A Rabbi with a funny name, Ben Bag-Bag, used to say: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it”. Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Ancestors 5:22.
Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag was referring to our Torah, or more broadly, the entire Jewish Bible. While many people call our scripture the “Old Testament,” the appropriate term is Tanach, an acronym from the Hebrew letters of its three components: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). For 28 years, friends and members of Temple Beth Or have been reading and discussing the Tanach verse by verse. We began with Genesis 1:1 in the Fall of 1993 and have read and discussed every chapter and verse for the past decades since then. Now, this month, we will reach II Chronicles 36:23, the final verse of Tanach, and celebrate with a virtual siyyum – a party for the completion of reading the Bible. What an accomplishment!
It wasn’t always easy going. Studying Genesis and Exodus, Esther and Jonah were fun and exciting – these are the foundational stories of our faith. But, making our way through Leviticus with its sacrifices, or 150 Psalms with their relatively dense poetry, was a different story altogether.
Nonetheless, we prevailed. We didn’t skip over a single verse and found meaningful discussion each session. We delved into issues of life and death, reward and punishment, theodicy and God’s justice (or seeming lack thereof), good and evil, and free will. We also experienced hilarious moments pouring over soap-opera-worthy tales of sexual and political intrigue, profound medical treatises on buboes and leprosy, and commentaries on the best way to build gallows. Special kudos to Lorraine Fortner, the one person who was there from day one and stayed with us throughout the entire Bible study course.
Our study will not end now. Our intrepid study group will continue reading the Jewish Apocrypha, comprised of historical books written mainly during the Hellenization crisis and the Maccabean revolt. These books were not all considered divinely inspired and were too late to make it into the sacred canon of the Bible. They may, indeed, be even more interesting to study since we are less familiar with them. Any of you are welcome to join in the dialogue, for there is no prior experience necessary to join our chevruta (friendly analysis, debate, and discussion of a text).
Going back to Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, while we have grown old and some of us gray while studying together, we hope to continue our journey through sacred scripture for decades to come.
Just as we go through the text, we pray that the text will continue to go through us as well.
Rabbi Chessin’s Column
Rabbi Chessin’s Monthly Column
A Rabbi with a funny name, Ben Bag-Bag, used to say: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it”. Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Ancestors 5:22.
In a nod to gender-neutral language, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II concluded his opening prayer for the launch of the 117th Congress with the words “amen and awoman.” While it sounds like the kind of joke I might make, the fact is the congressman may have been seriously attempting to be inclusive.
The term amen’s origins are from the Hebrew root for the word “Emunah,” which means faith or belief. It is a gender-neutral term. Reciting Amen to a prayer or blessing demonstrates a statement of affirmation. Judaism teaches that when a leader says a blessing, and the congregation responds, “Amen,” it is as if the entire community has fulfilled the mitzvah of saying the blessing. When Jews cannot recite an entire Hebrew prayer, a simple amen might suffice.
In American English, the word “amen” has two pronunciations, ah-men or ay-men. The ah-men pronunciation is the one that is used in performances of classical music and churches with more formalized rituals and liturgy. The ay-men pronunciation is associated with evangelical Christianity and the pronunciation that is typically sung in gospel music.
The great 15th-century philosopher Adar Banal explained the term as follows. He said the congregation’s real purpose is to combat the idea that God is merely in the heavens above. God also dwells within you and me and makes the Divine presence known through the acts of our hands, the impulses of our hearts, and the healing nature of our deeds. To say Amen and not to act is meaningless. A passionate Amen requires that we get up from our prayers and work in our world according to the high ideals expressed.
Thus for our elected officials, we pray: May you never let an Amen pass your lips without being followed by actions that unify and heal our fractured nation.
May your actions serve all of our citizenry’s needs regardless of ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or political affiliation.
May this Congress, rather than paying lip service to our Constitution and founding fathers’ highest ideals, strive to serve its citizenry as one nation, under God, indivisibly enacting liberty and justice for all.
Then indeed, we will conclude with a hearty AMEN.
