Category Archives: Adventures of a Chief Rabbi

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Casablanca Stopover

April 1, 2015

Casablanca Stopover

THY

I’m often pressed for time, though I always feel guilty when I haven’t written in some time. Pesach eve is particularly true. My current circumstances and internal dialogue have gone through so many twists and turns that I feel a lack in not documenting the journey.

I didn’t write about a unique Shabbat in Tel-Aviv which to me represents the very future of the Jewish people. But just as I have to pick my battles, I also need to triage my writing efforts.

Based on popular demand, I will write a few lines on the Turkish Air Bomb Threat I was an unwilling client of. First, it wasn’t really a big deal. Second, I am getting to know multiple airports and their nuances, really well. For example, in Istanbul, they will not announce that the plane is boarding or if the gate is closing, so those who are used to that luxury, consider yourselves forewarned.

On one of my legs from Israel to Montevideo, I had the privilege to travel on TK 15 from Istanbul to Sao Paulo. Mid-route over the Sahara Desert, the captain announces that we’re stopping in Casablanca. I was frankly too tired, numb and/or plugged in to whatever movie I was watching to give it much thought. When I asked the stewardesses, they mumbled something soothing but unintelligible and suddenly their spoken English skills and understanding deteriorated significantly.

No matter. We landed in Casablanca, just as my movie was getting to its resolution. Everyone needed to get off with all of their belongings. Two sets of staircases led us down onto the tarmac. We walked out onto the hot and dry Moroccan afternoon. The desert wind blew on our backs. We seemed to be at the very end of an abandoned runway. I could tell it was infrequently used by the extensive and tall weeds growing between the cracks of the concrete. We were surrounded by an army of police in smart beige dress uniforms. There was a firetruck or two, a team of police in full riot gear, an ambulance and several buses. Police were stationed in a perimeter around us, spaced approximately 10 meters from each other.

Dogs and their masters commenced sniffing all the belongings of the passengers. A guy in funky white overalls and a space-age sensor gun pointed his device at every bag. The crew were the last to come out of the plane and kept to themselves. An important looking guy in a suit and a phone to his ear kept running in and out of the plane giving orders to various people. The whole time we were uninformed.

I don’t know why, but for some reason scenes from the movie Entebbe came unbidden to my mind. Two young Israelis spotted me and stood next to me. They both took out cigarettes and smoked nervously. On the horizon I could see the airport control tower miles away. I was perturbed by the police perimeter and the non-conformist in me was tempted to make a run for it, for no other reason than dislike of restriction, but I figured the consequences would be unpleasant at best.

A dog barked excitedly around the hand luggage of the crew. His master released him and the dog went bounding through the luggage. However, after closer examination the dog decided it was not what he was looking for and moved on to other leather-clad and Samsonite-tagged prey.

After the dogs and their masters were satisfied, after the important man with the phone had finished going in and out of the plane, after the space-age white jump-suit guy had finished scanning all the luggage, they formed us in lines and body-scanned each of us before herding us onto the terminal buses.

By this point at least an hour had passed and my bladder was hoping for salvation. We arrived at the terminal and another long line. The policemen were kind enough to offer water to whoever wanted. I saw the universal sign for the men’s room and moved in that direction. A policeman firmly stopped me and indicated I needed to stay on the line. I promptly obeyed, not wanting to cause any trouble in this strange and unexpected situation. The line slowly meandered. I found myself surrounded by very devout looking Muslims and what I assume were their wives, though except for being completely covered in black, there was no other sign of humanity besides the general contours of a human body beneath the burka, gloves, stockings, etc. There was not one millimeter of flesh to be seen. These eminent men with their dark companions received respectful bows from the Moroccan police.

The line inched forward. I started to examine the policemen more carefully to determine which ones were armed and with what. I considered making a run for the bathroom, and weighed the odds of getting shot.

Considering it was a really big plane and I was one of the last to disembark it took a really long time until I approached what was the airport security counter. At that point the pressure was so strong, I was willing to admit to whatever it was they were looking for, just for a reprieve.

This part was familiar at least, and I went through my well-polished security ritual (put all metal, watch, phone, coins, etc. in your jacket beforehand, remove jacket and place on tray – much faster than removing everything at the conveyor belt).

As my stuff came out the other end of the X-ray machine, a lone plastic watch appeared. It wasn’t mine and nobody nearby claimed it. The security guard asked everyone nearby, but there were no takers. He continued up and down the long line for the next half hour until he found the watch’s owner. I have rarely seen a more determined example of someone performing the commandment of returning a lost object (hashavat aveda).

Finally, we made it to immigration and now I had a dilemma. Do I use my American passport or my Israeli one? I couldn’t recall the exact state of international relations. When I received the immigration form I found myself automatically filling in: Residency: Israel, Nationality: Israel, Profession: Rabbi. It was a good distraction from my bladder issues.

As the moment of truth approached, I noticed the immigration officer writing on everyone’s form. He looked at my form and at my passport, didn’t write anything and let me through. Now there was another long line to get back onto the bus to board the plane. I spotted the same bathroom (we had made a long slow circle of the small terminal) and before anyone could protest, I walked firmly through the metal barricade and made a bee-line for the bathroom.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, though the stewardesses were still tight-lipped. I landed in Sao Paulo too late to make my connection and was put up in a nice hotel for the night. In the morning, I was advised at the gate that only one of my two pieces of luggage was on the flight. When I arrived in Montevideo, I was now told that both were on the flight. One arrived. However, in an unusual circumstance that I have trouble imagining exactly how it occurred, a different piece of luggage arrived, with my tag on it.

Now I find it normally difficult after a trip to rip apart the luggage tag the airlines place on the bag handle. How that tag came off my luggage and reattached itself to someone else’s luggage demonstrates either foul play or a level of serial incompetence that is difficult to fathom. I still have some hope that it will be found, hopefully before Pesach.

And now that you’ve shared in my writing therapy I will return to the urgent business of preparing for Pesach. I am aiming to do a meaningful communal Seder in record time, while at the same time ensuring that my non-interested clientele fulfills some of the basic commands of the night (eat matza, drink four cups, say “Pesach, Matza & Marror”) – non-trivial to say the least.

For me at least, I have had a small personal exodus from an African desert, from a mildly threatening if not antagonistic regime with limited bladder sensitivity and a hot and dry climate.

I was able to proceed with my movie which had an enjoyable resolution. The hero frees the people from the rule of an evil, deceptive, megalomaniacal tyrant and in the process destroys their god. What is truly ironic is that it was based on the Greek legend of Hercules. One can find Pesach anywhere – even in Casablanca.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Elderly are the Future

March 10, 2015

The Elderly are the Future

torah scribe

A conventional wisdom that has been repeated to me during my work is that “the youth are our future.” Some advised me to focus my time and efforts on the young members of the community. There was no hope for the elderly. They are too set in their ways to introduce a greater appreciation for Jewish tradition into their lives. You get more mileage out of teaching a fifteen year-old than a seventy year-old.

This philosophy is not uncommon to Jewish organizations worldwide. Almost all the Jewish organizations I ever worked with had a ponderous preoccupation with inculcating the young. There is a logic to it. I understand well the selectivity in the use of limited communal resources. However, I found myself instinctively and strongly (though quietly and respectfully) very much against and even upset by this wholesale discrimination against the elderly. And though it may be counter-intuitive and goes against the common wisdom of major Jewish organizations around the globe, I think that by ignoring or dismissing the elderly we are missing out on a huge resource and power for the continuation of the Jewish people.

In Uruguay, the most often quoted estimation of the Jewish population is of 15,000 souls. I would estimate that less than 1% are observant of the spectrum of Jewish laws. The Jewish population is highly integrated, assimilated and intermarried into the secular world. Despite the existence of Jewish schools and Zionist youth movements, the people who have the greatest nostalgia for their Jewish roots are the elderly. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the elderly of this community did not grow up observant or in observant homes. Their grandparents were generally the last observant generation.

Now it is true that there are some people who are so set in their ways that even if Moses himself showed up and gave them direct guidance, it wouldn’t change one iota in their Jewish awareness or behavior. However, what I keep discovering, that for some of the older generation, some exposure to Jewish sources and traditions awakens something long dormant in their psyches, and once the sleeping giant is awakened it stirs in wonderful and powerful ways.

I was given fresh evidence of this tonight. At a meeting with an elderly group I spoke about Pesach. One of the members was so moved that she stated that though she had never kept Pesach her entire life, now she would start. What I have seen on multiple occasions is that when an elder member of a family connects or reconnects with our tradition, it has a multiplying and perhaps even an exponential effect – and that is the great power that institutions are missing.

When a grandmother decides she wishes to observe more Jewish laws, she either directly or indirectly brings the rest of the family along. Another factor that organizations may be forgetting (except for those caring for the elderly) is that the lifespan of the elderly is significantly longer than in the past. These grandmothers and grandfathers are around for much longer and their influence can be measured in decades and generations. They have greater access and influence to their grandchildren who are ignoring their teachers and lessons in the Jewish schools. They are an untapped resource.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:25) compares teaching a young child to writing on a clean piece of parchment, while teaching the elderly is like writing on a used erased one. But a scary realization is that the children of our generation are not parchment any more. They are smartphones, already pre-installed with factory-equipped software, accessorized, entertained, distracted and addicted. But such an existence is untenable and will eventually run out of battery. It will become obsolete and they will be seeking the next new shiny bauble only to be disappointment again by the superficial mirage of plastic and silicon that has nothing beneath it but cold bytes and heartless electrons. In the end they will reach to the old, rewritten parchment for guidance and hope.

We need to prepare a generation of elderly to assure our future.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Induction of Rabbi Epstein

February 13, 2015

The Induction of Rabbi Epstein

Rabbi Epstein (left) with Chief Rabbi Mirvis
Rabbi Epstein (left) with Chief Rabbi Mirvis

“Induction” is not a legal term nor a medical procedure. It is the term used by the United Synagogue in Great Britain when officially welcoming and accepting someone as the Rabbi of their synagogue. I had the great joy and privilege of participating in the induction of my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein and my sister, his wife Ilana, as Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue.

The main synagogue was filled with close to 500 attendees. The Rabbi/Chazan of the famed Marble Arch Synagogue, Rabbi Rosenfeld, stood on the high platform in the center of the chamber. In front of him, on the ground below was the men’s choir. With suitable introduction, the Chazan and choir start chanting the welcoming tune of “Baruch Haba” as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis and Daniel proceed in. They are each adorned with a Talit, the classic prayer shawl.

They walk to the front of the chamber, climb the stage that leads to the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept at the front of the synagogue) and they each sit down in the large wooden, velvet-covered seats on either side of the Aron Kodesh, facing the congregation.

The mayor of the town was present with a ceremonial gold chain with a golden lion on a red background, the centerpiece of this very cool jewelry. There was a member of parliament, a police chief and various other distinguished guests and Rabbis of Britain.

Technically, the service consisted of the Mincha (afternoon prayer) with the addition of the liturgy for opening and closing the Aron Kodesh, as well as additional prayers for the government and royal family, for the State of Israel and its army and for the community.

However, the performance of the Chazan and the choir was so masterful, so moving, that it gave the occasion tremendous significance. I was invited to recite the prayer for the State of Israel and the army. I was told afterwards that my Hebrew/Spanish accent was particularly amusing.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis gave an excellent and warm introduction to Daniel, calling him on more than one occasion an “outstanding Rabbi” and applauding his decision to join the Rabbinate after a twenty-year career in public relations.

Then Daniel spoke. I have not heard him speak very much in public, but this was a speech to remember. He was passionate. He was powerful. He spoke movingly and lovingly of his role, of Ilana’s role, of his children, of community and his hopes, dreams and visions for the community of Cockfosters and N Southgate.

It was a home run. He knocked the ball right out of the park. One could feel the electricity in the air and how the community loves and responds to Daniel. In that brief address, he created a positive energy that can carry his community for a long time to come.

However, that was not the end. To the surprise of the crowd and their parents, Ilana and Daniel’s children got on the stage. Saadia (Stephen), Yoel, Odelle and Jacob gave a tag team speech which was the highlight of the event. It was a moment of such honesty and purity that I don’t think there was a dry eye in the crowd. This is a loving family now embedded in a loving community.

To say that we were impressed by the induction ceremony of a United Synagogue Rabbi is an understatement. The British know how to put on pomp and ceremony. But despite what felt like a coronation ceremony, it did not feel superficial. It was heartfelt. It was run and organized by a group of hard-working, dedicated volunteers with real respect and admiration for their new Rabbinic couple. Great honor and respect was likewise given to the outgoing, retiring Rabbi Fine, Rabbi of the community for 27-years. I had the privilege of siting next to him. He was smiling and content throughout the event and very pleased with Daniel.

The cynic in me wondered what the value of such a ceremony might be. Neither in Israel nor in many other countries is their such a show for introducing a new Rabbi. In Israel, most Rabbis are civil servants and a dime a dozen. I don’t recall such ceremonies in other countries or communities in which I’ve lived. Part of it, I’m sure, is cultural. Many communities would not have the thought, interest or patience in welcoming their Rabbis in such a fashion. But I think something of the nature should be part of the introduction of a Rabbi and his family to a community. There should be an event that not only honors the Rabbi, but by default bestows great honor, energy and strength to the community.

I was very impressed by the community of Cockfosters and N Southgate. May they, together with the Epsteins, enjoy many years of activity, growth and success.

For a detailed article on the event, click here.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Love of Biscocho

February 1, 2015

Love of Biscocho

There is no particular awe-inspiring structure in Montevideo. There is no site here I would tell anyone to get on a plane to come and see. I wouldn’t even tell you to come out of your way from nearby Buenos Aires. The extent of the tourist attractions can be reduced to a two-hour bus ride and even then, the “attractions” range between mildly interesting to outright boring. Mind you, not that it isn’t a lovely place to live – it’s just not a “touristy” place.

However, besides the people and the culture that I have written about at some length, that indeed makes ones stay here enjoyable, there is one treat I have yet to write about: the “biscocho”.

The biscocho is almost exactly like, but never quite the same as a variety of pastries. It most closely resembles a croissant, but that would be inaccurate. It is vaguely reminiscent of a rogoloch, but again you would be quite off.

It doesn’t have any particular flavor or at least it is more subtle than I know how to describe. So for those of you whose taste buds are dead, you will need something stronger to get your attention. When it is freshly baked it is warm and soft with a pleasant texture. It doesn’t fall apart into a million crumbs when you bite into it, nor is it particularly sticky. Biting into it is always a pleasurable sensation. It usually takes four or five bites to finish one. They come in a variety of versions, but the most common one is the plain sugar-coated traditional biscocho. While we are all fans, our son Netanel has taken a deep interest in it.

When asked what he will miss most of Uruguay, “biscocho” is his automatic reply. During the times he worked as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the different Kosher establishments, he accepted payment in biscochos. During his final week in the country, concerned about his separation from what became his daily breakfast, he talked the baker into sharing with him the secrets of biscocho creation. Netanel has named this process “The Way of the Biscocho” and there is as much philosophy of life to it as there is technique.

While I don’t recall the technical details, what I do understand is that it involves a lot of waiting, a lot of patience and a lot of matte drinking. Netanel has now made plans to bring this art form to Israel and to open the first Biscocheria in Israel to service the clearly biscocho-starved Uruguayans and other Latin Americans who have been missing this delicacy in their Israeli lives. Perhaps there was something worthwhile in Montevideo after all…

Update and Clarification of Spitz Departure

January 29, 2015

Update and Clarification of Spitz Departure

As many know already, despite our love of Uruguay and its Jewish community, my wife Tamara, and our four children that have been here with us, will be returning next week to Israel. Our children will be returning to their corresponding schools and will continue their education in Israel. Mother and all the children will be reunited and in the warm care and presence of my in-laws in Alon Shvut.

I will be accompanying my family to Israel to assist with their resettling, and with God’s help, will be returning to Montevideo the first week of March and will continue in my role as Chief Rabbi. Starting in March, I will be on average one week per month with my family in Israel and the remainder of the month will be serving our community while residing in Montevideo.

I apologize for any rumors or subsequent concerns that our announcement may have generated. We love this community very much and this has been an incredible, life-altering experience for me, Tamara and the kids. They will treasure the friendships and memories that were created here and will seek to maintain them from Israel. We also value the multiple and extremely warm farewell events that have been organized for Tamara and the children.

I personally look forward to continuing to serve the entire community, and as always, make myself available to you, for all matters, large or small.

Your humble servant,

Ben-Tzion

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

January 21, 2015

Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

I’ve heard some beautiful names on my travels, but I suppose they’re a bit too grand for daily wear and tear, as you might say. The Gaffer, he says: “Make it short, and then you won’t have to cut it short before you can use it.” – Lord of the Rings

Perhaps it was the Venezuelan education of the ’70s. Perhaps it was the punctilious Christian teachers that insisted on a full, complete and well-articulated pronunciation of words. Whatever the case, the Uruguayan dialect of Spanish has some particularities that were new to me, though I suspect are broader than my limited Latin American experience.

There is a certain logic to the flagrant amputation of Spanish words. To call a “computador” a “compu” makes a lot of sense when you know what the last two syllables will be. Likewise cutting “cumpleaños” (birthday) down to “cumpli” is especially convenient for the children who seem to attend one every week. Perhaps the most common is the exorcism of just one syllable of the ubiquitous “tranquilo” to “tranqui”.

However, when the carnage extends to phrases, now I know I’m in uncharted territory. To turn two words “Ya esta” (that’s enough) into a monosyllable “Ta” – seems a crime of language.

But the mutilation of language does not stop there. It extends deeply and extensively to the area of names. And while one might give credit and presume the shortening of words or names demonstrates a certain efficiency in the use of our breath, I suspect it comes from a cultural laziness to expend more mental or verbal energy than absolutely necessary.

Proper Jewish Uruguayan names are extraordinarily unimaginative. Almost everyone is named Daniel. If you forgot someone’s name and you call them Daniel, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. Gabriel is also an extremely popular name. Rafael is not uncommon (the angels did well in Uruguay). Debora is a hugely popular girls name. Now the problem with these extremely popular names that everyone has is that at times you have no idea who someone is talking about. But fear not! The Uruguayans have a solution to that with the even more popular nicknames.

The most common type of nickname is to shorten or mangle someone’s last name. Gabriel Boruchovas is efficiently shortened to “Boru.” Some retain childhood nicknames well into adulthood, so that “Pato” (Duck) seems to be a perfectly reasonable form of address. Another curious phenomenon is the love-fest Uruguayans seems to have with the consonant “ch” (as in chocolate, not as in Michelle). I do not lie when I say I know people who are called: Chocho, Chiche, Chichi, Chuchu and I’m sure I’m forgetting some other iterations of a double “ch” with a variety of vowels.

I count myself fortunate that I arrived in Uruguay ready with a two-syllable nickname, so that “Bentzi” seems to come easily to Uruguayan lips, though some that want to be even more efficient, just call me “Rav.”

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Homeless Parking Gangsters

January 12, 2015

Homeless Parking Gangsters

It is not uncommon, while walking down select streets of Montevideo, to see a homeless man (they are usually men, though there are a number of women as well), sleeping on a piece of cardboard, under a threadbare blanket, against the side of a building. Under him are all of his worldly possessions, which conveniently fit into a garbage bag. This is not small fortune, as one must bear in mind there is an entire strata of society here that makes a living by raiding garbages (or homes), usually on their horse-drawn carriages with a humungous one-ton resin bag on the back and then sell their take at the various and popular flea markets around town.

They are homeless during the night and late morning as well – depending on the neighborhoods. Residential neighborhood homeless go to sleep later and wake up later; commercial neighborhood homeless go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. However, during the day and the evening they work. One of the most popular jobs is as a parking Mafioso.

They stake out a street (often the one they sleep on), put on a dirty reflective yellow vest that no longer reflects anything and give uninterested drivers directions as to how to park their car, sometimes directing other cars to wait patiently while you get into your spot. Very nice community service type of thing. When the driver returns to his car and is ready to pull out, our Good Samaritan once again officiously directs traffic and tells you when to pull out. By now, Uruguayans are trained to tip these parking gangsters for this unrequested service. When I first arrived to Montevideo, I was scandalized by the constant low-level extortion of these unofficial, unregulated parking attendants. Why should I have to pay these guys for something I didn’t want or ask for? Is there a hidden threat that they would damage my car or allow harm to come to it, if I didn’t give them “protection money?” [Note: After months and months of waiting we finally got a replacement car!]

However, with time, I have come to appreciate these harmless ruffians. I have come to believe that there is indeed some element of protection they afford for a symbolic donation. Cars do not seem to be harmed on their watch. They are actively self-employed. They are entrepreneurs. In some streets there seems to be a concession system. That’s management and expansion possibilities.

I smile at the regular ones in the morning and wish them a good day. I ask them how they’re doing. There is one who I used to see twice a day, when I was living alone on Blvr. España and walked from there to the synagogue. His name is Eduardo. He has his own chair. He’s fairly laid back about his duties. He seems either regularly content or drugged. He somehow always has a beer in his hand and on cold days the traditional mate drink.

There is another one I know well by sight. He is on Blvr. Artigas, between Av. Brasil and Maldonado. He is darkened by standing the entire day in the unprotected sun. Thick white hair adorns his round wrinkled face. He has a cane that he uses imperiously to direct people to empty spots under his dominion. The challenge is that Blvr. Artigas is a major artery and more than 95% of the drivers are just passing by with no interest in parking. This does not deter our noble cane-waving attendant. He waves his cane with a seriousness of purpose; he looks at each driver zooming by as if they are a perspective parker, and directs all of the incoming traffic to parking spots that nobody wants. No one pays him any attention. He is completely ignored by the commuting masses. Though he takes his self-appointed job seriously, nobody else does.

I wonder how many of us have similar situations?

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Community Power

October 25, 2014

Community Power

As idealistic as my job forces me to be, some corner of my heart has the dark cynicism of a New Yorker. A part of me expected people who attended The Shabbos Project events to come more for the experience and to remain unscathed from any palpitations of observance.

The Friday night prayer service, Kabalat Shabat, was filled past capacity. More than 400 people filled the beautiful, but barely suitable Hillel building. In the back of the first floor, there is a beautiful rectangular hall that is perfect for 120 people. We squezzed close to 200 women in that hall. The front of the first floor has an expansive hall, with a big beautiful curved bar counter dominating the left side, a pool table on the right far corner and low-hanging modern chandeliers across the length of the hall. More than 250 men arrayed themselves in the insufficient chairs (we only had 350 chairs total). The place was so full that I saw many people enter the hall only to turn back and leave, hopeless to find a comfortable place to stand or sit.

The men sat facing the women across a short narrow corridor connecting the two halls. That is where I placed myself and our extraordinary Hazan, Rabbi Oved Avrech.

There was an incredibly strong showing from the Bogrim (alumni) of all the Tnuot (youth organizations). There were also leaders and members of all the synagogues and communities.

Interspersed throughout the prayer, we invited different people to give short introductions to the different parts of Kabalat Shabat. Speakers included Alicia Perl of NCI, Rabbi Eliyahu Galil of the Sefaradi Community, Sergio Gorzy, President of Central Committee of the Jewish community, Michel Grauser of Macabi, and Israeli Ambassador Nina Ben-Ami.

In the large halls, with many participants unfamiliar with the prayers, I found myself reverting 25 years in the past, to my days as an NCSY Youth Advisor, when we regularly held such events. I was walking up and down the hall, showing people the place in the prayer book, quieting talkers, encouraging people to partcipate and getting those familiar with what we were doing to do the same.

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative decorum and the high level of participation of people for many of whom this was their first Kabalat Shabat.

The singing was loud and emotional and we even managed to dance a few steps in the narrow passageway that was left to walk.

I gave a very short sermon, as is my custom, or perhaps even shorter than usual and I asked, challenged and dared congregants one thing: Turn off your cellphone until the end of Shabat. As a former salesman, I think I gave a good pitch – but you never know.

We had a festive kiddush after the services with delicious food provided by both the kitchens of Kehila and Yavne.

After most of the crowd left, about 100 youths moved up to the second floor to have a community dinner. Also oversubscribed. We had closed the booking at 70 people but somehow managed to squeeze everyone in and feed everyone well. Also great mix of people, a visiting chayal, travellers, Jewish student leaders, college students with no connection whatsoever to any Jewish institutions, and a broad spectrum of religious observance and identification. We were also joined later by Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Chabad, who enhanced the evening.

The young shlichim and shlichot organized an entertaining game for the dinner which complimented the singing and words of Torah. For a percentage of participants who had never experienced a Shabat prayer or dinner, it was an eye-opening event.

We had also placed a number of individuals, groups and families in the homes of hosts and encouraged others to invite people who wouldn’t have had a Shabat dinner otherwise. I estimate that at least 100 people were invited out for Shabat dinners, if not more.

In Yavne, the following day, we had a communal lunch, with 180 participants split up between two halls. While the majority were regular synagogue attendees there were a number of notable newcomers who participated in the meal. Throughout the day and the night we also had multiple occasions to celebrate Tamara’s birthday. She probably has never had so many people sing and wish her a Happy Birthday in her life (I estimate that throughout the 24 hours, over 500 different people managed to sing to her.)

The Shabat ended with the Havdala Event.

This was conducted in the outdoor grounds of the Integral School. We must have had over 300 participants. There was a strong showing from the Macabi youth group as well as that of communal leaders who weren’t able to attend the other events.

Rabbi Oved Avrech led the Havdala ceremony in the engaging Carlebach style. Then the school band played an excellent medley of four songs. The only one which I recognized was the Beatles’ 8 Days a Week.

Then the Macabi group, the winner of the recent “Noharia” (competition between the different Jewish youth movements) finished the event with a recreation of their prize-winning play. I’m not sure I understood a lot of it, but what I did was very interesting, thought-provoking and very well done. These kids have futures as thespians.

However, the absolute highlight for me were the reports and accounts that came in afterwards. How moving or meaningful someone found some aspect of one of the events. How enjoyable being hosted for Shabat dinner was. One woman confessed that she kept her phone off for the entire Shabat. One attendee admitted that for the first time in his life, he closed his store for Shabat. One man blushingly relayed that he kept Shabat in its entirety.

For each one of these, the entire effort was worth it. And I am sure there are many more stories and events that I haven’t heard.

This was a massive effort that spanned all the communities, utilized the resources of the two main Jewish schools and the Hillel center and required the cooperation of multiple organizations. No one institution could have done this alone, nor would it have been nearly as successful. More than the feeling or observence of Shabat that this event engendered it demonstrated the power and strength of community unity.

In my Havdala talk I said that when we are united, we are invincible. We need to remember that, not only during troubles, not only during rare events. We need to remember that when we are united, we are invincible – every day.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Female Pride

October 23, 2014

Female Pride

The Shabbos Project has started. We started it with The Great Challah Bake. Thousands upon thousands of women in over 300 communities around the world are participating in this historic event.

Getting to be a part of it here in Montevideo has been an extreme honor and joy. To see Tamara as the focal person of the event is a source of indescribable pride.

The ideas of months, the planning of weeks, the effort of days came to a feverish culmination today. The Yavne kitchen performed amazingly under the extreme pressure of regular school meals, daily sales, weekly challah baking for the community, the regular Shabbat kiddush, a Bar-Mitzvah meal, catering the youth dinner after the central prayer and a general luncheon for the community that is already overbooked past capacity, and probably a few other things that I’m not aware of.

The women of Chabad as well as all the shlichot (teachers from Israel) were active and busy setting up the hall, the tables, preparing the dough, the trays – getting everything ready hours before the start of the event.

jalaBake

Women from the entire spectrum of the community arrived – and of all ages. Over 300 women filled an area that was designed and prepared for less. We ran out of tables and chairs, however, luckily there were tables and chairs of the kindergarden available which the women put to comic yet practical use. The feeling of community was palpable. Mrs. Sylvia Acher was the master of ceremonies; and my boss, Kehila Director, Nurit Caplivschi addressed the crowd. We were also honored by the participation of the Israeli Ambassador, Nina Ben-Ami.

However, Tamara conducted the show and it was frankly amazing. For a person who didn’t speak a word of Spanish a little over a year ago, to now not only address but to enthrall an audience in a masterful Spanish was just breathtaking. The women listened to her every word as she gave a profound explanation of the special mitzvot (commandments) that women have and the symbolism of making and separating a part from the Challah.

Tjala

When she asked everyone to close their eyes and pray for someone in need, you could feel in the meaningful silence the spirituality in the room go up several notches. When everyone repeated the blessing after Tamara, I thought I would burst into tears from the power and force that the women put into it.

It was an amazingly successful event. Everyone was happy. The whole community was represented, together and interacting in a meaningful way. There were many women (and children) who had never made a Challah in their lives, let alone say the blessing when separating the prescribed part. I think that in the history of the community, there hasn’t been an event quite like this one.

After making the Challah, many of the women danced, with of course, the internationally renown dance-instructor, choreographer, doctor, rabanit and mind-boggingly talented, Tamara.

Shabbat Shalom!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

October 15, 2014

Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

For the first time in memory we hosted a lot of people who had either not been in a Suka for decades or in some cases had never been in a Suka. To see and experience the Suka through their eyes was an insightful exercise.

We often talk the talk of the Suka. How we our leaving our homes, the comfort and security of sturdy walls and a solid roof for the flimsy hut and see-through covering of the Suka. How we are placing our faith in God. How we are leaving the material comforts for a simpler existence.

How many of us say and hear these ideas, but really feel it? I think that for many people, they are used to the Suka. They are accustomed to its wonder.

This Sukkot, as our guests walked in to our humble shack in the back of our resplendent home, I witnessed a transformation. I witnessed a metamorphosis of our guests from people concerned with their day-to-day cares, to people living a spiritual experience. It is hard to understand and harder to describe, but I will attempt nonetheless.

Technically, our Suka is a pitiful structure. A pieced-together rusted frame with wide strips of cloth that was attractive twenty years ago. A sagging bamboo mat roof with low-hanging paper-chain adornments that forced our taller guests to bend. Six naked light bulbs (energy efficient ones at least) with overhanging wires brightened the hastily built Suka and highlighted the color of the many Hamsas (Kabalistic hand symbol) that the handicapped kids from the Kehila contributed to the Suka. In the corner, was the artistic masterpiece for this year: An original hand-drawn representation of the 7 Ushpizin (Ancestral Guests), outlined by Tamara and colored by our kids. Besides the 7 Ushpizin, were 7 Ushpizot (7 female biblical characters) that Tamara introduced to Uruguay and spoke about each evening.

But despite the objectively dilapidated dwelling, our guests only saw and experienced beauty. The comments were unanimous “What a beautiful Suka!”

I tried to understand, what was the beauty they were experiencing? Why was there a spirituality in the air and in their eyes that wasn’t there before? What is it about a Suka that creates such an effect?

I think that part of it is visceral and is based on the laws of Suka construction. The prime rule is the composition of the roof. Vegetative based, creates more shade than sun, but allows enough space where one could see the stars at night. Also, it cannot be too high. It must remain within normal viewing range. You must always be able to see and therefore sense the naturally ethereal roof over your head. The roof itself cannot be covered or obstructed in anyway. It must have complete access to the heavens. You feel at the same moment two contradictory sensations – covered and exposed. It’s an unnatural and unusual sensation, which must engender some spiritual stimulus.

Then there are the walls. It’s a temporary structure meant to stand only a week. Few invest in anything significant. You leave your house to go outside and into the Suka. On one hand you are in a structure, on the other hand you are outside. Again, contradictory stimulus. Am I outside or inside? I imagine this stirs the soul as well.

Finally, and perhaps least legislative but most important are the decorations. The law does not prescribe dimensions, colors, content, minimum height or placement for decorations. By law, a Suka is Kosher without any decorations. But it is the part that in many homes is the most worked upon. We brought with us from Israel a two-meter wide painting on fabric of ancient Jerusalem that adorned one of the walls. Tamara reserves an entire day for the children to work on art projects to hang on the ceiling and walls. The investment of time, creativity and love is out of all proportion to the time actually spent in the Suka.

People sense that. And on some innate level are shocked. There is a dissonance. The effort that is more appropriate, more associated with something more permanent, placed in a very temporary setting. Are we here to stay or are we going already? That is the final push to awaken a soul.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second. All of this happens at the subconscious level of the senses. The designed impact of contradictory physical messages on our senses overrides our natural operating mode. Am I protected or am I exposed? Am I inside or am I outside? Am I staying or am I going? These very basic existential questions bring our spirit to life in a sudden and powerful way – and we may not even notice it. It can lead to a surprising joy.

That is the Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics.

Chag Sameach.