Le'hiet'ra'ot… Not Goodbye: Lessons Learned From Our Friend Rabbi Neil Sandler

L'hitra'ot… Not Goodbye:

Lessons Learned From Our Friend Rabbi Neil Sandler

Today Rabbi Sandler is making his way to Virginia to officially settle for the year in his new position at congregation Beth Emeth, in the town of Herndon, to serve as Interim Rabbi. There are many ways to say goodbye in Hebrew but my favorite is L'hitra'ot (see you later). As Rabbi Sandler goes up north to offer his skills, kindness, and expertise to a Conservative congregation in need, I am grateful for the legacy that he has left, the calm waters he has sailed us towards and the many gifts that his 17 years has provided me and our community. Throughout the month of June, we have taken the opportunity to honor Susan and Neil for the many contributions they have made to the structure, spirit, and culture of our congregation. Being behind the scenes, I can tell you that Rabbi Sandler was wildly uncomfortable with the fuss, yet we persisted. We all know that it is outside of Rabbi Sandler's nature to insist on the spotlight. In fact, much of my success is owed to his humility and generosity of spirit. I would not be the rabbi I am today if it weren't for the space that Neil provided me to hone my craft, create my own identity and build meaningful relationships. As Ahavath Achim synagogue continues its journey to meet the needs of 21 century Jews and lead the way in embracing and cultivating the new Jewish world, it is important to reflect on where we have been in order to take stock of our strengths and the incredible strides that we have made, for many of which Rabbi Sandler is owed credit.

Over the last 13 years, I have learned much from my mentor, colleague, and friend. My lessons learned were not just practical rabbinics, although there were plenty of those. Some of Neil's greatest teachings were true rabbinic ideas, steeped deeply in our Talmudic tradition.

  • Pitchon Pey: Literally, the opening of the mouth. Don't give people an opportunity to talk… if you have made a mistake, admit it and work towards finding healing rather than protecting one's ego.
  • Lefnei MeShoret HaDin: Beyond the letter of the law. Don't do the bare minimum. Go the extra mile to be helpful.
  • Be a Mench: Self-explanatory.
  • The World Stands Upon Three Pillars: The Pillar of Torah, the Pillar of Service, the Pillar of Loving-Kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2): No two people embody this spiritual truth as Susan and Neil do.

Many beautiful things have been said about Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler of their 17 years leading our community. Much of those comments focused on their menchlekite (loving-kindness). All the statements shared have been true and I know that they have appreciated these heartfelt reflections of gratitude offered in person, through emails, during classes and inscribed in their tribute book. I wanted to add one more for the roster before we close out this month of gratitude, appreciation, and celebration.

Rabbi Sandler has been at the helm of a cultural change within our congregation and community. When I arrived at Ahavath Achim synagogue, I found a community that was very loving and warm. It is why I chose to throw my lot in with this community. I remember, in those early years, that Rabbi Sandler was managing an aggressive campaign discussing the 'Spirituality of Welcoming,' a term brought to the forefront by Dr. Ron Wolfson's eponymous book. From the very beginning, I felt that this campaign of 'welcomeness' seemed a bit overkill. Not because it's not important, but because our community appeared to be so welcoming. As I was introduced to the data from the 2007 Strategic Plan and ventured out into the community, I realized that our congregation was not always known for its warmth and 'welcomeness.' Ahavath Achim had a very different reputation. Negative impressions can be lasting so we must continue to be vigilant. But I feel confident that today Ahavath Achim is known as a warm and welcoming community. That is a huge cultural change and Rabbi Sandler and his leadership during those early days deserve the credit.

Within the greater Atlanta community, Rabbi Sandler's impact was also felt, especially among his colleagues. On May 26, I completed my two-year term as president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. The ARA is supported by a very generous grant from the Marcus Foundation which allows us to support the Metro Atlanta community of rabbis with coaching, high level learning with scholars from around the world, a three-day retreat with more learning and community building, as well as community visioning. Early in my tenure here, Rabbi Sandler was president, and this was before we had the amazing resources gifted by the Marcus grant. The rabbinic community was much different. Rabbis were siloed, only thinking about their own congregations. Participation at ARA programs was abysmal. Communities were competitive instead of collaborative and collegiality was not very high on anybody's list. Rabbi Sandler was part of those very early conversations about the possibility of forming a different rabbinic cohort and the idea of approaching the Marcus Foundation with a proposal. Today, it is widely felt that we have the strongest rabbinic community in Jewish Atlanta's history. This would not have happened without Rabbi Sandler's vision, persistence, and kindness.

Much can be said about the Sandlers' 17 years leading our community. We know that Congregation Beth Emeth in Herdon, VA will feel similar blessings over the next year. For me, Rabbi Sandler's presence is still very much here, helping me to guide and lead our community forward. As we continue to grow our community, to embrace Jews where they are and cultivate a Jewish community that speaks to the Jews of tomorrow, I am grateful for the strong position Rabbi Sandler has left us in and the tools he has personally given me to be successful. Thankfully, it's not goodbye but L'hitra'ot.

My Final Letter

My Final Letter

Dear Friends,

Many years ago, my mother, of blessed memory, told me how old I was when she had successfully potty-trained me. I was exceedingly young. That fact told me everything I needed to know about my psychological make-up and about why I approached much of the world as I did. That is, in part, the Neil Sandler you have seen for most of the past seventeen years – a rabbi who is driven to get the details right and to complete the tasks. In a self-revealing sermon I gave over a year ago, I mentioned that I used to beat myself up over perceived failures. That revelation probably surprised few of you who know me.

But this past Shabbat morning, I shared a very different conclusion I have reached as I approach the end of my pulpit rabbinic career and retire from Ahavath Achim Synagogue. I quoted Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot. In part, he said, "You do not have to complete the task." Of course, all of us want and seek to succeed. But some things are beyond us. Sometimes, the task is an eternal one, and no one can or will complete it. The key, I have discovered, is the wisdom inherent in Rabbi Tarfon's words: Sometimes it's okay not to complete the task. You did not fail at it. Be satisfied to have engaged in the task in serious fashion. Be heartened by what you have been able to accomplish, and then leave it to others who will find new and uplifting ways to address the task. You put forth your best efforts and accomplished some worthy outcomes? Be content… and I think I am largely content as this portion of my rabbinic career reaches its end.

Next week, I will head up to Virginia, and, on July 1, I will officially join Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon for one year as its Interim Rabbi. I will do my very best to help the congregation "put its house in order," seek to engage a new rabbi and, most importantly, help lay the groundwork for a successful relationship between the rabbi and the congregation. Then, next summer, God-willing, I plan to head home to Atlanta and to Ahavath Achim, as a congregant. After the sanctuary renovation update offered at our Annual Meeting, I am looking forward to finding my seat in our newly-renovated sanctuary. I hope you are too!

Susan joins me in thanking you for a wonderful tribute weekend. It was, simultaneously, a humbling and uplifting experience. Thank you for welcoming me and for engaging with me as your Senior Rabbi for fifteen years and then for two additional years. Thank you for enabling Susan and me to find the place we intend, God-willing, to call "home" the rest of our lives. What a gift you have given to us!

I wish you and all your loved one's good health and well-being. May we be fortunate to share joyous and uplifting moments together in our congregation.

Shabbat Service Tribute to Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler

Shabbat Service Tribute to Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler

By Larry Gold, AA Past President

Saturday, June 12, 2021

I appreciate being given the honor of speaking today about our beloved and now retired (at least from AA) Senior Rabbi, Neil Sandler, and Susan Sandler. Thank you, Rabbi Rosenthal, Rabbi Blustin. Thank you, Gerry, and your fellow officers for giving me this opportunity.

I'm going to talk this morning about Neil and Susan from a personal perspective – as a congregant and as a past President of Ahavath Achim Synagogue.

There are many things I remember about Neil both during the search process and then again when he was engaged to become our Senior Rabbi in 2004. And of course, through the years we served together. Those memories linger and remain fresh because, at least initially, they were so intense.

To put this in some context, many of you here (and via Zoom) were with us in those days. Neil became our new Senior Rabbi at almost the same time I was installed as President. It was a new and eye-opening experience for both of us. And it was an especially challenging time for our Congregation. Rabbi Goodman had recently retired, and we were having issues with our clergy. I remember that our officer meetings during that time were focused heavily on personnel issues. And we were just beginning to realize that we had a major issue with a declining membership.

When we engaged Neil, one of the most pointed questions he asked us was whether we were ready for change. I remember vividly that conversation with him in – where else? The parking lot. The unofficial location for all serious business at AA.

