Category Archives: Jewish Living

Kindling the Lights of Peace: A Meditation for Shabbat Candle-Lighting

Shabbat Candles

It is rare that I write the words I plan to speak during Shabbat worship at my congregation – Beth Israel in Florence, SC. In any case, even if I knew the words in advance, I would typically wait to post my remarks until after the Sabbath was over. However, this week feels different: I wanted to share this meditation before Friday night, that others might use it, if they so wish, when they light the candles for Shabbat.

After lighting the Sabbath candles,
many people wave their hands in a circular motion three times
and bring their hands to their face when finished.
A beautiful interpretation of this practice
is that it helps us bring
the light and peace of Shabbat
into our neshamas (our souls), our homes,
and our families.

Most weeks, I appreciate this personal practice.
But this week feels different.

These past weeks have marked
the beginning and escalation
of the conflict in Israel and Gaza,
the terrors of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,
and the outpouring of unaccompanied minors in America –
refugee children from Central America –
escaping violence and hunger.

In ancient times when our ancestors suffered in Egypt,
their cries reached the highest of heavens.
Even when we differ as to the political solutions to these crises,
is it not true that these cries have reached us as well?
Do they not circle ‘round the world and pierce our hearts?

Do we not hear the cries from bloodshed and violence;
hatred and fanaticism; hopelessness and intolerance?

Have we not had enough?
(Ever mindful that we who have had enough
are mere onlookers, opining in the comfort
of our living rooms!)

Oseh Shalom
You are the Maker of Peace.
Why is it that you don’t make peace here on earth?

Shalom Rav
You are the God of Peace.
Place Your Great Peace
Upon Your children
Upon the world, our world, Your world!

I’m not an expert at peace-making.
I simply know that what has been,
has not been sufficient.
And that what will yet be
must be, need be, demands
something different.

It is not enough to send the light from the candles
into my neshama alone this week.
Not enough at all.

This week, I propose that as we kindle the lights,
all of us present (not only those lighting the candles)
take our hands and circle them
such that even as we bring the light into our neshamas,
we also send it out into the world –
out into this room, into this town, and beyond.

I pray that the light and peace of Shabbat
meet those cries that are circling ‘round this world;
that it meet those cries with open heart.

I know that such an action cannot alone bring peace.
But I know that without an open heart,
without the care and concern
of people all around the world,
without attention and love
there will be no peace.

We are taught that the Sabbath
is the great symbol of and teacher of peace.
These lights we kindle carry its promise.
I don’t know how peace will come.
But I know that it must yet be:

“Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.”
– Yehuda Amichai

The Secret Shabbat Blessing

When I was an Assistant Rabbi, I would celebrate with the Early Childhood Program at their weekly Shabbat Party. A few parents would join their children for the festivities, and they would be invited to stay behind for a few moments with the rabbi.

The parents and students would gather with me in the front of the chapel, by the Aron (the ark that houses the Torah scrolls). Then came my favorite part of the morning:  I would instruct the parents to hold their children close, maybe even place a hand on their children’s head or shoulders. I explained to the parents that it is customary for parents to bless their children on Friday evening, often right after the candles are lit. I taught them the words of the traditional blessing.

I then asked them to whisper a “secret Shabbat blessing” into their children’s ear.  To go beyond the words on the page and find the blessing in their heart. The preschoolers kept wiggling and squirming, but the room became filled with laughter and smiles and indescribable sounds of happiness.

How often do we tell the people in our lives that we love them? And more than that, share with them how they are special to us?

This, in and of itself, is reason enough to bless each other. But there is another reason I think it important for parents to offer a “secret Shabbat blessing” of their own.  We may be used to giving compliments. “That’s a beautiful shiny bow you are wearing.” “You sat so quietly today.” “I like the truck on your T-shirt.” While a compliment is a form of praise, most only touch the surface. A blessing, on the other hand, connects us to something deeper – to who we really are.

We can bless our children for so many reasons. A (very) partial list might include:

  • because they tried their best (even if it didn’t work out)
  • because they worked hard and did better the next time
  • because they learned something new
  • because they acted as a good friend (sibling, helper)
  • because they were kind
  • because they were brave
  • because they shared (even when it was hard)
  • because they demonstrated a wonderful sense of humor
  • because they were a team player
  • because they were honest (even when it came at a cost)
  • because they asked a good question
  • because they learned how to make good choices

When we offer our children their own Shabbat blessing, one tailored just for them – based upon how we have seem them grow and learn and live in the past week – we show them that we notice them, we demonstrate that we value them, and we teach them that we love them for their successes and struggles and, indeed, their entire being, not just what shows up on the surface.

We teach them that we want them to grow up to be menschen (people of integrity and honor) and that we are there for them on that journey.

In essence, we teach them that they are loved and blessed because they have a beautiful neshama, a beautiful soul and spirit. That the Source of Life and Blessing flows through them – their breath, their life, their actions. That they are a gift from God.

This post also appears at

A Gift of Tzedakah: Perfect for the girl (or anyone) who has everything

tzedakah box

It’s May – time for Mother’s Day, graduation, and, looking ahead, Father’s Day. The question always comes up: What should I/we get?

This is a perennial question – asked not only for Mom, Dad, and grad – but throughout the year: for the birthday, the promotion, the bar/bat mitzvah, the wedding, the baby shower, the (fill in other special event here).

More and more I am turning to a traditional (and meaningful) Jewish custom: a tzedakah contribution in honor of the recipient.

When a donor makes a tzedakah contribution in someone’s honor, the organization receives a contribution, and it sends an acknowledgement card to the recipient letting him know about the  gift that was made in his name.

Here are a few reasons why I think this type of tribute gift is worth considering:

  • It’s always a good time to give tzedakah and take a step towards making the world a better place.
  • Jewish tradition encourages us to make tzedakah a regular habit. For instance, some people like to make a contribution every Friday before Shabbat. When we regularly honor or celebrate family, friends, and colleagues with tzedakah contributions, we also weave the habit of tzedakah into our lives.
  • A tzedakah contribution is a meaningful gift. It’s always the right size, never goes bad, and will never gather dust on the shelf. Additionally, we can choose a tzedakah organization that matches the interests of the recipient, increasing the significance of our gift.
  • We can inspire others to give tzedakah. The tribute card sent with our gift might inspire the recipient to think about giving tzedakah, and she might then continue the practice.

A Southern Springtime: Celebrating our Personal Redemption this Season of Passover

spring blossoms

Just look at what was I saw on my morning walk last week!

Growing up in Southern California, I never really understood the fuss about Spring. We didn’t have the magical week when everything, it seems, all at once blossoms, bringing forth pinks and whites and pale greens. Dusting our cars and driveways and screened-in porches with a coating of pollen.

The blossoms, the pollen, the shoots of leaves – the entire experience of a Southern Springtime – has given me a renewed understanding of Passover.

When we think of Passover, most of us tend to focus on the grand miracles of the holiday. We think of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, a story filled with signs and wonders. And, at the end of the seder when we open the door for Elijah, we express our hope for a future – one for which we work and wait – of a world redeemed, a miraculous time that will yet bring justice and peace for all.

Despite these grand miracles, Jewish tradition also places great emphasis on the miracles of the everyday. Indeed, the morning prayers are sometimes referred to not as daily blessings, but daily miracles. What are these miracles? Waking up in the morning. Opening our eyes. Going to the bathroom and finding, on good days, that everything works as it ought. Being created in the Divine Image – endowed with free will, intellect, and dignity. There is even a tradition of saying a hundred blessings a day – finding a hundred moments of gratitude and amazement.

In other words, rather than look for the miraculous outside of nature, Jewish tradition encourages us to look for the wonder embedded within the world.

I think we benefit from this encouragement. So often it can seem that our human nature – even without the added distraction of smart phones, texting, Facebook, and the like – causes us to be distracted and to forget to take note of the wonder that surrounds us.

The seder plate literally bring the signs of springtime into our homes and onto our dinner table. Pay attention to what’s right outside your window, it would seem to say.

For the signs of spring – the new growth, blossoms, sprouts – are not only miracles within nature. They point us to an another aspect of redemption: the potential – in all of life – to begin again, to grow anew, to branch out in a different direction, indeed, to transform our lives.

Even as we celebrate our ancestor’s redemption from slavery, even as we are called to work for the repair of the world, the season of Passover reminds us that we are also able to plant the seeds of change and rebirth in our own lives. This too, I believe, is a redemption worthy of celebration!

A Good Enough Passover

Stack of Matzoth from kosherstock;

Perhaps no holiday in the Jewish calendar comes with as much preparation. Cleaning. Shopping. Getting rid of certain foods. Stocking up on certain foods. Suddenly so many foods and products are off limits.

For some folks, a strict Passover celebration is a cherished tradition. If this describes you, there are many resources in print and online to help guide you through the steps to a joyful, and fully kosher, Passover.

However, there are others for whom an intense focus on the rules is either overwhelming, or, quite frankly, off-putting. If you find yourself in this camp, I encourage you to take a different path to your Passover celebration.

Remember the meaning behind the foodways: The special ways we eat at Passover are tangible reminders of the message of the holiday itself: the story of how we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt by a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm, an eternal story of the need to bring an end to injustice and oppression.

The two main Passover food traditions – eating matzah and avoiding (and getting rid) of chametz (food with leavening) can both be tied directly to this story of liberation.  Remembering the reason why we celebrate can help keep things in perspective.

Matzah, called the “bread of affliction,” reminds us of the oppression our ancestors endured as slaves in Egypt.  It also connects us to the night our ancestors left Egypt in such haste they did not have time for the bread to rise. Now that we eat matzah in freedom, it can even be seen as a symbol of liberation.

Similarly, avoiding chametz (food with leavening) has a spiritual meaning. In his post Rabbi Eric Berk describes it this way:

“Have you ever watched dough rise in the oven, or have you ever just seen bread? Dough rises, and what results is ‘puffed-up,’ bigger than before. Full of air – or perhaps full of itself. That is exactly what chametz has come to symbolize. Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher, described chametz as ‘pride,’ because leavened bread is ‘puffed-up.’ Removing chametz on Passover from our homes, our lives, our families, is a struggle between who we really are now and who we can be once we strip away all the trappings of self-importance.”

(His article also does a great job of clarifying the complicated question of what, exactly, constitutes chametz.)

Take a few steps into Passover at a time: Passover need not be an all or nothing proposition. Instead, choose a few practices that you feel comfortable trying out this year.

You might start by eating matzah at seder or by having matzah available throughout the holiday. You might choose to remove all chametz from your kitchen, or you might decide to simply avoid foods like bread and pastries that are obviously leavened. You might experiment with matzah sandwiches at lunchtime. Or there might be another Passover food practice you’d like to try out.

Above all, create traditions that you cherish: For most of us, the connections that matter aren’t found in scholarly writings. We remember Passover not because it is an intellectual idea, but because it is a lived experience. Finding your own Passover foodways can be a powerful way for you and your family to connect with the foundational story of our people.

Dipping Challah in Honey: Celebrate a Sweet First Year of Marriage

Old Honey Pot (6740954363)

When most of us think about Jewish wedding traditions, our thoughts turn to the preparations for and to the day of the wedding itself. But what happens afterwards?

Whether you’ve already been celebrating holidays together, or are just now establishing your shared home life, Jewish tradition marks the first year of marriage in a special way — each week at the Shabbat dinner table.

In many homes, challah, that delicious twisted Sabbath bread, is dipped in salt on the Sabbath eve as a reminder of the Temple service long ago. However, during the first year of marriage a couple can dip their Shabbat challah into honey. Being sweet, the honey celebrates the sweetness and joy of their love and of their new life together.

This tradition of dipping challah in honey takes a page from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) when everyone dips apples into honey to express their hopes for a good and sweet new year.

I imagine you could adapt this tradition in a number of ways – perhaps, by finding other sweet spreads (Nutella, anyone?) or, after the first year of marriage, by placing a jar of honey next to your challah on the Shabbat closest to your wedding anniversary.

Mishloach Manot: Packaged Purim Love

Summer camp was a blast. Friends. Swimming Pool. Freedom. And yet… what was one of the most anticipated moments of the day?  Mail time! The counselors would go to the main office and return to the cabin, hopefully with a letter, or better yet, a care package from home. Yes, I might be far away from home.  But I was not forgotten.  Someone cared for me enough, missed me enough, to put together an entire package, box it up, and send it to me.

One of the best parts of Purim is the opportunity to send all the love of a summer camp care package, right in the middle of the year.

All ready to go! These beautiful mishloach manot baskets are for a congregational project run by my friend Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg. What a great idea to build community connection!

All ready to go! These beautiful mishloach manot baskets are for a congregational project run by my friend Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg. What a great idea to build community connection!

These packages are called mishloach manot, which literally means “sending of portions.” Mishloach manot go all the way back to the Bible.  The Book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim, commands the Jewish people to observe the days of Purim “as days of feasting and gladness, and sending portions of food to one another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22).  The idea behind mishloach manot is to (a) make sure that everyone has something special to eat for Purim and (b) increase the love and connections amongst the members of the community.

Many people enjoy baking special Purim treats for their mishloach manot packages. But this is not required.  Chocolate bars, snack food and other pre-packaged treats are fine too.

You can send mishloach manot to friends in town. Or they can be a great way to reconnect with family and friends across the country. All that is required is your love, care and thoughtfulness!

Chocolate Chip Pecan Pie Hamataschen: A Southern Twist on an Old Favorite


Last year our pecan tree had a bumper crop (enough to last us into this year as well).  We had bags of them lying in our home, and we were ever in search of new ways to incorporate pecans into our cooking.

As Purim approached, it seemed natural to try them in hamantaschen. Hamantaschen are three-cornered cookies baked in celebration of the Jewish festival of Purim. They are said to resemble either the ears or hat of the villain, Haman, who gets, quite literally, his just desserts by being turned into a pastry.  To pile on the puns, as we eat our hamantaschen, it’s a form of “sweet revenge.”

While hamantaschen are traditionally filled with prune or poppy-seed filling, fruit and chocolate fillings have become popular. For years our family filled the hamantaschen with chocolate chips.  Adding pecans seemed like a natural extension.

Tips for making your own chocolate chip pecan pie hamantaschen:

  • Prepare a cookie-style hamantaschen dough. For years I have relied upon the cookie style recipe published by Gloria Kaufer Green in The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook. It uses vegetable oil.  This has the benefit of making the dough inexpensive and also easy to work with. I always add a teaspoon or so of finely ground lemon or orange zest.
  • Place the dough in the fridge to harden. Don’t rush this step. I like to flatten the dough into several discs before placing them in the fridge, as this makes the rolling out stage easier.
  • Prepare a pecan pie filling, with the addition of chocolate chips. I based mine on a pecan pie filling found in the Joy of Cooking. Half the recipe was sufficient. When given a choice, I used dark brown sugar and dark corn syrup.  The recipe called for toasting the pecans, which I recommend.  I added the pecans to the mixture immediately after I toasted them, which warmed up the filling and made the chocolate chips melt slightly, to a delicious, gooey effect.
  • Prepare the dough to be filled.  Roll out the dough until it is between one-quarter and one-eighth of an inch thick.  Either use a clean, floured surface or place the dough between two sheets of waxed paper. Use a three-inch circle cutter (or a drinking glass that is as close to the size as you can get) to cut out as many circles as you can.  Roll extra dough into a ball and  repeat the process until almost all the dough has been turned into circles.
  • Fill and shape your hamantaschen.  Place a teaspoon or so of filling into each circle (don’t overfill!).  Using slightly damp fingers, pinch a top “corner” of the dough. Then, imagining an equilateral triangle, fold up the bottom “side” and pinch the bottom two “corners.”
  • Place on a cookie sheet and bake.  Follow your dough recipe for timing and temperature