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11/25/2023 12:02:38 PM


02/22/2024 03:36:24 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

This week, I have some reflections on the Torah portion. The first commandment of Parshat Tetzaveh (which means “you shall command [them]”) is to establish the ner tamid, the eternal flame, over the mishkan  (the Tabernacle). But unlike our synagogue eternal flame today, the name is misleading: the ner tamid is instructed to burn from evening until morning only. These verses, Exodus 27:1-2, do not say why we must burn this flame – only that we do it before God.

During the sunlit days, the bright times of life, we need not expend the extra energy to sustain an extra flame. We only do so during the dark times, and during those times, we have no choice but to keep the flame burning. Rabbi Jay LeVine wrote how the rabbis of the midrash (Sifra Tzav 1:16 and Bamidbar/Numbers Rabbah 15:7 ) wonder how such a flame is lit. Clearly God does not light it – people do. But only God can create light from darkness; we are bound to transfer the flame, or create it from striking other materials against each other. In the Temple, the rabbis, note, the inner altar would be closer to the position of the eternal flame, and therefore the more convenient source of fire, but instead they insist that the light come from the outer altar.

When we are looking around, trying to figure out how to light the darkness of our lives, it might take monumental effort to light the flame from within. When our internal light is dimmed or flickering, struggling to burn brightly, it is not a reliable source of light. And even if we did use it to ignite our communal eternal flame, lighting it only from internal fire keeps us within the bounds of our community and limits us. Though it might be most convenient to keep things small, local, and under control, our tradition encourages us to reach beyond, to go outside and draw light from the many sources of light in our world.

If you are going through a difficult period, remember that the eternal light still burns, even if you don’t feel all of its warmth. Whenever things get dark, the light will be lit anew, and wherever its light shines becomes a mishkan, a dwelling place for holiness.

02/15/2024 01:35:23 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

You’ve seen the recycle and compost bins, you know how many of our forms have shifted from paper to electronic. In many ways, we are already a community that tries to be thoughtful and cautious about our impact on the environment. Recently, our board elevated our efforts to a new level, championed by Terry Levy. Congregation Am Tikvah has joined the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition powered by Adamah, and we need your help to create our own Climate Action Plan and get the funding we need to make meaningful changes to our synagogue property. If this is a cause that’s meaningful to you, please reach out to me, Terry, or Sherrie Rosenberg. They are the co-chairs for our new Sustainability Team. Many thanks to them, and to you who join them, for helping Congregation Am Tikvah fulfill our obligations as Jews, and as humans.

02/08/2024 02:33:46 PM


This week's Dispatch message is an Ask the Rabbi. Click here to find out what interesting questions Rabbi Chayva received this month.

02/01/2024 12:06:37 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

It’s been another week of difficult news from Israel, but in addition to the continued trauma and tragedy, I have been hit almost daily by a different challenge: dismay and worry. I am deeply unsettled by what I have learned, and I want to share it with you because we have committed to navigating the challenges of this war together.

First, Israeli religious nationalists and some families of hostages have repeatedly blocked humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza because they believe that the lethal pressure of starvation and disease will return their families or give them revenge. I cannot imagine what the families of hostages are going through and perhaps I might do the same in their place, but I struggle to extend the same empathy to right-wing activists who convey that they do not see a difference between being a Gazan Palestinian and being a Hamas terrorist. Five thousand activists of the same school of thought gathered for a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, openly calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, reestablishing Israeli settlements on the ruins of Gaza City and its surrounding area, and by doing so, would move the Jewish people into a new phase of approaching the messianic age. When Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich took the podium, neither mentioned saving the hostages.

Second, Haaretz reported yesterday that the IDF has burned down hundreds of private, vacated homes, and the New York Times reported today that the IDF has destroyed hundreds of buildings in controlled explosive demolitions. I don’t deny that these houses, apartments, mosques, and schools might have been Hamas operations centers, as they are known to use their constituents as human shields, but once vacated, all that’s left is someone’s home or mosque or school. When questioned, the IDF has responded that they’re creating a security buffer zone, but many of these instances have been far from the buffer zone. Why would we, as Jews and the descendants of refugees, employ something akin to a scorched-earth policy?

Which brings me to my third point. I have studied Israel, its languages, histories, and cultures for enough years to learn how much more there always is to learn. I would readily admit that the understandings and interpretations I have articulated thus far might be limited and too quick to jump to conclusions. If it were not for Gadi Eisenkot’s recent interview.

Gadi Eisenkot is a member of Israel’s war cabinet, along with Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, and Ron Dermer. Eisenkot is a minister in the National Unity party, was IDF Chief of Staff from 2015 to 2019. He has filled numerous military and political leadership roles, but his connection to the war is the most personal of all war cabinet members: on December 7, he lost his son, the youngest of five and only twenty-five years old, in an explosion in Gaza, and the next day Eisenkot’s nephew was killed too. His niece had also been wounded and hospitalized.

In a major television interview last week, Eisenkot said:

  1. Bibi bears partial responsibility for the failures that led to October 7.
  2. It’s unrealistic to believe that Hamas will be uprooted and routed in this war.
  3. Those who talk about an absolute defeat of Hamas do not tell the truth.
  4. The government doesn’t have a plan to end the war.
  5. The primary goal of the war should be getting the hostages home.
  6. The hostages will not be saved through military action and the government should be willing to stop the war, and soon. It’s impossible to get the hostages back without a deal with Hamas.
  7. He has red lines and it’s therefore very possible that he’ll need to leave the war cabinet and government soon (implying that the war is not being waged in the way it should be).

I am worried. I have started to worry that this war will hurt rather than help Israel’s security - that it has created unhealable wounds, and Israel is caught again in a cycle of gut-wrenching pain and destructive retribution. It’s a terrible way to live that brings out the worst in people.

So how do we hold these distressing developments? Two lessons come to mind. The first is the sense of Jewish peoplehood that I spoke of on Yom Kippur morning: no matter how complicated and difficult, we are part of the Jewish family. It makes it more personal and more challenging, but also means we have a say in the matter. Second, in Pirkei Avot, the sage Hillel teaches, “B’makom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish - in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” In other words, when those around you have gone off the path, do not give up hope and do not let go of your values. 

May we all continue to navigate this period together, led by our values and buoyed by our compassion. I am always here if you want to talk.

01/25/2024 02:42:10 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

Happy Tu B’shvat! Tu B’shvat is the new year, the annual turning point, for all trees, which happens on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat. (“Tu” represents 15 because the letter tet has a numerical value of 9 and the letter vav has a numerical value of 6; 9+6=15.) Over the course of two thousand years, Tu B’shvat has developed into a celebration of ecology, a seder of nuts and fruit, and a mystical reflection on the four worlds. In our Beit Sefer Chadash Tu B’shvat Seder last Sunday (see photo below), we learned about the seven species of the land of Israel, and the four types of fruit to help us grow our emotional intelligence. The four types of fruit are those that are soft all the way through (for example, grapes), those that have hard pits but soft exteriors (dates), soft centers but hard exteriors (oranges), and both hard exterior and hard centers (pineapple). Rabbinic teaching says that these represent the four types of people, but the kids and I recognized that we can each be all of these types, and it’s important for us to realize our emotional state and the impact it has on ourselves and others.

Today is the perfect day to share that the Am Tikvah Board of Trustees recently approved an initiative led by Terry Levy to help Am Tikvah become an environmentally sustainable community! If you would like to help us build a Climate Action Plan, join the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition, improve our compost/recycling/trash signage, lead our community education, and more, email Terry. Teens and young congregants are particularly encouraged to join, and will be full-fledged members of the decision-making team.

We will reflect on the themes of Tu B’shvat again this Saturday during our Annual Shabbat Shirah Concert! Rabbi Aura has prepared an excellent program, augmented by Ariela and Inara Morgenstern performing a Yiddish song in honor of David Morgenstern. The evening will be social, musical, moving, and fully enjoyable, and I hope everyone comes! It’s also our fundraiser this year, so please take a moment to reflect on how Am Tikvah is growing and come be a part of it. Can’t wait to see you there!

01/18/2024 01:17:07 PM


There’s a certain irony in the fact that one of the few things Jews agree on is that we like to disagree. The style of argument might vary by cultural context, but the practice of disagreeing is universal. It goes back to our formative rabbinic text, the Talmud.

The Talmud is a multi-volume collection of generations of rabbinic debate about biblical interpretation, law, ethical values, and stories, compiled between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE in modern-day Iraq (the Babylonian Talmud) and Israel (the Jerusalem Talmud). Each section of Talmud ostensibly provides commentary on the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE collection of rabbinic teachings), but since it is a record of rabbinic conversation, the discussion often goes off into tangential territory. Rabbis’ opinions are presented, sometimes in conversation with each other and sometimes simply recorded. Notably, however, these texts feel no obligation to establishing accord or a unified conclusion; both the Talmud and the Mishnah often present conflicting opinions.

Furthermore, the texts are explicitly conscious of this fact. The most famous rabbinic pairs often oppose each other: Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. Tractate Ta’anit says that just as iron sharpens iron, scholars improve each other through scholarly disagreement. There is even a Hebrew word for this: machloket. It comes from the root ch-l-k, whose family of words include the noun chelek, a section, segment, or territory; and the verb chalak, divided or shared.

It would be easy to use the rabbinic legacy of disagreement to justify our every argument. Fortunately, the rabbis knew that not all disputes are justified.

Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah focused on wise rabbinic sayings, lays it out clearly in 5:17:

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.

Numbers 16: he and his compatriots rebel against Moses’ authority without offering respect or a proposed solution. Their dispute is personal and vindictive, and aimed to divide the community. In contrast, Hillel and Shammai almost never agreed, but Hillel would teach Shammai’s perspective as well as his own, and their family members married each other. They disputed matters of importance, and they always maintained a sense of respect and of being in community with one another. That is argument for the sake of heaven.

Our world is full of fraught topics - potholes, as we navigate relationships and our growing sense of community. May our guiding star for navigating tricky terrain be that disagreements should always be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

01/11/2024 02:28:03 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

I write this week with gratitude for everyone who has engaged civilly and constructively with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. I have been impressed and humbled by how our community has calmly voiced our opinions to elected representatives, honestly discussed thoughts and feelings with one another, and held our anguish alongside a sense of perspective. I was reminded of Amanda Ripley’s advice for navigating an intense news cycle: don’t get hijacked by polarization, limit the amount of anguish you take on, and seize opportunities with reasonable expectations. I think we did well.

As you might have heard by now, the Board of Supervisors passed Board President Peskin’s version of the bill that was a compromise between two amended versions, one introduced by Supervisor Preston and the other introduced by Supervisor Dorsey. Tye Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council, described it as “a compromise that addressed our top concerns.” Most importantly, the issue is closed and the Board of Supervisors can turn time and attention back to more local, more impactful work.

Let us move from a moment of action to a period of reflection. On January 21, we will host a conversation with our district’s supervisor and Am Tikvah congregant, Myrna Melgar, to hear her reflections on the process. This legislative process was challenging and sometimes inflammatory, and we hope that such a conversation will clarify misunderstandings and facilitate constructive dialogue. I encourage us to come together as a compassionate community, united by our shared values.

We have weathered the storms this week - both political and meteorological - and now comes our time to emerge with new growth. The hills are becoming greener, and the sturdy tree trunks hide the gradual rise of sap inside. Today is Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the first day of the new Hebrew month of Shevat, which means that in two weeks (January 25) we will celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees and all things that grow. May the rains bring new beginnings, and may we grow and cultivate intentional seeds within ourselves. If you find meaning in guided meditation, I invite you to find a moment for this grounding Shevat Meditation. Chodesh Tov, may it be a good month.

01/03/2024 03:23:56 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

When the Barbie movie came out, I was a little busy (it was just before High Holy Day season), so you’ll forgive me that I saw it for the first time on New Year’s Eve. I was never a Barbie girl myself, but appreciated its pithy articulations of the challenges of being a woman - “cotton candy for modern feminists,” as a friend described it. I’ve experienced many of the contradictions they described, both in my personal life and in rabbinic life, and I know I’m not alone in that.

Yet as much as I felt seen by America Ferrera’s scripted rants, the film left me feeling ambivalent. For all of its clear articulation of feminism, its presentation of masculinity never grew into something nuanced and mature. Perhaps that’s too much to ask of one movie and they should make a sequel, but mature conversations about gender identity and mutual understanding will not wait for a sequel. So, of course, I looked to Torah.

This week, in Parshat Shemot, we meet our new hero, Moses, though we don’t know him by name until he has grown up and been brought into Pharaoh’s daughter’s household (see Exodus 2:10). Moses quickly presents several personality traits: he acts against injustice, both in the abusive Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:12) and in the Midianite shepherds who will not let women water their flocks (Exodus 2:17). He has a sense of curiosity and wonder in seeing the burning bush, humility (and perhaps insecurity) in being called to God’s service, ability to step into leadership and take Pharaoh to task, and willingness to question and wrestle with God.

