Oct 26, 2017

Finding Holiness at San Quentin

A Personal Place in Shul



 
a note from Rabbi Creditor
A Personal Place in Shul

Dear Chevreh,

As you enter the lobby of our precious home on University Avenue, can you remember the very first time you walked through the doors? Some of us participated in the transformation of this building into a sacred space over 11 years ago, but, for most of us, this is the only physical home we have ever known as Netivot Shalom. That first moment of entering the shul, be it as newcomer or founder, is intense. Homecoming and transition can be new and awesome, inspiring and potentially intimidating.

The way our shul was constructed, and the way we position ourselves with each other, give a sweet opportunity to experience the entry into prayer stage by stage. 

An "angel of welcome," a greeter, welcomes you as you enter the shul. On Shabbat, that is a member who smiles and says "Shabbat Shalom," hands us a siddur (prayerbook) and Shabbat Sheet, and offers to help us find a seat. During the week, it's most likely the staff member sitting in the office who offers a smile and a warm welcome.

On Shabbat, we then make our ways to the room that fits our purpose (or, perhaps you explore a new aspect of our dynamic shul life). The kitchen is a holy experience, just as is our childcare/Shabbat B'Yachad room, just as is the Adult Torah in the Library, the Meditation Minyan, and the sanctuary service. Each facet has its own unique flavor, and its own special mix of members and visitors who define it anew each week.

The new Siddur Lev Shalem we are celebrating are yet another opportunity for depth, and also a change in our communal practice. They are beautiful, masterfully constructed, and more accessible for Hebrew beginner than the Sim Shalom's we were used to. The page numbers have changed, there is more transliteration, and the Matriarchs are no longer relegated to the "side B" of the page. All of this is wonderful and exciting and new.
Our Amitim and Madrichim Bnei Mitzvah students were the first to hold these new siddurim, as they began practicing with them the week before Sukkot. Just yesterday, our students personalized their own copies of Siddur Lev Shalom, which are now housed in the first cabinet in the Prozdor, the hallway that leads to the sanctuary. In their honor, I recorded a short video about what it means to find your own personal place in prayer. You can access it here.

So, friends, as we enter the Shabbat of Lech Lecha, of Abram's and Sarai's journeys (and our own),
let's celebrate the doors of our shul, the lobby, the greeters, the siddurim - and each other.

A very early Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Creditor

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Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702

Oct 24, 2017

Lech Lecha: "The Uncertain Woods of Faith"

The Uncertain Woods of Faith

The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas teaches that what makes Torah holy is its infinite meaning. Holiness is therefore defined by inexhaustible possibility. I myself include in the category of Torah other expressions of art and spirit in this definition, such as Stephen Soundheim’s “Into the Woods,” a classic which weaves together several familiar fairytales and creates a nuanced moral tale pointing the way toward personal growth and engaged living. I’m not giving Soundheim rabbinic ordination, but Jewish learning can be deeply blessed by the gifts of worldly wisdom.

Let’s set the scene: Three parallel stories take place in “Into the Woods.” Jack (of the beanstalk) visits the sky-world of the giants, Cinderella gets her chance at the palace ball, and Little Red Riding Hood ventures off the safe path after being tempted by the wolf. Each character departs from the world they call home and plunges into the unknown, encountering both incredible highs and devastating lows. Whereas the play begins with the classic “Once upon a time,” it surely doesn’t end with “happily ever after.” In fact, “happy ever after” is the title of the closing song of the first act - a true teaching that life rarely continues (nor ends) very cleanly.

And so we turn to the Torah. Lech Lecha (the beginning of the Abraham narrative) begins with “Adonai (God) said to Abram, “[Lech Lecha] Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” Previous to this communication from God, all we know of Abram is that he is married to Sarai and travels with his father, all very uninformative as to Abram’s character. Except for this - his story sounds very typical. Very ordinary. Hardly the stuff of legends.

So what makes Abram worthy of receiving God’s word? We have heard of no great deeds nor theological speculations from the text itself. There are many early rabbinic attempts to provide Abram a childhood narrative - any childhood! - but none of the creative gap-filling (known as “midrash’) can begin to answer the question. The only answer to the question can be found in the following verses:
“Abram went forth as Adonai had commanded, ...took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 12:5)
God speaks, Abram goes.

We live with a deep desire for routine and pattern. Comfort is an ideal we crave in this world. How easy would it be to give up not only the luxuries we enjoy? If nothing luxurious comes to mind, consider Starbucks and the internet. Now imagine leaving behind caffeine and computer, family and home, language and faith community - everything you know and understand.

Suddenly God speaks to you. You’ve had no interactions with God, no one around you has heard from this One God, and your first command is: Go! Enter a thorny new life of pain and unpredictability and joy and elusive transcendence.

What do you do?

Would you go? Take that step away from the path and take a chance at glory? With no covenant established yet, Abram displays chance-taking and takes the first step of a holy journey. That first step is ours every time we pause and consider self-transformation. These are sacred steps away from the safe and the sure.

The spiritual journey is an unending path of fluctuation and newness. A relationship with any person includes the unquantifiable - that which can only be discovered once the journey begins. So too with God.
As Soundheim says,
So it’s into the woods you go again, You have to Every now and then. Into the woods, No telling when, Be ready for the journey. Into the woods- you have to grope, but that’s the way you learn to cope. Into the woods to find there’s hope of getting through the journey.
If Abram had not left the comfortable in favor of the transformative, the world would be a much emptier place, robbed of so much mystery.

And so, we begin our story: Once upon a time, a childless man named Abram and his wife Sarai began a journey with an invisible Partner they hadn’t known. There are seldom “happy ever after”s in true stories, but their story included moments of Godliness and pain, loss and joy, that they passed on to their children and their children’s children. You might be one of those descendants, but the only way you’ll really know that you’re worthy of their inheritance is if you venture yourself into the uncertain woods of faith.

Oct 17, 2017

Parashat Noach: “It will be good”

Parashat Noach: “It will be good”

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Imagine standing on the ramp to the ark.  It’s not raining yet, but you know it will.  You haven’t joined your family and the animals inside, but you know you must.  How does it feel?

Noach was six hundred years old when the Flood came, waters upon the earth.  Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. (Gen. 7:6-7)” 

Of course they went into the ark “because of the waters of the flood.”  Why else would they?  What would cause a person to step forward into a new and terrifying place, embark on a journey with no guarantees? 

Rashi suggests that Noach and his family didn’t enter the ark until the water reached their ankles.  Would you have entered earlier? Or would you have waited until the very last moment before saying good bye to what was?

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I remember moving into my home: empty of furniture, full of potential. 

As soon as I walked in I became inundated by the enormity of my commitment. Financial burdens, the responsibility for my family, building a safe and loving home – all this became true only when I stepped foot into a space that I prayed would one day feel like home. But for that moment, I was surrounded by uncertainty.

There are different kinds of floods: emotional and physical.  What is it about a flood that terrifies so much?  We witness rising waters in Texas and Florida, New Orleans and South East Asia before that, and many places in between, with terror and fixation. Things and people washed away.  The world we once recognized buried, gone, cloudy at best. What then? 

Water purifies.  But how do we regard that which is washed away?  What happens when we know change is coming?

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The beginning of Parashat Noach reads: “Noach was a righteous person; blameless in his generation. (Gen. 6:9)”  Tradition has long argued over Noach’s goodness.  How good is a person if they leave their community behind?  But perhaps Noach tried in vain to convince his neighbors to repent.  While there is ample imagination for reconsiderations of Noach’s worthiness, I choose to assume it.  It’s good to find good in others.  So let’s decide that Noach would have been a good person in our generation too.

I find that moment on the ramp inescapable.  I hope Noach did too.

We know Noach eventually took that step into an unknown future.  And we know that he eventually emerged.  But the story in between those moments makes all the difference.

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Be Noach, just for a moment.  Stand on that ramp, listening to the sounds of the animals, the rising tension in the air.  Look at the land, knowing that it, and all the people around you are about to disappear.

How do you enter the role before you?  Everything depends upon you.

I stood before my community this past Yom Kippur in the moments before entering Kol Nidrei, watching faces, expectant energy in our eyes, knowing the mysterious moment was about to break forth. Across generations and rows, the room itself held its breath.

And for me, not only was this a chance to chant Kol Nidrei, but I had just composed a letter to my community, letting them know I was taking my next professional step and saying goodbye at the end of the year. 

I led Kol Nidrei from the ramp between home and not-home.  And at the very last moment before beginning I spent my time looking around the room, taking it all in, wishing I could preserve the at-home-ness of the moment and the trembling of my heart. 

I knew change was coming, I hadn’t yet said good-bye, and I had an awesome role to fulfill.

Such a moment. 

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The Flood was a journey of change, of transition, a deeply unsettling reversal of creation.  Where once God created the world in seven days, hovering over the waters (Gen. 1:2) and then collecting them in the sky and below the earth (Gen. 1:6,7), here we bear witness that:

On the seventh day, the waters of the Flood came upon the earth…  All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen. 7:10,11)”

The world is immersed in a mikvah, waiting to be born again.  The Flood was scary, to be sure.  But it was a new beginning.  For Noach and his family, they would soon enter a new home with no furniture but lots of potential.  The ark was an indication of great change, which they must have recognized before entering. 

What once was would no longer be, and they, the journeyers, would become the new Adams and Eves, the start of a new world.

Of what kind of world did they dream as they dwelled in their wooden womb, surrounded by water, waiting to be born themselves?

In our world of constant flux, of change and rebirth, death and rebuilding, towards what reality do we strive?

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One last aspect of this story.  As part of the construction of the ark, Noach is commanded to:

Make a TZOHAR in the ark, ending it within a cubit of the top. (Gen. 5:16)”

Was this ‘Tzohar’ the mystically glowing jewel Rashi describes?  Is it, as Nachum Sarna suggests, a slanted roof?  Is it an open window to let in the light, as Aryeh Kaplan suggests? 

If a roof, then the text emphasizes protection from destruction.  If a jewel, then God’s nearness in chaotic experiences is reinforced.  And if the Tzohar is a window, what then?

The ark has only two points of access to the outside world: the door and the Tzohar.  If it is a roof, then the journey occurs in complete darkness.  If it is a glowing jewel, then the promise of God’s Presence is a comfort in an unknowable world, a world hidden from the eye.

But if the Tzohar is a window, then the internal world of the ark and the external world of constant change are in constant contact at one junction point.


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It is healthy to consider new directions using these images.

If you choose the Tzohar/Roof model, then you are safe but blind, a protective roof, but no light by which to see.

If you choose the Tzohar/Window model, then you remain aware of the turbulent waters outside, you see the people around you, and, if you are truly blessed, you can set eyes on the landing site when the waters recede.

Will you choose darkness or light?  A water-tight world of isolation, or a mysterious chance for untried engagement?

I choose light. 

Change can be both healthy and destabilizing.  And windows into the world are important. 

Noach’s pain in seeing the world’s pain can be a model for holy activism.  As Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz has written, “Without a window, we are incapable of being truly human and acting in the divine image.” 

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A memory calls:  Standing in London with Pizmon, the Jewish a cappella group of Columbia and JTS, performing David Broza’s anthem “Yihiyeh Tov / It will be good.” Broza had recently rewritten the lyrics, integrating the visions of the prophet Isaiah into a dream for peace in Israel.

The music coursing through me as I write this, and through each of us, is hard to explain.  It is the sound of human voices in harmony.  It isn’t perfect, it isn’t always on pitch, but every individual starting point desires deeper connection. 

Isaiah’s dreams, blended with Broza’s, can be ours as well:

We’ll yet learn to live together,
Amidst the groves of olive trees.
Children will live without fear,
Without borders, without shelters.

On graves will flourish grass,
Towards peace, and towards love.
One hundred years of war,
But we haven’t lost Hope.

It will be good, it will be Tov.
Sometimes I’m broken.
But when the night comes, the night,
With you I will go on.

May the possibilities of the world unfold because we stood with open-eyes in the space  between unknown and known, full of a determined hope and a ready heart.


Amen.

Oct 9, 2017

Our Jewish Community Stands Ready to Help: Donate Now to the North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund



 
Our Jewish Community Stands Ready to Help: Donate Now to the North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund

Dear Chevreh,

I have no words. None. The loss of life and property, of threats to lives and schools and homes, the J Weekly just reported:

"Much of URJ Camp Newman's summer campsite in Santa Rosa has been destroyed by the catastrophic wildfires that have been whipping through Sonoma and Napa counties since late last night. At 4:45 p.m. today, it was announced on the camp's Facebook page that, "it is with tremendous shock and sadness that we share that the majority of the buildings at our beloved Camp Newman home have been destroyed.""
Families have their homes, and Camp Newman has been one of our family's precious homes. Once we learn more, we will be part of the rebuilding. Please read below an email from Rabbi Jim Brandt and Danny Grossman, the CEO's of the East Bay and San Francisco Jewish Federations.

rabbi menachem creditor
May everyone remain safe. Please God, protect everyone. Please God, protect First Responders. Please, friends, let's care for each other.  

Laylah Tov,
Rabbi Creditor

_____________________

 

Dear Friends,

Our hearts and prayers are with all those in the path of the wildfires raging across Sonoma and Napa Counties. From the most recent reports, the fires have killed one person, destroyed an estimated 1,500 residential and commercial structures, endangered schools and camps, and forced the evacuation of up to 20,000 people. Since late Sunday night, over 73,000 acres have burned and the damage toll is expected to rise.

Tragically, we have learned that a majority of the buildings at URJ Camp Newman have been destroyed ; thankfully the staff safely evacuated with the Torah scrolls earlier today before the fire reached the camp.

Our Federations have been in close contact, working with Jewish communal organizations and synagogues in the affected regions to assess urgent and emerging needs. Our Jewish community stands ready to help.
 
As we continue to learn more about this tragedy, we urge you to contribute to the North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund. As we evaluate the damage with our community partners in the region, rest assured that all donations will reach those most in need. Your generosity will enable a robust and effective response both immediately and throughout the long recovery process. We will continue to update the community as more information is available.

One of our strengths as a community has always been harnessing our networks in the service of people in crisis, responding quickly and effectively wherever tragedy strikes. Today, it's in our own backyards.

Thank you for your concern and generosity. 

 
In gratitude,

Rabbi James Brandt
CEO
Jewish Federation and The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay

Danny Grossman
CEO
Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties
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