May 14, 2021
Dear Holy Friends,
I hope this correspondence finds your spirits uplifted by the improving weather and the winding down of some of the country’s Covid protocols. While diligence and caution are still paramount, we are witnessing some improvements in our overall situation.
We are excited to announce that we will begin to hold in-person services again, beginning on June 5th. A team of members from our synagogue and the JCC of Fort Lee have worked together to establish a set of rules and procedures, which follow CDC guidelines, so we can resume in-person services as safely as possible. We will limit the number of in-person participants, so we can maintain social distancing, and mask wearing will be required. Of course, we will continue to broadcast our services over Zoom, so everyone can attend. Please see below for the details.
At the Leffell School, I teach a particularly interesting group of tenth-grade students, who are in a special cohort called Akiva. These students come from families that were not as observant as most of the other students in the school, so in many ways they are playing catch-up on their Jewish education.
Over the past few weeks, I began a unit with them entitled Jewish Journeys. I reached out to parents of these students and asked them to share a little of their own personal backgrounds and journeys through Judaism. One of the mothers spoke of her upbringing in a Jewish school in Argentina and her courageous move to Israel, when she was eighteen. Another mother spoke of her conversion to Judaism, having come from a family of Southern Baptists. A third mom spoke of her love of Torah reading, which she only discovered later in life, and her subsequent decision to attend Cantorial School at the Academy of Jewish Religion, in Riverdale. After hearing each of these personal stories, I then found relevant Jewish texts and studied them with the students.
This week, we heard a fascinating story from one of the fathers, named Don, who grew up in the Bronx. This dad shared how his parents never really practiced Judaism and that he grew up exposed to numerous Anti-Semites. His Judaism was something that, in his words, he felt he had to hide. His professional career took him to the world of law enforcement, where he specialized in anti-gang units. Don continued to hear Anti-Semitic slurs and continued to hide his own identity.
Ten years ago, Don was in a serious car accident. During his lengthy convalescence, he decided he wanted to learn more about his faith. He called a local Lubavitch Rabbi, who came over to his house and helped him lay Tefillin for the first time ever. Don shared that even though he was fully casted on both arms, the Rabbi was able to find one point of separation in the arm cast that allowed the Tefillin to touch his skin.
Since that time, Don has continued to learn, practice, and embrace his faith. He shared that although his Jewish journey didn’t begin until adulthood, he now proudly identifies as Jewish and sends his children to a Jewish day school, so they can learn to be proud of their Jewish identities from the start.
Our tradition, in Avot de Rabbi Natan, shares the following story of the humble beginnings of the famous Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva:
What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? They say that he was 40 years old and had not learned a thing. One time, he was standing at the mouth of the well and said, “Who carved this rock?” They said to him, “The water that consistently falls on it every day.” They said to him, “Akiva, did you not read water wears away stones (Job 14:19)?” Immediately Rabbi Akiva reflected… : Just as the soft sculpts the hard, words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will all the more so carve my heart/mind, which is but flesh and blood! Immediately he began to learn Torah.
Clearly there are parallels between the beginnings of the lives of learning embraced by both Don and Rabbi Akiva. In fact, in many ways, we are all like Rabbi Akiva and Don. The world of Torah learning is vast and endless, but it is never too late to begin.
On Sunday evening, we begin the celebration of Shavuoth, which celebrates the theophany at Sinai, when Moses received the Torah. Regardless of where we each sit on the proverbial “ladder of learning,” may our own Jewish journey be filled with sparks of Torah, an ongoing passion for peoplehood and community, and pride in our Jewish heritage and culture.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD