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Yom Shlishi, 8 Sivan 5778

Why Do We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot?

No story in the Bible demonstrates more fully than the Book of Ruth the extraordinary power of love, channeled as hesed– kindness or generosity – that goes beyond the expected obligation.

No book better models what it means to love the stranger and what it means to demonstrate hesed in a way that not only repairs a ruptured family history but also creates a community into which one wants to bring a child.

Megillat Ruth (the Scroll of Ruth) is about kindness and audacity. Through its depiction of Ruth, her actions and influence, the book illustrates just how one can cultivate such virtues so as to bring about personal and even national transformation. The concluding genealogy weaves this transformation into the larger tapestry of Israel’s epic narrative by tying Ruth to David, Israel’s most illustrious king.

The story traces a journey from Bethlehem and back, a journey from famine to fullness, from futility to fertility. Famine drives a family of four (husband, wife, and their two sons) to leave Bethlehem in Judah for the land of Moab. The husband dies, and the sons marry Moabite women. When these men also die, the three widows – Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth – head back to Bethlehem.

At Naomi’s urging, Orpah soon returns to her home, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, pledging herself with the immortal words “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).

In Bethlehem, Ruth the Moabite goes out to find food for the two women. She meets Boaz, a wealthy landowner, who, impressed by all that Ruth has done for her mother-in-law, graciously extends privileges and protection to her. Because Boaz is related to Naomi’s family, biblical traditions entrust him with certain responsibilities toward destitute relatives. In light of these kinship obligations, Naomi instructs Ruth, at the end of the barley harvest, to approach Boaz at night and alone.

Ruth does so, asking for his support, “for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9), and Boaz enthusiastically consents. The plot thickens when Boaz calls Ruth’s attention to a complication: a closer kinsman must be approached first for support. The next day, at the city’s gate, Boaz summons a public assembly to sort out the widow’s situation. He succeeds in clearing all obstacles to his suit and then announces his marriage to Ruth, which the community blesses. The couple’s great-grandson is King David.

Jewish sources offer six explanations for the custom of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai:

  1. Both the Torah, which was given on Shavuot, and Ruth are all about kindness and generosity (hesed).
  2. At Sinai, Israel took upon itself obedience to the Torah; Ruth likewise takes this obligation to the Torah upon herself.
  3. According to one tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot; the Book of Ruth ends with the lineage of David.
  4. Shavuot is connected to the barley harvest (also called bikkurim in the Bible); so, too, is the story of Ruth.
  5. A midrash (a teaching from rabbinic literature) claims that the Torah can be adequately grasped only by those who have suffered; Ruth suffers poverty and hardship (Ruth Zuta).
  6. The Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet offers additional explanations for the link between Ruth and Shavuot:
  • Reading Ruth teaches us that actions, not mere study, are the essence of “righteous living” or “goodness”; Boaz exemplified this teaching through his actions of hesed and his observance of mitzvot;
  • Having received the Torah at Sinai, Israel is now ready to bring near anyone who seeks to receive it, including proselytes like Ruth – the welcoming of Ruth is an example of this readiness;
  • The Torah helps Israel gather the holy sparks scattered among the nations; such is the case with Ruth;
  • In taking the Torah upon themselves at Sinai, the Jewish people all became proselytes.

The story of Ruth, believed to have been written around the fifth century B.C.E., is like a well-cut gem; its many facets gleam brightly as one turns and turns it again. Its four gentle and elegantly crafted chapters profoundly engage difficult issues, such as the complexities of love and loyalty, the nature of responsibility in a time of scarcity, the relation to “the other, the redemptive power of persons; and intermarriage.

If the prophets express on a national scale what Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as “spiritual audacity and moral grandeur,” then Ruth situates these powerful virtues in the domestic sphere and in the lives of ordinary people, who, facing more circumscribed choices, likewise grow to such audacity and develop moral grandeur.

This article is adapted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, the Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, former Professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 

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Wrestling with Torah and More on the Way to Adult B'nai Mitzvah

“Bring it close!” I urge my students, reading from the prayer book familiar words from the Torah service: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” 

They look at me with a mix of wonder, uncertainty and straight-out stress. “Do what?!”

“Write a d’var Torah– a short interpretation of Torah. Yes, really. Choose a piece of Torah that speaks to you or your life and write about it. Tell us what speaks to you personally!”

And so, the process unfolds, replete with worried looks, Google documents emailed from an octogenarian, encouragement to talk to children and grandchildren. Call that granddaughter in college – ask her what she thinks. Take time to sit quietly in a coffee shop to think and write. Frustration and even some anger get shot my way. Throughout, I hold their hands, as it were, and repeatedly remind them, “You can do this. Really. I promise.” 

And they can. 

I’ve seen it a hundred times. Adult students writing divrei Torah as they prepare for their adult b’nai mitzvah service. By the time we reach this point, they have studied for over a year, built a community together, and learned to read Hebrew. They are preparing for a service in which, together, they will lead, read Torah, and teach. 

It’s my favorite part of the process, because the (self-defined) writers and the non-writers, speakers and non-speakers all realize they have something to say about a word, a verse, or a concept from Torah – and they say it! Accomplished adults in the other parts of their lives, they are often more nervous than their 13-year-old counterparts in this setting. At first they hold Torah at arm’s length, not believing that they have a valid point or perspective. 

Throughout, I remind them to hold Torah close, to bring Torah to themselves and to bring themselves to Torah. We don’t need an academic treatise on the Ten Commandments. Please don’t pontificate on freedom from arm’s length. Think about what this portion – or one word, one verse, one concept – says to you. How does it speak to you? The response? Uncertainty, doubt, and protests.

And then, slowly, it happens. 

The adults bring Torah to life and life to Torah. Memories of a grandfather’s plum tree whose fruit became holiday wine. Reflections from a trip to Berlin and Prague lead to a lesson in the first commandment, built around a selfie-stick. Honesty about becoming a bar mitzvah at 95, because his father died young and the family couldn’t afford Hebrew school. Bravado about keeping up with young granddaughters studying Hebrew. Remembering a deceased son who fulfilled his immigrant grandfather’s Ivy League dreams. Admitting real doubt about God after the Shoah, yet maintaining awe at the sunrise each day. Confessing how years of coveting what neighbors had led to a successful search for contentment. Laughing about early vegetarian Shabbat dinner adventures. Thanking younger classmates who treated them lovingly, as if they were mothers, providing rides to and from class to keep them safe. 

After countless crumpled drafts, one-on-one conversations, late night panics, and early morning emails, each adult b’nai mitzvah student achieves a personal connection to Torah. To get there each has wrestled and conversed – with themselves, with the text, with family, with deceased ancestors, with whomever. 

My role? 

Challenge, cajole, edit, and enforce the one-page limit despite their grumbling. They do the work of it. They bring Torah close. It is theirs. 

On Shavuot morning, May 20, 18 adults, ages 28-90, will be called to the Torah at North Shore Congregation Israelin Glencoe, IL, after a year and a half of study, exploration of personal theology, experiential learning, and supporting one another in their lives. 

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On Shavuot: "Re-Covenanting" as a Unified People

And Israel encamped [at Sinai] as one person with one mind.
-- Rashi on Exodus 19:3

Remarkable unity characterized the Jewish people in the days before receiving Torah at Sinai, an event we commemorate on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. As a student in Jerusalem one year, I experienced that unity powerfully on Shavuot. At the end of the traditional all-night learning session, I joined thousands of others streaming toward the Old City. We poured into the Western Wall plaza and I nestled myself in with one prayer group among the hundreds. Tens of thousands of people packed the plaza, a sea of white prayer shawls and people swaying together to the sounds of our ancient liturgy. Indeed, my sense of oneness with the Jewish people at that moment was “like one person with one mind.” 

The next year was very different. I finished the night of study in Jerusalem with friends from one of the liberal Jewish seminaries. Again, we joined the masses walking to the Old City, this time with our own Torah scroll in hand. When we arrived at the Western Wall plaza we set up our prayer service toward the back, away from many of the other groups. My friend started the morning blessings, our group of men and women standing around him.

Almost immediately, a man with a prayer shawl ran up to our table and yelled at us in Hebrew, motioning with his hands for us to leave. “Forbidden! Forbidden!” he called out repeatedly, gesticulating wildly. He was drawing attention and more people began to approach. A guard told us to move to an area in back of the plaza and up some stairs. We were not prepared for a major confrontation, so we moved to this area called “The Archeological Garden,” a quiet and lovely place to pray, so we began again.

Again, within moments, a man stuck his head out a window in his home near the garden and yelled those same words, “Forbidden! Forbidden!” My friend walked over and spoke quietly with him, assuring him that we were permitted to pray – men and women together – in this area. After a short conversation the man calmed down and we continued until we were finished.

The unity and the feeling of the year before were gone. I felt marginalized, separate, and disrespected, humiliated and furious all at once. This was my first experience with the depth of divisions in the Jewish people, divisions so deep that the Orthodox majority felt empowered to marginalize liberal Jews who came to celebrate receiving our shared inheritance, the Torah. I realized that the unity I had felt a year earlier was merely an illusion. Could a Jewish community this fractured ever be whole enough to stand again at Sinai?

This ancient story about receiving the Torah provides a way forward. The Talmud, in Shabbat 88b, tells us that when the Torah originally was presented to the Israelites, God held the mountain over their head and basically said, “I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. Accept the Torah, or else.” Commenting on this coercion, one of the rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Jewish people can’t be held accountable to fulfill the Torah because they only accepted it under duress. Another rabbi agreed but added that, during the time of Esther and Mordechai, hundreds of years later in Persia, the Jews accepted the Torah voluntarily and thus are obligated in its fulfillment.

In the language of community organizing, the two different models of receiving Torah are called “power over” and “power with.” A power over model features domination and coercion.  God, so to speak, forced a unified acceptance of the Torah. A power with model invites people into participation, as Esther did by making herself vulnerable and asking the Jews of Shushan to unify together in a three-day fast.

In a power over model, the dominant group forces its vision and understanding of the world on everyone else – which is what happens at the Western Wall. Those who reject the dominant perspective are marginalized, threatened, and discounted. A power with model emphasizes sharing power and raising up previously marginalized voices for the good of the whole.

Only the power with model will help the Jewish people – in all our diversity of thought – achieve unity. The more one segment tries to impose its will on others, the more resistance and division it will create. If you sense your community is unified, who might be on the margins, not feeling that unity? In what ways does the dominant group in your community impose its will on the collective? 

The key is for us to employ a power with approach – listening, not telling; cultivating curiosity for Torah, not imposing our approach; and making room for diverse perspectives. Although a power over approach may be easier, it won’t create unity. Knowing that real unity involves every voice, on Shavuot, let us commit to learn how others make sense of our shared Torah and bring people in from the margins.

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A Week of Trauma and Triumph

This past Monday, the U.S. opened its embassy in Jerusalem. On that same fateful day, more than 60 Palestinians lost their lives on the border with Gaza. In response to these divergent events, people experienced a range of  emotions. 

This confusing, difficult day took place right before Jews around the world will gather to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Although originally conceived of as a harvest holiday, after the destruction of the Temple, Shavuot transformed into a day celebrating the receiving of Torah at Sinai. We learn all night long to mark the centrality of Torah in our lives; we eat sweet dairy desserts because we were guided to a land flowing with milk and honey. But the sweetness is mixed with bitterness too, not just this year in light of current events but also when the Torah was first given.

Our tradition teaches us that all Jews were present at Mt. Sinai. Think for a minute what it must have been like. There are some who might have felt triumphant that the Egyptian army was defeated and that now we were coming into our own as a people. There are those who may have been traumatized having looked back over their shoulder and seeing the Egyptian army drowning in the sea. In that moment, we rejoiced over our salvation and freedom, but even then, there was fresh pain.

The Rabbis in their wisdom – as many rabbis also will do this week – remind us that the voice of angels reprimanded the Israelites for celebrating as the Egyptians died:

Maaseh yadei tovin bayam v’atem omrim shirah lifanai” (“My creation is drowning in the sea and you rejoice before me”) (Talmud Sannhedrin 39b).

They reminded us that those people who lost their lives were people too. That this moment – when in one day more than 60 people lost their lives – is about crying and weeping for God’s creation that has been killed. It is about asking God, why despite past violence, do their loved ones have to weep for them?

This year we have an opportunity to treat Shavuot as a moment of balance. Together we can walk a tightrope between two conflicting feelings about what has happened in Israel this week. We can rejoice over the redemption of the Jewish people in Israel, and we can celebrate further recognition of our national sovereignty. We can also mourn the loss of life along the Gaza Strip and express concern to our leaders over this violence. 

Standing at Sinai, we have to maintain that balance between what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the Covenant of Fate and the Covenant of Destiny -- between the suffering fate of our people as slaves in Egypt and the moral and ethical teaching that was passed down to us on Mt. Sinai. 

