Bar Mitzvah Drash about Hayei Sarah

This drash was given  November 7, 2015  by Sebastian Middle


Congregant Sebastian Middle at his bar mitzvah

Sebastian Middle reading from the Torah scroll for his bar mitzvah November 7, 2015.

My Torah portion is called “Hayei Sarah” or “Life of Sarah” but it is really about Sarah’s death and Abraham’s bloodline. In our story, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies; he goes on a journey to find a suitable burial place and finds a cave amongst the Hittites. They offer him the cave for free but he insists that he buys it. He buries Sarah there and goes home.

Once home, he asks his servant to swear to him that he will take his son Isaac back to his homeland and find him a wife from there. He would know who the wife was because she would offer both him and his camel drink from her water vase. If he didn’t find him a wife there, then he was clear of his deal and didn’t have to do anything else.

The servant finds a beautiful wife for Isaac from his homeland named Rebecca. The next morning, they embark on the journey back to Abraham so they can marry. Once Rebecca sees Isaac, it is described as love at first sight and some say she literally fell off her camel when she saw him.  Isaac finds comfort in his wife’s companionship after his mother’s death.  Abraham breathes his last breath and is buried alongside Sarah, as his both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, show up to be by their dad’s side.

My interpretation is that the Torah is teaching us that the death of our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah, is hugely significant.  That is why the Torah spends so much time on the details of the matter of the funeral and acquisition of the property.  This matters because they were the founders of the Jewish religion.  Instead of taking the property for free, as was offered to him, Abraham shows that he is noble and generous.  Plus, if he pays for it, then there are no strings attached.  As our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah are role models for all of us, emphasizing generosity and love and care.

My opinion is that Abraham, as a father, like all parents, wants what is best for his son.  He also wants him to stay within the heritage, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, and thus take a wife that is suitable for him in order to pass along his family’s culture and beliefs. Isaac and Rebecca are also important role models for us because they were upstanding pioneers of the Jewish religion.

I have a role model in my family, and it is my Papa, who is here today.  I was sitting with him at my uncles’ house in Michigan, and he was telling me about how important a Bar Mitzvah is and how it is the passage into adulthood in the Jewish religion and how I should be proud to be Jewish. He is a large part of my inspiration for having my Bar Mitzvah.  I admire his wisdom, his views on the world and that he volunteers at the Holocaust Museum.  He, like Abraham, has taught me to be proud of my heritage.  I want to be like him.

Becoming a Bar Mitzvah to me means becoming a man in the eyes of my people and my culture. It is a very special thing that I’ve been studying for and am excited to accomplish. I’m following in the footsteps of my ancestors, doing what they did, and adding my own footprint to our heritage.  It also means learning to express myself in relation to Judaism’s three pillars of G-d, Torah and Israel.

I believe that the Torah is a very important and beautiful piece of the Jewish culture and history and a symbol of resilience. My views on G-d are that I have some questions about G-d.  What is G-d?  Does G-d really exist?  How do I know?  The closest I can get to this is that G-d is something in each of us that we can feel. I believe in the Jewish culture and heritage, and I believe that religion is a very important thing in our society that has been something for people to believe in and to hold on to when there was nothing else.

Becoming a Bar Mitzvah also means accepting more responsibilities for the Jewish people, human beings, animals, and the planet.  My responsibility to the Jewish people is to be proud of my religion and abide by the Jewish rules, be a good Jew and a good role model/representative of my culture. My responsibilities to human beings are to treat everyone with an equal amount of respect and compassion, to treat others how I want to be treated, and help those in need. My responsibilities to animals are the same as mine to human beings; they are a vital part in our ecosystem and deserve love and respect just as any human should. My responsibilities for my planet are to take care of it and all it provides for me because we are nothing without it.

I’ve had a few challenges along this path. The most challenging issues have been learning and memorizing trope and leading prayers, but at the same time all the work I’ve put into it is paying off and today, it feels really good!

Two days from now, November 9th, is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis in Germany burned synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and businesses in 1938. There is a Torah in the ark behind me that Rabbi Ted bravely saved from a burning synagogue in Berlin. Many Jews left Europe then, including Rabbi Ted, and went to Shanghai, China, where they didn’t need a visa. In1949, a group of these German-speaking Jews came to San Francisco and founded B’nai Emunah. Today, I am celebrating my Bar Mitzvah with Rabbi Ted on his 95th birthday and am honored to do so.

I have a few thank you’s to share today. I’d like to thank Sima for help in Hebrew, Rabbi Mark for working with me on my talk and asking me lots of questions, Sharon for spending hours and hours with me on preparing me for today, Gab my Hebrew teacher from last year, my parents for everything, my sisters Anya and Sasha for being here, my dog Ace, well, because he’s my dog, and all of my relatives and friends for being here today to celebrate with me.

Shabbat shalom


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The Last Jew of Chmielnik

Gabriele Lange:

This reblog is the amazing and touching journey to discover family roots from a cousin of BE member Jason Etzkin.

Originally posted on Summer of the Great Apes:

Chmielnik Poland. I’d say it’s as ‘middle of nowhere’ as it gets…but actually Sladkow Maly deserves the crown of that title. Sladkow, where my paternal grandmother was born, lies about 2 km south of Chmielnik, which is about 30 km south of Kielce, which is itself only about 115 km outside of Krakow. Like I said—middle of NOWHERE.

Welcome to sunny Sladkow Maly! Welcome to sunny Sladkow Maly!

And this is where my father and I headed to learn about my Bubbie and hopefully obtain copies of her birth certificate from the regional office in Chmielnik.

Sladkow Maly itself was almost farcical. It’s on the map. You can see it on Google Earth. It’s about three blocks long, a bunch of nice rural houses and nothing more. But once, once my grandmother and her family ran a mill there that served both the Jewish and Gentile communities.

That's all, folks That’s all, folks


Before WWII, Chmielnik was…

View original 1,481 more words

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Shabbat Symposium XXI: An Introduction to Karaite Judaism

B’nai Emunah was fortunate enough to host a guest speaker from our local Karaite community this past Shabbat. Shawn Joe Lichaa, lawyer, blogger and educator, spoke about Karaite practices (blue tzitzit and cheeseburgers are in, shwarma and wine during Passover are out), beliefs and history to a packed hall full of curious learners eager to hear about a branch of Judaism not often discussed.

Everyone present commented on how much they enjoyed Shawn’s presentation. It was fascinating to learn about a “parallel” Judaism that most Jews know little to nothing about, and Shawn did a great job of answering questions and explaining the Karaite perspective on a wide variety of topics. We hope to have Shawn and other members of B’nai Israel visit us again soon!

Do *you* have a topic you’d like to learn about or teach to others? Get in touch and let us know!

B’nai Emunah believes all members of the community have something to teach each other. One way of putting this into practice is through our Shabbat Symposium program, a rotating adult education opportunity happening every fourth Saturday following morning services. Each class is led by a knowledgeable community volunteer on a topic of their choice. From holidays to history to religious studies, Shabbat Symposium is a fun chance to learn something new from fellow CBE members. Join us for engaged learning and enthusiastic discussion!

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Bar Mitzvah Drash about Lekh L’kha

This drash was given  October 24, 2015  by Joshua Edwards

Joshua holding Torah scroll for the first time

Joshua Edwards during his bar mitzvah, October 24, 2015.

Lekh L’kha starts when G-d tells 75 year old Abram (not Abraham yet),
“I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth, Shall bless themselves by you.”
Abram takes his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and leaves for Canaan. Along the way they pass through Egypt. Because Sarai is beautiful, Abram pretends that he is her brother. He thinks this will reduce the risk that Pharaoh or others will kill him to take Sarai. The pharaoh does indeed take Sarai without killing him, however the Lord then punishes the pharaoh with plagues. The pharaoh becomes angry with Abram when the Pharaoh realizes Abram has not been truthful.
Back in the land of Canaan, conflict arises between the cattle shepherds of Abram and Lot. Abram fixes the problem by graciously telling Lot, “Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate. If you go north, I will go south; if you go south, I will go north.” They separate, with Lot taking the fertile plain of the Jordan. G-d then tells Abram “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are. To the north and south, to the east and west, for I give you all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.” He settles at the terebinths of Mamre. Around this time, invading armies fight with several local kings and defeat them, seizing the wealth and taking Lot since he lived in the area. When Abram hears about Lot, he assembles his retainers. At night, they defeat the invaders, pursuing them as far as Damascus and retaking the stolen possessions, women and Lot. The local kings are very grateful, offering Abram to keep the possessions. But Abram refuses because he does not want to give the impression that his wealth comes from the local kings.

Joshua Edwards reading from the Torah with Cantor Linda Semi and Rabbi Mark Melamut.
Joshua Edwards reading from the Torah with Cantor Linda Semi and Rabbi Mark Melamut.

G-d then appears to Abram, saying “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” This confuses Abram because he has no offspring to pass this “great reward” along to. G-d still insists he will have offspring and that he should not worry. In a dark dream, G-d tells Abram that his offspring will be enslaved for 400 years, but they will become free; however, Abram will go to his fathers in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.
With no children, Sarai suggests that Abram consort with her maid Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant and Sarai blames Abram. Sarai feels lowered in his esteem and Abram tells her to treat Hagar as she thinks right. Hagar runs away and an angel of the Lord tells her to return and bear the mistreatment. “I will greatly increase your offspring and they shall be too many to count.” At the age of 86, Abram has his first son, Ishmael.
At the age of 99, G-d comes to Abram and establishes a covenant with him. He asks Abram to change his name to Abraham, and Sarai to Sarah, for many nations and kings will come from him. He also asks Abraham to circumcise every male older than 7 days. If any male fails to do this he should be, completely cut off from his family. G-d promises Abraham another son but Abraham is concerned about Ishmael and G-d blesses him as well. That day every man in the tribe is circumcised, including Abraham and his 13 year old son Ishmael.
In this Torah portion G-d made a covenant with Abram. G-d had tried to make covenants in the past, but they never turned out well. Adam and Eve did not obey G-d and ate the apple from the tree. Noah strayed from G-d after he saved him from the flood. So why did G-d choose Abram? Was it because he was a good person, because they had something in common, or was it something they both wanted? I believe it was because they had a common goal. Abram’s family back in his native land of Ur of the Chaldeans all worshiped idols. As you can imagine, someone who believed in one G-d instead of many did not feel welcome in a place like that. Abram wanted to leave. This would enable him to pursue his own beliefs, and the covenant with G-d enabled him to do this. In this way, G-d made a covenant with someone who was ready. Another reason why this covenant succeeded was because G-d spoke directly to Abram. G-d did not negotiate with Abram. He promised him many things without conditions. At the same time, G-d expected Abram to follow His commandments. This arrangement is the basis for the Covenant, and different from G-d’s past relationship with Adam and Noah.
G-d also picked Abram because of his traits. Some of Abram’s traits could have posed a problem to the Covenant. He was very self-reliant, clever and proud. Those traits do not go well in a follower. In addition, he had never followed instructions. On the other hand, G-d needed someone who would stand up for his own beliefs, and encourage others to do the same. Furthermore, Abram was generous and just, traits required to lead a people.

So how is this story related to my life? I’m not leaving my home, walking across deserts, fighting in wars or pretending my wife was my sister. This past year, I did something in my life that seems close to Abraham’s adventure. With my school, I went to Nicaragua. We built the walls for a house. We also tilled and put stakes in a garden. I stayed with a local host family who all (uncles, aunts and grandparents) lived in one house. They ate food unlike ours. The surrounding was alien and I felt confused. The major difference from Abraham was, I only stayed for a few days. In comparison to Abraham, it was a short outing. Like the Nicaragua trip my bar mitzvah is a call to look at the big picture, think about what I believe, and take action on my beliefs. Lech L’cha means “Get Going” and it’s time for me to get going as well. Not in such a grand way as Abraham, but in a small way, one step at a time.

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Special Guest Speaker at this week’s Shabbat Symposium!

How much do you know about Karaite Judaism?

Karaite Judaism is the oldest form of non-Rabbinic Judaism still in existence. The word Karaism derives from the Hebrew karaim meaning “followers of Scripture”, and Karaites seek to preserve the original meaning of the Hebrew Bible. At one point in the Middle Ages, it appeared that Karaite Judaism would overtake Rabbinic Judaism as the most common form of Jewish practice.

There are an estimated 30,000- 50,000 Karaite Jews in the world today, mostly in Israel. There is only a single Karaite synagogue in the United States– and it happens to be in our backyard in Daly City! Come hear about this fascinating tradition from local Karaite speaker Shawn Lichaa at B’nai Emunah’s Shabbat Symposium program this Saturday at 1:00 pm!

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Sisterhood Brunch discusses Freedom Riders

Carol Ruth Silver discusses her book Freedom Rider with BE Sisterhood.

Carol Ruth Silver discusses her book Freedom Rider with BE Sisterhood.

A nice crowd gathered for the annual Sisterhood Brunch to socialize and hear Carol Ruth Silver discuss her new book, Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes From Parchman Prison. Carol Ruth Silver, a former member of Congregation B’nai Emunah, three-term San Francisco supervisor and lawyer, recounted how for 40 days in 1961, as a 22-year-old, she was jailed for being a Freedom Rider in segregation-era Mississippi. Silver, awaiting admission to law school, was working at the United Nations when she answered the call to desegregate travel in Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders were activists who desegregated interstate travel on buses and trains. Mississippi considered Freedom Riders criminals, and upon arrival at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, Silver and the other Freedom Riders a were handcuffed and arrested. The charge was “breach of peace.” She shared how her Jewish upbringing compelled her to make the choice to put her life at risk for Tikkun Olam, and her 40 days of imprisonment are recorded in her secret diary. After the talk and questions, Silver quickly ran out of books she had brought to sell and inscribe, but more will be available through the B’nai Emunah Gift Shop.

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BE3 Visits Urban Adamah

By Rabbi Mark Melamut
It was family day on the farm today for our B3 Sunday school as 40 kids and parents visited and worked at Urban Adamah, the Jewish urban farm in Berkeley. We fed the goat named “Shlomo” and the bunny named “Motek” with freshly picked greens and carrots. Along with feeding the chickens, we also weeded, composted, and discovered a bustling life in this little Garden of Eden. Sounds of the shofar and singing wrapped up our day before our picnic and drive back across the bridge.

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