Tag Archives: Congregation Beth Sholom

Seder Celebrations are Jewish History to the Core

During Holy Week this year, I participated in Congregation Beth Sholom’s (frozenchosen.org) 2nd Night Community Seder, my third with this warm congregation. Seder is observed during the eight-days of Passover (seven if in Jerusalem). Pesach (Passover) commemorates the events of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. In the Bible, the Exodus story is found in the book of Exodus, chapters 1-15.  The Passover, proclaimed by Moses, was instituted in Egypt as the key last event preceding Pharaohs releasing the children of Israel.

Passover was intended to be observed by the Israelite’s after their deliverance. Instructions for its observance are contained in Exodus, chapters 12-15. Seder, as such, was formalized after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Before Passover is celebrated, each Jewish household is thoroughly cleaned and all forbidden items such as yeast, yeast breads, etc., are eliminated.

Pesach is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 67% of Jews routinely hold or attend a Pesach Seder, while only 46% belong to a synagogue.

Generally a written Hagaddah is used which contains the various readings and songs in proper order. It was a treat to be seated with CBS member Michael Silverbook who described some of the key during the evening. At the same time, he was hosting three deaf gentlemen, using his phone to dictate what was happening at each moment, showing it to one who communicated to the others via sign language. Michael’s wife, and former Rabbi Frederick Wenger and his wife also were at our table.  I should note that the meal was catered by Aladdin’s Restaurant who yearly does such a fine job of serving kosher and excellently prepared food with great service.  The 2nd Night Community Seder is offered to non-CBS members for a fee, which includes all food and the ceremonial wine; I paid this fee in advance.

You can read the entire text of a Reform Judaism Haggadah by clicking this link. (http://jewishfederation.org/images/uploads/holiday_images/39497.pdf)

The entire celebration lasts 3-4 hours and is a delightful time of listening, learning, and celebrating Israel’s liberation. This is a family affair with all members of the family participating. Rabbi Michael Oblath, who replaced Rabbi Wenger, led the readings and singing from the Haggadah. Each act performed is symbolic.

  1. Sanctifying the Day
    2. Handwashing
    3. Dipping Parsley in Salt Water
    4. Breaking the Middle Matzah
    5. The Seder Narrative
    —The Four Questions
    —The Four Children
    —The Ten Plagues
    —Dayenu
    —Explanation of Passover Symbols
    6. Handwashing
    7. Blessing at the Start of the Meal
    8. Blessing over Matzah
    9. Eating of Bitter Herbs
    10. Matzah and Charoset Sandwich
    11. Dinner
    12. The Afikomen Dessert Matzah
    13. Grace after the Meal
    14. Praises and Blessings
    15. Closing Section and Songs

I particularly enjoy the four questions asked of children, children’s search for the afikomen, drinking the ritual four glasses of wine, the ritual drops of wine of a plate for each of the plagues, singing of Dayenu, and the sense of community this celebration brings annually.

Some Christian churches conduct Seders in their churches which has created some degree of controversy and animosity within the Jewish community. Last month Christianity Today ran several articles dealing with the pros and cons of Christians observing Seders in their churches. I suggest both for a balanced view. Personally, I think Christians should respect the argument that having these celebrations amount to cultural appropriation. I attend to better understand Jewish tradition.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/march-web-only/jesus-didnt-eat-seder-meal.html

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/march-web-only/rabbi-passover-is-for-christians-too.html

Several years ago, I asked a Rabbi friend what he thought about Christians doing Seder in their churches. He wryly answered, “Why don’t they do Yom Kippur?”

I’ve previously written about my local Seder experiences in these two columns:
Lubavitcher (http://www.churchvisits.com/2015/04/seder-in-anchorages-lubavitcher-community/) and Reform, (http://www.churchvisits.com/2014/05/at-seder-a-community-reflects-on-liberation-from-slavery/).

My thanks again to the wonderful community of Congregation Beth Sholom and their acceptance of me at their synagogue, allowing me to experience various festivals of their faith of which Seder is only one.

 

 

Two faith traditions, one common cause—helping others

As the holiday season progresses, various faith organizations are gearing up to help others in our community. A pair of significant events this weekend are worthy of note. The Reform Jewish community and local Presbyterians are holding separate, but similar events this Sunday to raise funds for worthy organizations.

