Remarks at KKBE’s Shabbat Evening Service

Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy, will reap in joy. Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap, will reap in joy.

Psalm 126:5

Shabbat Shalom. That melody that lifts up the words of Psalm 126, verse 5 was composed by Debbie Friedman, and it’s come to mind repeatedly as I’ve tried to process the unprecedented events of this past week. This was one of those Shabbatot where I had to crumple up everything I had written earlier in the week and throw it in the recycling bin. Frankly, there have been too many of those Shabbatot over recent years. After Mother Emanuel. After Charlottesville. After Tree of Life. And each Shabbat of the long weeks and months of this pandemic, now almost one full year since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the United States.

But what can I offer to help us process what has happened? You don’t need punditry from your rabbi or your synagogue this Shabbat — you have countless other sources to choose from for that. There are important words that need to be publicly stated to condemn the acts we’ve witnessed this week in no uncertain terms — but you don’t need those from us either. The Union for Reform Judaism, Religious Action Center, and Central Conference of American Rabbis, speaking on behalf of more than 900 Reform congregations, including us, have issued statements:

  • “Condemning [the] insurrectionists’ breaching of the capitol,” calling it “an unprecedented assault not just on the U.S. Capitol building and members of Congress, but on American democracy itself.”
  • Their statements have recognized that the “events were encouraged by the President of the United States who has refused to accept his electoral loss.” They note that “we read in the Talmud … a ruler is not to be appointed until the community is consulted,” and “the effort by some members of Congress,” led by the efforts of the President, “to functionally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are nothing less than an assault on the peaceful transition of power and American democracy.”
  • And our leadership has denounced “a false moral equivalence with the Black Lives Matters protests over the last year,” stating quite clearly: “The white nationalists [we saw on Wednesday] were attempting to undermine our government while Black Lives Matter protestors were demanding to be included in our democracy.”

Strong words have been spoken by the strong leadership of our movement, and we stand behind them. 

So what’s left? What do we still need? What we seek from our tradition is solace. We want so very much to be comforted. Wednesday’s images are seared in our memories: The American flag replaced with Trump flags, treason flags, the Confederate flag. Clothing with disgusting profanity like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE,” which apparently stands for “Six million wasn’t enough.” The President failing to say a meaningful word, or take necessary action, to quell the violence at best — inciting the events we watched unfold at worst. Our concerns about the vulnerability of our democracy, and our individual wellbeing as citizens within its fold, consume us. We seek something that can make us feel better about what’s happened; some way to find even a small bright spot, an encouraging angle; some way to segue from despair to hope.

To be sure, our tradition does offer encouragement:

Deuteronomy 31:6 — “Be strong and have courage.”

Exodus 3, this week’s Torah portion: “I have marked well the plight of My people … and have heeded their outcry … I am mindful of their sufferings … [and] have come down to rescue them.”

Genesis 1:5 — “There was evening, and there was morning.” And Psalm 30:5 — “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.” Or, in other words: “Joy will come in the morning.”

Yes, there are words in our tradition that can certainly offer comfort and encouragement at this difficult time. But I’m not sure that’s the best of what we can take from our tradition this evening. 

As I told you earlier, I keep coming back to Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” I just don’t think we can hope to glimpse joy, much less grasp it, unless we allow ourselves to stay with the pain and tears of this moment — and the many moments that have led to this one. If we desire more than what our prayerbook describes as “the quietude that arises from a shunning got the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans,” then I think we need to hold the pain we feel so deeply tonight and sit for a time with our tears.

“Happiness,” said Henry Emerson Fosdick, “at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled, overpassed obstacles, bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire. … If we were set upon making a happy world, then we would not leave struggle out or made adversity impossible. The unhappiest world conceivable … would be a world with nothing hard to do, no conflicts to wage for ends worthwhile; a world where courage was not needed and sacrifice was a superfluity.”

Well — I guess we’re in luck. Because in the world which you and I inhabit, courage is desperately needed and there is much hard work to be done. Failures of leadership and the brokenness of our institutions lay before us like gaping wounds. The disease of white supremacy and the disparity of privilege in this nation have been brought to light in nothing less than the midday sun. And if we can take it all in — cry over it, rather than gloss over it — then perhaps we’ll be ready to sow, to plant and tend the seeds that will one day yield a joyful harvest.

There was a most poignant example of that truth this week, as well. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican, it truly doesn’t matter if you vote red or blue or green — what Stacey Abrams, and a generation of Black female leaders before and alongside her, accomplished in Georgia this week should serve as an inspiration to us all. Collectively, they, and the organizations they founded, “registered over a million new voters in just over 3 years;” got “communities of color, rural populations and other marginalized groups counted in the 2020 Census;” and “made over 2.2 million phone calls … knocked on over 370,000 doors to motivate voters to register to vote and get to the polls.” They visited every one of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia and listened to those who had never been listened to, much less sought out, before. They demonstrated not just that every vote matters, but more than that — that every person matters, above and beyond their vote. [1]

And what did they reap after all their hard work sowing? 

Two new senators for the state of Georgia, and not just any two — as Stacey Abrams pointed out: “a Jewish son of an immigrant,” in the state where Leo Frank was lynched; and a successor at The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, pulpit in historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, “the first Black senator from Georgia.”

But most importantly of all, what they reaped is two senatorial races decided not by special interest groups, not by corporate money, not by lobbyists or cronyism or cynicism that kept voters from engaging in the democratic process. This past Tuesday, two elections of enormous consequence were decided by overwhelming turnout, on both sides of the aisle, of the citizens of Georgia who cast their individual votes. As much as the events that transpired on Wednesday afternoon were an attack and stain on our cherished democracy, Georgia’s elections were a most resounding affirmation and win for democracy itself. 

Our visions of what this country should look like will differ; we will disagree about the best way forward, sometimes vehemently. But all of us should have a different vision, a better vision, than that which we saw on Wednesday afternoon. So let our tears motivate us, for there is a lot of sowing to be done.

Before the dust had settled on Wednesday evening, members of the House and Senate returned to chambers in the Capitol building — and they got back to work. As Members of Congress rose in turn to address their colleagues and the nation, the same phrases were repeated by many. They called the Capitol building our “temple of democracy” and a “sacred space.” As they stood among shattered windows and overturned furniture, rifled papers on desks and trash on the floor, the scene and their words evoked the imagery of Hanukkah: A desecrated temple that needed to be rededicated.

Not until centuries after the events of Hanukkah would rabbis introduce the story of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight miraculous nights. Until then, you know how the rededication was accomplished? A lot of broom sweeping and stone moving, and then offering the appropriate sacrifices. In other words: Business as usual. The space had most certainly been desecrated, as was our Capitol on January 6th, but it wasn’t once again made holy because they hung a plaque or God made it so. They made it holy because they rolled up their sleeves, took inventory of what needed to be done, and got to work. 

And to this day: Hanukkah is one of the most joyous, uplifting, inspiring holidays on the entire Jewish calendar. Because those who sow in tears, will reap in joy. Shabbat Shalom.


[1]  “Meet the Black Women Who Turned Georgia Blue,” Erin Feher,, 1/7/21.

KKBE Connection

It was good to be away. The mountains were utterly breath-taking and breath-restoring — all in the same breath. I tried to post a few snapshots of our experiences while we were away, and this Friday, during our Zoom Shabbat Service, I look forward to sharing more. (Reminder: To register for this Friday’s service, contact the KKBE office before 3:00 pm on Friday to receive the secure link. We will open the “Zoom Room” at 6:45 pm for those who would like to mingle and schmooze a bit before the service begins at 7:00 pm.)

It was good to be away, but it’s also good to be back. Back in the embrace of our KKBE community. Back to the comforts of home. Back to familiar sights and sounds… and in our home, in this second full week of August, that can only mean one thing: Shark Week! 

Now, it’s not my favorite week of the year mind you, but for the young man in our house, these seven days are like his High Holy Days. And there is a certain resemblance to the High Holy Days we know so well. The deep, bass voiceovers that sound like the trailer for every dramatic movie you’ve ever seen. The suspenseful soundtracks meant to indicate something incredible is about to happen (or at least the Discovery Channel hopes it will). The screams of fear/joy/amazement constantly emanating in stereo from both the TV and the couch in front of it. There is, I have to admit, something awe-some about the whole thing. 

And so the timing is fitting, because while the days we most often associate with the High Holy Days are still over a month away — Rosh Hashanah begins on September 18, Yom Kippur on September 27 — believe it or not, we are actually already in the Days of Awe on the Jewish calendar. Wait, what?? That’s right: According to many, the High Holy Days begin on Tisha B’Av, the memorial day we commemorated on the Jewish calendar two weeks ago now already. 

Though connected with several disasters which have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, Tisha B’Av is most associated with the destruction of both the first and second Temples in ancient Jerusalem. As Rabbi Alan Lew explains: “The Great Temple of Jerusalem was the naval of the universe, the earthly locus where Israel felt its connection to the Divine Presence in a palpable way.” Tisha B’Av therefore represents our greatest spiritual distance from the divine. Put another way, Tisha B’Av is the time when any residual “high” from last year’s High Holy Days has well worn off; when we feel distant, disconnected, perhaps even alienated from God. So over the next month and a half, we have to actively work to make our way back to the Source; we have to climb the spiritual ladder to the pinnacle of the New Year.

To quote the title of Lew’s classic work on the Days of Awe: “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.” (Cue the booming voiceover, music, and screams.)

Now, we’re not exactly totally unprepared. We’ve been planning for quite a while at KKBE, and while I was away, a wonderful task force did even more amazing brainstorming on how we can meaningfully observe the High Holy Days in this most unusual year. In the coming weeks you will see opportunities for hearing the sounds of the shofar, discussion/study sessions, inspiration for creating holy space in your home, and much more to mark these days with your KKBE community. And, of course, we are actively working on crafting special virtual worship experiences for each of the High Holy Days, as well. Yet this isn’t really the kind of preparation Rabbi Lew means. The preparation he’s referring to has to be done individually — preparations for the spiritual accounting that will be asked of us in the coming days.

Would you walk into your accountant’s office (back in the days when we met with people in offices) without first getting a handle on your finances? Without doing your best to go through your records and receipts and get them in some kind of order? Beginning our spiritual climb this many weeks before the start of the new year means we have time for serious reflection on the themes of these Holy Days and a considered assessment of our achievements and shortcomings over the past year.

This year I did begin this work for myself on Tisha B’Av and, to make it less daunting, I didn’t start from scratch. I turned to the beautiful prayer books we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The themes are all there in the traditional liturgy, of course, but the supplemental texts, the interpretive readings, the comments and notes are so rich, varied, and evocative that I could feel myself climb just by reading. I cannot recommend our machzorim as a resource for the spiritual work of this season enough.

While we work on the means to make the temple’s prayer books available to anyone who would like to borrow them this year, the CCAR is offering several ways you might bring these books into your own home more permanently:

  • The prayer books are available for free as online Flipbooks.
  • You can purchase discounted Kindle versions of the books ($9.99 each).
  • You can purchase discounted print books for $35.20 (using code MHN2020) for the two-volume set — a really, really good price available for only a limited time!

All can be found at:

With a great resource like this for the important spiritual work of these High Holy Days, we don’t need to be afraid — we got this! But now is the time to get serious with our preparations.

Or to put it in Shark Week terms: Duuuunnnn duun, duuuunnnn duun…


Found in Translation.

Jewish blessings begin with a formula of six words: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam,” which are often translated as “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,” or “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe.” But every translation is an interpretation and creative interpretations can reveal new layers of meaning. So, seeing as the expansive history of Jewish textual tradition often draws seemingly infinite meaning from a single word, let’s use the creative license that is our spiritual inheritance, shall we?

Blessings for Mitzvot

One of the most common blessings we recite is that which precedes a mitzvah, a particular act or ritual specified by Jewish tradition. In this kind of blessing, the six word formula above is followed by four more: “Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu — Who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us to…,” and then we fill in the particular ritual we are about to perform, like lighting Shabbat candles, putting on a tallit, or studying Torah.

Why do we recite such a blessing before taking part in ritual? I think it has to do with mindfulness. We may light candles for any number of reasons; we put on all kinds of clothing; we (hopefully) frequently read, reflect, and study. Reciting a blessing before doing so this time reminds us that these relatively mundane acts are about to take on significant meaning.

Mitzvot are an invitation to experience holiness in our lives. Not every moment is ripe for holiness; not every mitzvah will resonate with spirituality every time. But the odds are markedly better when we do them. Mitzvot connect us with the generations who came before us and offer a vision of generations to come. They bind us to a larger Jewish community that spans the entire globe. And, at some level — however we understand commandedness — they have the potential to connect us to a Force, a Presence, a Spirit greater and more powerful than ourselves.

So I’m partial to the translation: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, specifically this morning/day/evening by…”. I wish I could cite from whom I learned this particular approach (perhaps my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman?), but it’s become so ingrained in my approach to the formula and mitzvot that I honestly can’t remember.

Blessings of Thanksgiving

If blessings for mitzvot are about mindfulness, then blessings of thanksgiving are about awareness. Tradition challenges us to recite 100 blessings a day. That’s a lot of blessings no matter who you are, if you’re not paying attention to the world around you. But if you are paying attention, then opportunities abound: For that rainbow, for this food, for that unique individual, for the glimpse of the ocean I so often take for granted. There is so much in the world for which to be grateful — including, when the world isn’t such a beautiful place, the sacred opportunity to be God’s partners in making it better.

Lab/Shul in New York City describes itself as “an everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.” One of the ways they’ve reached me is with this translation of the blessing formula: “In the presence of the Infinite, I pause with gratitude for…” Sit with that for a moment. Isn’t that beautiful? With this translation, giving expression to our gratitude becomes a deeply spiritual activity — perhaps even a mitzvah, an opportunity to experience holiness.


This will be my last “KKBE Connection” for a little while as I leave shortly for some sabbatical time. The concept of sabbatical derives from a mitzvah in the Torah to allow the land to lie fallow every seven years and be renewed. And so as I prepare to go, I say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, this summer by tending to my spirit and returning to you, my congregation, refreshed and renewed.

As for blessings of thanksgiving, well… my journal is prepared, and I intend to fill it.



Landmark ACLU cases depicted in film*

*a work in progress!

This week I picked up a fascinating new book, written in about the only kind of format I can digest at the moment — very short pieces. Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases is edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and features contributions from a wide array of well-known authors from Geraldine Brooks to Viet Thanh Nguyen to Jacqueline Woodson. After a brief summary of each landmark case, one of the writers provides a reflection on that case, each taking a different approach. Some share background about the individuals involved in their case. Some share how the decision rendered in the case has had an impact on their own lives. Some reflect upon how far we’ve come, or how far we still have to go. All are outstanding writers bringing their considerable skillsets to bear on significant milestones in U.S. history.

And it got me to thinking: Significant milestones in U.S. history often find their way into the movies. And given the fact that there are still no professional sports on TV (no, as far as I’m concerned, auto racing does not count), I don’t know about you, but we’re watching a lot more movies than we usually do. We’ve already exhausted pretty much all of the highlights of the 1980s and 1990s. So… I’ve tried to put together a list of the films that tell the stories behind these important cases. Some are dramas; some documentaries. Some were made for TV; some for the big-screen.

And I’m sure it’s incomplete! So, please let me know what I need to add. And with all of the blanks on the chart, if you know any producers, let them know, too. As David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, writes in the introduction to Fight of the Century: “Michael Chabon’s story of the creative tactics employed by the ACLU’s Morris Ernst in challenging the seizure of James Joyce’s Ulysses as obscene … is so engagingly rendered that the movie version feels inevitable.” How do we make that happen??

Happy watching!

Stephanie (who happens to share a birthday with Thurgood Marshall)



Stromberg v. California (1931) The Land of Orange Groves & Jails (in production)
Powell v. Alabama (1932) and Patterson v. Alabama (1935) Heavens Fall (2006)

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2001)

Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976)

United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” (1933)
Edwards v. California (1941)
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
Korematsu v. United States (1944) Of Civil Rights and Wrongs (2001)
Hannegan v. Esquire (1946)
Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949)
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader (2015)

Thurgood (2011)

The Town Before Brown (2007)

The Battle for America’s Schools (2004) Separate But Equal (1991)

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) Defending Gideon (2013)

Gideon’s Army (2013)

Gideon’s Trumpet (1980)

Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
Lamont v. Postmaster General (1965)
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Miranda v. Arizona (1966) The Right to Remain Silent: Miranda v. Arizona (2014)
Loving v. Virginia (1967) Loving (2016)

Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
Gregory v. City of Chicago (1969)
Street v. New York (1969)
Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
Cohen v. California (1971)
New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
Roe v. Wade (1973)

Doe v. Bolton (1973)

Roe v. Wade (in production)

AKA Jane Roe (2020)

Roe v. Wade (1989)

O’Connor v. Donaldson (1975)
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
Bob Jones University v. United States (1983)
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)
Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (1995)
Reno v. ACLU (1997)

Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004)

City of Chicago v. Morales (1999)
Zadvydas v. Davis (2001)
Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr (2001)
Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
Rasul v. Bush (2004)
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005)
Schroer v. Billington (2008)
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013)
United States v. Windsor (2013) To a More Perfect Union: United States v. Windsor (2017)
ACLU v. United States Department of Defense, et al. (2018)


Discipline in This Difficult Moment.

Parashat Naso

A boy was late coming home to his mother.

“What kept you so long?” his mother asked.

“I saw my friend whose doll had broken. She was crying, and I stopped to help her.”

“And what do you know about fixing dolls?”

“Nothing…. But I could sit with her, and help her cry.”

There is so much that is broken right now, so many things in need of repair. And then there is that which never even had the chance to be whole, built as it was on a broken foundation, around a broken core.

Our inclination is to fix. It’s one of the most beautiful things about people. And we saw that this past Sunday morning, when hundreds of people showed up with brooms, boards, and dustpans as manifestations of their love. The broken windows and buildings of our city can be fixed, and they either were or will be. But so much of the pain and grief we’re feeling in our country right now is not the kind of brokenness that can be fixed with hammers and nails. And misdirected love and concern runs the danger of making the pain worse.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that when a person wishes to consecrate themselves to God, they take upon themselves the vow of a Nazrite, distinguished by two main characteristics:

    1. Abstaining from wine and strong drink.
    2. All the days of his vow, no razor shall come upon his head.

Leaving aside the fact that many of us have gone without haircuts for quite some time now, how else does this text connect to our current moment, to the events of our day? 

The most famous Nazirite was Samson, a biblical persona known for his tremendous strength and considerable power. Yet his power, his connection to the divine — like all Nazirites — derived from what he didn’t do. His power came from his restraint.

“The discipline not to act,” as I’ve seen it put. Perhaps that is what this moment asks of us above all us. Not to be bystanders, no. Not to remain silent about injustice. But there are certain reactions that have become so ingrained in difficult moments that center around race — and this is about as difficult as it gets. Can we have discipline? The discipline not to act out of fear? The discipline not to rush to judgment? The discipline not to call the shots; not to say what we think is appropriate; not to tell a grieving person, a grieving group, a grieving nation how to grieve?

Think of the boy whose friend was grieving her broken doll. We all know people — the most well-meaning, loving, caring people — who say all of the things he could have said:

“It’s just a doll.”

“Why don’t you try this?”

“I know you’re upset, but crying isn’t going to help.”

And, of course, he could also have just walked by. Those of us with privilege and power, we always have that choice. Turn the channel, wait it out, walk on by. But the discipline not to act isn’t about ignoring a problem. It’s about staying put, sitting down, listening and learning. It’s about trying to understand, and centering voices and emotions other than own.

A Nazirite’s vow doesn’t last forever — it’s an oath taken for a certain duration of time — and our inaction shouldn’t last forever either. Far from it. Once we’ve listened; once we’ve learned more than we currently know and understand ourselves better; once we’ve sat with our discomfort; once our eyes are opened to the foundational history of racism in this country; once we can empathize with even a fraction of the anger, pain, and fear of the African American community; once we can hold up the cause and passion of protest, full stop, without qualifications about how, when, or where it should be done; once we can affirm not, “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop,” but rather, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men and women has to stop;” once we can prioritize the right part — then, by all means, we need to act.

Participate in a campaign.

Familiarize yourself with the goals of the Movement for Black Lives. 

Demand a racial bias audit of the North Charleston Police Department, like the one that was conducted in Charleston.

Use your power to enact change.

Just after the description of the Nazirite vows in this week’s Torah portion, come the well-known words of the Priestly Blessing. We recite them at our Shabbat tables and under the chuppah; at baby namings and for the community as a whole. Birkat Kohanim is the way that one Jewish generation blesses another. And we use different melodies for different occasions. Some are soft and simple; some upbeat and joyful. One of my favorite renditions sounds like a lullaby. But tonight we need the “big one” — the one that calls down the power of a God on high; a fixing God; a God who hears, and holds, and repairs.

God, You’ve been there for every generation before us. They felt Your power and sensed Your presence. Be there, we ask, for us now. Be with us — act in us, and through us. Help us to be still; to hear and hold the deep pain of others. Help us do better for You and one another.

In our Shabbat evening liturgy we ask for a Shalom Rav — a great peace — not because we’re greedy, but because that’s what we need; that’s what it’s going to take. A great peace that lasts longer than a curfew. A great peace that is more than just the absence of violence. A great peace that extends to all people; in all places; of every hue, ethnicity, and creed. A great peace that cannot be undone by the whims and ignorance of those who refuse to see the problem, much less be part of the solution. A great peace that reflects the beauty and glory of Your spirit, the spirit You have implanted within every single human being.

Pirkei Avot (1:18) teaches: “When truth is spoken and justice is done, then peace is established.” There simply are no shortcuts. So even as we call out to God, let us commit to what we need to. As Rabbi Sally Priesand expounds: “For truth to be spoken, each of us must learn to listen, opening our ears to hear one another’s truth and our hearts to understand it. For justice to be done, it must exist for everyone. … [Then, and] only then, can we find the wholeness that [is] true peace.”

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yism’recha

May God bless us and keep us

Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha v’yichuneka

May God enlighten us and be gracious unto us

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom

May God always look favorably upon us and may we be blessed with peace


5 (Very Jewish) Lessons I Learned from Cutting My Own Hair

It was 1:00 am, and I was done, just done. Done with screens and lights shining in my face. Done with trying to think of everything I might need or want from the grocery store and pharmacy for an entire week. (I gave up on the idea of planning for two weeks at a time a month ago.) Done with having a stagnant list of answers for a growing list of questions. But at this late hour on this particular night, all of my frustration had concentrated itself into one thing: My unruly, out of control, driving me crazy… hair.

It’s generally inadvisable to make rash decisions one cannot undo in the wee hours of the morning, especially decisions that involve scissors. I know. There is an entire professional force of stylists and hairdressers for a reason. In fact, when it comes to professionals I value for their experience and expertise, stylists are definitely in my top five — and not just any experience, but experience with my hair, which makes me a very loyal client. So I have only the highest respect and most profound appreciation for those who actually know what they’re doing in this field. (Even more so now!) But as I looked in the mirror, proverbial wrecking ball in hand, ultimately it was my confidence in their ability to eventually fix whatever damage I would do that emboldened me to take the plunge. That, and the ability of a flat iron to literally smooth over a multitude of sins. (Oh, if I could only return to middle school knowing then what I know now…)

So I did it. I cut my hair! And here’s what I learned:

(1) It wasn’t just about my hair, of course. But in a sea of variables I couldn’t control, this one had stood out. Maybe it was because salons were starting to open up and customers were able to avail themselves of that singular satisfaction of looking, and therefore feeling, like themselves again. I don’t begrudge anyone that experience. I trust stylists and customers are taking necessary precautions and we all have to determine how we are going to navigate our way through a sea of risk. But since I’m one of those with a suppressed immune system, the physical proximity of a haircut feels like a risk not worth taking for the foreseeable future, no matter how much I want one. (And I desperately wanted one!) So a haircut had become a reminder of all of the other risks it wouldn’t be worth taking — and it was weighing on me, literally.

One simple, self-actualized haircut, and that weight was lessened.

I have always found great power in the act of just doing something, one thing. I remember someone’s wise council when I once complained of feeling overwhelmed by a “to do list” a mile long. “So do something and cross it off,” she said. Ha, ha, I smirked, very funny. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But she was absolutely right. I did something, the easiest thing on the list, and as soon as I crossed it off I felt better. I felt energized and motivated to tackle item number two. It’s the same way Jewish tradition approaches observance. All of the strictures of a traditional Shabbat feel overwhelming? OK, start with lighting candles. Next maybe add Kiddush, challah. Then try unplugging your computer on Saturday; take a family walk. Halakha means “the way, the path.” A series of small steps, one foot in front of the other. Sometimes people call this just-do-something approach “baby steps,” but there’s nothing “baby” about them. Each one can be life-changing.

(2) No one noticed. Seriously, no one noticed. Not even the people I live with. Not even my mother. We are all doing everything we can right now to stay afloat, which is not to say we don’t care about one another — we absolutely do! People are making phone calls to check in, dropping off care packages, listening to one another as we take turns unloading the burdens of our anxieties and fears. We “see” one another. But for once — one of the shining spots of beauty in this challenging moment — we only see what really matters. Even as we scan from face to face on our screens, we don’t care what anyone looks like. I can’t remember a single outfit I’ve seen anyone wearing. I couldn’t tell you if someone who normally wears contacts had dug out an old pair of glasses. And it has honestly never occurred to me to notice (gasp!) if someone’s roots are showing. No one is paying attention to these things. They’re doing what we ask parents, grandparents, and little ones to do every Tot Shabbat: To look into each others’ eyes and see their neshama, their soulEveryone is looking past your outer shell, and it’s OK if you do, too.

(3) How did you do the back???” everyone (once I pointed out to them what I did) has asked. Answer: I have no idea. “But you can’t see back there!” they exclaim. Exactly, so who cares? God sees all and knows all, it’s true. But unless you’re Samson, I have it on pretty good authority that The Divine couldn’t care less about your hair. And since no one on Zoom can see the back of your head, it’s pretty much like it doesn’t exist right now anyway.

(4) Sometimes it’s good enough to go into something knowing you’re just going to do good enough. (Kind of like the grammar in that sentence.) One of my favorite teachings in the Mishnah pertains to getting rid of chametz before Passover: You do as thorough of a sweep — literally, with a feather — as you can, removing as much chametz as it’s possible to find; and then you burn it. Done. But what if you then see a rodent? asks the Mishnah. And what if that rodent came from a house that hadn’t yet been cleared of chametz? (Yes, in the Mishnah, the chametz is of greater concern than the rodent. I know… but stick with me.) And what if the rodent brought chametz into your ready-to-go-for-Passover house? One would think you might have to start your whole cleaning process over, right? Wrong! The Mishnah, with as much wisdom as I wager you will find anywhere in Jewish tradition, says: It’s good enough. Essentially, dayeinu. You did your best. You can’t control the rest. And if you tried to, it would never end. How’s that for a lesson for all seasons?

(5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly: When push comes to shove and we need to be, we are, each of us, far more capable than we realize. So whatever challenges this moment presents you with, know that you’re up to it. You got this! And there’s light (and a salon) at the end of the tunnel.

The Jewish Way of Counting.

Parashat Bamidbar

This week’s Torah portion begins a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar. The Hebrew word Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” the location of all of the action in this fourth book of the Torah. Yet we usually refer to Bamidbar by a different English name, “Numbers,” drawing the title from the main part of this week’s Torah portion:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)

So then we get a list of all of those groups, from the tribe of Reuben and Simeon, from Judah and Issachar, from Benjamin and Dan. Large numbers — 46,000… 59,300… 45,650… — until we reach the total census, the figure of roughly 600,000 with which we’re most familiar, the number of Israelites tradition says wandered the wilderness for 40 years.

Of course, that 600,000 is not all-inclusive. It doesn’t include women. It doesn’t include children and teenagers under the age of twenty. It doesn’t include the elderly or physically disabled. The purpose of the census was to count the number of eligible individuals who could fight for the Israelites in battle. Among this wandering mass of probably over 1 million people, some 600,000 were capable of taking up arms.

The truth is Jewish tradition actually shuns the practice of counting people. It prefers instead to count things. When a previous census was conducted in the book of Exodus, the Israelites each brought a half-shekel to be counted in their place. When King Saul assesses the enrollment of his army, each soldier is instructed to bring one shard of pottery; another time, a baby goat.

And the practice continues in traditional circles to this day. Instead of counting people for a minyan (“Let’s see who do we have here… one, two, three, four…”), it is customary to use a particular verse from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 28:10, instead: “Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” You might recognize those words from the song we sometimes sing for our healing prayer, Cantor Leon Sher’s “Heal Us Now.” The words mean, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them, and raise them up forever.” But more important than their meaning is their number — the verse has ten words, so by reciting it carefully one can count a minyan by word rather than number.

If you are early enough to a service, in a place where a minyan is counted, you might also hear someone saying, “Not one, not two, not three…” — another acceptable way to count without officially counting.

Why is this important? Why do we avoid counting people one by one? When a practice sounds superstitious, odds are it is, and this is no exception. Some have suggested that singling out a person, one at a time, invites the evil eye. It might be construed as a sign of ego or inflated importance. It also isolates individuals from the community, and it is precisely the community that protects us when we are vulnerable, that gives us strength.

But I think there’s a deeper reason, too. Whenever we count people we risk reducing them to a number, a datapoint, a statistic. We have been counting people since January of this year, when the first cases of coronavirus were documented in the U.S. As of yesterday, there were 1.61 million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States. We have counted so high, that we are rounding to the nearest ten thousand; a margin of error of over 5,000 people. As of yesterday, there were 95,087 deaths from the novel coronavirus in our country; 95,087 souls who have been counted — but have they been mourned? By their families and loved ones, certainly. Though in ways and with practices far different than those that have traditionally comforted us in our moments of grief. But have we mourned them? There has been no collective memorial service, virtual or otherwise, of which I am aware. The Post and Courier doesn’t daily list the names of those who have died in our state — 9 deaths yesterday, 8 the day before, 8 more the day before that. We know every store that is opening, every beach with or without access — yet we fail to account for every life, every soul. Appeals to the economy urge the opening of more and more activity, yet remind us that those over 65, those with preexisting conditions, those with compromised immune systems should still isolate. So are we just leaving them aside in our calculus, a nod to the similarly exclusionary census that begins our biblical book?

Jewish tradition says it’s OK to speak of communal numbers — that’s why the census in this book of Numbers does record 46,500 in the tribe of Reuben; 59,300 in the tribe of Simeon; 45,650 in the tribe of Gad. But it’s because those totals don’t represent numbers; they represent people, people who are named in the text:

“Not one” — Elizur.

“Not two” — Shelumiel.

“Not three” — Nahshon.

“Not four” — Nethanel.

As difficult as it is, when we see the big numbers that define the severity of the circumstances of this moment, we too need to count in this way. Like Echad Mi Yodei in the Passover Seder, “Who knows one?” we ask, “Who knows 95,087?”

“Not one” — Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, former White House cleaner, butler, and elevator operator to 11 presidents.

“Not two” — Nita Pippins, a retired nurse who cared for her dying son during the AIDS epidemic, and then for countless others struck by the disease.

“Not three” — Marie Pino; “Not four” — her son, Marcus, who were teacher and basketball coach, respectively, at a rural school in hard-hit Navajo Nation.

“Not five” — Robert Sears, North Charleston resident and longtime volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium.

“Not six” — Alfredo Pabatao; “Not seven” — Susan Pabatao, married 44 years, frontline health workers in New Jersey.

“Not eight” — Barry Webber, a general surgeon who volunteered to treat virus patients.

“Not nine” — JoAnn Stokes-Smith, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of South Carolina.

“Not ten” — Timothy Neal Bell, organist and minister of music for Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Starr, SC.

One minyan of souls, and so, so many more. This is the Jewish way of counting, at least where people are concerned. And that is my most fervent hope and prayer: That people will always be our first, last, and most enduring concern.

“Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” Save Your people, O God — all of your people. Bless us and tend us, and help us to lift one another’s spirits. May we count our days with purpose, our challenges with hope, and our blessings with joy, now and forever.


Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Nine.

As I bemoaned early on during this pandemic, though we have more time than ever at home, surrounded by books beckoning to be read, we also seem to have less energy and ability to focus on reading them. Which, if you ask me, is just patently unfair. So I thank Amanda Shapiro, whose article, “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book,” provided inspiration and a manageable project for this past week.

While I haven’t (yet) experienced a COVID-19-induced panic attack like the one Shapiro describes, I still found comfort in her strategy to calm down the ramped up anxiety I am most definitely feeling. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method: “Find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste.” And cookbooks, it turns out, are incredible at all five! “My eyes are focused on a page,” Shapiro writes, “my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.” It’s a “soft-focus activity,” as opposed to the effort required by a heavy read. Like puzzles, crafts, and closet-cleaning, it’s the kind of activity “a lot of us are craving right now.”

The visually stunning Jerusalem: A Cookbook (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) I found on my shelf fit the bill perfectly!

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for International Cooking.

Things to see: Just look at this book — it’s gorgeous! Full page, color photos of nearly every recipe are guaranteed to make your mouth water. But it also includes wonderful shots of Jerusalem itself — aerial pictures of the city; artistic photos of ingredients and delicacies in Jerusalem markets; evocative portraits of the people of Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish alike.

Things to feel: Bibliophiles know, how a book feels is often just as important as how it reads. Jerusalem is a large book, with a puffy cover, whose opened glossy pages lie completely flat… satisfying and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

Things to hear: Ottolenghi owns a group of restaurants in London; Tamini is his partner and head chef. Both were born in Jerusalem — in the same year, in fact — but Ottolenghi, Jewish, grew up on the western side of the city, and Tamini grew up in Arab East Jerusalem. It wasn’t until they were both settled in London that the two men met, but in this book they provide a joint trip down memory lane. With each recipe the reader hears a bit of background that weaves together family stories, as well as those of the many cultures who have come to call Jerusalem home and left their culinary mark there.

Things to smell: Mint, sumac, za’atar, tahini, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, lemon zest… shall I go on?

Things to taste: This one is self-explanatory, but also reader-reliant — unfortunately, as wonderful as this book is, the recipes still don’t cook themselves.

Yet there is even more to the activity of reading a cookbook, which I had never appreciated before simply because I had never done it before. Sure, I’ve skimmed cookbooks, flagging the recipes that interested me or looking up something that will make use of a particular ingredient on hand. But reading one cover-to-cover is different. It means you continue to read a recipe, even if it calls for an ingredient you would usually avoid, engendering a deeper appreciation of the sheer variety of ingredients there are in the world. It means you pay attention to how ingredients come together, the many processes and techniques that bring a recipe to life. It means realizing what can be broken down into smaller components (i.e. what you can make yourself) and what actually does need to be purchased in a market or store.

And one more thing — in a time when movement is limited and we’re all going a bit stir crazy, reading this book was a wonderful means of travel. I truly do feel like I spent part of this past week in Jerusalem — in her markets and stores, her kitchens and restaurants, among her diners and chefs — all accomplished from the safety and comfort of my own home. So, if you’re inspired and pick up a cookbook yourself this week, let me wish you B’teyavon and N’siah Tovah, or Bon Appétit and Bon Voyage!

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Eight.

I’m sharing something a little bit different this week — still from my stacks, piles, and shelves, but this time the book I pulled is a Torah commentary. My hope is that a few words of Torah might offer some inspiration for our current moment and common experience. Click on the photo or link below, and you’ll let me know: If it works, how it works, and if it’s worth doing again.



Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Seven.

On a “normal” spring day as gorgeous as the one on which I sit typing these words, there would be several, perhaps dozens, of visitors touring the historic grounds of KKBE. Thousands of visitors come to our congregation each year and we can’t wait until we’re able to throw open the doors and welcome them once again. Second only to the privilege and pleasure of worshiping in our gorgeous sanctuary, is the pride in showing it off to others.

More often that not, each tour is marked by certain key moments: (1) when visitors realize there have long been Jews in the South, before some states in the North even; (2) when they realize that, far from dying, our congregation is a thriving, bustling organization of roughly 500 households; and (3) the take-your-breath-away moment of entering our beautiful worship space. Having just completed our restoration at the very moment our stay-at-home efforts to curtail this pandemic began — oh, to be able to hear those gasps now!

But there’s a fourth moment, too; a moment every one of our docents knows is coming in one way or another. The moment of wrestling with slavery.

Often we’re just asked for the facts: “Did the Jews in this congregation own slaves?” The answer is yes. Sometimes few, sometimes many. Sometimes they “offered” the labor of the individuals they enslaved as a contribution to the synagogue. It’s distressing and upsetting and shameful, but those are the facts. Other times we’re asked to rationalize: “How could Jews have owned slaves?” “How could Jews have supported both a synagogue and slavery?” For Sue Eisenfeld, author of Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South, the question is this: “How could the Jews, who celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt each year at Passover, have fought for the South, for the side of slavery?” (p. 5)


It’s this question as much as any other that sets Eisenfeld on a journey across the South, seeking out stories of both Jews and African Americans, past and present. As a whole, I’m not sure all of the pieces come together. It’s a lot to cover — both geographically and thematically — and, at times, it seems she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Of course, I’m biased. Four of our KKBE congregants appear in the book: Anita Rosenberg, Michael Kogan, Robert Rosen, and Harlan Greene. And while each of them (the first three, especially) get quite a bit of ink, I know their views and ideas to be more nuanced than what is there.

Eisenfeld also loses the thread of her opening question, and the fact is her question, like the others we regularly hear about slavery at KKBE, is relatively easy to answer. How could Jews have participated in the institution of slavery? How could they celebrate their own freedom at Passover while simultaneously enslaving others? How could they fight a war to continue to have the opportunity to do so? The answer is this: They lost sight of, or willfully ignored, the humanity of others.

What makes someone fail to see the humanity in another, to recognize him or her as a brother or sister? Well, that is a much more difficult question. But we know it happens. It happens with refugees and asylum seekers. It happens with impoverished youth and the elderly. It happens with those of differing gender identities. And it continues to happen when people only see the color of another person’s skin, and when they refuse to see color at all. The better question is how do we train ourselves to see differently; to affirm and value the humanity in each and every person we meet?

Someday our congregation will once again open its doors. (It will happen!) Worship will resume in the sanctuary and tours will welcome visitors from near and far. When we do, it is my hope that a new plaque will be affixed outside our sanctuary and seen by all. A task force has been working on this for some time and while the language is still a work in progress, the sentiment is not:

There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other. (based on Mishnah Yoma 8:9)

This sanctuary, dedicated in 1841, replaced an earlier structure that burned in 1838. The first Reform synagogue in America, it was constructed by a Jewish builder, whose skilled workers included enslaved African Americans. Upon the renovation and rededication of the building in 2020, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim rededicates itself to recognizing the errors of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions, as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all.

I can’t explain to visitors, or myself, how our forebears lost sight of the humanity of an entire race of people whose lives were — should have been — just as valuable as their own. I don’t think any of us can. But we can do this: We can acknowledge it happened. We can recognize the ways in which it continues to happen. And we can commit to do all we can to chart a new course.