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A Reassuring Visit To Washington With The OU

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

As a synagogue rabbi I try to keep my eyes open to see how or if I can incorporate personal experiences into my weekly Shabbos sermon. Recently, I represented my shul at the Orthodox Union’s (OU) annual mission to Washington, DC (June 14-15). On my way to one of the first events, I joked with a rabbi friend from Charleston, South Carolina that I was hoping to return with some good material for that week’s sermon.

Well, God was good to me, and I returned to Harrisburg with far more material than I had time to share with my shul that Shabbos.

I’d like to describe two distinct impressions I brought back.

Impression one: I felt I had made an investment on behalf of the Jewish people. The mission is an important annual lobbying event by the OU. The goal is to visit many of our elected officials as well as senior members of the administration. This is an opportunity for us to hear from them – but, no less important, to be sure they hear from us.

When a large organization such as the OU approaches our elected officials and speaks on behalf of Orthodox Jewish communities across America, those elected officials listen. Our group had frank conversations with several senior administration members, senators and congressmen.

Efforts such as these partially fulfill our requirement to do our share in helping ourselves and our people, so that we can then to turn to God and ask Him to now do His part in looking after us and our needs.

Impression two: I feel somewhat reassured. I know that may sound odd, especially after we head Ambassador Michael Oren lay out all the threats facing Israel. But the ambassador also painted a vivid picture of how well the Israeli economy is doing and reaffirmed that the relationship between the United States and Israel is one of partners rather than adversaries. (He did add that partners do not always agree on everything, and that’s to be expected.)

But the main reason I returned with a sense of reassurance had to do with many of the remarks I heard from lawmakers who have few Jewish voters in their home districts. Several described how important Israel is to them. Call me cynical, but since they have little need to appeal to Jewish voters, I took their remarks seriously.

I heard Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) describe the strong bipartisan bill in support of Israel he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are sponsoring. (Did you know Senator Hatch wears a mezuzah around his neck and tries to read through Tanach each year?)

I heard Sen. John Boozman (R-AK) tell us how many of his constituents back in Arkansas have told him emphatically that he “better not turn his back on Israel.”

I heard Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) tell us that though he ran his campaign on cutting the Federal budget, and is extremely passionate about doing that, many of his constituents have told him “to cut as much of the budget as possible – but not to ever cut any U.S. aid to Israel.”

I heard Sen. Lieberman describe how his non-Jewish Zionist friends on Capitol Hill often remind him that there are a lot more Christian Zionists out there than there are Jewish Zionists.

I heard Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) tell us how impressed he and his wife were by their recent first trip to Israel. They were particularly moved by the Shabbos night meal they experienced at the home of their observant hosts, watching a family create a sacred atmosphere and interact so well with one another at the Shabbos table. Seeing their hosts bless their children touched them more than anything else on the trip.

I heard Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tell us emphatically that now that the Palestinian Authority has partnered with Hamas, many senators feel the need for a clear U.S. policy stating that unless the PA cuts its ties with Hamas, all American aid will be cut. In fact, he told us that such a bipartisan bill is in the works.

Finally, I heard from Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), an up and coming leader in Congress who defies so many stereotypes. He is an African-American Republican with a proud kippah-wearing Orthodox chief of staff.

Harrisburg’s Annual Thanksgiving Kiddush Hashem

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Clearly, fall has come to Central Pennsylvania. The crisp air, the vibrant array of autumn colors, and, yes, a whole lot of leaves to rake. With the arrival of my favorite season, I know Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

While America’s Orthodox Jewish community has yet to reach a consensus regarding the observance/celebration of Thanksgiving, I believe our shul, Kesher Israel Congregation (KI) in Harrisburg has found the perfect way to spend the day.

First a disclaimer: My wife, Layala, and I moved to Harrisburg just prior to Rosh Hashanah 5768/2007. As such, I cannot take credit for having come up with KI’s unique Thanksgiving program that began in 2002.

Following the attacks of 9/11, Americans became painfully aware of the daily sacrifices made by our nation’s firefighters. In the months leading up to Thanksgiving 2002, KI’s Rabbi Chaim Schertz (since retired) and Mark Powers (a KI congregant and former volunteer firefighter) began discussing what the shul could do to show its appreciation to the firefighters of Harrisburg.

They came up with the idea of providing a full Thanksgiving meal for those firefighters who would be spending Thanksgiving on call at the fire station rather than at home surrounded by family and friends. This novel idea resonated with the congregation as well as with some of the local supermarkets. Since then, this event has turned into a highly anticipated annual program at our shul.

Here is how it all comes together: Most of the food (including the frozen Empire turkeys) are donated by local supermarkets; other (minimal) costs are covered by donations; and congregants happily volunteer to prepare and cook the food in the shul’skitchen – packing it up, transporting it, and finally serving the full-course Thanksgiving meal to firefighters in the city’s main fire station.

The first shift of firefighters enjoys the feast as their lunch, while the second shift reheats the food and enjoys a wonderful supper.

Needless to say, each year the firefighters are incredibly appreciative, and the shul’s volunteers feel terrific, having been part of something so meaningful. After all, isn’t Thanksgiving the perfect time for a shulto express its hakarat hatov, its appreciation, to those who are willing to risk their lives to keep all of us safe? This annual event is a true Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, in which everyone is proud to take part.

As one might imagine, the event also makes for a heartwarming story on a day that is usually slow in terms of news. As such, local media outlets are thrilled to carry stories about our annual Kosher Thanksgiving Firefighter’s Feast, thereby maximizing the Kiddush Hashem. (Just go to YouTube.comand enter the words “Kesher Israel Thanksgiving” for an idea of the positive coverage this event has received).

As proud as I am of our shul’s annual Thanksgiving event, I am not writing this to toot our own horn. I want to share Kesher Israel’s Thanksgiving program with as wide a Jewish audience as possible – as I would love to see it replicated by shuls and Jewish institutions across America.

I assure you it will be a rewarding experience for all who participate.

I’ll conclude by sharing one firsthand story.

Last winter, Harrisburg was hit with an incredible amount of snow. One day as I trudged through the waist-high white stuff leading to my front door, I thought of the dreaded shoveling that awaited me. I then noticed and waved to my friendly next-door neighbor – a proud member of the Harrisburg Fire Department who was out snow-blowing his driveway.

He immediately shut his snow blower and trudged on over. While extending his gloved hand he said, “Rabbi, don’t you worry about your sidewalk and walkway. When I’m done with mine, I’m gonna come right over to take care of yours.” When I told him it really was not necessary, he replied, “After all that you and your congregation do for us firefighters, this is the least I can do for you.”

Our shul is happy to show our appreciation to our local firefighters each year on Thanksgiving. I sincerely hope and pray that no one in our community will ever need anything beyond snow-blowing services in return.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/harrisburgs-annual-thanksgiving-kiddush-hashem/2010/11/03/

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