Archive for February, 2012

Jewish Disabilities Month

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Dear Friends,

In honor of Jewish disabilities month, I wanted to share the following.

I am a volunteer for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) which provide services to those who are Jewish and are disabled in our community. Each year I lead a High Holiday/Sukkot program and a Passover seder and these two events are special moments for me each year.

When I am together with the residents of the JFGH apartment program in Rockville, it is truly a sacred occasion. I help them celebrate important Jewish moments and also am there to help them if they are dealing with challenging life cycle occasions. We laugh together, cry together, and most importantly, we spend time together.

If any of you are interested in becoming more involved in the JFGH, please contact me or Scott Bailey know of your desire to help out.

Think about Moses who stuttered, Jacob who limped, and others who had to overcome special needs in their lives. We are all differently abled and all have disabilities in some area. I can still remember how disabled I seemed when I spoke in public in high school and how nervous it made me feel. I know that I have a fear of heights which is a type of disability. Each of us has something that we just can’t do and I hope that we will recognize that although our disabilities may not be as visible as others, that each of us has different abilities.

It can be easy to dismiss folks who are disabled, folks who are different, people who are older, and others. I hope that we will realize that we are taught that we are all created by G-d and each of us is sacred. If/when we encounter someone who is disabled or differently abled, I hope we will be more patient, tolerant, and understanding. I also hope that each of us will give thanks for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us and focus on the abilities we do have, utilizing them to make a difference in our world.

Shabbat Shalom and I hope you will find the message below to help you make a difference,

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Words on Parsha Yitro

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Dear Friends,

This week we read from the portion of the Torah, Yitro which is named after Moses’ father-in-law. He is well known of suggesting to Moses that he not try to judge every case that the Israelite people bring before him, but rather to delegate responsibilities to others in order to be a better leader of our ancestors. Jethro is considered to be a righteous man and our tradition holds him in great esteem since this week’s portion which bears his name is the portion where we first read of the 10 Commandments. There is a discussion in a commentary that I will discuss on Shabbat morning about how Yitro responds to Moses when he tells him about the kindness that G-d showed the Israelites by redeeming them from Egyptian bondage.

In one commentary by Rabbi Jack Riemer, he quotes the following poem by Merle Feld in a book entitled, “Finding Words” published by URJ press. It describes how and when we support people. As I read it, it may be realize that many of us are good at being there for others during times of trouble, but how many of us truly rejoice with others when times are good. As we think about our own friends, we provide ongoing support to those who are in need, but how many of us continue to be present for others who are going through wonderful occasions in their lives. Do we truly rejoice with others during their “simchas” or happy moments, or do we somehow envy their success and so pull back from those who are enjoying success? Are we receptive to their complaints and desire for support even though it seems from the outside that everything is going so well for them….

The poem made me pause to think….I hope you will do the same….

I have a friend whose luck has turned,
After all these years her ship has come in-
A job that pays well, a worthy position
In her field of expertise, contracts for prestigious
And lucrative projects—first one, then two—
Necessitating travel to far-off, exotic destinations.
And I’m happy for her, and proud—I tell everyone
How well she is doing, and certainly
At the beginning of this new karma
I rejoiced that after all the years of struggle


She finally was enjoying such good fortune.
And yet I notice we speak less often now
And when we do, I notice as she complains
Of exhaustion, an unforgiving commute
And the challenge of juggling so many responsibilities,
There’s a sadness in my shoulders, a weight
On my chest that results in shallow breathing.
I notice that my listening is less eager
Than it was a year ago when her good fortune
Was fresh, when ghosts of the many lean, hard years
Were still lurking in corners, frustrated, angry.


After I hang up I’m in a foul mood, measuring
All the narrow places in my life, thinking ‘almost’
And ‘if only’. I remind myself how much I love her,
How talented and worthy, and deserving
She is, but still I reach for the phone
Less and less now, and I avoid wondering
What it means to be the sort of person
Who can stick to her friends through miscarriage,
Unemployment, divorce, widowhood, chemo, locusts
And death of the firstborn, but uncover so much trouble
Bearing witness to an abundant harvest.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Tu B’Shevat

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Dear Friends,

Today is the new year of the trees and a wonderful opportunity to think of special ways we can be help preserve the environment. Recently I met with a student who told me that she wanted to encourage more people to recycle and generally to make people more aware about how precious our world is and how we need to take care of it.

I remember the blue boxes in which we would collect money in order to plant trees in Israel. I still have the certificate for the tree planted in my honor in the John F. Kennedy Forest in Israel. The Jewish National Fund is the organization that has coordinated and coordinates the planting of trees which has beautified and beautifies Israel. Planting trees provides wonderful ways in which to honor or memorialize people who are special to us at special occasions.

The following which is taken from Judaism 101 describes customs surrounding this significant holiday.