This week we, a nation that is both traumatized and triumphant, got the recognition we deserve. Jerusalem, our eternal capital was recognized by the great superpower of the world. We did it. We can say Shehecheyanu (a blessing of praise). And still, we must not let this moment thwart our moral fortitude and resilience. Now we must stay up all night learning Torah, examining what the Torah and God expect of us. 

This week, as we prepare to receive the Torah anew, we return to that vulnerable place we once were leaving Egypt, realizing we are a people susceptible to attack and the target of ire, hatred, and resentment. But as we turn back to Sinai, we also know that we are a goi kadosh – a holy people – who must act with great moral clarity and even, at times, restraint.

On Shavuot, we remember that the Torah was given only to us and it is a Tree of Life to which we must hold fast.

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Shavuot Backyard Fun: Making Blueberry Balsamic Ice Cream

Growing up, Shavuot wasn’t really part of my Jewish experience. It fell just outside of the religious school season, and much of the “cheesecake holiday” remained a mystery to me until my adulthood.

My children, however, will know Shavuot. In fact, they’ll look forward to it all year. This is because we’ve created a family tradition that they’re excited about. Of course, it involves dairy and, most appropriately for a festival set to fall in early summer, we decided that our new family tradition will be to make homemade ice cream.

We wanted to involve the kids in the production process, so you can put away the fancy ice cream maker. This ice cream is made with 100% kid power! I love this process because it’s fun, interactive, and takes some stamina.

You will need:

  • One large coffee can
  • One small coffee can (or peanut butter jar or plastic gelato container)
  • Ice
  • Rock Salt
  • Duct Tape

This recipe is for blueberry balsamic ice cream at my 4-year-old’s request, but it can be made no-cook and created completely outdoors if you substitute a little vanilla for the blueberry and balsamic. This makes it great for camping or simply for containing the mess.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cups blueberries (frozen or fresh)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½  cup milk
  • 3/4 cups heavy cream

Directions:

  • Heat blueberries, balsamic vinegar, sugar, and salt to a simmer in a sauce pan.
  • Over heat, smash blueberry mixture with wooden spoon or potato masher.
  • Remove from heat and chill in fridge for one hour.
  • Once blueberry mixture is chilled, mix in milk and cream.
  • Pour mixture into the smaller container (small coffee can or plastic jar) and replace top.
  • Place small container into larger coffee can.
  • Fill area surrounding smaller container with alternating layers of ice and sprinklings of rock salt.
  • Place lid on large coffee can and reinforce with duct tape.

Now the fun begins! Kids need to roll the can continuously for 20 minutes or until all the ice has melted. Consider:

  • Go on a family walk and have them kick the can to roll it along the way.
  • Play a game of backyard soccer using the can, or have timed races kicking the can.
  • Make a double batch and have backyard races while kicking the cans.
  • Younger kids really enjoy rolling the can down a slide. (My 2-year-olds could do this for hours!)

After about 20 minutes, most of the ice should be melted. Open the container to check on the ice cream for thickness. If it's not yet of an ice cream consistency, you may want to load in more ice for another round. Then, rinse the inner jar and serve the ice cream immediately, or place it in the freezer for two hours to further harden.

Enjoy! This is a backyard ice cream treat for Shavuot that the entire family will enjoy. Chag sameach and happy Shavuot!

Want to learn about other ways to make homemade ice cream? Check out "3 Ways to Make Ice Cream with Kids for Shavuot."

Hannah Riederer lives in Saint Paul, MN, with her husband, daughter Charlotte (age 4), and sons Judah and Levi (age 2). As a special education teacher, her days are filled with children. She is a member of Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul.

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Is There a Blessing for a Blintz?

When you marry someone, you not only get a spouse, you also get another family. When I married my husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, I inherited his mother and father, his siblings, their children. I even inherited his grandmother: Jeannette Multer. Jeannette wasn’t “Nana” or “Bubbie” or “Safta” or “Gramma.” She was “Grandmother.” Grandmother. And the properness of “Grandmother” embodied who she was: exacting, precise, and at times a bit rigid.

But Grandmother was also a voracious reader (she had once owned a bookstore), an astute student of politics and world affairs, a lifelong, dedicated Reform Jew, and a passionate Democrat left-wing voter who wrote letters to politicians with whom she both agreed and disagreed. Her cooking was legendary and holiday tables were overflowing with family favorites: matzah farfel muffins and an almond torte for Passover, assorted fruit pies for Thanksgiving, an amazing sour cream coffee cake, and for Shavuot there were Grandmother’s blintzes.

Shortly before Grandmother died, she shared the secret to the blintzes with me and my friend Rachel Andress-Tysch. We stood alongside Grandmother in her Beverly Hills kitchen and watched her mix and pour batter and flip from pan to plate the “bletlach” (Yiddish for crepes). Two, small aluminum steep-sided pans moved back and forth across the stove’s gas flames and with a quick “zetz” (Yiddish for smack or hit) to the pan’s handle the blintz turned.

“The first one you throw away…it’s greasy and it’s useless…but taste it, “she said.

It was light and airy and not too sweet. And as if we were in our own Food Channel episode, she taught Rachel and me how to make blintzes. The kitchen was perfumed with toasted butter as we poured and flipped and filled and rolled and fried again. We stuffed half the thin pancakes with a cream cheese-farmer cheese recipe and the other half were filled with Grandmother’s recipe for a cheese-less fresh fruit filling. And those crepes that were not perfectly round and browned – we sprinkled them with powdered sugar and devoured them standing around the stove.

At the end of the cooking lesson, Grandmother gave me a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. Inside were the two aluminum pans additionally wrapped in plastic bags: “You take them. Use them. Make blintzes for your friends with them. Just throw away the first blintz. Always throw it away.”

When we moved to Israel – made aliyah – in July 2013, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we were moving from a large, four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment. But I kept Grandmother’s pans. They were a link to the past: to heritage, to history, to family. They were carefully placed in a box filled with lots of other kitchen paraphernalia: wooden spoons, a flour sifter, drawer dividers, a colander I especially liked for draining pasta, an orange zester, a variety of baking pans, a set of plates for serving asparagus, and other items I was convinced I’d never find in Israel. (Indeed, I’ve never, ever seen asparagus plates here in Jerusalem.) But when our cargo container finished its voyage from Los Angeles to China and into the port of Ashdod, that box was missing. The pans (along with the asparagus plates and my favorite colander) had disappeared.

Last year, I was cleaning a cupboard above the refrigerator when I noticed a Nordstrom’s bag pushed back into the corner of a shelf. Inside was a plastic bag and inside that were the blintz pans. How they got there is a still-unsolved mystery. At the bottom of the shopping bag was a note in Grandmother’s distinctive cursive penmanship that said:

2 blintz pans.
Use them for Shavuos – or whenever.
Wherever you may be.
Love, Grandmother

I’ve used the pans for Shavuot – and on other occasions. And now, “wherever you may be” is in Israel – in Jerusalem. As I mix that first batch of batter and melt the butter in the pan (” Never use oil!!”), the spirit of Don’s grandmother stands next to me thousands of miles from that kitchen in southern California and her unseen hand guides my fingers as I pour those first spoonsful of batter into the pan. I wait for the bubbles to appear on the surface indicating the bletlach is almost ready. As I see the edges of the blintz brown, I take the spatula and gently pull it from the pan but as I place it on the plate covered with a tea-towel, I instantly remember Grandmother’s cardinal rule of blintz making: “Throw out the first one!” But rather than tossing it away – I roll it up, sprinkle it with a bit of powdered sugar, and in lieu of a blessing (I wonder, is there a blessing for a blintz?) say to myself:

Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu umah naim goralinu umah yafah y'rushateinu!
Happy are we; how good is our portion; how pleasant is our lot; and how beautiful is our inheritance!

That, for sure, is a suitable blessing for a blintz handed down with love and care through the generations.

Chag sameach!

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Shavuot: Counting Up to the Celebration

Riding home from school in the car the other day, my youngest daughter excitedly exclaimed, “Mom! We counted today that there are only seven weeks of school left. If there are five days each school week, and seven times five equals 35, that means there are only 35 days left of school!”

Every year, when my kids have this realization, it stops me in my tracks and I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Chaos is coming, I think, as the countdown to the end of school begins. The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve is another big countdown – and likely the most well-known one of all. For some reason, despite the promise of a new year, I often feel a bit of sadness at this countdown, perhaps because counting down can represent a desire to make time pass more quickly, even though once it’s gone it can never be regained.

When the kids begin to count down to the end of school, I notice that they, like me, also express a sense of sadness. The end of the school year represents a change in what they have come to know and expect in their daily lives. My oldest daughter is moving into middle school next year, creating a sense of sadness about leaving elementary school behind. Although summertime will bring visits with family and friends, new experiences, and swimming lessons, there still is a sense of sadness in the counting down that will lead to this transition.

In contrast, counting up has an entirely different connotation.

Recently while leading t’filah (prayer) for some of our Hebrew school students, I guided them in reciting the blessing over Counting of the Omer. We discussed how we count up from the second night of Passover all the way to Shavuot – a total of 49 days – which symbolically covers the period from our Exodus out of Egypt until we received the Torah at Mt Sinai.

One student shared a “lightbulb moment” when he realized we do the exact same thing for Hanukkah.  Indeed, there is a classic debate about whether we should add one candle every night to increase our joy and light, a position espoused by Rabbi Hillel, which ultimately won out over the suggestion of Rabbi Shammai that we should start with eight candles and remove one on each consecutive evening. According to Rabbi Hillel, “Maalin bakodesh, veein moridin,” which means holiness should only increase and not decrease.

Increasing our holiness is the tradition we adhere to in our celebrations today. Just as the light grows as Hanukkah continues, so too do our joy and excitement grow as we count the Omer for 49 days on the way to Shavuot.

Counting up toward an event is something I can relate to in a personal way, too. My birthday falls on January 12th and every year as January 1st hits, it is a natural practice for me to count up toward my birthday, adding numbers and excitement as each day passes. (Part of this excitement stems from the great birthday traditions in our family, including multiple signs around the house, balloons, special meals, and long-term planning of parties and gifts.)

As our Jewish community counts up toward receiving the ultimate gift of the Torah in just a few weeks, we’re also planning the rituals and routines of Shavuot: participating in late-night Torah study sessions that include cheesecake, ice cream, and other dairy foods to remind us of the land of milk and honey; reading the Ten Commandments as part of the festival worship service; and, in some congregations, celebrating confirmation and honoring those students who have continued their religious education beyond b’nai mitzvah.

Chag sameach!

This year, Shavuot begins at sundown on Saturday, May 19. Check out these Shavuot family activities to help young children connect Torah to the holiday.

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How I Learned About Lag BaOmer in Israel

The approach of Lag BaOmer, which begins tonight at sundown, always takes me back to 1998 when our family spent a sabbatical semester in Israel. We were firmly integrated into Reform Jewish life in Madison, WI. Our children attended religious school – our oldest son had recently become bar mitzvah – at Temple Beth El and were regular summer campers at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, WI. 

We were excited to give our children the experience of living in Israel, albeit only for a few months, and were hopeful they would learn Hebrew, make Israeli friends, and get the same feeling and love for the country and her people that my husband and I have. We joined Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem, beginning a relationship we have nurtured for 20 years. 

Our children enjoyed a degree of independence in 1998 Jerusalem that was completely different than what they were used to at home. They could take the city bus to get to friends or social activities and shop for treats – especially shoko (Israeli chocolate milk) at the local macolet (small market) – on their own.

Back then, we thought we knew Israel pretty well, felt reasonably educated about the Jewish holidays, and had a fairly good sense of how Jewish life would play out over the weeks and months of our stay.

There were certainly aspects of Israeli life we found new, even for us.

After Passover, as our synagogue started counting the Omer each Shabbat, we noticed that our 11-year-old son, Daniel, suddenly began to disappear after school for hours at a time. We were delighted with his social connections, but a bit baffled by the sudden intensity to his social calendar. When we asked him about what he was doing, he divulged few details. 

Little did we know, that the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer was to be a highlight of our experience in Israel. 

It turns out that for weeks, Daniel and his buddies had been scouting our Jerusalem neighborhood for wood for a big Lag BaOmer bonfire. By the time of the holiday, they had accumulated an impressive stack of firewood, which was no small feat, in the urban landscape of Jerusalem. 

That night, Daniel spent the evening with his Israeli friends – tending the fire and roasting and eating all varieties of treats and (kosher!) meats. He returned home at 4 a.m., content and smudged with charcoal.

Although two decades have passed, I’ve been back in Jerusalem on Lag BaOmer several times. A few years ago, my upstairs neighbors invited me to join them in their Lag BaOmer celebration. Ironically, we ended up at the same empty lot in the Ba’aka neighborhood of Jerusalem where Daniel had his first and only Lag BaOmer experience. As I watched the families light their bonfires using the wood that today’s children had been collecting since Passover, I realized just how much this minor holiday – so easy to ignore or miss entirely here in North America – is an integral part of the ritual of Jewish life in Israel.

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Defending the State of Israel, One Kiddush at a Time

Mi rotzeh la’asot Kiddush (Who wants to make Kiddush)?”

Even after two months of Basic Training as a volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces, I still tried to shrink behind someone else whenever the Mempay (Company Commander) asked us a question. Basic Training was not an environment in which volunteering for anything beyond showing up was advisable. Six days of every week were packed with stressful discipline, demoralizing surprises, and chaotic uncertainty, and even with the support of my fellow volunteers, Hebrew comprehension and homesickness were a daily struggle.

But this evening was Shabbat, and Shabbat during Basic Training was like the Era of Good Feelings for 25 hours. On the seventh day, our only obligation was to attend Shabbat dinner with our commanders—as casual an experience as Basic Training allowed, but everyone was still eager for it to end as quickly as possible, so we could move on to more important business, like sleep and soccer. It couldn’t end, though, until it had begun with Kiddush, and on this evening the one religious soldier who usually led that prayer was away on leave.

I had learned to sing the standard, Louis Lewandowski melody for Kiddush from my father by the time I was six—an early sign that perhaps my future lay in the cantorate, and not in playing second base for the New York Yankees. I didn’t think twice about volunteering because it seemed about as noteworthy as leading everyone in “Happy Birthday.”

Ani y’chola la’asot et zeh (I can do it)!” I eagerly offered, trying to sound credible in Hebrew but muddling the grammar and mistakenly identifying myself as a girl. When the laughter at my latest linguistic misstep had died down, the Mempay, short on options, gave me the okay to proceed.

Baruch ata Adonai (Blessed are You, Adonai)…” I expected everyone to join me, like we do in Reform synagogues on Friday nights, but they just listened in silence. Most Israelis, as it turned out, simply mumble the Kiddush, more as a pro forma recitation than a work of art. They had never realized it could be music. And on that evening, far from my friends and family back home, I hadn’t realized how desperately I needed it to be music, to rebalance my sense of purpose and identity, until I started to sing.

I sang of my grandparents from Poland who died before I was born but who, my dad told me, had loved the same Jewish melodies that I did. I sang of my parents, who strove to educate me about everything Jewish except the State of Israel for fear I would one day make aliyah (move to Israel to live permanently). I sang of the Jewish identity that had somehow, inexplicably, propelled me away from my comfortable life in Manhattan to the Negev Desert, to defend a country in which I never intended to live.

As the Israelis listened to that Lewandowski rendition, they looked like Julia Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman,” discovering “La Traviata” for the very first time. There was a moment of silence after I finished, and then they burst into applause. It was a heady feeling. I had spent my entire time in the service comparing myself to soldiers who were bigger, faster and stronger than I was. For the first time, I finally felt I had contributed something meaningful to the IDF beyond my unintentionally amusing grammar.

Fortunately, my fellow volunteers put the whole experience in perspective: “Matim l’David pakal Kiddush, nachon (David’s MOS can be ‘Platoon Kiddush Specialist,’ right)?” they joked with the Israelis. A senior officer came over to our table and shook my hand, offering some commendation in Hebrew I couldn’t understand. “He said you did a good job,” a particularly tone-deaf Israeli assured me, smiling, “but you know what? I led Kiddush one Shabbat when you weren’t here, and he said the same thing to me!”

Jewish tradition strives to teach us, from stories as ancient as Moses and the burning bush down through the ages, that meaning and inspiration often are found in places that are unexpected, overlooked, or seemingly mundane. It’s not as easy to remember as it sounds, though. As a cantor, I never expect a simple rendition of Nurit Hirsch’s “Oseh Shalom” or Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach” at a bedside or a shiva minyan to have as powerful an effect as it always does. The Mempay invited me to lead Kiddush every Friday night for the rest of the year. It didn’t do much to improve my grammar, but even the most secular Israelis found themselves singing along in the end.

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The Best Recipes for Your Lag BaOmer Celebration

Lag BaOmer is a festive day of outdoor celebration. Especially in Israel, many people celebrate with picnics and barbecues and use bonfires to symbolize the light of Torah.

You don’t need to be in Israel to celebrate this festive day the Israeli way. Here are the top recipes on ReformJudaism.org that you can use to host your own festive and delicious Lag BaOmer picnic or barbecue.

Entrees

Sides and Snacks

Desserts

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