Mitzvah Mall, Congregation Beth Sholom, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday

If you’ve not experienced Mitzvah Mall, you’re in for a surprise. Imagine coming to an event that raises money for local nonprofits without the giver receiving anything in return. It’s something akin to a cash call at a gala. An annual event at Congregation Beth Sholom since 2008, it continues to grow.

“This is something that the congregation has done for a number of years,” explains Rabbi Michael Oblath. “We just provide the space, and gain nothing from it other than knowing that we can contribute a little bit of time and effort into bringing people into a place where they may talk to strangers or friends, meet new people, and, most importantly, bring a little joy into other people’s lives. We do it, just because it’s nice… and a good thing for the community… just seems like it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always seen it as a way to give a double gift… one to a friend, and one to someone that you may never know or meet.”

Intrigued by the word “mitzvah” in the event, I asked Oblath to explain the meaning. “Mitzvah translates as ‘commandment,’ so the commandments, as the guidelines and path to how we live our lives, reflect both relationship to God and to the world, even including humans,” he said. “Within the Reform movement we tend to conceive of the performance of the commandments as the way to achieve the healing of the world. That is the same notion as achieving peace and harmony in life… not just an individual’s life, but basically life in general.”

The way it works is local nonprofit organizations are invited to participate at the Mitzvah Mall and then chosen on a first-come/first-serve basis. Each organization is provided with a table for staff who present their organization. Those attending make contributions to any organization present in someone’s name. That person receives an elegant gift card noting the gift has been given in their name. The conversations I’ve had with nonprofit representatives at past events have helped gain a better understanding of their mission.

According to Penny Goldstein, organizer of Mitzvah Mall, the non-profits represented will include Alaska Botanical Garden, AK Child & Family, Alaska Innocence Project, Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center, American Diabetes Association, Anchorage Project Access, Bean’s Café/Children’s Lunchbox, Catholic Social Services, Equine Assisted Therapy of Alaska, FISH (Fellowship In Serving Humanity), Friends of the Library, Helping Hands for Nepal, Joy Greisen Jewish Education Center, Lemong’o Project, Malawi Children’s Village, Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center, Pedals for Africa, Turnagain Community Arts Alliance, United Jewish Communities Alaska and Victims for Justice.

“If you want to send someone a present,” Goldstein says, “and are tired of the materialism or just can’t figure out a good present, here is your remedy. We have calligraphers to fill out lovely cards that you can send in lieu of, or with, other presents. It is a fun event. We have birds (two owls and a sandhill crane, plus a therapy dog) as well as human representatives of those agencies. We also have music!”

Coffee, hot chocolate, and tea are offered without charge, but no food is being offered. The event is about giving and learning more about the fantastic work being done by multiple nonprofits many may not know much about. Congregation Beth Sholom is located at 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. (just west of Carrs).

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday

A similar event to Mitzvah Mall is First Presbyterian Church’s Alternative Gift Market. Open from 9:30  to 1:30 p.m. Sunda,  (except during worship, which begins at 11 a.m. and lasts about an hour) it offers gifts from a variety of mission partners First Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Yukon Presbytery. Now in its third year, it’s slightly different from Mitzvah Mall.

According to organizer Danna Larson, the market is  “a combination of alternative giving and supporting agencies by buying fair trade products. We offer a fair and just way for our congregation to shop at Christmas, either through organizations that sell fair trade products or those that provide opportunities for one to donate in someone else’s name.”

This year’s partners include Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen, Anchor Presbyterian Church (homeless ministry), Presbyterian Hunger Fund Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, teas and chocolate), Yukon Presbytery: Gambell (new church building), Haiti Artisan Network, Presbyterian Church (USA) Gift Catalog (featuring different projects to donate to in honor of someone), Pal Craftaid, Emergency Cold Weather Ministry at First Presbyterian Church, Two Spirits Carving Studio (cooperative studio for Native artists), and Presbyterian Women.

For refreshments, Presbyterian Women are hosting a Christmas bake sale. A soup lunch that raises support for Downtown Soup Kitchen will be offered. In years past, I’ve purchased Haiti gifts and a variety of soups; both make great alternative gifts.

Curious about the focus of their ministry, I asked Larson for more information. “AGM is an appropriate nonprofit response to consumerism and provides a fair and just way for our congregation members to shop at Christmas and choose gifts that will make an important difference in helping people in our community, our nation and our world,” Larson said “In addition, congregation members have an opportunity to learn about the ministries represented and the importance of supporting those who are involved in fair trade practices. Often times, connections made at the AGM lead to other involvement in the local agencies represented.”

First Presbyterian Church is located at 616 W. 10th Ave.

It’s heartening to see individual faith organizations, like these, stepping up to the plate to infuse new spirit and meaning into a holiday season that has become devoid of meaning for many. If your organization is doing something innovative in the spirit of the season, like these two congregations, let me know. I’m always happy to share the joy.

Mitzvah Mall – Sunday, December 4, 12 — 3 p.m.

Congregation Beth Sholom is once again sponsoring MITZVAH MALL on Sunday December 4. It is a holiday gift from Congregation Beth Sholom to the Anchorage community. Think about a non-denominational bizarre bazaar that is an alternative gift fair. In a room filled with decorative and informative tables, there will be 20 non-profit organizations with representatives to share their stories of the assistance they give to those in need.  The non-profits range from those supporting the arts to animal welfare agencies, from health and food assistance to safe places for troubled youth, several international aid groups, and many more. Although most of the organizational representatives are human, we will have birds (Sandy the sandhill crane and two owls) and a therapy dog to help shoppers learn about two of the organizations.
What could be better than the gift of helping those agencies who help others?  And isn’t that better than another candle or pot holder? It is a fun event. Performers play acoustical music during the event.
“Gifts” are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Donors can receive a lovely card, filled out by a calligrapher, to send to the person honored by the gift.
DATE: Sunday December 4
TIME: 12- 3 PM
LOCATION: 7525 East Northern Lights Blvd. Next to Carrs Muldoon
Contact mitzvahmall@yahoo.com for more information.

Remembering Father Norman H.V. Elliott

As the hearse pulled away from All Saints Episcopal Church Sept. 19, I finally realized I’d no longer be seeing my friend the Rev. Norman Elliott; I’d seen him for the last time. His service was attended by a wide range of friends and family. All Saints Rector David Terwilliger, the Rev. Katherine Hunt of Christ Church Episcopal, the Rev. Susan Halvorson,  a Providence Alaska Medical Center chaplain, and Bishop Mark Lattime led the service with Catholic Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz in attendance on the platform. The entire service, which included the Eucharist, was a wondrous blend of music, liturgy and reminiscences.

During his homily, Terwilliger talked of Elliott’s passing on the morning of Sept. 9. For this column, he recounted that time to me: “I went into pray the prayers of the Ministration at the Time of Death,” he said. “The title of the rite sounds more solemn than it is in form — at least to my mind.

The words are words of comfort and mercy but given under the sober petition for God’s grace for the dying and for their spirit to be received into heaven. Like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians are instructed to call a priest for the dying and the prayers are meant to commit the dying person into God’s hands. Often, Episcopalians call these prayers at the time of death ‘Last Rites.'”

The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)
The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

With Halvorson at his side, Terwilliger continued: He “announced to Norm that I was there to ‘pray the Litany’ and Norm motioned with his hand, touched his fingers to his forehead as if to say — I took it to mean — ‘OK, let’s do it.'” During the litany, Terwilliger observed, “Father Elliott became very peaceful, calm and relaxed, which up to that point he had not been; due to coughing and physical discomfort.” Elliott passed within minutes.

For more than 26 years after his retirement in 1990, Elliott had been visiting patients at Providence. Stories of those visits are the stuff of legend. The Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s, recalling one humorous moment, said, “Once a man called me to tell me he had just been admitted to the hospital, and I rushed right over. Upon entering his hospital room, I went right up to the bedside to pray. I said, ‘I’m so pleased that I made it here before Father Elliott. That might be a historic first.’ ‘Ah, you only beat me by 30 seconds,’ he said, appearing in the doorway behind me.”

The Rev. Scott Medlock of St. Patrick’s Parish calls him “a living saint” who, when his son was seriously injured in a plane crash in which another person died, was attended by Elliott on a daily basis. His presence in hospitals will be missed by patients and staff.

Elliott joined many Alaskans in marriage. Julie Fate Sullivan, wife of Sen. Dan Sullivan, shared the heartwarming story of her parents and Elliott. “In 1954, my mother – Mary Jane Evans, a Koyukon Athabaskan from the Yukon River village of Rampart, and my father, Hugh Fate, a cowboy from Eastern Oregon who had worked the first oil rig in Umiat in 1950 – fell deeply in love. They wanted to get married, and according to my Mom, that was the time in our country when some clergy didn’t encourage ‘mixed-marriages.’ Father Elliott was not one of those clergy.”

“When my parents asked him to officiate their wedding, he welcomed them with open arms. At their first meeting, Father Elliott saw the deep love, respect and substance between them, and he blessed their union. My dad always says from that moment on, he knew Father Elliott was a “truly and deeply caring” individual, and they became friends after that.

“Father Elliott married my parents 62 years ago, on Oct. 29, 1954 at the little log cabin church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. They are still married today. Forty years later in August 1994, Dan and I were married at the same church in Fairbanks, with the same wonderful Father Norman Elliott as the priest who blessed our union.

“We were so honored to have him officiate. He was always considered a hero in our family because of the kind way he accepted my parents so long ago. In typical Father Elliott style, I remember some good-natured ribbing between Dan and Father Elliott – Dan was on active duty and wore his Marine Corps uniform at the wedding, and with Father Elliott being a WWII Army veteran, they had a lot of fun interservice rivalry joking going around.”

Elliott was ecumenical to the core. He treasured his friendship with recently deceased Archbishop Francis Hurley. His story of the two waters, recounted in a previous column, was one symbol of that all-embracing character.

Art Goldberg, Congregation Beth Sholom member, recounts how Father Elliott offered them the use of All Saints as a meeting place for about a year. Previously, the congregation had met in Goldberg’s parents’ home. Father Elliott felt the Jewish community needed to be represented in Anchorage and helped make that possible until they could build their own synagogue. Goldberg said, “Father Elliott was one of those people who helped the religious community in Anchorage.”

The same attitude extended to Russian Orthodox congregations. The Rev. Nicholas-Molodyko Harris, a retired Russian Orthodox (now simply Orthodox) priest, told me of being sent to Anchorage in September 1967 for the purpose of organizing a mission to develop into a parish.

That mission ultimately became Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1994. He tells of meeting Elliott in 1967. Having no suitable place to hold their first diocesan assembly in 1968, he asked Elliott if it would be possible to hold it at All Saints. Elliott said, “Of course!” The assembly was presided over by Bishop Theodosius, the Orthodox bishop of Alaska, who later became the Orthodox Church of America’s Metropolitan.

Harris and his wife Matushka Anastasia continued their friendship with Elliott during the remainder of his life.

Harris remembered Elliott’s tremendous love for his wife Stella, saying “She was comical with a sense of humor. They blended together.” He offered a tribute to Elliott saying, “In being a clergy brother of Father Elliott, he was an inspiration to me in the love and caring to everyone he met. His legacy is that he was never absent from someone who was ill as long as it was in his power, especially at Providence Hospital.”

At the funeral, lines were read from Elliott’s favorite poet, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a WWI British army chaplain. Later, retired Juneau Episcopal priest, the Rev. Mark Boesser a former Virginia Theological Seminary classmate of Elliott’s, shared with me the commendation that accompanied  the awarding of the Military Cross to Studdert Kennedy:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches which he constantly visited.”

Those lines remind me so strongly of the Rev. Norman H.V. Elliott too: friend, husband, father, pastor, and humanitarian. The stories of marriages, funerals, connecting and reconnecting with God, and hospital memories will continue to be shared. There are so many.

You will be missed dear friend.

Church gardens update

Anchorage Lutheran Church is planning on joining the ranks of local churches with community gardens.  Blessings to you!

Additionally, today’s column should have included the name of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the roster of churches with food gardens, even though they were mentioned earlier.

Congregation Beth Sholom is also in the process of planning a community garden.  Great news!

Purim, a joyful family-friendly celebration – 3/14/15

Last Thursday, I enjoyed a wonderful evening at Congregation Beth Sholom, where I joined in their celebration of Purim. During that time I consumed tasty pastries, listened to a dramatic story and drank in the ambience of a participative, family-centered celebration.

First, the story

Purim is a traditional Jewish celebration centered on the Book of Esther. Having all the hallmarks of a stage drama, it is most entertaining. The story is set in Persia during the fourth century BC, when all Jews were subject to the Persian empire. Its king, Ahasuerus, had a wife, Vashti, whom he commanded to come before him at a lengthy state banquet wearing her crown. (Some scholars have interpreted this as wearing only her crown.) With modesty she declined to do so and was removed as queen. Ne

eding a new consort, he looked for a new queen in a yearlong process involving all 127 of his provinces. Ultimately, Esther, a Jewish girl, became his choice and was named queen. At the time, King Ahasuerus did not know she was Jewish. An anti-Semite, Haman, was given the role of prime minister. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, a Jewish leader, refused to bow to Haman in response to the king’s order. Indignant, Haman asked Ahasuerus to order the killing of all Jews. The extermination date chosen was the 13th of the Jewish month of Adar, picked as the result of a lottery conceived by Haman. Purim is named after the word “lots.” Mordecai and Jews throughout the empire fasted, lamented and mourned. Next, Esther asked her king and Haman to join her for a feast, where she revealed that she was Jewish and Haman’s treachery against the Jews. As a result, Haman was hanged and Mordecai was given the prime minister’s position. It was then decreed that Jews would have the right of defense against their enemies.

The 13th of Adar was when the Jews killed a number of their enemies. The 14th of Adar was a day of rest and celebration. The 13th of Adar is observed as the Fast of Esther and the 14th of Adar is Purim.

Purim celebration at Congregation Beth Sholom

As I arrived at the synagogue, members were beginning to enter. Most of them were dressed in costumes, including a pirate, policewoman, ballerina, superhero and movie star. There was an air of gaiety as people continued to arrive, most with trays of a special dessert especially for Purim called hamantaschen, triangular pastries made from a circle of dough filled with a sweet filling, folded into a triangle and baked. The name refers to Haman, the villain in the story.

The Esther story is called the megillah and is from the Book of Esther scroll. So we were there to hear the reading of the megillah. However, for what happens during the reading, Rabbi Michael Oblath read an abbreviated version or we might have been there all night.

Refreshments were served first. There were many flavors of hamantaschen brought by the congregation. The children made masks and had pictures taken with the rabbi, who was dressed in an elegant plushy hamantaschen costume he had made. We then entered the synagogue for the megillah reading. As people came in, graggers (noisemakers) were made available to use during the reading. The rabbi reminded those present that when Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading, children were to twirl their graggers and adults to boo to eradicate his evil name. He also encouraged yeas for Mordecai, Vashti and Esther. There were many children in attendance that night. Truly it was a family evening.

As the abbreviated megillah story was read, there were sustained interruptions by the children with graggers drowning out Haman’s name. Rabbi Oblath was patient as the story was slowly read. Some of the parents had a difficult time silencing their children after each gragger outburst. Clearly the children were familiar with the Esther story and enjoyed its reading. Nonetheless, I was made aware that night that this faith tradition involves its children from early on in meaningful expressions and clear understandings of key scriptural stories. Another celebration at this congregation is the observance of Seder, the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

If you’ve not experienced this congregation’s joy, community Seder is coming up on April 4.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, Church Visits.

Faith community giving offers local help during the holidays – 12/13/14

In my last column, I mentioned the outrageous sums people spend to celebrate Christmas by extravagant giving to one another, especially children, as well as alternative fundraising efforts by our faith community. Today’s column features fresh updates and reader comments about giving, plus some brief Advent music thoughts.

Advent Music Miscues

Advent began on Nov. 30 and many churches, including mainlines, began singing Christmas carols, just as the commercial radio stations commenced broadcasting them too. Traditionally, Advent is considered a mini-Lent, a symbolic period of hopeful watching and waiting for Jesus’ birth. Under this tradition, hymnody is restrained and songs such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “O Come, Divine Messiah,” are used. Unfortunately, many churches unabashedly burst into carol singing as if Christmas had already arrived, echoing the offensive commercial push that makes Christmas happen from before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Part of what makes the Christmas season unique, religiously, is observing a period of looking and longing for the Messiah. To make it an accomplished fact seems to play into the hands of commercialism. Ultimately, by Christmas Eve, many are sick and tired of the sacred and secular Christmas music of the season.

Readers Voice Advent Concerns

One reader comments, “While I have donated years of cash payroll deductions to support charitable organizations, I don’t think it helps our children learn the life lessons of charity. My girls baked cookies, turkeys, vegetables, etc., to take to the shelter. The joy and excitement they felt was real, the handshakes and smiles of homeless patrons was real.”

I recall my parents taking their four children to hospitals, nursing homes, shut-ins, and church events to actively participate in sharing the joys of Advent with those in need. Toys were minor considerations. Our real needs and those of others were paramount.

Giving Updates

Last Sunday I attended four events in our faith community, three of which I mentioned in last week’s column.

Baxter Road Bible Church Service

I like this Bible-based church, and its friendly members. Rev. Bob Mather’s message on Sunday dwelt on the key themes of Christmas. As he observed, “It’s all about surrender.” When the offering was taken, Mather noted this was the fourth year all December offerings would be given directly to charity. BRBC confidently believes this year will push them up over $250,000 given over the past four years.

Mitzvah Mall

Attending the Mitzvah Mall was more fun than writing about it. Congregation Beth Sholom opened their synagogue from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday to 24 local nonprofit organizations with primary interests in our area. The few exceptions were Malawi Children’s Village and Helping Hand for Nepal, locally based but outwardly oriented. Nothing was sold. Donations were given, many in the names of others, to fund these organizations. I peeked at some of the checks being written and they were substantial. It was a crazy good time seeing the vibrant energy flowing from this event. Over $15,000 was given to these organizations in those 3 hours. I checked out every nonprofit and discovered some new to me. One great idea I learned was the concept of Tzedakah money. Each week the Jewish youth bring this Tzedakah (charity) money to Religious School where it is pooled. When Mitzvah Mall rolls around, the money is split up and given back to individual youth as Mitzvah Bucks which they spend for those organizations where they believe the money will do the most good. Congregation Beth Sholom transfers the money to those organizations, and is also willing to talk about their Tzedakah program with other faith organizations that might want to start their own youth giving initiatives. What a wonderful energizing way to involve the youth in giving to charity!

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market

Arriving at First Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon, just as they were closing, I had an opportunity to observe this new event. Approximately 10 “vendors” were there with holiday gift items. Bean’s Café was there with soups and coffee as was the Downtown Soup Kitchen. The Apparent Project had well-crafted handmade Haitian items for sale. The group’s purpose is to help parents take care of their kids, avoiding relinquishment and abandonment. I’m sure this event will grow next holiday season.

First and Samoan United Methodist Church free community dinner

These two congregations provided a tasty dinner for all called “A Place at the Table.” Served buffet style in the fellowship room of First United Methodist Church, many meals were gladly enjoyed, a great number by homeless and street people. It was a meaningful event for me personally as I met two delightful members with separate personal missions, which you’ll read about later.

Downtown Soup Kitchen connection

As a result of last week’s article, Sherrie Laurie, executive director of the Downtown Soup Kitchen, introduced her organization to me. This remarkable organization provides daily soup meals, showers, and clothing to many underserved residents of Anchorage. For years, ChangePoint and City Church have provided heavy lifting for this great organization, a load now being shared by 27 congregations in our faith community. BP, ConocoPhillips, and the Boy Scouts of America are also huge supporters of Downtown Soup Kitchen, as are hundreds of volunteers. In their beautiful new facility, they feed 350-500 people daily, provide showers for 400 people per month, do more than 300 loads of laundry, and distribute more than 700 pieces of clothing. All of this is supported by more than 1,800 monthly volunteer hours. Currently they’re distributing about 350 backpacks, purchased for $20 by individual donors who then fill them appropriately with supplies for men or women. For a truly worthy cause, I suggest putting Downtown Soup Kitchen on your giving list.

Personally, I’m cheered by this faith community outpouring for those in need. Clearly, I’ve not covered all local projects and fundraising but I’m rewarded to mention these and have a personal opportunity to be a part of giving to these worthy organizations. Keep those stories coming in directly to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be included in future columns.

 

Faith community giving offers local helping opportunities during the holidays – 12/6/14

It’s an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term “living faith” or faith that “practices what it preaches.” Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I’m puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.

Additionally, I’m absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart’s desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.

Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it’s become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn’t seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn’t bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?

I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can’t eat toys. It’s ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It’s the wrong lesson to teach.

Jewish Community Initiative

I’m impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom’s website says it best. “Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the ‘vendors’ are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The ‘gifts’ are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it.”

Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I’ll be there to observe this event in person.

ChangePoint Giving Programs

ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.

1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan’s Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.

2. Participation in two “Angel Tree” projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.

3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s new facility.

Lutheran Giving Initiatives

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday’s Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.

The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.

I’d love to hear your stories about your church’s holiday giving efforts. Please send them to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be shared with other readers of this column.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Simchat Torah celebration provides joy and meaning – 10/25/14

What would you do if invited to participate in the unrolling of a 100-foot Torah scroll and an Israeli-style dinner at a synagogue? Don’t know about you, but I eagerly accepted the invitation from Rabbi Michael Oblath from Congregation Beth Shalom in East Anchorage. In the past, I’ve participated in several Seder celebrations here, finding this community to be warm and welcoming. Relatively small in number, their friendliness, generosity, and willingness to talk always take me by surprise. Many Anchorage congregations I visit are not outgoing, even downright unfriendly, and fail to welcome strangers. Not true at Temple Beth Shalom.

The people I’ve met at Beth Shalom love to eat and talk. They are outwardly friendly and a delight to be with. I had a number of wide-ranging conversations with members, intensely enjoying the experience. Before the Simhat Torah ceremony, an Israeli dinner was served including pita accompanied by freshly made hummus, slaw, tahini, and fresh falafel. Before the meal, Oblath offered a Hebrew blessing. After conversation and cleanup, the rabbi invited the 50 or 60 people present into the synagogue for the Simhat Torah ceremony.

The Torah is the first five books of Hebrew scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Commonly believed to have been written by Moses under divine inspiration just before the Israelites were to enter the promised land, the Torah is continuously read from and commented upon during the synagogue year. Scrolls used for these readings are progressively wound until the end of the year when they complete the Torah readings with Deuteronomy. The Simhat Torah ceremony celebrates the final readings, the commencement of the new, and a re-rolling of the scroll.

The Scrolls of Congregation Beth Shalom

Congregation Beth Shalom is home to three sets of Torah scrolls; The Bayles Torah, Salad Torah, and Tattooed Torah. They are kept in an ark, an elaborate wooden cabinet at the back of the podium. The Bayles Torah hails from Gold Rush days, and was created in Lithuania in the 1870s. Given to his son Sam by Rabbi Afroim Hessel Bayles, it accompanied Sam to Nome in 1900 during the Gold Rush, the same year the Nome Hebrew Congregation was established. With the decline of Nome’s Jewish Community following World War I, the Bayles Torah was transferred to Congregation Beth Shalom. The Salad Torah was principally financed in the 1950s by Hartford, Connecticut clothier Jacob Salad to help establish Congregation Beth Shalom. Finally, the Tattooed Torah, their oldest and largest scroll, was made in Czechoslovakia in the 1850s. As the Nazis overran Europe during World War II, they burned many confiscated Torahs, and put over 1,500 stolen Torahs and religious artifacts in a Prague warehouse, tattooed with unique numbers. In the 1960s an American Jew, Arthur Weir, spearheaded an effort to clean and restore these Torahs, distributing them as a reminder of the holocaust. This scroll even shows burn marks.

Simhat Torah Ceremony Begins

The Torah scrolls were covered with special fabric covers used during the recently concluded High Holy Days. As the ceremony began, the Bayles Torah was handed to congregation members who led a joyful circling procession of members around the synagogue accompanied by the singing of their cantor. This tradition of this festive holiday is the Hakafot (Torah processions) where participants sing and dance with the Torah. Special flags were distributed and waved by all in this procession. After each circuit, the scrolls were handed to another congregation member, until at least seven circuits of the synagogue were completed.

The Ceremony

Finally, the Bayles Torah scroll was removed from its High Holy Days coverings, slowly unrolled and the Simhat Torah ceremony continued. Each attendee present was allowed to carefully hold up a portion of the scroll with outstretched hands as it came around, being careful not to touch the print with fingers. I supported a portion of Exodus, close to the Ten Commandments. Made of animal skin parchment, the Bayles Torah is in remarkable condition. After the scroll was completely unrolled, Rabbi Oblath read the final portion of Deuteronomy, commenting upon the significance and meaning of Moses being denied entry into the promised land. Continuing on to Genesis, he read the first few verses of Genesis 1, explaining the mystery and significance of the creation order. The scroll was then carefully re-rolled starting at Deuteronomy going back to Genesis. Upon completion, the colorful regular coverings were put on the scrolls and they were returned to the ark.

After the ceremony, several attendees danced the hora, a well-known dance of celebration. Prerecorded music was played and eight to 10 people began dancing. As the hour was late, I felt it was time to leave. The Simhat Torah ceremony and dinner lasted more than 4 hours. I plan to return for Shabbat services in the future. They observe Friday evening and Saturday morning services.

During my evening I had the good fortune to meet Michael Silverbook, longtime member and past president of the congregation, and enjoyed walking around the synagogue with him during the Hakafot. At one point, he carried the Torah. In 2000, Silverbook took the Bayles Torah back to Nome in celebration of the centennial celebration of the founding of the Hebrew congregation. I eagerly anticipate joining this congregation in their other celebrations.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

At Seder, a community reflects on liberation from slavery – 5/17/14

Passover was celebrated by local Jews last month, just before Christian Easter. I attended a Seder this year at Temple Beth Shalom. Each year they conduct a community Seder at their synagogue on East Northern Lights for Jews and non-Jews. A modest fee is charged to partake of their Seder, but no different than dining in a local restaurant. In fact, the food was prepared and served by a well-known local restaurant, Aladdin’s.

Seder marks a special time of remembrance for religious Jews where Passover, and Israel’s ultimate deliverance as a people from Egyptian bondage under Pharaoh, is commemorated. It’s held in homes on the first night of Passover, and communally in synagogues on the second night of Passover. I’ve been told home celebrations of Seder can be relatively brief or last 4-6 hours, or even longer.

The overarching importance of Passover is its recognition of the beginning of Israel’s identity as a separate unique people, via their exodus from Egypt.

Seder is performed using a Haggada — huh-gah-da — as a guide. The Haggada, printed and in the hands of celebrants, outlines the various rituals, and the connecting story. There are many different Haggada’s available, based on the various traditions Jewish people represent, such Morrocan, Separdic, Yemeni, Ashkenazi and others. The earliest Haggada dates to CE 170. Usually a Rabbi leads the Seder, reading from the Haggada. The Haggada reads from back to front, an unusual twist for me considering my non-Jewish orientation. Rabbi Michael Oblath led the Seder.

Unlike many religious celebrations I’ve attended, Seder is very family-oriented. A wide range of ages was represented, with many children. I often write about aging churches having few children and youth. I was overwhelmed by the youthful vibrancy represented by the attendees.

Seder starts with a series of readings and rituals, followed by the full Seder meal.

To begin, candles are lit and a solemn prayer to God is said, ending with “May your light surround us always.” A blessing for the children is invoked. Miriam’s cup is then filled with water by the women present, a reminder of the Exodus. During the Seder, four cups of wine are consumed, one for each of God’s promises regarding Israel’s promised freedom.

• I will bring you out …

• I will deliver you …

• I will redeem you …

• I will take you to be my people … (Exodus 6:6-7)

The order of the Seder speaks to the themes of slavery and freedom. Kadesh: The first cup of wine is drunk remembering the first promise. “I am Adonai, and I will free you from the slavery of Egypt.” Urchatz: Hand-washing without a blessing. Karpas: Greens (parsley) are dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites in slavery. Yachats: The middle matzot of three is broken in half. The Seder leader takes the largest of the two pieces and saves it as the “afikoman” to be hidden for the children to find later. Magid: The story of the Exodus is told and invitations are extended to partake in the Seder. Four questions are then posed which must be answered. 1. Why do we eat matzah on Passover? 2. Why do we eat maror at the Seder? 3. Why do we dip foods twice? 4. Why do we lean in our chairs at the Seder? These questions are ritually answered, after which an object lesson called “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children” is recited to teach children the Exodus story from four vantage points: The Wise Child, The Wicked Child, The Simple Child, and The Child Who Does Not Think to Question. The Exodus and deliverance is further expounded upon, including the 10 plagues, where a drop of wine is placed upon one’s plate from the wineglass as each is recited. In rapid succession blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born are signified. Then the second glass of wine is consumed. Rachtzah: Another ritual washing of hands, this time with a blessing. Motzi Matzah: Blessings over the matzah is given, after which a small portion is consumed. Moror: The moror (bitter herbs) is blessed and eaten along with charoset, a sweet filling. Korekh: Placing moror between two pieces of matzah and eating like a sandwich. Shulhan Orekh: The Passover meal is eaten beginning with a charred egg. Tzafun: The hidden matzoh is sought by the children, found, and consumed. Barech: An after-meal blessing is given, followed by the third cup of wine. Hallel: Songs of praise are sung. Nirtzah: Concluding prayer for the acceptance of the night’s service, expression of hope for the Messiah, and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

The entire Seder teaches about God’s leading Israel out of Egyptian slavery, done in a spirit of joy and celebration. I enjoyed the unique items various participants brought and shared with their tables. A woman at my table brought a wonderful Yemeni cheroset, while others brought special wines. It was a beautiful time of reflection and joy. If you’ve never tried a Jewish Seder, I urge you to try this one. I appreciated the warmth the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom extended to me that night.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140516/chris-thompson-seder-community-reflects-liberation-slavery