Monday, October 2, 2017

Yom Kippur Sermons 5778

Happy to share my Yom Kippur Sermons for 5778:

Kol Nidre: Choosing Life, Choosing Love

Yom Kippur Day: Dear Nitzan and Hadas

A happy, sweet, and fulfilling new year for all!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

U'natana Tokef: Thoughts on Chaos, Order, and Justice


    There is something so beautiful, chilling, and true about the u'natana tokef prayer. Its words are so resonant that Leonard Cohen transformed these ancient Hebrew words into contemporary secular liturgy:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many will pass and how many will be created?

Who will live and who will die?

Who in their time, and who not their time?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by sword and who by beast?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
avert the severity of the decree.  

Sometimes we are foolish enough to think that we can control our lives, and even more arrogant to believe that we can control our deaths.  Even with the best planning, the deepest pockets, the finest medical care, and the healthiest diet, none of us know when we will die or how exactly it will happen. Advanced directives can be ignored, a routine commute on a beautiful day can go terribly wrong, and some diseases simply cannot be avoided. Life is unpredictable, and death is the most extreme expression of the chaos that defines our time on earth. All of us weave veils for ourselves that separate us from the chaos that defines our mortality. We fabricate those veils with routines, rituals, and laws that provide a sense of predictability and stability to our lives. Yet, every once in a while, something -- a death, a birth, a tragedy -- pierces that veil, and exposes us to our utter powerlessness in the face of  mortality. U'Natana Tokef reminds us of what lies behind our veils of daily denial.

But this prayer, and the High Holiday season, are not merely about chaos, unpredictability, and denial.  If they were, there would be no point to life, not to mention our faith and festivals. The liturgy gives us power and hope in the face of this chaos. We can reclaim our power and avert the severity of the chaos of our lives through repentance, prayer, and justice work.

Repentance: We do not need to be the people we were yesterday tomorrow.  We can change, we can return to our better selves and God, and we can improve. We have control over our character. We need not surrender to a dictatorship of the past. We can move closer to the people we want to be by returning to a purer and more Divine version of ourselves.

Prayer: The Jewish people gave humanity the gift of the week through Shabbat. Through our cycles of prayer, we give order to days, weeks, months, and years.  We come together in supportive and loving communities. We resist the chaos of endless labor by giving ourselves the opportunity to rest and reconnect. Shabbat is an island of eternity that breaks up the chaos of the work week, and allows us to feel the joys and power of royalty.

Tzedakah: Human beings all have the capacity to cause suffering, pain, and greater chaos in the world. Through tzedakah (justice work), we use our power to make the world a more equitable and reasonable place. Yes, some of us were born with more privilege and blessings than others. We cannot control the endless stream of natural disasters that befall us. But we all have the choice about how we put our blessings and privileges to use. Every time we tithe, clothe, donate, protect, shelter, make space and speak out for others, we change the order of the world. We refuse to accept the world we inherited for what it is. None of us choose our station in life at birth.  However, we all choose how many of our blessings and how much of our power we employ to make the world more just, kind, and bearable for others.

This season is about recognizing how small we are in the face of the universe and the Divine. But after we acknowledge the chaos, we also recognize the considerable power we have to mitigate the effects of that chaos -- to avert the severity of the decree through personal and communal action. 

In the year to come, let us reclaim our power in the ways that our liturgy describes, confronting the overwhelming challenges of our world with joy, gratitude, and purpose.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rosh HaShanah Sermons 5778

Proud to share my Rosh HaShanah sermons from Waterville this year:

Rosh HaShanah Day 5778: "The Dignity of Difference"

Monday, September 4, 2017

High Holidays in Waterville 5778

Please join us for the festivals of Tishrei! 
All are welcome and tickets are not required!

Rosh Hashana:
Erev Rosh Hashana Services: Wed, Sept 20, 6pm
Rosh Hashana Community Meal: Wed, Sept 20, 7pm

(RSVP required! $25/adult; kids are free; cost is no barrier)
First Day Services: Thurs, Sept 21, 9:30am
Family services will be available

Tashlich: Thurs, Sept 21, 1:30pm at Thayer Park Boat Landing (across from Thayer Hospital)
Second Day Services: Fri, Sept 22, 9:30am

Yom Kippur:
Kol Nidre: Fri, Sept 29, 6:20pm

Yom Kippur Services: Sat, Sept 30, 9:15am (Reform, student-led in social hall downstairs, traditional service upstairs)
Family services will be available in synagogue classroom

Yom Kippur Mincha and Ne’ila Services: Sat, Sept 30, 5pm
Break the Fast (Dairy Potluck): Sat, Sept 30, 7:15pm at Beth Israel (Kelsey St. entrance)
(The Waterville Sukkah will be located next to the Foss building on the Colby campus)
Joint Potluck and Services in the Sukkah: Fri, Oct 6, 5:30pm
Bagel Brunch in the Sukkah, Sat, Oct 7, 10am
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah:
Shemini Atzeret Services and Yizkor, Thurs, Oct 12, 10am
at Beth Israel
Simchat Torah Pizza-Making Party and Celebration (Hebrew school at shul), Thursday, Oct 12, 4pm

Friday, August 25, 2017

Reflections on Charlottesville and Jersey City for Elul

“Jew will not replace us.” These words were chanted by hundreds of people in Charlottesville at a massive neo-Nazi rally in our country. My suspicion is that the older folks in our congregation are less surprised by the presence of antisemitism. Both my grandparents and parents experienced this hate, and the intersection of antisemitism with bigotry against other minorities. One of the most important stories my grandparents told me about their past was when my grandfather was stationed in South Carolina for army training before he entered combat in World War II.
Having come from Jersey City, my grandparents were not used to segregated buses, but they were introduced to this expression of systemic bigotry quickly. They walked on a bus early in their time in South Carolina and by habit, walked to the back of the bus. The driver stopped them, and told them that as white folks, they needed to sit up front. Neither of my grandparents were activists in the traditional sense of the word, and were not interested in taking public action or drawing attention to themselves.  But they were also keenly aware of the fact that they were Jews and that their families were being slaughtered en masse in Europe because of their “racial inferiority.” They continued to walk to the back of the bus and just told the driver to go. It made no sense to fight genocidal racism in Europe and feed it back at home. When my grandparents returned to New Jersey after the war, my grandmother became the secretary to one of the first tenured African-American professors at Jersey City State College, the artist Ben Jones. My grandfather became a public school teacher in Newark.
What impresses me about my grandparents’ legacy is that they never sought or received public recognition for much of anything they did. But they passed their stories onto their grandchildren -- from freeing concentration camps abroad, to pursuing justice at home, and sustaining Jewish communities that animated and transmitted their values. There is a deep wisdom to this approach to justice work. I moderated a panel with Tilar Mazzeo that centered on her book, “Irena’s Children,” about a Polish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust. If Irena’s actions had been public, both she and those children would have been killed. The truly courageous work is not televised or posted on Instagram. It is done through living lives of integrity and quiet sacrifice, and through a deep confidence in who you are and what you believe. It is done by putting your body between the vulnerable and the violence that is bound to kill them. It is rarely public, but no doubt, God takes note.
We are approaching Elul, our month of repentance and spiritual preparation before the High Holidays. Let us remember two things: 1) Our actions matter, and more often than not, the greatest mitzvahs we do are seen only by God. 2) The value of synagogue life is crucial. Our community allows these stories can be passed from generation, not only as a source of inspiration, but also of protection. Our elders have an obligation to share their stories, and our youth have the obligation to hear them. Many young Jews are just experiencing antisemitism for the first time, and it is often a shock. Knowing that our elders had the strength and integrity to stand tall as Jews is an important source of strength in fighting the impulse to hide and flee for a false sense of security. Let us take this month as time of reflection, gratitude, and taking stock of who we are not only as individuals, but as a multi-generational community that must stand tall not only for ourselves, but also for those who share in our struggle.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will, and L’Shanah Tovah u’mitukah (A Happy and Sweet New year!)

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 canapĂ© 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