Friday, March 8, 2019

A Visit to the Citadel of Torah

It was with great excitement this week that I led our first ever Etz Chaim Synagogue trip to the largest yeshiva in the United States. We made the pilgrimage up to Lakewood, New Jersey to visit the famed Beth Midrash Govoha. While Lakewood may not be considered a large metropolitan area, in terms of Torah study and scholarship its the citadel that punches far above its weight. There are several thousand students that occupy the Beis Midrash that span several locations and devote themselves to serious Torah study. Our group was privileged to study in Beis Midrash that had over seven hundred students. The sound of the Torah being analyzed in that room was electric, and the energy was palpable. The members of our group got to be partnered with faculty members of the yeshiva and began to pore over the Talmudic and Halachic texts for two days. We studied the laws of interest and its wide variety of modern-day applications in the workplace. As part of our two-day experience, we got to meet some of the leadership of the yeshiva including two of the Roshei Yeshiva who took time out of their busy schedules to meet us.

Our Rabbis have taught that while there a wide variety of Mitzvos that allows one to connect with G-d in this world, there is one medium that is unmatched in terms of its ability to connect with G-d in this world. That medium is the study of Torah. That is what it means when we recite in our morning prayers” the Study of Torah is equivalent to all the Mitzvos.” With all the busyness in life, we don’t get to spend enough time with this precious gift of Torah study. For two days, I was privileged to lead a group of men that wanted to connect to this unmatched spiritual energy in the arena of this citadel of Torah. It was an experience that left us with our hearts and souls filled with inner satisfaction and a sense of purpose. I sincerely hope that more people from Jacksonville will have an opportunity to have that experience next year.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Let's Choose Wisely

When Adar Arrives, Increase Your Joy. The sages have taught us this timeless mitzvah over the last few millennia. It sounds like a pretty simple mitzvah to perform. Just be happy and joyous. As with most meaningful things in life, internalizing happiness and joy in life can be quite challenging. Most people are mistaken to think that happiness is reserved for the folks with no problems and stress in life. In fact, the people that are happy and grateful must choose to be of that, and people that are miserable must choose to internalize the misery. This is not to discount the genuine hardship and sometimes tragic events that individuals encounter but whether someone will be in a state of perpetual happiness or misery is their choice. I have been speaking for a while about the need to be grateful and how that is a catalyst to joy. In the same vein, I came across an article “Six Simple Strategies for Achieving Misery” by Dr. Sol Herzig which articulates this well. These are his thoughts:

1. Cling to Entitlement: Always feel entitled, that life owes you, that you were born to receive. Always look for the injustice in others having something that you do not, and do not agree to any concession or compromise.

2. It’s all personal: Always assume that everything was done with evil intentions. Always try to find malicious intent and seize every opportunity to see it as conclusive proof that you do not matter to others.



3. Focus on Problems: Keep careful track of all your problems and continually review them. Nurture the attitude that you can’t move on to anything unless everything is resolved first.

4. Magnify Everything: Do not cheat yourself out of misery by maintaining perspective. Try to cultivate negative thinking in respect to every mistake or mishap and magnify it, without allowing for regret or forgiveness.

5. Expect Catastrophe: It’s important to remember that terrible, horrible things might happen any minute, and to let your imagination run wild. Diseases, disasters, terror attacks – don’t let anything surprise you. Be alert.

6. Just say “No thanks” to gratitude: Take everything you’ve received in life as a given, without thanking those who caused it. Try to focus on what you don’t have rather than what you do have.

There’s a powerful idiom from the Talmud: From the negative, the positive can be implied. The choice to be happy or miserable belongs to every one of us. Let’s choose wisely.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This weeks parsha opens up with the mitzvah to contribute the half shekel. This was for the census that was conducted in the desert as the Jewish people were on their journey to the promised land. However many people contributed the coins those were the number of people that were counted among the ranks at that time. A question that many have asked is what the reason for the half shekel is? Does it seem to be a little on the frugal side? Why not go for the full shekel? Especially in the context of the last few parshas, where the Jewish people were exhorted to give generously for the construction of the essential Mishkan!

I saw this powerful insight written in the Nesivos Shalom that I would like to share. Although every Jew makes a valuable and immeasurable contribution, we are after all a small part of something far more significant than all of us put together. That entity is called Klal Yisrael. As a wise person once said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This phrase aptly defines the modern concept of synergy. For anyone who has played team sports, it echoes the T.E.A.M. acronym—together, everyone achieves more. That was the point of the individual just contributing the half shekel according to the Nesivos Shalom. No one should ever feel as if they are alone. They are part if something significant and compelling and that is Klal Yisrael.

I recently heard a great story from Rabbi Zale Newman from Toronto that underscores this powerful idea. He writes a story about officiating a funeral for a Holocaust survivor with no relatives. These are his words.

Last Wednesday I faced the very real possibility of performing a funeral for a sweet, elderly Holocaust survivor all alone.

After being hospitalized a number of years ago, I joined the Bikur Cholim organization, almost 500 volunteers who visit and provide services for sick people in the Toronto Jewish community. I am part of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences team who visits Jewish patients in this huge hospital. My role is to visit before every Shabbat and Jewish holiday.

Seven months ago I began to visit Eddie “Efraim” Ford, an 85-year-old survivor originally from Budapest. He was six years old when the war broke out and survived by being hidden with a Christian family.

The war took its toll in many ways, but eventually Eddie made it to Canada where he began a new life for himself. He married and divorced and never had children. Aside from a nephew in Detroit, we knew of no other living family members.

When I met him he was fighting cancer that had spread to three parts of his thin, small body. Eddie was quite the personality. He had written a book of poetry and fondly remembered his time as a young member of the choir in the Dohany Street great synagogue of Budapest. He could only remember the tunes to the Shema when the Torah was taken out and some lines of the Aleinu prayer.

Every Friday in the hospital, as part of his late-in-life Jewish reawakening, he would put on his huge red kippah and we would sing Shalom Aleichem, Adon Olam and of course Shema Yisroel and Aleinu.

He cherished the hospital Shabbat candles we brought for him which he lit every week, put on tefillin, and made blessings on the cookies and drinks we brought for him. He was “winding down” but we kept this practice going, along with daily visits from our team members up to two weeks ago. When I visited him the last Friday, he was barely conscious, but nevertheless I sang his favorite pre-Shabbat songs for him.The following Monday, Bikur Cholim received a call from the hospital that he had passed away. There was no one to take care of funeral arrangements. We had his body taken to the non-profit, traditional funeral home for proper Jewish burial. They offered to provide their services and a plot at no cost, as he left the world with no money or assets. It took quite some time to get all of the legal matters in order and the burial was set for noon on Wednesday.
However, who would attend a funeral for someone they didn’t know, in the middle of the day, out in northern Toronto, in frigid -27C degree temperatures?
I feared it would just be Eddie, me and our Father Above.

I sent out a late night Facebook post. Three people responded that they would join me. We were now up to four attendees, I was hoping for at least a minyan of ten.
When I arrived at the cemetery just before noon, I couldn't get in because of the long line of cars. I assumed there was another funeral taking place at the same time and I wondered how we would find Eddie's designated resting place.

I stopped people who were walking, and they all said they were going to the funeral of Mr. Eddie Ford. I had to park far away and walk in the freezing wind to join almost 200 people (!) in a vast, warm circle of love, as we gave Eddie a traditional, sweet, proper, fitting, and loving send off to the Next World. We made a pathway to comfort his long lost brother from a small town in Ontario, whose relative had found about Eddie’s passing on the Internet and informed him so that he could attend.

I am in tears just thinking about how humbling and awesome it is to be part of the Jewish People who, on very short notice, would drop everything, drive a long distance to stand outside in an open field on a super freezing, windy day to escort a sweet Jew from Budapest, who was unknown to almost all of them, on his final journey.

We are indeed one family.

Friday, February 15, 2019

A Call For Advocacy

This narrative was not supposed to happen in America in 2019. It may be happening in other dark places in the world but certainly not in the United States Congress. Sure, our nation has its many warts of overt racism but we like to believe that we live in this so-called post-racial era where racism and antisemitism is relegated to the fringes. Well, let’s wake up to the reality of 2019. Ilhan Omar, a freshwoman Member of Congress from Minnesota, posted a series of tweets suggesting that the United States only supports Israel because of Jewish money and AIPAC. Her statements invoke tired, anti-Semitic tropes implying that Jewish money and involvement in the political system is invalid and illegitimate.

These words are not coming from some outlier on a fringe website. This is coming from a United States Congresswoman whose salary is funded by American taxpayers. This comes on the heels of a previous statement in which she accused Israel of hypnotizing the world. Then there is Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American freshwoman Member of Congress from Michigan, who is openly advocating for a one-state solution to Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
In case you were wondering, she’s not suggesting it should be Israel. AIPAC has been successful in organizing trips to Israel for freshman members of Congress so they could see the situation first hand. These trips have resulted in significant support for Israel’s security as American lawmakers saw firsthand how vulnerable the security in Israel is in real-time. Now Congresswoman Tlaib is planning to bring a congressional delegation of freshman lawmakers to the West Bank and also said she backs the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement. Just as an added bonus, Ms. Tlaib said that she may want to take the congressional delegation to Beit Ur al-Foqa a village in the West Bank, where her grandmother lives.

Historically, the United States Congress has been overwhelmingly Pro-Israel in a strong bipartisan way. The question is, are we beginning to see cracks in the armor or is this just an anomaly? That remains to be seen, but I don’t think we have the luxury of pretending that we can ride out the storm.
These members of Congress did not arrive there in a vacuum. They were voted in by constituents that supported their policies. The most effective way for us to combat them is for our voice to be amplified in Washington to our elected officials. They need to hear from us preferably in person that as our congressman and senators we expect them to continue supporting the United States Israel alliance. No better organization does this than AIPAC, and there is no better place for this gathering than the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
This is an opportunity for you to join the largest Pro Israel coalition in the country and we will let our lawmakers know in a loud voice that we will not be silent in support of Israel and we cannot accept the recent comments of the freshwomen members of Congress as the new normal. The dates for the Policy Conference are March 24-26, and I am honored to once again lead the Etz Chaim Synagogue delegation up to our nation's capital. Our generation is blessed with the extraordinary gift of being able to advocate in front of the highest offices of the land. Let’s appreciate this gift and use it wisely.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Ultimate Gratitude

America had a Super Bowl to watch this week. It appeared that in addition to the game being quite a yawner, the country is experiencing an acute condition of New England Patriots fatigue. I mean how many Super Bowls can they just keep on winning? In the 11 years of my son's life, the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl a mere six times since 2007! That’s over half his life! Not to mention there have only been 53 Super Bowls in history and the Pats have been in nine Super Bowls!

America got to view another big show, and this one took place in the political theater United States Congress as it hosted President Trump to deliver the State of the Union address. The address was interrupted many times with thunderous applause as some people really liked what they heard. Others sat grim-faced as they were attending the saddest event and couldn’t wait to leave. It is beyond the scope of this space for me to weigh in on any political declaration or policy decision that was announced that evening. However, I was intrigued and captivated by the attention given to the Holocaust survivors invited to be in the audience that evening. As we are painfully aware, the survivors are fading quickly and very soon there won’t be any left among the living. So a recognition in such an arena by the leader of the Free World was quite compelling. This is an excerpt of his remarks: “ Tonight, we are also joined by Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet. He arrived at the synagogue as the massacre began. But not only did Judah narrowly escape death last fall -- more than seven decades ago, he narrowly survived the Nazi concentration camps. Today is Judah's 81st birthday. Judah says he can still remember the exact moment, nearly 75 years ago, after 10 months in a concentration camp, when he and his family were put on a train and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah's family braced for the worst. Then, his father cried out with joy: "It's the Americans."
A second Holocaust survivor who is here tonight, Joshua Kaufman, was a prisoner at Dachau Concentration Camp. He remembers watching through a hole in the wall of a cattle car as American soldiers rolled in with tanks. "To me," Joshua recalls, "the American soldiers were proof that G-d exists, and they came down from the sky."
I began this evening by honoring three soldiers who fought on D-Day in the Second World War. One of them was Herman Zeitchik. But there is more to Herman's story. A year after he stormed the beaches of Normandy, Herman was one of those American soldiers who helped liberate Dachau. He was one of the Americans who helped rescue Joshua from that hell on earth. Almost 75 years later, Herman and Joshua are both together in the gallery tonight -- seated side-by-side, here in the home of American freedom. Herman and Joshua: your presence this evening honors and uplifts our entire Nation.
When American soldiers set out beneath the dark skies over the English Channel in the early hours of D-Day, 1944, they were just young men of 18 and 19, hurtling on fragile landing craft toward the most momentous battle in the history of war.
They did not know if they would survive the hour. They did not know if they would grow old. But they knew that America had to prevail. Their cause was this Nation, and generations yet unborn.”
Why did they do it? They did it for America -- they did it for us.”
One of the fundamental values of Judaism is gratitude. In the mid-1940s it seemed quite possible that Nazi Germany might prevail and kill every Jew it could reach. It stated goals was to destroy the Free World. The only thing standing in their way was the allied soldiers. Over 400,000 American Soldiers gave their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice so the Jewish people can live to see another day. With all partisan gridlock and the deepening divide in our nation's capital, it was heartwarming to see such a warm bi partisan reaction of the President's recognition to the liberation of the Holocaust survivors on an ordinary Tuesday evening in February.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Does G-d Believe in Me?

The main event is finally here. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai from G-d to the Jewish people is a most compelling narrative found in this weeks parsha. Arguably, this is the most crucial passage in the Torah in which G-d communicates His divine message and challenge to mere mortal beings about how to live a life with more meaning and purpose. This was quite unique in terms of this being a national experience in which millions of men, women, and children gathered at a simple mountain in a desert and heard the word of G-d, and it has penetrated the heart and soul of the Jew ever since. The highlight of the message and indeed of what is found in this weeks parsha is what is known as the Ten Commandments.

The first commandment states ”I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” The basic understanding of this mitzvah is that one must have faith and believe in G-d. This is easier said than done as many of us are challenged with issues of faith especially when we perceive things to be unfair in life, and we have been taught that G-d rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked and the reality doesn’t always reflect that. Furthermore, the mitzvah/commandment appears to be quite top down in the sense of you must believe in Me. As we know in matters of faith, it is not always so simple to believe in G-d, and many people struggle with G-d and Judaism on various levels.

There is an insight I have heard from the rabbis that sheds a whole new light on this first mitzvah/commandment. G-d is saying I am the one who took you out of Egypt from the house of slaves. It’s interesting that from all of His accomplishments and contributions for the benefit of mankind, it is the emancipation from the house of slavery that was selected. Furthermore, the biblical commentaries highlight the fact that the Hebrew grammar suggests that G-d is addressing the individual and not the masses. The rabbis concluded a fundamental lesson from here, and that is that G-d is addressing the individual and saying “I am the Lord your G-d” who saved you from your oppressive situation. While we may not be in Egypt in a geographical sense, we all experience stressful and even oppressive situations. For some of us, it may be financial, health issues or family dynamics. These matters take an increasing toll on us, and we wonder when G-d will come through for us. That is precisely the message of the first mitzvah/commandment. G-d is telling each and every individual, I am not a G-d who dwells up high and is disconnected but rather I am listening to you in your dire situation, and I will take you out of that stressful situation. The reality is that the first mitzvah/commandment is teaching us something far more compelling than for us to believe in G-d. It’s teaching us that G-d believes in us, understands our challenges and will lift us up from these difficulties.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Is There Manna In Our Generation?

We live in times in which conventional realities have been turned upside down. It has been pretty much a given that someone's employment was more secure in the public sector than in the private sector. A job that one has in a company in the corporate world is frequently vulnerable and may be subject to layoffs that can be caused by a variety of headwinds in the climate of Wall Street and Main Street. On the other hand, a job in the public sector has been associated with stable pay, generous benefits and lucrative pensions. Well, that narrative has flipped with the most recent shutdown of our federal government. Regardless, of one's personal political views, the shutdown is a harsh reality for many employees of the federal government. The number of federal employees working without pay stands at about 450,000 -- but that number could top half a million in the coming days, as the government continues to recall tens of thousands of workers after almost four weeks of shuttered doors at vital agencies. Additionally, there are far-reaching consequences that are affecting other areas of the economy. For example, people that had qualified for small business loans are now being put on hold since the Small Business Administration has stopped approving routine small business loans that the agency backs to ensure individuals have access to much needed funds. This compounds the anxiety one can have about earning an adequate salary to pay all the bills and can be rather debilitating at times. With the cost of living rising annually and our paychecks not keeping up with that pace, it continues to weigh on our minds in all hours of the day and night. Not to mention the costs of the Orthodox Jewish family that include the high cost of Jewish Day School tuition and kosher food!! I believe the lesson of the manna in this weeks parsha should provide us some cause for reflection. The Jewish people were at their wits end. After all, they were in the desert, and they did not have any food to eat. That’s millions of men women and children without a morsel! That must have been one unhappy kiddush! The next morning, Moshe told them to go outside, and G-d would deliver the manna, and it was waiting for them outside their tents. They were in disbelief as they saw the Manna falling from heaven! One might say, how is that story that took place over 3,300 years ago relevant today? Is there manna falling from heaven in 2019? How exactly do we see the hand of G-d today in the grind of the daily economy? I believe we have to open our eyes. G-d keeps on opening new opportunities for the world which was unheard just several decades ago. It may not be the actual manna, but He is the ultimate provider and will continue to provide new avenues of growth for humanity which will include new opportunities for revenue. There are burgeoning industries that are employing millions of people. For example, the tech industry in the United States alone employs several million people. Amazon itself is employing over half a million people in the United States. Every generation experiences a different form of Manna. It has varied in shape, sizes, and color over the years. In the not uncommon moments of economic anxiety, it would be worth recalling who delivers parnassa for every generation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Thoughts at the Inauguration


I was honored to be invited to the inauguration of our new Governor Ron DeSantis this week in Tallahassee. Additionally, this was the inauguration of the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Chief Financial Officer, and Agriculture Commissioner. I traveled to our state's capital on Tuesday with my son Yehoshua for this occasion. There were a few shul members there as well. Of course, much pomp and ceremony was surrounding the affair, but there were a couple of thoughts that I was reflecting on as I was participating in the inauguration that day.



We are living in a period of hyper-partisanship, and our state's race for governor was not immune from it. There was a lot of negativity and low points throughout the campaign. The election itself was very close with one candidate able to eke out a narrow victory. The remarkable thing about our democracy is that following the election, we can have a peaceful transition of power. Despite the political differences that we may have we are blessed to live in a state and country in which we can transition from one president to another and one governor to another without any violence or military uprising. That cannot be said for many other parts of the world in which rival political factions frequently descend into rioting in the streets or even civil war. This point was not lost on me as I watched from a few feet away as I saw our new governor place his hand on the Bible and swear that he will support, protect, and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States and the State of Florida.



Another significant moment at the inauguration not only for all Floridians but for all Jewish Floridians was the oath of office taken for Agriculture Commissioner by Nikki Fried. The oath taken by Nikki Fried was on the oldest Hebrew Bible in the United States which is currently housed in the library of the University of Florida. Nikki Fried, the first Jewish woman to serve in the post in the Sunshine State, called the University of Florida, her alma mater, to ask if there was a special Bible she could use for the occasion. Well, she was in luck since the library at UF owns a two-volume Hebrew Bible dating to 1814, one of about 100 remaining that were published in Philadelphia that year using fonts from an older edition printed in Amsterdam. The first volume contains the Torah, and the second includes the remaining 19 books of the Prophets. So on a gloriously sunny morning at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fried laid her hand on the Tanach and took the oath of office. I couldn’t help but feel how proud and fortunate we are to be living in this great country and state. Our people have suffered for so many thousands of years in many countries and were not able to advance politically or have religious freedom. Let us not take this blessing that our generation has for granted.



Have a great Shabbos,



Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

A Visit to the Citadel of Torah

It was with great excitement this week that I led our first ever Etz Chaim Synagogue trip to the largest yeshiva in the United States. We ma...