The Scout Dilemma and why this rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas Trees

15 Sep

Last week our son Jude came to us to make a serious argument about joining Cub Scouts.

The Scouts have activities that he really wanted to participate in – camping, archery, canoeing, shooting b-b guns, and this was before he found out about the overnight trip to the Atlanta Aquarium, which he has been longing to go to for months.

More importantly, Jude assured both of his parents, separately, that he embraced the values that we taught in our home, and that we should trust him to keep to those values outside our home, that he would, in his words, “Always be his mensch-y self.”

We use the term “mensch”, Yiddish for a person of morals and integrity, to describe good behavior in our home – everything from table manners to sharing and respect and fairness and justice.

So, in very short order, I went from protesting about Jude participating in an organization that still resisted one of our essential human values – namely the full welcome and inclusion of LGBT people, and equal rights for all, which I advocate for publicly on a regular basis – to escorting Jude to the “Scout Store” to purchase all the paraphernalia needed for his first pack meeting which took place yesterday.

Ginny and I very much want Jude to see that his well-reasoned opinions have an effect on us, and we will support his path, even when it isn’t ours.

Jude had a pretty good time, and I found nothing objectionable about grade school boys playing bingo, eating pizza, and running around creating mayhem in a playground. The Scout ethos is OK, a little bit more of a lean towards “group think” than I would prefer, but I must admit that I am particularly sensitive to such things.

On the topic of LGBT rights, it seems like the Boy Scouts may be shifting, and we hope to participate positively in that shift. (See this piece on a similar dilemma for other people).

When it comes to fundraising on behalf of the Cub Scout troop I will happily support going around our neighborhood and selling popcorn. However, I draw the line at the Christmas Tree sales for the den. This rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas Trees!

And there is no argument that Jude can make to sway me on this matter.

[For a great take on the December Dilemma and being a Jew in a majority Christian society, check out Lemony Snicket's book below.]


The New CMS Excused Absence Form and Working in Partnership with our Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools by Rabbi Judy Schindler

12 Sep

Thank you to everyone for sharing your concerns about the new CMS Excused Absence Form for Religious Holidays. I especially appreciate those who brought their feedback with a kind tone! There is tremendous misinformation surrounding the new policy so I am writing this to clarify some points.

The CMS Excused Absence Form for Religious Obligations was created by CMS and brought to the Interfaith Advisory Council made up of representatives from the Islamic, Bahai, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, and other faith communities for review. This form was not created specifically nor exclusively for the Jewish community, rather it was created for the entire CMS community including many other faiths observing holidays throughout the school year. In creating the form, CMS was responding to the large volume of concerns expressed over the years by members of religious minorities due to schools’ lack of awareness and preparation for religious holidays.

Here’s some background and context on the new form that might be helpful:

• The Religious Observance form was created and intended solely for planning purposes, and was the result of an extensive best practices due diligence process.

• The form is optional. Alternative forms of notification of religious absence are still acceptable, including emails and notes to school teachers, attendance offices, and principals. The benefit of using the form, however, allows for ample notice to the teachers and school for advance preparation.

• The form is new to CMS this year and as such it is reasonable to expect a learning curve with the process. Some schools may not be well versed on the form or its intent. If this is the case with your school, feel free to encourage them to contact the CMS Diversity Office for further information.

• Some concern has been expressed about the forms being used to “register” students. This is not the case! As noted previously, the form is intended for planning purposes only, in an effort to better serve the needs of CMS students. In a school system with more than 140,000 students, standardized forms will help to facilitate better communication to the teachers in a timely fashion. It is chaotic to have parents calling, emailing, sending notes, forgetting to send notes, etc. A standardized form clarifies for our teachers and principals that the absence is clearly sanctioned by CMS and allows them the opportunity to avoid tests, classroom or school programs, and other areas of conflict experienced in years past.

• Due to concerns expressed by some in our community, the form has been modified to note that stating one’s religion is now optional.

• Additional modifications to the form include decentralizing the collection of the information on the forms. Rather than returning completed forms to the CMS Diversity Department, they will be returned directly to the student’s school, and each school will report on a quarterly basis the aggregate number of requested holiday absences to the Diversity Office (no individual information will be shared).

• The demographic data based on the numbers of students requesting an excused absence for religious purposes will help with future calendar planning.

CMS is our partner and is working with us every step of the way to respond to concerns of the Jewish community. CMS constantly strives to find ways to support and accommodate the wide variety of needs of their diverse student body and their families, and we applaud them for this. We ask that if you have continued concerns to bring them to the attention of CMS, in the spirit of good faith and partnership.

If you have further concerns, I encourage you to contact Tal Stein or Sue Worrel at the Federation’s JCRC, at 704.944.6757.

May the New Year of 5775 fill your life with health and joy.



Our Kids Just Cannot Get Enough of Temple Beth El, by Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

10 Sep

Our Kids Just Cannot Get Enough of Temple Beth El

It is the beginning of the school year.  It is time to get your kids up in the morning and to make sure they are safely home from school.  It is time to start arranging car pools and babysitters.  It is the beginning of fall sports, ballet, after-school tutoring, marching band, AP classes, and tons of homework.  There are so many reasons why our kids cannot make it to Temple Beth El for Religious School, for youth group events, for madrichim hours.  There is no extra time in anyone’s schedule while we are in this back-to-school mindset.  Yet, we simply cannot keep kids of all ages away from Temple Beth El.

Things have changed since I was a kid in the Northeast.  When I was growing up, the first day of Religious School did not entail give-aways and fun assemblies.  Youth group meant playing foosball in a tiny lounge for an hour with five other kids.  There was no teen band or teen vocal ensemble.  After 7th grade, most people saw no reason to remain enrolled in Religious School.  In fact, most people chose not to renew synagogue membership after their kids’ B’nai Mitzvah.  Yet, we simply cannot keep kids of all ages away from Temple Beth El–especially post-B’nai Mitzvah aged teens.

To exemplify this TBE phenomenon, let’s shine the spotlight on a special group of teens who refuse to “graduate” out of Jewish learning and involvement after their B’nai Mitzvah: our Temple Beth El Religious School madrichim.  I am thrilled that this year 100 8th-12th graders have registered for our madrichim program.  That means I have the pleasure of managing 100 madrichim who volunteer in Religious School classrooms, song lead with Ms. Patty for the music specialty, help Yonatan with art projects, assist Sean White in the technology lab, babysit for our Religious School teachers, tutor Religious School children during class time, work with Susan Jacobs and Tracey Lederer in the Religious School office and at carpool, and help out with concession stand.  These madrichim are required to be registered for Hebrew High until 10th grade, and 11th-12th graders are required to be involved in a Jewish teen group (such as LIBERTY, BBYO, Teen Band, Teen Vocal Ensemble).  The value that these madrichim fulfill is crucial to the mission of Temple Beth El youth programs: the value that Jewish learning and involvement never ends.

Take the LIBERTY board, as another example.  For two days during summer break, the seven teens in charge of ALL programming for our senior youth group buckled down in the TBE youth lounge to start planning events for the school year.  It was sunny and warm outside, a perfect pool day.  But the LIBERTY board preferred to stay indoors to make sure that they could organize the best possible events for LIBERTY 8th-12th graders this year.  The LIBERTY board meets several times each month and puts many hours into their role as youth group leaders.  I am proud to be an advisor for the youth-led LIBERTY senior youth group, and to give support to the LIBERTY board.

Take the LIBERTY board, LIBERTY song leaders, and LIBERTY grade representatives, as a third example.  All of these hard working LIBERTYites had a long week of school last week, yet on Friday afternoon they boarded the bus to the Liz Leadership Training Institute to gain the skills necessary to be effective Temple Youth Group Leaders.  Instead of sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday, these leaders were working hard in break-out networking sessions to learn how to plan and implement meaningful youth group events at Temple Beth El. 

How does Temple Beth El support the masses of kids who cannot stay away from our Jewish community?  I want to highlight the invaluable work of the Youth Engagement Committee (YEC), led by co-chairs Liz Morgan and Carissa Schlesinger, with direction from myself and Rabbi Freirich.  Our committee meets once a month to work on different aspects of youth programming that benefit TBE kids of all ages.  If you are a new member of Temple Beth El, it is only a matter of time before the YEC Member Outreach coordinator, Brian Yesowitch, shoots you an email to tell you about our incredible youth programs.    Several of our committee members volunteer to serve as junior youth group “liaisons,” where they help facilitate the programs so that all of the activities run smoothly during the event.  If you have a teen who is involved in NFTY, the Youth Engagement Committee will be responsible for organizing layleader volunteers to house, supervise, and feed about 350 teens during Spring Kallah, the NFTY regional convention, at Temple Beth El in April 2015. If your teen is graduating high school this year, they will be invited to a Graduation Shabbat ceremony and service organized by YEC Graduation Shabbat co-chairs Liz Morgan and Holly Gainsboro.  Once your teen leaves for college, Nathalie Malter, the YEC College Connection chair, will keep them connected to their Beth El families by mailing care packages and by organizing TBE College Connection reunions. Our plan to consistently and reliably promote youth events is being spearheaded by Beth Lewis, the YEC Communications Coordinator.  Our committee also serves the vital role of fundraising for youth scholarships, so that cost is never a barrier to participation in our youth programs.  What are some examples of YEC fundraisers?  Nathalie Malter is an expert at coordinating our fall Autobell fundraiser; Brian Yesowitch and Rabbi Freirich take the lead on our March Madness brackets fundraiser; this year Andrea and Mara Gose will take charge of the January Bingo fundraiser;  finally, you can thank the Youth Engagement Committee bagel chairs Alison Levinson and Janna Stein for those bagels that we sell at Religious School every Sunday.

With the year-round dedication of this committee of parents and lay leaders, the success of Temple Beth El youth programs is guaranteed.  It is no wonder that our kids never want to leave Temple Beth El with such a strong support for our outstanding youth programs.

How can you support Temple Beth El Youth programs to start the New Year off right?  Come to the K-7th Grade Bingo Tournament and Ice Cream Social on October 11th, from 3-5 PM to learn about youth group, meet other youth group families, and learn how you can become involved.  Support our fundraisers throughout the year to help us raise enough money so that cost is not a barrier to participation in youth events.  Stay updated by reading the upcoming events on the weekly congregational emails and by reading bi-monthly “News for Jews” e-newsletters.  I am so grateful for the way our community supports youth programs, and I am looking forward to a fantastic year at Temple Beth El.

A Morning Blessing

8 Sep

[Rabbi Jonathan Freirich delivered this on Friday, August 29 with the wonderful people of the Transfaith Conference here in Charlotte, NC]

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא

My God, the soul you have given me is pure.

As we look out upon this day, among these beautiful people around us, let us acknowledge the shining purity and beauty of the spirits we find around us this morning.

Let us revel in the light that we bring to each other and share with one another.

In Jewish traditions we begin our mornings in gratitude – first for our bodies, may they work well enough so that we can offer praise and thanks. Then we notice that our spirits still reside within us, and that that essence is pure, and we celebrate the return of our souls into our bodies after that absent time during our slumbers.

Each morning we look out upon the world and offer up gratitude because a day that begins with gratitude is a better day. A day that we transform with words of thanks in turn transforms us into grateful people.

I am so grateful to be among all of you today.

So I offer you another blessing from the opening prayers of a Jewish morning service:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים

Praised are You, the Infinite source of a miraculous creation, who made me, and all of us, in the divine image.

Each and every one of us here today reflects another gorgeous facet of the image of the divine. To be in the image of the infinite is to be infinitely varied.

Let us begin our day in praise of the purity of our inner spirits, and in awe of the beautiful variety of our outward appearances.

Let our time together be filled with soulful beauty, and pure diversity, and let us say: Amein.


Butterflies in my Stomach by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

3 Sep butterfliesbook


I am sitting at my desk in a panic because Religious School is only one week away. I can’t believe how quickly the summer has flown by. This is my fifteenth year and you would think that I could put the school back together in my sleep. You would be wrong. Thankfully, Tracey Lederer, my trusty assistant is always on top of registration and many of the other details that are necessary to get us off to a great start. But I feel a deep sense of apprehension and concern because I want to make sure that every year is better than the last one.

What are the new materials available? How can I make sure that we are on top of the latest technology and trends? What do I need to do to support the amazing faculty that we have at TBERS and how can I make sure that the new teachers feel at home and are ready to teach? It is an awesome responsibility and everyone connected with the school feels that pressure.

But what I worry most about is finding the words to convey how much I believe in our school and in the importance of giving Jewish children the best Jewish education we possibly can. I want every family to find community and feel that they are a part of something meaningful. Religious school is so much more than just dropping off your children for class.

We have a Religious School Committee that supports our school initiatives and organizes and implements social events, social justice and action projects, and teacher appreciation. They welcome our families on opening day and spend hours working hard to ensure that the school year ends with a Mitzvah Day that helps our community both in Shalom Park and the city at-large. On November 14, 2014, the committee has planned a Shabbat pot luck dinner that is open to all religious school families. It is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Shabbat with old friends and make new ones. I hope you will join us for dinner and if you would like to find out more information about joining the committee click here.

Throughout the year there are many opportunities for our families to find a connection and a place to belong. There are grade level Shabbat experiences, parent class participation days, Holiday meals and services, Congregational Shabbat brunch and services, and so much more.

I can’t wait to see you all back in school this coming Sunday when classes begin. I also hope that you will take a few minutes to look through the school calendar you receive and find opportunities to come join our religious school family and enrich your experience.

On behalf of the entire Religious School faculty, staff and committee, I want to wish you and your family a healthy and happy New Year. By the way, we have a great Junior Congregation planned for all kindergarten through third graders.

Susan Jacobs
Director of Education

The Best Response to Ferguson is to Create Faithful Friendships in Charlotte

27 Aug

by Rabbi Judith Schindler

Last Wednesday, I was honored to lead an evening of dialogue at the Levine Museum of the New South with Dr. Ron Carter, the esteemed President of Johnson C. Smith University. “Kinship and Conflict: Black/Jewish Relations” was the topic at hand. Sitting in comfortable chairs on a stage, the two of us reflected on the times our paths as Blacks and Jews historically united and the times they parted.

The conversation was honest. The conversation was, at times, painful. The conversation brought healing to so many who were there. The six years of friendship that Dr. Carter and I shared enabled us to discuss openly our personal experiences with anti-Semitism, on one hand, and racism on the other.

Tensions can arise in communities. The strong partnerships across lines of difference that we share will better enable us to ride out the storms that come our way. Our best response to the riots in Ferguson is to create faithful friendships here in Charlotte.

The conversation that night inspired me to write the following poem.

A Cosmic Kinship

Remember, you were slaves.

Together we remember
Seas crossed, campuses crossed, lines of protest crossed.

At times we walked together.
At times we walked apart.

Holy ground in Black churches
Holy ground in Jewish synagogues
Yet we all come from the same ground
In Hebrew, adam from adamah
In English, human beings from the dust of the earth
Given life by the breath of God

Brothers disappoint
Brothers uplift
Brothers hurt
Brothers heal

May we find common ground.
May we find holier ground.
May we find higher ground.

Gems in the Torah – for Charlotte Pride

12 Aug gems

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

“Now keep close watch over your selves – for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire –  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…”

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 “But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being.”

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 “Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!”

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

Image source:


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