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Blogger Sharon Alger responds to Tova Mirvis

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I decided that it’s time for some introspection in my life.  Time to step back, time to evaluate where I am going and how I am getting there.  Time to look at where I have been and really, this year, enjoy the peak at which I find myself and savor the view a little.

Sometimes I think the month of Elul can be used as a time to be a little negative with oneself.  To fine ones faults and to find ways to start anew.  To see where we have wronged others and to right those wrongs and change our paths.
Last year I didn’t even find celebrating the High Holy Days within myself.  I acknowledged them and yes, I remember I was at the beach at Rosh Hashanah and I remember going on a walk at dawn to watch the sunrise and vaguely I felt the face of Gd smile upon me but not like I had in years past.  It was a weak trickle of sunlight, like the cold winter sunlight across a frozen tundra.

I have always loved the coming of the Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah.  I take the visualisation of the Master in the fields quite literally and conceptualise it as fields bathed in golden sunshine as the Master smiles upon all he surveys and the workers smile in pleasure that he is there.

Last year had none of that.

This year I feel a small anticipation.  I am thinking of a menu for Rosh Hashanah.  And for Elul I am thinking of building up to that joyous day.  I am thinking of preparing myself by filling my basket with joy.

I have spent the last year rebuilding myself from the inside out.  There is much work yet to be done.  Baskets to be filled with fruit and grain.  Wine bottles to be filled.  And it will not be competed by the time the Master enters the field of my life but it will be more complete than it was last year and I know he will be pleased.

Every day is another step on the ladder.  Sometimes it is an excruciating climb.  Sometimes I slip and fall all the way to the ground and am crushed under the weight of my burden almost to the point where I absolutely know I cannot climb the ladder again.
And that is when the Master sees me and picks me up and helps me put my foot on that first rung again and he watches me lift myself onto it.  Then he walks away knowing I have my start.

It is time to show him what I have achieved.  And I am so very very proud of myself this year.


Sharon is a a bark eating, tree hugging, Source-sandal wearing, reading, writing, knitting, yoga doing, 5k power walking, question asking, liberal, Jewish, Israeli-American, autism mom living the good life under the permafrost in the Mon Valley of southwestern Pennsylvania, USA.  She blogs regularly at www.lizzieflowers.com.

Written in response to Tov Mirvis’ Jewel “Lone State.” Read it HERE.

Blogger Stacey Z. Robinson Responds to Basya Schechter

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I don’t remember my childhood. At least, not in any contiguous pattern, a fluid arc of cause and effect, with beginnings and middles and ends. There is no cosmic projector whirring and spinning through dusty light, flashing a story line – neither love story nor horror film nor some tender coming of age film – on some interior screen, while I sit on a worn plush seat, a spring pushing against the small of my back and the butter from my popcorn making my fingers shiny with grease, while I watch, rapt.

There’s not even a vague disinterest as I view of my life as if it were someone else’s story I were viewing from some distant, disconnected height. There’s no boredom, or sadness or wistful hope. There are just huge patches of not much of anything – no dust bowl and tumbleweeds, no darkness and a keening, plaintive wind, none of those common tropes.

No trope, and no memories, although, if you ask my mother, she’d say I just remember the bad stuff. That may be truer, if truth can have a comparative, a greater than or lesser than finality. It’s not that I have no memories. It’s not that I only remember The Bad Stuff, cataloging all the pains and hurts and disappointments of childhood for later review and recrimination. There was love and joy and frustration and sad and wonder and love and pain, over and over and over again. It was all the warp and weft of our family.

But I don’t have those stretches, those seamless and flowing pictures of time and love. Or of pain. What I have, I realized, as I read Basya Schechter’s bittersweet essay for the Jewels of Elul, was that I get picture frames – brief flashes of color and light that surprise me and take me off guard in a disjointed array.

The frames of my father are mostly small. There’s the color of his coffee – a rich caramel that steamed against the unnatural whiteness of a Styrofoam cup. There’s a feathered headdress, worn in the days before political correctness, as he and my big brother who was all of seven or eight, but he was so much bigger than I, and older, and closer to my dad, who came home from the office, tired and spent, but who could muster up just enough energy and attention to do Indian Guides with my brother, and who promised we’d do Indian Princesses when I got older.

There’s the stats book for the Little League teams he managed, first for my older brother, who started young and in the outfield – right field, the home of lost players who hadn’t yet gotten the hang of the game and so were placed there, where they could do little harm – and who got better, year after year, all the way through the Pony Leagues. He coached my younger brother the year of the locusts, whose carapaces littered the ground and made walking noisy and slightly disgusting. I kept the stats every season, even the Year of the Locusts, so that I could sit next to my father on the bench, so that I could tag along into his world of sports and sons and attention. It wasn’t Indian Princesses, but it was a place near him and so I hoped that it would be enough.

There’s the frame that holds the picture of my brother, standing between my father’s legs, his hands clutching my father’s and a look of gleeful terror on his face as my father lowered him slowly. “Keep your arms stiff. I won’t drop you!” he would say to my brothers, who both couldn’t wait to play this heady and terrible game of Trust, as it was called in our family parlance. A simple game – how low could you go, how close to the floor could you go, with only our father there to hold you, keep you from falling and crashing to the floor. I would watch in envious and eager anticipation for my turn, so sure that this time, please this time, I would have the courage to play.

There is one frame, though, one small picture that is mine alone. Mine and my father’s. It is the picture of us, sitting together in shul, so close that I could feel the wool of his suit against my face and arm, sheltered by his nearness, carried gently by the drone of his voice as he prayed in a language that was at once familiar and strange, and the cadence of his chanting lulled me. He would hold me close, his arm wrapped around my shoulder and his tallit covering me. Sitting there, sheltered, I would play with the fringes of his tallit, wrap them around my fingers, stretch them until they lost their elasticity and shape. His hand would cover mine, to still my fidgeting, and it would linger there, tangled with the fringes, connecting us for just that moment.

These small picture frames of love and longing come, in flashes of light and heat. When I sit with my son, so close that our shoulders bump, and my arm laces through his – because he is too tall for me to wrap it around his shoulder now – and we pray together, in a language at once ancient and new, and my tallit shelters us both, my son takes the fringes and he stretches them and tangles them and wraps them in his fingers, these fringes of love.

I return, again and again, to that small picture frame, now large enough to hold us all, to shelter my memory with love and grace.

 

Stacey is a poet and essayist, living in the suburbs of Chicago with her son, Nate. Her blog is called Stumbling Towards Meaning, and can be found at www.staceyzrobinson.blogspot.com.

Written in response to Basya Schechter’s Jewel “Daddy’s Pockets.” Read it HERE.

Blogger: Lia Mandelbaum – Let There Be Light

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As soon as I began reading Michael Santos Jewel, I was reminded of the tremendous insight and humility that can be found in those spending their daily life existing in both an internal and external prison.  They are forced to understand that there is truly nowhere to turn towards but oneself for internal freedom, transcendence and enlightenment.  You don’t have to be an inmate to know what it feels like to be imprisoned by your own thoughts.

It has been my experience that to “return” and truly be at one with that unique and divine spark we each possess, you must have the raw courage to face yourself and the world, and the willingness to trudge through the mud.

During a time where I felt imprisoned by a severe depression and desperate for inner peace, I’d imagine standing in a pitch-dark room, and unaware I had been there most of my life.  Within this imagery, my Aunt Reeva, approached me and whispered in my ear that she had a candle, and asked if I had the courage to light it and see what was going on around me. She said that shedding light was essential for gaining clarity of who I was at my essence, and to help rekindle my own divine spark.

I knew I no longer wanted to suffer, and chose to light the candle.  It was intensely startling to imagine zombie-like demons swarming all around me and looking up.  I wasn’t aware that my demons had always been there with me.

Where the raw courage happened was within my refusal to snuff out the light and just remain in the dark.  I even allowed for the flame to grow over time.  As the light grew, my connection with the universe became more beautifully distinct and expansive, and the demons significantly lessened.  I made the exodus from my own darkness and was no longer afraid of the light.  And I knew who I was, and really like that person.

This Yom Kippur, may we all choose to light our own candles, and have the raw courage to keep it lit and let the flame grow.  May living in the light become a way of life.


Lia Mandelbaum, Blogger for Jewish Journal, social worker, activist and part of the Future50 cohort.

Written in response to Michael G. Santos’ Jewel “If I Knew Then…” Read it here.

Blogger: Marcus J Freed – The Pregnant Man

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I once dreamt I was pregnant. My belly was growing and my lower back ached. When I awoke there was a definite feeling of relief as there was absolutely no way I was looking forward to delivering baby.

On Rosh Hashannah we remember motherhood. The Torah readings speak of Sarah who gives birth to Isaac in her old age, and the handmaid Hagar who is exiled along with her son Ishmael. We hear of Hagar crying out to God as she prays for help, and we are denied the sound of Sarah’s voice as her only son is taken off to the mountain for a presumed sacrifice. Even the Haftarah readings speak of Hannah who laments her childless state and prays for a son – who becomes the priest Samuel – and how ‘pregnant and birthing’ mothers will return to the land of Israel (Jeremiah 31:21).

Our tradition presents incredible choice. We can listen to the Biblical words as nice stories that bring some gentle insights, or we can engage with each letter as a messenger of powerful breakthrough. On a deeper level, we are all Sarah, Rachel, Hagar and Hannah. We travel through their stories with them. How are you like Hagar, feeling exiled from a part of your life? How are you like Hannah, desperately praying for something or someone who will make your life complete? How are you like Sarah, feeling those deep waves of jealousy?

Rosh Hashannah reminds us of the birthing of the world and the celebrates the birthday of mankind. During these days we read a psalm which states “my father and mother have forsaken me” (Tehillim: 27:10) and we are given an immediate choice; we can use these days to take responsibility, collaborate with the Almighty to become our own ‘parent’, and create an incredible future for the coming year.


Marcus J Freed is an Optimizer, helping people sharpen their creative edge for purpose-driven businesses. He recently published The Kosher Sutras (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1624075886) and you can receive his free weekly trainings by signing up at www.marcusjfreed.com

Written in response to Liz Creditor’s Jewel “Welcoming the Ultimate Gift.” Read it here.

Blogger: Marge Eiseman

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[Written in response to Anat Hoffman’s Jewel which you can read HERE.]

When my son Jon graduated from Brandeis, the New York Times columnist David Brooks was the commencement speaker. He challenged the students to find the question that needed THEM to answer, to passionately pursue this question throughout their lives.

Anat Hoffman’s question is “Why should we?” Why should we accept being second-class citizens in Israel? Why should we allow the Orthodox to dictate what is and is not acceptable Jewish practice? Why should we stand idly by as self-appointed “morals police” harass and shame women into sitting in the back of the bus? Why should we accept that there is religious freedom in Israel for everyone except progressive Jewish women?

I am inspired by Anat, and the challenging ways she responds to her life-question.
My question is “What changes could we make to Jewish education so that it helps people make a life of meaning and purpose?” Part of my answer lies in finding stories that inspire and people who inspire. As we encounter remarkable people with dedication to their dreams, it reminds us that we too have dreams, and we have to have dreams to make change a reality. The Talmud teaches us that the work is hard and the task is great, and that while we are not required to finish the job, we are not free not to try. So far, Anat’s the answers are Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh services and organizing non-confrontive bus riding and Israeli Supreme Court actions to testify for changes that need to happen in the modern State of Israel.

I come from a family that changes the world — whether it’s my inspirational songs or my Grandpa Harry’s invention of the printed circuit or my Grandma Florrie’s innovative children’s clothing design, or my bigger family of Jews whose legacy of change has been well-catalogued, we have not been content to just accept things as they are.

What’s your question and how will you devote yourself to finding the answers?


Marge Eiseman is a creative maven — an award-winning Jewish educator, singer/songwriter and a force for goodness in the world!

 

Blogger: Lia Mandelbaum

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Lia Mandelbaum writes in response to Elka Abrahamson’s Jewel. [Read it here.]

About a month ago my brother and I traveled to Alaska to go on an adventure and bond with one another. The trip was a gift he had given me for my 30th birthday and graduation from school. I was hoping that the trip would allow us to spend time creating a space that would add depth and intimacy to our relationship. While staying in Seward we went on a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. At one point the captain stopped the boat right next to a beautiful glacier, and everyone became quiet so that we could see and hear the falling ice plummet into the water and sound like thunder. It was an intimate moment for my brother and me as we stood side by side and arm in arm, and I looked at him with tremendous gratitude for our relationship and for who he is as a person. There was a long time where I was closed off and unable to see what a special and dynamic person he is. I loved how Rabbi Abrahamson emphasized the importance of spending this Elul practicing demonstrative and spoken affection to those you care about. It is such a wonderful feeling when you can fully welcome the presence of another, and truly see who they are and tell them how much they mean to you.

As we were leaving the glacier, the captain of the boat mentioned something that caught my attention. I found out that although glaciers emanate different shades of blue, there is more to the picture that does not meet the eye. The ice is actually made up of crystals that act like prisms, however the ice is so dense that the white light is unable to pass through it and the blue wavelength ends up absorbing all of the other colors. The blue is brightest when it is overcast.

To deepen my intimacy with nature, I thought about finding parallels between the glacier and humanity. Similar to how a glacier is a dynamic being made of prisms, human beings are also very dynamic and colorful, but depending on how open our minds and hearts are determines the amount of light that is able to pass through us and what colors we reflect to the world. Similar to how the blue wavelength overpowers all of the other colors, when people get a “case of the blues,” it can be overpowering and we can get lost in that darkness. Things become right or wrong and good or bad, and we can become unable to see the full spectrum of life.

Glaciers are usually wedged between two mountains and are made up of different layers of ice that have been compounded over time. Similar to glaciers, we can become compounded by our fears and rigid beliefs, and feel stuck and frozen. It takes us out of the present moment, and hampers our ability to welcome intimacy into our lives. This makes me think about Rabbi Abrahamson’s words “Still, we minimize or forget the ways we pushed away those we cherish, how we have said, “No I am not present now.” We wince recounting the times we barricaded the portals to our own souls with or without intent.”

During Elul, similar to the thunderous falling of ice from the glaciers, may we welcome the walls we have built to crack and come tumbling down, so that we may let in the light and let love run through us.


Lia Mandelbaum has a blog, Sacred Intentions, which she writes for the Jewish Journal.  She recently completed the Jeremiah Fellowship with Bend the  Arc, and is about to start graduate school to get a master’s in social work.

Blogger: Cantor Rosalie Boxt

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Written in response to Eric Garcetti’s Jewel. Read it HERE.

The story of the Jewish people is one of going and of coming, of leaving and arriving.  We have fled persecution, as Mayor Garcetti’s family did – and we have sought better lives.  The challenge remains to continuously hold up to the light the backbone of our tradition – to remember that the strangers in our midst are no different than we – we who are frequently strangers, travelers, seekers of freedom.  All of us, Jew and non-Jew alike in this country, can trace our beginnings to another land, to another time.  How long do we see ourselves as strangers, I wonder?  How many generations pass of residence in one place before we no longer consider ourselves strangers?  Is the story of our ancestors, like Mayor Garcetti’s, a more distant memory, making the shared experience of being a stranger, and of welcoming the stranger, that much more difficult?  Most of our countries’ diverse cultures trace their roots to shores other than our own.  And yet in our comfort with “home” we often are unable to access what that trust and hope filled journey was for our people generations past.

We can hold close the idea of newness and apprehension about a new place – without clinging to fear or a persecution mentality – regardless of how recent in our memory that journey was.  In doing so we, like the Mayor of Los Angeles, are made more aware of the stranger – of the visitor who is lost, or unaware of the customs and “rules”, who is trying to do what our ancestors – everyone’s ancestors – did before us.  Find a new home, a new life, and a new community of warmth and love.


Cantor Rosalie Boxt works with a congregation in the DC suburbs and consults on worship and music with the URJ.  www.facebook.com/rosalie.boxt  Twitter RWBoxt , http://www.templeemanuelmd.org/about-us/clergy

Blogger: Lia Mandelbaum

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In Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s Jewel titled “Mohini,” [Read it HERE] she manages to gracefully and compassionately touch upon the significance of the internal struggles that can present themselves while aging.  Although I am only 29-years-old, I have gained a unique insight into the depths of the aging process through being on the career path of a geriatric social worker, relationships and as a hospice volunteer.  Through what I have observed, some of the challenges include:  the progressive loss of independence, friends frequently passing away, loneliness, constant doctor appointments and the fear of undiagnosed illnesses.  I understand what my grandmother means when she tells me “growing older is not for wimps.”

This piece is meant to acknowledge the reality of how difficult it is to age.  Younger people often don’t understand what it is like, nor do they want to think about it.  It is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we all face with our parents but is often not talked about until it becomes a crisis.  There is a major lack of social workers in geriatrics because of their own avoidance with this difficult topic.  I have come to understand the dire importance of facing and understanding the reality of aging, and how it can help us to live more full lives.

I cannot express in words the deep level of respect and admiration I have for those who are walking through the challenges of aging.  While aging can be extremely tough, it is also very beautiful at the same time.  I have also learned that aging does not have to be a struggle, which has a lot to do with one’s attitude and perceptions.

From the words of Rabba Sara Hurwitz, “the High Holidays present us with a tunnel, an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and live life with renewed passion.”  One of the biggest gifts in life is the discovery of our own unique route towards this freedom.


Lia Mandelbaum is a student at Cal State Los Angeles, part of the staff at Craig ‘N Co., a blogger for the Jewish Journal and a cat lover.

Blogger: Chaplain DOV Cohen

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Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi [Read his Jewel HERE] is widely recognized as one of the world’s most important spiritual teachers; he is the “Father” of Jewish Renewal, who, along with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, influenced all modern Jewish movements.  He is considered to be one of the most phenomenal Jewish personalities of modern times; if you meet him, you will see that is not an exaggeration.  In his recent writing about coming into the “December” of his life, he reminds us just how fortunate we are if and when we have done all we were capable of doing to help repair the world, Tikkun Olam.  He further comments on the sunshine in his life, the sunshine he brightly shines on all of us with his wisdom and enthusiasm.  It is incumbent on each of us to look up into that sunshine and bask in its warmth, for we can be the warmth to others, we can light their paths, and we can achieve greatness for those whom we touch by our mitzvot.

There’s more:  Upon the death of Chabad revered leader Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (who had followed Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson in 1950) his son-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, was elevated in 1994 to that leadership position; it is reported that Reb Zalman approached the new Chabad leader and asked if he could channel the Holy Rev’s spirit, a most unusual request, but not entirely forbidden.

Rev Krinsky replied, “if Rev Schneerson comes back from the beyond, he wouldn’t need tables to be raised” (referring to séances forbidden by Jewish teachings.)  This tale was shared by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin at his September 7th, 2012, Kabbalat Shabbat at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts.  And so, the honored position of Rev Zalman continues; we are all so very appreciative that he brings such magnificence to our Jewish lives.

 

Chaplain DOV Cohen,
SHIR HaSHIRIM, Bel Air, California

Blogger: Anna Nereim

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I liked Daniel Callahan’s piece, [click HERE to read it] and I liked how he got me thinking about the war metaphors used with aging and death.  As a Norwegian American, I grew up hearing the myths of my ancestors along with Bible stories at my Grandmother’s knee.  The poem “Beowulf” is central to my work in hospice.  Old Age was the elderly woman the god Thor could not beat in a wrestling match.  Grey haired Beowulf could defeat the dragon but die in the process.  As Daniel Callahan pointed out, as my ancestors underlined, a struggle *against* aging and death is a fight no one will ever win.  Oh, but to struggle *with* them both–that is a source of wisdom.  Even a god learns of his limitations, the old king gains the dragon’s treasure for his people.

