Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
June 21, 2018

Mental illness is not the ‘cooties’ By: Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner / June 21, 2018 / 8 Tamuz 5778

Doctors often say that High Blood Pressure is the “silent killer.” Sadly, I think a new illness has claimed that moniker: Mental Illness.

Robin Williams hanged himself, then Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in the same week, proving that depression is not limited to the underprivileged and mental illness is as undiscriminating as the weather.

My brother committed suicide which makes me all too familiar with the unending wake of pain, hurt, questions and “what ifs” that survivors are left with after the irrevocable deed is done. Nothing good comes from taking your own life. Perhaps for the afflicted we can hope they are free from the burdens, struggles and challenges that are invisible to us, but inescapable for them. Still, suicide leaves more questions than answers, more pain then relief and more tears that do not diminish with time.

If anything positive can come from these deaths of well-known personalities, I pray it will shine a light on the serious nature of mental illness and how pervasive it is in our society.

As a congregational rabbi with a unique peephole into people’s families and lives, I can claim with certainty that almost every family has someone who is suffering from a mental health challenge. These illnesses do not discriminate between religion, color, sex or race, Depression is the most notable, but I have seen my share of paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and bi-polar disorder which are all rampant in communities like ours.  The difference between these illnesses, and say, cancer is that we still seem to whisper when someone is suffering from mental illness disorders and cover them up for fear of being “outed.” We are petrified that we will be stigmatized as crazy and only a step away from Nurse Ratchet overseeing our daily activities. With cancer though, we feel empathy in a different form and respond in a more hands-on manner.

A member of our community was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Our community jumped into action. Some volunteered to help with her kids’ carpools, another was deputized with shopping and household errands while a Google sign-up sheet was created to share who will keep her company during chemo treatments and who will organize meals and delivery of said meals for this family. As a rabbi, it made me proud to see our synagogue community respond without missing a beat. It was beautiful, empathetic, humane and the core of what we do as a place of worship and a people.

I wonder though, if said person were to say that she was suffering from depression and could not get out of bed, or OCD and was hoarding or perhaps unable to leave the house because she needed to have exactly 14 steps to get to the front door and she could not seem to get the cadence for that exact walk down, or if she were afraid to go out of the house for paralyzing fear, would we respond the same way? Are we still mouthing the names of these diseases and keeping a distance as if it were contagious?

We build walls around mental illnesses to keep ourselves away for fear of catching “it” or being near “it.”  That only makes the disease more acute for the afflicted and creates a vicious downward spiral for those working toward healing.

Judaism is not immune to suicide. Six biblical characters take their own lives. Some from despair, others from sadness. Whether it is Abimelech, Samson, Saul, Ahitophel or Zimri, we know that this epidemic is not new and it is high time for us as a Jewish community to address this topic. The rabbis all of denominations even stopped burying the victims of suicide in separate parts of the cemetery claiming that such a death is a result of an illness. Now, it is time to go further.

In order to bring more hope to the afflicted and to curb the prevalence of suicide, we need to adjust how our communities deal with mental illness. I suggest the following steps:

  • Don’t whisper about mental illness. The strides that were achieved by the LGBTQ community came as a result of people being bold enough to come out and share their identity and story. We have embraced breast cancer with pink ribbons, annual walks, and a month of pink end-zones in the NFL. So too, do we have to ‘come out’ about mental illness and embrace those who are stricken. Drawing near to those with health challenges and making Google spreadsheets for meals and carpools are no less important for the person suffering from depression as it is for the person receiving chemo. Sicknesses might present differently but, being ill takes us all off our game and we all can stand to benefit from help. That comes by being able to say in a full-throated manner that we are sick, battling a mental illness and need help, or that we are helping someone with a mental illness.
  • Mental illness needs a ribbon too. I am not sure what colors are available. Orange is for gun control, purple is sexual abuse awareness and yellow is for our soldiers and those MIA. Perhaps gray but, it really does not matter as much as being able to wear our awareness on our proverbial sleeve. Let’s talk about it more freely and create awareness and support.
  • Mental illness is not contagious and we need to stop treating it like the cooties. Do not be afraid to help those in need, get close to them and be the support they desperately require and will benefit from in this time of need. Equally important, do not wait to be asked to help. Be proactive. Sheryl Sandberg says the best support she received after the sudden death of her husband was someone asking her, “what do you NOT want on your hamburger?” Being present will not cure mental illness any more than carpools cure cancer. But, the presence and support matters.
  • Know the Numbers. We are not miracle workers or magicians. We cannot make the disease go away but, we can help. Sometimes, the illness needs more resources then a Google spreadsheet can offer. Know the numbers of suicide prevention hotlines. Keep the number of accredited psychiatrists near to be able to offer the support that is beyond our grade of expertise. Do not try and wear a cape or offer simple solutions and solve the problem.

I would do almost anything for another day with my brother. I cannot bring him back. However, I can do my part to ensure others do not have to suffer the pain I live with daily. This starts with recognizing the affliction and being supportive any way we can.

Try these small steps. Make your life and our world a place for all to feel it is worth living in. Together we can support those with a mental health affliction and bring more awareness to those in need. Let us act before it is too late.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 24, 2018

The Divine Priestly Blessing By: Rabbi Alex Freedman / May 24, 2018 /10 Sivan 5778

When I became a parent, one of the most exciting moments for me was – and continues to be – the occasion on Friday nights when we bless our children:

May G-d make you like Efraim and Menasheh/ May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

May G-d bless you and protect you.
May G-d shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.
May G-d lift His face toward you and give you peace.

The children’s blessing on Shabbat is a moment for every child to know and feel the parent’s love, regardless of what else happened that day. For the parents, it’s a moment to express their love for their child, no matter what else happened that week.

It’s a shining example of Jewish rituals as vehicles for creating family memories. It provides a space to say and show “I love you.”

The text itself, specifically the three-fold blessing, is as timeless as love itself. Our Parsha, Naso, lists these blessings for the priest to bless the Israelites (Nu. 6:24-26). We recreate this in Israel every day in the Amidah’s repetition, while in the Diaspora on the Festivals.

These words are at the heart of a fantastic archaeological adventure too. In 1979, the archaeologist Gabriel Barkay was exploring ancient burial caves in Jerusalem, when his 13 year old assistant discovered a hidden chamber. Inside were lots of ancient artifacts, including two silver scrolls less than an inch long: amulets. Written inside were the priestly blessings above. Significantly, said the archaeologist, they are the only original biblical verses from the First Temple Period. These 15 words moved our ancestors 2600 years ago, just as they inspire us today.

What is so powerful and potent about these three lines?

I think this is a prime example of G-d and people working together to add holiness to our world. The previous verses read, “G-d spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: “This is how you shall bless the Israelites: Say to them…”’” Exactly who is blessing the Israelites, G-d or the priests? It appears to be both.

A Midrash relates: The House of Israel said to the Holy One, “Lord of the universe, You order the priests to bless us? We need only Your blessing…” The Holy One replied to them, “Though I ordered the priests to bless you, I will stand together with them and bless you.”

G-d is the one who makes the blessings happen – “May G-d bless you…” But the blessing is only effective when the priests deliver it. Without the priests, the Israelites cannot feel G-d’s love. G-d’s love is never absent, but it is invisible. With the priests bestowing blessings, G-d’s love becomes more easily felt. And without G-d, the priests have nothing to share except personal best wishes. G-d and people need each other.

G-d and people work together to make G-d’s presence more apparent. G-d needs us to bless our children on Shabbat because feeling a parent’s love is the closest children can come to experiencing G-d’s love. And we need G-d to bless our children because we’re not always there to watch over our kids.

May we have a Shabbat Shalom – of peace and love – between us and G-d, between us and our parents and children, this week and every week.

Rabbi Alex Freedman

May 18, 2018

Shavuot – A Cure For My Headache By: Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner – May 18, 2018 / 4 Sivan 5778

I have a throbbing headache. It is not from jet lag, dehydration or hypertension. It is from all of the noise in the media world about the happenings in Israel this week. Everyone seems to know perfectly and unambiguously what the intent of each side was and is, how the problem could be solved and what all need to do in order to head towards an achievable peace in the next 45 minutes. How ridiculous.

Coincidentally, the world is asking the question, Laurel or Yanny? Asking which sound we hear. This is reminiscent of this dress that was either blue or gold. If you choose one, woe to the person who hears or sees the other.


When on social media, it feels like the more someone says the same thing or shares a certain argument, the louder it gets. One throws up an article to contest a competing article and soon people are not even thinking for themselves – they are using articles as proxy shields to defend themselves and their views. It is causing my eyes to blurr and my head to hurt.

The situation in Israel is complex. No headline or article can sum it all up. It is also not absolute. Not all of the violence is related to the Embassy opening, but some of it is. Not all of the victims were terrorists but, most of them were. Not every leader was callous to the situation in Gaza while in Jerusalem. More examples can be shared, though I know you get the point.

How ironic that all of this is unfolding on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot? This commemorates when the Jewish people received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. The Torah is literally the gift that keeps on giving, which is why we pause to celebrate this present every year.

The real beauty of the Torah is that it is not absolute. It has ‘70 faces’ that serve as ways to look at any text, appreciate any story, comprehend any law or lesson. Each of us owns the Torah as our truth, which can never be taken away. That truth might be in concert with others’ truths or it might conflict, but we all own a piece of it. That is what makes the gift of Torah so special and unique.

Perhaps a similar lens is required when looking at the unfolding situation in Israel, that there are ‘70 faces’ to a situation. The Torah and texts tell us that an adversary does not need to be an enemy, nor does it say for me to be right, you must be wrong. In fact, it has place for all views and opinions and thoughts. It is open and welcoming, not absolute and unconditional. The Torah by its nature encourages us to use our words and thoughts and not solely to rely on others’.

On this Shavuot, let us pray for peace in Israel and be thankful for our gift of Torah, that reminds us that we each have a voice, an opinion and a vantage point to share our connection with God and current events. Let us be able to see the blue and the gold, to hear the Laurel and the Yanny. Let us make space to hear them and challenge and embrace the differences. If we do not, we will have nothing to celebrate in the years to come!

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 10, 2018

Our Mezuzah Project By: Rabbi Alex Freedman – May 10, 2018 / 25 Iyyar 5778

“Write them on your Mezuzot/doorposts of your homes and your gates.” – The Shma

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

When you enter the Religious School wing these days, you’ll notice something new: a new Mezuzah upstairs and downstairs. But two features make these different from every other one you’ve seen. First, these are supersized – about three feet long and one foot wide (yes, feet!). Second, they were made inside and outside by all of our Religious School students.

Over the last few weeks I’ve met with each grade to learn about the Mezuzah, the timeless Jewish trophy that adorns our doorways. Together we opened the Siddur and read the Shma prayer, which itself instructs us to write those very words on our doorposts. We discussed what it means and where it goes in our homes.

And then we made our own because when we do, we understand. Each student colored in some of the words of the Shma paragraphs on posterboard, the exact same words inside our own Mezuzot. We learned that the inside is what gives the Mezuzah its power, like a battery for a smartphone.

Each student also made part of the outside. Students younger than 3rd grade colored their own Jewish Star (the Temple logo), which was miniaturized onto a tile. While the older students each glued some broken stained glass as part of a mosaic. When we dedicated the older students’ Mezuzah on Sunday, I told them that while every glass piece is unique, all fit together to make one whole Mezuzah. If a single piece were missing, the Mezuzah would be incomplete. It’s a metaphor for our community. Each child is unique, one of a kind, but we come together to form this singular community. But if any of us were missing, our community would be lacking.

It was really beautiful to see the students excited about a Mitzvah they created with their own hands. They also enjoyed seeing their names on the accompanying plaque.

The younger students will see their Mezuzah and plaque this Sunday morning for its dedication.

I want to give a big Todah Rabah to several people who made this happen: Naama Heymann, for organizing from the start and copying all those words onto the posterboards. Stephanie Cohn, Sheera Goldstrom, and Briana Holden, our three volunteer moms, for creatively designing these unique Mezuzot. And Lisa McLellan of Mosaic Glassworks for turning their design into beautiful reality.

There are several reasons we place a Mezuzah on our doors. The one that speaks to me is that when we leave the house, we see the Mezuzah and remind ourselves to live our lives out in the world according to Jewish values and Mitzvot. And when we return home, we see the Mezuzah and remind ourselves to create and contribute to a family inspired by those Jewish values and traditions.

A Mezuzah for the bedroom door makes a wonderful gift for any child (or adult child!) Choosing a Mezuzah, or designing her own, gives the child a way to express who she is Jewishly and to display that pride outwardly.

May G-d bless and protect the children of this Religious School who, with their own hands, add holiness and beauty to our hallways and our world, inside and out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman

May 7, 2018

May 4, 2018 / 19 Iyyar 5778 – Parashat Emor By: Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

Have you ever walked around secretly wishing for a DVR remote to pause life, then rewind and redo mistakes made? I sure have! Like you, I imagine the majority of our wishes for ‘do overs’ are about things said and feelings hurt. The amount of pain a tongue can cause can easily surpass a kick to the mid-section or an uppercut to our jaw. Sticks and stones might hurt our bones, but words hurt the most!

On Yom Kippur we put a disproportionate amount of focus on sins of our speech, knowing how easily they are discharged and how much damage they can cause. Our caution should not live for only one day a year.

The Torah portion we read this Shabbat is called Emor. Literally, it means ‘speak.’ While the portion devotes itself to the laws of the High Priest and ritual purity, let us not look past its first word and the challenge to us to guard our words and to be aware at all times of the impact they can have, positively and negatively. Use our tongues cautiously and carefully. Do not make them weapons of destruction. We do not have any magical remotes to pause and rewind our words. Therefore, be thoughtful and speak words of kindness, support and love and realize that our tongues can be shaped to make the world a holier place, not a more profane place. Be part of that change and make it start today.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner