Building Community

To build or not to build – that is one question!


In the case of the Israelites, the answer was build! And build they did, using nothing but the best materials to construct a magnificent tabernacle. There was, of course, a pricey building fund attached to the “project”: “And these are the gifts you shall accept from them: gold, silver and copper…..” (Ex. 25:12-3). The response was a mind-blowing generosity that arouses the envy of contemporary fundraisers.

eb20756f20ca0b51f252ddfc33037e53_-thomas-j-long-foundation-foundation-building-clipart_756-635The question of buildings continues today – and is on the minds of many in our own community. But it is no longer obvious whether a congregation, a Jewish community center or another agency should 1) remain in old, resource-sucking buildings, making minimal repairs; 2) incur the high cost of renovation that meets today’s “green” standards, 3) purchase another building; 4) build from scratch; 5) rent one or multiple spaces; 6)share space or 7) merge.

tumblr_inline_nu0mpv6n6m1rqhljb_500Each option presents its own challenges. And, of course, each involves raising more funds at a time when many do not have enough, let alone have additional discretionary finds. At the same time, the needs of the community are greater and more complex than they have ever been. Not simply in the name of survival. Rather, as a result of this historic opportunity to reimagine Jewish life and construct new communal paradigms which respond to people’s search for meaning.

The Tabernacle was a portable reminder of the Divine Presence in our earthly realm. In this techno-age, someone is probably trying to invent a GPS – “God Positioning System.” At the same time, many are trying to find their way without a belief in God. Either way, it is likely that every human being possess a spark of energy dating back to the beginning of Creation. Collectively, this huge resource of creative energy, if combined with those who have plentiful financial resources, can be a game changer. And, we bring to this endeavor a more nuanced understanding that some institutions, like the Temple itself, necessarily have a finite life and purpose.

community-building-stagesThe pain of letting go might be lessened as we express our gratitude to those who devoted their lives and resources to building a complex communal system which has met countless human needs – religious, intellectual, cultural emotional, physical, social. These builders got us to this moment, and now it is our turn to build – if not on the actual foundations constructed, then on the belief that the foundation for Judaism and Jewish life is both internal and external.

Our challenge is to lay a new foundation which is reflective of today’s societal and communal complexities. What were once support walls are now being deconstructed, moved or entirely rebuilt. 
  A growing number of people are exploring the construction of their own spiritual and ethical foundations.

building-communitiesAs we read the parasha this week, may we overcome our fears of change, reframe our notion of community and discover the wealth of financial and human resources available to us today. May each of us be moved to give generously and to encourage others to give. Together, equipped with a new understanding of the differing needs and wants of four living generations of our community, we are poised to honor the memory of all past generations of builders and to inspire future generations to continue the sacred work of an ever-renewing people.

Shabbat shalom!
Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
Shabbat Trumah


Walking in love

“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession (segulah) among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

This week’s parasha describes Revelation at Sinai. It is an awesome scene with all the sound and light effects befitting a highlight performance. It is also an historical marker witnessed by all the people. Mount Sinai engulfed in smoke, the fire of God, the quaking of the mountain and the wailing notes of the shofar. Imagining the grandeur of this spiritual moment is difficult for us, the modernists who need scientific explanations and visual proof to believe. It would take all the tricks of moviemaking to put us in the scene – Technicolor, surround sound and omnimax, and yet, we probably would not be able to answer unanimously as our ancestors did, “all that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” They were there. They were witnesses. We have to take their word for it.

sinai.jpg “Sinai” evokes different images for different people. Some perceive Sinai as a “myth.” Bill Moyers, when interviewing Joseph Campbell, identifies myths as “the stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.” Campbell adds, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life…what we are capable of knowing and experiencing within.”

We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. Some may read of the moment as a guided imagery. Others may look for the Sinai that is within them. For some there was only one “R”evelation of Torah. For others, “r”evelation occurs each and every day – we have only to open ourselves to the possibility. However we frame the experience, we recognize Torah as a profound gift.

love-cloud  Just as Creation is renewed each day, so too is the opportunity to embrace Torah. What if Torah is not revealed in the past or the future? What if every time we connect with an “inner Sinai” wisdom and insights are revealed through insight and understanding ? This requires mindful presence. That is, when we leave the constricting narrows of an inner Egypt and journey into an open heart-space. Free from restriction, in a place of expansiveness, awakened hearts are truly open and “inclined to be in awe of [the Divine]…” (Machaneh Degel on Yastrow, as presented by R. Sam Feinsmith).

you-are-torah Our liturgy speaks of Revelation in the Ahavat Olam/Ahava Rabba prayers, but with a different focus. Ahavah means “love.” In this prayer we understand God’s unconditional love to be expressed through the gift of Torah. Imagine what it means to be “loved by a great love.” Have you ever allowed yourself to receive this Divine love from the many sources through which it flows? This love is manifest through compassion, guidance, and presence, as is reflected in the translation of Ahavah rabba below.

page-of-love  “With an abounding love, you love us…[J]ust as our ancestors placed their trust in you, and you imparted to them the laws of life, so be gracious to us, too, and teach us…[B]e merciful with us, and place into our hearts ability to understand, to see, to hear, to learn, to teach, to keep, to do, and to uphold with love all that we study of your Torah. Enlighten us with your Torah…Make our hearts one, to love your name and be in awe of it. Keep us from shame, and from humiliation, and from stumbling, today and always… “Kol Haneshamah siddur

sea_of_love We walk each day in a sea of love. Imagine all the love we could receive and return were we to be more mindful of this love. May your Shabbat return you to life in this moment so that you may be filled with a profound rediscovery of love.

Shabbat Shalom.

Nina J. Mizrahi
Community Rabbi
Parastatals Yitro 5777

Tree Bathing!

In celebration of Tu B’shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, I am sharing one of my favorite poems. To learn more about this holiday, which has become increasingly focused on environmentalism, visit: and, for more on Tu B’shevat, including three wonderful Haggadot, visit:

goats-in-a-tree“What Is It Like Being A Tree?

Once I asked a tree: “Tree, what is it like being a tree?”

“You’re joking right?!”declared the tree.

“No, absolutely not,” said I.

“Seriously, is it good or bad?”

“Bad?!” exclaimed the tree in amazement. “Why?”

“Don’t you care that you are stuck in [the ground] throughout the week?”

“I am not stuck.

“ Look, I’m planted.”

“And don’t you have the urge, sometimes,

to walk around to visit your friends,

or to see what’s going on in other places?”

 “I don’t have any need to wander about or to move.

Birds sing to me regularly,

butterflies kiss me,

the wind caresses me,

the entire horizon spreads its expanse before me.”

“And in the evening, what happens when everyone is sleeping?”

“In the evening, I listen to the silence

and hear

how humanity breathes,

how fruit ripens,

how the dew falls,

and young birds nestling within the sleeping branches

and I watch over their sleep.”

“I love you, tree,” I said.

And I went to my garden

and I planted a tree

opposite my window.”

-Ditya Ben-Dor (translated by Nina J. Mizrahi)


  • Explore the parts of a tree (roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc.) as a metaphor.
  • What is the difference between feeling stuck and feeling rooted?
  • What does the tree find meaningful in its life?
  • What are we taught by our parents, friends & society about what is supposed to be meaningful in our lives?
  • Why is the Torah called a “Tree of Life?”
  • The tree inspires the boy. What inspires you?


  • tree-bath Take a winter walk in the woods. Notice this light shining through in the absence of leaves. Take a “tree bath” in the winter light.
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Take another walk, where you notice the state of nature during this season. If possible, you can still “harvest” pinecones and dry pods, seeds, flowers and grasses that you find interesting.   Place them in a bowl or vase to enjoy. My bowls contains all kinds of pinecones, dried leaves, pods, thistle, gourds and even etrogs from Sukkot. I keep a large magnifying glass in the bowl so visitors, especially children, can look at everything more closely. It is fun to open dried pods and look at the seeds they contain, as well as marvel at their structure.
  • Take a “vacation” in the local botanical garden’s greenhouse where the tropical plants and trees grow. Enjoy the warmth and humidity.
  • Roots cuttings from your plants or from other people’s plants. Share with others.
  • Make pinecones birdfeeders by putting peanut butter on them and hanging them outside on a tree.
  • almond-blossomsLook at photographs of almond blossoms blooming in Israel. There they announce the arrival of early spring.

exotic-fruit Try fruits you have never tasted

  • Go to the library and enjoy books with photos of nature.
  • Consider a next step you can take toward more sustainable consumption and living.
  • Plant parsley so it will be ready in time for Passover!

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Tu B’shevat 5777

Kindness Overflowing

I Just came across the following piece I had written on Hesed – kindness.  It regrounded me  at a time when it is so easy to become consumed with anger.  I share this thought as an overflowing of my heart into yours.

Kindness is the overflowing of one’s self into the lives of others. (Anonymous)
As a little girl one of my favorite books was, Love Is a Special Way of Feeling,” by Joan Walsh Anglund. Little did I know until now that it is still on the list of “best books ever” for many people. This simple book has been passed down through the generations, still evoking warm, wonderful feelings through its words and illustrations. It shows us how to see love all us in our daily lives. If I were to rename the book, however, I might call it, “Love is a special way of doing.” This is because love is closely associated with acts of kindness. Each kindness we do for another, whether we know the person or not, makes our life better.

In Hebrew, the word for kindness is hesed. In Psalms we read that “the world is built of hesed” (Ps. 89:3). Hesed connotes an unconditional
love that flows from The Source of Love to us. With each act of kindness we do, this love streams through us into the hearts of others. An act of hesed can be spontaneous. It also emerges when our awareness of the needs of others stimulates our desire to help make that person’s life a little better.


Hesed is not limited by boundaries. It is only limited by the size and strength of our hearts and the generosity of our spirit. The rabbis teach that acts of kindness sustain the world, perhaps because they connect people to one another without expectation of reciprocation. And, that “the highest form of wisdom is kindness” (Talmud Berakhot 17a).

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Pursue Justice


It began as a regular Friday night at the Great Lakes Recruit Training. About fourteen recruits, roughly half of whom were Jewish and the other half who had come out of curiosity, joined together to celebrate Shabbat. Instead of using the military prayerbook / siddur, published by the Jewish Welfare Board(JWB) Chaplains Council of the JCC Association, we used a special service compiled by the Religious Action Center(RAC), which is under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism, with various affiliates.

For more than 50 years, the RAC has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. Its goal is to “educate and mobilize the Reform Jewish community on legislative and societal concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, and religious liberty… It is non-partisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice which are the core of Reform Judaism.” In memory of the important contribution made by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the cause of civil rights, this particular Shabbat was designated as “Shabbat Tzedek” – the Sabbath of Justice.

Powerful words of the civil rights leaders, then and now, were incorporated into the service, connecting ancient and contemporary prophetic voices to the prayers. Following services, a recruit led us in Kiddush. Just as another recruit was about to recite Hamotzi, something extraordinary happened – in walked over 35 non-Jewish recruits! Their service had been cancelled, so they decided to join us. For most of them this was the first time meeting a rabbi and experiencing Jewish prayer and learning.

For the next 40 minutes this group of 18-22 year-olds engaged in a powerful conversation about civil rights, examining teachings from selected biblical, rabbinic and modern texts as they relate to civil rights. Recruits drew from personal experiences, including community organizing. When asked how one gets involved in community organizing, a recruit replied, “When you see a need, you just gather a bunch of people and get started!

Recruits spoke passionately on the topic of unity and what that means in the Navy, quoting the sailor’s creed: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me. I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and all who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world. I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage and Commitment. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

As they spoke, I looked around the room and witnessed both the diversity and unity of this group of men and women. Diversity here means respecting individual differences in race, culture, age, ability, marital status, geographic region of origin, gender, religion, ethnicity, experiences, viewpoints, backgrounds and life experiences. This makes me wonder how this acceptance of diversity combined with a commitment to unity will influence their views when they return to civilian life? How will lessons learned and values internalized shape their vision for a bright future for all? Can we count of these young people to lead us in the on-going local, national and global fight for civil rights? Time will tell, but there is every reason to be hopeful.

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.” Then, and now – 50 years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington – we, too, must pray through our actions. This means joining together and rerouting our anger from injustice to the pursuit of justice, that we might fulfill the words of the prophet, Micah: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One of Blessing. To this, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream…”. Five decades later, what will we bring to this dream?

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi


We are challenged to restore our nation to a unified people who can accept our differences and who support this great endeavor, democracy.  For guidance, we can look to the sages from the third century CE (common era) , who shared their wisdom in a compilation called, “Pirke Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers).  Facing ethical challenges even then, these sages reassure us, saying, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you to free to withdraw from it,” (Pirke Avot 2:21). You may not finish the task, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.

unity This “work” of restoring our nation has several dimensions: spiritual, ethical and physical.  The spiritual dimension leads our hearts to seek meaning in our lives.  The ethical dimension roots this meaning between human beings.  The physical dimension  informs our actions.  Absent spiritual and ethical dimensions can lead to angry and destructive behavior.  As a result small mindedness is aroused that further creates obstacles for engaging meaningfully with others.  We must counter this small mindedness with expansive thinking and doing.

we the people.jpg  The intent and actions of every human being matter.  And once again, “We, the people…” – the citizens (as President Obama so eloquently and passionately reminded us tonight), are each called upon to become a dugma ishit (a personal example).  Through purposeful action, we follow the teaching of our sages, “Say little and do much” (Pirkei Avot 1:15). With a dugma ishit mindset of accountability, even the smallest exemplary action can make a difference.  And hope, Tikvah, reveals itself as an unwavering belief in the potential of every human being to help repair what is broken.

be-human-hillel  We begin by respecting the value of every human being – regardless of race, religion, gender or  sexual orientation – even if the choices they make differ from those we ourselves might make.  May compassion and generosity,  kindness and the pursuit of  righteousness be the sacred foundation upon which we build family, community, and nation.  In the absence of these great values, we will not be at our best.  Instead, we will have politics and the pursuit of power for one’s own gain.  Our very humanity will be at risk.  The sage, Hillel,  guides us, saying, “In a place where there is no humanity [or when  humanity is threatened], strive to be human.”

dali-lama May our spirit, ethics and actions keep our hearts open to one another, bring healing, hope and unity to this great nation.  May the elected officials honor the efforts of those who preceded them, even as they prepare to write the next chapter in our history.  And, may they and we serve in a manner that elevates us all.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

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