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From the Rabbi
From the Rabbi - January 2015 PDF Print E-mail
In the musical “My Fair Lady” Professor Henry Higgins argues that he can tell everything he needs to know about a person as soon they open their mouth.  In much the same way, it is possible to tell a great deal about a Jewish group as soon as you open their prayerbook.

    In January we will start using our new prayer book 'Mishkan T'filah' the most recent prayer book of the Reform Movement and this prayerbook will say a lot about us.  As a congregation that embraces both Reform and Conservative Judaism, that celebrates a pluralistic model of Jewish life and is committed to be being welcoming and inclusive, this new prayerbook reflects these values and allows us to express them more effectively in our varying worship styles.  As the Reform movement has embraced more traditional practices, so too has the prayerbook changed to reflect more traditional aspects of the prayer service.  Therefore Mishkan T’filah can be used (with some supplementary material) for all our services, better reflecting our reality as a congregation in which multiple expressions of Jewish belief and practice can sit side by side as part of one congregational family.

    Like every other Reform prayerbook before, Mishkan T’filah provides a variety of options, not only reflecting different levels of traditionalism but also a variety of different philosophies and approaches to prayer, from the mystical to the psychological.  In previous prayerbooks this was achieved by having multiple services.  The big blue Gates of Prayer had no less than 10 Friday night services (compared to the grey book’s more manageable 3!).  Mishkan takes an innovative approach to this by including multiple options in one service, with the Hebrew and translation on one side of the page spread and interpretive readings on the other, each of which can be chosen to reflect that prayer in the service.  This innovation allows for many different options and choices of prayer within one service and allows for each page of the prayerbook to be used to teach about the prayers, with the interpretive readings used as commentaries on the prayers.  In fact I will be doing just that with several of the core prayers in the course of the Friday night services in January, as we use the new book to gain insight into the meaning of the prayers we are praying. 

    However, it is also true that this innovative format has challenges.  We are used to moving in a straightforward fashion through our services but praying from Mishkan works a little differently and will require a learning curve for it to become as comfortable as our current prayerbooks.  With that in mind, all our services in January will be ‘learning services’, focused not just on prayer, but on learning about prayer and particularly how to pray from this new prayerbook. 

    Please join us at services in January as we explore prayer and learn to pray in ways new and old from Mishkan T’filah, our new prayerbook. 

                    Rabbi Emanuel

From the Rabbi - December 2014 PDF Print E-mail
In the Talmud there were two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, who argued about everything (how very Jewish!) and after them their schools continued to debate and disagree on almost every matter of Jewish law.  They even disagreed about how to light the Chanukah lights!  The school of Shammai argued that we should start with eight candles and decrease the number of candles as the days of Chanukah progress.  The school of Hillel on the other hand said we should start with one candle on the first day and increase the number of candles each day.  As most will realize the school of Hillel won out and it is that practice that we follow today. 

But what was the argument really about?  The Talmud explains that the followers of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the upcoming days of the festival -- the number of days still to come; thus, each night we would light one less candle to show that another day had passed. The view of Hillel, on the other hand, was that the lights represented Chanukah's outgoing days, so that each new light indicated another day of Chanukah achieved. 

As is often the case Shammai’s opinion reflects a strict sacred reality – each day of a festival that passes is one less day of holiness, one less day of light.  It reflects the reality that each day that goes by, whether mundane or holy, cannot be reclaimed and is gone forever along with all its potential, all the things we could have done but didn’t. 

Hillel’s views, on the other hand, represents the hope that we can always increase the light when the next day comes.  It does not look back to what could have been done but wasn’t – it looks forward to the light we can create the next day and the next. 

For us as Jews today both views have important symbolic significance.  Light is a powerful symbol of holiness, and all that is good.  Our task in life is to bring more light – more holiness, compassion and justice – into the world.  We should always recognize the reality of Shammai’s view – we have a responsibility to do what is right and to do it now because once the chance to do a particular mitzvah, to do right in a particular situation, has passed, it cannot be reclaimed.  It can be fixed and made better, but THAT opportunity is gone forever. 

But, Hillel’s view reminds us that no matter what we have done, or failed to do, there is always hope that we can do what is right and do better the next day.  If we were to follow Shammai’s view, in candle lighting and in life, we would always be looking back, kicking ourselves for what we have failed to do.  But Hillel’s view tells us that we must never give up hope – we must always look forward to the light we can bring into the world today and tomorrow. 

                    Happy Chanukah,
                    Rabbi Emaneul

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

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