Aging Wisely


Aging wiselyLike many Boomers, the Beatles provided the soundtrack to my teen and adult years. Paul McCartney wrote a song in late 1966 (my first year of college) when his father Jim turned 64, one-year short of the mandatory retirement age in the U.K. Here is the memorable stanza:

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now

Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I’d been out to quarter to three, would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

 Like illness, aging is an inevitable part of life. However, unlike illness, aging in Jewish thought is not seen as a burden. In fact, the Bible considers longevity to be a great blessing—old age is a reward for honoring one’s parents.

Several years ago I read a wonderful book called Wise Aging. The book has helped countless readers find new meaning and happiness in life. It tackles an array of issues such as romance, relationships, living with loss, cultivating well-being and more.  The book has spawned Aging Wisely workshops nationwide.

From its very beginnings, the Jewish people has paid particular attention to the welfare of the elderly. In many passages in the Bible the “elders” are the wise people, the judges of the people. This status was earned by dint of their wisdom and experience. The biblical book of Leviticus says: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old [one], and you shall fear God.  The rabbinic writers understood this literally, that whenever an old person passes by, one should rise to one’s feet as a token of respect.  On public buses in Israel the signage in Hebrew quotes this verse, reminding people to give up their seat to an elder. The whole philosophy of care of the elderly is expressed in the book of Psalms: “Cast me not off in the time of old age. When my strength fails, do not forsake me.”

The Code of Jewish Law contains all sorts of rules about how to enact the commandment of “rising before the aged” and defines old age as 70 years.  It is interesting that while the Levites serving in the Jerusalem Temple were retired at age 50 because the work was demanding, it was not customary for rabbis to retire if they could still carry out their tasks adequately. There are a number of instances in Jewish history of Rabbis serving until their death at very advanced ages. Rav Hai Gaon, head of the great Babylonian academy, was 99 years of age when he died in the year 1038. He was active in his office to the very end. Last year I attended a wedding of one of my students. The senior rabbi who was vibrant and active was in his early 90’s.

For the past 4 years I have been a part time chaplain and music therapist for a local hospice. One of my most interesting visits is with a man who is 107. I enjoy my time with him because of his amazingly positive attitude toward life. In his life this man witnessed the construction of the Empire State building and went to its top in the year it opened. He lived in homes with and without electricity, experienced financial depressions, and two World Wars. His family knew both Winston Churchill (“not so nice”) and Mahatma Gandhi (“very nice”).  I contend that it is his innate curiosity and eagerness to witness all that life has to offer that has kept him going. And he always has a smile on his face and thanks me for visiting him.

Recently the New York Times featured an article about a 107 year-old barber (recognized by the Guinness Book of World records as the oldest working barber) who has been “trimming a bit off the sides” for 96 years. He started cutting hair when he was 11 when Warren Harding was the U.S. President and still works full time, cutting hair five times a week from noon to 8pm, and. According to the article, he spends much of his time on his feet in a pair of worn, cracked leather black shoes and rarely has called in sick. When asked to what he attributes his longevity, he offered only that he has always put in a satisfying day’s work and he never smoked or drank heavily. (Incidentally, when I asked my patient about his longevity, he said that he always ends every lunch and dinner with a cup of ice cream!)

As the population of the US continues to age, more and more facilities are being built to care for the elderly. Care for the aged has always been a hallmark of Jewish communal life. Long before the establishment of old-age homes, older Jews who had no surviving family could look forward to being cared for by the larger community.  In many ways, the question in the McCartney lyric, “will you still need me” is asked by all of us, at every age. Is there any stage of life when we are not concerned about really being seen?  About not being heard? About not being needed? As people age, what many most fear is not being needed.

Ageism, discrimination based on a person’s age, happens all the time in business and industry. Prejudice toward the elderly still abounds. All too often, older people who are willing and able to work find it difficult to find jobs unless they are self-employed.  In contrast, Judaism has always asserted that a person be judged on his or her merits.

We owe our elders reverence. According to my teacher the late A.J. Heschel (in The Insecurities of Freedom) all that our elders ask for is “consideration, attention, not to be discarded.”  It is undoubtedly true that care of aged parents can be challenging, but God promises longevity to those who treat their elders with respect, love, dignity and caring: “Honor your father and mother, that you days may be long upon the land which God gives you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)

My wife Leora wrote her doctoral dissertation on The Development of Children’s Attitudes Toward the Aged. Her research found that by ages 6-8 years, children began to demonstrate negative beliefs and feelings about the aged and their capabilities. The introduction to her dissertation included a beautiful opening quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The prosperity of a country is in accordance with the treatment of its aged. “

May we all be blessed with healthy, productive and wise aging – and the care, love and respect of our family and community as we grow old. May we have the privilege of enjoying the gifts of time and wisdom with the elders in our communities and families.  May we find blessings in each day, and “ May we use all our days so we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12)



backlit dawn foggy friendship

If you are lucky enough to have good friends you know how fortunate you are. Growing up in Toronto, I had a one very close childhood friend. Over the years (beginning in kindergarten) Harvey and I had lots of sleep overs, went to the movies together and of course, watched Yankee games together on TV.  Even when my family moved to the suburbs and my friend stayed in the city, we continued to see each other on weekends. As a teenager I developed a friendship with my friend Marv who went to summer camp with me.  We ended up attending the same college where we developed a routine of ordering milkshakes and toast every night at  Tom’s Restaurant (later made famous by Seinfeld) on New York’s Upper West Side, singing together on weekends in a folk rock group, and sharing each other’s family life cycle events as adults with our own families. We still stay in touch, even though he has lived in Florida for decades.

These days we are witnessing increased individualism on the one hand and more talk about social relationships on the other. Some assert that true friendship may be on the decline. A recent article in New York’s Jewish Week cites the findings of Cornell University sociologists that adults now have only two friends with whom they can discuss important matters, down from three in 1985. Half of those surveyed said they had only one, while four percent had none.

The Bible recognizes the benefits of a good friendship. Ecclesiastes wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.  For if they fall, the one will lift up the other. But woe to the one who is alone when he falls, for he has no other to help him. (4:9-10)

Back in Talmudic times life without companionship was considered unthinkable. In one rabbinic tale (Talmud, Taanit) when Honi the miracle worker awakened after a sleep of seventy years, he despaired because he felt shunned by a new generation of people who did not recognize him. In his immense suffering, Honi prayed to be released from his loneliness, prompting a sage to say: “Either friendship or death.”

Jewish tradition especially values finding friendship with a special partner through study. This partnership, known in Aramaic by the term hevruta, literally meaning a friendship group, is fueled by passionate energy and concern for each other’s spiritual welfare. Friendship is the primary model in Jewish learning. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches that in religious learning and growth, a friend is even more important than a teacher: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers.” A friend, on the highest level, is primarily a learning partner, a partner in life.

A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope describes the benefits to health and happiness of spending time with the right people as friends. She quotes a study by author Dan Buettner who studied the health habits of people who live in so-called “blue zones”—regions of the world where people live longer than average. Blue zones include the Italian island of Sardinia, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda CA, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and the Greek island of Ikaria. Buettner notes that positive friendships are a common theme in the blue zones, writing that “friends can exert a meaningful and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that diet never can.”

The ancient rabbis understood that one’s peers create an environment in which the self develops. And so we find in the Talmud advice on the importance of selecting one’s friends: “Come and learn which is the right path to which a person should adhere? A good friend.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3)

No doubt many of you have scores of Facebook friends. Some of these friendship relationships are likely transactional. One can “friend” or “defriend” someone with the simple click of a finger. Web-based relationships may be interesting or entertaining, but not necessarily long lasting. Buettner argues that one ought to focus on only 3-5 real-world friends rather than one’s more distant Facebook ones. He writes: “In general, you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”  As Hubert H. Humphrey once said: “The greatest gift of life is friendship. “

Wishing you a tranquil summer that includes many meaningful opportunities time to get together with good friends!

What’s Your Name?


Hello my name isI have always been intrigued with how people get their first names, which names are currently most popular, and how people get nicknames that stay with them throughout their lives. My nickname is “Reeve” given to me by my grandmother, who with her Eastern European accent turned my Hebrew name Reuven into Reeven, which was then shortened to Reeve.

I am also interested in people’s last names. At the beginning of the biblical period the Israelites, like all members of ancient societies, had no surnames. Men were known simply as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As the patriarchal families swelled into tribes, more definite identification was deemed necessary, and so patronymics (surnames) came into use. Thus, we find Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Yefuneh identified in the Hebrew Bible. Places of origin began to be used in Talmudic times for peoples’ names such as Nachum the  Mede  and Hillel the Babylonian. In the 10th and 11th centuries, family names became common. With the rise of cities, it became impossible for individuals to know one another as they did in villages, and a personal first name no longer sufficed. The increase in commerce too, necessitated a more exact system of naming.

In a number of countries, family names were often derived from Yiddish words, and thus was born the “Jewish-sounding last name. Occupations often served as a source of a family name. The common Jewish family name Metzger means “butcher,” and the last name Schneider means “tailor.” Other last names related to the lineage of a Jewish family. For example, the last name Cohen or Kahn is a usual indication of priestly lineage, while Levine or Levy is an indication of Levitical lineage.

I was always intrigued by the fact that in the Bible God asks Adam to give the animals names .  Naming becomes the first human independent act in recorded history. One rabbinic interpretation posits that God had to prove to the angels that humans were superior to them. To do so, God asked the angels to name the animals, but they were unable to do so. God then sent the animals to Adam to see what he would call them. Adam succeeded in naming each and every animal, thus demonstrating his superior intelligence, or at least advanced knowledge of zoology, at that point a very young science.

There is a deeper interpretation to Adam’s naming of the animals. In the ancient world, to know something’s inner name was to know its very nature—have power over it. By having Adam give names to the animals, God is again showing us that human beings are more than an animals. Unlike animals, humans have the power of speech and the ability to make moral decisions.

In his recent article in The New York Times, Arthur Brooks cites a quotation from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People : “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  Brooks then goes on to say that according to a 2013 survey, 79% of the population like their names, while 21% do not.  Brooks writes that he is in the 21%, feeling that Arthur is a name that makes him sound old. Currently, the name Arthur doesn’t even crack the top 200 boys’ names.

Some researchers have even tried to show correlations between people’s names and their appearance. In a recent study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers showed participants images of unfamiliar faces and asked them to guess the person’s name from a list of four plausible-seeming names. Odds are that the participants should have guessed correctly 25% of the time, but instead got it right 38% of the time! There is actually a field of study called “onomastics” in which researchers study proper names.  Studies in this field have shown that boys with more feminine-sounding names tend to misbehave disproportionately upon entry to middle school compared with boys with more traditionally masculine names.  Another study has noted that people often gravitate toward places of residence and occupations that resemble their own names. So, the researchers assert, a higher proportion of men named Louis live in St. Louis then would occur at random, and a lot of people named Dennis or Denise become dentists.  I know clergy by the name of Raab and Kanter.  And who can forget the New York dermatologist who long advertised in the subways by the name of Dr. Zizmore.

The Jewish sages have taught that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name excels them all. A good name is to be treasured above precious oil. Wealth, like health, my pass away, but a good name is to be treasured above precious oil. It can adorn a person throughout life, and it can be bequeathed as a precious inheritance.  Wishing you the crown of a good name, and use it in good health.




gratitudeGratitude—the art of giving thanks — is one of many virtues according to Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”  This expresses the fact that the good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours. If you lost your job but you still have your health and your family, you surely still have something to be grateful for. If your home is flooded but you and your family escape in good health, you still have something to be grateful for. Most of us focus so heavily on the deficiencies in our lives that we barely perceive the good that counterbalances them.  Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked qualities that we can access every day.

There is no limit to what we don’t have, so if that is where we focus, our lives will undoubtedly be filled with much dissatisfaction. Correspondingly, even if we are aware of our many gifts, we may grow indifferent to them, so that after some time we forget that they are even there and we come to take the good for granted.

Gratitude is something that does not come easy to us, and it usually takes effort to develop this quality through practice. Some Mussar teachers (i.e. those who teach practices for spiritual self-improvement) suggest a weekly practice of saying thank you to everyone who does even the slightest thing to help you. Examples might include gratitude for someone who holds open a door for you as you are exiting a store, a driver who lets you in and allows you to make a turn onto a busy road, or someone who lets you move up in a store check-out line.

A regular spiritual practice can help us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. The opening prayer in the Jewish prayer book is called Modeh Ani, meaning “thank you.” It is meant to be said when one opens one’s eyes in the morning.  The essence of the prayer is the grateful acknowledgement of the gift of life that we have been given, the greatest of all miracles.  It’s so easy to take for granted when it is a daily phenomenon, and if we immediately turn our attention to our daily routine.

Research by the psychotherapist Amy Morin details the benefits of gratitude:

  • Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying thank you constitute good manners, it can also help you win new friends.
  • Gratitude can improve psychological health. Leading researchers have shown a strong link between gratitude and well-being.
  • Gratitude can reduce a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and frustration to regret.
  • Gratitude can improve empathy and reduce aggression.
  • And, according to a 2011 study, spending some time at night to jot down grateful moments can help you sleep better.It is never too late to show your gratitude. A letter that recently arrived at Beth Judah Temple, where I currently serve as rabbi, reminded me of this. Beth Judah is near the Coast Guard School in Cape May, and each year Jewish coast guard cadets join the congregation for Shabbat morning prayer and are warmly received and welcomed by the congregation.   This letter recently arrived from a coast guard member who was a cadet nearly 50 years ago:                I was fortunate to have found the hospitality of your congregation in 1969 as a coast guard cadet. The weekend visits were the highlight of my schedule for 10 weeks. Although it’s been a long time, I realize that I needed to still thank you for the kindness you showed the stranger all those years ago and how much I enjoyed your generosity.                A.S.

     I often like to reflect on the words of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav: “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.” May we all continually strive to develop an attitude of gratitude, and develop practices that will improve ourselves and the world.




march madness

Once a week I have a phone conversation with Bernie (now in his 90’s and retired) who was the owner of KTAV Publishers, an important Jewish publishing company. I grew up reading many KTAV books, and learned to read Hebrew with a Hebrew primer that is still used today in religious schools and synagogue adult learning programs as well.  Our personal relationship began back in the 1980’s when KTAV published one of my first projects, Shabbat Delight: A Celebration in Stories and Games. For the next 25 years KTAV published many more of my books and our personal and professional connection deepened. We saw each other regularly at rabbinic and educators’ conferences.  My wife and I were honored to be invited as part of the family when Bernie’s late brother Sol received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University and more recently to Bernie’s 90th birthday brunch.

As a college student, Bernie played on the Yeshiva University basketball team and his stats are recognized in a book on noted Jewish sports figures. Bernie and I talk about a myriad of things on our weekly calls, but our conversation always includes basketball and his beloved New York Knicks.  The Knicks have always had a strong support base, even though they have not been a very good team for many years now. Bernie knows all of the nuances of the game, and talks about coaching strategies, his favorite players, and what it might take for the Knicks to again become champions.

The other day the news broke that Yeshiva University’s basketball team will go to the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in its history.  Even the New York Times printed a very comprehensive article that included details about the players with pictures of them both on the court and in study, with their kippot on their heads and fringes (tzitzit) showing beneath their uniforms.  I called Bernie and needless to say he was ecstatic.  He reported that he will be listening to the first game on Yeshiva University’s own radio station.  Admittedly, although I am much more of a hockey and a baseball fan, I have been captivated with the excitement of the event.

The Yeshiva basketball team is called the Maccabees, named for the ancient band of freedom fighters. A New York Post headline blared (in a pun on the Hebrew word for “gotta” as in “ya gotta have faith”):  “YESH THEY CAN and the online Jewish publication Tablets declared that the team’s making the NCAA tournament was “one of the most unlikely Jewish sporting feats ever.” Religious studies and secular academics have traditionally overshadowed sports at YU, although its women’s tennis teams and university roller hockey teams have fared very well.

One of the challenges for a basketball team composed of observant Jews is time constraint of Jewish observance.  With so many Jewish holidays throughout the year along with the Sabbath every week, players have less time for shooting practice, lifting weights and reviewing videos of plays and strategies – not to mention that they can’t compete in games on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  At YU team practices begin before 6 AM, finishing in time for prayer and religious studies which begin at 9 AM. Luckily, the NCAA  has graciously accommodated by scheduling the YU team for games on Friday afternoon (rather than the typical Friday night time slot) and moving games scheduled for Saturday afternoon until after the Sabbath ends with nightfall.

According to the players, their faith informs their values and the way they play the game. They see their faith and upbringing as an advantage.  In fact, the team has started studying passages from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) before games this year. Many of the players participated in basketball programs at their Jewish Day High Schools and Yeshivas in their teen years, so they have a lot of practice at balancing their religion with their athletic pursuits.

The Maccabees of bygone days were a fearless group of warriors who fought for Jewish identity and religious freedom.   I’m rooting for the success of the Yeshiva Maccabees.  However the tournament turns out for them, I’m banking on them to play the game with courage and determination and the highest level of Jewish values and sportsmanship.  I’m thrilled that they are giving their school (and the Jewish people vicariously) a chance to win a national trophy.  As they say – you gotta have faith!


Promises, Promises, Promises


New year resolutionI am writing these thoughts on the last day of 2017. With the new year almost here, many people (including myself) indulge in retrospection and reevaluating some of their life’s choices.

Thinking back, I am supremely grateful for many highlights in my work and personal life in the past year. I’ve been privileged to bring joy and comfort to my patients and their families and care givers through music therapy and spiritual support through my hospice chaplaincy work. It has been enormously gratifying to help set Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood on a path of growth and thriving.  The opportunity to innovate in the worship services, to meaningfully teach and learn with highly engaged congregants during Torah study, and to build community through the cultural Fellowship programs at community members’ homes have been exhilarating, leading to new friendships, new understandings and a growing congregation.  Outdoor summer musical Sabbath services, including Kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach in Cape May and Wildwood and lighting the hanukkiah on the mall in Cape May have fulfilled my dream of reaching out to the broader community and strengthening the Jewish presence of the community.  I have been touched and inspired by the courage and mutual sustenance for each other by members of The Kaddish Club that I started at Temple Sholom in Bridgewater a few years ago, that continues to be a powerful support system for those who have lost loved ones.  I have loved seeing the smiles and excitement in students’, parents’ and teachers’ eyes when my co-author Karen Rostoker-Gruber and I performed our magical musical educational Hanukkah program, based on our children’s book Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match at synagogues and JCCs. On a personal note, I’ve been blessed to share many new experiences with my grandchildren – including playing pinball games at my grandson’s birthday party, visiting the Crayola Factory together, and facing the challenges of an Escape room with them. I am also thrilled to announce the newest addition to our family—our grand dog Piper, who I can hardly wait to meet when we visit in Chicago in the spring.

And I am looking forward to 2018 with great excitement and anticipation. In the coming months I will be bringing programs about my newly released book Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith to even more synagogues and JCCs.  I am thrilled and extremely honored to have been invited to teach a graduate course to ministerial students at Drew University’s Theological Seminary.

In addition to reminiscing and taking stock of accomplishments at the end of a year, the New Year brings an opportunity to reflect on “unfinished business” – the things we want to change or start in the new year.  To spark the process for myself, I checked out some resolutions that others have shared.  Here are a few that resonated with me, in no particular order:

  • Be present! Make eye contact with people as you speak to them and really listen.
  • Don’t pull your phone out every time you’re bored! Give your mind time to wander and wonder.
  • Spend less time on social media and more on in-person connection.
  • Try new things! Set some new goals for yourself.
  • Exercise more and take more walks if you are able.
  • Eat more salad and other healthy foods.
  • Get more quality sleep.
  • Find a weekly activity that will help to make a difference in someone else’s life.
  • Be more compassionate.
  • Stop procrastinating.
  • Meet new people and make some new friends.
  • Be more polite.
  • Learn and commit yourself to civil discourse.
  • Volunteer and be more charitable.
  • Spend more time out of doors.
  • Find time each week to meditate.
  • Learn some new skills.
  • Bring more peace into your life by practicing non judgment.
  • Stay positive and open your mind to new possibilities
  • Remember each day that it’s never too late to repair what is broken.
  • Say thank you 10 times each day. Keep a journal and each evening write down several things for which you are grateful.

Unfortunately, all of us know how hard it is to keep New Years resolutions.  As an article in today’s New York Times reminds us:

New Year’s Eve is a time to set goals: to eat better, to save more money, to work harder, to drink less. It’s Day 1 on the road to a “new you.” But this road, as we all know, is difficult to follow. Humans are notoriously bad at resisting temptation, especially (as research confirms) if we are busy, tired or stressed. By January 8 some 25% of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept. (The New York Times, Sunday, December 31, 2017)

However, the article goes on to suggest some tips for how we can keep our resolutions:

Cultivating the social emotions maximizes both our “resume virtues” (those that underlie professional success) and our “eulogy virtues” (those for which we want to be remembered. In nudging the mind to be more patient and more selfless, they benefit everyone whom our decisions impact, including our own future selves. In short, they give us not only grit but also grace.

So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate those emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.  Doing so will help ensure that every future New Year’s Eve will have more to celebrate than regret.

In Judaism, the number 18 has special meaning. Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and the numerical value of “life” (chai) is 18.  Wishing you a New Year of 2018 (20-chai) that will be filled with light, joy, health, peace and meaningful change in your life! And thank you for reading my Thoughts and sharing them with others.

Teach Your Child to Swim!


coast guardTwo months before my Bar Mitzvah my parents sent me to my first experience at sleep -away camp. The camp was located in Utterson Ontario (150 miles north of Toronto). Situated on a beautiful pristine lake, the camp offered boating, sailing, canoeing and water skiing. In order to be able to participate in these activities you needed to be a competent swimmer and had to pass a deep water swimming test. Although my father of blessed memory was a good swimmer, he never taught me. That first summer I suffered the embarrassment of not being able to participate in all of the water sports, and especially the big canoe trip.

The summer camp program also offered classes on Judaism. I studied with a professor in residence who taught me (in a class on parent-child relations) that the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin lists the obligations of parents to their children.  Interestingly enough, providing basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter for a child does not appear on the list. Instead, the list emphasizes spiritual care – such as the obligation to inculcate morals and values in the child. But the obligation that appeared at the end of the list took me totally took me by surprise. Parents MUST teach their children how to swim – or find someone to teach them!  During that first summer at camp I learned that according to Jewish law, parents must ensure that their children can survive independently – including by being able to swim.

Now that I am the rabbi at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood NJ, I am continually reminded of that first summer by our proximity to the water – and of my great admiration for those who protect and defend us on the seas. There is a Coast Guard Training Station in nearby Cape May.  Whenever there are Jewish cadets, Beth Judah has the privilege of hosting them on Shabbat morning during their eight week basic training course.  Over the years we have opened our doors and hearts to many brave young men and women who come from all parts of the United States, and even from Israel and beyond.  The course is extremely physically, mentally and emotionally rigorous, and many of the cadets have expressed how important the few hours of tranquility have been for them.  They have spoken emotionally about how important praying, singing, being part of a Jewish community and sharing in the Kiddush lunch has been for their spiritual and emotional well-being.

A couple of months ago a young cadet who had just begun his Coast Guard training came to Temple. His face was very sad and somber. In fact, when I spoke to him after services about his initial experiences he became quite emotional, confiding that he did not know whether he had what it would take to complete the program.  I offered him a prayer of healing and for the next couple of months he continued to come to Temple and was warmly embraced by the entire congregation.  What made his story even more memorable was that he told us a bit about his family background.  He and his family are immigrants from Mexico who discovered that they were descendants of Marranos (Jews who were forced to hide their identity in order to survive the Inquisition in Spain).  After learning their heritage, his whole family began the process of learning about Judaism in order to convert – when he was already a teenager! With each passing week the demeanor of our cadet changed.  He began to radiate confidence, to smile more, and to participate more comfortably in the service – accepting Torah honors and leading readings.  He expressed his belief that the spiritual support of the Beth Judah community gave him the courage, determination and fortitude to continue with the training in order to complete it.   Just today I learned that he successfully graduated from his course of training, and saw pictures of him and his proud parents that were posted on, along with a message from his parents:  “We have no words to express how thankful we are with what you did. You provided him the human support needed for him to continue and finish the first step of his journey. We have been teaching our kids that Jewish life is about service, serving the family, the Jewish people and everyone.”

This story is a powerful reminder of what small acts of kindness can mean — embracing the stranger, offering hospitality to those in need, saying a supporting word to someone who appears a little down, letting our homes and places of worship be opened wide to all who enter.