2006 / 5766

2006 /5766

In this very spot, on each of the 29 days of Elu 5766l, we posted a “Jewel” of an idea from a group of national community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers. We asked each of our contributors to share, in 200 words or less, “what they have learned thus far”. Their responses covered the spectrum from clever to inspired, from candid to cute. 

Elul 29
Birthday Party
Dana Reinhardt
When I was turning eleven, my neighbor, whose birthday fell on the day after mine, suggested that we have a joint party. Her family belonged to the club down on the beach, and we could have the entire social hall in which to dance to the hits of the early ’80′s: songs that hadn’t yet developed a kitchiness because, well, it was the early ’80′s. 

When I mentioned this plan to my father, he calmly told me that he didn’t think it was such a great idea. 

Why? 

Because this club, not seeing the particular value in admitting Jews, had turned down our membership 10 years earlier. 

“But Dad, this party is going to be totally awesome.” 

He told me that the decision was mine. 

It was a pretty easy decision. I decided to have the party. 

But then something strange happened. I didn’t enjoy myself. Those ’80′s tunes fell on deaf ears. I didn’t dance, even when my longtime crush asked me to at the first few notes of my favorite slow song. 

The party was ruined. 

What I realize now is that, had my father told me that I couldn’t have the party, I probably wouldn’t remember it 25 years later. But faced with a choice, and having made the wrong one, I learned a lesson I’ll never forget. 

Dana Reinhardt is the author of A Brief Chapter in my Impossible Life.
www.danareinhardt.net


Elul 28
Tsfat
Talya Lipshutz
What I have learned thus far is never to give up on the dream of perfection. 

This vision of perfection reverberates in my head and heart. In my younger days, I searched for perfection in the most unlikely of places – those farthest from it. Fifteen years ago, I did give up. I decided the best way to put out the fire was to decide it didn’t exist. 

Just as I gave up, I arrived in Tsfat – and there it was…and still is. I see it flash in the eyes of a pure person, and I hear it in the sounds of singing on Friday night, in the weeping at the gravesite of a holy sage and in the noise of children playing in a school courtyard. Sometimes I experience it for a moment standing in line at the grocery store. I still can’t describe it exactly. It resists capture. And yet, since I came to this city, I have hope. And on good days, I have certainty that all the good the prophets spoke will come true. And during really good days, I am convinced that it will be in my lifetime, despite the raging contradictions in the world around me. Tsfat has reawakened the force of my Jewish soul. 

Talya Lipshutz is the founder of Tsfat Development Corporation.
www.tsfat.com


Elul 27
What I’ve learned
Ron Wolfson
From: 

Zadie Louie: Greet everyone.
Bubbie Ida: Bake mandel bread.
Grandma Celia: Soap operas rock.
Mom Bernice: Always think about others.
Dad Alan: Be creative.
Zadie K.: Keep moving.
Bubbie K.: Laugh out loud.
Uncle George: Love is popular; life is expensive.
Aunt Ruth: Love – a bushel and a peck.
Uncle Leonard: Dream big.
Aunt Rose: Life’s a bowl of Jell-O.
Uncle Ben: Invest.
Aunt Sylvia: Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
Uncle Mort: Work hard.
Susie: Family first.
Havi: Courage.
Michael: Just do it.
Brother Bob: Bad guys are out there.
Sister-in-Law Sibby: We’ll get Bin-Laden…eventually.
Niece Rebecca: Use your voice.
Nephew Alex: Use your talent.
Brother Doug: Love your children.
Sister-in-Law Sara: Heal.
Nephew Avi: Hug everyone.
Niece Naomi: Seek silence.
Nephew Aaron: Know statistics.
 

Cousins: 

Bruce: Get up, turn on news. If there’s no bird flu, go back to bed.
Pam: Chant Torah.
Laurie: Take stairs.
Mark: Work out.
Steve: Read books; pass them forward.
Linda: Take pictures.
Joanie: There is always hope.
Paul: Enjoy fine wine.
Bill: Fight.
Margo: Faissez-valise.
Nancy: Grand-parenting is the reward for having children.
Don: Pick the best fruit.
 

Family is your greatest teacher. 

Ron Wolfson is the co-founder and president of Synagogue 3000.
www.synagogue3000.org


Elul 26
Hide and Seek
Debbie Friedman
It has always been a mysterious experience to light the Shabbat candles. 

Bubby used a napkin to cover her head, reciting the b’racha every Shabbat.
She had her own Hebrew, different from any I had heard before.
 

Bubby played hide and seek every Friday night when she lit the candles. She would cover her eyes, say the b’racha and then add her special prayer for everyone in gan eden and all of us. Like Bubby, we covered our eyes, and when we took our hands away, our eyes feasted on the beautiful Shabbat lights. 

So when Ava, Lisa, Suri, Rachel and I were sharing a Shabbat, each of us lit the Shabbat candles, covered our eyes and sang the b’racha. When we finished, Ava’s little voice popped out, and peering at all of us through her tiny four-year-old hands, she said, “I’m peeking.” 

Shabbat is a time to peek (peak) in search of vision and revelation that is yet to come, to wait in anticipation, to light candles, to take the likeness of Bubby’s napkin, cover our heads and our eyes and say the b’racha. 

In that moment, we are never really more than four years old. 

Debbie Friedman is an artist, singer and songwriter of Jewish music.
www.debbiefriedman.com


Elul 25
Thinking “Ought”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis
Think ought. 

Not what is a Jew, but what oughta Jew to be. 

Not what is a synagogue, but what oughta synagogue to be. 

Not what prayer is, but what prayer oughtto be. 

Not what ritual is, but what ritual oughtto be. 

Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Oughtchallenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities, and to responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.

Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming.

Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.

Ought is the freedom of spirit.

Ought we not Ought?

Rabbi Harold Schulweis serves as Rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom.
www.vbs.org


Elul 24
On Happiness
Reverend Edwin Bacon
I recently reflected on the fact that I had been happy for a sustained period of time. I don’t mean that sense of happiness attributed to Pollyanna – God knows my heart is breaking over the environment of violence and dehumanization in which we live. 

I realized the joy I was experiencing was actually feeding me hope, energy, and tenacity. Reflecting on the root and meaning of this resourceful rejoicing, I realized it was emanating from my work with people of other faiths to create a deepening peace movement in our city, country, and world. 

Then I remembered these words from George Bernard Shaw. “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” 

That’s what I have learned thus far: joy comes from giving oneself to the whole human community. 

Reverend Edwin Bacon is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.
www.allsaints-pas.org


Elul 23
Closing the Distance
Rabbi David Wolpe
Each year as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur approach, we are reminded that sin creates distance. Distance creates factions. So we proclaim the unity of God, but the fractures in our community and in our own souls widen. Thus, teaches the Sefat Emeth, the first tablets were broken by sin, but on Yom Kippur Moses returned with the second tablets, all of one piece. Teshuva, repentance, had created wholeness again.We create distance when we are afraid, and even more when we are ashamed. Just as sin is a pushing away, love is a drawing close. To believe in God’s love is to have faith in the ultimate oneness of the world. For if everything is ultimately one, then all distance, all separation, is temporary. E.M. Forster’s famous admonition “only connect” is made here into the law of the universe, into God’s law: draw close to Me, and you will be healed.

May this year help us find our way back to each other and back to God.

Rabbi David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.
www.sinaitemple.org


Elul 22
A Crucial Distinction
Dr. Eboo Patel
I’ve learned the difference between being purposeful about an issue and being self-righteous about it. 

I have been self-righteous about too many things in my life. This did not sustain my involvement in the issue, nor did it lead to a solution. I wound up, to borrow from Rumi, shedding more heat than light on the problem.When I find myself imagining how I will tell the tale of my involvement in a cause, chances are I am in danger of crossing into self-righteousness. When I am personally unresolved about how to tackle a particular issue, when I go to sleep turning it in my mind and wake up wondering which solution will work best, then there is hope that I am being purposeful. Time is the true test. Self-righteousness is like a match – it lights with an impressive flare but burns out quickly. Other people say, “Wow, look at the fire that person has.” And a short while later, they ask, “Hey, where did it go?”

Purpose starts small, and only you notice it. It grows naturally, and soon the fire that is burning is lighting your path and the path of others as well.

Dr. Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.
www.ifyc.org


Elul 21
Seek Outside Yourself
Ruth Messinger
What I have learned thus far is that we all can and must keep learning all the time.We learn from experience, we learn from others – often those whom we least imagine to be our teachers. We learn from whatever we can do to get outside ourselves – to spend time in a different culture, asking others who experience the world very differently to tell us how to deliberately choose to do things that are hard to do.

It is intentional that the American Jewish World Service places young people in service programs in the developing world where they will be outside themselves with people whose lives and culture are very different, but whose values are worth learning.

And I learned to live a maxim articulated by a hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

I learned that there are wrongs in our communities, in our country and in the world; that we cannot allow these wrongs to pass unnoticed; that we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed; that there are always actions we can take to assume responsibility, address the problem, and make a difference in the world.

Ruth Messinger is the president of the American Jewish World Service.
www.ajws.org


Elul 20
Waiting
Severyn Ashkenazy
I have known for some time now that life is a waiting room. 

We wait for something wonderful to happen: love, elation, success, admiration, maybe even adulation. 

However, I have learned lately that waiting can be very destructive without inner satisfaction for which we and we alone are responsible and capable of creating. 

Without being able to think or look at ourselves every day with a measure of satisfaction for having done a good deed, changed someone’s life for the better, had a positive influence or helped to make someone’s life a little easier, I believe that waiting is often the waste of a life. 

What a wonderful feeling it is to think of, plan and execute something that will help others, without expecting anything in return; no thanks, medals or public recognition, but the ultimate gratification of knowing that we have helped our fellow man and moved this world a little farther from the abyss. 

Severyn Ashkenazy co-founded Beit Warszawa, a Progressive Synagogue in Poland.
www.beit-warszawa.org.pl/siteconte


Elul 19
Phone Call
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
On July 6, a telephone conference was arranged between me and Mayor Eli Moyal of the Israeli city of Sderot. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants from places like Russia, Morocco and Ethiopia. They settle in Sderot for the same reasons that bring thousands of newcomers to Los Angeles every year: the basic human desire to find a new life in a new land and to build something better for one’s family. 

I called Mayor Moyal to express our city’s concern for the children of his city. World events have put Sderot on the map. Because of the bombs that have fallen on its classrooms and campuses, the children of Sderot attend schools with reinforced roofs. The entire city’s sense of normalcy has been shattered in recent months by a regular barrage of Qassam rockets that rain down on the town every day. 

My conversation with Mayor Moyal was interrupted five times by five separate rocket attacks. This was both a connecting and humbling experience, and one that I will always remember. 

An act of courage can be as simple as a man staying on the telephone while bombs are falling. Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot have a profound lesson for all of us about living life and pushing on. 

Antonio Villaraigosa was sworn in as Mayor of Los Angeles, California on July 1, 2005.


Elul 18
My Mother’s Strength
Margalit Oved
I come from Aden, the hottest place in the world.
I was born near the Red Sea, the sun rises from there, opposite to our home.
 

My mother gave birth to my seven sisters, to my one brother, and to me.
She carried all of us in her womb.
She carried us in her womb for 81 months.
She carried us in her womb for 324 weeks.
She carried us in her womb for 2,268 days.
She carried us in her womb for 54,432 hours.
She carried us in her womb for 3,265,920 minutes.
 

All of this, my father provided. 

She fed us milk from her breast.
Each one drank 2 quarts of milk a day for two years from her breast.
Each one of us drank milk during 2 years, a total of 1,460 quarts of milk from her breast.
So my mother produced 13,140 quarts of milk from her breast.
 

All of this, my father provided. 

She gave birth to us, she fed us, she washed us, she cleaned our bowel movements.
She taught us, she talked to us, she whispered, she cried.
She laughed, she sang, she mourned.
She taught us good and bad.
She covered us,
She lullabied.
My mother sings like a dove.
 

Margalit Oved is a choreographer, musician and former prima ballerina of the Inbal Dance Company.
www.symphonyoftincans.com


Elul 17
Show Respect to Everyone
Professor Arnold Eisen
Whenever I’m invited to speak to what I think will be a large audience, and I am confronted instead with a very small group of faces, I remember the wise words of my Uncle Joe who said of the people who are not there, “If they don’t come, they won’t have to go home.” 

I learned from him that we have to speak to and with the people who do stand before us without worrying about those who do not. And we really have to speak with them, taking them for the serious human beings they are, appreciating the weight (koved) of heart and soul and mind that entitles each to our full respect (kavod). 

Pirke Avot expresses this in the maxim: “One who learns from his fellow one chapter, one legal matter, one verse, one saying, or one word, is obliged to pay him honor…And there is no kavod except Torah.” (Pirke Avot 6:3) From whom will we not learn a verse and more, if we are open to the learning? To whom do we not owe respect? No one. We are honored by the respect we receive from all, and we are privileged to reciprocate. 

The next chance to do so comes with the very next face we encounter.
Professor Arnold Eisen is the incoming Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
www.jtsa.edu


Elul 16
Now That’s Comedy
Ethan Stern
After four years of high school, I have learned many things. I learned that Genghis Khan led China’s Yuan Dynasty, and that the word “amazing” has lost its meaning and should not be used in a formal essay (oops).Besides these essential morsels of academic information, I also learned that at the end of the day, you have to be happy with who you are and live without regret.

I learned this lesson at my improv comedy troupe at school. During one of my first performances, I remember making a joke that just bombed. Suffice it to say, I felt mortified. The feeling of rejection crushed me. But, I had to finish the rest of the show, which left me with two choices: try to end in a blaze of glory, or keep a low profile with my confidence in ruins.

I learned that in life, there are going to be moments of pure devastation, but you can’t let these moments overcome you. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your skills to keep persevering.

Every day, I continue to put myself out there in the hopes that, despite the minor setbacks, there will be moments of success that I can take pride in.


Ethan Stern will be an entering freshman at Washington University this fall.

Elul 15
Innovate
Aaron Bisman
Three years ago, if I had told you that the Shema would be heard on MTV, that thousands would gather to hear Israeli, Arab, Jewish, and Muslim hip hop musicians perform together, and that a 6 foot tall Hasid would sing his way into the hearts, souls, and iPods of unaffiliated young Jews the world over, you would have laughed me out of your office. And yet that was our vision when we created JDub Records. 

JDub was the brainchild of Ben Hesse and me. We were NYU students who believed that just because our friends weren’t hanging out at Hillel, it did not mean they had no interest in Judaism. We poured our hearts into the organization’s development because we knew that if we offered our peers high quality, authentic Jewish experiences, they would flock to the opportunities to be actively, proudly, and uniquely Jewish. And with the help of a few brave and visionary supporters, two young social entrepreneurs were given the chance to put our ideas into action. 

I learn every day
About the unbelievable power of music to effect and inspire change,
That money clouds vision, even of the mighty,
That there is always room for one more voice at the table,
That growth is exponential when supported by community.
Aaron Bisman is the founder and director of JDub Records.
www.jdubrecords.org


Elul 14
A Whole Person
Maggie Felmann
I used to think I knew a lot, storing facts in my brain thinking I was smarter, wiser and better than most others. Giraffes don’t have vocal chords. Human hair grows approximately six inches in a year. The moon is 238,857 miles away… and if I had a way of getting there I probably would have gone.In my childish eyes, the world was big, ugly and mean, and I spent most of my time searching for my corner but always ending up in the center of my universe.

Over years of trial and error, eating disorders, self destructive behavior and a powerful drug addiction I found myself in the arms of G-D. I learned that everything I knew meant nothing. The more I tried to manipulate others with my brains and talents, the more I thought I was my own G-D, and I wasn’t.Everything about me, the good and the not good, was given to me by G-D.
When I embrace all parts of me, I become a whole person.

Knowing this has opened me up to experiencing a journey to finding my true authentic self, and this is what I’ve learned thus far.

Maggie Felmann is a 21 year old artist and recovering drug addict.

Elul 13
Empty Nest
Louise Taubman
I love Sh-he-ch-ya-nu moments. 

It was ever so subtle, almost gone before I really noticed it. In an instant, my son Noah was separate from me. It was a profound moment.I was watching him play baseball. Noah, who had sat on the bench for three years, was on the field.

Craig had always been able to cheer the team on even while our son was on the sidelines. I had tried to be supportive, but my heart was heavy as if a piece of it were sitting on that bench alongside Noah.Noah was ‘our first pancake’ as Mrs. DeJong, his teacher, told me when he was in the first grade. There’s always the first, when the griddle isn’t quite ready. Noah went to the beat of his own drum – did things at his own pace – didn’t follow the crowd.

Today I watched Noah, our senior, playing second base. Not just playing, but playing well with his team – his team. Noah was completely in charge of Noah – playing, catching, throwing, bunting, running. He was his own man.

The coach gave him the game ball. I guess we did our job. He has his own journey.

She-he-che-ya-nu Ve-kee-ya-manu Ve-hi-gee-ya-nu Laz-man Ha-zeh
Dear God, thank you for supporting, protecting and bringing us to this day.

Louise Taubman is an educator and mother of two.


Elul 12
Birth
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
My wife gave birth this year to our first child. It was as glorious, miraculous and terrifying as everyone always tells you.It was also, as everyone tells you, beyond comprehension. In among the drama of birth, somewhere, at some point, my soul drifted away a little bit. There were so many things to do, things to hold, people to tell. I knew it was an extraordinary moment, but I was so addled by lack of sleep that my soul almost forgot.

As I sat in the recovery ward, one of the medical staff approached me. “Are you Dad?”

I had never really thought of myself as “dad” before. I had thought about it. I had even, at a certain level, realized that I was one, but I hadn’t understood it. I hadn’t owned who I had become.

The great Hasidic Master Reb Zusya would say, “When I die I am not worried that I will be asked, ‘Why were you not like Moses?’ but rather, ‘Why were you not like Zusya?’” This, surely, is the test of our lives. Are we true to ourselves, are we true sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues?

It’s alarmingly easy to drift away.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is the Rabbi of St. Albans Masorti Synagogue.
www.e-sams.org


Elul 11
Take Chances
Gentil Steinbrecher
When I was nineteen, I left our Cuban village for Havana to pursue my dream of becoming a singer. I worked in a factory for $7 a week. Can you imagine? Shtinkers! My mother didn’t approve. But I was happy. A famous Mexican composer – Agustin Lara – came to Cuba. He was looking for Balladeers. He held a public contest. I made it to the finals, but I failed. I did not give up. Adios to him!

A producer hired me to perform boleros. I was in heaven! I thought this was the open door…it wasn’t.

My dream to become a singer came to an end when I arrived in Los Angeles.
I was thirty-five and I had to give it up and get a husband.

I was a dreamer. I’m still a dreamer, but now I don’t use the word dream; I use the word hope.

I’m sorry I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted to. But I’m not sad. On the contrary, I get to live with these exciting memories. It could have been different, but it’s not…so…NEXT!

In Los Angeles, I met a dreamer. He started a radio station. He recorded me with three guitars singing Gitana music.

It is somewhere in my record collection. Someday, someone will find it.

Gentil Steinbrecher was born to Turkish-Jewish parents 89 years ago.


Elul 10
Other Than Photographs
Jill Soloway
I used to think that every person on the street
held a secret,
every storefront a story
now I drive past them without wondering
what they know.
My life has changed in ways
I never could have prepared for.

I only get whiffs of what has changed:
a glimpse of a memory

of how we all stared into one another
in the weeks after the earthquake,
why orange flower blossoms and jet fuel
make it smell so good to walk out into the air after landing at LAX;
what midnight felt like, back when it was easy to stay up late.

Glimpses,
only glimpses.

What has changed about me most,
I am guessing,
is the way it feels to feel.

The smoke and ether behind my actions
are all completely different
from whatever drove me at ten or twenty or thirty
My childhood is only photographs.

But when I’m looking to mark in ink what has changed
evidence is nowhere to be found,
like a shadow moving when I turn to it.

Jill Soloway is the author of “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.” She was Co-Executive Producer on HBO’s Six Feet Under.
www.jillsoloway.com

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Elul 9
Building a Community
Jaime Rapaport and Adina Lekovic
We were set up on a blind date.Two UCLA grads whose paths had never crossed were unexpectedly brought together by a pair of well-meaning Executive Directors who thought a younger level of Muslim-Jewish dialogue was worth exploring.

As we ate our chana masala and chicken vindaloo, we reflected on our unique yet parallel experiences working with organizations continuously navigating complex community challenges. We shared a passion for improving Muslim-Jewish relationships and bemoaned previous efforts that never seemed to fulfill our expectations.

“Kumbaya is not enough!” we said. We need to go further than, “You eat
hummus? We eat hummus!”

One year later, we sneak away from our jobs to catch up on each other’s lives and work. Together, we are figuring out how to foster a renewed belief that meaningful relationships between our communities – on a large scale – are possible. What we’ve learned is that this work is an evolving process, that with every discovery comes a new challenge, and that our commitment to creating a new approach to Muslim-Jewish community building becomes stronger everyday.

Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Doubt it? Heck, we’re counting on it.

Jaime Rapaport is the program director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
www.pjalliance.org

Edina Lekovic is the communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.
www.mpac.org
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Elul 8
Universal Joke
David Kohan
There is much I have learned in a journey that has taken me from Beverly Hills all the way to the Beverly Hills Post Office with a brief sojourn in the Fairfax district. I have learned that no sojourn in the Fairfax district is too brief, and that by cutting through Loma Vista, I can avoid the rush hour
traffic on Coldwater.
My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, “Never let anybody spit in your kasha.” I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha. My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad.

I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.

David Kohan is the co-creator of Will & Grace.

Elul 7
Echoes for Eternity
Max S. Phillips
Echoes for Eternity – These words from the movie Gladiator have stayed with me and organized my life since my unit was mobilized in October 2005. Initially, all I saw was the disruption to my life – I was leaving Virginia Tech after two years, and I was leaving my family and my friends. But soon the Gladiator principles kicked in. Strength and honor…this world and the next. So on good days, I really do know that my life and mission make a difference for my country and my world. And on the bad days when I have been awake for 24 straight hours and the temperature in the Humvee is over 140, I still know that the guys in my truck are counting on me and counting on the way we work together and rely on each other, despite all the “dissing.”

Before I left, my Abba and I were considering getting matching tattoos (I know, not very Jewish). Mitzpah Genesis 31:49 says: “For he (Jacob) said, ‘The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.’” We didn’t need to get the tattoos on our wrists, because the words were in our hearts.

HaShem is watching over us. We are together in this world. My life is creating its own echoes for the next.

Max S. Phillips is a Specialist (E-4) deployed in Iraq. He is 21 years old.

Elul 6
He’s Not That Wonderful
Rabbi David Ellenson
The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, earned widespread fame as the author of treatises decrying ‘lashon hara’, idle gossip.The story is told that Rabbi Kagan was once in a distant village. In search of a ride home, he met a wagon driver and asked the driver, who did not know his identity, where the driver was going. When he learned that the driver was going to his village, he asked whether he might go along. The Haftez Hayyim asked the driver why he was going there, and he responded excitedly, “I am going to meet the Hafetz Hayyim so as to prepare for the High Holidays.” Upon hearing this, the Hafetz Hayyim – still not revealing his identity to the driver – responded, “Oh, I know the Hafetz Hayyim, and believe me, he’s not that wonderful.” At that, the driver punched the Hafetz Hayyim in the face and tossed him from the wagon.

When he recovered from the blow and reflected upon the incident, the Hafetz Hayyim said the driver had taught him an important lesson – “‘Lashon hara’ is so horrible that you should not speak badly even about yourself!”

As we prepare for the Yamim Noraim, the lesson is clear – repentance can occur only with a positive opinion of self as well as others.

Rabbi David Ellenson is the President of Hebrew Union College.
www.huc.edu

Elul 5
Four Words of Wisdom
Rachel Levin
When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Ben Yudin, my comparative religion teacher extraordinaire, asked the class a question. “What are the four words you can say on any occasion?” The answer was, “This too shall pass.”I remember telling my father that night that I would never walk up to a bride and say, “Congratulations, this too shall pass.” My father replied that it’s precisely the couples who understand that the exhilaration of their wedding day will pass, who go on to have good marriages.

Since then, those four words have become a sort of mantra in my life. “This too shall pass” has gotten me through periods of stress, sadness, even excruciating physical pain. But lately, as the harried working mother of two, I have begun to really understand the value of these words for the joyous occasions, especially those easily missed moments – my son waking from sleep and curling his warm body into my lap; my daughter’s face when I come home from work. “This too shall pass,” whispers that voice in my ear. Turn off the cell phone, put down the paper, and just be.

Rachel Levin is the associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Elul 4
Reconciliation and Renewal
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Last May a demonstration took place on the UCLA campus. The Muslim Students Association set up a mock checkpoint on the main campus drag. To counterpoint, I appeared with a sign declaring “Peace for Israel. Peace for Palestine. Share the Hope.” As I stood holding the sign aloft with students’ eyes curiously fixed on the “old” man with the unconventional proclamation whose arms were heavy and tired, a student approached and asked if he could help me by holding up one side of the sign. Only too pleased to receive his assistance, I turned to the young man and asked him his name.“George,” he replied.

“And where are you from?”

“Gaza,” he said, continuing, “In fact, this is the only statement with which I agree. I reject my fellow Arab students’ tactics, and I disagree with the Jewish students who are in their faces. Our goal should be to build understanding and cooperation.”

He taught me that if one party sincerely opens his or her heart to the other, acknowledging the other’s narrative while maintaining the integrity of one’s own position, then the foreskin of the opponent’s heart will begin to peel away.

This is the legacy of the Jewish tradition. This is the path of the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace. It is the way of renewal.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is the director of UCLA Hillel.
www.uclahillel.org

Elul 3
Pushing The Limits
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit – to the point of failure – where they were so out of energy that they couldn’t even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day’s rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they were now bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before.Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?

We all make mistakes in life, and when we fail we have two paths we can take: We can bury our head and our hopes and let embarrassment, shame and doubt prevent us from ever reaching our goals, or we can take responsibility for what we’ve done, learn from our choices, make amends and move forward. I’ve learned that the latter course of action lets me take my failures and turn them into great wells of experience, from which I can draw wisdom and perspective as I continue on life’s path. I do not forget the mistakes – we never should – but, I don’t let them keep me from reaching my dreams.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as Governor of California on November 17, 2003.

Elul 2
A Walk on the Beach
Rabbi Shira Milgrom
Several years ago, our son Yaron embarked on a semester in New York. Looking for an apartment, he scanned websites and newspaper ads – all to no avail, until a friend put him in touch with the manager of a building. The man looked at Yaron’s name and asked, “Are you related to David Elcott?” “Yes, that’s my father.”

“I attended a conference of his many years ago. What I remember is a walk I took along the beach where I saw him playing with his son. It was clear to me that nothing else mattered to him – not the conference or the sessions – only that little boy. I thought that if I ever had children, I would want to be a father like that. I have three kids now, and I think about that afternoon almost every day.”

That little boy was Yaron – the tall man who had just crossed this manager’s threshold. Yaron couldn’t wait to tell his father the story.

David remembered the conference. “It’s the worst thing I ever did. Sometimes you think your real work is here – when your real work is actually someplace else.”

The beginning of faith is to know that beyond the fragmented pieces of our lives, there is a whole – a pattern where all the pieces fit together and become one.

Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is the Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York.
www.nykolami.org

Elul 1
God’s Loneliness
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Regular encounters with death have taught me to look into people’s eyes and to hear their words with both urgency and patience. There is such holiness waiting in all people. We need only to listen to their voices.Birth has taught me that everything we do reverberates in the souls of others. No act is neutral. We have deep power within to heal ourselves and those around us. The human capacity to alter the cosmos can be used – must be used – for good.

I’ve learned that flaws are holy, that the deepest forms of joy and comfort come after accepting personal vulnerability. And once we learn to see and cherish our own imperfections, we can learn to more honestly accept and love others.

Deep breathing is good.
Crying is good.
Laughing is good.

Holding each other is exquisite.
Granting each other space is healthy.

I’ve learned that God’s loneliness birthed us and is a source of deep love. I’ve learned that we are never truly alone.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the founder of Shefa Network.
www.shefanetwork.org