I don't think Neil understood just how ready we were for change and I'm not sure we knew what sort of changes we wanted or envisioned. One thing all of us did know was that we couldn't make progress as a synagogue without embracing change. Well, here it came, ready or not, and hiring Neil was a big step in that direction.

Rabbi Sandler's tenure and my presidency got off to a rousing start with his first High Holidays with us. We had a terrible storm during the night of the first day of Rosh  Hashanah, and when we got to Synagogue on that first morning, we had no power; no electricity – nothing. Without electricity we had no lighting. What were we going to do? We could not cancel services on such an important holiday. Forget the Aliyah list that I had poured over for several weeks and all the calls I and my fellow officers made to line people up. Forget the normal service routines. And we had no time to consider many alternatives. Thank goodness, Rabbi Sandler was innovative enough and calm enough to figure it out. The only option was to conduct services in the Cohen Pavilion with as much daylight as we could get. We set up a raft of chairs in the Pavilion and on the outside on the sidewalk in front of the garden area and we conducted services as best we could manage. It was kind of like holding a service in a can or sardines, but it turned out to be a remarkable service. To this day, congregants tell me it was one of the nicest, warmest, and best Rosh Hashanah experiences they've ever had. We were warm and welcoming in a whole new way, long before that became a popular mantra. We also got to see how Neil could handle crises and how calmly he could respond to them.

Before going on about Neil, I want to mention that when we engaged Rabbi Sandler, we had only limited contact with Susan. What a wonderful surprise to find how fabulous a team they made and what a gem she is. For those of you who have had the pleasure of sharing a Shabbat or Holiday meal in their home, you know how gracious and warm she is. Not to mention, a wonderful cook and entertainer. Her dinners became legendary – in a very good way – and I still can taste her salmon dishes and her Challahs that are breathtakingly delicious. But Susan brought more to the table, literally and figuratively, than just her domestic skills. She is an accomplished social worker and has performed fabulously with hospice and in other parts of our Atlanta community. More pertinent to AA, she has been a force in our Congregation – not just with Sisterhood, where she ably served as President, but also with championing women's issues and rights along with Neil.

For me, seeing them together on Shabbat and holidays and sharing many experiences with both of them, was a real treat and gave me a sense of comfort and warmth. Almost family. I treasure their friendship and their devotion to our Congregation.

What kind of man is Neil? He's not demonstrative or flamboyant. Neil is quietly effective at what he does. I'll repeat that: He's quiet and effective. He also exhibits a very strong quality that I learned from one of my former senior law partners many years ago. That great man told me that I would be amazed at what I could accomplish if I didn't care who got the credit. I've tried to live up to that standard myself, but that is pure Neil Sandler. Wherever he learned those skills, they have stood him in good stead, and we have been the beneficiary of his grace, his wisdom, and his experience.

While I was President, he and I met almost every Thursday after morning minyan to discuss weekly events and updates. He would bring up issues about ritual, services, issues that the RA was dealing with and his take on some of the issues were we facing as a Congregation. I felt he and I were developing a very symbiotic relationship that transcended the normal relationship between a lay leader and a Rabbi. And I am proud to say that this relationship has continued to this day. There is no person in whom I have more respect or for whom I feel more gratitude for his service to our Congregation than Neil Sandler.

As our clergy got more stable, we were soon joined by our newest Rabbi, Laurence Rosenthal, right out of Ziegler Rabbinical School, along with Brooke and their family. As with any new rabbi, we weren't exactly sure what we were getting, and Neil, to his enduring credit, took hold and began a mentoring process with Laurence that blossomed into one of the most powerful, enduring relationships between clergy that I have ever seen. It would have been easy for Neil to covet the spotlight and let Laurence linger in the background for several years. But that is not Neil's persona nor his style. He gave Laurence headway to develop his own skill sets and become his own Rabbi, with support and guidance, to be sure, but without a heavy hand. I particularly remember when we first started the so-called "Tent Service" on Rosh Hashanah – I can't remember the exact year. But I do remember how wonderful that service was and how brilliantly Laurence and Steve Grossman, along with others like Michael and Bonnie Levine, used that venue to establish a terrifically musical and vibrant service that appealed to so many. So much so, that we now are incorporating much of the style and less rigorous, if I may use that term, rituals into our regular High Holiday Services. We have more music, too.

Remember AAbsolute Shabbats? Neil's idea. Remember our first steps toward egalitarianism that Rabbi Goodman started? Neil took that to an entirely new level, to the point that with only one exception I can think of (Duchening) we are a fully egalitarian congregation. Thanks to Neil.

In addition to his rabbinic duties, Neil became very active in AIPAC and attended many of its conventions and he participated in many of its activities. He has become a real leader in that organization. He has always, always been a strong supporter of the State of Israel and, unlike many of his colleagues, for whom Israel became a divisive issue with their congregations, to the point that many of them would not and still do not speak about Israel, Neil has been forthright and outspoken about his (and our) support for Israel. That support continues to this day.

And that's what I want to emphasize about Neil. He is calm and steady and very, very bright. He is also consistent and persistent. In his own quiet way, of course. I like to think, and I hope Neil appreciates this as a compliment, that when Neil is on the Bimah, he isn't "preaching". He is guiding and he is teaching, He is encouraging us to be better Jews. And he has demonstrated, with his behavior, his words and his actions, how to do just that.

Moreover, and this is important. One of the most amazing aspects of Neil's personality, and Susan's, is their seemingly infinite capacity for compassion and empathy for us. He's always there – be it a happy event or a sad one, Neil calls the family. Before Covid, he visited. And often Susan would accompany him. I don't think that can be taught at rabbinical school. And he keeps in touch. He and Susan make sure congregants know that that they care and that they will be there. They make all feel more connected and not alone. I think that Neil's soul, which is what I call that mystical essence that connects the head and the heart, is just a gift from God and one that Neil and Susan have shared so willingly with us.

I want to close with two personal points that I think help exemplify Neil's character. First, when Margo was installed as International President of USCJ, Neil flew to NY for her installation. He wasn't asked to do this. He didn't have to do this. But he did it. He came of his own accord because he wanted to, and because he wanted to show our Synagogue's support for Margo and for USCJ. It was a thrill for Margo and for me that he was there.

Second, when I was asked to give these remarks, I wrote to Neil and asked him to give me some of his highlights as our Senior Rabbi. As you know, Neil is a very modest human being. So, he gave me a pretty short list. I'd like to think that if I were making up such a list for him, it would have been much longer – but we would be here through Havdallah this evening.

The prophet Micah asks: What does God require of us? Micah's answer: To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. I cannot think of a man or woman who provides a better example of that kind of Jew than Neil Sandler and Susan Sandler.

Neil, Susan, you have served us well and, although I know you will keep Atlanta as your home base, we will miss you. I will miss you.

May you go from strength to strength.

Yom HaShoah: A Day to Remember, A Day of Strength!

Yom HaShoah: A Day to Remember, A Day of Strength!

Tonight begins the Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The official name on our calendar commemoration is YomHaSho'ah v'haGevurah. Although in English we translate HaShoah to mean Holocaust, the word literally means catastrophe. The word Holocaust is derived from the Greek translation of the Olah offering, the sacrifice mentioned in the Bible when the entire animal is consumed on the fire as a sweet and welcomed smell to God.  With this short description, you can see the many problematic layers the term Holocaust evokes which could be remedied only by a name change.

The term Shoah is better, but also lacking. Catastrophe ignores the real moral and ethical underpinnings of this solemn and important day we mark each year on the 27th of Nisan. A catastrophe could be anything.  An avalanche is a catastrophe. A tidal wave is a catastrophe. We would be hard pressed to evaluate and examine the moral responsibility and culpability of snow peaked mountains and waves of the sea. The term Shoah alone feels like a sort of throwing up of our hands rhetorically whispering into the wind, "Oh well, what can we do?"

The second word, HaGevurah, adds an important element to this day which needs to be remembered. There is something we can do. There is something we must do. The word Gevurah means strength or heroism. The stories we tell about the Shoah must not rest with tales of victim-hood and helplessness. There are countless stories about strength, both outer and inner strength. Our families and fellow Jews who did not survive in body from the evils of the Second World War were far from acting like 'sheep to the slaughter' or sacrificial lambs on the altar. Their lives and our memories of them serve as their strength. The evil that was allowed to grow and spread throughout the world, from those times through today, is the true catastrophe. But it's not our catastrophe… it's theirs! We are the keepers of the Gevurah, the strength.  It is our honor to keep their memory alive.

Yom HaShoah Events

Eternal Life Hemshech Commemoration at Greenwood Cemetery's Memorial to the Six Million
Sunday, April 11 | 11 am | More Info
 
MJCCA Book Festival Yom HaShoah Program
Sunday, April 11 | 2 pm | More Info

Shabbat and Chag: What to Do on a Saturday Night

Shabbat and Chag: What to Do on a Saturday Night

This year, many of our holidays happen to begin on Saturday evening, and Passover is no exception! However, with this start time, comes all sorts of confusion about the order of blessings at the beginning of the seder. There are two important notes here, which may differ from a normal year: how to light our chag candle and how to say kiddush/havdallah.

First, while kindling a new fire is not permitted on Yom Tov, transferring a flame is. In normal years, we light our candles before chag has started (like we do with Shabbat candles). However, in years when the holiday begins immediately after Shabbat (as well as lighting on the second night of chag), we need a pre-lit candle, since the holiday has already begun when we light. In order to do this, we must light a candle prior to Shabbat that will burn for at least 25 hours, if not longer, such as a yahrtzeit candle. When we're ready to light candles following Shabbat for Passover, the chag candles should be lit from these existing flames and not from a new match, and you should not blow out the object you used to transfer the flame (such as a match) but rather allow it to burn itself out.

Second is the order of kiddush and havdallah. The havdallah liturgy focus on separation – typically between kodesh and chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the routine of the normal weekday. But, when Shabbat transitions into a holiday, we have a different liturgy – one marking the transition between kodesh and kodesh, the higher holiness of Shabbat with the still (but less) holy holiday. In this transition, kiddush and havdallah get all wrapped into one as a part of the seder.

To remember the order of all these blessings, the rabbis came up with a mnemonic – YaKNeHaZ (which I'll admit is not so helpful, but bear with me).

The mnemonic breaks down as follows:

  • Y: Yayin – Wine
  • K: Kiddush – The special blessing said for kiddush for the holiday we're entering into.
  • N: Ner – The blessing we say over the candle, which is the same blessing as Shabbat havdallah. Ideally, you should use the candles that you lit for chag as your havdallah candle. Do not use a havdallah candle, as you're not allowed to extinguish the flame on Yom Tov, and do night light a new candle. Existing lights in the room, such as a lamp, maybe used as well
  • H: Havdallah – A modified version of the last blessing of havdallah from Shabbat, specifically for the transition between Shabbat and chag
  • Z: Zman – Another name for the shehechiyanu blessing

That's YaKNeHaZ! To further help you remember the mnemonic, many haggadot will have a picture similar to the one below, featuring a hare hunt (here from an Ashkenazi Haggadah c. 1460). As it turns out, the German expression for rabbit hunt, 'Jag den Has,' sounds like the mnemonic and was an old symbol of spring and renewal, which fits well with the theme of Passover. Fortunately, no bunnies were actually harmed in the making of this mnemonic.

Here are the blessings in order, as you should do them at the first seder!

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָפֶן.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל עָם וְרוֹמְמָנוּ מִכָּל לָשׁוֹן וְקִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו. וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה, חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן, אֶת יוֹם חַג הַמַצוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ, מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. כִּי בָנוּ בָחַרְתָּ וְאוֹתָנוּ קִדַּשְׁתָּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים, וּמוֹעֲדֵי קָדְשֶךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, מְקַדֵּשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַזְּמַנִּים.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מְאוֹרֵי הָאֵשׁ.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמַבְדִיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחֹל, ין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה. בֵּין קְדֻשַּׁת שַׁבָּת לִקְדֻשַּׁת יוֹם טוֹב הִבְדַּלְתָּ, וְאֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִשֵּׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה קִדַּשְׁתָּ. הִבְדַּלְתָּ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֶת עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּקְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ. ,בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי הַמַּבְדִיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְקֹדֶשׁ.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, borei p'ri hagafen.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, asher bachar banu mikol am, v'rom'manu mikol-lashon, v'kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, vatiten-lanu Adonai Eloheinu b'ahavah moadim l'simchah, chagim uz'manim l'sason et-yom chag hamatzot hazeh. Z'man cheiruteinu, mikra kodesh, zeicher litziat mitzrayim. Ki vanu vacharta v'otanu kidashta mikol ha'amim. umo'adei kod'shecha b'simchah uv'sason hinchaltanu. Baruch Atah Adonai, m'kadeish Yisrael v'hazmanim.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, borei m'orei ha'eysh.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, hamavdil beyn kodesh lichol, beyn or lichoshech, beyn yisrael la'amim, beyn yom hashvi'i lisheshet yimai hama'aseh. Beyn kidushat Shabbat likidushat yom tov hivdalta, v'et yom hashvi'i misheshet yimai hama'aseh kidashta; hivdalta vikidashta et amcha yisrael bikidushatecha. Baruch atah Adonai, Hamavdil beyn kodesh lechol.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu, v'kiyemanu, v'higiyanu, laz'man hazeh.

Rabbi Sam Blustin

Min Hameitzar

Min Hameitzar

"From the narrow places I called out, 'Yah', and I was answered with expansiveness" (Psalm 118).

Oh, how the last year has felt constraining and narrow. Stuck in our homes, many of us have spent the time alone or in small pods. We've missed hugs from loved ones and our grandchildren's first words. There are those whom we will never hug again. Amidst the hyper-connected world, we've realized just how alone and isolated we have been, even before the pandemic.

But we've also reached an important point societally in the journey and trauma of this pandemic – we've, by and large, stopped telling people when we're asked how we are, "I'm doing fine." We've begun to open ourselves to the world, not always out of choice, but by necessity and by deep longing for the other. Our tradition teaches us that the brokenness can be a place of great beauty, because we're often fully present with ourselves in those moments. To cry out is the most primal of those actions, to say "I need help" or "I really miss you" or "I really need a break – can you watch the kids?". It's precisely in those moments, our psalmist teaches us in this verse from Hallel, that we are answered by expansiveness.

When we allow our lives to be touched by someone else's, for those moments we are connected to something much deeper and more expansive than we had realized previously. We are all part of the One, connected in holiness and love and our shared humanity. All we need to do is remember, as the great Carol King once sang, "all you need to do is call, and I'll be there. 'Cause you've got a friend."

Enjoy my setting of Min Hameitzar from Psalm 118 (below), and please join us at our Passover gathering after the second seder, coming together in community to lift us out of the narrow place, if even for a few moments.

Rabbi Sam Blustin

A Reflection on One Year of the Global Covid-19 Pandemic

Light a Candle and Remember

A Reflection on One Year of the Global Covid-19 Pandemic

On March 11, 2020, the Director General of the World Health Organization declared, "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic." Light a candle and remember.

 Tomorrow evening, March 11, 2021 President Joseph Biden will address our nation on the occasion of this grim anniversary. Light a candle and remember.

As of today, more that 525,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. Worldwide, more than 2.6 million people have perished. Zachor – Remember. Honor memories of loved ones and friends. Reflect on their legacies. Light a candle and remember.

The deaths of loved ones and friends represent our greatest losses. But we have suffered other losses… hugs and kisses and the warmth of smiles and afternoon excursions and trips to the beach and the mountains and educational opportunities… lots and lots of educational opportunities and… Light a candle and remember.

Words alone can never fully express our gratitude to all the caring people – medical personnel, those who work alongside them in hospitals, first responders and other public servants – who have risked their own health for the sake of others' well-being. Light a candle and remember.

"Ner Adonai nishmat adam" – "The soul of each individual is the light of God" (Proverbs 20:27). In our tradition, as in other faith traditions, light is a symbol of God's presence. That divine light illuminates the beauty of each of our souls. Some of us are thankful for the protective vaccinations we have received. Others among us anxiously look forward to their turn to be vaccinated. As, God-willing, hope and optimism take greater hold, let each of us use the divine light to genuinely illuminate our souls. Light a candle and remember.

Light a candle and act.

Rabbi Neil Sandler

One Year – Twice: A Message for Reflection

One Year - Twice

A Message for Reflection

One year! I think about what I said when Rabbi Sandler told me that I better take these warnings about some flu-like virus seriously. I distinctly remember telling him that there was no way that our country was going to 'close down.' And now we sit here a year later. It's really unbelievable. Tomorrow, March 11, will mark one full year when our country and much of the world shut down. There has been tremendous loss. Many have lost loved ones who may have lived for many more years without the spread of this pandemic. Many of us have lost jobs and financial security. We have become distanced from our family, our friends, and our neighbors. Our children have lost out on their education and crucial socialization that school, afterschool programs, camp, sleepovers, birthday parties, and important Rites of Passage offer. There isn't a single soul who hasn't lost something. And it all happened over a period of time – over this last year. One year.

On Thursday, March 11, we mark one year since World Health Organization director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, officially declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. As with any unfolding situation, dates and times are a bit arbitrary. The first death from Covid-19 is documented in January of 2020, but March 11 is that day that much of the world lifted its eyes and noticed. As we look back, there is little we can do to reclaim the time. Many have sought 'silver linings' extolling opportunities that have emerged for some of us which we were able to receive with appreciation. For others, silver linings weren't possible with death, unemployment, food and housing insecurity and many other realities abounding. Acknowledging the wide spectrum of experiences over this past year, our Jewish tradition is instructive when we look back at this last year of loss.

Judaism harnesses time as a tool for bringing the memories of the past into the future in order to create holiness and blessing. We do this every Friday night when we raise our Cos Kiddush (Cup of Blessing) to bless the day of Shabbat. In our prayer, we invoke both the experience of creation and redemption, marking the beginning of Shabbat and setting the tone of the next 25 hours. We gather together in a minyan (prayer quorum) and recite Kaddish for loved ones who no longer walk the earth beside us. Over time, we turn our great loss into a ritual for committing ourselves to the ideals and values of those who were a blessing in our life. In just a few weeks, we will be at our seder table experiencing the ultimate of ritualized history, a ceremony which has sustained and emboldened Jews through some of the most horrific realities that our world faces. All these harnessed moments, and many more, have offered our people the blessing of taking a world which often feels out of control and brings the world into partnership with the mission of the Jewish people – to mend and heal a broken world.

On Thursday, March 11 our world will observe a yahrzeit of sorts. It was a moment when we collectively realized that we were about to lose something precious. A year later, we now can articulate those losses for ourselves. For each of us that loss is different, and we experienced it at different moments throughout the year. We now mark March 11 to harness time. Not to regain what we have lost, that isn't possible. We mark March 11 for the purpose of recommitting ourselves to the ideals and values that belonged to whatever it is we lost. As with any yahrzeit, this moment is scheduled for deep reflection and ritual action. I would encourage us all to light a candle and take a moment to remember. What was your loss? Try not to practice comparative suffering. Your loss is yours, regardless of whether it was a person, an opportunity, a friendship, or time itself. Sit with the light and explore what life might look like if we took the blessings promised from those losses and brought them into this next year. How would our life feel blessed, experience those blessings and be a blessing? There is no right or wrong way to envision the year to come. Therefore, I offer this suggestion:

Like our Shabbat candles, two flames that stand, one reflecting on the other, consider bringing a second blessing in this coming year. If the loss that you reflect on is that of a loved one, ask yourself, what was something my dearly departed used to do that was a blessing? Did they have a hobby or a task that was meaningful to them? In this coming year, bring that blessing forward twice! Whatever it is, do it for them. If you mourn the loss of your child's (and all children's) education – volunteer to tutor at a local school this coming year. If you have lost connections with friends and friendships that were blossoming, make it a point to either rekindle or start anew two friendships this year. We might not be able to have our time and our losses back, but we can make the year-to-come double in blessings if we harness the time and bring it all forward.

שנזכה להיות צרורה בצרור החיים
May we merit to be bound up in the bonds of life!

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

A Reflection on Last Week… Where Do We Go Now?

A Reflection on Last Week… Where Do We Go Now?

Although it has been some time since I last stood at (now) Truist Park for the National Anthem that precedes a Braves ball game, I vividly remember my usual action/reaction. I focus on the American flag just past the outfield… and I well up with pride. Strange, perhaps, yet moments like this one evoke pride and gratitude in me. The words, "The greatest democracy in the world" invariably come to mind. After last week's desecration of one of our nation's "holiest" buildings, the US Capitol in Washington, DC, I have grave doubts. Now, as the pain resulting from what we witnessed begins to lessen, it is time to ask, "And now what?" We ought not direct that question solely to those who serve our country. The answers will only be lasting if we also direct the question to ourselves. When we do so, I think our rabbinic tradition will provide us with healing and hopeful guidance.

Here is a well-known Mishna found in Pirkay Avot 5:17:

Every argument that is [for the sake of] heaven's name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not [for the sake of] heaven's name — it is not destined to endure. What [is an example of an argument for the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What [is an example of an argument not for the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Korach and his followers.

What is the difference between the arguments of Hillel and Shammai that are worthy/for the sake of heaven and those of Korach and his followers that are not worthy/not for the sake of heaven? Rabbi Menachem Meiri's commentary in the 13th century is instructive:

In (the Hillel/Shammai) debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it, out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail over his fellow. An argument not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and his company, for they came to undermine Moses… out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.

The Talmud itself reinforces Rabbi Meiri's view. Hillel and Shammai had strong disagreements… yet they respected each other, and their students even loved each other. But Korach and those who joined him in rebellion? They acted only on their own interests and rejected Moses's leadership because of their "ambition for victory."I hear our Talmudic and medieval rabbis speaking to us and our leaders today. These are among the things I hear them saying:

  1. When we turn toward the other, especially one in whom we might be tempted to recognize an enemy, we ought to strive instead to recognize the reflection of God that stands before us.
  2. In speaking with people, especially with those with whom we disagree, we should not strive to show how ridiculous we think this individual's argument is or to prevail over him/her. Instead, we ought to seek to listen and share. We ought to share our truth and listen to the other person's truth if it is different from our own.
  3. We ought to strive to foster understanding amidst disagreement and to constantly reflect respect for each other as we interact.
  4. We ought to conduct ourselves in a way when, even amidst the expression of strong disagreement, we do nothing to knowingly harm others or act in ways that will create a barrier between us now and in the future.

Finally, the mishna, in Pirkay Avot and Rabbi Meiri's reinforcement of it, set up a dichotomy between those whose words and intentions are for the sake of heaven and those whose words and intentions are otherwise. But most of us, along with our leaders, have some Hillel/Shammai in us… and some Korach. Our task and the demand we ought to make of our leaders is to give expression to the "heavenly" side. We should pay attention to the "unheavenly" qualities in us and alter them. Similarly, we must take note of these potentially harmful qualities when our leaders express them and let them know we expect, and even demand, better of them.

As we continue to confront challenging times in the life of our country, I pray that those who serve us will act to restore the confidence and pride we take in "the greatest democracy in the world." And I pray that our own actions and interactions, especially with those we share strong disagreement, will always reflect the wisdom of Hillel and Shammai, interactions that are "for the sake of heaven" and worthy of God's presence.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving

To Our Ahavath Achim Family:

This is a grateful time of year. It is the time when we reflect on our lives, our families, and all the elements that have made our lives worthy of thanksgiving. Even with this past year's many challenges, I pray that we can bring forward a posture of gratitude and hope. Our Thanksgiving celebration will undoubtedly look different. For some of us, our Thanksgiving rituals – visits with friends and family, or trips away that we have done year after year – will be broken. For others, people will be missing from around our tables – friends and family who need to keep a distance or others who are painfully gone. All these realities might diminish the attitude of gratitude that is so cherished this time of year. Our American folklore about Thanksgiving might offer us some inspiration.

When I was in school, the tale told was one of a slow, cautious encounter – an indigenous people meeting a strange group of travelers from a far-away land. Two peoples foreign to one another who created a new ritual by gathering to share a meal and a moment in time to express gratitude for the newness of one another and hope for the future. In many ways, this is where we all stand today.

With our rituals broken, we have the gift of exploring and celebrating the newness of the moment. Although we long for the old rituals, and I promise that some of them will be back, can we explore what it might be like to try something new this year? We can Zoom our Thanksgiving with friends and family with whom we usually don't connect. We can add a new dish to the menu. We can add a new activity to the long day of eating and watching TV (long walk or hike is my family's tradition).

Thanksgiving this year will be like no other. We are in uncharted waters, traveling through open plains and prairies, but the newness of the moment holds the possibility of gratitude if we can be open to exploring its gifts.

Below is a link to the Community Interfaith Thanksgiving service that was held on Sunday at Christ Covenant Church. In addition to the beautiful prayers and music, Rev. James Lamkin from Northside Drive Baptist offered a wonderful message about memory, hope, and fig preserves… enjoy! (Watch the Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service here.)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family,

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal