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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - November 2014 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

Later this month most of us will gather with family and friends for a Thanksgiving meal, enjoying the company of our loved ones and an abundance of turkey and other foods.  But, while the holiday is called Thanksgiving, few of us probably stop to really think about what we are being thankful for, either in the context of the holiday or with respect to our daily lives. 
The Amidah, the central part of most worship services, contains a blessing called the Hoda’ah, translated as “thanksgiving.”  The prayer thanks God “for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are in Your care, for Your miracles that we experience every day…”

An alternative reading in Mishkan T’fillah (our new prayer book!) expands on these sentiments saying that we give thanks, “for the gift of life, wonder beyond words; for the awareness of soul, our light within; for the world around us, so filled with beauty…” This reading gives insight into the things for which we should be grateful in our lives.

When we thank God for “our lives which are in Your hands,” we are recognizing that life itself is a miracle, a mystery we so often take for granted until we are at risk of losing it.  We should always relish our lives, appreciating every moment as we live it and trying to make each day a day filled with meaning in which we make a difference.  God gave us our lives, it is our duty to make our lives matter and make the lives of others better through our being in the world. 

When we thank God “for our souls which are in your care,” we thank God for the “light within,” the spark of the divine that drives us to good and gives us hope.  Our tradition is filled with spiritual and ethical wisdom that can light a flame in our lives, that can shine the light of truth and goodness into the darkness of the world and bring us hope. 

And when we thank God “for Your miracles that we experience every day,” we thank God “for the world around us, so filled with beauty.”  We open our eyes to the daily miracles that are all around us but that we so often fail to see as we hurry about our busy lives. 

As we sit around the Thanksgiving table, faced with so much abundance and surrounded by loved ones, may we be grateful to God for all we have.  May we encourage all with whom we share our meal to live with gratitude for the many blessings in our lives.  And may we understand that being grateful does not mean only accepting the world as it is but also acting to change the world for the better so that we, and all around us, will always have more for which to be grateful. 

                            Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From The Rabbi - September 2014 PDF Print E-mail
The idea of standing before God is a daunting one.  We read in the Torah that even Moses could not see God directly, so overwhelming would the experience have been. And yet each of us is called at the High Holydays to stand before God in repentance.  If we take this task seriously we understand ourselves to be facing the ultimate judge, who knows all and before whom nothing can be hidden.  Our usual evasions and self-justifications should not matter before the Almighty.
And yet how many of us truly face God and ourselves at the High Holydays?  How many of us leave the services having truly taken advantage of the opportunity that is provided to us, for self-reflection, self-renewal and self-improvement?  How many of us keep those promises we make as we contemplate the words of the prayers and listen to the stirring music? 

For many of us it is (relatively) easy to critique ourselves.  Indeed as Jews we are remarkably good at self-criticism!  But taking the leap from examining our faults to fixing them is more daunting.  Recognizing what we have done wrong is one thing.  Having the resolve to make different choices in the future is quite another. 

In the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, we read of the people standing before God ready to receive covenant just as we stand before God in judgment at the High Holydays.  We are told: “This commandment which I command you this day is not concealed from you, nor is it far away…Rather it is very close to you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may fulfill it.”

In reading this passage on Yom Kippur we are reminded that true change is also not concealed from us or far away.  If we keep the words of the High Holyday prayers in our mouths and in our actions every day, then we remind ourselves of the resolve we had on Yom Kippur.  And as we continue to do so, these words become part of who we are and enter our hearts, staying with us in our daily lives.

In the words of the Torah portion, true change “is not in heaven” or “beyond the sea.” May each of us keep our goal of being a better person in the words we speak and in our deeds as we begin this New Year a make those changes real in our lives.

                       Rabbi Emanuel
From the Rabbi - August 2014 PDF Print E-mail
In his book “All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten” Robert Fulgham explains (as the title suggests!) that all the basic truths were learned in kindergarten:  Share everything; play fair; don't hit people; put things back where you found them; clean up your own mess; say you're sorry when you hurt somebody; when you go out in the world, watch out for traffic; hold hands and stick together.

As I discovered during my week at Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX and previously at Camp George in Ontario, the same is true of Jewish summer camp.  Many, if not all, the same lessons can be learned there as well as some new ones like: you never know if you like something until you try it; it’s good to be who you really are and not who everyone tells you should be; you have to fall off the waterskis a lot before you get it right and that’s part of the fun!

Growing up in the UK we didn’t have the same kind of amazing camp experiences (Jewish or otherwise!) as we do here.  It has been a revelation seeing how wonderful these camps can be, both as a member of faculty, teaching Judaism to the kids as part of the camp experience, and as a parent, watching my own daughter be inspired by Jewish summer camp.                                                     
Why is Jewish Summer camp so important?  Jewish summer camp has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to form Jewish identity in Jewish youth. In part it is because it is a great place to form good values.  The values of friendship, respect and community were among the Jewish values we focused on during my week at Greene Family Camp, and giving the campers the opportunity to connect Jewish values to their camp experiences and to their lives at home. 

More importantly, in a world where involvement in Jewish life comes from a feeling of engagement rather than from a sense of obligation, Jewish summer camp is a great way of showing young Jews that Judaism is fun, meaningful, and inspiring.  It helps to show them that this is something to love and cherish and not just something they do because their parents tell them they must.  They learn to be inspired by a love of Judaism and to make it a significant part of their daily lives.  This, perhaps, more than any other reason is why Greene Family Camp calls itself a camp for Living Judaism.  Indeed, Greene Family camp has recently been made a hub for youth engagement in the region, and will be creating programs to reach out to youth throughout Texas and Oklahoma. 

And these are lessons that are as important for adult Jews as they are for our youth.  Judaism has a long and proud history, but we must also ensure that it has a long and proud future. We can learn from the experience of Jewish summer camp - the enthusiasm, the passion, the sense of fun - that inspire our youth at camp, and be inspired by them also.  Just as Greene Family Camp is a hub for Living Judaism among the youth of Texas and Oklahoma, we can strive to make that spirt of Living Judaism a central part of our own congregational life and ensure that CBI continues to be a vibrant hub for Jewish life in Corpus Christi for many years to come. 

                        Rabbi Emanuel

From the Rabbi - July 2014 PDF Print E-mail
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel”

These beautiful words of praise are traditionally recited as we enter the sanctuary  and appear in the opening section of the morning service.  They are all the more beautiful because they were uttered by a man, Balaam, who was intending to curse the Israelites rather than bless them.  

The story of Balaam, that we will read the first Shabbat of July, is one of those stories that, if it were not in the Bible, it would be more likely classed as ancient farce than spiritual lore.  The story tells of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, a unique example of a non-Jewish prophet in the Hebrew bible. Concerned by the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites, Balak sends for Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites. Not only is Balaam initially obstructed in his path to curse the Israelites by a talking donkey, but every time he opens his mouth to speak the curse he blurts out a blessing instead, despite the rising and somewhat comical anger of Balak.  Included among these blessings is the first line of the Mah Tovu prayer.

The Rabbis understand this blessing to be a prophetic reference to the study houses and synagogues that were to be such a central aspect of Jewish communal life.  In looking over the ancient tents of the Israelites Balaam saw not the physical beauty of the tents but the spiritual and ethical beauty of synagogue communities.  And the fact that Balaam’s words are turned from curses to blessings, sheds light on an important aspect of synagogue community - our words of prayer, our spiritual experience in the synagogue, and our acts of loving kindness in the context of congregational life, can and should have a transformative effect.  Having come to curse Israel, Balaam observes their places of worship and his words of condemnation were turned to words of praise.  Many of us may walk through the door of the synagogue with the burdens and concerns of our daily lives; the anger and frustration at friends, family and work colleagues that we all feel at times; the anxieties, pains and difficulties that life throws at us and that fill our hearts and minds from day to day.  The synagogue is the place where we can turn our curses to blessings, our anger to calm, our anxieties to contentment, through the presence of the divine and the support of our community.
How do we do this?  Ron Wolfson, in his book “Relational Judaism”, describes how congregations succeed in touching and transforming our lives for the better:

“It’s not about programming
. It’s not about marketing. 
It’s not about branding, labels,  logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps
. It’s not even about institutions. 
It’s all about relationships”
Judaism has always understood the synagogue as a Beit K’nesset, a place of meeting. It is a place in which we meet one another and God, and in which we learn how Judaism teaches us to meet the world. In the consumerist society in which we live, the synagogue community reminds us that the primary business of religion is people. It is a place where we find community and the kind of deep personal connections that only a congregation can provide.

As part of a congregational family we can be transformed for the better through our relationships with each other, with our tradition and with God.  Those relationships are created and deepened as we share our stories and the stories of our people, as we create connections with each other, and as we engage with the many activities of congregational life that help us to create shared experiences and shared stories.  This, perhaps, was what Balaam saw so many years ago as he looked over the tents of a People who truly cared for each other and built our Jewish tradition that values relationships so highly.

As your new rabbi I have already experienced the great warmth of the CBI welcome and begun to create relationships with the wonderful people who make up this community.  I know that the depth of communal and spiritual relationships is a significant part of what makes CBI great. And I hope to build on that great strength in the coming years as I get to know everyone and build relationships with all of you.  
Rabbi Emanuel

From the Rabbi - June 2014 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:
    Unless some extraordinary circumstances intervene, this will be the last Newsletter column I shall write.  Next month’s issue will be headlined by the words of Rabbi Emanuel.
I’ve thought long and hard about what theme I should address with you in these closing remarks, and I have decided that I ought to focus my comments on the topic of SPIRITUALITY.
    The term was hardly ever used in Jewish circles until the 1960s.  Then, it became the buzz-word of the decade.  In a caricature portrait, the spiritual Jew was wrapped in an oversized tallit, adorned by kippah and even tefilliin, rapt in meditative davening and prayer, chanting a niggun (a syllabic melody without words) and swooning to the warm and fuzzy insights of the human potential movement while he or she desperately sought to recapture a lost personal identity.  The extreme manifestation of this style was the “JewBu,” who combined Jewish intellectualism and Buddhist meditation in a creative synthesis.  People who could not adopt the new-age forms of Jewish spirituality were told they were not “spiritual,” which was always meant as a detraction and put-down.
    Pendulums have a striking tendency to swing.  The movement of Jewish spirituality was a swing away from the ultra-rationalism of earlier days.  For Reform Jews whose religious style emerged from the 1920s and 1930s, religion was exclusively from the neck up.  Even during the Aleinu which counsels us to bow the head and bend the knee, the prayer books of the previous ages either made this into a universal and non-physical affirmation or suggested that we simply “bow our heads.”  One did not sway or otherwise use bodily movement in worship.  There was no ritual garb; I have even heard ushers tell men to remove their hats.  And the congregation did not dare sing along with the professional choir who, after all, possessed exceptional voices.  If one even thought to join in with the singing, other congregants would turn and glare until the offender slinked down in silent compliance in the pew.  But this era has ended and, in the 1960s the pendulum swung vigorously in the other direction.
    These were days of experimentation and individual styles of worship.  Small havurot and minyanim sprang up across the country in which small groups of like-minded Jews gathered to express the full and free range of their unique passion.  Intellect was deemed passe; what now counted was the full-bodied emotionalism with which they approached their religious involvements.  Yet this pendulum swing also contained its own self-correction, and that’s where we are today.
    I think we have now come to three healthy realizations.  The first is that intellect and emotion need to find a balance in our religious expression.  No Jew would ever seriously counsel abandoning our traditional quest for a highly-developed life of the mind.  We have made our mark in the world – and always will – based on our creativity and inventiveness, on our ability to compete in arenas of human endeavor that depend on mental acuity.  And yet to neglect the ninety-plus percent of ourselves that lies from the neck down now strikes us as unfairly dismissive of gifts that God has given us.  We need to find new ways to take full advantage of both body and mind if we are express our Jewish selves in the most complete manner.  The second insight our new situation demands of us it that each individual will need to craft his or her own balance.  We have swung beyond that point where one synthesis fits all; each of us is entitled to figure out a Jewish style that fits personally.  And finally, we ought to recognize that spirituality is not linked alone to worship.  To be sure, there can be exalted moments of heightened spirituality in the sanctuary, whether the sanctuary of the synagogue or the sanctuary of nature.  But some people may find an equally valid and compelling spirituality in tikkun olam as they reach out to help repair the brokenness of our society.  Some may find it in concentrated study.  And some of us may approach the ideal of a spiritual life rooted in the ultimate Jewish ideal, as expressed in Pirke Avot 1:2:  
    Simon the Righteous…[said]: The world stands on three things: study of the Torah, worship and doing loving acts of kindness.
    May you be favored with a spiritual life that embodies all of these virtues and may God bless each and every one of you.
Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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