Archive | April, 2019

Israel offers assistance following bomb attacks in Sri Lanka

Israel offers assistance following bomb attacks in Sri Lanka

Posted on 22 April 2019 by Sharon Wisch-Ray

St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochcikade, Sri Lanka, one of several sites attacked in coordinated bombing attacks on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep shock over the murderous attacks against innocent civilians in Sri Lanka.”

Netanyahu, in a statement released and tweeted on Sunday in the hours after the Easter attacks which left more than 200 dead, said that “Israel stands ready to assist the authorities in Sri Lanka at this difficult time.”

He also wrote: “The entire world must unite in the battle against the scourge of terrorism.”

At least 207 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a series of bomb attacks that hit luxury hotels and churches across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

“The attacks in #SriLanka, including those at prayer celebrating #EasterSunday. are a despicable crime. We are all children of God; an attack on one religion is an attack on us all. #Israel sends condolences to the families of the victims and wishes for the recovery of the injured,” Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin tweeted in the wake of the attacks.

The first six bomb blasts occurred at almost the same time on Sunday morning, four in the capital of Colombo, and the others in the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa. A seventh took place hours later and an eighth, in a residential neighborhood, was determined to be a suicide bomb attack.

About 35 of the victims were identified as “foreigners,” with American, British and Dutch citizens reportedly among the dead, CNN reported.

Seven people were later arrested by Sri Lankan authorities in connection with the attacks. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.

Sri Lankan Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena called the attacks terrorist in nature and blamed religious extremists.

Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist. Less than 10 percent of the population identify as Christians.

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JCRC Interfaith Seder breaks attendance record

JCRC Interfaith Seder breaks attendance record

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

 

Multi-faith clergy in attendance
Photo: Laura Biener

DALLAS — The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas held its Seventh Annual Interfaith Seder April 9. With 80 attendees in its first year, this year’s JCRC Interfaith Seder set a record attendance with 580 attendees.
“For seven years now, the JCRC has brought together the interfaith community of the Greater Dallas area. Together, we experience a community interfaith Seder based on a traditional Jewish Passover Seder and reflect on meaningful and relevant issues,” remarked Melanie Rubin, JCRC chair. “The program motivates and inspires us all toward self-reflection, awareness of important issues, building relationships with one another, and social action in our Dallas community and beyond,” she added.
The leaders of the 2019 JCRC Interfaith Seder were Rabbi Ari Sunshine of Congregation Shearith Israel and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the Tenth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The JCRC Interfaith Seder Planning Committee was co-chaired by Mandy Golman of Congregation Shearith Israel and Reverend Damon L. Blakeley of Saint Paul AME Church. This year’s seder theme, Building Community Together, brought together faith leaders, elected officials and community members from diverse faith backgrounds. The “VINYL” Booker T. Washington’s Jazz Singers started off the program.
Mark Kreditor, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas board chair, welcomed participants. “As the convener and leader of our Dallas Jewish community, the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas recognizes how important it is for communities of faith to come together to advance important issues within our community. Simply put, we are stronger together,” said Kreditor.
Following the model of a traditional Jewish Passover Seder, the annual JCRC Interfaith Seder draws comparisons between Passover stories and challenges that we face in present times by exploring a social action theme or value that resonates across numerous faiths.
The JCRC Interfaith Seder is a unique opportunity for the Dallas Jewish community to join together with local faith leaders and individuals from different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The JCRC Interfaith Seder also gives the opportunity to our non-Jewish friends and neighbors to have a Jewish experience in a Jewish institution. This year’s Seder was presented by the Texas Jewish Post.

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Men’s study group celebrates 20-plus years of Torah

Men’s study group celebrates 20-plus years of Torah

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Photos: Mark Fisher
“I have students who quote Socrates and Plato in discussions of Torah and it isn’t only the students who learn something each week,” said Rabbi Deon Nathan (left), leader of the Tuesday morning men’s Torah study group.

By Deb Silverthorn

Rumor has it that the true breakfast of champions starts at 7 a.m. every Tuesday. At that time, a community men’s Torah study group gathers at the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA) offices on Forest Lane in Dallas. Whether a dozen or four attendees show up on any given morning, the conversation and learning are guaranteed to be spirited, engaging and meaningful.
“This program is a good example of where the movements can meet and learn for the benefit of b’nei Yisroel. I think that it is refreshing to have a program for Reform and Conservative Jewish men that is taught by an observant Orthodox rabbi. It proves that we CAN all get along,” said Mark Fisher, a member of Temple Shalom, who has been attending the class almost since its inception. “Our Dallas Jewish community is very special and we’d love to have more men join us in this really incredible opportunity.”
The class, taught for the last four years by Torah Day School of Dallas CFO and COO Rabbi Deon Nathan, takes place at DATA, but is an unaffiliated program. Participants come from congregations throughout the community and the class — for which there is no charge — is open to men of all ages. The coffee and baked goods (provided by Rabbi Deon’s wife and daughters) deliver a bit of extra get-up-and-go for the early meeting time. But, for most who stop in on their way to work, the inspiration the class provides is more energizing than any caffeine pump.
“The intellectual power of the men in the room is impressive. There are lawyers, and doctors and businessmen in the class — members of the boards of many organizations — but if not for this class, they might never cross paths,” Nathan said. “I have students who quote Socrates and Plato in discussions of Torah, and it isn’t only the students who learn something each week. More often than not, I too become the student.”
Nathan, a Dallas native and the son of Sandy and Michael Nathan, was a member of the first class of Yavneh Academy, before transferring to Rabbi Oscar Fasman Yeshiva in Skokie, Ilinois. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies from Hebrew Theological College in Chicago before moving to Israel. During his 13 years in Israel, he earned his MBA in International Business at Bar-Ilan University and worked in private banking and with Israeli startups. Nathan is a certified mohel, sofer STAM (scribe), shochet and mashgiach kashrus (kashrut supervisor). He is the husband of Yehudit and father of seven.
“Somehow the class always hits notes of politics and religion, but the conversations are open and honest and always of the utmost respect,” Nathan said.
First spearheaded by Joel Shickman, of blessed memory, and Congregation Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Elon Sunshine (no relation to CSI’s current senior rabbi), the group met at a coffee shop. Throughout the years, the learning has been led by many rabbis, including Bill Gershon, Joe Menashe, Adam Raskin and Yoni Sonnenblick.
Nathan provides the group with articles and readings that test the state and future of progressive Judaism, and the group often challenges his observant beliefs in the laws, as they apply to modern Jews.
“I had somewhat of an interest in religious school as a child, but in the last 30 years or so I’ve had a new appreciation for learning more extensively,” said Morton Prager, a member of Temple Emanu-El, who has also studied under that congregation’s rabbis Levi Olan, David Stern and Sheldon Zimmerman. “This class has allowed me to study books of the Bible that aren’t the ‘go to’ or of regular review, and from start to finish, we just keep going and we just keep learning.”
Prager spent much of his career as a medical researcher and a professor of medical ethics and philosophy to medical students, and retired only at the age of 92. He said he enjoys the company of the mix of men in the class.
“We argue and interpret and discuss the modern interpretations,” he said. “We might not always agree, but the conversation is always respectful.”
Many of the students have remained constant throughout the two decades. The group began with study of the weekly Torah portion, but soon embarked on a long-term journey, and completed reading the entire Tanach — Torah, Prophets and Writings — word by word, first in 2012.
They are now revisiting the Prophets and studying Samuel I. Participants say that, even though the material is the same, a new leader means different discussions.
“It’s amazing as we read through how humans haven’t really changed in 3,000 years; issues of trust, of tribes and families,” said Fisher, the group together celebrating simchas and suffering great losses. “We’ve learned to study in new ways together. The beauty of Judaism is to share issues and imperfections and to understand that our religion is a guidebook by which to live a more meaningful life.”
For information on joining in the class, email dallasfish@aol.com or deon@thenathanfam.com or call 214-923-5101.

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Dallas sisters to receive DJHS Sikora award

Dallas sisters to receive DJHS Sikora award

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Photo: Courtesy DHJS
The Weinfeld sisters (above): Melissa Ackerman and Brenda Bliss; the Shosid sisters: (below) Susan Bendalin and Karen Weinreb

By Elena Okowita

The Dallas Jewish Historical Society will host its major annual fundraiser, beginning at 6:30 p.m., on Thursday, May 2, at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. The event, called “Sip & Savor: Sisters in Philanthropy,” will honor two sets of sisters with the Ann Loeb Sikora Humanitarian Award. Karen Weinreb and Susan Bendalin, and Melissa Ackerman and Brenda Bliss, are the honorees.
The award was named for the first woman to serve as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. It is presented every two years by the DJHS, and honors individuals who emulate the humanitarian ideals by which Ann lived her life.
Honorees Weinreb and Bendalin, the Shosid sisters, have had several leadership and advocacy positions in the Dallas Jewish community. Weinreb, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, was a member of the Sigma Delta Tau Sorority. She recently co-chaired the YES event for The Legacy, and is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and a supporter of The Aaron Family Jewish Community Center of Dallas. Weinreb advocates for and supports several local organizations including The Vogel Alcove, The Jewish Federation, The Family Place, Jewish Family Services and the Dallas Holocaust Society.
Bendalin served as the former campaign associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, and went on to become the development director for Akiba Academy. Bendalin is an active member of the Jewish Community Center. In addition to serving as a past member of the JCC’s board of directors, she was two-time co-chair of the JCC’s annual “Be” fundraiser, chair of the Jewish Arts Fest and a member of the Maccabi Games steering committee. She was also co-chair of the Women-to-Women Fundraising Luncheon for Jewish Family Services.
Ackerman and Bliss, the second set of honorees, have also made a large impact on the Dallas Jewish community. Ackerman graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a marketing degree, and has been a Dallas Jewish community volunteer for nearly 40 years. She served on boards of the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center, Temple Shalom, CHAI (Community Homes for Adults, Inc.) and Jewish Family Service. The Dallas Jewish Federation honored her with the Campaigner of the Year and the Bess Nathan Young Leadership Awards. She served as the vice chair of the Maccabi games in 2005, and as a coordinator and volunteer recruiter for the 2015 Games.
Bliss graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a master’s degree in speech language pathology and audiology. She traveled to many countries, including Vietnam, Thailand and Innsbruck, presenting workshops on auditory-verbal therapy and cochlear implants. In the community, Bliss provides speech and hearing services to many Jewish day schools, including Torah Day School, Levine Academy and Akiba Academy. She also provides therapeutic services for the adults at CHAI, and sits on the board of directors of Jewish Family Service and the Special Needs Partnership.
Event chairs for “Sip & Savor” are Linda Garner and Ellen Ungerman. Individual tickets for the event are $175 with sponsorships starting at $500. Registration information can be found by visiting the Dallas Jewish Historical Society website at djhs.org.

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Akiba and Yavneh academies to merge

Akiba and Yavneh academies to merge

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Photo: Courtesy Schultz Rosenberg Campus
In August 2005, the Schultz Rosenberg Campus became home to Akiba Academy, founded in 1962, and Yavneh Academy, founded in 1993. On April 2, the schools announced that they would merge into one entity.

