Saving the day with creative cuisine

18 Dec couscous01

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This week we continue to read the story of Joseph in the Torah.

Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh and he predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and then Pharaoh entrusted Joseph with the administration of Egypt’s entire harvest for seven years in order to set aside enough food to survive the famine.

Ignoring the strange question of why Pharaoh would have entrusted such a daunting task to a foreigner recently retrieved from prison, let’s look at a different question: how did Joseph accomplish his assignment from Pharaoh? How did he know how to effectively store harvests for seven years? Even in dry climates like Egypt I imagine that grain and crops would not be easy to store up for that long without them rotting or spoiling or going bad. So what secret did Joseph have to help him achieve this massive endeavor?

Joseph spent his time in prison with a baker and a wine steward. Maybe he learned some tricks of the trade from the two of them. Joseph could have learned how to make couscous, a pasta like substance that once made might be more easily preserved over the long time needed to feed an entire country during seven years of famine. And he could have learned how to brew beer from the wine steward, allowing the storing up of another source of nutrition from excess grain for a long time.

In both cases, he would have stored up knowledge that would allow him to fulfill this difficult task of running an entire empire’s food production and strategies so as to avoid the impact of the famine to come.

May we learn in these difficult times that creative thinking about our seemingly overwhelming problems has always been the hallmark of Jewish, and human, ingenuity. Working together, even discussing each other’s dreams, and then applying our know-how creatively, may be the only way out of our biggest predicaments.

Shabbat Shalom!


Eight Nights and Eight Lights by Rabbi Judy Schindler

16 Dec


As darkness descends upon our world tonight, we welcome the festival of Chanukah. As we celebrate, may we fill our world with expanded light.

Here are eight intentions to kindle our passion.

We kindle a first light to celebrate religious freedom — our own freedom won in the time of the Maccabees and granted to us as Americans today. May we work to ensure that citizens across the globe attain that same freedom of worshipping in their own peaceful way.

We kindle a second light for racial justice. We have come too far as a country to not support our African American brothers and sisters so that they can know that only when Black lives matter do all lives matter.  May this flame reflect our commitment to equality for all, on issues ranging from educational to economic to law enforcement.

We kindle a third light to celebrate two miracles: the miracle of oil of old that lasted eight days (when it only should have lasted for one) and brightened our rededicated sanctuary and the miracle of Jewish survival. Despite all odds, our Jewish minority not only survives but thrives.

We kindle a fourth light in expression of our commitment to bring light to darkness through our generosity and acts of kindness. “Tzedakah saves from death,” Proverbs teaches. Righteous giving not only saves the recipient from literal death as it saves those who are hungry or homeless but it saves the giver and recipient from spiritual death — from apathy hardening hearts.

We kindle a fifth light as a commitment to keep the lights in our Jewish homes shining brightly. Jewish legend teaches that a light emanated from our matriarch Sarah’s tent – the light of generosity, the light of Shabbat candles, and the light of God’s presence. The Chanukah lights we kindle in our homes should inspire us to nurture our dwellings as spiritual centers where the values, music, holidays, and teachings of Judaism are brought to life.

We kindle the sixth light of dedication to building Jewish community. The word “Chanukah” means dedication. In 165 BCE, we celebrated and sanctified the community space of the Temple in Jerusalem which brought all of us together. May we dedicate this night to supporting Jewish communal institutions of today.

We kindle the seventh light of education. The word “chanukah” has within it the word “chinuch” education. The heart of maintaining who we are lies in learning. Maimonides described Chanukah gelt as “an incentive for children to study Torah properly.” May we make Jewish learning fun by finding a friend with whom to study or attending a Jewish discussion at a coffee shop or restaurant or at shul. May we make our kids’ learning fun by ensuring they can learn at camps, in Israel, with youth groups, and always in engaging ways.

We kindle an eighth light to celebrate peace. As Jews we are ohavei shalom, lovers of peace, and rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace. We awaken to news of violence each and every day from threats at local schools to hostages taken in a chocolate shop or kids killed by terrorists in schools across the globe. May we support peace through our actions, through our advocacy, and through our tzedakah to organizations that plant seeds of peace locally, nationally, in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and beyond.

May we light the shammas each night of Chanukah and not only share the physical light of our faith but go farther to bring the spiritual light of our holiday to the world.

Chag Chanukah sameach — may you have and create a joyous holiday of Chanukah.

How to Chanukah and an awful lot of Music!

11 Dec

A friend of ours is getting ready to light Chanukah candles for the first time this year (two friends, actually, but only one is local). Since I’m in the business of guiding people through their Jewish journeys, it’s an extra privilege to help someone a friend to find the tools and learn the skills to lead a Jewish life. So, the very first thing I did was look to my calendar for when I could invite our Charlotte friend over to join us in lighting the Chanukah candles.

Alas, it seems that my family of four will only be together in our home for one night of all eight nights of Chanukah! And that one night is the SEVENTH night, which is not a great night to help someone kick off the holiday for the first time. While we negotiate our complicated schedules, I thought it would be best to put together a little Chanukah How To for these two ladies and all of you!

First, you can learn how to light the Chanukah candles from the rabbi and cantorial soloist at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton. This video is endorsed by the Union for Reform Judaism. And on this page, you can find blessings sheets, more blessings recordings, and every detail you could ever want to know about Chanukah.

For those of the preschool set, or the young at heart, our friends at Shalom Sesame and the URJ can teach us all about Chanukah. Here are songs, videos, and ideas for celebrating the Festival of Lights with your little one.

Latke recipes abound and are only ever a google search away. I think the most important thing to know is that, like all things Jewish, there isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it. What you need to figure out is how your family does latkes! I grew up eating latkes from a mix (foodies, avert your eyes!), but I loved them and still do. In fact, I have in my mind that I might even make some instant-mashed potato latkes to use up the leftovers from the box I bought for my kids’ preschool Thanksgiving Feast. Someone shared their grain-free latke recipe with me today – substitute coconut flour for wheat flour. If you are paleo-minded, switch for sweet potatoes, coconut flour, egg, and coconut oil and you will get a very paleo-friendly version. You could even top with some brisket. Yum.

Now, to bring you the full bounty of the internet, here is some great Chanukah music! Let me start with the classics.

First, here is Theodore Bikel singing Oy Chanukah in Yiddish. Both Bikel and this song are as classic as Jewish music can be. He is a superstar and this song has been passed down many generations. I remember my mom coming in to my Hebrew School to teach it to us in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.

Haneirot Halalu is a very old chant mentioned in Masechet Soferim, an 8th c. Palestinian work often included in addenda to the Talmud. There are traditions that prescribe singing this text after the new candle is lit each night, or at the very least sung after candle lighting. For me, this melody capture some of the mystical warmth and gratitude that we hope to bring into our homes with the lights of Chanukah. That sentiment is certainly captured by this all-women’s arrangement of the traditional melody. The text means, “We kindle these lights because of the wondrous deliverance You performed for our ancestors. During these eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred; we are not to use them but only behold them, so that their glow may rouse us to give thanks for Your wondrous acts of deliverance.”

Another key piece of the Chanukah liturgy is Al Hanisim, which is recited twice a year, once on Chanukah and the other time on Purim, both occasions when we express gratitude for averting grave danger. Al Hanisim is inserted into the Hoda’ah – the Thanksgiving Blessing of the Amida. If you’re at synagogue during Chanukah, you will hear this sung. Here is a zesty rendition of the traditional tune.

Now, I’m leaving a gaping whole in this musical review by not including a version of the number one, most traditional Chanukah song of all time – Maoz Tzur, Rock of Ages. This omission is because I have found no versions on the entire internet that I like. I may need to come back later and add my own….

I’ll wrap this up with three of the most important contemporary Chanukah Songs. First, Debbie Friedman’s I Am A Latke, sung live in 2001. Then, of course, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song live on SNLhref=””>, or watch TBE’s fine young men Caleb Seidler and Foster Machicote sing it). Finally, here is that ear worm from a few years back from the Maccabeats.

I wish you all a wonderful Chanukah filled with warmth, love, friends, family, and wonder. If you are local in Charlotte, I hope to see you at one of the myriad of Chanukah events that we have coming up over the next week and a half. In fact, if you’re 22-45 and have kids 6 or under (or a little older, too…) there’s still time to register for The Porch’s Southern Fried Chanukah this Saturday at 4!

-Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights –By Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

3 Dec

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights

By: Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

We have made it to the end of the November trajectory that shoots us through Thanksgiving and Black Friday, delivering us to the doorstep of the month of December like a package that arrives early.  Our seasonal obligations were relatively straightforward up to this point: make plans to bring our families together for Thanksgiving; navigate complex family relationships and accommodate everyone’s unique (and sometimes crazy) food requirements; wait in line for a discount on Black Friday; and exclaim that December snuck up on us upon looking at the calendar on Monday morning.

Suddenly, as though overnight, holiday wreaths have sprung up around malls and holiday lights decorate every nook and cranny of our public living space.  The Starbucks cashier wishes you a Happy Holiday, the dentist sends you a Happy Holidays card in the mail, and the world is alive with light shows and holiday editions of foods and drinks.  The anticipation of Christmas transforms the landscape of American culture, turning all public venues into celebrations of this non-Jewish holiday.

American Jews, particularly those who are Reform, are renowned for our ability to assimilate to the norms of contemporary American society.  In fact, the ability to conform to the society of which we are a marginal population has saved Jewish people from being expelled from society altogether for ages.  In general, our Jewish rituals are neatly compartmentalized physically: we attend services at synagogue; we celebrate Shabbat with those who are close to us, privately; we light the menorah at home.  We are Jews in the synagogue and home, and Americans outside of it.  The term “Holiday” represents society’s acknowledgement that other religions—Jews in particular—wish to be a part of American society, one that is founded on Christian values.  This term is an attempt to equate Christmas with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which usually falls very close to December 25th.  In other words, it is an attempt to inject Chanukah with a measure of importance by associating it with Christmas.  When the term “Holiday” is used during the month of December, it demonstrates how successfully American Jews have integrated into American society, after centuries of expulsion from communities of every generation.

Chanukah is certainly a unique Jewish holiday worthy of celebration, but we must be cautious not to fall into the habit of comparing a minor Jewish holiday with a Christian holiday that is, in comparison, colossal—comparable only to Easter in importance, truly.  As Dr. Ron Wolfson explains in his article, “The December Dilemma,” found on, some Jews will conflate Chanukah with Christmas by telling their children, “’Christmas is for Christians.  They have Christmas.  We are Jewish.  We have Hanukkah.’  In an attempt to substitute something for Christmas, the parent offers Hanukkah.”  The challenge that we face during December is teaching our kids about the special significance of Chanukah without comparing it to or competing with the significance of Christmas.

The good news is that Temple Beth El’s mission is to provide a super fun Chanukah celebration for every age group.  The k/1, 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7 junior youth group advisors have organized Chanukah events for all kindergarten through seventh graders.  ALL events for kindergarten-seventh grade will take place on Saturday, December 13th from 3-5 PM.  This date and time was chosen purposefully to maximize the convenience of dropping off kids of multiple ages.   The LIBERTY board has been working around the clock to plan our Chanukah lock in from December 12th-13th.   To find out more about all Chanukah youth, or to sign up and pay online, go to and look under “Temple Beth El Community Events” (you will have to scroll down a bit). There is also information about adult Chanukah programs on the homepage.  No matter what age you are, there is a Chanukah event that you’ll love at Temple Beth El.

Even though we cannot completely solve the “December Dilemma,” we can embrace the “Holiday” season as a time to remind our kids why being Jewish is unique, special, and cause for celebration.

An Attitude of Gratitude! by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

25 Nov ThankYouwithKids

On Thanksgiving in my home, we have a tradition of going around the table to say what we are thankful for. The same thing is happening in many, many homes all over the country. We all have so much to be thankful for and that is the official day to publicly state our list of things and people for whom we are grateful. My kids think it is sappy and would rather start eating but I think it is important to take time surrounded by those most important to me to share our thoughts.

As I think about what I will say this year, I realize how much I have to be grateful for. I wonder if everyone feels this way? My life is filled with so many blessings and I know that so much of what I have to be thankful for is a direct result of the incredible people I am surrounded by on a daily basis, the families at Temple Beth El, the staff and clergy with whom I work, my family and friends. I don’t think I can find the words to express how much you all fill my life with blessings and love.

Every day at Temple Beth El, we share stories of incredible acts of kindness and courage that move us. We see people working tirelessly to make the lives of other congregants and community members better, happier, healthier and safer. We see people reaching out to welcome those who are new to help them find their place. We know that there are congregants passionately trying to change our community for the better. You have all touched our lives and the lives of so many others and I am so grateful.

So on behalf of those who will never be able to say thank you, allow me to tell you on this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for you. I am thankful to be among people who work so hard to make the world a better place. I love the quote by Albert Schweitzer, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Thank you for being the spark and I wish each of you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.ThankYouwithKids


Violence Stained Souls vs. Peace Loving Hearts by Rabbi Judith Schindler

19 Nov

Shalom Salaam

“Blessed be God”
The men prayed
Talleisim on shoulders
Tefillin wrapped tightly

In horrific irony
“Allahu akbar – God is the greatest,”
The terrorists proclaimed
With meat cleavers and guns in hand
Staining the Islamic image
Silencing its peace loving sentiments
Stealing and misrepresenting the faith from its true adherents.

Five Israelis dead…
Four Rabbis who kept Torah
Continually on their lips
And one Druze police officer
Who put his life on the line protecting them
24 children left in mourning
The security of sanctuaries shattered.

The Quran teaches:
“The taking of one innocent life
is like taking all of Mankind…
and the saving of one life
is like saving all of Mankind”
(Holy Qur’an, 5:33)

The Talmud teaches
“Whoever destroys a soul
it is as if he destroyed an entire world.
Whoever saves a life,
it is as if he saved an entire world.”
(Sanhedrin 37a)

This is not a battle between
An Islamic God and Jewish God
They are one and the same.
This is battle between
those with violence stained souls
and those with peace loving hearts.

Do not let terrorists destroy
Prospects for peace
In our holy land, in our holy city,
In our hearts, and in our minds.

Do not let radicals kill
Prayers, faith, and futures.

Pray for peace in Jerusalem
Invest in peace promoting organizations
in Israel, in Gaza, and the West Bank.
Pursue peace in the world.

Blessed be God
in whose image we are created
and who has endowed us
with the ability to make peace.


12 Nov

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York for the start of this year’s cantorial certification program where I teach Shabbat music to the first year students. We were so fortunate to have the introductory class on traditional chant presented by Cantor Jack Mendelson, one of the finest cantors on the planet. Both Cantor Mary and I studied traditional Rosh Hashanah music with him while we were students, and I told my students that when she and I are standing on the bima at Temple Beth El during High Holiday services, there are moments when we look at each other and smile because we both know that, at that moment, we are channeling Jack Mendelson.

What makes Cantor Mendelson so outstanding is not merely his mastery of traditional chant. His artistry and knowledge is unsurpassed — but he exudes such enthusiasm and reverence for the music that you can’t help being swept up by it. And he is also an incredible mensch. He worked with the students both as a group and individually, coaxing from each of them the beauty and the subtlety of the style. He is kind. He is funny. And most of all, he’s genuine through and through. At the same time he makes you relax into the beauty of the music, you also realize that you are in the presence of greatness.

Listening to him teach the class, I felt full — filled with the incomparable artistry, filled with the respect and love of the music, filled with the warmth and humor of a man who lets the notes and the sacred words pour forth from his very being. It is a wonderful — and often rare — feeling of being full.

That same feeling is the ideal when we make the transition to Shabbat on Friday night. Every week we ask you to let go of the busy-ness and the stresses of the week gone by — to empty yourselves of the frantic and the mundane in order to make room for the peace and the sanctity of Shabbat. There are many weeks where, frankly, I’m thrilled just to be able to stop the sense of agitation, to empty out the noise and the hysteria. But truly experiencing Shabbat is not feeling empty, but feeling filled — filled with warmth and beauty and a sense of being in the presence of something so much greater. It is a sense of awe that simply makes me smile.


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