Rabbi Greg Harris

Jewish Identity; Halachik Identity

We live in a time of personal searching.  Bookshelves are full of titles encouraging us to find our true path, inspire our soul or discover our inner resilience.  We are in a time which Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary calls, a search for “our sovereign selves.”  (The Jew Within by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen)  Throughout our lives we curate our experiences, preferences, communities and even our identity.  Cultural and community boundaries are porous and frequently shifting.

It is within this modern ecosystem we shape our Jewish identity(ies).  I left the possibility of identity being plural because even within a single facet of ourselves, there is a likelihood we maintain multiple self-perceptions – even within our Jewish sensibilities.

I often think about two distinct frameworks of Jewish living today: a) our manifested Jewish identity and b) Judaism’s framework of halachik (Jewish law) identity.

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Closing Out Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month

This week is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders drawn from throughout the Jewish world. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter.

February is designated as JDAIM or Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month across the country.  For the past weeks at Beth El, we have been raising awareness and sensitivity around various issues.  From an earlier blog post (‘Being a Community of Inclusion’) to speakers including Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, the first blind woman to be ordained as a rabbi and Carly Ruderman, a teenager at Beth El who shared her enthusiasm, optimism and experiences.

One of the implicit lessons heard throughout has been never to discount or overlook people. While JDAIM is a designated month, our efforts do not start or end during these weeks.  Nurturing an inclusive community is an everyday effort.  It requires each of us to reach out to others, recognize the gifts of others and, at moments, allow ourselves to move outside our comfort zones.

As we look forward, I want to share this beautiful performance by the Israeli band, The Shalva Band.

Jenny Singer writes in the The Forward:

The eight musicians who perform on behalf of the Israeli Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities performed in the Next Star contest on Saturday night were under considerable pressure. “Kochav Haba,” or “The Next Star,” an Israeli music competition similar to “The Voice” brings in hundreds of thousands of viewers. The contest winner goes on to represent Israel in the next Eurovision contest, which, in 2019, will be held in Israel.

The Shalva Band was up to the challenge. In an electric performance, the musicians delivered a flawless rendition of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” for a stellar score of 91 percent from the judges, enough to advance into the next round of competition.

Shalva is a Jerusalem-based national center that provides care, education, vocational training, and community for people with disabilities. Its services are free, non-denominational, and inclusive of people of all religions. In 1990, Shalva began operation, caring for eight children out of an apartment as an after school program. Today it serves 2,000 people, including its house band of eight musicians.

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Being a Community of Inclusion

I have learned disabilities are sometimes obvious and other times hidden.  Crutches and wheelchairs are external indicators of physical differences.  As a community we have been diligent to design spaces to be accessible through wider doorways, a ramp in the sanctuary, door assist mechanisms and other intentional features for our physical spaces. We have allowed greater access to our communal and sacred spaces.

Many people though are encumbered by less obvious conditions – autism, mental illness, addiction and other circumstances which present quiet barriers to accessing the Beth El community.  These differences might be more subtle but no less real to people being present, heard and valued.

As February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I want to briefly explore the difference between access and inclusion.  These concepts have real differences but are frequently lost.

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Religious Architecture

This week is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders drawn from throughout the Jewish world. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter. This week’s blog is written by Yiling Shen, a frequent blogger at ArchDaily.com

We live in spaces.  Homes, schools, offices and houses of worship shape our experiences through their architecture.  I have long been interested in the connection between design and function.  After all, it was Exodus 25:8 where God commanded an awareness of design:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם

Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, so I may dwell among them.

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All in the Same Boat

‘Painting the Sloop’ by Andrew Wyeth

A few days ago, we observed the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  His vision for America and humanity continues to resonate even as we continue to fall too short of his dream.  Of the many quotes attributed to Dr. King, I have been thinking about one in particular – ‘We may have all come in different ships, but we are in the same boat now.’  This is true in so many ways.

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Good News in Religions

Sacred texts at the US Capitol

I want to share good news.  I expect some will read this blog and respond as doubters and find exceptions – it is the times we live in today.  Good news is just that… good news, not perfect news.  Sometimes it is appropriate to see fears and divisions but we cannot lose the ability to see good things around us as well.  Good news feels increasingly rare.

So let’s remember religious diversity is lived in beautiful ways.

The picture above was shared with me by someone at CNN.  It is a table at Capitol Hill covered by the diverse sacred texts upon which the newest members of Congress were sworn into office for the 116th Congress.  There were Bibles, Koran, Buddhist Sutra, Hindu, Eastern Orthodox and an African Heritage Bible.  Senator Kyrsten Sinema did not use a religious text but rather a copy of the Constitution.

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The Sorkin Youth Israel Trip is no Dream

“If you will it, it is no dream.”

These words of Theodor Herzl from his book Altneuland, Old New Land (1902) resonate with me today.  Herzl had a vision of establishing a political state for the Jewish People.  He wrote at a time of rising nationalism and anti-Semitism.  Herzl’s solution to the pogroms and hatred he reported on as a journalist was to press for the establishment of a safe haven for Jews where they (we) could thrive, contribute to mankind and be proud of our heritage.  Herzl’s son and last direct relative died in 1930, 18 years before Theodor Herzl’s dream was willed into reality.  It is a misfortune of history that no Herzl relative was able to witness the establishment of Midinat Yisrael (the modern State of Israel).

As you read this blog, I will be just arriving in Israel on the inaugural Sorkin Youth Israel Trip with 18 Beth El students.  This trip was a dream of Jerry Sorkin’s z”l, Beth El’s immediate past president.  Jerry wanted to create a trip which would tie our students closer to Israel and be a capstone experience of our Religious School.  This Confirmation Class experience will draw the participants together in very special ways and be something for younger students to anticipate as they remain engaged throughout the Religious School years.

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Hanukkah in Green

Military service members lighting Chanukah candles while deployed

The fifth week of the month is a wildcard in our blog schedule.  As Hanukkah begins this Sunday night, let’s think about the holiday from a new angle.  Jewish service members are deployed around the globe this Hanukkah.  Hopefully they will be able to enjoy a jelly donut, light the candles and appreciate their role in securing our freedoms… including the freedom to be proudly Jewish as the ancient Maccabees did long ago.

 

 

How the U.S. military‏ got a taste of Hanukkah miracles

By David Geffen

11/28/2018

Jerusalem Post

When Dov Peretz Elkins was ordained a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1964, he entered the US Army as a chaplain and was assigned to Fort Gordon, just outside of Augusta, Georgia. Elkins, who made aliyah with his wife Maxine several years ago, recently reminisced about developing a Hanukkah program for 18- and 19-year-old trainees from New York who were the majority of the Jewish personnel at his installation.

“These young men, drafted just after they finished high school, were away from home for the first time in their lives. This was a half a century ago, long before most Jewish high schoolers traveled extensively in their teens as they do now. The Jewish chaplain had his work cut out for him. Since these soldiers were searching for something to fill their lives, I was presented with an opportunity to touch them Jewishly.”

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Thankful Traditions

This week is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders drawn from throughout the Jewish world. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter. 

Judaism is filled with traditions.  Some are public events in synagogues while many more are family focused activities at home.  Thanksgiving is an American holiday filled with bountiful opportunities to create ‘Jewish’ moments at home.  As American Jews, we have many reasons to be grateful.  A Jewish moment may be reciting motzei over the crescent rolls thus marking the special meal but we can also be intentional in creating family experiences of thankfulness. Click here for a prayer written by Rabbi Debra Cantor which you can use at your table.  Below is also a blog by Cambria Bold about setting new rituals for Thanksgiving.  While it is not explicitly Jewish, many of the moments she writes about are exactly how we can use Shabbat each week.

Let’s cherish our time with family and friends this Thanksgiving and Shabbat the next evening. Whatever your plans are for the holiday, be grateful, be generous, and be proud to be living in America. Continue reading →

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Proud to be Jewish

I am proud to be Jewish, even in these difficult days.

In these past days, I have cried with people and sometimes hugged when words felt inadequate. Rabbi Werbin, Hazzan Fradkin and I have spent time with Beth El students and adults responding to the tragedy in Pittsburgh.  We have had gatherings in the sanctuary and conversations in the hallways. We have sung, prayed and been silent together in response.

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