Reclaiming Service: Planting the Seeds of Jewish Values

In our fast-paced interconnected world, it can be so hard to do a good deed in a truly selfless way. When we run a marathon for charity and post about it on social media in order to encourage donations, we are all too often more interested in counting the ‘likes’ from friends than the money we’re raising for the cause.

This behavior leads me to believe that perhaps the closest we can come to achieving true selflessness is through focusing on the good we leave behind for future generations. Such a legacy will allow them to reap the benefits of our actions long after we have passed on, and long after we stand to benefit in any way from the benevolence of our act – the ultimate demonstration of altruism.

With Tu B’Shvat (the New Year for Trees) on the horizon, I am reminded of the well-known Talmudic tale about the encounter between the sage Choni HaMa’agel (the ‘Circle-Maker’) and a young man planting a tree (Ta’anit 23b). As the young man secures the sapling in the ground, Choni looks on curiously, wondering why he is making such an effort for this type of tree, which will take around 70 years to bear fruit. “How can you be sure that you will live another 70 years, long enough to derive benefit from this tree?” inquires Choni. Without skipping a beat, the man replies: “Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my descendants. Everyone should merit being born into a world full of trees.”

This story highlights the importance of thoughtfulness, forward thinking and generosity. At the same time, it underscores the very essence of Jewish continuity.

Traditionally, Jewish continuity has been viewed through the lens of the family unit, defined primarily by one’s commitment to raise a Jewish family. This narrow scope, however, negates the transcendental echo left by the indelible impression we leave on everyone that we encounter. To connect our present to both our past and collective future, we must ensure that we leave behind a world that our descendants will be proud to inherit.

Westheimer and Kahne, two American-born 20th century academics known for their works on citizenship education, suggest three core components to participatory civic typology – responsibility towards the personal, communal and societal realm (‘The Politics of Educating for Democracy,’ 2004). With all that is broken in our world, there is no shortage of opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get to work in all three realms. Service, charity, volunteer work, and other selfless acts comprise the ethical element of our gift to the next generation.

In fact, acts of service and benevolence embody core Jewish values that can be traced all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. Our forefather Abraham personifies the three components of Westheimer’s and Kahne’s approach to civic typology: assuming personal responsibility (acts of chesed or loving-kindness, like welcoming visitors to his tent), participation in communal efforts (acts of tzedakah or charity, such as the designation of wells to be used by all who need), and social justice oriented activism (acts of tzedek, including lobbying for the righteous citizens of Sodom). His natural ability to exemplify these acts of inherent goodness was the very basis upon which he was chosen to be the progenitor of our People.

Working diligently to improve our world is an unmistakable hallmark of the Jewish way of life and a contribution that we bestow upon every new generation. Over the last few decades, record numbers of young Jewish men and women have picked up the mantle of service, giving of their time, talents and energies in order to make a positive impact on the world, both in the short- and long-term. These positive acts are often motivated by that same sense of responsibility that has characterized the Jewish people since time immemorial.

Data gathered from several surveys conducted by service organizations has revealed that the vast majority of Jewish volunteers do not mind whether the framework through which they volunteer is Jewish (‘Volunteering and Values,’ Repair the World, June 2011). This service is, of course, impactful for the wider world, but our inability to connect these participants to their Jewish identities through their own passionate benevolent pursuits represents thousands of missed opportunities.

The world of volunteerism and service encapsulates a myriad of entranceways back into the organized Jewish world, for those hovering on its fringes. Helping them harness and re-channel their passion, energy and sense of communal and societal responsibility is a vital step in reconnecting these young adults with their heritage. As such, contextualizing their service as an inherently Jewish value and as an inseparable part of what it means to be a Jew in the world today could serve as a transformative catalyst for strengthening our collective Jewish future. 

The Torah tells us that a person is like “a tree in the field” (Deut. 20:19). Much like a tree, a person needs proper sustenance to grow and thrive. Values anchor us to our moral inheritance and provide us with the nourishment that allows us to reach our potential and eventually bear fruits that may be shared with the global family of nations. 

At a time when identity ties are generally weakening among young people, linking their moral values to our shared destiny could assist in allowing their Jewish identity to flourish. What’s more, Jewish identity is not owned or monopolized by any one particular age, stage or generation. Indeed, needs, perspectives and attitudes change and differ from one group to the next. As such, in each epoch, we must find our own unique conduit for connecting with Jewish values. Ultimately however, these values are eternal with no specific allegiance to one era or another.

In addition to healing the fractured world around us, service experiences can be an essential component in making Jewish identity more relevant to this generation. But it won’t truly take root unless we plant the seeds of Jewish values within the initiatives themselves throughout programming as well as through preparatory and follow-up reflections and engagement. 

As they take part in a range of worthy causes, from natural disaster relief projects and housing construction drives to food distribution initiatives and refugee work, young Jews should feel an explicit sense of Jewish rootedness and belonging through the assistance they provide. With the right education and guidance, through giving, they can receive a deeper understanding of who they are and forge a connection with the generations of givers who came before and will come after.

After all, it’s one thing to become an agent of change, but another thing entirely to discover that you are part of an intergenerational story of social activists. By reframing service initiatives through the Jewish lens, we can give young Jews, who may be hoping to become part of something ‘bigger than themselves’, the greatest gift of all: a reminder that they already are.

We are living in auspicious times. As we approach Tu B’Shvat, we reflect on the long and arduous journey that a seed travels until it becomes a fruit – a lesson also learned from the Talmudic tale of Choni HaMa’agel, where we see that the germination process may take as long as 70 years. That makes this year, the 70th since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the perfect opportunity to reap what was sown by previous generations and continue to plant. We must now expand the definition of Jewish continuity and highlight the importance of our ethical legacy by reclaiming service as a core Jewish value. 

The Dignity of Difference

Having settled with my family in Jerusalem less than two months ago, I am overwhelmed by the sheer colour and variety of our new surroundings. Every day I fall in love with the breathtaking diversity of Jews and Jewishness across the city of gold, as each community adds another jewel to the beautiful collage of our nation’s capital. This diversity is a central element of our Jewishness and so my wife Renana and I specifically chose to settle in a mixed religious-secular neighbourhood, ensuring that our children are exposed to broader perspectives.


