Another lesson from Superman Sammy

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

By now, most of you reading this have probably heard the incredibly tragic story of the loss of a phenomenal young boy named Sammy Sommer. His parents, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer were both in Rabbinical School at the same time as I was in Cincinnati and I am blessed that our paths crossed and we became friends.

supman sam

Like countless others, I was so moved by Sammy’s battle with leukemia. I stayed up to date on his progress by reading his parents’ blog, by making sure to read his name aloud from  our meshbayrach list at my congregation, by buying a tshirt he helped to design, and simply by praying. Along with a number of my colleagues (including a few who have written for this blog- Rabbi Adar and Rabbi Winnig), I decided to join #36rabbis “Shave for the Brave” and commit to shaving my head. At first I signed up hoping to honor this amazing young boy…and then sadly and far too quickly my commitment became one of memorializing a hero, as Sam departed this earth back in December.superman sam ribbon

When I signed up to shave my head of course I had a few reservations. How would my congregation react to seeing their rabbi bald, especially at major events such as B’nei Mitzvah?  Or how would one of my best friends feel if I had to wear a wig at her wedding while I was serving as both a bridesmaid and the rabbi? Truthfully, after a little ponderance and a few conversations, I wasn’t so worried anymore.

My next concern came about with what to make as my fundraising goal.  Should I make it something I knew I could easily reach…or should I “reach for the stars?” After a little “back and forth,” I set my goal as something I know is rather high.  Over the last few days I’ve thought about changing my goal to make it something that I can more easily attain.

However, upon reflection on the life of Sammy Sommer, I know I must reach for the stars. I know that my goal may be a little high, but I also know that I’ll either meet it or at the very least I’ll work REALLY hard to get as close as possible.  I’m already so proud of the students at my congregation who helped by putting on a talent show to raise funds. I’m also incredibly grateful to my friends, friends of friends and even strangers who’ve donated on my behalf.

No matter how much I personally raise- whether I hit my goal or not, I know that an additional legacy of Superman Sam will be for me- and hopefully others- to set our goals high and constantly reach for them.

I pray that Sammy’s memory will always be for a blessing and that his legacy will be for a better world. I pray that through our fundraising campaign- a campaign that to date has already raised over $349,000, a cure for childhood cancer will soon be found.shave for brave badge

If you are so moved, please feel free to sponsor me (click here) , Rabbi Adar, Rabbi Winnig or any of the rabbis participating in this campaign to eradicate childhood cancer.  Together we can truly make a difference!

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi of Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, New York. 

Chai for Chai- 18 For Life-Jewish Weight Loss

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

During Shabbat Shuvah- the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon about sharing our New Year’s resolutions with one another so that we can help hold each other accountable to be better in this coming year.  That night, I woke up with an idea and here it is…”Chai for Chai” or “18 for Life!” Basically, I thought of an idea where as a group, we can encourage each other to get healthier by taking small steps, with the goal of losing 18 lbs in 18 weeks.

Many of us- myself included have some weight to lose. A few years ago I participated with other rabbis in a weekly “support group” via conference calls where we studied Jewish texts on health and encouraged one another to lose weight. It was great, and with the support of other rabbis, I lost about 10 lbs. While I had hoped to lose much more, at least the scale was moving in the right direction.

However, after being pregnant and losing the baby (see “Saying Goodbye before Saying Hello”), I lost and gained a great deal of weight. I have tried a few things- such as a “Biggest Loser” challenge and a “DietBet” but they didn’t work. I realized that I wasn’t being motivated by money to lose weight and while there was a support system in play, it really wasn’t strong enough. I felt that if I didn’t follow through, the only person I was hurting was myself. I needed something else…

So, I came up with this idea- “Chai for Chai” or “18 for Life.” My goal is to lose 18 lbs in 18 weeks and thereby make a change in my LIFE by practicing better habits. Truth be told, I hope to lose more than 18lbs, but I figure that is a good place to start- not too much pressure. But I need more of an incentive- not money, but support- a reason why I can’t give up.

I put this idea up on Facebook with the hopes of getting a few friends to do this with me… Lo and behold- over 30 people have agreed to try and get healthier l’at-l’at...slowly, slowly. We started today and will go until the Middle of February. My hope is that we can help each other not only to lose weight, but more importantly to reclaim our lives.

Let me know if you, too, want to try Chai for Chai- making a commitment to take a few small steps to make a big difference!

 

I am not a nutritionist, I’m not a diet expert…All I am is one person looking to motivate others and be motivated by others to make a difference. Please let me know if you want to join our Facebook group! 

 

A Sweet and Delicious Twist for Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah star of david

Have a sweet New Year!

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

A few years ago a friend was visiting me for the High Holy Days and so we decided to do one of the things for which Long Island is famous- we planned to go to a winery.  I searched for the closest winery in my GPS and I started driving.  When we arrived at our destination we had reached an industrial park- clearly not an idyllic, picturesque setting. We were surprised, but figured maybe this is just a storefront and the vineyard is a few miles away. However, as we got out of the car and entered the store we realized we were not at a winery per se, but rather a “meadery.”  Right away, I remembered having had mead-wine made entirely from honey (no grapes), a few years earlier while celebrating a friend’s wedding.

We were a bit apprehensive at first, but we tasted and thoroughly enjoyed this wine. At this local meadery, there was “pure” mead as well as mead mixed with other fruit juices.  On their list of meads, they even had one made with apples- so it was a wine made completely of Honey and Apples. They didn’t have any to taste, but I thought, “wow, this would be great for Rosh Hashanah.”

An idea was born. I shared this with my husband and told him, how I’d like to sell this apple mead, known as cyser and call it “Rosh Hashanah in a Bottle.”  I thought it would be a great way to celebrate the New Year with something new- that was also something very old, as mead is the most ancient type of alcohol.

Additionally, I thought it could be a fun way to add some sweetness to the holiday. Maybe, this “hip,” alcoholic beverage could be an entry point to Judaism for some people for whom “going to services” wasn’t their thing.  Maybe they could drink a little of this wine or bring a bottle to a friends’ home and at least have a moment of connection to their faith, their heritage, their history.  I am not trying to imply it is a “magic potion,” but I know that there has to be ways to connect people to Judaism outside of simply saying you have to go to services, or have to keep Kosher, or you have to light the candles or you have to….fill in the blanks.  

Don’t get me wrong- I think all of those things are important and CAN help people BE Jewish and connect to their Judaism.  However, some people need other entry points- not being told what to do or being pushed into faith based on guilt or other non-motivators. Basically, I thought wouldn’t it be great if a simple bottle of wine could actually help Jews (and others) find the real meaning of Rosh Hashanah… and that our hope for the new year and always is to have sweetness in our lives?

Well, the next year I got too busy when the High Holy Days came around to pursue my idea. And then the next time I looked into it, that meadery- the one in the industrial park had closed. (I never found out why, but I think it may have had to do with the fact that it was originally just the owner’s hobby). So I basically let my idea go…until my husband encouraged me again. Emily-09Through a business connection he met someone who inspired us again to follow our idea. I won’t bore you with the details of having to find the perfect winery/meadery to make our “Rosh Hashanah in a Bottle” but after a lot of searching, some due diligence, a bunch of wonderful phone calls and a drive upstate, we found the perfect winery/meadery with whom to partner for our High Holy Day wine.  And now the idea has been born…

Earlier this month, we began spreading the word about our special, exciting and delicious drink for the New Year and always. In addition to sharing some joy and sweetness, my hope is that this wine will also enable some congregations or groups to use our product as a fundraiser and further the principle of Tikkun Olam.

As a rabbi, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to “push” an alcoholic beverage (and maybe in the future I can also have a non-alcoholic version). However, since we use wine at almost all of our happy occasions, I thought this could be a nice added twist to something that is already part of our tradition- already a symbol of joy and happiness!

So, raise your glass to a Shannah Tovah U’Mitukah- May you be blessed with a good and sweet New Year!

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, New York.

A Chocolate Covered Passover

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

I must admit that as a child and even a teenager, I didn’t really like the holiday of Passover. I saw it as a time in which I had to give up something I loved. A week without pizza, cookies, and even pasta? How could it be a holiday if I felt like I was being restricted- if I felt like I was giving something up? Shouldn’t holidays increase your joy, not make life harder?

But then one Sunday as a teenager my entire outlook on Pesach changed. About a week before Passover, I went to a youth group event unlike one I had ever attended…it was a “Chocolate Seder.”  We had a mock seder and almost everything was made of chocolate.

This is my favorite type of egg!

This is my favorite type of egg!

Instead of four cups of wine, we had 4 cups of chocolate milk. Instead of bitter herbs we had bittersweet chocolate. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, we dipped strawberries in chocolate sauce. Instead of a roasted egg on the seder plate we used a Cadbury’s chocolate egg. Instead of a meal we had an ice cream sundae. I’ll admit it wasn’t the healthiest of events, but it felt like one of the first times I saw the joy in Passover. By eating fun foods and even using a crazy chocolate-themed Haggadah, I was able to see Pesach in a whole new light.

In a way, you could say that this Chocolate seder liberated my views of Passover to enable me to see the holiday as the true story of liberation.   Without the restrictions, I saw the joy- the joy of being with friends, the joy of celebrating our freedom, and the joy of celebrating God’s miracles.

Ever since the chocolate seder, I have seen Passover as a time for freedom not restrictions. I have seen Passover as a true celebration. Yes, we give up chametz (bread products), but what we receive in return is far greater. By spending one week to give something up we allow ourselves a chance to remember the enormous sacrifice of our ancestors. In our small sacrifice of not eating bread for only one week, we acknowledge and give thanks to God for the miracle of our freedom. And more than that, we give honor to all of our ancestors- to all of the Jews throughout the centuries. Our mere practice of having seders and following the laws of Passover is a statement that says our faith-our religion-our Judaism is something for which we should make sacrifices.

A seder plate made of chocolate you can buy online!

A seder plate made of chocolate you can buy online!

In the years since I was a teenager, I’ve often had “chocolate seders” with my students in the hopes that they too will learn to see Passover as a time for celebration and not merely restriction. However, even without chocolate, I believe we can focus on the real meaning of Passover- the real meaning of freedom and liberation.

May this Pesach be one in which we truly are grateful for all that we have- even if we have to make a small sacrifice to acknowledge that. May we celebrate our freedom and celebrate Passover in the hopes that one day- all the people of the world will be free, as well! Chag Pesach Sameach- Happy and Healthy Passover!

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY, where her congregants are begging her for a Chocolate Seder.

Valentine’s Day-What’s a Jew to do?

By Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov

I’m a sucker for chocolate. I love stuffed animals. I’m crazy about jewelry. Sentimental cards mean a great deal to me, and I can always have more flowers! So, with all of that said, you’d think that Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays.  However, to be honest, I’m quite conflicted. I vividly remember 12 years ago when I was teaching Religious School on Wednesday, February 14th, 2001. I was all prepared toheart candy 2 tell my fifth grade students that Valentine’s Day is NOT a Jewish holiday and then have a discussion about Tu B’Av – the 15th of Av, which was an ancient Jewish holiday about love. So, just as I was getting ready, in walks Josh, one of my students holding a giant, pink heart-shaped box of chocolates…and he gave it to me! If that wasn’t enough to break my heart, one of my fellow teachers had baked me a cake, tied a “Happy Valentine’s Day Balloon” around it and left it on my desk in the classroom for everyone to see.  So as not to hurt Josh’s feelings or seem hypocritical- with a giant balloon in the classroom, I decided to “soften” my approach. Instead, we discussed some of the reasons why, traditionally, Valentine’s Day may not have been a Jewish holiday and what Jewish connections there are to Valentine’s Day.

Over the years, this conversation has come up again and again. And now that it is Valentine’s Day, wherever you go you see hearts and messages of “I love you,” everywhere. So, I begin to ask myself, “Is it ok for us as Jews to celebrate a holiday named after a saint?  The message of love and appreciation for those we love is undoubtedly a Jewish concept. Our most central prayer, of the Shema and V’Ahavta implores us to love God. I am also a strong believer in the quote from “Les Miserables,” that, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” So, again, I wonder is it “Ok,” as a Jew to celebrate Valentine’s Day?

A very little-known Jewish holiday is the previously mentioned Talmudic holiday of “Tu B’Av,”  which falls in the summertime, around the end of July or August. In ancient times this was a holiday in which single women would all dress in white (so no one would appear wealthier than anyone else) and they would go to the fields outside of Jerusalem. As they frolicked in the fields, the single men would be able to pick which woman they would like to claim for their wife. While this may seem a bit archaic, it isn’t so far from some of the “mix and mingle” events, like the annual “Matzah Ball” that occur today…but I digress. Therefore, if we have our own Jewish “Day of Love,” do we even need Valentine’s Day?

After doing some research as to the origin of Valentine’s Day (which is debated) and into whether or not Jews can celebrate holidays which do not have Jewish origins, I found a very interesting ruling. According Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, (Poland, 1520-1572) as explained by Rabbi Mike Uram in his article, “Valentine’s Day and Judaism”, a Jew can celebrate a holiday that was originated by a non-Jew as long as it meets the following criteria:  “Does the debated activity have a secular origin or value? Can one rationally explain the behavior or ritual apart from the gentile holiday or event? If there are idolatrous origins, have they disappeared? And are the activities actually consistent with Jewish tradition?” Since the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day does in fact meet these criteria, there is no real problem with celebrating Valentine’s Day.

loveHowever, a few years ago, my husband and I decided to create our own holiday of love. We decided that we liked the concepts of Valentine’s Day, but it didn’t feel right for us to celebrate it. So, we decided to celebrate “ValenSTEIN’s Day.” We made up a story about a famous rabbi named Rabbi Mordechai Valenstein who was known as the “Love Rabbi.” He was great at match-making and always talking about the importance of loving God, loving your family, and of course, “loving your neighbor.”  Rabbi Valenstein also loved a deal, so we decided to celebrate our new holiday on February 15th when all the chocolate was on sale!

So, whether you decide to celebrate Tu B’Av, or Valentine’s Day or even Valenstein’s Day- make sure you take time to tell the ones you care about that you love them. For every day is a day to say, “I love you!”

 

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY. She loves to get flowers, chocolates, jewelry, etc all year round – not just on ValenSTEIN’s Day or even Valentine’s Day…(hint, hint to her husband).

 

My Hanukkah Prayer- Rededicating the Kotel…My Western Wall

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

I am not a morning person. I’d rather stay up very late than get up very early. However, when I lived in Israel there were certain days I’d gladly get up early. Those were the days of Rosh Chodesh- the beginning of the month- the days when I would go to the Kotel-The Western Wall and pray with Women of the Wall.

Some of my Rabbinical School classmates felt that praying at the wall was akin to idolization, but to me it was being able to stand in a sacred place- the same place my ancestors have stood and prayed for generations upon generations upon generations. For me and so many Jews the wall is sacred. The wall is a reminder of the past and a promise for the future. My trips to Israel are not complete without at least a quick visit to the Wall. I often take prayers and notes from my congregants, family and friends to place in the Wall as a way of letting them experience the power of the Kotel, as well.

As you know from reading this blog, our rights as women are significantly diminished at the Wall- at OUR wall.  We have only 1/4 of the space to pray as the men do and if we raise our voices we hear complaints, taunts and obscenities from other women, men and even police. And God-forbid we try to wear our tallit at the Wall!

Earlier this morning as women gathered at the Wall to pray and celebrate this new month of Tevet, once again some of our fellow sisters were detained for merely trying to pray as a Jew!  For more information on this detention, you can read the press release here.

One of the women detained was Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who is the editor of our Reform Siddur- “Mishkan Tefillah.”  Rabbi Frishman prayed at the Wall as she always prays- wearing her Tallit, observing a commandment from the book of Numbers. Her experiences this morning are detailed in a beautiful letter she wrote to her Congregation, which is available here.

I pray for the day when I will be able to pray as I wish. When I will be able to reclaim the Western Wall as MY WALL, as MY HOLY PLACE. I pray for the day when I will be able to freely raise my voice to God in prayer and in Thanksgiving.

As we celebrate the end of Hanukkah- a holiday in which the Maccabbees reclaimed the Temple, I pray that the time will come in our own day when all Jews will be able to reclaim the Wall. I pray for a time when the Wall will be truly dedicated – the meaning of the word Hanukkah- as a place for all Jews.

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY and an avid supporter of Women of the Wall!

The People of the Books

People of the Book

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

Every year, the month before Hanukkah is dedicated as “National Jewish Book Month,” by the Jewish Book Council. Since we Jews are the “People of the Book,” one could say that this is the most important of all months of the year (even though there are no Jewish holidays this month)!

This year’s poster and theme for Jewish Book Month

In honor of Jewish book month, (and because I like lists), I’ve decided to offer a list of “Seven Essential Jewish Books for Every Jewish Home.”  Here goes:

  1. The TaNaK- I think EVERYONE would agree that the most important book for every Jew to own is a TaNaK-The Hebrew (Jewish) Bible. This book consists of the Torah, the Prophets (Neviim) and the Writings (Ketuviim). When it’s said we are the “People of the Book” THIS is THE book! I suggest getting a version by The Jewish Publication Society or even going one step further and getting “The Jewish Study Bible” which includes commentary.
  2. A Prayerbook- I recommend purchasing your very own copy of “Mishkan Tefillah” the newest siddur of the Reform Movement,  which is also available for your ipad, or you may want to have one of the other prayerbooks that was put out by CCAR Press such as “Gates of Prayer” or “The Union Prayerbook.”
  3. On The Doorposts of Your House”(also published by the CCAR and also available as an “e-book”)- This great book, which many congregations give to Confirmation students has many wonderful daily prayers as well as prayers for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and even starting college. This great book also contains prayers and meditations to help during life’s difficult times.
  4.  “The Jewish Book of Why” (By Alfred J. Kolatch) – Since we are known as “Israel” which means to “wrestle with God”- all the more so we should “wrestle with our religion” and be able to ask lots of questions. This is a great book (and there are subsequent volumes, as well) which will help to answer a number of both basic and essential questions.
  5. NightBy Eli Wiesel- This is a very powerful and personal book about Wiesel’s experiences during the Holocaust. You can even download it for free here. Another important Holocaust book is that of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We must read and reread these stories so that we never forget and so we do our part to make sure it never happens again.
  6. When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (by Rabbi Harold Kushner)- It’s crucial to note that this book is called “When” and not “Why.” This is a great book about Jewish philosophy without being too esoteric. If you like Jewish philosophy, then I also suggest books by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rachel Adler, and Martin Buber.
  7. Exodus”- by Leon Uris- This is one of my favorite books of all time! While it is a novel, it is a great piece of historical fiction which gives accurate details on the birth of the state of Israel. Yes, the movie is good, but for sure the book is even better!

A great book by my friend, Andi Rosenthal. I hope to do a book review of this for a future post.

 

This list could easily keep going with many books such as one of my new favorite books, “The Bookseller’s Sonnets” (by Andi Rosenthal),  “Tuesdays With Morrie” (by Mitch Albom), The Sabbath (by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel), books by Chaim Potok or Isaac Beshevis Singer and books from categories such as those about Jewish Humor or even Jewish Cooking.  And every home should have at least one Haggadah (yes, the Maxwell House edition is good enough).

Now I’m curious…What do YOU think are the most important Jewish books or simply what is your favorite Jewish book?

 

May this Jewish Book Month and always be a time to appreciate all the Jewish books and    a time to celebrate our love of reading and love of learning!

                  **************************************************************************

NB- This list is based on my own suggestions, those of friends and a few ideas from some websites, as well…

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY.