March 2017: Synagogue Leadership Changes

posted Feb 21, 2017, 2:20 PM by Board President

You may recall that I announced several months back that 2016-2017 would be my last year as president. I’m looking forward to fresh leadership for Brith Sholem next year, although I expect to remain very much involved in a variety of ways. Each of us has something unique to offer the congregation, and I am looking forward to focusing on the things that I find most rewarding, such as education and leading services.

There will be other changes in synagogue leadership next year, as well. At our last Board meeting, we approved a plan to restructure our leadership to encourage more members of the community to be involved in the areas that they find most rewarding, through the expanded activities of the committees that are responsible for everything from taking care of our buildings to planning and running social programs to social action opportunities. You can expect to hear more about these committees and how you can be a part of the action over the coming months.

For now, please know that input from the community is always welcome as the Board considers future directions. If you would like to offer more than just the occasional comment, please consider joining the Board!

February 2017: The Up- and Down-sides of Snow

posted Jan 31, 2017, 11:56 AM by Board President

Anyone who knows me at all may be surprised when I say that I have had enough of snow. After all, I’m the one who always wants the snow to arrive earlier and stay later, just hoping for a bit more of a ski season than we ever seem to get. But the seemingly endless snowfall over the past week or two has shown me that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t get out to ski in all that glorious powder; instead, my primary interaction with this snow involved the business end of a shovel. At last, though, the snow seems to have abated, at least for a few days. As I write this message, I am oh-so-grateful to be watching a normal sunset instead of yet another nightfall through a veil of fat snowflakes.

What broader lesson does this recent experience offer? I think there’s a deeper message than the “too much of a good thing” I referred to above. Virtually anything we long for in our lives has multiple consequences. That fabulous job comes with additional pressure and demands on our time. The public recognition that comes with a well-earned award carries with it the responsibility to be on one’s best behavior in the future (your slip-ups are less likely be noticed until you are in the spotlight). The poet Rumi talks about accepting the less-welcome aspects of our lives in The Guest House: 

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

As we make our way through Exodus in our annual reading of Torah, we currently see Moses coming to grips with the positive and negative aspects of his role as the newly-tapped leader of the Israelites. On the one hand, he has a personal relationship with God that is unparalleled in our experience. On the other, in his dealings with Pharaoh--not to mention the problems presented by his “stiff-necked” people once we finally get out of Egypt--he frequently shows his humanity by saying something like, “I have had enough of this!” All I have to do is consider the difficulty of the challenges he was facing, and those piles of snow as tall as me seem pretty trivial. (But I’d still like to ski and not just shovel!)

January 2017: Expressed and Experienced Jewish Identities

posted Jan 2, 2017, 7:33 PM by Dev Letendre

I’m writing this message from Las Vegas, a place that always gives me a new perspective on life. As I watched the people along Las Vegas Blvd. (“the Strip”) this week, I found myself thinking about how being here makes people look (and apparently sometimes act) different from the way they might in their usual context. Some people toss away their inhibitions and act out, becoming louder or rowdier or gigglier or maybe just more open to new experiences. Some people seem to be flaunting their looks or their clothes, whether it’s the highest heels or the most glitter or the craziest hat. You can be relatively certain that everyone is here on a short-term basis, though, so by next week they will all likely be back on their home turf, looking and acting more or less like they did before they got here.

For me, this people-watching experience made me think about my identity, including of course my Jewish identity. I couldn’t tell which of the people I saw walking along the Strip were Jewish (I don’t recall seeing any Chanukah sweaters!), but even though I wasn’t expressing my Jewishness outwardly, I could still feel it. I felt it in my awe at the creativity and talent on display at the Cirque du Soleil, in the appreciation of everyday courtesy shown by strangers to each other in the crush of a crowd, and simply in the recognition that everyone here was created “b’tzelem Elohim” (in God’s image). I don’t have to be at Brith Sholem to feel Jewish (although it certainly never hurts!). Wherever I go, I aim to remember who I am, and even if I’m a little more giddy under the neon lights here, I hope I am just as Jewish as I would be at home!

December 2016: We Must Stand Up to Hate

posted Nov 29, 2016, 5:26 PM by Dev Letendre

The outcome of last month’s election opened the way to a lot of changes, some anticipated and some of which we have as yet little or no knowledge. I don’t intend to write about politics here, but one of the outcomes we have already seen is a distressing one: All over the country there have been many examples of expressed or overt hostility toward minority groups ranging from people of color to immigrants to members of the LGBTQ community… and yes, to Jews. Right here in Ogden, there was an incident where a gay couple’s car was vandalized and tagged with anti-gay epithets. We at Brith Sholem have always been able to count on good will from the community at large, and I have no reason to expect that to change, but it should be no less worrisome to us if a Muslim, a Sikh, or an immigrant is attacked than if the attack were on one (or all) of us. As a people who have too often been the object of hateful behavior in our past, we should be the first to stand up to such behavior today. That means, first of all, being sensitive to what we read, hear, or observe around us. If we identify this kind of hostility, there are many ways to respond to it, ranging from calling out the perpetrator to literally supporting the victim. But as important as it is to respond to hateful behavior, it may be even more important to stop it before it starts. This is a question of educating ourselves and others about the warning signs and coded language that lead to such behavior, and then of acting to stop those who would perpetrate it. As Jews, we look to our sages for their words of wisdom. In this time, we should remember Rabbi Tarfon, who is quoted in the Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) as saying, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Rabbi Hillel, perhaps our most frequently quoted teacher, makes the mandate even clearer when he says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” If we heed their calls to social justice, we can help to repair and unite the world, each of us in our own small way.

November 2016: To Everything There is a Season... or Not?

posted Oct 31, 2016, 11:05 AM by Board President

Do you feel it? The darkness at 7am, the leaves dropping with every gust of wind, the chill in the air, the pre-season NBA games, the appearance of ski swap signs and winter holiday decorations: They all tell us that summer is gone and fall is here. It may not have hit us on the day of the vernal equinox way back in September, but there’s no denying it now. I was thinking about the gradual transition of the seasons during a wild rainstorm at services last night when we read the Ma’ariv Aravim prayer (“Blessed are You… who thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons”) and during our Drosh ‘n Nosh with Rabbi Daniel last weekend, when we studied the book of Kohelet (better known as Ecclesiastes). At that discussion, we read the oft-cited lines “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We probed the significance of times for being born and dying, planting and reaping, weeping and laughing, loving and hating, and the suggestion that we should be able to identify which time is for which purpose and act accordingly. And then we read a poem by the contemporary Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that cast the contrasts of Ecclesiastes in a very different way. In “A Man Doesn’t Have Time In His Life,” Amichai says

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes…
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

I love Amichai’s poetry, but this poem got to me more than most. It reminded me that I can’t live my life simply by following the seasons and trying to sort out my purposes into neat, this-or-that categories. Life is messy and short, and we need to be able to live it fully even as we are caught up in the maelstrom that makes it seem impossible to make sense of it all. Perhaps the orderliness referred to in the Ma’ariv prayer will help us keep our bearings. That would certainly help explain why it’s an element of every evening service. (But it doesn’t make Amichai’s observations any less pertinent.)  

October 2016: Things that Matter, Then and Now

posted Sep 27, 2016, 10:20 AM by Board President

Recently I seem to be making a lot of lists. To-do lists, mostly, but some others, as well, such as the list of items I need to bring with me on a quick weekend trip to visit friends. I’ve been collecting things to take them for several months now, and of course those things had been stored all over the house, so the list was step one in making sure all the items get packed. Another list includes the names of people I want to be sure to include in this year’s Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur. That list includes people I knew well and others I knew only because I learned of them in the news—quite a range, but each one deserves to be remembered. And finally there is the list of shortcomings that will constitute my personal Vidui (confession) this year. That one is my “to-don’t” list. There are some behaviors there that I’ve regretted for years and a couple of brand new ones, as well.

The purpose of lists, of course, is to make it easier to remember the things that matter. Memory can be a tricky devil, but it’s the way we maintain our connection to the past as we try to live as much as possible in the present. As we gather to celebrate the New Year—also known as Yom HaZikaron (The Day of Remembering), I wish for all of you not just a sweet and happy holiday, but also one that is packed with connections to whatever matters in your life.

September 2016: Reflecting on this Long Year

posted Aug 29, 2016, 8:42 PM by Board President

It has been a long year. Really. Because of the way the Jewish calendar works, we got a whole extra month (Adar I) last spring. This had the effect of making Purim and Passover later than usual, and now the new year is starting later than usual, too. And the effect will percolate out into the rest of 2016-17: Hanukkah will begin on December 24th and run until January 1st 2017! Strange to think that it was just a couple of years ago that we celebrated Hanukkah on Thanksgiving (remember “Thanksgivukkah”?)

I have been musing on the meaning of this long year. At a macro level, the “leap month” of Adar I is added to our calendar in 7 out of 19 years to keep our lunar/solar calendar in sync with the seasons. It serves to keep our calendar aligned and thus, to keep us aligned with both the world of nature and the rest of the world that operates according to a solar calendar. So even though our holidays sometimes come “early” and sometimes “late” relative to the Gregorian calendar, we can count our days both Jewishly and in the secular world reasonably easily. This metaphor captures nicely the principles of Reform Judaism that support a certain amount of assimilation rather than the isolation that Jews lived in up to the 19th century.

On a personal level, this long year has been a very full one for me. I’ve been dealing with health issues the entire year, learning a good deal about patience (and what it is like to be a patient, both for me and for others) along the way. Happily, I believe that that patience—and the insightful care of my medical team—is starting to pay off! My family has lived through a lot of change this year, as well; I won’t detail it here, but suffice it to say we’ve had more than a normal year’s worth of notable life events (mostly positive, I’m happy to say).  

During this month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the new year, we have an opportunity to reflect on and learn from the year we are finishing. With an extra month’s worth of experience to consider, I hope to make my personal reflection extra meaningful and enter 5777 with a greater appreciation of the world and my place in it. I wish all of you a similarly insightful month!

July/August 2016: The Wisdom of Term Limits

posted Aug 29, 2016, 8:39 PM by Board President

Last month we welcomed the 2016-17 Congregation Brith Sholem Board and officers. There were some changes from last year: Jenny Sheets and Herb Pressman left the board, and Jody Wong, Nancy Shina, and Ben Zack joined the group. We began our planning for the next year’s initiatives, including the High Holidays. And among other announcements, I told the Board that I intend to step down as President at the end of this year. It has been a fun ride, but a really long one, and it’s time for someone else to be President.

A few people have reacted to my announcement with dismay or even suggested that “no one else can do the job.”  That remark, in and of itself, is the strongest indicator that I have been serving in this role for too long, because the plain truth is that there are LOTS of people within our community who could do the job. I would admit that it might be challenging for someone else to do ALL the jobs I have been doing at Brith Sholem, but not the President’s job alone. I suspect that the many hats I have worn have become one big hat in some folks’ minds, so I want to disabuse everyone of that misconception. As President, I collect items for the Board meeting agenda and facilitate Board meetings (except for when I am away). I sign off on official documents when needed. I write this monthly message and give a speech during the High Holidays that is intended to get people to make donations and get involved.

Here’s what I DON’T do as President: lead services, coordinate the Student Rabbi’s visits, give talks on behalf of Brith Sholem in the community, lead the community seder, teach B’nai Mitzvah kids, host potlucks, or send emails about upcoming events, or make changes to the website or Facebook page. All of those activities are done wearing other hats, hats that I am happy to keep wearing after this year is over.

I hope this makes clear just what the President’s primary responsibilities are, and that it serves to encourage others in our community who have already gotten involved in synagogue leadership to think about whether they might not be interested in the job next year. There’s a lot of time between now and then to do transition planning, and I would like nothing better than to start working soon with someone who is interested in the job. And one more thing: It’s NOT a life sentence. I believe that the President should serve for at least 2 years (it takes a while to find your stride), but it’s possible to make a real difference as President in a reasonably short time. And it’s a great feeling, knowing that you have been able to give to our community in that way.

So think about it (yes, YOU). And get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about the possibilities!

June 2016: Nurtured by Multiple Spiritual Communities

posted Jun 27, 2016, 4:01 PM by Board President

I have a confession to make. Brith Sholem isn’t my only Jewish community. Don’t get me wrong: The northern Utah Jewish community is most definitely my “home base,” not to be mistaken with any other groups of Jews with whom I affiliate. But there are others that matter, too. There’s the community of 5000+ Reform Jews that I look forward to spending time with at the URJ Biennial. There are the online communities with discussion boards that I participate in. There is the learning community called Hevreh (“Friends”) that I join for a few days in the summer for intensive study and worship with amazing teachers, musicians, and rabbis from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Each of these groups adds something uniquely valuable to my Jewish experience. There is a lot of cross-pollination of ideas, melodies, and practices among these communities, and none of them stands to benefit more from this cross-pollination than does Brith Sholem.

Living in a part of the world with limited opportunities to exercise our Jewishness, it seems to me that many of us find ways to augment the experience we have as part of the Brith Sholem community through other connections. I hope that if you are one of the people who does that, you’ll “share the wealth” by bringing your lessons home to the rest of us. Whether it’s a new melody that comes back from summer camp, an expanded understanding of what’s happening in Israel, a great new Jewish book, or some other experience, consider how the rest of us might benefit from it as well, and talk to me or another Board member about ways it might be shared (maybe through a post to our Facebook page? A “guest speaker” at services? We can surely find an outlet!).

May 2016: What Counts?

posted Apr 29, 2016, 4:20 PM by Board President

As we move through the 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot, Jewish tradition instructs us to mark each day by “counting the Omer.” I won’t go into the details of what an omer is or why that’s what we are counting here (it’s easy enough to find online or in any book the Jewish calendar cycle). Instead I want to focus on the counting activity. As a people, we count things all the time. We count the days of the Omer, and also the days of Chanukah. We count the aliyot in a Torah service and the people in attendance to ensure we have a minyan. We count all kinds of things in the Passover song “Who Knows One?” But although Jews do a lot of counting, we don’t hold the monopoly on the activity—it’s a very human undertaking, probably dating back to the times when our ancestors had to make sure everyone was safely back in the cave after an attack by a sabre-tooth tiger. Today we have countdown clocks for special occasions like vacation or retirement, and we count the everyday routine things, as well: miles or minutes we’ve run, reps at the gym, items in our shopping cart. I believe there’s a message in all this counting, and not just for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder who just can’t HELP counting: Life really is about how little things add up. But the things that “count” aren’t usually things, it turns out. They are people and moments, the experiences that matter the most when we consider what gives our lives meaning. One of my friends and teachers sends an email every day during the counting of the Omer with a story to spur contemplation. I take this as an example to follow whenever I notice myself counting, an invitation to consider what it is about this particular activity that adds meaning to my life.

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