Monday, September 26, 2011

The Work of Forgiveness

The Work of Forgiveness

This is a bittersweet time of year. I look forward to the stirring sounds of Breisheit and Kol Nidre, the intensity of large communal prayer, a time and place for introspection, apples, honey and new fruits shared with family and friends. Yet I also know that before me is the work of forgiveness, a tricky business that is not always black and white. The same questions emerge: What happens when we want to hold onto our grudges?
What about those times when we can’t change our own hurtful behavior because we know it is just a defense against someone else’s hurtful actions towards us? And what if someone’s sin against us isn’t a casual transgression or insensitivity but reveals a fundamental character flaw that we don’t know if we still want in our lives. What if that person has asked for forgiveness but the cumulative effect of their actions has fundamentally altered how we see them, how we feel about them. Isn’t it our duty to forgive? Do the words “I forgive you” change the way we feel in our hearts? And what if our own sins are hard to change because they are telling us that something is not right in our lives? What work needs to be done to strengthen our most sacred relationships? These weighty questions return with the season. Some years I have answers; other years I’m lost in the dark.

A few years ago, when the concept of sin and forgiveness felt particularly murky, I began Tashlich at the beginning of the month of Elul instead of on the traditionally observed time of Rosh Hashana—or the during the Days of Awe. On the first day of Elul a rabbi friend led me and a few other women to the shores of Lake Michigan to begin the process. She brought along blank paper and green markers and asked us to make a list of all that we wanted to discard that was getting in the way of being truly at peace. We then tossed our white pages with green letters into the lake and watched our words float to the surface. The lake swallowed some of them. We lifted the now faded green letters from the water and while less easy to read, the words were still there to contemplate for the rest of the month. Which words still spoke to us. Which seemed to be erased by the act of articulation? What letters still bled down the page?

We had had a chance to begin the hardest work: articulating our struggles. As the days of contemplation continued, we had time to think about what were the stones that needed to be tossed back into the water. What were the sins that needed to be cast off. And what were the gems that we would continue to hold in our hands, waiting for the answer.

This poem was born after that ritual. It helped me find answers for 5770.
I’m still working on the answers for this year.
And you?

Shanah Tovah v' Metukah,
Dina Elenbogen


We dipped our words in water
wondering what the lake would give back.

We dug up the odd gems
of the passing year.

We did not throw sins into the wind.
We wrote them down in green ink on white paper,

let water wash over them
as letters faded to shadows.

We had written down a year
of inadequacies, frailties, iniquities.

In my left fist I kept the imperfect
stone of my heart.

I did not toss it in
to the waves that know

what we cannot give back
we will keep.

Dina Elenbogen

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Exercise for the Soul

As we begin our annual season of reflection, I find it a useful and joyful practice to begin by first looking back at the highlights of the past year.  So it’s become a tradition in my family to spend a few minutes as Rosh Hashanah arrives to share our favorite memories of the past year. I share this exercise with you as a wonderful family activity that, as a Beth Emet teacher, I always introduced to my third-grade students and their families.

Give each member of your family at least five scraps of paper, and have them (privately) write down one of their favorite events on each piece of paper. (Have someone write down the responses for children who can’t yet write.) Use a manila envelope marked boldly with the last  Hebrew year  (5771) to collect all the papers. Take turns pulling them out and reading them.

 For the past couple years, with our son in college, we’ve had to alter our strategy a little, using emails and Skype to share our happiest memories.

For children as well as adults, it’s a wonderful way to provide some closure to the past year, as well as to reinforce a sense of the Jewish year as opposed to the secular year.  And, before we delve into the darknesses that have plagued us, it reminds us of some of the things we got right in the past year! I think Jonah would’ve been a happier prophet if he had spent a little time thinking about all the good things that happened during his adventure! 

L’Shanah Tova!
Janet Reed

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sophie Black’s Jewish Journey in Three (Very) Short Chapters

Sophie Black
Few congregants’ names are as synonymous with Beth Emet The Free Synagogue as Sophie (Kowalewsky) Black. You may know her as one of the congregation’s earliest members. Or that she was the synagogue’s first female president from 1983-1985. Perhaps you have read her book reviews in The Beth Emet Bulletin or have heard her ask stimulating questions in adult education classes.

Though Beth Emet has benefited hugely from her contributions since she and her husband, Sidney, became members in 1955, it turns out that the synagogue has been the perfect place for her to express herself, Jewishly.

I talked with Sophie about her Jewish journey, which, since Sophie is such a bookworm, struck me as having three distinct chapters.

Chapter One

Sophie’s parents, who were born in Russia, lost their home and possessions in a pogrom and moved to Germany. They were not observant Jews, but Jewish in their core beliefs, says Sophie.

“My parents were socially conscious people, “ she says. “I was taught that there is an obligation to live righteously and do good deeds. To try very hard. That it was a Jewish thing to do to leave things better than how we found them.”

As a child still living in Leipzig, Germany in the 1930s, Sophie’s mother asked her to take something to her father at work.

“I got waylayed,” Sophie recalls,” And I didn’t do it.”

Her mother said, “You had a mitzvah to do and you didn’t do it.”

“This impacted me profoundly,” she says.

Her father, a knitwear businessman, and her mother, who had earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Kharkov, had high expectations for Sophie. They named her after the first Russian female mathematician to be appointed a full professor at a European university: Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, who was much later the subject of a short story by Alice Munro in “Too Much Happiness. (The character was named Sophia Kovalevsky and Sophie says it is about a woman who “never got tenure, was quite lonely, was a free thinker and had many affairs.” Not at all like our Sophie, except perhaps for the free-thinking part.)

Sophie and her parents left Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938 for the United States when she was 12. They lived briefly in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and then settled in Cleveland, Ohio.

They found a Jewish community (they lived near the Pecars - Harvey Pecar’s family and not far from Rabbi Polish’s mother’s home), and Sophie, not surprisingly, excelled in academics. She went to Western Reserve for a bachelor’s degree in history, and, with a masters’ degree in library science from Columbia University she got a job at the Harvard University Law School library in 1952.

Chapter Two

Two years later, she met Sidney, who played an immense part in fueling Sophie’s Jewish soul – the second chapter in her Jewish journey. He came from a good deed-doing family in the Boston area, Sophie says. Once a month, his mother took clothing and food to a charity and Sid, in turn, never passed a collection box by. “That was his way,” Sophie says. “He was a spiritual man with a conscience.” She was very moved by this and “imitated him.”

They married in 1955 and a business opportunity brought them to Chicago. Sid worked in a collection agency and Sophie went to work at the Northwestern University Library. They settled in Evanston where they learned about Rabbi Polish and joined the newly growing synagogue, which was then housed in “a mansion that stood where the sanctuary is now at Ridge and Dempster,” says Sophie. Their two children, Nina and Joe, grew up at Beth Emet (her son, Joe is now a rabbi).

Chapter Three

The third chapter in Sophie’s Jewish journey takes us to where we started. At 85, she continues to actively pray, study, teach, contribute and question in and around the sanctuary, library and classrooms. After 57 years, in addition to her many gifts and charms, Sophie is Beth Emet.

Don’t miss Sophie’s D’var Torah on Friday, September 23 at 6:30 titled, “Talking in Translation” about the not-so-easy task of learning English as a young German immigrant in Newcastle, PA.

Ellen Blum Barish

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Let's March on July 4th

As we approach the holiday season, about to celebrate the metaphorical birthday of the world, Hayom Harat Olam, my mind wandered to another holiday season and another birthday celebration. I mean, of course, the Fourth of July, the birthday of the United States of America.

I made this connection easily enough because, as Mordecai Kaplan put it, I live in two civilizations, one Jewish and one American. An unaffiliated or purely secular Jew may not. A resident of Kiryas Joel in New York may not. As one who feels blessed to be Jewish and privileged to be American, I do.

And come July 4, 2012, I want to march in the great celebratory parade down Central Street in Evanston. And I want to do so with others from my Jewish community at Beth Emet.

Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for Jews to march as Jews in the parade. Evanston abided, if not encouraged, restrictions against Jews. The neighborhood into which my family and I moved over forty years ago had very few Jews. And the land we purchased was, as I recall, encumbered by a restrictive covenant barring transfer to Jews. The restriction, by then, was unenforceable, but there it was.

Though Beth Emet has been an Evanston institution for over sixty-one years, it has never marched in the parade. Other faith based organizations have. Another Jewish congregation (JRC) has. But not Beth Emet, not the oldest, largest Jewish congregation in Evanston.

There are at least four reasons why Beth Emet should march.

1. Because we can. My grandparents could not move freely in the Old Country. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us the freedom to do so here, in particular to assemble, to speak and to exercise our religion. We all know that if we fail to exercise our bodies, our muscles atrophy. The same is true of our political and religious freedoms. We must use them, and teach them diligently to our children, or they will wither.

2. Because we should. We are taught not to separate ourselves from the community and we are also taught to repair the world. Those two teachings conflate here because repairing the world begins with helping to make our home community a better place in which to live. But we cannot help repair Evanston if we have no credibility on the street, if we are not visible, if we do not, literally as well as figuratively, walk the walk. One way to get street cred is to walk as a community.

3. Because it is good for Beth Emet. Joining in this open celebration of freedom shows that the Free Synagogue really believes in its name. It is a community that honors freedom. And it also shows that we know how to have fun. What a great way to publicize the congregation and its values.

4. Because it is good for the Jews. The time has long passed when Jews had to, or thought they had to, change their names to survive or, perhaps, to succeed. And so has the time passed when Jewish life in America could sustain itself on the twin pillars of building Eretz Yisrael and remembering the Shoah, as important as those tasks are. By marching in this parade as Jews we enrich our lives as Jews and have a chance to present a positive image of a modern Jewish community, sufficiently self-confident to assert itself publicly. This is important for ourselves, for unaffiliated Jews, and for the general community who, when they see Jews in the public square, normally only see them in black hats and long coats.

As individuals we may not agree on how to resolve or even address the public issues of the day, but we all ought to be able to agree that on this day, at least this one day, we can all join together in public to express our gratitude for this country and the freedoms it affords us. If my grandparents could suffer in steerage to cross the Atlantic, I can walk a mile or so to honor the choice they made to come here and the country which received them and provides me and my family with unparalleled opportunities. I hope others can as well.

A long time ago, according to tradition, it took one brave man to take one courageous step to open a path for freedom for his people. Let us be like Nachson. Let’s take that first step, and then a few more. Let’s march together on July 4th.

Rabbi London, President Ephraim, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow congregants: let’s make it so!

Roger Price

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Search for a Long-Lost Ancestor Reveals the Tree of Life

Like the old riddle about the man who is his own grandfather, I recently became the self-appointed guardian of my great-grandmother’s 7-year-old son.

Spurred by my new membership in, I became curious about what happened to my grandfather’s younger brother, who died at age 7 after being hit by a wagon, according to the story my grandfather had always told me. Having assumed responsibility several years ago for the Waldheim Cemetery graves of my mother’s four grandparents, it bothered me that little Paul was not buried near his parents, and I started wondering where he was.

I had heard, and been disturbed by, Paul’s story all my life. He was skipping bottle caps in front of their home on the West Side one day in 1914 when a horse-drawn wagon jumped the curb and crushed his leg. After five weeks in the hospital, he was about to be released when the doctors told his parents that the leg had been badly set, and he would be crippled for life unless they reset it. Paul never came out of the anesthetic they used. He died in mid-December. The little coffin was set across two chairs in the living room of their home.

I once referred to “Uncle Paul” when speaking of him to my grandfather and he immediately corrected me. “Paul,” he said, as if the concept of Paul being an uncle didn’t compute.

So last time I was at Waldheim, I inquired about Paul, and discovered a record of his grave. The cemetery provided me a guide who drove me over and helped me locate the grave. The Hebrew and English engraving on young Paul’s grave stone is barely legible now, but even before we figured out for certain that it was his, I found myself planted in front of a worn monument in the shape of a tree trunk. It was, indeed, Paul’s.

I have known Paul’s story all my life. Now I’m part of it. I love the idea that Paul will have a visitor again after so many years, and that I can “care for” the son of the woman for whom I was named. If our spirits live on through our children’s children and our namesakes, and in the hearts of those who cherish our memory, then little Paul really does belong to me, in a way. And I’m more than happy to tell his story and carry his spirit into future generations.

Janet Reed