“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Learning together as a community. That has always been the way of the Jewish people. Starting with Moses and continuing through every generational link in our history; learning and growth have always been at the forefront of the Jewish communal experience.
One of my favourite learning communities that I have the privilege of being a part of here at Holy Blossom is the “Lishma: Jewish Learning Collective”. We are a community of learners in our 20s and 30s that consist of seasoned scholars as well as folks who are brand new to the pursuit of life-long Jewish education. This collective is presented in partnership by Holy Blossom Temple, Annex Shul, BASE, UJA Genesis, Miles Nadal JCC, and Beth Tzedec.
With community members representing different denominations, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and levels of physical and mental ability, this is one of the most inclusive spaces I have ever belonged to. The model goes like this:
Lishma hosts at least three semesters during the year and each semester consists of three different class options running concurrently:
- Hands-On Track; applied Jewish learning
- Judaism and Modernity Track; Judaism through a contemporary lens
- Text and Context Track; in-depth, expertly-led text study.
Each class runs for six weeks and is taught by a local Jewish community member, ranging anywhere from rabbis to social workers to amateur chefs. During the covid-19 pandemic, we moved this model online and have sold out every seat of every class! It is an incredible achievement that perfectly illustrates the desire of young Jewish professionals to engage in meaningful learning and community building.
I am excited to be offering a text-based course during our upcoming semester (beginning on April 21st) in which we will be exploring Pirkei Avot as well as a new publication entitled “The Illustrated Pirkei Avot” by Jessica Tamar Deutsch. I have even invited Jessica to guest lecture one of the six sessions and share some of her wisdom and writing process. This is still in the works, but promises to be an engaging and enriching course!
While we are committed to creating an inclusive space for all students, this learning collective is specifically designed for Jewish young adults. Many of the members of Holy Blossom’s YAD (Young Adult Division) are woven into the fabric of the Lishma community. If you are interested in exploring this option or know someone who may want to get involved, please connect with me at [email protected] or check out the Lishma website at lishma.ca.
I believe that good learning, and specifically Torah study, should be transformative. Meaning, that the material that we engage with changes us in some way; widening our perspective, challenging theological conceptions, or even inspiring us to change our behaviours. While “Torah Lishma” literally means Torah study for its own sake, I find that being in the Lishma community offers so much more than simply learning for learning’s sake. It offers a sense of growth, outlets for curiosity, camaraderie, an inclusive spirit, and much more.
Learning together as a community. Holy Blossom does this well. From our Little Blossoms to our members more advanced in years, we are committed to being a congregation of life-long learners. Our involvement as a partner organization of Lishma not only provides our YAD members with enriching educational opportunities, it also further establishes Holy Blossom as a community that lives out its stated values.
“Say not, ‘When I shall have leisure I shall study’; perhaps you will not have leisure!” – Pirkei Avot 2:4
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
We will remember them.
(For the Fallen – Laurence Binyon)
Lest we forget, on this Remembrance Day, we give our heartfelt thanks to all the women and men who have served and continue to serve the Canadian Armed Forces. The freedom and security that we enjoy each day as citizens of this great nation are made possible by the sacrifices of our brave service people. As is true with almost every event since March, this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies have looked and felt different due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we have not allowed our necessity to remain physically distant hinder our commitments to honouring our fallen heroes. One of the most powerful tributes I witnessed was a video published by The Royal Canadian Legion. I hope you will join me in watching this video and taking part in a moment of silence.
I would also like to share with you, the stirring words of Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, who wrote this prayer for the members of the armed forces:
Our God and God of our ancestors, watch over those who defend our nation. Shield them from harm and guide them in all their pursuits. Grant their commanders’ wisdom and discernment in their time of preparation and on the battlefield. May the loss of life for any of Your creations be avoided. Grant healing to those who are wounded and safe redemption to those who fall into enemy hands. For those who have lost their lives, grant consolation and Your presence to those who were close to them. We also ask that You stand with our Prime Minister and all our military leaders. Guide them in their decision making so that Your will is implanted within their minds. May it be Your will that world hostilities come to a rapid end and that those in service are returned safely to their families. We pray that freedom will dawn for the oppressed and fervently we hope that the vision of Your prophet will come to be: “Let nation not lift up sword against nation nor learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) May this vision come to pass speedily and in our day. Together we say: Amen.
Holy Blossom has within its fold many members, past and present, who served our country faithfully. Today we honour each of them and make a commitment to remembering their stories. This Remembrance Day, we call to mind the service of Rabbi Jacob Eisen (z”l), who before serving as an Associate Rabbi at Holy Blossom in 1954-1961, served as Senior Chaplin in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. We remember Rabbi Eisen with gratitude and admiration.
Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protégera nos foyers et nos droits.
Your valour, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and our rights. . . .
God keep our land glorious and free!
 For Members of the Armed Forces, by Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, adapted. rabbinicalassembly.org/story/prayer-americas-military-personnel. Used by permission.
Two Years After Pittsburgh
Yesterday, Jews around the world marked the second yahrzeit of the victims of Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. I will forever have the images of this hateful act seared in my memory; the tears that my wife and I shed in mourning and fear. For all communities of faith, this attack represented a shift in our sense of security in our houses of worship.
In a recent article published in the Jerusalem Times my fellow rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Natalie Shribman, described the community she grew up in, saying, “Pittsburgh kind of helped me become a Jewish person because it was so easy to find Judaism,” she said. “It was just so welcoming to be there.” This welcoming spirit and accepting of others was part of the reason why Tree of Life was chosen as a target. Their work with refugees with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) made them visible to an invisible threat. After this attack, instances of anti-Semitic hate crimes hit a record high in the United States. We have also felt this rise in these behaviors in our own community.
In the midst of loss and pain, we are able to find connection. Last year, Holy Blossom planted a tree in honour of Joyce Fineberg, one of the victims of this hatred who grew up in our community. It is just a small illustration of how our tribe, the Jewish people, remains connected across countries and continents. That while we look, pray, and gather in different ways, we remain one people.
There are no quick solutions to the heavy fear that permeates our North American Jewish community. In times of turmoil, we often turn to the wisdom of Torah. This week, our tradition demands of us to “Lech Lecha ” to Go Forth. This call to leave, to go, is our own call to be active. To quote a familiar name, Rabbi Michael Satz writes, “What can we do in memory of people like Lori or Joyce Fienberg, a woman who grew up at Holy Blossom and was killed at her synagogue in Pittsburgh? Live Jewishly. Unabashedly Jewish.”
We will not let the memories of those killed at Tree of Life to senseless violence be forgotten. Whether this means attending a service, baking challah for the first time in months, or reaching out to an old friend – make time this week to perform a ‘radical’ act of love that will strengthen our Jewish community in response to those who continue to try to break it apart. We honour the victims of this terror by continuing their work. The Canadian counterpart to HIAS is the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society (JIAS)
For more information about this incredibly organization, please click here.
In the first few weeks of becoming a father, I have found that I never really know what time it is. Did the baby feed 5 minutes ago or has it been hours? The sun is down… should we be getting in bed soon or should I be making coffee? To a new parent, time is an elusive construct that barely exists. In the last few months, many people have expressed how challenging it can be to keep track of the days. Have we been living with this pandemic for 4 months, 7 months or what seems likes years? It is in these moments where we can rely on the Jewish calendar to keep us grounded.
Shabbat has always been a constant for our people. In the words of the pre-state Zionist thinker, Echad Ha’am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” This statement is perhaps more true today than when he penned it. I am also incredibly moved by the words of Rabbi David Polish, who writes:
Where has this week vanished?
Is it lost forever? Will I ever recover anything from it?
The Joy of life, the unexpected victory,
The realized hope, the task accomplished?
Will I ever be able to banish the memory of pain,
the sting of defeat, the heaviness of boredom?
On this day let me keep for a while what must drift away.
On this day let me be free of the burdens that must return.
On this day, Shabbat, abide.
And now Shabbat has come,
Can it help me to withdraw for a while
From the flight of time?
Can it contain the retreat of the hours and days from the grasp of a frantic life?
When all days abandon me, Shabbat, abide.
Let me learn to pause, if only for this day.
Let me find peace on this day.
Let me enter into a quiet world this day.
On this day, Shabbat, abide.
One of the great pleasures of being a Jewish person is celebrating together. Whether that means attending a Zoom wedding or showing up for a virtual Shabbat service. As one of Holy Blossom’s newest young families, I am so excited to take part in the incredible learning and worship opportunities that Holy B has to offer. If you are interested in joining or know a young family who might want to be included, please take a look at the links below for all the upcoming events:
Looking forward to seeing you there!
Holy Blossom Temple has long been considered a leader in the Reform Zionist world. Our clergy and our members are comprised of אוהבי ישראל– Lovers of Israel. Not only do we support the State of Israel, but we are also committed partners to the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). With the Reform Movement in Israel is facing significant struggles brought on by the Covid-19 Pandemic, now is the time for us to stand up and show our colours. It is with great excitement that I share the news that the IMPJ is on verge of publishing the new Israeli Reform Siddur, titled ‘Tfillat HaAdam’ – the prayer of all humankind.
This Siddur is the result of a process of years of study, debate and discussion led by the editors, Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx and Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa, along with input from many rabbis, cantors, scholars and lay leaders of the Israel Reform Movement. The Siddur includes a wide variety of creative works from Israeli and Jewish sources. It succeeds in preserving traditional prayers while simultaneously offering updated liturgy and texts based on today’s attitudes towards egalitarianism and gender and sensitivity to the variety of views that make up our pluralistic movement.
This achievement reflects the exponential growth of the Israel Reform Movement, which has doubled its congregational presence in Israel in the last decade and highlights the burst of creativity in liturgy and music that has accompanied this progress. In this final stage of publishing, the IMPJ invited congregations in Israel and worldwide to support this important step of nurturing a Reform presence in Israel through a new Siddur – ‘Tfillat HaAdam’.
It is with great pride and gratitude that we can announce, Holy Blossom Temple has made a generous donation to the IMPJ to support the cost of publishing, printing, and distributing the new siddur. This charitable giving will be recognized in the acknowledgment pages as well as enable the movement to publish an English-Hebrew version of ‘Tfillat HaAdam’ in the coming year. The Siddur will be printed with a leading Israeli publishing house and will be sold in bookstores throughout the country and directly to IMPJ congregations. On “Shabbat Bereshit”, October 16th-17,2020, the Tfillat HaAdam will be celebrated and dedicated in congregations throughout Israel.
Holy Blossom’s participation in this project was made possible by the generosity of Carole and Jay Sterling, Les and Bev Rothschild, and Joan Garson and David Baskin. On behalf of the entire Holy Blossom community, we thank you for this gift that helps to reinforce the bridge from Canada to Israel. In an act of solidarity of your leadership and charitable giving, each of the three rabbis at Holy Blossom also made financial contributions to this endeavour. We thank you for enabling Holy Blossom to be among the congregations that are supporting this historic publication.
Thanks to the leadership of Rabbi Splansky, we can also share the good news that one of the siddur’s chief editors, Professor Rabbi Dalia Marx, accepted an invitation to teach us at Holy Blossom about the process of developing the siddur. It will be fascinating to learn about the theological and even political decisions that went into creating its content. We will share the information for that event in the coming months.
As Holy Blossom enters its centennial year as a Reform congregation, this commitment to Reform Judaism in Israel could not have arrived at a more perfect moment in our history. I hope that you take pride in our community’s commitment to the IMPJ and supporting religious pluralism in the State of Israel. While donating to a siddur publication may feel like just a small way to push forward our movement, we can learn from the words of Rabbi Israel Bal Shem Tov, who said “When you hold a part of the essence, you hold all of it.”
Wishing you and your families an early Shanah Tovah U’metukah!
He hadn’t spoken to his father in years, ever since he left the kibbutz in search of his religious roots. When Ran’s father suffered a sudden heart attack, he returns to the kibbutz filled with complicated emotions. Driving a rickety Hasidic Van, which breaks down along the way, Ran is anxious about the impending encounter with his father and the options for reconciliation. To see how this tale concludes, join us next week for a special screening of the Israeli short-film, “Tateh”.
This Tuesday, August 18th, we have an opportunity to connect with the Israeli Reform Movement in a very intimate way. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Holy Blossom Sisterhood, DDA-WZO and CZF, we will be joining together with members of our sister congregation in Israel, Kehilat Hashachar for an afternoon of film and cultural sharing. We will gather together online to screen an Israeli short-film, then have an opportunity to discuss in zoom breakout rooms. This is the second time our communities are coming together in this way, and we hope to continue doing so moving forward.
Please register ahead by clicking here.
Thanks to our sisterhoods, Holy Blossom and Kehilat Hashachar are connected through a program called Domim. The Domim-aLike Program creates real sisterhood ties to Israel by pairing Reform Jewish congregations in Israel with congregations around the world. To learn more about Holy Blossom’s connection to Kehilat Hashachar and for an incredible video showcasing our partnership, please follow this link.
We are making a commitment to connecting our communities more regularly and with deep meaning. While the short-film offers so much for us to unpack together about religion, Israel, and family dynamics, the true goal of our program is to build interpersonal connections and bridges between our congregations.
With this connection in mind, I am honoured to announce that the rabbi of Kehilat Hashachar, Rabbi Dalia Tibon, will be delivering the Shabbat Morning sermon at Holy Blossom on Saturday, August 22nd. We invite you to pray with us every Shabbat, and we especially hope that you will be with us as we learn from Rabbi Tibon. We hope to see you for the short-film event and Shabbat sermon next week!
“The Month of Av Stands Alone”
Chodesh Tov! Today we mark the beginning of the month of Av, about which the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a, states that “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.” Why? Next week, on the ninth day of the month, the Jewish people commemorate Tisha b’Av, a day set aside for fasting and mourning the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. However, as Liberal Judaism does not assign a central religious role to the ancient Temple, mourning the destruction of the Temple may not be particularly meaningful for us. In modern times, many Reform Jews understand Tisha b’Av as a day to remember the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history and to reflect on the suffering that still occurs in our world.
The date itself, tradition teaches, is the anniversary of all kinds of other atrocities, from Crusades to the Expulsion from Spain to the Chmielnicki massacre in Poland in the 17th century to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto during the last century. Tisha b’Av is a dark day. It’s also a darkness which contains within it the seeds of light and redemption. This sentiment is beautifully captured by the poetic words of Suzanne Sabransky, in a poem entitled, “The Month of Av Stands Alone”.
The Month of Av Stands Alone
In all of our history,
With all that we have been through,
The month of Av stands alone…
Going back to the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple,
Back even before that,
Back to a time that we stood
Gazing upon the promised land,
Afraid to enter,
Afraid of what we had been told,
Ever since that trial of faith,
Av has stood alone…
The litany of evils is long and harsh,
The list of wrongs done to us is cruel
The worst of things continue even today.
Tisha B’Av is a day we fast,
A day we mourn,
A day we remember.
Tisha B’Av calls to us,
With echoing voices from long ago,
Voices lost as sword upon sword fell.
Yet, those voices call with a message,
A message of strength not loss,
Av does indeed stand alone…
If I were to tell of all we have lost
If I were to recount the destruction
If I were to enumerate the horrors,
Relive all the pain and the tears,
I would be telling you truth,
But I would be promoting a lie.
You see there is always another side,
To every story, every tale
Every detail and every recounting,
Because in the telling of what we mourn,
We must also find reason to celebrate,
A reason to find joy in knowing we survive.
In all of our history,
With all that we have been through,
The month of Av does indeed stand alone…
And so today, as we fast and pray,
As we allow ourselves to mourn the losses,
We must also remember to celebrate…
We must acknowledge the miracle of survival,
Despite the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple,
Despite the ovens, and rampant antisemitism,
Despite all of that and so much more
We, stand here today…
We stand ready and able to testify,
To the truth of our survival,
To the proof that Adonai shelters us,
Even through the most devastating of storms.
And that is why,
The month of Av,
Has and always will,
A holiday that expresses the soul of the Jewish people; a day of darkness paired with a sense of hope. The Talmud says, “When the month of Av enters, one should decrease in joy.” The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira (1861-1937), said that, though the Talmud says to “decrease in joy,” it should be read, “decrease…in joy.” In other words, though it is proper to mourn, even in that mourning, we should do so joyously, knowing that better times are ahead.
I hope you will join Cantor Rosen and me for shacharit services the morning of Tisha b’Av, Thursday, July 30, where we will come together as a community to pray, grieve, chant sections of Eicha – Lamentations, and learn.
For a wonderful short video about Tisha b’Av, its history and rituals, please follow this link.
Israeli Books Go Live
What do silent children and talking animals have in common? It may not seem like much, but perhaps we can explore the connections later this month as Holy Blossom’s Israel Engagement Committee launches its summer book club! The first book we will be reading in our “Israeli Books Go Live” group will dive into the magical world of Etgar Keret and is overflowing with absurdity, humour, sadness, and compassion.
This July, escape into an incredible collection of the most extremely short of short stories; Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door. In August, join us as we adventure into pre-state Israel, with Matti Friedman’s easy read, Spies of No Country. We will be meeting virtually on the last Wednesday of the month; BYOB! (Bring your own book!) For more information about this new initiative, please follow the link below.
Born in Israel to Holocaust survivors in 1967, Etgar Keret is known for his extremely short stories, graphic novels, and scriptwriting for film and television. His work has influenced many writers of his generation as well as bringing a renewed surge in popularity for the short story form in Israel. Keret is the recipient of numerous awards including the Prime Minister’s award for literature, the Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Prize, the Charles Bronfman Prize, the Sapir Prize for Literature, and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. Rarely extending beyond three or four pages, the stories found in “Suddenly a Knock at the Door” offers a window into a surreal world that is at once funny, sad and complex.
To further pique your interest, here is an excerpt from one of the short stories found in Suddenly, A Knock at the Door:
“Tell me a story,” the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must say, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son. That was a year ago. I told him something about a fairy and a ferret–I don’t even remember what exactly–and within two minutes he was fast asleep. But the situation is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.
Whether you read from cover to cover, or only have time for a few short stories, all are welcome to join “Israeli Books Go Live” for our first gathering on July 29, at 7:30 pm.
Rabbi in the Wild
Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone. May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass and all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer. (Nachman of Bratzlav, Maggid Sichot, 48).
Last week, I was fortunate enough to load my car up with camping gear and head out into one of Ontario’s stunning provincial parks. After a few hours on two-lane highways and long winding country roads, Katie and I arrived at Bon Echo park prepared for a week of wilderness living. Now I understand that back-country camping (with a partner who is in their third trimester) is not necessarily everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday; and honestly, you are right! This was never meant to be a relaxing trip, but rather, a chance to disconnect with the technological world and restore a sense of balance. Our temporary home, nestled amongst the trees that lined an elegant glacial lake, provided us with an opportunity to connect with a power much greater than our laptops could ever provide.
I have always felt an incredible restorative power when spending time in nature. Whether it is a short walk through the Beltline on a Shabbat afternoon or an extended stay at a campsite on Joe Perry Lake, the natural environment can provide a sense of calm, of beauty, and of wonder. Nature can make us pause, reflect, and replenish. Covid-19 has forced so much change in our lives. We are coping with it all the best we can, though, after over three months in lockdown, many of us are really struggling. For me, there was no better remedy for stress and anxiety than the great Canadian outdoors! As the weather continues to get nicer, and as we anticipate the lifting of certain restrictions this week, I hope you will be able to find some time for self-care and solace in nature. A camping trip may not be in the picture, but even if for only an hour you find yourself on one of Toronto’s beautiful walking trails, I encourage you to let your soul be stirred. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might say, allow yourself to find wonder in the world!
“Wonder, not doubt, is the beginning of knowledge…Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…[We should] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
This sentiment is powerful, and of course, does not capture the complete picture. Facing wonder in nature is a religious experience that nourishes the soul, and while this may positively affect our mental well-being, we know that the field of mental health is significantly more complex than simply saying “Go enjoy the outdoors…”
On Monday evening, June 22nd, the Luke Sklar Mental Health Initiative at Holy Blossom hosted a panel of mental health professionals discussing the topic of “Anxiety in the Time of Covid.” I have heard from a number of participants that they found this evening to be profoundly grounding; providing both information as well as a handful of wonderful tools for coping with anxiousness. If you would like to watch the event, please follow this link to find a recording. You will also find on this page a wonderful list of mental health resources compiled by the Luke Sklar Mental Health Initiative that you or a loved one might find helpful. Please know that if you are struggling, we are here for you! Asking for help is not always easy, but you belong to a community of individuals who will answer your call! These are not easy times, but we will get through it together.
In his poem, “God Everywhere,” one of the great Torah commentators, Abraham ibn Ezra, writes:
“Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth or to the heavens, I see You in the field of stars. I see You in the yield of the land, in every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy Name.”
In the coming weeks and months, may you too find divinity in the beauty of our natural world. In a time when we rely on technology for just about everything, try to make space for yourself to unplug from the computer and connect with God’s creation.