A Word from our Student Rabbi
Ben Crane shares his thoughts on Torah, Jewish life, and his experience as a seminary student serving the B’nai Israel community.
January 30, 2023
If you are Jewish and older than the age of 13 years (and one day), you are a bar, bat, or b’nai mitzvah. When we talk about “having” a bar mitzvah, we are really discussing the way in which we commemorate this occasion in our lives. In this way, the modern bar mitzvah is a ceremony, not a ritual. Ceremonies acknowledge or celebrate an extant status. Blowing out the candles on a cake at a birthday party does not make one a year older than they were the moment before they had done so. It’s ceremonial. Rituals help us transition or transform; they change our status. Before a wedding, the individuals that are to-be-wed are unmarried. By way of their participation in the ritual elements of the wedding, their status changes.
All that said, the ceremonies associated with this milestone have become part and parcel of the lived Jewish experience for many, and I want to do what I can to foster opportunities to celebrate this status for those that would like to and have not yet had the chance. This applies equally to those of us who are not yet 13 and those of us who have socks quite a bit older than that.
Although it’s just a ceremony, it has become customary that the honoree prepare so that they are able to lead or facilitate varying elements of our prayer service. While I will again stress that this varies, the following constitutes an iteration that I believe is manageable for most and ripe for a meaningful experience for everyone in attendance:
- Lead the congregation in the Shema, V’ahavta, and Avot V’imahot
- Read from the Torah
- Write a d’var Torah in which you share your understanding of a concept that may trouble or interest you from the section that you read
There is no aspect of this process that is etched in stone or non-negotiable. If you’re interested, but have questions or concerns, reach out to me. I want to hear from you.
“What would preparation look like?” I’m so glad that you asked!
There are three areas: Hebrew literacy, familiarity with the liturgy, and study of the text.
- Hebrew Literacy
Step One: Learn to read Hebrew, beginning with mastering the sounds associated with each letter and vowel as we work towards putting them together to see words.
Step Two: Build your vocabulary from the roots up! In biblical Hebrew, a great many words are derived from triliteral roots. Once you learn how to identify the root of a word, your chances of understanding its contextual meaning skyrocket.
Step Three: It’s your turn to read from the Torah!
Extra Credit: Work through the basics of Hebrew grammar.
- Familiarity With the Liturgy
Step One: Allow yourself the privilege of spending some time reflecting within the pages of Mishkan T’filah: Journal Edition. (Or another edition: ed)
Step Two: After having worked through the journal for Step One, read through Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur by Rabbi Richard Sarason. Keep an informal log of any thoughts or questions that really have a stickiness to them as you do so.
Step Three: It’s your turn to lead certain parts of the service!
- Study of the Text
Step One: Explore what it means to study texts the Jewish way.
Step Two: Deconstruct a d’var Torah: what’s the recipe?
Step Three: It’s your turn to share a d’var Torah if your own.
If this sounds anything like something that you would be interested in pursuing, let me know so we can put together a plan that makes sense for you!
January 16, 2023
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr., and Moses walk into a bar…
I’d like to imagine that the three might all say “I’ll have what they’re having” to the bartender in unison but I think it’s far more likely that they’d have different tastes. And that’s understandable. They lead very different lives in very different worlds.
January 16, 2023, marks the 23rd nationwide observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The holiday was signed into law in 1983 and was observed for the first time at the federal level in 1986. It was not until 2000 that all 50 states recognized the day as an official state holiday. King’s legacy is one of nonviolent protest and speaking truth to power; his ideas continue to influence and inspire to this day.
January 11 ,2023 corresponds with the 18th of Tevet, 5783, in the Hebrew calendar. This year, the 18th of Tevet marked the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a beloved progressive leader in the Jewish community who sought to facilitate stronger personal relationships with the Divine amongst the great many he was able to reach through several modalities.
Rabbi Heschel and Reverend King were contemporaries and found themselves aligned on key issues of their day. This poem speaks to the ground they shared and substance of their relationship.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ve-eira, we see Moses engaging in work that is reminiscent of that of Heschel and King. Or maybe the inverse of that statement is more apt: King and Heschel demonstrated certain qualities and characteristics that might be deemed Mosaic in their nature. In Ve-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), we see Moses continue his deliberations with Pharaoh, urging that the Egyptian monarch let the Israelite slaves go under the dark cloud of yet more looming plagues.
It is my hope that the lessons learned too late by Pharaoh are understood more quickly by societal leaders of the present and future. And it is my prayer that the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and that of Abraham Joshua Heschel amount to a multitude of blessings benefiting all of humanity, not just those who felt personally impacted by their efforts and achievements.
December 13, 2022
When we light Chanukah menorahs in our homes, it is customary to place them in a window so that they might be seen by a passerby. This tradition is at least as old as the Babylonian Talmud in which it is recorded that the ideal placement of the lit ner Chanukkah (Chanukah lamp) is somewhere ha-smuchah lirshut ha-rabim (adjacent to the public domain). The same section includes a caveat:
u-vish’at ha-sachanah – manichah al shulchano v’dayo
But in a time of danger – placing it on a table is sufficient.
We are now living through a time in which antisemitism appears to experiencing something of a renaissance. Hating Jews on the basis of erroneous canards, nonsensical conspiracy theories, or just old-fashioned bigotry appears to have come back into fashion.
Surely, we are living in such a “time of danger,” right?
That said, there is also a danger to not placing our chanukkiot in the window. There is also a danger to stepping back into the shadows of a dim interior.
The lighting of the Chanukah menorah is a home ritual; this mitzvah is fulfilled on a household-by-household basis rather than a communal one. This means that the choice is yours to make. As Chanukkah approaches and we prepare to commemorate the great miracle that happened there, you have some homework to do. After all, it is the season of final exams.
Your preparatory assignment is to determine which of the two placement choices pose a greater danger. This assignment should be completed by nightfall on December 18th.
Your homework is to bring light into the world. It might be that illuminating just your own home. You may choose to brighten up a little bit of the public domain too. One way is not with more points than the other. This assignment begins after nightfall on December 18th and continues with nightly submissions until nightfall on December 26th.
November 15, 2020
This month’s message is about the Hebrew letter vav. Because the missive contains images and graphs, it can’t be displayed on this page. CLICK HERE to view the PDF file.
September 20, 2022
Dear Members of Congregation B’nai Israel,
As Rosh Hashanah looms ever closer, I find myself mistakenly referring to the current year (5782) as the year that has not yet arrived (5783). I don’t think that I’m in a hurry for the new year to come; it isn’t like I have to wait so much longer. It might be a bit fitting, however, that 5783 is in a hurry to get here.
First, let’s talk about what is different. Only the last letter has changed; that’s the gimmel hanging out by itself on the leftmost end. Gimmel is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet and makes the same sound as the “hard” G in English. Hebrew’s pictographic origins have lead to all kinds of interesting interpretations to be made about the shapes of letters, but there is one teaching about the letter gimmel that resonates with me in this current season. It’s passed down through the generations in the Babylonian Talmud and can be found in tractate Shabbat. The following teaching is not explicitly attributed to any one individual, but we are told that a group of young children – old enough to know their letters, but too young to learn Torah in the typical sense – had left these wise teachers speechless. They could somehow see the teachings of the Torah in the shapes of the very letters before them. You might even say that they decidedly did not need things spelled out. And what did they see in the shape of the gimmel? They saw an individual in a hurry to perform an act of kindness, chasing after the dalet, who had turned its face away, perhaps in shame. These young children saw gemol dalim – saving the poor. Take a closer look at the gimmel and dalet below:
As that gimmel is nearing ever closer, consider whether or not you are ready to embrace the spirit of this letter that just does not seem to want to stay in its place on the page. As we all strive to improve upon ourselves and our relationships, remember how excited the gimmel was to get here and how eager the gimmel was to perform a mitzvah in the Talmudic story attributed to the young children.
 Shabbat 104a
Student Rabbi Ben Crane
Messages from previous students
May 3, 2022
Dear Members of Congregation B’nai Israel,
Sadly, our time together is coming to an end. It has been an absolute pleasure to serve as your student rabbi in the Jewish year of 5782. Since this is my final letter to the community, I’d like to reflect a bit on the year we’ve had together and on the importance and power of this synagogue.
We began our time together with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah evening, we had a wonderful meal together in East Grand Forks. I also vividly remember on the afternoon of Yom Kippur (when the weather was still nice!), we sat in a circle on chairs outside the synagogue and studied Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay on the power of Yom Kippur.
After the High Holy Days, we began monthly Shabbat services — and B’nai Israel experienced something I imagine Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster (the storied B’nai Israel rabbi of the early twentieth century) could never have imagined: B’nai Israel for the first time had dueling ukuleles lead some of the service as Bert and I played our ukes.
In the Fall we studied Heschel’s God in Search of Man and had great discussions about the power and mysteries of the stories of the book of Genesis.
Hebrew School got off to a good start — we met in person when I was in North Dakota and also on Zoom once a month.
Our time together had to move to Zoom when the pandemic picked up again with the Omicron wave, but we continued with services in this different medium and had a great study session in which we discussed the bedtime shema.
More recently, our community had a wonderful Seder in a Museum and we studied the Shabbat liturgy.
In some ways it’s been a difficult year — the pandemic still hangs over our lives and many members of this community have experienced medical problems. Still, it’s been a year in which we have supported one another and come together around our dedication to Judaism. I’ve seen up close the depth of your individual and collective connections to Judaism, and I’ve come to really appreciate how supportive you all are of one another.
I’d like to conclude by reflecting a bit on the importance and power of B’nai Israel. I am especially grateful for the opportunity you all have given me to grow as a student rabbi, and I know that over the decades B’nai Israel has done so much to help student rabbis grow into their own.
In joyous times, through difficulty, or on an ordinary Shabbat, this synagogue does so much to create meaning, support and community in the lives of its congregants. While I know you all do so much already to support the synagogue, I encourage you to do what you can to help this synagogue continue to thrive. We’re all the better for it.
I look forward to our last Shabbat together in Grand Forks and to keeping in touch.
Student Rabbi George Altshuler
April 13, 2022
Dear Members of Congregation B’nai Israel,
Passover is almost here! I very much look forward to celebrating with you all in Grand Forks on Friday during our community Seder.
For many of us, these last days before Passover mean cleaning out our hametz, our leaven. Cleaning out our hametz can take on spiritual resonances for many — in addition to coinciding nicely with spring cleaning (although I know the weather hasn’t cooperated this week in Grand Forks for spring cleaning!!).
Still, in the spirit of thinking about hametz, I would like to share with you all an interpretation of hametz I came across recently that I found to be novel and provocative. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (Russia: Volozhin 1817-1893) interpreted hametz to represent human ingenuity. In addition to being prohibited during Passover, hametz was also forbidden on the altar for sacrifices. Berlin interprets this to be because during the important moments of sacrifices and Passover, we ought to get back to the basics. At these critical spiritual times, we are asked to recall the most fundamental facts — that we are created by something bigger than us, and that our ingenuity pales in comparison to the ingenuity of the Creator (however you think of the Creator!).
As we rid our literal and metaphorical cupboards of hametz, I challenge us to also think back to the fundamental truth that for all of our ingenuity, we are fundamentally created by and subject to forces that are more powerful than we are.
And perhaps this can also be the motivation we need to stick to matzah during those long last days of Passover. Maybe thinking of this larger spiritual purpose can help us stomach just a little more bread of affliction!
I look forward to seeing you soon.
February 21, 2022
Dear members of the B’nai Israel community,
In our adult study session last month, we studied the bedtime Shema, the custom of saying the Shema and an entourage of prayers right before one falls asleep. We had a good time discussing the various possible meanings of this section of liturgy and relating it to our personal practices. Our discussion of the bedtime Shema was serendipitous because in Hebrew school we have also been learning about the Shema and the plethora of meanings that can be taken from this short verse. (Also, we noted something that recently blew my mind …. The Shema is in the form of a Haiku — it has five syllables, then seven, then five!!).
The centerpiece of the Shema is yod-hey-vav-hey, the unknowable name of God that we do not say out loud and instead replace with “Adonai.” I recently came across a creative translation by contemporary poet Daniel Ladinsky of a poem by the medieval poet Rabia. I think this short poem can help us to better understand the mysteriousness of God’s name in the Shema. So as a coda to our study session, I’d like to offer it here:
Would you come if someone called you
by the wrong name?
I wept, because for years He did not enter my arms,
then one night I was told a
Perhaps the name you are calling God is
not really His, maybe it
is just an
I thought about this, and came up with a pet name
for my Beloved that I never mention
All I can say is —
I really look forward to seeing you all in person this Shabbat! The dueling ukuleles will be back together in the same space for services. In our adult study session, we’ll take a closer look at the Amidah, our standing prayer.
Take care everyone and see you soon!
Student Rabbi George Altshuler
January 17, 2022
Dear members of the B’nai Israel community,
It was a terrifying eleven hours. On Shabbat morning, an armed man entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas and held hostage a rabbi and several congregants.
Many of us heard about the situation as it was happening. We checked our news sources anxiously as we prayed.
We are grateful that our prayers were answered and that the rabbi and congregants emerged without being physically harmed. We continue to pray for their emotional recovery.
Regardless of whether you found support from others during those difficult eleven hours or if you’re perhaps just discovering the news now, you are not alone in your gratitude these people were saved, and in your fear sadness, anxiety, and anger.
We as a B’nai Israel community are here to support one another. The Jewish community has come together in this difficult time. And it has been heartening to see people of other faiths or no faith at all reach out to Jews and check in on us.
I know little about the perpetrator of this terrible event and frankly this person’s misguided thoughts don’t interest me. What I do find compelling is that our tradition maintains the notion that we are part of a broader collective.
As the events of Colleyville demonstrate, we live in a broken world and our tradition acknowledges the fractures of the world. At the same time, it sees us Jews as a collective working to perform tikkun, to repair the world.
We Jews are committed to this togetherness and to this repair. Our tradition predicates its rituals, its liturgy and its music on being a collective that is charged to letaken ha’olam, to repair the world.
In these difficult times, many of us find solace in Jewish music. I’d therefore like to leave you with a song that can provide us all with strength as we continue this work of holy tikkun, of holy repair.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” declares that together we can build a world with love. The words are:
Olam Chesed Yibaneh…
I will build this world in love…
You must build this world in love…
If we build this world in love…
Then God will build this world in love.
May we support each other in this difficult time and may we continue on with strength.
-Student Rabbi George Altshuler
December 5, 2021
I write this on the last day of Chanukah, as Grand Forks endures a winter storm.
Chanukah was especially needed this year. We needed the light of our Chanukiahs, we needed hope, we needed our Jewish tradition. As we look forward to the secular new year, we carry with us the hope of Chanukah — we pray that the light of Chanukah will linger even after we finish lighting our Chanukiahs.
And yet, we want to remain clear-eyed about how this may feel like a long winter. It seems appropriate — and very much in keeping with 2021 — that with the light of Chanukah comes a winter storm.
Within that context, we can turn to our Jewish tradition and community for light, hope and even distraction.
In that spirit, I recently came across a beautiful image articulated by the twentieth-century Jewish thinker Mordechai Kaplan. Kaplan writes, “When a person reads a letter from his or her beloved, they do not only read what it says, but, pondering every word, imagine communing with them. Likewise when the ancient rabbis studied Torah, they relived the experience of revelation.”
What a wonderful image. The rabbis read Torah the way one reads a letter from a lover. Even in these difficult and confusing times, we can bask as the rabbis did in the richness of Torah.
For our community that means diving into our adult and children’s learning on Saturdays, and it also means continuing our warm sense of community we have generated through our services on Friday nights. Even in the depths of winter, I look forward to continuing to bring light into the world through what we do together.
Chag urim sameach! I look forward to seeing you on Friday, Dec. 10th.
Student Rabbi George Altshuler
October 14, 2011
I remember when I was in an interfaith setting about ten years ago, someone of another religion asked my childhood rabbi what the most important Jewish holiday is. My rabbi, Larry Raphael, replied without hesitating that the most important Jewish holiday is Shabbat. Yes, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are significant, but from the beginning of Genesis onward, Shabbat takes center stage in Jewish scripture, liturgy and law. As Jews we are blessed with our most important holiday occurring once a week. I am reminded of the scholar Achat Ha’am’s famous saying that “More than the Jews keeping Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
What is it about Shabbat that makes it so special? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that for us Shabbat is a “palace in time.” Throughout the week, Heschel argues, we spend our time preoccupied with the world of space. But on Shabbat, we feel the eternity of time. We take a pause from the world of space and work and we are reminded of what is most important to us.
It was great to gather together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I really appreciated the kind welcome you all extended to me, and it was wonderful to pray, learn, study and eat together. Now, with the fall holidays behind us and the weather getting colder, we come together Friday, Oct. 15th for the warmth of Shabbat.
Part of the magic of Shabbat is that we make it happen by enjoying the company of fellow congregants, friends and family. I look forward to experiencing this warm palace in time with you all very soon.
August 30, 2011
My name is George Altshuler (he/him pronouns), and I’m so excited to be B’nai Israel’s student rabbi for the coming year!
I’m a rabbinical student on Hebrew Union College’s New York campus and I’m originally from San Francisco, CA.
My time with you all will begin on Erev Rosh Hashanah (Monday, Sept. 6 at 7:30 pm). I know that because of the pandemic, B’nai Israel hasn’t been able to gather in person in a long time, so I can imagine that our Rosh Hashanah celebration will be especially meaningful this year. I’m really looking forward to getting to know all of you, and to celebrating this important moment in the life of B’nai Israel, Jewish time and our individual yearly cycle of teshuva (repentance).
In that spirit, I’d like to reflect for a moment on a ritual that takes place during Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. It is traditional to recite Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul. Psalm 27 is fascinating, and I encourage you to study it for yourself. One element of the psalm that interests me especially is the turn the psalm takes about halfway through. The psalm begins by proclaiming the psalmist’s faith in G-d, but then the psalm takes a dramatically different outlook as the psalmist doubts whether G-d will in fact provide protection.
This turn in the psalm reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of our Jewish tradition: deep in our tradition, there is an acknowledgement that faith is difficult. Like the psalmist, we may have faith (in G-d, in family, in community, in whatever else you personally have faith in), but our tradition acknowledges that sometimes maintaining that faith will be very difficult.
In the Jewish year that is coming to an end — the year 5781 — our faith may have been especially tested. As we’ve experienced the ups and downs of the pandemic, difficult news and personal trials, perhaps we can find some comfort in how our tradition contains many accounts of people experiencing difficulty and persevering. There is so much wisdom and strength we can draw from our tradition as we take stock of 5781 and look ahead to 5782.
And a key part of this Jewish resiliency is its sense of community. I look forward to re-constituting our B’nai Israel community together in person very soon!
-Student Rabbi George Altshuler
May 10, 2021
Since Passover began, we’ve been counting the omer each night for the 49 nights that lead up to Shavuot, which arrives this Sunday, May 16, or 6 Sivan. Omer literally means “sheaf,” a unit of measurement for a sheaf of wheat and barley. The holiday of Shavuot originated as a spring harvest festival, a celebration of the bounty of grain that culminated in a sacrifice of the first yields of the wheat harvest at the Temple. Shavuot is also understood to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and revelation at Mount Sinai. It is a celebration of transformation of the Israelites: they transition from a group of individual people with a shared history and trauma, to the Jewish people, a collective in a holy covenant with God and with each other, a united people with a shared future. We have been counting up to this moment of crescendo, our encounter with God and our full actualization as a people.
At the same time, I have been counting down to a much more bittersweet, much less seminal moment for us as a Jewish people, but significant nonetheless: my last visit with B’nai Israel. What a strange and wonderful year it has been! From navigating virtual High Holy Days and virtual seders together to studying and learning and laughing and singing and stretching all of our conceptions of Jewish life to new limits that we didn’t think were possible, I don’t think we’ll soon forget this year. Thank you all for embracing me (if not with open arms, then with open inboxes and Zoom rooms!). While I am sad and disappointed that I didn’t make it out to see you in person this year, I hope that I will be able to visit very soon. Next year in Grand Forks!
Our early Shavuot celebration will continue with “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, we will consider Judaism’s best ideas. Shavuot usually contains an all-night Torah study called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and while we won’t be up all night, we’ll embrace the theme by talking about some of the best things that our Torah has to offer! We’ll learn about one rabbi’s take on Judaism’s “ten best ideas,” and we’ll debate and produce a list of our own. Another Shavuot tradition is to eat dairy to celebrate the holiday — consider coming to Adult Ed with a slice of cheesecake or your favorite dairy treat!
I hope to celebrate my last Shabbat “in” Grand Forks with each of you on Friday, May 14th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light the Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
April 19, 2021
It’s that time of year where everything feels topsy-turvy. It’s beautifully warm and sunny one day, convincing us that spring is here to stay, and then the next day it snows. Nothing feels steady. We’re not living in the moment, but what we’re waiting for hasn’t yet arrived. Many of us in academia are in the middle of finals, simultaneously struggling to get a grip on finals and hurtling towards the summer. Even in the Jewish world, we’re living in a liminal space: we’re in the midst of counting the omer, the forty-nine days between the first day of Passover and Shavuot. At this time thousands of years ago, our ancestors trekked from the Sea of Reeds to Mount Sinai. They were liberated from Egypt, but had not yet received a Torah; they were free, but not yet a united people with a covenant with God.
As we move through this liminal space, one thing remains steady week after week: Shabbat. Our day of rest is like an anchor, keeping us steady and rooted throughout all the excitement and tumult that swirls around us. Thanks to our lovely Passover seder, it has been quite some time since we as a community have celebrated Shabbat together, and I can’t wait for us to be together again. I hope that this Shabbat brings for us a deep breath, stillness, and joy amidst our busy days.
Our Shabbat weekend together will continue with “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, we will discuss inclusion in Judaism. We’ll examine the Holiness Code that we read this week in Leviticus, learn what our tradition has to say about inclusion in Jewish spaces, and think about how we can always work towards being a more inclusive community.
I’m looking forward to spending Shabbat with you all on Friday, April 23rd at 7:30 pm. If you want to light the Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
February 21, 2021
Chag Purim, Chag Purim, Chag gadol hu l’yehudim! The holiday of Purim is a great one for the Jews! We are commanded to be joyous and celebrate on Purim, even — especially — in the face of disaster and gloom. The ancient rabbis taught that everything is turned upside down and inside out on Purim. Good becomes bad, bad becomes good, we dress up and act as our opposites, and we’re meant to drink until we can’t tell the name Mordechai from the name Haman. Purim last year was the last experience of normalcy that many of us had before the COVID-19 shut down began. Maybe this past year has just been an upside down and inside out year, and this Purim everything will right itself again? One can only hope!
While we wait for the world to sort itself out, we know that our Zoom Purim celebration won’t be anything like the typical raucous celebration at B’nai Israel. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to celebrate! We’ll be turning our Shabbat service upside down and inside out, with Purim songs and silly versions of prayers. Most significantly, we’ll be having an abbreviated service, skipping the Torah reading so that we can read the megillah as a community. Come in costume, come with a l’chaim, come with a grogger!
We’ll continue our Shabbat with “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, by popular request, we will be learning about keeping a kosher kitchen. We’ll balance text study and thinking about why one might want to keep kosher with the practical how-to’s of washing dishes and keeping things separate in the kitchen, and explore different styles of kashrut, from kosher style to strictly kosher to eco-Kashrut.
I’m looking forward to celebrating with you all on Friday, February 26th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light the Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
Chag Purim Sameach,
January 25, 2021
It’s difficult for the average American Jew to understand Tu B’shvat. Other holidays seem to make sense temporally: Sukkot comes as the autumn harvest wraps up, Pesach is on the cusp of spring, and Shavuot coincides with the wheat harvest. But the birthday of the trees, in the dead of winter? It’s been snowing or sleeting for weeks in Cincinnati, and I’ve seen pictures of the frozen ground in Grand Forks. There is no hint of life in the trees, and the grass is dead and brittle. The first time I was in Israel for Tu B’shvat, I was blown away. Late January and early February in the Middle East is the equivalent of April and May in the midwest: there are still blustery and rainy days, but the flowers are blooming, sprouts shoot up out of the earth, and the trees are full of life once again. While the beauty of spring is on full display in the land of Israel, here in the U.S. we are celebrating the potential of rebirth and regrowth. It hasn’t arrived yet, but we know that, just like every year, it will come soon for us.
Our Shabbat celebration this week will include Tu B’shvat and environmental themes, but thanks to our Torah portion Beshalach, it is also Shabbat Shira! This week, we read the Song of the Sea that the Israelites sang after they crossed the Sea of Reeds out of Egypt and into the freedom of the desert. It is customary to have lots of joyous singing on this Shabbat, and ours will be no different, with lots of familiar and new tunes.
After our Shabbat service, we’ll continue the celebration with a special Tu B’shvat oneg. We’ll say the blessings over the traditional kinds of Tu B’shvat fruits and taste them together. You are welcome to participate whether you have the fruits or not, but if you’d like to bring your own nosh, make sure you have:
- Fruit with a shell such as pomegranates, walnuts, bananas, pistachios, or oranges
- Fruits with a pit such as dates, olives, avocados, peaches, or apricots
- Fruits that are entirely edible such as grapes without seeds, figs, or berries
You can also bring with you white wine and red wine, but we probably won’t get to all four glasses during our oneg together!
We’ll continue our Tu B’shvat weekend with “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, we will be learning about Jewish environmentalism. We’ll start by looking at Biblical and ancient sources for Jewish stewardship of land, and we’ll learn about and discuss what it means to protect the environment as a Jew in 2021.
I’m looking forward to singing, dancing, and noshing with you all on Friday, January 29th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light the Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
December 7, 2020
The news keeps reminding us that due to the progression of the pandemic, we have a long, dark winter ahead. But human beings are resilient, and for as long as we have walked on this earth, we have fought against the cold and the dark of this season. I’m reminded of a midrash about Adam, the first human. When Adam approached the world’s first winter solstice, he began to mourn and despair. He cried out, “Maybe it’s my fault! Because I sinned, the world is getting darker and darker until it returns to primordial chaos.” Out of fear, he spent eight days fasting and praying. The winter solstice came and went, and the days began to grow longer again. Out of gratitude, Adam established a festival of light that he celebrated for eight days (Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a). This ancient precursor to Hanukkah reminds us that across all cultures and civilizations, humans have sought to bring light to the darkest days of the year.
This Shabbat, which is also the second night of Hanukkah, let us increase light against the darkness. We will celebrate not only the joy of Shabbat that comes every week, but also the miracle of Hanukkah. We are in the depths of the darkness right now, but over the eight days of Hanukkah, we will increase light in our homes and in our community. Hanukkah ends on December 18, just three days before the winter solstice, and just three days before light begins to increase again. We are almost out of the dark. We will chase away the darkness this Friday night through joyous song, the glow of the Hanukkah candles, and, if we’re lucky, some gelt and latkes as well.
In the bright sunshine, we will have as usual our social “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, we will be learning about Jewish feminism through the lens of some ancient heroes. We’ll start by learning the story of Judith, a powerful woman connected to the Hanukkah story, and we’ll move on to what modern feminist theologians have to say about women in the Bible.
I’m looking forward to increasing light with you on Friday, December 11th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light the Shabbat and Hanukkah candles, please have your candlesticks and your menorah with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
November 9, 2020
What a week it has been! No matter what you were hoping for as the outcome in this election, this week has been one of anxiety and anticipation. My wish for the week is that during this Shabbat ahead, we are able to cultivate some peace and stillness once again.
The month of Cheshvan, which is already almost over, has always meant peace and stillness for me. It is the only month of the Jewish year that is empty of holidays. For that reason, there is a custom of calling the month Mar-cheshvan, or “bitter Cheshvan.” Yet, I see nothing bitter about our only month without holidays. I see Cheshvan as a gift, a time to settle into ourselves. We have been working hard all throughout Elul and Tishrei, preparing for the High Holy Days, confronting ourselves and our wrongdoings, cooking up a flurry of holiday meals, repenting and dancing and singing, and then comes Cheshvan. We have a chance to relax as autumn settles in and winter creeps ever closer. During Cheshvan, we can pause, breathe, and just be.
I am so looking forward to all of us being together again to welcome in Shabbat this week. Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat a “palace in time,” and I hope that together we can build ourselves a beautiful, communal respite from all that surrounds us.
After our Shabbat worship together on Friday night, we will have our social “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. This week, we will be talking about our relationship to Israel from the diaspora. We’ll look at texts that yearn towards Israel, discuss what it means to be a Jew in America versus a Jew in Israel, and think about what it means to feel connected to land and to people.
I can’t wait to see you all on Friday, November 13th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
October 5, 2020
Chag Sukkot Sameach! The festival of Sukkot, which comes on the heels of powerful and introspective Yom Kippur, is also known as “Z’man Simchateinu” — the time of our joy. We transition from teshuva, repentance, to celebration as we dwell in our Sukkot and give thanks for the abundant fall harvest around us. Whether or not you have the opportunity to sit in a Sukkah and shake a lulav and etrog this year, I hope you take some time to breathe in the fresh fall air, notice the turning of the seasons, and take some time for joy this week.
Our time of joy will continue this Friday with Simchat Torah! We have read one parsha each week from the Torah all year, and on Simchat Torah we read the very end of the Torah and immediately start again at the beginning. The ancient sage Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn the Torah, and then turn it again, for everything is contained within it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). We celebrate so many cycles in this season: the end of the year, and the beginning of new opportunities to do good; the end of summer, and the beginning of the fall harvest; the end of the Torah, and then, right away, the beginning of it again. Everything is contained in the turning of our year, and so much wisdom is found in our ancient Torah
To celebrate this joyous holiday with a musical Shabbat and Torah service, I am delighted to share that we will have a guest leader! My dear friend Lara Tessler is also a second year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, though she is studying on the New York campus. Lara has been a songleader in the Reform movement for many years, and I had the pleasure of working with her at URJ Camp Coleman and leading t’filah with her during our Year in Israel. I’m so excited for you all to meet Lara, and for Lara to meet the B’nai Israel community!
fter our Shabbat service which is sure to be a treat, we will have our social “coffee half-hour” on Saturday morning at 10:30 am, followed by Adult Education at 11 am. As discussed during our Adult Education session in August, this week we will be discussing the role of mitzvot in Reform Judaism. We’ll talk about halakha (Jewish law), how Reform Jewish scholars and leaders view these topics, and what being “commanded” means for each of us in our own Jewish lives.
I look forward to celebrating with you on Friday, October 9th at 7:30 pm. If you want to light Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
Moadim l’simcha, (may this time be full of joy,)
September 8, 2020
There’s a reason that the season we are about to enter is called the High Holy Days. This season is the spiritual height of the Jewish calendar, rising from the lowest point of our year, the mournful day of Tisha B’av, reaching a crescendo with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then sliding gently into autumn with Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The Days of Awe are the days that we might find ourselves closest to God.
And yet, this year, the High Holy Days will feel different. We won’t be in the synagogue surrounded by stained glass windows, kissing the Torah as it is paraded around the sanctuary, and listening to each other sing. Our circumstances mean that we have to put in some extra work to elevate our worship this year. I have been thinking about ways that we might still make these High Holy Days special, and the URJ has put out some resources as well. Here are some suggestions:
- Position yourself in a different place in your house to attend Zoom services. Maybe sit somewhere different from where you work, in a more formal setting like the living room or the dining room table. If you can, try attending the services on your TV so that you’re not hunched over a computer, or at least turn on “Do Not Disturb” so you don’t receive other notifications while you’re praying.
- Dress up like you’ll be attending synagogue. Put on shoes, wear a tallit or a kippah if you have one, or wear anything that makes you feel like you’re in a spiritual space.
- Consider making a festive meal for Rosh Hashanah, and a break fast meal in lieu of the one we would share together at the end of Yom Kippur. I’ll be making a stuffed apple honey challah that I make every year for Rosh Hashanah, and a cardamom apple noodle kugel for Yom Kippur break fast by Grand Forks’ own Molly Yeh. Even though we can’t physically eat together, we can feel like we are together by enjoying the same holiday food.
- This is extremely important — sing along, even if you are muted and no one can hear you! Prayer is not a performance, even on Zoom.
- For more ideas on how to create a holy space within your home, including suggestions for setting your table with ritual objects and blessings you can say to set an intention, check out Reform Judaism’s article “How to Turn Your Home into a Sanctuary for the High Holidays.”
Additionally, I want to address some logistical “tachlis” things that are specific to services this year.
- First and foremost, you are not captive! Even though our services will be shorter this year, it is easy to become Zoom fatigued. Stand up and step away if you need to.
- A flipbook for our High Holy Day machzor, Gates of Repentance, can be found here. Please note some of its quirks: it is “Hebrew-opening,” so you must click on the left arrow to move forward in the book. You can also type in the page number you want to go to in the bottom toolbar and hit “enter.” If possible, it is best to use the flipbook on a device other than the one you are using for Zoom, so that you don’t have to toggle back and forth between windows. If the flipbook is too cumbersome, a discounted Kindle version is available here. However, nothing replaces the feeling of praying with a physical book in your hands. I highly recommend getting in touch with Bert Garwood or another member of the board to arrange the socially-distant pick up or delivery of one of the synagogue’s copies of Gates of Repentance.
- So that you won’t be only hearing my voice for all of the High Holy Days, there are several English readings in each service that are designated for congregants. Jeffrey Powell will be private chatting individuals and families at the beginning of each Zoom service to hand out virtual honors. Everyone will have the chance to actively participate in our services.
I appreciate all the care and effort that has already been put forth to make these High Holy Days special for the B’nai Israel community, especially by the High Holy Day Committee, our shofar blower, and our Kol Nidre musicians and soloists. I am looking forward to spending these awe-filled days with you very soon.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah, (to a sweet and good new year,)
August 13, 2020
Hi, everyone! My name is Madeline Budman, and I am so excited to be serving as B’nai Israel’s student rabbi this year. I recently moved to Cincinnati with my fiancé (who is also studying to become a rabbi!) to study at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I’m looking forward to getting to know your community and each of you this year.
At least for the time being, I won’t be able to physically be with you in Grand Forks. Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions through HUC-JIR, I’ll be conducting virtual “visits” over Zoom. Every time we get together, we will welcome Shabbat through a brief service on Friday night, complete with chanting the Torah and followed by kiddush and motzi; chat and build community during our “coffee half-hour” on Saturday mornings; and learn together during adult education sessions after that. I am also looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which will probably be unlike any other High Holy Days we’ve ever celebrated.
This pandemic is full of bitterness, but out of all of the difficulties there come new opportunities. While I would much rather be with all of you in person (and I certainly hope I get to this year!), being entirely virtual allows us to experiment and try out ideas that we never thought possible before. From multimedia worship to Jewish cooking classes, there is so much that I want to explore together. I am especially excited about Adult Education this year, in which I want to explore ways to enrich our Jewish lives at home during this era of social distancing and beyond. I encourage you to come to our first Adult Education session on Saturday, August 22nd at 11:00 am, where we will learn about the history of Judaism during pandemics of centuries past, talk about COVID-19-specific Jewish rituals, and brainstorm what types of Jewish practice, food, and culture we want to learn about together this year.
Because I won’t get to schmooze with everyone in person, I would love to set up a time to chat! Please email me at email@example.com so that we can have a Zoom call or talk on the phone and get to know each other.
I look forward to meeting you on Friday, August 21st at 7:30 pm. If you want to light Shabbat candles, please have your candlesticks with you on Zoom, so that we can all light and bless together at the start of our service!
April 28, 2020
The first mile is a lie.
A few months ago, a community member shared these words with me. When running a marathon, they said, the key is to pace yourself. If the first mile is too fast and easy, you will probably suffer later. Or, if you start off a bit rocky and slow, you are likely to run the remainder of the race with more ease. The first mile is a lie. This first mile is like the first year of a new school, the first month of a new job, or the first week of living in a COVID-19 world. If this story is a book, we cannot judge it by its cover, or even the first chapter.
During this week of counting the omer (the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot), we meditate on the value of netzach, perseverance. Netzach does not always come easily, but we need it now. Living in a COVID-19 world is more like running a marathon than a sprint. The question is, how do we maintain our mental and physical health, sustain our communities, and uphold our values for the long haul?
This week, we read a double Torah portion — Achrei Mot-Kedoshim. In Kedoshim, we read: kedoshim tihiyu, “You shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2). The form of the verb to be used here, “tihiyu” implies both command — be holy — and an action that will be performed in the future — you will be holy. As Elyse Goldstein interprets, this is “both a command for now and [a] promise for the future: we can and we will find ways to be holy” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary 719). We recommit to holiness everyday: both an urgent and an eternal directive.
I pray that we find the strength to persevere and pull together, to have the courage to choose holiness both today and tomorrow, even during a pandemic.
April 5, 2020
Happy (almost) Passover
In just a few days, people around the world will gather with family and friends, few in person but many over Zoom, for Pesach Seders. Seder, what we call the festive holiday ritual, means order. With all of the chaos in our world, still incomprehensible for many of us, endless days that seem to bleed into each other, and hour after hour on video conferences, many of us need an extra dose of order in our lives.
As you get ready to celebrate this holiday of liberation, I hope you find joy and solace in creating seder in your homes and your hearts. No matter how you choose to observe this holiday–from sanitizing every inch of your house of leavened bread to eating a piece of matzah on day one–, now is a great time to do some spring cleaning and bring order to life in ways that are meaningful to us.
Since the community seder was canceled, many community members have made alternative seder plans. If you do not have plans to host or join an intimate or virtual seder, but want to, please reach out to the student rabbi, Shirah Kraus, and we can help you find something that works for you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Instead of hosting a seder, we will be hosting prayer, study, and shmoozing events for Shabbat Saturday during Passover, April 11. Then, the next Friday, April 17, we’ll gather via Zoom for music prayer, and Shabbat reflections. More information is being sent to newsletter subscribers.
Wishing you health, order, and peace,
February 4, 2020
Food for Thought…
There is a story about an older woman who was planting trees. A younger man approached her and asked, “Why are you planting these trees? Surely you will not live long enough to enjoy their fruits!” The woman answered, “That is true. But look around at all of the trees that surround us. Because others planted them for me, I too feel responsible to do the same for the next generations.”
This is one of my favorite stories: it reminds us that we have a responsibility to provide for the future, not just for ourselves. It reflects the message on a bumper sticker that my brother used to have on his car: “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” We may be weary of politics and efforts by some simply to promote themselves, but if we look closely, we can see that we are surrounded by leaders as well.
We see members of our synagogue community working tirelessly to drain the basement, buy supplies, or bake a challah for oneg. We recognize parents, grandparents, and teachers who impart their stories and teachings unto us. We pay attention to young people and others around the world standing up for a better future.
Just two weeks ago, my eight-grade history teacher, Elizabeth Ormsby, died of cancer at the age of 49. Mrs. Ormsby was the kind of person who thought of the next generation. She empowered us with our own copies of the Constitution, which she lovingly (and a bit eccentrically) referred to as “swords of justice.” A big part of what made her so special was how she made others feel special, too.
The best leaders help us to see that we are leaders, too, in our own way. We each have the power to plant trees and inspire others.
Consider: who planted “trees” for you? What are the “trees” that you aspire to plant for the next generation?
This is no ordinary Shabbat! We have a special holiday and special guests joining us. Coming up on the 10th of February is the birthday of the trees, Tu B’shvat. We will be commemorating this day together with an accessible and hands-on Tu B’shvat seder instead of Friday night services. Come ready to eat some fruits, get your hands a little messy and celebrate our natural world!
We will be joined by two special guests–my father, Rabbi Matthew Kraus, and my 11-year-old sister, Eden. On Saturday, Rabbi Kraus will lead a special Tu B’shvat text study wherein we will dive into what the Torah has to say about trees AND life at the same time. This will be followed by a continuation of our adult education on rituals. If you missed our last session, you can easily join in! We are taking a broader view of rituals to consider the following questions: What are rituals? What purpose do they serve? We will also have some time to brainstorm and innovate our own rituals.
7:30 pm, Friday February 7: Tu B’Shvat Dessert Seder
10:00 am, Saturday February 8: The Torah of Trees text study with Rabbi Matthew Kraus
11:00 am, Saturday February 8: Adult Education on Ritual
A Taste of Torah…
Since we are celebrating Tu B’shvat in place of our usual Torah engagement, I just wanted to note that this weekend is also Shabbat Shirah (Shabbat of Song), the Shabbat wherein the Israelites leave Egypt and recite the Song of the Sea, shirat hayam. This poem is written in a unique way, to look like the waves of the sea which the Israelites crossed to freedom. A copy of what it looks like in the Torah is shown here. To learn more about this week’s chapter of Torah, go here.
I look forward to seeing you this weekend. And as always, please feel free to reach out with any questions at email@example.com.
December 4, 2019
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati
Behold, God is in this place and I did not know it (Genesis 28:16).
Over the Thanksgiving break, I found myself in a sing-along bar in New York City, encountering lyrics from Little Shop of Horrors. This is a musical previously unfamiliar to me is about a “terrifying enemy,” a man-eating plant that appeared “In the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places” (“Prologue/Little Shop of Horrors”). But just as evil can come from surprising places, great good can emerge as well.
I have a friend whose positivity and ability to be present never cease to amaze me. When I asked Ben where this endless optimism came from, he told me that he holds onto these words which Jacob uttered in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze: “Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati.” Behold, God is in this place and I did not know it (Genesis 28:16).
Jacob has just fled home after stealing his brother’s birthright. He stops for the night and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. God speaks to him and when he awakens, these are the words that Jacob proclaims. For my friend, Ben, living by these words means treating each moment as an opportunity for holiness, learning, and meaning.
What does it mean to us for God to “be in this place?” How can we be alert to danger, but also to holiness, to God’s presence? Join us this weekend to contemplate and discuss these questions as we pray and learn together.
Shabbat Evening Services: Friday, December 6 at 7:30 pm
Join us in prayer and music (some with guitar), including a special song for this week’s Torah portion. The student rabbi will deliver a sermon on the Torah portion as well.
If you have not joined us for Torah Study or Adult Education, consider trying it out. Topics are chosen based on students’ interests and sessions are conducted with intention and creativity. All types of learners are welcome.
Torah Study: Saturday, December 7 at 10:00 am
This week, we will delve deeper into the text of Parashat Vayeitze, the Torah portion. We will have some time to discuss the portion in light of our own dreams and the presence of the divine in our lives.
Adult Education: Saturday, December 8 at 11:00 am
Adult Education this year is “Anything But Text,” i.e. a survey of different Jewish topics. Using various case studies, we have the opportunity to learn each month about something in the Jewish world–and in the process, learn something about our community and ourselves. Thus far, we have studied Jewish Identity in the Former Soviet Union and examined connections between Judaism and justice. This week, we will be exploring rituals in transition, focusing on the mezuzah as an example — and we will even get to design our own rituals.
I look forward to seeing you this weekend. And as always, please feel free to reach out with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 15, 2019
In this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Vayera, an often-overlooked character, Sarah’s slave, Hagar, finds herself stranded in the wilderness with no water and no hope. Then God opens her eyes to see a well of water. What does it mean that God opened her eyes?
What might it mean for us to open our eyes? To the need in our communities, to the power that we have, and to the goodness that surrounds us?
I look forward to exploring these questions with you on my upcoming visit this weekend as we pray together Friday night, learn together Saturday morning, and of course shmooze in between. On Saturday, we will have a special opportunity to dive into our text, explore tzedek or justice, in our lives, and create a special tzedek box to take home so we may continue the practice and thinking.
I look forward to seeing you this weekend. And as always, please feel free to reach out with any questions at email@example.com.
September 20, 2019
Shalom! My name is Shirah and I will be serving as B’nai Israel’s student rabbi this year. While studying full-time at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in order to become a rabbi, I will travel to Grand Forks once a month (as well as for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). During my visits, I will lead erev shabbat (Friday night) services as well as Saturday morning Torah study and adult education classes. This year, we will have the opportunity to dive into contemporary issues, the weekly Torah portion, and living a Jewish life. I am also available to meet with congregants and teach younger students.
It was wonderful to meet so many kind and welcoming people on my first visit last weekend. I enjoyed learning about Grand Forks–its proximity to Canada and Minnesota, the importance of the weather, the need for caution in the face of bears and moose (who sometimes wander onto the football field), and the local love of “chippers.” I felt embraced by kindness and enjoyed discussing everything from the potato bowl to Toni Morrison — I look forward to building stronger relationships and meeting people I did not get a chance to meet on future visits. In the meantime, you can learn more about me by reading my bio here and feel free to peruse the upcoming services and events.
Finally, as we prepare for the High Holy Days during this Hebrew month of Elul, I would like to share an excerpt from Psalm 27, which is customarily recited during this month. This particular Psalm can be a source of strength and comfort for us as we navigate challenges in our personal lives, in the Jewish world–for example, as we work to support the Jewish community in Duluth and elsewhere–and in our world as a whole:
יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהוָ֥ה מָֽעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד׃
Adonai is my light and my help; whom should I fear? Adonai is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
To whom or what do you look to for help? What or who is a source of light and a stronghold in your life?
Please reach out if I can be of service to you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org