Friday, December 14, 2018

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayigash


Image result for joseph and the amazing technicolor dreamcoat

The story of Joseph is wonderfully complex. It's full of rich details and imagery, a multitude of characters, and themes that resonate across time. Joseph's story has a coat of many colors and a silver goblet. There's a fake death, a kidnapping, a seduction, and an unlikely rise to power. There are lots of dreams. And lots of lies. And, ultimately, there's forgiveness, which is what this week's parsha is about.

Joseph's story is longer than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob's combined. Why? Abraham was the first person to understand the unity of God, Isaac was almost sacrificed in order to praise that God, and Jacob literally and figuratively wrestled with God in an effort to understand God. These three men are the patriarchs of Judaism. We include their names in our daily prayers. So why does Joseph's story get so much more room in the Torah? Why is that Joseph gets to star in his own Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?

I've always thought that maybe it was because Joseph's story is more about his relationship with his family than his relationship with God. And Joseph's family was what we in today's world would call dysfunctional. People can relate to that.

Who among us can really relate to Abraham's internal struggle of whether or not to sacrifice his son on an altar? Or to Jacob's confusion and frustration when he accidentally marries the wrong woman? But just about every one of us can relate to there being someone in our family who thinks they're superior to everyone else, to selfish and mean-spirited siblings who abuse us, to parents who don't see us for who we are, to regret for past mistakes, and to a desire to make amends, to try to put things back together the way they once were when we were younger and life seemed simpler.

That's not always easy to do, but I think that's the message of this week's parsha. Being with all his brothers for the first time in years, seeing the care and love they have for each other and the sacrifices they're willing to make for each other, Joseph forgives them for what they did to him so long ago. He just wants to move forward and be with his family, to make up for lost time. 

Whatever holidays your family celebrates between November and January, and in those stressful moments that those celebrations inevitably bring, remember Joseph. By that point in his life, his past with his family mattered much, much less than what the future could bring.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Shabbat Around the Table -- Chanukah Lights


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Just about everyone knows the story of Chanukah:

The Macabees, a family of Jewish freedom fighters, won a war against Israel's occupiers, the Greeks. The Jews reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated. They set out to make it holy again, and so they looked for oil to light the menorah. But they found only enough oil to last one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, which is why, to celebrate Chanukah (which means dedication), we light candles and eat food fried in oil for eight nights.

So, we’re commanded to light the candles, but how? Two of the greatest sages of all time, Hillel and Shammai, debated the proper way to light the Chanukah menorah, or chanukiah.

Shammai believed you should begin with the “days remaining,” meaning you start with eight candles. Each night you light one fewer candle. In this way, the light decreases.

Hillel believed you should begin with the “days completed,” meaning you start with one candle and add one each night, thereby increasing the light each day.

Hillel, whose opinion we follow, realized you should celebrate the potential of the commandment and the potential for light. Each night you light candles, you realize not only how many days you’ve celebrated, but how many days you still have to celebrate. The light never diminishes, it only increases, becoming more beautiful each night. As the light grows, so does your joy in the miracle. 

It's important sometimes to take a moment to reflect not just on what's to come, but on what's been achieved. This is especially true when those big life transitions are right around the corner. So, as we prepare to light the sixth candle tonight, we can pause, think about and take joy in our past, and then imagine what the future may bring.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fall Festival Wrap-Up


Almost 200 children and their families helped the preschool celebrate its 13th anniversary at the Fall Festival on November 4. In addition to preschool families, current and former, numerous families from the neighborhood joined us for a day of arts and crafts, games and prizes, a petting zoo, a moon bounce, and a performance by Rainbow Rock Band.

The day wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of so many wonderful volunteers and donors. I must extend a multitude of thanks to Stephanie Byrne, a preschool parent volunteer, for suggesting the Fall Festival in the first place, for planning so many of the activities, for soliciting so many donations, and for volunteering so many hours of her time. Thank you, Stephanie!


Thank you also to preschool parents Brooke Ringel, Alex Perry, and Elliot Golden for helping us set up and clean up. We couldn’t have gotten ready for the day without your help.

Thank you to preschool parent Amy Gura, former preschool parent Rachel Albert, and preschool alum Aviva Albert for working tirelessly at the face painting station all afternoon. 

To my former Gesher students: Dalia Fishman, Noah Krischer, Anouchka Ettedgui, Liora Ettedgui, and Ari Halpern, thank you for manning our game and snack stations. More importantly, thank you for showing your support for your wider Jewish community.

Thank you, Marya Runkle, for dedicating even more of your time to Agudas Achim. Preschool teacher Susan Auerhan, thank you for giving up a Sunday afternoon to support your school and your families. Gesher friends Jodi Rein and Jen Scher, thank you for spending your afternoon with us. (And happy 36th anniversary to Gesher!) Thank you all for being such friendly and welcoming faces at the registration table.


Preschool alumni David Runkle, Jacob Sanchez, Margalit Dienstfrey, Virginia Arnold, Mary Arnold, and former preschool parents Arden Levy and Ellen Bayer, thank you so much for coming out to support your extended preschool family, and for helping us remember how much the preschool has grown and how many lives it has affected.

To my neighbors, Maximillian, Michaela, and Madison Islas, thank you for coming out to play with us. I hope you enjoyed selling snacks with Ari and helping out at the petting zoo.

Wegmans, thank you for donating apples that we could give away for free, and Krispy Kreme, thank you for donating donuts for our snack table.




Diversions, thank you for the balloons, and Greenstreet Gardens, thank you for the hay bales. Your decorations helped brighten our day.


To the Alexandria Police Department and the Alexandria Fire Department, thank you for coming to our Fall Festival to celebrate with us. Your police cruiser and fire truck were such a huge hit. And thank you Mayor Alison Silberberg for attending our event and showing your support for our community.

Finally, thank you to the Agudas Achim Endowment Committee for your very generous gift, which allowed us to get our Fall Festival off the ground. We quite simply couldn’t have done it without your support.


We hope everyone enjoyed the day, and my deepest apologies to anyone I might have inadvertently and regretfully left off of this list. We look forward to doing it all again in about five years . . . to celebrate our chai anniversary. Todah Rabah!


Friday, November 9, 2018

A Jewish Wedding in the Preschool


On Friday, November 2 we had the privilege of celebrating a Sheva Brachot with (Moreh) Simon and Jess Gershman. It was a truly special day for the preschool community. As I’m writing this, Hazzan Dienstfrey noted “how important it is for young children to be around big people moments. Then they know that they’re a part of the moment, too.”

Our young children certainly were part of a big moment last Friday. Simon and Jess had been married for one week by this point, but, as I explained at the beginning, they just had so much fun at their first wedding that they wanted to do it all over again with us.

The children sat in the social hall on either side of the “aisle” waiting for Simon and Jess. The chuppah came down first, carried by four teachers. Led by Hazzan Dienstfrey, we welcomed them by singing “Hinei Ma Tov.”

As Simon and Jess circled around each other, the children sang “Am I Awake, Am I Prepared?” I explained that by circling each other Simon and Jess were showing that they would always keep each other safe.

Simon then showed everyone their ketubah, or marriage contract. One friend noted that her parents had one, too, but it was at home in a frame. Simon explained that the picture showed two intertwined trees; one friend thought the picture needed a volcano.

Next came the actual seven blessings, sung beautifully (of course) by Hazzan Dienstfrey. I offered a child-friendly translation of each one:
1.     Thank you, God, for making grape juice and wine.
2.     Thank you, God, for creating the world.
3.     Thank you, God, for creating people.
4.     Thank you, God, for creating people to be good like You.
5.     Thank you, God, for special celebrations.
6.     Thank you, God, for helping make the bride and groom so happy.
7.     Thank you, God, for everything: joy, happiness, laughter; friends, families, and teaches; brides and grooms. May we all be happy together.
It should be noted that the children were transfixed throughout the entire service. There was hardly any squirming and the room was very, very quiet. We hadn’t talked to the children about being still and quiet, and I would have expected more murmuring and fidgeting. But I think the children sensed that they were part of something sacred and special.

Finally, the part everyone was waiting for: the breaking of the glass. After Simon and Jess stepped on the glass together, the children all shouted, “Mazel tov!” We then sang “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov” and danced to “Mayim Mayim.”

After the wedding, it was time to eat. We combined the wedding feast with our Kabbalat Shabbat celebration. Jess lit the candles, Simon led us in kiddush, Simon’s mom blessed her son and new daughter, and we all sang hamotzi together.

We enjoyed challah, grape juice, clementines, and cupcakes. Then it was time to share the gifts the children had spent the whole week making. When combined, the gifts made a complete Shabbat Bag for Simon and Jess. We hoped that they would use the gifts in their new Jewish bayit (home) to celebrate becoming a mishpacha (family) and sharing their ahava (love) for each other.

The 2s classes made a tzedakah box for Simon and Jess to put coins in before the start of Shabbat. Once the box is full, the money can be given to people who need it more than they do. One class painted it gold, the other glued the pretty pictures on top.

The 3s classes made candlesticks. Using Model Magic clay, they mooshed and squished three colors together until they had swirly red, blue, and white or purple. Then they rolled the clay into balls and squashed the balls into pancakes. We then stacked the pancakes, making candlesticks. Each class made one.

The teachers bought Simon and Jess a kiddush cup, as those are often tricky to make.

Finally, the 4s classes made a challah cover. They sewed lots and lots (and lots) of buttons around the border, and Morah Robin wrote Shabbat in Hebrew.

For many children and their families, this was the first Jewish wedding they’d ever participated in. For some, it might be the only Jewish wedding they ever see. Thank you, Simon and Jess, for celebrating with us and giving us the opportunity to share in your joy. Wishing you many, many years of happiness. Mazel tov!



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