Archive for the ‘Rabbi Aft’ Category

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

Finding Redemption…

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Dear Friends,

Tonight I will be talking about a verse that is found in this week’s Torah portion which suggests that the young and old will be leaving Egypt upon the completion of the 10 Plagues. In reading this portion, it is clear to me that true redemption can only occur when all of us are able to enjoy life’s blessings.

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Jack Riemer, wrote a piece about the creative ways in which Danny Siegel, a poet and author suggests that we care for others in our community. Two of the ideas that resonated with me were the following:

Emily Davenport was a teenager who heard Danny Siegel speak, and was impressed. The next day she went to a local doughnut shop and asked if she could pick up their leftover doughnuts and bring them to a shelter for the homeless. What gave her the idea was that she knew that adults bring necessities to the shelters—things like bread and soups, but she wondered: Why can’t these people have some luxuries as well as necessities? And so she decided to bring them doughnuts. The owner of the doughnut store had never been asked to donate his leftover doughnuts before, and his answer was, “Sure, why not?” And so, ever since, Emily Davenport goes there once or twice a week and picks up the leftover doughnuts, and her parents take her to the local homeless shelter where she delivers them. No adult ever thought of that idea, but a Bat Mitzvah girl did.

Danny Siegel says that in seventeen college campuses all around the country students are insisting that their college cafeterias purchase food only from places that agree that they do not employ child labor and who do not manufacture their goods in sweatshops. The colleges did not like the idea. They wanted to buy from wherever was cheaper, and they felt that they had enough to worry about making sure that the food they served was safe and sanitary, without having to worry about whether it was ethically made or not. So they tried to fudge and stall on this issue. But these college students are not dummies. If they have been accepted because of their high IQ’s, and their good grades, do these colleges really think that they can fool them or put them off with excuses? The students are on to them, says Danny Siegel, and in the long run they will win.

The people who run the college cafeterias and restaurants may have degrees in business administration or from cooking schools, but the kids are just as smart as they are—and maybe smarter—when it comes to moral issues. I bet on them to succeed, and I predict that in a few more years there will be a lot more than seventeen colleges that will give in to their demands.

I hope that as we seek to bring about the redemption of our world, we will be able to find meaningful ways to help others and look forward to our students, staff, and faculty doing our share to brings blessings to those who are less fortunate.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Thoughts for the New Semester

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I want to share a special moment that I had while recently enjoying some time visiting former students, one of my mentors, and some vacation time.

My wife and I were walking in Muir Woods which is just north of San Francisco and is a forest of Redwood trees. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. There is a section there which is called the “Cathedral” which is a sanctuary of Redwood trees. There was a special meeting there to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s memory and there was a gathering of those who were involved at the beginning of the United Nations. It is a very peaceful place where one is touched by the sounds of silence and opportunities for meditation.

During other visits to this special place, I have been comforted by the peace of the sanctuary of trees, but on this occasion, I was agitated and frankly didn’t feel like myself. As we hiked further and further into the woods, soon I began to feel better and subsequently realized that I was having a Jacob and the Angel moment. Many of us remember when Jacob wrestled with the angel in the book of Genesis and our traditional commentaries think that he may have wrestled with G-d, another man, the angel Gabriel, or his conscience. He emerges from the wrestling match wounded and limps away (this is why if we keep kosher, we don’t eat Filet Mignon because it is from the section of the cow that is the same section of Jacob that was wounded). We know that Jacob’s name changes to Israel which means to wrestle with G-d.

All of us wrestle with different issues in our lives and certainly I am no different. What I realized as we continued our hike is that perhaps that is what a sanctuary is supposed to help us do. Rather than feel relaxed and comfortable all the time in the sanctuary, maybe we are challenged to wrestle with ourselves and emerge as changed human beings. And maybe that is what college is supposed to be like….A place to wrestle with who we are and who we wish to be….

I hope that as we begin a new semester, each of us will wrestle with our dreams and visions of what we can accomplish. Each semester represents new hope and opportunity and although there may be some wounds along the way, we can change who we are and become the type of people we wish to become.

Enjoy a wonderful semester.

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor

Acts of kindness…

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Dear Friends,

Last night I had the opportunity to offer opening remarks at the local BBYO gala in Bethesda. Some of you may have participated in this important youth program as teenagers.

I spoke about Joseph and wanted to share a segment of my remarks with you. The Joseph story begins in Genesis, Chapter 37. Joseph is looking for his brothers and encounters a person who offers to help him find them. The person is only identified as “the person.” Joseph finds his brothers, they bury him in a pit and you can read about the sequence of events that unfolds, which culminates in us becoming slaves in Egypt and being freed from slavery.

Much of our history occurs as a result of “the person” performing an act of kindness. At this time of year, each of us has numerous options to perform mitzvot which will help those who are less fortunate to enjoy the Holiday season. Although we can always perform special deeds that make a difference, somehow with the media attention, it seems that this time of year presents so many choices of ways to make a difference.

I hope that in the way that “the person” makes a difference in Joseph’s life, that all of us will find some meaningful way to change the world around us. What better way of showing our gratitude for our blessings than by helping others. Each of us has the potential to change history for at least one other person and to have significant impact upon the lives of others.

Travel safely over your vacation and I look forward to a wonderful 2012!

Hag Chanukah Sameach, (Happy Hanukkah)
Rabbi Bruce Aft

Parshas Vayishlach – A Huge Goal!

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Dear Friends,

I was surfing the net and came across this interesting commentary and wanted to share it with you this week. As each of us tries to find balance in our lives, I struggle with where to place boundaries in my life. I hope that as we are about to celebrate Chanukah and celebrate our religious freedom, we will score many goals both in our religious and secular identities.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Bruce Aft

Dvar Torah
by Rabbi Label Lam
Parshas Vayishlach

A Huge Goal!

And Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he could not defeat him so he grabbed him in the hollow of his thigh and he dislocated the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh with his wrestling with him. And he said, “Send me because the dawn has broken.” And he said, “I will not send you unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Yaakov!” And he said, “No long will your name be Yaakov but rather Israel, because you struggled with the Divine and man and you prevailed.” And Yaakov asked and he said, “Tell me please, what your name is?” And he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Breishis 32:25-30)

Yaakov sure had a rough night that night he wrestled with the “man”-angel but as a result he ended up with an upgraded name- title “Israel” and mighty blessing to boot. Oddly Yaakov benefited greatly from that rugged encounter. It’s no secret that the so called wrestling match that lasted all night really represents our struggle too with the Yetzer Hora throughout the entirety our lives and all of history. It sounds perverse but when we prevail over the Yetzer Hora- the evil inclination really becomes our biggest friend! How is that so?

Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, the famous Maggid of Jerusalem, noticed that one of the regular attendees of a teen learning group was surprisingly absent on Sunday and Monday. Deeply concerned about his wellbeing, on Tuesday the Rabbi went to meet the boy at his home. He inquired about the reason he missed consecutive days. “I know you for years and you never missed a day of learning yet. I am sure that something serious is going on. Please tell me what’s happening.” The boy was embarrassed at first but he eventually decided to disclose his secret reason for being absent but not without first explaining his hesitancy to divulge it. “I would tell you Rebbe but you just won’t understand.” “Try me,” begged Reb Sholom, “I will try my hardest to understand.”

Certain he would be misunderstood by a Rabbi, who had probably had never seen a soccer ball in his life he confessed, “I missed because of the soccer finals. It’s the championship all this week and I must listen to the games! I’ll be back next week for sure!”

Rabbi Schwadron listened with interest. “I’m sure that this game of soccer must be quite exciting. Tell me,” he asked, “How do you play this game of soccer? What’s the object? “Well,” began the student filled with enthusiasm, “there are eleven players, and the object is to kick a ball into the netting of the goal. No one but the goal-keeper can move the ball with his hands or arms!” Rabbi Schwadron’s face brightened! “Oh! Is that all? So just go there, kick the ball in the goal, and get back to learning!” The boy laughed. “Rebbe, you don’t understand! The opposing team also has eleven men and a goal-keeper, and their job is to stop our team from getting the ball into their goal!” “Tell me,” Rabbi Schwadron whispered. These other men on the other team, are they there all day and night?” “Of course not Rebbe, they go home at night!”

Rabbi Schwadron huddled close and in all earnest asked. “Why don’t you sneak into the stadium in the evening and kick the ball into the goal when they are not looking! Then you can win and return to learning Torah!” The boy threw his hands up in frustration. “Rebbe! You don’t understand. It’s of no real value to kick a ball into an empty net if there is no one trying to stop you!”

“Aha!” cried Reb Sholom in absolute victory. “Now think a moment and listen to what you just said! It is no trick to come to learn Torah only when nothing is trying to hold you back! It is when the urge to skip is so overpowering, when the Yetzer Hora is blocking the goal, that’s when you can score real points. Come tomorrow and you can’t imagine how much your Torah learning will be worth!” The next day, amazingly the boy came to learn and he scored a huge goal!

What’s in a dream…

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Dear Friends,

Recently I read a posting from Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis about this week’s portion, V’Yetzei from which this is an excerpt:

“In the opening of the parsha, Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that bridges earth to heaven. When Jacob awakes from his dream he declares, Ma nora hamakom hazeh, eyn ze ki im beyt Elokim, v’zeh shaar hashamayim, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of Gd and this is the shaar hashamayim, the gate of heaven.”

Towards the end of the parsha Jacob dreams, not of angels, but of speckled and spotted sheep. His dreams are no longer of heaven but of commodities! This is when he knew that he had to leave uncle Laban and return home. Jacob knows that Laban won’t easily let him go, so he takes the family and sneaks away while Laban is on a road trip inspecting the flocks. When Laban finds out, he pursues Jacob in a rage with every intention of taking Jacob’s flocks and family from him. On the way, he has a dream that transforms him. He dreams of Gd speaking to him and instead of being vengeful toward Jacob he becomes neutral. It is his dream that helps him overcome his evil nature.

What is a dream? “A dream that is not understood is like a letter that is not opened.” Who do you think is the author of this famous quote? Sigmund Freud? Didn’t Freud open up a whole new way of looking at the human psyche? It was Freud who showed the world that there is more to the human being than meets the eye, more than the conscious world. There is the subconscious, and this was a tremendous insight!

This quote, however, is from the Talmud, which makes clear that a dream is much more than we may think. A dream speaks to us; it has a message; it is like a letter as yet unopened. And if someone takes the trouble to write you a letter, you should, at least open it and read the contents.”

As college students, we have many dreams which we hope we can fulfill in our lifetimes. We get many unopened letters, have many choices to make, and in some situations we are able to fulfill dreams and in others we find that our dreams are elusive. I hope that in the midst of preparing for finals and completing final assignments, we are able to remember that we have hopes and dreams and not be discouraged from seeking to fulfill them when we are overwhelmed by the hard work and reality of trying to make our dreams come true.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Dear Friends,

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are profoundly thankful for all our blessings and yet when we realize that there is significant hunger in our world, we realize that we cannot be fullythankful unless we do our share to alleviate the poverty in our world. I hope that during this Holiday season, we will seek places to donate food, help provide Holiday meals, and think about those who are in need.

The following was written by Albert Einstein:

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other, above all, for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.

May we find meaningful ways to connect with those who have less than we do and provide for those whose well being depends upon our kindness. We have numerous opportunities to reach out and touch people over this Holiday period. The following prayer is an inspiration for social action and caring. May its words motivate us to perform acts of tikkun or healing.

Social Action – Jack Riemer (adapted)

We cannot merely pray to God to end war;
For the world was made in such a way
That we must find our own path of peace
Within ourselves and with out neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to God to root out prejudice;
For we already have eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to God to end despair;
For we already have the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end disease:
For we already have great minds
With which to search out cures and healings
If we would only use them constructively.

Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely pray
To become instead of merely wish;
That our world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft