A Safe Space for Me

Kol Nidrei Speech by congregant Seth “Shais” St. Martin


Shais St.Martin and his wife Susan.

My parents always told me, that “Religion is not for children.” It is something that, when done right, is fluid and nuanced. It can be dangerous when over simplified by a child or by an adult. Now, don’t get me wrong. I grew up in the church. I was an altar boy when I was 7 and thrown into the car naked on multiple occasions when running late for church. “Get dressed on the way”, my mother would scold. “We are not going to be late. And put on your seatbelt.“ But even with regular church attendance, I never had religion pushed on me. My parents found the right community, filled with gentle people who let their lives stand as testaments to their beliefs. I remember no dogma, and no judgment. My parents created a safe space for me to be introduced to faith and ritual and I don’t really have any baggage about religion from my childhood. For that, I am grateful.

But the church wasn’t for me. As I got older and learned what Christian beliefs were, I knew I couldn’t stay. Luckily, I had the unconditional love of my family and my community. And they created a safe space for me to leave.

At the age of 17, I began to learn about Judaism. I read the book “Basic Judaism”, by Milton Steinberg. I remember this as truly a dry and dated text, but the ideas inside were exhilarating. For me, it was a window into a worldview that matched my own. I asked my mother to take me to a synagogue and soon looked into conversion. The twist in my conversion story, however, is that my maternal grandmother happened to be Jewish and that I, according to Jewish Law, was already Jewish. Nonetheless, my Rabbi at the time, recommended conversion as it was the best program to teach me how to be Jewish. It made sense at the time, but I soon moved away and never finished that conversion program.   Over the next four years, I spent my days exploring the worlds of reform, conservative and orthodox Judaism. I regularly davened with hippie mystics with piercings and uptight chasids with long beards and black hats. I started and dropped out of several conversion programs because I just couldn’t find a safe place where I could be confident I my own skin. I was always insecure about my place in the Jewish world.

I couldn’t be a good born Jew because I had no cultural memory or identity to draw upon…and I couldn’t be a good convert as I wasn’t really willing to accept blindly all of the theological and legal tenets placed in front of me. There just was no safe place for me to be myself and feel Jewish at the same time.

I found my safe place, however, when I received a great big bear hug from a tall, skinny Chasid with a thick Brittish accent. Rabbi Kaye was the first Rabbi I had ever met who made me feel like he truly cared about me. He made his time with me a priority and he would drop anything to do Jewish things with me, whether study or practice. He was enthusiastic to the point of ridiculousness, and he helped me learn to create my own safe space for Judaism wherever I went. If you have spoken with me before about my relationship with Judaism, I am sure you have heard me quote Rabbi Kaye. And I won’t even try to do his accent. “Don’t let the things that you don’t do, stop you from doing the things that you should do,” he said to me one day. “I don’t care about the parts of your life where you don’t do Jewish things. I just care about supporting you when you do Jewish things.“ He told me these words after he handed me a kippah and invited me to wear it around the UC Berkeley campus for a day. I had some serious reservations with this proposal at the time. Who was I to wear a kippah. I didn’t keep kosher. I wasn’t shomer shabbos. I had serious theological differences with orthodoxy in general. I was worried about what this symbol would mean to non-Jews. And I was even more worried about what this symbol would mean to Jews. But Rabbi Kaye didn’t care about those things…He didn’t judge me for how I practiced my Judaism and he didn’t judge me for my fears and concerns about wearing a kippah in public   He just wanted me to be proud of my Judaism. And he wanted me to experience something new. He wanted me to explore this part of our shared tradition and see if it touched me…to see if I could find meaning and value in it. And so wore the kippah, and it was transformative. It was a reminder that I am a Jew and, though I shouldn’t worry about living up to other people’s expectations of what that meant, I should live up to my expectations of what that meant. I was reminded of my obligation to live up to my highest ideal. And my journey was about trying to figure out what that highest ideal was. A large part of the reason I wear a kippah today came from this encounter.

At the age of 21, I asked Rabbi Kaye about conversion. He said not to worry about it, gave me a big hug and told me that I was as already a perfectly authentic Jew. I just needed to catch up on some rituals… so. He scheduled a visit to the mikvah. I picked my Hebrew name. And I had an intimate encounter with a spring loaded needle. Though I was born a Jew, this was the day I completed my conversion.

My years studying with Rabbi Kaye instilled in me a delight of learning Jewish ideas and trying Jewish rituals. I found a teacher that gave me the freedom to love my Jewish self, regardless of what ideas rang true to me…regardless of what rituals I felt like incorporating into my life. I just had to keep trying new things. And I had to keep trying old things in case I was new. My experience with Rabbi Kaye gave me the confidence to create my own safe space to explore Judaism on my terms, wherever I went, as long as I never stopped exploring.


But in time, it wasn’t just about creating a safe space for me. I needed to create a safe space for others. In 2008,  Susan and I got married. Susan was raised Catholic and her Christianity is a very important part of her identity. Most interfaith couples I have met, seem to bridge their differences by one or both partners distancing themselves from their respective traditions. For Susan and me, however, we knew that we would have to find a home within in eachother’s traditions. We needed to find communities that focused on creating safe spaces for us to be together and be ourselves. About a year after our wedding, we were lucky to find All Saints’ Episcopal Church where we attend Mass weekly. To my knowledge, I am the first open non-christian, actively practicing another religion, to be welcomed in as a full member of an Episcopalian parish. Bishop Marc wrote a brand-new ceremony of welcoming for me, a Jew, into his community. And believe it or not, it is a place where I constantly find myself challenged and inspired to become a better person and a better Jew.

Shais St.Martin

Shais (Seth) St.Martin while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah at B’nai Emunah on Dec 15, 2012.

Shortly after this, we found Congregation B’nai Emunah. We were welcomed by this community from the moment we walked in the door. Like the community of my childhood, there was no dogma and there was no judgment. Rabbi Mark truly made me feel like he cared about me.   Chaya Roberts made me and my family a priority. Sharon Bleviss would drop anything to do Jewish things with you and help you create a Jewish space. B’nai Emunah was and is a safe space for me to do Jewish things. It is a safe space for my Christian wife to do Jewish things. It is a safe space for our son, Jomar to do Jewish things. It didn’t take long for me to feel that this was my community. I felt overwhelming gratitude and an obligation to maintain it as a safe space for others in need. As I had no treasure to donate, it was time and talent that I could give to my community. I joined the board a year after walking through the door. I helped to create new programming that brought Judaism to young adults where they were…in the bars. And I participated in the first Adult B’nai Mitzvah class, finally becoming a man at 31. I felt privileged to work in front of and behind the camera, as it were, sustaining the safe space that is B’nai Emunah.

When I was new to B’nai Emunah, I had a conversation with Gregg Jackson about my career as a geologist. Gregg told me that, if I didn’t like what I was doing for a living, that I should quit and go find something that I was passionate about. It was annoying advice at the time, but I never forgot our conversation. I never forgot how zealous he was about the need to follow one’s passions. Five years later, I took that advice and became your administrator here at Congregation B’nai Emunah. Thank you Gregg. It was good advice. In my new role at B’nai Emunah, I can dedicate myself to learning Jewish Ideas, trying Jewish rituals, and most importantly, sustaining this as a safe space for everyone to be Jewish, for years to come.
By Seth “Shais” St. Martin

Posted in Jewish Learning, Congregation News, Members Achievements, Interfaith Event, Yom Kippur | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Jewish Journey – Flori Green


Flori Green with her daughter Jennie Dahl, both longtime congregants.

Kol Nidrei Speech by congregant Flori Green

My Jewish Journey began the day I was born — in La Paz, Bolivia, to parents who were lucky enough to be one of last people to escape Nazi Germany in August 1939. Arriving in a country which they had not even heard of a few years before – with just basically the belongings they could carry, no money, and not speaking the language, they set out immediately to work, my father as a waiter in a casino/ restaurant run by Jews and my mother in a local night club as a hat-check girl. A few years later I arrived, much to my mother’s delight and my father’s dismay – not that he didn’t love me, but he had no idea how they were going to be able to raise a baby under the circumstances. It was not easy to raise a child when Dad worked most of the day and Mom worked till all hours of the night! Nevertheless we made it through with the help of our wonderful Austrian landlords who took care of me much of the time and who became life-long friends.

My father came from a very orthodox household – my mother, not quite so much. Keeping a truly observant home in La Paz under the conditions was a real challenge, but we went to synagogue as regularly as we could (mother and I sat in the balcony, while Dad sat downstairs); I went to the Jewish Day School; Eventually my parents opened a small hardware store which Mom ran while Dad kept working, now at an upscale restaurant.

Jews were not very popular in Bolivia, and the anti-semitism got worse and worse so that by 1953, with an affidavit from my mother’s brother who lived in Chicago, we were able to come to the United States. My mother, and two brothers were the only survivors out of a family of 13 children, plus countless aunts, uncles and cousins and of course her parents and my father’s parents.

We arrived in San Francisco in August, and in September with the High Holidays upon us, some friends who had come to San Francisco a few months before us invited us to join them for Rosh Hashanah services at a nice little German speaking shul lead by Rabbi Dr. Kantorovski, of blessed memory, in a small hall on Page Street. Services and sermons were, of course in German! We participated regularly and once they got established, my parents joined B’nai Emunah and this has been our synagogue from then on. In 1960 I married my husband Jeff, and we continued to come to High Holiday services with my parents, even though the sermon was still given in German (of which Jeff understood not a word – he’s always been a good sport in that respect). About the time our daughters were of Sunday School age Rabbi Ted Alexander replaced the ailing Rabbi Kantorowski, the sermons and meetings were now in English, and as soon as they were old enough, our daughters Vickie and Jennie came every week to Sunday and later Hebrew School. I became active in the then Parents Club (our version of a PTA) and before long was convinced to run for office and eventually became the group’s president, a post I held for about 5 years. That was my first experience with any leadership position – running a meeting and, to my horror, having to speak in public. The first time I gave a speech at that year’s confirmation – I think – Rabbi Ted Alexander who was sitting behind me told me later that he could see my knees shaking.

After a couple of years I was asked to join the board of directors, on which I served in a number of different positions, from head of the education and youth activities committee, to secretary, third vice president and assistant treasurer for over 25 years. Our daughter Jennie has been involved in our school for over 30 years, starting in the pre-school we once had, – a very active one in which children of all faiths were welcomed (we had more Asian children than Jewish ones,) and then in our Sunday school which she headed until our schools merger with Beth Israel Judea.

In 1996, when I was considering taking an early retirement from Prudential Insurance Company, as the company was going thru a so-called “restructuring”, Rabbi Ted mentioned to me casually at one Friday evening service that the shul secretary was leaving. I didn’t give it another thought, but on the way home my husband Jeff said to me: “Why don’t you apply? You have always wanted to work at a synagogue?” To make a long story short, I did apply and got the job! At that time most records were still kept in handwritten notebooks, all financial transactions were recorded in a notebook and then copied onto the relatively new computers. Most notices were typed on an aging typewriter with sticky keys. I was able to modernize the office, filing system and bookkeeping to a fair degree and after a couple of years was asked to be the administrator. I was thrilled! It gave me an opportunity to do not only paperwork, but to work more with people, which has always been what I like to do best. I loved the interaction with the congregants, many of whom I had known since childhood (which made it a bit challenging from time to time), but I also loved the fact that I knew every single member and felt that I could make a difference. I loved the 10 years I worked here.

I grew up in this synagogue, our children and grandchildren have grown up here. As a very young woman, having the opportunity to become active in the Parents Club and then the Board of Directors helped me grow tremendously as person, gave me confidence that I sorely lacked, and most importantly made me a better Jew. For all of that I am very grateful.

It is wonderful to see that the little synagogue founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors who had emigrated to Shanghai to get away from the Nazis, and that over the years many times was floundering, is thriving so greatly 65 years later. I said at the congregation’s 25th anniversary celebration 40 years ago, that we had finally “become a mensch” and had grown well beyond our expectations. Seeing our Congregation now as  an ever more growing, vibrant and active synagogue that is part of the fabric of synagogue life in San Francisco, I am glad and proud to have been part of it.

Shanah Tovah Tikutevu. May you all be inscribed for a good year!

Posted in Congregation News, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Learning, Short stories, Yom Kippur | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joy and the ‘Inside Out’ of the New Year

Sermon for Day 2 of Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Mark Melamut


For many of us the New Year is a mix of emotions.  It can be a swirl of anticipation, anxiety, awe, and expectation, a feeling as if we are being turned inside out or even upside down on our own Rosh, on our own heads, as another year passes and another begins.  In the mix for some may be sadness for loved ones lost along the way, as we think of them not being here to celebrate with us today.  Fear may be present, as we face our future or the great unknown.  Anger and frustration may also make their way to the forefront, as we reflect on the injustices of the past year.  I can only guess that these are just the tip of the iceberg, as each of our own internal drives is unique, forming together as a community an entire emotional galaxy.  But, where would we be without joy?  When we acknowledge what’s present for us on our insides, we let down our guard, our outsides become more visible and vulnerable, and then, we grow.  This is a crucial part of what happens on the inside, under the surface, so to speak, or in a spiritual dimension, as we plug our external drives or memory cards into the Rosh Hashanah experience.

It wasn’t the meltdown in the Dallas, Texas airport this summer with Geffen literally lying down at the busy entrance to the airport bathroom, throngs of eager passengers rushing by and needing to find immediate relief.  It wasn’t his child’s pose full body stretch out in that spot, really of all the places in an airport to lie down.  It wasn’t even my tossing Kinneret’s various balls of colored yarn across the top of the car in anger and frustration to the kids’ protest and refusal to buckle their seat belts after an afternoon of Boston heat (and a pleasant ride in the Swan Boats and a beer at Cheers to boot).   It wasn’t these that turned me inside out, but rather the Pixar movie of the same name.

Among our summer adventures and family time, note, we no longer call this vacation, because vacation implies relaxation, we always include a couple of family movies, both for the kids and for us to give us all a break.  Like many others I kind of saw the Pixar movie “Inside Out” this summer.  By kind of saw what I mean is that for our family to venture out to the movies really means that we all sit and munch popcorn, and I, because it’s just one of my many abba roles, get the popcorn refill when it’s needed (btw, the popcorn refill is the only way to really get your money’s worth at the movies).  I also take the kids to the bathroom when it’s appropriate.  I had seen enough of the movie between my four intermissions to learn it’s about a young family with an 11 year old daughter named Riley who picks up to move from Minnesota to San Francisco.  I saw enough to know that it’s something I could relate to on a few levels.  I saw enough to witness Hayley crying, to see other Moms’ and Dads’ tears, and to feel a certain tug on my kishkes, a butterfly flurry, or, as we say, flutterbyes in my insides.

It was enough to make me venture out again, one late night for a rare treat, a 9:45pm late showing of Inside, Out, and I had the theatre to myself.  Funny the way that themes come back, but I really enjoyed holding on to that family size gigantic bucket, bucket of popcorn that is, and not having to share it with anyone.  Was this selfish or just good self care?  Turns out I didn’t miss any of the movie this go around and didn’t even need to get up to refill the bucket.  You could say that in many ways my bucket was not just full but overflowing.  What was it about this movie’s smart and animated characterization of the brain’s emotions that we all share that was so moving?  Was there any connection to Jewish life?

Before I go any further, I want to let you inside of my head for just a moment. You don’t want to be there any longer than that; I’m a rabbi after all.  Suffice it to say that people seem to tell me all kinds of stuff.  Which, by the way, is one of the reason’s I love being a rabbi, really.  Whenever I see movies, they tend to end up being understood through some sort of Jewish lens.  It’s just hard to turn off.  To me, Jewish themes seem to be embedded in the very nature and fabric of the universe.  Is it just me?  Sometimes this can ruin a movie experience, because often I just want to sit back and enjoy a night “off.” And, sometimes it can enhance a movie, as I’m able to bring my life experience to the screen.  I’ve come to understand this as part occupational hazard, along with the ever present reality of food at every place, meeting, and gathering that a rabbi appears, but also part of mostly just being who I am.  This late night out at the movies was different though because I went back to the movie for the explicit purpose of seeing it for myself and mining it for its Jewish and emotional themes.  Back to the movie and its themes in a moment.  First, a couple of previews.

For those of you for whom this is your fiftieth Rosh Hashana in the congregation, welcome back to your High Holy days at B’nai Emunah.  For those who are newer, who’ve been a couple of times this year or for whom this is your first time, welcome to the community where we really do strive not just to know your name, but to know you and to honor your Jewish journey.  I want you to know that I’m here as your personal Rabbi in order to serve you and to partner with you along your Jewish path, wherever you’ve been, wherever you are now, and wherever you set your Jewish Waze or GPS.  As our pilots sometimes say, I know you have a choice and I thank you for flying with us into this New Year. Together with Cantor Linda, we both welcome you, as the big screen of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, now lies in front of each of us.  We invite you to sit back, relax and participate, and enjoy as well.

I’d like to take this moment to thank all of those who support the community.  Your names fill up the credits, literally, and we all credit you, as we couldn’t do any of this without your community support.  A special thank you goes to the entire board.  You provide strong leadership and eager dedication, and you sacrifice tons of personal time and energy to keep the credits rolling, to produce authentic Jewish community, and to make the magic happen!  A special thank you goes to Shais, who is not merely surviving but thriving in his first holiday season with us as our superstar administrator.

By the way, how many of you have been to the movie theatre by yourselves?  I mentioned doing this to my mom the other day and she said she had never done it before.  I took it for granted that this was something that many do, but come to find out it’s a little more uncommon than I had thought.  It’s dark, quiet other than the movie, a little lonely feeling, very deliberately not social, but relaxing and fun.  After all, as I mentioned, I have that bucket of popcorn all to myself, and it’s way more than I need.

With our previews over the movie finally begins.  The camera zooms in on Riley, an eleven year old who relocates with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco.  We are introduced to her from the inside out, as the cameras transport us into her mind to meet her five emotions.  These are represented by five animated characters:  joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger, which are not only Riley’s primary emotions but ours as well.  Along the way we learn that Riley’s brain, and all of ours, works in part by storing core memories which power our islands of personality.  These are the essential make up of who each of us is.  Riley’s islands, or personality composition, is comprised of enjoying being goofy and having fun, family, friendship, honesty, and hockey.  By extension each of us also has our own core memories that make us who we are as individuals, and collectively, the Jewish people.  Among us, our core memories include mishpacha/family, y’tziat mitzrayim/freedom from Egypt, food, music, humor, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the needy, and tikkun olam, just to name a few.

As Riley moves with her family to San Francisco, sadness begins to intrude and take over her world.  She leaves friends behind and misses her home and how things used to be.  Sadness interrupts her heretofore pretty happy life, and joy, the character who represents Riley’s most common emotion, gets upset.  Joy doesn’t like crying and sadness and draws a circle to try to isolate sadness from intruding and eroding the core memories of joy.  Sadness protests in a very wise way, saying, “but crying helps me slow down and not obsess over life’s problems.”  The inside of Riley’s brain is referred to by the emotional characters as HQ, headquarters, the local site and seat of all of our emotions.   To summarize, sadness begins to take over, and joy fights back to keep this from happening.

In a moment of deep truth we remember that at the core each of us as parents or grandparents, as loving partners and friends, we really just want for our loved ones and ourselves to be happy.  Sadness and joy go on a journey together and anger takes over.  As you can guess, without these two in the driver’s seat, and anger left in control, well, things don’t go so well.  Riley fights with her parents, steals from them, and eventually decides to run away.

Joy and, by extension, the audience, finally learn that sadness is a real part of life that can’t be cut off from life’s experience.  Even more than that, it is both sadness and joy together, sort of like two sides of a coin, that comprise life’s actually lived experience, rather than some sort of artificial smile.  For some, allowing sadness a seat at the table evokes tears.  For others, it’s the scrolling through of the bygone memories of childhood and life’s passing by so fast that brings us to tears.  Images and snapshots of life project on the screens of little life bubbles, some of which are stored and some of which disappear never to be accessible again.  On one end of the spectrum we watch as our kids and grandkids grow up so fast and on the other end we say goodbye to friends, colleagues and family.  What does this mean for us in practical terms today?  It means that it’s ok to tear up on Rosh Hashana and it’s ok to feel joy at Yom Kippur.  This is natural.  To try and make ourselves fit into a black and white box is to ignore the grey shades we call life.  At the movie’s conclusion, Riley is able to reveal her sadness to her parents about missing home and she says she thought that they didn’t want her to be sad. Then comes the family moment, the huddle together, as her parents acknowledge that they too miss home, and life as it was. And then, after a moment, we watch as Riley’s frown is turned upside down, and joy finally returns.

Tugging on my heart strings, beyond the family moments, is the statement that sadness and adversity are parts of life.  They are also a part and parcel of true joy.  Zooming inside out to Jewish life and ritual, doesn’t the ritual of a Jewish wedding make the same statement?  That is, as a bride and groom or groom and groom or bride and bride come together in sacred relationship and covenant, they enter into the holiest and joyous moments of life, yet, what happens at the end of every ceremony?  What ritual is included no matter what, at even the least traditional of Jewish weddings?  At the end of the wedding, we break a glass.  On this, the most joyous Jewish occasion, we don’t end with blessing or wine or even food.  Rather, we smash a glass into pieces.  Why?  In order to remember, to touch that core memory of a sacred place once destroyed and of the brokenness that still is part of the fabric of the reality of living in this world.  There are of course challenges to this, where joy prevents any intrusion, like with Shabbat and mourning for example.  Jewish law during a shiva period for the loss of life prohibits public mourning on Shabbat and requires the mourner to remain at home rather than intrude upon the oneg and joy of Shabbat.  Like joy in the movie, joy compartmentalizes sadness, drawing a circle or fence around it, to be acknowledged at another point in time.

At the end of the day, or should I say at the beginning of the year, we also aim to make our outside like our inside.  What does this mean?  It means that we make a renewed effort to pair them well together.  We aim for an integrated whole and achieve it by acting in a way that what we do is what we say and what we say is what we do.

Returning to the theme of joy, we can locate in our lives, as in the movie, joyous times that are both preceded and followed by moments of sadness.  I stand before you today in full joy of the New Year, even while remembering that at this time yesterday morning I was officiating at the funeral of a friend’s father who had a stroke and just two days before that I returned from a memorial of a friend who didn’t even make it to 40.  Our joy has to include our tears, because that is what is real in life.  Whether they’re tears of sadness, or longing for what was, or nostalgia, or loss, or memory, we just can’t go back.  In the song “The Circle Game” we sing “….we’re captured on a carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game.”  And it’s hard not to be able to go back… but that’s the very same place from which something is created anew on Rosh Hashana, the very same place from which joy will be able to flow.  It is a mitzvah to be in a state of joy.  We say “mitzvah g’dolah lihiyot b’simcha!”  It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to be in a state of joy.  But, this isn’t “an ignorance is bliss” kind of joy.  Rather, it is a joy that confronts and even integrates into its tapestry all of the threads of life. Even the word “joy” has this complexity built into it.  Think about it for a moment.  Just delete the “J.” It’s as if any Jewish expression of joy has to be comprised of some oy.

Where do we see this played out but in the drama of Shabbat ritual, as we all huddle in together in the Shabbat Torah service each and every week of our lives, and in the Torah service of our holidays.  If we zoom in to the end of the Torah service, where we literally just were, we find the phrase we sing so beautifully as we return the Torah to the ark, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva hadeish yameinu k’kedem.”  Return us, O G-d, to You, and we will return.  Renew our lives as they were before, or renew our lives as they used to be, or renew our lives as in days of old.  On this theme of teshuva and return, we’ll return, next week at Yom Kippur.  For now, if we just skip two lines back in that same liturgy, in that same ritual of returning the Torah to the ark, we find the phrase we need for today.  We find today’s Rosh Hashanah crackerjack prize.  [magnet handout]

When we sing etz hayim hi, we are comparing the Torah to a tree of life, and saying, “climb on my branches, taste my fruits, see the world, even build your home here.”  Life flows here with a golden honey-like a sap that is just waiting to be enjoyed.  Its melody is a blend of emotions, like the emotions we spoke of today.  We sing that “It is not only a Source of Life but a Source of Joy,” a place of m’ushar, connected to the Hebrew word, “osher,” or the familiar, “ashrei,” happiness or joy.  How do we get It?  How can we find that happiness or place of joy?  What does It look like?  It is a joy that is colored by the experience of life, literally rooted in the very nature of being that is planted in our existence, and we find it by simply connecting to It.  We plug into It, we study It, and like our mobile devices, our spiritual batteries run low if we don’t plug in.  How do we know if we got It?  We simply feel It in our hearts and we experience Its full range of emotions.  Sung together as a community, there is nothing like It and no replacement or alternative social media that connects like It does.  Practice It at home and along your way, b’shivtecha b’veitecha uvlechtecha vaderech, when you’re inside and when you’re out, when you’re at home and when you’re out and about, meet up and connect with this powerful Jewish mantra.  Add Its magnet to your fridge, car door or anything it will stick to, just as long as you see it and remember that no matter what, It is a source of life and joy.

Tradition teaches us that life is so busy and goes by so fast that, like anything we care about, we have to make the time for It.  We have to make our time to connect, to study, to engage, we have to make it a fixed time, otherwise it just doesn’t happen.  Someone wiser than me said, “life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.”  This Rosh Hashanah I invite you to place in your and your family’s core memory the notion that we are partners in the motion of making It a tree of life.  Just as we need It for sustenance and joy, It, being the Torah and anything we hold sacred and important in this one shot at life, It needs us, for Its vitality.

It is a source of life and joy not by accident but by design, and all we need to do to connect to It, is to plug in, to plug into the flow and to connect to the wifi of life, the lifi, if you will. The password is out.  You hold it in your hands and it’s already inside each and every one of us.  From the outside in and the inside out, Rosh Hashana is our invitation.  So, go ahead, grab on to a branch, pluck a fruit, and dance around the trunk.  Climb up into its canopy for some perspective or to gaze upon the eternal horizon.  Mourn with It by your side and meditate upon Its meaning. Celebrate your simcha and sing in Its shade, grieve under Its growth, and play and pray under Its leaves.  Root yourself firmly in the reality of being, and grow and flow into the life force that animates the universe and gives vitality to everything.  I promise you, if you reach out for It now, at the beginning of our New Year, you will find not just a Tree but a beautiful and complete forest full of true and complete Joy!

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Buckets Full

Sermon by Rabbi Mark Melamut on Rosh Hashanah

There was once a King who had an only child, the apple of his eye. The King wanted his child to master different fields of knowledge and to experience various cultures, so he sent the child off into the world to do some traveling, supplied with a generous quantity of silver and gold. Far, far away from home, the child squandered all the money until nothing was left. In distress the child resolved to return to his Father’s home and after much difficulty managed to arrive at the gate of the courtyard of the palace. Given the passage of time he had forgotten the language of the native country and was unable to identify himself to the guards. In utter despair the child cried out in a loud voice and though much time had passed the King recognized his voice. The King left the throne to be reunited with his dear one. Bringing his child back home, he held onto him tightly, hugging and kissing him with all of his heart. (“Cry of the Prince” by the Baal Shem Tov) Tears of reunion and happiness streamed from their eyes, as the King whispered, “Welcome home my child. Welcome home.”

We are the children of a divine mother/father/holy one, and each of us is literally the apple of G-d’s eye. If you haven’t thought of yourself in this way, then know that on Rosh Hashanah it is true. Perhaps it’s even a secret reason behind eating apples and honey rather than any other fruit. G-d wants us to experience the world, to become knowledgeable about it, its diverse cultures and people, as well as about science, literature, nature, and every other subject. The world is our laboratory and every single thing in it is of importance. Ok, it also helps to have a little jingle of silver and gold in our pocket, some parnassah, or honored way to simply make a living, too. As the apple of G-d’s eye, we’ve been gone for a year, wondering and wandering around, perhaps lost in mission or purpose, having strayed from goals we set, or remaining too firmly on paths of habits that made us stray farther and farther from home. In the story nothing is left to the child having depleted his resources. I think we refer to this today as the boomerang generation. This is when we first hear the word, perhaps the most important word for this time of year, the word “return.”

The child, as do we, begins to return, to make the journey back, back to G-d, back to our family, back to our friends, back to ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah we arrive at the gate or the courtyard, sitting in our seats here in the sanctuary, having gone through another year of experience on this earth. We may be elated or sad, depleted or full, richer or poorer, loved or isolated, full of fear or swelling with courage, or some combination of all of the above. Like the child we may have forgotten the language – of prayer, of love, of Jewish life and ritual – and our identities may be in need of dusting off or polishing up. And so, we all cry out, in song and in prayer and then even more over the next couple of days with the wail of the shofar. No matter what and where we’ve been, and what we’ve done, we begin to fall into the embrace of a deep hug, not a one shoulder open hug, but a full hearted bear hug, with a kiss and an intimate embrace from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, You Know Who, the Holy One who is Blessed! G-d recognizes each and every one of our voices, gets up out of that Holy Seat on High, opens the door, and says, “Welcome home.” And, so, the New Year is a time to celebrate!

As we open the Book of Life together this Rosh Hashanah, I begin with a simple question. Isn’t it true that life is essentially a story that each of us lives out chapter by chapter? We hope no one judges us by our covers, and we do our best to make for interesting reading and hopefully a nice ending. Some of our lives are real page turners and some are a little slower with very deliberate plot lines. Some are more fiction-like, more or less funny or serious, and some like a fascinating biography. Regardless, we each begin a new chapter in our lives this evening as we welcome in the New Year. Though our prayer books are filled with words written by others, we stare this evening at the blank page that is waiting to be filled in as we begin this new chapter of our lives. If we pause for a moment, what chapter title can you think of for this, your next and newest chapter?

As we begin this new chapter we settle in with a special and prescribed nosh. This is not a salty bag of chips or even a nice chocolate bar, though those would be nice. Rather, we begin with a round challah and the sweet/tart combination of crunchy apples and golden honey. While we keep food away from our books, our Kindles and our computers, we go ahead and get a little messy with these New Year treats, as if to acknowledge that, of course, life is also tart and sweet, sticky, and messy. Beyond the savory/sweet dichotomy of the rest of the year, Rosh Hashanah’s celebration and themes transport us to the core, to the center of life’s core, and to what really matters.

With our lives an open book, our hands sticky and gooey, our mouths full, and our hearts full from a year past, what else can we say, other than, Welcome! Welcome everyone.

Beyond celebration, the New Year is also a time to reflect, refine, retool, and renew our commitment to better living! Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the bookends to the Aseret y’maei tshuva, the ten days of returning and turning, realigning and reorienting ourselves. At Rosh Hashana we begin to make a turn and these couple of days put the brakes on in our daily lives in order to allow us to successfully make the turn. Rosh Hashanah puts us in the position to make a change but it doesn’t just happen on its own. Rather, it empowers us to, how does the saying go, to be the change we want to be, or as Andrew put it so well for us last year, “Stretch; don’t kvetch.”

There are buckets full of ways to do this. I’m guessing many of us may try new techniques here and there and likely return to ones that are either more or less helpful based on our life experience. Change is not a “one size fits all” and has to be individualized and sized right. For me, the more front and center I place the changes I want to make in my daily life, the more likely I’ll at least think about the behavior modification that I’m aiming for. Doing it, of course, is another story.

This brings us to the one word I’d like to highlight this evening, “Buckets.” It’s a wonderful word with lots of associations – there’s the game kick the bucket, or the phrase kick the bucket down the road, symbolizing our putting things off and procrastinating. Of course there’s kick the bucket in the sense of “thank G-d I’m still here and didn’t kick the bucket yet!” There’s making a bucket list, signifying the things we still want to do in our life that we haven’t yet done. Rosh Hashanah can be a good time to create, update, and even meditate upon this list.

But, I’m actually thinking of two other specific buckets, two images and ideas which represent different approaches to allowing this Rosh Hashanah to be a real touchstone or catalyst for bettering ourselves in the New Year. Here’s the first bucket. You’ll remember I’m sure this phenomenon from last summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s been picked up again this year with the hashtag #EVERYAUGUSTUNTILACURE. It is of course sponsored by the ALS Association, which raises funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known also as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I recently watched the “how to” take the ice bucket challenge video and was entertained and inspired. Whether or not we give to ALS, it is the idea of the challenge and some of the wording which got me thinking of its application for us at Rosh Hashanah. Giving to a good cause of your choice is of course a meaningful way to begin the New Year, but I was intrigued by the video’s instructions for taking the challenge. Perhaps they are also instructive and relevant as a Rosh Hashanah message.

Written in a kind of Jewish way the title of the video is: So you want to take the ALS ice bucket challenge – a helpful how to guide for the ice bucket challenged.

The how to video includes 4 easy steps which I’ve adapted for this evening’s purpose:

1. ACCEPT: Accept the challenge; you will need frozen water, liquid water, a bucket and of course, courage.
2. RECORD: Take a video of yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head to increase awareness of ALS; you may also wish to gather family and friends so they can laugh at you in person.

An addition is included for those sensitive to the current environmental challenge. What if I live in a drought area, should I still take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Yes! Here are some ideas for how you can still participate in the #ALSIceBucketChallenge if you live in a drought area: Take the challenge in an existing body of water (lake or ocean, for example); be creative and fill your bucket with an alternate substance like spare buttons, kale or good karma; or, bypass the first few steps of the challenge and just make a donation to support the ALS community.

3. UPLOAD: Upload your video to social media, tagging/challenging at least three of your friends to take the challenge

4. Finally, if no one has challenged you yet, then consider yourself challenged.

The video ends with the question, “What are you waiting for?”
Here’s my application to this eve – Rosh Hashanah is the great ice bucket challenge that occurs every year into perpetuity, hashtag #EVERYYEARUNTILWELLUNTILFOREVER. What are the challenges facing us this year? What was dumped on us last year and what will be dumped on us this year? Do we accept the challenges of the year to come? As the saying goes “it is what it is” but, whatever it is going to be, we’ll need buckets of patience, love, and of course, as noted, courage. Just like the actual dumping is recorded, all that we do is said to be recorded in the great book of life, in the Rosh Hashanah ledger if you will. And, like in the challenge, it is essential that we gather friends, family and community for the purpose of laughter and support. Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year” is like the bucket being dumped on our heads, in order to wake us up to life and to raise awareness about better living. So, as in the final step, consider yourself challenged. “What are we waiting for?” Rosh Hashanah’s message is that we can’t wait. Tomorrow and the next day and the next may be too late.

As for the second and aforementioned bucket, it’s not one full of frozen water to be dumped over our heads, but rather an imaginative platform for us to use as we relate to our friends and family, ourselves, and all of those whom we encounter on a day to day basis as human beings. Here we encounter a different question. Not what are we waiting for, but how full is your bucket? Here’s how it works. Put together by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton in their book “How Full is Your Bucket?” and applicable to personal, business and really all relationships. The theory is that each of us has our own personal and invisible bucket that floats above our head. Go ahead and take a moment to see if you can picture your bucket and then take a look around to picture your neighbor’s bucket. And now imagine the whole sanctuary full of these buckets.

When our buckets are full we feel great and when they are depleted we feel badly. Each time we don’t act in accord with kindness, sensitivity, or positive thoughts, drops slowly drip from our buckets and from those with whom we relate. And the opposite holds true as well. When we treat others well drops of water plink into our buckets and the buckets of those with whom we interact. You know how it goes, some days our buckets feel more empty and some days they’re more full. This week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and further into the year, the challenge is to think and act in a way that works to fill all of our buckets rather than depleting them. Whether it’s mitzvot like tzedaka, welcoming visitors, tikkun olam, comforting the sick or participating in prayer and ritual life, we can all benefit from considering on a daily basis how to fill our buckets and the buckets of those around us. What better time of year than now to ask ourselves, “How full is our bucket?”

In closing, we are all now well equipped to walk into the year with two buckets. One is full of ice water, virtually dumped upon us at the rosh, the head of the year, while the other floats invisibly above our rosh, above our heads. I invite us to not wait any longer, to commit to taking the Rosh Hashanah challenge for life betterment. To spend some time considering how full our buckets really are. To ask what it is that we can do or say and how we can behave in order to keep our collective buckets as full as possible. This leaves us then with just one question.
“Are you ready to take the challenge?”

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Southside Jewish Collaborative Co-Sponsors Rosh HaShanah Senior Luncheon with JFCS

Ruth & Steve 2

Ruth Mcginnis and Steve Spector dancing at senior luncheon


Noam Eisen entertaining with volunteer Bonnie Lindauer on tambourine.

Several members from the Tikkun Olam Committee of the Southside Jewish Collaborative participated at the September 11th luncheon at the San Francisco Jewish Family and Children’s Services.  The Collaborative co-sponsored this holiday luncheon by providing the food and volunteer staff to serve and visit with the seniors who attended.  Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of Congregation Beth Israel Judea coordinated the planning with Rabbi Isaacson of the JFCS.

Southside Jewish Collaborative members who participated are Lori Ganz and Steven Roditti (Beth Israel Judea), Al Sion and Ruth Mcginnis (Or Shalom), Steve Spector (Ner Tamid) and Bonnie Lindauer (B’nai Emunah).

As the two photos illustrate, the seniors enjoyed the entertainment by Noam Eisen on keyboard and vocals with some of the volunteers dancing and playing tambourine before the food was served.  About 50 seniors attended and each one took home a Rosh Hashanah gift bag with honey cake, apple, honey, chocolate and teas.  It was a very festive and enjoyable event.  Many thanks to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco for hosting and organizing these regular senior luncheons.

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Southside Jewish Collaborative Participates in Work Day to Repaint St. Paul’s Tabernacle Church


Pastor Valentine and volunteers from Southside Jewish Collaborative, Or Shalom and Jewish Voice for Peace

On August 28th unknown vandals broke into and defaced with yellow paint and hateful words St. Paul’s Baptist Tabernacle Church in the Bayview neighborhood.  Racial and homophobic epithets — along with satanic references — were sprayed along the walls of the church’s sanctuary and the pastor’s office, with some appearing on an exterior wall as well.

The San Francisco Interfaith Council is collaborating with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Islamic Network Group to offer support to St. Paul’s.  In addition to online donations, members of the Southside Jewish Collaborative (Bonnie Lindauer) and members from Or Shalom (Elliot Helman and Board president Jurate Raulinaitis.) and others participated in a work group to clean up and repaint September 12th.  As Elliot wrote in a recent email:  “There was a huge turnout from the community and folks at the church kept saying how overwhelmed they were with gratitude for all the help they received today. The Pastor made a point of thanking us for being there, wished us a happy Rosh Hashanah and then asked to take the picture you see here. I can’t imagine a better way to enter into these ‘days of awe’ than by praying with our… brooms, paint brushes, and work gloves.”

 JVP & Southside Jewish  Collaborative members shown here (Penny Rosenwasser, Laura Bressler, Dave Spero, Bonnie Lindauer, and myself) with the senior Pastor, William Greg Valentine, his wife, and the church deaconess. Also representing, but unfortunately not in the picture, was Or Shalom board president, Jurate Raulinaitis.

 Donations for replacement of damaged pews and other items can be made at Action Alert https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/we-stand-with-st-pauls-tabernacle-baptist-church

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New Years greeting from Rabbi Mark

By Rabbi Mark Melamut

Shalom Friends,

I’d like to share a story with you about a child of a certain Rabbi who used to wander into the woods. At first the father let the child wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous and he didn’t know what lurked there.  He decided to discuss the matter with his child.  “You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?”  The child replied, “I go there to find G-d.”  “That’s a very good thing,” the father answered gently. “I’m glad you are searching for G-d.  But, don’t you know that G-d is the same everywhere?”  “Yes,” the child said, “but I’m not.”

It’s that time of year again when we prepare to greet our Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe and the New Year 5776.  We pause at this time of year to celebrate, pray, hear the shofar, sing, fast, toss our crumbs into the ocean, nosh on apples and honey and reflect.  While the days of the Jewish calendar are the same each and every year, in many ways, we are not.  Just as the child in the story acknowledges, we aren’t the same as we were last year because life has changed us.  What are the changes we’ve endured, undergone and celebrated since last Rosh Hashanah?  Have we accomplished the goals we set?  What has occurred in our work, family and personal lives since we were last at this meaningful crossroad in Jewish time?

For some of us life simply flies by, while for others time moves at a much slower pace.  My kids asked me on our recent vacation flight to Newport for a family wedding, “Why is it that when we look out the window the plane seems like it is moving slowly?  Isn’t it flying really fast?  Are we moving slow or fast?”  True, when I tapped the touch screen in front of me it reported that we were moving at a clip of 493 mph, yet out the window it looked like we were just gliding along slowly above the puffy clouds.  Rather than providing my kids with a scientific answer in that moment (which I admit I’d need to google later), I simply answered their question of slow or fast, saying, “Yes.”  Isn’t that how life sometimes feels though, moving simultaneously full speed ahead, yet somehow slowly as well.

The holiday liturgy gets this feeling just as we do.  That’s why we say word after word (after word, after word, as these are the longest services of the year after all).  Since this is the nature of life, one of our tasks is to make the most of it that we possibly can.  After all, the ultimate purpose of the great trifecta of “tshuva, tfillah and tzedaka/change, prayer and charity” is to get us to slow down, be introspective, and make change, all in order to better appreciate our lives.  This central mantra is about living and bettering life.  What better way to do this than to gather together as a community in order to support, accompany, celebrate and enjoy each other’s company along the way.

When we walk together into the “woods” to greet the New Year, we acknowledge what has changed, for better or worse, and we simultaneously prepare ourselves for what is to come.  So, grab your walking stick, any provisions you may need and a loved one or friend, and let’s saunter together along the path of life’s new year.

N’siyah tova/A good and meaning-full journey for all of us,

Rabbi Mark

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