This Jewish diversity is also one of the great strengths of the Australian Jewish community. I take great pride in the fact that our community is strong and generous enough to support a wide array of excellent Jewish schools, youth movements and initiatives, each with their own religious standards and educational priorities. Tolerance and diversity are central Jewish values, and inter-denominational cooperation constitutes the backbone of a functional and harmonious community. This is why, when working at Moriah College, we always looked to be inclusive of all the Jewish schools in Australia and even those children that did not go to Jewish schools but affiliate as Jews. From the Mikolot: Voices of the Future international public speaking competition to hosting dignitaries such as the Prime Ministers of Israel and Australia, we have always been proud to host multiple uniforms for these types of events in the Moriah College auditorium.


However, such harmony can only exist on the back of certain principles. One of the most important of these is self-definition. Indeed, tolerance worthy of the name only exists if we allow every community the autonomy, in the comfort of their four walls, to define the boundaries of their practice and pursue their own religious ends as they see fit. The imposition of external, foreign standards of practice and doctrine onto the internal traditions of an orthodox community can create intolerance and become antithetical to true harmony.


I have always tried to pursue communal coherence and affirm the right of every Jewish denomination to create their own standards, to practice Judaism as they understand it, and to educate their children within the ideas and limits of their unique traditions. A highlight of this for me was when I shared the vision of the Shabbat Project in the Moriah College Drama Theatre and we had rabbinic leaders across the spectrum all nodding to the same idea – something that didn’t happen in many other communities around the world and we were recognised for. We shared the vision and each group decided how to apply it. While disagreeing with the conclusions of some, I accept other movements on their own terms, and refrain from imposing my own attitudes upon their religious standards. I am writing this from the Hillel International General Assembly in Denver after having learned with a range of people and am proud to lead Mosaic United which serves all types of Jews.


I believe that this non-judgmental value of tolerance should be consistent. Reform Jews should feel free to celebrate their unique traditions and practices and Orthodox Jews should be free to stay true to their Torah values and Halachic compass. We should be comfortable to set our own boundaries, to circumscribe our practices and customs, and to educate our children in our unique, ancient traditions.


This right of self-determination must include its most basic facet: the right to decide who is considered a Jew. Orthodox Judaism is, well, Orthodox. It takes great pride in adhering to the traditions of Halacha, an ancient and multifaceted system of laws, customs and rituals that have withstood the tests of time. While maintaining room for innovation and creativity in application, Halacha provides a religious framework that includes certain boundaries that are not negotiable. In this vein, Orthodoxy defines a Jew in one of two ways; one must either be born to a Jewish mother, or undergo an Orthodox conversion (of which there are many types). This definition has served Judaism for well over two millennia, providing a balance of inclusivity and preservation. We are proud that the Orthodox definition of Jewishness allows for any sincere individual (regardless of ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic background) to convert to Judaism, while simultaneously preserving a clear and unambiguous definition of legal Jewishness. If they are willing to learn and go through the process, anyone should be invited with open arms. I do believe that many of the Orthodox institutions could and should be working harder to make those that are sincere feel even more welcome. Those people that have not had positive encounters should approach one of the many other authentically Orthodox institution that does provide this approach and those that are responsible for negative encounters need to seriously take stock and introspect.


Although Orthodoxy has a clear position on this issue, the stance must not be confused with a wholesale rejection of other people. Heaven Forbid. Jews all share a common fate regardless of affiliation. Our enemies do not distinguish between us; we are all painfully aware that the murderer who massacred Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue six weeks ago and the terrorist who shot at a pregnant woman in Ofra last week preached death to all Jews. Moments of national grief, jubilation, triumph and pain are shared by all.


Orthodox Jews must strive to respect, cherish and accommodate other streams of Judaism on their own terms. In response, they deserve to be given the freedom to build and maintain schools in consonance with their beloved traditions and venerable customs. Therefore, an Orthodox school like Moriah College in a democratic society like Sydney Australia, must be free to be genuinely and unapologetically Orthodox. It must abide by the standards set by the intricate system of Halacha, thereby providing a meaningful choice, among other wonderful schools, for Jewish parents and students across the religious spectrum. It would be sad indeed if the Orthodox voice within the great Australian Jewish conversation was to be silenced or shouted down and at the same time, it would be a great shame if the Orthodox ear does not hear the clear cries.


I wish to end with a personal appeal to a community that has nurtured me and received each of my own children with open arms as they started their journey into Jewish life. I want to reach out to the entire community and ask that Orthodox Jews will always support the freedom and vibrancy of religious expression, no matter what the affiliation. In return, I would ask other strands and voices to to recognise that adherence to tradition is one of the great strengths of Orthodox Judaism. Moreover, Orthodox institutions benefit Jews of every colour and creed, and it is in everyone’s interest to allow Orthodox Judaism to flourish in our country. The dialogue needs to happen, but in a constructive way employing the dignity of difference. I am confident that the beautiful tapestry of our sunburnt country is colourful and broad enough to continue to include the Orthodox thread.


May we all stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of common challenges and opportunities, and work together to build a broad, tolerant and vibrant community for our children and grandchildren – shabbat shalom!

Adding Some Positivity

While you may not be able to catch the flu through your computer, emotions are contagious offline and online.

In 2012, Facebook infamously manipulated the news feeds of around half a million of its users. One group of these users received mainly positive posts in their feed and the second group received negative ones. The group with the more positive feed began generating more positive posts and the other group, posted more negative items. 

Ideally, of course, we shouldn't be susceptible to the emotions of others - but by playing with the algorithm of their news-feed, Facebook changed the moods of hundreds of thousands of people.

Sneeze some positivity into the world of social media and hope that someone pays it forward!

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Remembering Brenda

As sun the rises over the ancient stones of the הכותל המערבי - Western Wall and the sun sets on the shores of Bondi Beach, those of us that knew Brenda are going into Shabbat with a gaping hole. I have been asked to share what Rabbi Dovy Rapoport eloquently read on my behalf at the funeral today and like so many meaningful thoughts about this remarkable woman, I hope this brings some comfort to those that knew her and inspires those that didn't:

As my heart was breaking at the news yesterday, I began to contact travel agents so that I could return to Australia for the funeral. After the first said it was impossible, I spoke to two more. We tried through Asia and Africa, America and Europe, but with less than 24 hours, it became clear that it was not possible. As my sadness intensified, I thought to myself – what would Brenda say. And the answer was – as Stephen confirmed – you are where you are meant to be. We can only control what we can control, and faith is the ability to truly accept that. Brenda truly accepted that. Brenda truly had faith. Boy, did she control what she controlled, with incredible attention to detail. But at the same time, she knew how to let go of that which she could not control. And she taught us to do the same with a tehillim book next to her bed and a positive perspective till the end.

When Renana and I came to say goodbye less than a week ago, Brenda was clearly in pain – something she could not control – but she forced herself to smile and make us laugh. Because this is what she could control. She grinned, cracked jokes and spoke so fondly of her adoring husband and the amazing man he is – her beautiful boys and how they make her proud every single day. Her highlight was Daniel’s bar mitzvah where she experienced and shared true simcha with those that matter most to her. She fought through tremendous pain to share so many more highlights with us and she continued to fight till her last breath.

Brenda didn’t just fight in the end but the whole way through life. For anyone she loved – for anything she believed in. One of her greatest passions was for Jewish education. I used to call her the tour guide because if I ever wanted someone to fall in love with Moriah College, they just needed Brenda to lead the way. Staff and students, VIPs and strangers – Brenda’s enthusiasm bred enthusiasm and anyone that was graced with her presence fell in love with whatever she was sharing with them. What was her trick? The fact that there were no tricks – she was authentic. Brenda was as real as they come, and she was always true to what she believed in. There are countless families at the school today because of the way she guided them. But she wasn’t just a tour guide in school – she was a tour guide for life. Always seeing the glass half-full, always curating positive experiences and always seeing the good in others.

Lots of people retreat in the face of hardship – but not the Jankelowitzs. They saw the darkness as an opportunity to increase light. Each time I looked up before delivering a drasha on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, I was strengthened by her smile. As we were concluding Sukkot, Brenda invited a large group of women to learn with Renana in her sukka and then Steve made sure we could do the same with a group of men a few days later. Their presence, their attitude and their actions were a greater lesson, a greater shiur, than we could provide and truly inspired everyone. People have been doing good deeds because of Brenda even before she passed, and I have no doubt this will continue.

So, what now? It has been exactly one year since the diagnosis and what a year it’s been. There can never be enough time on this earth to accomplish everything, but Brenda lived life to the max. Taking advantage of every moment. Whether it was her swims and walks at Bondi or her coffees with her friends, her presence at every communal function, dedication to her job or quality time with her husband and boys who she called her men.

And so now, I ask myself again: what would Brenda say? You are where you are meant to be. It is what it is meant to be. She left us too young but managed to achieve more than most do in two lifetimes. And our job is to learn her lessons and continue her legacy.

Adam and Daniel, as we discussed together last week – it won’t be easy. And that’s okay. But you have the most incredible mum in the world. And the hugs she gave you will continue to bring comfort. That proud smile she had whenever she laid eyes on you, will be smiling from heaven as you continue to make her proud. And the lessons she taught you will last a lifetime.

Stephen, that image of Brenda and yourself, as you delivered your speech together at Daniel’s barmitzvah, epitomizes the meaning of the word love. It was clear to all that you are soul-mates and while you gave your all to her, to her there was nothing greater than you.

She passed away on Parashat Noach. The world deteriorated – everything seemed hopeless. But one family built their ark and through that ark rebuilt the world. We have been blessed to have been welcomed into Brenda’s ark. An incubator for growth and meaning. She has taught us so much every single day in every single way. And while just like the news of the flood, the world seemed over with her diagnosis, as her body deteriorated, her soul soared and healed those around her. Now the flood has hit. We cannot imagine life without her. But it is the ark she built – the microcosm of a better world – that will get us through the next stage. She has built the foundations, laid the planks and this will always guide you on the journey that is life – stormy seas, still waters and everything in between.

Hashem natan – Hashem has given [so much], v’Hashem lakach, Hashem has taken away [so much]. Yehi shem Hashem mevorach.

May the light that Brenda brought into this world continue to shine and inspire us – tehey nishmata tzrura b’tzror ha’chayim – may her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

Thinking of you in the heart of Jerusalem, hamakom yenachem otchem b’toch sh’ar avelei tzion viyerushalayim, may the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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Graduation Thoughts

Tonight was a very special night as I joined the students and graduate with them. The following is the message I shared, but believe these 5 ps is relevant to any of us at any stage of life... 

In 2003 I graduated as a student in this very room from this very school. In 2003, many of you began your Moriah journey in our early learning centres. When I graduated as one of the oldest students, I would have never dreamed that 15 years later I would be graduating the youngest group of students, but tonight we go full circle. When you entered High School, I started this new role as Dean. And tonight we graduate together. There is no class I would rather be on stage with, than yours, as we complete this cycle.

In between, we have had some pretty magical experiences, many of which were on shabbatot and so were never captured on a camera, but will always live on as still-frames in our minds. From tishes to ruach sessions, deep conversations to stupid jokes, from the love game to S&P – our spiritual and physical workouts. I have watched a disparate group of individuals who were scared of what their peers thought become a collective cohort that truly cares for one another. We have learned some incredible messages along the way and I would like to distil much of what we have learned together into 5 different p’s.

P.1 – Passion:
The cream always floats to the top. Follow your passion in life. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! You will spend well over 50% of your waking hours during a regular weekday thinking about, travelling to or doing your job. There is no success or amount of money that justifies you spending most of your time doing something you are not passionate about. Imagine someone is climbing up a really steep mountain. He is aching and exhausted and a friend comes by in a helicopter and asks what he is doing? He says, ‘I am trying to climb to the top of the mountain.’ ‘How long have you been climbing for?’ Asks the friend, ‘days’ replies the climber. ‘Well come in my helicopter and I can get you up there in 5 minutes.’ His friend doesn’t realise it but he is missing the point. The mistake people make is that they think the top of the mountain is the goal and the climb is the means to that goal. The goal is actually the climb; the top of the mountain is the means. If there was no top, how would the climb be directed, but the climb is the crux – the journey, not just the destination. The way to passion is to be passionate on the way. Your job should not just be a means to money, but something you find meaningful in and of itself. So pick something you are passionate about because if you do what you love then you will love what you do.

P.2 – Purpose: 
One day while traveling, King Solomon encountered two men who were transporting a heavy stone. The king stopped and asked them what they were doing. The first person replied, ‘I am carrying a heavy stone.’ The second man answered, ‘I am building the Beit Hamikdash!’ When President JFK visited the NASA space centre, he saw a caretaker carrying a broom and approached to ask what he was doing. The caretaker responded: ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.’ You must have a sense of purpose in whatever you do – this will transform the most menial of tasks into a holy act, something that truly makes a difference. Don’t ask what you need from life but what life needs from you. The best place for you to be is where what you want to do meets what needs to be done – this is your purpose!

P. 3 – Planning:
Planning begins with a dream – start with the end in mind. How many people plan their holiday, from what clothes they want to bring to what places they want to see – where they want to stay and what they want to eat. But how many of these people truly plan life?
2018 is not just the year you finished – it is a historic one for our homeland, people and the State of Israel. It has been 51 years since Jerusalem was reunited following the 6-day war, 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, 75 years since the establishment of our school, 101 years since the Balfour declaration and 121 years since Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basil Switzerland. If you look across the breadth of these 121 years, and beyond, it’s the dreamers, visionaries and heroes that have written history and made Herzl’s dream a reality by coming up with a plan – im tirtzu ain zo agada – if you will it, it is no dream – you just need to plan!

P. 4 – People:
The greatest asset we have as a people is our people. You. I came to inspire you but you have inspired me – I came to educate you, but you have educated me. This generation coming up – selfless, altruistic, creative, proud and connected – I’ve seen you in every setting and know that the future is in good hands, your hands and I could not think of a more capable group of people. Surround yourself with the right people and a better person you will become.

P.5 – Practice:
Especially at graduation, when taking note of exceptional accomplishments, we tend to pay attention to the final achievement. Any professional in any area, including sport, business and academia, knows that the countless time and effort invested earns ultimate success rather than the final race, venture or accolade. But no one receives first prize for practicing and stadiums are not packed with spectators of practices. Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers, once recounted an anecdote:
I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, ‘You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.’ I holed the next one. Then he says, ‘You got $100 if you hole the next one.’ In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, ‘boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.’ And I shot back, ‘Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.’
We always see the end results, but seldom do by-passers take note of the early mornings, late nights, tears, sweat and strain, that are devoted by individuals and their spouses, parents and supporters to achieve success.

So my dear class of 2018, my students, my teachers, my friends and my family, as we stand at the close of this chapter of your life with you finishing school and have just begun 5779, I daven that Hashem helps you find the passion and purpose to plan and practice with the right people. I daven that you can tap into the power of graduating in Sukkot, zman simchateinu, a time of happiness that allows you to embrace true happiness in your life. I daven that the most you ask for in your prayers is the least you receive. And in the words of Eddie Jaku, a 98-year-old holocaust thriver from our community, I daven that you have lots of love to share, lots of good health to spare and wonderful friends that care. Shana Tova Umetuka, Moadim Lsimcha and Mazel tov!

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Selflessness

Many of us left shule and started building our Sukka straight away, going from mitzvah to mitzvah as we prepare to leave our solid homes and live in these temporary structures. Sukkot is a week-long carnival of unusual customs and curious ceromonies - a time of year where we engage more heavily in the practical element of Jewish living than any other. We abandon our homes, eat lengthy meals in precariously constructed huts, vigorously wave vegetation in shule, dance ecstatically with the Torah and spend a week in a carefully constructed cocoon of festivity and gratitude. 

One particularly delightful Sukkah custom is that of ‘inviting’ our ancestors to dine with us – the ushpizin. In addition to family and friends, a tradition has developed whereby on each night of Sukkot, a different Biblical figure is welcomed to dine with us at our table, and we tailor our conversation accordingly. Our ‘guest’ on the first night of Sukkot (the most significant night of the festival, according to Jewish Law) is none other than our patriarch Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people and the Biblical exemplar of the attribute of Hesed – loving-kindness. Indeed, upon reflection, we can actually see that the figure of Abraham neatly represents the entire festival of Sukkot, and embodies one of the primary functions of the enigmatic ritual of the Sukkah itself. 

In one of the most symbolically poignant stories of Genesis (ch. 18), Abraham is depicted as waiting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Picture the scene: a 99-year-old man, during the sweltering midday heat of the desert, not long after a painful operation, is sitting in his tent, bristling with excitement. Why? He senses an opportunity for an act of kindness, to invite some weary travelers into home. Despite inhabiting a tent - the poorest and most makeshift of dwellings - the prospect of enabling others to share in his blessings, and the ability to bestow goodwill upon others by inviting them into his humble abode, animate our benevolent forefather. Abraham, the founder of everything Jewish, embodies the ethos of Hachnasat Orchim - inviting guests. 

Throughout Sukkot we re-enact this awe-inspiring trait of selflessness. We are commanded to leave our homes and take up dwelling in the humblest of circumstances imaginable - yet we cannot conceive of doing this by ourselves. The Jewish heart sees the Sukkah as an unparalleled opportunity to marvel in our own blessings. We invite family, friends and even complete strangers to partake of our grateful happiness, to demonstrate that even while living (temporarily) with the basics, we still find room to share that which we have. It is an entire festival dedicated to the ethos of Abraham, a celebration of boundless generosity. This is neatly summed up by an aphorism from the Ethics of the Fathers (4:9): “Rabbi Yonatan says: Anyone who implements Torah when they are poor will end up implementing it when they are wealthy.”