Happy New Year!
Rabbi Bruce Aft

Tu B’Shevat
Tu B'Shevat (in Hebrew)

Significance: The “new year” for calculating the age of trees
Length: 1 day
Customs: eating fruit or the Seven Species; planting trees (or paying for planting them)

Level: Basic

Significance: The “new year” for calculating the age of trees
Length: 1 day
Customs: eating fruit or the Seven Species; planting trees (or paying for planting them)

When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the L-RD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit. -Leviticus 19:23-25

There are four new years… the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month. -Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1

Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat, is a holiday also known as the New Year for Trees. The word “Tu” is not really a word; it is the number 15 in Hebrew, as if you were to call the Fourth of July “Iv July” (IV being 4 in Roman numerals). See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about using letters as numbers and why the number 15 is written this way.

As I mentioned in Rosh Hashanah, Judaism has several different “new years.” This is not as strange a concept as it sounds at first blush; in America, we have the calendar year (January-December), the school year (September-June), and many businesses have fiscal years. It’s basically the same idea with the various Jewish new years.

Tu B’Shevat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. See Lev. 19:23-25, which states that fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year’s fruit is for G-d, and after that, you can eat the fruit. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B’Shevat, so if you planted a tree on Shevat 14, it begins its second year the next day, but if you plant a tree two days later, on Shevat 16, it does not reach its second year until the next Tu B’Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah. I have found only one reference to it in the Mishnah, and the only thing said there is that it is the new year for trees, and there is a dispute as to the proper date for the holiday (Beit Shammai said the proper day was the first of Shevat; Beit Hillel said the proper day was the 15th of Shevat. As usual, we follow Beit Hillel. For more on Hillel and Shammai, see Sages and Scholars).

There are few customs or observances related to this holiday. One custom is to eat a new fruit on this day, or to eat from the Seven Species (shivat haminim) described in the Bible as being abundant in the land of Israel. The Shivat Haminim are: wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (honey) (Deut. 8:8). You can make a nice vegetarian pilaf from the shivat haminim: a bed of cooked bulgar wheat or wheat berries and barley, topped with figs, dates, raisins (grapes), and pomegranate seeds, served with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar (grapes) and pomegranate juice.

Some people plant trees on this day. In my childhood, Jewish children commonly went around collecting money to plant trees in Israel at this time of year.

In the 16th century, kabbalists, developed a seder ritual conceptually similar to the Pesach (Passover) seder, discussing the spiritual significance of fruits and of the shivat haminim. This custom spread primarily in Sephardic communities, but in recent years it has been getting more attention among Ashkenazim. provides a traditional text for this seder. The Jewish college student organization Hillel also provides materials for a Tu B’Shevat seder.

Miracles… Do we believe?

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Dear Friends,

Do any of you know the song by Jefferson Starship that asks, “If only you believed in miracles, we could fly?” Do we believe in miracles?

This week we read in the Torah about the miracle which occurred at the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) where Moses, Miriam, and our ancestors crossed through the sea when G-d parted the waters. Do we really believe that this miracle occurred in the way that the Torah states? One explanation is that the waters didn’t recede until Nachshon took the first step into the water with faith that his actions would result in some way that he and those with him could get across to safety.

Often we wait for the miraculous to happen and we are frustrated when nothing special happens. Although I certainly have faith that G-d will support us in our efforts to make miracles happen in our lives, I believe that it is our actions that lead to special things happening. How many of us remember the statement that we should pray as if everything depends upon G-d, and act as if everything depends upon us? I believe that we have a sacred partnership with G-d and that between G-d and us, we can make the world a place where miracles can happen.

I continue to reference the outgoing President of George Mason, Alan Merton’s comment that too often people say “ready, aim, aim, aim…and never say fire.” In order to make miracles happen in our own lives, in the lives of our community, and in the lives of those whom we touch, we need to “fire!” We need to act on our hopes and have faith that our dreams can be realized. Without taking a chance, Nachshon would never have stepped into the Sea. Without taking a chance, we can never know the significant accomplishments that are out there waiting for us to achieve them.

I hope that we do believe in miracles and are prepared to try to bring them into our lives. I would like everyone to help me make a miracle come true. The first Israeli emissary or shlicha who came to Northern Virginia a few years ago, Shiri Rachamim, has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and is in a hospital in Israel receiving chemotherapy.   I want you to personally offer a mishebarach or prayer of healing for Shiri bat Gila (it is customary to recite a healing prayer for a person and mention his/her name as the son/daughter of the mother since the mother is the one who gives birth which is different from a Torah aliyah where in traditionally Orthodox synagogues people are called up as the child of their father).  We know that Shiri is receiving the best medical care available and now we have to do our part to help her recover.

I hope that each of you will take steps through the challenging moments of your lives and will make miracles come true.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft