Rabbi Azriel’s Column

What is So Jewish about Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish Holiday is a song written by Rabbi Joe Black, a musician and rabbi in Colorado. Every once in a while, depending on what CD was in the car, the song would come over the speakers. It always made me smile.

  It is true – Valentine’s Day is innately a holiday that is not Jewish; after all, it is named after Saint Valentine of Rome, who lived over 2000 years ago. Valentine was known as a man who would often guide couples through the engagement period until he would officiate their marriage.

  There are conflicting stories about who Valentine was, possibly the Bishop of Terni, why exactly he was killed, or what he did to deserve being sentenced. In fact, there are many different Valentines, so it can be hard to distinguish who this holiday is named after.

  Nonetheless, the origin of Valentine’s Day may be traced back to an English Poet who often conflates history with people when he combined them in his works. In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “Parliament of Foules,” connecting a feast in honor of Saint Valentine with the ideas of courtship and love.

  And so eventually, Mr. Chaucer convinced those in his circle to re-enact such a feast, leading hundreds of years later to what we now know as Valentine’s Day.

What is so Jewish (or not Jewish) about Valentine’s Day?

  First, there is a Jewish holiday of love. Tu B’Av (the 15th Day of the Hebrew month of Av), celebrated this year on August 2, 2023, is known as Hag HaAhavah – the holiday of love. The holiday stems from the beginning of the grape harvest season, which, in the time of the Temple, was marked by women dancing in white dresses in the vineyards in celebration. Following the women, men would also dance in the groves. Maybe a similarity already between such dancing and the courtship that Poet Chaucer talked about in his work.

Should we celebrate Tu B’Av instead of Valentine’s Day?

  Well, instead of…how about both, if it suits you. Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Poland, in the 16th century, once wrote of the importance of observing secular traditions if the holidays are rooted in secularism, consistent with Jewish tradition, and not against any moral holdings. There is nothing inherently Christian about today’s Valentine’s Day. There is nothing wrong with sending flowers, cards, or candy; in fact, offering gifts and showing love is appreciated in our Jewish tradition (mishloch manot at Purim, for example)!

  Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish holiday, but it isn’t a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or any other religion’s holiday. So this year, when February 14th rolls around, we can celebrate love just like Jews have been doing for thousands of years.

Looking Back on Makor

When the Covid-19 Pandemic began, we were wearing masks, celebrating that we had survived an oppressive Persian dictator. It was Purim 2020, and shortly after that, we quickly moved to remote education, distance services, and online programming. Forecasts said that we needed to stay home for two weeks, then four weeks, then the summer, and we would quickly make it back to ‘normal’ life. 

  When Makor was being planned for the school year 2020-2021, we knew that the entire year would be virtual. It was disappointing not to be together in our building, but it was necessary to ensure our community remained safe. The year went smoothly; students spent Zoom time together learning about holidays, Hebrew, Jewish morals, and even making crafts with at-home supplies. 

  Fast forward to the school year 2021-2022; we knew the importance of being back together in the same space, sharing classrooms, interacting with each other in person. The education committee, teachers, parents, and students came together to make this hope a reality. Through our Fall 2021 semester, we have achieved a fantastic semester thanks to the dedication of all those involved in Makor. Students continue to learn together, in-person, safely, sharing meaningful Jewish experiences in our building. I could not be prouder of our team, especially our teachers, who have stepped up to the occasion to make this semester as successful as it has been. 

  Our youngest students have spent the semester learning about holidays, singing together, laughing, and doing amazing art projects, many of which have made their way home! They learned Hebrew colors, made edible dreidels, and created new friendships with Jewish students across Dayton. 

  Our elementary school class has been hard at work learning about the land of Israel and all of the fantastic places found throughout Ha’artz (the land). They created their own Western Wall and wrote personal prayers to fold up and put in the cracks. They have read many stories about the beauty and majesty of Israel and learned how to make a map of Israel using their bodies. It has been an incredible semester. 

  Our middle school class has spent an incredible semester digging into meaningful discussions about the complexity of Israel and all that goes into making a Jewish state. They discussed the kibbutz movement and how Israel was founded. And they have spent time creating digital media projects about what it means to be Jewish. 

  Our junior high school class has been engaged in learning about text and ritual items that make being Jewish so unique. They are in the process of creating their own tallitot and have gone on a tour of the synagogue to see the many ritual items that they might have passed without even noticing them. They continue to build a project about how being Jewish is meaningful to them and hope to share it with our community at the end of the year. 

  And finally, our high school class has had an amazing time with Rabbi Chessin. They did a deep dive into the image of Jews in media, social media, and comedy. They have debated boundaries in stereotypes and tried to determine where to draw the line with regard to gender, race, and religion parody. And they have discussed current events concerning Israel and antisemitism. All of this has been accompanied by great crafts, delicious food, and wonderful music. 

  It has been an amazing semester at Temple Beth Or Makor, and we want to thank all the students and parents for being a part of it. We look forward to another terrific spring semester!

Lighting Up the Atmosphere

Atmosphere creates meaning. When it reaches October, I find myself deep in the crawlspace of my home, digging out the Halloween decorations. Why do Rachel and I decorate for Halloween? I am not sure, but it is fun, and it adds a little pop to our front porch.

  This year, we even moved a couple of smart lightbulbs to the porch so that the lights would change from orange to purple and back again. Couple that with a few carved pumpkins, a few LED light strings, and whatever else we find in our container of supplies, and you get a fun display for all to see.

  We aren’t winning any prizes or going to be on any of those light shows, but it is still fun. Come November, we alter it slightly for a more Thanksgiving theme, and of course, in December, we show off our Hannukah pride filling our house with light to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

  The atmosphere in our neighborhood changes around this time of year: neighbors seem to be more neighborly, street hockey appears to be a little bit more fun, and light fills the street. November just feels different to me, but for all the right reasons. The days get a little shorter as the sun sets earlier, but the evening gets a little more orange and fills the sky just as it crosses the horizon. This is the meaning that I find in November, and I am thankful for it.

  Atmosphere creates meaning in all that we do. When we walk through the halls of Temple Beth Or and take a second to notice something hanging that we hadn’t seen in the past; when we step into a classroom during Makor and find it filled with children laughing; when we rise from the pews to welcome the Shabbat Bride during L’cha Dodi, we create atmosphere, and we create meaning.

  And so, it is my goal when I bring education to life to do it not only through meaningful lessons and inspiring classes, but through creating an atmosphere that allows us, allows our students, allows everyone to feel welcome and ready to learn. Hopefully, our students feel it when they walk in on Sunday, and I invite all to create meaning by designing an atmosphere. It’s a challenge, but certainly one I hope all will enjoy.

  This is the season of Thanksgiving, the season of showing appreciation and giving (and accepting) gratitude. This year, the season of Thanksgiving mixes with the Festival of Lights, and I hope that your season is filled with light. When you drive through the streets of your neighborhood, I hope it is filled with a sense of calm and serenity, mixed with a love for light and joy.

  And if/when you visit the Azriel home, I hope that you find our porch lights shining brightly, maybe orange and purple, maybe red and brown, maybe blue and white, but always shining, inviting you to join in our joy of the festival and holiday season.

Makor in Full Swing!

We are back in person, and it feels so good!

 Makor has started again, and we are so excited to have our students back in our building, filling our classrooms with Jewish education, Hebrew learning, Confirmation conversations, laughter, and joy.

  I want to say a few words to thank several people that have helped us get back in person. First, the Makor education committee — this team has mapped out what will hopefully be a very successful year ahead. In addition, to our teachers who come to Makor every Sunday ready to bring experiential education to life. To our Makor parents, we thank you for trusting your kids with us and allowing us to get to know them. And to our students, we appreciate your great attitudes, smiles, and laughter every Sunday morning.

  As you may know, we take our students, teachers, and community’s health as the utmost essential item. The Jewish teaching pikuach nefesh, which teaches about the importance of life and the preservation of life, is at the core of everything we do this year.

  That is why we want to impress upon everyone the importance of getting your vaccine when it is your turn. We hope that your younger students will become eligible very soon, giving us another tool in the toolkit to keep our students safe. In addition, masks continue to be required as the best way to prevent any further spread.

  Finally, flu season is right around the corner, and we want to encourage everyone to continue to protect themselves and others by vaccinating against the flu.

  We have already had a great start to our year with a stop-in from Aaron the High Priest at Yom Kippur, accompanied by his goat flock. And at Rosh Hashanah, who could forget the foam pit that helped wash us clean of our sins as we start the new year. Our sukkah was decorated with student art projects, and there is so much left to do.

  Makor is back, and we are so excited to welcome your students back to our classrooms. We look forward to a great year ahead.

Mask Up

I had never been someone to wear a mask. I found masks to be hot, smelly, sticky, just all-around annoying. To avoid a big thing over my face or head, every year when Purim came around, I would always volunteer to be the person who would wear the elaborate costume with a wig or funny outfit, just as long as it didn’t include a mask. Well, little did I know that masks would become reminiscent of the long-lost candies in jacket pockets – throwing on a jacket as I walk out the door and find my old mask crumpled in the pocket, needing to retrieve a new one from the sleeve of surgical masks in my car.

Hazah! Now! However! It has finally arrived at the time of year where my year-long mask-wearing practice would eventually become useful. Purim is here! It is in February, just weeks away. Now, you may say, “Purim is early this year,” I would contend it is not, for it always falls on the same date…well, the same Hebrew date.

Purim. What a holiday! It was generally filled with reading the megillah, booing Hamen, and eating little, strangely shaped cookies with all kinds of filling (I am partial to fruit fillings). Enjoying the bounce-houses, makeup, costumes, carnival games, prizes. Purim can be all kinds of fun, and this year, though it might not be the same as it has been in many past years, it will continue to build upon centuries of celebrations and merriment. At Temple Beth Or, our celebration will take place outside and in a manner which promotes safety and fun at the same time. Be sure to create a ‘CARstume’ to show off to the community. Most importantly, it’s your chance to show just what your mask can do (and look like). Finally, an opportunity to bring masks to life and not only be useful but celebratory!

Hopefully, mask wearing will become a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future, but as we make our way through the COVID era, we have to pause to notice the good stuff. This year, one of the good things that I have learned is that I will never again have to complain about being assigned the costume with a mask in any future Purim Spiel.
We look forward to seeing you reading Megillat Ester together on February 26th at our Shabbat service and celebrating together on Sunday, February 28th, in our parking lot celebration of Purim during Makor hours.

Rabbi Ben Azriel

Rabbi Ben Azriel

Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Or

Ben is originally from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. He is an Alum of The Ohio State University, where he earned a dual-major in Political Science and Economics with a specialty in American judicial politics and economic regression analysis. While in school, Ben was a Youth Engagement Director for a local synagogue. After finishing at OSU, Ben worked as a tax accountant for two years in Columbus, Ohio. In addition, Ben was the Financial Director of a Columbus congregation. Ben also served on the staff of Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute for five years in various positions and has staffed multiple trips to Israel. During rabbinical school, Ben worked as a student Rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in Northern Michigan and B’nai Israel In Parkersburg, WV. Also, he served Hillels at Texas A&M University, University of Texas-Austin and Miami University in Oxford. Ben strives to bring his love for Judaism, which formed the ethics he lives his life by, with his knowledge for program development and administration, to create meaningful education, program, service, and fiscal opportunities. Ben lives in Mariemont, outside of Cincinnati, with his wife Rachel (his high school sweetheart), a medical student at the University of Cincinnati, and their dog Wrigley.

Contact Rabbi Azriel at rabbiazriel@templebethor.com