This piece is by Education Fellow Amanda Winer.
As I was flying home from a recent trip to one of the amazing communities I get to visit as an ISJL Education Fellow, a hilarious thought came to my mind: sometimes, the only DOWN time I get is when I’m UP in the air.
That seemed meaningful – and made me think of what other meaning I might find if I put my mind to it. So I grabbed my pencil and started jotting down a list of all of the trips I had been on. And I feverishly tabulated. That’s when I realized that since beginning my fellowship in June 2012, I’d been on 88 individual airplanes.
88 apple juices with no ice in 88 tiny plastic cups. 88 pretzels or peanuts, though I usually choose the latter. 88 take offs and 88 landings. 88 times the flight attendant asked to turn off all electronics because the door was closed.
Since I was suspended 10,000 feet about the air with no cell phone reception to distract me, I kept just thinking. 88 is a pretty significant number in my life. First, there’s the fact that I love music, and there are 88 keys on the standard piano keyboard. Then, as is typical, I turned to my Jewish educator roots.
One of the many tools Judaism gives us to find meaning is gematria, a sort of “Jewish numerology,” which explores the significance of numbers and uses that to find meaning in the seemingly mundane. Now, seven is an important number in Judaism and gematria. It is a number that signifies perfection, wholeness. God created the world in an order of seven days. We rest on the seventh day. The omer, or the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot, is seven weeks.
So, what about eight?
Eight is a number that symbolizes what is beyond whole; something amazing and miraculous. Hanukkah, the holiday in which we celebrate miracles, lasts eight days. There’s the tradition of performing b’rit milah when a baby reaches eight days old – to celebrate the miracle of life. Eight is a miracle-number, and I like to think that miracles serve as a device, to remind us not to take life too seriously. Miracles are something to remind us how special and holy our lives are, and sometimes to distract us. Like magic! Therefore 88, two of these “magic” numbers side by side, must be significant.
The reality is, numerology is the same as anything: if you make the time to find the Jewish connection – it’s there! And as I continue traveling, the number of planes and visits will continue to grow and change, but the trips will all be meaningful… as will the numbers surrounding the journeys.
What do you think about gematria/numerology? Are there any numbers that have particular significance to you?
Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.
Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.