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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Simchas Torah’

Taking Judaism Public

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Every year at around this time, my husband and I have the same spirited debate: Public Displays of Judaism (PDJs) – good or bad?

Simchas Torah sparks the first round of discussion. In our community, as in many others, the festivities on Yom Tov eve extend outside the synagogue. A portion of the street is closed to traffic, and dancing and singing echo in the chilly air. Then comes Chanukah. As the rest of the world is abuzz in Christmas lights, giant menorahs are lit with great fanfare in public squares all across the city. A few months later, it’s Purim, with kids (and some adults, too) parading through the streets in costume.

Whatever your instinctive position on PDJs, the issue is well worth reflecting upon, as it raises important questions about the proper posture of Torah observance in galus and the sources of anti-Semitism.

Let’s take Simchas Torah. As an initial matter, closing the street does inconvenience motorists (i.e., non-Jews and non-observant Jews), but it’s usually just one block and not a peak traffic hour, so the imposition is minimal.

Of greater concern is that any time people gather in a large group with license to celebrate, there is the risk of some individuals taking things too far. Over the years, I am sure we have all seen Simchas Torah festivities lead to uncouth, sacrilegious, downright offensive behavior. It is bad enough when this takes place inside the shul. But outside in the street? Beyond the pale. One year, my husband and I were visiting family in another community. When the dancing moved outside, one man, apparently well past the point of inebriation, keeled over and vomited into the street. I was appalled – especially because of the police officers standing a few feet away. If I was so turned off, what could they have been thinking?

Assume for a moment, however, that the outdoor festivities are not unduly boisterous, and that there is no intoxication or inappropriate behavior such as mixed dancing or lewdness. Such a decorous scene might not be the norm, but it is not implausible – it’s more or less what takes place in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

If, like my husband, you find dancing outside with the Torah objectionable even under these assumed conditions, then it is not the particulars of the setup that raise a problem but the idea of bringing even the sincerest expressions of Jewish observance into the public sphere.

We are in exile. Although we are (most of us) tax-paying, productive, fully integrated citizens, we do not own the place, so to speak. Outside of Israel, we are not masters of our domain – “am chofshi b’artzenu.” For this reason, my husband argues, it behooves us to keep a low profile. The rationale is not simply to avoid stirring up anti-Semitism (more on that in a moment). It’s more basic than that – a matter of good manners almost. Don’t make a spectacle. Don’t invite commentary. Don’t give fodder to the cultural voyeurs, the wisecrackers looking for a good punch line. Let’s maintain our privacy and thereby elevate the spiritual quality of our Jewish rituals.

Then there is the concern about anti-Semitism. With PDJs, there’s always a risk of chillul Hashem. Someone inevitably will do something that could be perceived in a negative light. This not only tars Hashem’s name but the image of Jews everywhere, as anti-Semites paint with a broad brush. To further generate resentment, add noise pollution, traffic disruption, and diversion of police resources to the list of grievances an onlooker might have.

Setting out the anti-PDJ argument, I have almost persuaded myself. And yet I do not believe we should forswear PDJs altogether.

A public gathering in the name of Torah creates a level of achdus, a sense of shared identity and purpose, and a groundswell of Jewish pride rare in our everyday lives. Private venues are inherently self-limiting, at least in terms of crowd capacity. More important, however, they do not have the open call, “Mi LaHashem Ailei!” dimension of a public staging. What an incredible sight it is to see a cross-section of Jews coming together in service of God. From their first Uncle Moishy tape, our children hear the message: You are Hashem’s foot soldiers; you march to a different beat. Be proud of who you are! Celebrate your Yiddishkeit! PDJs make this lesson come alive.

Shul, Faith, And Lollipops: Childhood Memories of My Family’s Rabbi

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

After receiving a recent e-mail, I found myself awash in a sea of memories. In the course of corresponding with a friend, I realized that the fourth yahrzeit of my family’s rabbi – Doniel Schur, z”l – was rapidly approaching (21 Adar/March 7, 2010).

I began sorting through many childhood recollections of growing up in Rabbi Schur’s shul – the Heights Jewish Center of Cleveland, Ohio.

As a child walking with my father to shul on a cold Cleveland winter Shabbos, I found it quite reassuring to know there would always be a lollipop waiting for me while I warmed up. Each Shabbos, I would ascend the podium to shake Rabbi Schur’s hand and wish him “Good Shabbos,” whereupon he would hand me a lollipop. Generally, the rabbi would give each child just one lollipop, but one Shabbos I came up with a clever way to receive more.

As I shook his hand one Shabbos HaGadol (the Sabbath preceding Passover), I told him that while I noticed there was a hechsher on his bag of lollipops, there was nothing to indicate they were kosher for Passover. I let him know I would be more than happy to help him dispose of his chametz and toward that end I would be willing to take the lollipops off of his hands. Rabbi Schur had a very healthy sense of humor, and he gladly gave me a handful of lollipops together with a warm smile and laugh.

Rabbi Schur was a man who was comfortable sharing his emotions with others. I have vivid memories of him dancing exuberantly on Simchas Torah, the softness of his beard and mustache on my young cheek when he would embrace me in a warm hug, as well as the sincere tears he would shed as he would share in his congregants’ pain.

The memories of one particular Yom Kippur at Heights Jewish Center will remain with me forever. It is the early 1980s. The shofar has just sounded, signaling the conclusion of the services. Rabbi Schur begins to clap and lead the congregation in a spirited dance around the bimah while we all join him in singing “L’Shana HaBa’ah B’Yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem).

Not everyone is dancing, however, and this does not escape the rabbi’s notice. There are some older men who are too weak to dance after a full day of praying and fasting, but they are not the focus of the rabbi’s tear-filled gaze. It is a young man named Ben, who has been losing his fight with leukemia, toward whom the rabbi is now energetically dancing. Ben and Rabbi Schur hold hands while the entire congregation continues its emotional song. All eyes in the shul are on them, and not one of them is dry.

Unfortunately, that was to be Ben’s last Yom Kippur.

“Next Year in Jerusalem” is also faithfully sung by Jews the world over toward the end of the Pesach Seder each year, and that brings me to the final childhood memory I will share about Rabbi Schur.

When I was about seven years old, our family was all packed and eager to drive our station wagon up to Montreal. My brothers and I eagerly anticipated spending Pesach with my ailing maternal grandfather and the rest of our Canadian relatives.

I cannot adequately describe the disappointment I felt when, just two days before the holiday, a major blizzard blanketed the region and forced us to cancel our travel plans. While I felt devastated, my parents’ feelings were much more practical. They had not planned on spending the holiday in Cleveland, and they had no Pesach staples. To make matters worse, this unexpected blizzard forced many other Clevelanders to stay home, and the local stores no longer had a sufficient amount of Passover supplies.

Naturally, my father phoned Rabbi Schur to tell him of our family’s predicament. Immediately, the rabbi and his wife invited our family to join their family’s Seder for the first night of Pesach (family friends graciously invited us over for the second).

Each year as the holiday of Pesach approaches, memories of the Schur family’s hospitality as well as their warm and welcoming Seder enter my mind. Despite the fact that Rabbi Schur is no longer with us, this year is no different.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/shul-faith-and-lollipops-childhood-memories-of-my-familys-rabbi/2010/03/03/

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