A few weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot that reminds us of both the summer harvest and the central role of Torah in our tradition. Shavuot inaugurates summer on the Jewish calendar and challenges us to link the freedom that we so exuberantly experienced at Pesach to personal responsibility seven weeks later.
That’s also what University Synagogue offers: the freedom to live as Jews and human beings in all of our diversity, curiosity, hopes, ideas and ideals and the concomitant responsibility to create a vibrant and creative community for ourselves and others, now and in the future.
Being a Reconstructionist Jew goes far beyond “tolerating” differences of ideas, practices and other people’s life choices. It means appreciating and learning from each other. Everyone has an equal place at the table – single and married, intramarried and intermarried, gay and straight, Jewishly learned and those beginning their journey, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, old and young, and so many more.
That’s the congregation that we have created over the last 27 years and that creativity will always continue. If we had a bumper sticker, it wouldn’t say “I’ve found it,” but rather “I’m searching for it and creating it.”
Looking back at the past year of University Synagogue, there were so many memorable events and experiences. Remember Professor Josh Kun on contemporary Jewish music, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger on “My Father Was A Nazi; I’m An Israeli And A Jew,” Professor Elyn Saks on “My Journey Through Madness,” Archie Comics CEO Nancy Silberkleit on “Bullying And What Children And Parents Can Do About It,” mystery writer Faye Kellerman, former Assistant Conductor of the Pacific Symphony Maxim Eshkenazy and Director of Instrumental Studies at Chapman University Conservatory of Music Daniel Wachs presenting a program of classical Jewish music on Daniel Pearl Memorial Shabbat, author Jonathan Kirsch on Jewish martyr Herschel Grynszpan, Rabbi Deborah Prinz on “Jews And Chocolate,” Dr. David Solomon on Jewish women, filmmaker James Schamus on political and cinematic narrative, the Merage Israeli Fellows on their work and Israel, author Marty Brounstein on Righteous Rescuers, Orange County Human Relations Commission Executive Director Rusty Kennedy on economic justice and race relations, Ramadan/Shabbat services and interfaith dialogue at the Pacifica Institute, historian Ken Blady on “Jews And Medicine” and, most recently, Israeli choreographer and dancer Idan Cohen and Noa Shiloh.
What an incredible year of learning, insight and spirituality 5774 has been and continues to be. There were so many highlights including University Synagogue member and UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson and Justice William Bedsworth amazing us at our annual Biblical Trial (this time, it was Sarah and Abraham’s turn to feel the heat!), our Kallah/retreat, that continues to feature the most in-depth learning in the shortest time, on “Jewish Spirituality And Tradition,” our Mitzvah Mall and Mitzvah Morning that gave us an opportunity to learn about and perform acts of gemilut hasadim/kindness and Tikkun Olam and so much more.
The University Synagogue Choir, Young Cantors Group, Youth Band, Steven Hirsch, Julie Metz and Ralph Alberstrom enlivened our spirituality and joy with their music as did our wonderful Cantor Ruti Braier, our Shabbat Alive band and our pianist/percussionist Brian Sepel.
Family events included well attended, monthly, Family Services, each with a unique theme and active student participation, Youth-led services, “Rolling With The Rabbi And Cantor” (a bowling party) and “Picnic In The Park.” Beach services were, as always, a hit in the summer, so don’t forget to attend this summer’s services in July and August.
A new Youth Director was hired and three new Youth groups for different ages were started, reflecting the continuing growth of our Religious School, AJE and Pre-School.
The Orange County Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by University Synagogue, continued to bring excellent documentaries and feature films to a wide audience, and our Tikkun Olam Committee inspired us all with its many projects for human betterment. We dedicated a powerful sculpture in our foyer, “Jacob’s Ladder,” in honor of the generous donors to our incredibly successful Mitzvah Campaign and that generosity will allow us to improve our building and build new classrooms for our ever-increasing Religious School.
Some of my service and study topics throughout the year were on the Middle East, the Pew Study of American Jews, Reconstructionism, Judaism and Nature, Hasidic Tales, Lifecycle, Torah and Bible Study, Facing Illness and Disability With Courage (dialoging with a panel of University Synagogue members), Celebrating America, Making Services Relevant, Jewish Body Language, White House Report, How To Be A Mentsch, Ask The Rabbi, The Book of Ruth and more.
Adult Education classes included Torah Study at Lunch and Learn (we finished Genesis and, in October, we’ll continue with Exodus), Jewish, Alive and American, Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Interfaith Dialogue with Irvine United Congregational Church, Hebrew, Parenting, Jewish Cooking, Musar, Kabbalah, Medical Ethics, yoga and so many more in our over 25 offerings.
Coffees With The Rabbi, Shabbat Dinners With Friends, Havurot, Generations, New Members’ Brunch and, most of all, Women’s Connection (and Women’s Seder) built friendships among our congregants, creating a synagogue of relationships that we aspire to be. Relational Judaism is our goal as a creative and inclusive congregation and, whether it’s an Ice-Cream Social or a BBQ dinner, a Pre-Shabbat service wine and cheese Oneg or an Introduction To Judaism and Reconstructionism night, we want to build University Synagogue into a caring, loving and supportive community. Events aren’t just fun or instructive, they are the building blocks of a face-to-face congregation that wants to help each member in times of trouble, celebrate in times of joy and be the Jewish neighborhood and extended family in all of our lives.
“US Cares” is not just the name of a wonderful project that supports congregants in difficult economic times, it’s our ethos.
So, join in for anything and everything – from Tot Shabbat to holiday celebrations, from lifecycle simchas to emotional support when mourning, from Adult Education to Tikkun Olam. Get to know me better – just call for an appointment – for anything, even just to schmooze.
Go to our terrific website and put our events on your personal calendars for the next few months or the whole year – take a class, come to “Shabbat Alive” or even just the Shabbat meal before or the Oneg Shabbat after. After all, sometimes good food leads to good friends and a re-invigorated Jewish life.
During the month of July, we plan the calendar for the whole year, as well as Adult Education, High Holidays and more. So, if you have an idea for a sermon topic or a class or if you want a High Holiday part in services, please let me know by July 10. I always welcome your suggestions and involvement.
Thank you to our hard working and thoughtful Board, to our excellent and talented professional staff (what would University Synagogue be without Education Director Sue Penn, Pre-School Director Heidi Kahn and Cantor Ruti Braier!), our diligent and caring office and facilities staff and our hundreds of volunteers. Please thank them when you see them; let them know that the tremendous number of hours that they put in, day after day, for all of us, are deeply appreciated.
This past year has been incredible, and our new congregational year will offer even more. We never slow down at University Synagogue, so join us for a summer and a new year of learning, celebration, personal growth and dedication to all humanity.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis