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teachings from our rabbi

NEWS AND VIEWS FROM RABBI MICAH STREIFFER


 

Read below for sermons, writings, and messages from our rabbi. Feel free to email  Rabbi Streiffer with thoughts or comments!

 

 

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Months of the Year

on Sunday, 28 August 2016.

Wait....what? It’s September, and the High Holy Days aren’t coming any time soon?

It’s true. Due to a calendar fluke, the High Holy Days won’t arrive until October this year. It’s unusually late on the secular calendar, but as far as the Jewish calendar is concerned, the holidays will arrive – as usual - right on time.

The Jewish calendar, which is more than 2500 years old, is a fascinating lesson in Jewish history. In fact, the Jewish calendar isn’t originally the Jewish calendar at all. It was adopted from the Babylonians while the Jews were exiled in that empire (586-516 BCE). The months of the “Jewish” calendar still bear ancient Babylonian names: Tammuz, the Sumerian fertility god; Tishrei, the Assyrian word for “beginning.”

And yet at the same time, the Hebrew calendar is deeply Jewish, because its purpose was to connect Jews with the land of Israel and to encourage appreciation of God’s agricultural blessings. The beginning of each month corresponds with the coming of the new moon in Jerusalem, a time considered holy by our earlier ancestors. And our major festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – were originally harvest celebrations. That is why they still take place on the 15th of the month – during the full moon – the time when farmers were best able to see and appreciate the bounty of God’s land.

Month in and month out, ancient Jews would work the land, and harvest the soil, and give thanks to God. But a calendar based on the moon would eventually get out-of-sync with the seasons of the year. The Muslim calendar is a great example of this, with the holy month of Ramadan making its way slowly through the seasons over the course of many years. But the seasons matter for the Jewish calendar – Pesach must fall in the spring and Chanukah needs to be during the winter. And so every few years a “leap month” is added to bring our lunar calendar back in line with the solar year. (Or, to quote my more poetic colleague, Rabbi Joel Simon, “The calendar couldn’t be solely-lunar, so they made it luni-solar.”) That leap month of Adar II pushes everything by 30 days. And that is why sometimes – like this year - the holidays “arrive late.”

But never fear! You don’t have to wait until October to jump back into Judaism. September is a great time to start learning, reading, and preparing for the Days of Awe. Here are a few learning opportunities coming up this month:

  • Torah Study returns September 10, with a focus on the books of the prophets.
  • Our new Adult B’nai Mitzvah class begins September 14.
  • We’ll meet over sushi to talk Judaism – Sushi and Study, September 19.
  • For Hebrew School parents, we’ll hold a conversation on “Talking to 21st Century Kids about God” on Saturday, September 24.

     

Details about all of these programs are found in this month’s Voice. As always, please contact me with questions about how you might get involved.

As we wind down this Jewish year and prepare for the next, I look forward to connecting with each of you. Best wishes for September, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Sunday School on Saturday?!

on Thursday, 14 July 2016.

By Rabbi Micah Streiffer
rabbistreiffer@kolami.ca

The first time I heard of it, I was a little bit taken aback. You can have Religious School on Saturday??

Everybody knows Sunday school is on Sunday. But Kol Ami’s choice is a different one – a choice that expresses our Jewish values and our understanding of what 21st century families’ lives are really like.

Our school is held on Shabbat. Every Saturday morning, Kol Ami’s classrooms and sanctuary are filled with kids reading Hebrew, learning about holidays, studying Jewish history, music, Torah, and prayer, becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah and more.

How can you have Sunday school on Saturday? Simple. We believe that Shabbat is Jewish learning time. If we’re going to spend a morning engaged in study and prayer, shouldn’t it be Shabbat morning? By holding school on Shabbat mornings, we model for our children the importance of making Shabbat a regular part of Jewish life.

What I love about it as a parent. If families choose, they can “go to shul together.” While the kids are busy in their classes, parents can stick around for breakfast, study, services, or schmooze time. OR NOT – parents can also take the morning off to read, see friends, or spend time together. And either way, Sunday is free for other activities.

But can you write and do art on Shabbat? We believe in making meaningful and informed choices about Jewish practice, including about Shabbat. Art projects, games, watching movies, and playing instruments are all creative ways for us to teach kids about Judaism, and to do it in the context of an active Shabbat morning congregation.

 

There is no better place to be on a Saturday morning!

The Great Jewish Outdoors

on Sunday, 26 June 2016.

I don’t think I ever really appreciated summer before moving to Canada.

When you live in a generally warm place, summer is just another warm time. (Or, like in Louisiana, a time of miserable, overbearing heat and humidity!) But Canadians who live through long, cold winters know what it is to love the warmth of summertime. We take to the lakes. We hike and swim. We BBQ. We send our children to camp. If there is sunshine, we feel almost compelled to be outside in it.

It’s a very Jewish way of thinking – to enjoy being outdoors. In fact, for many Jews nature is an incredible source of spirituality and connection with God. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th century Chassidic master, wrote this beautiful prayer about finding God in nature:

Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass - among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field -
all grasses, trees, and plants -
awake at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer.

If you have ever stood on top of a mountain and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the vista, or looked up at the night sky and marveled at its vastness, or spent time tracing a leaf with its intricate system of veins, you might have a sense of what he was talking about.

Our prayers refer to God as “M’chadesh Ma’asei B’reisheet – the One who renews the cycles of Creation.” Spending time outdoors – whether in the summertime or any time of year – gives us the chance to develop the sense of Radical Amazement that was so central to Hasidic Judaism, and that connects us both with God and with the earth. It says in the Quran, the Muslim holy book: “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” I think Rabbi Nachman would have agreed.

In that sense, we get to bring Judaism with us wherever we go this summer – on our cruises, to our cottages, to our summer camps. We get to recognize that there is no better synagogue than the great outdoors.

Over the course of the summer, we will be holding services as Kol Ami – sometimes in the synagogue and sometimes in people’s homes. Dates and locations will be on our calendar. If you are traveling, I encourage you to seek out the Jewish community wherever you go (there are Reform synagogues all over the world – just email me and I’ll connect you!). Or as an alternative, simply take time to look for God in nature.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Celebrating Confirmation

on Sunday, 29 May 2016.

In some ways, the ceremony of Confirmation – which was lifted from Christian practice – is the most Jewish ritual of all.

On the festival of Shavuot, in Reform congregations all over the world, groups of teenagers will stand on the bima to “confirm” their commitment to Judaism. They will chant from the Torah and speak about what it means to them. At Kol Ami, they will also lead us in worship, and share with us their thoughts on the role of Judaism in their lives. It is a moving and meaningful service, especially because the teens who participate in it have truly chosen it.

The origins of Confirmation are not mysterious. Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who 100 years ago was President of the Hebrew Union College (our Reform seminary and my rabbinical alma mater), wrote that when Confirmation was:

... borrowed from the Church.... the early Reform leaders had chiefly one object in view: to emancipate religion from the view which regards religion in the main as the concern of man only, and not of woman. (American Reform Responsa, Vol. XXIII, 1913, pp. 170-173)

In other words, Confirmation was the original egalitarian Jewish ceremony! In a world that couldn’t yet imagine Bat Mitzvah (this was the late 1800s, after all), the way to celebrate the education of ALL Jewish children was by creating a new ceremony.

Today, Confirmation is no longer about inclusion of girls. (That’s a foregone conclusion in everything we do.) Rather, it’s become a complement to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience. At age 13, children are called to the Torah alone; at 16, they engage in a group project. At age 13, they begin the journey into Jewish adulthood; at 16, they “confirm” those intentions as they really begin to approach adulthood.

So in the end, Confirmation is really about choice. It’s about the choice that so many of our children make to remain involved in Judaism long past the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The choice to keep learning and teaching. The choice to build their lives around Jewish youth group and Jewish community. So powerful is this choice, and so powerful is this group ritual, that our “Adult B’nai Mitzvah” program is actually modeled much more on Confirmation – an opportunity to learn, to build community, and to be called to the Torah as a freely choosing adult.

I hope you’ll join us for the service of Confirmation, known in Hebrew as “Kabbalat Torah – Receiving Torah.” It’s a fun and joyous evening service. It will be held on Erev Shavuot, Saturday June 11, at 6:00pm. That evening will also include our Shavuot Cheesecake Contest (I can’t wait for that one!) and Tikkun Leil Shavuot with Temple Har Zion. See below for details.

Chag Shavuot Sameach – May it be a sweet and happy Shavuot holiday for all.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Don't Ever Stop Talking During Services

on Sunday, 24 April 2016.

The old joke goes that there should be two sections of every synagogue sanctuary: “Talking” and “Non-Talking.”

Of course, “talking” is one of the most important functions of Jewish life. The synagogue is the place where we come together, get to know each other, and catch up on each other’s lives. In fact, that idea is built into the word “synagogue,” which is Greek for “gathering place,” and which is based on the ancient Hebrew בית כנסת (Beit K’nesset), which means the same thing. For as long as there have been synagogues – more than 2000 years - they have been the places where Jews have shared in the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives.

One of the greatest privileges of being a rabbi, as well, is being invited into people’s lives at those more emotional moments – times of loss and sickness, moments of transition and growth. Shabbat services are nice, but Jewish community is really found in the funerals and Shivas, the Brit ceremonies and aufrufs. The times of vulnerability when we get to be part of each other’s lives in extraordinary ways: to lead Shiva services, organize meals, plant trees, visit and call the sick, and send the occasional baby gift. Time after time, I hear from our members that these are the gestures that they appreciate most, and that connect them to the congregation. Long after we’ve forgotten what the rabbi said during his last sermon, we remember who led Shiva after our parent died, or that people reached out when we were sick.

Chesed (“Acts of Loving Kindness”) is the name that we give to the committee of our congregants who support our members during these times. In small ways and big ways, this very special group is changing lives and making our community stronger.

Will you help Kol Ami be its best self in the area of Chesed? There are two opportunities for your involvement:

 

  • If you would like to be trained to lead services during Shiva, the Shiva Leader Training will be held Monday, May 30 at 8:30pm at the synagogue. You do NOT need to know Hebrew, and you can always lead a service with a partner. This is one of the greatest acts of kindness we can perform for each other.
  •  Immediately beforehand - Monday, May 30 at 7:30pm- we will gather for a brainstorm session to build a Vision for Chesed at Kol Ami. We will talk about ways to better support our members and to involve more of the congregation. Your input is very valuable.

Please feel free to reach out to me for more information about either of these events, or about Chesed in general. You can also contact Eve Lipsyc, the new chair of our Chesed Committee.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

My Father Was A Syrian Refugee: Pesach And Freedom In 2016

on Thursday, 21 April 2016.

In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: "Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean." There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.

In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.

As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.

May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Women And Judaism - A Pioneer's Perspective

on Thursday, 07 April 2016.

RABBI SALLY PRIESAND: 2016 BERNSTEIN SCHOLAR IN RESIDENCE

Even as the Jewish community focuses on battle over women’s presence at the Western Wall, Kol Ami will welcome one of world’s pioneering Jewish women right here in the GTA.
Publicity photoOn May 6-7, we welcome Rabbi Sally Priesand as our Scholar in Residence. Widely considered to be the first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand was ordained in 1972 and served as a congregational rabbi until her retirement in 2006. She is known worldwide as a leader in social justice and religious life, and as a captivating speaker and teacher.

Our congregation is committed to a vision of vibrant, inclusive, egalitarian Jewish community. Rabbi Priesand is one of the great pioneers of our generation, who has helped bring that vision closer to reality. We can’t wait to learn from her!
Three sessions are planned throughout the weekend. Members of the community are welcome at all three, and there is no cost. All sessions will be held at Kol Ami, 36 Atkinson Ave in Thornhill.

  • Friday Night, May 6 at 7:30 pm Shabbat Services - Keynote Address: “Reflections on My Life as a Rabbi.”
  • Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 am - Shabbat Morning Study Session: "Why I Am a Reform Jew
  • Saturday, May 7 at 7:00 pm – Havdallah, Dessert & Discussion: “Remembering Rabbi Regina Jonas” (In this session, Rabbi Priesand will speak about Regina Jonas, the little-known REAL first woman rabbi, who was ordained in Germany in 1935, and died in Auschwitz less than a decade later.

Kol Ami's Scholar in Residence weekend is generously sponsored by Barry and Dawn Bernstein. For more information, please us at 905-709-2620 or email admin@kolami.ca.

Open Minds, Full Stomachs

on Monday, 21 March 2016.

A MESSAGE FROM RABBI MICAH STREIFFER

Why was only one human being created at the outset of the world? So that no person might say to another, ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b)
    
As 21st century Canadians, we live in perhaps the most diverse society in the history of the world. We are privileged to have friends, neighbours, and coworkers of many religious and ethnic backgrounds, and to live together in relative harmony. I’m aware of it every time my kids talk about their public school friends, since their names reflect that mosaic!

In the history of our world, differences between people have far too often been a source of discord and hatred. We don’t have to look very far to see people making war over religion, language, or ethnic boundaries. But Judaism teaches us that we can honour the differences between us, and learn from one another.

One of our highest Jewish obligations, reflected in the daily morning services is Hava’at Shalom – making peace between people. We do this by learning – by building bridges of understanding with others whose practices are different from ours, and by opening ourselves up to learn about them as well.

shalom salaam peaceAt Kol Ami, we honour this value with our annual “Open Doors, Open Minds” program. Over the years, we have invited speakers of many different religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism – to teach us from our own bima about their beliefs and practices. The very name of the lecture program reflects a core belief: that if our doors are open to others, our minds will be open to them as well.  

This year, we are taking “Open Doors, Open Minds” to a new level. In addition to inviting Samira Kanji, President of the Noor (Islamic) Cultural Centre to speak at our service, we will be inviting members of the Noor Centre to join us for Shabbat dinner as well. After all, there are two things Jews do best: pray and eat, and we are excited to share both our prayers and our meal with members of the Noor community.

The “Open Doors, Open Minds” program is Friday, April 1. Dinner will be at 6:30 pm (RSVP to jaykowal@gmail.com), and services are at 7:30 (No RSVP necessary).  I hope you can join us!

All Who are Hungry...

on Sunday, 20 March 2016.

Pesach. It’s like Judaism on steroids.

You take the ingredients of Judaism - food and family, blessings and prayers, intellect and spirituality, song and discussion - and you pack them all into a 3-hour timeslot while squeezing 25 people into your living room. No wonder we’re exhausted when this holiday is over!

The Seder is meant to be a multisensory experience. We eat various foods while thinking about their meaning. We drink wine while debating the limits of slavery and freedom. We cycle in rapid succession between nostalgia, sadness, hunger, joy, and hope. Perhaps above all else, the Seder is meant to challenge us – to live with gratitude, to draw connections between our own enslaved past and the imperfect world around us, and to work to make our world better.

That may be why my very favourite Passover tradition, out of all of the rituals and blessings, is a little-known line of Aramaic that comes early in the service: Kol dichfeen yitei v’yichul – “May all who are hungry come and eat.”

More than anything else, Pesach is about sharing food. We share food with our family members and our community. We share wine with Elijah. We share special recipes with one another. And, as is implied by this verse, we are meant to share with the hungry as well.

Kol dichfeen. All who are hungry. Who are the people who are “hungry” on Pesach? They may be the poor and the homeless, who are literally hungry. They may also be people who lack a family or a community with whom to share the holiday. All of us know somebody who – for whatever reason – is alone or disconnected on the holiday. And all of us can help. This Pesach, consider opening up a place at your Seder to someone who needs a place to go – a member of our community or a university student. Or consider a donation to Jewish Family and Child, to go toward providing Passover food for JF&C clients. Please contact me to find out how.

As we sit around our celebratory tables, we have the power to provide celebration and joy to others as well.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy Pesach,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

May The Schwartz – Er, FORCE – Be With You

on Monday, 22 February 2016.

You don’t have to look to Mel Brooks to find the Jewishness in Star Wars. And you don’t even have to rely on J.J. Abrams, the self-described “most nebbishy Jewish director ever.” Star Wars has lots of Jewish content:

  • Some say that the word “Jedi” is related to “Yehudi” – Hebrew for “Jewish.”
  • Yoda – whose very name is Hebrew for “knowledge” – is as good a rabbi as I’ve ever met!
  • Padawans are gathered together in a training academy to learn the ancient secrets and traditions of their people. Sound like Hebrew School?!
  • In Star Wars, the Jedi must choose between the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force. Judaism teaches that throughout our lives, we must make choices, and that we are led by our Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa – our good inclination and our evil inclination.
  • Judaism teaches that there is good in all of us, even when we choose evil. Good thing for Darth Vader, who did teshuvah – repentance – by destroying the Empire at the end of his life.

The list goes on and on.

But don’t take my word for it – come learn about the Jewish side of Star Wars as we gather for Purim on Wednesday, March 23. We’ll have pizza starting at 5:30, our Star Wars Purim spiel at 6:00, and games and food afterward.

Purim is a whole-community celebration. Please invite your friends to come join us, as we sing, dance, eat, wear costumes, and make fools of ourselves. A good time, it will be.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Wed, January 16 2019 10 Sh'vat 5779