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Promises

On Tuesday night, we will be returning to our true core. Throughout the tumultuous eras of our Jewish existence, anti-Semitic tormentors have accused us of many awful things. One of the most damaging and disturbing accusations was that Jews were deceitful, that they would promise something and then blithely refuse to honor their word. Such accusers would sometimes point to the prayer of Kol Nidrei – a short, solemn and haunting service at the start of Yom Kippur, in which the entire congregation collectively annuls any vows that they had made during that year – as evidence that the duplicitous Jews treat their promises as ephemeral and expendable. 

That the Kol Nidrei annulment only applies to promises undertaken towards God, not towards other people, is a fact that these slanderous accusers conveniently missed. Nonetheless, the question remains. Every Yom Kippur night, millions of Jews around the world make their way to their local shule, ready for a day of intense prayer, physical withdrawal and profound introspection. Puzzlingly, however, we begin the most introspective day of the entire Jewish calendar with a dry legal formula (albeit beautifully chanted), declaring all of our promises to be null and void. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this practice: for many centuries, countless Jews across the globe were forced to practice their Judaism in secret, and would have to begin their clandestine, dangerous Yom Kippur services by declaring that their public allegiance to other religions was false. This historical legacy alone is powerful enough to make us pause for thought. But in our day, where we live as proud, free Jews, under full protection of the law, what kind of public promises do we feel compelled to annul? 
The answer, sadly, is ‘too many’. Throughout our daily lives, we all swear implicit allegiance to a whole host of foreign ideas and concepts that do not correlate with who we truly are. We bow before the gods of financial success, social popularity, or physical perfection. Far too often, these allegiances push us to mistakenly prioritize the urgent over the important, the fashionable over the faithful, and the ephemeral over the eternal. Such loyalties envelope us in a robe of impeccable respectability but obscure the simple beauty of our true inner selves. 

Yom Kippur is the antidote to all of this. On Yom Kippur, we are ourselves. We eat no food, disconnect from technology, wear no makeup, attend no social events and dress in basic white. To achieve this purity, we must first disavow (even if only temporarily) all of our outside pressures and influences, stating clearly that our essence remains loyal to those elements of life which are non-negotiable: our values of faith, truth, justice and love. Kol Nidrei is a crucial step in this act of Teshuva, of returning to our untarnished essence. It is the moment where we stand exposed and vulnerable in front of God, taking stock of our choices and actions while asking Him to judge us favorably. This inner return to our true core is the what this holy day is about – and it is this that will, please God, secure us blessing in the year and a year of blessing. 

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Imperfection

What a powerful way to start the new year as we shared together in such a beautiful Rosh HaShana experience. Now is the time to carry this momentum forward as we consider the social genius of Yom Kippur which we will be living through this time next week. 

Imperfection is part and parcel of being human. In fact, an essential part of our experience is recognizing the extent to which we make mistakes. And perhaps most agonizing is the recognition and guilt of the mistakes we make in our dealings with other people. 

On the one hand, we are painfully aware of our own sensitivity. It is remarkable how easily we can be hurt or saddened by a nasty remark, cold shoulder or rejection of any kind. However, in our pride, we often struggle to admit to ourselves how profoundly hurt we have been by the actions of our friends and family. Instead of confronting and facing our feelings, we bury them deep inside. We are also acutely aware of the guilt we feel when in moments of weakness, frustration or fear we lash out in the same hurtful manner, causing similar grievance. This discomfort is often very difficult to face up to; sometimes we can spend years ignoring or maligning our friends or family, simply because we cannot admit to ourselves how deeply we have hurt them, nor express how sorry we truly are for having caused them pain. Our remorse paralyzes us to the extent that we find it almost impossible to apologize. It is indeed quite tragic that we social beings spend time either feeling angry and upset towards those who have hurt us or feeling guilt and torment towards those whom we have hurt. 

How can we attempt to overcome these blemishes and restore societal harmony? Judaism, with its uncanny perception of human nature, has come up with a brilliant response: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, we stand in shule and declare an elaborate list of our collective failures and transgressions. In other words, we proclaim that we are all guilty in the eyes of God. 

With human error declared, on Yom Kippur, as a universal truth, it now becomes significantly easier to face up to and admit our own personal infractions, however deeply entrenched or ignored. It is a day where we recognize our flaws, and confront them with courage and absolute integrity. Only once we achieve this self-recognition are we able to address our obligation to rectify the damage that we have wrought upon others. And through this process we chip away at the resentment and pain, slowly opening ourselves to the possibility of forgiving the mistakes of our fellow beings. It is a most cathartic day, one that offers hope for renewal and improvement for every person created in the image of God. 

Just imagine if this Jewish concept went global? Imagine a scenario in which the whole of humanity takes a full day out of their calendar, refuses to indulge in food or physical pleasure, and instead focuses upon sincerely forgiving and seeking forgiveness for any harm? It may seem inconceivable, yet it is possible that Yom Kippur – when entered into with the correct preparation and genuine sincerity – can provide a blueprint for achieving a permanent ceasefire in the battle between our individual selves and all of our fellow creatures. May we all merit such peace in our lives this Yom Kippur and always. 

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Rosh Hashana - The centrality of History 

If you were to stand at the base of a mighty mountain, at the front door of an extravagant palace, or an inch away from a sweeping tapestry, you might know that you were standing in the presence of something special, but you would fail to grasp its greatness. A single stone of the Kotel or a solitary chunk of rock at the base of Mount Everest can fail to impress. Retreat to a point at which you can take in the magnificence in its entirety and only then will you be able to truly appreciate what your eyes behold. 

On Rosh Hashana, we spend a great deal of time mentioning remembrance. Indeed, a centerpiece of the main prayer service is called Zichronot, or remembrances, during which we invoke many heroic deeds of our ancestors in the Bible (such as the righteousness of Noah, the self-sacrifice of Isaac and the ironclad faith of the Jews in the Desert). We beseech God to remember these great individuals - and in their merit, to remember us too. Like all compositions of prayer, these paragraphs are not addressed solely to God - they are equally written with the intention of impacting each of us. While we will never be able to fully comprehend the notion of God ‘remembering’, this focus on memory and on memories teaches us a crucial lesson about the underlying meaning of Jewish living. 

To be a Jew is to remember. To actively remember. Zachor. 

This principle constitutes the essence of our existence and permeates throughout the contours of our calendar. Every Friday night we lift a glass of wine to remember that there is a Creator behind creation, every Seder Night we engage our senses to relive and remember the salvation from oppression of the Exodus, every Tisha B’av we remember and commemorate the tragedies of a long, painful history, and every Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we remember and celebrate our miraculous national resurrection. 

To be a Jew is to set aside time for intense and active remembrance - affording us an opportunity to reflect upon our history, our mission, and our lofty purpose in this world. As Jews, we must learn the art of contextualization - to orient our internal paradigms until we perceive ourselves not only as individuals (which is important in and of itself), but as an essential element of an enormous tapestry of breathtaking beauty and irreducible meaning. 

Rosh Hashana, as the first moment of the Jewish year, represents the opportunity to put this into action. This is the time to step back and contextualize. The ‘memories’ that we invoke in our prayers compel us to recalibrate, to take the time to remind ourselves to see beyond our own interests and understand our larger contexts as we create new memories. This process reminds us that we do not stand alone before God - rather, we are linked to vast networks that imbue our lives with purpose, significance and commitment. We remind ourselves that we are part of a global Jewish community that lives in a time of both obstacles and opportunity, and therefore we pray for the strength to overcome the challenges. We remind ourselves that we are part of the magnificent Jewish story, a narrative replete with heroines and heroes, whose faith and righteousness serve to guide our own decisions in the service of God and our people. We remind ourselves, finally, that we are part of humankind as a whole, whose peace and prosperity we yearn and pray for every day. 

Through remembering the greater context in which we live our lives, we give meaning to our existence that exceeds the fleeting pursuit of our own individual ends alone. This expanded consciousness and broadened perspective enables us to connect to something infinitely greater than ourselves. 

Next week, on Rosh Hashana, may we merit to truly grasp the greatness of our existence, to experience this deeper level of meaning throughout the upcoming year, and to spread our light throughout the entire world. 

Shana Tova Umetuka!

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Multitasking

In today’s world, the term ‘multi-tasking’ has become a misused word rather than a valued skill. What most of us are doing when we talk about multi-tasking is actually switching tasks. 

If you are having people over for lunch, you will have to consider multiple things; how many spaces you need, what food you will serve, when and where you will go shopping, etc. You have to focus on multiple tasks in order to achieve one overall objective. This is multi-tasking. 

Switching tasks on the other hand doesn’t have a common focus. Switching tasks, like checking Facebook while emailing your friend and sitting in front of other people having coffee, slows us down dramatically. 

Psychologist Megan Jones at the University of California, Berkeley, had author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang count from one to ten as quickly as possible. She then asked him to recite the alphabet from A to J. He did both in 1.5 seconds. Then, she asked him to alternate between numbers and letters – “one, A, two, B” and so on. The switching took the author 4.5 seconds – three times as long to complete. 

It is okay and even beneficial to multi-task when each task is part of the same overall objective. However, switching tasks, in today’s super busy environment, is never a good idea as we are ultimately taking 2 steps back in order to try and take one step forward.

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Time

How long do you think you could expect to live in the period of Enlightenment? Fifty years, maybe sixty?

Well, while definitely exciting times, the global life expectancy back then was only 29 years of age. I would have been seen as old relative to the average age, yet in the 21st century, I’m still considered to be quite young.

Less than a century ago, people died from a whole lot of basic injuries and sicknesses. Take for example the son of US president, Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, 16 year old Calvin Jr. died due to an infected blister from a game of tennis. 

Contrastingly, in this Post-Enlightenment time, our health and our life expectancies have flourished. When you think about achievements of some of the greats of those times, despite their young age, the question should be… What do we do with our time? 

If you add the fact that life was so much less efficient without things like cars, microwaves and emails, it’s even more mind boggling. But maybe we are using our efficient tools to make us less efficient. So much of our time has been filled with things that didn’t exist before, for example, watching TV and scrolling through social media. 

It has been on Counterpoint the last 2 weeks that I noticed how much this applies to the next generation. The quality relationships they built, deep ideas they discussed and meaningful moments they took advantage of in less than one week was more than they usually have in months and this is because they disconnected from some of these distractions to reconnect to themselves.

As we approach Rosh Hashana in less than a month and begin another year, we should be asking ourselves if we are not just using our extra years wisely, but the extra days, hours, minutes and even seconds...

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Tu B'Av

If the month of Av had a horoscope reading it would sound something like this: “buckle up – you’re headed for an emotional rollercoaster – a time when emotions run rampant.”

Just after we are left feeling fragile and lost from the sadness of Tisha B’Av, tonight we bring in Tu B’Av, which rolls around on the full moon of Av and things take a dramatic shift. The second half of Av turns into a celebration of love and connection – culminating in Tu Ba’av – the Jewish Love Day.

Jewish teachings say that in order to feel whole, we must know what it is to feel broken. Just as we smash the glass under the Chuppah to commemorate the destruction of the temple in our most joyous time of union, we learn that we cannot have light without reflecting on darkness. 

Only by acknowledging our individual flaws and vulnerabilities can we then begin to heal them. Tonight, lets come together under the full moon of Tu B’Av to bring more light and love into this world.

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Tisha B'Av

Concluding Tisha B’av today, many powerful emotions are evoked; like sadness, longing, despair, and - most poignantly - a deep sense of loss. However, I’d like to suggest another way of focusing as we move forward: this day should have awoken within us a deep sense of responsibility.

Why? Because we don’t live this way any more. Because we are fortunate enough to live in a free country, in a society that protects and defends us, close to friends and family who imbue our lives with joyous meaning. Jews today hardly experience starvation, destitution or lethal persecution, relative to the past. In general, our terrible past contrasts sharply with our comfortable present.

Therefore - we have a responsibility to celebrate our circumstances, to live lives full of rich experiences, spiritual beauty, and deep commitments. We have a responsibility to take advantage of all our resources and freedoms, to demonstrate that Jews don’t need persecution to be fully aware of their Jewishness. We have a responsibility to our ancestors, who clung to their Jewishness through hellish experience, to embrace it amid comfort and opportunity. And we have a responsibility to our descendants who will look to us and ask: what did you contribute to the Jewish story?

Having felt the destruction, we should truly rebuild. A Jewishness that thrives on freedom and opportunity: let that be our legacy.

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Family and Friends

We all like to prepare for the year – but how do we prepare ourselves for a successful holiday period?

Imagine you are offered a delicious sizzling steak (or vegetarian equivalent). As you are about to take your first bite you are stopped and offered $1000 instead. You choose the $1000, and are then offered two round the world tickets for you and a friend.

Clearly, the choice is obvious. Yet, once again as you reach out to take the tickets, the ultimate offer arrives – an unlimited credit card that can be yours for the rest of your life. Instantly, your the excitement kicks in and you realise what this could mean… However, there is a catch. Accepting the credit card means that you have to give up seeing and speaking to your family and friends for 10 years. I don’t know anyone who would accept this offer. Yet, how often do we get caught up in pursuing life’s superficial luxuries without considering the toll that this takes on our relationships. We are all guilty of seeking out external pleasures when in reality, positive relationships with those we care about are priceless. It is no wonder that we constantly need to replace our material possessions after a finite period of time and yet when it comes to those we love, nothing can replace quality time together.

Last week, my wife Renana, went away for a few days. Her absence forced me to spend even more time with my children. And I loved it! Being the sole person responsible for getting them ready every morning, putting them to sleep every evening and being there for anything they needed was a true joy and reminded me how lucky I am. 

We should challenge ourselves to use the opportunity to bond more with our family and friends, to foster those relationships and make memories that are more valuable than any possession we can acquire! Whilst the steak may seem tempting, the gifts we have been bestowed outdo any ‘treat’ any day.

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Fast Days

National fast days are always a time to pause and reflect, to internalise some of the historical wisdom that such days impart. It was on the 17th of Tammuz that the Roman army, on their way to destroying the second Beit Hamikdash, managed to breach the wall of the holy city of Jerusalem. Breaching the wall was the beginning of the fall of the city - the moment where hostile strangers would storm in and violate the peace and sanctity of God’s home. Thousands of years later, we still mourn the breach of these walls. 

Walls are important. To be human is to put up walls, to define yourself and decide which elements of your life are to be open to the public and which elements are to remain private and intimate. These walls exist to guarantee the safety and the individuality of each person, to remind us that no matter how well we think we know another person, there are always deeper, more personal layers to this sacred human being, boundaries that we cannot and should not cross. We must think carefully when erecting boundaries around ourselves, as this will define us and our relationship with other individuals. 

Over the past few years, scandal after scandal has crossed our newsfeed, as the #Metoo movement has successfully exposed the crimes of individuals who did not respect boundaries, who selfishly tore down other people’s walls and imposed themselves on the inner lives of their victims. Truly, such behaviour is a tragedy worthy of a fast. If we wish to make our communities (both real and virtual) a safe place for us and our children, the first thing we must insist on is that walls are put in place, and that everyone respects the red lines that people place around themselves. Only when we respect everyone’s individual self-creation, when we understand that personal walls musn’t be breached, can we come together to create a holy community.

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Thank you.

Feeling overwhelmed with gratitude by the amount of people that shared with us in our gratitude today. Many people asked for a copy of Renana's speech on our behalf

What a year it has been. Even though this was something that our immediate and extended family have been going through. We have never felt alone as we have had the tremendous support from this community the whole way through. 

We are overwhelmed by Lital’s middle name – gila or joy, to be here celebrating Lital’s health. I want to take this opportunity to learn a short Mishnah together (Avot 5:10):

[Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of one’s actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

These are some of the best traits we can acquire – so let’s consider each one:
1) Ayin Tova – A good eye – the eye is the part of our body with which we perceive the world. We see according to the light waves that are reflected through the lens of our eyes and it is without doubt the light, positivity and perspective, that our family have brought, that has allowed us to maintain an ayin tova. 
a. Debbie and Geoff, Rachel and Brad, Gabi and Eitan – your endless devotion is beyond anything I have ever seen. You have brought new meaning to the words unconditional love and I truly love our relationship. I cannot tell you how glad I am that the formative years of our children’s lives was spent with you and the bonds that you have formed will be there for life. 
b. Mommy and abba, Tzippy and Jason, Chana and Richard, Avishai and Danielle, Jon Jon and Lior – it’s been hard not having you around us. But when you dropped everything to come at different times to support us, it showed me that no distance can ever get in the way of our special bonds and even when you were not here physically, we always felt your support as if you were right by our side.
c. Yehuda and Shayna – you are the best big siblings Lital could ever ask for. You have had to go through more than most children have had to go through at your age and we are so proud of you for your love and understanding, continuing to grow as such incredible individuals as you make our family complete.  
d. Benji, there is no one else I would have wanted by my side during this whole episode. You have allowed me to lean on you when things got too overwhelming and you have always been there show all of us the ayin tova in all of this. I am blessed to have you as my husband and of course the father of our 3 beautiful children. 
2) Chaver tov – A good friend – this period has made us realize how lucky we are to have such wonderful friends around the world. chaver comes from the word chibur – connection. Our connections with one another and sense of friendship is usually tested at times like this and with so many of our friends it has only strengthened, reminding us how lucky we are to be so connected.
3) Shachen tov – A good neighbor – before we moved here Benji always told me about the Sydney Jewish community. But never did I understand how special this community truly is. Wow. To walk around the school, shules or street and have every second person ask about Lital with such genuine care and concern or cry tears of happiness when they see her out and about, makes me realize why this is one of the most special communities.
4) Haroe et hanolad – To see what is born [out of one’s actions] –this can be interpreted in 2 ways. 
a. The first is the ability to appreciate what is going to happen next. Birth is painful, but it brings life into this world. And while we went through pain – it was side by side with our family, friends and community and therefore we were never truly alone and able to experience the elation of what we are celebrating today.
b. The second, is the ability to appreciate what is going to happen next, meaning to anticipate what is going to be and therefore what is going to needed. We had people bringing over gifts to help our kids feel special. Meals were taken care of, baskets of fruit and vegetables. This was you guys anticipating the things we needed at a time that were not able to anticipate ourselves. So many signed up for www.hods.org to be organ donors and tens of thousands of dollars was raised for this important cause, extending this to anticipate the needs of others.

In one foul swoop, our family provided an ayin tova with such a positive perspective, we had good friends and good neighbors in the form of our community, all who came together as one to anticipate and support us. 

5) Lev tov – The final trait, a good heart, is something that I have learnt from Lital herself. Rebbe yochanan likes this answer the best because he says if you have a good heart you automatically have all those other qualities. 

One moment that sticks out in my mind was in the hospital after her transplant, one of the nurses came into Lital’s room to perform some tests. While the nurse poked and prodded Lital – she cried and screamed but when it was all over, she looked up at the nurse giving her that gorgeous signature smile. The nurse smiled too, looked over at me and said, ‘Lital is the most forgiving baby I have ever met.’

These have been trying times and while we have a strong relationship with Hashem, many times, I was definitely left wondering why. Why Hashem have you made such a young innocent baby go through this torture. Feeling so unwell within herself, needing test after test, not tolerating food, vomiting and having endless medication. Why do Shayna and Yehuda need to compete for their parent’s attention, scared to wake up in the middle of the night to find that we have had to rush back to the hospital for who know how long. Why do we all need to have our lives thrown completely out of control. But then I go back to Lital and her gorgeous smile.

Everyone that has spent time with Lital knows that she is one of the most enthusiastic and happy babies I have ever met. Even with everything she has gone through she is still able to be positive, smile and enjoy the good moments. It is as if, in her short time here, she has already gained a wisdom to appreciate and make the most of the gift that is life.

Although I don’t have answers to my questions of Why Lital has taught me to enjoy the wonderful things life has to offer. She has brought so much love and joy into our lives. She has taught us to smile even during the tough times, to cherish family and community and to appreciate life in ways I never thought possible.

Lital has done so much good in her short life without having any knowledge she is doing it. Most people take a lifetime to teach about life – Lital started from day one. For all that she has given and taught us through this experience I am forever grateful. I am grateful to all our family who have been there every step of the way, grateful to all of you for all your friendships and support and grateful to Hashem, the surgeons, doctors, nurses, Lital’s organ donor and his entire family, who saved our babies life making it possible for us to celebrate today.

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Judging the Donkey

A donkey doesn’t have the grace of a horse, the height of a camel, or the personality of a dog, but has a well-earned reputation as a short, graceless, dull beast of burden, only useful for the simple task of carrying heavy loads. Yet in this week’s Parsha we learn that even this lowliest of creatures could see the angel of God where Bilam, one of the greatest prophets could not! This simple beast had maintained a basic moral clarity and could identify an angel when it stood in front of him. His master, despite all his fame, wealth and glory, had been eager to use his Divine talents for the worst possible means. Bilam had lost his moral compass, his ‘vision’. All his amazing prophetic abilities became useless the moment he chose to utilise them for evil. Having sold his values, Bilam could no longer see the angels guiding his path.

The story of Bilam’s donkey has never been more relevant. It serves as an annual reminder of how we should go about choosing our leaders and role models. We must never be blinded by ‘celebrity’ status. Rather, we must judge each person by their character, their moral standards, and their efforts to make the world a better place. Because any human being who chooses to violate basic standards of moral decency, (even if they have reached a level of prophecy comparable to Moses himself) is inferior to a donkey.

As parashat Balak is approaching this Shabbat, may we all be able to maintain our moral clarity, and perceive the angels along the way!

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True Kindness and Customer Service

One day, a small family crisis erupted when a little boy realized that he’d forgotten his stuffed giraffe (Joshie) at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The father quickly contacted the hotel staff and requested they send the giraffe as soon as possible and he also asked whether, in the meantime, they could send a photo of Joshie so that his son could be comforted with the knowledge that the giraffe was safe.

Well, the Ritz-Carlton did far more than send the boy a simple photograph of Joshie; in fact, they sent a binder full of photos – Joshie lounging on a chair next to the pool, Joshie riding a golf cart, Joshie getting a spa treatment, hanging out with the hotel parrot and other fun activities at the hotel. By going above and beyond expectations, the Ritz-Carlton created a memorable experience that the boy and his family won’t forget soon. Psychologists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson describe this as breaking the script, and it’s a useful way for businesses to create lasting bonds with customers and, more importantly, for families to learn with one another.

For any given situation, there’s a typical script of how events unfold. Let’s say a customer orders a burger and it’s delivered cold, following the standard script, the waiter apologizes and the customer leaves a smaller tip than usual. But if the restaurant wanted to break the script, it could apologize, offer to cover the customer’s meal and give him a free dessert as well. This unexpected offer happened to me last week at Wolf and lamb in New York and that is why I am giving them a mention here and will go back there again. 

The bakery chain Pret A Manger implements a non-traditional strategy by incorporating the element of surprise into consumer elations. They allow their employees to give away a certain number of products to customers each week. So, if a customer comes in who looks like she’s had a bad day, the staff behind the counter can cheer her up by giving her a free cinnamon roll. I too like to empower my colleagues with the opportunity to break the script in their day to day encounters and I always learn of great results!

The unpredictability of this random act of kindness makes it a win-win situation: the customer is happy and, thus, the business increases its chances of seeing them again.

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