Choose the blessing of identity


Shabbat R’eih

Shabbat Mevarchim: Rosh Chodesh Elul 5777

“Identity”, according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, “ including our religious identity, is becoming fluid, permeable, and an ongoing construction — a verb rather than a noun. “ This means that … Americans are increasingly becoming… “mixers, blenders, benders and switchers” who “customize our religious identities in order to find greater meaning and purpose.” One driver of this mixing of religious ideas results from “new powerful technologies from search engines to connection technologies.” This makes available religious and spiritual resources independent of religious authorities, which challenges exisiting institutions, whose business models and organizational structures are increasingly unsustainable. This alternative “model of authority and hierarchy, [with its] very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, …tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.” The reality of this model is threatening to many clergy, and stands in sharp contrast to this week’s parasha, R’eih. (

Parashat R’eih is filled with legalities and is framed by blessings and curses associated with the choices we make concerning adherence to the Torah’s rules and regs. The Israelites are warned not to be lured by other nations to worship their gods. On this point, one commentary states, “Every religion has its own ‘grammar’, its coherent way of expressing its values. We do violence to that coherence when we mix practices of one faith system with another” (Eitz Hayim Commentary, p.1068). The text continues, “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (Dt. 13:1). How, then, can each new generation reconcile the conflict that arises between preserving a rich heritage and way of life, and making out-of-the-box choices which challenge the institutions and sources of authority? Kula’s point is that this is already happening and represents a great opportunity.

Adam Stone offers a perspective that places “relevant ideas—and not institutions for institutions sake—as the dominant value proposition of Jewish life.” These ideas should relevant and meaningful to people, and lead to behaviors such as treating the stranger kindly, extending justice in the world, and learning to relax and rejuvenate. Stone emphasizes that he is not advocating for slapping a Jewish label on universal humanist tendencies. He is seeking an “intellectually robust and honest conversation,” not “Judaism-lite.” And, while acknowledging the role institutions play in supporting communal life, he emphasizes the importance of creating engaging alternatives for those more hesitant to become “joiners.”

IMG_0279  In contrast, Kula moves the discussion out of the Jewish community and into the global sphere. Responding to the rise intermarriage (racial, religious, ethnic, etc.) he believes that “more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.” This is a radical view which no doubt creates discomfort for traditionalists, liberals and secularists alike.

So, how can we make sense of today’s parasha?

Consider the opening verse: “See(Re’eih), this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessing, if you obey the commandments of YHVH your God that I enjoin upon you today…(Dt. 11:26) for “before you (lifneichem), is in the plural. Why? The Kotzker Rebbe explains that while the Torah was indeed given to everyone – it was placed before you all [those who were, are and will yet be] – each person only beholds in it that which s/he is capable of seeing.

IMG_0282Consider another reading. Perhaps this hints at the tension inherent between the choices made by an individual and those made by a community. It is within that tension that Judaism and the Jewish people struggle – hopefully, for a blessing. It is in this dynamic tension between the roots of tradition and wings of innovation that transformation takes place. Upon seeing the unique godliness in the individual may we be so blessed to manifest the love and acceptance needed to connect us together as part of the human family.

IMG_0280 Shabbat Shalom & Rosh Chodesh Tov,
Nina J. Mizrahi
Community Rabbi
Ames, Iowa & Chicagoland




“Your wilderness will become like Eden”

Shabbat Eikev

Second of seven weeks of comfort
leading up to Rosh Hashanah

Inspired by excerpts from this week’s Haftarah (Isaiah 49:14-51:3)
(revised 6 August 2017/ 14 Av 5777)

Birds-Flying free  Getting to Eden

Your wilderness will become like Eden (Is. 51:3)

Each drop of rain

Invites Paradise

A blossoming of beauty beyond description

Disrupts the arid wilderness

If only briefly…

Each awakening

Invites Paradise

A blossoming of gratitude

Transforms an arid soul

Into a Garden of Eden

If only briefly…

In the wilderness of the soul

Just beneath the surface

Ready to flourish

Paradise awaits

Summoning seeds of possibility

Already planted in

Children, adults and elders

The sure, the ambivalent and the questioning

Those connected and those disconnected

Those seeking and those hiding

The joyous and the angry

No distinction

No separation

           There is only Eden

It is us.

Imagine what would happen

Every parched soul quenched


Unique souls connecting

This DIVINE flow

Connecting each to the ONE

Invite a blossoming of breath

               Inhale joy

                    Exhale sorrow

Chai Ani – I am alive (Is. 49:18)

Morning by morning (Is. 50:4)

“And who is this aliveness in me?”(1)

“Is it not the Blessed Holy One?”

Gather this aliveness  into

A bouquet of unity –

Na’amda yachadLet us stand together (Is. 50:8)

      In this garden of blessed possibility


Your wilderness and my wilderness,

Your paradise and my paradise together

Will become like Eden

Gladness and Joy

Thanksgiving and the sound of music (Is. 51:3)

Will resound

Baruch tih’yeh

May you be blessed “(Dt. 7:14)

(1) A niggun called “I Am Alive” (Chai Ani) was composed by Rabbi Dovid Zeller, z”l(of blessed memory). Visit

SPIRITUAL PRACTICES                                   todah

Awaken gratitude

Quench     IMG_0270     Your parched soul

     Celebrate being alive    IMG_0265

                                      Inhale joy IMG_0268  Exhale sadness

       almond-blossoms Nurture a blossoming of …

      Harvest IMG_0357 a bouquet of unity

Stand together as One                                            IMG_0267

 Cultivate  gladness /sasson & joy/simcha

 Wishing you a beautiful week.

Shavuah tov,

Nina J. Mizrahi
Community Rabbi
Chicagoland & Ames Jewish Congregation, Ames Iowa

© 2017 by Nina J. Mizrahi
Do not duplicate

When memory fades

memory-brain Aging has been on my mind a lot recently.  My mom is nearing 88 and my dad is now 92.   It is difficult living far away from them.  I’m sure mom will age in place, but I worry she will be isolated if she becomes house-bound.  Meanwhile, she is still out and about, meeting friends for lunch and ushering at cultural events.  When we were discussing my upcoming visit, I couldn’t resist asking her to cook a favorite dish for me.  She was so excited!  For as long as I can remember, it has been a tradition mom has always honored such requests for birthdays, home-comings and other special events.  A couple of days later, she told me she couldn’t recall how to make this particular dish.  I realized then how important it is that over the years I have been writing down these recipes, though it never occurred to me she would forget them herself.  She was so happy when I sent her the recipe.  There is something so wonderful about cooking for those we love – and enjoying what is cooked special for us!  This tempers some of my anxiety about checking in with dad.

memory-chip Dad lives at an assisted living facility.  Despite loss of hearing and vision, and living with dementia,  he has often expressed to me a sense of boredom.  Makes me wonder how many other folks facing these changes feel the same way.  I cherish the days, and they still exist, when dad is ready for a good conversation.  Mindfulness practice has been useful in helping me be in the moment, take it all in.  This is good because dad is not likely to recall the conversation.  Today was a really good day.  He seemed content – and thrilled not to be facing the bitter cold in Chicago.  Sometimes when he can’t recall something he tells me his “hard drive is full”!    Though there are plenty of days when dad doesn’t pick up when I call – mostly because he can’t hear – meaningful conversation is still possible and important for both of us.  Every once in a while I will hit on a question about which he has lots to say.  I have notes scribbled everywhere, all collected in a folder for my on-going effort to write up these stories as part of his “Torah” – the wisdom gleaned from the many stories he has told me about his life combined with my own memories.  I am working on my mom’s Torah as well.

Even though I did not grow up with grandparents, or maybe because I didn’t, recording memories has become very important.  All of us living in different states and continents(!) has made memory-making and memory-sharing challenging.   This especially as my daughter is readying herself for a move to New Zealand. At least she’ll be closer to my brother, who lives in Australia!  You get the picture.

This week, as  our the biblical patriarch, Jacob, nears the end of his life, his fragility and advanced age stands in sharp contrast to the man who once triumphed in a struggle with an angel.  This is especially poignant not only in light of my own parents, but also as 60 is rapidly approaching.  Someone once told me that the hardest thing about aging is that you don’t feel old inside.  It is just that your body is beginning to wear out.  So, when my dad told me how great he feels today, my heart was filled with gratitude and joy – as it is by the knowledge that mom is busy preparing a special meal for us.  Sure, tomorrow  could be a totally different story, but today is good.

wise-aging-lk-thumbnail-400x400 All of these experiences have raised my awareness and cultivated a desire to work with the aging – or the s-aging, as Reb Zalman taught.  Co-facilitating the Institute for Jewish Spirituality program, Wise Aging,” for men and women in their 50’s – 80’s continues to be personally growth inducing.  Through reflections shared and insights gained, we support and nurture   one another’s continuing growth.  This underscores the importance of community for people of every age and life stage.  This even for those in need of memory care.  And thus begins my adventure as part-time rabbi for a new community opening in the my area: Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community.  What an honor and privilege to provide spiritual care for the residents and their families, along with clergy from other faiths.

As we prepare for the opening celebration, we face the challenge of transforming a building into a home, a safe haven.  We need to make this a place where the residents are seen as viable human beings and not as people “suffering from” dementia.  Our fathers and mothers do not experience themselves  as”shells of their former selves.”  True, we may suffer from sadness and loss, but they deserve all the love and engagement possible.

Here is an excerpt from my words for the upcoming dedication:

mezuzzah-hand-touching “May this be a house of courage

Where frustration is met with patience,

Loneliness lessened by engagement.

A place where

Healing and growth are nurtured and

Where forgiveness prevails.


May this be a house of vitality,


Though words may be lost,

Communication abounds

Through music, art and creative expression.

A home where meaning

Fills the void

Of memories no longer accessible.

Additionally, as part of the opening celebration, I will offer words about the transformation of this new building into a safe, welcoming home for those needing memory care.

To those in the Northbrook, IL area: Whether you are a Jewish Communal Professional, clergy or someone concerned about serving those in need of memory care, I hope you will join me for the celebration and to learn more (invitation attached). The welcome and dedication will begin at 4:30pm.

Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

4:00 – 7:00 pm

99 Pointe Drive

Northbrook, IL 60062

RSVP ASAP: (224)261-8352 or

**Please share this information with anyone you think might also be interested in attending.

Thank you for your support!

And, may every journey bring blessing.


Shabbat shalom,

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi