spread them out so it did not feel so stressful because we have to do so much in so little time.

However, tradition teaches us that everything is for a reason. Therefore there must be a reason for having so many of our holidays in such a short time frame.

I found one possible answer to this question of timing when I was studying Bible in Rabbinical school. We were taught that every word of the Torah is there for a reason. So when we see a word repeated twice in a row in the Torah, it is not a mistake, but rather a way to express an idea with more emphasis. We were taught to look at the meaning of the word and the context it is written in and to make sure we really understand the importance of the message.

Maybe this also holds true for our fall holidays and is the explanation for why they come one after the other. The messages are so important that we need to pay extra special attention to them, which we are forced to do as these holidays impact our schedules and lives on every level.

As our year begins, we must figure out how to make the coming year more peaceful for our families, communities and world. No small task, but if we take it a step at a time and embrace the challenge, next year at this time we will be able to reflect proudly on our year, and then embrace the challenge again for the next year.

Shanah Tovah!

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
September 23, 2011                                                                                      24 Elul, 5771

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and begin a new cycle of activities at the JCC, we take a moment to reflect on the year that was and look forward to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

This time of year, I like to return to Jewish texts and influential authors who have moved me. Well-known author Rabbi Harold Kushner is someone I have looked to for inspiration and strength. In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be? Rabbi Kushner looks at our tradition in the context of developing a new understanding of guilt and forgiveness.

He writes of the struggle so many of us have to be perfect—making harsh judgments of the mistakes that we and others may make and setting unachievable criterion for performance. While acknowledging that Judaism sets high standards that establish a foundation for how we lead our lives, Kushner reminds us that Judaism encourages our capacity to grow while being cognizant that humans are, by their very nature, imperfect beings. He emphasizes that coming to terms with our own imperfections allows healing to happen.

While our JCC strives for flawlessness each day, we fail to achieve that goal—not because our board and staff don’t try to operate a seamless organization, but because of our own limitations and the mistakes that undoubtedly occur. As we bring in a New Year, I recognize the precept that our quest for excellence will undoubtedly be tempered by personal and organizational failures. However, I am comforted by the realization that an understanding of our authentic goodness, value system and hard work will be acknowledged by the more than 25,000 people who will use the JCC next year.

I wish you and your families a happy and healthy New Year.

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Mayda Roth, JCC Development Director
September 16, 2011                                                              16 Elul, 5771
Ki Tavo, Portion of the Week

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, summarizes the entire relationship between G-d and the people of Israel:

You have affirmed this day that the Almighty is your G-d, that you will walk in G-d’s ways, that you will observe the laws and commandments and rules…and the Almighty has affirmed that you are the treasured people who shall observe all of the commandments. (Deut. 26: 17-18)

I have given to the [needy]…and have…a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 12-15)

In the online eZine, Arutz Sheva comments on the portion by describing the relationship between the Jewish people and their G-d and the reciprocity between them through an idea made famous in the form of two jingles, the first, that of William Norman Ewer:

  • How odd
    Of G-d
    To choose
    The Jews

and the second, the Jewish retort:

  • Not quite
    So odd –
    The Jews
    Chose G-d

The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is one of abundance and enormous responsibility. Heed the words of G-d and do not stand idly by.

In exchange for the magnitude of gifts from G-d, the Jewish people are charged with providing for those who need support. The rhymes are metaphors for the umbrella that arches over the JCC providing access through scholarship opportunities where people of all backgrounds, faiths, abilities and financial means come together. Under the aegis of a code of ethical behavio r and as members of that chosen people, the JCC follows in the path outlined in Torah and responds to the task of living up to that duty prescribed more than 5700 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Martin William Shorr, Temple Hadar Israel, New Castle
September 9, 2011                                                           10 Elul, 5771
Ki Tetze, 21:10-25:19

Matchmakers Must Remember Why They Do Their Job
This week’s Torah portion talks about divorce. There is a perception from those not knowledgable of Jewish law and tradition, believing divorce to be unlawful. The fact that it is brought up here in Parshat Ki Tetze and debated among rabbis in the Talmud makes it clear that it is totally lawful.

There is perception that divorce is a slim-to-none activity in Orthodox Judaism. Certainly, over the years it has been in the Orthodox communities. However, its frequency has increased. I am going to share my feeling on why divorce has increased in Orthodox communities in the past 25 years or so. Before I do that, however, allow me to clear up a few things about divorce, Jewish style.

Divorce in Judaism requires a writ referred to as a get—a Yiddish term for writ. Marriage in Judaism is more than just a man and woman sharing a life with each other in love; it is a pact between the two. That pact is read and signed by each spouse and two witnesses at a Jewish wedding and referred to as a Ketubah.

Many questions and comments are involved with the actual laws involving marriage and divorce, so much so that each one has a full part of talmudic law named after it. There is a Gemorah “Kedushin”—discussing all the laws of marriage—and a Gemorah “Gitten,” which discusses all the laws of divorce.

Despite what the law may be, two people unhappy in a marriage should do all they can to work it out, but if that’s impossible they should not continue it.

Over the past 25 years, there has been an increase in divorce. The Orthodox community encourages matchmaking as opposed to conventional dating. Matchmaking at one time was very successful, perhaps because it used to be done with true motivation of getting the correct fit between a man and woman for marriage.

In recent years, shadchanim, Yiddish for matchmakers, have turned their practice into a business. There is certainly nothing wrong with making a little extra coin, but it appears that many of these matchmakers are concerning themselves more with the business aspect than what is the true motivation.

I’ll never forget the time I attempted to make a match for a friend of mine. He could not afford to pay the matchmaker. The matchmaker said to him, “It appears you don’t have a strong background in learning Torah, therefore the only woman I could set you up with would be not very thin, not very attractive.” I remember wishing I could set this matchmaker up by sending the same person back a few weeks later with a great deal more money and seeing what the matchmaker would do then.

It's not about physical beauty, nor is it about people's status. The truth is, while it will continue in the Orthodox communities, and for others as well, matchmaking is a very questionable way of meeting for marriage. Why? There comes with it a stigma of worrying more about the actual date, as opposed to finding someone that connects.

Also, leaving the judgment of something so important to people who are concerned more with making a living off of you than connecting you to your correct mate is a very scary concept. It also makes you wonder if that has contributed to the higher rate of divorce among a group of people who in the past rarely considered such an action.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
September 2, 2011                                                                                3 Elul, 5771

It is that time of year again. We have now entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month in the Jewish calendar that comes before the month of Tishre, when we celebrate the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

During the month of Elul, Jews around the world are supposed to begin to reflect on the past year. This way, when the High Holidays do come, we are ready to atone for our sins and begin the New Year on the right foot.

The question then is, “how can we ready ourselves for this New Year that is upon us”? Below, I have listed some questions and thoughts that we can ponder for ourselves in our own personal preparations and reflections for the New Year. My hope is that each and every person has the opportunity to reflect and enter this New Year refreshed and excited to make the world we live in a more peaceful place.

  1. If you had to name three choices you made in your life that would have been different than your parents’ choices for you, what would they be?
  2. “We forgive not because we believe that what was done was unimportant, but because we are prepared to put aside our anger long enough to hear words which reflect remorse and regret, long enough to begin to believe that people have the potential to grow.” Rabbi Charles Klein
  3. The essence of being humble is the ability to see ourselves as equals with those around us. As Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not judge another until you are in the same position.”
  4. Whom are we going to forgive this year? How do we let them know they are forgiven?
  5. Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.

Shabbat Shalom

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
August 26, 2011                                                                                      26 Avan,  5771

The concept of Shabbat has different meanings for different people.

While Shabbat traditionally encompasses prayer, ritual and family, multiple meanings have emerged for many individuals over the years. The multiple ways people celebrate Shabbat at the JCC reflect our commitment to recognize that there is no singular way to be Jewish within a contemporary environment.

One area of Jewish practice that has received considerable attention in recent years is the concept of Jewish meditation. In fact, Judaism has a very long history of practices that involve reflection and meditation – from Kabbalah to personal Jewish contemplative practices. There is now a national Institute of Jewish Spirituality that connects this practice to the linking of meditation to Jewish thought and social action. One of its faculty members, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, recently shared this with a young group of Jewish bloggers at PresenTense: “Spiritual practice nourishes our ability to ride the storms of life, to assess when to act and when to relax. There is a rhythm to life that we learn and develop through our practice, which can be nourishing when engaged in challenging and demanding work.”

In the Jewish world in which I was raised, such dialogue and integration between Judaism and outside movements did not occur, at least publicly. Today’s Jewish leaders have largely recognized that connecting Jewish life with modern developments can bridge gaps and connect thousands of people to a more “accessible” kind of Jewish life. We continue that active path of exploring “what kind of Jewish lives do people want to lead, and how can our JCC make it possible for them to do so?”

As we continue our journey, we hope that our JCC can help you create a life infused with reflection, joy, values and action.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Eli Seidman, Jewish Association on Aging
Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
August 19, 2011                                                                    19 Av, 5771

Little Things Mean a Lot
“Blow me a kiss from across the room Say I look nice when I’m not Touch my hair as you pass my chair Little things mean a lot…”

“Little Things Mean a Lot” was a popular song, recorded by Kitty Kallen in 1954. In it, the singer says that she does not need diamonds or pearls. She appreciates the little things that her husband does for her that show her that he is always thinking of her.

Anyone who is, or has been, married knows this. The little everyday things we do for each other are more meaningful than the most lavish gifts. The big events and occasions only make sense when they are in the context of a commitment and an ongoing relationship.

In the Torah portion of Ekev, Moses says: “If only you will listen to and obey these laws.” In Hebrew, the word “Ekev” means “if only,” and can also mean “heel.”

Rashi says that we ought to do our best to be meticulous in keeping everything that G-d has commanded, down to the smallest and seemingly insignificant details. The “small” mitzvot — or the “heels,” the ones people normally trample on.

For example, many people make sure to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but unfortunately, after the fast is over, the crowds revert to a much more modest attendance. Somehow, people believe Yom Kippur is more important than the mitzva of daily prayer.

In this context, a small mitzva (or “heel”) is one that is not kept by the vast majority. But a teacher of mine once famously said, “All mitzvot are created equal.” If they were all commanded by Hashem, they should all be kept.

In a marriage, we must try our best every day, not merely on anniversaries and special occasions. Moses teaches us that the same is true of our relationship with G-d. It is important to keep an awareness every moment of every day, even in the seemingly little things.

Shabbat shalom.

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Melissa Hiller, Director, American Jewish Museum
August 12, 2011                                                                        12 Av, 5771

This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, reinforces the blueprint for our covenant with G-d. Before the Israelites cross the Jordon, Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments as well as introduces the commandment of reciting the shema, the affirmation of Judaism and declaration of faith in one G-d.

In connecting American Jewish Museum values to the parsha, two sections resonate: the requirement that Moses transfer leadership to Joshua over the people and the Second Commandment’s prohibition against making graven images. These concepts may seem to bear no connection with each other, but in the AJM they really do mesh!

Although the Second Commandment forbids figurative imagery only if intended for idol worship, a strict reading of it connotes incongruity toward all visual art. Historically, therefore, there has been ambiguity regarding whether artistic endeavors are appropriate pursuits.

During ancient times, however, when the interpretation of the Second Commandment was its most rigid, Jews were compelled to make visual representations conveying their traditions, beliefs and history. The murals in Syria’s Dura Europos (the world’s oldest synagogue) depict Exodus scenes as well as portraits of figures like Abraham. The murals establish beyond doubt the existence of an ancient source of Jewish art and visual tradition in Jewish culture regardless of the Commandment’s restrictions.

Today’s art-making practices bear little resemblance to those practiced in the third century. A shared value among artists of any era is the desire to utilize visual sources to transmit ideas to others, to guide them to think critically and mature intellectually, and even to shepherd them into leadership roles— to pass the torch—as Moses did with Joshua.

A recent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water enabled the American Jewish Museum to support four artists in conducting artmaking workshops with at-risk youth that used visual art to consider issues around ecology and self-empowerment. The workshops incorporated performance, dance, drawing and discussion. The driving force was to foster the value of self development, accountability and self-expression.

During the upcoming BESA exhibition, Jewish and Muslim teens will collaborate on programming that aims to build the foundation for lasting trust and tolerance. Community programming for Super Silly: Superman Creators’ Funnyman Fights Crime with Shtick will engage artists who will work with youth in devising a community comic book exploring everyday heroes in their neighborhoods.

Through these diverse programs, the American Jewish Museum continues engaging the community through artistic concepts to make what is hopefully an enduring impression on our next generation of leaders.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
August 5, 2011                                                               5 Av, 5771

Here at our two JCCs, we have thriving Early Childhood Development Centers. Unless you have a child participating in this program in either the South Hills or Squirrel Hill location, you may not know about some of the magic that occurs daily for these 300 children, their teachers and their parents.

I thought I would share a little bit of the magic with you.

When I started working with ECDC, I was amazed at the warmth between the teachers and their students. Whenever children saw their teacher, many would run right up to them and exchange the most miraculous hug. I would even see some of the children walking with their parents, and when they saw their teacher outside the classroom, the children and the teachers would get excited.

This summer, I have had the opportunity to teach Israeli dancing to some ECDC children at the Squirrel Hill location. It has been so much fun. Not only have we learned how to Israeli dance, but we also learned what some of the Hebrew words in the songs meant. The most popular word we learned was “mayim.” It is the name of a dance as well as a particular step in Israeli dancing. And the word means “water.” Once I told the children what the word meant, something magical happened. Several children who speak a second language in their homes taught us how to say “water” in their languages. We learned how to say “water” not only in Hebrew, but also in Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. What a wonderful gift the children gave to each other and all of us that day.

I also have had the opportunity to spend time in our South Hills ECDC. I was privileged to begin to infuse our Jewish Ethical Start curriculum into the fabric of the classrooms. We began teaching this program in four classrooms and I had the wonderful opportunity to work with four extraordinary teachers. It was my job to teach them the curriculum and to show them how to use the materials to teach their classes the messages of being a good person by using Jewish tradition. This too was magical. I had four teachers, none of whom had a Jewish background, come and learn with me and in turn, they brought Jewish ethical teachings to their classrooms in a creative and fun way. I call them my four “mitzvah heroes.”

If you have the opportunity to meet any of our ECDC teachers and staff, take a moment to congratulate them on what they do each day. They are all truly mitzvah heroes and with them, the future of the Jewish community is as bright as the stars in the sky.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Paul Tuchman, Temple B'nai Israel , White Oak
July 29, 2011                                                                     27 Tammuz, 5771
Masei, Numbers 33:1-36: 13

“Do not pollute the land on which you live.” Numbers 35:33
I wish I could say that these words were an ancient harbinger of our environmental concerns, an admonition against pollution. In fact, they aim at keeping the land in a state of holiness by requiting the blood of murder victims through executing the perpetrators.

However, it is ancient practice to lift the Torah’s words out of context, giving us the ability, and the license, to extend its meaning into realms that were not conceived of all those many years ago. So let’s consider pollution.

Our text continues: “ … for blood pollutes the land….” We are well aware, and have been for decades, that environmental damage caused by human beings has led to the death of many living things, from humans all the way through the plant and animal kingdoms. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was one of the first to alert the world to the scope of the problem.

Examples abound: Polar bears sinking through rotten ice too far from shore; coral colonies dying and bleaching; overdependence on fossil fuels, leading to worldwide climatic change as greenhouse gases accumulate; migration of species into new areas, causing disruption to ecosystems; famine; not to mention runoff from manufacturing and mining, causing sometimes fatal illness to people, massive numbers of fish dying in rivers near Pittsburgh, and even the decay of Lake Erie.

Torah equates life with blood. (Genesis 9:4) In creating the conditions for so many creatures — that is, God’s creations — to die, we are in effect shedding their blood; and that blood pollutes the land.

That pollution makes our lives harder, narrower and arguably shorter. We are expiating the environmental sins we have committed.

There is nothing here that you were not already aware of. I bring this citation from this week’s sedra to strengthen, from Jewish tradition, the plea that we become more active in striving to halt pollution of the earth — the damage that we do, the hardships we cause, the blood we spill.

A famous midrash envisions God creating and destroying many universes before ours, arriving at last at the perfect creation. God adjures Adam and Eve to take good care of the earth, because there will be no one else to heal the damage they might do. In as much as Adam and Eve represent all humanity, this ancient parable was never more relevant.

There are many Jewish organizations dedicated to arresting and even undoing harm to the environment, all basing themselves on our tradition. I hope that you will find some of them and join in this effort.

Shabbat shalom!

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Cantor Richard Berlin, Parkway Jewish Center
July 22, 2011                                                               20 Tammuz, 5771
Mattot, Numbers 30:2–32:42

Vows Make A Difference, As Tradition Teaches
“If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon himself he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”
— Numbers 30:2

“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s house…”
— Numbers 30:3

So begins Parashat Mattot. Two things stand clearly obvious: First, women, at the time of the writing of Torah, were acquiescent to men. Second, the making of vows to God was serious business. On this first issue, Etz Hayyim (p. 941) comments, “These rules, reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or husband, have been superseded by developments in the modern world. Already by the time of the Talmud, the sages limited the applicability of this law by restricting its time (the year between ages 11 and 12) and the circumstances.”

On the second issue — the importance of vows — we are all familiar with its most prescient representation in our liturgy. Indeed, few refer to Erev Yom Kippur; we know it as Kol Nidre (All Vows). And in today’s Jewish world, all of us acknowledge that our declared obligation to God must be fulfilled.

Words, it is taught, are merely symbols. Those symbols take on meaning when we humans agree that a particular word refers to a particular thing. We all agree what a window or a door is. Suppose that we agree that a “door” is in fact a “window” and vice versa. All is well in this newly defined world until we choose to walk out the “door.” We would then be struck by what Edmund Burke called “the recalcitrance of the universe,” for by stepping out the “door” we would surely land on the ground below the object formerly known as a window.

This academic exercise confirms that words do carry actual meaning. Thus, words have power and the control of words — or more specifically, control of the definition of words — creates political and physical power.

Our vows — our words — are actions that we declare. Whether to God or our fellow human being, we are responsible for the words we declare. The power of words is evident in the opening words of Torah, wherein God creates a world solely with words.

As God created using only words, so do we humans create using words. Being only betzelem d’mut — in the image of God (and thus, incapable of the full breadth and depth of God’s power), we must take care that we use those words for good.

We use words to define both things and people. Through words, we denigrate or elevate the people around us. Through good and evil words — lashon hatov ulashon hara — we create both war and peace, despair and joy, loneliness and love.

The choice is ours. The words of Kol Nidre address only our relationship with God. We control our actions toward our fellow human beings.

May the One who established peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel and to all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Adam Baldachin, Rabbinical Student, Emma Kaufmann Camp
July 15, 2011                                                                      13 Tammuz, 5771

Torah Thoughts — Parashat Pinchas
Passing the Buck

Decision making can sometimes be tricky. It is often unclear when decision makers should manage a situation or pass it on to others to decide. President Harry S. Truman, for example, took a fairly strong stance on his role as a manager by famously displaying a sign on his White House office desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” In his farewell address to the American people in 1953, Truman referred to this sign when he asserted, "The President - whoever he is - has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.”

While Truman took a heroic approach to making an executive decision, and arguably did so because it was best for the country, taking such a stance can sometimes lead to trouble. It is extremely difficult to take on any question or problem that arises without seeking advice, or without involving other people. In this week’s parashah, Pinchas, Moses offers a different approach when a question is posed to him that he is not prepared to answer.

When Zelophehad dies without sons, his daughters approach Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the entire assembly of Israel to request that their father’s inheritance in the land of Israel be passed on to them instead of being forfeited to someone outside their family as the Law dictated. Rashi, 11th century French commentator, explains that Moses is stumped. He has no idea what the answer to the question is. He is presented with the option to either guess or he can turn to someone else for help. Luckily for Moses, God, the giver of Law, is actually just a prayer call away. God responds to Moses’ query, answering for the daughters to receive their father’s inheritance. Moses’ act of humility in turning to God for guidance reminds us of the importance of collaboration and teamwork.
At Emma Kaufmann Camp, staff members are regularly presented with many questions and challenges throughout the summer. Their key to success often entails turning to someone else for help in thinking about how to respond to the issue at hand. It can be uncomfortable to say, “I don’t know,” or “I need help,” but staff members quickly learn that it is crucial in order to ensure that each question is given an appropriate response.

On the other side of the sign on President Truman’s desk was written “I’m from Missouri.” While this phrase connotes a “prove it to me” sentiment, it is also Truman’s home and identity; a reminder of the values behind making the right decisions. On the one hand, we must be ready to answer questions and take care of business when it comes our way. On the other hand, without the right approaches to our positions--through humility, awareness, and respect for our colleagues and community members, we cannot fulfill our potential as worthy leaders to make just decisions. May we continue to improve in our leadership abilities through the help of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
July 8, 2011                                                                   6 Tammuz , 5771

Shabbat at Camp is always a special time.

For both our camp in the South Hills as well as James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp at our Family Park in Monroeville, Friday is not a day like the rest of the week. Each camp begins the day by celebrating the upcoming Sabbath. I asked children from each of the camps what they thought about celebrating Shabbat at camp and what makes it special for them. Here are some of their awesome responses:

JCC Camp in the South Hills:
“I like Shabbat because we get to eat challah!”

“I like Shabbat because we sing fun Shabbat songs.”

“The day just feels different. I like the way it feels.”

“I get to talk about the Shabbat and my friends at camp know what I am talking about. That’s cool!”

J&R Day Camp:
“I like that we all Israeli dance in the Pavilion.”

“I LOVE the challah and the Dinosaur Shabbat song.”

“I think the counselors are funny when they sing the Dinosaur song.”

“I like singing the song about peace called Salaam.”

If your children attend one of our wonderful day camps or you know other children who attend, ask them what they like about celebrating Shabbat at camp. The answers they share are priceless.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Rachel Marcus, Associate Executive Director
July 1, 2011                                                            29 Sivan, 5771

Who We Are: The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

  • We welcome all Jews to participate to the level of their interest in Jewish growth
  • We have in place programs and services that provide members with opportunities to understand their Jewish heritage
  • We take a leadership role in joining with other Jewish communal institutions to meet Jewish educational needs in family life
  • We have programs available to welcome Jews to celebrate Jewish life cycle events
  • We offer programs and services designed to deepen the connection to Israel
  • We provide services that demonstrate sensitivity to the changing needs of the Jewish family
  • The Center encourages racial and ethnic harmony for the entire community, Jewish and non-Jewish
  • We engage a Jewish professional staff that provides opportunities to study and share their Jewish knowledge and life experiences
  • The JCC does all that and more: We provide Jewish content in our early childhood program; in our summer camps, where 2,400 children are exposed to Jewish living and Jewish lifelong memories; for our seniors from ages 65 and over, for whom we provide outlets to stay physically, mentally and Jewishly active.

Enjoy our Center and Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Barbara Symons, Temple David
Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32
Location Matters in Disputes
June 24, 2011                                                           24 Sivan, 5771

What is the proper arena for dispute? If you are a Food Network groupie, then you are familiar with the show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” In the territory of a chef’s kitchen, he cooks his own version of that chef’s famous dish, and customers and food critics vote on the outcome. The winner varies.

In 1263, Nachmanides (Ramban) was chosen to represent the Jews in the Barcelona dispute, held in the presence of the king, the bishop of Barcelona and a large audience, in order to debate Pau Cristia, a Jew who converted to Christianity. The goal was to try and convert the Jews to Christianity. The debate took place in five sessions in the Grand Royal Palace. Ramban won the dispute but was the object of such harassment that he moved to Palestine.

In this week’s Torah portion, when Korach challenges the leadership structure, Moses directs Korach and his company to take their fire pans, lay incense on them and take them to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, as did Moses and Aaron. As it turns out, there was never a contest of incense, but the ground was laid for the competition of incense-burning leaders.

Centuries later, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18) to a dual of the burnt offerings, even giving them the better odds (as if that mattered) since he soaked his wood in water.

God won.

When we enter a debate “for the sake of heaven,” a debate of merit and respect, of content and meaningful outcome, of not tearing apart, but building, the venue is important. When we debate how to raise our children, it is not productive if one spouse just walks in from an exhausting day of work outside the home and the other walks over from a day with the children.

When we have a troubling ethical question, standing at the oneg table doesn’t give proper recognition to the matter at hand. When we have an issue with an individual at work, throwing down the gauntlet at a staff meeting most likely will be counterproductive.

Think of a recent dispute you had. What was the tone? The outcome? Would a change in arena have given them better chances of being positive?

This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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Gina Tudi, Division Director of Sales and Membership Service
Johanna Kitman, Director, Membership Services
June 17, 2011                                                    15 Sivan, 5771

As membership directors, our job is to welcome everyone into the JCC community. When we talk about the JCC, we often refer to the image, based on the Biblical tale, of Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which is open on all four sides to welcome whoever comes from whatever direction.

Recently, inspired by the current American Jewish Museum exhibit about water (Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water), as well as with the start of summer next week, we’ve been thinking about how we fulfill our mission of community-building outside our JCC walls.

Summer is one of the JCC’s most exciting times because our community naturally moves outdoors—to the 100-acre Family Park for J&R day campers and families, who enjoy the Olympic-size swimming pool, hiking trails and sports activities; to the outdoors-based day camp in the JCC South Hills’ “backyard”; and for older kids, to immersion in spirited community at Emma Kaufmann Camp in rural West Virginia.

Judaism recognizes the preciousness of nature— the mountains, hills, deserts, seas, long rivers, lightning and the sky—in the blessing, “We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation.” Flowers and herbs, so abundant at this time of year, also are recognized with a special blessing, as are fruits that grow on trees and vegetables and fruits that grow in soil.

Water, too, is recognized as precious in Judaism, and as we absorb the ideas and facts expressed in Too Shallow for Diving, we become even more mindful of the importance of our natural world to our local community and global environment.

As we approach the longest day of the year, which is another reminder of the workings of our solar system, and as we notice the sprouting plants and blooming flowers of early summer, our respect for the preciousness of the natural world can become another expression of the JCC’s community.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
June 10, 2011                                                                 8 Sivan, 5771

Summertime is here!

In the Jewish world, there are not a lot of holidays that happen during the summer months. I see this as both a potential blessing but also a challenge.

It’s nice to take a break from the holidays for a while. Holidays are important and many times joyful. They help us break from our routine so we can step back and re-embrace our Jewish tradition.

However, as we all have experienced, holidays can also disrupt the flow of our week and send our already incredibly busy lives into a whirlwind.

So on the positive side, the summer months bring more stability in our schedules and the ability to hopefully plan wonderful family experiences that help create memories that will last a lifetime. But on the other hand, routine can bring apathy and has the potential to prevent us from taking a step back and appreciating who we are, where we came from and therefore where we are going.

That is one of the blessings of the holidays, whether they are ones we celebrate or commemorate. They help us reflect so we can go forward with a clearer vision of our journey.

Hopefully this summer will bring us the opportunity to help us strike a balance in our lives. No matter what opportunities this summer presents to us, I hope and pray that each one of us will enjoy days that are filled with joy, calm, excitement and most of all, the opportunity to look at those around us whom we cherish the most, and make those priceless memories.

Please also take the opportunity to see what is happening here at the JCC. We have diverse summer programming in our newly developed K’hillah (Jewish Life) department. Our goal is to be a part of helping all of our members have a wonderful, memorable summer.

I am looking forward to seeing you!

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
June 3, 2011                                                                 1 Sivan,  5771

Last week, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Aaron Bisno wrote a provocative essay, “Courageous Conversation,” that opened the door to more public discourse toward the changes sweeping across Jewish life today. I wanted to share excerpts from his essay with you as well as my letter to the editor of the Jewish Chronicle in support of his general assertion.

In Rabbi Bisno’s words:

  • Across the country and cross-denominationally, there is a vital and transformative conversation under way. It’s an early conversation, but it’s dynamic and bold; and already there is a strong sense the conversation is long overdue. To be sure, not every rabbi and lay-person is yet on board, but the most forward-thinking and creative Jewish leaders are actively participating in what professors at the Harvard Business School deem a “courageous conversation.”

    What are “courageous conversations?” Simply, they are conversations that take place in a period of sustained uncertainty, wherein the most challenging and important topics are discussed forthrightly. After all, the reasoning goes, when reality gives way to a new normal, one cannot afford to shy away from talking about matters of ultimate import and significance. Certainly, we have reached such a time in Pittsburgh.

    In recent years significant national Jewish institutions have shut their doors; others have merged or now pool resources; still others are exploring collaborative arrangements that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago. Long-held denominational loyalties are fraying, mergers between institutional bodies of our major Jewish movements are being openly discussed, and new partnerships and paradigms are being explored and tested in nearly every Jewish community across the land….

    Bottom line: We live in difficult and challenging times, and we are all in this together. Not a single Jewish institution is immune from these pressures, and therefore any success currently being enjoyed is necessarily temporary. And insofar as no single organization can solve its problems alone, like-minded Jewish leaders must insist we join together in common purpose…Just imagine what we could realize if we stopped competing with ourselves!

    This is not to say breaking this pattern will be easy. Overcoming the challenges which beset each and every Jewish organization in our city will require every rabbi, professional and lay leader to put the communal good ahead of our respective (and collective) egos, so that rather than focusing on what any of us stand to lose, we might dedicate ourselves to that which augurs best for the ongoing success and ultimate survival of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community as a whole.

    That’s what I hear, and that’s what I say. What are your thoughts? Let the courageous conversation begin!

From my letter to the Jewish Chronicle:

  • I want to offer my support to my colleague Rabbi Aaron Bisno’s recent “Courageous Conversations”op-ed piece.

    Rabbi Bisno candidly articulates the transformation occurring within the North American Jewish community today and the unique opportunity to focus on building Jewish peoplehood and identity as opposed to parochialism and territoriality.

    The Jewish community has generously donated impressive facilities, invested heavily in lay and professional leadership and built an impressive communal and religious infrastructure. It is time to invest just as deeply in understanding evolving Jewish demographics, breaking down internal silos within the community and exploring new ways to build a vibrant and relevant community for the future.

    I commend Rabbi Bisno for his courage to begin the public conversation on 21st century people-building and I feel privileged to work in a community of like-minded individuals who are prepared to face the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
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Rabbi Jamie Gibson, Temple Sinai
May 27, 2011                                                                        23 Iyyar, 5771

Numbered or Innumberable? Bemidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20

In this week’s parasha, Bemidbar, a census is called for to divide the Israelites up into their tribes and fighting units. The numbers are carefully counted, except for the Levites, who will not be among the troops who engage in the battle for the Promised Land.

Midrash Rabba comments on the seeming contradiction between this careful counting of our people and the promise made to Avraham, our ancestor. He was told that our people would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and sands of the sea, too many to ever be counted!

The Midrash is exceedingly ingenious in solving this riddle. It says that we are counted only when we need to be called to account for failing to live up to the Covenant. But when we are fulfilling our charge to follow God and Torah, then our numbers are potentially without limit.

And that of course, is the rub. We have unlimited potential bound only by the limits of our abilities. That applies not only to Torah, but to every other endeavor in our lives.

We are not called to be perfect, however, only to strive to live up to our potential. And for the most part, we try very hard. Every single one of us constantly strives to make the best decisions with respect to ethics, mitzvah observance and community. And every single one of us fails.

But, as Rabbi and psychologist Jack Bloom would say, we do the best we can every single day according to the challenges, pressures, problems and doubts we all face. Decisions that seem incomprehensible to someone from the outside, like stealing, cheating or lying, make sense to that individual who struggles every day simply to live.

This is not to excuse immoral behavior, only to understand that we live in a desert that is open, filled with both possibility and danger.

In the wilderness of the world around us today, whether we confront our yetzer ha-ra, our evil impulse, or our background or our genetic predisposition, we all wish to be counted for the good. And to give us an example of what we might aspire to, our Midrash teaches:

[At first, God showed Avraham] one star, because at first he was alone in the world, the first to seek shelter under the wings of the Shechina. Next God showed him two, symbolizing Avraham and Yitzchak. Then three, representing Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya-akov. Then twelve, alluding to the twelve tribes. After that, seventy, corresponding to the seventy souls that went down to Egypt and finally, God showed Avraham countless constellations, indicating that in the distant future... they will become innumerable.

Our numbers are both our limit and our potential. It is we who decide to be bound or shackled by them. Let us choose well that we navigate the wilderness wisely, entering whole and coming out on the other side whole as well.

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Miriam Abramovich, MAJCS, JCC Family Life Coordinator—My Baby and Me
May 20, 2011                                                                 16 Iyyar, 5771

Underlying the JCC’s spirit are core Jewish values, one of which is exemplified in the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent. We are told that Abraham would enthusiastically greet passersby and invite them into his tent with an abundance of hospitality. Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on four sides to be welcoming to all who approached from any direction. The JCC strives to build a culture that incorporates this philosophy into our interactions with every person entering our facilities.

The universal values of inclusion and hospitality come to life in the JCC’s My Baby and Me department. My Baby and Me provides a support network and education for young families with infants, toddlers and pre-school age children. Through our programmatic and personal efforts to welcome new families with babies, we live the idea that our JCC is a big tent open on all sides. We provide open-ended opportunities for social support, friendship, communal engagement through our Baby Play classes and our Manic Parenthood series. Since its inception, My Baby and Me has welcomed many hundreds of families into the JCC’s “tent.” We consider ourselves advocates for greater inclusiveness and always strive to become an even more welcoming community.

As the summer approaches, the JCC and My Baby and Me pitch an even bigger tent that extends beyond the walls of the JCC. We offer families with young children an opportunity to join our community at Family Park in Monroeville, at the Bagel Factory in Squirrel Hill, and on hikes on Frick Park.

Take a look at the amazing programs the JCC offers and let us extend our hospitality to you this summer!

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
May 13, 2011                                                             9 Iyyar, 5771

What is the Counting of the Omer?
The Counting of the Omer is a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot. This derives from the Torah commandment to count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the Omer, a sacrifice containing an omer-measure of barley, was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, up until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on Shavuot.

The idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah, which tradition says was given by God on Mount Sinai at the beginning of the month of Sivan, around the same time as the holiday of Shavuot. The Sefer HaChinuch states that the Jewish people were only freed from Egypt at Passover in order to receive the Torah at Sinai, an event which is now celebrated on Shavuot, and to fulfill its laws. Thus the Counting of the Omer demonstrates how much a Jew desires to accept the Torah in his or her own life.

How can we find personal meaning in the Counting of the Omer?
The period of Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth—for a person to work on one’s good characteristics through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. Traditionally, Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of Our Ancestors) is studied during this time. Pirkei Avot contains teachings related to ethics, character and behavior. Our Early Childhood Jewish Curriculum is based on the teachings in Pirkei Avot. Here are a few examples from Pirkei Avot to think about during this time as we count the Omer:

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the jug, but rather what is in it…(Chapter 4, Mishna 27)

Yehoshua ben Parachya says: Make a teacher for yourself, and acquire a friend for yourself; and judge everyone favorably. (Chapter 1, Mishna 6)

Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace… (Chapter 1, Mishna 12)

Shammai says: Say little and do much, and greet everyone with a pleasant face. (Chapter 1, Mishna 15)

Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community… (Chapter 2, Mishna 5)

Shabbat Shalom.

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
May 6, 2011                                                                  2 Iyyar,  5771

As part of the Jewish Community Center movement, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh helps support the JWB Chaplain's Council, an activity of the JCC field that supports Jewish military chaplains and thousands of Jewish armed forces members domestically and in the field overseas. You may remember that last fall dozens of our members made gifts to donate a portion of a “field ready” kosher Torah scroll for our troops.

The support of our Chaplains now extends to a new bill (Concurrrent Resolution #12) in Congress that would provide for the construction of a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to honor 13 Jewish chaplains who died while on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces between 1943-1974 and join earlier constructed memorials to Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains. We know that at least one of the Jewish chaplains killed in active duty was the father of a Pittsburgh JCC member.

The bill currently is seeking co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and we ask for your help by writing or e-mailing to your local congressional representative (Jason Altmire, Mike Doyle, or Tim Murphy) and ask that they join the 73 house representatives who have already sponsored the bill.

If you have any questions of how best to communicate with our representatives, please contact Rhonda Epstein of our staff at 412-521-8011, ext. 234, or repstein@jccpgh.org.

We can think of no other better message you can send, either before or after Shabbat, than to honor the memory of those who gave their life in service of their faith and their country.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
Brian Schreiber, President & CEO

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Rabbi Michael Werbow, Congregation Beth Shalom
April 29, 2011                                                                 25 Nissan, 5771

Being Nachshon leads to holiness  --  Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Throughout much of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) we speak of biblical issues of ritual impurity, which could be transferred from one person to another. These impurities could also be transferred from some objects to others.

So, we have to ask ourselves, “Can holiness be transferred?” Is this something that we can obtain from other people or objects? If the Torah is holy and we spend a lot of time with the Torah will that make us holy? If we think of the Kotel (Western Wall) as holy, and we make frequent visits, do we attain a level of holiness?

In Kedoshim we are told from the start that, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.” What does it mean that we are holy because God is holy? Is it a given? Just because we are in contact with God, does that make us holy? Or, does there need to be more active participation on our part? This seems to be the case.

Immediately after this statement, we receive a laundry list of actions we should take, a recipe of ethical do’s and don’ts for how to be holy. It begins with “You shall each revere your mother and your father and keep My Shabbatot (Sabbaths).”

This list also includes such things as not reaping all of our harvest but rather leaving the edges of the fields and the gleanings for the poor. We are told not to place a stumbling block in front of the blind or be biased in our judicial rulings.

Our actions matter. We cannot be passive and be seen as holy. Having just come through the holiday of Passover, we understand this loud and clear. On the first day we celebrated the exodus form Egypt and on the seventh day we commemorated the crossing of the sea. We are taught that both of these events occurred, not through the people sitting and waiting, but when they acted.

God first noticed the people in Egypt when they cried out, and they left Egypt when they took the blood of the Pesach offering and placed it on their doorposts. Similarly, the people crossed the sea after one man stepped into it. When they called out to Moses, and Moses in turn called to God, the Divine response was, “Nu, what are you waiting for?”

The Midrash teaches us that it was Nachshon who took the steps into the water; once he did, the sea split. We can’t wait for redemption to come to us and we can’t expect to achieve holiness without action either.

We are only perceived as holy when we act, not when we sit back and wait. We all know the adage, “If you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem.” What problems are we perpetuating because we don’t act to bring holiness into the world? Hunger, illiteracy, environmental degradation or any other of a host of issues?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” We all have the blessing of being and for most of us our blessings go way beyond that. But, are we living in a way that fosters holiness? Let’s follow Nachshon’s example and act, bringing holiness into our lives.

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Dan Garfinkel, JCC-South Hills Branch Manager
April 22, 2011                                                                     18 Nissan, 5771

The Shabbat that falls during Passover offers an opportunity to examine how both these celebrations reflect Jewish values of freedom and responsibility. Shabbat is a day of rest, and is fundamentally about turning away from the cares and concerns of the work-day world and focusing one’s attention on the divine. Its very origin speaks to the Creation and asks us to model Adonai’s behavior: “And on the Seventh Day, Adonai rested.” Shabbat creates a holy space in which we put aside our labors. The Shabbat commandment of rest on the seventh day is contained in the traditional Pesach Shabbat parsha, as it is written, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time.”

Passover celebrates freedom. The Jews were slaves in Egypt, but God brought them forth from Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The notion of freedom within the context of Passover inextricably binds liberty and labor. Metaphorically, slavery can be of the mind, through illiteracy; of the spirit, through oppression; and through the body, by forced physical labor.

Passover enjoins us to celebrate all of our freedoms. Our Seder feast reminds us that we are free from want, and our obligation is to welcome and feed those less fortunate. By reclining, we celebrate that we are free, while remembering that others remain enslaved. The taste of the bitter herbs reminds us of the bitterness of our enslavement, and the haroseth reminds us of the sweetness of freedom.

On this Passover, let us once again take part in this wonderful ritual, at once a feast for the senses, the heart and the soul, a time to turn inward and remember the past and to turn outward and engage in Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
April 15, 2011                                                                   11 Nissan, 5771

In an ideal world, the Four Questions that we ask during our Passover Seder would be enough (dayeinu).

But in the real world of today, filled with people with different priorities and expectations, these additional Four Questions might help us as we think about how we can make our lives better and make this world a little sweeter:

What can I do to help the earth become a healthier place?
Earth day this year is on April 22 – the 4th day of Passover. There are many ways one can help our earth. Some of the many issues that we can focus on include climate change, conservation, efficient energy use, land pollution and water conservation. Pick one to focus on. On a side note, the next exhibit here at our JCC Museum will be dealing with the topic of water. There will be resources included in this exhibit that explain Judaism’s connection to the power of water and how we can help conserve this precious resource.

What does it mean to be hungry in America and specifically what will it take to end childhood hunger in America?
Malnutrition, lack of access to food, not knowing where your next meal is coming from--all of these things are what it means to be hungry in America. Hunger in America is a political condition. It is not a lack of food, but a lack of action and will that perpetuates hunger in our country. There are four steps of effective anti-hunger activism: educate yourself, make the issue personal and volunteer with local anti-hunger organizations, advocate on behalf of the hungry to your legislators, and organize your friends and community to take action with you.

How can I improve my relationships with my family and friends?
Relationships are a massive part of our lives; we can’t live without them. Of course sometimes it is very hard to live with them, but in the long run they are one of the most important things in life, and yet also one of the easiest things to neglect. Relationships with friends and family always go through testing times and there will always be ups and downs. Perhaps just start by picking one or two of the following ideas and work on them with one person and see what happens: Keep in touch, spend quality time, remember birthdays and other dates, listen more, look for ways to help them or make their lives better, try not to take them for granted, open up by telling them how great they are and how much you love having them in your life.

How can I follow my passion when life is so busy?
Following your passion should be in the top ten of your to-do list. It’s tough. It’s scary. I get that. I can relate. However, you can still take steps to help you follow what you are passionate about. In order to make time for your passion, whether it is doing art, volunteering at a homeless shelter, etc. consider one of the following ways to help make time for it to happen: Check your Facebook account once a day, not once an hour; occasionally say no when asked to do a favor for someone, if you like to watch TV, eliminate one series from your repertoire.

If any of these additional questions speak to you, wonderful! If not, don’t hesitate to come up with your own list of additional questions during this Passover season. We are commanded to retell the ancient story of the Exodus as well as make it relevant for the world we currently live in.

Have a Happy Passover!

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
April 8, 2011                                                                     4 Nissan 5771

The concept of Shabbat has different meanings for different people.

While Shabbat traditionally encompasses prayer, ritual and family, multiple meanings have emerged for many individuals over the years. We at the JCC recognize that there is no singular way to be Jewish within a contemporary environment.

One area of Jewish practice that has received considerable attention in recent years is the concept of Jewish meditation. In fact, Judaism has a very long history of practices that involve reflection and meditation – from Kabbalah to personal Jewish contemplative practices. There is now a national Institute of Jewish Spirituality that connects this practice to the linking of meditation to Jewish thought and social action. One of its faculty members, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, recently shared this with a young group of Jewish bloggers at PresenTense: “Spiritual practice nourishes our ability to ride the storms of life, to assess when to act and when to relax. There is a rhythm to life that we learn and develop through our practice, which can be nourishing when engaged in challenging and demanding work.”

In the Jewish world in which I was raised, such dialogue and integration between Judaism and outside movements did not occur, at least publicly. Today’s Jewish leaders have largely recognized that connecting Jewish life with modern developments can bridge gaps and connect thousands of people to a more “accessible” kind of Jewish life. We continue that active path of exploring “what kind of Jewish lives do people want to lead, and how can our JCC make it possible for them to do so?”

As we continue our journey, we hope that our JCC can help you create a life infused with reflection, joy, values and action.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.
Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
Brian Schreiber, President & CEO

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Rabbi Nosson Sachs, UPMC Shadyside Hospital
April 1, 2011                                                                      26 Adar II 5771

World without Words
Parshat Tazria Leviticus 12:1-13:59

As one Arab regime after another falls, I am reminded of the famous line, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The ability to instantaneously communicate through social networking sites was key to the wave of revolutions that are convulsing the Arab world. These people have felt a seething resentment toward their oppressive governments for decades. But it remained inactive until a critical mass of people were able to communicate that resentment with each other and mobilize. How powerful words are.

The Torah teaches us that speech is a divine gift and a defining trait of mankind. It is one of the ways in which we are made in the image of G-d. Notice that when G-d created he did not merely “will” the world into existence, although He certainly could have done it that way. Instead G-d spoke the world into existence. He said, “Let there be light,” “Let there be seas” and “Let there be man.” It seems clear that the Torah is telling us that speech is a divine, powerfully creative trait. Imagine — G-d has shared this ability with you.

The ability to speak is shared with no other earthly creature. Although all animal life communicates in some fashion, their communication is rudimentary and concrete. Basically, animals communicate to physically survive. But human speech is categorically different and far greater than mere animal communication.

Consider what our world would be like without words. Without words one generation could not pass on its knowledge to the next. Each human generation would die with all it had learned. The following generation would have to rediscover the same information on its own. Finance, technology, medicine, civil law, manufacturing and all other components of civilization could never develop because all of these require the gradual accumulation and communication of knowledge through the generations.

Without words, we would live in caves. Without words life would be empty and purposeless. We could not communicate our values or ideals. Values and ideals would not even exist. How would we define them without speech? There could be no Jewish people or Torah. There could be no constitution or Bill of Rights.

In fact, there would be no rights at all, or for that matter, “wrongs.” Life would be vicious and brutal. Might alone would rule.

Life would be a lonely experience without words. You could not tell your wife or children or friends, “I love you” or “I miss you” or “I need you.” How would we connect without words? How would we forgive each other or repair hurts? There would be no way to communicate our inner feelings of joy or sadness, fulfillment or loneliness. Without words, we would live in isolation, surrounded by people but cut off from their essence, their souls.

G-d gave you the ability to use words because He loves you. Aren’t you grateful? How have you used your divine gift of speech today?

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Liza Baron, Director, Chidren, Teen and Family Division
James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp
March 25, 2011                                                              19 Adar II 5771

Shabbat, the day of rest, is the heartbeat of Jewish life, bringing a rhythm of ritual and meaning that enriches and connects us to our Judaism.

At the JCC, we offer Shabbat programs that engage families and develop community around this unique day in the Jewish week. When the JCC expanded its Saturday hours last December, it was done with the intention of maintaining the specialness of Shabbat.

For families, we initiated new programs—Family Shabbat Dinner and Got Shabbat?—that are fun, informal and informative settings to share the beginnings (Family Shabbat Dinner) and endings (Got Shabbat?) of our Sabbath.

Our Family Shabbat Dinner, for families with children ages 7 and younger, include singing, storytelling and prayer with the JCC’s Jewish Educator, Rabbi Donni Aaron, dinner, a craft project and open gym. Got Shabbat? is a late Saturday afternoon drop-in program with Jewishthemed projects, entertainment and prayers and learning related to Shabbat and Havdalah, the end of the Sabbath.

The fun continues this summer at J&R, where Rabbi Donni and Community Shlicha Leehee Kanne will lead Judaic programming and our weekly all-camp Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations with singing and dancing. Each week during Kabbalat Shabbat, a camp unit will put on a show, acting out a Biblical story.

And on July 22, we’re moving our Family Shabbat Dinner tradition to the Family Park, where we’ll dine, sing, dance and enjoy entertainment by the Israeli Scouts.

At the JCC, we hope that all of us are enriched by the community, values and ritual of Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
March 18, 2011                                                                12 Adar II 5771

How do we find God when God's face is hidden?

Purim teaches us how to relate to God in a time when seas don’t split and when bushes don’t burn. The story of Purim occurred after the destruction of the First Temple, when the era of prophecy was coming to a close. People no longer saw miracles openly. It was a time of concealment.

Have you ever felt God clearly in your life? A time when you felt a force greater than yourself somehow shaping and leading events?

Each event in the Megillah is natural and possible, and seems to be orchestrated entirely by human beings and their choices:

1) A king gets drunk and decides to call for his wife to appear before the guests. That could happen.

2) The wife, Vashti, refuses to appear before the king. The king decides to kill her. Esther is chosen queen. That’s possible.

3) Haman chooses to kill Mordechai and asks permission from the king. Could be.

4) The king has insomnia one night and remembers an old favor he needs to repay to Mordechai. Possible.

But when ALL of these incidents happen to coincide, when ALL the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle come together in one huge “coincidence,” they form nothing short of a miracle.

It may be hidden, but a directing force becomes obvious all the same.

Each event that Haman thought he controlled turned out to bring about his downfall.

Throughout the Megillah story, God directs events and takes advantage of people’s free will choices to form a tapestry of purpose and destiny—the redemption of the Jewish people.

Throughout the entire story of Purim, the name of God isn’t mentioned. It is an era when God’s face is hidden. But more than ever, it is clear how God is running the show. There are simply too many “coincidences.” The links fit together too well.

Another point to keep in mind: the Megillah spans a nine-year period. When it is compressed into one book and we read it in half an hour, we see with perspective and hindsight how every painful event was working towards a purposeful end. However, when we’re in the midst of a difficult situation, we tend to see only the darkness and confusion.

The particular message of the day, then, is to understand God’s guiding hand in history and in the mundane affairs of this world.

Olam, “world,” comes from the root ne’elam, “hidden.” God’s name doesn’t appear. But when all is said and done, God’s presence is recognized everywhere. God is not concealed. God only appears to be. It is up to us to find God in every event of our lives. We need only read between the lines.

Hag Purim Sameach!

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
March 11, 2011                                                                5 Adar II 5771

An essential JCC core value is to maximize accessibility of services for people of all means and abilities. This is evidenced in the JCC’s longstanding commitment to provide financial assistance for people with limited financial means to become a JCC member or participate in our early childhood, after school, day and overnight camping programs.

The JCC’s scholarship program provides all individuals, regardless of financial means, the unconditional opportunity to participate in community life. It is a living expression of Jewish values executed into practice each day, particularly for those who are in temporary or unremitting financial distress and have nowhere else to turn.

Our operating practices closely resemble noted Torah scholar Rashi’s commentary of insuring that the most needy have preference in receiving help and the mutual obligations of both the provider and the recipient of funds. Our confidential intake process is consistent with the value of preserving a recipient’s anonymity, enabling vulnerable individuals and families to be part of JCC life while preserving their privacy and dignity.

Jewish principles were particularly evidenced during the recent economic downturn, where we experienced unprecedented scholarship applications and awards granted. Our audited financials noted that direct assistance grew by over $500,000 in the past three years.

Our Board of Directors’ steadfast adherence to Jewish values, albeit the financial stress this has placed on the JCC, is the fundamental expression of our commitment to tzedakah (righteousness).

We wish you and your family a Shabbat Shalom.
Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
Brian Schreiber, President and CEO

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Rabbi Paul Tuchman, Temple B'nai Israel, White Oak
March 4, 2011                                                                   28 Adar I 5771

The Embroidered Screen — Vayakhel, Exodus 35:1-38.20

“Construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, is the main subject of Vayakhel, this week’s Torah portion. The gathering of materials, the appointment of artist/managers, the fabrication of cloth and furnishings, the dimensions of all the parts and their assembly — these are presented in great detail.

Even so — and this is a constant feature of the Tanakh — there is not enough detail. For example, we read (Exodus 36:8) that a design of cherubim was worked into the strips of cloth that were joined (sewn?) together to comprise the innermost sanctuary.

We are not told, however, what these cherubim actually looked like. We might imagine fiery angels such as those who guarded the Garden of Eden against Adam and Eve’s return. Or the elegant human-like figures with long wings depicted on the lid of the “Lost Ark” in the first Indiana Jones movie. Or the chubby winged toddlers who flit about in Italian Renaissance paintings. These cherubim — were they standing, bowing, flying? Our text gives no clue.

Almost the last item mentioned in our Torah portion (38:18) is the “screen of the gate of the enclosure”: 30 feet long, seven and a half feet high, and embroidered in blue, purple and crimson yarns with fine linen. Now we understand embroidery, and we know that it isn’t random. It involves pattern, figure or both.

A screen is simultaneously an enticement to go beyond and an obstacle to doing so. Its function is to make us hesitate, to consider what makes the space on the other side so special — even holy — and to prepare to exist within it.

What was embroidered on that mishkan screen? The “Ten Commandments” enjoin us from depicting anything encountered in nature, but clearly the figures of cherubim were permissible. What pattern or figure would have been conducive to establish the mood of awe and receptivity in one who passed beyond the screen?

Neither you nor I can tell. So let’s ask a different question, a personal question.

What pattern or figure on that screen would evoke both your awe and your spiritual yearning? What would make you pause and prepare before entering a holy place?

Architects and artists have been presenting their answers to these questions for millennia. Who has not been stirred and uplifted by successful synagogue architecture and décor?

You might want to approach an answer to this question through the technique of visualization. Sometimes, for example, a meditation leader will ask that we close our eyes and visualize the letters of God’s ineffable Name, or the number 1. Your own spiritual “trigger” is likely to be something else entirely.

Let the Torah’s instruction to embroider a screen stimulate you to re-affirm or find your entrance to holiness.

And then, step beyond it.

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Sam Bloom, Emma Kaufmann Camp Director
February 25, 2011                                                            21 Adar I 5771

Shabbat — A Day of Celebration

Shabbat is “a day of celebration,” when we engage in pleasurable activities such as eating, singing and spending time with family. What a great opportunity to do these encouraged activities as we “make” Shabbat!

At Emma Kaufmann Camp, the JCC’s overnight camp since 1908, our mission and goals include fostering the deepening of our campers’ Jewish identity and enriching their understanding of Jewish values.

We are always thinking up new, engaging ways to practice Judaism, to show our campers, our staff and our families that participating in Jewish ritual and feeling good about being Jewish are easily attainable goals. Our campers and staff model enthusiasm for their Jewish identity and values while celebrating our Jewish culture.

Recently, the campers, staff and families of Emma Kaufmann Camp began “making Shabbat” by spending time together lighting the candles and saying the prayers over the challah and the wine, our own “Friday Night Shabbat Lights.” Campers and their families come together at a different location each Friday night, and we video the prayers, the fun, the singing and even some eating. Our campers and families from across the country, including our alumni, are able to share the fun by watching these videos on YouTube.

We welcome you to visit our special website each Monday to see the newest video. Go to www.youtube.com/emmakaufmanncamp to see all of the wonderful and creative ways that we “make” Shabbat.

We wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and Shavua Tov (A Good Week).

Emma Kaufmann Camp Staff

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
February 18, 2011                                                                14 Adar I 5771

What Judaism Has To Say About Health Health and Fitness — Smoking (Part III)

Having received an overwhelming response to my previous Shabbat Messages about health and fitness, I have begun to look more in depth at the Jewish view on the subject. I recently looked into what Judaism has to say about smoking.

Even though we all know that smoking is very hazardous to our health and to the health of those around us, there are still many people who continue to smoke.

I know that sometimes the mental state of the smoker, or the environmental pressures that he or she faces don’t permit him/her to take upon him/herself the task of quitting, and in such a situation we might consider him/her a victim of circumstances beyond his/her control. But the great majority of people are capable of taking the steps necessary to quit smoking.

What does Jewish law have to say about smoking? Is it permissible or forbidden?

Hundreds of years ago, there were doctors who believed that smoking was actually a healthy practice and they would even advise smoking to those suffering from certain types of sicknesses. But as time passed, it became increasingly clear that smoking is in fact very bad for one’s health.

This being the case, it is clearly forbidden according to the Torah to smoke, for the Torah commands us to guard our lives - “Only be careful and guard your soul greatly” (Deuteronomy 4:9), and “You must guard your souls greatly” (Ibid. 4:15). And the Torah has commanded us to stay away from anything that might endanger life. Therefore, if one builds a roof or a balcony, there is a Torah obligation to build a guard rail around it so that nobody falls from it. Hence we can see to just what degree a Jew is obligated to maintain his health and to guard the health of others. It follows that the Torah prohibits smoking.

It is also possible that the prohibition against smoking does not stem merely from the commandment to protect one’s health. It may very well be that the Torah prohibition against murder also becomes an issue here. This is because with every inhalation, the smoker causes direct damage to his lungs and, in a sense, brings his own death a bit closer. If this is the case, such a person violates a severe negative commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” which is one of the Ten Commandments.

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
February 11, 2011                                                                7 Adar I 5771

One of our five core agency values adopted in 2006 is, “Following the tradition of Abraham, we welcome individuals of all backgrounds, embracing their uniqueness and diversity under our communal tent.” This precept provides the philosophical underpinning to proudly serve the totality of our membership—both within and outside the Jewish community.

The image of Abraham and Sarah’s tent in the Torah is as applicable to our 21st century JCC as it was in biblical times. By rabbinic tradition, the tent was open on all sides to welcome travelers coming from all directions. Welcoming guests was so important to Abraham that he even interrupted G-d to greet three strangers, bathe their feet, and offer refreshment. We take this same approach to all who enter our JCC tent, no matter their religion, race, gender or background.

Ultimately, it is not the borders of our tent that should be our main concern, but what happens inside. Our JCC is a place of joy, where the rhythms of the Jewish calendar punctuate time with moments for reflection and celebration. Our tent should intentionally be large enough to accommodate many kinds of Jewish practice and to foster respectful debate. It should also be wide open to the outside world, so that even as we cultivate our Jewish community, we ask and model how to be inviting to the world at large. It should also be intimate enough to provide comfort and meaning to each individual who utilizes the JCC, a sharing of Jewish values that enrich all of us.

As we wish you and your family a Shabbat Shalom (a Sabbath of Peace), may you continue to strengthen and to draw strength from our communal tent.
Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
Brian Schreiber, President & CEO

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Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler, Temple Emanuel of South Hills
February 4, 2011                                                                 30 Shevat 5771

If you build it, God will come; if you don't, God won't
South Hills Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19

“Do you ever have doubts about God?” One of my confirmation students asked me this question recently. I took her question seriously. I wanted to give her not merely a quick answer, but a good one. I then replied, “More than I’m concerned with my doubts about God, I’m concerned with God’s doubts about me.”

But I’ve given her question further consideration, and now I realize that my best answer is, “Much more than I’m concerned with my doubts about God, and even more than I’m concerned with God’s doubts about me, I’m concerned with God’s doubts about us, with God’s doubts about humankind altogether.”

Look at the world. How much faith should God have in us? As in the days leading up to the flood story in the Torah, our world blazes with Hamas, “Violence,” running the gamut from verbal violence to bloodshed. The only way that the world could be saved from violence in the Torah was for Noah to build an ark. So it is in our world. To alleviate human suffering and evil, to traverse the torrents of violence churning our world, we too have something to build.

Asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, are the central words of our Torah portion Teruma: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” As Noah had to build an ark for salvation, and as the people of Israel had to build the mishkan for God’s presence to journey with them from Mt. Sinai, we have to make sanctuaries for God to dwell in our midst, not merely physical sanctuaries, but sanctuaries of morality, menschlichkeit and certainly for the Jewish people, Yiddishkeit.

From every vantage, seemingly small as well as the enormously obvious stated above, how much faith should God have in us? The Shabbat after my confirmation student asked me this question, I attended the morning service at a congregation in another city. I relish my rare opportunities to attend other synagogues, and on this particular Shabbat, I enjoyed the comments and quips by the rabbi and the sweet singing of the cantor. Yet otherwise, my view from the pews was disconcerting. Few people prayed. Some people did not even open the prayer book. There was great praise of the bar mitzva boy. There was little praise to God, or for the gifts of keeping Shabbat and studying Torah. Hundreds of people were seated in that sanctuary, yet few people were making it a sanctuary for God to dwell in.

For generations now, the story has been told of the student who asked his rabbi, “Where can I find God?” The rabbi replied, “Wherever you let God in.” This parable reiterates the central lesson of Teruma, when God commands Moses at Mt. Sinai, “Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.” For God to dwell in our midst, we must build sanctuaries of study and observance, morality and ritual, menschlichkeit, Yiddishkeit and community. With every mitzva we keep, we can cement another block in the foundation, hammer another plank, secure another beam, or nail another shingle in building God’s sanctuary in our midst. If we build it, God will come. And if we don’t, how can God come, let alone why should God come? If we don’t, God won’t.

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Kelly Gable-LaBelle, Division Director, Early Childhood Services
January 28, 2011                                                                     23 Shevat 5771

All parents want their children to learn and practice the values of kindness, respect and responsibility. The JCC’s Early Childhood Development Center focuses on these values through An Ethical Start, a curriculum based on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a source of timeless Jewish wisdom. Teachers, families and children explore the text together at different levels, creating a foundation for lifelong learning, social development and spiritual growth from a Jewish perspective.

Unit 4, “It’s about me and my community,” examines Chapter 2, Mishna 5 Hillel Omer in which Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Pirkei Avot teaches us the value of being part of a community: We grow ethically by contributing to our communities and drawing strength from their resources and support.

Traditionally, a community has meant a group of people who share a social arena, are bound by common customs and values, and are aware of each other’s needs, sufferings and joys. Community has been essential in Jewish life because so much of Jewish ritual and culture cannot be given full expression in the absence of community.

Our teachers ask the children questions such as, “What does the term community mean?” “How do we choose or become a part of a community?” Some of the answers—“We take turns on the climbing bars;” “At my school, everyone learns to swim”—seem simple at first glance. However, when we look deeper, they encapsulate what many of us are looking for in our adult worlds—the sense of connection and knowing that you are a part of something that is meaningful physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

We hope you enjoy the warmth of our community and the richness of Jewish life.

Shabbat Shalom,
Kelly Gable-LaBelle

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
January 21, 2011                                                                   16 Shevat 5771

What Judaism Has To Say About Health and Fitness (Part II)

Increasing the Heart Rate During Exercise
You Shall Love the Lord your God With All Your Heart (from the Shema prayer, taken from Deutoronomy 6:5)

The Hebrew word for heart (lev) and its derivatives are mentioned 827 times in the Bible. This suggests that opening one’s heart and acting based on the heart makes one a better person. Tefillin are placed on the arm to be near the heart. Midrash Rabbah describes the heart as a decision-making organ. Thus, a healthy heart, one that is strengthened through exercise and study, makes you a stronger and better person.

Maimonides’ Prayer of the Physician
“Almighty God, You have created the human body with your infinite wisdom. In the body You have combined ten thousand times ten thousand organs that act continually and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty—the body which is the container of the mortal soul. They are ever-acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. Yet, when the frailty of matter or the unbridling passions interrupts this accord, then forces clash and the body crumbles. You send to people diseases as beneficent messengers to foretell approaching danger and to urge one to avert it.”

The above prayer reminds us that through exercise and fitness we can combat many future illnesses. We must take responsibility for our own health.

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
January 14, 2011                                                                9 Shevat 5771

The first of six core values adopted by the JCC in 2006 is for “the JCC to provide a gateway to help individuals experience the richness of Jewish tradition and community.” Our members and stakeholders inform us as to how we fulfill our commitment to these core values.

Last fall, more than 1,500 of you took the time to answer a series of questions about your experiences at the JCC, including customer service, program participation, connection to mission, and your open-ended comments. We take all of this feedback very seriously and spend considerable effort analyzing the data and your comments to build an even stronger JCC.

One of the survey questions referenced the first core value by asking “whether the JCC influences the broader Jewish community by creating a sense of belonging among families regardless of background.”

Approximately 85% of you agreed with the question, and more than half of the responses chose the answer, “to a great degree.” This percentage is well above the field benchmark of JCCs around the nation and speaks to the commitment of our members and staff to continually build a culture of belonging in an open, pluralistic, and non-judgmental environment. And the journey continues. As you look below to some of the programs being held at the JCC this weekend, I encourage you to participate in any or all of these activities based on your comfort or interest and experience the sense of belonging that makes our JCC such a unique community resource.

Wishing you and your family a Shabbat Shalom.

Pittsburgh Personal Trainer - Pittsburgh Fitness - Pittsburgh Health Club
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Cantor Richard Berlin, Spiritual Leader, Parkway Jewish Center
January 7, 2011                                                                 2 Shevat 5771

'Go'... and Happy Birthday
Portion of the Week: Bo, Exodus 10:1 — 13:16

A parsha’s name usually comes from its first important word. Bo is the fourth word this week. This parsha starts, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart … that you may recount to your [descendants] how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.’” (Genesis 10: 1-2)

The Conservative movement’s chumash, titled “Eitz Hayim,” proclaims on page 374, “the events of this parashah record the birth of the Israelite people.” So Happy Birthday to all of us!

Those events include the final three plagues, the first Passover seder, and Pharaoh’s concession (represented by Cecil B. DeMille words [not from Torah], in the film “The Ten Commandments,” as said by Yul Brynner: “Their God is God.”)

Bo” is an action verb. God tells Moses to act — to “go” to Pharaoh. Moses is the messenger; God is the author of the events to come.

Why such drama? Was this the right pathway? Absolutely. Drama was the right–—might we say the only correct—call in this case.

Decades ago, I was a drama student, then teacher. Ancient Greek drama was a religious ceremony. The actors were priests and their goal was “the expurgatory of the emotions of pity and fear.” They wore masks (the proper Greek name was persona) so as to generalize the emotional content to the audience (i.e., the congregation). The tragic flaw of the protagonist was thus exposed for all to see and to, subsequently, avoid.

Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Why did God do this? Because God saw Pharaoh’s response to the ten plagues. Only after the third plague was Pharaoh’s heart hardened. Three strikes and you’re out. The tragic flaw was revealed. The witnessing congregations—the Israelites, the Egyptians and the other nations—saw and understood. Pharaoh did not.

In Bo, and throughout Exodus, God wears no mask. To the contrary, God unmasks Pharaoh. In this great confrontation between the “God who is God” and the declared god of Egypt, the God of Israel wins, hands down. Our God is God.

As a consequence, we can celebrate a birthday — the birth of the Israelite nation, later consecrated through the covenant at Sinai.

We pride ourselves in being a people over 3,500 years old. We take pride in the re-establishment of the State of Israel, as a 20th century sign of that heritage.

It is incumbent upon this generation — we who take pride in Israel as well as in America — to act. Bo, go to those who advocate for Israel, whether AIPAC or J Street, or others like them. Speak on behalf of peace. Let us all pray that the tragic flaws of our generation may be resolved in peace; that no more plagues shall endanger us.

May the One who established peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel and to all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

(This column, reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle, is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)

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Kelly Gable-LaBelle, Division Director, Early Childhood Services
December 31, 2010                                                              24 Tevet 5771

All parents want their children to learn and practice the values of kindness, respect and responsibility. The JCC’s Early Childhood Development Center focuses on these values through An Ethical Start, a curriculum based on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a source of timeless Jewish wisdom. Teachers, families and children explore the text together at different levels, creating a foundation for lifelong learning, social development and spiritual growth from a Jewish perspective.

Unit 4, “It’s about me and my community,” examines Chapter 2, Mishna 5 Hillel Omer in which Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Pirkei Avot teaches us the value of being part of a community: We grow ethically by contributing to our communities and drawing strength from their resources and support.

Traditionally, a community has meant a group of people who share a social arena, are bound by common customs and values, and are aware of each other’s needs, sufferings and joys. Community has been essential in Jewish life because so much of Jewish ritual and culture cannot be given full expression in the absence of community.

Our teachers ask the children questions such as, “What does the term community mean?” “How do we choose or become a part of a community?” Some of the answers—“We take turns on the climbing bars;” “At my school, everyone learns to swim”—seem simple at first glance. However, when we look deeper, they encapsulate what many of us are looking for in our adult worlds—the sense of connection and knowing that you are a part of something that is meaningful physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

We hope you enjoy the warmth of our community and the richness of Jewish life.

Shabbat Shalom,
Kelly Gable-LaBelle

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Rabbi Donni Aaron, JCC Jewish Educator
December 24, 2010                                                              17 Tevet 5771

Does Judaism Have Anything To Say About Health And Fitness?  (Part I)
Judaism has a lot to say about fitness and the overall health of individuals. There are daily blessings that talk about fitness. There are ancient stories that talk about fitness. There are even commentaries from some of our most famous Rabbis that talk about fitness. The following are just a few taken from our tradition:

  • Daily blessing for the ability to stretch our bodies: Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha-Olam Mahteer Ahsurim.
  • Daily blessing for the ability to strengthen our backs: Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha-Olam Zokayf K’fufim.
  • Daily blessing for the strength we are given: Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha-Olam Ha Notayn Laya-eif Ko’ach.

From The Code of Jewish Law
Even if one eats well, and follows the advice of healers, if one does not exercise, he will have physical discomfort and weakness.

Maimonides on Exercise

  • One should exercise vigorously every morning until the body becomes warm. Then one should rest.
  • Exercise will remove the injury that is caused by most bad habits that people have.
  • Vigorous body movements and exercise that increase one’s rate of breathing are beneficial.
  • When sedentary, natural heat and excess remain intact; exercise ignites these excesses and natural heat and expels them from the body

Wishing you and your family a Shabbat Shalom filled with health and peace,
Rabbi Donni C. Aaron

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Brian Schreiber, President and CEO
December 17, 2010                                                               10 Tevet 5771

In keeping with our recently established educational goals and guidelines, the JCC is celebrating its first Shabbat with expanded hours. How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory concepts?

It all begins with our perspective of mission and vision and an ongoing commitment to provide a more dynamic environment for ideas, impact and value to individuals and families for personal meaning and growth.

We are open on Shabbat because we recognize that people celebrate the Sabbath differently and that individuals have different interpretations of “rest and withdrawal” from the workday world. Our guidelines also establish that the JCC operates differently on Shabbat than other days of the week.

We are open for Shabbat because we can reinforce the vision of the JCC as being a place where meaningful Jewish connections can be made within the context of Shabbat. We can also accommodate the needs and desires of our community to make these connections on a day when many people have even more time to do so. Over the coming months, we plan to enhance the Shabbat experience to foster these connections through special programming. Some activities will be developed by the JCC; others through planned collaborations with other Jewish organizations. We encourage you to share your ideas as to how we can bring our vision to practice.

No matter your religious beliefs, how or whether you worship, we hope you will find the JCC enriching and fulfilling on Shabbat and all other days of the week.

Wishing you and your family a Shabbat Shalom (a Sabbath of peace),
JCC Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh Fitness