Thankfulness is not just once a year

Guest blogger Rabbi Irwin Wiener of Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation offers some thoughts in advance of Veterans Day, which is next Wednesday, Nov. 11, and Thanksgiving, which this year is on Thursday, Nov. 26.

Each year, at this time, we pause for two major events in our lives as Americans: Thanksgiving and Veterans Day. These two holidays, each in their own way, offer the same expressions of gratefulness and appreciation. And, each year, I draw special attention to them because, all too often, we neglect to remember how these holidays affect our lives.

When we lose someone who has devoted his or her energy to the safety and survival of our American way of life, or see the list of wounded increase with each passing day, we pause to thank them for their participation in ensuring our safety and survival.

Those who wear the uniform of this great country represent our freedom. More than that they remind us of the vigilance needed to remain a nation of tolerance and an example to the world. It is no different for those who have, but no longer, carry the banner, those who have served and now continue to remain proud of that commitment.

Our history as a nation is replete with stories of valor and fortitude. Blood has been shed, not only here, but also on foreign soil, with the understanding that liberty and freedom require sacrifice. Sacrifice, at times, requires the ultimate sacrifice. There are no barriers or boundaries when searching for the opportunity to breathe free.

On Nov. 11, we will once again devote our attention to the members of our armed forces, both past and present. How I wish that we could and would remember them every day of the year. Our diversity is a testament to the contributions made every day and every night.

Right here, in the Valley, we see this effort in action. Our veterans are living examples of goodness and allegiance. Their untiring efforts in behalf of all veterans, regardless of race, color, creed or religion, sets a standard that illustrates their commitment to the ideals for which they served.

It is fitting that this time has been set aside because, in our pursuit of daily activities, we tend to forget. Patriotism seems to be relegated to memory.

As we honor our veterans, we also commemorate a holiday designed to remind us of the sacrifices made by the generations — Thanksgiving. These two celebrations give us pause to reflect on our good fortune and to express our thanks to a great country. Just look around the world — so many people clamoring to be free and live in societies that are accepting and free from the crippling elements of war.

We certainly are not perfect, but that does detract from the good we do. Nor does it diminish the response we offer when there is a need that requires our resources. This country was founded on the principle of inclusiveness.

Thankfulness is about recognizing the wonders we witness, the magic we bring to the world and the fulfillment we represent to others. To me, the most significant aspect of these commemorations is a simple word — hope.

Thankfulness should not be just once a year. Thankfulness requires understanding. Thankfulness should be part of us all the days of our lives. Then, we will truly pay homage to all who represent the goodness known as America.

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On a quest for Hanukkah stamps? This may help

Year after year, Ronald Scheiman puts out an email to make American Jews aware of the availability of Hanukkah stamps. Just Googling his “The Quest for Annual Hanukkah Stamps” tagline finds his 2002 letter and 2013 letter within the first page of results.

Here’s his 2015 letter:

The Hanukkah stamp from 2013 should be available at your post office, Ronald Scheiman says.

The Hanukkah stamp from 2013 should be available at your post office, Ronald Scheiman says.

“Hanukkah stamps should be available now at your local post office. Although there is no new design, the 2011 and/or 2013 designs should be (available). You may be told the your post office can’t get them or won’t because it is not a new stamp. Well, if they have a religious-themed Christmas stamp, they have an old stamp because the United States Postal Service did not issue a new religiously themed Christmas stamp, they are distributing last year’s stamp.

“Ronald Scheiman, The Quest for Annual Hanukkah Stamps”

Kudos to Mr. Scheiman for persisting.

The 2011 Hanukkah stamp should also be available at local post offices, Scheiman says.

The 2011 Hanukkah stamp should also be available at local post offices, Scheiman says.


A short time to imprint Jewish memories

Last week, I was on a conference call and before the meeting started, someone inquired how everybody’s Sukkot was going. One caller in Ohio said his family was wearing jackets in the sukkah, as it was 55 degrees, and another in New Jersey said they were having a soggy Sukkot. Meanwhile, our Sukkot in the Valley started out with triple-digit temperatures, with some sukkah-dwellers using ceiling fans under the schach.

This conversation led me to think about how our memories are formed by our experiences. As long as we live in Phoenix, our children will likely not form memories of being bundled up in a warm jacket inside a sukkah or lighting their menorah at home during a blizzard.

As we concluded the recent month of holidays, it occurred to me that much of my effort in celebrating the holidays lately is not for me personally – I vaguely recall attending classes or reading in preparation for a holiday, but that hasn’t been the case in years – but instead to imprint memories of the holidays on my children.

These imprints included the taste of apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, wearing white and blowing a shofar on Yom Kippur, building a sukkah with their dad, and then eating meals inside it and dancing with a Torah (although I think they were too busy running around to actually notice the latter).  At other times of the year, it’s the crunch of the matzah and the “No, no, no, I will not let them go” chant of Passover and the costumes, groggers and treats of Purim.

It’s unknown what moments will make an imprint and what kind of impact they will make. Will my dragging my kids into the sanctuary during Yom Kippur so they can hear the shofar in a room filled with worshippers dressed in white bring back memories of boredom or will they instead fondly remember standing on the bimah with other children with their glow sticks and shofars during Havdalah at the end of the holiday?

When I think back to my early Jewish memories, I’m not sure they are what my parents intended. I remember being shushed by grown-ups during Shabbat services and visiting the bathroom often so I could hang out with my friends there. I remember the oneg afterward, which was considered successful if I could get a good piece of the inside of the challah. I remember trying to hide a book under my desk during Hebrew school so I could read during class. And then there was the time my dad wanted to record our Passover seder on audiotape and my sister and I kept making jokes and cracking up throughout the recording. My time at Jewish summer camp and youth group retreats take up a lot of space in my Jewish memories.

When we first started taking our kids to the family High Holiday service at our synagogue years ago, they didn’t pay too much attention to the prayers or the songs – they preferred to crawl around on the floor with their friends. I watched some of the other children – mainly girls – sit nicely and listen to the story and clap their hands to the songs and felt embarrassed that my kids were being so disruptive. I didn’t even bother taking them into the main sanctuary afterward, instead putting them in baby-sitting while I headed into the grown-up service.

But this year, things were a little different. My oldest boys, who are now in second and third grade, wanted to help lead the family service. They stood in front of the room, did some of the reading and handed out the plush Torahs to the younger children. My youngest son, now in kindergarten, even sat on my husband’s lap on the floor to listen to almost the whole book read by one of the teachers.

Thinking back to previous years and reflecting on how quickly they flew by, I realized that we have such a limited time to share these moments with our children. And although we have no control over what imprints they will carry into adulthood, we can only try to provide them with experiences that may endure.

Leisah Woldoff is managing editor of Phoenix Jewish News.


You Did Not Win: Reflections on My Relationship with a Holocaust Survivor

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Guest blogger Shauna Stein, right, received the Sonia Minuskin Award for Graduate Scholarship from Minuskin’s son Harold Minuskin, center, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Arizona State University’s Jewish Studies Program, left, on April 27. Photo courtesy of Shauna Stein

Guest blogger Shauna Stein is president of the Jewish Law Student Association at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and participated in the first cohort of the Valley Beit Midrash Jewish Leadership Corps. This piece was written Sept. 22, just before Yom Kippur.  

As I write this piece, it is the eve of Yom Kippur. Earlier this afternoon, I received an email from Harold Minuskin, a Holocaust survivor. He informed me that the Polish government recently announced that former Jewish citizens of Poland who survived the Holocaust would be eligible for a small pension for the valuables and property their families lost during that period. To qualify, you must prove that you lived in Poland during the Holocaust. Harold relayed to me that he has applied, since he has about four Polish documents that prove that his family members were in or near their hometown of Zhetel (Zdenciol in Polish) from 1937 to 1945.

Harold has been sending me several thought-provoking materials since I first met him. Harold encourages me to continue my scholarship on this topic.

Though this article triggers many emotions and thoughts, I am choosing to write about an important cognitive strength that my correspondence with Harold Minuskin has taught me over the course of the summer: the power of wanting to live and the power of a positive outlook on life.

My relationship with Harold Minuskin began at the end of April when he read a piece that I had written for a law school course on moral leadership. I wrote about Tuvia Bielski and other Jewish partisans who exhibited great perseverance and other leadership strengths during the Holocaust. (Tuvia Bielski’s character was played by Daniel Craig in the 2008 movie,  “Defiance.”)

Harold survived the Holocaust because of the great perseverance of his mother, Sonia Minuskin, and other Jewish partisans led by Hershel Kaplinsky in the Lenin Atriad in Nazi-occupied forests. It was a true and complete honor when Harold awarded me with a scholarship, in honor of his mother.

Harold attended the scholarship reception with his wife. He carried a big brown box, printed with my name in red Hebrew letters, and tied with string. The box was filled with books on the Holocaust. Shortly after I received my award, Harold whispered to me, “Now is your chance to ask questions. I will be having heart surgery soon.”

I felt a huge responsibility to help spread education about the Holocaust. All these months, I had an opportunity to write more about a topic I feel passionately about, yet I did not begin writing until this very moment. Honestly, however, I also felt overwhelmed. I selfishly thought to myself, “I have no time and I don’t even know where to start. I have law school finals, an internship starting soon, a clinic, summer school, etc.”

During the summer, however, I had an opportunity to read the book that Harold translated on behalf of his mother. He told me how awful he felt that his mother was never able to see the finished product, or see the book published. He relayed to me that it was too emotionally painful to relive all those memories and that he blamed himself for not working through it faster.

As I read the book, I realized what an amazing hero Harold’s mother was, and how Harold’s mother never really received recognition for what she did.

Harold’s mother had two little babies, Harold and his little brother. No one wanted Harold’s mother to hide with them, and no peasants were willing to hide her with two little baby boys, at the risk that their crying might give away their hiding place to the adversaries. I cannot even begin to imagine what agony Harold’s mother went through, and what great internal conflicts she had within herself. In her memoirs, Harold’s mother recounts how peasants thought she was crazy yelling at herself when she struggled with the decision to not abandon her babies, who were so eager to live. She said that what kept her going was seeing the desire to live in her babies’ eyes, when they stared at her. Quite simply, it was perseverance and the desire to live that kept them going.

Harold said the following to me, which gave me shivers:

“Just imagine that you are all alone with two very young children. You are trying to hide and escape from people that want to kill you because you are a Jew. You only have the clothing you are wearing. Even non-Jews who have known your family for many years shun you because they fear for their lives. No one is willing to help, to provide scraps of food or water.”

At one time, Harold’s mother wanted to give away her infant son to nuns. She thought to herself, “At least, one of us will survive if he is raised as a Christian child.” However, Harold’s mother changed her mind and was committed to survival. Essentially, failure was not even an option in her mind.

At that point, Harold’s mother had already witnessed the slaughter of most of her family and friends. Harold’s mother and her two boys were now in the ghetto where there was hunger and death all around them. The Germans created an atmosphere of death and reprisals for the slightest offense.

One example written in Harold’s mother’s memoirs is when the Jews of Zhetel were standing in line to give up their valuables. One Jewish woman was arbitrarily selected by one of the German guards. She was accused of withholding some valuables. Of course, this was not true. Nevertheless, the German guard persisted that the woman was holding back some of her family’s valuables. No amount of pleading would help this poor woman. The German guard pulled out his pistol and shot her in view of the rest of the Jews who were standing in line. Thus, the Germans continuously created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

Writing this simply gives me goose bumps. We have so many frivolous things that we worry about in life. Harold survived and is here with us today because for days his mother, his brother and grandmother and other family members hid underneath a toilet behind their house. Harold’s father was smart enough to dig a deep hole underneath the toilet, as he knew that the sophisticated German soldiers would not want to look under a toilet. When Harold and his brother were dehydrated and thirsty as they were hiding there, Harold’s mother moistened Harold’s lips and Harold’s little brother’s lips with urine from their grandmother.

Harold spent the first several years of his life in the forest. Harold’s mother wrote in her memoirs that the Soviet Partisans would spend time with the little boys because it would bring them joy to remember their own families. When the Soviet Partisans would ask the little boys what a bicycle was, the little boys would point to a squirrel. Their lives were so far removed from the society they once knew.

I am only touching upon a hair of what happened, or the small amount of what I heard from my encounters with Harold. After the war, Harold, his brother and his parents returned to their home. It was used as an office for German soldiers during the war. None of their valuables, furniture or clothes remained in the home. One time, Harold’s mother even saw a fellow villager wearing her scarf that was taken from her home during the war.

Anti-Semitism still persisted. Harold’s parents engaged in the black market to make ends meet, and the surrounding villagers  coveted their earnings. Harold’s family ultimately immigrated to the United States, and they resided in New York. Harold’s family would attend social events with Tuvia Bielski (the man, who initially inspired me to write about moral leadership during the Holocaust) and his family. Harold also sent me a picture of his cousin who had a picture taken with Bielski.

During our correspondence, Harold told me that during the later years when they lived in New York, his mother never missed a party. He told me, “She was the life of the party. She enjoyed herself as if to make up for all the bad years. Despite everything, my mother had a positive outlook on life.”

I think that Harold’s mother passed on a very positive quality to her son. A few weeks ago, Harold sent me an email that brightened my day. He wrote: “It has been a little over 3 months since my open heart surgery… I forced myself to begin walking, 1/2 mile each day at first. Now I am up to 1 mile each morning… When I was discharged I looked like one of the ghetto people; I had lost lots of weight. Now, I am gaining back at the rate of about 2 lbs each week. I should be good as new in another 3 months.”

With all this being said, why did Harold’s email today compel me to write this piece?

I think that the important takeaway is for the world to know that time and time again, wicked people have tried to wipe out, destroy and obliterate the Jewish religion, race, people and culture. However, at the end of the day, one thing is certain. They have not obstructed our desire to live, our commitment to living life and to all of life’s possibilities. We still clutch to our identities and we still fight for our rights. Moreover, the struggles of our ancestors made us stronger and made us persevere.

Essentially, these wicked people did not win. They lost the game.

I am forever thankful for what Harold has taught me. Harold has taught me to embrace life and to encourage others to think about concepts that might be difficult to acknowledge.

May you be inscribed in the book of life, this eve of Yom Kippur.


No football on Yom Kippur?

I was bowled over this morning to hear a Channel 12 announcer say that high school football games in the Valley had been played last night rather than tonight out of respect for Yom Kippur. Normally, all high school games are played on Friday nights.

Looking at the schedule of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, that appeared to be true, so I called the AIA for confirmation. The way it works, said Brian Bolitho, the AIA’s director of business media, is that when it sets athletic schedules (not just for football, but for all high school sports), it blacks out certain holidays, including the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Good Friday through Easter AND Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  When it comes to football, if those Jewish holidays fall on a Friday, AIA does indeed schedule the games for those weeks on a Thursday, Bolitho confirmed. “The schools have the option of rescheduling,” he said, but most of them follow the AIA’s lead.

This is well worth of note, a sign – during a time when concerns about anti-Semitism are high – that at least some of our neighbors want the norm to be respectful and accepting of us.

I can’t speak for our community, but I would certainly hope that some of the leadership of the Jewish community here would step up and thank the schools that were respectful of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, allowing Jewish players and fans alike to attend this week’s games without having to make a choice. Perhaps someday all games would be played on Thursdays to avoid the avoid the conflict with Shabbat, but I think we should honor a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, with forethought, it’s easy to schedule games on a different day, but we can’t change the date of Yom Kippur.

– Salvatore Caputo


The cool Haggadah kit that came in the mail today

Such a cool thing came in the mail at work today – “Hakol Baseder: A Treasury of Activities for the Passover Seder” by Mitch Heifetz and Michael Toben.

The kit includes a Haggadah, six Birkat Hamazon booklets, a wine opener, a book and a CD.

41W67+ek7oL._SS400_[1]The book, “A Treasury of Activities for the Passover Seder,” includes a variety of activities, songs, games and facts to help seder participants get more involved and a CD has the materials needed for the activities.

The “Interactive Experiential Haggadah,” published by Gefen Publishing House in conjunction with Jewish National Fund  and World Bnei Akiva, includes a letter of endorsement from Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and there’s also a memorial to Rabbi Mitch Heifetz, one of the authors, who died before the book was published.

The Jewish Week in New York told the story behind the Haggadah in its Passover issue: The authors were longtime friends who had made aliyah decades earlier and had collaborated on educational materials for a few Jewish holidays. About seven years ago, Rabbi Heifetz was sick with a cancer relapse and Toben visited him with the idea to create their own Haggadah with accompanying family activities. According to the article, “Toben visited Rabbi Heifetz on the kibbutz biweekly to discuss ideas for the Haggadah and activity booklet, and he completed the writing after the rabbi died, at 61, in 2007.”

Included are experiential activities, pantomimes, structured debate and quizzes, each labeled for appropriate age levels:  A for adults,  B for adolescents and young adults and C for children.

What a beautiful testament to friendship. Although there are only a few more days until Passover begins – and there’s still lots of cleaning, shopping and cooking to do between now and then  – looking through this book for ideas for our seder is a welcome  addition to my Passover to-do list.

Hope your holiday preparations are going well  and may you have a happy and meaningful Passover!


Community Passover seders

For those who are still making plans for the upcoming seders, here are some places that are offering community seders. Reservation deadlines are coming up next week so be sure to check them out soon!

First night: Monday, March 25

Beth El Congregation

Chabad of Arizona

Chabad of Fountain Hills

Chabad of the East Valley

Chabad of Gilbert

Chabad of Mesa

Chabad of North Phoenix

Chabad of the Northwest Valley

Chabad of Scottsdale

Temple Beth Shalom in Sun City

Second night: Tuesday, March 26

Chabad of Arizona

Chabad of the Northwest Valley

Chabad of Scottsdale

Congregation Beth Israel

Congregation Beth Chaverim: Sun City West location. Catered by Chompie’s and led by Rabbi Irwin Wiener. Reservations by March 15. For details, call 623-546-4672.

Congregation Merkaz Ha-Iyr

Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley

L’Chaim!: Seder for young professionals (under age 35)

Or Adam Congregation

Temple Solel

Saturday, March 30

 Heichal Baoranim in Flagstaff


How much do you like hamantaschen?

Are you still snacking on leftover hamantaschen?

I imagine pro-eater Jamie “The Bear” McDonald probably had his share this year. He is the winner of El Al Israel Airlines’ second annual National Hamantaschen Eating Championship, held in New York City on Feb 24. McDonald set a new hamantaschen-eating record by consuming 48 hamantaschen in five minutes.

Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, professional eater was the winner of the EL AL Israel Airlines second National Hamantaschen Eating Championship on Feb. 24. Also pictured, from left, are the  amateur winners : Nathaniel Siev, Dimitri “The Ukraine Train” Shchupak, Kevin Sloan and Jake Zak.Photo courtesy of El Al

Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, professional eater was the winner of the EL AL Israel Airlines second National Hamantaschen Eating Championship on Feb. 24. Also pictured, from left, are the amateur winners : Nathaniel Siev, Dimitri “The Ukraine Train” Shchupak, Kevin Sloan and Jake Zak.
Photo courtesy of El Al

Hundreds gathered at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) Synagogue to watch 20 amateur contestants devour dozens of hamantaschen for the chance to beat professional eating sensation, Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, and win a free flight to Israel, according  to an El Al press release.Nathaniel Siev took first place among the 20 amateur contestants by devouring 34.5 hamantaschen and Dimitri “The Ukraine Train” Shchupak consumed a total of 33 hamantaschen, each winning a roundtrip ticket to Israel. Third and fourth place runner-ups, Kevin Sloan and Jake Zak, both received a $500 voucher toward their next flight to Israel for eating 24 hamantaschen each.


Snapshots from a Brooklyn Sukkot

Hershl Weberman of Phoenix spent time in Brooklyn over Sukkot, both this year and in previous years, and shared his experience in this week’s Religious Life column, aptly named, “Spending Sukkot in Brooklyn.”

Because we only had space for one photo, we’re including additional photos here. While there are plenty of sukkahs built throughout the Valley, you likely don’t see scenes like this here. All photos are by Hershl Weberman, who has had exhibitions on photographs he took in Israel and Ethiopia. Weberman is the founder of Putting Judaism Back into Jewish Singles, a local singles group in which all events have a Jewish context.

Sukkahs are built on staggered terraces so the stars can be visible through the roof of each one. More are built on the roof and in the courtyard.

Four sukkahs are in one corner of a courtyard. There were eight more in other corners.

Many sukkahs have beautiful decorations.

How many sukkahs can you count?

During Chol HaMoed (intermediate days), the rebbes have tishes (literally tables) where they give discourses in Yiddish and their Chasidim sing.


30-minute sukkah and more

Build a sukkah in 30 minutes

Are you short on time this year when it comes to building your sukkah? Last year, architect Tom Norris spoke with us about building a sukkah in 30 minutes. To find out how to get your sukkah ready for the holiday – which starts this Sunday night – check out his guide on how to build an 8’x8′ sukkah, complete with diagrams.

Eat in a sukkah wherever you go

If you’re traveling this Sukkot and are looking for a sukkah near wherever you are, the Worldwide Sukkah Directory may be able to help you. The directory started in 1994 in Melbourne, Australia and was designed to help people who needed to find a place to eat in a sukkah near their office. Arizona sukkot on the list are the Phoenix Communty Kollel and Chabad at Congregation Young Israel in Tucson. In 2011, there were 434 sukkahs listed in 26 countries. Last year the organizers of the directory also released an app that is compatiable with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, as well as an Android app.

For a list of various Sukkot activities and programs – and meals under the stars – visit the calendar at jewishaz.com. Scroll down to the bottom for Sukkot listings.

Chag Sameach!