Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

It’s the Wednesday afternoon before the Shabbat of my student’s bar mitzvah. Jake has been working hard for the past hour and a half, quietly reading his sermon and loudly belting out songs as Cantor Lisa Hest accompanies him on the guitar.

Jake is a young man with a range of special needs, and when his parents consulted me about his bar mitzvah, they’d told me they might wait until he was 15 and more mature. When I met him, however, it was obvious that his love of music, his good ear and his determination would make a bar mitzvah at 13 possible and special.

Now, with three days to go, Mom, Dad and sister Emily are assembled at the synagogue for the dress rehearsal. “Dress” may be slightly overstating the case. Jake is wearing his New York Yankees T-shirt and tallit and has a bare head. Emily, fresh from soccer practice, is wearing her gym shorts and her “Em’s Bat Mitzvah” T- shirt from her own celebration three years ago; I came in shorts, T- shirt and Teva sandals. Only Jake’s mother, in slacks and a white button-down shirt, and his dad, in a suit, dress shirt and yellow power tie, are dressed for the occasion.

As Cantor Lisa is packing up her guitar for her next gig, I open up the Torah scroll for Jake and Emily to practice. Just then, I look up to see two men at the entrance of the synagogue. It’s 7pm and I’m exhausted. But the two linger at the entrance, so I go over to see if I can help. The hasidic men, one 70 and the other 30- something, both wearing black frocks, black hats and payes, smile and say that they simply wanted to see the shul.

The synagogue that intrigues them is the 88th Street building of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – a Conservative congregation that uses an electric piano on Shabbat, adds the Matriarchs to the amidah prayer, and offers joint aliyot to gay couples as they come to the Torah in celebration of their brit ahavah commitment ceremonies. The exquisite sanctuary building is only used for Friday night and special Shabbat minhah services. When the roof of the 88th St. building collapsed over 13 years ago, the synagogue began renting space from the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew on West 86th Street on Shabbat mornings, for the larger crowds the congregation now attracts.

Many religious Jews will not enter a non-Orthodox synagogue (let alone a church). Why had these two ultra-Orthodox men wandered in to BJ at precisely this moment, when a boy with special needs and his immodestly dressed sister are about to read from the Torah? The visitors move closer to the ark and listen as Jake begins to read. The older gentleman points to his own head, kindly requesting that Jake put a yarmulke on his head. Emily rushes to the bin and brings skullcaps for Jake and Dad. I explain to the guests that Jake is celebrating his bar mitzvah this Shabbat. They listen for a moment as Jake reads from the Torah, smile, and leave.

Rewind 13 years. Following Jake’s birth, he underwent a series of surgeries and long hospitalizations. During one hospital stay, he shared a room with a little girl from a Brazilian Lubavitch family. Each day, men would come so the baby’s father could pray in a minyan. One day, an older man asked Jake’s mother if she was Jewish. She said she was. He asked if she lit Shabbat candles. She replied that she did not. She then offered that her husband was not Jewish, but that they were raising the children Jewish.

The man asked, “Did the boy have a bris?” She explained that he did not, but that he had an in-hospital circumcision. “Do you have a mezuzah up on your door?” he asked. “No,” said the mother. “Can I bring you one tomorrow, a real mezuzah with a kosher scroll inside?” “That’s very nice, but, thankfully, we are leaving the hospital tomorrow.” “Can I mail it to you?” “Absolutely.”

Several hours after Jake and family came home from the hospital, the phone rang. “I happen to be in your neighborhood,” a voice said. “Would it be OK if I drop off the mezuzah and put it up?” Minutes later, two men appeared at the door. The parents, both in shorts and T-shirts, greeted the guests. “I brought along a mohel,” the man said. “He would like to perform a ceremonial bris, if it’s OK with you.” The sleep-deprived parents agreed. “Any wine in the house?” the mohel asked. “No.” “Any alcohol?” “There’s a beer in the fridge.” “Get it.”

The rabbis finished the ceremony, put up the mezuzah, and promised to go to the Lubavitcher rebbe to offer a prayer for them. They left, as swiftly as they had entered.

These mystery men may not have been the same curious visitors to BJ. Then again, why not? See you at the wedding.

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Original Article published on The Jerusalem Post

The only time my Bubbeh ever took a break from preparing heavy fleishig (meat) holiday food was on Shavuot. Admittedly, some Jews (mainly Sephardim) do eat meat that day, as they would on any other holiday, since dairy is not considered very festive. Others, to satisfy all opinions, eat a dairy dish, followed by a meat dish, as a reminder of the two sacrifices offered on Shavuot.

But my bubbeh and other Ashkenazi purists eat only dairy foods on Shavuot. Maybe it’s because this harvest holiday reminds us that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey, or that the Song of Songs (4:11) implies that the words of the Torah shall be as sweet to the heart as milk and honey.

Some commentators point out (perhaps with a bit of a smile) that, with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the dietary laws were established. Thus, when the people came home from receiving revelation, preparation of meat dishes would have taken too long, and they certainly didn’t yet have fleishig dishes and silverware. Check out these and other comments on holiday customs at: http://www.mazornet.com or

Maybe the custom of eating dairy is as simple as gematriah. The Hebrew word for milk, halav, has the numerical value of 40, the number of days Moses was on Mt. Sinai. You can click on http://www.inner.org and do the math yourself. The site provides a Hebrew letter chart that helps you find numerical values for het, lamed and bet.

I spent my childhood dreading Shavuot. I am a meat and potatoes guy who always hated anything white and creamy. In my older years, though, I have resolved to keep an open mind. And cheesecake has come a long way since my youth – especially since it has come into contact with flavors like margarita.

Those who wish to make cheesecake from scratch (or cook or bake anything, for that matter) should look at http://www.epicurious.com as a first step. For low-fat cheesecake recipes, try http://www.kashrut.com

Are your Shavuot guests real connoisseurs? You can find great recipes at http://www.thatsmyhome.com for, among others, chocolate espresso swirl, and (for those who yearn for Passovers past) coconut macaroon cheesecake.

Thinking of following the dairy/meat custom but worried you’ll never keep your dishes straight? Be on the safe side with a recipe for pareve cheesecake at http://www.jewish-food.org

Face it – many of us are nostalgic for the delicacies of our childhood, but are too busy to bake them. North Americans can order Junior’s Cheesecake, the Brooklyn classic, at http://www.juniorcheesecake.com. Or Chicago-style, at http://www.elicheesecake.com which promises international shipping.

I may just take the plunge and try cheesecake this year. If not, I will sneak into our synagogue’s Shavuot party for children and join them in making my own ice-cream sundaes. After all, Bubbeh taught me that it is important to eat dairy on Shavuot.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Our small group of campers from the Tikvah (“Hope”) Program of Camp Ramah in New England had planned a 12-day trip up and down Israel and the imminent war with Iraq wasn’t going to stop us. I thought it ironic that the lead story in the Hebrew papers distributed on our flight to Israel in February reported on the panic in America and on the advisories to stock up on duct tape and bottled water.

The three brave young men with special needs, ages 19 and 20, didn’t care much about the war. They were more focused on the 20 upbeat Korean Christians on our overbooked flight and the 30 sixtysomethings from Texas and Oklahoma later at dinner. Their unstinting stare was the beginning of my seeing Israel through straightforward, painfully honest Tikvah eyes.

Jeremy, Jason and Jake – who have a range of developmental disabilities, including neurological impairments, learning disorders and Down syndrome – loved walking down the 1,200 or so stairs at the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, mostly because we were a few paces ahead of 40 young soldiers with guns. They understood that Israelis their age are drafted and were curious to know everything they could about the army. Their questions started off simply: “What did you do in the army?” they asked our two female guides and our various male guards, wondering as well whether Warid, our Israeli Arab driver, also served.

Then their questions became more poignant. “Would people like us, people with disabilities, be able to serve in the army?” Jeremy asked. Our guides told them they might be able to do many of the jobs in the army that are similar to those they do at camp and in their vocational training programs at school: food preparation, mail delivery, supply room worker. But they also learned that many people with special needs, even those with certain food allergies, are ultimately exempted from service.

At dinner one evening, at the home of Dahlia, who has worked at our camp for many summers, Jason asked, “Did you serve in the Israel Defense Forces?” Dahlia is a Little Person, and the Tikvah guys had their doubts.

She hesitated, then said she hadn’t.

“Why not?” asked Jeremy.

“Because I’m short,” Dahlia replied.

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Jason.

“Isn’t that discrimination?” Jeremy added, remembering all he’d been taught about the Americans with Disabilities Act and a similar education act.

“Yes,” Dahlia confirmed.

“Did you fight against it?” asked Jason. “No.”

The group persisted.

“Because I was 18. I was small and the army was very big and strong. But I should have.”

Finally, Jason asked, “Wouldn’t being short be an advantage in the army, like in a tank? It wouldn’t be so cramped in there.”

Straightforward eyes. Good point.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

When it comes to our children’s education, most of us accept the sad fact that what we get is what we get. But once in a while, we have an opportunity to step back and assess what our children actually know. As was the case when many kids stayed home during the Scud missile threat in Israel, or were off on Purim (as they will be again on Passover).

What wonderful opportunities to have a conversation with your kids. Yes, they have heard of William Shakespeare. No, they still don’t know their multiplication tables, or why the “q”s in Iraq and Qatar don’t take “u”s after them.

If I’d had a hand in writing the civil defense booklet handed out to Israelis before the Iraqi crisis, I might have suggested adding a PC to the list of items that might go into the sealed room. It’s a good way to keep antsy kids entertained and educated. And a fine place to start might be with an unlimited supply of word puzzles at http://www.puzzlemaker.com Simply put in a list of words – the names of the 10 plagues from the Haggadah, or the Hebrew months – and it generates word searches, crossword puzzles or jumbles.
By far the most comprehensive educational site on the Internet I’ve found is http://www.edhelper.com with 11,443 lesson plans and 5,000 free worksheets. There are more math, reading comprehension and spelling worksheets than your elementary school child will ever need. Also check out http://www.teachers.net The article on Arab-Jewish coexistence is part of an interesting lesson plan on “Islamic flags over the Temple Mount,” recalling a day in 1099 when “Jews and Muslims fought and fell side by side, defending Jerusalem from a common enemy,” the Crusaders.

Not sure where to find Qatar or even Kuwait on a map? Check out the large selection of maps of regions, continents, U.S. states and more at http://www.teachervision.com or at http://www.geography.about.com

If you’re concerned your children are losing ground on their Jewish education, you can access multilingual word searches, a Jewish trivia database, Jewish coloring books, an Israel geography game, and tons of ready-made puzzles by visiting the Jewish Education and Entertainment link on http://www.morim.com Or, go to http://www.akhlah.com for overviews of the weekly Torah portions, Jewish holidays, Hebrew alphabet and Bible heroes.

While http://www.caje.org has a curriculum bank free to members only, there are some useful freebies on the site as well, like “Terrorism, A Discussion Guide,” at http://www.caje.org

Who knows? After all this time spent learning together, you may wish to become a “home schooler.” Find information on the Jewish Home Education Network (http://www.snj.com or http://www.educate.org.uk in England; and in Hebrew for Israelis, or http://www.homeschool.org.il or http://beofen-tv.co.il

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