Friday, December 9, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 9


Shabbat Shalom

This is Human Rights Shabbat, as Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day, which originated in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Declaration of Human Rights.   This remains one of the most important documents of the twentieth century.  It has never been more relevant. Read the full text of the declaration's thirty articles here.  Also, see how each of the declaration's articles is supported by Jewish sources.  We'll be exploring this in greater detail on Shabbat morning.

I hope you can join us this evening for our wine and cheese at 6:30 followed by a Shabbat mood-setting mini concert by the acclaimed band Banot, and then services at the regular time of 7:30. It's great to have Cantor Fishman back this Shabbat, as we begin to count down the days to Hanukkah.

Meet Banot!
Meet Banot!

光明乐 "Happy Hanukkah" in simplified Chinese

Speaking of which, have you made your reservations yet for next week's Hanukkah dinner. The Chinese food dinner and service following will be geared to all generations, and lots of fun.   Read about it here and click here to RSVP for the dinner.  Also, this Sunday, our eighth grade youth group will be meeting at my house for Chinese food and a movie. 

So what's this about Hanukkah and Chinese food?  My guess is that it has something to do with Antiochus' connections to the Ming Dynasty.

Seriously, Jews in China take great inspiration from the Maccabees, according to the Times of Israel. As one representative of that community puts it, "Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly." Scholars believe the Kaifeng Jewish community was founded in the 8th or 9th century by Persian and Iraqi Jewish traders along the Silk Road. At its height, during the Ming Dynasty, from the 14th to 17th centuries, it numbered some 5,000 strong, with a synagogue, rabbi, educational institutions and a cemetery.

Oh yes, and how appropriate it is that potatoes are fast replacing rice and noodles as staples of the Chinese diet.  Even without fortune cookies, this could be a fortunate or latke day for Chinese Jews (I've now used up my quota of bad puns).

So that explains the Jewish obsession with Chinese food on Hanukkah, although someone just whispered in my ear that the Chinese food thing is really more about Christmas...which brings us to our next topic:

 
Is the December Dilemma Still a Thing?

There's a new twist to the December Dilemma this year: Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah are perfectly aligned, for just the fifth time in 111 years.  This can be a very convenient thing. For instance, if your true love gives you five golden rings, you'll know that it's the fifth night of Hanukkah.  If people at the mall wish you a "Happy Hanukkah," at least this year that greeting won't be for a holiday that ended two weeks before.

For interfaith families, of which we have a growing number in our congregation (including grandparents of interfaith families), this year presents unique opportunities and challenges.  For those who prefer to keep observances of both holidays distinct and separate, it's harder to do that when the celebrations coincide.  On the other hand, there is something poignant about sharing simultaneous celebrations with neighbors. 

When we go to the homeless shelter on Christmas Eve this year, I'll bring along a menorah as well. 

For some of our children, the combination of holidays is confusing, especially with schools becoming less and less sensitive to the feelings of those who are from religious minorities.  Some of our TBE kids, who at times are the only Jews in their class, have found themselves uncomfortable as teachers obsess over Christmas themes.  I would have hoped this no longer was happening, but in schools at least, the December Dilemma still most definitely is a thing.

I mentioned our growing number of interfaith families, and for them especially, I recommend this "Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families," courtesy of interfaithfamily.com.  I find it to be most sensitive and honest in how it deals with this season.  In that guide, they frown on usage of the term, "December Dilemma."  As they state:

"We think a good starting point for interfaith families is not to begin their December holiday discussions with the assumption that they're mired in a dilemma. Remember, a true dilemma is a deeply vexing, intractable problem for which there is no good solution. But many interfaith families do find good solutions that make sense for their families and create beautiful enduring memories for their kids.

The point is well taken.  The "dilemmas" often have less to do with this time of year, which should be filled with joy and light from all perspectives, and more to do with unresolved or underlying concerns.

I know that for many families, both interfaith and otherwise, the question of a Christmas tree can become a source of tension.  Some consider this a litmus test of Jewish identity ( I even wrote a column once called "The Litmus Tree"), though, given the proliferation of interfaith families, I think it's much more complicated and no longer subscribe to such simplistic generalizations.  After all, back in the '40s and '50s, as Jews tried to assimilate - it was fashionable to have "Hanukkah Bushes" in homes, which seems rather strange now, but no one could question the degree to which that generation identified as Jews.

It's interesting to note that often it's the kids themselves who see the tree as a litmus test of Jewish loyalties.  This can sometimes cause needless tension among Jewish kids who have a Christmas tree and those who don't.   I can't emphasize enough how important it is to not pass judgment on others, but simply to be proud of who you are and comfortable with your own practice.

As I've written before, there are a number of ways to respond to a child who wants a tree, but where the parents have decided that it would not be appropriate.

In Susan Sussman's popular children's book "There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein," a young Jewish girl named Robin pines (OK, one more pun - couldn't resist) for a Christmas tree, and matters only get worse when she discovers that her classmate Sandy Goldstein has a Chanukah bush in her home. Eventually Robin is comforted when her grandfather teaches her how she can help her non-Jewish neighbors celebrate their festivals, as long as it's outside of the home.

In other words, as long as the Evil Evergreen doesn't sneak past the mezuzah, Jews can have their fruitcake and eat it too.

This year, with the holidays starting at the same time, our response should be to bring on the light.  If you add together all the tree lights and the menorah flames on your block on Dec. 24, throwing in a Yule log or two, it will be quite a light show.  Yes, the Christmas lights may be just a bit more noticeable in most neighborhoods around here, but come back again eight days later and see who's lighting up the block.  If we Jews have nothing else, we've got staying power.  And isn't that one of the key messages of this holiday.

This might be the perfect year to invite the neighbors to do the winter holiday version of a "Sukkah hop."  Go from house to house; some will have menorahs and some will have trees - and yes, some will have both.  And let's share the light.

I'd like to think that this joyous juxtaposition of holidays can be fun. Here are some of the more popular versions of "Twas the Night before Hanukkah." You can go with ones dripping with Yiddish shtick.   And here's one with a sleigh being pulled by a moose.  And here's a video by Aish that includes "visions of Walmart dancing in my head."  Oy. And try this clever one, for the kiddies.

Here's my own version:

'Twas the 7th night of Hanukkah and all through the shul
Not a word was included of a holiday called Yule
It's not that we're trying to defy old Saint Nick
It's just that it's now time to go and Bensch Lick!

This year, the 7th night of Hanukkah is a Friday night.  On that night we light the  seven Hanukkah candles, and then two more candles for Shabbat. Bensch Licht is Yiddish for lighting Shabbat candles. My point is that we have so much love and warmth and light in our own Jewish rituals that "To tree or not to tree" might not have to be the question, at least for the child whose entire year is filled with the warmth and wonder of Shabbat. We just need to spread the wealth around.  If we focus less on December alone, there's less likelihood that there will be a dilemma.

So let's think of ways we can better share and intensify the light this year.
You might recall how last year I collected and shared photos of TBE families' Hanukkah lightings) check them out here). I'd love to see some more. 

And one other thing.   TBE member Tamara Duhov suggests that we focus a little less on getting and more on giving this Hanukkah.  If we can make our holiday celebrations more about giving and less about getting, all the dilemmas will quickly slip away.

See her note below about Fifth Night.

Dear Beth El family, 

I recently came across a very exciting initiative for the holiday season that I'd like to share. It's called Fifth Night and I would love for you to look into it and see if you'd like to participate in it. Thanks and Happy Hanukkah to all,

Tamara

About Fifth Night
In 2009, Fifth Night was officially launched.  Fifth Night is a charitable gift-giving event that brings families together to celebrate Hanukkah and to give back to our communities. The goal of Fifth Night is to help children better understand and appreciate the importance of their donations by learning about the charity and the families who will be benefiting from their gifts. By giving in a group setting, there is a shared energy and enthusiasm that makes Tzedeka fun and rewarding. Together, we are also able to make a more significant impact. Since its initiation, Fifth Night has partnered with organizations across the country to bring this spirit of giving to more communities.  Each year the positive effects of the event have grown and its founders are committed to its continued growth.

About The Founders
Robert and Rachel Glazer, and Amy Finn, the founders of Fifth Night, are Needham parents who wanted to help enrich the holidays by extending their children's spirit of giving beyond their own families, to the greater community. As their kids grew older, they explored the concept of having them donate one of their Hanukkah gifts, but never really knew how to make it meaningful.  They talked to many other families who felt the same way, and these discussions inspired the creation of Fifth Night.

Fifth Night 2016
This year, Hanukkah falls over the winter break and it is a somewhat tricky time to hold events. Therefore, Fifth Night will look a bit different, but the lessons and the mission are very much the same. Families, friends, and communities are being encouraged to think of Fifth Night when planning Hanukkah celebrations. Here's how:

Plan a party! Host a Hanukkah party for your family and friends. In the planning stages, select a charitable organization where you can donate toys and other items for children. Have the children select a gift, and forgo one night of receiving a Hanukkah gift in favor of giving to a child in need. It could be a small get together with just your family, or a larger celebration - whatever works for you.

Give! If possible, go with your children to bring the donations to the organization of your choice, and to meet the people who work there! Hearing "thank you" and seeing how their gifts will be used has a tremendous impact and helps the children better understand the importance of giving to others.
If you have any questions about Fifth Night, or if you would like to make an even bigger impact by coming together as a TBE family, choosing one specific charity, and then presenting the gifts to said charity, please contact Tamara Duhov at  tamara.verushka37@gmail.com or (203) 663-3388 (after 4:00 pm).

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, December 2, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for Dec. 2

Shabbat Shalom

Happy December and happy Kislev too, as both months began yesterday.  Welcome also to almost the earliest Shabbat of the year.  Candle lighting time for Stamford is 4:08 this afternoon. Technically it's a minute earlier next Friday, but why quibble?  Another calendar quirk occurs on Sunday and Monday, December 4 and 5, when we begin adding a special line in the weekday Amida asking for rain (tal u'matar).  If you are really interested in getting into the weeds of why a secular date determines when we begin saying a prayer, then you should read this rather complex article. It's fascinating that the date for beginning the recitation of a prayer in the Siddur is based on the agricultural calendar of Iraq.

Our service tonight will be a bit different. I'll be assisted by our seventh   graders, who will be celebrating Shabbat here and then at my house for our annual Shabbaton.  I'm pleased to add that a number of our TBE day school seventh graders will be joining us, which gives the kids a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. 

PLUS tonight we will welcome to our service a few dozen teens from our local BBYO chapter.  This is BBYO's Global Shabbat, which, according to the website, showcases BBYO's "commitment to amplifying our voice as a community that is fortunate and grateful to celebrate the joy of Shabbat together as one united movement." It's great that BBYO is doing this, and we at TBE are thrilled to host.  The Global Shabbat theme this year is "Gamechangers," and so tonight, for a change, we'll have a game - a Jewish identity game. 

All this, and yet it will be very much our traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service.  I encourage our adult community to join us, including parents of the seventh graders and teens, so that we can celebrate Shabbat as a truly multi-generational community. We look forward to Cantor Fishman's return from Israel next week, and another special service, featuring Banot in Concert

This weekend we also celebrate those from our congregation who are being recognized by the UJF at its Winter Soiree, including Jill Kaplan, winner of the Harvey Peltz Leadership Award, and Gary Schulman, co Volunteer of the Year.  Mazal tov to them, and thank you to them as well as to the UJF professionals who do so much for our community. 
 
Israel on Fire

Last week's devastating fires have left many in Israel homeless and despairing.  Along with all the other damage, Masorti communities in Israel have been severely damaged by the fires that have burned through Haifa, Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere.  Here are 
some ways we can help Israelis to rebuild:

Jewish National Fund Fire Relief - http://www.jnf.org/

Masorti Fire Relief - http://masorti.org/



Someone with ties to the congregation sent me this urgent this help-wanted blurb: 

Afternoon sitter for almost 4-year old son; must have valid driver's license and own car.  Looking for someone who can pick up our son from school, bring him home, and help with afternoon/dinner/bedtime. Minimum 3 hours a day M-F. Please message rebeccaimr@yahoo.com for details. 
 

Three Dimensional Judaism

On Shabbat morning, with our 7th and 6th graders joining us for another B'nai Mitzvah Club Shabbat (and we also have another Shabbabimbam tomorrow), we're going to take a closer look at two new surveys of American Jewry that have been released.  This is in conjunction with the portion "Toldot," which means "generations," and is the perfect time to discuss the future of the Jewish people.

One survey is the Boston study that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.  See the full study here and the executive summary here. See this report from the Boston Globe, and a commentary from the LA Jewish Journal

The headline that people are focusing on is the dramatic decline of affiliation with the movements.  For Conservative and Reform it is especially dramatic over the past decade (yes, Reform too), while Orthodox continues to lag far behind, at four percent.  The biggest gainer is that ubiquitous category, "Jewish with No Religion."  There is much to discuss about these new revelations.

Another major new study was released this week, "Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity." (download it here). The report is worth reading from start to finish, but to cut to the chase, here are some recommendations made at the end:

The broader Diaspora community should count as "Jews" only those who have a Jewish parent or have undergone proper conversion (that is, conversion by one of the established denominations). Self-defined Jews should be welcomed and respected but not officially counted as Jews.

Diaspora communities should be clearer in asserting through programs and actions, especially those aimed at intermarried families, that Judaism is not strictly a religion - but rather a civilization, a culture (in a broad sense that includes religion) of a people.
Israel ought to devise more pluralistic policies to encourage the emergence of a non-Orthodox Jewish culture - a culture that has the potential to play a role in the identity of all Jews.

Jewish households - in which as many members as possible are Jewishly connected and committed - should remain the ideal to which the community strives (even while the community recognizes and accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses, and will continue to do so). Jewish communities are advised to take this ideal into consideration in choosing their leaders and role models.

Israel is obliged to make its contribution to clarifying the criteria for Jewishness by serving as an example and offering a clear and easy path for conversion of Israelis who immigrated under the Law of Return and who are not Jewish.

The bottom line is that in both surveys it is clear that distinct categories delineating the relative strength of Jewish identity among different groups are becoming much harder to draw.  Synagogues, denominations and "religion" are still an important part of the equation, but far more Jews are likely to define their involvement on secular terms, as cultural or based on a sense of peoplehood

The new report quotes JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer, who observed that when it comes to the US Jewish community, "questions of personal status have become irrelevant... and the community has no interest in enforcing its boundaries." He continues: "The watchwords today are inclusiveness, pluralism, trans-denominationalism, and 'journeys' leading to a 'self-constructed' Judaism tailored to the needs of each Jew."

I've always had a much broader conception of Judaism as a religion that encompasses peoplehood, culture and history.  I've never seen the religion part as being exclusive of the others.  As we refine our vision as a synagogue, I believe we need to better understand that most people tend to see the synagogue in those terms, and therefore pigeonholed into a small corner of their Jewish lives.  But here that's not the case. It's always amusing for me to see visitors come to our Shabbat services and hear the cantor sing a secular Israeli song - or even show tune - with such emotion that in fact it becomes a prayer.  To that all I can say is, welcome to the three-dimensional Judaism of TBE. 

Spirituality/ethics/ ritual (a far more accurate term than "religion,") culture and peoplehood: you'll find it all here. 

We most closely align with Conservative institutions, but our vision of Judaism is expansive.  Just recently, we've also begun partnering with Aleph, the alliance for Jewish renewal, enabling us to benefit from some of the most innovative, cutting-edge spiritually based programs and communities out there.  This is not a formal movement but a loose collection of learners and seekers, including communities like Romemu in New York and Nava Tehila in Jerusalem (who brought their music here this past spring). What we do neatly blends into what Aleph provides. Over the coming months we'll be reaping some benefits from our relationship with Aleph.

Our approach is very similar to the one expressed in a recent interview by Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu:

"At Romemu, we're doing authentic and deeply Jewish practice that is rooted in a deeper universal ethic.  It's "part of a larger American zeitgeist, a larger American phenomenon in the latter part of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. It is a seeker's culture, a culture where religious language is both valued and devalued simultaneously, where it's decentralized or neutered of its triumphalist overtones and patriarchal overtones, yet the authenticity of connecting with that language and maintaining or retaining it is still there. So, it's kind of walking a line between something that feels diluted and not authentic and something that is intensely orthodox and has the valence of insularity and being exclusive... (It's) for people who are turned onto God but don't see religions as absolutes but as fingers pointing to the moon. They really want the moon. So, you can walk in and go, "Oh! I don't know all this Hebrew, but my heart opens when I hear that melody. And, I'm kind of excited to learn the Hebrew and pray Jewishly and see what happens."

What makes this work - and at our best, what makes our services work too - is that even the most ardent agnostic is blown away, the one who relates to being Jewish only in terms of culture or peoplehood, the one who would be least likely to be found in a synagogue at prayer, is transformed by the experience. In addition, everyone feels welcomed by a service that treasures warmth and inclusivity.

So when people move up to our area from places where such services exist - and there aren't many - they can now look on the Aleph website and find us, link to our website and meet our clergy.  Soon, hopefully they will visit, or check out the livestream of our service, and they will see that we offer the Three Dimensional Judaism they are looking for.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Thanksgiving Gift from TBE

A special Thanksgiving gift, from our TBE family to yours.  Here's the complete video of last Friday night's special Latin Shabbat.  Stream it into your planes, trains and automobiles over the holiday weekend, and bring the fantastic music of Cantor Fishman and our musicians with you as you go. 

You may need to sign into Live Stream in order to see the video. Enjoy!  And from everyone here at TBE, wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, November 18, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for November 18


  
TBE's Discussion Group, a monthly learning and social havurah, went to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side last Sunday.  See our entire fall photo album

Shabbat Shalom

There will be no O-Gram next week, but keep us in mind as you go over the river and through the woods.  Services will happen, naturally, through the holiday weekend, with morning minyan at the special holiday time of 9 AM on Thursday and Friday.  Mazal tov to Jason Yudell and family on his becoming Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat morning.  And welcome back to our community to old friend Ilana DeLaney, who will be featured at the UJF’s annual learning extravaganza “Tapestry,” on Saturday night.  Tomorrow will also be our first Shabbat School day for the year, where Hebrew School gets shifted from Sunday to Shabbat - and this week’s will include Torah Cupcake Wars.

The Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut and the Mayor's Multicultural Council will hold an Interfaith Prayer Service on Tuesday, November 22, at 6:00 PM in the Stamford Government Center (888 Washington Boulevard). I will be attending. We stand together as citizens from a variety of religious backgrounds and non-religious backgrounds to support all those who, based on the rhetoric of the recent campaign, feel threatened, need support, or are unsure of what the future holds.  Meanwhile, as we continue to sort through the events of the past ten days, it is helpful to read the balanced perspective of AJC CEO David Harris as well as the just-released recommendations of the ADL task force to stem the hate that has been surging on social media.  The report (pdf here) was discussed at length at an ADL conference in New York this week.

This week the Boston Jewish community released results of a comprehensive new study (download it here), which, when compared to a decade ago, suggests that dramatic changes are occurring in how Jews connect to Judaism, Israel, and traditional institutions-synagogues, denominations, organizations and schools.  No two communities are exactly alike, but there is much that those of us living in other Jewish communities can learn from this.

For instance, the percentage of Boston Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative has significantly declined in ten years, from nearly three-quarters (74%) in 2005 to less than half (44%) today. The Orthodox population in Boston is steady at just 4%. By contrast, the number of Jews who do not identify with any denomination-those who are secular, culturally Jewish, or “just Jewish”-has increased dramatically, from 17% in 2005 to 45% of the population in 2015.

From the survey: “Corresponding to the decrease in denominational affiliation, synagogue membership is also in the midst of change. Overall, 37% of households reported belonging to a Jewish congregation or synagogue, as compared with 42% in the 2005 study. As in the 2005 study, these are “point in time” numbers and mask the affiliation rate over time.  In 2015, 70% of in-married Jewish households with children ages 9-13 were affiliated with a congregation showing the continued central role that congregations play in the life of our community. At the same time, this represents a drop from over 83% affiliation among similar households in 2005. In contrast to the drop among in-married households, when we look at the membership rates for interfaith families raising Jewish children, we see higher rates of membership as compared to 2005. We also know from observation that there is growth and strength in some synagogues, where membership is expanding and programming is engaging families and individuals of all ages and lifecycle stages, while other congregations are in decline.”

As I said, there is much to learn. 

Growing Large By Thinking Small

Without much fanfare, TBE has developed a number of thriving “havurot” (affinity groups), to add to the ones we have established over the years.  We’ve got a Young Couples Group, that meets often and is now discussing ways to increase their impact on the community, and Empty Nester’s Group that’s been meeting regularly, a vibrant Grandparents’ Group, (those with grandchildren who in dual-faith families) which began meeting this month as part of our Keruv program, and the spectacular start to our Sha-ba-bim-bam Families, families with kids of preschool age and younger - whose number keeps on growing (and they’ll get together again this Shabbat morning at 11!).  Add to that our longest running havurah, the Discussion Group, which meets monthly to learn and schmooze together.  They went to the Lower East Side last Sunday.  

Our Sisterhood and Men’s Club are social groupings as well, of course (along with sub-groups like our monthly Rosh Hodesh Group), as is our Adult Choir, Beth El Cares, Morning Minyan and Shabbat “regulars,” our B’nai Mitzvah Club, and now an adult education cohort that has expanded dramatically with the start of our JTS Ethics Class.  Then there’s Reyut, our helpful healers and friendly visitors and our C.S.A.,which has wrapped up another successful season.  Aside from promoting local farmers, sustainable agriculture and healthy eating, we donated over 400 lbs of food to the Food bank of Lower Fairfield County.  We should be very proud. The C.S.A is not a social group per se, but I can say that my family (two and four legged) have had some great opportunities to chat with folks each week as people have picked up their veggies at the shed. 

All of these groups, along with our board, and our hard working committees planning upcoming events like Temple Rock and the Women’s Seder.  Plus our weekly anchor, our Friday Night Kabbalat Shabbat attendees - and attendance has been significantly higher this fall.  My apologies for any group left out.  We are growing large by thinking small.  I hope everyone can find their niche in our expanding community of sub-communities.  Wherever you are on your life’s journey, there is a place for you at TBE.
Have Some Hungary with your Turkey

If you feel that sense of community here, help us take that spirit on the road next summer on our Jewish Heritage Tour of Central Europe.  Please discuss this with family and friends at your Thanksgiving tables.  At a time when the Holocaust has become even more central to our self awareness as Jews and how we confront the dangers of our world, we need to reaffirm our role as witnesses.  Please RSVP to me at rabbi@tbe.org if you can come to our informational and organizational meeting on Wed. Nov. 30 at the home of Sari and Alan Jaffe.  


Our Better Angels

 

We can now add to that list of thriving groups our Eighth Grade Youth Group, led by Lisa Gittelman Udi and Mara Hammerman. I am really grateful to both of them, as well as to the parents and kids, who have expressed a real desire to carry their very positive Hebrew School experience to the next level.  Last Sunday, I got to “come with” as the group collected food outside Stop and Shop for the JFS’s Thanksgiving Food Drive.  The kids handed out flyers asking shoppers to buy specific kosher-marked products, which were then used to prepare full meals for a significant number of families.  What moved me tremendously was the generous response they received from so many shoppers, and the way that in turn moved the teens.  Most of the shoppers weren’t Jewish, yet they went out of their way to look for kosher markings - some asked us what they mean.  

So all in one fell swoop, our TBE teens were able to 1) do a great mitzvah 2) teach strangers about Jewish values like tzedakkah and kashrut 3) be great ambassadors of the Jewish community to many who are not Jewish 4) come to appreciate the charitable nature of total strangers (many who were clearly coming from church) and, oh yes, have a great time, topped off by froyo at Sixteen Handles.

How to Survive Your Thanksgiving Dinner

Given all the pressures of the past few months, it is not unlikely that some of the stress will spill on over to your Thanksgiving dinner.  So here are my Ten Suggestions as to how to avoid Armageddon breaking out at your table.

