Tag: simcha

Adults-Only Purim: Inappropriate, yet Purimly-Acceptable

Cotler, Weisz & Kipnes: Clergy Rockers

We laughed so hard. At Cantor Doug Cotler’s cleverly funny songs, at Rabbi Julia Weisz’s ridiculously hysterical costumes, at Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ inappropriate yet Purimly-acceptable riffs on Megillat Esther, the story of Purim. We laughed out loud, belly laughed. And in between, we reflected on lessons of transcendent importance. We adults, we did.

“It was one of the most unorthodox service I have yet to attend at Congregation Or Ami. I say this in the most positive way,” wrote David Silverstone. “Our two Rabbi’s and Cantor should receive an Academy Award at this years Oscars for their creative and entertaining performance. With out question, Rabbi Paul should receive the award for best Performance in a documentary, Rabbi Julia for best costume design and Cantor Doug who already has a Grammy Award to his credit should now be the recipient of his first Oscar.”

Not Pediatric Judaism… Not Your Father’s (uptight) Shul
Once again, Congregation Or Ami gathered on erev, erev Purim (the night before the night of Purim) for an adults-only Purim celebration. The flyers and other PR were clear: this Shabbat eve would not be appropriate for children. Kids could come to Purim itself for our Multigenerational Purim Celebration. But this Friday night before was reserved for adults.

Not because there would be drunkenness. The pre-service wine and cheese gathering allowed for socializing but to my trained eye, no one really got tipsy (not even me. My ridiculousness came a different kind of high… being high on Purim-induced joy).

The adults-only experience grew out of the need of adults to have a safe space where they can be learners without fear of being teased for their lack of knowledge about the stories and traditions of our people. Creating an adult-only experience allowed adults to give voice to their questions and ideas. Pediatric Judaism gave way to questioning, grasping, and comprehending.

Melinda Pittler explained that “the adult Purim service was nice to enjoy adult only time, dressed in costume and spinning our gorgers. It was fun because how often do we get to see our Rabbis and Cantor with “tattoos, mohawks and wigs” while leading a service?”

The Whole Megillah – Farcical, xenophobic, dangerous
How empowering it was to read the whole Megillah! (Okay, we sped-read through some sections, but for the most part, we read the whole text in English.) We laughed at the farcical nature of the story, making fun of the blatant male chauvinism and xenophobia (fear of strangers). We boo’ed Haman, and the unbounded evil he epitomizes.

We contemplated why all other mitzvot (religious obligations) are set aside for the reading of the Megillah except met mitzvah (the burial of an unattended corpse) (Rambam, Hilchot Purim 1:1). We concluded that the Purim story reminds us of the miracle; focuses us on the danger of leaving evil unchallenged; invites us to focus on where else God is hidden yet present in our lives; and pushes us to celebrate the simchas more than we ruminate over the sadness.

As Nina Treiman wrote, “The adult Purim celebration was funny, yet still educational, because we experienced it through unfiltered lenses.” Robert Rosenthal: The best advice I can give you is “don’t quit your day job”. Thanks for the laughs. We had a great time.

Letting Our Hair Down
So donning costumes and silly hats, we let our hair down and celebrated. Adults being silly with adult while sitting in the sanctuary.

Sharon Weiss wrote, “The adult Purim Celebration was an excellent time. It was great to be in an environment of laughter in our temple and to celebrate together. One of my favorite parts is seeing our clergy interact with each others and knowing they really like each other. I also really liked Cantor Doug’s Politically-Correct version of the Megillah. I walked away smiling and happy.”

Judaism as it is supposed to be experienced. As pure, unadulterated joy.

Chag Purim Samei-ach – Happy Purim!

Joy, Freedom and Blessing in Abundance at Camp Newman

Simcha – Joy 
Judaism, according to one accounting, has at least 15 different words to describe joy.  From rina (meaning joyous song) to simcha (meaning pure joy), Jewish living is supposed to be an expression of joyous living.  I have learned over the course of the years that while simcha (joy) is possible even during the darkest of times, it often takes purposeful openness to allow joy to permeate your life. 

That’s one of the reasons I love going to summer camp.  At camp, more than almost anywhere else in the world, people allow joy to permeate every corner and every moment of every day.

Walk with me around URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, and we will notice more smiles and hear more laughter than is usual amongst any group of teens at school or at home. Hugs of joy are a regular feature of their interactions; expressions of love and caring abound. 

I once asked a staff member why people seem so happy. He thought for a minute and responded, “Here at camp we are free. Free from pressures. Free from judgment. Free to be who we really are.”

Chofesh – Freedom
Campers the world over look forward to that block during the day when they can do what they choose for as long as they choose. In most camps, staff members are spread throughout certain areas, giving campers free access to activities ranging from basketball and skateboarding to arts ‘n crafts and just hanging out in the sun. At Camp Newman, where my wife and I are chaperoning a delegation of 39 Jewish campers, this period is called chofesh, after the Hebrew word meaning break or freedom.

Wandering around Camp between my assigned responsibilities as Rosh Faculty (faculty dean), I have come to think that the word chofesh designates more than that specific hour or so of free time.  It seems to describe the central characteristic of the feeling that envelopes each camper and staff member.  In fact, chofesh may characterize the entire Jewish summer camping experience. How so?

Bracha – Blessing
I asked a group of Camp Newman campers to describe the blessings that camp brings into their lives.  They responded:

  • I’m happy.
  • I’m able to be who I really am.
  • No one is judging me.
  • I can make new friends so easily here.
  • Judaism is so alive and joyful.
  • There’s so much love.
  • I’m at home, more than when I am back home. 

Heartwarming words from wonderful kids.

Joy, Freedom and Blessing
The last thing Senior Camp Director Ruben Arquilevich reminds his staff before the first parents arrive is to smile. Through a silly “Show off your Best Smile” contest that he hosts, Ruben inculcates within his staff a simple message: With your smile, you let your joy shine through. So revel in the freedom that camp brings to you and to our campers. Its a bracha, a holy blessing. Enjoy it, cherish it, share it.

I would love to tell you more about Camp Newman, but that will need to await another blogpost. For now, I just want to wander around and revel in the blessing of joyful freedom.

When the Responsibilities of Being a Rabbi Begin to Overwhelm

On Monday, I felt the weight of it all begin to seep under my skin. It happens sometimes when the responsibilities of being a rabbi begin to overwhelm. Perhaps that’s just what happens after exhausting weekends like this. Maybe it was the great number of simchas (joyous occasions) to celebrate… Of course it might just have been the sadness of preparing to bury a loving, compassionate 54-year-old woman who left her husband (of 27 years) and two teenagers.

As the weekend began, it promised to be a joyous opportunity to schepp nachas (share the joy) as Congregation Or Ami enjoyed one simcha (joyous moment) after the other. Friday morning I welcomed our two new interns from HUC-JIR who would lead our award-winning Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program in the coming year. Vivacious, creative and energetic, these grad students overflowed with ideas of how to make the learning engaging and multigenerational. That night, the congregation welcomed Shabbat as we gathered Or Ami’s new officers and board under the chuppah (marriage canopy), symbolically bonding them through marriage to God and God’s gift of Torah. Dreaming about new initiatives for the coming year and excited about the weekend’s other simchas, I fell into a deep sleep.

When the phone rang at 6:15am, I knew it could not be good news. He said, “Its Barry. Felicia’s gone.” Uncharacteristically, I responded, “You’re kidding me! What? Say it again.” “Yes, she had a massive seizure. She died this morning. Tell me what should I do?”

Thus began forty eight hours of mental ping-pong: bouncing between multiple celebrations and walking our dear congregant, step by step, through the process of preparing for the funeral and shiva (the 7-day mourning period) afterward.

The Bar Mitzvah boy Zachary Oschin was impressive; he delivered his d’var Torah from notecards while walking around the room. At some point I had to bifurcate my attention as I stepped out to confirm funeral arrangements with the mortuary. Barry and I spoke regularly on the phone that afternoon between the Bar Mitzvah service and my parenting responsibilities. Emails back and forth with Paul and Shirley, our Henaynu Caring Community chairpeople, confirmed that the Or Ami community was prepared and volunteers lined up to step in for any eventuality – to order shiva food, to prepare the house for the 100s of guests, or to lay out the food trays. After driving my kids to their temple youth group event, I confirmed the shiva arrangements.

I made one last call that night to Barry between my two evening obligations – a Havdala service and dinner to celebrate the upcoming ordination of our second Rabbi Julia Weisz, and a party at which I offered a blessing for Julia Fingleson who is off to Kenya to volunteer at a school for disabled African kids.

Sunday morning, Barry confirmed that the shiva meals were coming together and that he would have a list of funeral eulogizers later that day. Answering his questions, I headed into Wilshire Blvd. Temple to celebrate as six former Or Ami interns and faculty were ordained rabbi. There was special joy as I presented for ordination Rebekah Stern and as my dear friend presented his congregant Julia Weisz. Then driving to new Community Jewish High School’s gala at the Ford Theater provided the empty space to call back David, who reported his father had died but had questions about how a Jew mourns Jewishly in an interfaith remarriage situation.

One more call to Barry, before entering the pre-graduation dessert reception honoring our soon to graduate education interns, allowed me to confirm the time to meet and discuss the funeral. It felt bittersweet speaking glowingly about Joel Abramovitz and Greg Weisman, who after devoting so much energy to Mishpacha this past year, are graduating and moving onto new endeavors. Particularly enjoyable were the moments I spent with their parents, kvelling (joyously boasting) about how talented their children are.

By 9pm, I was on the road to Barry’s home (first checking in by phone with David) to listen, to plan, and to begin the process of counseling toward the future. I learned so much about Felicia that night, about her warm heart and devotion to her husband, about the arduous process that ended as they adopted their two wonderful children and how she lived to love them. Barry talked; I listened. He questioned; I counseled. I made a mental note to retask our Henaynu Caring Community from Shiva meal set up to the next week’s carpool coverage and meal delivery. Notes taken, plans confirmed, I headed home, collapsing into my bed well after midnight.

Sometimes I am not fully aware of how the rabbinic ping-pong plays with my mind and emotions. Usually I can keep it compartmentalized. But every so often, it just seeps in. I usually know that is happening because I receive a multitude of text messages from my wife checking in on me (somehow she knows I am struggling, even before I do).

So how does a rabbi keep the overwhelming emotions at bay? How did I deal with the reality that this weekend’s ping-pong was too intense and this weekend’s death cut too close to home? Stay tuned for the next post…