Rabbi Judy Chessin
After a challenging year, it is time to celebrate. In January 2021, we mark the 36th anniversary of our first Shabbat Service together. Thirty-six years ago, this month, we inaugurated and dedicated Temple Beth Or – our House of Light.
“Chai” is the Hebrew word for life and has the numerical equivalent of 18. Thus 36 is double life! The number bears additional significance in Judaism. Tradition has it that the light God created on the first day shone for precisely 36 hours. It was the light of discernment, which was then replaced by the lesser light emanating from the sun, moon, and stars. Judaism teaches that the world depends on the Lamed Vav (36) righteous individuals hidden in our midst. Finally, there are 36 candles kindled by the shamash over Hanukkah’s eight-day festival of light and Temple rededication.
Unfortunately, this year, when we gather, it will not be in our Temple building. Who could have imagined that 36 years, 1,872 Sabbaths, 3,744 Shabbat candles, 13,149 days, 432 board meetings later, we would be celebrating our Temple from our homes online? Like everyone, I miss our building. But much more, I miss the handshakes and the hugs, the conversations over an Oneg Shabbat, and the ability to sing together. I long for the time when we can sing in unison and feel each other’s hugs.
And yet, there are benefits to celebrating online. On Zoom, we’ve welcomed out of town guests from around the country, former Temple members who have moved far away, and those who had challenges getting to our synagogue for Shabbat Services. A beautiful quarantine meme states: “My synagogue is open. It is open every day because my synagogue is not a building. It is the people who are helping each other and their community. It is the prayers for those who are struggling medically, financially, and emotionally. My synagogue never closed. It just opened in every home.”
And so let us enthusiastically gather to rededicate our Temple from our homes this Double Chai 36th Anniversary Service Friday, January 29 at 6:30 p.m. Let’s celebrate all of the Jewish life and light which has emanated from our congregation over these decades. Let us hear from former members and Temple graduates. Most of all, let us celebrate twice the life, twice the love and twice the light that is Temple Beth Or.
Most of us are anxious to bid farewell to the year 2020. With a deadly pandemic and its resultant economic lockdown, the tragic death of George Floyd and its ensuing violent protests; fraught national politics and a vitriolic election season; wildfires, tropical storms, and earthquakes, we might wonder, what else could go wrong this year.
Of all of the words of comfort out there, I have been most inspired by the words of someone very close to me.
Michael’s grandson Jesse Cook was one of the many unlucky seniors to miss out on his high school graduation in Boston. As class president, Jesse had the honor of taping his graduation speech, which aired online on the day they would have graduated. Jesse said:
“This year has been compared to several other points in history; the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and even the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. I find 1968 to be a better comparison.
Like 2020, the U.S. saw a presidential election, and Boston sports fans were angry about losing a seven-game championship series the year prior… Also, like 2020, there was an abundance of misfortune as disaster after disaster plagued the world. America was locked, starting to lose the war in Vietnam, presidential candidate and advocate for equal rights Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was fatally shot. The world looked like an awful place in which to live.
In the midst of all this chaos, N.A.S.A. was still hard at work, hell-bent on putting a man on the moon. In December of 1968, nearing the end of one of the worst years in American history, the crew of Apollo 8 embarked on the most important mission to date.
Their mission was to be the first humans to leave Earth for the moon. They would lock into lunar orbit, orbit ten times, and come home. No crew had ever attempted to lock into lunar orbit, and, consequently, no crew had ever attempted to leave lunar orbit for Earth. One slight mistake and they could either be vaulted into the vast emptiness of space or violently shuttled directly into the unforgiving surface of the moon, doomed to die in both scenarios. They had to be perfect.
As they approached the most dangerous part of the mission, flying over the dark side of the moon, where communications with mission control would be impossible, the world held its breath. The mission came at the tail end of a year of disaster, so why shouldn’t something else go horribly wrong? For seemingly the first time all year, fittingly on Christmas Eve, everything went right. Communication reconnected at the right time, and the world listened in joy to a safe crew. They became the first humans to ever witness an Earthrise, and as the world saw the beautiful pictures of the journey and learned that it was possible to go to the moon and come back, everything began to heal a little bit.
Upon returning home to Earth, Apollo 8 Mission Commander Frank Borman received an anonymous letter, reading, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Now, I’m not saying that there has to be a mission to the moon or some other incredible worldwide event to save 2020, but I am saying that life will not always be this massive hardship. Look for the victories in your own life because even the smallest win can save a bad day. My sister has always loved a quote from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
In 1968, the world was a dark place, but, ironically, by flying over the dark side of the moon, Apollo 8 turned on a light. We will all go through dark times in life, but you can make them easier by just turning on that light.”
Such perspective and wisdom from someone just starting his adult life, but like the prophet Joel states, “The old shall dream dreams, but the youth shall see visions.” May Jesse’s vision for a brighter tomorrow sustain us as we hope for a better and brighter 2021.
Rabbi Judy Chessin
While many Jews are baffled by the fall Jewish harvest thanksgiving festivals, which include Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, we mark the American celebration of Thanksgiving with gusto. Here is one national holiday that has no religious overtones that make us feel excluded. Jews joyfully partake of all Thanksgiving “fixins” from turkey (or tofu) to taters; pumpkins to parades.
In reality, Thanksgiving should be considered a uniquely Jewish festival. The first Pilgrim harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were modeled on the biblical, Jewish harvest festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. And, the earliest Thanksgiving feasts took place in July.
It was President George Washington who moved Thanksgiving to autumn, writing, “I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation.”
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated the last Thursday of November. But merchants, hoping to expand the Christmas shopping season commencing on Thanksgiving, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to change the date to the second to last Thursday in November. This move added an extra week of shopping and also explains why the annual Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade concludes with a waving Santa welcoming the official start of the so-called “Christmas” shopping frenzy.
For Temple Beth Or, Thanksgiving has long been a festival of outreach to the local interfaith community. In 1988, our own religious committee chair, Steven Alexander, initiated south Dayton’s first annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service with neighboring churches at our synagogue. Since that time, our celebration has grown to include the Muslim community as well. This year, Temple Beth Or is the proud host of our 32nd Interfaith Thanksgiving gathering. We hope that as many of you as possible will attend, volunteer, and give thanks for our strong Dayton interfaith friendships and ties. (Volunteer opportunities are found inside this issue of the Light on page 8).
Whether Thanksgiving is seen as a secular American holiday, the jump-off point for winter shopping (don’t forget our December 8th Artisan Fair!), or a uniquely Jewish holiday, the fact is that the term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew name Yehudah which means to give thanks. As such, Jews should fully embrace every opportunity to give thanks for our blessings and bounty.
“The High Holidays are late this year” can be heard often, but they are not as late as you may think. Most Jews believe that the holiday season begins with Rosh HaShanah on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri.
But the true preparations for our Days of Awe begin in the prior month of Elul, during which time we are supposed to engage in self-reflection and soul-searching.
During Elul Jews recite selichot (forgiveness) prayers emphasizing the inner work of the High Holidays. Indeed, a special service on the Saturday evening before the holidays is called Selichot. The Sabbath ends with Havdalah, and we have a “warm-up” for the Days of Awe which lie ahead.
During the Selichot Service, we hear the sounds of the season, the special holiday musical tropes of the holy days, as well as the first blast of the Shofar. Many congregations change their Torah covers from those used during the year to special white covers designed to represent purity and renewal.
In Dayton, it has become customary for Beth Abraham Synagogue, Temple Beth Or, and Temple Israel to combine in worship for the Selichot service.
This year Temple Beth Or will host the community on Saturday, September 21st, 2019, with a service featuring the acclaimed Dayton Jewish Chorale directed by Hazan Jenna B. Greenberg. Many of our Temple Beth Or members are a part of this community-wide chorus.
The larger Dayton community will have the opportunity to mingle during a gourmet dessert reception prior to the Service at 8:30 p.m. Then Rabbis from all three congregations will lead a brief yet soulful Service starting at 9:00 p.m.
We are hoping for many decadent, sinful delights at our dessert reception so that we will have yet one more thing to repent. If you are willing to enhance our evening with your culinary delights, please sign up online at volunteer.templebethor.com/chefs, or call the Temple office at 937-435-3400.
We look forward to hosting the larger Dayton community and raising our voices in prayer and song as we kick off our High Holiday Season.
To a sweet Selichot and New Year.
Rabbi Judy Chessin
Crayons for Classrooms School Supply List
• simple and sturdy 17 inch backpacks (~ $10 each at Walmart & Amazon)
• box of facial tissues
• rulers, 12”, plastic, in & cm, center holes
• notebooks, single subject, wide-ruled, perforated, 70 ct.
• pocket folders, 2 pockets
• pencil sharpeners
• 24 ct. crayons
• highlighters, chisel tip (yellow preferred)
• erasers, pink, large, latex-free
• 10 ct. markers
• scissors, 5-1/4”
• pencils, dozen, #2, unsharpened, all wood
• glue sticks
👉 We need donated items by August 2.
We Are Also Accepting Cash Donations To Purchase Supplies
Please contact the office to make a donation.
Even before I find my white shoes (worn only between Memorial Day and Labor Day), stores seem to have begun their “Back to School” sales. This year, however, I am cheered that the early sales permit us to perform an essential and easily affordable mitzvah.
The organization Crayons to Classrooms is helping students and schools in North Dayton impacted by the Memorial Day tornadoes. Crayons to Classrooms has created a partnership between our Jewish community and the Timberlane Elementary School in Northridge. We have committed to providing 210 filled backpacks for North Dayton students in need. Of those, Temple Beth Or has promised to provide 50 filled bags.
If you have children, why not match your own back to school purchases fulfilling the school supply needs for a child who suffered loss and damage this past spring? If you are an empty nester, we encourage you to purchase items and backpacks in the name of your grown children or grandchildren. And if you have no children, why not adopt a Timberlane elementary school student and help prepare him or her for school?
The list of needs is printed to the right. We need “simple and sturdy 17’’ backpacks, facial tissues, rulers notebooks, pocket folders, pencil sharpeners, 24 count crayons, highlighters, erasers, ten count markers, scissors, and pencils. You can fill one backpack, or bring individual bulk items to the Temple. We will have a bag stuffing party at the Temple in August and the filled backpacks will be delivered to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton by August 9th, ready for the school year.
The devastating Memorial Day tornadoes brought chaos to Dayton’s northern neighbors. While Labor Day is the last day we may wear white shoes, we can certainly perform this and many other acts of Tikkun Olam year-round.
What's Next for Me? by Rabbi Judy Chessin
Graduation is the season of commencement addresses. As we look inside this newsletter at our many Temple Beth Or graduates, imagine how many of our members listened to sentiments of “Carpe Diem, seize the day” this past month. I will al-ways remember Jill Abramson’s graduation address to my son Brett’s 2014 law school class at Wake For-est. Only days before, she had been fired as the executive editor of the New York Times. She said to the graduates. “What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.” To me this was far more inspiring than the typical, cliché commencement speech. It resonated with the realities and insecurities of our modern era.
Moses, too, gave a commencement address to the children of Israel as they graduated from being a wandering tribe to a settled people. Moses began “I am one hundred and twenty years old today.” (Deut. 31:2) Why “today” – was it his birthday? “No,” conclude our Rabbis, “this was rather to suggest that Moses lived out every one of those days to the day.” There were days when he was a bold and decisive leader, such as when he freed his people, received the Torah or adjudicated God’s law. Yet Moses also experienced days of insecurity and indecision when he experienced God’s silences, his people’s intransigence and felt a lack of direction. Yet, our Rabbis state, every (to) day Moses remained true to the values of his faith and his God given mission.
Likewise, Judaism teaches us to squeeze every possible blessing out of our time—our “todays”—on Earth. Even in times of uncertainty, we can still find moments of grace, bestowing compassion and care upon other human beings in even greater straits than are we. By providing simple acts of caring for those around us, serving those who lack food or economic security, caring for the neighbors who are in the same boat, fighting the bigotry, hatred and enmity so rampant in our world, we anchor ourselves in time and space. Simple acts can imbue our days with meaning no matter state of life.
The meaning of time was well summed up by French novelist Marc Levy in If only it were True:
If you want to know the values of one year, just ask a student who failed a course.
If you want to know the value of a month, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby.
If you want to know the value of one hour, ask the lovers waiting to meet
If you want to know the value of one minute, ask the person who just missed the bus.
If you want to know the value of one second, ask the person who just escaped death in a car accident.
And if you want to know the value of one hundredth of a second, ask the athlete who won a silver medal in the Olympics.
No matter what twists and turns beset our graduates (and ourselves) we pray that they too will live to 120 and imbue their days with meaning. No matter what life brings them we pray that they will make their lives matter.
Justice is a Constant Struggle by Rabbi Judy Chessin
This spring, Temple Beth Or high school students embarked on our second Etgar 36 Civil Rights Journey into the Deep South with peers from Temple Israel and teenagers from Chicago’s Congregation Hakafah. This trip was generously subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton’s Innovation grants and Temple Beth Or. Etgar 36 is an organization which sponsors educational civil rights excursions throughout the country. Our itinerary included many sites including the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, Atlanta’s Aids Quilt Project, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In each place, history came alive. But no exhibit could possibly convey the power that we felt upon meeting living sources … the inspirational witnesses who described their own personal plights and heroism during the 1960’s Civil Rights battles in our nation’s Deep South. In Selma Alabama, we met Joanne Bland, who spoke to us at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. From this very spot, Joanne and her friends from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, headed out on their historic trek over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery to demand voting rights which had heretofore been denied to African Americans. In Birmingham Alabama, we met Bishop Calvin Woods, Sr., an 84-year-old pastor who worked with Baptist Minister Fred Shuttlesworth, one of Birmingham’s most prominent civil rights activists, to organize non-violent Birmingham protests against racial segregation and injustice. Participating in these protests were hundreds of children, some as young as six years old. When the media picked up images of these children knocked unconscious by fire hoses and trampled and bitten by snarling dogs, many Americans were startled out of their apathy towards civil rights issues for the first time.
New for us this year was a visit to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace in Justice (in Montgomery Alabama). “The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned on their way to the slave market. It contains a poignant exhibit of nearly 300 jars of soil from American lynching sites. A few blocks away, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice features more than 800 steel monuments, one for each location where a racial terror lynching took place, inscribed with the names of victims. A monument park outside the structure holds a field of identical monuments to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent.
While we wish that racial hatred were a thing of the past, a mere history lesson, we are well aware that today we still have the KKK marching in our streets fomenting the very same hatred and intolerance of a half-century ago! I can only pray that our youth took to heart Joanne Bland’s stirring reminder: “You’re the ones who have to make this world better for your babies. No one else is going to do it for you! Will you promise me you’ll do it?” And they did.
Passover: Freedom from Fear By Rabbi Judy Chessin
It may be the oldest joke in the book: “Every Jewish holiday is the same…. They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” How true the sentiment is as we approach this year’s Passover Seder with increasing concerns over anti-semitism both here and abroad. More and more it feels as if “they” are trying to get us.
We would do well to recall that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 51 years ago this month, once wrote a brilliant sermon entitled “Antidotes for Fear” describing two types of fear: “Sigmund Freud spoke of a person who was quite properly afraid of snakes in the heart of an African jungle and of another person who neurotically feared that snakes were under the carpet in his city apartment. Psychologists say that normal children are born with only two fears—the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises—and that all others are environmentally acquired. Most of these acquired fears are snakes under the carpet…. Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.”
And that is what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He built what he called “dikes of courage to hold back fear.” He was unafraid and became the Moses of his people. In his final speech in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, the night before he was shot, Martin Luther King, Jr., stated: “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
What an empowering lesson for us as divisiveness, senseless hatred and fear abound. Even if our enemies are many and our fears are great, if we remain unified as a people and steadfast in our commitment to fight for freedom and peace then indeed “we shall overcome.” Let this year’s Festival of Freedom become a turning point when we can flee the narrow straits which terrify us and begin our journey to the Promised Land; a nation wherein we and all peoples will yet become “free at last.”