By Sharon Wisch-Ray

The end of a more than one-year process came to fruition in mid-March when the boards of Akiba Academy and Yavneh Academy voted to merge the schools effective July 1.
In early April, Rabbi Yaakov Green was named the first head of school for the merged Akiba/Yavneh Academy.
“Merging our two storied institutions offers a multitude of benefits. The combined school will see economies of scale, greater efficiencies, and a more fluid sharing of knowledge and resources,” said Akiba Board President Josh Hochschuler. “These strategic savings and partnerships will allow the merged organization the ability to invest in new services, build a streamlined curriculum, enhance reporting and systems, and improve our administrative structure. Above all, this merger will offer a significantly improved ability to retain and recruit top-notch talent, ensuring that we are offering our students the highest quality educational experience.”
Yavneh Academy board president Debbie Katz added that Rabbi Green is the ideal person to shepherd Akiba/Yavneh as it moves forward.
“He is a great listener with new ideas and willing to get involved in all matters to make sure Akiba and Yavneh continue on their path to a successful future.”
The process of joining the schools began February 2018, when the boards of both schools voted to explore the idea of merging the schools and formed a task force to examine the possibilities. The task force presented its findings to both boards in June. In October, the boards independently voted to accept “an intent to merge” and began the due diligence process with a steering committee with extensive institutional knowledge of the Dallas day school landscape.
Throughout the process, Hochschuler and Katz kept their school communities apprised of developments with monthly missives, answering questions as they arose.
A number of parlor-style meetings were held with various stakeholders including current Akiba Academy and Levine Academy parents, the two schools which send the largest number of students to Yavneh. The balance of the schools’ populations come from the greater area Jewish community and include students from all streams of Judaism and backgrounds.
This is not the first time the schools have discussed becoming one since Yavneh opened in 1993. They have shared the Schultz-Rosenberg Campus since the school year started in 2005. During that time the schools have shared certain back-office resources, but maintained separate faculty and lay leadership. With such a shared history and campus, leadership of both schools saw the advantage of merging.
One longtime Levine Academy and Yavneh parent shared her view of the merger. Jolene Risch is the mother of two Levine Academy graduates, one Yavneh graduate, a Yavneh senior and a Levine eighth-grader who will be a Yavneh freshman in the fall.
“My sons who have graduated from Yavneh had good experiences as a result of the inclusive culture of the school. I was grateful to Dr. Portnoy [exiting Yavneh head of school], who had the ability to understand the unique qualities of each student and allow each an experience that would enable them to achieve the goals they desired.”
Risch believes that Yavneh’s new general studies principal will enhance the students’ academic experiences.
As the merged school charts its new course, the elements that have made the Schultz-Rosenberg Campus successful over the years will continue to be essential.
Andy Schultz, son of benefactors Howard and the late Leslie Schultz, and merger steering committee member, outlined these at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Schultz-Rosenberg Campus in 2015:
• A vibrant Jewish community, anchored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
• Committed benefactors and a community of volunteers.
• Teachers and administrators who are the very heart and soul of the institution.
• Beautiful Jewish children who seek a deeper, more meaningful connection to their Jewish identity, and to the State of Israel, and:
• Jewish parents, who make a tremendous personal sacrifice to provide their children with a Jewish education.
“This commitment in particular must always be remembered,” Schultz said.

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Ribald’s Please Visit Me 613 brings visitors to those in need

Ribald’s Please Visit Me 613 brings visitors to those in need

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Photo: Courtesy Monica Ribald
Monica Ribald founded Please Visit Me 613 in memory of her mother, Helena Stein Tenenbaum, left. Tenenbaum, with her mother, Esther Chana Sandlarz, both of blessed memory, taught Ribald that a smile is a gift that can be opened over and over.

By Deb Silverthorn

“Hello” and “how are you” are among the first words we learn. And, how to find those in need of a “hello” and more is what is behind Please Visit Me 613 (PVM613), created by Monica Ribald.
“I started Please Visit Me 613, because I know of so many people who are homebound because of illness or age or for many circumstances that don’t allow them the ability to get up and out,” Ribald said. “It could be someone who’s a patient, or it could be to spend time with a caregiving family member or friend. They need attention, too.”
Ribald says those she visits have limitations of illness, disability, or for whatever reason no transport, and they are without engagement. Living for company on the weekends, or for when “it’s convenient,” makes for long and lonely days. People wait – and wait – and wait, alone.
“My mother became very hard of hearing in her later years and people stopped visiting with her because it was difficult,” Ribald said. She recalled her friend, Gail Stolovitsky, who always made time to stop in. The visits brightened her mother’s day and kept her cheerful. That someone else besides Ribald and her husband cared was huge. It is in memory of her mother, Helena Stein Tenenbaum, that Please Visit Me 613 was founded.
“It isn’t really difficult, you just have to be creative sometimes in how you communicate with someone. We all need communication,” Ribald said. “There’s nothing worse than being alone. Nothing.”
A New Yorker through and through, Ribald moved to Dallas in 1977 with her husband Max. Ribald’s personality is even brighter than her artwork, which includes the illustrations for Helen Waldman’s book “Polly’s Pipers” and many privately commissioned drawings and paintings.
The mother of Chad (Risa), Yanki (Marrisa), and Itzy (Ilana) and the grandmother of Adam, Anna, Ari, Ariella, Charlotte Grace, Claire, Dasi, Efrat, Eitan and Esther, Ribald is the “Jewish Bubbie” defined: not just to her own grandchildren, but to every student — of any age — who has ever crossed her path, and that includes the thousand-plus children who came through her art classes at Akiba and Yavneh academies.
“I taught my students to draw, to paint, and I taught them about art, artists and about art history. But, I taught them — I hope — more about people and caring,” Ribald said. “You can’t be a good teacher and just teach your subject. You have to teach kids that others matter. Those are the most important lessons I think I ever gave.”
“Do unto others” might not be among the top 10 commandments, but built within our 613 commandments, it rings true many times. Bringing conversation and laughter, or just being with someone, for whatever length of time, does good for the person visiting, and the visitor.
“Monica underscores the connectiveness we have as Jews, the sense of responsibility we all have,” said Rabbi Howard Wolk, the community chaplain at Jewish Family Service. Ribald has been friends with Wolk since the two were in their early teens. “We all left Egypt together and we need to remember that, on many levels,” Wolk said.
Ribald and Wolk agree PVM613 is a project that could connect through the wide spectrum of services JFS offers to its clients and volunteers. “I’m certain that as word gets out, people will appreciate a source to go to whether a person wants to visit, or be visited,” Wolk said. “I hope we will work together.”
Ribald is excited to share PVM613 with the community and hopes others will sign up to go out. She already has a core making their way to homes, hospitals, assisted living and rehabilitation facilities, many of whom have had personal experiences leading them to want to participate.
Sarah Diamond sets out to brighten someone’s day in the memory of her grandmother, Lily. “My grandmother lived with us in her last years and it was so important, to her and to us, that someone be there to hear her stories, to learn her history, to know about her life,” Diamond said. “It gives meaning to their lives, and believe me, we can learn a lot from them.”
There are no parameters or rules to the visitation. It is whatever works and for however long, and however often a schedule allows.
“I was raised to care. It’s just that simple and it’s really easy, and there are so many people here who have no one, no family close. Or they do, but their families are busy, so essentially, they’re alone. A visit can be 15 minutes or it can be hours,” Ribald said.
“It doesn’t really matter how long someone goes in, or what you bring with you except for a smile,” she added. “You have to bring a smile because a smile, a warm caring spirit, is a gift that is opened, over and over.”
To register either as a Please Visit Me 613 visitor, or on behalf of someone who would appreciate a visitor, email pleasevisitme613@aol.com.

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Partnership2Gether links Dallas, W. Galilee tastes

Partnership2Gether links Dallas, W. Galilee tastes

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Through GalilEat, Paul Nirens conducts cooking workshops that connect the various cultures of the Western Galilee.
Photo: Partnership2Gether

 

Beginning May 8, the North Texas Jewish community will begin the celebration of “Israel Week.” As part of the celebration, the Jewish Agency’s through Partnership2Gether will send a delegation of chefs from Western Galilee to North Texas, where Israel will be delivered to the plate of the local residents. Partnership2Gether links global Jewish communities directly with communities in Israel; for Dallas, that area is the Western Galilee.
Among the three-person chef delegation will be Paul Nirens, founder of GalilEat, a company that provides culinary tours and cooking workshops in the homes of Western Galilee residents from different cultures. The Western Galilee consists of different populations — Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Druze, Bahai and Jews — all of whom have their own cultural richness, and all of whom live within harmony with one another.
Born and raised in Australia, Nirens made aliyah to Israel at the age of 25, and spent years doing what he did best: cooking. He spent years managing kitchens in restaurants and major hotels in the north part of the country. Then, during one Passover Seder, something occurred to him: “I was running a hotel kitchen and, during the service, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I was, in the middle of the traditional Passover Seder, and I wasn’t sitting at a table with my own family.”
Nirens, in pondering the population of Western Galilee, and incorporating his love of the land, created GalilEat. Groups involved with the organization take part in cooking workshops, and learn about the unique culinary culture of the family host. But GalilEat is more than eating great, and different types, of food. The goal is to generate connections between people of different communities, and to ultimately strengthen the relationships between those communities. According to Nirens, the most important stage of the workshops involves the first 20 minutes, which are devoted to getting acquainted with the family and its story. The purpose, Nirens indicated, is to strengthen connections through food.
This is the focus of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether’s delegation in early May. Nirens, especially, wants to bring the culture and cuisine of Western Galilee to residents of the Dallas community. “I hope that this mission won’t be a one-time initiative,” he said. “I look forward to a similar mission arriving to visit us in Western Galilee, so that we can enjoy the fruits of this special connection between Dallas and Western Galilee.”

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B’nai B’rith Interfaith Seder continues to grow

B’nai B’rith Interfaith Seder continues to grow

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Photos: Jim Stanton
There were more than 350 participants at the B’nai B’rith Interfaith Seder April 9.

 

A diverse group of over 350 Tarrant County religious, political, civic and community leaders gathered for the B’nai B’rith Community Seder Tuesday, April 9.
The second annual lunchtime Seder, the largest ever held in Tarrant County, was presented by the Fort Worth-based B’nai B’rith Lodge to strengthen relationships with the Jewish community and non-Jewish Tarrant County friends and neighbors.
B’nai B’rith Lodge members, under the direction of Terri Hollander, prepared the meal. The organization underwrote the entire cost of the free Seder and provided Haggadahs and kippahs for all attendees.
According to B’nai B’rith Lodge President Rich Hollander, “The event gave a glimpse of Jewish tradition to the rest of Tarrant County. The more knowledge we have of each other’s traditions and practices, the more open we will be to each other’s communities.”
The Seder, held this year at Congregation Ahavath Sholom, was led by Rabbi Andrew Bloom. Talya Galaganov sang the traditional Seder songs.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price welcomed the overflow crowd and spoke about the importance of unity and freedom of religion.
Ahavath Sholom President Jerry Stein greeted the attendees and read a passage entitled “From Slavery to Freedom.”
Community leaders read Passover passages from the Haggadah.
Jim Lacamp, a local business leader, read an explanation of the Four Questions and Jaime Hernandez of CUFI (Christians United for Israel) read the traditional Four Questions in Spanish.
One of the highlights of the seder was the singing of the Four Questions by young students from the Lil Goldman Early Learning Center.
Rabbi Bloom connected the Passover story to this year’s theme of modern-day homelessness and slavery in Tarrant County.
Bruce Frankel, executive director of DRC, a Fort Worth organization that works to end homelessness, spoke about homelessness in Tarrant County. And Stephanie Byrd, executive director of Unbound Fort Worth, spoke about human trafficking in Tarrant County.
Fort Worth Mayor pro tem and City Council District 7 member Dick Shingleton read the moving poem by German pastor Martin Neimoller, “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Matt Brockman, from the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, read a special cowboy prayer for the event.
B’nai B’rith included the Jewish Family Service’s Senior Program, as well as residents of B’nai B’rith Housing and local Jewish seniors. More than 90 seniors attended.
B’nai B’rith, the oldest Jewish organization in Tarrant County, is already making plans to present a City Seder again next year.
—Submitted by
Jim Stanton

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High Holidays, repentance; Pesach, education

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Growing up in Dallas, and attending one of the area’s largest synagogues, each holiday had its own distinct flavor and associations. The High Holidays represented a tedious mental marathon — staying hours in shul — with a few rest stops. We, the elementary school children, sat next to our parents in a packed room, antsy and confused by the complex service, while a visiting cantor chanted solemn psalms in unfamiliar melodies.
The rabbi’s sermon usually entailed a theatrical demonstration of intelligence that centered on a select theme, carefully injected with witty quotes and an unhealthy dose of personal political commentary, that tickled sympathizers, while infuriating certain intellectuals.
Shortly before the sermon, anticipating the upcoming stretch of boredom, we pleaded with our parents for a bathroom break. If they agreed, we quickly headed for the exit before the two men closest to the exit could lock us in. Once the sermon began, we were trapped. But outside the sanctuary doors, we felt free.
Roaming the empty halls with fresh excitement, we met up with friends, a gathering of kids from different schools around Dallas, who had also managed to escape. The fun lasted until one of the older members of the congregation spotted us laughing and socializing. He then marched down the hall, shouting and scolding the group for being outside the sanctuary (or youth classes), and did his best to chase each kid back from where they came. So went the High Holidays, year after year.
The Pesach Seder carried an entirely different vibe; it was our chance to participate. Even within the familiar passages of the Haggadah, there was always room for investigation and fresh insights. Though the event ran long, it imparted a unique Jewish experience, far more profound than steaming matzo ball soup or the 10 plagues with colorful props. It was a night of adventure, where we were transported in time. Imagination merged with ancient mystical memories. If the dogs suddenly barked during the meal, we half-joked it was because Elijah the Prophet must have entered the house for his cup of wine. As the evening wound down and I listened to my father lead the “benching” (Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals) at the top of his lungs, I wondered if, one day, I’d be able to do the same for my family and guests.
Indeed, Pesach is considered the prime opportunity for education. On Pesach, the focus is on teaching the children, connecting to our past and planting seeds for the future.
The focus on children
There are many rituals to fulfill on Pesach night — eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine, bitter herbs, telling the Exodus story well. One of the first and most memorable acts, however, is the dipping in salt water, a custom instituted to awaken the children’s curiosity. The rest of the remaining rituals, likewise, offer a multisensory, interactive, hands-on learning experience — the building blocks of early education.
Keeping the children’s interest and providing them with a fun experience at the table is only the first step. The real concern is what significant long-term messages we want to impart. One obvious objective is to reinforce the collective destiny — the struggle to emerge from a people of slaves to a nation of Torah scholars.
This generation is fortunately a step or two removed from the hardships of war times, and certainly the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt. Freedoms are easily taken for granted. As hosts and parents, we must therefore devote time to prepare before the holiday, then be considerate and creative in selecting which excerpts of the Haggadah to unravel, while ensuring all key mitzvot are fulfilled. The practical and challenging goal is to expound without letting the evening drag.
Freedom
The main point of emphasis is cheirut — freedom. Freedom means different things to different people, but there is one aspect of freedom that is replayed in Jewish literature, and has nothing to do with physical comforts. A well-known but puzzling statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) stands out: “There is no free individual, except for someone who labors in Torah study.”
At first glance, this statement conveys that, through knowledge and wisdom, a person is set free, reminiscent of the line “the truth will set you free.” But knowledge itself is incomplete without parallel emotional growth and action. Perhaps the statement in Pirkei Avot refers more to one’s commitment to set aside time, throughout a busy year, to explore our rich heritage.
Laboring and feeling free appear to be contradictory. The long, hard Seder night contains an important lesson, both for adult and child. In Torah, a meaningful life involves embracing the grind and challenging yourself to grow, to be better and do more (in a spiritual context it’s called avodah).
I have noticed that people — especially “mystics,” guides or motivators who preach “living each day to the fullest” — often have no children to take care of, no sense of community, responsibility, or loyalty to a higher purpose. They choose to travel rather than host, partake rather than create. Their contrived raison d’être is simply to absorb the sights and sounds of the wonderful world around them — and take one giant vacation from worthwhile struggle.
The soul’s freedom and highest fulfillment is in giving. Her pleasure comes from progressing, and pain comes from inactivity. True joy is the result of working to change yourself and to heal the world in some part (tikkun olam), while sadness comes when we sense stagnation. So, when in someone’s pursuits, the primary focus becomes on retreat, relaxation time and mindfulness meditations, wherein the soul is only taking — something is subtly wrong. They sink deeper into the pits, a pleasant spiritual demise. All the while, the soul craves meaningful toil and mitzvahs.
Freedom stems from a connection to who you are and your purpose, despite the confines of a difficult external situation. But to get acquainted with yourself demands knowing your roots and where you’re going. Hence, the emphasis on learning Torah.
While we measure our High Holiday accomplishments by the level of repentance and resolutions, a successful Pesach rests in education and engaging discussion.

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Freedom can be felt even in midst of slavery

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Pesach sure gives slavery a bad rap. After all, the Seder’s dominant theme is that of the Israelites moving away from slavery and toward a life of freedom. And the rituals of the night serve to accentuate the motif of freedom: The leaning as free men would do, the four cups of wine (the drink of the wealthy and privileged), the custom to decorate the Seder table with one’s finest vessels, the lavish meal and the obligation to see oneself as having left the bondage of Egypt (Sephardim going so far as to physically re-enact the Exodus in the midst of their Seder!). All of this and more turn the Seder night into one big ol’ gratitude-fest — “Thank you Lord for redeeming us from such a dreadful fate! Hallelujah!”
God forbid for myself or anyone else to dismiss or even downplay the depressive plight of the enslaved! Human history has shed its light on the evil that is slavery and the hell that marks its victims. And yet, I sometimes worry that a person could leave the Seder with the wrong impression: that a life has no worth, no value or purpose unless one is free. A “Give me liberty or give me death” kind of sensibility that nips at the hearts of participants around the Seder table. And that’s a shame.
For, unwittingly as it may be, such attitudes diminish the meaning of the existences of the millions upon millions of people who have lived throughout human history as enslaved peoples, many never getting close enough to even sniff the fresh air of freedom. Not to mention the many long portions of Jewish history itself riddled with slavery or slavery-like persecution in exile! Are we to argue that those stretches of Jewish history served as mere layovers toward a brighter national future? How sad, indeed, it would be if life’s meaning could so easily be stripped away from humanity at the hands of history’s oppressors!
And yet many believe just that. People like Anthony Ray Hinton, who came to believe that the powers that be could steal his life and reason-to-be away from him. He was a poor black man convicted by a jury of all white Southerners of murdering two fast-food managers and attempting to murder a third who thankfully survived a gunshot to the head, but sadly pointed out Hinton from a police lineup as the shooter (Hinton had actually been checked in at his job, surrounded by co-workers at the time of the attempted murder, but his ill-equipped court-appointed lawyer never bothered to put his co-workers on the stand).
Hinton was enraged. And rightly so. He was an innocent man that the state wanted to kill in order to move on from these grisly crimes. There was no physical evidence linking Hinton to the murders, but a shoddy ballistics report claiming that the bullets found at the crime scenes matched Anthony’s mother’s gun (almost three decades later this report would be debunked by national ballistics experts). And now, that which was left of his life had been reduced to a long waiting game for a date with the electric chair located just 40 feet from his holding cell. And what great meaning could there be in that? There were no great choices one could make on death row, no family one could grow or meaningful work to engage in. Anthony Hinton lived with these pervading thoughts for the first three years of what would become an almost 30-year stint in isolation on Alabama’s death row.
But one particularly gloomy night changed everything for the young convict. It was common at nighttime to hear sounds of crying and moaning on The Row. You learned to tune it out. But tonight was different. It was a soul-piercing cry, and it went on and on and on.
Anthony recalls his thoughts from that night. Thoughts that would alter his existence for the rest of his time in lockup.
“I thought again about all the choices I didn’t have and about freedom, and then the man stopped crying and there was a silence that was louder than any noise I’d ever heard. What if this man killed himself tonight and I did nothing? Wouldn’t that be a choice?
“I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing McGregor [the state’s prosecutor] and thinking about killing myself. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester [Anthony’s best friend from the outside] had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.
“‘Hey!’ I walked up to my cell door and yelled toward the crying man. ‘Are you all right over there?’”
These were the first words that Anthony had uttered since he had entered death row three years prior. He had been silently protesting the entirety of it all, and refused to speak to anyone but the few outsiders who came to visit him on visiting day. But now he realized his words could also be used for the good.
It turned out that the crying inmate had recently received word that his mother had died, and Anthony’s words of care and concern opened the door for the other inmate to share his pain with another and heal in the process.
Anthony comforted the man:
“I’m sorry you lost your mom, but man, you got to look at this a different way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before God.”
And then “the most amazing thing happened. On a dark night, in what must surely be the most desolate and dehumanizing place on earth, a man laughed. A real laugh. And with that laughter, I realized that the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. And they most certainly couldn’t steal my sense of humor (“The Sun Does Shine,” pp. 115-118).”

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