1)     Stay away from all controversial subjects. These days that includes even the weather, which has become a hot topic, both figuratively and literally.  So if you avoid controversial topics like politics, religion, family, the weather and Aunt Sadie’s dry-as-the-Sahara sponge cake, that pretty much leaves us with meditating, chewing, whistling and various barnyard noises. 
2)     Stay away from any toxic words - in other words, anything that has been said on cable news over the past 24 months.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “One of the results of the rapid depersonalization of our age is a crisis of speech, profanation of language.... Language has been reduced to labels, talk has become double-talk. We are in the process of losing faith in the reality of words.”  
3)     Actually, silence is a good thing.  A few moments of silence couldn’t hurt.  Abraham Joshua Heschel again: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”   So for a few moments, contemplate what it means to be a blessing.  Don’t say anyth8ing, and ponder what it means to just be.
4)     While you are contemplating, now is the time to cultivate mindfulness.  Use this guide to bring a greater sense of mindfulness to all your Thanksgiving related activities.  When you are food shopping, allow the food to call out to you.  Turn off the radio while driving and be aware of your posture and your breathing.  Notice the foliage and the changes in landscape, how as you climb in elevation, fall slowly slips into winter.  Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, take deep breaths!
5)     Cast away labels.  Uncle Joe shouldn’t be pegged as “Socialist Uncle Joe who voted for Jill Stein, or “Uncle Archie, the lovable bigot.” Joe is just Joe and Archie is just Archie.
6)     Think of what everyone around the table has in common, not how they differ.  Somewhere in between the soup and the salad, slip into the conversation that you’ve recently had your DNA examined and it turns out the family is .1 percent Native American.  That should get you clear through to the pumpkin pie.  Remember to record for posterity the reaction of your Uncle Archie.
  
7)     When you do speak, speak from your heart.  The Hebrew word for family, Mishpacha, comes from the word “to pour.”  Originally the reference was to blood, and family blood runs deep, but this is a time not to shed blood, heaven forbid, but to strategically spill your guts. Try to aim for a deeper conversation than last year’s discussion on all things Kardashian.  Remember that everyone is fearful these days - for all kinds of reasons.  We are all looking for support and genuine caring.
8)     Focus on the food (except for Aunt Sadie’s sponge cake).  Noshing is sacred.  There are some nice stories about food, like this Kabbalistic tale about the twelve hallot, one of my personal favorites. Download Hazon’s “Food for Thought” supplement and use some its excellent material at your table.  You will thank me. 
9)     Have the new Hamilton Mixtape handy, or just pass around the lyrics.  If you are looking for a Jewish slant, play this mash up of the Schuyler sisters as Tevya’s daughters. If things start to get tense at the table, just increase the volume.  Much better than escaping to the Lions v. Vikings in the other room.
10) And of course, count your blessings by actually reciting blessings, including the Motzi to start the meal and Birkat Hamazon to end it.  Here’s a short form, and here’s the whole thing.  Read about the 100 blessings Jews traditionally recite each day or look at 100 new blessings composed by the TBE Confirmation Class back in 1993.  Or, best of all, just look around the table at all the people who, despite themselves sometimes, have loved you through the course of your life.  Before the Alzheimer’s kicked in, or the Jewish Guilt, or adolescence, or that one horrible, un-take-back-able thing that was said.  Look around and realize how lucky you are to be alive right now.  These are interesting times that have chosen us. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we are here.  To echo Eliza“The fact that we’re alive is a miracle - just stay alive, that would be enough.” Abraham Joshua Heschel begs to differ, opening a dialogue that we should pursue: He wrote the following in "No Religion is an Island," (to complete the quote I excerpted in #3):
Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.
Yes, with apologies to Eliza, to stay alive would not be enough. it’s not just about survival alone.  It’s about living an exalted life, a holy life, a moral life, a good life. Now more than ever, we are thankful for the ability that each of us possesses to nudge the world ever so slightly in that direction.  And we are thankful for the people who will join us on that quest. 
And I am thankful for all of you.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman