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Note: The opinions expressed here are solely those of each individual blogger and do not necessarily represent the views of TRT.

Hope from the Fall of Destruction

December 2017

By Cantor Joanna Alexander

 A Fall of destruction. Over the past couple of months, my caring quotient was met and toppled over fully. Between hurricanes, earthquakes, horrific mass shootings, wildfires, and terrorist attacks, I found myself unable to absorb more information with true sympathy; unable to activate myself beyond the first purchase of gift cards for recovery efforts. I also found myself more angry than ever at the very small fraction of things humans could have done or could still do to make it better. But "coulda woulda shoulda" doesn’t really help the people who lost their homes or their lives; and so much of what we saw, while exacerbated by human action (or inaction) would have still been destructive and deadly.

I have to add to this list the moral failure of a personal friend. For the first time in my privileged life, I saw action which I’ve previously been able to uncomplicatedly put into the side of “bad,” as part of a whole person, a part of a person who on the whole I would put into the “good” category. How do I square this, and what does it mean about other people I’ve so callously shifted aside and judged as a whole because of their bad behavior on their worst days? I’ve also grappled with trying to figure out if I am even a fair judge: Do I easily forgive the moral failures of politicians (or movie stars) I agree with and whose policies I desire, while condemning their opponents for very similar behavior? Here too I find myself stuck, unable to activate for change. But here, because it is personal, I can do something: I can learn more about the nature of what it means to be human. I can put more shades of gray into my understanding of good and evil; even good and evil behavior. And so too I can attempt to not condemn the whole person, even as I condemn the actions.

It has been a hard Fall, a Fall filled with destructive forces. The quantity of national tragedies would leave anyone drained. I pray that as we turn into the darkest nights of winter we will find our inner light to gather strength and face the challenges of the world. I pray we will find our own hypocrisies and they will teach us to be more patient and understanding of the hypocrisies of others. I pray we will be less swift to judgment and more understanding of the wholeness of people. I pray we will, as a community and country, help repair the breaches the destruction of the Fall has left; working together I feel we will see the best in humanity and remind ourselves of the hope which makes life worthy of living.

At Erev Rosh Hashanah, as several tragedies were unfolding, we read this prayer. As we turn to the secular New Year, this prayer can help us recalibrate our goals and find the inner strength to create goodness from destruction:

To Break the Bonds, by Alden Solovy, published in Mishkan Hanefesh Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, p. 33:

To Break the bonds of anger / to be generous of heart;

To break the bonds of shame / to live with self-respect;

To break the bonds of envy / to serve one another in joy;

To break the bonds of boredom / to be attentive to all God’s gifts;

To break the bonds of fear / to live with courage and strength;

To until the knots of betrayal / to love with fullness of being;

To break the bonds of loneliness / to receive a hand of hope;

To break the bonds of self-centeredness / to extend a hand of help;

Released from the darkness / our people found their freedom at the sea;

And we pray for liberation / at the dawning of this year.

 

                                         Cantor Joanna Alexander

Thoughts after Charlottesville

August 2017

By Cantor Alexander

 

My grandmother was a German Jewish girl living in Shettin, Germany (now in Poland). She was about seven years old when Hitler was elected Fuhrer. I wonder, but will never know, did her parents tell her what this might mean for the family, for her? My great grandparents, Irma and Johan (who I am named for) believed the words of Mein Kampf; they believed the Brown Shirts rampaging down the streets. They believed that even their beloved, enlightened country would do to the Jews what they were threatening. Johan had fought for Germany in the Great War; he was a patriot, but he also had a cousin who had been Hitler’s commander, so the family believed what Hitler said. In 1933 they applied for visa’s to the US and to British Palestine, and they waited; they waited 5 years. While they waited my grandmother was sent to Catholic school. While they waited her brother, Walter, was called out in class by a NAZI official as a fine example of an Aryan figure (he had light hair and light colored eyes). If he had told the truth, if a classmate had let it slip that he was a Jew… we can only imagine what the embarrassed official would have done to my great-uncle to retaliate for this Jew’s Aryan looks. There was a time my grandmother had to live separately from her parents as they moved to Amsterdam to be closer to port when the visas might come. What did my 9, 10, 11-year old grandmother think? Did she know she was in danger? Did she feel abandoned by her parents? Did she skip and play and run around like a carefree child with schoolmates?

Finally the visas came, but before they could travel to America Johan had a heart attack; the journey would need to be delayed. Did they know what this might have cost them? In 1938, when my grandmother was just 13 years old and her brother 15, they set sail for America. They were permitted to bring about $40, and had paid for their furniture to be shipped to California (because they didn’t know how far inland they would travel). While my great-grandparents were wealthy enough to have servants in Germany, they knew life would be very different in America; they started the journey with 2nd class tickets. My grandmother and her nuclear family were saved; one aunt with her family also came to America and a few cousins moved to British Palestine, but her grandparents, her other aunts, uncles and cousins would all perish in the Shoah.

This week, as we watched white supremacists and NAZIs march in Charleville, I wondered what or if I should tell my children. They are so little - just 6 years old. They should grow up with pride in their country; they shouldn’t know these evil things. They shouldn’t know their President has supported evil people; I shouldn’t share with them the truth that will bring them nightmares. And I thought, driving home, what did my grandmother know as a 7-year old girl? What did her parents say? How did they teach her to be brave and fearless in the face of such tangible fear? And I think, too, how lucky, how privileged I am that I can even decide to tell or not tell my 6-year olds the truth of the world. How many parents - Black parents, undocumented parents, Muslim parents - how many of them are given the choice to protect their children with ignorance? How many parents in Syria, or Afghanistan or Sudan are given the choice to protect their children from hunger and fear and violence; from a life filled with death every day? I am lucky, I am privileged, I have the power (for now) to keep my children safe.

When my grandmother was a girl of 7, a man filled with hatred for her kind came to rule her country. I will never know what she knew when, but I will forever be grateful that her parents were brave and strong and prepared to risk everything to protect their children from that evil. I hope I can imbue my children with their strength and kindness and the legacy my grandmother left us: open arms, a great big smile and the knowledge we are going through it together.

 

Cantor Joanna Alexander

"Choose Life"- (Deuteronomy30:19-20)

August 2016

Cantor Alexander

The summer is at its halfway mark, and we still have another two months until Rosh Hashanah, but we can tell this is still a necessary time of reflection. Traditionally, reflection leading up to the time of atonement does not start until one month before. During the month of Elul, we are to take the time to account for our year, our missteps, our successes, and prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. After all, acknowledging where we have gone wrong and dedicating ourselves to not make the same mistakes is not something that can happen overnight, but something that takes preparation, commitment andrecommitment.

During this time, we have other issues of great importance and possibility hanging over us and constantly in the news. I'm speaking of the non-stop news story known as the 2016 election. We have, after all, been hearing about it daily for nearly two years, but now is the time our choices matter. As I write this article, the Republican and Democratic parties have not yet held their conventions. I do not know what the fallout from the "Bernie or Bust" camp will be, or if "party unity" will prevail in either or both or neither of the camps. But I do know we are in a time of change, anger and something unprecedented. My Jewish values have led me to more liberal choices in my voting history, but this does not have to be the case. We see a do-nothing Congress, we see governmental corruption, and we see bloated deficit spending. I can understand a small-government, more conservative political choice. But with this presidential campaign, it is not that simple. People have often felt the need to vote for "the lesser of two evils," so maybe this election is nothing new. But I'm concerned we are on the precipice of a whole new world.

OnYomKippurweread:"LifeanddeathIhavesetbeforeyou,blessingandcurse.Chooselife-sothatyouand yourchildrenmaylive-byloving,obeyingandstayingclosetoAdonaiyourGod."(Deuteronomy30:19-20)Life comes from following God's mitzvoth, death from disobeying.

I plead for us as a nation to choose life, choose diversity... choose to be welcoming to immigrants, as our nation opened its doors to my ancestors and yours. Choose for our government to sponsor no religion and for people of all faiths to be free to worship and be free from suspicion. Choose for voices of dissent to be welcomed as dialogue worth listening to and learning from, not to be greeted with violence or shut down with libel lawsuits. Choose for truth to win over popularism. Choose for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities to be themselves, to use restrooms in peace and marry in love. Choose life, choose expanding our definitions of who is welcome rather than contracting it. Choose for success to mean more than how much money we have in the bank. Choose for power to mean more than whose back we stepped on to get it. Choose life.

Choose for every life to matter, including the most vulnerable among us. Understand that the system doesn't currently work the same for every person, whether the system is the criminal justice system, the education system, employment opportunities, or the banking system. We are not currently all treated equally; until we are, the American dream of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps is just a myth.

So I pray, as we enter a time of prayer, self-reflection and atonement, I pray we will be inspired by what can be, by what beauty, creativity, and prosperity the "other" can bring to all, rather than by hatred, xenophobia and fear of this unknown future. I pray we will choose life, not just for ourselves and people like us, but for all to feel safe and free.  I pray we can stop the hate, stop the fear mongering and come to know that there is a better way.

As Reform Jews, Torah is not the final word on decision making, but it has always been a foundation. I pray we will find a way forward in this crazy new world we find ourselves in to "do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8)

Cantor Joanna Alexander

Leap year/Rock Shabbat Fundraising Concert

February 2016

From the Desk of Cantor Alexander

This year, we celebrate a Jewish Leap year. You may be aware that seven out of every nineteen years we add an additional lunar month to the calendar. The Jewish holidays are based around agriculture.   If we did not have these leap years, a holiday which celebrates the spring harvest would soon take place in the middle of winter. We would be unable to find a lulav and etrog for Sukkot, for the holiday would find itself in the summer. But by adding a leap month, we keep the holidays centered around the proper agricultural time of year. This year however, our leap month is pushing our Jewish calendar significantly off our American schedules.

Difficult Conversations

October 2015

From the Desk of Cantor Joanna Alexander

Last year, I wrote about the gifts of my grandmothers.  Part of their gifts to me was communicating to my parents (their children) about the quality of life they wanted were they unable to communicate and advocate for their own medical decisions.

New HH Machzor

August 2015

From the Desk of Cantor Joanna Alexander

As you may be aware, this year we will be using a new Machzor, or High Holiday prayer book. To better learn about this new Machzor, Rabbi and I went to a seminar for rabbis and cantors in May, and yes, we have been thinking about and planning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since the first week of May. 

 

Happy Pesach, and Happy April

April 2015

The Spirit of Shabbat

 After another long winter in the snow, I’m so excited to have many temple activities this spring to bring us together to celebrate, sing, and be part of a holy community. Each month, no matter the season, we have special Shabbat services which bring us together clapping and learning new songs, where we watch the un-encumbered dance and exude the spirit of Shabbat; where we put the prayer books down and hold hands or embrace our loved ones.

Learning, Exploring & Studying

February 2015

Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism

In January, I had the extraordinary opportunity to go with our 10th graders to the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s lobbying arm. Our students spent a packed 3 1/2 days of intensive learning, exploring and studying.

"Returning" to Parenting

October 2014

A Rededication

Rededicate yourself to Temple Rodeph Torah: try a new class; try a new social action project; try a new worship experience; even try having coffee or dinner with a new family to broaden your social circle and be inviting to others.

Why be Jewish?

June 2014

NEWSLETTER ARTICLE JUNE/JULY 2014

Recently I was speaking with a potential convert who grew up with no religion. What he was really struggling with was, what do I need religion for at all? Can’t I just be a good person? I've heard this question from many Jews and certainly many students over the years: why do I need to come to temple, or Sunday school? Isn't it good enough to be a good person? And for the most part it is. To my Jewish students it’s easy to say, of course being a good person is important, but you are a Jew, and that includes a history, and religious traditions which have nothing to do with ethical behavior, so to continue the Jewish people you need to know about these things and continue to teach them. But to a non-Jew this, of course, was not a true statement.

FEELING Prayer

April 2014

NEWSLETTER ARTICLE APRIL/MAY 2014

What does it feel like when you pray? I don’t mean when you come to services, or when you sit begging God for something really important. What does it feel like when you know that right now, in this moment, you’ve connected? You’ve been touched by God? You’ve been moved by energy, or spirit, or community. What does it feel like?

Dear TRT, YOU ROCK!

February 2014

NESLETTER ARTICLE FEBRUARY/MARCH 2014

Welcome to our second annual Rock Shabbat Fundraising Concert!
Wow, what a year it has been! Last year we held our first Rock Shabbat fundraising concert and with the approximately $6000 in proceeds, combined with the generosity of our wonderful Rock Shabbat Sponsors, we were able to hold another amazing year of once-a-month Rock Shabbat services with a variety of guest artists. This year we have invited our first female artists, including Naomi Less (in January) and Beth Schafer, who will be with us in May. Because of the popularity of Rock Shabbat we decided to try a similar aesthetic for a Rosh Hashanah service and created "Rock Hashanah." That service, with guest artist Jules Frankel, was amazing - one of the best worship experiences of my life.

Traditions and Resolutions

December 2013

Benayim, January 2014

Happy New Year! Just a few short months ago we were saying Shanah Tova, Happy New Year for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. We were evaluating how we had missed the mark in the past year, and what T’shuvah, turning or re-dedication, we could do for the next year. We contemplated re-evaluating our priorities, making more time for what is truly important in life. We may have asked what God wanted us to do to be a better person, a better Jew, a better ME? We may have been inspired to think differently, or act differently by our holiday worship,  sermons or time spent with family. Only a few short months ago many of these topics were on our mind. 

It's All Worship To Me

October 2013

NEWSLETTER ARTICLE OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2013

As you might have seen, but definitely heard about at our High Holiday services, TRT is in the midst of many worship experiments. We've been very successful with Rock Shabbat, and believe Rock Hashanah is something to be repeated as well. But these once per month services are not the only changes we are making.

What IS Sinful Texting?

July 2013

Newletter Article August/September 2013

Thank you, Temple Rodeph Torah, for five amazing years! Thank you for celebrating those years at the June 14th Rock Shabbat. I look forward to many more years, music, experimentation and celebrations!

“Sinful Texting”: a Yom Kippur Community Experience at Temple Rodeph Torah

 

This Yom Kippur we continue asking the question we started asking when we launched the Center for a Jewish Future: what does the Jewish Future look like? And what does Judaism say to me, today, in 2013? Judaism is not a religion of the past; it is a living religion which changes to meet the needs and realities of every generation.

On Yom Kippur we say many of the same prayers Jews said a hundred years ago. Yet we also add new prayers, and say many of them in English; men and women sit and pray together; we have a female cantor singing from the bima; we drive to the service and pray in a temperature-controlled environment (most years). Our traditions reflect many of our modern values, but what about the future?


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