Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The New Website is Live!!!

Check out the new Beth Israel Congregation website to learn more about our congregation, upcoming events, and congregational news!:

Israeli Song of the Week: God is One by Mosh Ben Ari

I love the integration of classical Biblical and Jewish truths into contemporary Israeli pop music. This song, God is One, is by the wonderful musician Mosh Ben Ari who has regularly bridged the divide between the tradition and secular Israeli society. As we approach the Book of Deuteronomy, which drives home the centrality of monotheism, I think this song is a great way to end the week!

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is Missing from Our Synagogues?

As usual, an excellent piece from my professor, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond:

"So what is missing in our synagogues? Prayer is meant not only to comfort us but also to transform us. Shul should be a place where we become fully alive by acknowledging and embracing our private fears, hopes, anger, grief, and joy. It should be a place where we allow ourselves to feel compassion for ourselves and others. It should challenge us to take a moral inventory and to consider how we can lead better lives by embodying the righteousness and compassion that we attribute to God. The person who leaves the synagogue should be different from the one who entered it. And it is this transformational element that is missing in most of our shuls and, I believe, the true source of people’s disappointment with prayer, although they themselves may not realize it.

How do we change this? First, by teaching our congregants that in shul we are meant to, as I like to put it, pray alone together. Prayer should have a private dimension as well as a public one. Congregants need to be shown how to pray rather than simply recite prayers. This agenda has to be made explicit in a way that is both gentle and confident and it needs to be pursued intelligently. Important components include rabbis and cantors sharing their own prayer lives with congregants; (re)configuring the sanctuary so that the clergy are in the midst of the congregation—and this can be done even in so-called cathedral synagogues if there is the determination to do so and the congregation is educated about the importance of this shift; leading prayers in a way that signals that the shaliah zibbur and the rabbi are daveners like everyone else; using niggunim, which should be available at synagogue websites; and offering classes that encourage congregants to talk about their own prayer lives while simultaneously exposing them to the teachings of Heschel, Soloveitchik kabbalists, Hassidic masters, and contemporary works on prayer. These should be taught as Torah, with an eye towards finding relevance for oneself in these teachings."

Found in an Old City Sewer: A Bell from the Second Temple Period!

Don't find stuff like this everyday. Another testament to our long history in the Land of Israel:

Click Here for the article on the 2,000 Year Old Bell found in an Old City sewer.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Access Texts! On the Importance of Promise Keeping and the Value of Life over Property

Check out the sermon and source sheet from this week's services:

Click here for my sermon on the importance of promise-keeping in this week's portion and in the Jewish faith more broadly.

Click here for a text study on the appropriate role and value of money in our faith.

As always, email me with any questions or comments about the texts!

From the Waterville Morning Sentinel!

Check out this article about my new beginning at Beth Israel Congregation!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Call for Support

Beth Israel Congregation, like so many other small congregations in America, is working hard to survive and thrive as the home of Conservative Judaism in Central Maine.

I have written the following letter to raise money for new mahzorim (high holiday prayer books) for our congregation. It will be mailed out to members soon, but I wanted to put it online for other supporters to help us achieve our vision.

Here is the text of the letter: If you click here, you can print an order form and a hard copy of the letter:

July 18, 2011/ 16 Tammuz 5771

Dear Beth Israel Community:

This past Shabbat, I was granted the great honor of beginning my tenure as rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation. It is with great joy that I look forward to sharing many more shabbatot with our community, and it is with great anticipation that I look toward the approaching High Holidays. Over the past few months, I have been brainstorming with many members of the community regarding how to best serve Beth Israel Congregation and how to modernize, invigorate, and update our learning and prayer services.

One of the steps that we must take as a community is purchasing new mahzorim, High Holiday prayer books. Our current books do not include transliteration, compelling English readings, or relatable translations of liturgy. Unfortunately, they do not allow us to provide accessible services to the majority of our congregation.

Thankfully, there is a new, beautiful prayer book published by the Conservative movement that includes all of these missing elements. You can preview the style and content of this mahzor, named Lev Shalem (A Complete Heart) at I have spoken to several rabbis and congregants around the country about this book, and it has garnered praise from all corners of the Conservative movement. With this book, we can send a message to the greater Central Maine Jewish community that the services we provide speak to our time and our needs.

As the rabbi of this community, I feel passionately about conveying the following statement to every person who walks through our front door on the High Holidays: we are a vibrant community committed to holiness, community, and connection. Purchasing these new books is one essential step in communicating those values at the beginning of a momentous year.

Please consider donating to the congregation for the purchase of these books, either for your family’s use or in honor of someone who has been a cherished individual in your life. We will include a bookplate as an acknowledgment of your generosity and commitment. Each book, including shipping and handling, costs $29.00. With a bookplate, the congregation is asking for a $36.00 donation. Donations can be made for the full or partial cost of each book, depending on what your family can afford. Each donation is valuable and appreciated.

Please feel free to be in contact with any questions, concerns, or suggestions at

B’vracha (with blessing),

Rabbi Rachel M. Isaacs

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Services this Week

Friday night services will be at 7:00 pm at Beth Israel Congregation.

Saturday morning services will be at 10:00 am at Beth Israel as well.

Look forward to seeing you there! If you need a ride, please be in touch with me at

Parashat Pinchas: Jewish Approaches to Violence

In case you did not make it to Saturday morning services this past week, you can check out the source sheet from our discussion right here! If you have any thoughts or questions about the texts, email me at

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My First Weekend: July 15th and July 16th

My first weekend as rabbi of the shul will be this week!

Friday night will include a potluck dinner at 6pm and services at 7pm.

Saturday morning services will begin at 10 am and will include an interactive text study.

The theme of this week's sermon and Torah study is suprise! (not a surprise, but on the concept of surprise.)

Looking forward to exploring and celebrating with everyone. See you there!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Praise from the Periphery: Parashat Balak

This week's portion is one of the most famous in the Torah. It is one that is filled with tales of fantasy and fancy -- a talking donkey, a non-Israelite prophet who blesses Israel as he attempts to curse it, and a rare moment of praise for the Israelites after years of rebuke from Moses and God. This portion is the source of one of the most prominent lines in our morning prayers, "mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkinotecha Israel." Balaam, the non-Israelite magician and steward of the evil king Balak, utters the words, "how great are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel," instead of the cursed words he was commanded to speak by his employer.

Menachem Ben-Yashar points out something unique and compelling about this blessing that I had never thought about previously. It is part of God's genius to have this rare blessing to come out of the mouth of a stranger. The generation that came out of the desert has been rebuked almost constantly, having every sin and shortcoming highlighted by Moses. The people need a glorious moment, something that gives them faith in the meaning of their journey and their purpose at a people. Not only do the Israelites need words of affirmation, it is superior for those words to come from the mouth of a stranger.

He writes the following on the importance of the source of these blessed words:

"In the generation of the wilderness, when Moses repeatedly reproves the people, it is fitting for praise of Israel to be voiced precisely by an outside figure, not one of Israel: “Let the mouth of another praise you, not yours, the lips of a stranger, not your own” (Prov. 27:2). A stranger, setting out with fundamentally hostile intent, is the one to sing in the name of the Lord praise of Israel in the wilderness. "

This point evoked for me one of the harmful phenomena of modern life. Often parents bestow praise on their children constantly for accomplishments that are not meritorious. Everything is a monumental achievement, and as such, children cannot accurately gauge whether or not they have truly accomplished something great. It is only from the mouths of outside sources not previously inclined toward these kids that can indicate for them whether or not their have exhibited the hard work and creativity worthy of praise. When Balaam, enemy and outsider, uttered this blessing, it actually meant something great.

Even if praise is justified, often we need to hear it from and outside source. We may become inured to those who are close to us and value their objectivity. I think what this portion can teach us in the importance of what is called in Hebrew hakarat hatov, recognizing and mentioning the good. When we see someone do good work or achieve something great, we should tell them, especially if we are not close to them. Our words can have greater meaning and give these individuals the strength and reinforcement to persevere and continue their journeys.

Shabbat Shalom from Maine!

Mazal Tov to Calev on his Bar Mitzvah this week at Beth Israel Congregation. You're going to do an awesome job.

See you all next week.