Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's Your Hospitality That Matters -- Not Your Size

Dear Temple Israel,

Just as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it,” I know audacious hospitality when I see it. Sadly, I didn’t see any at your place on Friday night, my first visit to your campus. Lest you think I’m an amateur, however, during the last 14 years, my personal and professional lives have taken me to countless Reform and Progressive congregations throughout the United States and Israel – and I know what audacious hospitality looks like.

I came to your outdoor service with my aunt, a member of your congregation who lives at Fox Run in nearby Novi, and with whom I was visiting last week. Several other “Golden Girls” – octogenarians, nonagenarians, and even one centenarian – made the trip too, as many of them do each week, thanks to your generosity in underwriting the cost of the bus that transports them back and forth each Shabbat.

No sooner had we settled into an empty row of seats in your outdoor sanctuary, with the “Girls’” walkers and canes stowed, then a woman rebuked us: “These rows were saved,” she insisted, with a sweeping hand gesture of our row and the one behind it. “There were books on these seats!”

“No, there were no books,” my aunt and several others in both rows replied.

“There were books,” she persisted, before huffing off to find a dozen seats for God-knows-whom.

Once the service got underway, I anticipated one or another of your clergy might welcome the congregation, allow worshippers to greet those around them, and perhaps even offer “an especially warm welcome for those visiting with us tonight.”

Nope. None of that happened.

Instead, we watched and listened to what I can only describe as a “worship performance,” with little opportunity – and no encouragement – to sing along or offer names for the Mi Shebeirach  or kaddish. Neither did the worship leaders or speakers mention God, Torah, or the much-needed rest Shabbat offers us each week. We did hear, however (at least three times by my count), that you are the largest Reform congregation in the country.

So what?? Nobody cares…and in this case, size doesn’t matter. Hospitality does.

While we’re on the topic of audacious hospitality – or its striking absence – I have something else to tell you. Shortly after she relocated to Novi, my aunt responded to an announcement in The Messenger specifically seeking people interested in getting involved in the temple community.

Too bad for you no one responded to her email. As a result, you’re missing out on the talents, expertise, and willingness of a sharp-as-a-tack octogenarian with lots of life and synagogue experience – as a committee and board member, library establisher, organizer extraordinaire, and all-around engaged, loyal, warm, welcoming person. Come to think of it, Temple Israel, you could learn a lot from my aunt and her Fox Run cohorts. Your loss...

Shavua tov,
~ JanetheWriter.

Note from JanetheWriter: The opinions expressed here are mine alone and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

How to Play Jewish Geography in the Midwest


I know four people in the Detroit area: my Aunt Claire, who lives at Fox Run in Novi; West Bloomfielders Judy and Allan Tushman, part of my URJ family from the old days; and Rabbi Jason Miller, a two-time faculty member from Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon, who lives in Farmington Hills.

I’ve been visiting with my Aunt Claire here in the Great Lakes state since Sunday. On Tuesday, we had lunch with Judy and Allan at a scenic spot overlooking Union Lake. It was great to catch up with them and play a little Jewish geography.

But it was nothing like the Jewish geography we played today.

Today, Jason stopped by for a quick visit. When he came into Aunt Claire’s apartment, he said it looked just like the one in which his wife’s grandmother had lived here at Fox Run. Further in, he perused the array of family pictures in the living room, asking me who was who.

“This is my cousin Marc,” I said, pointing to a wedding photo of Marc and his wife Susan.

“What’s his last name?”

“Glasser,” I said, “Same as my aunt.”

“I know him,” Jason said. “He’s my congregant.”

“I thought you don’t have a congregation…”

As it turns out, my friend has a part-time position as the visiting rabbi at B’nai Israel in Sylvania, Ohio, about an hour south of this area, where my cousin and his family live. Jason’s there every fifth or sixth Shabbat, for the High Holidays, and other festivals and celebrations throughout the year.

Examining the photos further, he identified Marc’s kids, Carolyn and Brian, and before long Jason and Aunt Claire were talking about Feige, the congregation’s b’nai mitzvah tutor.

I’ve no doubt that their conversation will continue – either here in Novi or at B’nai Israel in Sylvania.

Ah, Jewish geography…

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Connecting Torah to Today's World: How Cool Is That?!


I disagree with the assertion made by many people that the stories in the Torah are not relevant to us today. Even tales that at first blush seem to have absolutely no bearing on our 21st-century lives can be unpacked and examined in ways that offer connections, lessons, applicability, or even just wonderful “aha moments.”

Two examples come immediately to mind.

On Saturday, September 11, 2010, the Torah portion was Haazinu. I know that because I remember when, during hagbah (lifting the open scroll so the congregation can see the text), the cantor who was leading the service pointed to the text. I was stunned by how the ancient portion’s two columns reflected the shape of the Twin Towers. How cool is that?!

And then last week this happened: In Philadelphia on Thursday evening, Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted her party's nomination as the candidate for president of the United States – the first time a major party has nominated a woman for the highest office in the land. An historic moment for sure. 

Two days later, we read from Parashah Pinchas about Zelophechad’s five daughters – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who, having no brothers or other male heirs, asked Moses and the community to grant them a share of their father’s land as an inheritance. Unsure about an appropriate response, Moses asked God, who tells him that the women’s request is just, and so they are granted the inheritance they deserve, an historic moment that defies eons of patriarchal dominance. In this election year, these two events converged in precisely the same week. How cool is that?!

When we study these and other stories, often we can associate events in the ancient adventures of our people with the ongoing happenings in our own world – drawing out timely connections, lessons, and messages that bring new meaning, insights, and “aha moments” to our lives each week.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Nine Great Things to Celebrate About Shabbat Sh’lach L’cha

The Jewish calendar traditionally includes four new year celebrations: Rosh HaShanah (1 Tishri),  Tu BiSh’vat (15 Sh’vat), Passover (15 Nisan), and the fiscal new year (1 Elul). 

In Reform congregations, there often is a fifth new year: July 1, the inaugural day for clergy in their new pulpits, otherwise known as Yom Hadash HaRav (and if I didn’t get the order or syntax of these Hebrew words quite right, I’m sure one of my rabbi and/or Hebrew-speaking friends will let me know -- and I'll fix them).

Welcoming the newest member of the clergy team, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, and his wife, Elyssa, last night and this morning, coupled with the long Independence Day holiday weekend, made my own Shabbat feel infused with more than the usual joy and celebration. Here are nine things I enjoyed this Shabbat:
  1. Watching the reenactment of conversations among the 12 spies, which was provided by 12 volunteers from last night’s congregation. 

  2. Hearing the beautiful arrangement of Shehecheyanu, offered by the congregation's cantors at this special moment in the life of the Shaaray Tefila community.

  3. Learning from my newest teacher, Rabbi Mosbacher, that, except for requests for peace, we don’t offer petitionary prayers on Shabbat – for the simple reason that God is resting, and so should we. 

  4. Meeting Elyssa Mosbacher, only to have her say, “Jane Herman – I read your pieces all the time…and I recognize you from your photo.”

  5. Singing “America the Beautiful” – much better than “The Star-Spangled Banner” -- as the service’s closing song.

  6. Meeting Lori Greenberg at the oneg Shabbat and giving her a dollar bill to ensure her safe travel to Israel for her first visit there!

  7. Wondering how some Jews can reconcile this despicable behavior – executed with yarmulke and tzitzit in place? – with the commandment from this week’s portion: to
  8. “look at it [the fringe] and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”
    I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask the question in Torah study, but would like to know...

  9. Basking in the glorious weather – and some rosé on the roof deck of my sister’s apartment building. Yes, sure, it rained last night (OK, it poured), but today dawned sunny, clear, and bright, with wonderfully low humidity and a perfect breeze.

  10. Reading, writing, and resting. (’Rithmatic isn’t my forte, and I generally don’t enjoy it, least of all on Shabbat!) 
What did you enjoy doing this Shabbat?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

How Just the Right Prompt Prompts Me to Write

A few months ago, a friend told me about The Mix, a network of Hearst publications that accepts contributions from a community of writers based on daily prompts provided by the publications' editors.

I applied immediately, but didn't hear anything one way or the other. Recently, I received word that my request to join and my writing samples are under review, and that I've been added to the community as a subscriber, meaning I can see the story prompts, but can't yet respond to them.

Thus far, these are among the prompts I've seen:
  • I Didn't Realize I Had Triplets/Twins
  • Student Loans Are Taking Over My Life
  • I Was/Am A Sex Addict
  • I'm Obsessed With Instagram
  • I Have Royal Roots
  • Stop Judging Me For Having Money
At the moment, it's just fine that I can't respond because, quite honestly, I don't have much to say about any of them. 

With these prompts, it would be an entirely different story:
  • Why I Removed My Two Perfectly Healthy Breasts 
  • I'm Obsessed with Fountain Pens and Writing Paper
  • Yes, Really, I'm Fine Without Kids
  • I'm A Single-Tasker In A Multi-Tasking World
  • Why I Balance My Checkbook to the Penny Every Month
  • I've Never Colored or Straightened My Hair...And I'm Not About To Start Now
Would that The Mix offered prompts like these, I'd be submitting a story a day.  How about it, The Mix...what do you say?

Monday, May 16, 2016

That Time When Uncle Irv Came to Torah Study


I think it might have been the ripe, red strawberries on Cantor Dubinsky's milestone birthday cake that brought Uncle Irv to Torah study last Shabbat.

During minyan, she'd chanted from Kedoshim, beginning with verse 23:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Eternal; and only in the fifth  year may you use its fruit -- that its yield to you may be increased. I the Eternal am your God.
After we'd all enjoyed the cake and the celebration, our Torah study conversation started with a discussion of trees and fruit -- and the difference between letting ripe fruit drop to the ground versus not letting it grow in the first place. All of a sudden, it was as though Uncle Irv was sitting next to me in that already crowded classroom. I remembered the bed of strawberries Amy and I planted and watered under his firm tutelage -- with a row of alternating marigolds and bachelor buttons in front, one way organic gardeners keep the bunnies away.

How excited we were when green shoots, followed by vines and then small white flowers finally appeared. And, oh how disappointed when he instructed us to nip off every last one of the delicate, yellow-centered flowers.

"Why??" we whined, less than thrilled by the whole gardening thing he was trying to teach us. According to Uncle Irv, it would ensure a bountiful crop of sweet berries in a few years.

Who knew we were learning Torah right there in the backyard?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How You Can Help Me Give Back to the BRCA Community

I’ve been telling and re-telling my family’s BRCA story for nearly six years now, and with each re-telling there are new pieces and evolving elements to incorporate into the narrative.
However, there are three parts of the account that never change:
  1. Diagnosed as a BRCA mutation carrier at age 47, I am thankful each and every day that even at that age, I was able to become a “previvor.” By taking action to protect my health, I prevented my genetic predisposition to cancer from determining my destiny.
  2. As a result of my experience, BRCA awareness, particularly in families like mine where the presence of a cancer-causing hereditary mutation may not be blatant, has become my “soapbox issue.” I will talk about it with anyone and everyone because you just never know when you might change the trajectory of someone’s life or that of their family.
  3. None of this important and, yes, sacred work would be possible without the incredible support I received from FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, a national not-for-profit organization that provides support, evidence-based resources, and a community of people who have been affected by hereditary cancer.
I’m proud to be giving back to the organization that has given me so much. Currently, i volunteer as one of two Peer Support Group Leaders for the NYC FORCE group, and as a Research Advocate, which means I’ve been specially trained to engage in research advocacy on behalf of the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer community.
In addition to sharing my time, energy, and experience as a BRCA mutation carrier, I support FORCE financially. Although asking my family and friends for an annual donation is not among my favorite activities, I know you appreciate how important this organization and this work are – not just to me, but to all of us in the hereditary cancer community. With your help – at whatever level you choose – I can reach my goal of $500, which will help FORCE continue to provide vital support and myriad resources to individuals and families affected by hereditary cancer.
Thank you. I am grateful for your friendship and for your support of this important cause in my life.