Summer Series, Part 1 – Cycles of Life

Now that Memorial Day has passed, summer is here! This season offers the promise of new adventures and a chance to reset and recharge from the rigors of the school year.

It’s also a time of transition. In late spring, we celebrate as kids finish a year of school and transition to a new grade. (Growing up, my favorite day of the year was when, on the last day of say, first grade, I could declare: “I’m a second grader now!”) As I walk through the West Village in mid-May, I love seeing the purple gowns of graduating NYU students, who celebrate as they complete courses of study, earn degrees, and graduate from their programs. This is a popular season for B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies. And later in the summer, wedding season will begin. 

Any transition—from first-grader to second-grader, from student to alumnus, from child to teenager, from beloved friend to spouse—brings change and the need for realignment. No matter how joyful a given change might be, it always involves adjustment to new and unexplored realities. And of course, when we experience hardship, the changes that come with illness and loss of all kinds can be all the more challenging to face.

As the Hebrew expression goes: Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are hard. Human beings innately understand that it takes time to incorporate and integrate a new aspect of our lives. That’s why all faith traditions have tools to help us navigate new realities. These tools are called rituals. Rituals, like tossing a cap in the air during graduation or standing under the wedding canopy and breaking a glass, transform us from one identity to another. But they also provide a framework to make sense of these new identities, as well as the new experiences that come with them. 

In honor of summer, this season of transition and growth, this D’var Torah series will explore moments along the Jewish life cycle and their accompanying rituals. We’ll discuss some of the more familiar ones, like a B’nai Mitzvah or a wedding, and some that might be less well known, like a siyyum, the conclusion of a period of study. But all will share key elements that help us navigate new beginnings. 

Let’s get started! 

Shabbat shalom, 


Counting the Omer: Malchut, Majesty

Even for those who don’t feel any connection to the British monarchy, or who recognize its many challenges, there was something powerful about witnessing the pageantry and ceremony of the coronation of King Charles III: the elaborate garments, the grand processions, the blasts of the trumpets, the majestic crown. The drama of special rituals reminds us of the human capacity for beauty, nobility, and greatness. Moments like these can be so powerful because they allow us to transcend our individual selves and feel part of something grand. 

In this final week before Shavuot, we reflect on the attribute of Malchut, or “Majesty.” Like the coronation of a monarch, Jewish rituals are also deeply powerful and moving. Just as the coronation transformed Charles from Prince to King, so too do Jewish rituals transform us from one state of being to another

Last week, I had the privilege to witness as Rabbi Jacob underwent two exciting Jewish rituals: his rabbinic ordination and his wedding! In the Torah, Moses transfers his leadership to his successor, Joshua. To transmit authority to Joshua, Moses lays his hands upon Joshua’s head (Numbers 27:18-20). The same ritual of laying of hands takes place during many rabbinic ordinations today. Before the open ark at Temple Emanu-El, Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss places her hands on the heads on each ordinee, investing them with rabbinic authority and transforming them into Rabbis in the Community of Israel. And at every Jewish wedding, two friends stand underneath the chuppah, and through the exchange of rings, the recitation of blessings, and the breaking of a glass, they become family. These are just two examples of many beautiful and transformative rituals within Jewish tradition.

However, unlike coronation, Jewish tradition teaches that greatness is not a quality reserved solely for a monarch. Instead, a core principle of Judaism is the belief that there is inherent nobility and majesty within all humans

In the Midrash, Vayikra Rabbah (a narrative interpretation of the Hebrew Bible), the ancient Rabbis share the following story: 

Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. 

They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” 

He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” 

They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” 

He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” 

They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” 

He said to them, “Yes. Just as the statues of kings…are cleaned and polished…I, who was created in the image of God, how much more so!”

In other words, Hillel affirms that because we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, each of us is essentially royal, and we should therefore treat ourselves and others with the dignity befitting a monarch. In our world, which depends so much on hierarchy and rank, this is a radical, countercultural idea. But when we live the value of seeing the Divine spark within all people, we can transform the world into a place of kindness, decency, and even majesty. 

Shabbat shalom,


Counting the Omer: Magnificence

I am sad to write that this is my last D’var Torah as the Rabbinic Fellow at the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan after four truly magnificent years serving this community. This week’s quality that we focus on during the period between Passover and Shavuot, when we count the Omer, is “magnificence.” Hod in Hebrew, magnificence is the balancing force to the netzach, or perseverance, that we focused on last week. Whereas perseverance can be the fire that ignites us to keep going, noticing the magnificence in our lives and in the world can be the pause we need to take it all in.

In Numbers 27:20, God instructs Moses to invest in Joshua the magnificence of leadership using this same word, Hod. “Invest him with some of your authority (hod), so that the whole Israelite community will listen.” This ritual process of investing hod in upcoming leaders detailed in the Book of Numbers is the source for the current ritual of ordaining rabbis and cantors as clergy for the Jewish people, a blessing that Rabbi Deena received a few years ago and one that I’m privileged to receive this Sunday. When I pause to take in the grandeur of this moment, after years of perseverance to make my way through rabbinical school, I can’t help but think of the magnificence of this community where I learned what it really means to be a rabbi. 

Below are my remarks from last Shabbat in appreciation for the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan and the abundant blessings you all have given me:

How can I even begin to describe these past four years at JCP?! I started out as a b’nai mitzvah tutor. It jumped out to me right away that we had 45-minute lessons with the b’nai mitzvah learners so we had time to really get to know each other amidst learning Torah portions and prayers. That underlying priority to connect with and support each other has defined my time here at JCP. Over four years of learning, teaching, singing, planning, drashing, officiating, and more. . . . I am most grateful to have been a part of and to have come into my own as an almost rabbi in this vibrant, warm, and open-hearted community.

At the end of that tutoring year, I called Rabbi Deena to ask if there might be any more work around JCP for a rabbinical student. She asked if I played the guitar, to which I replied yes. She then asked if I sang, to which I also replied yes. Little did I know that that would be the start of three years as Student Rabbi in this community. I also didn’t know that I would have the special opportunity to learn all that I have from Rabbi Deena—who always leads by example, interacts with every person who passes through JCP with compassion and presence, and is a wellspring of Jewish knowledge that I have been so lucky to soak up—most especially officiating lifecycle moments and teaching Biblical history. From babies to adults, and everything in between, I haven’t taken your trust or the privilege of serving this community for granted.

You all have inspired me as a rabbi-to-be, and have constantly reminded me of why I wanted to be a rabbi in the first place: to pursue meaning and connection in the Jewish tradition and to share that with others. You inspired me at my first JCP bat mitzvah, when the mother of the bat mitzvah shared that hearing her daughter practice her prayers on Zoom during the height of the pandemic was the highlight of her week as those timeless words of prayer filled her home. You inspired me when a preschooler came down to Babies and Blessings and jumped in her dad’s arms. You inspired me whenever I walked through HSP for the first time and saw children excited and happy to be in Hebrew school—even requesting certain prayers in t’filah which I can say with confidence. . . does not happen everywhere. You inspired me when one of my high schoolers summoned up the courage through some nerves to be a big buddy at last year’s Passover scavenger hunt, and was an amazing big buddy to his younger mate. You inspired me when you held the tallit over the children when we gave them their Friday night blessing. While I’ve learned a lot of the practical side of how to be a rabbi here, the liveliness and love in this community has fueled my spirit.

There’s a line in this week’s (last week’s) Torah portion, that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites “kedoshim ti’hiyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem” (Leviticus 19:2). “You shall be holy for I, your God Adonai, am holy.” The “you shall be holy” part, “kedoshim ti’hiyu,” is notably in the plural form. You ALL shall be holy. This line really stuck out to me this week. As much Torah, as much prayer, as much meaning and connection that I’ve tried to pursue through five years of rabbinical school and longer, the goal of all of this is to be holy together. Kedoshim ti’hiyu. Thank you for being a special example of how to pursue holiness together—all of the staff who support this community as well as the community itself—and for inviting me into JCP with such warmth, encouragement, and care. Wherever I go from here, I am taking all of you and your imprint with me. Thank you for these special four years, for teaching me what it means to be a rabbi, and for showing me the holiness in doing this whole enterprise of Judaism together. 

Shabbat shalom,


Counting the Omer: Perseverance

In my sophomore year of high school, I struggled to get playing time on the basketball team. Although I was the first player off the bench by the end of the season, it took tremendous work, determination, and patience. My parents sat me down after the season ended and told me that they were proud of me. I can remember my dad, who has coached basketball for decades, saying “your perseverance will help you in whatever you want to do, beyond just basketball.”

This week’s sacred quality of focus during the counting of the Omer is netzach, or perseverance. In many regards, perseverance is the story of the Jewish people. The phrase “netzach Yisrael,” or “Israel’s perseverance,” from the Book of Samuel (I Samuel 15:29) has come to characterize the Jewish experience, enduring from generation to generation through time, place, and hardship. In our prayers, too, we recite the phrase “ul’netzach netzachim” to describe the infinite nature of our ongoing Jewish expression. Perseverance is an important quality for both Jewish individuals as well as the Jewish collective.

In addition to netzach capturing the determination and fortitude it takes to persist through challenging circumstances, it also represents the timelessness of Judaism and Jewish values. The pillars of Jewish practice, Torah, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness, can effectively ground and inspire us through competing values of the societies in which we live. These pillars already have persevered through countless kingdoms, civilizations, polities, and countries. As I once heard climate activist and author Daniel Sherrell say, “religion and spiritual practice are ‘boulders’ amidst the (challenges and pressures of the world).” Like a boulder, Jewish tradition perseveres.

Perseverance is essential in our own lives–during junior varsity basketball and beyond–and to Jewish tradition. The sacred quality of netzach can inspire us to go get what we want and to preserve our heritage which has endured for so long already. Perhaps Shabbat is the perfect day to do both: Do that which fills up our beings, despite competing factors on our time, and to take part in a Jewish tradition that has persevered for thousands of years.

Shabbat shalom,


Counting the Omer: Beauty

Recent JCP Bat Mitzvah Elizabeth Resnick taught about the priestly clothing described in the Book of Exodus a couple of months ago during her service. She encouraged all of us—family, friends, and officiants alike—to consider how our clothes represent our inner selves and the moment for which we’re dressing up. Elizabeth’s Torah portion, Exodus 28:2 instructs Moses to “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” In this case, Aaron’s clothes and appearance are supposed to embody the dignity and adornment (tiferet) that define his sacred responsibility as the High Priest of the Israelites.

The word “adornment” in that verse, or tiferet in Hebrew, is the third holy characteristic upon which we reflect in the time between Passover and Shavuot. Tiferet can mean beauty or splendor in addition to adornment. Wisdom from the Jewish mystical tradition suggests that tiferet is the sum of the past two weeks’ characteristics, kindness and strength. In this tradition, Elizabeth’s teaching, and the Book of Exodus, beauty is far more than skin deep. The beauty that we can identify with our sight—sacral vestments, the ornaments on the Torah, clothes, and more–are all a manifestation of the internal beauty that flows within each of us and throughout our tradition.

There’s an idea in the Talmud that a Torah scholar’s appearance should represent their inner life. A prominent rabbi from the Talmud named Rabban Gamliel even instituted a rule that to enter his house of study, one’s “inside must be like their outside” (BT Berakhot 28a). Elsewhere, another rabbi from the Talmud named Rava says that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like their outside is not a Torah scholar at all (BT Yoma 72b). Both of these rabbis’ insistence that students of Torah must represent themselves authentically emphasizes the idea that outward appearances are ideally reflections of that which is on the inside.

The sacral vestments represent the beauty of divine service and leadership. Torah ornaments show the splendor that is found within the scrolls themselves. Our clothes, too, can manifest the sacred dignity and beauty inherent to humanity. I’ll leave you with the Jewish blessing for experiencing moments of intense beauty: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, shekacha lo ba’olamo. Blessed are You God, for these things in the world.

Shabbat shalom,


Counting the Omer: Strength

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a book about a tree who loved and provided for a person with its natural resources in each stage of the person’s life, was one of my favorite stories as a child. I loved reading about each chapter of the human’s life, and I especially loved the tree’s unfettered love and generosity. 

When I reread it as an adult, however, the book didn’t come across nearly as wholesome as I remembered. I had picked it up again in my early twenties, working as a Jewish educator at a job in which there was always more to give to students, families, colleagues, and curricula; I understood that the tree in The Giving Tree gave so much of itself that it had nothing left to give. While the tree completely embodied last week’s attribute of hesed, kindness, it did so without any boundaries or care for itself.

This week’s character trait during the Counting of the Omer is gevurah, which translates to strength or discipline. In the Jewish mystical tradition, gevurah is the counterbalance to hesed. Even when it’s someone’s natural inclination to perform acts of loving kindness, we can end up like the tree with nothing left of itself to give without any inner restraint or discernment. And when someone’s natural inclination is toward strength and boundaries, we run the risk of living disconnected and isolated lives without any kindness or generosity. 

Ben Zoma says, “Who is strong? One who overcomes their inclination” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Gevurah and hesed come as a pair because they each serve as a counterbalance to one’s inclinations and are both required to live a healthy, balanced spiritual life. Pursuing that healthy, balanced, spiritual life requires the inner strength that gevurah represents– to be kind and generous while also protective of our own physical and emotional well-being. These first two weeks of Counting the Omer provide a blueprint to do just that.

Shabbat shalom,


Counting the Omer: Kindness

While the chorus of Dayenu or Chad Gadya might still be stuck in our heads from the past couple nights of seder, the Jewish calendar is already marching toward the next festival. Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the wheat harvest as well as the receiving of Torah, arrives exactly seven weeks from Passover. There is a tradition to count each of the 49 days of this period, known as the Omer, with a blessing. There is also a tradition to mark each of these seven weeks by exploring a particular character trait, or middah, that we hope to build as a way of preparing ourselves for receiving Torah on Shavuot.

The first of these characteristics is hesed, which is often translated as “kindness.” Many of the learners at JCP’s Hebrew school, HSP, will recognize this word from a song we sing, Olam Hesed Yibaneh, meaning “the world will be built with hesed. (Psalm 89:3)” This word has further Biblical roots as well, describing kindness between people as well as between people and the Divine, and is one of God’s attributes in the Book of Exodus (34:6). Hesed is a keyword in post-Biblical texts as well, as many Rabbis of the Talmud consider acts of kindness a pillar of Jewish life. Into whichever chapter of Jewish tradition we take a glimpse, hesed is a core characteristic which we hope to deepen.

Hesed is a little more than just “kindness,” however. Similarly to how Judaism in general prioritizes actions over beliefs, hesed requires deeds and not only disposition. Mussar is the Jewish study and discipline of character traits such as hesed and one of its leading teachers, Alan Morinis writes “In the Jewish view, it isn’t enough to hold warm thoughts in our heart or to wish each other well. We are meant to offer real sustenance to one another, and the ways in which we can do that are innumerable: we can offer our money, time, love, empathy, service, an open ear, manual assistance, a letter written, a call made, and on and on.” While being nice is always good too, cultivating the character trait of hesed necessitates acts of kindness that sustain one another.

