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Student perspectives

Jewish Students find comfort at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center

IMG_4961.jpegOn the corner of 21st and Nueces streets stands a two-story yellow house Jewish students recognize as The Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center, a place of higher worship where they can connect with their Jewish identity. The center provided the same comfort for University of Texas at Austin alum Rabbi Zev Johnson in the late 1990s.

“Chabad was the only Jewish organization open in the summer,” Johnson said. “I got involved slowly and surely to the extent that I said ‘Let me go to rabbinical school and become a rabbi and come back and kind of revolutionize what’s happening on campus.’”
 
Johnson has been serving as the co-director of the Chabad Center since 2007 along with his wife, Ariela, and their eight children. They hope the family-focused center will create a home for the 6 percent of UT students who identify as Jewish. Johnson connects with students on campus by fostering partnerships with Greek life and teaching a Jewish studies academic program.
 
“It’s not just the rabbis, it’s the wives and the kids (that) are very involved,” said Johnson, also known as Rabbi Zev. “We are not just a center, rather a home where we are engaging to all.”
 
Because Johnson also attended UT, he actively tries to integrate the center into different student communities.
 
To do so, Johnson fostered relationships with Greek houses around campus. He created events for Jewish students in Greek life, such as holding open forums about Judaism, hosting Shabbat dinners and inviting members to pizza-making events.
 
“I was in Greek life a little bit, so I do get that side of it, which I respect and love,” Johnson said. “We are very involved with the Jewish students in Greek life and there’s a lot of incredible partnerships.”
 
Senior finance student Jordan Steinberg found out about the center his freshman year when the center invited Zeta Beta Tau to a Shabbat dinner. Even though Steinberg actively practices Judaism, he used to only attend events at the center twice a year. 
 
“I grew up in a fairly strong Jewish community,” Steinberg said. “I’m from Dallas where I was a member at Temple Emanu-El. It is a very large and strong Jewish congregation.”
 
But his involvement peaked this semester after he decided to become a Sinai Scholar, a national program that allows him to study Jewish texts and network with other members of the Jewish community. The UT chapter is comprised of 25 students who meet for eight classes each semester at the center.
 
Steinberg credits the society for helping him grow in his faith and in his relationship with the rabbi.
 
“Through Sinai Scholars, I have the opportunity to discuss and challenge Zev about Jewish beliefs, customs, and ‘Jewish thought,’” Steinberg said. “Zev creates a learning environment that is open and challenging, and discussion is encouraged. Despite practicing Judaism differently and not always agreeing, I have gained a great deal of respect for Zev.”
 
Other Sinai Scholars, such as Aviv Navon, knew about the center long before they enrolled at UT. Navon first heard about Johnson from his siblings.
 
“While they were students, Zev would hold a private session with them one day a year on the day that my grandfather passed away,” Navon said. “As a freshman, when the (date) came, my two siblings and I went to Chabad and just talked with Zev.”
 
Navon said his first impression of Zev was someone who was not only a great rabbi but also a great person.
 
“He truly cared about everyone in the community and chose to go out of his way to help us with anything we needed,” Navon said.
 
This type of compassion is what Johnson said he strives to bring to the University’s Jewish community.
 
“We give people the tools to get in touch a little more deeper with (their) identity,” Johnson said, “to see what Judaism has to offer, to feel safe and comfortable knowing there is a broader-based community that is there for them as a family.”
 

Jordan Steinberg's thoughts on his Sinai Scholar class with Rabbi Zev

Jordan Steinberg Headshot cropped.jpgI grew up in a reform household in Dallas. I did not attend a Jewish Day school, and religious school wI grew up in a reform household in Dallas. I did not attend a Jewish Day school, and religious school was only enforced in my house when the Cowboys did not have a 12:00pm or 3:00pm game. My family drinks scotch at our Passover Seder, and kosher to me is leaving the shrimp off the bacon cheese burger. This is all not to say Judaism is not important to me. I am extremely proud to be Jewish, but I had realized there were a few commandments I had given myself exceptions on.

 
All this considered, I would not have viewed myself a prime candidate for Sinai Scholars this spring. Zev did a great job creating an environment where it was ok to challenge and share, but also have a different viewpoint. That said, after the first class, I had noticed two things:
 
1. The class would be tired of hearing me speak
2. Zev’s thought process
 
Zev is able to bring a Judaism into every aspect of his life, and every decision he makes, is made with Jewish values and morals as has his compass. I developed immense admiration and respect for the way Zev was able to do this and follow the laws of Judaism so closely. This also induced almost a level of intimidation for some loves bacon wrapped shrimp. This caused me to juxtapose Zev’s practice of Judaism to my own throughout the class. While I did not necessarily think one way of thought was better than the other, I began to question where this positioned me as a Jew. As the class winded on, we explored various topics about Judaism, and this question continued to cross my mind. I would leave some classes finding that I did not completely agree with the “Jewish thought” that had been presented. I continually found myself feeling more or less Jewish depending on the week’s topic, and my point of view compared to the “Jewish point of view”.
 
By the last class, I began to be more comfortable with the idea that our practice of Judaism doesn’t make a better or worse Jew. Rather, Judaism is something we should be able celebrate and connect with regardless of practice. What is more important, is being intentional and committed to each of our own practices of Judaism, no matter the level. Zev shared a quote the last day of class that summarizes this idea well. Imagine a ladder with 613 rungs on it representing all 613 commandments. If there is a someone on rung 612, and another on rung 2, who is the better Jew? While our initial thought may be that the person who has completed 612 commandments is better than the other who only does 2, but what if the person on rung 2 was on rung 1 yesterday, and the person on rung 612, was on rung 613. It is equally as important to consider where we were yesterday in relation to where we will be tomorrow as where we are today.as only enforced in my house when the Cowboys did not have a 12:00pm or 3:00pm game. My family drinks scotch at our Passover Seder, and kosher to me is leaving the shrimp off the bacon cheese burger. This is all not to say Judaism is not important to me. I am extremely proud to be Jewish, but I had realized there were a few commandments I had given myself exceptions on.
 
All this considered, I would not have viewed myself a prime candidate for Sinai Scholars this spring. Zev did a great job creating an environment where it was ok to challenge and share, but also have a different viewpoint. That said, after the first class, I had noticed two things:
 
1. The class would be tired of hearing me speak
2. Zev’s thought process
 
Zev is able to bring a Judaism into every aspect of his life, and every decision he makes, is made with Jewish values and morals as has his compass. I developed immense admiration and respect for the way Zev was able to do this and follow the laws of Judaism so closely. This also induced almost a level of intimidation for some loves bacon wrapped shrimp. This caused me to juxtapose Zev’s practice of Judaism to my own throughout the class. While I did not necessarily think one way of thought was better than the other, I began to question where this positioned me as a Jew. As the class winded on, we explored various topics about Judaism, and this question continued to cross my mind. I would leave some classes finding that I did not completely agree with the “Jewish thought” that had been presented. I continually found myself feeling more or less Jewish depending on the week’s topic, and my point of view compared to the “Jewish point of view”.
 
By the last class, I began to be more comfortable with the idea that our practice of Judaism doesn’t make a better or worse Jew. Rather, Judaism is something we should be able celebrate and connect with regardless of practice. What is more important, is being intentional and committed to each of our own practices of Judaism, no matter the level. Zev shared a quote the last day of class that summarizes this idea well. Imagine a ladder with 613 rungs on it representing all 613 commandments. If there is a someone on rung 612, and another on rung 2, who is the better Jew? While our initial thought may be that the person who has completed 612 commandments is better than the other who only does 2, but what if the person on rung 2 was on rung 1 yesterday, and the person on rung 612, was on rung 613. It is equally as important to consider where we were yesterday in relation to where we will be tomorrow as where we are today.

Abby's Holocaust Reflections

WhatsApp Image 2019-05-06 at 9.48.30 AM.jpegAmidst the recent wave of Anti-Semitism, my sister and I felt it necessary to emphasize the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Below is an excerpt from a journal I kept last April while participating in March of the Living, demonstrating the lasting impact of hatred and prejudice even decades after it rears its ugly head. 

The March of the Living is “an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and examines the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred” (International March of the Living).

I will never re-experience emotions like I did today. Today, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi-led deaths camps. On the drive up to Auschwitz, I passed a town with an extensive shopping mall just two miles away from the camp. That was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Auschwitz-Birkenau to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness rather than existing in plain sight. When we arrived it was chilling. Auschwitz seemed almost like an amusement park, riddled with concession stands and gift shops outside its gates. I found that to be completely unsettling and inappropriate. When we walked through the gates, however, it was silent. All that was heard was the shuffling of gravel coupled with the quiet voice of the tour guide. The entrance to the camp was marked by a ADJECTIVE sign. “Work will set you free,” it read. Suddenly, I was greeted with a strong jab of emotion. The first of many throughout the day. I resented the meticulous Nazi design, misleading Jewish prisoners until the moment of their deaths. The sign served as a reminder.

From that moment on, I felt like I was going to puke. I followed my tour group to old prison quarters which were transformed into museums and displays. Quarters that were filled to the brink with pictures, facts, and objects of deceased Jews. The first time I broke down crying was when I walked into the living quarters. For the purpose of the museum, the living quarters were remodeled to hold all the valuable belongings that the Nazi’s confiscated from the Jews, believing it would one day make them rich. I had seen piles of shoes and clothes before in Yod Vashem, but this was nothing like I had ever seen before. There were enormous cases of shaven hair -- heaps with alarming magnitude. Some braids were even kept intact. To me, this was the closest connection I had ever felt with the deceased victims of the Holocaust -- a genuine part of them. I found the endless display of suitcases in the next room equally as horrifying. Each suitcase was labeled by the victim’s name and the date they boarded the trains to Auschwitz, expecting to receive their luggage when they arrived at the camp. As I walked slowly in line with the display, I saw countless names shared by people that I know. I read every name visible from my vantage point, in an effort to pay respect to the victims’ legacy. I wanted to ensure that someone remembered their names.

I saw the torture and experimentation chambers that were used before the final solution. As soon as I walked inside, I felt an unprecedented chill. Everyone in the room stood with chattering teeth, coated with goosebumps, despite the lack of any air conditioning and the blazing heat outside. We ventured to starvation chambers that crammed up to 40 people in a closet-sized space. The guide told us a story of a monk who sacrificed himself, taking the place of a man with a family inside the chamber. This reminded me that even in the darkest times, surrounded only by evil, compassion can survive.

I saw 3 by 3 standing cells in the basement of the building. Prisoners would stand for days in these spaces, unable to move. Irene, the Holocaust survivor that accompanied our group, was one of the prisoners who had been expelled to these cells. She decided to share her experiences with us. Irene explained that as a subject of Dr. Mengele, a Nazi doctor that sought to expand the Aryan race by whatever means necessary, she was injected with serum in her eyes to presumably turn them blue. Dr. Mengele’s intent was to generate distinctive characteristics of the Aryan race: blue eyes and blonde hair. After experimentation, Irene was subjected to stand in the cell with water up to her ankles, accompanied by four other girls who had been tortured in the same way. For five days of darkness, she couldn’t move, forced to survive off her own urine. Two of the girls died from the injection. One was blinded. Irene was unaffected. Just a snippet of her story reminded me how strong and resilient she is. I would like to say I could be that strong, but in reality, I don’t think that I could withstand that trauma.

After we left that room, most of the people in my tour group were numb, crying, and shaken. Adele, the other Holocaust survivor that mentored our group, gathered us together, calling us her grandchildren. I couldn’t fathom how a woman who had been through all of this misfortune firsthand had the capacity to console a large group of kids in the very place that reminded her own torture and the death of her family. I was in awe as she hugged us all and told us we were going to be okay.

One thing she said resonated with me. “You needed to see this.” She was right. All of the books, textbooks, movies, and lectures that have taught me about the Holocaust could not have prepared me for seeing the evidence firsthand. I was standing on the same ground where 1.1 million Jews were murdered and even more were tortured; on the ground where Nazi soldiers commanded orders. The facts were at my disposal, personified by the survivors standing by my side. I knew it happened, yet I could only think back to the countless movies, pictures, and stories as if they happened someplace else.

The only exception was the gas chamber. I do not think I will see anything in my life as scarring. I could not only feel the presence of the innocent murdered, but I could also see it. Scratches and claw marks were visible all across the walls. As I circled the room, something stood out to me. Am Yisrael Chai, written in Hebrew, was carved into the wall. “Israel lives on.” It was beautiful and disturbing all at once, serving as proof once again of the resilience hidden behind darkness.  

The second part of the room is where I broke down. The crematory --  dozens of ovens reminiscent of coal fired pizza ovens. After looking at them for a moment, dumbfounded, it hit me. They put people in there. Suddenly, I could see the abuse laid out in front of me; I could picture everything as it happened. I couldn’t breathe. I ran out bawling. As fell to the ground outside the gas chambers, I had one overwhelming thought: I had the option to leave.

Afterward, we went to Birkenau. It wasn’t commercialized like Auschwitz. It was a true death camp, stretching on for miles in every direction. Irene showed us the spot where Dr. Mengele tore apart her family. As a thirteen-year-old girl, she saw her family walk to their deaths as she stood helpless. I felt terrible that she had an exact memory of her family’s demise, one that she could play repeatedly in her head. I am angry that even after the Nazi’s and World War II are long gone, they can still torture the survivors with their memories.

I am glad I was able to embark on this experience with the survivors by my side. They helped me understand the gravity of the trauma they faced. Together and with other Jews from all parts of the world, we marched from the Auschwitz camp to Birkenau, ironically recreating the image of a WWII death march, to remind that world that there are survivors still stand. However, they never truly be free from this treachery.

Each year, survivors grow older and the actions of the Third Reich continue to take up more space in history books than people’s direct or primary memories of the event. It is an obvious fact that soon there will be no survivors to tell their stories. This means there will be no more primary sources from World War II prisoners or everyday reminders of what the Jewish people endured.

I chose to share my experience at Auschwitz because as I see reports of Anti-Semitic vandalism and Nazi sympathetic behavior being reported in the media, I cannot help but notice a possible connection to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. My fear is that once daily reminders of Jewish torture from World War II fade, society will come to tolerate Anti-Semitic behavior -- that does not grant society permission to condone Anti-Semitic behavior. When society does not respond to atrocious acts like vandalizing classrooms, subways, and cemeteries with swastikas, society is essentially granting people permission to act this. Survivors are dying, but we cannot forget them or their struggle. This is our responsibility.

*This piece is written by student, Abigail Schwartz, wishing to express herself in light of what happened in Poway and other incidents around the country. 

 

Pekudei

IMG_0204 (1).JPGShabbat Shalom. Thank you Rabbi Zev, Ariela, and your beautiful family for hosting us tonight.

This time of year is my favorite. Think about it: you just got to experience all four seasons in one week. How many places in the world really allow you to do that? Austin’s special like that, and I quickly realized how much I love it here 2.5 years ago, standing in this place, nervously giving my first of now three Dvar Torahs at Chabad.

I WAS nervous. But I like to describe myself at the time more as “uncomfortable.” I confidently agreed to provide a Dvar Torah, not knowing if my interpretations were correct or my speech would be received well. Fast forward one year and I am confident as ever. But that was dangerous for me, and here’s why. Admittedly at this time, I am living in another state of being uncomfortable. I am at a point in my life where certain decisions will likely impact where I live after I graduate, where I will be working, and most importantly…no longer being in college. If you learn anything from me tonight it’s this: living in a state of being uncomfortable is a blessing. It is when you learn the most about yourself, so embrace it, struggle with it, love it, and you WILL come out a stronger person and a step closer to the success you are seeking.

This week’s Torah portion is Pekudei—the last reading of the Book of Exodus, and it’s a beautiful story. The Mishkan has just been completed, a temporary Sanctuary in which the Presence of G-d could dwell during the Jews’ journeys through the desert. It ends with this visual: a cloud appears over the Mishkan, demonstrating the presence of G-d. Imagine now all the hardships the Jewish people were facing prior to the book of Exodus. Now picture Moses erecting the Sanctuary that’s engulfed by the Divine Presence that has been following the Jews all along. A beautiful and rejuvenating sight for the Jews.

Take that same energy appearing in this week’s Torah portion and apply it to your life tonight, in the week coming, in the year coming. The Jews had their eyes on the Promised Land. I am excited to see what is in store for all of you. Remember, live uncomfortably, acknowledge those that have helped you get to this point in your life, and don’t take this place for granted. There are people here tonight that have taught me invaluable lessons about life. For that, thank you. As we saw in this week’s Torah portion, there’s beauty in the struggle. Embrace it.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

Our Chabad House was picketed by fellow Jews this Shabbat

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(Insensitively picketing on Shabbat, taking pictures of us (and videos of my kids) and blocking the entry and exit to Chabad House, picture from IfNot Now Facebook page)

 

When fellow Jews protested our synagogue on Shabbat

 

“What are those people doing outside?” my 4-year-old daughter asked me innocently. “They just asked me to leave Chabad and come sing with them Daddy.”

 

“Why are these people doing this to us in the middle of Shabbat morning services?” asked my 7-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son as they gave me a flyer that was just handed to them through the gate.

 

Our UT Jewish community was gathered in synagogue, praying the Shabbat morning services.

 

A small group of students and young adults affiliated with “If Not Now” decided it was a good time to protest a guest speaker, who was going to speak at our center later in the day: A sweet and soft-spoken IDF soldier.

 

Shockingly, these protesters spoke to my young children and gave them flyers. They also videotaped and photographed us on Chabad property, something which is traditionally prohibited on Shabbat for religious reasons. All of this didn’t happen during any speech, but during Shabbat morning prayers.

 

I’m not against protests, even if I disagree with the cause. But on Shabbat -- during prayer services -- really? There’s a time and place for protests. It would have been nice to see them show some respect while claiming to advocate dialogue, because there is none without the other.

 

It reminded me of a fringe religious group, who were very active a few years ago, and would find the most inappropriate times to demonstrate. They didn’t make any friends, but cruelly garnered a lot of media attention.

 

This was a first for us at Chabad at UT. We’re a student center, a Chabad House, a place of Jewish engagement and joy for all Jewish students. Students come to us from all backgrounds and political spectrums. We are not a political organization. We are here for Jews and Judaism, period.

 

As it happens, for security measure we had an off-duty police officer at the Chabad house. She is an African-American police officer who we later found out is a detective and an ordained minister. She joined us and the discussion at the Shabbat meal later in the afternoon. She seemed to be perplexed by the protest in the morning.

 

Our guest, who served in the IDF, spoke without any agenda, sharing his life experiences about ethics in combat, challenges that the police officer seemed to be able to relate to. She told us about her husband who was in the U.S. military and faced similar challenges. She would be on the phone with him hearing bombs exploding overhead and he would tell her that everything was ok. It was a thoughtful and meaningful conversation, again with no politics but plenty of love and mutual respect and thoughts to ponder.

 

Our guest’s message was very simple:

 

  1. He shared a story about his grandfather, who faced death or a lifetime of being paralyzed by the infamous Nazi murderer and torturer in the Holocaust, Josef Mengele. He stood up to him and was miraculously saved. Courage!
  2. He visited Auschwitz together with his grandfather, with a beautiful message of hope, which seem to resonate with many students.
  3. He was one of the soldiers who found the bodies of the innocent Israeli boys who were murdered by Hamas terrorists. He shared the impact it had on him.
  4. He also led an interactive discussion about ethics in combat, with the core point being his personal struggle with saving both innocent life, both Jewish and Arab. It was something that  left you thinking. No agenda, no politics.

 

I also spoke, about how in this week’s Torah portion the half shekel was used for the census to count the Israelites in the wilderness, before they entered into the land of Israel more than 3,000 years ago. Teaching us the idea that we are all halves of a whole, and only when we unite can we have completion and peace.

 

The If Not Now group, lied about the what was discussed, and exploited our Jewish community for cheap photos on social media.

 

It’s absolutely unacceptable and unethical that these protesters targeted my children. I, as an adult, truly enjoy good conversation with mutual respect, but for protestors to engage young children is plain wrong.

 

The saddest part to me is that the protest was organized by fellow Jews, who should have understood the value and sensitivities around Shabbat observance, prayer and community. They showed up in the middle of morning Shacharit/Mussaf prayers, and very insensitively took pictures and videos of my kids on Shabbat. They failed to show the most basic respect and sensitivity.

 

It was in certain ways a very sad day. I am hopeful that one day it will be good for all of mankind, both Jew and non-Jew, as we work together to repair the world via our holy Torah. With mutual respect and dialogue, with our combined effort and actions of bringing world peace, redemption, we will reveal G-d in this world. We will make it a fitting dwelling place for him, as it is stated in the Midrash, with the coming of Moshiach, may this be speedily in our days!

 

P.S. A big thank you to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Dallas (JCRC) and Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas for making this beautiful and overall inspiring Shabbat happen and a big thank you to the wonderful students of UT, many of whom are proud Jews and are like family to us. AM YISRAEL CHAI!

 

To learn more about Israel: https://www.jewishlonghorns.com/library/article_cdo/aid/588018/jewish/Israel.htm

   

Screen shots taken from IfNot Now Facebook page insensitively taking pictures (and videos of our kids) on Shabbat protesting a non political IDF speaker in our house while we are simply in the middle of morning prayers.

 

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The National IfNot Now Facebook page praising their success.

 

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 Post by Rabbi Zev Johnson

Behar-Bechukotai

eli.PNGThis week’s parashah is Behar-Bechukotai and, to sum it up, G-d is explaining to Moses the laws of the sabbatical year – every seventh year all work on the land should stop and the produce becomes free for the taking for man and beast, and every fiftieth year all work on the land stops, indentured servants are free… and more rules. G-d promises prosperity if you follow his rules, and exile if you don’t. But, although you will be exiled, he explains that he will not cast you away, destroy you, or break his covenant with you if you don’t follow his rules.

Similar to Shabbat, these rules remind us to take a breath and evaluate what we have. Those that have land and are working hard for 6 years can lose sight of how lucky they are. When the 7th year comes, it is almost like a breath of fresh air. You can look back to recognize and appreciate what you have. Paralleling Shabbat where you can look back on the last 6 days, this is a time where you can look back on the last 6 years and take a second, or a year, to think back. Whether it’s learning from your mistakes, remembering good times, or taking the time to spend with people you love, G-d reminds us to give ourselves this time to reflect. Although it’s cliché, graduation is also a time of reflection. As we are all sad about leaving this incredible city and the Chabad that we all love, it can also be a time of appreciation. In the last 4 years we’ve done a lot of work and this summer, hopefully, we’ll be able to stop for a few months before beginning our jobs. And if you’re starting right away after college, I hope you don’t get exiled. Although it might not be the exact sabbatical year, it can be considered a more modern sabbatical summer. But either way, it is a time of reflection of the last four years to recognize how lucky we have been to have attended such an amazing university, find such great friends, and create incredible memories.

 For more information on this Torah portion click here and here.

Emor

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Nine years ago today I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah.  The day a middle schooler somehow becomes a woman in the Jewish world. We accept the obligations and are expected to fast, light candles, accept the commandments, and respect Jewish law and ethics. But after the celebration, the rest of life went on. I returned to middle school Monday morning, begged my parents to add more minutes on my razor phone, figured out who’s dress I could borrow for the Bar-Mitzvah the next weekend, and went bike riding with my friends. Well here I am 9 years later, and with graduation in two weeks I’m starting to associate with the term “woman” a little bit more. As a woman, I’m responsible for my actions, the way I treat my peers, and have grown the strength to speak up for myself. Thanks to UT, I’ve made friends from places I did not know existed and through this I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that what makes us different is our best quality, it is not something that should isolate us. And finally, I’ve gained the confidence to speak for myself and to be proud of my opinions and my own voice. The Hebrew word Emor means speak. In this week’s Torah portion Emor, we learn about the rules and high standards of the Kohanim.

Kohanim are prohibited from coming in contact with a human corpse, marrying divorced women, sacrificing child and mother animals on the same day, and many other things. Emor ends with the punishments for all of the rules. They are all encompassed by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Don’t do to someone what you would not want done to you. 

Yesterday was Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot. This is the one day of the Omer that Jewish law permits weddings, bonfires, and getting haircuts, a day of light in a period of mourning. The Omer is a time of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who were killed for not treating each other respectfully. The students spoke poorly about each other and were competing to be the best, most respected student in the class, and this is why they all died.  This time of mourning is a reminder to treat each other kindly and how we would like to be treated. As we remember these students this month, we take time to learn about our peers and learn from them. Rabbi Akiva continued to live by the saying “All that God does, He does for the good”. Throughout the tragedy that has struck the Jewish population, we continue to grow, come together, learn, and have faith in God. This perseverance is what I love so much about being Jewish.

We can learn and grow from these 24,000 students who lost their lives, and use it as a reminder for our every day actions. Rabbi Zev and Ariella, thank you for welcoming us into your home for such a lovely dinner not only tonight, but every Shabbat. I had not been to Chabad since freshman year, joined Sinai Scholars this semester, and I am leading Birthright with Zev. You welcomed me into your home with open arms, regardless of where I had been in the past. You have faith in every student you meet, and I admire your willingness to teach us all like Rabbi Akiva did with his students. I wish I had taken advantage of the matzah ball soup, endless challah, and amazing hospitality earlier, but I’m so happy I discovered it now and brought some new friends with me. I have loved getting to know you both and your children and can’t wait to lead Birthright with you Rabbi Zev. I am so grateful that this trip has given me so much more than a trip to Israel, but new friends, experiences, and hopefully a great tan. I am so excited to grow as a leader and show my friends what I love so much about Israel and being Jewish. Good luck everybody on finals and Shabbat Shalom!

 To learn more about this past weeks Torah portion click here.

Acharei Kedoshim

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This week’s Torah portion opens with a detailed description of how one might enter, and make an offering at “the holy,” (tabernacle, altar) and enumerates many steps to ensure ritual purity and procedures for sacrifice. After we are told exactly how to sacrifice an ox or goat, God starts talking to Moses saying, “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord” after which comes a laundry list of things that need to be done so that we may be in accordance with God’s plan.

As things age and time goes on, parts of this list have become obsolete or redundant, including not sleeping with your brother’s wife, or letting your wives who are also sisters, see each other naked. Which is okay. In today’s society those rules aren’t much of an issue anyway. But there are parts of this list that still ring true, especially when interpreted in a more metaphorical sense--you should not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife--is a pretty good directive to not sleep with your friends’ significant others.

But to me, the most striking directives that we encounter in the Torah this week are those that ask us really hard things and can even be interpreted in a nearly literal sense:

You shall commit no injustice in judgement

You shall not stand by the shedding of your fellow’s blood

You shall not hate your brother in your heart

You shall love your neighbor as yourself

What beautiful commandments. I wish I woke up every day to someone reminding me to withhold judgement and to love my neighbor as myself. Because sometimes it’s really difficult to remember.

Some mornings when I’m walking to class and haven’t had my coffee yet, and someone is taking up the whole sidewalk, on their phone, moving at a glacial pace, I want to pick them up and move them out of the way. What really just blows my mind is when I’m at the gym and someone sits down on a machine I was in the middle of using and all I can do is stand there thinking, “you’ve just ruined my whole day…”

And these people, that most of the time we don’t even know, that we feel are agents of evil, there to completely ruin our day, have no idea (or they just don’t care.)

Love your neighbor.

What if we were so perfect, such elevated beings that when someone cut you in line or screwed up your Starbucks order, you smiled and wished them the best? How cool would it be if you could move through life, unaffected by the unintentional inconveniences others caused you?

God knows what’s up. He knows Becky took your cold brew and now you’re stuck with her venti caramel mocha. And I don’t think he’s upset that you’re upset. Because when he told us to love our neighbors, like many other rules of his, I think he made it the ultimate goal. And as we work toward that goal, we fill the earth with a relaxed compassion for others that makes their inadvertent transgressions so much more bearable, and in doing so we become closer to God. As often as we can remember his words “love your neighbor,” we can do our best to actually love our neighbor. Our slow sidewalk friend. Our gym partner with terrible timing on which machine to pick. We can tap our foot less and we can love all of these people. And maybe, hopefully, they can love us too.

My theory is, that if we practice, this abundant, free flowing, love that alleviates our burdens, makes daily injustices a little bit less tedious, and connects us to those around us, we can all make this planet a little bit less aggravating, and more comfortable for everyone on it.

So, as we look at this last week of class, dead in the eye, let’s remember everyone is going through something, and if we can do nothing else for them, let’s at least show our neighbor some love. Shabbat shalom.

To learn more about this past weeks Torah Portions you can click  here and here

Nadav and Avihu Strange Fire

 

student.jpgIn this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we are introduced to Kashrut laws, or what defines a Kosher animal. Split hooves, chewing cud, fins and scales, the whole nine yards. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this subject matter, none of which I will discuss today.

Instead, I will focus on an episode with Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu were both priests in the Tabernacle, a makeshift travelling temple in the desert. They are remembered in the Torah for offering an improper sacrifice to G-d and their actions have made them scrutinized by scholars for decades. Wrongfully so, I think.

וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י ה' אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י ה' וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה: And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

Nadav and Avihu were responsible for performing basic religious functions, including offering traditional sacrifices. However, in this instance, they brought forth a “strange fire” and were punished accordingly.

Rather than to write off these two characters as “drunk fools,” as they’re commonly interpreted to be, I’m here to defend them. They did not offer this “strange fire” out of malice; they offered it out of service.

Throughout college, we make irrational decisions to garner approval from others. We partake in toxic gossip about our friends to show we’re “in the know”, we agonize over Instagram captions to generate satisfaction from distant friends and we participate in destructive habits to “fit in” with the cool crowd. All the while, we justify our “strange” actions by their intended results: approval from our peers.

Commentaries are quick to assert a few possible scenarios for why Nadav and Avihu were punished for offering a “strange fire” to G-d: they were drunk, they improperly prepared the sacrifice, they lacked authorization and they entered forbidden areas. These potential scenarios seek to rationalize the punishment Nadav and Avihu endured. But truth be told, none of us can know what truly warranted this punishment. This punishment was delivered from G-d, by G-d because of a misstep to G-d. There are two types of crimes: those between one person and another and those between a person and G-d. Punishments for crimes of the former include penalties, fines and jail time. Punishments of the latter include, well, death by Divine fire. Just as we can’t understand the punishment, we can’t understand the reasoning either.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered this sacrifice to seek approval from G-d. After all, their priest status committed them to lifelong service to G-d. Perhaps, this sacrifice was an attempt to show G-d their commitment to the Tabernacle, the service and the Jewish people. Perhaps they acted with pure intentions, but they just executed it very poorly. And since they did it on such a grand stage, the consequences were great. But we don’t have as much at stake today.

People are often judged by their actions, not their intentions. Of course, people should be held accountable for their actions, but to judge someone’s intentions and character solely by the result of their actions is naïve. People are multifaceted, dynamic creatures who make mistakes. In our everyday lives, our peers make mistakes and we are quick to judge them for them.

I’d like to offer an alternative method. Next time your friend, family, roommate, classmate and even professor make a mistake, take a step back, consider the intentions, and go from there. That will lead to a greater level of understanding between you and your peers and more productive decision-making moving forward.Life is full of mistakes, and we are bound to make them. So go out, make mistakes, learn from them, but don’t forget to allow others to learn from them too. Shabbat Shalom.

To learn more about Nadav and Avihu click here. 

Pink Shabbat Speech

Kelsey FeinbergPlease look around the room and see the people around you. Every single person here has probably been affected by cancer in one way or another. I am proud to be a part of Pink Shabbat, to take this time tonight to recognize the many lives effected by this disease, especially ones as prominent as the Breast Cancer. For those who do not know, I was diagnosed with cancer in high school. I underwent several chemotherapy treatments, procedures, and overall endured what one would when living a life with cancer. There are many things you lose from this process. I lost my physical strength, I lost my hair and eyelashes, I lost the opportunities to continue to live my life I had been living, and the overall feeling of health. However, I did not just lose, but I also gained. I gained more than I could ever have imagined. I gained wisdom about my family, my friends, even strangers, and myself. My family and friends have provided a support system stronger than anything I have ever seen. I have also seen that I have a new profound connection new people I meet every day. As time has gone on, not only have I regained a lot of what I lost, but I also continue to receive more. Even with a the new community I am in now, I have been overwhelmed with the love from the people in my life. Thank you to everyone here for supporting Pink Shabbat, supporting those battling breast cancer, and supporting me. 

Pink Shabbat Speech

Jodi Joskowitz and Corey JoskowitzEarlier today after I was done practicing my original speech, my mother looked at me and said “you may be smarter than me, but I’m more experienced”. That’s what I wanted to talk about today. Experience.

My sophomore year of high school, I was a subpar student academically and behaviorally. I was failing to live up to my expectations and those of my parents

I was put up to be expelled twice my sophomore year. I was scared and it was written on my face. I showed weakness and people treaded me differently because of it. My parents were more scared than I, but I was the one crying.

I made it through in one piece, without getting expelled, but I assumed that I had had the experience that made me a man. I was wrong.

Junior year started off great. Grades were impeccable (not to brag or anything) and I was called a model student by multiple teachers other than my gym teacher.

Halfway through the year that all changed.

When I got home on the day before my first official college tour, I immediately knew something was wrong. Mom was home early. That’s how I knew it was cancer. After she confirmed my suspicions, I went up to her, hugged her, and said “We will get through this”

This experience, although painful, has made my family and myself stronger. Being the family member of someone with cancer is hard. But it also makes you stronger in ways you wouldn’t think possible. Through the entire process from news break to officially cured, I never cried. Not to my mom. my dad. And definitely not to my older sister. It wasn’t about being prideful, it was about not showing weakness. I knew showing weakness was not something that would help, so I didn’t do it. I kept my head high and was the rock my mother, and my family needed me to be.

This may not be the ten pages my mom wrote, but I hope it send a clear message. Every experience in life is that. An experience. Use it to your advantage to become the best you you can be. I will tell you that my mother is stronger than I am. But because of her, we both got stronger together

I’m not saying this was a pleasant or easy experience by any means. But the fight we put up made it with it.

UT Pink Ribbon Speech

Corey Joskowitz and Jodi Joskowitz

Good Shabbos. Thank you Rabbi and Ariela for inviting me to share my story tonight. I am Jodi Joskowitz, Corey's mother. I'm not only a mom, I am a senior salesperson at a European investment bank. At the time of this story I was the only woman on the trading floor with 40 men. I was not overweight; I did a lot of yoga, took vitamins and slept 8 hours a night. I may have drank a little too much but I'm only human.

For several months I was feeling "something" on my chest wall. It was a habit to rub the spot when I was stressed at work. That was quite often. It was high up, not far from my collar bone. I thought nothing of it. I assumed it was a fatty deposit like old bald men get on their heads. On Friday the 6th of February I went to the doctor at the insistence of my husband Scot. He literally dragged me there. I only agreed to go because I was off of work that day - we had our first meeting with Corey's college counselor.

The doctor insisted I go for another mammogram (I had just had one on November) which led to an ultrasound and a biopsy. I truly thought nothing of it. The lump was high on the chest wall. Fast forward to Friday the 13th. We were heading out that night to Indiana University to visit my daughter Dylan who was a senior and Corey was taking his first college tour. I was at a lunch with colleagues when my gynecologist called with my results. Instead of meeting my husband and son at the airport I went home to devise a game plan. When Corey came home from school that day and saw me standing in the kitchen he was confused at first. Then he said "you have cancer".

We decided to go to Indiana and tell Dylan in person. Our flight was delayed and we were not seeing her until her alarm went off at 9am on Saturday. After a sleepless night, Scot and I parked outside her apartment at 7:30 and waited. How were we going to tell our daughter? It was her senior year of college and her mom had cancer.

If you can't imagine what that was like, I can tell you it was bad. Really bad. Hysterical is an understatement. The three of us cried for a long time and then went to get Corey so we could weep together as a family.

We refer to that weekend as the worst weekend of our lives. The only time I didn't cry was during our tour of IU. It was 17 degrees in Bloomington, Indiana and my eyeballs were frozen. Corey did not let go of my hand the entire walk. I assume the other students thought we were pretty weird or maybe he was homeschooled and nervous. There were a lot of tears and tremendous fear that weekend because we did not know what my future held. There were two positives. We saw an amazing basketball game where IU scored the most 3 point shots ever in a Big 10 basketball game. I did cry through it. And when we had to say our goodbyes, Dylan was on the sofa with her two best friends, her Aephi sisters, who swore they would take care of her. Dylan wasn't alone.

I went home to a lot of appointments and waiting for test results to come up with a treatment plan. Corey was my rock during this trying time. He never left my side. He was my protector. Corey spent 3 years wearing pink socks at his October football games. His senior year he would be wearing them for his mother. It was surreal. On the day of my surgery Corey didn't want to kiss me goodbye. He never saw me before school and he wanted to keep with the routine. He was superstitious. I insisted and received the biggest hug ever. As he walked out of the house I saw he was wearing the pink football socks under his khakis.

Fast forward to a lumpectomy and then 7 weeks of Monday through Friday radiation. I left for work at 6:15 each morning as a successful Wall Street salesperson and took a 1:30 bus home to head to the cancer center at the hospital for treatment. I was leading two lives.

The afternoon bus driver was excited to have a passenger who wasn't a construction worker on his bus. I smiled and gave him a big hello every day and then cried in my seat for the ride home. I saw the same women at treatment every day. I was the youngest one there. Some were much sicker than me.

During a weekly visit with my radiation oncologist I was crying. I felt ashamed. I was lucky. I didn't lose a breast. I didn't need chemotherapy and I wouldn't be losing my hair. Why was I feeling sorry for myself? The doctor said "you're not lucky Jodi. You're a 48 year old woman with breast cancer. Some woman may have it worse but most women don't have it at all."

Doctors and nurses encouraged me to get counseling. Living a dual life was hard and fighting cancer came with many struggles. Most women were taking time off during treatment. I did not. I was the only woman on my team at the bank and I’m a fighter. Nobody could understand how I did it. My secret.... I just did it. Living life is easier than thinking about living life. You do what you have to do when you don't have a choice.

A month after treatment ended, Scot and I were at a U2 concert when I started to cry. I cried the entire show. It hit me. I was damaged and I needed help. I fought cancer like a champ but now I needed to address my other wounds. The biggest issue was my feeling of being alone. Though I was surrounded by family, friends and colleagues from diagnosis to completion of treatment, I never felt more alone. I felt so alone on that bus every day. And I was truly alone when I was on the table in the radiation room. I never felt so vulnerable.

Day after day. It was me and my body. The body that had failed me even though I did everything right. An amazing therapist helped me heal.

Life is hard. No matter how hard we try, sometimes we lose control. Sometimes we don't like our options or choices. Sometimes we have to deal with unexpected surprises. And we deal with them. You just do it.

Vincent my bus driver saw a professional woman with a big smile. Inside I was a frightened women, wife, mother and daughter. I was wearing a facade that we often have to wear. So many people knew I was sick but so many didn't. I certainly didn't look like a cancer patient. And though I did an excellent job of doing what I had to do, I didn't realize I was vulnerable. And that's when my perspective changed. I saw kindness in a different way. Life is hard and you never know what someone is struggling with. Being sensitive, warm, polite and caring make a huge difference. Random acts of kindness are a real thing.

October has a very different meaning for me now. I always supported pink causes but now the pink everywhere is my own personal reminder of my 5 month battle with breast cancer. Please use it as a reminder to be mindful of your health. Use it as a reminder to be kind. You never know who is living with personal challenges. And remember we are stronger than we know we are. Have faith in yourself but don’t be afraid to get help when you need it.

Rosh Hashanah 2nd Night

Grace GilbertIf you walk around campus and west campus you see a lot of construction. Buildings are being renovated and soon there will probably be a new Villas. I am no contractor or construction person, but when you begin to build a structure like an apartment complex or a school building, or just a house, you start from the outside structure. Only when the structure is complete do we begin to focus on the interior of the building. But in the Torah, there is a story in Exodus where G-d is instructing us to build the tabernacle and he says to start with the Torah on the inside and work on the outer framework last. The lesson is simple: when building a home, a community, a friendship, we must place the most important things in the centre and build around it - if we build everything else first, there may not be any room left for what we care most about.

This story comes from the parsha Terumah and the root of Terumah translates to “to elevate”. So, lets try as we start the New Year to take the ordinary aspects of our lives and elevate them with more purpose. Lets fill our cups with only the good stuff and remember to focus less on where you physically are sometimes and more on who you are with and what you want those around you to take form your experiences with them.

To a sweet, healthy, fun, and successful new year, shana tova.

Rosh Hashanah

Ali Wolf.pngHi everyone, my name is Ali Wolf and I’m from Miami, Florida. I am so happy and lucky to be here with all of you. The other day my sister sent me this story and I thought it would be very meaningful to share. 

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and shoves you or shakes your arm, making you spill your coffee everywhere. Why did you spill the coffee? "Well because someone bumped into me, of course!" Wrong answer. You spilled the coffee because coffee was in the cup. If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out. Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which will happen), whatever is inside of you will come out. So we have to ask ourselves....what's in my cup. When life gets tough, what spills over? Joy, gratefulness, and humility? Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and actions? It’s your choice! 

Keeping that story in mind, Rosh Hashana marks the first day of the new year and is the holiday when G-d begins to judge us all the way through Yom Kippur. It is a time where we must reflect on ourselves and on our behaviors in order to become better people and ask for forgiveness. There are things that we do on this holiday to remind us of our new task, which truly make this holiday so special. For example, we dip apples and our challah in honey to ensure a sweet new year and we have a head of a fish on the table to remind us to be leaders and not followers like the tail. We also have round challahs to symbolize something with no end. We want to live lives and get blessings and make wishes that will never end. Finally, we want to distinguish our last year from the year that's about to begin by trying something new because by trying something new we are acknowledging that we are new people and plan on doing things differently.

Therefore, let's work together towards filling our cups with gratitude, forgiveness, joy, words of affirmation to yourself and others, kindness, gentleness, and love on this incredibly meaningful and special holiday! Shana Tova! 

A Glimpse of JTribe Shabbat Dvar Torah Speech

 Nitzavim:Noah Graff.png

In Nitzavim, God gives the Jewish people a choice between life and death and implores them to choose life so that they may live. Obviously, physical life and death aren't what's being discussed here. He's referring to spiritual, emotional life and death. If the Jewish people choose to follow primal desires, their spirits will die. If they subvert physical wants for a higher path, they will live. We face these choices every day, and they don't solely regard following Torah law. Every time you decide to wake up early and work out before class, you choose life. Every time you hit snooze until you just barely have time to roll out of bed and make it class in your pjs, that's choosing death. In the moment, hitting that snooze button and going back to sleep feels amazing, but not doing that feels more fulfilling in the long term.

Vayelech:

Moses tells the Jewish people he is dying and announces that Joshua will succeed him. However, a righteous person never truly dies because their good deeds create ripples and affect the world long after their soul leaves the physical world.

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