Jeremiah Gems: Reflection

Thoughts from our community members, leading up to the High Holy Days

Jeremiah Gems: Reflection

Below are blog posts from 2014/5775; to see the posts from 2015/5776, visit our Jeremiah Gems: Sanctuary page.

As we enter the Hebrew month of Elul -- the month leading up to the High Holy Days -- it is a time to reflect on the past year. Tradition calls on us to engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh - taking an accounting of the soul, mindful introspection about ourselves and our actions.

In our new series, "Jeremiah Gems: Reflection," you'll read short reflections from members of our Jeremiah community, published daily during the month of Elul.

24 September 2014

Slinky: A metaphor for the passage of time

By Alene Frost

As Rosh HaShanah approached one year, I suggested to a teacher that the perfect metaphor for the passage of time in life could be a Slinky. You might logically imagine that I was a spectacled girl sharing a precocious thought in a high school humanities class. But I was 50 years old, and a new student in the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.

Time was passing in my own life. My youngest had just left for college, my father had passed away, and the young bride in my wedding photo looked out at me, yearning for recognition.

The Melton teacher introduced us to a horizontal timeline of the Jewish People. Then she drew a circle representing the cycle of the Jewish year. She directed our focus to the High Holy Days and wondered how we marked new years on our own timelines. Were our timelines linear or circular?

The circle concept evoked images of the movie “Groundhog Day.” The man awakening to the same day again and again and again until he changed. The horizontal line was flat and ominous.

I played with a pencil and drew a coil. It had movement connecting the past and future. It was circular yet moved upward. It was … a Slinky. A child’s toy, long forgotten, retrieved, layering the years of my life.

The teacher graciously embraced the metaphor. And the next week I brought a Slinky to class. We played with it, we stretched it and twisted it and sprung it. Our timelines flowed back and forth and round and round with buoyant energy.

My youngest who had left for college is getting married soon. The years since my father last sat beside me at Rosh HaShanah services are many. But I imagine us linked with reciprocal movement as the past loops up and wraps around us, reaches back, extends upward and around, embracing us and the generations.

23 September 2014

Am I a “Twice a Year” Jew?

By David Loundy

The High Holy Days are a time of personal reflection. For me, this leads to guilt. Fridays my office is open late. Saturdays I drive kids around, and often squeeze in work in every quiet moment. Hardly Shabbat observance at its finest. I do not fulfill my obligation as a Board member in serving as an usher at the requisite number of Shabbat services. My holiday service attendance is poor. Even this reflection is considerably late. I recently muttered about becoming a “twice a year Jew” within earshot of Rabbi Cohen. He corrected me. He pointed out a number of ways in which I am actively engaged in Jewish and congregational activities that do not include service attendance.

Today, at work, I financed a mosque. Last month, an Orthodox synagogue. Both using religiously-sensitive financing. I help people live their beliefs. Supporting the Jewish people. Engaging in interfaith outreach. Today I helped save a 70-year-old business from failing and decimating the owning family. Last week we approved financing for a social service agency so it can better spread donations throughout the local community. About this time last year I travelled to Dubai as a finalist in a contest for innovations in ethical finance – a financing model for solar and geothermal systems to improve the environment.

To me, these events represent another day in the office. In all cases, I was recognized by many involved, but not actively by myself, as a Jew.

Today I also read about the passing of the torch by the head of a local Muslim charity. The man stepping back is a wonderful man for whom I have great respect – someone who lives his beliefs and has influenced my actions. I once jokingly made the mistake of referring to myself in his presence as an “infidel.” He sternly chastised me pointing out that I was “a man of the Book” both in tradition and in action.

Rabbi Cohen was correct. Judaism extends beyond service attendance and into living Jewish beliefs. Other people have recognized me as an emissary of Jewish values even when I have not. I don’t think of myself as an emissary. I think of myself as overworked. Truly deserving the label of being a “man of the Book” in my actions, a person who lives his beliefs, not twice a year, but every day, is an accomplishment I hope to one day achieve. Maybe even a little more often on Friday nights...

22 September 2014

An Episcopalian Shiva

By Trudy Bers

Last year I lost a dear friend. Though Jim had been diagnosed with a neurological disease that slowly robbed him of physical and cognitive abilities, we thought he would live for more years. The end came quickly and as a surprise. Thus his wife had not made arrangements for a funeral or memorial. When Sally was asked what she wanted for Jim, she thought a moment and said, “a shiva.” Understand that Jim and Sally are Episcopalians, and their only real experience with a shiva was 15 years ago when my husband died. Sally knew that her life with Jim was centered in their home, and she wanted all of us to remember him in the comfortable surroundings that so reflected both of them.

Our Book Club planned and provided the shiva food. As the only Jewish member it was my role to prepare an explanation of shiva to distribute to visitors and to be sure we included traditional foods. This task prompted me to learn more about our shiva tradition. Here’s what I wrote.

In the Jewish tradition, Shiva, which means “seven,” is the initial period of mourning. It is set for seven days based on an interpretation of a verse in Amos (8:10):

And I will turn your feasts [which usually lasted seven days] into mourning, and all you songs into lamentations; and I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning for an only son; and the end thereof is a bitter day.

Another interpretation of the seven-day period is associated with Joseph, who mourned for his father, Jacob, for seven days (Genesis 50:10).

In this modern era, Shiva has many variations. Often families “sit shiva” for one day, and while it is traditional for Shivas to take place in the home, some families prefer them to take place in other venues.

One of the time-honored traditions of Shiva is that friends provide the Shiva meal and take care of all arrangements, ensuring the immediate family is freed from any responsibilities and is cared for by others. Another tradition is to provide round food at the meal to symbolize the cyclical, eternal and continuous nature of life. Though bagels and hard boiled eggs are commonly used, we have chosen a different round food for Jim’s Shiva: M&M’s. Jim dearly loved them and was known to occasionally sneak away to indulge his appetite for candy.

As we grieve for Jim, let us remember him as an exceptionally kind, witty, bright, talented, devoted husband, father and friend. We shall miss you, Jimbo!

What I took away from this experience is a renewed understanding of how much our Jewish traditions honor families, are deeply personal, and transcend religious boundaries. I would not be surprised to learn that other non-Jewish friends begin to have shivas too.

21 September 2014

Elul – where has this year gone?

By Julie Kosarin

Elul – the air changes, the light changes. When the temperature dropped the other evening, I reached for a favorite well-worn nightgown. Like Proust’s madeleine, a memory of my mother flooded my consciousness. And it was good. And I was pleased. You see, whenever I went to visit her, I always asked to sleep on the oldest softest cotton pillowcase she had. She kept one for me; she knew I liked it that way. A small gesture that said “I know you.”
The Torah does not tell us to “Love thy mother”; rather, “Honor thy mother.”

Elul – where has this year gone? Blessings: my daughter had a joyful bat mitzvah and her basketball team won the regional conference; we enjoyed an amazing trip to Israel; our ketubah is finally (as we approach our 2nd anniversary) on the wall of our bedroom; my father is in good health and good spirits; we just adopted a rescue dog. I notice the stars more frequently now on nightly walks. Yes, a year full of blessings.

Elul – a new year is coming. Hurry up, finish the list (that famous list, you know the one.) OMG – so much guilt – all the things I did not do, did not finish, did not follow through. I should have made the time or found the time. I should have said “thank you” sooner. I pushed too much or not enough. I expected so much – of others, of myself.

Okay, okay, this new year – 5775 – I’ll try again, I’ll try something new. Stay open. Connect. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep calm and carry on. So many blessings to come.

20 September 2014

Remembering those on our lists

By Charles Gurian

One of the more mundane, but truly profound things we do in preparation for the High Holy Days is review the names we put in the annual memorial book. This is a fraught exercise for me – the list seems to grow every year and I can’t continue my direct relationships with the people on the list.

My grandfather is on the list. When I was a child, we got together three times a week. This was the pattern until I left for college. Five months later he broke his hip, and he essentially gave up and died. Barely a week goes by that I don’t wish I could have him back to ask more about his life and enjoy his company.

My father is on the list. It’s been 27 years. He was a seemingly simple man, but I regularly wish I had him available to consult with on how to manage my life. It’s not that his went so well, but how he developed his attitudes to his encounters with life that I want to learn from and emulate.

My brother is on the list. Our relationship was difficult, at best, from the beginning (I was born a month early, a month before his bar mitzvah). It was up and down from then until he died. And I’ll never have the possibility to effect a reconciliation.

I think about them, and the others, regularly. But at this time of year the memories come flooding in, along with the pain of the missed opportunities. Part of what we do at the holidays is pray for these people. But we also pray for ourselves, to have the strength to continue on in spite of their loss. Sharing these feelings can be cathartic and I appreciate having the chance to do so.

19 September 2014

Accepting the here and now

By Fred Kagan

On my journey toward Judaism I spent a weekend in the redwood forests in northern California at a Buddhist retreat. The first day’s meditation was held in a large building, set up with rows of folding chairs. The leader spoke to us for a short time, about finding inner peace, and accepting the world around us. Then the meditative period began.

I sat quietly in my chair, looking within myself for that quiet place, but the person sitting in front of me had some sort of a tick.

He kept scooting back towards me in his chair. Making noise as the chair scraped over the floor. Bumping into my feet. And I found myself becoming more and more upset. He was coming into my space, breaking my meditation.

That’s when the big “AHA” happened. I needed to learn to be more accepting, allow for others to be who and how they are, and to accept the here and now and find value in that moment.

18 September 2014

I am truly home

By Sheila Greenfield

When I was growing up, my parents insisted that my brothers and I have a good Jewish education. Our family belonged to Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We went to school three days a week and though we weren’t thrilled to give up our fun time, my memories even these 50+ years later are strong. My parents asked me to choose either a Bat Mitzvah OR Confirmation and I chose Confirmation. I was very involved in the temple youth programs and made a lot of good friends from all over the Philadelphia/New Jersey area. Going to the Kallah in Atlantic City was one of the highlights of that time. I even continued on to Gratz College for extended Hebrew/religious studies.

Many years later, as my life took me in a different direction, my Judaism took a back seat to the responsibilities of adulthood and later parenthood. My partner choices were not necessarily examples of good decision making. My visits to temple, wherever I could go without membership, were just for the High Holy Days. I couldn’t afford to send my daughter to Sunday school and I did what I could to teach her holidays and traditions. Then one day, a wonderful man from my past reentered my life. As our relationship grew I began imagining our walking hand in hand to temple (my previous partners were not Jewish). A strange fantasy that actually came true. Shortly after we married at the Cook County Courthouse in downtown Chicago, I answered a blind ad for a job that turned out to be here at Temple Jeremiah. Upon entering the temple on my first day of work I knew I’d come “home.” One year later, Arnold and I remarried in the Golder Chapel with my rabbi officiating. It is now 10 years since my first day here and I am truly home.

17 September 2014

Finding comfort in words

by Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min.

Finding comfort in words

This time of year, the month of Elul, finds me stuck in a bit of a paradox. I am filled with anxiety as the full weight of responsibility for High Holy Day worship and sermons sits heavily upon my shoulders. At the same time, I am overwhelmed by a sense of excitement that comes with the awe and majesty of these days: the music, the liturgy and the fullness of the congregation. In truth, for each of us, the High Holy Days present us with contradictory feelings and conflicting emotions. How grateful we feel for the opportunity to set things right and begin the New Year with a clean slate … a fresh start. And yet, this is a terrifying time when we realize that there is so much to be done, so much to be repaired, so many wrongs to be righted and so much cleaning to be done.

For me, I find comfort in this state of agitation in words shared. Sometimes the words are shared directly in conversation. At other times, I read words sent my way. Truth appears in many forms: comic with a wry twist, deadly serious, or beautifully poetic. Here is one truth that was sent to me by a friend: “There is a reason for everything. Sometimes the reason is you are stupid and you make bad decisions.” When I share this with people, I get one of three reactions: horror, laughter, or a knowing smile and nod. Upon reflection, this statement reminds me that I am responsible and that I can change and that I have choices to make that bring blessing or curse.

I want to end this piece with words from the poet, Ruth Brin z”l, who wrote a poem about ascent; ascent of words and deeds. This poem is based upon one of my favorite High Holy Day hymns, Ya’aleh:

Night and day follow one another
Like the coils of a tightly wound spring,
So nearly identical one forgets
The power for change that lies within them.

The years follow one another
So close and so alike
That forty years on the wilderness
Seemed to Moses like a flight on eagle’s wings.

The day. Yom Kippur, is like a person’s life:
It begins in darkness and ends in darkness:
It has a time to prepare, a time to labor,
And a time to reflect before closing the gates.

The years follow one another
Alike as the coils of a tightly wound spring,
But on Yom Kippur we think of our power
To release that spring: to soar upward!

Shanah Tovah

16 September 2014

Reflecting heaven

By Rabbi Emily Segal

In late May after my second year of college, I loaded my little car up with four of my closest friends and we went on a road trip from Virginia up to Cape Cod, where a friend was hosting us at her parents’ beach house. There we spent a good deal of each day on the beach and slowly, we each ventured at least a bit into the still ice-cold water. Among these friends was Abby, a close friend of mine from Hillel and Jewish Studies classes at the University of Virginia. Together we started a monthly Rosh Chodesh (new moon) group and created and hosted a Women’s Seder. She is free-spirited, soulful, and open. One early morning Abby and I went to the beach to walk and found ourselves transfixed by the formations of clouds and strikingly blue sky reflecting on the mirror-like water. We commented on the idea of the heavens reflecting in the water — how the word Shamayim, heaven, holds within it the word Mayim, water. Never before had I felt connected to the idea of “the waters above and the waters below” that appears in Genesis. We stood in silence and taking in the beautiful reflection of the sky on the water. We then took each other’s hands and said the Shehecheyanu together, thanking God for allowing us to see that beautiful sight and to experience it together.

I have often thought of that early morning walk on the beach and the heavens reflected on the shining surface of the water. Our impression of the divine reflects our own experience of life here on earth. And if we are lucky, we can elevate ourselves to allow our actions here on earth to be reflective of heaven, of the divine.

15 September 2014

Staring at our blank slates

By Adam Kahan

Years ago I was asked to participate in one of the most powerful exercises I have experienced. I paired up with a partner, and we sat facing each other in our chairs and received our instructions. We were to look at each other and, using no words, simply observe what we experienced. Even harder than remaining wordless, we aimed to abstain from any overt communication, be it from facial expression, sighs, or whatnot. The world opened up.

When I stared at my partner, in silence, I went immediately to my own insecurities. “Am I doing this right?” “Should I be noticing something else?” Soon thereafter I noticed the thoughts I had about my partner … the biases, which I wish I wouldn’t have had, that invaded my thoughts. As I recognized those biases, I could let them go. As I observed my own worrisome thoughts, I could let them go. As I let go of my biases, I could see the real person, the real soul, who sat in front of me. As I let go of my own worrisome thoughts, I could connect to the real me, the core of who I am. My partner did nothing, said nothing, yet represented everything.

When we stare at the blank slates presented in front of us, all our “stuff” can come out. We can see what we add to an otherwise innocuous and uncluttered world … worldview … and self-view. In these moments of projection, we gain a clearing towards reflection. In this season, as we approach our new beginnings, may we each seek those moments of clearing. May we also find those blank canvases upon which our soulful reflections can paint their stories, and allow our innermost self to emerge.

14 September 2014

We are where we were meant to be

By Dr. Anne Lidsky

In the summer of 1972, Jerry and I made Aliyah to Israel with our 10-month-old daughter, Leorah. We left our extended family in the states for what was quite an experience. There were so many elements that I loved about living in Israel during the ’70s. The sidewalks were filled with families out for a stroll. We, like many, had no phone, neither a landline or cell, so we just “stopped in to visit” – no fanfare and always welcoming. We felt part of a people, experienced the Yom Kippur War, and plowed ahead through challenging economics, health care, and the ever-present language issues. Our plans were to remain, but I was suddenly faced with a life-threatening medical condition, and we returned to the states.

For years I reflected on our decision to remain in America, often feeling heartbroken that we didn’t return to make our home in Israel. I cried each time I returned on a trip to Israel, continually fighting the demons of indecision. This summer, celebrating the B’nai Mitzvah of our oldest grandchildren in Jerusalem, with our adult children, younger grandchildren, and “machatonim” (in-laws), helped to finally put my internal turmoil to rest. As I looked at my treasured daughters, Leorah and Alisa, and at their sweet spouses, Aaron and Jeffrey respectively, and at our grandchildren, Noah, Jordyn, Orly, Ari and Jonah – I knew that had we stayed in Israel, life would not be exactly what it is today. I’d like to believe it would have been just fine – but it certainly would have been different. I am blessed with a warm and caring family. As I watched the grandkids playing in the pool or jumping the waves in the Mediterranean, or sitting on their own at a restaurant table, laughing out of control and thrilled to be with one another – I took a deep breath and exhaled “Thank you, God, for the blessing I have.”

I love Israel. I will return again, but we are where we were meant to be and I am finally at peace with that.

13 September 2014

In awe of Hannah Szenes

By Danny Glassman

Every time I go to Israel, there is that “wow” moment that stands out. My most recent visit was part of an inaugural fellowship program through the iCenter for Israel Education working to bring more Israel programming into summer camps. As with all programs of this nature, we were schlepped at a feverish pace from place to place with barely anytime to digest what we were seeing.

At one point, we pulled up to Caesarea, which rests along the Mediterranean and has some of Israel’s most expensive real estate. Little did I know that there is a kibbutz, Sdot Yam, tucked in between the sea and Israel’s only golf course. It seemed very out of place. Here is this kibbutz that looked like a camp site with fancy real estate right next to it. We sat as group and talked about the kibbutz’s most famous resident, Hannah Szenes, who happens to be one of my favorite Israeli heroines. Szenes died after being captured by the Nazis during a secret mission to request Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz. She was just 23 years old.

Szenes is best known for her poem Halikha LeKesariya (“A Walk to Caesarea”), also known as “Eli Eli.” As a group, we walked the same path that inspired her to write her famous poem. Quietly, the group of 20 camp professionals sang her words as we walked along the beach. Each word felt so very alive. I was able to feel the real emotion Hannah put into her poem. The ride to Tel Aviv that followed our visit was the only part of the trip where the entire group was silent, each person trying to digest the experience. I still amin awe of what someone so young like Hannah, with so much life ahead of her, did for people she did not even know because it was right. 

12 September 2014

The beauty of the Jewish people is in our diversity

By Lia Lehrer

I’ve always been a bit of a synagogue hopper.

Right now, when asked where I go to synagogue, I say, “I go to five.” I love my community here at Temple Jeremiah, and meeting all of you has been one of the best parts of my job; I enjoy attending synagogue with my family where I grew up, at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette; I attend two synagogues in Lakeview, the neighborhood where I live; and I co-lead a monthly Friday night minyan in the city.

I love Jewish communities. I love the diversity of customs, melodies, faces, teachings, architecture, and emotions.

So it’s no surprise that on Yom Kippur last year, I found myself in three different synagogues in one day. I spent the morning humming the melodies of the High Holy Days, while greeting congregants and meeting new faces here at Temple Jeremiah; in the afternoon I sat with my mom, listening to my dad, brother, and sister-in-law sing in the choir at BHCBE; and I spent the evening Neilah service with my friends at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Lakeview.

That day, I experienced a cross section of our larger Jewish community, splitting my time between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues. During Neilah at Anshe Sholom, I found myself not paying so much attention to the words on the page, but reflecting on Jewish peopolehood. The Jewish community – our kehillah – is made up of so many different kinds of wonderful, dedicated, intelligent, interesting, and friendly people.

Our beauty is in our diversity.

We Jews are a tiny percentage of the world’s population. I pray that we can come together as a larger Jewish community to be enriched by the uniqueness of our brothers and sisters.

On that Saturday afternoon in September 2013, driving back and forth between Northfield, Wilmette, and Lakeview, I had the chance to truly feel the richness of our people; and to me, it was like seeing the face of God.

11 September 2014

Reflections on parenthood

By Ken Lorch

Whenever I stop for a moment of private reflection on Shabbat, I think about my family most often. I think about each member, one by one. Often I wonder what I might have done differently as a parent.

What lessons did I miss? What words could I have used better? What could I have said better? What values did I not communicate? Did I give too much advice or not enough? What should I have insisted upon that I didn’t? Do I care too much? Did I care too little? Am I too critical or should I have pushed harder?

Because I felt my parents had been too restrictive in setting a curfew for me, I established only a few basic standards for my kids: 1) Always be honest with each other and not lie; that way we always knew we could trust each other; 2) Always be open to talk about anything without consequence; and 3) Don’t do anything to hurt yourself or someone else. The other thing I told them when they went away to college was that they should do something to make the world a better place.

How did we do? I have no idea. I love and respect my kids and they are hugely independent. I hope I am teaching by example. I hope when my kids reflect on what is important, that some of these ideas will have played a part.

Just one more thought I hope they heard: Being Jewish is more than just saying we are Jewish. We need to live our Jewish values, teach them to our children and others and strive to achieve what other Jews have accomplished. Jews have succeeded amazingly through the generations, despite adversity. I don’t know if that is because we were chosen, but I know we can’t argue with our successes. We should reflect on that and not be too quick to give that part of our lives over to the secular society around us.

10 September 2014

Can you say Kaddish for someone who isn’t Jewish?

By Ed Shapiro

He was Jewish in every sense of the way that we like to think Jews are: caring, giving, loving, tolerant, supportive. I could go on. He knew me since the day I was born. He was my father’s best friend growing up. When my father died a couple of months after I graduated college, he became my second father. In many ways, I knew him better than my biological father – I knew him 30 years longer. We were not only like father/son, but the closest of friends.

When he died recently, I mourned for both of my fathers. But when it came to doing the things we Jews do, e.g., saying Kaddish, I wasn’t sure what was appropriate under the circumstances. After all, although he lived for 45 years on a street in Brooklyn where all his neighbors were Hassidim, he was Italian/Catholic.

I was glad to learn from Rabbi Cohen that, yes, you can say Kaddish (albeit modified) for a non-Jew. It was the answer I wanted – although even if the answer had been “no,” I would still have gone to Lake Michigan, looked out at the vast sky and beautiful water, and, like I do every Sept. 17 for my biological father, said Kaddish for my Italian father.

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