2010 / 5770

2010 / 5770

 

 

A Note From Craig
Tradition has it that it is now, during these “middle days”, that our lives are held in balance.

The following note is from Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of the Beit T’shuvah. This organization is the recipient of donations for this year’s Jewels of Elul. If you have been moved by even one of the Jewels this year, I request that you consider making a donation to support Mark and his life saving work.

My sincere thanks to the 29 contributors who gave us the wonderful content for this years Jewels. Gratitude, to our generous sponsors, Judy and Tom Flesh,The Gore Family, Kathy and Dennis Gura, Mannon Kaplan, Rabbi Steven Lowenstein and Alan Wiseman who made the project possible. Finally, a huge shout out to Amanda Greene, Michael Crowley, Rick Lupert. Rachel Leah Cohen, Hannah Rubin-Schlansky, Leah Jones, Avi Kaplan and Rabbi Rafael Goldstein whose efforts over the past 3 months brought the Jewels to life.

Shana Tova. to a very good year!

Craig Taubman


A Final Jewel
This year, the Jewels of Elul has presented us with the stories and challenges people have faced by beginning anew.

Judaism and every other Spiritual Discipline shout at us to Begin Anew. Each day when we wake, we say a prayer that thanks God for returning our souls to us with compassion and extols God’s faithfulness.

We have to take this prayer and begin each day new. The way to do this is to repair the damages we may have done the day before and enhance the positive we have done. We do this so that we can be at least one grain of sand better today than we were yesterday. This is not about perfection, it is about being human and improving our humanity each and every day.

You have the power to do this, I have the power to do this.

As the Rabbi of Beit T’shuvah a residential treatment and recovery center, every day I join hundreds of people on their struggle to begin begin their lives again free of drugs, alcohol and addiction. People like David S., John, George,Yeheil, RIna, and Tova.

Tens of thousands of people like you who have read the Jewels of Elul this year will see this note. Please join me and help to save and change lives, by giving what you can to help others recover their Dignity and Humanity.

Give what you can. http://www.beittshuvah.org/Donations Thank you.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz


Elul 29
An Elul Moment
Rabbi Shelly Dorph
Al Ta’azvenu B’et Ziknah

Adonai, do not leave us in our old age.

When I turned 50, I went for a walk on the Santa Monica beach. As I watched the endless waves roll in, I reflected on the fact that nothing more serious than having my tonsils removed had occurred in my first blessed 50 years. I said to myself, “You know Shelly, that everyone gets their share of pain and suffering in life, so I guess yours is yet to come. I hope and pray that you will have the fortitude and presence of mind not only to bear and survive it, but to also give strength and support to your family and demonstrate how one handles the pain and suffering which are part of living.”

Over the next 20 years, I have had 4 medical opportunities to practice this “art of living”. When I lost my beloved job as National Ramah Director, my concern was similar. How do I handle this loss in a way that would teach my grown children not to turn my loss into a rejection of Jewish communal service in general, and about the value of Ramah in particular?

Through these life experiences, I have come to believe that one’s reaction to life’s inevitable crises is perhaps the most valuable legacy one can give to his offspring and family.

Dr. Sheldon Dorph is a Rabbi, teacher, husband, father and proud grandfather.


Elul 28
So Many Blessings
Rabbi Billy Dreskin
My daughter Katie and I were trying to navigate our way to a restaurant located one state over. The phone’s GPS had given out and we were lost (typical when I’m driving). I then decided to let my instincts guide me (a very foolish choice) and, to me and my daughter’s endless surprise, somehow found a stunningly direct route to the restaurant. Katie remarked, “In what lifetime could you ever have found this on your own?”

My 19-year-old son Jonah had died only a month earlier. This was actually one of his favorite restaurants. Katie and I had decided to go there in his memory. And we were certainly wondering if he had played some role in guiding us there.

A year and a half since Jonah’s death, I’m now beginning to understand my process of grief and recovery. Each and every day, I ache a bit, I cry a bit, and I take a tiny step forward back into my life. Sometimes it’s to look for evidence that Jonah is still with me – either metaphysically by my side, or profoundly resident deep within my heart – and sometimes it’s to live a moment or two without his laying claim to my entire spirit (sometimes I’m actually able to come out from under the shadow of my life without him).

Each of us is the recipient of so many blessings. But being fragile, being breakable, not every moment’s going to be blessed. After the hurt, I think we pick ourselves up, limp if we have to, and (step by step) get back onto our path. We begin again. After all, the blessings haven’t gone away.

And no matter how poor our navigational abilities, no matter what route we select, before long we’re bound to bump into a blessing or two.

Billy Dreskin is the rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY. For more about Jonah visit jonahmaccabee.blogspot.com


Elul 27
To Hear God’s Call
Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe
The first time I heard God’s call was at my Bat Mitzvah.

I chanted my Haftorah, read the prayers, and spoke in front of the entire congregation.  When I finished, I noticed that there was not a single dry eye in the synagogue. What made my simcha different from others? I did not feel different. Certainly I was as nervous as anyone else following the many months of preparation for this day. But for those watching me, I was different. I was born into the graceful world of silence. And, while I may not fully hear the sounds of music or the human voice, I am able to experience love, joy, sorrow, and pain. I have been blessed as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister. How different can I be?

Approximately 20% of Jews have disabilities and many of them remain apart from the Jewish community. However, our doors are not completely open. The biggest challenges faced are not those overcome by providing access ramps or by making any special accommodations. The obstacles are those created by ignorance and the misconceptions that people may have toward those with disabilities. Indeed, it is easy to forget that NO ONE is created perfect, but rather quite different. We are all created in B’tselem Elohim (God’s image).

Truthfully, my friends with disabilities have heard God’s call many times.  With determination to overcome our own challenges, the attitude is to greet each new day as a new beginning – as a celebration of life, blessings, and gratitude. We see ourselves as complete human beings- others do not.  They have not yet heard God’s call.

I yearn for others to hear God’s call …the day when the doors of the Jewish community are open wide enough to welcome all of God’s children.

Rebecca L. Dubowe serves as a rabbi at Temple Adat Elohim in California. www.adatelohim.org


Elul 26
The Physicist As Novelist
Alan Lightman
From an early age, my creative passions have been equally divided between the sciences and the arts. In childhood, I built rockets and remote control devices and had a small laboratory attached to my bedroom. I also wrote poetry and short stories. My friends divided into two categories: the rational, deliberate types, and the intuitive, spontaneous types. Friends, teachers, and family told me that I had to go in one direction or the other. I could be a scientist, or a writer, but not both.

I decided to concentrate on science. I got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and established myself in a scientific career. I did research. I taught physics at major universities. I went to scientific conferences. I loved discovering new things about the physical universe that no one had known before me. But something in me was not satisfied. I was not able to express my individuality. Science, as exhilarating as it is, offers little comfort to anyone who aches to leave behind a personal message in his or her work. Experiments in science are accepted only if they can be reproduced by anyone in the world. Equations are valid only if they can be rederived by others. If Einstein had never lived, someone else would have invented the theory of relativity, but if Beethoven had never lived, we would never have had the C-minor Symphony.

As I approached my late 30s, my anxiety grew so great that I became almost paralyzed. I could not see how to get from where I was, safely embraced by the community of scientists, to a career as a writer. I began writing essays. At first, my essays were about science, but eventually they lifted off from that familiar territory and began exploring human drama. Finally, I summoned the courage to leave the scientific community altogether and to join the community of writers. I am not sure if I reinvented myself or simply listened to the voices that were always within me.

Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist and Professor of Humanities at MIT.


Elul 25
The Art of Beginning
Marla J. Feldman
I have been blessed with a diverse career, from pulpits in Florida to Jewish agencies in Detroit, to the national Jewish public affairs scene and, now, development. With each new opportunity I made cherished friends, worked with treasured colleagues, picked up new skills, and grew a little more.

While many of these changes were by choice, some were thrust upon me by circumstances beyond my control. Twice, jobs that I loved ended due to a failing economy. Once I took a new position to be closer to my ailing mother, only to have her pass away on the very day of my move. Personal health issues dictated other career choices.

Of course, I’ve had moments of anger and sadness, and times when I struggled with the loss of a dream that had not yet been replaced with a new dream. During those times, I found comfort and wisdom in Jewish texts and discovered role models in our ancestors. Standing with Moses atop Mt. Nebo, knowing he would never reach the Promised Land, I imagined his pain.

Yet, despite that moment of despair, I believe he would have found comfort knowing that his life had merit and found pride in those he inspired to continue the journey for him. Stricken with illness, I feel Miriam’s vulnerability as she is forced outside the safety of the camp. Yet I imagine that there were others to greet and comfort her among the outcasts, and there she found a new community to accompany her as she continued her journey.

Like Miriam and Moses, looking back, I see that each new beginning was part of a journey that led to a terrific place in my life. I am grateful for each step along the way, and all of the fellow travelers who have shared the path with me.

Marla J. Feldman, a rabbi and a lawyer, is the Director of Development of the Union for Reform Judaism. www.urj.org


Elul 24
Onward and Upward
Jason Raede
In November, I am getting drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.

By then I will be 22 years old, with a degree from a prestigious university. But, I’m putting all of this on hold to do what I feel I am obligated to do.

I wasn’t born in Israel; my parents aren’t Israeli; I didn’t even visit Israel until I was 16 years old. But during my time in Israel, including living and studying in Jerusalem for my third year of university, I realized why Israel allows all Jews to become citizens under the right of return. Israel truly is the Jewish state, just as Italy is the Italian state and Japan is the Japanese state. And being a Jew, ethnically, religiously, culturally, or otherwise, means that Israel is my homeland.

An ex-special forces officer told me that in order to get through my service, I have to believe in something greater than myself. And I am proud to say that I firmly believe in the State of Israel. Regardless of the freedoms we experience in America, the only place where I can say without a doubt that Jews will never be persecuted is Israel.

This is why I am making Aliyah and leaving everything I have in California to volunteer for the IDF. I am going in order to protect that certainty – that no matter what happens elsewhere, my family and I can always go to Israel and be welcomed. My parents and younger brother, as worried as they are, understand this, and have been behind me every step of the way.

Of course I love Israeli culture, and Israeli food, and all the friends that I have there. But without security, none of those things would exist. I’m willing to do my part, however small it may end up being.

Jason Raede is a professional web developer and musician. www.jasonraede.com


Elul 23
WOW
Nofrat Frenkel
On the first day of the month of Kislev, I prayed Shacharit, as usual, wearing my talith at the Kotel, together with my friends from Women of the Wall (WOW).

But this time, the prayer ended differently. I was aggressively arrested and a criminal file opened under my name. Israeli law claims that the punishment for a Jewish female, who prays at the Kotel while fulfilling a mitzvah from the Torah – (wearing a talith, putting on teffilin, reading from the Torah) is six months in jail. Besides the severe discrimination among males and females, this ruling has strengthened the unshakable Haredi control over Jewish life in Israel, and denies the freedom of worship.

Because of my criminal record, my future license to practice medicine is in danger. But something good has came out of it as well – the struggle of WOW was re-awakened. At first, I was afraid. As a small group of ordinary people, our struggle is going to be long and hard, against factions with tremendous political power.

How can we face them? It was the global support we received that put the wind in our sails. After my arrest, Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora understood that we have to win this battle by foot. Men and women, from all sects of Judaism, have arrived monthly to pray with WOW at the Kotel and insist on their right for freedom of worship.

The hope in our hearts has awakened again. The hope that our children will be worthy, if G-D’s will, to live in a state that inscribes on its flag the belief in human rights with no discrimination among different sects of one religion, among males and females, among all of those created in G-D’s image.

Nofrat Frenkel is a fifth-year medical student at Ben-Gurion University. www.womenofthewall.org.il


Elul 22
Like Salt on Meat
Mia Goldman
How does one begin again from rape?  It had always been my greatest fear, but then again, it is an instinctive fear for all women.  It crosses all boundaries – race, culture, class, and geography.

I was on location on a film when an angry young man stalked me. I woke up with him on top of me. He said, “If you make a sound, I will blow your brains out.”  He beat me, threatened me, and even had a knife. It went on for hours.  He wanted to kill me.  Luckily years of therapy helped me talk him out of it.  I was lucky.

How do we survive trauma?  How do we “begin again?”  By muddling through.  By finding meaning – meaning in what we have gone through.  We are all unique and have our own path.  Trauma is an opportunity to find out what we are made of.  “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  It’s true.

“Suffering in life is like salt on meat, a little can make it tender, but too much can ruin it.”  I was able to survive and conquer the wounds because of my belief in life and all the gifts I’d been given.  I couldn’t let evil win.  I couldn’t let chaos rob me of life.

Choose humanity, choose hope, and choose to use the pain, by transforming it into something of meaning.

I made a film to help others, to make them not feel that empty aloneness that trauma engenders, to make them see that there is a path through it.  It’s safer to dive into the wave than to try to outswim it.  It’s how we choose to meet trauma that defines us-that is the key to beginning again.

Mia Goldman is the director of the film, “Open Window.”


Elul 21
The Embrace of Failure
Marshall Herskovitz
Robert Bly once wrote that failure is a necessary part of the life of any man, and over many years – and many failures – I’ve come to see that he was right. Failure is freeing, failure is bracing. Failure makes you alive. I now understand, in fact, that my life and career have followed a distinct pattern:

Success. Complacency. Failure. Struggle. Breakthrough. Success.

It started in film school, when I landed my first TV writing job — and wrote the script in a haze of self-congratulation — only to find that the producers hated it. Failure number one. I then spent several years in despair, hustling for jobs on bad television shows, realizing finally that I was failing because I wasn’t writing in my own voice. That was the first time I felt that sense of unexpected exhilaration when your back is against the wall – and you discover you have courage after all. With nothing to lose, I renounced my career as a TV writer and wrote a screenplay. In my own voice. And everything changed. People loved the script, studios offered deals. I was made. Until I failed again, and had to find the courage – again – to write from my authentic self. And the result this time was “thirtysomething”, from whose success I assumed – finally! – I must be immune to failure. Until my first film as a director bombed – and the process had to begin again.

And so it has continued, for thirty years. I welcome the rhythm now, the struggle, the renewal, the euphoria, and yes, even the despair – because I understand that this is the rhythm of art, of life. Failure is not the opposite of success – they’re part of the same thing. The opposite of failure is death.

Marshall Herskovitz is a film director, writer, producer and president of the Producers Guild of America. www.producedbyconference.com/marshall_herskovitz.html


Elul 20
First Steps
Ketra Oberlander
In my late thirties my vision deteriorated; by 40 I was blind.  I picked up a paintbrush and my life changed. Just a slice of my philosophy:  there’s no problem so big you can’t give your way out of it.  My needs are met. So, if I can barely see, I just don’t need the level of detail in my world most folks need (I do, however, carry a tube of hand sanitizer because we blind folk touch a lot of gross stuff.)  My challenge, as a sentient being, is to understand the gifts I have to share, despite my limitation.

People like my paintings; when I have a chance to show them, the work sells well.  As I began to seriously consider an art career I hit the physical barriers of a physical disability:  I had a physics problem.

How can I serve? How can I give my way out of my own difficulties?  I began investigating ways to prosper as an artist while circumnavigating the physics of art.  I touched on licensing and had an epiphany:  if rights management of the art worked for me, it could solve the same problem for other physically disabled artists!  I could build a scalable model to help others!

