It’s Easier to Give :-)

Angela Hodges, our congregational webmaven, is a person of many talents.  She  sings gentle harmonies to every melody I give her, teaches our children Hebrew, and takes amazing pictures.

She also understands technology.

If you want to give any kind of a donation to help us purchase a new Torah scroll, you now have only to go here and click on a handy-dandy PayPal button:

Please feel free to forward this link to anyone who might be moved by our story. And again, our thanks.

L’shana tova and Shabbat Shalom!


A Survivor Must Rest: The Temple Emanu-El Torah

Well over a century ago, a scribe in Macedonia rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. When all began, God created the heavens and the earth.

Well over a century ago, a scribe in a Lithuanian town rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Vayomer Elohim el Moshe: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. And God said to Moses, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”

A scribe in a little shtetl in Moravia. A scribe somewhere, perhaps, in Germany. One wrote in Vellish script. The other, in Ari. One had a strong right-handed tendency.

At some point, my congregation’s Torah was pieced together from remnants of many Torahs whose several parts date back as far as the late 1800’s. The people who heard this Torah read all over Europe were decimated by the Final Solution. Few of them survived the Shoah.

Somehow, parts of their Torah did.

Each time I read from the Torah, I pause between the time the blessing is chanted and I begin. I am remembering – invoking, really – the Jews from across Europe who knew and revered and loved this Torah for decades. Jews in Macedonia, Moravia, Germany, Lithuania: I imagine them around me, joining me at the Torah.

Our Torah has her name from a more recent past. She is the Temple Emanu-El Torah. She came to Temple Or Olam when that congregation of Weldon, North Carolina, had to close its doors. The first time we read from our Torah was at my son, Erik’s bar mitzvah. Many who knew the Torah came to Concord for the service and watched as the heart of their congregation was transplanted into ours.

For nine years our children have chanted from this Torah. Our people have raised this Torah high for us all to see. Some of our women first held a Torah scroll after I put this one into their arms.

Our Torah, which is mostly between 100 and perhaps 125 years old, has been pristinely restored for a second time. She came home just before the New Year. In her old age, she has the radiance Sarah must hadwhen she learned she was pregnant. Her letters sparkle, her parchment is clear.

Nine years ago, when our sofer, Neil Yerman, first restored our Torah, he told me she was not a healthy scroll. Who knows how she survived the conflagrations in Europe? Torahs, we now know, need to be kept in climate-controlled conditions, tightly wound, surrounded by cedar and humidity absorbing granules.

Still, we hoped she might have thirty more years of life to give.

Scrolls are organic things. They are made of the things of this world. They live, they die, and when the latter occurs and they absolutely can no longer be maintained, they are ritually buried.

Over the last century, our Torah has suffered irreparable damage. The parchment is unyielding to quill and ink. She is no longer able to hold the letters. Many that Neil has lovingly refinished will chip and flake off her surface within this very year. Her beauty cannot be sustained if we rely on her; she cannot be kept kosher for reading without ongoing and expensive attention.

We need to care for her now as we would an elder. We need to hold her tenderly and let her rest. At this point, we must face this fact: My little congregation must now fund her retirement by raising the money for a new Torah, and that means many, many thousands of dollars.

All these years I have chanted from this Torah conscious of all the people who loved her and knew her in her youth. Their communities were decimated and their people slaughtered. I have made my chanting into another way to say Kaddish for them, to mourn them and to honor them and – most importantly – to remember them.

I will need to bring them with me to the new scroll that I will read from someday. I do not yet know how I will do that.

On Rosh Hashanah Shacharit, I broke a vow. I had never made any fundraising pitch during these Days of Awe. I never thought I would.

And yet, even the smallest community has two essential obligations. To be able to bury its dead with honor, and to keep and maintain a Torah scroll. Every community must be responsible for making sure that our heart beats. That heart is the Torah.

I do not fear to ask wherever I go. I do not fear to ask here, either. Please help us spread the word by letting others know our story. Perhaps they will reach out.

If you would like to help our community raise the funds we will need for a new Torah, please send your tax-deductible contribution to the following address:

Temple Or Olam, Treasurer
PO Box 362
Huntersville, NC 28070-0362

May you all be blessed with a healthy and happy New Year.


Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves

Beloved, show me the way out of this prison.
Make me needless of both worlds.
Pray, erase from mind all
that is not You.

Have mercy Beloved,
though I am nothing but forgetfulness,
You are the essence of forgiveness.
Make me needless of all but You.
Abu Saeed Abil Kheir

What, then, do we long for? Not to forget all the times we have missed the mark, but to be granted understanding for our clumsiness.

What do we crave? Not to harbor rage and anger, but to grow our capacity for compassion and understanding.

What do we need? To forgive ourselves.

Each of these is difficult, painful. Jewish law does not allow us to ask God for forgiveness for our sins against one another. The one you have hurt is the one you must honestly, openly, and humbly ask for forgiveness. Love does mean having to say you are sorry. Your atonement must extend beyond words to actions and deeds; you must show in tangible ways that your apology means a commitment – to change your behavior, to alter your mindset, to become the better person you long to be.

We are not granted forgiveness from God for our cruelties and misunderstandings. Only the people we have hurt by our actions can grant us that gift.

To be able to forgive those who have hurt us demands that we achieve the highest levels of understanding regarding our common humanity. Still, Jewish law does not demand that we achieve that level regardless of cause. There is no insistence that murderers be forgiven. Victims of rape, sexual abuse, and violence are not required to do anything but tend to their own healing.

So often, when we want to forgive our hearts harden and resist. The colleague’s ethnic slur, the neighbor’s intolerance of one’s personal choice in love, the family member who condemns and attacks and seems unable to listen to any kind of reason – it is hard to forgive insult and aggression.

To forgive ourselves can be the most difficult of all. I still remember the only time I struck anyone. I was twelve. A neighborhood boy of seven or eight was bullying my little brother, who was six, and small for his age. Enraged, I took that kid off his bicycle and I hit him. Hard. Forty years later, I still remember the moment I struck another person with more shame than I can describe.

Tomorrow night is Selichot. My congregants will write down the the things they need to forgive in themselves. For this, they may openly ask for God’s help.

We will take the paper we have written on and toss each scrap, each act, into a bowl of water. Then, we will watch those burdens dissolve.

So may our pain.


All We Need Is Love…

Have I told You lately that I love You?  Have I told You? There’s no one else above You.

This past summer, I asked my congregants: Send me the love song you would sing to God.  
My plan was to create a service from their suggestions.

One congregant surprised me with an Elvis Presley tune. For several weeks, I had fun making my voice deep and round. I went about the house singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” while making beds and doing laundry.

I fell in love with tunes I had not known. “You Are Not Alone” by the Eagles became a personal favorite. I sang it as if God were singing to me, as the congregant had suggested. I rediscovered melodies and recast them from my knowledge of the particular person who had suggested the tune. 

We sang a version of “Light My Fire” by the Doors for candle-lighting. We rewrote the lyrics just a bit:

The time to hesitate is through.
There’s no need to wallow in the mire.
Bring some matches with you, too.
The lighting situation’s dire.
Come on baby, light my fire…

I played electric guitar publicly for the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Something’s Always Wrong.” (Our relationships with God aren’t always easy and sweet, after all.)

Folks showed up to the service in tie-dyed clothing and beaded headbands. The room was filled with color and light.

We went through the service. I took a little time to walk us through the placement of each song. “Feelin’ Groovy” seemed like the perfect Kabbalat Shabbat tune. We might read Mourner’s Kaddish as a sweet opportunity to remember what a “Time It Was.”

A roomful of people were reading and understanding our Shabbat services in a whole new way.

Prayer is about love. It is about doubt. It is about anguish and passion and joy.

What we sing in Hebrew is about all those things. Mi Chamocha
, understood on its own terms, fairly invites us to stand and celebrate the freedom we have been granted, the security of solid ground underneath our feet. Aleynu can be read as “Imagine” – who among us has not dreamed of the world being as one, without greed or hunger plaguing anyone?

The room was simultaneously filled with the wonder of realization and a joyful, happy ease. We sang love songs and we allowed ourselves to experience the depth of our prayer.

Later, a Christian friend of mine who had attended the service said, simply, “God was in that room.”

I long for such moments. In this regard, I am spoiled by my congregation. I believe our members long for the same thing. 

Was there one love song we all sang together?  

Have I told You lately that I love You? Have I told You? There’s no one else above You. 


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