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From the Desk of Rabbi Jana

Also See: B'MAKOM - RABBI JANA'S BLOG 

 

November 2020

Thankful for the Journey

 Ever since Abraham and Sarah - who we read about in the Torah portions that are at the beginning of November this year - it seems to be the Jewish way to go into the unknown. I think it is part of what motivates us to find new ways to deal with things in science and art, for example. Being strangers in a strange land is not just about not being in the Promised Land, it is about being in some place or in some situation that we have not seen before – or perhaps no one has seen before. In Jewish history I am sure that you
can think of a number of examples. We are wandering Jews. Sometimes we physically wander. Sometimes our minds wander. This year we have experienced many examples of journeying in
the unknown.

For most of us, the journey has not been one of miles, because of the pandemic which makes travel less safe, and staying home safer. Abraham’s unknown journey was about going. Our unknown is about staying. Like Abraham, we did not get to prepare for it. We just do it.

There is something wonderful about life being a journey. There is something holy about going into the unknown. We have seen that being unprepared does not mean that you are clueless in a new situation. Abraham may have left what he knew behind, but when he was confronted with many new situations he came up with creative ways of dealing with them – and so have we.

Being Jewish we know, beginning with Abraham, we have a place that is ours. But beginning with Abraham we know that we do not have to be in a specific place to continue to be who we are. We have also learned that we are obligated to take care of each other and help each other – especially when our journeys lead us through the unknown.

This year there has been a lot of conflict between people. Some of it is triggered by attitudes about the pandemic, some of it is about political perspectives, and there are a number of other examples. Disagreeing with others is not uncommon, and there are even a number of examples in the Torah. However, even when we disagree, we are still commanded to take care of each other. It is not always easy. Part of what I love about B’nai Zion is that we do take care of each other. Part of what I love about being Jewish is that we have the ethical and moral foundation of the Torah to guide us – even into the unknown.

In America, this month we begin with elections – which almost always cause conflicts. Before the month is over, however, there is Thanksgiving. We need to take a moment to find the things that we are thankful for – in the world, in our families, in ourselves, in our lives. Our journey should be a shared experience – we can find ways to be thankful and be safe, to journey and stay home; to disagree but still take care of each other; to help each other through the unknown.

May we always find a way, when asked,
“Where are you in your journey?” to proudly reply:
 “
Hineni’ - ‘Here I am’ - ‘ready for the unknown.’”

  Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


October 2020

What Not to Say

 

Holy days are filled with tradition - which means keeping things the same as they were. Sometimes even introducing a new - even wonderful - melody can make people feel like something is missing. This year even the traditional things were different. It has been a very unusual and difficult year. The Rabbis all over the world tried to “reimagine” what the holy days would be like when we should not be gathering in person, especially when it usually means filling up our sacred space. Most of the Jewish congregations (certainly the Reform congregations) in the world were online only. One of the suggestions was to be considerate of “screen time” and to make the online services shorter. For a moment I thought that the opposite was true: I have seen many people sit through movies that are much longer than services, so I believe people can sit and watch that long, but I took the advice. I may never feel comfortable about it, but I can promise that I tried to keep the service meaningful, keep most of the traditional things that people expect, and choose inspiring selections so that everyone “participating”/watching would feel the Awe of the Days of Awe.

The most time-consuming parts of preparing services is choosing what to include and then turning it into on-screen words. Usually at the beginning of every High Holy Day service I explain that there will be a lot of standing, and the Ark will be open more than usual. It felt very awkward to have an open Ark on screen, when I knew that many people would be watching on their TV, and not want to stand very much (if at all). Most congregations removed the marching of the Torah scroll for the Torah service - no one is there to kiss it, or it isn’t actually near you for you to kiss. Those are just some examples of what I felt weird about not doing.

Prayers, songs and service parts weren’t the only things that I wound up not doing. It was very strange to be doing sermons without a congregation in front of me: to see people smile, or grimace, or at least shake their head one way or the other. 5780 has been a year filled with horrible things, and if you looked at my sermon ideas notes from months ago, you would have seen that I expected to talk about some of them: natural disasters, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, problems in Israel, hunger, problems in our local community, and more. Part of what I love about being Jewish is that we care. Part of what I love about the High Holy Days is that we are being intentional about renewing our motivation to Tikkun Olam - to repair what is broken about the world. I did not say those things out loud, although I hope that you heard that throughout the services, they are constantly in the forefront.

I did try to use the Holy Days - traditions, the liturgy and the Torah portions about being holy - to address some of what I have been hearing the most from congregants - the frustration of consequences of being in a pandemic. It was so powerful to me to hear every passage repeating that “we are in this together.” We stand together - even those not standing physically together (that was specifically what the Torah portion said!). We are confessing together. We are commanded to be holy and being holy together. As isolated as we each are feeling after months of staying separated from each other, we are still always together.

Last month we even tried to see each other in person - with the awesome Shofar Blast at B’nai Zion. It was fun, and it was wonderful to see people. But even then, most people stayed away. It did not feel like we were abandoned when everyone did not show up physically to be present. We felt the strength of everyone who is usually with us to hear the shofar, and even those who are not always with us, but who care.

I hope that you have seen it, I also tried to “come to you” by giving you a small “Shofar Blaster” program that lets you choose a shofar and choose a blast, and has me blasting the shofar anywhere you are and any time you want. This month you can now also do a “Lulav Shake” anywhere any time. You can find these programs on the BZ website or my HebrewDoc.com website (look for Holiday Resources).

Often the things that are not said can be a sign of weakness - when someone tells a racial joke, and no one speaks up to protest, for example. The things that I did not say were intended to help your experience. I pray that it worked. I pray that the experts battling the COVID-19 virus will continue to make progress, so that we can gather in person safely soon. We are trying more opportunities to gather outside, and still trying to offer online options.

This year during the beginning of October, we are still celebrating Holy Days of Tishrei, so we wish each other :
 
חַג שָׂמֵחַ hag sameah or יום־טובֿ  גוט Good Yontiff - May you have good, happy holy days, and stay safe and healthy!

 Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


September 2020

Days of Awe

We are currently literally in an awesome time. We are beginning a new year, which means new hope for new possibilities. We spend this days of Awe reflecting, correcting, improving. These days and processes began for us already. Each day we have been progressing toward new goals.

Traditionally it is an interesting liturgical time. We feel very much the weight of the awesomeness as a personal journey. Yet we are used to being together, and announcing -out loud as a community - the things that we want to change, our hopes and our strategies, our failures, our moments of poor judgment, and our intentions to improve.

On one hand it seems more humiliating to recount our failures in public, but on the other hand it strengthens us, because we are not alone, and we help others as well. Everyone around us is recognizing ways they want to improve. Even though the work is something we do as individuals, it feels easier knowing that we are not alone.

The Days of Awe can mean “awesome,” and can fill us with hope and direction- but Awe can also mean “awful,” or even full of “dread.” We enter this new year with both of these meanings filling the air we breathe, and affecting our spirits and our bodies.

This year we pray together - but very much as individuals. In order to protect each other, we are choosing to keep
a distance. It has been a blessing that even though we are not in the same place, we feel the togetherness and power of everyone being in this together. We each are playing our part to protect each other, and take care of each other.

I have been working with a number of congregants and the Board to find creative ways to make the awful days into awesome days. The most obvious one is that we will not be worshiping in the same building. If we did the research tells us that we would not be able to sing or blow the shofar in the space where we have people. Those
are primary ways to spread the virus. If we have services online, we can sing, we can blow the shofar, we can experience more of the awesome aspects of the Holy Days.

We have created an opportunity to listen to the Shofar in person. Sunday, September 13 congregants are invited
to park in the driveway in the front of B’nai Zion - facing Southfield. Shofar blowers will stand on the sidewalk
in front of the building, and everyone will hear awesome blasts. This will also be an opportunity for congregants
to get special packages being prepared by the Sisterhood (and Religious School for those families). If you cannot come when we are blowing Shofar, please let us know so that you can either pick up your package or we can try
to get someone to get it to you - or we can send it to you. Online services will continue to have the words online, but if you want to borrow a Machzor, let the office know, and we can arrange that. The Machzor we have been using and the new Reform Machzor are both available for free online for these unusual Holy Days. The links are on the B’nai Zion High Holy Day Resources page.

Most congregations are having services online. You may even want to worship at a different congregation - without leaving home. (Note that many congregations that typically require tickets may still require that you pay for a “ticket” to be able to access their services. B’nai Zion does not require tickets.) You may want to invite your friends and family to worship virtually with you at B’nai Zion.

In addition to getting a High Holy Day package to make these Holy Days meaningful in new ways, and a sidewalk Shofar Blast, I have a few other imaginative ways that I will be sharing with you for this unique year.

Please let me know if you can help: Can you blow Shofar at our Sidewalk Blast? Can you deliver packages? Can you read (English or Hebrew) for our online services (some will be pre-recorded). Can you call folks who will not be able to worship with us online, so that they do not get left behind these Holy Days?

It is awesome that we have been able to protect our congregants so well this year. It is awful to suffer from this virus. Thank you for allowing us to join you in your homes - virtually - to worship and make this year awesome.

In addition to hoping that we all get written and sealed for a good year, I pray that we are all written and sealed
for a healthy and joyful year.

Last month I closed with a Ladino phrase wishing you health. This month I will switch to Yiddish:
 
זײַ געזונט zay gezunt (be healthy!)

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti

 


August 2020

Can You Believe It?

The month of August is a powerful, inspiring month if we look at the Jewish calendar. Some things are surprising - especially this year.

At the beginning of August, on the full moon, the Talmud teaches us that we celebrate a happy, love-filled holiday called Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av). It was like an ancient dating app - young, single women would wear simple white clothing, and go to the fields and dance - and the young, single men who would show up to watch could then be chosen by the women. At the time it was considered the happiest holiday on the calendar. Actually, it shared that distinction with one other holiday that included the white clothes, dancing, and selecting spouses: Yom Kippur.

I find it difficult to believe that Yom Kippur was considered the happiest holiday, and that it included frolicking.

I also find it difficult to imagine that for thousands of years the only way we knew to worship was to bring our animals and first harvested produce to the Temple in Jerusalem, and used them as offerings. I find it difficult to believe that worshipping with words was the sad compromise for a people who could no longer go to the Temple.

We love going to our synagogue to worship with words - and worship with friends and family. It is difficult to believe that it has been months since we were able to do that.

It is almost half a year ago when we couldn’t believe that we would not be able to gather at the table together for Passover Seders.

Most of us have never missed going to a Seder, or a High Holy Day service. Never. In our whole lives. That includes some of us who are around a decade old, or closer to a century old.

There have been a number of times in Jewish history when history got in the way of our doing things the way we always had. Sometimes we changed the way we did things in permanent ways. I, for one, am not unhappy that we do not worship by killing and burning baby animals as offerings. But I do love what has become our alternate way of worship: gathering together and sharing inspirational words. I love that we use the words that have been used for thousands of years, and can be heard in every synagogue anywhere in the world.

This year, although it was difficult to believe we could, we are finding alternate ways to worship, even for our holiest days. On Shabbat we have become somewhat famous for our awesome, creative online services. We have included people worshiping with us from all around the world. Everyone who joins us has found hope and inspiration - and even joy - during this difficult time.

If you would have told me last year at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that there would be a pandemic this year, that most of our congregation was especially vulnerable, that the people we most rely on - our elders - would be leading us by staying home - that anything could have kept us from gathering for services (or celebrations, or funerals) I don’t think I would have believed you.

We have all heard stories about how resourceful the Jewish people have been at being able to find ways to keep commandments, despite all odds: from using potato scraps for chanukiyot during the Shoah, to finding words for worship instead of animal offerings. I believe that we are wise and resourceful. I believe that the U.S. and Israel (and many other countries) are working hard to find a way to make this world safe from this virus, and that we will have more normal holy days soon. I also believe that until then, to make sure that we are keeping the commandment of “Pikuach Nefesh” (protecting life) this year will continue to be a year like none other. We will do everything we can to stay safe - and to be creative about finding inspiring ways to worship and fulfill Mitzvot.

I will conclude in new Jewish way. (Not so difficult to believe): My salutation (which comes from the word for “health”) will be wishing you health. I thought about using the Jewish expression, “You should live and be well.” Or the Yiddish, gey gezunterheyt (“go in health”). Instead I will use this Ladino expression, which is a lovely way to say, “farewell” and means, “May you be healthy and strong!” (pronounced: SA-no ee REZ-yo).

Sano i rezio! סאנו אי ריזייו

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


July 2020

Freedom / Independence

The American calendar in July begins with a celebration of our Independence. Since the battles to achieve independence happened almost 250 years ago, it is sometimes difficult to remember the struggles. It is great that we remember to be thankful for our freedoms.

Jewish history of gaining independence is significantly longer. Some scholars teach that Adam and Eve gained independence when they left Gan Eden גן עדן (the Garden of Eden). We still think that part of Independence is having to make it on our own. In the Creation story the next phase of independence is when it says that we leave our parents and cling to our “Ezer K’negdo” עזר כנגדו (partner). In these stories we humans are independent - need to take care of ourselves - but we get to do it with someone else.

There are many other examples, but arguably the most significant example of gaining our freedom and independence is when we were freed from slavery, and stood together in the wilderness and at Mount Sinai.

I love that Jewish tradition- from the very beginning of existence - values independence as including an element of dependence. Throughout Jewish tradition we are taught that we need to take care of each other.

The fact that we recognize that we need each other - even when we are independent -  is especially complicated now that we are taking care of each other and ourselves by staying away from each other.

We are blessed to live in a time when even if we are alone, we can call or zoom each other. We are not disconnected from each other or from the world just because we need to be physically separated from each other.

Unfortunately many people are gaining a horrible freedom: because they are losing jobs as a consequence of this pandemic.

Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh b’zeh:  כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה All Israel is responsible for one another. Please let us know what your status is.

For everyone: Do you need anything? Can you help others? Are you checking in on at least one other person?

As you know, one small way that I am trying to bring comfort is by having our “Stay at Home” Shabbat services. When we include “surprise” readers, if feels like people are checking in on us, and we get to check in on them. We are having Zoom Oneg Shabbat times when we have been getting to meet new people and see some people who we haven’t seen for a while - sometimes because they moved away, but can easily join us in this format.

If you do not have access to internet, and want to appreciate these services, contact me about other ways for you to watch - can you play a DVD, for example? I can send you a DVD with services. Can you make a phone call? You can join the Zoom gatherings.

Our congregation has mostly people in the high risk categories. As much as we love to get together - and you know that I am a people-person - it is still safest if we are not gathering. The Board and I are monitoring the situation all the time. For this month we still are not meeting in person for services. You are welcome to contact me or our president, Kathy to let us know how you feel about what we are doing to try to meet the needs of the congregation. Of course, we are especially keeping an eye on what we should do for High Holy Days. We will keep you informed. We are in this together - even if we are staying apart.

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


June 2020

Numbers

I knew that people were reading my messages when a number of people recently each said: “Well, Rabbi, we can stop counting – Shavuot is here.” I loved that people knew that we were counting the days and weeks until we got to the holy day of Shavuot. We stood together at Mount Sinai and received the Torah together.

I also knew that we are still counting. Right now we are counting the days and weeks that we have been in confinement. We are counting the number of people who are allowed to be in the same place together. We are counting the number of feet we need to stay away from each other in order to protect each other.

Counting often occurred in Torah when something big happened to the Children of Israel, and we needed to re-group and see how many we will be to be able to carry on.

We are still in the middle of the pandemic. We do not have a cure. We are not yet at a stage when we can count how many survivors will be carrying on. Each week we see numbers of how many have survived, but we also see numbers increasing for have been infected, and how many have died. We use these numbers to find ways to try to keep our congregation safe.

In Hebrew the name of the Book of Numbers is “BaMidbar,” which does not mean numbers at all. It means “in the wilderness.” The book gives us glimpses into the years when we were living together in the wilderness after we were freed from slavery, and before we made it to the Promised Land. Much of our lives feel like a wilderness now too. It feels like we are in between the life we knew, and a new life – that we do not yet know. I spend a lot of my time with other clergy trying to imagine what that world could be like, since it will be OUR world, and we have the potential of “rebooting” life to be better. While we were in the wilderness we received the Torah. These laws make the Children of Israel the people we still are. An ethical people. People who care about each other and the world around us. By living life according to Torah we are a “light to the nations.” I strongly believe that by using the laws we have been given in Torah we can reboot our world into one of justice and loving-kindness.

The word in Hebrew for wilderness, “midbar” includes the Hebrew root for “speaking.” We need to keep speaking to each other. One of the things I realize is that millennia ago when we were in the wilderness we had each other. We were going through the awesome experiences together.

Today we are separated from each other – but only physically. We are supposed to keep space between us, but in many ways we are more together than we have ever been. We are all going through this together. We are not alone, even though we are separated.

Realizing how difficult it seemed to be away from each other, I started to have Shabbat services that included many people. A congregant recently said that when she is watching the YouTube services it feels like a slot machine – you never know who will show up next or what they will say. It’s not about gambling, but it is about hitting the jackpot.

I wanted everyone to know that we are all in this together. We are all here for each other. The wilderness experience was not a lonely experience – there were hundreds of thousands of us going through the same thing. Today the number is so much greater – the whole world is in this with us.

It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the blessings in our lives. When we leave this wilderness, will we have found a way to make this world more just and more compassionate  - for ourselves and for our neighbors - as the Torah says, “the strangers among us?” I am counting on it. Please continue to do your part to be counted among those who are taking care of yourselves, and each other.

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


May 2020

Take Two

In every generation we are obligated to feel that we, ourselves, left Egypt.” We relive it every year and try to remember how horrible slavery was by eating bitter things at the Seder. Obviously, no matter how bitter the taste is of the food we eat, it doesn’t really help us remember how it was to be a slave. We know that, so we tell the story, and try to remember what it felt like.

We do not know a lot about how it felt to be in the wilderness. What kind of tent did we live in so that we could quickly move when the pillar of smoke or fire moved? How many animals did we have with us? Was it desert, or did we stop at oases? How delicious was the manna?

I wonder about these things sometimes. I also wonder how well we got along with our neighbors. We must have been very aware that we were in this together. We were isolated from other people. We had a shared experience of slavery, of plagues, of walking through the sea on dry land… and of freedom.

This month the part that we are obligated to remember that we experienced was the counting of days. It was glorious to say that we have been free for one day, two days, three weeks and two days… Except that we did not know what was going to happen next. All we had to look at was the wilderness, and each other. We weren’t slaves, but we still had no direction or purpose.

I suspect that the initial excitement of being free wore off – at least a little. We used to have a routine of working every day. We knew what we had to do, we knew what our children were doing. It was difficult, but at least we knew our routine. It was familiar.

It is obvious that this year has helped us imagine that wilderness time – probably better than we ever realized we could. We are living in a time of uncertainty. Our routines aren’t just disrupted, they do not exist. We are counting days – three days, twelve days, three weeks and two days, and we don’t really know what we are counting about anymore.

It is not surprising that many of us wish we could go back to the old days – just like when we were in the wilderness and said we wished we were back in Egypt – even the food was better when we were there. At least we knew what to expect, more or less. Just because we can count how far we have come, at some points we are not comforted by the numbers getting bigger every day, because we don’t know exactly where we are going.

I am not suggesting that we will find our Sinai – and finally get instructions at 49 days / seven times seven weeks after we left our old lives behind. I am not saying that this experience is a parallel of our previous experience. (Although it would be cool if G-d decided to “renew our vows” at 49 days this year.)

I have been meeting with clergy across the state over the past few weeks. Everyone with Abraham as their Patriarch sees these parallels. We all are hoping that part of this experience will include us working together to find a better world – a “Promised Land” for all of us to live better lives in the future. Where people have no internet to be able to attend meetings and school, we will find a way to get them internet. For people who have lost their jobs, we will find a way to get them jobs. For people who rely on food magically appearing on supermarket shelves – we will at least appreciate those supermarkets more, and possibly learn to make our own food more often, and share with others.

Do you have a vision of what we might find when we leave this wilderness?

I will keep counting, and keep looking for rainbows, and listening to the still, small voice within, now that the world has gotten quieter. I will also keep trying to reach out and find ways to be together even while we are staying apart.

I hope that this year’s experience for all of us will be one of going from freedom and Passover to the joy of receiving Torah and new instructions about how to live a better life. I am counting on it.

Maybe we have a cure… take two tablets...

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


April 2020

Counting on Freedom

As we prepare for Passover this year, we need to face the obvious questions: Why is this Passover Seder night different from all other nights?

On all other nights we are not quarantined. This Passover we are.

On all other nights we enjoy the company of those surrounding us. On this night we learn to use new technology to try to be with others.

On all other nights we can eat any kinds of vegetables. On this night, our maror - the vegetable that reminds us of bitter lives - was bought either braving a store with gloves and masks on, or picking it up curbside or having it delivered by someone we don’t know.

On all other Seder nights we wash our hands once without a blessing and once with a blessing. On this night we wash to ancient or modern tunes that make sure we wash - with soap - for at least twenty seconds.

On all other nights our salt water reminds us of tears we shed because our lives were hard as slaves. On this night we shed tears for those who are stricken with this awful plague. We shed tears for everyone who is sometimes afraid, or who must be alone.

Each Passover we re-live the glorious moments when we were freed from slavery and oppression. This Passover we have a new understanding of our ancestors who were slaves and did not know when they would be freed. I would like to think that somehow, even though they did not know when, they always had hope that they would be free. I do. I have hope that if we do our parts now, we will be free. I hope it will be soon.

Beginning the second night of Passover we count the Omer. We are taught that we count up, and not down. I now understand that in a new way. For one thing, I am already having a difficult time discerning how much time has passed since before we were to stay at home. For another, right now we are not sure how much longer we will stay at home. So we learn to count… up. We have been doing this nine days, which is one week and two days, 16 days - which are two weeks and two days. Each day and week we count is an accomplishment. And even though we do not know what the last day of our counting will be for this quarantine, we have hope that it will end. In fact, because we have already experienced freedom from oppression, we have even more confidence in our hope.

There are other things we do at a Seder that reminds me of what we are going through now. We sing and we tell stories. We say blessings, and acknowledge G-d’s role in our lives.

We learn to realize that we are so grateful to be alive. If we get to enjoy another day: Dayenu - it would be enough for us. If we get to talk to friends and family - Dayenu. If we get to laugh - Dayenu. If we sing - Dayenu. If we join our voices with others - Dayenu. If we know that what we do is helping others - Dayenu. If we find a renewed commitment to take care of this world - Dayenu. If we learn to appreciate the efforts of others more - Dayenu. If we take a moment to have a conversation with G-d - Dayenu!

If you have found yourself looking for new challenges, while staying at home, that might include riddles or mind games to occupy yourself alone or others with you - don’t forget the songs at the end of the Seder. Try the memory song about the only goat that got eaten by the cat. See if you can do it in one breath. Don’t forget the trivia song that challenges you to think of something that is one, and something that is two… and up to 13 or beyond. You do not have to stick to the answers in the Haggadah (but - spoiler alert - there are answers in the song if you want to use them).

I hope that you can have a Zissen Pesach - a sweet Passover. I hope that your life is filled with “Dayenu” moments I hope that we all stay safe, and get to gather together again soon.

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


March 2020

Dreams Come True

Purim is a great holiday – it is fun for everyone of any age. I know that here people smile when they think of Purim and appreciate the great carnival that the Jewish Federation sponsors each year. We all know what a great time the children have with everything from games like: tossing hamantaschen (bean bags) into Haman’s mouth, and the new “Whack a Haman” game where children run around competing with each other bopping lights on cones that we pretend is Haman popping up all over the place. There will be a giant inflatable bouncy thing, and there will be face painting. Adults come to watch the children have fun – but they also come for lunch and a time to visit. Most adults who do not have children in the Religious School now don’t even know the families with children. This is a great opportunity to get to know people from every age group, from both congregations – and even some Jewish folks who are not affiliated with either congregation. It is fun to see the children get dressed up in costumes – but, I think you will admit that when the adults get dressed up you can’t help but smile.

The carnival takes a lot of planning and people to make it a success. This year Rabbi Feivel is coordinating the event – he is the Programming Director at the Jewish Federation. There are a number of programs that he is coordinating. He is also helping to make dreams come true. There are a number of things that our community has wanted for awhile, and have not been able to turn into reality. He is working with young adults to program things for/with them. He is finding cultural, educational, musical programs to bring to the community. He is working with a Jewish Federation programming committee that includes the Rabbis from both congregations (Rabbi Jana and Rabbi Sydni) and two members from each congregation (Helaine Braunig and Leigh Anne Evensky from B’nai Zion and Karen Gordon and David Gross from Agudath Achim).

Our Jewish community is filled with many people who care, and love to participate in Jewish activities, and it is great to see new ways to make these dreams become reality.

This momentum has also helped inspire turning other dreams into reality. In recent weeks I finally made some of my dreams come true: For Shabbat Shirah we had a choir from a church come and share their music with us. (I am so thankful to have Adam Philley as our Music Director, and to have him bring his Chancel Choir to share their singing with us.) I do a lot of interfaith work in the community (this month I am speaking at three churches, and March 20 a Methodist Confirmation class will be joining us to experience our service). For a long time I have wanted to find ways for the congregation to experience some of what happens in other congregations in our community. I have long dreamed of inviting a pastor – and choir - to join us during Black History month – and this year I finally did it! I am also coordinating with a woman pastor to speak to us during Women’s History month. I plan to continue to try to arrange for monthly visits from people I hope you find interesting to share with us.

Another dream I had was to share my birthday with my congregational family. Usually I have taken advantage of my birthday, and taken off that weekend, grateful to congregants who would “cover” for me at services. I am not saying I don’t love to sometimes go away and experience new places for my birthday – but I really love to share special times with you. This year I chose to stay, and get some hugs for my birthday.

I had dreamed that my siblings would join us in person as part of the birthday and Purim celebrations. That dream did not come true. What DID come true is that we collaborated on the Purim Schpiel this year. You will hear my brothers Erik and Scott and my sister Marya and I performing on the new original awesome Purim Schpiel.

The Purim story reminds us that we may never be able to anticipate where we wind up, who we know that can help us – or who we can help, or what we get to do that can make a difference. I hope that you use Purim and the whole joyful month of Adar to find inspiration to make dreams come true.

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti

 


February 2020

You Can't Hurry Love

I have been thinking about time a lot lately. As you know, I am very excited that B’nai Zion celebrates a 150 year anniversary in 2020. I have been spending a lot of time looking back at our past, and trying to look ahead to our future. Neither of those things are very easy for me usually. I have only been Rabbi for 13 of those 150 years. I have only been in Shreveport 28 of those 150 years. I love hearing the stories of what things were like before I moved here, but I can’t really know. My inability to see that far back is better than my ability to see the future. I really do try, but - I like to joke that my crystal ball broke awhile back, so I just don’t see the future well anymore. I try to respect our traditions here, keep up with what is happening currently, and add to that ways that I think we can move forward. Sometimes the efforts feel counterintuitive. For example, I was very excited when we were renovating the sanctuary that we got to choose what our sacred space would be like. I asked the students who were studying for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, thinking that they would be most excited - since they would help choose what they wanted to see in the space, and we often rely on the younger generation to lead innovations. Instead, they were sad that we were changing the only sanctuary they had ever known. Of course, the students studying for Bar/Bat Mitzvah now absolutely love our current space.

I had strongly urged the renovation to include the ability to stream our services. Even though we thought of many ways we anticipated using the streams, we didn’t imagine how many ways it would be used, and how many people would be watching. I predict that we will see many more benefits to streaming in the future.

I am hoping you can help me “remember” the past and see into the future.

Another reason why I have been thinking about time a lot is that I was born in a year with a zero at the end, which means that my age will end in a zero this year. The ages that end in zeros seem to hit us differently than other years. It is why I am so excited about celebrating 150 years for our congregation. It has also made me think more about the passage of time in my own life. I feel blessed to be able to look back over six of the most amazing decades in my own life. I try to look back at the amazing 15 decades of B’nai Zion. We still have not figured out how to appropriately celebrate our 150th anniversary - and I still have not figured out how to appropriately celebrate my 60th birthday. I keep trying to plan something, but other events get in the way. Fun facts: my secular birthday was 3/3/60, and I will be 60 on 3/3/2020, but my Hebrew birthday falls on the 29th of February. I missed being born on the “leap day” but now I can celebrate a birthday on it. I am trying to find a way to celebrate with you.

The thing that I have been thinking about the most lately is that sometimes you can be ready for things, but many times you can’t. There are times when no matter how much you want something to happen, you can’t make it happen any faster. Unfortunately, there are also things that we do not want to end, and we don’t get to choose to slow down when that happens either. These are not recent revelations, obviously. I have just been thinking a lot lately about the variety of things we have no control over, and the absurdity to even try. For example, I love Shabbat evening services at B’nai Zion, but it doesn’t help for me to get dressed up and ready and show up on Thursday. Think about things that you can get ready for ahead of time, and things you can’t. Try it on Shabbat - take your time.

February in America is often thought of as a time to focus on love. If you have lived as long as I have, you have heard the expression that “you can’t hurry love.” (If you have lived through the awesome decades I have, the song is now stuck in your head.) Don’t try to hurry it, but once you find love, I hope that you get to keep it for a long time - ideally for many awesome decades.

B’ahavah! (with Love!)

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


January 2020

2020 Vision

“The old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions…” There was a time when this quote from Hebrew Scriptures was on the top of every bulletin. These words seemed to express who we are at B’nai Zion: We are a congregation of young and old, with hopes and dreams. I always understood the quote to show that we have a great balance of remembering our history and looking toward our future. I have been excitedly waiting for this year to begin.

B’nai Zion celebrated a 100th anniversary in 1970. It wasn’t that the congregation was 100 years old, but that it was the anniversary of the congregation having a building to congregate. This means that we get to celebrate a 150th anniversary this year. At the Reform Movement’s Biennial they honored us about our 150th anniversary.

It is especially meaningful that we can say that in the year 2020 we can have 20/20 vision. We can make a special effort to celebrate our past, enjoy our present, and imagine what our future can be.

In this bulletin you can read excerpts from the booklet that was created for the 100th anniversary, and see a little bit of our history. This bulletin also has a postcard from decades ago with a picture of our previous building on Cotton Street.

I would love to use this year to document and archive whatever history you can provide. When did you arrive in Shreveport? How many generations of your family have lived here? What occupations did you pursue? Which schools did you attend? Do you have any stories about how well the Jewish families have been accepted in the community? What are your favorite memories of Jewish observances connected with B’nai Zion? Do you have pictures or videos of the Jewish observances as B’nai Zion members?

This year will also be filled with ways to celebrate who we are now. Watch for special get-togethers including worship services and social gatherings. Let me know if you have any ideas of ways to celebrate.

Possibly most important, we can use our 20/20 vision to imagine what are the possibilities for our future. What will it look like to be active members of a congregation in five years, or fifty years from now? What do you think will be the ways that B’nai Zion can help you to ensure a Jewish life for you and for our future generations?

Help me use our  20/20 vision this year. If you are reading this, you have a role in the B’nai Zion family. It is important to note that many people who are part of the B’nai Zion story are not Jewish. We need your stories too.

I will also share: I have been a part of the Jewish community in Shreveport since 1992. I have raised two sons in Shreveport. It may seem impossible to those who don’t know the Shreveport Jewish community well, but my family has been keeping kosher in Shreveport since 1992. That may sound unusual for a nice Reform Jewish family - but it is part of the wonderful tapestry of Jewish life here. My family now spans three generations in Shreveport, many families here are even bigger. As Rabbi I have brought some new traditions and observances, but I have learned so many things from this community as well. It is easy to see that this community has enriched my life in so many ways.

Watch the emails and listen to the announcements to hear about ways for you to share and opportunities to participate.

Biv’rakhah, Happy 2020!

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


December 2019

Got a Light?

The world seems very dark these days. It is hard to believe how early in the day the world becomes night. Although we know that there are historical reasons why we have a “Festival of Lights” Jewish holiday to help us light up the darkness, it is so nice that we light our hanukkiyot at this season each year. I love that doing Jewish things, we get to make the world brighter.

The world is not just darker during when the sun sets - there is also a rise in hate, including Anti-Semitism. We are commanded to be a “Light to the Nations.” However, it is difficult in dark times to know how to accomplish that. It sometimes feels like neither Torah nor history are giving us guidance for what we can do to prevent or “cure” Anti-Semitism, or the other hatreds that have been blocking the light in our world.

There is a teaching from Rabbi Hillel who said, "In a place where no one is being a mensch, strive to be a mensch.” He didn’t actually use the Yiddish word, “mensch” (which means a decent human being), but that word I think best explains what he said. I think of that quote when I hear about the darkness between human beings in this world. I try to find ways to live by that principle. Be the light in the world of darkness, like the Hanukkah lights on a dark night. The lights that represent standing up for what we believe is right, and fighting - and knowing that we can win - against injustice.

The interesting thing is that, according to Jewish law, we are not supposed to use the light from any/all of the eight candles lit on the hanukkiyah. The Rabbis explained that since we light the candles to represent the miracle of the oil that burned eight days and nights, we shouldn’t use their light. We are supposed to just look at the light. That seems difficult - if not impossible to do. Even on the first night, when one little candle is lit, it dispels darkness. Especially on the eighth night, with so much light coming from the combined candles - and if you have a tradition like at our house where everyone is lighting their own hanukkiyah, so we have eight times many menorot’s worth of light, making things VERY bright - we are not supposed to use the light.

That is why we have a Shamash - the “helper” candle that we use to light the rest. It is always near the other candles, but set apart - usually higher than the other candles. This way, we are using the light of the Shamash, and officially not using the light of the other candles. (We have to stretch our imagination a lot on the eighth night when the Shamash burns down faster than the other candles.)

This made me think about how to dispel darkness in our world. We are commanded to be a light to the nations. We must each be a mensch in all that we do, and to everyone we encounter. If we were each to learn to be a Shamash, we could help light the world, and even if their light doesn’t get used to make the world a better place, we are making it a better place. We are making it a brighter place.

I hope that you realize how important and helpful it is to live a Jewish life in order to make the world a brighter place. It helps to “re-Jew-venate” occasionally by coming to services and other events, by reading and learning, by spending time with other mensches.

B’nai Zion as a place and as a congregation tries to offer you many ways to re-Jew-venate. See you soon...

Biv’rakhah,

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


November 2019

We have been through quite a month. Four weeks with holy days. Magnificent music. Inspiring prayer books. Seeing old friends. Making new friends. Shofar blasts. Eating outside. Dancing in the sanctuary. Celebrating our Torah. Kissing all four Torah scrolls. Children, adults, families doing Mitzvot. Living Jewish life with all of our senses. Learning. Caring. Crying. Laughing. Making promises. Making excuses. Being forgiven. Packing up. Sharing. Fasting. Eating. Building. Putting up and taking down. Hurting and healing. Mourning, remembering, and loving.

I think that the list can go on and on.

I am so grateful that the Jewish month that we share with November this year has no Jewish holidays.
We need a break.

Actually, it has one important holiday - Shabbat. It is our break, and it comes not once, but every week.

One of the things I did last month included being interviewed by a young man who is a student at a Christian seminary. He asked many good questions, but one of my answers truly surprised him. He asked me what my favorite holiday is. Without hesitation I said, “Shabbat.” He was surprised, because he didn’t think of Shabbat
as a holiday, partially because it happens so frequently. Of course, the frequency is one of the reasons it is my favorite holiday.

I also obviously just love getting a Shabbat break. It is not that I don’t do anything - I am at B’nai Zion: leading a service, singing the songs, trying to inspire and teach. I love getting to see people who are like family.

There are so many reasons I love Shabbat. I love its timelessness.

I spent an academic year in Israel after high school. I was on the Institute for Training Jewish Youth Leaders from Abroad program. I am sure I have told you that, and some stories from that year. I don’t remember if I told you about the interviews that determined whether I got to go on the program. One of the things I told the person interviewing me was how much I love Shabbat, and that one of the things I do on Shabbat is take off my watch.
It is annoying at first - every week. I look at my wrist to find out what time it is - and nothing is there. After a few hours, I realize that I love being untethered to time. It isn’t that I can’t know what time it is - there are clocks all over the place. I just don’t have to have the time on me. I don’t have to watch the time. The person interviewing me thought it was a good idea - but lived with their watch on their wrist. They never took it off - not when they showered and not when they slept. I explained that it was ok - they can still have Shabbat with their watch on.

A week or so later I went back for the next part of the application process. The interviewer said that they tried it - they didn’t wear a watch on Shabbat. They actually loved not being tied to time one day a week.

Enjoy your month without holy days... but remember to enjoy Shabbat. I sometimes like to think of it as “don’t watch” - don’t watch a schedule, or your “to do list,” or even your watch. Try it. It is a blessing.

Biv’rakhah,

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


October 2019

If not now, when?

I don’t have to tell you that life is precious, and time is limited for us. Sometimes at holidays we are even more aware of this fact. We think of people we cared about who were here, and gone the next time the holiday came around.

I was talking to someone from the congregation about how she was able to make a Rosh Hashanah dinner, and serve it on plates that her grandmother and great-grandmother used. The table was set with a tablecloth that she had embroidered when she was first married. This year she was sitting at a table where she was the grandmother. She got to share stories of all of the history of the things on the table, and more importantly the people and memories about the people who were connected to those things.

To be honest, I had that conversation, with only a slight change in details, with a few people from the congregation this year. For many people, holidays are times when we get together with people we care about. Sometimes they have shared lifetimes with us, and sometimes we have new connections, and our new experiences today become tomorrow’s memories.

We get together, we go our separate ways, and hopefully we get together again. But life is precious, and time is limited, so we have no guarantees that we will see each other again.

I am reminded of a lesson that we are taught about the shofar blasts. The four sounds we hear on Rosh HaShanah are: T’kiya, Sh’varim, T’ru’ah and T’kiyah G’dolah. T’kiya is a blast. Sh’varim means “broken” and usually takes the same length of time as a T’kiya, but breaks it into three notes. T’ru’ah is made of many very short blasts - as if the T’kiya has been shattered. We return to the whole sound of T’kiya again. At the end of Rosh HaShanah, and the only shofar sound we hear for Yom Kippur is the T’kiya G’dolah.

I feel like that reminds us of our lives together: As children we have a blast. Time doesn’t seem to end, but it is cheerful. Then we become adults, and go our separate ways, like a Sh’varim. Eventually our family has so many people that it feels like we are many separate people in many different directions. At the holidays, it is helpful when we come back together again. The long blast at the ends of the holidays can be a joyful sound, because the family/friends are reconnected (even if we go our separate ways), or a lament that we won’t be together again.

There are many ways of understanding the pattern of the shofar blasts. We can feel like our lives are whole, and then experience difficult times, and know that sometimes thngs can get more difficult, but with faith and perseverance we can come back to being whole again (holy again).

We can be aware of difficulties in the world, feel that everything is becoming more fragmented, try desparately to fix things, and hopefully find peace and wholeness again.

I am sure you can think of other ways to be inspired by the shofar blasts. Hopefully the sounds wake up the feelings in you that we must do something now. If not now, when?

May you and your family have a healthy, sweet, and joyous new year.

L’shanah tovah um’tukah t’kateivu v’techateimu!

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


September 2019

Change My Mind

Have you made mistakes? Have others done things that upset you? These are not things that we like to think about. However, sometimes these are things that we cannot stop thinking about.

Two years ago someone I care about – a lot – promised to do something for me. It was something important to me. I was glad to help them out and they were supposed to help me in return. I am still waiting. Every day I wake up and wonder if it has been done (it hasn’t), or if it will be done. I don’t like to “nudge,” but occasionally I remind them. It had gotten to the point where I was angry about it, then hurt about it, then angry about it. Every day I thought about it. I didn’t even want to talk to them, because I didn’t want to be angry, and I didn’t want to get angry at them. When I did talk to them about it they would explain all the ways that they wished that they could, but they were too busy with other important things that came up in their lives. I was always amazed at how much they were going through, and understood why those things took priority. However, it still seemed like every day I would wonder if this would be the day when I would get a call that they were going to take care of my things.

Something happened to me recently where everything changed. It was something I read in a Torah commentary while preparing for Torah Study. The Torah teaches us – commands us actually – that periodically we need to release people from debts. Sometimes it has to do with slaves, and sometimes it has to do with financial things. Often we read that part and laugh – we crack jokes about “I wish.” I wish that I didn’t owe anything on my mortgage, or car, or student loans. That isn’t what happens in real life. We struggle to understand if this could even happen in a modern world – and usually we wonder how they deal with this in Israel. To be honest, it didn’t feel like anything that really had to do with us in the modern world.

The section I read recently was not the one about forgiving debts. It was about giving Tzedakah. Torah commands us to give Tzedakah. We know that. We do that. We give often – time, things, money. The commentary that I read reminded me that when we give for Tzedakah, it isn’t our money, time, stuff. G-d gave us those things, and we are supposed to use them the way G-d wants. Sometimes that means for ourselves – but a portion of it has to be used for helping others. I realized that in this case, the right way for me to think about it is to realize that this person has really intended to fulfill their commitment to me, but really did have many other obligations that kept getting in the way. If I change the way I thought about the situation, they could feel better about themselves by no longer feeling the weight of their additional obligation to me, and I would stop feeling angry and hurt every day.

It works. Everything feels better. Every day has more joy in it now that the frustration and anger are gone.

Perhaps this is a lesson in forgiveness. If we try and keep coming up short, sometimes we have to let it go (that goes for my viewpoint and acknowledging their viewpoint). I changed my mind and it was as if the whole situation changed – even though it essentially did not change.

Perhaps this is a lesson in finding insights to change your mind. Not just rabbis can get insights from Torah – this New Year is a great time to recommit to looking for answers and inspiration in Torah and Jewish tradition. I hope I can change your mind about that.

May you and your family have a healthy, sweet, and joyous new year.

L’shanah tovah um’tukah t’kateivu!

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


August 2019

Bravo Zulu

A man who had never been to a Passover Seder joined us at the BZ congregational first night Seder this year. He loved the Seder, enjoyed the food, and how friendly our congregation is. When getting to know him I found out that he is a veteran of the United States Navy. He said that he loves the fact that we refer to our congregation by its initials, “BZ” because in the Navy when someone says “BZ” over the radio or hoists the “Bravo, Zulu” maritime flags representing the letters “BZ” (see the picture of the flags on this page), it means “well done - with regard to actions, operations, or performance.” He thinks that is perfect for our congregation. He bases his observation on the one event that he attended, and the information he receives from us. He feels that everything we do is “well done.”

Obviously I agree with him. We are blessed to have staff and volunteers of all ages who contribute to our accomplishments being BZ / Bravo Zulu / well done.

Every congregant is part of our BZ team. Every mitzvah that you do. Every time you are kind to someone else. Every time you give Tzedakah, or learn something new, or teach someone, you contribute to our BZ team earning our BZ reputation.

This month BZ has these extraordinary opportunities for Bravo Zulu:

When our children start a new school year, and we show our support by celebrating with them and blessing them at the Back to School Blessing the Backpack Shabbat (Friday, August 9).

When we realize that we have people in our community who do not have food, and we help.

When someone new attends an event at BZ, and we make them feel welcome.

When we show enthusiasm and love for being Jewish by learning more, teaching, or helping with worship services.

When we share our experience by teaching children or adults.

When we find ways to strengthen the BZ congregation by suggesting and/or participating in programs - educational, inspirational, or social.

When our financial contributions allow us to sustain our building, staff, financial needs.

When hesed (lovingkindness) fills our days.

When you come to our building, or wherever you are.

What are ways that you have seen B’nai Zion live up to the BZ reputation? What are ways that you have helped make it so?

When someone who was a stranger points out what a great congregation we have, it feels wonderful. It makes me even more proud to be your Rabbi. With the variety of people who are part of the congregation, or who love to be with us, and with the variety of things that we have scheduled for this month (and every month), there will be lots of opportunities to see if we can continue to earn Bravo Zulu - be BZ.

Biv'rakhah (with blessing)

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


July 2019

Get the Lead Out

One of the first things I did when I became your Rabbi was to rent all of my books and my office tchotchkes to use for a movie. One of the stars was Richard Dreyfuss. I also got to be an extra in the movie. In fact, they filmed a synagogue scene, so there were many Jewish folks from our community who were sitting in the sanctuary at Agudath Achim that morning as extras. (Laurie Levine got to be Dreyfuss’ wife in that scene). We had to sit through the same scene many times. We were instructed to stay quiet. However, each time they called “action” (that’s not really what they said, but that is not what the story is about) Richard Dreyfuss would tap me on the shoulder and start asking me questions. I sat in front of him and he knew I was a Rabbi. At one point he told me that when he was young he wanted to be a Rabbi - so that he could tell people what to do.

You already know that I wanted to be a Rabbi since I was young - but it never occurred to me that I should become a Rabbi to tell people what to do. I realized that many leaders choose to lead so that they can tell others what to do. I like being a Spiritual Leader, an Intellectual Leader, a Creative Leader, a Song Leader - not a Bossy Leader.

I have had a lot of training and experience about leadership. Did you know that I spent a year in Israel on a program called the “Institute for Training Jewish Youth Leaders from Abroad?” In fact, almost every group I have been involved with, I eventually am in leadership roles. I see leadership positions as good ways to be helpful.

Recently I attended the Institute for Southern Jewish Life Education Conference (the picture below shows all of the educators from the Jewish community of Shreveport who attended this year), and I once again did a seminar about leadership. This time it was about finding leaders in our congregations. I gained some new insights about leadership.

Some people thrive in positions with responsibility. Some people are not comfortable in leadership roles.

One of the problems we have at B’nai Zion is that we don’t always know who want to be leaders. We have so many things that need to be done: teaching our children - and our adults; making sure that there is an Oneg Shabbat and blessers each Friday evening; taking care of the Cemetery needs; maintaining the building and grounds of our synagogue; coordinating holiday observances; organizing Mitzvah projects; finding ways for our congregants to socialize, ensuring that our congregation stays fiscally responsible. These and so many other things are needed for our holy congregation to function.

Some people think of a congregation like a business. I see us more like a family. If someone has experience with something that is needed, they should help. If someone wants to help, even if they have no experience, they should try.

I know that in order for a congregation to function each of us should participate. We don’t need many leaders, we need many do-ers. Sometimes I watch one or two people trying to organize something and I am amazed at how well things are working. I also try to imagine how awesome this congregation would be if even more people participated.

A holy congregation should be not just about worship services and observing holidays - although we do make them meaningful and enjoyable. We should be doing many things together - in small groups and large.

Whether you are the kind of leader who likes to tell others what to do, or the kind of person who “chips-in” and leads by example, I am grateful to you for being part of this congregation, and I encourage you to find more ways to use your experience to find ways to lead us… into our future. The more we participate, the stronger we are as a community. What will you do?

Biv'rakhah (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


June 2019

We Hope So

Many people travel during the summer. I love to take road trips. I remember some trips when I was young. It was fun to see new places and do different things. It was the 1960s. It was before seatbelts were mandatory in cars. By mentioning that, it may seem like this is a story about a tragedy from not wearing seatbelts. I did break my leg once when I was two years old and a dog ran into the street. My mom avoided hitting the dog, but – since there was no seatbelt, and no car seat either – I slid off the seat, and wound up breaking my leg. However, this isn’t intended to be about seatbelts or broken legs.

I have distinct memories when I was a older than two of people in cars throwing their trash out the window. I think that since they were traveling down the highway, and by the time they tossed it out the window it was all behind them, they didn’t think about the consequences of the trash they left behind them. The truth was there was trash on the side of the highways. Throwing trash out of the windows created a mess along the highways and in the streets in town as well.

When I was in elementary school there was a concerted effort to get people to stop throwing trash out windows and on the streets. There were commercials on tv about it too. I remember Woodsy Owl teaching us to “Give a Hoot – Don’t Pollute!”

At first, it didn’t seem to help, even though I can vouch for the fact that my family and the students in my school were making sure that our trash got into the trash cans.

At some point we started to notice that some neighborhoods and some stretches of highway really were cleaner. To be honest, around the same time seatbelt laws went into effect. There were fines for throwing trash out the windows, and there were fines for not “buckling up.” By the way, there were catchy slogans for buckling up too. I still hear the “buckle up for safety, buckle up” song in my head when I get into the car – and it is almost 50 years later. I don’t feel comfortable in the car when I am not buckled in.

Many people complained about the seat belt laws. The complaints ranged from “no one can tell me what to do in my own car” to “I was just going to the corner to get some cigarettes – it isn’t far enough to worry about wearing a seatbelt.” However, I knew more people who survived accidents by wearing seatbelts than I did people who survived the accidents by not wearing them.

The thing that made me think about seatbelts and not throwing trash out the windows is that they really helped make things better. The past 50 years have proven that people are thirty times more likely to be ejected from a car if not wearing a seatbelt. The streets really are significantly cleaner. As I travel on the highways I find way more miles without trash than with trash on the side of the road.

This month we will be celebrating not only the beginning of summer, but the awesome moment when we stand at Sinai and G-d gives us the Laws that keep us in covenant. Laws like: no littering, and taking care of each other, and making safety a priority. You can come to Torah Study on Saturday morning and I can show you where the seatbelt law is or where the not littering law is (they are not so easy to find, but I can show you how to find them).

What I thought about the reduced amount of trash compared to when I was young, it made me realize that, even when we see trash around, we can clean it up, and we can be reminded to “give a hoot” - and it can work. We really can make a difference. Even when situations in the world feel hopeless, each of us needs to take responsibility for our own space, wherever we travel, and there is hope that the world will be safer and better again.

Biv'rakhah (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


May 2019

Mother May I

There is a Yiddish proverb that says: God could not be everywhere, which is why mothers were created.

The History Channel has a website with interesting details about origins and history of Mother’s Day.

“Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele, but the clearest modern precedent for Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.”

Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service.

In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children.

These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.”

Eventually Jarvis was able to turn Mother’s Day into a national holiday in the United States in 1914. Interesting facts about Jarvis is that she never had children of her own. She also spent much of the end of her life trying to remove Mother’s Day from the United States calendar, because she thought that the holiday became too commercialized. Indeed not only is it one of the holidays for which we buy the most flowers, chocolate, and eat meals out, but more phone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year in our country.

Jewish tradition teaches that the Yahrzeit of the Matriarch, Rachel can possibly be considered the Mother’s Day on the Jewish calendar. Since she was the most loved of Jacob/Israel, she can be considered the quintessential Jewish Mother. Another interesting fact about the day she died according to the Jewish mystical tradition:  from Rosh HaShanah to her Yahrzeit, there are forty-one days, and the letters that spell the word “Em” (Mother = Aleph and Mem) add up to the number forty-one.

Many Jewish comedians make being a “Jewish Mother” a punchline. (For example, how many Jewish Mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: None. Don’t worry. I’m alright. I’ll sit in the dark.)

In Jewish Scriptures, the mothers actually are extremely important in the stories, beginning with the first woman: Hava / Eve. God gave her that name, because she was the “Mother of all living things.” Sarah is given a new name when her husband and she accept God’s commandment to “Go forth,” and even her name reflects her connection to God. Moses’ mother boldly saves her son by setting him adrift in the Nile. Moses’ wife takes the responsibility of circumcising their sons when Moses neglected his duty. Naomi becomes the ultimate “Jewish Mother-in-Law” when her Ruth proclaims, “Whither thou goest I will go…” During Torah Study in the month of May we will continue to discuss other examples of wonderful Jewish Mother role models.

The tradition in Judaism is that when one is invoking prayers for healing, the person who is ill is refered to as the child of their mother. I was taught that it was because one of God’s most important attributes is “God of Mercy” / El Maleh Rachamim, or El Rachum. The Hebrew word for “womb” is the core of the word for “mercy.” God’s mothering attributes are among the most important for us.

At this time, when we are still mourning the losses of life from recent shootings at synagogues, mosquest and churches, let us pray that God will act with Rachamim to give us comfort and healing. May we remember that in Jewish tradition, every day is Mother’s Day.

Bivrakhah uv’rachamim (with blessing and mercy),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


April 27, 2019
(A special message after the shooting in Poway, California. This post was originally on Rabbi Jana's Facebook page.)
I want our children to live in a world where they don’t ever have to be afraid to go to their house of worship on their holy days or their schools. I want to live in a world where ‘sanctuary’ means ‘safe place.’ We need to each help. I never would have imagined that living in the “home of the brave” included adding extra security at synagogues (or mosques, or churches, or any house of worship) or being at services and having to stop the guy shooting at us. And yet... we are in mourning again.


April 2019

Mixed Blessings

Usually when you hear the expression “mixed blessing” it is about something that is a little bit good and a little bit bad. Since April this year will include Passover, I’m seeing it in a different way.

One of the four questions tells us that on most nights we don’t dip even once, but during Passover at the seder we’re supposed to dip twice. Now in modern times we do tend to dip our food. There’s french fries and ketchup, nachos and cheese, vegetables and dip, and more. Is it true that we didn’t dip things in ancient times? There is a commentary that says that the Torah mentions two times that things were dipped, and each one involved blood. The first was when Joseph’s brothers dipped his multi-colored coat in blood to make their father Jacob think that his beloved son, Joseph was eaten by a wild beast. The second time was when the children of Israel had to dip a bundle of hyssop into blood and use that like a paintbrush to dip it into the blood and smear it on the doorposts of their homes so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. We are taught that the lesson we learn is that the two dippings teach us we need to care about each other, because the first time the dipping was about hate – they hated their brother Joseph. That act set in motion the chain of events that caused us all to be slaves in Egypt. The second was about working together  “bundling” our resources – so that we could be free. The dippings in the Seder remind us that when we focus on doing things together for a good cause, we can achieve miraculous things. I find that gleaning lessons from dipping into blood is not my favorite way to convey messages about unity. We might call it a mixed blessing.

In my family we had a tradition that for our Seder we would always try to invite at least one person who had never been to a Seder before. That became a mixed blessing. There’s something about having a ceremony that’s the same every year and everybody knows what to expect. When you mix in someone who has no idea what’s going on, it changes the dynamics of the seder. Typically it wound up being a good thing, because we either felt good that we knew the answers to their questions, since it was so familiar to us, or we had someone with new perspectives that were able to challenge us to think about the Seder in new ways. I don’t recall ever being sorry for having invited someone who was a stranger to the Seder.

When we left Egypt we are taught that the massive crowd of people who left weren’t just Jews, it was a mixed multitude. We are taught that means there were Jews and non-Jews. And in many ways the non-Jews chose to participate in the lifestyle and the commandments that the Jews were obligated to do. That seems like a mixed blessing too. In those days God’s might was shown in miraculous ways. It may not seem as surprising that people who are not obligated felt very moved and motivated to do what God said. On the other hand, God gave us a lot of commandments at that time, and it’s surprising that so many people chose - whether they were Jewish or not to do what God told us to do.

When you grow up Jewish you know that it’s a mixed blessing to be Jewish sometimes. Persecution and bullying is one side of it. The other side is belonging to a glorious family that goes back thousands of years and maintains its bond with each other and with God.

Today in our congregation the number of families that include non-Jews is growing all the time. 100% of our congregants who have children in the religious school have at least one parent who was not born Jewish.

I for one appreciate the mixed blessing that we have when our lives are enriched by sharing our traditions with others, and appreciate that others are willing to learn about and participate in the things we do.

By mixing our blessings, our blessings increase exponentially. When including others, our lives become so much more meaningful.

May you have a sweet and healthy Passover, and may your life be filled with blessing,

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti


March 2019

Whistles

We celebrate Purim this month. It is the most fun holiday of the calendar. Sometimes we think that fun is for children, but adults don’t need it. Obviously that is not true. We may learn from watching the children about how to not be self-conscious about having fun.

Purim also has a dark side that we don’t like to think about. It is a story about destroying people. We relive the glorious part of the story when we don’t get destroyed. Just after that - there is a part of the story where Jews and neighbors do fight each other. We have learned to focus on the rest of the story, and downplay, or outright ignore that part.

I personally love booing Haman. I love writing his name on the bottom of my shoes, and then stomping him out. At the end of the night, I may wish I could blot out the noise that the graggers and the stomping and the booing and the whistling make. It is ironic that the noises we use to blot out Haman, become noises we wish we could do without.

The worst experience I had of people using whistles to blot out something was when I saw the service of the Women of the Wall - women who go to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon / beginning of the month holiday). It is a special holiday for women. In some ways the Purim story, with Esther getting to be the hero reminds me of Rosh Hodesh. But that is not what I wanted to discuss. When I saw the Women of the Wall serviee being streamed live, I was so proud, and excited to be worshiping “with” them. I watched it starting just about at the beginning, which was very lucky, because I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was a wonderful coincidence that I happened to find it at just the right time. Then, when we started to sing the Sh’ma, the women who were near them, but not worshiping with them - a group of Orthodox women, started shrieking and blowing whistles in order to blot out the Women of the Wall (who are often called WOW). The Orthodox women didn’t want the WOW to pray, or read Torah, or sing. So they extremely loudly, and annoyingly blew whistles. They didn’t stop for the rest of the service. They even blotted out the WOW reading Torah. I was thousands of miles away, watching the whole service on my computer. I wasn’t even standing next to the WOW, but my ears hurt for days afterwards.

It made me think about the fact that, potentially because of loud noises I have been exposed to throughout my life, or perhaps it is because I have enough years in my life that my ears are essentially just getting old, but I now have a constant whistle in my ears. Constant. Sometimes it is really loud and distracting. Sometimes, however, I don’t even notice it. It is still there. It is fairly loud in my head - but I can “tune it out,” and I can go about my day as if there wasn’t a whistle in my head trying to blot out things that I should or could be hearing.

Our minds are amazing things. I am grateful for the ability to make these things that could distract me without cease, but my brain keeps me from being aware of it. I have a floater in my eye that is like that. Lots ot times I think there is a fly nearby - but it is really something in my eye (not a fly). As you know, I also have the constant pain in my knee, but I have learned to try to ignore it sometimes.

The ability to ignore the whistles is a blessing. However, I started to wonder if we also sometimes ignore other things, that we shouldn’t. Like people who could use our attention. Situations that would benefit from us participating. Causes that we know are screaming for help, things we know we should do, but have found ways to ignore.

This month we get to focus on blotting out the things that try to harm us. We learn to use whistles for fun. We always also get to listen for the cries that are not trying to annoy, but are cries that need to be heard.

Bivrakha (with blessing),

Rabbi Dr. Jana L. De Benedetti

Mon, November 30 2020 14 Kislev 5781