As my grandmother entered her nineties, I watched her digest a lifetime’s experience, face up bluntly and boldly to what she thought she needed to, and dedicate herself to fixing what she could before she left this world.  She did just that, right up until she died in her bed.  I still regard hers as a heroic death I hope to emulate.

 

Anna Nereim has worked in hospice for sixteen years in Southern California

Blogger: Dr. Sara Lederer

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(Written in response to Bruce Whizin’s Jewel “From Above” which you can read HERE.)


How do we remain grounded, timeless, and hopeful throughout the aging process? Bruce shares with us an inspiring anecdote, and even more than that, somewhat of a map for aging gracefully, in the most spiritual sense.  Aging with ease requires making peace with our timelessness, with our soul that lives both on this Earth and stretches beyond, into the Heavens. To know oneself is to know who you are regardless of your riches, your successes, the resume you’ve built, the investments you’ve established, etc.  To know oneself is to know one’s soul, and that is our timeless being that lives within every cell of the body and stretches out beyond everything we know. To know oneself is to be grounded in what one knows and what one feels and what one experiences, and to also be at peace with what one does not know. What do you not know?

What we do know is this: the beating of our heart pulsing in our chest; the feeling of our soul, like when Bruce was a child out on the ocean and felt an intimacy with the slight breeze on his body; the way it feels to breathe in and out of our body. Our intimacy with ourself is filled with so many versatile things: the roadmap of broken hearts sustained; the feeling of falling asleep as melatonin sweeps over and envelopes our being; the way our bodies house emotions; the longing in hearts for dreams unmet; the calling from the Shofar to awaken our soul during the High Holy Days.  Throughout our life there is only one constant: ourself. What is your constellation made up of? Your heart, your body, your breath, your thoughts, your emotions, your investments, your accomplishments, your contributions; who are you? In our one precious life, in this simple and complex journey, this remains with you as a constant: your soul. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life”? (Mary Oliver, 1992).


Dr. Sara Lederer is a licensed psychologist, working with clients in a private practice setting. She is also an Associate Professor at Antioch University and Part-time Faculty at Loyola Marymount.  Her website is www.drsaralederer.com

Blogger: Gregory Metzger

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I was moved to read the beautiful piece on aging by the lovely and talented Judith light. [Read it HERE]  Her description of aging as “surrendering” got me thinking about aging, a topic I studiously avoid.

As I “grow up”, I realize more and more that “surrender” is not resignation and defeat, but, rather it is the act of abandoning the immature ideas and ideals of youth for the “old”, “tried and true” ideals of our ancestors and their traditions.  Surrender, in fact, is “joining with the winners”.  At best, we age gracefully by perceiving “…the events at the end of time with exultant certainty,…. by surrender of selfish pettiness and by consecration to the great destiny of life…”

Making offerings, being of service and supporting the most vulnerable in our society are the ideas and ideals that emerge as we surrender the selfish “me first” desires that Torah teaches are an “evil” that is residue from youth

As we age, it seems we become caricatures of our selves: our essence is distorted as our most prominent features become inflated.  The parts of us that stood out the most, our core character traits are wildly exaggerated.  Our faces become the canvas of our inner selves – Sometimes funny, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful.

Last October, Judith Light had a caricature unveiled at Sardis (http://www.judithlight.com/).   A beautiful reflection of the woman she has surrendered to being: Clear, bright, focused and serious eyes, set upon a sweet face with a light smile.

Elul as a messenger, tells us it is time to once again look at our character traits and re-commit to expressing our real essence, to connecting the pure soul within.  By engaging in acts of justice and loving-kindness we participate in the “art” of aging with grace and with beauty.

 

1 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Confrontation from Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 1964 volume 6, #2 
2 Genesis 8:21
 
Gregory Metzger is a co-leader of Kihilanu, a new and exciting independent minyan.  He teaches T’shuvah, Torah and Tefillah to inmates of seven jails and five prisons in California.  He is a rabbinical student at AJR-CA.