2005 / 5765

2005 / 5765

Tradition suggests that we use this month to prepare for the high holy days…Easier said then done. Well, this year we have an idea that just might work! In this very spot, on each of the 29 days of Elul, 5765, we postedt a “Jewel” of an idea from some wonderful national community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers. Looking to lead a more fulfilling life? We just may have a few great ideas!

Elul 29
Place Cards as Holiday Jewels
Rabbi Daniel Freelander
The first Shabbat in Elul, two weeks after my father’s death, my family gathered around the Shabbat table. Everyone was home from summer camp and jobs, and for the first time in months, all the members of our immediate family filled their traditional seats. As we chanted Kiddush, I began to cry. The sweetness of the moment was overwhelming. All those I love gathered together, in our home, celebrating Shabbat.I thought ahead to Rosh Hashanah Dinner. It never occurred to me that last year would be the last time. Who would I sit next to in synagogue? What will the Holy Days feels like without a parent to call, to cook, to take that precious Rosh Hashanah walk?

As I cleaned out my parents’ apartment, I found a bag of place cards, one card for each person who had ever attended one of our family Pesach Sedarim over the past 50 years. They were stained with wine and horseradish, but felt very real and alive as I looked at them. I remembered their faces and smells and voices. As so many of them passed away, my parents had learned how to carry on – and to create new holiday memories even when their parents and other loved ones were no longer there to celebrate with them.

I will miss my parents terribly this Rosh Hashanah, and I will look around the holiday table into the faces of my wife and children and cry in joy for the privilege of carrying their Yerusha (inheritance) forward.

Rabbi Daniel Freelander is Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Elul 28
Ellen Dreskin
Midrash tells us that our name, Yisrael, when vocalized differently, can become “Yashir Eil” – “God will sing.” We are God’s song in this world. Full of potential for harmony – tension, joy, sorrow, anger, comfort, pain, and majesty – God sings through each of us. Elul is the time to focus and question: what Godsong will be heard through my life in the coming year?Chasidic wisdom likens each of us to a shofar. Were it not for the breath of God blowing through me, I would make no sound at all. Elul is the time to tune up, sharpen our skills, and be a song that is worthy of being heard.

The shofar is narrow at the beginning and wide at the end. May we remember to begin with ourselves, and then open our hearts and our ears and our eyes to understand that we too can be bigger – we can be wider – and our smallest actions can make a huge difference in the world.

“Yashir Eil.” Be the song; make it good. Awaken others – with your voice and your gifts and your actions – to sing out also, and give honor to the Composer of it all.

Ellen Dreskin is an ordained cantor and the Director of Programs for Synagogue 3000.

Elul 27
Rocks, Pebbles, Sand, or Water?
Rabbi Laura Geller
The instructor filled an empty jar with rocks. “Is it full?” Then he poured a pitcher of pebbles into the jar. “Full now?” Next he poured sand. “Full?” Finally he poured water. “Now it’s full.”“What do you learn from this?” One student answered, “That no matter how busy you are, you can always fit it one more thing?” “No, the important thing is: you have to put the rocks in first. If you fill your jar first with the pebbles, sand or water, there will be no room for the rocks.”[1]

Put the rocks in first, those important things that keep you grounded and centered.

I’m the one who thought that you could always fit in one more call, one more meeting. Yet when I fill my jar with what seems urgent but not important, there isn’t room for what I really need: time for my inner life — prayer, study, reflection; and time for my family.

A New Year approaches: it is an empty jar. How I fill it up is up to me. Elul is the deep breath I need to get clear about what my rocks are, and to promise myself to put them in first.

Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills CA.

Elul 26
Cleanse Your Mind and Let Your Soul Float
Harold Grinspoon
Take some time out each day to cast away the business of being busy. Find a quiet moment to reflect, or go for a walk by yourself, or sit, or meditate – cleanse your mind and let your soul float to find the deep meaning of life. Know that time is short and life moves fast. 

Harold Grinspoon is a real estate entrepreneur who is committed to enriching Jewish life through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, created in 1993.

A Life of Trust, A Life of Peace
Reverand Wilma Jakobsen
We approach the holidays in reflection upon our lives, who we are, whom and what we treasure, what matters for our hearts, our souls, our lives. As we do this a vision for the next year can emerge.We are inspired by those who have gone before us, like 90 year old Brother Roger of Taizé, founder of the Taizé Community in France, who had a profound influence on thousands of peoples lives worldwide and who was killed this August. He founded a community where reconciliation would be lived out in daily life, where “Love would be at the heart of all things.” He hid Jewish refugees in his home during World War II and over the years, his community became a place of welcome for all. Each year thousands of people from more than eighty countries visit this community of Catholics and Protestants, bridging a host of differences. Brother Roger said that “God is Love alone; God is united to every human being without exception.” He believed that a future of peace is possible.

As the new year begins, let us follow his example and ask God for strength and courage to be bearers of peace and trust wherever we are.

Reverand Wilma Jakobsen is a South African Anglican priest, currently Senior Associate of Liturgy, Peace & Justice at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Elul 25
Dream Large. And Share Your Dreams
Angelo Mozilo
As a teenager in a family of very modest means, I had many dreams-ideas about what I wanted to achieve. So I got an after-school job at a mortgage company. After college, I stayed on with that company and I was sent on the road as a loan officer. I visited communities and met many others who had dreams-dreams of owning a home.Everywhere, I met hard-working families and individuals. Yet some of them found their dreams of homeownership impossible to achieve. Discrimination, subtle and not so subtle, stood in the path of racial and ethnic minorities who wanted to purchase a home. But many of these families would not be denied. They were determined to own a home. And their strength inspired me to expand my own dreams. I envisioned a home loan company that would make sure minorities had the opportunity to own a home.

In 1969, my dream came true. My business partner and I founded Countrywide. Today, the dreams of individuals and families continue to inspire me and the company I am proud to call my life’s achievement.

Dream large. And share your dreams. Dreams can inspire change that makes a positive difference in the lives of millions.

Angelo Mozilo is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Countrywide Financial Corporation.

Elul 24
Reaching Out-Reaching In
Sherre Zwelling Hirsch
I remember the first time Sarabeth came to meet me. Depressed and angry she told me that her husband had taken their money and left her and her three children with nothing– not even a place to live. I assured her that each of her children would have a bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple. Years went by, Sarabeth rebuilt her life. The kids had their simchas. On one uneventful day I hardly recognized the beautiful woman who came to my office and offered to repay the synagogue. I refused Sarabeth and told her in time I would need her help for someone else in need.Eight years later, a woman came to meet me who resembled the former Sarabeth. She told me of her plight and how her husband had left her and her four children destitute and homeless. I called Sarabeth on her cell phone. “Sarabeth, I need you now.” Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “I will be over in ten minutes with my checkbook.” She never asked me a single question. The details were irrelevant. Sarabeth gave to show God her gratitude for the blessings she had received. Today will I count my riches, or will I make my soul count instead?

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch is a Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Elul 23
Life is a Circle
Richard Foos
With a daughter now old enough for sleep away camp and the variety of summer vacations we take, summer is a time when our family is seldom at home. Every year we tell ourselves that this year will be different. This summer we will not let our spiritual commitment fall by the wayside. But it does, and then like clockwork the high holidays come around to recharge our spiritual batteries.We are fortunate to attend services at the Brandeis-Bardin institute in Southern California. We celebrate the holidays in the middle of 3000 beautiful acres of rolling hills. The cycle continues. We renew our commitment to living a wonderful Jewish life for the next ten months only to become wanton hedonists in the summer and renewed again during the high holidays.

The holidays also represent a renewal of hope for the world. I try to capture these harmonious feelings that I and other Jews have and somehow transport them to the rest of the world with the hope that maybe our world can be healed.

Today, as I prepare for the holidays, I commit to doing one good thing to help fix the world. I hope you will join me…I could use your help!

Richard Foos is CEO of Shout! Factory and the founder of legendary Rhino Records

Elul 22
Reflecting Back and Looking Forward
Jerry Silverman
On a beautiful summer Shabbat afternoon at a Jewish camp in New England, a legend was born. For the first time in thirty years, the camp allowed its vocational education staff to participate in the staff softball game. Many of the staff were opposed to this concept as the game was considered a highlight event of the week, and it was very competitive. As always, the game was well attended by staff and campers.The special needs program campers and staff was were all awaiting the arrival of their player. Big Jake came running on to the field in full catcher’s uniform. He was wearing a bright blue chest protector, bright blue shin guards, and a mask. The crowd cheered, and you could see that Jake was focused and his intensity was high. As you would expect, Jake ended up at bat in the bottom of the last inning with the bases loaded and the team down 2 runs. He smashed a legitimate line drive double, won the game for his team, and was carried off the field by both his team and the opposing team.

The gem of this story is the realization by over 200 campers and staff of how much potential and capability each of us has. Elul is such a special month in our tradition; it’s a time to reflect back and to look forward. Let’s learn from Jake’s story. We can all be legends in our hearts and minds

Jerry Silverman is the President of The Foundation for Jewish Camping

Elul 21
My First Roommate
Rabbi Sharon Brous
I was 18 years old with a dream summer internship, living in dorms packed with socially and politically savvy college students from around the country. My roommate was coming a week late, and I eagerly anticipated her arrival, certain we’d become best friends instantaneously. Way too early one morning, there was a knock on my door. “Hi. I’m your roommate” she said perfunctorily, and walked right past me. “Great to meet you!” I said, “Where are you working this summer?” No answer. “Have you been to DC before?” I asked, as she made herself busy placing her precious few items on shelves. Still no answer. “There’re some great people on our floor – I’d love to introduce you …” She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me! Feeling pathetic and a bit embarrassed by my outpouring of kindness in the face of her complete disinterest, I turned around and walked out of the room – this was going to be the worst summer of my life. Should I try to switch rooms? Just pack up and head back to New York? I avoided the dorms until about 11:30 that night, and when I finally returned I was relieved to see that my nightmare roommate was asleep. As I crumpled into bed I noticed that there was a note on my pillow. “I’m so sorry we didn’t have time to talk today. My name is Cathy and I’m working on the Hill. I just want to let you know that I’m deaf, so if I’m not looking directly at you, I won’t know that you’re talking to me. Please be patient with me – it’s always awkward when I meet new people. By the way, I saw that you’re reading Invisible Man – that’s my favorite book! Can’t wait to get to know you this summer.”Al chet she’chatanu l’fanekha – for the sin that I committed before You, by assuming the worst of Your children, please forgive me.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founder and spiritual leader of IKAR, a vibrant new Jewish spiritual community in Los Angeles.

Elul 20
I Wear Prayers Like Shoes
Harlene Winnick Appelman
“I wear prayers like shoes. Pull them on each morning to take me through uncertainty.” writes Ruth Forman, contemporary poet, in a work called I Wear Prayers Like Shoes. The poet goes on about the shoes: “They were mama’s gift to walk me through life. She wore strong ones.” Imagine if everyone in the world were walking around on prayers!Truth is everyone has a shoe story: new shoes for that first day of school, new shoes for the High holidays, new shoes for a job or a new fitness program or a birthday, ball or wedding. And, in fact, those shoes and the stories that that go with them shape the steps by which we approach each day, each task or each event.

Putting on shoes each day is an act of faith. It shows purpose, determination, and a willingness to encounter the future. Elul is a month designed to take a faith inventory. What prayers would be included in your prayer shoes? What is the nature of the prayer shoes that you would give to a loved one? The next time you have a chance for a leisurely conversation, ask about shoe stories. It’s a great topic for conversation!

Harlene Winnick Appelman is Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation.

Elul 19
David Wolpe
Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur? Surely it should be the other way around! First we should cleanse ourselves, purge our sins, and then celebrate the new year. The emotional logic seems compelling — repentance is what enables us to begin anew.Yet there is a deep logic to the order of the yamim noraim — the days of awe. For repentance begins in gratitude. First we must value what is, and estimate the true worth of the gifts we have been given. Rosh Hashanah comes to encourage us to appreciate the world — hayom harat olam — on this day all of creation was called into being. Once we are grateful for what is, we can honestly evaluate whether we have helped creation attain perfection, or hindered it through our misdeeds.

The high holidays are not only about our sins — they are about our blessings. We have been given a marvelous world which we celebrate that on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur we think about how in the year to come, we can enhance the sanctity of the many gifts we have been given.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and the author most recently of “Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World.”

Elul 18
Still Small Voices
Diane Winston
Many years ago, my husband had a conversation with a Benedictine monk whose selflessness haunts me.“It wasn’t that he was thinking too much of himself or too little of himself,” my husband says. “He just wasn’t thinking of himself.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“When we spoke, he got himself out of the way.”

To get oneself out of the way – what would it be like to encounter others without an inventory of wishes, wants, expectations and demands. Who would be left without the odd, borrowed bits of selves that coalesce as faces to hide behind?

I used to pray until I heard a still, small voice. “Serve others,” it said, and I stopped praying because I didn’t want to. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I try to pray again, asking God for the grace-or maybe the strength–to get myself out of the way.

Diane Winston is Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Elul 17
Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk
Daniel Sokatch
One winter day when I was six or seven, my brother and I went out for a walk with our Great-Uncle Sydney near his apartment on the Lower East Side. As we turned a corner we came across a homeless man lying in a doorway. Sydney let go of our hands, took a step forward, reached into his wallet and handed the man several bills. He spoke quietly to the man for a moment, then took our hands and resumed our walk. He didn’t say a word. Intensely curious about what I had seen, I asked my uncle what had just happened. He told me he’d told the man that his shoelace was untied. I was deeply disturbed; I had seen my uncle give the man money, and couldn’t imagine why he would not be truthful with me -his beloved nephew – about what he’d done. This incident bothered me for years. Much later, I learned about the Rambam’s levels of tzedakah, and the profound importance of preserving the dignity of the one receiving help. I realized then that my uncle, an observant Jew, faced with lying to his nephew or protecting the dignity of a homeless stranger, had made the right choice. And even though he couldn’t explain it to me then, he showed me through his actions how to be a Jew in the world. 

Daniel Sokatch is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance

Elul 16
It’s All In how We Read The Clock.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
When the Hasidic master, Reb Yitzchak Yakov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books, one his kiddush cup, another his tallis. There remained one humble hasid. To him was given the Rebbe’s clock.On his way home, the hasid stopped at an inn. When he discovered he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe’s clock as payment. The innkeeper installed the clock in one of the rooms.

A year later, another of the Rebbe’s hasidim passed by and stayed at the inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the restless footsteps of the hasid pacing the floor.

In the morning, the hasid confronted the innkeeper: “The clock, where did you get the clock?” The innkeeper related the story.

“I knew it!” responded the hasid. “This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past – they measure us from where we’ve come. This clock ticks toward the future. Every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before redemption can be realized.

It’s all in how we read the clock.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California.

Elul 15
Going Deeper
Yosef I. Abramowitz
The seasonal call for personal introspection is a prerequisite for world transformation. Through it we learn to critique lovingly. We learn that we can create a new plan. We learn that our good intensions can succeed. Once we know that internal battles can be waged and won, we can turn our sights outwards. And dream of a better day for humanity and the Jewish people.Elul is our month of preparation. Tishrei is our month of spiritual action. And then Cheshvan moves us to external action; to Jews worldwide affirming that our obligation to pray together is made more meaningful by our obligation to act together. The deeper we go spiritually to strengthen our internal capacity for good, the more power we can marshal for the, perhaps, easier task of healing the world.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is co-founder of global Jewish Social Action Month and publisher of Sh’ma, JVibe, JBooks.com and SocialAction.com.

Elul 14
A Prayer for Elul
Rabbi Naomi Levy
I’m good at making resolutions, God, but I’m not very good at keeping them. There are so many goals I’d like to achieve, so many changes I’d like to make.I pray to You tonight, God, for strength. I want to live a meaningful life, God. I want to comprehend my true promise. I want to understand why You have put me here.

Help me to see, God. Show me the person I have the potential to become. Let me find my passion, God. Teach me to resist temptation, to conquer self-destructive habits, to overcome selfishness and pettiness. Give me the humility and the courage to repair relationships that pride has destroyed. Show me how I can bring hope and healing into this world.

Let this be a good year, God. A year of health, a year of blessing, a year of love, a year of peace. Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is the spiritual leader of Nashuva: A Soulful Community of Prayer in Action and author of To Begin Again (Knopf 1998) and Talking to God (Knopf 2002)

Elul 13
Tipping the Scales
Rob Eshman
According to the Rosh Hashanah ritual of tashlich, we toss scraps of bread into a living body of water, symbolizing the casting away of transgressions for which we seek forgiveness.So every Elul, I find myself ankle deep in the Santa Monica Bay, heaving bread into waves where a few short weeks earlier I was splashing with my kids. As soon as the rabbi intones the liturgy, seagulls swoop in. “Like swallows returning to Capistrano,” a fellow congregant once told me. “The birds probably set their biological clock to tashlich.”

Not only do we return each year with our sins, the waves bring our scraps back to us. We heave them, they fall, and the ones the seagulls miss get carried back to our feet, soggy and defiant.

This all suggests that the struggle to be stainless and sin-free is a losing battle. But the holiday’s liturgy gives us an out: Acts of kindness, it says, help balance the scales. It’s no accident that ancient synagogue mosaics represent this month with the astrological symbol of Libra.

Fill Elul with charity and good deeds-it’s a good way to balance the scales for the New Year, before they start tipping again.

Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

Elul 12
Love Songs for Holy Days
Elliot N. Dorff
Elul is the time when we begin to prepare ourselves for the deep moral and religious assessment that takes place on the High Holy Days. Elul is also a popular time for weddings. At many of those weddings, the rabbi will point out that an old tradition points out that the Hebrew letters of Elul can stand for the verse from the biblical book of Song of Songs (6:3), Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li — “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” The tradition is based on Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation of that book as the love poetry not just between a man and a woman but also between God and the People Israel. The point is that in preparing ourselves to engage with our Maker, we are coming closer to God. Rabbis at weddings, of course, will instead use the verse to refer to the couple being married.During the coming days and weeks as we prepare for the holidays, I encourage each of us to embrace this Jewish tradition and express our love for those we hold dearest in our lives.

Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism and President of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

Elul 11
Celebrating our Similarities
Omar Haroon
In the summer of 2000 I was walking in the streets of Tel Aviv when I was stopped by a middle-aged man and asked directions in Hebrew. I explained to him in English, “I’m sorry, I’m just a tourist from America who doesn’t know the city.” I could tell he was a bit shocked that I didn’t speak Hebrew.I didn’t think much of the incident until the next day in Jerusalem, when I tried to enter Al-Aqsa (on the temple mount) to do my afternoon prayers. Out of all the people who went to pray, including family members and other tourists, I was the only one stopped and asked if I was Muslim. The guard was surprised that I had said “yes,” then permitted me to enter for prayers.

Looking back, I can’t help but think how much Muslims and Jews have in common. There isn’t a physical difference between us; one can easily pass for the other. We pray to the same God, we revere the same prophets. I cannot help but be confounded by the animosity some of us have towards each other.

Imagine if more of us could celebrate our similarities, and not focus on our differences. We are all part of the same human family, and no matter the differences we have with each other, we have much more in common.

Omar Haroon is former Vice Chair and currently on the Board of Directors of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

Elul 10
Not by Might but by Sprit
Theodore Bikel
Because we find ourselves surrounded by believers in Messianic fundamentalism, we should, as Jews, examine – or re-examine – our own attitudes toward Messianic faith. For we, too, have within our own community crypto-Messianic movements, believers in ‘Moshiach Now’ slogans, even including those who maintain that a Jewish Messiah has already made his appearance in our lifetime, in Brooklyn of all places.The great 13th Century sage, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (the Nachmanides) argued that it is impossible to claim, that the Messiah has already come. The Messiah was supposed to make the world a better place and our time a better time — a time of Sabbath and a time when swords are beaten into plowshares.

Yet we look around this world of ours, a world of bloodshed, of famine, of terror and fear, and we know that we will not live in the Messianic age for a long time to come. Where is it written that the Messiah would bring not peace but war, not love but hate?

If anyone will show us the path to that world of peace, it will not be the statesmen or the warriors but the poets and the singers of songs.

Theodore Bikel is a part-time folk singer, theater, film and television actor, radio host and a full time national treasure.

Elul 9
If You Wish to Believe, Love!
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
One of life’s most profound lessons came to me when I was a boy. My parents separated, and my father brought a new puppy into his apartment and into our lives. I responded with guilt, wouldn’t loving this puppy betray the older dog I already loved? My father assured me that our hearts can hold an infinite amount of love: love is never displaced by additional love; it is enhanced, because all of our different loves are expressions of the one embracing love.That same simple lesson emerges from Jewish teaching as well. The great Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, teaches, “Whether one really loves God can be determined by the love borne toward others.” The philosopher Martin Buber insists, “If you wish to believe, love! He who loves brings God and the world together.” Our hearts can hold an infinite amount of love.

Our job, during the month of Elul and throughout our lives, is to increase love in the world for ourselves, for each other, for the marginalized and forgotten, for creation and for the Holy One.

If you wish to believe, love!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Elul 8
Embracing the Darkness
Jacob Artson
Barchu is a prayer we can say only in a minyan. There is great wisdom in starting our service by praising God together, because all Jews reflect a different face of God and so we really can’t praise God fully unless we do it together in a group.After the Barchu, we praise God for creating light and darkness. I love that image because it means that both the triumphs and the failures are a praise of God since God creates both light and darkness, life and peace come from recognizing that all experiences, negative or positive, are an opportunity to be Godly.

I will try to always remember that even the darkness is a reflection of God s world so we don t have to fear it, we can embrace it as part of the journey of life in God s beautiful world.

Jacob Artson is a 13-year-old student at Orville Wright Middle School. A boy with autism, he is committed to helping typical and special needs people live lives of dignity and meaning.

Elul 7
Simple Words of Kindness
Helene Berger
There are times when a simple expression of appreciation can change the course of another’s life. My own life has been filled with a treasure trove of feedback from such moments. A woman, whom I do not recognize, rushes up to me in the halls of a Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly and says, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but 10 years ago at a GA you came up to me after a meeting with encouraging words making me feel that I had something special to contribute and should not waste it. I was hoping I would see you here to let you know that I am now the President of our Women’s Division. Without your words of support, I know that I would never have thought of myself as a potential leader and I wanted to thank you.”We are each the recipients of a rich and glorious heritage. We are each links in a continuing chain and take with us all the past centuries of scholars and prophets, all the great learning of Talmud and Torah. The charge to transmit this heritage is so daunting that we often shrink away from the challenge. Sometimes, even more important than the example we set by the choices we have made in our own lives, it is the smallest act of encouragement or recognition we offer another that waters a seed and allows it to flower. We never know which conversation will change someone’s life… forever.

The next time you recognize talent, acknowledge it, nurture it, and offer the positive words of support that have the potential to connect another to a vibrant, pulsating, alive Jewish world.

Helene Berger, Immediate Past Chair of JESNA the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Elul 6
Head Changing Day
Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Rosh Hashanah is “Head (rosh) Changing (shenah) Day.” You can’t have a new year with an old head. So if you want a new year, you are going to need to get a new head.A new head is a story-free head. Your stories define you. If your stories are positive and loving then you are optimistic and loving. If your stories are negative and fearful, then you are angry and afraid. Regardless of their emotional charge, however, stories are not reality.

A new head is story-free. A new head engages reality with compassionate curiosity, going into what is without the baggage of what was or what is supposed to be.

If you want a new head, identify the stories you carry with you. Ask yourself: “Am I absolutely certain this story is true?” “How does telling this story make me feel?” If you are telling stories you don’t know to be true, stop telling them. If telling your stories makes you anything other than just, kind, and humble, stop telling them. In fact, stop telling stories altogether.

Who are you without your story? You don’t know, and not knowing is the key to having a new head.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award winning poet and essayist, whose liturgical writings are used in prayer services throughout North America.

Elul 5
A Dress Rehearsal
Frank Meisler
A driving rain has turned the waves and the sky into one darkness. The coastal road is empty, traffic lights signal to each other in a secret code. Tel Aviv rehearses the Yom Kippur that is to be performed again this year.On the CD I listen again to the gypsies who sang for me once in Moscow. Imagining myself to be Uncle Vanya that night I had thrown my glass of wine against the wall.

The singer, dark, with downcast eyes turns fiercely beautiful when the music possesses her. The male guitarist looks like a bank clerk on the take. Their voices combine rising to a scream of pain, fall to a whisper and retain their passion even when the silence is almost total. The others, guitar and violin for background music wear professional smiles and gold teeth.

It is written in my will that when I die they are to walk behind me and play. Their plaintive voices will be my defense for all that I have done and for all that I should have done.

God too will arrive with an orchestra, large and loud, it will play Mahler to drown out the questions I will ask Him and the answers He will not give.

Frank Meisler is a world-renowned Israeli sculptor.

Elul 4
The Strength and Weakness of Diamond
Stuart M. Matlins
Diamond is the hardest of gems. It can leave its mark on all the others, but nothing can mar its surface. It can survive great heat and pressure while exhibiting a beauty that can last an eternity. Despite this, a simple internal fracture, a single flaw, can cause its destruction; a sharp blow in the right place can break this hardest of substances apart.In our life as a People over thousands of years, given the strength of diamond by God, how many times have we allowed hatred among the Jewish People to cause internal fractures that have allowed others to shatter us easily? Tisha B’av and its lessons are just a few days behind us, yet look at how we behave today.

In our own lives, how many times have we allowed ethical and spiritual flaws to form internal fractures that have caused us to shatter ourselves, and have permitted others to shatter us?

But, unlike the diamond, we can repair ourselves – personally and as a People. God has given us the power of t’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedakah. God has given us the mind, heart and strength – and the wisdom of Torah and our ancient and modern sages – to use as tools for self-repair. The power is not in heaven. It is already within us. We can use it.

Elul is the time to seek out our flaws, to heal ourselves as people and as a People.

Stuart M. Matlins is the editor in chief and publisher of Jewish Lights Publishing.

Elul 3
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine
Douglas Rushkoff
It always struck me as a bit odd that the month of Elul, coming right before the High Holidays, should be an acronym for such a seemingly romantic sentiment. My beloved? It was enough to convince my wife and me to be married in the month of Elul, and to have an opportunity to reflect a bit on holy union.And then it all began to make sense. The purity with which we are supposed to come to our wedding – after a day of fasting, and, for the man, in the pure white robe, or kittel – is the same purity we are to bring to stand before God on Yom Kippur or, finally, to the grave.

These ritualistic tokens of purity are not about suffering or atonement; they are about coming to a lover with a pure heart, uncomplicated by ulterior motives or worldly concerns. We are learning how not to get in the way of whatever our beloved may want or need of us. We make our self an offering. Indeed, we are our beloved’s. We surrender to our mate, as to our God, in a pure expression of love.

So why not spend a day with your loved ones, bringing no expectations, no history, and no baggage along with you? Just one day, from morning to night, as if you were born for no other reason than to belong to your beloved?

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of twelve books, including Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism.

Elul 2
Hiding Places
Rabbi Alvin Mars
A rabbi hears his little daughter crying, and finally finds her hiding in the closet. When he asks the child why she is crying, she tells him that she was playing hide and seek with the other children. “I’ve been hiding in here so long and no one is coming to look for me,” she sobbed.“Now, my dear child” says the father, “you can begin to understand how God, the Kadosh Baruch Hu, who is hidden from us, must feel when no one seeks to find Him.”

I first read this story in The Longer Shorter Way by Adin Steinsaltz, and it often comes to mind as I meditate on the words of Psalm 27, the Psalm recited from the beginning of Elul through Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, about seven weeks later. The days of Elul signal the beginning of my introspection, a time when I look inward and outward to take account of my words and actions, when I search the crevices of my soul to find God, who is “my light and salvation,” in the darkest hiding places.

Rabbi Alvin Mars, Ph.D. is the director of the JCC Association of North America’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education.

Elul 1
Letting the Light In
Esther Netter
When is the right moment to sit and contemplate the difficult times we encounter? Why don’t I just get in touch with those things that are painful to think about, very real, hard to stay focused on?   How do I set aside time for inner reflection, slowing down enough to notice those thoughts and feelings that cause discomfort and even agitation.Elul is a time for thinking about the “whens” the “whys” and the “hows.” It is the new year that affords us this opportunity, even demands it of us. To move forward, to heal, to forgive, to grow so that we are the most and the best we can be for the new year.

A friend, gently encouraging me to ask the “whens, whys and hows”, shared a favorite quote from lyricist Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

When do we focus on the cracks? How do we heal those cracks in our lives and hearts? Why do we leave those cracks unattended only to grow and deepen? We all have cracks in our live. Take the time to recognize them and remember, it is through the cracks that the light shines through. May this month bring each of us more light and illumination.

Esther Netter is the executive director of the Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles.