Elul Reflections 5782
The Hebrew month of Elul offers us an opportunity to prepare for the High Holy Days ahead. It is a time of introspection. Are we happy with the lives we have been leading? What have we left undone? Have we made amends for our mistakes? Are we ready to forgive those who wronged us?
Each day through Rosh Hashanah, we will be blessed with a short reflection on High Holy Days themes shared by community members. We hope these Elul reflections help you to start each day with gratitude and optimism and to prepare you for a meaningful High Holy Days Season ahead.
– Rabbi Cassi
Day 29 – Final Elul Reflection
My first Jewish memory occurred when I was three. Right before Shabbos dinner, my family stood me on a chair; placed a necklace with a “Mogen Dovid” (Star of David) around my neck; and told me that I was Jewish, that this was something special, something to be proud of. After the candles were lit, my mom, who didn’t read Hebrew but had taught me some blessings, had me stand up and chant, “Boray P’ree Hagafen,” after which everyone replied, “Amen,” and congratulated me on this accomplishment. And that was the start of my Jewish education and my career as a Jewish teacher.
I’ve been associated with Temple Beth El for 65 years. My family moved to San Pedro when I was seven. We soon joined Temple Beth El and Center, at that time located in a converted house on 19th Street and Cabrillo. The first day I attended Sunday School, I was warmly welcomed by a dear, dedicated teacher, Lorene Rosenberg, z”l, and that day we studied the 23rd Psalm. Those words gave me hope and supported my faith in God. Later that day, when Rabbi Halevi read, “The Lord bless thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and forever more,” from our mimeographed service booklet, I learned that prayers could comfort, reassure, and help us deal with the situations we encountered in life.
When I was eleven, I heard about a new ceremony available for girls, Bas Mitzvah. Months later, the new rabbi, Leonard Helman, z”l, organized a Hebrew class. I learned to read Ashkenazic Hebrew along with twelve younger boys and became the third girl to become Bat Mitzvah at TBE. My favorite Torah verse from my portion was, “You shall remember the heart of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This verse, plus the way in which I’d been made to feel welcome when I first attended religious school classes, helped me recognize the importance of welcoming the newcomer and making congregants and visitors feel at home as they entered the synagogue. Since then, I have actively welcomed people to services; into my classrooms; and for ten years, my late husband, Sam, and I did the mitzvah of helping newly-arrived Soviet Jews in Orange County adjust to life in America.
After I became Bat Mitzvah, my parents and rabbi had me continue in Hebrew School. I began helping younger students practice their Hebrew reading and helped the rabbi tutor B’nai Mitzvah students. When I was fifteen, Art Margolese, z”l, the principal of our religious school, invited me and the two oldest Gainen girls to become teacher assistants. I taught songs and Israeli folk dances to Grades K-10; became leader of the Junior Choir; and one year taught a Saturday afternoon Hebrew class for students who lived on the other side of the peninsula. I participated in youth group activities and, as a recipient of a TBE campership, attended Camp Swig. Although I was often the only Jewish child in my public school classes and Girl Scout troops all the way through high school, at Temple Beth El I learned to be proud of my heritage and was encouraged to share information about Judaism with others. I continued to teach at TBE during my college years and after I became a public school teacher, a total of twelve years.
My husband and I were married at TBE in 1977. Rabbi David Lieb, z”l, officiated. Two years later, we moved to Irvine. We discovered a new congregation, Temple Beth El of South Orange County (TBESOC). I’ve been actively involved in that temple’s life as a teacher, committee member, and coordinator of the Shabbat Greeters Program, for more than thirty-six years. Ten years ago, a Conservative synagogue joined TBESOC, now a “dually-affiliated” congregation. When I began to participate in Conservative services, I learned about alternate pathways of Jewish observance and was delighted to rediscover songs from my past that I grew up hearing at our San Pedro synagogue.
Throughout my life, I’ve always kept in contact with our TBE, and six years ago, Debi Rowe invited me to teach the Alef-Bet class at Torah School. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. The friendliness and caring of longtime congregants and folks who’ve joined our temple in recent years, created a magnetic effect and, especially during the time of the pandemic, I found myself connecting more and more to our online services and to folks in our Shabbat Breakout rooms. I realized that I’d truly come home and decided that I wanted to become an official member. Last fall, I did!
– Barbara Rheingold-Gerlicki
What Jewish traditions or memories are most meaningful for you? Why?
Growing up in a Jewish home, I am filled with meaningful memories and traditions that I embraced and have passed on to my three children and seven grandchildren. What is most meaningful, however, began over 30 years ago, when I attended my first Women’s Weekend sponsored by the Long Beach Jewish Community Center. It was an amazing weekend filled with music, prayers, learning, bonding, and developing lifelong friendships. The most impactful part of the weekend for me, was the creation of a women’s group – a group of six Jewish women who meet monthly to discuss and share our personal struggles, our relationship with G-d and our place in the Jewish Community. Through this shared experience, we have become lifelong friends. Over the years, we have supported each other through many of life’s ups-and-downs – illnesses, hospitalizations, the trauma and loss of a husband, and the loss of most of our parents. We have also celebrated countless simchas and life cycle events, including weddings, holidays, new jobs, retirements, the birth of grandchildren, and b’nai mitzvahs. Through the years, we have and will continue to support, love and hold each other up through whatever comes our way.
An integral part of our group includes spending a weekend away together each year. The weekends always begin with an intimate Shabbat dinner. This ritual helps to center us and bring us to a spiritual place where we connect on a deeper level with each other and with G-d. We open up with one another, share intimacies, and garner the strength to handle every challenge and opportunity that will cross our path over the next year. These weekends and these women help to ground me and fill my soul.
About 15 years ago during the month of Elul, I was moved to create a sacred tradition. Elul is a special time to embrace the essence of the New Year and somewhere deep within me, a spark was ignited. I introduced the idea of creating a Tashlikh service to my women’s group and starting a ritual in which together, we cast away our wrongdoings from the past year and start fresh in the New Year. Everyone embraced the idea and it has become an important and meaningful tradition. Each year I look forward to searching for prayers and writings that speak to our souls. We ask for forgiveness collectively and individually, and we pray that G-d will overlook our failings from the past year and grant us favor in the year to come. During this ceremony, I feel the most vulnerable yet empowered at the same time. I do the hard work to bring me to a place of peace and true openness. And I know, that no matter what, I have these amazing women – my tribe – standing alongside me, holding me up and sharing in the power and awe of the High Holy Days.
– Anita Newman
2021 has been a most difficult year. One that has challenged my faith and yet has been made more tolerable because of my Judaism.
The year started off with a case of Covid accompanied by fatigue and brain fog for a couple of months. In March, my mother passed away quite unexpectedly, followed eight weeks later with the death of my mother-in-law after several weeks of illness and deterioration. Four days after the second funeral, I fell and broke my tibia, which was coupled with what was fortunately only a tumor recurrence scare and not an actual recurrence. I had major surgery and it took 14 weeks before I was able to put weight on that leg. During that time, I lost my mom’s older sister and a young man that played basketball with our oldest son. Just two weeks ago we found out that our sister-in-law has terminal pancreatic cancer. Much more grief than anyone should have to bear in a short 8 months.
Why share this? Because without the availability of Jewish rituals I’m not sure I could have come through this time feeling whole. Shiva, caring meals delivered to the bereaved, funeral rituals, and community prayers of the mi shebeirach all carried me during times I might have felt like all I wanted to do is stay in bed. The burials for my mother and my aunt were more organic and gave a sense of closure that the two Christian burials did not. As hard as it is to shovel dirt onto a loved one’s casket, it absolutely plays a part in the healing process.
I have prayed a lot during these months. I’ve prayed out of desperation, fear, and not knowing what else to do. The interesting thing is, though I find comfort in communal prayers, I have always struggled with personal prayers. Ritual is comforting and so I have said the sh’ma nightly since my kids were little. I have to admit though, I have never felt God’s presence during prayer nor can I say that I believe God hears individual prayers. As someone who has been a lay leader and the president of an interfaith organization, this may sound strange but it is how I have always felt.
I do however feel God’s presence when I pray with my feet. Those who know me know my commitment to social justice and equity. I had the honor of learning from one of the most influential modern rabbis, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l who further shaped my idea of prayer through action as well as from a handful of other amazing rabbis. This has been the way I have most often felt the guiding hand of a higher power. It’s where I find the strength to push through the hard conversations and meetings to bring change to our world. The mitzvah of caring for the stranger is my guiding light.
No matter my expression of my faith, I am very grateful to call TBE my community and my home. L’shalom.
– Susan Brooks
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learned from my Jewish studies is to love one another regardless of sexual orientation or religious identity. Being a Jew to me means that I learn from the teachings of Judaism and get to experience the knowledge of Jewish leaders such as Rabbi, Cantor, and my teachers while developing my personal relationship with God and participating in this community.
During my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, my Zayde remarked on a comment I had made when I was just 8 years old. Apparently, I made a point of declaring that I was both half-Japanese and that I was a Jew. This moment stands out in my mind because I felt quite isolated as one of the few Jewish kids at my elementary school. I remember a day in first grade when a former friend had minimized the importance of Hanukkah during chorus; however, what stands out most in my mind from that day is the discussion about prejudice that I had with my whole family in my brother’s room that evening. Experiences like this and others throughout middle school made it difficult for me to be fully open about my Judaism until fairly recently. The strength and openness I feel about my Jewish identity now I attribute to serving as a madrihah, teaching younger kids, maturing through quarantine, prioritizing my well-being, and appreciating the open family and community in which I was raised.
My journey within Judaism started and has continued here at Temple Beth El surrounded by a special group of people. Since age two, I have grown in my understanding of Jewish teachings, myself, and the world through these hallowed spaces and a rich collection of experiences. I have always felt at home in this community because of the open way in which I have been encouraged to explore my Jewish identity and learn from stories of the Torah while deepening my respect and appreciation for others’ beliefs. I am reminded of how Abraham and Sarah gathered everyone in the Jewish community, people from all kinds of backgrounds, before the Torah was given at the top of Mt. Sinai.
Two examples from my personal journey at TBE come to mind. First, the SPeTY and Yaldei Shalom lock-in following the Purim carnival in 2018 had special meaning because it helped me feel a strong sense of community with a group of people completely separate from my secular school. Second, I was so moved by the gospel choir performance in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday which took place the Friday evening before my Bat Mitzvah. That performance reminded me of the extent to which our synagogue is open to inviting people of other faiths into our sacred spaces and how we affirm tolerance and acceptance.
I am strengthened in my Jewish identity and in my beliefs to welcome the stranger, accept myself and others, and be grateful for the love and support of my family and Jewish community. I am also proud to be among peers who have persevered together through many years of study and the unforeseen circumstances of the last year.
– Sarah Takami
I first walked through the doors of Temple Beth El for my in-law’s 25th wedding anniversary. I was thrilled my then-boyfriend, Jonathan, asked me to attend the special event. However, as a Palestinian woman walking into a Jewish Synagogue, I had reservations. What would the temple staff say to me? Will the temple members be afraid of me? Fortunately, my mother-in-law was proud to speak openly about the relationship between me and her son; the young Jewish boy falling in love with a Muslim Palestinian girl. We were welcomed by smiling temple members and offered a service pamphlet. The wedding guests were a diverse group and I easily blended in. I met the Brook’s and Gregson’s, quickly learning they weren’t just friends, but family. Then I met Cantor Ilan, who had a grin ear-to-ear and proudly exclaiming “I’m a hugger” as he wrapped each of us in his arms. In that moment, something changed; all my worries dissipated. I felt home. How was this possible? My first time here and the first time I am meeting this man. Later I would learn, that is Ilan’s engulfing and comforting charm. That night, Ilan would suggest that the outdoor space would be perfect for our wedding. We blushed but it seemed that he knew before we did; that the love Jonathan and I shared knew no boundaries. After my in-law’s wedding, we regularly attended high holy days. I wasn’t Jewish but had a sense of community, like visiting home for Thanksgiving.
After what felt like a blink of an eye, Jonathan proposed, and we shared the news with Ilan and the congregation. Ilan gave us a blessing from the bimah, and we were congratulated by members of the congregation. The energy was radiating and almost intoxicating. We discussed wedding plans with Ilan and told him we’d want him officiating our marriage at the temple. He asked one question related to my faith, how to incorporate Islam in the service. Seriously, who is this guy? My heart melted, of course this was his response, and if you know Ilan, it’s obvious.
Of course, adding an official Islamic ceremony honored my faith and my family attending would not be easy. Finding an Imam to perform the marriage between a non-Muslim man and Muslim woman proved to be seemingly impossible. Ilan wouldn’t accept this conclusion, so he pulled all his connections to find an Imam to co-conduct our interfaith marriage. Ilan was able to work a miracle and had an Imam officiate the ceremony side-by-side. I felt that our wedding ceremony was a magical moment in history, and a lot of credit goes to the temple staff, who went above and beyond for our special day.
The next step was having a baby. We couldn’t wait to share the news with Ilan who blessed us with another beautiful prayer after we told him. This news would also be shared with the new rabbi, Rabbi Cassi, whose energy mirrors Ilan’s. Talk about the perfect work wife! This was our last in-person Shabbat due to the pandemic. The temple quickly started virtual sermons. The beautiful ballads between Ilan and Rabbi Cassi echoed through our home. Our baby boy would listen with intent as their harmonized voices rang through the computer. Jonathan sang along, bringing home the sense of the community we felt during normal congregation.
The temple offered other virtual meetings including platforms for political diversity where members would learn to respectfully communicate personal views. Rabbi Cassi asked for my participation. Finally, I could personally contribute to the community, share how growing up in a conservative Muslim family and the traumatic experiences visiting my family’s homeland would not influence choosing the person I fell in love with. During the meeting, I experienced members refusal to accept the existence of the Palestinian people. As others echoed this sentiment, I found myself alone in what felt like a growing room. This never was my experience at Temple Beth El, I was in complete shock. I’m still processing the unfounded and hurtful statements. What came afterwards reinstated my beliefs in the community of Temple Beth El. Rabbi Cassi and other members firmly addressing the situation, stating this is a learning experience, but the disregard for Palestinians was not allowed in the community. I also met with another member and spoke about his family adopting Palestinian children, and how we can grow away from this type of rhetoric. Without this experience, I wouldn’t have known the support and stance Temple Beth El takes on the Israeli/Palestine conflict and how its love knows no boundaries. Although a difficult situation, I’m thankful to learn the support leadership has for interfaith families. I expect more disagreement on the subject, but I know leadership supports peace and love. I truly feel at home in the community and know the goals for the Temple includes making the world better with inclusivity. Temple Beth El is the community we want to continue growing our family in.
– Reema Villanueva
I never had a Bubbe. There was not much about my childhood that exposed me to Jewish culture. My grandparents were all born in this country. My maternal grandmother was in the business world; she was a successful interior designer. I am assuming that anti-Semitism was the root of the following: she got my grandfather to agree to change their name from Levy to Lee.
Both of my parents were from the Chicago area. My paternal grandmother was deaf. She was also sweet and loving. In terms of communicating with my grandfather, she was passive. She couldn’t present or defend her thoughts. They sent my father to a Christian military boarding school in Wisconsin. My dad said that he was hazed and that there were only about six other Jewish students there. My parents were wonderful people. They moved to Los Angeles in 1945. But like me, they were raised in a tentative and vague Jewish context. My mother lived from 1922 to 2014. My father lived from 1920 to 2017. I grew up in a calm, loving and safe family – the youngest of three girls.
So what did we do at home when I was growing up? Hanukkah was predictable and simple. Light the candles. Open a few presents. Great Aunt Ida always sent us aprons that she made herself. No dreidel games were played. Latkes, applesauce, sour cream, and matzo ball soup were not served.
And how did we celebrate Passover? By formula. We had the “instruction book” to follow. I could sing a few songs. My parents’ goal was to expose me and my sisters to this important holiday. Likewise, we all attended Sunday school and were confirmed. I would say that they fulfilled their responsibility to us. My sisters and I each had enough information to be able to decide about the future of Judaism in our lives.
And Christmas? We wore my mom down until she said we could buy a tree. Most of our holiday presents were given on Christmas, as opposed to Hanukkah. I thought this was odd but didn’t outwardly object. I liked getting presents. I knew it wasn’t our holiday, and that Grandma Lee had a tree also. I didn’t want my mom to use a Christmas or winter holiday theme on the family yearly holiday card. Even as a child, I f felt that was false. I was happy that she designed a postcard style card, with photos of our house and photos of me and my sisters. One read, “Greetings from our House to Yours.”
As for experiencing anti-Semitism, yes, I have. One day, I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room. A family of four people of a different ethnic background were also waiting. We chatted about the weather. Then one family member said, “We notice that whenever our neighbor brings a Jewish person into her backyard, that our dog barks. We’re not prejudiced or anything.” Point One – The dog story had nothing to do with our conversation. Point Two – I am an expert in maintaining a straight face. I replied something like, “Oh really? I never heard that before.” It was 4 to 1, so I said no more. I was tongue tied anyway.
Another person learned that I am Jewish. She said, “Hmm…there was no sign.” What sign? I am better off not knowing what she was referring to. I was angry and disgusted by the question and what it suggested.
One more. In high school, a girl I knew belonged to a posh country club, known for its Christian affiliated membership. She took one of our mutual friends there on a Saturday. She said to me, “Hey Bonnie, I didn’t invite you to the the club, because my father would have gotten a little note in the mail.” I told her that she had better not invite me, because I would go up the club’s main desk to say “L’chaim!”
I have a version of performance anxiety at the Temple and at Jewish events where customs, history, and ritual are paramount. At the Temple, I enjoy the beautiful sanctuary and I appreciate that there is a calm and quiet atmosphere. But inside I feel insecure and clueless most of the time.
So why am I still around at Temple Beth El? What is it about my affiliation that makes me come back? When I was in junior high and high school, I sang in the junior and senior choirs at a temple in Los Angeles where my family belonged. Then and there I made a Jewish connection that follows me through my life. The Cantor inspired me. The junior and senior choirs that he led were wonderful. And so I am drawn to Jewish music.
I have also appeared in at least five Purim Shpiels (two at Brandeis Bardin and three at Temple Beth El). Say hello to Queen Vashti. Reading through my words, I see that I am more culturally sensitive and aware than I thought previously. As for tradition and knowledge, I am a work in progress.
– Bonnie Lewis
A Reflection for Elul
The year was 1988 and I was sitting in Cantor Harry’s office with Laurel working out the details of our wedding. Did I love Laurel? Yes (still do!)! Did I want a big beautiful Jewish wedding? Yes! Was I happy joining a Jewish family? Yes! Would we agree to raise our children in a Jewish household? Yes!
Looking back, I can’t really believe I answered that question so quickly. How could I make such a choice when my children weren’t even born? How could I make that choice when I wasn’t even Jewish? What would their lives be like? My own religious (Roman Catholic) upbringing was a mixed bag and not something I carried into adulthood.
As parents, or in our case future parents, we make choices for our children all of the time. Still, this was a big one. For the first seven years of marriage we didn’t have children and the decision receded into the background. Then Rachel was born and we did all of the typical family activities including Christmas. I was still part of a big Catholic family, so why not?
When Rachel was three, Laurel made a phone call to a local synagogue to inquire about a Mommy & Me class. The journey began in earnest at that point, thanks to my wise and beautiful wife. Two years later I was at the Mikvah with the Beit Din and two years after that we walked through the doors of Temple Beth El with seven-year-old Rachel and two-year-old Sophia. My girls have grown up at TBE and have their own Jewish identity now. Rachel was so active in her Hillel group at college and Sophia lives by the motto ‘Camp is life, the rest is just details’.
As I reflect on my Jewish journey, I am thankful to Laurel, Harry (z’’l), Temple Beth El and so many others who have helped me to know that my decision was the right one. My children will make their own religious decisions for themselves and their children. I think they will choose wisely no matter what that might be.
– Grant Perry
In order to help you understand my story with Judaism, I’d like to share a picture. Like a Torah portion, the picture stays the same, but each time I look at it, I find something new. It’s a picture from my parents wedding on July 21, 1975. My parents, Ann and Maurice Paquin, are on the right. On the left are Stanley and Sheila Sydney. They are standing in the Sydney’s backyard.
My parents were seekers. They were born Catholic but had found their way to the Bah’a’i faith. The Sydney’s were Orthodox Jews. Stanley had gone to MIT and was a successful developer. They had 5 children. Sheila had a stroke at 37. My mother was their housekeeper.
My feelings about God and religion are bound up in the beliefs these four people held. Those beliefs guided them and so shaped what my future would be. Judaism, the foundation of the monotheistic traditions. The Bah’a’i faith, which believes that God reveals himself through human messengers as mankind evolves. Progressive revelation. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad and Baha’u’llah are all part of that chain. After I was born, a little less than a year later we moved away from where the Sydney’s lived in Brookline, MA. Fast forward to the late 80’s. My parents had been involved in a pyramid scheme that exhausted their time and treasure. We’d followed the organization to the four corners of the United States. My parents wanted to return to the Northeast. We visited the Sydney’s. Stanley said, “My children are grown and gone. Come live with us. Brookline’s schools are second to none. In exchange, Ann can work for us.” I’m still astonished by that offer. He was a true mensch. It was pivotal. Where early in my life the Sydney’s were the only Jews I knew, suddenly all of my friends were Jewish or half Jewish. My best friend. My prom date. When I graduated high school I went to NYU. Lots of Jewish friends there. For the record, my favorite bagel is Ess-a-Bagel! After school, my first full time job was at Hadassah. My boss was a woman who’d been hidden in France as a baby during the War. I had a very serious relationship with a Jewish woman. She got me into therapy.
Then I met Dani. We had a small Bah’a’i ceremony and a larger Jewish one when we got married at the Jewish summer camp she went to growing up. The first bris I went to was my son’s. My parents felt forward momentum was progress in their search for spiritual fulfillment. In marrying a Jew, in having a Jewish son, in becoming a part of a wonderful Jewish community at Temple Beth El, I have found great meaning in having a Jewish home life. I have found great meaning in moving towards the source of it all.
– Dan Paquin
The High Holy Days season brings my life and it’s lack of readiness into sharp focus. It has always been this way for me. As a child, through my teen years, the High Holy Days season coincided with the start of school, with palpable newness. New classrooms, new teachers, new friends, new buildings were forced upon me and the life changes were very real. College and professional school went year round, so there wasn’t the jarring end of summer break, but at least you were given a new identifier: sophomore, senior, fifth year resident. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to resume the familiar annual High Holy Days/New School Year focus by watching my kids get new school supplies and meeting their new teachers.
My life has undergone significant changes over the course of time. My children are grown up and I am not buying them school supplies. I am retired, and every day and season has the same innate urgency. I no longer have the external forces and activities that tie me to a new year, but still reflection and preparation occurs. A lifetime of habits and thoughts circling around High Holy Days associations do not easily change, and at this point it is like muscle memory. But now, as I age and everyone in my circle gets increasingly distinguished with wear and tear, I take my time on earth a little more seriously. I still use the High Holy Days season to focus on what went well in the past year, what went less well, and how I can improve and be ready for the next year. I have long ago given up lofty goals, now settling for “something better than good enough,” which fortunately is often obtainable.
When I was younger, the yearly changes were dramatic and obvious to anyone who bothered to look. Now I have to reflect using a level and quiet mind to determine change. I consider that to be a good thing in that I have achieved some stability. The High Holy Days season grounds me and prepares me to meet the year with sincerity, vigor, joy and also wistfulness for the lost opportunities that will never return, but invigorates me for the new opportunities that undoubtedly will present themselves. As Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” I use the High Holy Days season to reflect on the past, and prepare for the future. I want to be ready. I will be ready.
– David Feldman
I was born in Casper, Wyoming in 1944. I lived in a very close-knit Yiddish family. My grandmother spoke Yiddish, my parents spoke English and Yiddish. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I remember living in the town of Thermopolis. All I wanted to do was be a rodeo star. Looking back at those days right now, I understand that my mother wanted to protect me from a lot of anti-Semitism. The memories of children in the neighborhood chasing me and wanting to beat me up are memories that never go away. I came to understand later that most of our meals are of Ukrainian origin. So, for many years I was culturally Jewish.
Later we moved to Cheyenne – there was a synagogue and an established community. Our family that lived in Cheyenne had holiday celebrations; we were religious but not in a strict sense. My grandmother kept many Jewish traditions, but I only recognized that as I grew up, thinking that was just the way we lived. However, my mother gave me a gift, insisting no matter what, that I should be good, because being good is what she expected of me. I became cognizant of being Jewish when I came to visit my mother’s family, they lived in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. There I started part time Hebrew School and stayed the entire summer.
My parents moved to the Fairfax area in the late 50’s. I went to the JCC on Olympic Blvd. My parents sent me to camp, I was in the tent bunk house, just thrilled to be with so many Jewish children. I never expected to have that happen. My mom also insisted l go to Los Angeles High School; she knew that it had a more varied population. When I started to drive a car, one day I remember getting scared and finding for me what I call the power of the Shema, saying it as a mantra to myself; it was calming, giving me a feeling of inner peace. That day, I became one with myself as a Jew. I feel so lucky to be a part of the Temple Beth El of San Pedro family.
– David Udewitz
My Jewish Journey
My Jewish journey began when I was born in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. In those days, there were three nations in the Bronx. The Jews, the Irish, and the Italians. Although there were some connections between the three they were often very weak. There were the religious differences obviously, but also social. Attitudes from the “old countries” persevered. Jews of course, had their rituals. For a young boy or girl, it was obvious the Bar or Bat Mitzvah was (and is) the highlight. After a young life of subservience in the NY public schools, how great it was to be the star of your own show (I exaggerate here as we were very much under the influence of the Rabbi who “adjusted” our performance). We had all my relatives there for the service, and as it was a Reform service, almost all in English – this had my more traditional uncles and aunts rolling their eyes.
I went to the public schools through undergraduate college and then at the age of 21, I finally moved out of the house all the way to Philadelphia for graduate school. As a PhD student in physics at UPenn, my classmates were mostly Jews. The snarky joke we had was that there was Christian Science or “faith healing” and Jewish science or physics! After 2 years at Penn, I was introduced through a friend to a Jewish girl recently arrived from England. We met when she was 19, married when she was almost 21 (I was 23). Sandy and I have been married for 57 years! Our first child, Brad, was born in 1965, Rob in 1969, and Julia in 1970. After three more years I graduated, and we moved all the way across the river to New Jersey and Bell Labs. This was a great company which encouraged you to work in whatever area you wanted to. It was not a very Jewish company. Most of the Jews I met were my age. The telephone company had a reputation of not traditionally hiring Jews. My parents were well aware of this reputation and were not happy that I joined Bell Labs. I actually wrote a paper on this history. Jews really were only hired in numbers during WWII out of necessity.
We bought a very old but very nice house in Westfield, New Jersey. So, after a few years we owned our own home, had three children, a steady job, and were in our thirties. Is that it? We were too comfortable – so obviously we had to do something about that. Our Jewish connections were good. We were members of an old Reform Synagogue in New Jersey, family completed – clearly, we had to shake things up. So what about going to Israel? Maybe living in Israel? Maybe getting a visiting appointment at the Technion (Israel’s MIT or better, Caltech). We did that and it was a great year. The kids all went to the regular Haifa Schools and (kind of) learned Hebrew. The version that Rob “learned” was unique gibberish – we called it Robrew. Brad in the second grade became our translator. I studied in a New Jersey Ulpan for a year before we left but Brad was almost instantly better than I was. We developed a great fondness for Israel, have returned a number of times, and still see the Israeli friends we made during our 1971 stay. One couple we talk to on Zoom every few weeks.
During our lives in the US we moved a number of times on both coasts. The way that we adjusted was to go to the local Reform synagogue for a visit, introduce ourselves at an oneg, and talk to the Rabbi. It never failed – instant welcome. People advised us on where to live, invited us to become friends, and acclimated us to the special features of the town. So that has been my journey.
– Ken Pickar
I was around the age of 10 when my family joined TBE and it was within the walls of our temple that I formed many of my most sacred relationships. Years later, I moved back to California and while sitting in the sanctuary at the baby naming of my Goddaughter Maya, my husband Dan and I looked at each other and acknowledged simultaneously, THIS is our temple. We felt the warmth of the community and the energy of the space – and all of that wrapped in a blanket of happy familiarity for me.
I am a sentimental person, so raising my son with the children of my childhood friends is nothing short of magical. It is never lost on me how special it is to watch our children interact the way we did with each other and know that they, too, will be life-long friends.
It is, though, so much more than our children. TBE is home. We have built a community, a village as we like to call it, of friends that are family. A community of people that are there with love and support and good old-fashioned fun, when it is needed most (a community that came out in droves to support me when I opened my jewelry showroom just a few days ago. Thank you, thank you, thank you).
A couple of years ago I was asked to join the Temple Board of Directors. I was also asked to join the PTA Board at my son’s school. As a person that loves to be involved, but whose schedule has other ideas, I consulted my mom about what to do. She gave me some great advice. She said, “Where and with whom do you want to spend your time? Where can you make the most difference? Where is your community?” I knew instantly that the answer was TBE. It was an honor to be on the board then, and it is now. I know that part of the commitment I make as a Sunday board member is to be a builder of community. I am proud to be a small part of doing so.
As we head into the High Ho, I have hope that we will soon be safely together. I do know though, that no matter what, our clergy and staff have made sure that we have a strong sense of community even when we aren’t able to be together in person. Thank you all for being that community.
– Dani Paquin
There are a handful of events which could signify the beginning of my Jewish journey – attending a pre-marriage class at the American Jewish University (AJU), standing under a beautiful huppah with my husband and family, learning songs, traditions, and prayers with my toddler at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center, taking the AJU Introduction to Judaism course, or standing before a beit din and immersing in the mikveh to actualize my conversion – but really, it began when I made a personal decision to raise our children Jewish (hoping that my Jewish fiancé and I would have kids). I voiced this to my Christian mother who was extremely supportive and my fiancé, who, well, was elated. I was committed to this path, yet did not quite know what this meant.
The “Making Marriage Work” course at the AJU was helpful in providing an overview of what a Jewish home entails. I asked the rabbi who married us for book recommendations, all of which I thoroughly read (Telushkin’s works were particularly helpful). I was intrigued and inspired, yet, even as I grew in my knowledge and slowly started to assemble the foundation for our Jewish home, I did not choose to convert, but rather waited eight years.
Looking back, I really don’t know why I did not convert earlier, but at this point, I am grateful that I did not, as I was able to embark on my own Jewish journey at my own pace, as well as grow with my husband and young sons. My decision to convert was personal and not circumstantial.
What initially attracted me to Judaism was (1) the focus on mitzvot – work and actions matter, and (2) the encouragement of questioning – it is okay to not have all of the answers and question things. Judaism is clearly not a practice of blind acceptance; Passover is one of my favorite holidays as it highlights this questioning. The High Holidays are also special to me. I remember the first time I heard the prayers; it was frightening (I was sitting in an Orthodox service with a curtain between me and my fiancé and his father, knowing no one and feeling very lost), and yet it was oddly moving as I understood that the objective was to reflect and repent, and I did just that.
It was only two years ago I learned about the month of Elul (thanks to Abigail Pogrebin’s 2017 book) when Jewish tradition accounts for the time needed for reflection before repentance in a logical and thoughtful way, of course. As a wife and a parent, I use this time to reflect on the mistakes that I have made and how I can improve, but also I consider the Jewish values that have most resonated with me; tikkun olam, tzedakah, and lashon hara, the latter which is a focus this year. Maybe it’s because I am a parent of small children who are learning to control what they say, or maybe it’s because of the political, social, and racial tensions during these times, but I feel like it is important to both personally and collectively be thoughtful about the words we choose and how (and to whom) we deliver them. This is my focus for this year.
I am grateful to be part of the TBE community, which I feel both professes and practices similar values of respect, inclusion, and support, and I welcome this time of Elul for reflection to inform where I (and we) go from here.
– Christa Greenfader
I was raised as a secular Jew. My family celebrated Passover and Hanukkah, and we were told to stay home from school on Yom Kippur – that’s about it. When asked what religion I was, I replied that I was Jewish and thank goodness no one asked me to expound on my answer.
In the summer of 2002, I saw the following painted on the front of my home – a swastika, fat Jew, a Magen David crossed out and I was shocked for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t think anyone knew I was Jewish because I didn’t do anything really Jewish and two, my heart was broken which surprised me about myself. I couldn’t understand why this would impact me as I didn’t feel Jewish. The culprits were probably teens from the high school where I worked who were upset with me for the discipline I had handed out in my role as Dean of Students. My neighbors washed away the words and the symbols off the wall for me without my asking.
Somehow the pain in my heart did not wash away. It was soon time for open houses at the local synagogues and although I had never ever been involved at a temple I began to search out a synagogue. I don’t know why since synagogue life had never been a part of my family’s life. And then I walked through the doors of Temple Beth El, looking down at the newspaper advertisement I had cut out for information regarding TBE’s Open House. I was greeted by the warmest, most positive, and most accepting people I had ever met. Arms opened up and welcomed me in a way that is etched in my mind and more significantly on my heart, where in a moment the brokenness began to heal. This audacious, genuine, and immediate greeting turned my pain into opportunity and a desire to become a part of this precious community that I cherish as my spiritual home. I never would have guessed that being a victim of teenage anti-Semitism would change my life and me in the most profound and productive manner.
I committed to a life at Temple Beth El. I attended every cultural, musical, religious, and educational event I possibly could. Three years later I became Bat Mitzvah. I joined Sisterhood. I went to Torah Study every single week. I was fortunate to join the Board of Education Committee and then I was invited to join the Temple Board of Directors. “Yes” was the best word I could use to express my gratitude for being welcomed into this community and begin my Jewish journey.
My greatest honor has been to serve as Temple President even with big spaces of not yet knowing what it meant to be a Jew until I was maligned. In retrospect, I am grateful for those adolescent miscreants who unknowingly changed the course of my life to which I say, “I am proud to be a Jew” and particularly to be a Jew at Temple Beth El.
– Marla Shwarts
My 13 Years of Judaism and What it Means to Me
Hello! My name is Daniella Gross. I am the daughter of Michael and Monique Gross and granddaughter of Sharon and Morrie Gross, who are members of the Temple. Some of you may know me through my grandparents and Temple Beth El. I recently turned 13 and became a Bat Mitzvah!
I have been going to Temple Beth El since I was very little. In fact, I attended Half-Pint Havurah when I was just 5 months old. My mom and I would go and learn about Shabbat, holidays and I would play with other little kids. Of course I don’t remember any of this since I was 5 months old. But, I do have fond memories of playing in Lisa Weiss’s class and making little Torah’s out of paper and crafting diagrams of the synagogue with a shoebox! I also have memories of my Torah school friends and I laughing while at choir practice. I remember going to Shabbat with my grandparents on Friday nights and not knowing how to read Hebrew yet. Instead, during service I would pretend the prayer book was about a unicorn and imagine fun stories in my head! I might not have known how to read the prayers, but the ones I knew by heart, I sang out loud for all to hear! I attended a Jewish preschool where I met my best friend.
After Teacher Lisa’s class, I went on to Ms. Michelle where she taught the Hebrew Alphabet. In every class, we also were taught all about Torah stories and holidays. We were taught why we celebrated them and why they were so meaningful. By the time I was in Ms. Barbara’s class, we were starting to read from the Torah! I remember how proud my Grandpa was after my first time reading Hebrew! I felt so extremely lucky to have this amazing privilege. When I was in Mrs. Hadas’s class and Ms. Jessica’s class, we continued reading Hebrew and they helped prepare me for my Bat Mitzvah and more! Having the experience of having a Bat Mitzvah for me was truly beautiful. I’m not going to lie – it was hard to learn and chant Hebrew! However, it was so worth it in the end!
Being Part of Temple Beth El for me is such a safe and special feeling. I know that every teacher, friend, and adult is always there if I ever need anything. Growing up in this Jewish Community for me was always happy and warm. I love growing up Jewish because I feel so deeply connected with the past. I also am so proud of how our people overcame extreme obstacles and quite frankly still do. That is why I love our community. It is filled with strength and love and pride passed down from generations before us. I love praying and singing out prayers. I love celebrating all holidays with my family.
This is how going to a Jewish preschool, attending Torah School, being part of Temple Beth El and having a Bat Mitzvah has made me feel. Proud, happy, safe, beautiful, and extremely lucky. I am so grateful to be Jewish!
– Daniella Gross
In the last 53 years, Josie and I have traveled all over North America on our motorcycle and always make an effort to visit synagogues on Shabbat. To date, we have visited 79 different shuls across the country including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. We have also made the same effort during our non-motorcycle trips including Philippines, Lithuania, and many in Israel. One of the most memorable Jewish experiences I ever had was on the Jewish Heritage Cruise on the Rhine River in Germany in 2018. The tour started in Munich and the passengers were given a choice of the City Tour of Munich or visiting Dachau Concentration Camp. I, along with 25 other passengers, chose Dachau and, while it wasn’t a synagogue, it was a none-the-less sacred Jewish space. Unbeknownst to me at the time about half the passengers were religious Christians. When we arrived at Dachau, I told the tour leader that I wanted to say Kaddish somewhere inside. Although he was not Jewish she understood perfectly. For this purpose, there are four chapels provided to visitors; Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish.
When we arrived at the Jewish Chapel I asked the group if anyone wanted to join me in reciting Kaddish. They looked at me blankly. I came to understand that I was the only Jew in our group! I brought with me my special tallit that Josie made for me from a piece of linen my grandma brought from Lithuania in 1914, my tefillin, and my travel siddur. I put them on and said Kaddish alone. Apparently the other Jews on the cruise had either been here before or had been to Auschwitz and opted to take the Munich tour instead. I asked the group if they had any questions about what I was doing and I was inundated! I gave them the biblical references for each – Kaddish, Tallit and Tefillin. They were all very appreciative of my explanation. It was a very emotional experience and I never felt more Jewish than at that moment!
Later on in the cruise when it was Shabbat, I conducted an improvised Kabbalat Shabbat service on the top deck of the ship under the stars with about 40 Jews and some Christians where I was able to share my experience at Dachau.
Each time I have the opportunity to retell this story, I am filled with warmth and pride in my Jewish heritage.
– Steve Morris
A Jewish Awakening: Was my behavior anti-Semitic?
If you are reading this reflection, I will be honest, I actually wrote two. While the first one was sufficient, it did not encompass the authenticity that I felt compelled to share. I am putting this out into the universe.
As a sixteen-year-old, I started working in the family business. My dad acquired a check cashing in the port city of San Pedro, and we started working with the crew members who lived aboard passenger liner cruise ships. We got to meet a colorful array of people from all around the world. Our customers became “regulars,” and we would see them season after season for many years. In the ‘90’s, we started renting out videos, and I would recommend movies all the time. The movie “School Ties” (1992) made its way to VHS and I remember recommending it to a long-time customer. When he returned the movie, I asked him what he thought. He told me, “I hated it!” and wished that I had told him it was about “dirty Jews.” “I hate Jews,” he said, “if the ship was going down and I was asked to go save someone, I would ask if they were Jewish before I risked my life for a dirty Jew.” I was speechless; I never uttered a word. I did not correct him, or school him, or challenge him. I kept my mouth shut. It was the first time that I had encountered anti-Semitism and I was stunned. I remember trying to process this event with my parents. The solution was to never mix business and religion and not let anyone know that we were Jewish, in the event that our customers would stop using our services.
During Christmas, when lots of Jews would cruise, my customers would complain about the “cheap Jews” who didn’t tip well, didn’t drink a lot, or didn’t buy stuff on board. I would cringe, but not say a word. I remember an art auctioneer making a slew of anti-Semitic remarks. We had spent years getting to know each other, but I was still silent. At work, when somebody asked what our religion was, my mom quickly said, “Dutch Roman!” Is that even a thing? The tone had been set to hide our religion, and for decades, I continued to do that.
In 2000, I met and was soon married a Cantor, a man who lives and breaths Judaism. In 2003, when we had our first child, I loved the name Shayna. The thought of naming her such was an immediate red flag. “Shayna is a very Jewish name; everyone will know she is a Jew.” At the hospital, Ilan kept pressing me for a name. I could not choose Shayna. In my world and in my mind, it was too much of a professional risk.
When Jordan was just 2 years old, Ilan and Rabbi Lieb led a Hanukkah cruise out of San Diego. I was desperate to go, but I knew that going on a temple trip would out me to my customers. In the interest of keeping the family business safe, I chose not to go. In 2009, Ilan took a Panama Canal cruise, as clergy over Passover. I once again made up an excuse as to why I couldn’t go, but the truth was I did not want to risk being outed as a Jew and I felt it was safer for the business to pass on the opportunity. Ilan and Jordan had an amazing time.
When people on my cruise ships world asked what my husband did, I quickly said he was a teacher, never sharing his actual profession. The irony in all of this is that my children live, breath, and embrace their Jewish identity in every aspect of their lives. With every fiber of my being, I want that passion, connection, and pride to always shine brightly.
Here is my reckoning. My silence was anti-Semitic. My hidden identity has haunted me. Being Jewish has been such an important and amazing gift in my life and from this day forward, I vow to never hide my Jewish identity. As my children do every summer, from the top of the mountain, in front of the Jewish star at URJ Camp Newman, I too will scream out to the world, “My name is Jodi Davidson; I love being Jewish!”
– Jodi Davidson
I Smiled when I Heard You Say, Come Sit with Me
What does it mean when someone asks you to come sit with them at synagogue? For me it means a sense of belonging and that someone notices me. I matter, and my being part of the Temple is important. If I sit with you or you with me then we acknowledge each other. This may seem like a simple gesture, but it is at the heart of what helps someone like me to feel I belong.
I live with a rare medical condition, but I don’t see myself as disabled or that it defines all of who I am. I see myself as someone who has hopes and dreams, who wants to make a difference in the world, who wants to be proud to be Jewish and included in the Jewish community.
My hope is that when you get to know me, you see me and not what is different about me. What you will come to know is that I was raised in a household that values that it is important to care deeply about other people and that I need to make the most out of life. All of this came from a strong Jewish background that my parents taught me, even when the path to having a Jewish upbringing put roadblocks in my way.
I live with a rare Jewish genetic disorder, of which I am one of a handful of adult survivors. My parents taught me to dream and that included wanting to have similar opportunities as my peers. Whether it was going to summer camp (as the temple encouraged us to attend), wanting to have a full and typical Bar Mitzvah experience, going through Confirmation, or participating in other Jewish activities. I learned to not take any of this for granted.
I have parents who taught me to dream. When I wanted to learn to tap dance, they found a dance school that not only taught me to tap dance but always included me in the recitals. When I was little, my parents listened that I wanted to go to a Jewish camp too, like my sister. I went to camp 3,000 miles away to one sponsored by the Orthodox community. Was it our first choice, probably not! Did I come back knowing the URJ camp songs or melodies for prayers? No, they were different at my camp, but still there were wonderful Shabbats, singing, arts and crafts, and camp field trips. I did have a typical Bar Mitzvah, but that is a longer story. For me the essence of my upbringing was wanting to have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish community and not to become invisible.
What I am excited about is coming back to being in-person in the synagogue. This past year, through all the online programs, you have had a chance to get to know me from the waist up. You have come to know me as a young man, with short hair, blue eyes, a curiosity for learning, and a deep sense of pride for the values and traditions of Judaism and that I am currently in graduate school. I hope that is enough so when you see me, with my walker, you see me and not this as a barrier to inviting me to sit with you.
– Ezra Freedman-Harvey
When I was a young boy, my family lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the suburbs of Boston. Our family’s apartment was on the first floor, my aunt and uncle and my 3 cousins lived on 3rd floor and my Bubbie, who owned the property, lived on the second floor. In the neighborhood, I was able to go to most of the local stores, such as the kosher butcher shop or the drug store, where they would know my name and who my parents were. I would get a snack and have the cost added to their account. I always felt safe and most people didn’t even lock their doors during the day. I don’t recall ever attending Shabbat services, although each year we attended High Holy Days at the Jewish War Veterans building, where my father was very active as a leader. My sister, my two brothers and I were the only children in attendance.
When my mother became ill with cancer I was 15, I spent a lot of time praying and asking God for her to get well and many nights I cried myself to sleep. My mother passed away 2 years later and as a result I was very angry at God and wanted nothing to do with religion. I had gone a couple of times to a synagogue for various reasons over the next 20 years but never felt any desire to join. It wasn’t until 2007 when I went to High Holy Days services at Temple Beth El to hear Gale sing in the choir that I felt like I was home again. All the feelings of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, being with my parents who had since passed away, those years sitting as a child at the JWV building came flooding back. I looked around and instantly knew that I wanted to join this temple and its warm and loving community. I never imagined at the time just how involved I would become or how many great friendships would be made. Being asked to serve on the TBE Board of Directors and later as President of the temple would never have been something I ever thought I would want to do.
Rebecca was going to URJ Camp Newman every year and Gale and I were invited to come for Shabbat her Avodah (service) year. We experienced what it meant to each camper to live 24/7 in a Jewish environment with Jewish values. Neither Gale nor I attended Jewish camp as children but we knew that we wanted to make sure every child had the opportunity that Rebecca had. We ended up joining the Advisory Board and continue to this day. A highlight for us has been the pleasure to teach classes at camp and get to know the incredible individuals that make it all happen.
Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood and later losing my Jewish identity to grief and anger, I am grateful to have found my way to Temple Beth El. I was able to reconnect to my Jewish upbringing and to experience what it means to be part of a caring and loving community.
– Eliot Swartz
As I put pen to paper, I leaf through some of the pages and photos of a priceless volume that our daughter Bonnie, a Professor of History, created several years ago. Using many sources, from Yad Vashem to census records to interviews with family members, she produced a history and genealogy of my mother’s family, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. My father’s family, an even larger project, will hopefully follow.
This, I believe, is where my journey begins, in mid-nineteenth century Ukraine (maternal) and Byelorussia (paternal). Each side immigrated to this country in 1921, and I am, in significant part, a product of the New York Jewish community in which they lived most of their lives.
Although never strictly orthodox, we had a kosher home, did not go out for Chinese food after Passover or at any other time, and attended my grandparents’ orthodox synagogue for the holidays. There, men and women sat separately, and saw each other through a mechitza, a wooden wall with openings only on top. Aliyot to the Torah were auctioned off in yiddish, to obtain contributions for the synagogue. The first time I ever ate non-kosher meat was at the home of my future in-laws, who followed the Reform tradition. Before Yom Kippur we would shlug kaporos. No roosters, but coins tied in a handkerchief were twirled around our heads, appropriate prayers were said, and the coins were then donated to charity. Passover was a wonderful celebration at the home of my grandparents, where my grandfather, great-uncle and father would each chant the full Kiddush simultaneously, racing to see who would finish first.
And so it went, Hebrew school, and then Hebrew High after the public school day. After graduation and during my college years, I also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in the evenings, having the opportunity to study with some memorable professors. Although I never had the opportunity to study with him, this was the era in which Rabbi Abraham Heschel could be seen walking around the campus.
Camp was also a wonderful part of my Jewish journey, including a month at Tel Yehudah, the Young Judea national camp, and being a member of the first Mador at Camp Ramah, the Hebrew speaking camp of the conservative movement, plus summers as a counselor there. We later spent portions of more summers at Ramah camps with our young children when my husband worked as the camp doctor.
From 1989 to 2003, we lived in Milwaukee, WI, where I became active as a board member in the Federation and the Milwaukee Jewish Council. Involvement in a smaller but impressively cohesive and strong Jewish community was a very meaningful lesson in the meaning, functioning and significance of what we can accomplish together.
Our family grew, our lives brought us to California, where we raised our children, and our Jewish journey continued. For the last ten plus years, we have been a proud part of the Beth El community. We value the friends we have made, the warmth we have encountered, and the eagerness of so many to contribute to tikkun olam.
– Gail Effros
T’Shuvah: Asking for Pardon, Forgiving the Dead
Each year, I think about my relationships with God, people and myself. Which of those relationships is the strongest? Which, the weakest?
I rate my relationships from strongest to weakest. Often the strongest was last year’s weakest. I decide which weak relationship I will focus on in the coming year.
When I began this practice, my relationship with God was often the weakest. I didn’t know much about God, or prayer, or thanking God, or even talking to God? I practiced, learned to trust, to ask WHY? and to love God. Sometimes I was angry, sometimes I laughed, or cried. Sometimes I didn’t understand, and sometimes I was astounded.
Last year, my weakest relationship was with my mother. But my mother died in 2004. Ah, but my anger and memory did not. How does one do t’shuvah with someone who is dead?
I figured there was an answer, and sure enough! There is. Ask ten Jewish men to accompany you to the grave. They are your witnesses and support. Ask the person who has died to forgive you for one or more specific reasons, as you would if they were alive. You might also forgive the person for something(s) s/he did to you. You can recite Kaddish, with ten men there to pray with you.
Here’s what I did. Being a Reform Jew, I modified the practice. I thought of my ten witnesses as my spiritual support team. Most were women; others, men. Some were Jewish; others were not. Due to Covid-19, I did not invite them to be present in person with me. Instead, I asked each of them to be with me in spirit during the time that I would be at my mother’s grave. To think of me then, and what I was doing, and send me strength and love. I did not want to use Zoom, or my phone. I wanted to be completely focused on being present, on my t’shuvah, on being open to thoughts, feelings. To meditate, think, pray, laugh, cry.
I chose a date and time, then called each person. We had lovely and intense conversations. All accepted my invitation to join me and send me love and strength while I would be at my mother’s grave. Their support was very important to me. A side of me was hesitant, tentative, a little afraid.
On that day, at the same time as I stood at my mother’s grave, prayed, thought about and talked to my mother, my friends kept silence with me from wherever they were. I could feel their energy, support and love. It was palpable. Intense. It was beautiful.
May our t’shuvah bring more light, love and understanding into our homes, our lives and our community.
– Rabbi Catherine Mummert
Growing Up in California
My maternal grandfather, on a trip to California to visit one of his sisters, bought a home, and told my grandmother they were moving. My parents decided to move to California with them, leaving behind a very large family in New York. Their hope was for a better life. My father was able to get a transfer and continued to work for General Motors, stocking the assembly line. We were able to buy a modest house near LAX; it wasn’t a Jewish neighborhood, but there was a Conservative synagogue within walking distance. My parents wanted us to have Jewish friends and a Jewish education, so they joined the synagogue. Everything was fine, until it wasn’t. My father suffered a major heart attack and could not return to the job he was performing. My mother went to work as a secretary and my father to rehabilitation and trained to be a barber, but was only able to work part-time due to his heart condition. Money was very tight. We had no close family nearby to help financially or to take care of us kids during the day. My sisters and I became “latch key” kids and had to come home straight from school. My parents never asked for help from the synagogue except for financial relief for our dues. To do this my mother had to meet with a finance committee. This was not easy for her. I still remember how upsetting it was. She did this each year so that we could continue with our Jewish education. I don’t know how she did it, but we went to Jewish Day camp every summer. I joined B’nai B’rith Girls and went to many activities. Through all of this I don’t believe that our family was treated the same as those with means. My mother forced herself into uncomfortable situations to make sure that her children got what they needed. My hope for the future is that no one has to go through that humiliation or feel less than others due to finances.
Being part of TBE is very important to me. Other than my sister Phyllis, I have no family here in California. I know what it is like to not have a support system. I wanted a community that I could become part of, that I could reach out to when I needed help, to know that I wasn’t alone. I wanted clergy who cared about me, knew me, and understood me. It took some work on my part to be seen and known, but it was worth it.
– Gail Burch
I had no idea what he was asking or why he asked, but the seed that was planted has continued to bloom throughout my life.
I was a college undergrad visiting relatives on the East Coast. On a scenic drive from Mount Vernon to his home, my beloved Great Uncle Sam lovingly and pointedly asked me, “Pam, would you consider contacting a rabbi if you wanted guidance and support? “
I was perplexed by the question, which seemed to come out of nowhere, a question that had no relevance to me. It never occurred to me that clergy, Jewish or otherwise, was a source of guidance and support. Was Uncle Sam asking me because he knew that the topic of being Jewish was very confusing and traumatic for me growing up? Did he know that his niece, my mother, initiated shaming, angry fights with my dad around the topic of Jewish practice and institutions? Probably not. It didn’t even register as something I could talk about to Uncle Sam. As I remember it. Mom abruptly pulled our family out of our minimal involvement with a conservative temple (in the San Fernando Valley) rather than be “hypocritical” and go forward with my younger brother’s bar mitzvah — right before the date. Mom angrily conveyed that rabbis make us do such expensive, ridiculous things “just because that’s the way they’re done’’ and that people who believe in G-d are weak, stupid and dependent on a crutch that doesn’t work. The conflict increased because I liked going to temple with my dad, especially sitting next to him hearing the moving yet incomprehensible sacred music.