We might want to add other traits to the list. I encourage us to have these conversations; to let femininity and masculinity be parts of a whole rather than mutually exclusive, and respect to be elevated above pride. And if you haven’t yet seen “Barbie,” I do recommend it.

12/27/2023 03:00:42 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

As if Judaism’s four new years weren’t enough, we get the secular new year too! The turning of the secular calendar feels quite different from Rosh Hashanah, and not just because of the fireworks. On Rosh Hashanah, I reflect on how I have lived my life this year; on the secular New Year, I reflect on the world I have lived in, and what that world might look like in the year to come.

This world has been tumultuous, and that will likely increase in 2024. I wish I could offer assurances of calm, but as Israeli officials warn that the war might continue for months and we enter a presidential election year, I would rather we enter the year with eyes open and hearts prepared. 

But how do we prepare our hearts for 2024?

Parshat Vayechi, the Torah portion this week, also looks at a moment of change. In the last Torah portion of Exodus, Jacob blesses each of his sons before he dies. Their blessings harken back to past deeds and forecast their future, trying to offer each son clarity on his path.

We can also look to the past to find clarity for the future. Amanda Ripley, a writer and conflict mediator, gave an interview in which she passed on the three pieces of advice that have helped her navigate the news cycle:

  1. Don’t get hijacked by the polarization, because it will make you sick and crazy.

  2. Limit the amount of anguish that you take on, which is how you get rule number one right.

  3. See opportunities and seize them, and don’t expect a big result.

In order to follow Ripley’s advice, we must curate our news consumption to help us be informed on the things that matter (which are not always the top headlines) without allowing our emotional selves to be run by a system that aims to agitate us. We must fight our inclinations towards black-and-white thinking, catastrophization, discounting the positive, and overgeneralization. These make for good news stories, but in human limbic systems they make for anxiety and depression.

Let us also remind ourselves of the goodness in our lives as often as we need to. Let us come together to learn, to pray, to do good work in the world, and to enjoy each other’s company. We have much to look forward to. I particularly want to mention that Rabbi Danny and Ricki will be back leading Friday night services this week, and in one month we will welcome Rabbi Aura Ahuvia back for our Shabbat Shira celebration in honor of Cantor Henry Greenberg and Cantorial Soloist David Morgenstern. 

Please mark these upcoming happy occasions, and may the new year be full of many others. With our hearts and minds prepared, may it be a Happy New Year!

12/20/2023 01:14:27 PM


Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

I’ve made no secret about my interfaith family of origin. Part of my extended family is Protestant, which is why Dr. Keren McGinity’s talk last Shabbat was quite personal for me. Dr. McGinity is the inaugural Interfaith Specialist of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the national organization of Conservative congregations, and she led us through a study of the changing portrayal of interfaith heterosexual couples in twentieth century film and television. First, Jewish women were portrayed as exotic and ethnic, often courted by Catholic men. Next, in the post-war period, Jewish men were portrayed as desirable husbands who were able to assimilate into Protestant American society - perhaps reflecting the Jewish male writers, producers, and directors who wanted their own life choices normalized by the silver screen. 

Dr. McGinity covered a lot of ground and I won’t summarize it all, but I was struck by her final pitch for empathy. Not that empathy is surprising in itself, but she raised it regarding the tension between Hanukkah and Christmas in interfaith families called “The December Dilemma.” Dr. McGinity encouraged us to rename this “The December Delights,” and to honor all parts of a family or couple’s religious and cultural composition. She emphasized that even when someone has converted, their family hasn’t converted with them, and their childhood memories (perhaps of Christmas) remain. When we remember and respect that, when we invite non-judgmental conversation about it, we do not lessen the Jewishness of our community or ourselves; rather, we live our Jewish values. If you know or are part of an interfaith extended family, as many of us are at Am Tikvah, I encourage you to be proud, inquisitive, and respectful in the coming week. And regardless of your family or personal identity, I encourage you to join the Southside Jewish Collaborative on Sunday, December 24, when we will do a Mussar study of goodheartedness and the mitzvah of making sandwiches for homeless residents of San Francisco. May it be a week of respect, generosity, and goodheartedness.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784