Most faiths have a story of the hapless dude who God chooses.  God says, “You” and the dude looks around, “Me?” he wonders.  “I have flaws.  I have problems.  You’re God and can pick anyone.  And you want me?”  The hapless dude who answers the call takes the first, shaky step.  The resource he needs appears.  Then he takes the next step and through a confluence of mystery, at each step the elements to advance his mission are provided.

That’s now my story, too.  I had to take those first (and many subsequent) steps.  Through helping others my own difficulties are transcended.  Now I have problems in areas where I didn’t used to have areas!

Ketra Oberlander founded Art of Possibility Studios to represent physically disabled artists. www.aopstudios.com


Elul 19
Promises
Noah Alper
In May, 1969 when I was a senior at the University of Wisconsin, I was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. The Vietnam War was raging and Madison, WI was an epicenter of anti-war furor.  Fear of being drafted into a war I didn’t believe in, combined with old personal issues and a steady diet of psychedelics, sent me barreling over the edge.

One day, while confined to the maximum-security ward, I peered out a small bathroom window through a dense security screen. As I looked out towards the leafy manicured grounds, I made a vow that someday I would rejoin “The Outside” and escape the imprisonment of my own thoughts. After getting out of the hospital in February 1970, I fell in love… with a rough-hewn salad bowl. That love led to the development of my first business, the Alper Wooden Bowl Company. My entrepreneurial passion led to the creation of five more ventures, including Noah’s Bagels, the largest kosher retailer in the United States.

In 1996 Noah’s was sold for $100 million. The sale allowed me to realize my dream to study at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, while my sons attended Israeli public school, and my wife did volunteer work. Soon after our arrival, in Elul, I was sitting in Yakar, a neighborhood synagogue, during Kabbalat Shabbat services. Surrounded by ecstatic singing, clapping, and faces filled with joy, my gaze was drawn outside through a window covered by wrought-iron bars. I looked at the rustling leaves of a tree, and was emotionally transported back to the bathroom at the hospital.

The promise I had made to myself half a lifetime ago was fulfilled. I had returned to the green verdant world to build a family, a career, and a future.

Noah Alper is a serial entrepreneur, a business consultant and author. www.businessmensch.net


Elul 18
Woman Plans, G-d Laughs
Michelle Citrin
My parents never encouraged me to make my dream come true of being a rock star. Instead, they did everything they could to discourage me by saying, “ It’s a tough business, don’t get involved.” Little did they know, this “advice” became the fuel I needed to propel my 14-year-old rebellious self into pursuing my dreams.

Years later, as a full-time independent artist, I’ve come to realize that my parents may have been correct. The music industry is tough. However, I’ve learned a more important lesson – life is tough. You never know where the obstacle course will lead you and you can’t always map out your success.

There is a Yiddish expression my grandparents told me when I was young – Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht – Man plans and G-d Laughs. And as a self-admitted perfectionist, I plan. I plan all the time. And when I’m done planning, I plan some more.  But in my life’s to-do list, not once did I ever jot down that I would become known around the world as “Matzah Girl,” that my songs stemming from some of the darkest moments of life would be sung as inspirational songs in synagogues around the country, or that I would be scoring a Broadway musical.

In life, we will all face closed doors, disappointments and bumps in the road. This is a guaranteed inevitability that is beyond our control. But what we can control is what we do with these moments. Do we treat them as ends of the road? Or are they opportunities to take a new direction? Our dreams are here to guide us but we should leave space for those dreams to expand, for what’s in store for us, may be greater than anything imagined.

Michelle Citrin is a songwriter who is currently scoring the Broadway production of “Sleepless in Seattle.” www.michellecitrin.com


Elul 17
New Beginnings
David Shapiro
The thought has always occurred to me what I might do given the opportunity to start anew, wipe the slate clean so to speak. The truth of the matter is, I can’t wipe the slate clean. What’s done is done. But, I can have a new beginning.

It took me many years to realize that we can restart at any time. Accept the past for what it was and do our best not to repeat it. For me, that meant changing the things I did and also the way I acted towards my fellow human beings.

Looking at life from the inside to the outside meant that I could separate the two. From the very minute I was arrested and placed in the back seat of the police car, looking out on to the street, I had to start a new beginning.

Where it starts and where it all comes together is truly amazing.

My new beginning meant finding out about my heritage. I read A History of the Jews and it made me proud and angry at the same time. Proud that as a Jew I was supposed to be a beacon of light, at the very least to my brothers and sisters. Angry that I had been a terrible influence, a poison.

The change for me was amazing. And that’s not to say that I still don’t get thoughts that are unbecoming, but now they are overpowered by love of life and faith in G-d.

No matter where we are, it’s where we’re supposed to be. What’s most important is that throughout my life, regardless of where I was, I was always locked up inside my head. Now, I am no longer locked up and it is fresh and exciting to see things as if it was all brand new.

David Shapiro is 47 years old and served 27 months for drug possession. He came to Beit T’Shuvah as a way to start over.


Elul 16
The Meaning of No
Noah Tishby
“Starting over means forgetting all the “Nos”.

I live in L.A. and work in what is commonly referred to as Hollywood. We get a lot of “Nos” in Hollywood. For example, I got a “No thanks” from an agency the other day. I got a “Not sure” from participants in a documentary I am working on, after I had already sold it to a network. I even got a “No” from Steven Spielberg when I tried to tell him about a movie we should be doing together. Well, he didn’t actually say “No,” but rather, “Sure, at some point I will listen to what you have to say…” which in Hollywood lingo, means no.

Life is not about whether or not I am going to get a “No”, because there is NO life that exists without hearing “No” at some point. Life is a game, and there is no game without an obstacle.

I tend to judge my life not by how I am when things are smooth and easy, but how I deal with the curveballs.

Most of the time we get told “No” and then fall apart a little (or a lot) after which we adjust our game to avoid said fall recurring i.e.: “I am never going to do X again, I can’t take another NO.”

For me, the key to starting over without being affected by the rejections of the past, is in completely letting go of the “Nos” and getting right back in the game. It’s not simple – but it is doable.

So as I looked at Mr. Spielberg walking away, smiling and uttering politely to me, “Very nice to meet you.” I allowed that little sense of disappointment to come up, didn’t resist it – just acknowledged it, felt it – and then let it go. Steven, to me “No” only means not now. And when the time is right, trust me, I know where to find you.

Noa Tishby is an Israeli actress, writer and producer. www.noatishby.com


Elul 15
Lifelong Journeys
Imam Jihad Turk
My 16-year-old sister, Samira, had been complaining of a migraine headache for about a week. I was 12. When the doctors finally figured out it was actually a viral encephalitis, she was already in a coma. Three weeks later, and after trials with experimental medication, she finally came around but had lost the memory of her entire childhood. She didn’t know who she was or who we were as her family.

On that day, I lost my sister, but was given a new one. Here she was with a chance to start again and I was right there with her. Although she has never regained her memory, together, we embarked on a lifelong journey to rebuild our relationship and her world, but with a renewed appreciation of life and its precarious nature.

Like so many these days, my parents divorced. I was 17 and it shook my world. In short, my Christian-American mother and Muslim-Palestinian father had cultural and communication issues that were left unresolved. The added pressure of my sister’s illness ultimately resulted in their split. From my perspective, this motivated me to look inward, to discover who I was and what is ultimately important in life.

I began a spiritual journey that not only led me to reconnect with God and to value family, but also took me around the world to study in seminary in Medina, Saudi Arabia and Qum, Iran.

My journey, however, did not result in a narrowed view of the world, but one that embraces diversity and acknowledges the Divine in each human being.

I have dedicated my life’s journey to positioning religion as a force for good in the world.

Imam Jihad Turk is the Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California. www.icsconline.org


Elul 14
Seven Years In A Moment
Rabbi Alysa Stanton
A rendition of Psalms 150 “Halleluyah” graced the eardrums of the seats filled with smiling faces and victors. I faintly smiled and was whisked away by nostalgia, as the lull of the soft melody danced within my being. The moment had come where the splendor of this melody’s tune met the triumph and completion of a seven-year journey. As the song played on, I was reminded of its meaning to me. It had taught me that praise and thanksgiving outweighs defeat and despair. Darkness cannot help but yield to light when the choice is made to live in an atmosphere of praise and gratitude.

I was jolted out of my trance when I heard my cue, “Eliana Alyzah Bat Avraham.” It was at this moment I felt the pain, struggles, and obstacles overtaken by the vast power of victory and joy.

Through tear-filled eyes of gratitude, I looked up at the Ner Tamid and quietly said, “Thank you G-d…Thank you.” I ascended the stairs of the bimah. The chains and locks of defeat that bound me over the years dissipated into the light of triumph.

In awe, I felt the cloak of G-d’s sovereignty, love, and anointing envelope my being. Hands were placed upon my shoulders as the Priestly Benediction was recited. I then heard “I am honored to call you Rabbi.” Those powerful words closed one long chapter of my life and opened another. With my new cloak snuggly wrapped around me, I stepped down those stairs and onto the path that was divinely laid before me. The journey of hope, faith, and obedience to the One.

Rabbi Alysa Stanton is the first African-American female rabbi. www.baytshalom.org


Elul 13
Hineni
Daniel Schifrin
Throughout the Bible, God asks our prophetic ancestors: “Where are you?” “Hineni,” they answer: “Here I am.” The question is not a geographic one, but an existential one. Not just “Who are you?” but “What are you?” Or even: “Are you?”

“Where are you?” my wife Abby asked me, eight centimeters into our son Aviv’s birth, as I fell to the ground in utter bewilderment. “Here I am,” I tried to say before I blacked out. Ten minutes later, an icebag on my head, I collected myself so I could be present for the last hour of the birth.

Despite being absent for only a few minutes, my feeling of failure gnawed at me. Over the next two years I asked myself over and over: “Who was I that I couldn’t have stayed conscious enough to help, much less say the words ‘Here I am’?”

It was with an existentially overloaded agenda that I walked Abby into the hospital 33 months later, our second child ready to pop. What would the price of failure be this time if I couldn’t answer the call? Strangely enough, it was the certainty of my imminent failure that saved me. I knew that fainting was certain, and I ceded control to whomever or whatever had wired me genetically. At the same time, I knew that I had done everything I could to prepare myself for this moment.

At 2 AM, my wife and our baby both reaffirming the thin line between life and death, I told Abby I was going to sit down and faint, and that I would be back soon. I was as good as my word. The nausea, the headache, the disorientation was just the same as before. But Abby knew where I was; knew what I was. And, most importantly, so did I.