My turning point came halfway through professional school, when I was faced with the truth of my addictions and began a program of spiritual recovery. Though previously I had been only mildly connected during Hillel’s High Holy Days services at UCS, this time the melodies and message took on profound meaning. Important meaning. The sounds of Vidui came alive for me and spoke to my heart. Rabbi Laura Geller’s services connected directly to my newcomer’s understanding of spiritual awakening I felt in the 12 Step meetings. The Big Book even suggests considering contacting clergy for help and suggestions. Uncle Sam’s voice rang in my ears. The seed was growing.
What follows is a timeline of highlights that brings me to the writing of this Elul reflection. If you want to know more, please ask and we will share stories.
- After graduating pharmacy school, I spent the summer on a kibbutz, traveling in Israel. I had no idea why I was so mesmerized by everything, especially the cities of Safed and Jerusalem.
- I studied and took counsel with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, after attending a (Christian) seder, and being shocked that it ended with Jesus’ crucifixion. Learning from this Rabbi was a major stepping stone, inviting Judaism into my spiritual life.
- Rabbi Larry Hoffman (I later learned one of Rabbi Cassi’s teachers) brought to life Shabbat in Safed, how they went out into the fields in their white clothes to seek the Sabbath Bride. His specialty is Liturgy as emblematic of the times in which it was written. Rabbi Hoffman was resident-in-scholar at Brandeis Bardin.
- Post-divorced, disillusioned, and with health concerns, I learned secular Buddhist meditation with Shinzen Young (who is Jewish and includes Hebrew in his Dharma talks), and turned to Agape/Religious Science, and A Course in Miracles.
- 2003 was significantly spiritual and heart opening. Concerned Jewish friends had said, “We think we have a rabbi for you,” so I met Rabbi Micha’el Akiba, and my husband-to-be Eric Hamburg. Rabbi introduced me to Cantor Ilan Davidson at TBE to teach a series on meditation. We met and made wonderful Jewish, spiritual friends.
- Thanks to the influence of Rabbi Micha’el, Eric and my courtship, wedding and married life aims to reflect an outer manifestation of an inner reality infused daily with Judaism, and wise secular spiritual learnings and practices.
This reflection is dedicated to Mike (Leo) Smith, who died 8/10/21, 2nd day of Elul. He was a person from my reflection who said “I think we have a rabbi for you.”
– Pam Tarlow
For those of you who might not know me, my name is Sarah Gill, and I am currently the Religious & Cultural VP of SPeTY. I have been going to Temple Beth El ever since I was baby, named by Rabbi Lieb. I went to Half-Pint Havurah, Torah School, had my Bat Mitzvah (2018) and Confirmation (2021). TBE has and will always be my safe place that I can call home. The people that surround and love me, and my feeling part of this community, makes Temple Beth El even more special than it already is to me.
Being part of the temple community is important to me because when I am going through my ups and downs, I know that people will reach out to me, and will give me all of the support that they can, and that is extremely helpful and meaningful to me. If I had not been part of a temple community, I would not have been able to experience what I have experienced for the past 16 years, and my life would definitely not be the same, especially with this temple community, which I have been a part of all my life, and hopefully will remain so for many years to come.
We all know that we share so many common Jewish traditions and also many different and unique memories with one another. Whether it is lighting the Hanukkiah on Hanukkah, eating hallah on Shabbat, or attending High Holy Days services, we all share the same traditions. One family tradition that we like to do every year is to set a goal for ourselves between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We then share our goals for the year with each other and we see if we can accomplish our goals that we set by the next time the High Holy Days come around.
As I write this Elul Reflection, I feel extremely honored to be sharing my Jewish and temple journey with each and every one of you. This pandemic has not only made me feel a sense of hope, but the feeling of a deeper connection with God, and knowing that we can all get through this tough time together. Whatever that may bring, we will “Find Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism.”
– Sarah Gill
My parents and I came to New York originally from Poland by ship in January 1947. My seventh birthday was just a few weeks after our arrival. We stayed with my cousin Zygy, who was 18 years older than me. After staying in New York for six months, we went to Los Angeles to visit my aunt and uncle Frieda and Bill Nussbaum and never left. My parents and the Nussbaum’s did not join a temple or celebrate any Jewish holidays. We were Jews by birth only, and I received no formal Jewish education.
Even though Zygy’s family and mine lived on opposite coasts, we stayed close, corresponding with letters, phone calls, and visits. When I was with them in New York, I was attracted to how they celebrated Shabbat every Friday night at home, went to Saturday Shabbat services, and observed many other Jewish Holidays. In their home, they had many books on Jewish topics, both fiction and non-fiction, and many pieces of Judaica throughout their home.
While in college at USC, I fell in love with Barbara, who not only was a UCLA student, but her parents were church-going Methodists. We talked about what religious path we would take in our future home together. Even though I wasn’t raised as a practicing Jew, I could not imagine converting for two reasons. If I were to convert to any other faith, it would feel like Hitler had won. The second reason is that I had experienced Zygy’s family embracing Judaism by going to services and practicing Jewish rituals in their home. Gratefully Barbara agreed to convert, and we took the Intro to Judaism Class at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles before we married. Everything they were teaching was not only new to Barbara but to me as well.
It was difficult to join Temple Beth El simply because we knew so little about our faith, didn’t know anyone, so we felt like outsiders. As our kids started attending religious school, we too started going to some services and meeting a few families. We were drawn to Rabbi Lieb’s intellect, thought-provoking sermons, warmth and sense of humor. We also participated in some programs, with the first one being a Jewish Holidays class. It was all new information for both of us. We took that simple Haggadah we received and, through the years, added some additional parts to the service, making it more our own. To this day, we still use the Haggadah we created.
After being members for a few years, Rabbi Lieb asked me to join a weekend leadership training program, which I enjoyed both its content and getting to know more temple members. After that weekend training program, I decided that the way not to feel like an outsider was to begin getting involved on various committees and the board of directors.
When we joined, we did not have any Jewish friends, but through our involvement with the temple, today, many of our dearest friends are those we made at this extraordinary religious home. We became the Jews we are today thanks to what we have learned at Temple Beth El and the beautiful examples of our Jewish friends and families. Our involvement over the past 47 years has enriched our lives far more than what we have given.
– George Mayer
I have a guilty confession… I don’t love services. In fact, I call myself a “services escape artist.” Even though I am somewhat fluent in Hebrew (from living in Israel for five years) and have been a member of synagogues my entire life… I get little out of it. The prayers don’t speak to me. Part of it is I am a ‘squirmy’ adult, most of it is my ex-orthodox father, who from out of his own guilt, forced our non-orthodox family to attend Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services and to sit for hours on end with an open mahzor, mumbling along. My sisters and I were resentful, bored to tears, and took many, many bathroom breaks. To my parents’ disappointment, we never fit in with temple youth groups.
So why, you may ask, do you now see me at services, greeting, on the bimah and following along with the rabbi? Why am I active at TBE, on the Board of Directors and involved? Why didn’t I rebel and just leave synagogue life behind? Because, like many before me, as I grew up and started a family, I realized the value in belonging to a synagogue. I found, in the conservative and reform congregations, that there were meaningful ways to engage that didn’t involve mandatory worship. Much of it is social – almost all of our friends are Jewish! With them I have shared values, culture, and a knowledge base.
When my mother passed away, I found comfort in a daily minyan to recite Kaddish – although I could stomach it for a month, not the prescribed 11 months. I feel I am a valued member of the congregation, and I value many of my fellow TBE members. I love some of the holidays, and dread others (my kitchen, oy!) Once I settled into synagogue life, I found I could then sit back and look at ‘worship’ from a more relaxed vantage. I looked forward to parts of the service, like the reading of the Torah – during my years in Israel, I had skillful teachers who opened up the world of the Bible as a document rich in literature, history, politics, critical thinking, and world views. I started becoming more comfortable in the rhythms of the flow of the prayers – which of course meant that I could cheer when the ‘Aleinu’ started – yay, we’re near the end!
When my children became bar mitzvah, I became interested in the art of chanting Torah and Haftarah and even took a class in it – alas, mastery of that skill eluded me, but I am happy to contribute when asked, if I’m given sufficient time to prepare. I even took one class on the structure and arrangement of prayer – that was helpful, and I wish my father would have done that. But mostly, as I look around the sanctuary, I realize that the biggest reason I attend is not for me – but to be there for others, just like others were there for me in my time of mourning.
Although I am not on the ‘spiritual spectrum’ and don’t care about services – my friends do. TBE members gather in prayer for a variety of their own purposes, and every soul in the holy space helps amplify and unify our community and Jewish Nation. 100 people speak louder than ten. And if I can support just one person in their time of need just by being at services – well, there is no escaping that mitzvah, and I am happy to give a little of my presence to help out. Without sneaking off to the bathroom!
– Jessica Feldman
I don’t have vivid memories of how my family practiced Judaism when I was a young child. I know that we belonged to a Conservative temple in New York and that my parents were very active in synagogue life. Both of my parents were born in the U.S. into Orthodox immigrant families. They married at a young age and my dad had no interest in keeping many of those traditional practices alive in their home. We had a large extended family and we gathered often. My older brother became a Bar Mitzvah. My sister and I attended Hebrew School as well, but after moving to California in 1960 all formal religious education ceased.
We moved to California because my dad was in the Navy and he was going to be overseas a good deal of the time. My mom tried attending services on Friday nights in his absence, at local temples, but was never approached or embraced by anyone. She got discouraged and stopped going. At this point I think it’s fair to say we were secular Jews. Our Jewish identity was strong, but we were not affiliated. My mom lit Friday night candles each week and cooked all the Jewish foods. She lit Yahrzeit candles. She taught all my non-Jewish friends dirty words and phrases in Yiddish. Two of my brother’s 3 wives were Jewish and my sister married a Jewish man. I married a Catholic.
In my late twenties, I accompanied my then husband on a business trip to the East Coast. We were invited to a Seder at my aunt’s house. It was the first one I remember participating in. I developed a love for the holiday and its rituals. I vowed to continue the tradition when we had a family, which I continue to this day.
Lots of life happened between then and now. At my brother-in-law’s funeral in 2006, I realized how much I loved rituals. I also realized that those rituals were not of my faith tradition. That led me to search out my Judaism in a more formal way. I had only lived in San Pedro for a short time when I discovered TBE. I read about the free children’s Rosh Hashanah service in a local paper. I attended, fell in love with the clergy, took an Intro to Judaism class with Rabbi Chuck, Hebrew with Debi Rowe, and became a Bat Mitzvah in 2008, fulfilling a dream I had as a young adult (my brother-in-law’s aunt had hers when she was 75 and I vowed to do the same).
I often wonder what my parents would think of my affiliation. My dad died in 1968, when I was 17, and my mom died in 2001. I imagine that they’d be pleased. They might also be surprised. I think that they’d be honored that my family and I bought memorial plaques for them which hang on the wall in the temple. It feels good to be part of this community. It has become an important part of my life’s journey. It feels like I’ve come home.
– Raye Murphy
Reflections on my Journey within the Jewish Community
In 1962, I converted to Judaism at University Synagogue in Pacific Palisades after taking classes and a final exam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I was one of four children raised Catholic by my Scottish mother and my Italian-American father. My mother converted to Catholicism after marrying my father. She never totally embraced the teachings of the Catholic church. Growing up in my small, up-state New York town, where my dad practiced medicine, I was a devote Catholic. I attended catechism classes while in junior and senior high school and knew all the answers to the questions in my catechism books as well as all the prayers. I rarely missed mass on Sunday morning or “holy days of obligation.”
I attended Russell Sage College, a small women’s school in Troy, New York where I graduated with a BS in Nursing. While in college, I met Larry, and we fell in love. Larry was a student at RPI and was destined to move to Los Angeles where his Aeronautical Engineering Degree was in high demand. The decision to get married was not an easy one for us. Larry was Jewish and religion was a profoundly serious matter to him. He grew up in Rochester, New York where his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, and his mother kept a kosher home.
We did not have the big wedding that my mother and I always talked about when I was growing up. Instead, we had a small wedding on a Thursday morning in the Catholic church attended only by my immediate family and Larry’s best man, who was Jewish. A small catered reception followed at my parent’s home where the guests were mostly friends of my parents. Judaism was not foreign to my parents as many of their friends were Jewish. My dad was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where his home was around the corner from a Jewish neighborhood. He liked to tell us that when he was a kid, his first job was working as the “Shabbos Goy” where he made 10 cents each time he lit a stove for his Jewish neighbors.
Larry’s parents and siblings did not attend our wedding. Although Larry’s father, and sisters and brother accepted me as part of the family, his mother did not. This was hurtful, but I did understand why. His mother grew up in Russia during the programs and had witnessed terrible atrocities inflicted upon the Jews. She could not accept that her son would marry someone who was not Jewish.
Larry and I moved to LA where we both had jobs. I attended church alone on Sundays. However, I became disenchanted and disconnected with the Catholic church. I felt this was not the religion I wanted our children to follow. This came as a surprise to Larry. He did not want me to make a quick decision regarding the religion we would raise our children. After some time, and visits to Congregational and Unitarian churches and Jewish synagogues, and many discussions with various clergy, it was the Jewish religion that I most regarded and felt an affinity. I also wanted to be just like the man I loved so much.
And so it was that I became a “Jew by choice” at University Synagogue where we were members of the “Young Couples” club. After our first child was born in 1963, we moved to Palos Verdes where we bought our home. We wanted to join a temple, and although there were two congregations not far from our home, we never could bring ourselves to join either one. There was something missing. We did not feel comfortable when we attended services at these temples. Then someone told us there was a reform temple in San Pedro. I remember the Friday night we first went to TBE. Joe Schultz and Al Manuel greeted us at the door. We knew almost instantly that this was the congregation we wanted to belong. We became members in 1969. It was not long before TBE became an important part of our lives. This was where we made close friends. Larry became an active member and served on the TBE Board. I became a member of Sisterhood. David and Karen attended religious school on Sundays and Hebrew School twice a week.
Fast forward to our 30th wedding anniversary… I suspected Larry was planning something, but I had no idea what was in store for me. Larry planned and orchestrated all the details for a surprise wedding at TBE. We were married all over again. This time by Rabbi David Lieb, under a chuppah, and witnessed by our two children, 70 of our closest friends, and my dad, wearing a tux and a bow tie in my mother’s Fraser tartan plaid (my mom and both Larry’s parents had already passed away). Rabbi Lieb greeted me, wearing a Fraser tartan bow tie, with “Have I got a chuppah for you…” My daughter had 3 beautiful outfits, selected by a Nordstrom’s personal shopper, for me to choose one to wear for the wedding. She also had my original wedding veil which I wore with a gorgeous white designer suit. It was as though the suit had been tailor-made to fit me. Larry changed into a tux and tartan bow tie. David and Karen walked Larry, and my dad walked me down the aisle. A celebration followed, at the Sorkin home, including a sit-down dinner, a three-tiered wedding cake, an orchestra, and our friends dancing and singing as they carried Larry and me on chairs raised high in the air, under the stars, on a lovely, autumn evening. I feel like I have been Jewish all my life. Larry liked to say that I was really born Jewish.
– Ellie Zamos
Why being a part of the Temple Beth El Community is important to me
This past year has been filled with unexpected tragedy, sadness and confusion for not only me, but for many others as well. When I reflect on how I have coped in the past, and how I continue to cope today, I see a path forward filled with optimism and hope for the future.
The High Holy Days have always brought me a sense of peace and renewal each year. I look forward to being with my family, my TBE friends and listening to the words and the songs of Rabbi Cassi and Cantor Ilan, as I reflect on the past year, make my amends and look forward to a fresh new year that is hopefully better than the last. This year in particular, after the storm of COVID, I am more anxious to usher in a new year filled with health and safety for all of us. One particular High Holy Days prayer that has always spoken to me is the following:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… who will live and who will die… who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague.
I’ve heard and sung these words of the Unetaneh Tokef every year for as long as I can remember, but this year in particular, I find special significance. I had never paid much attention to the last portion of the prayer “who by plague” but now I am acutely aware of this powerful connection between a plague from years past and our current COVID “plague” that we all have endured together.
When I think of everything we have gone through this past year and a half, it has become clear to me that one of the biggest struggles is the unknown. The unknown of who will be impacted and how it will change our lives. What I have come to realize is that each of us have important constants in our lives like family, friends, community and choices of involvement. I have been a lifelong member of Temple Beth El but my involvement has changed over the years. My journey with TBE began in Torah School, continued through becoming a bat mitzvah and a confirmand and now has evolved with my position on the Board of Directors. What I have come to appreciate is that the consistency of having TBE in my life is a gift that I cherish and that I continue to take pride in.
My years as a member of this beloved community are a special part of my family’s history, as we are a 4-generational TBE family. My parents, my sister and my nephews are all members and we have endless family memories from our years spent in our religious home. My sister and I still smile at each other when we sing Shalom Rav together in the sanctuary as this was “our song” during our TBE Youth Choir days. My mom still reaches over and holds my hand when we sing prayers for healing, just like she did when I was a child. My nephews play outside in the same courtyard that I played in during my Torah School days. How did I get so lucky? I am truly blessed to watch my favorite TBE memories continue into the next generation.
I would like to extend my deepest appreciation to Rabbi Cassi, Cantor Ilan, Carrie and Shoni for guiding and supporting all of us through this unprecedented year. Even though our physical doors have been closed for many months, I never felt that our TBE traditions, programs and services diminished. In fact, I believe my connection to TBE flourished during this past year, because of the love and dedication of these special people.
I am grateful today and will continue to be grateful in the years to come.
– Tina Gross