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.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Feeding Souls and Nurturing Citizens: Parashat Toldot

This week's portion is parashat Toldot. We encounter two brothers, Jacob and Esau, who represent two different approaches to decision making. Jacob is the scholar and the schemer, the one who is willing to forgo short-term satisfaction in order to achieve long-term aims. On the hand you have Esau who is the hunter and the straight-shooter, who puts the fulfillment of basic needs in front of long-term, strategic aims. Jacob is clever (and often duplicitous) and Esau is candid (and often naive.) Jacob acquires great wealth and power but is never at peace, while Esau follows his heart and stomach, but does not live his life on the run.

The Jewish tradition, and in particular the rabbinic tradition, favors the priorities and character of Jacob over Esau. The rabbis excuse Jacob's misdeeds, and vilify Esau's ostensibly innocent actions.

However, we miss a great deal of wisdom when we overlook or demonize Esau's choices. Jacob had the ability to think in the long-term because his short-term needs were provided by his mother, Rebecca. Esau needed to think about immediate gratification because he did not receive the attention or coddling of his mother, but rather spent his time serving his sick father, Isaac. Esau also trusted his brother, and therefore, never believed that relying on him for basic care and hospitality would cost him his birthright.

It is easier to be generous and strategic when your basic needs are cared for by others. It is much more difficult to be a conduit of generosity, empathy, and critical thinking when your stomach is empty and your soul needs tending. If the most basic of someone's concerns are not addressed -- feeling respected and cared for -- then we are misguided to expect the kind of empathy and long-term thinking we would like to see in our fellow citizens.

Let us focus on feeding and nurturing (physically and spiritually) our fellow citizens at this moment. These acts of care have tremendous implications for our people and our body politic. As our rabbi's taught, "Ein Kemach, Ein Torah." Without food, there can be no study. This is a moment that demands learning -- let us feed one another so we are ready and able to address the demands of citizenship that this moment demands.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon 5777

Yom Kippur was a moving experience in Waterville this year.  I was honored to pursue teshuva with my community and Hillel.

I delivered two sermons, one of which I will publish online.  For access to the other sermon, please email me to discuss.

Kol Nidre 5777 - "Dear Nitzan"

Cannot wait to see everyone over Sukkot.  Moadim L'Simcha!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rosh HaShanah Sermons - 5777

Rosh HaShanah was beautiful and fulfilling this year at Beth Israel Congregation!  Colby College Hillel and Beth Israel came together for an Erev Rosh HaShanah dinner of 90 people followed by vibrant and warm services.

I am happy to share my two sermons from this past Rosh HaShanah:

1) Erev Rosh HaShanah - Year in Review

2) Rosh HaShanah Day 1 - Leadership in Anxious Times

L'Shanah Tovah and Gmar Hatimah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

High Holidays in Waterville 5777!!

High Holiday Schedule

Unless otherwise noted, services are held in the Beth Israel sanctuary

Rosh Hashanah:
Erev Rosh Hashanah Services - Sunday, October 2nd at 6:00 pm

Erev Rosh Hashanah Community Meal - Sunday, October 2nd at 7:00 pm (please RSVP by September 26)

Rosh Hashanah Services, First Day - Monday, October 3rd 9:30 am to 12:00 pm

Tashlich - Monday, October 3rd at 1:00 pm

Rosh Hashanah Services, Second Day - Tuesday, October 4th 9:30 am to 12:00 pm

Yom Kippur:

Kol Nidre Services - Tuesday, October 11th 5:45 to 7:15 pm

Yom Kippur Services - Wednesday, October 12th 9:30 am to 1:00 pm

Maariv and Ne’ilah Services - Wednesday, October 12th 6:15 pm to 7:30 pm

Colby Hillel Break the fast (Pugh Center) 6:15 pm

Beth Israel Break-Fast - Wednesday, October 12th at 7:30 pm


Sunday, October 16th to Sunday, October 23rd

Colby-Beth Israel Shabbat Potluck and Services in the Sukkah - Friday, October 21st 6:00 to 8:00 pm at COLBY COLLEGE SUKKAH

Bagels and Singing in the Sukkah - Saturday, October 22nd at 11:00 am at COLBY COLLEGE SUKKAH

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah:

Shemini Atzeret Services and Yizkor - Monday, October 24 10:00 am to 12:00 pm
Simchat Torah Potluck and Services - Monday, October 24 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Services open to all!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hillel Virtual Global Assembly Presentation: The Center for Small Town Jewish Life

I was honored today to present on behalf of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College at the Hillel International Virtual Global Assembly.  I gave a slice of Jewish life in Waterville, Maine, and began to open a discussion about replicating our model on a national scale.

To view my presentation, click here!

I am so looking forward to taking the Center to the next level -- let me know if you want to partner with us!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Caribbean Kosher Fundraiser at Beth Israel Congregation!

"Caribbean Kosher: A Taste of Puerto Rico in Maine"

                     Beth Israel Congregation Annual Fundraiser                      Supporting the Center for Small Town Jewish Life

August 21, 2016 at 6:00 pm
291 Main Street 
Waterville, Maine
Cost $60.00 (Wine included, cocktails extra)
For tickets email: risaacs@colby.edu

Join us for a delicious meal prepared by classically trained chef, Alfonso Ortega and owner of Acadia Cakes, Nilda Wolman, for an incredible kosher Puerto Rican meal. 


       Sweet Plantain and Cod Fish Pies
      Twice Fried Green Plantain Stuffed With Summer Vegetable “Ratatouille”
        Grill Skirt Steak Brochette With Garlic “Chimichurri” Sauces and Yuca Chips
Drink: Mojito
First Course:
Sea Bass & Mango Ceviche with Green Plantain Chips
Drink: Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc

Second Course:
Mixed Greens Salad With Cranberries & Marinated Pigeon Pea.
Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc

Lemon Sorbet:

Main Entrée:
Balsamic Guava Glaze Chicken Breast Filet Wrap in Turkey Bacon with Cuban Black Beans and White Rice “Moros y Cristianos”
Pairing Wine: Concha & Toro Chilean Wine Camenere grape

Coconut Rice Custard with Sesame Seeds Caramel Powder

Friday, May 27, 2016

Would you Unfollow Jeremiah?: Thoughts on Haftarah Behar


If the prophet Jeremiah were alive today, would you unfollow him on Facebook? Would you stop picking up his calls and ignore his texts? One of the few true prophets during the reign of the foolish, young King Zedekiah, Jeremiah was the bearer of difficult news. This week’s haftarah deals with the difficult relationship between Jeremiah and the final king of Israel who did unspeakable damage to the Jewish people by refusing to acknowledge difficult realities. Not only did Zedekiah initially ignore Jeremiah, but eventually imprisoned him for continuing to relay his message: the Jewish people would be in exile for many years to come. In order to survive, the King should submit to the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, and the exiles should create permanent homes in exile. This was news that no one wanted to hear, even though it came directly from G-D. Zedekiah tried to defeat Nebuchadnezzar with a failed revolt, and the people Israel held out false hope and lost important opportunities to protect themselves and plan for their future.
  The term “jeremiad” in English has a negative connotation; it is a word that is synonymous with an exaggerated report of future tragedy. However, Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. He assures the people Israel that they will return to their land, but not immediately, and not through a military revolt. Their sin has brought them into exile and only their repentance will usher in their return. It is possible to go home again, but only through hard work and a circuitous path. In the meantime, it benefits everyone in the community to accept their new surroundings, plant strong and healthy roots for their families, adapt, and do the hard spiritual work necessary for redemption. Listening to Jeremiah is not meant to be an unmitigated, depressing downer.  He provides a wakeup call to a people that are lost and deluded. Hope is possible, but only by acknowledging our difficult realities and preparing ourselves for the world we wish to inhabit.
Let us listen to the true prophets in our midst, who usually have difficult messages for us to digest. However, as a good friend once taught me, “the only way out is through.” Let us have the courage and strength to accept difficult truths and prepare ourselves for the journey home -- and all the travail it will undoubtedly require.  

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Colby College Hillel Winter 2016 Newsletter!

The Winter 2016 Hillel Newsletter is out!  Click here to download a copy!

Friday, April 8, 2016

When Judaism Makes You Furious and then It Doesn't: Childbirth and Parashat Tazria

I love her, and she exhausts me.
Thank goodness for maternity leave.
             If you come to the Torah with a feminist lens, then at least sometimes, probably, it will make you furious.  In Genesis, Eve is condemned for her curiosity and Adam is treated as a victim, Dinah's rape is turned into a tale of the injured honor of her fathers and brothers, Tamar needs to dress up a like a prostitute in order to receive the care she is due, and so on and so forth.  Even with the most ornate and developed apologetics, there are times when the the Torah, or Judaism more generally can make you furious.  
              In this week's portion, Tazria, there were always elements that angered me.  The parasha opens with the laws of ritual purity related to a woman who has just given birth.  We learn in the opening verses that 1) a woman becomes ritually impure after child birth and 2) the period of impurity is twice as long for a girl child than it is for a male child: (Leviticus 12:2-5)

2Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.בדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּו‍ֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא:
3And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.גוּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ:
4And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary, until the days of her purification have been completed.דוּשְׁלשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָֽהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽהּ:
5And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks, like her menstruation [period]. And for sixty six days, she shall remain in the blood of purity.הוְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָֽמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽה:

Why should a woman be impure after giving birth, and why should that status last twice as long for a female child?  Isn't this the ultimate expression of a deep seeded misogyny in the Bible that extends through the Jewish tradition?  Like any question in Judaism, it depends who you ask and when you ask the question.  It also depends when in your life you read this portion.
        The Kli Yakar gives an interpretation that I would expect from a male reader in early modernity. Pulling upon traditional sources, he claims that both menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth are punishments for the chet hakadum, the first sin of Eve described in the opening chapters of Genesis. According to him, the double days of impurity for a girl child are required because a girl will eventually carry this sin as well when her period begins.  In the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 31b), the rabbis posit that a woman needs to be in a state of impurity and provide a sin offering because she will undoubtedly curse her husband for having had sex with her during delivery.  The period for a girl child will be twice as long because she will forgive her husband more quickly for cursing him if she gives birth to a male, the more cherished kind of child. The Kli Yakar and the Talmud clearly articulate interpretations of the text that perpetuate the worst attitudes towards women in the Jewish tradition, and affirms for me my initial anger at this text.
       However, there are always different ways to read classical texts, especially when the Torah itself doesn't provide reasoning for the laws it lays out.  In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, a wonderful resource from the URJ press, we are provided with other possible reasons for these laws.  Beth Alpert Nakhai points out that though the period of impurity differs for boys and girls, the purification rituals are identical.  The Torah conveys a discomfort with all oozing fluids of life and death, and the experience of childbirth is the same in this respect. Blood, according to the Torah, is a life force that needs to be treated with reverence.  (It is for this reason that we cannot eat blood if we keep kosher.)  She writes, "The priestly authors of Leviticus believe that blood, whether menstrual or post-partum, is so powerful as a source of life that only purification rituals allow those who come into contact with it to rejoin their community."  (pg. 650)
       The authors of the Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, write in a similar vein, "We might postulate that there are two types of holiness in life, two ways of encountering the divine.  There is a natural holiness found in the miracles of pregnancy, birth, and recovery from illness. And there is a stipulated holiness - the arbitrary designation of certain times, places, and activities, as sacred.  One meets God in the experiences of birth and death, sickness and health.  But they are not everyday occurrences.  The person who years for contact with God on a regular basis must rely on sanctuaries, worship services, and prescribed rituals, all of which are holy only because we have chosen to designate them as holy.  Israelite society may have seen the two types of holiness as being mutually exclusive, so that it would not be appropriate for the woman or man who encountered the vital holiness of childbirth, menstruation, or contact with a dead body to seek the designated holiness of the sanctuary. A woman who had just given birth might feel the presence of God so strongly in that experience that she would feel no need to go to the sanctuary to find God..." (pg. 649)
      Additionally, we can read these laws as a form of protection for mother and child, and especially female babies.  During a period of ritual impurity (whether it is from menstruation or childbirth), a husband cannot touch his wife.  After giving birth to a child, a woman doesn't want to be approached sexually or bothered to take care of anyone other than her child and herself.  By separating a woman from her communal responsibilities and her family, she can heal and take care of her child.  Why should this period of time be longer for a baby girl?  According to Nakhai, the rabbis possibly wanted to make doubly sure that the mother would take care of her baby girl despite the fact that female life was valued so much less, and therefore, was all the more precarious.  She writes, "...girls were sometimes thought of as expendable.  In times of need, famine, and war, baby girls might suffer hunger and neglect, or even be abandoned and left to die.  The priestly authors seem to be concerned about this situation and try to avert such tragedies by ensure that baby girls stay in the mothers' protect care for an extended period of time.  This not only allows mother and daughter to bond tightly, but also ensures that the child is nursed and cared for." (650)
    I do not know the original intent of the priestly authors of Leviticus.  None of us can.  The way in which we read and relate to the text says just as much about our values and context as it does about the text itself.  I know that after giving birth to a baby girl, this portion feels extremely different.  I had no idea how physically weak I would feel, how much I would bleed and for how long, and how much I would desire to simply be left alone to sleep and feed my baby.  The idea of forced isolation and distance from communal life feels more like a necessary protection than a punishment. Moreover, I had no idea that baby girls can have something resembling a period in their first couple of weeks of life.  It could be that the priestly authors knew that mother and baby girl could be menstruating at the same time, and hence, developed the idea of double impurity.  These laws feel far more wise and fair to me now than they ever did as an adolescent, and I could have never seen their value before giving birth myself.
      As we grow, the Torah grows with us.  It could be that in 10 to 20 years this portion will go back to infuriating me, or I will come to peace with laws that provide real benefit to new mothers, intentionally or unintentionally.  There is some wisdom that can only come from experience, and the Torah waits for us as we gain this knowledge and eventually come to understand its laws and stories better.  In reading Tazria, I am reminded not to abandon Torah when it is difficult or hurtful. While sometimes I can never reconcile myself to its viewpoint, other times it is valuable to let it sit until I am the person I need to be to learn from it and find its wisdom.  This is what it means to live a life of Torah -- and what an incredible gift that is.

Shabbat Shalom.