Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Top 10 things your Rabbi will speak about on Yom Kippur

If you remember, last year Steve Jobs died before Yom Kippur.  His death was THE news story of the day and I am sure there were more than a few Rabbis who used his death as a springboard for a Yom Kippur sermon.  (I thought of 10 ways.  I am sure there were many more.)

This year there is no major news story that I know of leading up to Yom kippur.  Here are 10 things that your Rabbi may speak about tomorrow depending on what kind of Rabbi he is.

1. Iran -there is a big push from many directions to speak about Iran.  If your Rabbi is an AIPAC Rabbi, he will probably speak about Iran.  I have received many e-mails and even a high holidays guide from AIPAC urging me to speak on this topic.  Also, the chief Rabbi of Israel sent out this prayer to say in shul.  The OU and the RCA also encouraging adding the prayer.

2. The Upcoming Election - this is a bit trickier.  If a Rabbi comes across partisan then the least his problems is that he jeopardizes the synagogues non-profit status.  The bigger problem is that he risks alienating at least half of his congregation, plus the people who think that it is distasteful to bring politics into the synagogue to begin, regardless of which side the Rabbi supports.  never the less, it is a big election year and there are certainly big ideas to think about.

3. Turmoil in the Middle East / Arab World - If your Rabbi is liberal you are unlikely to hear anything about this.  But the story of how the middle east was ignited by an anti Islamic film is certainly something that has potential.  I have heard Rabbis use stories like this to speak against Jewish fundamentalism, and I have actually heard Rabbis take the counter intuitive and use it to challenge the congregation and say in what (positive) ways do we express that we care about Judaism?

4. The iPhone 5 - particularly if your Rabbi is a technologically savvy one.  Or your Rabbi can talk about how our worship of technology is idolatry (that is if he is a droid guy!)

5. Some new movie / pop culture reference - This is if your Rabbi is a new "young and hip" Rabbi.  Even though I myself am guilty of this sometimes (mostly references, never the center of a sermon) and I contribute to a pop culture blog, nevertheless, I think this is not appropriate for the high holidays.  It is a younger Rabbi thing.  He will grow out of it (as I did).

6. The Yom Kippur Avodah - The amazing Torah Musing blog just put up Rabbi Soloveitchik's analysis of the Yom Kippur service, written by his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.  If your Rabbi has been through that and can deliver it like the Rav did then you will most likely be renewing your shul membership for next year.

7. Our relationship with God - I did this for the first day of Rosh Hashana.  I always like it when Rabbis bring God into shul!

8. Yizkor - The sermon is traditionally given immediately prior to Yizkor.  This is a safe crowd pleaser.  you generally can't go wrong with this.  Some Rabbis actually prepare two sermons - their regular one and a Yizkor one in addition.  That is not easy!

9. The Forbidden Sexual relationships that we read at minchah time - Unlikely.

10. The book of Yonah - I give a class in Yonah in the afternoon before Minchah.  There are so many amazing themes there.  Always a winner!

I will not be talking about any of these things at Beth Israel.  I still have a /few hours to go.  I am sure I will think of something good! 
Have a meaningful fast, may we all be forgiven for our sins, and have a wonderful new year.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bringing Ghana to Nebraska on October 11th!

I have not had a chance to write fully about my summer experience in Ghana.  But I managed to get the director of the program that I volunteered at a speaking gig in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I submitted this piece to our local Jewish paper to promote the event.  I hope that everyone in Omaha can drive out to Lincoln on October 11 at 7:30 pm to hear this extraordinary man tell his story.  You will not regret it!!!

This past summer I visited Ghana as a participant of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Young Rabbis Delegation.

AJWS partners with over 400 grassroots organizations in 31 countries around the world that are working to provide people with access to prosperity, health care, food, education, and basic human rights, in places where none of those things are taken for granted. 

What I love about AJWS is that they apply Warren Buffett's investment strategies to providing grants.  AJWS does not fund ideas, and they do not try to start new programs in foreign countries.  Like Warren Buffett, they do their homework and find programs that are already successful.  More accurately, Warren Buffett and AJWS look for extraordinary people who have already demonstrated that they and their company or organization are doing something special.  They approach those people and say, “We will help you do what you are already doing—and with our help and resources you can do it even better!”

In Ghana, I had the privilege of meeting one of these extraordinary people who is making a difference.  His name is James Kofi Annan (no relation to the former U.N. Secretary), and his organization is called Challenging Heights.

The big problem that Ghana faces is child trafficking.  In the coastal regions, where fishing is a big industry, children are sold into slavery to work on fishing ships.  A fishing net is a valuable piece of equipment.  If the net gets caught under the boat, pulling the net may cause it to tear.  But child slaves are cheap.  So the fisherman would rather risk losing a cheap child slave rather than risk tearing his precious net.  He can easily purchase another child!

This evil, twisted, perverse mindset is a tragic reality.  Parents with children that they cannot afford are talked into selling their children into slavery, often coaxed with false promises that their children will be cared for and taught a viable trade.  The reality is that they are abused, beaten, starved, tortured, sometimes disfigured, maimed, and even sent to certain death.

Mostly boys are sold as workers, but often young girls are used as sex slaves to occupy the male slaves.

James Kofi Annan was the youngest of 12 children.  He was sold into slavery at the age of six years old.  As a slave, he suffered all sorts of abuse and torture, often living on one small meal a day.  He was deprived of education, human rights, and his very humanity. 

At the age of 13, after seven years of slavery, he managed to escape.  He somehow managed to return to his family, but found himself rejected by them. 

With nowhere to go and no one to help him, he picked himself up and decided to make something of his life.  His heroic story of how he did this, against impossible odds, is worthy of its own movie.  He managed to somehow support himself and receive an education—eventually earning a college degree.  He was employed by a Barclays bank, and it was not long before he was promoted to manager.  In 2003, he won a prize for being the best manager in the region.  Now, for the first time with discretionary income, he had the ability to do what he had always wanted to do—rescue children from slavery.

Rescuing a child from slavery is even harder than it sounds.  First of all, you have to be able to prove that the child is a slave.  Slavery was outlawed in Ghana in 2005(!!!) so slave owners will not readily admit that the children on their boats do not belong to them, and parents are not always quick to admit that they sold a child into slavery.  Only after you have identified the parents and can definitively identify the child, you have to find the boat that the child is on.  Then you must somehow negotiate the child's freedom with the slave owner, a dangerous, sometimes life-threatening ordeal. 

The difficult process of rescuing a child takes time, resources, and skill.  James managed to find all of these because he had the most important ingredient of all—the  determination to do what was right and to spare children from the hell that he went through.

In 2003, James successfully rescued two children, but for these children rescue is not the end of the journey towards freedom.  It is only the beginning. 

Like James' parents, often parents who sold their children view them as a financial burden and are not ready to welcome them back.  More often, the children have terrible resentment for the parents who sold them into a life of slavery.  Both parents and children must go through a process of rehabilitation.

That is where Challenging Heights comes in.  In 2005, James started Challenging Heights as a place where rescued children can find a home and receive an education while being slowly integrated back into their families and into lives of freedom.  By 2005, over 50 children had been rescued from slavery because of James.  In the last seven years, hundreds more have been rescued.

James is also responsible for starting a youth movement for local children that inspires them to value education, to strive for success, and educates them about their rights—specifically, that they have the right to freedom.  The children are taught about resources they have that can prevent themselves and others from being sold into slavery. 

James has also started parent groups that educate parents on the truth about slavery and that slavery is not an option.  The parents are taught about resources that are available to them, specifically how to access micro loans to help them start their own businesses that can raise them out of the poverty that precipitates childhood slavery.

Almost 8,000 families in the region have been affected by James' work. 

I, along with 16 other Rabbis from all over America, had the privilege of volunteering at Challenging Heights.  We got to interact with the staff and with the children.  Every child we met was at one time a slave, but at Challenging Heights it was hard to tell.  These children are now being cared for, loved, educated, and given hope for a bright future. 

On the last day, we had the honor of participating in the grand opening of the new technology center.  We walked into a brand new building, funded by AJWS, with 30 brand new computers.  At each computer was a child learning how to use Microsoft Word and Facebook.  At the front of the room was a proud teacher looking out to a classroom of students who will one day grow up to make something of themselves and make a difference in the world.

Today Challenging Heights has a robust staff, mostly young people who were somehow inspired by James as children and aspire to make a difference as he did.  James, who is still in his early 30s, is a consummate leader and is in the process of passing over the reins of leadership to a capable and devoted protégé so that he can move on to other projects, but he remains an inspiration to every child at Challenging Heights.  One day we were playing soccer with some of the boys and there was one particular boy who was an exceptional athlete.  One of the Rabbis asked him if he wanted to be a professional soccer player.  "No," said the boy.  "When I grow up, I want to be a bank manager!"

Thanks to Ruth Messinger, the director of AJWS, James Kofi Annan was brought to the attention of members of the faculty of Grinnell College and he was chosen as the recipient of the Frederick Douglass Freedom Award.  The prize included $100,000 which James reinvested in Challenging Heights.  Part of the award requires James to visit Grinnell a few times a year and teach a seminar.  When I learned this, I contacted James and asked if he would be interested in speaking in Nebraska.  He was.  Thanks to Dr. Jean Cahan, Director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies, the Harris Center will be sponsoring James as a speaker at the annual UNL conference on human trafficking.  James will be speaking in the Centennial Room of the City Campus Union on Thursday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m.  I urge everyone from Omaha to make the trip to Lincoln to hear the full story of this remarkable man.

I am grateful for AJWS for giving me this unforgettable experience.  James is only one of over 400 grantees that they partner with.  When I think about what James has accomplished with the help of AJWS, it is hard to imagine the impact that 400 people just like James are having on the world, thanks to AJWS.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What is Jewish about the Beatles?

Tonight the Beatles played a sold out show in Omaha for the Jewish community.
Well, not exactly. A Beatles cover band performed for the federations annual dinner.
The meal was completely kosher - supervised by the Omaha Vaad HaKashrut.
The event was reasonably priced.
The entire Jewish community was invited.
And there was no solicitation. It was purely an event to being the community together.

Leading up to the event there were two concerns that people asked me - as a rabbi.
1.) is it appropriate to do the event between rosh hashana and yom kippur?
And 2.) shouldn't a Jewish event have more Jewish content?

In answer to both of those questions, I believe the Jewish content was the fact that the event is during the high holidays.

600 Jews filled the room. We have not had an event like that in many years here in Omaha. That is 10% of our community. There is an energy in the room that everyone feels. People are remembering how great it is to be part of this community. I believe this will remind people where they belong for yom kippur and sukkot.

I think all events should be held around the holidays.  The Jewish content is the timing and the event is simply a way for us to celebrate the holidays together. As a community and as a family.

Friday, September 21, 2012

My Invisible chair Rosh Hashana sermon

Why are we here?  What is our purpose in the world?  A big question, but one that we all know the answer to.  Our purpose in this world is to do good. 

The real question is what is "good?"  That question has many answers, and it is different for every person, for every time, and for every situation. 

But we can all agree that our purpose is to do good.  And most of the time, if not all of the time, it is clear what good is. 

So do good. 

Life would be that easy, if not for one thing - the yetzer harah.  Hashem created something called the yetzer Harah whose only job is to prevent us from doing good and entice us to do bad. 

Every minute of every day is a battle that we all fight against the yetzer harah in our quest to do good.

And the yetzer harah is always with us, every minute of our lives, from the time that we are first cognisant of the difference between good and bad all the way until we die. 

Where ever we are, the yetzer harah is always there.  He is here with us right now in shul on Rosh Hashanah. 

In fact, he is sitting here in this chair - and I have a few questions for him. 

Say hello yetzer harah.

Disclaimer: this sermon is not meant in any way to imply that President Obama is the yetzer harah.
The idea of personifying the yetzer harsh is much older than the Republican national convention.  It is even older than Clint Eastwood.

From the Torah, to the prophets, to the gemara, all the way to modern times, Jewish literature regularly personifies the yetzer harah as if it were a person or some creature that is constantly scheming and thinking of ways to get us to sin.

When I first arrived at Yeshiva in Israel, before we even unpacked our bags, we were assembled for a welcoming lecture from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Mirsky. 
Rav Mirsky told us the following story. 
When each of us were boarding the plane to go to Israel in Newark airport we turned for one last waive goodbye to our parents and we saw a stranger standing with our parents also waiving goodbye.  The stranger looked so familiar that we had to turn back and ask who he was.
"I am your yetzer harah" he said.
"Aren't you coming with me to Israel?"  You asked.
"Nope" he answered.  "I am staying right here in New Jersey.  Good luck in Israel."
"Wow" you thought.  An entire year with no yetzer harah.  That will be amazing.
But when you got off the plane in Tel Aviv and were collecting your bags, standing by the carousel you noticed once again your yetzer harah.
"What are you doing here?"  you asked.  "I thought you were staying in America?"
"Oh!  You are confusing me with someone else.  That guy you saw at Newark, that was your America yetzer harah.  You see, in America it does not take much to get you to sin.  So we dispatch a lightweight yetzer harah to follow you around.  But in Israel you are going to be in Yeshiva all day.  you are in Jerusalem, the holy city and not far from the kotel.  If the same yetzer harah that tailed you in high school tried to tempt you with the same things that tempted you in high school you would easily be able to resist.  So in Israel we send in the big guns!  I am your Israel Yetzer harah and I will be on you like glue and I will be using all the heavy artillery to get you to sin."
This story reflects chazal's counter intuitive idea that the greater the person the greater his yetzer harah.  
A weak person can be tempted by anything.  He does not need a strong yetzer harah.  But the more a person works on his character the shrewder and stronger his yetzer harah must be in order to get him to sin.

So, Yetzer Harah, here is the question that I have for you.  How strong are you compared to your ancestors?  By knowing how our generation's yetzer harah rates we can gain an idea of how strong we need to be to fight him. 
Let's take a walk down memory lane to the first yetzer harah.  The snake.  If you visit the yetzer harah hall of fame, as soon as you walk in there is a big statue of the snake from the garden of eden. 

Now there was a yetzer harah!!
The Torah says that he was the shrewdest of all creatures that hashem had made. 

And  he had to be!  Can you imagine how hard his job was??  First of all, his only two opponents were Adam and chava.  Part of the yetzer harah's strategy is to get us to somehow forget about God.  How could you get them to forget about God!  They were created by him directly!!  
And what did he have to tempt them with?  There was only one sin that they could possibly do!  Everything in the world was permitted except for the fruit of one tree.  He had a hard job. 
But he did it!  your great great grandfather beat our great great grandparents.

Now let's take a look at you!  You are nothing! 
Because you have the Internet.

They say that Facebook has over 900 million users.  that is almost a billion hours of wasted time, gossiping, and stalking exes every day!  All you have to do is get people to log on!

