Friday, August 4, 2017

From Tisha B'av to Tu B'Av

The Jewish calendar can often feel like an emotional see-saw. On the night we end grieving fallen Israeli soldiers on Yom HaZikaron, we are expected to turn on a dime and begin celebrating Israel’s independence with Yom Ha’atzmaut. On the heels of the spiritually taxing Yom Kippur, we are to begin immediately building our sukkah, our dwelling place for the festival of our happiness.  So too, with the month of Av.  On the 9th of Av (Tisha B’av), we are to mourn every calamity that has befallen the Jewish people, from the destruction of the temples all the way to the Holocaust. Less than a week later, we are to celebrate the 15th of Av (Tu B’av), the Jewish holiday of love when mourning is forbidden and we celebrate amorous relations. Why this constant back and forth? And what can we learn from the communal, ritualized ups and downs of Jewish life?

For one thing, it teaches us that our sadness is not for naught. We learn in our tradition, “those who sow in tears, reap in joy.” (Psalm 126:5) There is a connection between our emotional labor, and the growing pains that accompany it, and the growth and satisfaction that comes as a result. When we do the work of teshuva, or repentance for our sins, we can rejoice in renewed intimacy with God and our better selves. When we give thanks and acknowledge the sacrifice of others, we can offer fuller gratitude for our independence. Without reflection and repair of broken relationships, our joy will always be poorer and diminished. When we do the work of teshuva, the love we show for others and our God is all the more luminous and nourishing.
It also teaches us that there is always a way back.  In contemporary secular culture, we are quick to shame and exile without any mechanism for return to the community. Judaism does not allow for permanent scarlet letters or banishment without end.  Rather, the genius of religious faith is that there are not only mechanisms for punishment, but there is also always a path back to God and community. In this respect, secular society has a lot to learn from our communal religious past. Without hope for future communion, punishment remains nothing other than pain and cruelty. It is only when there is a path provided back to friendship, love, and joy, that punishment and pain can have educational value.  Let us take that message with us as we move from the 9th of Av to the 15th of Av and prepare for the coming Days of Awe.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Kosher Caracas! Beth Israel Fundraiser

Venezuelan Fiesta and Wine Tasting 
featuring chefs Alphonso Ortega and Nilda Wolman and Tree Spirits Winery*  

Come join the fun for our 3rd Annual Beth Israel Congregation Fundraiser
 with a Silent Auction

Thursday, July 27 at 6pm
Beth Israel Congregation Community Room

Cost: $40.00 per person
RSVP to Rabbi Isaacs, share on Facebook

  *All food will be dairy/pareve. No meat will be served



Venezuelan vegetarian and dairy appetizers to pair with fruit wines –  mini arepas canapé style with different toppings, empanadas, and fried yucca.

“Arepa Bar” 

We will have different stuffing available (warm&cold): sweet plantain, black beans stew, different cheeses (gouda, cotija, mozzarella), “picadillo” – a vegan ground beef (vegetable texture soy meat) in traditional Venezuelan tomato based stew, roasted vegetables (red pepper, mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, caramelize onions), cabbage lime/cilantro slaw, “perico”- scramble egg with vegetables, and two sauces: “guasacaca”- a traditional avocado sauces and a hot tomato based sauces.


1.     Green salad station (arugula with mango vinaigrette, blue cheeses and walnuts)
2.     Dessert station: Flan/custard Venezuelan style.. & churros plain (similar to fried dough) with two sauces available: chocolate and dulce de leche, and churros coated with cinnamon and sugar.
3.     Beverage station: juices, soda, fruit wine, and kosher wine

DRINKS by Tree Spirits

1.      Pear wine
2.     Apple wine
3.     Maple wine
4.     Pear sparkling
5.     Fruit Cocktail: Sangria
6.     Pear Brandy



$1,800 - Builder (2 tickets included)
$540 - Leader (2 tickets included)
$360 - Supporter (2 tickets included)
$100 - Friend

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Center for Small Town Jewish Life Video

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life is a labor of love for our entire staff. From a wild idea five years ago, to an established academic center at Colby College, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life plans local and state-wide events that enrich Jewish life throughout the State of Maine. We are thrilled to tell our story!

Small Town Jewish Life - Full program from Mark Ireland on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Maine State House Benediction: March 16, 2017

Dear God, please bless this gathering of legislators, may you protect them and guide them in your ways.  May your teachings be close to their hearts, and may they be inspired to follow them. We stand in this moment between the Jewish festivals of Purim and Passover, two celebrations of redemption. Two festivals that celebrate the survival of a religious minority facing persecution and unjust treatment by their fellow citizens. Two holidays that remind us of the special moral obligations of those who know the pain of narrow places and exclusion. Two holidays that make us recognize the privilege of receiving revelation from a God who places upon us the highest moral standards to protect the interests of the most vulnerable. At this moment let us recall two verses from the Biblical tradition that speak to our better angels and our communal responsibility to speak for the voiceless.  

We learn in Deuteronomy 10:18-19:

 עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם, וְאַלְמָנָה; וְאֹהֵב גֵּר, לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה.
18 God executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the foreigner, in giving him food and clothing.
יט  וַאֲהַבְתֶּם, אֶת-הַגֵּר:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
19 Love the foreigner; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And God reminds us again in the Book of Zachariah, Chapter 10:9-10:

 כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, לֵאמֹר:  מִשְׁפַּט אֱמֶת, שְׁפֹטוּ, וְחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים, עֲשׂוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.
9 'Thus God said: Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion every man to his brother;
י  וְאַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם גֵּר וְעָנִי, אַל-תַּעֲשֹׁקוּ; וְרָעַת אִישׁ אָחִיו, אַל-תַּחְשְׁבוּ בִּלְבַבְכֶם.
10 and do not oppress the widow, nor the fatherless, the foreigner, nor the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.

Our challenge and privilege in this world is to be agents of love and justice in every sphere we inhabit.  May this assembly use its voice, its power, and the treasures of the people of Maine to alleviate pain, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and welcome the foreigner. America is a country blessed with a unique mission in this world, showing fidelity to our civic traditions and drawing inspiration from our faiths. May we all rise to the occasion on this day, being vessels of holiness, justice, and compassion for the people of Maine and our great country.

And let us say, Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Exodus and Leviticus: The Protests and the Day After

      What would Judaism be without the Exodus?  A narrative that details the sorrows of the downtrodden and the joys of liberation, the Exodus from Egypt is a cornerstone of Jewish identity. We know from sociological data that even when Jews have given up all other forms of observance, the Passover seder remains a part of their lives.  The story can be addictive and nourishing, a tale of good and evil when good prevails against all odds. The Exodus makes for a fantastic movie -- we imagine ourselves almost always as Moses, courageous, victorious, and righteous.  What follows the Exodus, however, fails to compel audiences as much as the journey through the Sea of Reeds.

      After we are freed from the great external evil of Pharaoh, we need to face ourselves and confront the difficult freedom of the wilderness.  In an act of true love and commitment, God gives us a way to deal with the vicissitudes and chaos of the desert: Torah.  We celebrate this moment with Shavuot, a holiday far less known than Passover.  On Shavuot, we cleanse ourselves with a vegetarian diet instead of feasting on lamb (like on Passover), and we stay up all night study the statues, details, and nuances of Divine Law. Revelation -- and the restrictions that come along with it -- does not provide the same drama and allure as the Exodus. I know of many more Jews who will gladly sing the songs of the Passover seder than will joyously study and observe the minutia of kashrut.
    But great dramatic narratives cannot alone sustain a great nation or movement. There needs to be guidance in the wilderness to create, order, and unify a diverse people. Discipline and restraint are essential for crafting just solutions to inevitable conflicts.  Leviticus may not be as sexy as Exodus, and Shavuot less famous than Passover.  But Jewish civilization could not continue without their complementary contributions.
     The same is true with our social justice movements.  Protests are our great narrative actions. However, without the discipline of voting strategically in every election, the restraint required of compromise across difference, and the requirement to donate to effective organizations and leaders, the protest movement will never bear fruit.  A movement without law is ineffectual and inert; a movement without narrative is soulless and bereft of galvanizing principles.  The next four years will require effective political mobilization in order to preserve the rule of law and the health of our democracy.  We've protested. Crying out to God is important.  Telling the story is essential.  But then there is the time to be pragmatic, practical, and productive.  We must have the discipline to vote when it counts (which is always!), to make compromises on smaller issues to preserve our most cherished institutions, and be willing to give our time and treasure to actualize our most deeply held and most imperiled values.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beth Israel Hanukkah Party 2016

Join Beth Israel Congregation for a raucous Hanukkah Party this year!  We will be celebrating together on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 from 5-7 pm.  Want to help?  Here is how:
  • Bring a vegetarian/dairy dish to the potluck for dinner!  There will be plenty of latkas and sufganiot (doughnuts), so healthy, wholesome food is a plus!
  • Help us make latkas!  Come by the Beth Israel Congregation kitchen starting at 1:00 pm on December 27th to help us fry up a bunch of latkas!
  • Bring your friends! This is a great time to introduce our community to our synagogue and traditions.
  • Bring your own hanukkiah and candles so we can all light together!

Chag Urim Sameach חג אורים שמח!  Happy Hanukkah.  Cannot wait to see you there!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

White House Hanukkah Benediction

Thank you, Mr. President, Mrs. Obama. It is such an honor to be here today to teach, bless, and represent Waterville, Maine in the White House. Adam HaRishon, the first human, stood, shivering in the dark, frigid expanse. The days were becoming shorter, dimmer, colder in a way he had never experienced before, and he wondered: Is this what the world will always be? Our rabbis teach us that Adam prayed for eight days, and when the winter solstice passed, the days became longer, lighter, and warmer once again. Hanukkah is a festival that teaches us that it is always darkest before the dawn, and it is not foolish or naive to hold onto hope.

 Of course, because Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, we do not agree on a singular reason for why we celebrate. Hanukkah also teaches us about the necessity of rebellion. The Maccabees refused to accept tyranny, and were willing to sacrifice everything in order to retain their integrity as faithful Jews. They knew the injustice of dictatorship, and the danger of one human sovereign undermining the primacy our laws. As Jews, our faith is rooted in a legal system based on the foundational belief that all human beings are created equal, and created equally in the Divine Image.

We know the values and example we inherited from the Maccabees are not so different from the legacy we inherited from the mothers and fathers of the American Revolution, who fought for religious freedom, and to achieve the promise of a democratic republic free from tyranny.

 In their honor, at this moment, let us engage in the work of hanukkat hamedinah, and hannukat haezrachut, rededicating ourselves to our nation and to the challenges and privileges of citizenship. The battle for the soul of our nation will not be won with swords, or muskets, or verbal daggers. Because as Jews we know the spiritual is political and the political is spiritual. We will illuminate our country by widening our hearts, and establishing richly Jewish homes in all parts of our great nation, sharing the sparks of Torah with all Americans.

 Chag Urim Sameach. Happy Hanukkah.