Monday, November 29, 2010

D'var Torah for the Jewish Standard for Chanukah

D’var Torah for Jewish Standard: Miketz/Chanukah
As we reach the season of Chanukah this year, in many of our synagogues, our leaders will be discussing what we’ve come to call “The December Dilemma”. Chanukah can become a difficult time of year for us if we and our children are comparing our December holiday to our Christian friends’ celebrations during this time. The two holidays have absolutely nothing to do with one another in terms of theology. However, in today’s material world, the holidays have become intertwined as an interfaith “festival” of buying. If we fully embrace the materialistic notions of Chanukah, and neglect to consider the roots of our holiday, we have completely lost the essence of what Chanukah represents.
When we focus on the true meaning of Chanukah, we come back to the very root of the word. Chanukah itself means rededication. Our December holiday reminds us to celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is significant that the word is rededication rather than dedication. Of course, the Beit Hamikdash had already been dedicated and it makes sense that as it was dedicated once again, it becomes a rededication. But as a spiritual commentary, the word rededication allows us to look within ourselves and see where we have not been as Jewishly dedicated as we would have liked to be.
In the prayer, Al Hanisim, we are also reminded to celebrate the rededication of our people to the very idea of Judaism! We recite, “the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah.” Later in the prayer, we say, “Your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name." In order to rededicate themselves, our ancestors had to first realize that they had lost sight of what was important. Once they had confronted their own failings, they could begin again to dedicate themselves through physical labor and spiritual endeavor in the holy Temple.
This year, may our December dilemma be, “How will we rededicate ourselves to living a Jewish life and living in the way that God wants us to?” and, “During our Festival of Lights, how will we rekindle the flames within our souls?”
I know that my own answers to these questions are unusual. Having recently returned from a journey to Rome with 19 other Reform cantors from all over North America to sing in the Italian State Basilica, my thoughts have been focused on interfaith relations and in particular, Jewish-Catholic relations. I have been formally involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for ten years through the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. My favorite thing about interfaith dialogue is that it always brings me back to my own faith with a deeper appreciation and understanding of our traditions.
Our journey was full of wonderful experiences and also some disappointments. While discussing some of the minor disappointments of the trip, Rabbi Mark Winer, a chair of the International Interfaith Task Force of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, responded to our regret. He reminded us to view our concert and interactions with Vatican officials as the beginning of a journey.
I returned home to hear news that Pope Benedict XVI had published personal comments calling Pope Pius a "great, righteous" man who "saved more Jews than anyone else". These comments cause pain to most Jewish people. My response to the comments this time was that I will continually rededicate myself to the important work of interfaith dialogue, no matter how difficult it becomes.
The last day of Chanukah marks the dedication of the altar in the Holy Temple. In some communities this is seen as the end of the High Holiday season and people wish each other, “Gmar chatimah tovah (may you be sealed for good).” As we enter this Chanukah season, may we confront our obstacles with the strength and ingenuity that our ancestors showed. May we rededicate ourselves as individuals and as a community to Jewish living and to righteousness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Concert Video

Dear friends,

I just received a very special gift this Thanksgiving! The entire concert in Rome, To God's Ears, is posted on YouTube. I've enclosed the link. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

final Rome posting

Dear friends,

Please excuse me for taking so long to write about the final days of my journey to Rome. It's been a whirlwind!

For most of the day on Tuesday, we practiced. Part of our practice was at the Michelangelo Hotel, which is where most of the cantors were staying during our trip. We had a quick lunch and then continued our rehearsal at the Basilica. Here is a link to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri: The basilica sits on the site of the Diocletian Baths which were the largest of the Roman public baths. You can learn more about the Baths of Diocletian here:

The sound inside of the Basilica was tremendously beautiful. We worked hard for most of the day and took a short break, after which we came back to the Basilica and presented the concert. I was whisked away during part of the rehearsal for an interview as well. We were escorted to Rome by a film crew. The crew is filming a documentary called "To God's Ears". I spent most of my interview time talking about why interfaith work is so dear to me. I often hear the cry that children of intermarried couples will not remain Jews. As a child of a Jew and a Catholic, I like to say that I'm living proof that it ain't necessarily so. I feel that it's out duty to reach out to interfaith couples and provide them with a welcoming home.

The concert was truly beautiful. There aren't words to describe the feeling of joy and triumph as our voices echoed through the Basilica. Knowing that we were sharing the beauty of our musical and liturgical traditions with Catholics in their place of worship was a moment I will never forget.

As many of you know by now, Pope Benedict did not attend the concert. Unfortunately, our main contact to the Vatican, Cardinal Keeler, fell ill right before our trip and was unable to accompany us. However, this did not detract from the meaning of the concert. We had in the audience other cardinals and the American ambassador to the Vatican. Also, my favorite moment was realizing that Anthony, the student who we had spoken with the previous day, had come to the concert.

The next day, our group attended an audience with Pope Benedict. Some of us were given VIP seating and I was one of the chosen. From all reports, the two sections of seating were equally exciting, with different views. The whole experience had the feeling of a rock concert, with crowds of people, some standing on their chairs, yelling with joy. After this experience, we went on to a wonderful tour of the Vatican Museums.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, I can say that I am so grateful to have been a part of this experience. Thank you all for helping me make this trip!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Back to Leonia

Hi everybody! I'm back in Leonia. I didn't get to update our final experiences & I won't get to do it today - too much to do in order to get ready for Shabbat. But I can assure you the concert was tremendously beautiful. I promise to post before it's too far removed from my mind. Thanks for all of your support along the way. I felt like you were all there with me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Day 2

I woke up bright andearly in order to take in some sights this morning. I
joined together with Cantors Tracey
Scher and Rosalie Boxt and Rosalie's husband, Jason. We took a taxi over to the Colosseum at 7 am!
This is the arc of Constantine with the beautiful morning light.

After walking by the Colosseum, of course the first order of business was finding a place to have an espresso con latte. Everyone else had cappuccino as you can see. Molto bene!

After our pick-me-up we wended our way back to the Hotel Michelangelo to greet the rest of the cantors who were gathering together.

We walked past the forum and the circo massimo.

This outdoor market was beautiful. We were running late and I didn't have time to stop to buy any fruit, but I did get to snap this photo. Farmer's markets in the US are nice, but no comparison.

After our walk we met our colleagues and went to rehearse for the day. We spent the morning in rehearsal and took a break after noon to participate in a ceremony rededicating a Yom Hashoah Menorah.
Below is a photo of me at the ceremony with Rabbi Mark Winer.
Rabbi Winer is the president of the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony. You can learn
more about his work at

After the ceremony, we joined together for lunch and interfaith dialogue with the seminarians studying at the North American College in Rome. I'm sorry to say that I didn't take any pictures because I became so engrossed in the discussion! Following our discussions with the seminarians we had a meeting at the Rome Synagogue with the Chief Rabbi of Rome and then we had a tour of the former ghetto in Rome. All of the buildings that made up the ghetto have been demolished, but there is a lot of history hidden in the cracks. Our guide for this part of the day was a woman from a Roman Jewish family whose family has been here in Rome since the 14th century.
This is a photo of our guide. After our tour we did some more rehearsing and then returned to the hotel to freshen up for dinner on our own.

I had a lovely quiet evening with Cantor Jonathan Grant and his wife Sharyn, two very close friends. We went to a "restaurant" called Da i Due Ciccione (the 2 fat guys) in Trastevere. My brother gave us the recommendation (thanks, Jesse!). The place had five tables, the stove was basically next to our table and it was a homemade, classic Roman meal. Very relaxing after a long day. Below are photos of bruschetta and me with the owner/chef. Time to get some sleep before a big day tomorrow!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Evening - Day one

Our evening began at the Instituto Maria Bambina with an opening reception. Here is a view of St. Peter's Cathedral from the roof of the Institute.

Many of my colleagues were interviewed on the rooftop for a documentary film, To God's Ears, which is being created during this trip. My interview will happen tomorrow.

After the opening reception, a number of us walked over to Via Germanico to have dinner at Dal Toscano, a restaurant suggested by my friends, Lani and Paul at Context Travel. The restaurant wasn't open yet when we arrived, so we sat down at a streetside cafe to have a glass of wine. Lo and behold, the 3 young men sitting at the table next to us were seminarians who are having lunch with us tomorrow as part of our trip.

After our apertivo, we went to Dal Toscano and had a fabulous dinner. Here are my friends, Jonathan and Sharyn Grant, and me and Tracey Sher enjoying our dinner.

A walk in the Trastevere

Tracey & I decided to take a walk in the Trastevere area of Rome. It's not too far from our hotel and has a reputation of being a hip neighborhood. Here are a few highlights of our walk.

These are street musicians on the piazza in front of The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. You can click on the video below to hear some of the street sounds. What a beautiful day!

Above right is the view from atop many stairs that we climbed.

Here are a few photos of the streets in Trastevere. The sunlight was so beautiful.

This shop had all sorts of instruments and stray cats.

This is a fountain that was above the Trastevere.

After our big walk, we sat down at an outdoor cafe and shared a big glass of fresh grapefruit juice and a cappuccino. Delicioso!

Now we are back at the hotel. We will be joining all of the cantors and other participants for an opening reception at the Instituto Maria Bambina in a few minutes. Tomorrow we begin rehearsing!

Made it!

Earlier today: I’m on the plane, approaching Rome now. I managed to get about an hour’s worth of sleep in on the way here. I was lucky to meet up with my colleague, Susan Caro, and her husband, John Lertzman, who are both joining the trip. Susan is the President of the American Conference of Cantors and will be singing in the concert as well. John is along for the ride! If all goes well are planning to meet two other cantors at the airport in Rome and then travel together to the hotel. We don’t have anything scheduled until this afternoon, so I’m planning on hoofing around with my friend, Tracey Scher, until then.

I arrive, took a shuttle to the Michelangelo Hotel, washed up & headed out. I've seen a bunch of other cantors who have arrived for the trip. We walked past St. Peter's Square and had some pizza.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

On the way to Rome!

Getting ready to leave for Rome! Bags are packed, music is in the binder, I think I'm all set. I'm looking forward to meeting up with some of my cantorial colleagues in the airport in Rome tomorrow morning as we begin our journey together. Even though it will be just a few short days, I believe this will be an amazing experience. Thanks to everyone who helped me!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives

At the October Board of Trustees meeting of Congregation Adas Emuno, we voted to endorse Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives, which reads as follows:

As members of a tradition that sees each person as created in the divine image, we respond with anguish and outrage at the spate of suicides brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance. We hereby commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. As a signatory, I pledge to speak out when I witness anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I commit myself to do whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.

The campaign was launched by Keshet in support of a fully inclusive Jewish community.  Keshet's mission is to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews are fully included in all parts of the Jewish community.

Whether you support this mission or not, as Jews we are committed to taking a stand against persecution and intolerance, and against the kinds of bullying that had led to the tragedy of young persons taking their own lives.  And if you support the statement above, you can go to the Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives website, and sign the Pledge for yourself.