Your ancestor, the snake had an advantage.  Before the tree incident Adam and Chava were lacking one of our most valuable weapons in the battle against our yetzer harah - SHAME!

Before he died Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai blessed his students that they should fear Hashem as much as they fear man.  How many sins are prevented because people are afraid that someone might see them?

We used to have shame.  Twenty years ago if a person wanted to buy pornography he had to get in his car, drive into a populated area, walk into a store that sold it, pick it up off the shelf, walk to the register with it, hand it to the clerk, and take money from his wallet to pay for it.  Then he had to hide it so that his friends and family did not find it.

Not today.  Today it is as easy as closing the door and click click click.  Done. 

And there are many sins that we can now do because of the Internet with no shame. 

Yetzre harah, you don't even have to try anymore do you?

And on top of that, our ancestors were too busy with all kinds of other problems to have time to give in to you.  They were too busy dealing with the perils of their difficult lives to fall for your tricks. 

Thank goodness today we do not deal with the same problems they had: destitute poverty, domestic war, pogroms, common illnesses that are now easily treatable. 

But because of our good health, freedom, and relative prosperity our yetzer harah is running wild!.

The problems that face our society today: compulsive spending, impulsive violence, underachievement, procrastination, substance abuse, unhealthy diet, these are all things that plague us in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined.  And every one of them is a result of not being able to defeat our yetzer harah.  

We are at war against the yetzer harah.  And our generation is losing.  

The first recorded struggle with the yetzer harah was Adam and Chava's son Kayin.  The yetzer harah used two of his greatest weapons against kayin.  First he made him jealous and then he made him depressed.  When someone is depressed the yetzer harah can get them to think and do almost anything!

Hashem saw that Kayin was struggling, so he said to him, "if you do good, good, but if not, the yetzer harah is crouching by the door in ambush.  He is gunning for you!"

But then Hashem said something very important.  he told Kayin, "But you can conquer him!"

Unfortunately we know the rest of the Kayin story. 

But Hashem's words are there for us to learn from.  Kayin would have wanted us to learn from them. 

Hashem created the yetzer harah.  he did so for our benefit.  So that we could achieve virtue.  And if Hashem said that we can beat him, then we can beat him!!

Yetzer Harah, you wanna fight?  Well, as Clint would say, "Go ahead, make my day of judgement!"
In the words of Rav Yisrael Salanter:

You are trained in the art of warfare.  You prepared for your vocation from the earliest of days.  The vagaries of time and troubles of old age do not confound you as they do us.  So therefore, we must adapt to your methods.  

We need to train ourselves.  His primary occupation is getting us to sin.  So our primary occupation must be the pursuit of virtue.  We must immerse ourselves in Torah study and constantly proactively look for mitzvoth that we can do.

He is patient and in control of his emotions.  We must control our emotions.
environment, create spaces and times where we will be more aware and less likely to succumb to his tricks.

The battle against the yetzer harsh takes a physical toll on us and we must be aware of that.  If we are not sleeping well or not eating right, the yetzer harsh is stronger.  If we are well rested and eating properly then we are stronger and more able to fight.  

And through exercise, practice, and the study of Torah we can build up our immunity to the yetzer harah.  The more we work on ourselves the more conscious we will be of the yetzer harah's presence and the more adept we will become at fighting him. 
If we put our minds to it and help each other we can beat this guy!!!

And like every war, after all of our preparations are done, we turn to Hashem and ask for his help. 
Horeini hashem darkechah uncheini biorech mishor limaan shorerai!
Hashem teach us your ways and lead us on the right path - because I have enemies!
Hashem, help us beat this guy.  Help us concentrate and focus so that we can steer clear of bad and do good. 
Answer our davening today and next Rosh Hashanah we will stand before you wiser, stronger, and better able to serve you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rashi questions for Vayelech

According to Rashi...

1. What did Moshe mean when he said that he could not longer go out and come int?  (31:1)
2. How did Moshe's advice to Yehoshua differ from Hashem's advice to Yehoshua?  (31:7)
3. Why did children ceom to the hakhel convention?  (31:11)
4. What song did Moshe write down?  (31:19)
5. What promise does Hashem make to Israel?  (31:21)
6. Where did Moshe place the first Torah ever written?  (31:26)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Whole Omaha Mikvah Saga - Beginning to End

At the beginning of the summer, the Jewish community of Omaha suffered a mikvah crisis.  Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, the chaplain at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home - the location of our mikvah - wrote up the whole story.  Enjoy!

The Omaha Mikvah Story
By Guest Blogger Rabbi Yaakov Weiss

Below is a complete account of all that took place to fill the Omaha mikvah during the drought of 2012.  I hope that this document serves as a historical record for the Omaha Jewish Community as well as one which can inform others of the process involved in filling a mikvah with ice.

A mikvah is a central component of a Jewish community.  Whether it is used for family purity, conversions, preparation for an upcoming holiday, or for purifying our utensils, the mikvah allows us to take our selves or our belongings into a womb-like environment to effectively hit the “reset button” and start anew.  While a mikvah being out of order in a community is never something desired, what has transpired in Omaha in the past two months detailed below has been an opportunity for many people to learn about what a mikvah is, how it functions and why it is important.

When about 2 months ago the Omaha Mikvah was accidentally put out of commission, Rabbi Jonathan Gross immediately contacted Rabbi Mendel Senderovic who lives in Milwaukee, but oversees the kashrut of the Omaha Mikvah.  Rabbi Senderovic gave Rabbi Gross instructions of how to make sure that the mikvah was prepared to collect rainwater at the earliest onset of precipitation.   Unfortunately, with the Bor Z'riah (pool where rainwater collects) being empty and drought conditions preventing it from being easily refilled, a useable mikvah would not likely be available in Omaha for many more months.  So in early August, Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi wanted to consider using ice to fill the Mikvah.  Rabbi Mizrahi asked me to use my connections at Yeshiva University to speak with Rabbi Hershel Schachter about this possibility. (Rabbi Schachter is one of the most prominent Roshei Yeshiva at YU and an expert in Jewish Law.)  I called Rabbi Schachter, discussed the scenario, and he referred me further to Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, another Rosh Yeshiva at YU with encyclopedic knowledge and who has been involved more directly with mikvah construction and law.

Rabbi Sabolofsky provided me with much insight and guidance to the requirements for using ice as an alternate method of filling the mikvah.  He had never been directly involved with this process, however, since it is a very rare occurrence, so he directed me to Rabbi Yirmiyahu Katz who not only wrote the book on modern mikvahs (literally), but who has also had first-hand experience at filling a mikvah with ice.  I called Rabbi Katz, and he was incredibly responsive, helpful and cautious while outlining the requirements and parameters of Jewish law needed to fill a mikvah with ice.  Through discussion with Rabbi Katz, sending him pictures of our mikvah (via snail mail as he does not use the internet), and research into how our mikvah normally functions, I developed a plan with Rabbi Katz involving the placement of 250 10-pound blocks of ice into the mikvah.  While I had a handle on the requirements of doing this from the standpoint of Jewish Law, there were still many logistics to work out.  For example, can 250 blocks of ice realistically fit into our mikvah?  Can I get them in there before they all melt as any melting would invalidate the process?  I spent days on the phone with Rabbi Katz, Matt Chadek, the Facilities Manager at the JCC, and any distributor of ice within 100 miles of Omaha.  (As a side note, did you know that while there are many ice companies - Arctic Ice, Omaha Ice, Glacier Ice - they are all actually the very same place?)

Finally, after speaking with a local ice distributor, going over the process with him letting him know that it was imperative that the solid blocks of ice stay frozen during the entire process, I arranged a team of 11 volunteers on a Friday morning to work as an assembly line to get ice from the delivery truck into the mikvah as quickly as possible.  On that morning, we were all lined up and ready to work.  I gave instructions and provided diagrams to volunteers.  Finally, the ice truck arrived.  I got onto the truck, lifted up the first ice block only to find that the block of ice was not a block at all; it was crushed ice in the shape of a block pooling with water.  There was an audible sigh from all of the volunteers.  The delivery man looked baffled stating, "It's Ice. Ice Melts."  Unfortunately for us, we could not make use of any ice that had already begun to melt, and we needed to scratch the plan.  Despite speaking with the manager at the ice company numerous times and discussing our exact needs, apparently his idea of frozen solid blocks of ice was different than mine.  We sent the ice back, and we all left the mikvah a little disappointed.  We were not, however, deterred.  Everyone was optimistic that we would meet again with a new plan to fill the mikvah with ice.

I immediately began to look for other options.  I was not the only one so eager to come up with alternate ideas.  I fielded many questions about the mikvah and the use of anything from ice machines and water boiling distillers as methods to fill the mikvah.  I have to say, there are many creative and innovative people in our community!  Everybody who knew about this feat was rooting for success.  Each time that we got some rain, people would approach me saying, "Rabbi, was it enough?"  But, the answer continued to be "No - the mikvah is still out of order."  

As I continued on a search for solid blocks of ice (and now knowing that some people have different definitions of solid blocks of ice), I called more and more companies to see what was out there.  Lots of Federation, JCC and RBJH employees suggested ice distributors to contact, but all of them confirmed that their ice was crushed rather than solid.  I visited every local supermarket, gas station and superstore looking for solid blocks.  The closest I came was at HyVee where they sold such cubes, but probably due to their lack of popularity (unless you want them to fill a mikvah), they were all broken up in their bags.  The manager special ordered a fresh case of the blocks for me to examine, but even the ones right off the truck were no more solid than what was in the store.

I moved on to my last option:  Muzzy Ice, a company specializing in 300-pound ice blocks used for ice sculptures.  These were actually solid ice blocks.  I talked with them to find out if it was at all possible to have the blocks made smaller so they would be easier to move.  One option was to hire an ice sculptor who would use a chainsaw.  Not only would our cost greatly increase, but the chainsaw would cause some of the ice to chip and melt and break apart in addition to adding grease from the chainsaw to our ice making it unsuitable for our needs.  The other option was for us to use a Flintstones-style ice pick to chip away at the huge blocks. I came to the conclusion, that we just had to go ahead and use the full size 300-pound blocks.  To achieve the amount of melted water necessary, we would need seven of them.  That is more than a ton of ice.

This time, I wasn't taking chances.  I went out to Muzzy Ice's warehouse to personally inspect the blocks of ice to make sure they were indeed solid and suitable for our needs.  As I looked them over, I found that they were definitely solid (and definitely big), but they also had some frost built up on them.  I was concerned that the frost build up could cause an issue of premature melting, so I again consulted with Rabbi Katz.  He assured me that the buildup would not be problematic as any miniscule drops of melted ice that might form would immediately freeze back, and since we were transporting the ice early in the morning while it was still cool outside, there would likely not be any melting at all.  I also took a look at the inside of the ice truck to make sure that it was kept at a cool enough temperature to keep the blocks frozen.  I was very happy to see that there was ice buildup on the sides of the truck indicating that it was freezing on the truck - something that I did not see on our first attempt a few weeks earlier.  Once I had confirmation from Rabbi Katz about the ability to use Muzzy Ice, I checked one last time with Matt Chadek to be reassured that we could make this happen.  Matt was confident that he and his team could successfully move ice from the truck into the mikvah's entrance one at a time, unwrap each cube and allow for inspection and then place them into the mikvah.  With that, I placed the order for the ice to be delivered 24 hours later.

Those 24 hours were pretty anxiety-ridden.  Any minor deviation from the expected plan could result in a failed effort, not to mention the loss of significant funds since Muzzy Ice could not provide us with a refund policy.  I wanted to be responsible with our community's resources and did not want a sizable amount of money to be spent on something that did not work out.  I enlisted Leon Shrago to assist me in the morning.  As he is recently retired, and always looking for ways to help the community and learn more, I knew he would be up for this challenge.

The time finally arrived for all members of our team to be in place and fill our mikvah with ice.  At 8:00 a.m., the Muzzy Ice truck arrived and we assembled the crew.  Muzzy Ice was kind enough to be extra careful in ensuring that the ice stayed frozen and filled the truck with 100 pounds of dry ice to keep the truck colder than usual.  We plugged in the freezer truck to an outlet as an additional measure to ensure that everything stayed frozen until the blocks of ice were safely placed in the mikvah.  

One by one, the delivery man wheeled the ice blocks which were wrapped in plastic and packed in boxes into the mikvah room.  The JCC and RBJH facilities staff unwrapped the ice blocks and got them ready to place in the mikvah at the top of the stairs.  Leon and I checked to see if there was any water pooling (there was not), we wiped off any piles of frost as a safeguard.  Matt did the hard part of supporting most of the weight of each block of ice carrying them down the stairs with ice tongs, bracing each one with his body as an additional crew member held on to the ice at the top with tongs.  After each cube was placed in the mikvah, Leon and I wiped down any residual water to make sure no contamination took place.  (The laws of ritual purity and water contamination are very complex and too wide a scope to delve into in this already long documentation.)  After the first block, Matt assured me that "It was pretty easy."  But the sweat on his brow told me that maybe it just wasn't as bad as he originally thought it would be.  I can't imagine that I will ever have even half as much strength as Matt does, and it's amazing how he did it all in such good spirits and with a smile.

Less than an hour later, all seven blocks were placed in the mikvah.  We all had a big sigh of relief.  Before we loaded the ice into the mikvah we bottomed out the thermostat to keep the room as cool as possible to prevent any melting.  Now that all the ice was inside the mikvah, we turned up the heat so that the ice would melt at a natural pace.  I locked the door, put a sign on it noting that no one should enter since any breach could result in a disqualification of the entire process.  Now, we wait for the ice to melt and for our mikvah to be functional once again.

This was quite a project - one that I did not necessarily anticipate.  While I personally spent many, many hours working to make sure that everything was done in accordance with Jewish Law and the laws of physics, none of this could have been done without the support of the Omaha Jewish community professionals and volunteers.  Jewish Federation of Omaha CEO Mike Silverman was extremely supportive as he understands the great importance of maintaining the mikvah as an integral part of our Jewish community.  Mike Schop of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home and Julee Katzman of the Jewish Federation of Omaha also provided a keen administrative know-how that made putting all of the pieces together as seamless as possible.  Volunteers who came out on that first try spanned the whole community and were all extremely eager to help out.  They included:  Aaron Rosenfeld, Beth Cohen, Harry Berman, Rabbi Josh Brown, Emily Newman, Anna Kohll, Shoshy Shrago, Aviva Segall, Bob Goldberg, Mike Schop and Rabbi Jonathan Gross.

What makes the Omaha Jewish community so special is how so many people - whether they use the mikvah on a regular basis or were learning about it for the first time - rallied together to make sure that this staple of a Jewish community is maintained even when it is more of a challenge than it normally would be.  I'm proud to have worked with so many great people to make this happen.

Within 48 hours of completing the whole ice transfer nearly all of the ice had melted.  At that very same time, an act of God had brought a deluge of rain upon Omaha - a storm that was not only a rarity for the past 3 months of the drought, but rainfall that by all measures was above normal.  As it turns out, the Bor Z'riah - the place in which rainwater is collected - was naturally filled by the storm with the requisite amount for a kosher mikvah.  Jewish tradition teaches that however much we as humans attempt to bring God into our lives, God reflects back the same amount of involvement in this world.  I can see no-better manifestation of this teaching than in the story of the Omaha mikvah.  We as a community worked so hard together to ensure that a proper mikvah be available for our community.  At times, it seemed like it may not be worth the effort, or perhaps there was just no way to do it, but we persevered and made it happen.  While a mikvah filled with melted ice certainly would have been kosher for use and would have fulfilled the immediate needs of our community, it still would not have been a mikvah created in the ideal way - with rainwater.  An ice-filled mikvah requires many leniencies in Jewish law to be permitted for use that should only be employed in exceptional cases of great need.  (The drought of 2012 qualifies as such a case.)  So, I believe, that God responded in kind to our community's effort and provided for us a magnificent rainfall enabling Omaha to have a top-tier mikvah that meets the highest qualifications that Jewish law demands.
As we come upon the Yomim Noraim - High Holidays - I wish for the Omaha Jewish community that we continue to put the maximum effort into our relationship with God and that He continues to rain upon us with the blessings of success.

rashi questions for Nitzavim

According to Rashi...

1. On what day did Moshe gather the people to bring them into the covenant?  (29:9)
2. Why are idols referred to as "gilulim?"  (29:16)
3. What would we have to do if the Torah were in the heaven.  (30:12)
4. What matter is considered "near to you?" (30:14)
5. Why did Moshe call the heaven and the earth as witnesses?  (30:19)
6. What parable is used to illustrate the way that Hashem instructs us to choose life?  (30:19)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The End of the Mikva Saga!!

The mikva is up and running!!!  Just waiting for the ice to melt!! 

Thanks Rabbi Weiss for doing a great job!!!

Thanks to Mike and Matt and Josh and everyone at the Blumkin home for not resting until we solved this issue!!!  We are back in business!!!

Matisyahu and AKA Pella perform in Omaha

Last Thursday my wife came home early from the Matisyahu concert.  I asked her how it was and she said that somehow the Jewish reggae singer just was not his old self that night.

It is not the clean shave or the vanilla ice hair-do that bothered her.  She had seen Matisyahu in the past and his music and performance had truly inspired her.  But this time she felt that there was something that was missing.  She could not exactly put her finger on, but he was less animated, some of his songs were truncated, and there was a certain passion that she felt was lacking.  For most of the show he stood still in one spot, not really moving around the stage or connecting with the audience, and he was almost mechanical in his delivery.

In a review of a Matisyahu show in 2008, pre shave, Jewish blogger Yoni Sarason from St Louis wrote:
The highpoint of every Matisyahu show occurs as the band’s energy swells and Matis belts out the Shema, hashem substitution included.  As the set wound down, Matisyahu began pulling people from the crowd onto the stage, until the stage overflowed with dancing bodies. 
There was none of that in his 2012 show.  According to my wife, and many others who attended the show, the lyrics were the same, but somehow the soul was gone.

Two nights later, Omaha Jewish Connections for High school had a special midnight Selichot concert featuring the Jewish group AKA Pella.

AKA Pella rocked the house and delivered a meaningful and spiritual prayer experience - and a night of great Jewish music - that the Omaha teens will never forget!

The idea of a midnight selichot concert to kick off the year was first thrown around at an OJC meeting in the Spring.  Who should we bring in?
This is a very difficult decision.  We needed a band that would engage a group of teens, most of who don't know of or care for Jewish music.  The group also had to be sensational enough to make the event a concert, but subtle and versatile enough to make it a meaningful and spiritual prayer experience.
In addition, the OJC is a program for kids from all of the synagogues so the decision had to be agreed upon by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform lay people and clergy.
Not an easy decision.
The answer - AKA Pella!
AKA Pella is a Jewish A Cappella group (Pella is Hebrew for "wonder") mostly from Baltimore.  They started singing together as Yeshiva boys over 10 years ago and recorded 5 albums together.  (Warning - this link is noisy)

They created their own brand of Jewish music that takes popular jewish songs and fuses them with popular billboard hits.  For instance, on one of their albums they take the song Yafyafisa by the Jewish band Shalshelet, and merge it seamlessly with Nothing Else Matters by Metalica.  They call it Yuffing Else Matters.
They may not be the first band to blend Shalshelet with Metalica (or they might be, I don't know) but they do it so perfectly that you think - "of course!  That is what Metalica and Shalshelet actually had in mind!

But the real PELLA in AKA-Pella is the way that it is almost impossible to tell that they are a Cappella.   They cover everything from Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys to Beyonce and Katy Perry - and you would think that they are singing with full bands!  They have drums, guitar, keyboard, and other instruments, but all sounds are made with their mouths.  It is really incredible!

So we called up CD Eichler - the man behind AKA Pella - and we started talking about what it would take to bring them to Omaha.

The band started about 10 years ago and they are no longer yeshiva boys.  They have families and day jobs (one works for a dental supply company which I thought was funny since one of the Beach Boys is a dentist) and some have left Baltimore and live in places like Israel, Palo Alto, and Alaska.  Consequently, they mostly record albums nowadays, however, he has a group of three guys who he can put together who do gigs.

He gave me a reasonable price and put me in touch with Zevi Daniels (here he is singing the national anthem at a Baltimore Orioles game) and we were in business.

Zevi - who it turns out is my father's mother's sister's son's son's wife's sister's husband - was great to work with.  We spent many hours in phone calls and e-mails telling him about our community so that he could customize a program that would best suit our communities needs.

We also worked out a schedule to get them maximum exposure to different demographics in the community.

When they final came on Friday we had a packed schedule of programs planned.

On Friday afternoon they performed at Tea Time at the Rose Blumkin Jewish home.  The Home had generously helped to sponsor the program.  They gave the community and the residence a small taste of some of their great songs, as well as some traditional hits.
They played my favorite song of all time - Zaidy- by Moshe Yess.  When I was a kid I used to listen to that song again and again, and to this day every time I hear it I get choked up.

As a surprise, AKA Pella called me up to sing Zaidy with them!  I felt like Courtney Cox when Bruce Springsteen pulled her up on stage for Dancing in the Dark!

Later that day they did a pre shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat at the Blumkin home.  After the service they stuck around to get to know some of the residence and the other community members who came to hear them.

Friday night they davened Kabbalat Shabbat at Beth Israel.

They ate dinner that night at our house.  During the week we invited as many teenagers as we could for dinner.  In the end we hosted 40 people for dinner.
We also had the great honor of hosting four Israelis who happened to be passing through Omaha.  They are bike riding cross country in an organization they started called Bike for the Fight - an organization that raises money for cancer research in Israel.  

The kids from Omaha loved meeting the Israelis and everyone loved singing with AKA Pella.  People stuck around until after midnight, and the Israelis didn't want to leave!

It was really an honor for us to meet the Israelis from Bike for the Fight.  They told us that Friday night was one of the most memorable Jewish experiences that they ever had!
Birthright takes Jewish Americans to Israel to get them excited about Judaism.  My wife has always said that they should have reverse Birthright to take Israelis to America.  So often we host Israelis that take Judaism for granted growing up in Israel but are inspired for the first time when they experience the warmth of Jewish communities in the US.

The next day, after davening I walked with AKA Pella to the JCC community center where we had lunch and a great program with the Rabbis from the three synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative, and reform).
The high school kids broke up into three groups, each group had one Rabbi and one AKA Pella guy.  In the groups we study texts that the Rabbis had put together before Shabbat.  The texts were different commentaries and perspectives on the familiar Jewish song - Shalom Aleichem.
After we spent some time learning with the kids, each group was charged to take the words of Shalom Aleichem and put it to a popular tune that they felt reflected the theme of one of the commentaries.  (AKA Pella has a great Rhianna version on their new album!)
One group focused on the communal and family aspect of the song and they composed a Shalom Aleichem to the song Lean on Me.  The second group focused on the welcoming aspect so they put it to the Beatles - Hello Goodbye.
It wasn't a contest - but if it was, my group would have won.  They focused on the text that speaks of the good angel and the bad angel that come home.  They expressed this struggle between good and evil by putting Shalom Aleichem to a medley from the Star Wars Saga.
The AKA Pella guys helped with all of the musical arrangements and the kids had a really great time.  Who knows, maybe we will see some of the songs on their next album!

Saturday night was the big concert!!!  AKA Pella were awesome!!!
They opened up with Havdallah and then went into their Simon and Garfunkel Gam Ki Eilech.
Then through in their Help me Rhonda / Naar Hayisi fusion from their second Album along with their Hey There Delilah Adon Olam.  In the middle of the concert they prepared the kids for the high holidays with a suite that included songs from the Rosh Hashana service.  Each song was preceded by an introduction by one of the Rabbis present.
Then they took us home with a great rendition of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band Classic - Hafachta, followed by a brand new song written just for the occasion - they AKA Pella-ized the song "Omaha" by Counting Crows (it occurred to me that song from 1993 is older than all of the kids in the room!  Scary!)

The kids had a great time, they learned about selichot, and had a great kick off to what will be a great year of Jewish learning and experience.  Thanks so much to AKA Pella and to all of those who made the program possible.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rashi Questions for Ki Tavo

According to Rashi...

1. Which fruits are subject to the mitzvah of Bikurim?  (26:2)
2. How does the farmer mark his bikurim?  (26:2)
3. Who tried to destroy my father?  (26:5)
4. When Moshe wrote the Torah on the stones, how was it "well clarified?"  (27:8)
5. Who specifically is the "one who strikes his fellow in secret?"  (27:24)
6. What were the Egyptian boils like?  (28:27)
7. How long does it take for someone to assimilate a teacher's way of thinking?  (29:6)