We are about to celebrate our fourth Shabbat in our new, beautiful East Greenwich synagogue building. Two of these four Shabbatot have been enhanced with the celebration of b'nei mitzvah: that Jewish rite of passage that has kids jumping through liturgical and emotional hoops to establish their place in the Jewish community.
A "bar" or "bat mitzvah" is one who now counts in our minyan, can be honored with an aliyah to the Torah or reading the haftarah or can lead us in prayer. For all that the time-honored declaration of the bar mitzvah back in the day was "today I am a man," the actual moment of bar (and now bat) mitzvah isn't quite that.
A bar or bat mitzvah celebration, stripped down to essentials, is the celebration of a Jewish youth reaching the age at which he or she is responsible for his or her own relationship with God. Observe commandments? Look to the values God offers us when making tough (or even easy) decisions? There was a time when a Jewish parent was responsible for those decisions and behaviors. Now, we say to our youth, you've mastered the skills, you've reached the age of self-awareness . . . own your Jewishness and keep studying and being involved so that your Jewishness can grow with you.
A young person who has already celebrated bar or bat mitzvah and remains engaged in our congregation is a beautiful thing to behold. Our youth come to our school and help younger kids master skills. Others continue to read Torah for us at services. Yet others involve our congregation in coat drives and food drives and bike rides for good causes . . . because they know that here, in their community, they will find plenty of enthusiastic support and encouragement.
Every bar or bat mitzvah we have celebrated at Torat Yisrael has been a little different. For all that the structure may seem "cooky cutter," each family seems to put their own mark on the day. We have now established a new practice here at Torat Yisrael where members of the family together choose two or three English readings which are central to our new "P'sukei D'Zimra" (spiritual warm-up) part of the service.
The basic building block of bar/bat mitzvah is well-established in our community . . . but its color, its nature will, I hope, continue to evolve and remain a meaningful event for our families and our congregation.
As we all anticipate the long weekend of Memorial Day, I ask you all to pause a contemplate the following list. These are the names, ranks and home locations of the US troops who died in the line of duty since Memorial Day 2012.
We pray that by May 2014 there will be no list at all for me to share with you and that the men and women wearing the uniforms of the United States Military will not be putting their lives on the line in the course of their duty.
May the memories of the following US troops serve as an inspiration to us to seek peace and to cherish the unique democracy we enjoy here in the United States.
Flores, Dwayne W., Specialist, 22, from Guam
Aguon, Eugene M., Sergeant, 23, from Guam
Rhea, Trenton L., Sergeant 1st Class, 33, from Kansas
NAME NOT RELEASED YET, Not reported yet
Baker, Jeffrey C., Sergeant 1st Class, 29, from California
Daehling, Mitchell Kirk, Specialist, 24, from Massachusetts
Gilbert, William Joseph, Specialist, 24, from California
Sonka, David M., Corporal, 23, from Colorado
Christian, Eric D., Staff Sergeant, 39, from New York
Thomas Paige, Specialist, 22, from Idaho
Phillips IV, Francis Gene, Staff Sergeant, 28, from New York
Prescott, Brandon Joseph, Specialist, 24, from Oregon
Cardoza, Kevin, Specialist, 19, from Texas
Landrum, Brandon J., 1st Lieutenant, 26, from Oklahoma
Voss, Mark T., Captain, 27, from Colorado
Pinckney, Victoria A., Captain, 27, from California
Mackey III, Herman, Technical Sergeant, 30, California
Santiago Jr., Trinidad, Specialist, 25, from California
McClure, Charles P., Private 1st Class, 21, from Oklahoma
Simpson, Michael H., Staff Sergeant, 30, from Texas
Fannin, Daniel N., Staff Sergeant, 30, from Kentucky
Dickson, Richard A., Staff Sergeant, 24, from California
Nishizuka, Reid K., Captain, 30, from Hawaii
Cyr, Brandon L., Captain, 28, from Virginia
Hess, Robert J., 1st Lieutenant, 26, from Virginia
Blanchard, Aaron R., Captain, 32, from Washington
Austin, Barrett L., Private 1st Class, 20, from South Carolina
Yoder, Jarett M., Chief Warrant Officer 2, 26, from Pennsylvania
Ruffner, Matthew P., Chief Warrant Officer 3, 34, from Pennsylvania
NAME NOT RELEASED YET, Not reported yet
Santos Jr., Deflin M., Specialist, 24, from California,
Robles-Santa, Wilbel A., Specialist, 25, Puerto Rico,
Ward, Christopher M., Staff Sergeant, 24, from Tennessee
Steel, James Michael, Captain, 29, from Florida
Reagan, Curtis S., Chief Warrant Officer, 43, from South Carolina
Cable, Michael C., Sergeant, 26, from Kentucky
Wade, Tristan M., Sergeant, 23, from Indiana
Groves III, James E., Chief Warrant Officer, 37, from Ohio
Proctor, David T., Specialist, 26, from North Carolina
Pike, Christian Michael, Chief Petty Officer, 31, from Arizona
Blass, Steven P., Staff Sergeant, 27, from Iowa
Henderson, Bryan J., Chief Warrant Officer, 27, from Louisiana
Knutson, Sara M., Captain, 27, from Maryland
Scialdo, Marc A., Staff Sergeant, 31, from Florida
Shannon, Zachary L., Specialist, 21, from Florida
Schad, Rex L., Staff Sergeant, 26, from Oklahoma
Pedersen-Keel, Andrew M., Captain, 28, from Connecticut
Suggs, Cody D., Specialist, 22, from Ohio
Bunn, Larry D., Technical Sergeant, 43, from Louisiana
Davis, Jonathan D., Staff Sergeant, 34, from Arizona
Schoonhoven, Mark H., Sergeant, 38, Michigan
Chambers, David J., Sergeant, 25, from Virginia
Wittman, Aaron X., Sergeant, 28, from Virginia
Sims, Markie T., Private 1st Class, 20, from Florida
Mondragon, Enrique, Sergeant, 23, from Texas
Price, Job W., Commander, 42, from Pennsylvania
Robinson, Leonard, Lieutenant, 29, from North Carolina
Lipari, Kevin E., Sergeant 1st Class, 39, from New York
Guillory, Michael J., Sergent, 28, from Louisiana
Trent, Nelson D., Staff Sergeant, 37, from Texas
Reid, Nicholas J., Staff Sergeant, 26, from New York
Williams, Wesley R., Staff Sergeant, 25, Ohio
Checque, Nicolas D., Petty Officer 1st Class, 28, from Pennsylvania
Orgaard, Tyler J., Specialist, 20, from North Dakota
Linde, Darren M., Sergeant 1st Class, 41, from Montana
Denier, Anthony J., Lance Corporal, 26, from New York
Monahan Jr., Christopher M., Corporal, 25, from New Jersey
Ebbert, Kevin R., Petty Officer 1st Class, 32, from California
Shanafelt, Zachary, Specialist, 24, from Michigan
Means, Dale W., Lance Corporal, 23, from Minnesota
Hicks, Channing B., Sergeant, 24, from South Carolina
Richardson, Joseph A., Specialist, 23, from Arkansas
Battle Jr., Rayvon, Staff Sergeant, 25, from North Carolina
Stiltz, Matthew H., Sergeant, 26, from Washington
Bennett, Kenneth W., Staff Sergeant, 26, from California
Nehl, James D., Captain, 37, from Oregon
Carlson, Daniel L., Specialist, 21, from California
Buttry, Brandon L., Private 1st Class, 19, from Iowa
Venne, Dain T., Staff Sergeant, 29, from New York
Jayne, Ryan P., Specialist, 22, from New York
Gornewicz, Brett E., Specialist, 27, from New York
Kantor, Matthew G., Petty Officer 2nd Class, 22, from New Jersey
Domion, Alex F., Corporal, 21, from New York
Memon, Kashif M., Staff Sergeant, 31, from Texas
Ruiz, Clinton K., Sergeant, 22, from California
Duskin, Michael S., Chief Warrant Office, 42, from Florida
Wilson, Shane G., Private 1st Class, 20, from Idaho
Savard, Ryan J., Sergeant 1st Class, 29, from Arizona
Gordon, Brittany B., Specialist, 24, from Florida
Billings, Robert J., Sergeant, 30, from Virginia
Macpherson, Thomas R., Sergeant, 26, from California
Tiu, Joel Del Mundo, Commander, 49, from Philippines
Schiro, Joseph L., Warrant Officer, 27, from Florida
Marquez, Justin C., Staff Sergeant, 25, from North Carolina
Brown, Milton W., Culinary Specialist 2nd Class, 28, Texas
Steedley, Camella M., Sergeant, 31, from California
Henderson, Aaron A., Sergeant 1st Class, 33, Maine
Johnson, Donna R., Sergeant, 29, from North Carolina
Butler IV, Thomas Jefferson, Sergeant, 25, from North Carolina
Hardison, Jeremy F., Sergeant, 23, from North Carolina
Metcalfe, Daniel T., Sergeant 1st Class, 29, from New Jersey
Stephens, Riley G., Sergeant 1st Class, 39, Texas
Gollnitz, Jonathan A., Sergeant, 28, New Jersey
Sparks, Orion N., Staff Sergeant, 29, from Arizona
Roberts, Rashun, Gunners Mate 2nd Class, 23, from Illinois
Swindle, Jason M., Sergeant, 24, from Arkansas
Nena, Sapuro B., Sergeant, 25, from Hawaii
Nelson, Joshua N., Specialist, 22, from North Carolina
Bedoy, Genaro, Private 1st Class, 20, from Texas
Townsend, Jon R., Private 1st Class, 19, Oklahoma
Raible, Christopher K., Lieutenant Colonel, 40, from Pennsylvania
Atwell, Bradley W., Sergeant, 27, from Indiana
Osborn, Kyle B., Sergeant, 26, from Indiana
Ramirez, Thalia S., Chief Warrant Officer 2, 28, from Texas
Montenegro Jr., Jose L., Chief Warrant Officer 2, 31, Texas
Terwiske, Alec R., Lance Corporal, 21, from Indiana
Rookey, Kyle R., Specialist, 23, from New York
Border, Jeremie S., Staff Sergeant, from Texas
Schmidt, Jonathan P., Staff Sergeant, 28, from Virginia
Cantu, Shane W., Private 1st Class, 20, from Michigan
Wing, Jessica M., Staff Sergeant, 42, from Virginia
Anders, Mabry J., Specialist, 21, from Oregon
Birdwell, Christopher J., Sergeant, 25, from Colorado
Horne, Patricia L., Private 1st Class, 20, from Mississippi
Torres, Louis R., Sergeant, 23, from Ohio
Debose, Coater B., Sergeant 1st Class, 55, from Mississippi
Williams, David V., Sergeant, 24, from Maryland
Justice, James A., Specialist, 21, North Carolina
Copes, Gregory T., Staff Sergeant, 36, from Virginia
Enos, Darrel L., Hospital Corpsman Petty Officer 1st Class, 36, from Colorado
Demarsico II, Michael R., Private 1st Class, 20, from California
Warsen, David J., Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class, 27, from Michigan
Galbreath, Luis A. Oliver, Sergeant, 41, from Puerto Rico
Essex, Richard A., Sergeant, 23, from California
Feeks, Patrick D., Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class, 28, from Maryland
Carson, Sean P., Explosive Ordnance Disposal Petty Officer Technician, 32, from Washington
Krause, Suresh N. A., Chief Warrant Officer, 29, from California
Hornsby, Brian D., Chief Warrant Officer, 37, from Florida
Holman, Eric S., Staff Sergeant, 39, from Pennsylvania
Dickinson, Scott E., Staff Sergeant, 29, from California
Rivera Jr., Richard A., Corporal, 20, from California
Buckley, Gregory T., Lance Corporal, 21, from New Jersey
Jeschke, Ryan , Gunnery Sergeant, 31, from Virginia
Mote, Sky R., Staff Sergeant, 27, from California
Manoukian, Matthew P., Captain, 29, from California
Kennedy, Thomas E., Major, 35, from New York
Griffin, Kevin J., Command Sergeant Major, 45, Wyoming
Gray, Walter D., Major, 38, from Georgia
Trent, Gregory R., Master Sergeant, 38, from Massachusetts
Martin, Ethan J., Specialist, 22, from Idaho
Beauchamp, Clayton R., Petty Officer 3rd Class, from Texas
Linnabary II, Daniel L., Corporal, 23, from North Carolina
Sitton, Matthew S., Staff Sergeant, 26, from Florida
Bell, Russell R., 1st Sergeant, 37, from Texas
Lopez, Jesus J., Private 1st Class, 22, from California
Lambka, Todd W., 1st Lieutenant, 25, from Michigan
McClain, Kyle B., Specialist, 25, from Michigan
Duarte, Curtis J., Lance Corporal, 22, from California
Price, Daniel J., Gunnery Sergeant, 27, Michigan
Gifford, Jonathan W., Gunnery Sergeant, 34, from Florida
Belmontes, Jose Oscar, Private 1st Class, 28, from California
Estle, Bobby L., Sergeant, 38, from Ohio
Pleitez, Benjamin C., Specialist, 25, from California
Glende, Theodore M., Private 1st Class, 23, from New York
Jacobs, Sean R., 1st Lieutenant, 23, from California
Hansen, John E., Sergeant, 41, from Texas
Ross, Adam C., Private 1st Class, 19, from South Carolina
Hansen, Justin M., Sergeant, 26, from Michigan
Williams, Eric E., Sergeant, 27, from California
Colvin, Julian L., Private 1st Class, 21, from Alabama
Berry, Richard L., Staff Sergeant, 27, from Arizona
Horsley, Justin L., Specialist, 21, from Florida
Salazar, Brenden N., Private 1st Class, 20, from Florida
Brodsky, Michael J., Petty Officer 2nd Class, 33, from Florida
Pepper, Brandon R., Staff Sergeant, 31, from Pennsylvania
Hicks, Darrion T., Specialist, 21, from North Carolina
Ashley, Joshua R., Corporal, 23, from California
Rice, Jeffrey L., Private 1st Class, 24, from Ohio
Reyes, Jose, Sergeant, 24, from Puerto Rico
Rodriguez, Daniel, Sergeant, 28, from Maryland
Fitts, Krystal M., Specialist, 26, from Texas
Perez Jr., Sergio E., Specialist, 21, from Indiana
Taylor, Nicholas A., Specialist, 20, from Indiana
Hammar, Carl E., Staff Sergeant, 24, from Arizona
May, Erik N., Sergeant, 26, from Kansas
Ristau, Michael E., Sergeant, 25, from Illinois
Wyatt, Sterling W., 21, from Missouri
Adkins, Trevor B., Private 1st Class, 21, from North Carolina
Pardo, Alejandro J., Private 1st Class, 21, from California
Stambaugh, Cameron J., Private 1st Class, 20, from Pennsylvania
Williams III, Clarence, Sergeant, 23, from Florida
Alecksen, Erica P., Specialist, 21, from Georgia
Seija, Ricardo, Staff Sergeant, 31, from Florida
Batista, Jonathan, Specialist, 22, from New Jersey
Navarro, Juan P., Corporal, 23, from Texas
MacFarlane, Bruce A., Captain, 46, from Florida
Guerra, Raul M., Staff Sergeant, 37, from New Jersey
Rodriguez Jr., Roberto A., from North Carolina
Moosman, Cody O., Private 1st Class, 24, from Idaho
Skalberg Jr., James L., Sergeant, 25, from Alabama
Prasnicki, Stephen C., 1st Lieutenant, 24, from Virginia
White, Jason, 24, from Virginia
Leach, Matthew J., Staff Sergeant, 29, from Michigan
Strachota, Michael J., Sergeant, 28, from Arkansas
Massarelli, Robert A., Staff Sergeant, 32, from Ohio
Cotisears, Niall W., Lance Corporal, 23, from Virginia
Hogan, Hunter D., Lance Corporal, 21, from Indiana
Voelke, Paul C., Major, 36, from New York
Stevens II, Steven P., Private 1st Class, 23, from Florida
Mills III, Eugene C., Lance Corporal, 21, from Maryland
Meador II, John D., Specialist, 36, from South Carolina
Thomas, Matthew B., Sergeant 1st Class, 30, from South Carolina
Rawl, Ryan D., 1st Lieutenant, 30, from South Carolina
Rodriguez, Jose, Sergeant, 22, from California
Lallier, Jarrod A., Private 1st Class, 20, from Washington
Fredsti, Nicholas C., Sergeant, 30, from California
Lilly, Joseph M., Sergeant, 25, from Michigan
Pinnick, Trevor A., Specialist, 20, from Illinois
McNabb, Barett W., Sergeant 1st Class, 33, from Arizona
Luxmore, Bryant J., Specialist, 25, from Illinois
Davis, Nathan T., Private 1st Class, 20, from California
Servin, Anthony R., Corporal, 22, from California
Kessler Jr., Richard J., Master Chief Petty Officer, 47, from Florida
Goodine, Brandon D., Private 1st Class, 20, from Georgia
Fazzari, Mathew G., 1st Lieutenant, 25, from Washington
Pace, Scott P., Captain, 39, from California
Ellis, Vincent J., Private 1st Class, 22, from Japan
Campos, Gerardo, Specialist, 23, from Florida
Povilaitis, Alexander G., Staff Sergeant, 47, from Georgia
Witsman, Joshua, Lance Corporal, 23, from Indiana
Brazas, Sean E., Petty Officer 2nd Class, 26, from North Carolina
Olivas, Nicholas H., Corporal, 20, from Ohio
The Economic Progress Institute. www.economicprogressri.org
For the fifth year, I participated in the Annual Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition's conference, "Fighting Poverty With Faith."
For the fifth year, I walked out of the Conference with so much frustration, I did not know what to do with it. It is appalling to listen to the statistics and translate those numbers into the reality of people's lives:
In 2011 (the year for which we have the most recent statistics), there were 148,800 Rhode Islanders living in poverty. That means that 148,800 of our neighbors and fellow Rhode Islanders were subsisting on $11,000 a year for a single individual and around $18,000 a year for a family of three.
Those are the people who are merely "poor."
68,800 people in Rhode Island are living in "extreme poverty" with income less than half of the poverty level: $9,265 for a family of three.
It is too easy . . . and way too inaccurate . . . to label the poor as those who do not work, whose lives are tainted by addiction, as criminals or parasites on the public.
The poor could be any of us in a blink of an eye: lose a job; get a divorce; become chronically or critically ill . . . and any of us can join the ranks of those who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and need to decide any given week between heat or food.
As a congregation, we are proud of our continuing and consistent support of the Edgewood Food Closet in our old Cranston neighborhood and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry run by the Jewish Seniors Agency. We continued to collect food for both food security projects all during our interim stay in our TY house on Middle Road and we have designed built-in bins in our new TY synagogue lobby (just lift the benches under the windows!) to accommodate our donations of non-perishable food. We hear over and over again that most of the people who come to the Edgewood Food Closet for help are working . . . at minimum wage jobs . . . and are still making that heart-breaking decision between paying the electric bill or buying food.
The minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour.
In 2012, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island was $1,176.
A cost burden exists when more than 30% of a household's income is spent on housing.
A worker would have to earn $22.62 per hour and work 40 hours a week year-round to afford this rent without a cost burden (meaning without the average rent taking up less than 30% of the worker's income).
We do need to continue or unflagging support for our two beneficiary agencies: The Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry.
But I suggest we need to do more.
I think there are projects we can take on as a congregation that could help to assure a more viable future for some of our state's poorest children, young people or even adults. Can we tutor children to read? Can we offer basic information in any of the fields of endeavor in which many of us work? Can we teach someone how to use a computer? Can we show someone how cook inexpensive, nutritious meals?
We cannot do all of these things. Perhaps what we can do effectively is not even on my short brainstorming list. But our neighbor, Newport, is the fifth poorest city in our State and we can sit down with those who are involved in the specific challenges of Newport and devise a project that will help a few people out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Call me if you would like to explore ways to help: 419-5577.
Write to me if you would like to explore ways to help: email@example.com
The Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley)
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
"Young lady," he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."
"But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, "It made a difference for that one."
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
The site of Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in June 2012
This week, we read a double parashah, two Torah portions are linked together: Behar and Behukotai. These two readings are comprised of the final chapters of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra has been a bit of a hiatus from the Sh'mot/Exodus narrative flowing from leaving Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle . . . and leading to the book of Bamidar/Numbers in which we will journey along with the wilderness generations of our ancestors to the end of the Torah itself.
The final verse of the first of this week's parshiot/portions reads thus:
"You shall keep my Sabbaths and honor in awe My sanctuary, I am Adonay."
Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in May 2013 on the eve of our first Shabbat service.
This coming Shabbat, our Torat Yisrael family will gather in our new sanctuary for the first time. We will carry our Torah scrolls from our interim space in the accommodating TY Middle Road house (we've been a "close-knit" community this year, for sure!) with song and praise and will deposit our scrolls in the temporary ark lovingly constructed for us by instructor Bill Scott and the Amos House Carpentry Class.
This is most certainly a week to contemplate how to honor God's sanctuary in awe.
Through all the many meetings and conversations and consultations and impossible-to-count volunteer hours that have been devoted to the goal of bringing our Torat Yisrael congregation to this moment, we have always kept in mind the purpose of this building. For the purpose of our beautiful new synagogue building is not just to exist for its own sake, but to provide foster the Jewish learning, worship, celebration and community growth of the members and friends of Temple Torat Yisrael.
The contemporary Jewish scholar and theological, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: "What does it mean to identify oneself as a Jew? The most obvious first answer is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as that may seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles on which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.
Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are is a family. We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel.
We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.
We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family." (Pebbles of Wisdom)
I find Rabbi Steinsaltz's image of the Jewish people as a family very compelling . . . . As an international family or a nuclear family or a communal family, like Torat Yisrael, we will always have differences of opinion, shared aspirations, a variety of talents to contribute and the desire to turn to family at times of challenge, grief and joy.
When we walked out of our 60 year old Torat Yisrael home on Park Avenue thirteen months ago, I spoke about how wrenching it is to leave the "family home" in which so many of us had celebrated, found spiritual inspiration, shared and forged close friendships, learned and grown as Jews.
Now the doors are opening to our new spiritual home and beginning this Shabbat we will again have a home in which to embed new "family" memories.
How do we honor God's sanctuary in awe? By filling this space with our presence, by coming to learn and play and pray, by coming to thank God and support our friends and "kvell" over our growing children. As much as the wilderness Tabernacle was treasured by our ancestors because God's presence among the people was so deeply a source of honor and promise, I'd suggest that our presence in Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary is our most effective means of honoring God in awe. Our family's journey to East Greenwich is complete. . . . and that, to me, is a source of awe and pride and gratitude.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.