PCS Year in Review: 5780 (2019-2020)
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Part One: BC—Before Corona
We started off a great year with High Holidays focused on “How to be a Lamed-Vavnik" (one of the 36 hidden righteous people). As always, the services involved an ensemble of Rabbi, Cantor Abbe Lyons, and many congregants on the bimah and behind the scenes! There were wonderful programs from Selichot (with B’nei Yisrael in Armonk), to our famous Tashlich, to a large open house Sukkah at the Rabbi’s home, to a lively Simchat Torah.
We started off the year strong: membership stabilizing, financial contributions, partnership with MMCC on a large “Open Tent” grant from UJA Federation to reach out to underserved members of the Jewish community. This despite dealing with enhanced security protocols in the wake of antisemitism.
Enhanced outdoor hikes such as a spiritual photography hike, Shabbat hike,
B’nei Mitzvah parent-child hike.
Shabbat meals such as the Open Tent Sukkot (65 people), “Show Up for Shabbat” (organized and hosted by the Star family), etc.
Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam projects such as: food bank collection on Yom Kippur, Diversity Breakfast, baby boxes for “Open Door,” two afternoons of friendly service at the Cottage School, Social Action column in newsletter, etc.
Member-led social events such as our famous Progressive Dinner.
Special Shabbat concerts with guest performers: Lisa Lipkin, the Levins.
Community Chanukah party with puppet show and puppet-making workshop (Open Tent).
December vigil for the Liu family, with many community members.
Tefillin Day for B’nei Mitzvah and their families (monthly parent-child programs).
Tenement House field trip for teens and parents (Open Tent).
PJ Library Tu Bishvat Event and other Tot Shabbats - Tu Bishvat Seder –
Family Purim Celebration
B’nei Mitzvah services and celebrations
Hebrew School classes and numerous special events for families!
Part Two: Pandemic Days
Even in these difficult times… Especially in these times, our PCS community pulled together and supported each other, even when physically apart.
Outreach to members by staff and board, pastoral counseling, Partners in Caring social worker, sharing support and resources to the community.
Weekly Zoom Kabbalat Shabbats with Rabbi Julie and Aydin Mayers
Weekly Zoom Torah Study
Zoom Hebrew School classes and closing celebration
Nightly Zoom Story Time and Shema and Tot Shabbat
Zoom adult education (Exploring Judaism), Virtual Israel Tour,
Jewish Views of the Afterlife with Simcha Raphael (Open Tent)
Passover: Food delivery (Open Tent) and Zoom congregational Seder
Zoom PCS "Community, Comedy and Caring Fun-draiser” organized by our board and other volunteers, with some of the proceeds going to local needs, and
play by kids, directed by Educational Director Galit Messman.
Services and support to families facing bereavement during the pandemic.
Members helping members who were ill (whether with Covid or other challenges).
Shavuot: Zoom class on Book of Ruth with Simcha Raphael (Open Tent) and Zoom Shavuot service with Cantor Abbe Lyons and Rabbi Julie. Plus ice cream delivery!
Members doing mitzvot such as: Cookie drive for grocery workers, sewing PPE.
Responding to Racism with Board of Rabbis letter, discussion at Kabbalat Shabbat on congregants working on becoming anti-racist as a community and individuals.
Third Annual Pride Shabbat
Celebration of Zoom Mitzvot, every week in June!
THANK YOU to all of our staff, officers, board members, and volunteers for a GREAT year, despite all the unprecedented challenges, with special thanks to PCS’ outgoing president, Leyla Nakisbendi!
Below is a letter that I signed as a member of the Executive Committee of the Westchester Board of Rabbis. As Americans, let us hear the Shofar's call to Teshuvah (repentance) for the sin of Racism that pervades our society.
We are counting the days and weeks. . . yes, we've been counting the days since entering social distancing (almost 6 weeks!), BUT we are also counting the days and weeks in a positive way.
We started to "Count the Omer," from the second day of Passover. Each night we say a blessing and count seven times seven weeks, until on the 50th day we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai, on the holiday of Shavuot. In Jewish mysticism these seven weeks are seen as a prime time for inner reflection and personal growth.
This year the Omer season seems more relevant than ever. The first Passover Seder took place while people sheltered at home from a deadly plague. Fast forward over a millennium, and there was another plague, during the Omer season, that killed many of the students of Rabbi Akiba, a great sage and one of the leaders of the rebellion against the Roman empire in the Land of Israel.
Tradition has it that Rabbi Akiba's students were also "plagued" by a lack of mutual respect, and had to learn how to get along together. So during this time each year, we recall these events by a state of "semi-mourning" in which we abstain from haircuts and from holding weddings, among other things. Yep, we are all doing that this year!
The plague lifted on the 33rd Day of the Omer, known as Lag Ba-Omer, which became a day devoted to outdoor celebrations, games, and bonfires. I never gave much thought to this ancient plague, until this year when we ourselves are living through a pandemic. Again and again, the lessons of history have become very real to me this year, and the barriers that separate us from the past have been effaced.
Superimposed on this ancient spring season are some modern Jewish special days: Yom Hashoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust (which took place this week and was marked by virtual gatherings around the world). and a week later Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day), followed by Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, I would like to invite you to a Virtual Tour of Israel! On Wednesday, April 29, 8pm, please join me on Zoom, where you are invited to share a favorite photo of Israel (you can have them ready on your computer desktop), and/or a favorite Israel story or memory. Hopefully we can also sing a couple of Israeli songs. Bring your own Israeli snacks! To get the log-in and Password, see our email to members, or send me or Marcy an email. At that time, I will also share about an interfaith, Peacemakers' Tour of Israel that I'm planning to co-lead with a local minister, Doris Dalton, God willing, when it's safe to travel again.
Looking forward to seeing you then. I'm counting the days!
Dear PCS Community,
"Why is this night different from every other night?" Those words will have a lot of extra meaning at our Seders this year! We are celebrating in different ways this year, unable to have the usual joyful gatherings of extended families and friends in person. Fortunately, we do have the technology to meet virtually, and the religious flexibility to do so.
We are all doing what's difficult together, so that we can preserve life and help all of society get through this challenging time, to better days ahead.
Many phrases and ideas from the Seder will surely echo with us this year in new and relevant ways: The very name of "Passover," for example. Like our ancestors on the first Seder night, we are urged to stay home for our health and safety.
The 10 plagues--all too relevant (not only the Corona Virus, but other environmental and social woes) that have occured in recent months.
On a more positive note, we reconsider the meaning of the parting of the sea and our hopes for freedom. Freedom may have a new meaning for many of us as our priorities shift to consider what is really important to us in life.
Likewise, the figure of Elijah the Prophet inspires us to be the person who checks on our friends and does kind deeds for others.
And "next year in Jerusalem" is becoming "Next year with everyone together!"
I know that this is a hard and stressful time for everyone. Please know that although we may be temporarily isolated, you are not alone. Your PCS community is here for you. Our staff and board have been reaching out to call congregants on the phone, but if you haven't heard from us yet, please feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Marcy (email@example.com).
We are meeting frequently on Zoom. Drop in for our Kabbalat Shabbats on Fridays at 8pm for beautiful music by Aydin Mayers and inspirational moments and stories with me - and just to see everyone's friendly faces! Enjoy Torah Study on Saturdays at 11am to see friends and learn timeless wisdom. I also lead a bedtime story and Shema for the kids each evening at 7:30pm (except the first two nights of Passover) and we are offering special Hebrew school classes on zoom, with info being sent out to parents.
For security reasons, I would rather not put the logins on this blog, but you can email me for details: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you need some one-on-one support, we are offering counseling by me, the rabbi, (email@example.com) and by our Westchester Jewish Community Services Partner in Caring, social worker Jill Schreibman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We have several members who have offered to shop for others (Marcy can provide names: email@example.com ).
For Pesach, we provided free or donation-based Passover meals from a grant, and are offering three online Seders led by myself and by congregants (see an email from Marcy about how to log on to those, or email me). And check out my previous blog post for some digital haggadahs that you can use if you are running a zoom or Skype seder for your own family. (And in the post before that, I suggested tzedakah funds to help our neediest neighbors through this difficult time.)
My friends, this Passover, we will gather separately, but with one heart. I'm thinking of all of you and looking forward, please God, to the time when we can all be together in person again.
Next year in Jerusalem! Next year (and sooner)--may we gather at home and at shul together again!
With many blessings for health and happiness,
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
PS: Here are some relaxing guided meditations that I have recorded and posted on my personal website:
And here is a timely Seder supplement that includes a contribution that I wrote:
"Why is this night different from all other nights?" That' line has never applied to any Seder more than this month! Our Passover Seders will necessarily be different due to the emergency situation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For everyone's health, we must not have any guests in person at our Seder, but only people who are living in the same household already. Those of us who are liberal Jews can have online Seders (such as on Zoom) to include family and friends! (In fact, even some Orthodox Israelis rabbis took the unusual step of permitting people to include grandparents at their Seder via Zoom.)
If you are going to have some guests online, and want to share a digital Haggadah, there are several to choose from. Here are some ideas:
Bayit, a Jewish educaitonal organization, has shared a variety of digital resources for Passover, including the popular Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and some social justice-themed Haggadot:
For families with young children, or who want a simple illustrated Haggdah, you can get one free by signing up with Kveller, a website for Jewish parents: https://www.kveller.com/haggadah/
If you would like a mystical/Hassidic version, you can get the Breslov digital Haggadah: https://breslov.org/free-breslov-haggadah-download/
Update: And here's one more that has an environmental emphasis--and you can get it as a power point (great for zoom sharing):
Here are some ideas for using a digitual Haggadah:
If you use the digital Haggadah on zoom, you could send the link to everyone before hand, they can download and they can look at it on their screens. Alternately, the leader can share their screen. I suggest just sharing some pages briefly for a prayer or reading, and then stopping the share to allow for "face to face" discussion.
Mostly, I suggest keeping your Seder simple. The Seder is not just a script to be read, it's a framework for discussion. You might ask each person to share something they are grateful for or to prepare a song or discussion topic. We certainly have a lot of topics to discuss this year: about plagues, about freedom, about our hopes for the future. Whichever Haggadah you choose, use it as a starting point, not a script. We can try to think of what we have and not what we are missing this year.
It's also interesting to note that even in Biblical times, people couldn't always celebrate Passover appropriately at the correct time. Maybe this year we will celebrate as best we can this month, and have a modern version of the "Pesach Sheni," a second Passover, by gathering in person at a later date, God willing.
Wishing you all a good and meaningful Passover, and "Next year--together with everyone again!"
While we are all struggling in various ways with the isolation and stress induced by the epidemic, the struggles are far more difficult for many of our needy neighbors.
This year, PCS has been partnering on a UJA Open Tent grant, together with Mosholu Montefiore Community Center (MMCC) in the Bronx, to provide Jewish gateways for Jews of color, LGBTQ and interfaith families in Westchester.
Although our grant-related activities are in Westchester, I want to support our partners at MMCC and the people they serve. Imagine sharing a small apartment among three families and struggling to keep afloat from day to day. Many live in dire circumstances even at the best of times. How much more those families are struggling now, when the inequities of our society have been thrown into sharp relief.
This week was my birthday and I decided to do a fundraiser for the MMCC food pantry. Please join in! To donate, go to:
IMPORTANT: YOU MUST FILL IN THE "IN HONOR OF" SECTION of the form with "For food pantry"! (If you forget, you can respond and tell them this when they send your donation acknowledgement). You can also call 718-882-4000, ext. 0 and say you would like to donate for the food pantry, or mail a check to MMCC (memo line: food pantry) and send to: MMCC, 3450 Dekalb Ave., Bronx, NY 10467.
Another organization on the front lines of feeding the hungry right now in New York City is a favorite of mine: Masbia. Founded by a really cool Hassid, Alexander Rappaport, they normally have soup kitchens (that are really like nice restaurants) to feed thousands of needy New Yorkers daily. They are now distributing groceries and food to the needy and packages of healthy foods to the quarantined.
Don't forget our local neighbors in Westchester. We can help right here by donating to the Westchester Food Bank.
Tzedakah is one of the greatest Jewish mitzvot, and there is no time like now to help those in need. Tzedakah saves lives. It may even alleviate our own anxiety and stress for a bit when we do something to help others.
Let me know in the comments if you are finding ways to do extra mitzvot now!
Take Heart! We are engaged in a mitzvah.
Shabbat Shalom! I don't have a lot of time to write before Shabbat, but I want to let you know that I'm thinking of everyone in our community. Many are concerned for their or a loved one's health, some are having to postpone long-awaited simchas, others of us are just stressed out by the news from hour to hour.
By now I hope you have seen the email from our president, Leyla Naksbendi, about our current building closing. If not take a look wherever those emails hide in your email folders! (There is also some info on the home page of this website).
Here are a few more words of encouragement from me personally:
In Israel, they talk about the challenges of the day as the "Matzav," the situation. I hope we can take heart from time to time by reframing our "matzav." We can consider that we are all participating in a huge mitzvah--and we are doing it with the whole community. We are doing the primary mitzvah in the Torah: Pikuach Nefesh, saving lives. For that, the Torah tells us to put aside just about any other mitzah.
By giving everyone more space and less contact for a while, by washing our hands frequently and well with soap, we are helping many people stay healthy and we are "moving the curve" of a growing epidemic. As a medical professional in my family told me, don't think worst case scenarios. Think that we are actively doing what needs to be done to keep our medical resources from becoming overwhelmed. (And she really emphasized the handwashing!)
That said, it can be isolating and sad to not have contact with one another regularly. We can get overwhelmed with the news and updates. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I'm going to try to stay connected with you! It may take me a while to get up to speed on some of this, but how about joining me for some Shabbat moments together, some time to have peace and to decompress from the news?
If you want to greet Shabbat with me tonight (Friday, March 13), I'll be livestreaming on Facebook (short, not a full service) at 6:30 Friday evening:
You can also meet me on Zoom for Torah study at 11am on Saturday, March 14.
Use the link below (fuller information in the email from Leyla):
Finally, if you just need to talk, you can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call my home office from the number in the email. We also have a social worker available to give us emotional support, and her contact info. is in the email from Leyla. I may not be in the office, but I am "in" and here for you. Shabbat Shalom and hope to see you online!
Did you know that as an American Jew who supports Israel, you can take just a few minutes between now and March 11, to make a difference for Israel's future by voting in elections for the World Zionist Congress? Any Jewish person age 18 and up who affirms a general set of Zionist principles can vote and help to select 152 American delegates to this global Jewish forum that meets in Jerusalem every five years.
It's the most important Jewish election you've probably never heard of.
This organizational election helps determine the future of Israel's culture by guiding the directions of key institutions responsible for allocating nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry. Yet only about 1% of American Jews voted in the last one.
Using this link: https://azm.org/elections you can vote (there is a $7.50 processing fee, $5 for age 25 and under). You will select one of 12 slates described on the page. I encourage you to follow the links and see which slate appeals to you, which is obviously your choice. Many in our community may be interested in learning about these slates and their visions for Israel:
You can read about all of the 12 slates from the main page and look up their websites for more information. Learn about the diversity of the Jewish movements and decide which vision you affirm. Then take just a few minutes of your time to vote and support that vision and those organizations you believe in.
"When you vote, you will be able to choose from over a dozen slates representing diverse political beliefs, religious denominations and cultural traditions. Those elected from the United States will join delegates from Israel and around the world at the 38th World Zionist Congress in October 2020, the international “parliament of the Jewish people”, to make decisions regarding key institutions which allocate nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry (including the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael – Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel)."
A short video below tells you more.
Each year I choose a central theme for my High Holy Day / Days of Awe messages.
The theme is woven into my sermons, remarks, Cantor Abbe's choice of songs, and even what I call our "holiday swag," of things you get to take home to remind you of the message.
Past themes have included:
This year, my holiday theme is "Lamed Vavniks: The Hidden Power of Righteouness." In case you haven't heard the term, don't worry; it's simple. Lamed and Vav are the two Hebrew letters whose numerical value is 36. There is an ancient legend of 36 hidden tzaddikim (saintly, righteous people) whose merits uphold the world. Sounds quaint and naive, but I think that this venerable tradition has a deep contemporary meaning for our globally interconnected world, a world where we too often assume that our small, private deeds have no impact. Over the next ten days, I plan to speak and teach and discuss with you how this tradition might inspire us to feel more empowered and humble at the same time.
Have you met some someone whose character and deeds were so exemplary that just being around them raised you to a higher level, made you want to do a little better? Hopefully we all know at least one or two people who seem to be living their entire lives on a different plane. Hopefully we can think, too, of someone whose words or actions, however small, made a great difference to our lives. These are our lamed-vavniks.
Our tradition is full of legends about "lamed-vavniks," the humble, hidden saints who secretly sustain the entire world. We first hear of it explicitly in the Talmud [Bavli Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], where the sage Abbaye is quoted as saying, “The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day,” (the Shekhinah meaning God’s presence in the world). His proof text is from the biblical book of Isaiah 30:18, Ashrei kol hokei lo, “Happy are all those that wait for Him.” (The word “for Him” in Hebrew, Lo, spelled lamed-vav, equals 36 in gematria.) The number thirty six itself is symbolic, meaning twice the value of “Chai” or life (18 in Hebrew numerology).
How do the Lamed Vavniks keep the world going? Some say by the practice of compassion. As Dr. Naomi Remen's relates in her popular book, My Grandfather's Blessing, her grandfather told her as a child: “Anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world…It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so… [The Lamed-Vavniks] respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”
Traditionally, the lamed vavniks were seen as so humble that they didn't even know who they were! It used to be the pinnacle of chutzpah to consider oneself a lamed vavnik. But with the state of the world today, I think that we have to take another approach. We should look to the models of those we know who live those extra-righteous lives, and try to take one step in their direction, knowing that we will never know the ultimate repercussions of a single deed. In order to heal our planet, we need to do more than advance our technology. We need to develop our character, our compassion, our hearts and souls. We need to reach for “double high,” to live our lives at a higher level.
I look forward to learning, praying, and discussing with you over these holidays, and finding our "inner lamed vavnik!"
Wishing you L'shanah Tovah--may we all be blessed for a good and sweet year, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Tonight begins Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision: the vision of Isaiah, a prediction of the destruction of Judaea and the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a consequence of the evils of society. Saturday night (8/10) through Sunday evening is the full day fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple along with other catastrophes of Jewish history, such as the exile from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B'Av itself is a day replete with mourning: not only fasting but chanting the book of lamentations and other kinot (dirges), sitting on the floor like mourners, refraining from greetings. These concrete rituals create a sort of psychodrama or affective education in Jewish history. They evoke our difficult national memories of sieges, exiles and deportations. This summer observance has little appeal to non-Orthodox Jews and I have seldom been able to convene a service or program with more than a couple of people.
But the meaning of this day is more relevant than ever, and let me explain why.
This Shabbat is a Shabbat of preparation, and vision. It is striking to me that the book of Isaiah provides the most beautiful and uplifting visions of world peace and harmony in all of the Bible. And yet the Shabbat that we call the “Shabbat of Vision” has a negative vision of destruction: “Your land is waste, your cities burned down.” And the cause is clearly spelled out, an unjust and unfaithful society: “Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! (You get the point).
G-d is apparently tired of empty “thoughts and prayers” and desiring of right action: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained…wash yourselves clean…cease to do evil; learn to do good! Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow... [then] be your sins like crimson, they can turn pure as snow.”
Some modern day prophets had a way of motivating with a positive vision, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream speech” of an equal and just society in America. Many more who predict our global and national future paint dire pictures of where we are headed, be that an unraveling of democracy or a growing environmental disaster.
I have always been opposed to scaring people into doing the right thing. Our Sages preferred to emphasize the positive. Indeed after Tisha B’Av, we will turn to seven weeks of beautiful and uplifting prophetic visions in our haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
But once a year, we have to confront the darkest visions, the most destructive destinations of our current trajectory. We are indeed headed toward environmental meltdown at a growing pace, and yet our government is removing environmental regulations and withdrawing from international treaties. We turn on the news to fatal mass shootings on a regular basis. Children cry because they are separated from their parents due to immigration violations or for seeking asylum at our borders. Our national conversation has turned to anger and mocking, and we fail to find common ground to address some of our biggest problems. Like the Judeans at the time of the Roman destruction, as Americans (and also as Jews on many matters) we are bitterly divided among ourselves.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow have universalized the meaning of Tishva B’Av, by tying it to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also occurred at these seasons, or by singing a modern lament for the destruction of species and natural habitats on the planet.
Like all our rabbis of old, I encourage us enter that heart of darkness. . .but then to turn around, as we embark on our annual season of teshuvah, sacred return. We have looked unblinkingly at the worst of history and envisioned a future of destruction. But we cannot despair and stop there. We must pull back from that brink, turning toward a positive vision and making the necessary changes to realize it. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi often said that the 20th century offered us two competing visions: the mushroom cloud (today I would say the melting polar icecaps and burning cities of climate change) on the one hand, and on the other the shining universal vision of our blue earth as seen from outer space.
To choose life is to confront the reality of the first, and then consciously pivot to the second.
As a rabbi, I believe in motivating with positive visions, with love of our fellow beings and love of our natural world. I think those are the only long-term ways to make deep and enduring change. But to do so while ignoring the dreadful potential of our current trajectory would be fantasy, not faith. My personal definition of emunah, faith, is “affirmation in the face of uncertainty.” I am not certain, but I affirm.
So whether or not you fast on Tisha B’Av, I encourage you to open to the vision today, and to lament that vision tomorrow. And then get up from the floor, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of Tikkun Olam.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.