Tag Archives: Rabbi Michael Oblath

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
    —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.


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 (https://www.churchvisits.com/2015/04/seder-in-anchorages-lubavitcher-community/) and Reform, (https://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.

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.

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