The Card or the Gift

Last Saturday night, I had the pleasure of joining Congregation Beth Israel as they installed Ida Rae Cahana as their new Senior Cantor. It was a beautiful evening of song and words of wisdom. I know she has enormous shoes to fill following Cantor Emerita Judith Schiff’s 32 successful years at the synagogue.

Beyond the beautiful Havdallah service (marking the separation between the end of Shabbat and start of the new week), the installation of Cantor Cahana, and a moving Selichot service (poems and prayers said as we approach the High Holy days), was a beautiful physical transformation in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Each of the five Torah scrolls were brought out into the congregation where congregants changed the decorative Torah covers into their special white covers. Maybe it was one of those “you had to be there” type moments, but it was a very moving and symbolic way to prepare ourselves for the upcoming holidays.

As the New Year approaches, we take time to reflect on “the year that was” and begin to “dream of the year ahead.” It is an opportunity for change. In fact, the Hebrew word for “year” (shana) shares the same root as the word for “change.” Thus, when we say “L’shana tova” we are not only saying “have a good year,” but also, “May all the changes you make be successful.” There is so much each of us can do to be better human beings, including taking an active role in enhancing our Jewish community. We have the opportunity to challenge ourselves to change – and to be change agents.

With that in mind, earlier this week, an announcement was sent out across the world highlighting eight prospective change agents, including two from our own Jewish community – Steven Eisenbach-Budner and Sarah Blattner (yes, my wife).

Joshua Venture Group (JVG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reinvigorating and expanding the Jewish community through building the capacity of young ventures and their leadership, announced that eight social entrepreneurs will each receive more than $100,000 in grants and organizational development support as Fellows of its 2012-2014 Dual Investment Program.

Each Fellow will receive $80,000 in unrestricted funding and over $20,000 in personalized coaching, training and networking, which equip them to realize their visions to transform the Jewish landscape. JVG’s Dual Investment Program is designed to bolster the emergence of the Jewish innovation sector, which reflects the collective desire of Jews from all backgrounds to re-envision their own Jewish communities.

156 applicants from across North America applied for the fellowships. Half the applicants were invited to participate in the second round, with 18 chosen as finalists to be interviewed in New York. Our community should be so proud that two of the final eight fellows are from Portland. As I have said from the moment I came to Portland, we will be the most innovative Jewish community in America.

Steven Eisenbach-Budner’s project is Tivnu: Building Justice, which “empowers Jews to take an active role in addressing basic human needs, particularly shelter. Based in Portland, Tivnu participants will learn construction skills, build affordable housing and other essential projects, explore Jewish texts and history, and study contemporary socio-economic issues in order to provide a solid foundation for Jewish social justice work. Through engaging head, heart and hand, Tivnu attracts individuals with diverse interests across a wide spectrum, including those with no Jewish affiliation. Tivnu partners with individual Jewish organizations, brings together diverse Jewish groups, and provides opportunities for Jews and non-Jews to work together. It currently runs one-day and one-week programs for all ages and, in the fall of 2013, will launch its residential Bridge Year Program for Jewish 18-20 year-olds from across North America. Tivnu: Building Justice is working to develop the next generation of Jewish leaders and is committed to moving the issue of housing higher on the Jewish communal agenda.”

Sarah Blattner’s venture is Tamritz, “a national learning network for Jewish day school students and teachers. Students participate in digital badge learning to collaborate, co-create and co-learn. Teachers gain professional development experiences in new media, 21st Century literacies and badge learning. At the heart of Tamritz’s learning network is the ability for learners to follow their passions beyond the classroom walls through challenge-based learning, multiple learning pathways, and learning across contexts. Tamritz provides a connected space for Jewish day school educators to collaborate and co-design, while exploring new media for enhanced student learning and instruction. Compliant with Mozilla’s open badging framework, Tamritz will lay the groundwork for developing a national badge learning ecosystem for Jewish day schools.”

Mazel tov on these prestigious fellowships. Our community should be proud and excited about the incredible recognition for each of these projects and their creators. But beyond Steve and Sarah, I am confident there are many more change agents in our community who will lead us boldly into the future.

Let me close with this – yesterday I was learning with a community rabbi and we were discussing the Rosh Hashanah holiday. I asked why do we go to synagogue and pray on Rosh Hashanah when the only commandment is to hear the sounds of the shofar? The rabbi pondered for a second and shared a thought he learned from his mentor. He asked me (I thought you were not supposed to answer a question with a question), when you receive a gift, do you open the card first or the present? I responded the card (of course my children seem to focus on the present). The rabbi said that the gift is the ultimate reward, while the true inspiration and meaning comes from reading the card. In essence, our prayers, reflections, and coming together provide the needed space for introspection that leads to hearing the sounds of the shofar and the ushering in of the New Year.

On behalf of my family and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, shana tova umetuka – a sweet New Year. May 5773 be a year of good health, peace, happiness, successful change, and much joy for you and your family.

Shabbat shalom.



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