Graduation… teaching our children

May 18th, 2012

Dear Friends,

I hope you will forgive me if I use this article for a moment of personal privilege. My wife and I recently returned from the college graduation of our youngest child. It was an extraordinary event for so many reasons and both of us felt deep emotion on so many different levels. Maimonides teaches that when our youngest grandchild becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we have fulfilled the mitzvah of v’shinantam l’vanecha, teach your children diligently (taken from the Shema and V’ahavta in the Torah). On a secular level, we both remarked about the significance of this event for our parents. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to graduate from college. My dad never attended and my mother attended for just a short time. Times were different since it was the depression. My in-laws both attained PhD’s and spend a significant amount of their lives (and my mother-in-law continues to spend time) in an academic environment.

We both remarked about the special meaning this day would have had for them. My dad felt it was so important for all my brothers and me to graduate college and I remember the tense conversation about whether I would go for a professional baseball tryout when I was 19 years old. If I went to the tryout and was good enough to be assigned to a team, I would have had to drop out of college which was unacceptable so I did not try out. My mother was always the one who helped with homework and felt very strongly about the importance of a college education. We have been told that if she had been able to attend, she might have enrolled at the University of Chicago because of her academic abilities.

The day following graduation we went from Bloomington, Indiana to visit my mother-in-law in Urbana, Illinois so that we could celebrate this momentous occasion with her. She remarked how special it was to know that all of her grandchildren have graduated from college or are currently attending college. We also visited my father-in-law’s grave so that our youngest could make a connection with the person after whom he is named and so he could in some way share the moment with his namesake.

So…why am I sharing this with you? As we sat at graduation, it was an emotional moment for both of us. I know that my wife was crying and although I would never admit this publicly , I had tears in my eyes. When we thought about how for the last 32 years we always talked about how our purpose was to be able to help our children attend college. Realizing that this phase of life is over (although loans remind us that it really isn’t over yet:-)), we are both excited and in search of new purposes in life. Many of us make significant sacrifices in our lives so that our children can obtain a college education and teaching our children diligently is an important purpose.

As we discuss our “new purpose” in life, we are realizing that “teaching our children” never ends and that as they grow and face new challenges, hopefully sharing our experiences will allow us to continue to be role models and teachers.

Mazel tov to all who are reading this who are either graduating or have family members graduating. Graduation is clearly a very significant occasion in all of our lives and yashir koach (may we all derive strength) from these moments.

If you are graduating and/or are college student, please take a moment to say thanks to those who make your college education a possibility.

Shabbat Shalom and thanks for allowing me to share these personal thoughts. We feel truly blessed at this shecheianu moment in our lives, a wonderful time to give thanks and to be grateful to have reached this significant occasion.

Enjoy a wonderful summer!

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

In Honor of Mother’s Day

May 11th, 2012

Dear Friends,

In a recent item posted by Rabbi Jack Riemer, he was talking about open adoptions which may provide an interesting topic for a future adult education forum. He included a poem in his discussion which I want to share with you in honor of Mother’s Day.

“Once there were two women
Who never knew each other;
One you do not remember,
The other you call mother.
Two different lives shaped to make yours one.
One became your guiding star,
The other became your sun.
The first gave you life,
The second taught you how to live it.
The first gave you a need for love,
And the second was there to give it.
One gave you a nationality,
The other gave you a name.
One gave you the seed of talent,
The other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions,
The other calmed your fears.
One saw your first sweet smile,
The other dried your tears.
One gave you up—it was all that she could do,
The other prayed for a child–
And God led her straight to you.
And now you ask me through your tears,
The age-old question through the years,
Heredity or environment—
Which are you a product of?
Neither my darling—neither
Just two different kinds of love.”

(The poem is taken from a book called “Serenaid: A Triumph of Love”, published by the Williams Publishing Company of Palm Springs, California).

When I read this poem, I couldn’t help but think of the very special love that a mother provides for a child. I hope that despite the differences that some of us may have had or may continue to have with our mothers, that Mother’s Day on Sunday will provide us with an opportunity to thank our moms for the various ways in which they expressed or express their love for us. I was recently officiating at a funeral where I remembered a phrase which my mom used when she said good bye to me on the phone. She would say “so long” instead of “good bye” or “bye bye.” As I reflected on the life of the woman who had died, I remembered my mother’s words and realized that “so long” as I am alive I will be grateful to her for all the love she gave me and the sacrifices she made for me. I wish I could tell her that even though she died almost 11 years ago which seems like “so long” ago, I think of her every day. The love with which she nurtured me for “so long” and which seems “so long” ago, has inspired me to be able to “hopefully” provide meaningful love for my wife and our children and “hopefully” has helped me provide nurturing and care for many of you throughout the years. Please take time on Sunday to wish your mom, your grandma, your aunt, your sister, and any woman who has shared or shares a special love with you, a Happy Mother’s Day and say thanks. It seems like “so long” ago that I could say thanks to my mom and I hope she somehow is aware of my appreciation and love for her.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Lag b’Omer

May 10th, 2012

Dear Friends,

Today is the 33rd Day of the Counting of the Omer. (The Hebrew letter lamed has the numerical value of 30 and the Hebrew letter gimel has the numerical value of three, hence, the 33rd day) Those who are observant have been in a state of semi mourning since the second night of Passover. Each night we count the omer as we move from Pesach to Shavuot. As we remember, Passover marks a spring planting and Shavuot marks a spring harvest. During the counting of the omer, which is a grain offering, observant Jews will not get married, cut their hair or participate in other joyous events (except on Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the month) as we commemorate a plague which afflicted students. Lag b’Omer marks the 33rd day of the counting of the omer which was a day on which the plague broke. In Israel there are major picnics, bonfires, and celebrations, and in the Conservative movement and to the left, people can renew joyous celebrations.

The counting of the omer is a way for us to prepare for the revelation at Mt. Sinai which marks a transition from the slave mentality which preceded the Exodus and prepares us for the responsibility of becoming a people in the Promised Land as we receive the 10 Commandments. People often can’t just leave things behind and need a ritual in order to make change in our lives. I hope that we we celebrate today in some way (we are going out for ice cream!!!), we will take this journey seriously and leave behind those things that enslave us and find meaningful ways to celebrate life. One of the ways in which we do this is through study and I hope that you will seek out a Jewish book or study some of the ethical teachings found in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers/Ancestors).

Please see an interesting summary of Lag B’Omer below taken from

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

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Enjoy each day

April 27th, 2012

Dear Friends,

This was an exciting week for me with the opportunity to meet the President and to have all the wonderful pictures and video to remind me of this special occasion. It reminded me of how fortunate we are that on a day in which we remembered the Holocaust I could be standing by Elie Wiesel, a number of survivors, and meeting the President. We should never take for granted the freedom we enjoy in our world and how fortunate we are to live in the United States of America in which we can freely practice our religion. I We know that as it says at the Korean War Memorial, “freedom is not free” and the commemoration of the Holocaust reminds us of what can happen in societies where people don’t enjoy freedom. (see pictures from the link below)

On a separate note, this week we read the Torah portions “Tazria-Metzora” from the Book of Leviticus that among other things deals with leprosy. We are taught that this portion may be meant to teach us about how lashon hara or negative speech can wound us and how in the same way we sometimes isolate the leper, that we sometimes jump to conclusions based upon hearsay. We read this portion every year to remind ourselves not to speak negatively about others and to not speak idle words of slander or gossip.

My favorite prayer is the meditation after the Amidah that says, “O God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from telling lies…” This quote is attributed to the Chofetz Chaim, a rabbi who loved life and taught us that the secret of life is fulfilling the words of this prayer. I hope we can learn from his teaching and will be careful in the words we use. When I was a child we were taught that “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” Today, we are taught by Robert Fulghum, author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” who wrote that “Sticks and stones can break your bones and words can break your heart..” Let us mend hearts with the words we use and the deeds we perform…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Remembering the 6 million… do something and Never Forget

April 19th, 2012

Dear Friends,

Today is the day on the Jewish calendar when we mark Holocaust Commemoration Day.

I need to confess, although some of you have heard me say this. We say the we should NEVER FORGET and yet I wonder how many of us watch the news about genocide in Africa and change the channel. There are many accounts that suggest that people knew more or less about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. And yet…the question that haunts me is whether or not everything was done that could have been done to save Jewish people. When the genocide was occurring in Rwanda, I remember speaking about the O.J. Simpson trial, but never speaking about the genocide. Years later I taught a course at Adat Reyim in 2008 and one at George Mason University in 2011 on the religious response to genocide. The final project for the course at Adat Reyim was for the high school students to do a fundraiser to help victims of genocide. Due to the kindness and connections of a congregant, we were able to send money to Rwanda to help those living in a small village and make a donation to Save Darfur. However this occurred 14 years later…

I feel terribly guilty that as one who has been on so many March of the Living trips and says NEVER FORGET, that I haven’t done more to help victims of genocide. Last night, Yael Ingel, our Israeli educator, shlicha, spoke at an adult education session at Adat Reyim about the power of memory. I hope that as we remember the victims of the Holocaust today, we will remember that there continues to be genocide and do whatever we can to make sure that senseless killing doesn’t continue to occur. Whether contacting political officials, teaching our children about these horrible things, or contacting the Sudanese embassy, each of us needs to commit to do something so that we prove we have not forgotten.

Rabbi Yoachim Prinz, a rabbi in Berlin who served a congregation in New Jersey and shared the podium with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his “I have a dream speech,” once said the greatest sin of the Holocaust was the sin of silence. We have just celebrated Passover where we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt so that each of us can think about the plight of those who are mistreated and oppressed in our world. I hope we will remember by DOING SOMETHING and not be silent!

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Passover Message

April 6th, 2012

Dear Friends,

I wish all of you a Happy, Healthy, Ziessen (sweet) Pesach. I hope you are together with people who are important to you and that we will all find something to liberate ourselves from that will make us feel better about ourselves and our lives.

My colleague, Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg suggested recently that one of the things that makes this night different from all other nights is that we gather with those who are dear to us for a significant Jewish event and enjoy dinner together. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find other opportunities, including Shabbat, to be together with our families and friends?

I often wonder what we could do as individuals and a community to make this year different than every other year. What commitments are we prepared to make to really embrace that which is important to us? We speak of four children at the seder and are commanded to tell the story so that the wise, the alienated, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask, can understand. What kind of person do we want to be? Do we wish to make the cause of the underprivileged our own? Do we wish to embrace our freedom by reaching out and working with causes that help enhance the plight of the oppressed?

What kinds of questions do we ask at our seder? We know the formula for asking questions about matzah, bitter herbs, dipping, and reclining. But what are the meaningful questions about our lives that we wish to ask? Are we satisfied with our careers, our major in college, our extra curricular activities, our friends, our sports teams (ok, you knew I would put that one in there so close to opening day…Go Nationals! (and White Sox, of course)), our relationships, what we are doing with our lives…? What are we prepared to do to respond to the tough questions that we could address to ourselves or that others could ask us?

Pesach is a time of liberation, a time to dream, a time to reshape our journey. I often believe that Moses was a GPS, a guide to personal spirituality. May each of us find meaningful paths as we journey toward our promised land. And….like Nachshon, who took the first step into the Red Sea and had faith that he could cross over the Red Sea to safety, may we have the courage to take that first step toward our own liberation, toward our own freedom from something that enslaves us, and as Debbie Friedman wrote in her prayer of healing, may we have the courage to make our lives a blessing.

Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Passover… Our story of freedom

March 30th, 2012

Dear Friends,

As we prepare for Passover, I wanted to share a couple of customs which we practice at our home. At the beginning of the seder, we pass the Elijah’s cup around the table and ask everyone to pour some of their wine or grape juice into the Elijah’s cup. Elijah is supposed to visit our seder in order to usher in an age of freedom and peace, marking the beginning of the messianic era. In this way, each of us feels as if we are contributing something toward the bringing of the Messianic era to our world. Depending upon who attends your seder, you may want to ask your guests what they can do to perform acts of tikkun or repair in order to improve our world.

We also pass around a Miriam’s cup, which is a cup that we fill with water. Miriam was responsible for nurturing our ancestors in the wilderness since she knew where to look for and find water. As water sustains us, so Miriam’s love sustained us during our journey. We mention women who have sustained us in our lives and/or who have nurtured us. Sometimes we ask those at our seder to mention a woman who is a heroine in the their lives so that we can learn about women who have made a difference in our world.

This year, we are going to begin a custom where we ask people to share a place where they will donate an afikoman gift, in order to brighten the world of someone less fortunate.

Finally, I hope that as you are cleaning your rooms, apartments, whatever… and getting rid of the chometz or leaven, you will take this opportunity to clean out the hametz from your lives. Sometimes we become consumed by the little frustrations and “crumbs” that fill our lives and lose sight of the big picture. I hope that we are liberated from those petty concerns that cause us to lose sleep and become tense and can be thankful for the blessings we have. As we prepare for the end of the semester, it is a stressful time, but keep looking at the big picture and remember that each of us is preparing for opportunities that hopefully will lead us to the promised land of meaningful careers and professional fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Thought for the week

March 16th, 2012

Dear Friends,

I hope you are enjoying or have enjoyed a wonderful spring break. The following story came across my desk and I wanted to share it with you.

“Forgiving is rediscovering the shining path of peace that at first you thought others took away when they betrayed you.”


Two friends were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face.

The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the sand:


They kept on walking until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but the friend saved him.
After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone:


The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now, you write on a stone, why?”

The other friend replied “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”


Forgiveness is not an act but a process – a direction, a path to walk on. There is no prescription for how long it might take or how long it should take. All I know is, people deserve the same kind of forgiveness that you would want…

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Purim Sameach!

March 7th, 2012

Dear Friends,

So how far are we willing to go in order to stand up for what we believe? Would you put it all on the line and risk your life? Would you compromise your own personal principles as did Esther (participate in a beauty contest, whatever she had to do…) in order to position yourself to someday help those who are important to you? Will we do the right thing when we are asked?

Purim is so important that when the Messianic age arrives, we will continue to celebrate this important day. We are reminded by Esther’s bravery that sometimes we are placed in situations where we can truly make a difference and it is up to us to respond. Think about how different the world would have been if Esther didn’t tell King Ahasveurus that she was Jewish. Are we willing to stand up and acknowledge who we are when our identities are being challenged? What does this say to us about our personal Jewish identities and our connection to Israel, when standing up for our Jewishness or to defend the state of Israel isn’t popular? How do we determine whether the cause is worth standing up for or whether we should back away from a particular issue?

These are some of the questions which the celebration of Purim raises for us. I wish to comment about a coincidence of numerical values. ( or maybe it is not a coincidence) We know that each Hebrew letter has a numerical value which one can learn more about by studying about gematria. The words ” blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman” (in Hebrew) add up to the same numerical value. There are many explanations for this, but the one I believe is relevant for us today is that each of us has some of Mordecai and some of Haman in us. It is up to us to decide upon which characteristics we wish to act. Are we going to follow a course of action that is praiseworthy and helpful? Or…are we going to follow a course of action that is destructive and leads to negative energy? Each of us is faced with challenges in our personal lives, our professional lives, our volunteer activities, and in all aspects of our lives. How do we respond? Are we brave like Esther and take risks? Are we worthy of blessing and praise by the ways in which we respond? Or…do we fan flames, listen to negative speech, and pursue actions that are closer to “cursed be Haman?”

What is so wonderful and timeless about this story is that it is all about us. I hope we can find inspiration from hearing the reading of the Megillah that will lead us to want to do the right thing in all different aspects of our lives.

And…remember it is a mitzvah to hear the reading of the Megillah, to celebrate Purim with a special meal and party (and drink RESPONSIBLY (and not drive) if it is legal for you to drink!!!, give food packages to your friends (Shelach manot), and help provide for the poor and those in need (matanot l’evyonim).

Hag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Shabbat Zachor – approaching Purim

March 2nd, 2012

Dear Friends,

This Shabbat we mark the occasion of Shabbat Zachor, the special Shabbat before Purim. We remember what Amalek did to our people as we anticipate another fight to stay alive during the time of the Purim story.

This week marked another tragedy in our world when a young man shot and killed three students at a high school in Ohio. We remember Columbine, Va. Tech, Northern Illinois University, and other places where horrible loss of life has occurred. Unfortunately, we are once again stunned by the horrors of young people dying.

I often wonder what we can do to try to ensure that these kinds of things do not occur again. I do not have the wisdom to give you an easy answer to this question. We often talk about bullying and how hard children, teenagers, and adults can be on each other. I guess that each of us needs to try to be aware of unkind behavior when it happens and if we are concerned that someone is a bit unstable, encourage that person to get help. If this doesn’t seem realistic, perhaps we need to let the appropriate authorities know if we are witnessing scary behavior.

When Mordecai told Esther that she had to act to save the Jewish people in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), she was reluctant to get involved. She is told that “help will come from some other place” that is a subtle hint that perhaps G-d will intervene to save the Jewish people if she doesn’t. Where will help come from to alleviate the pain that so many feel, if we don’t reach out? Will those who are hurting find faith in G-d that will help them deal with the challenges they face in their lives or will they pursue violence as a way of retaliation or dealing with these tough situations?

Last night I went to the Barns at Wolftrap to hear Peter Yarrow, from Peter, Paul, and Mary, who shared the words to the following song, “Don’t Laugh at Me” and also spoke about the following non profit organization, Operation Respect, which has a website that I hope you will peruse, in order to find ways to make our world a little kinder place.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft

“Don’t Laugh At Me”
(Steve Seskin/Allen Shamblin)

I’m a little boy with glasses
The one they call a geek
A little girl who never smiles
‘Cause I have braces on my teeth
And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep
I’m that kid on every playground
Who’s always chosen last
A single teenage mother
Tryin’ to overcome my past
You don’t have to be my friend
But is it too much to ask

Don’t laugh at me
Don’t call me names
Don’t get your pleasure from my pain
In God’s eyes we’re all the same
Someday we’ll all have perfect wings
Don’t laugh at me

I’m the beggar on the corner
You’ve passed me on the street
And I wouldn’t be out here beggin’
If I had enough to eat
And don’t think I don’t notice
That our eyes never meet

Don’t laugh at me
Don’t call me names
Don’t get your pleasure from my pain
In God’s eyes we’re all the same
Someday we’ll all have perfect wings
Don’t laugh at me

I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall
I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all

Don’t laugh at me
Don’t call me names
Don’t get your pleasure from my pain
In God’s eyes we’re all the same
Someday we’ll all have perfect wings
Don’t laugh at me