Daniel Schifrin is Director of Public Programs and Writer in Residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. www.thecjm.org


Elul 12
My Changing World
Sari Brandes
My safta wanted great grandchildren more than anything. In fact, when I was in my early twenties she sat me down and told me that the world was changing and that I no longer had to have a husband to give her great-grandchildren, that today I could have them on my own and find the right man to marry later.

At the time I laughed, but now I understand the wisdom she held, and know that she is so proud of us.

I have always known that I was meant to be a mother and while I thought I would have two children, I never imagined you would both come at once to complete our family. The idea of twins is overwhelming at times. I love the fact that I have you both and that you will always have each other. You are a blessing that I could not have imagined.

My mother, Susie, or as you will call her, Lala, has taught me many things. The first is that many hands make light work. I have many people who will lend their hands and help me raise you both to be good and loving people, who care for those around them and give back in meaningful ways. The second lesson was to count my blessings. We have too many to count, but the love they bestow on us all is real.

My hope is that you be lifelong best friends. That you support one another and lift each other up rather than compete. That you share your lives and your secrets. That you use each other as sounding boards and keep each other on track and moving forward. And when life gets challenging, that you know that you have both me and each other to help guide and support you.

Sari Brandes is a life and learning coach and proud mother of twins. www.saribrandes.com


Elul 11
Happy Birthday, Humanity
Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
Contrary to the popular belief, Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate the creation of the world. Rather, it commemorates the sixth day of creation, the day Adam was created. It is of interest that in the creation of man, G-d said, “Let us create man?” Whose participation was G-d seeking? The Baal Shem Tov explained that both animals and angels were created in a state of completion. Angels do not grow at all, and although animals do grow, they do not voluntarily change themselves. The transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly or a tadpole to a frog is programmed in their genes. They do not voluntarily make this transformation and are powerless to stop it.

G-d now desired a different creature, not totally physical like an animal nor completely spiritual like an angel. Rather, this was to be a creature that comes into the world completely physical, but by one’s sheer effort develops spiritually. For this, G-d required man’s participation. It is as if G-d said, “I can create you completely spiritual, but then you will be just another angel. I will create you physical, but with the potential to become spiritual by your own effort.” G-d was seeking man’s participation in his own creation. Therefore, G-d said to man, “Let us make man. I will give you the potential, and you must develop it.” Thus, Rosh Hashanah is our beginning.

If we develop only intellectually, with technologic and even scientific advancements, but neglect our spiritual development, we will be self-centered hominoids, with just a higher intellect than chimpanzees. To do our part in creation, to be the true human beings that G-d intended, we must be masters over our physicality rather than slaves to it. Spiritual development enables us to give of ourselves to others. Angels were created spiritual. Man has the ability to achieve a status higher than angels, because his spirituality is the result of his own efforts.

Abraham J. Twerski is an American Hasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse. www.abrahamtwerski.com


Elul 10
In The Ring
Yuri Foreman
No matter how many fights I have under my belt, each and every fight is a new challenge and a new beginning.

Before each fight, I go through the same fears and emotions in the dressing room. What if I lose? What if I didn’t train hard enough? Why do I have to go through this again?

12 rounds, 3 minutes each round.

I try to conquer my opponent and myself. Round after round I hope that I move forward, closer to my goal.

Victory it is! I realize that G-d blessed me again with success and inner strength.

Win or lose the fight never ends. In the ring or outside the ring. Sometimes we find ourselves in tough situations. Sometimes life hits us so hard that we find ourselves lying on our backs.

In those moments we must find every bit of our energy to get back on our feet and continue the “fight,” and turn around what seems to be an end, into a new beginning.

Yuri Foreman, born in Belarus, is a an Israeli professional boxer. www.yuriforeman.com


Elul 9
So Why Don’t You Have a Beard?
Rabbi Shlomo RIskin
It was February 7, 1984, and I was pacing the office of the Chief Sefardi Rabbi in Jerusalem. I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I was at the point of tears; I felt like my dream of Aliyah was turning into a nightmare. I had come with my family six months before, after having labored towards the establishment of Efrat for 8 years. We had managed to happily settle 65 families in their homes. So what was my problem?

From the initial moment of my involvement in Efrat, my heart was set on becoming its Rav. The Rabbinical Secretary had been singularly unfriendly muttering under his breath that I certainly would not qualify. When I complained to the Chief Rabbi, he guaranteed that I would be tested, but warned me that they are unalterably opposed to a city Rabbi without a beard.

Finally, ushered into the office, I was beset with questions concerning the building of a mikvah and the construction of an eruv, which I answered easily. And then, from left field, the Chief Rabbi asked from the Laws of Divorce: “What if a wife says she finds her husband distasteful?”

Well, that was my Ph.D and the main topic of my book on, women and Jewish divorce. I discussed the topic in depth – the examiner rose, kissed my forehead, and said, “Mazal Tov! We didn’t think you would pass.”

As I shook their hands, they asked together, “So why don’t you have
a beard?” “In order to maintain marital happiness, since my wife detests beards,” and then I added the Yiddish proverb, “A Jew without a beard is better than a beard without a Jew.”

So began my new beginning as a middle-aged Rav in Israel. It is clear to me that everything that happened was directed by the G-d who remains in control and who directs both questions and answers.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin serves as the founding Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel. www.ohrtorahstone.org.il


Elul 8
Write or You’re Wrong
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Writing sermons brings a myriad of emotions for me: fear, excitement, nervousness, and anticipation.  Will I inspire, challenge, comfort, educate, or transform those listening?  Will I reach one person with my message?

The rabbi and congregation are in a relationship, a dance, between what one needs to hear and what I feel called to say.  I draw inspiration from my favorite piece of Jewish liturgy, “ha’m’chadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh bereshit,”  “In goodness, God renews the works of creation each and every day.”  I love these words which I pray every morning because they remind me that each day, each moment is an opportunity for newness.

The blank screen that unfolds before each sermon is my darkness – formless and void.  And then I begin to create.  As I sit down to write, I am aware of this creation teaching, for it calls me to find the message needed for the moment.

I always start with trepidation for what truly needs to be heard in any given year.  I listen for the voices inside of me, sometimes screaming and sometimes whispering, telling me what that message might be.  And most often, if I am tuned into myself, it is a message that I myself most need to hear.  I have found that if I speak from my heart, and to my heart, remembering the message of creating anew each day, each year, others will benefit as well.

One doesn’t need to agree with me, for sure, but I strive for inspiration, transformation; I strive to be a good dance partner.  And, as long as God is at my center, I usually can find my way.  And on those occasions when I don’t, I beg forgiveness and try to listen harder next time.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. www.pjtc.net


Elul 7
It’s My Heart
Rachel Brodie
In labor with child number two, my body was pulsating, gripped at irregular intervals by fierce contractions. I felt like a food processor operated by an unsupervised toddler. I was also seized by a paradox-the comfort and anxiety of “here we go again.”

This time, however, I had a new source of pain. I was preoccupied with an existential question: Would I ever love this child the way I love my firstborn?

Unconvinced by everything I had read and everyone I had spoken with over the last trimester, I decided to call my mother. Acknowledging the irony-I’d spent most of my childhood convinced that my parents favored my younger brother-I shared my angst with her.

“Oh, Rachel, nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” She paused, letting me take this in. Then she added, “Those words come from Zelda Fitzgerald, but their truth comes from my own experience.” I considered my own experience: adding a life partner did not lessen the love I felt for my parents or brother, nor was it diminished by the arrival of our first child. My finite resources-time, money, patience-have been reallocated, but my capacity to love and be loved has grown exponentially.

Squatting in the doorway, brought low by a contraction, I looked up at my husband holding our daughter and felt a surge of emotion so strong that I lost my balance. When I responded to the inevitable, “Are you okay?” with: “It’s my heart,” and saw his expression, I hastened to add, “Not literally.” Still, I felt it was my heart that had thrown me in its eagerness to show off the room it was just now readying for a second crib.

Rachel Brodie is the Executive Director of Jewish Milestones www.JewishMilestones.org


Elul 6
What If?
Eli Broad
It seems I was born without the gene that makes a person afraid to try new things.  I only know about this gene because I’m often asked, “Weren’t you afraid when you started (fill in the blank)?”  The honest answer is always, “No, I wasn’t.”  This isn’t because I am fearless, it’s merely because it never occurred to me to be afraid. I simply asked myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

During my life, I have launched many initiatives, and I can tell you: Beginnings are best.  They are moments of shining opportunity and exciting challenge.  They are ventures into an unknown that you then get to shape.  Thanks to the fact I was unconstrained by fear, I was able to create two Fortune 500 companies and am now, through our family’s two foundations, working to improve K-12 education, discover cures for some of mankind’s worst afflictions, and make the arts more accessible to more people.

Of course, all beginnings do not end in success, and I have had my share of disappointments. But even these have been successes of a sort.  My initial hopes may not have been realized, but I was able to see how these concepts played out, learn from my mistakes, and then begin again. The answer to that question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” has always been, “Not as bad as wondering ‘what if?’”  It’s far better to pursue an idea, a dream, or a relationship that doesn’t work out, than to spend your life adrift in an ocean of regret.

Indeed, assuming you possess that pesky gene that discourages beginnings, may I suggest you turn it on its head and use it to your advantage.  The next time you find yourself not beginning something because you’re afraid, simply view that fear as a certain sign that you should immediately roll up your sleeves … and begin.

Eli Broad is an American philanthropist residing in Los Angeles. www.broadfoundation.org


Elul 5
Invaluable Lesson
Rabbi Naomi Levy
“The smoothest path is full of stones.” Yiddish Proverb

One day my daughter, Noa, who has physical disabilities, asked me if she could have a rock climbing party for her twelfth birthday. I froze. I’d always been so careful to protect Noa from disappointment. I’d gone to great lengths to create parties where she wouldn’t get left out or feel that her friends surpassed her. I said, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” “But why?” she pressed me. “It’s too expensive,” I said. But day after day Noa kept pushing for the rock climbing party. Eventually I gave in. But I was still worried.

On the day of the party Noa put on a climber’s harness, and to my amazement, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms and boldly made her way up the wall. It wasn’t easy, but she climbed and climbed. She was fearless, beaming with joy.

I was so wrong about her.

During the party there was a boy about Noa’s age who was too frightened to climb. His father was encouraging him, but he stood frozen in his place. His muscles were strong, but his fear was stronger still.

That day my daughter taught me an invaluable lesson: our greatest disability is fear, our greatest strength is courage. In climbing, it is the smoothest surface that is the most treacherous. A rough rocky landscape is fertile ground for ascension. If you want to rise up don’t fear the bumps. Turn every stone into a step.

As I looked around the gym that day I couldn’t help but wonder if the key to a meaningful life was embedded in that rock wall. The beckoning stones gave me my answer. The challenge in life is a
simple as this: Do I stare at the wall or do I climb?

Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, “Hope Will Find You” comes out September, 2010. www.nashuva.com


Elul 4
Rats
Eli Roth
I’ll never forget the rat infestation in my apartment on 25th Street in New York City. I was 25 years old at the time, working as a production assistant for $100 a day wherever I could. The building next door was under construction, and ripping up the ground dug up all the rats that came with it. Suddenly they were everywhere. I’ll never forget the day we spent wearing breathing masks and rubber gloves, scrubbing our apartment from head to toe, tossing the rotting carcasses into a trash bag. At one point I looked at my brother and said “I’m 25. I have $300 in a bank account. Most of my friends have professional degrees, houses, and health insurance. And I’m cleaning up dead mice in a sweltering walk-up on 25th Street.”

My brother looked at me and said, “Yeah, but you won’t be for long.”

Six months later I moved to California, and after another three years of asking everyone I ever met for money, I raised the financing, and I was directing my first film, “Cabin Fever.”

But I’ll never forget that moment I bottomed out. Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened. I think in life we tend to expect things to happen for us because we want them to, and you need moments like that to remind you that simply wishing for your dream isn’t enough. You have to take responsibility and make things happen for yourself.

It took me six years to raise the money for “Cabin Fever,” but I did it and eventually sold the film for double its cost. I’d like to thank those rats. Their rotting carcasses gave me the final push I needed to take matters into my own hands and create the future I had always dreamed of.

Eli Roth is an American film director, producer, writer, and actor. www.eli-roth.net


Elul 3
I Have To Believe
Lady Gaga
It’s hard to believe that G-d hasn’t been watching out for me when I’ve had so many obstacles with drugs, rejection and people not believing in me.

It’s been a long and continuous road. But it’s hard to just chalk it all up to myself.

I have to believe there’s something greater than myself.

Lady Gaga, an American recording artist has sold over 15 million albums and over 40 million singles worldwide. www.ladygaga.com


Elul 2
The Art of Metaphor
Rabbi Zoe Klein
A woman spoke with me after her double mastectomy. She couldn’t accept her body. We sought a new metaphor. Your chest is a sacred altar, and your breasts, the paschal lambs. “I look at myself now,” she later said, “and feel that I am sacred.”

I believe to begin again one has to search for a new, personal metaphor.

Start slow. What is comparable to the skin you wear every day? To what would you liken its color and landscape? Is it sand, vanilla wafer, maple syrup, wheat, parchment? Are you a mysterious, flaking scroll? Are age spots floating lily pads on the rippled lake of your skin? Do you have silver eel scars, bouquets of creases? If you were sand, which sand? Tide-washed Bermuda pink? Glittering Hawaiian black? Gray and moist? The blue veins inside your wrist, are they not the rivers of Eden? And your hair, is it glacial run-off? Mink? Straw? Fusilli?

Start slow with metaphor and then move up. Is your home a jungle, a gingerbread house, a jewel box, a cookie tray after the cookies have been scraped off?

Move up and then expand…Fear is a cricket in a warehouse, siren-loud but entirely squashable. Anger is acne clogging up love. Unforgiving is a slow, intimate poison. Loneliness is a fiercely protective beast. Self-pity is a lead shoe. Egocentricity is a hall of mirrors. A strong self-image is perfect lighting and a little airbrush.

Keep practicing with metaphor, and one day, you will be walking along, and it will grab you: the metaphor that is yours and only yours. You will catch your breath, and know a very high, private truth.

This metaphor will become your secret name, and by it you will know yourself, live in poetry, and begin again.

Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. www.zoeklein.com


Elul 1
But Why Not?
Jeremy Ben Ami
The world is a little too full of “can’t” — and there’s not enough “why not?” What’s more frustrating than to be told a problem isn’t solvable or a goal unattainable?

My law school professors rewarded me for spotting issues and problems – but why not for coming up with solutions?

A good friend of mine pitched dozens of companies fifteen years ago with the design of a slim machine on which you could read books without paper.  They laughed.

Trying and failing is no excuse for not trying again.  Coming up with reasons not to take chances, passing the buck, pinning the blame on someone else, saying you can’t – that’s all easy. We tell our children to get back in the saddle when they fall off a bike, to get back in the batter’s box when they swing and miss.  Why accept anything less as adults – in matters as important as life and death, war and peace?

Sure, we’ve all heard why Middle East peace can’t happen.  How there are no partners.  How everything was tried ten years ago and it failed.  We’ve been told that those of us who believe are few and far between, and that our limited power can’t have an impact.

But why not?

Beginning anew means refusing to accept things as they are.  It means believing that, with effort, the power of good can and will overcome the daunting power of the status quo.

New beginnings demand that we dream a better future and relentlessly ask “why not?”

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the President and founder of J Street. www.jstreet.org