I don’t expect the importance of kindness to be earth-shattering news to anyone. I consider myself lucky to be a part of this community, where hesed is truly expressed through deeds. And yet, if our world really does rely on these acts as the Psalmist claims, there is always more to do. In her most recent Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl cited a study in which the University of Sussex found that the greatest impediment to performing these acts of kindness is fear of misinterpretation that the recipients might be offended or assume ulterior motives. Part of the transformation from being kind to performing acts of kindness is to face this fear. After all, our world, our tradition, and our spiritual lives are very much built on it.

Shabbat shalom,


Highlights from the Haggadah: Next Year

My friend’s uncle always concludes their family seder by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem… or Scarsdale!” By subverting the classic “l’shanah haba’ah b’yerushalayim” or “next year in Jerusalem,” he points out the curious ending to our festive seders through his lighthearted humor. After a delicious meal full of celebration, song, and discussion– perhaps even reflections on different highlights from the Haggadah– we end with a wish that we do it all over again next year… But in Jerusalem. As I’ll explain below, we can understand Jerusalem literally, metaphorically, or some combination of the two. But either way, we finish the seder in stereotypical Jewish fashion: without a neat resolution.

When we reach this last line of the seder, many might think of Jerusalem as the modern city in Israel. Throughout Jewish history, Jerusalem has always held major real estate in the Jewish consciousness. In the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem is the capital for the Kingdom of Judah and the central location for Jewish life through festivals, worship, and sacrifices. After Jews were exiled in the year 70 CE, Jerusalem became a centerpiece of Jewish yearning as prayers for a return to Jerusalem were codified into daily prayer services. Fast forward to 1967: Israel controlled all of Jerusalem after the Six Day War from whence it has since continued to grow in culture, spirit, and conflict. There is also an undercurrent of Jewish messianism throughout all of these eras in which Jerusalem is the location of Jewish reunification and paradise when the Jewish messiah arrives. In any of these forms, “Next year in Jerusalem” refers to the city itself.

Jerusalem has also been an important metaphor throughout Jewish tradition. In Hebrew, Yerushalayim could mean “City of Peace,” which some understand as a general time and place in which peace is possible. The Talmud (BT Taanit 5a) refers to a Yerushalayim shel Malah, or Jerusalem Above, that exists in a heavenly realm. Author Dara Horn calls Jerusalem an “emotional space that maps onto personal dreams and desires” in her scholarship on modern Jewish literature where Jerusalem is often a metaphor for an ideal of personal meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Over thousands of years of time and tradition, Jerusalem has developed as a metaphor alongside its growing layers of stones and civilization.

Poet Yehuda Amichai suggests that the literal and the metaphorical Jerusalem are inherent in its name, since Yerushalayim is in the Hebrew grammar form for doubles. Whether you think of the city or the metaphor that Jerusalem represents, or both, it holds a similar sense of incompletion. The literal city of Jerusalem is currently facing significant political turmoil as it serves as a battleground for the future of Israel. The metaphorical city of Jerusalem remains an unrealized ideal. Without certainty or closure on what “next year in Jerusalem” could possibly look like, all we can do is appreciate our family and friends around the seder table at this moment, in our respective locations, and the deep sources of wisdom that the Jewish tradition provides on Passover. Right here and right now is rich with meaning while we wait. Hopefully, next year too.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Passover,

Our JCPodcast for Thanksgiving!

Welcome to the second episode of the JCPodcast! Every few weeks, in lieu of a written D’var Torah, Rabbi Deena and Rabbi Jacob will share a brief discussion about an interesting and relevant Jewish topic. This week, in honor of Thanksgiving, we’re talking about Jewish practices that help us cultivate and express our gratitude. Listen to the podcast here and check out the animated version on our Youtube channel!

If you’re looking to give back during this season of gratitude, we hope you will join us to volunteer. Check out our community service opportunities here! 

We hope that you and your loved ones had a meaningful Thanksgiving. We’re so grateful for our JCP community. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena & Jacob