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Rosh Hashanah 5784: Making the World Better through Laughter

09/18/2023 10:24:49 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

Who remembers Norman Cousins?

Norman Cousins was a nice Jewish boy, who grew up not far from here in Union City, to become a famous journalist and author. In 1964 Norman was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating disease. His doctors gave him only a few weeks to live.

Norman did something extraordinary when he heard the news. He laughed. 

In fact, he made it a point to laugh every day.

For 30 minutes. 

Until the day he died. 

26 years after the diagnosis.

I share this story not because we are all granted miracles and extra time on this earth. I’m sharing this story because of Norman’s response. Who responds to bad news with a laugh? Who decides that laughter is going to be a part of their march into an uncertain future?

Maybe we all should. 

Weeks ago, I was all set with my sermon topic for today. I’d done my sleuthing around bookstores and blogs, and noticed just how much is being written about anger, rage, blame, our toxic culture and lack of civility. I’m collecting sources about how we all need to stop being so angry. How we need to change, to find love and forgiveness… Great. It’s writing itself. And by that, I mean that ChatGPT is writing it.  

And then, something happened. 

Actually, a lot of things happened. We packed up, moved, unpacked. We collected two kids from camp, unpacked, did 200 loads of laundry, and then packed again, this time to send our two older children to college. One year apart but both freshmen now. We packed, we drove to Boston, we unpacked, we drove home, crying a little on the way. We packed again. We drove to Saratoga. We unpacked. We drove home, crying a little on the way. We came home to an emptier house. We pulled ourselves together.  We launched our youngest at a new high school. And then my restful vacation was over.  

That I got a cold was not a surprise nor was it anything but funny when, driving the youngest to school on day two, we smelled something terrible in the car. Like, really, really awful. After some searching it turned out that – well, you know the piles of shopping bags we all keep hoarding now, and maybe some of us have bags inside of bags inside of bags shoved in the back of the car because maybe we’ll need all 400 of them the next time we go to Target? I’m saying hypothetically. Well after some searching we found the source of the odor: a wheel of brie cheese that had been sitting there for a week… in 90 degree heat… sort of a long story involving the college move-in and the bags being in the garage… but that’s not the point, the point is sometimes you have a lot going on and then you end up with a car that smells like rotten brie cheese and then because you’ve been driving in it and touching those bags your hands smell for days and you know what? It’s kind of funny. 

I wrote this sermon because I found myself doubled over laughing at the ShopRite, next to the garbage bins into which I finally did deposit the brie cheese, and 400 shopping bags. Doubled over, gasping for breath. A total release.

And suddenly I knew: I’m going to write about laughter. Because laughter is what the world needs right now. What we need. Laughter is the best medicine. Although whoever said that, as the comedian Greg Kettner said, obviously never had diarrhea. 

Laughter, it turns out, strengthens the immune system and brain. Laughter decreases one’s chances of developing dementia, decreases stress hormones, and increases endorphins and dopamine, the same hormones that produce the runners high. Laughing helps protect the heart and lungs, and if done consistently has similar results of a light cardio workout and actually burns calories even as it strengthens your abs. Move over, Peloton.

And, neurological studies show that those who laugh more live longer.

Laughter only works when everyone joins in; when one person in a group is laughing alone, it’s not so funny. But laughing together is an effective way of improving the positive mood of individuals and a group, a way to bond and boost optimism and hope.

So if I want to stand here and preach that we are going to change the world by changing ourselves… if I’m trying to inspire us to do teshuvah, make ourselves and this world a better place… well, why be so serious? 

What if the way to fixing the world – to getting over our anger problem, and our fear, our toxic culture and stress overdrive – is as simple as… a good laugh?

So now I’m writing a sermon on laughter. Except, I’m all serious. My first draft was a highbrow discourse on the proper modalities of laughter. The Shulchan Aruch on the halakha of laughter. I showed it to some friends and they actually fell asleep. Next idea:  I’m going to do a stand-up routine for my sermon! I’ll get us all rolling in the aisles!

But here’s the thing – I’m not very funny.

So I called my friend Ethan. Rabbi Ethan Linden did stand up comedy in college and he’s hilarious, and I said: teach me how to be funny. 

And he told me – well the key to being funny is to be yourself.

And I thought, that’s too bad.

And then he said: you have to be willing to laugh at yourself.

There’s so much to that. That sounds like teshuvah to me. That’s a comment about humility, and how we carry ourselves in our own hearts and also with one another. If I’m willing to laugh at myself - well, maybe it will help me take life a little less seriously. Maybe it will help me get along with other people better, and not take things so personally. So Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #1: be willing to laugh at yourself a little more this coming year.

Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #2: Laugh at the unexpected, and share that laugh with others. Laughter, it turns out is a theme of the Torah readings today.

The root “laugh” occurs seven times in the story, that magical number seven that signals to us to pay attention.

  • In the opening verses of today’s Torah reading, Abraham names his son Isaac, Yitzhak – it means “he will laugh.”
  • Sarah explains, when they name him: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me” – kol hashomeah yitzhak li.  This is a completely unexpected turn of events, and they are laughing. 
  • They are laughing together, Sarah and Abraham, parents in their old age. They are laughing because they are joyful, and they want to share this feeling with others. This is exuberant laughter, the kind that is contagious, communal. Everyone who hears will laugh with us: isn’t this what the best kind of laughter is? When you get the giggles, and it infects the whole class
    • Laughter, it turns out, is communal. We are 30 times as likely to laugh with others as we are alone. In fact part of what’s making our culture so toxic is the watching from home phenomenon; Hollywood isn’t making big-budget comedies anymore because when we watch alone we don’t enjoy the joke as much.
    • So God finally gave them a child after telling Abraham his whole life that he’d be the father of a multitude of nations and Sarah’s menopausal? That’s pretty funny.
    • One midrash (Breishit Rabbah 53:8) captures this contagious laugh of joy: The rabbis imagined that when Sarah laughed this laugh, others who also hadn’t had been able to have children before gave birth; that when she laughed the deaf gained their hearing and the blind were able to see. The laugh itself caused this, caused joy and healing in other people’s lives. This is what a laugh can do.
  • You know who else laughs in today’s reading? Yishmael. Sarah sees Ishmael m’tzahek. Unclear what that is, actually, but we can assume that like most older brothers he found a few things to laugh it when it came to his younger sibling. This laugh is different, maybe. We don’t really know. But it feels different, because bad things happen afterwards, sad and hard things; Sarah sees Yishmael laughing and becomes jealous or angry or something, that’s what triggers her to call on Abraham to send Yishmael and Hagar away. A laugh. 
  • Which brings us to the other laugh of Genesis, one that happened before the curtain rose on our story today. A few chapters ago, messengers came to tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child and she hears this and says, I’m 90 years old, that’s absurd, and – she laughs. Like Yishmael, she is laughing alone – vatizhak, in the singular. Was she cynical? Nervous? Scornful? Snarky? God overhears – turns out she’s not really alone, as the ark behind me says, “know before whom you stand” – and God does not join in the laughter. God asks her a question: "Why are you laughing?" And instead of answering, she denies it.  "I didn’t laugh." "Yes, you did," God says. And then grants her a child whom she names Laughter. Sarah kept her reasons private.
  • I wonder if that’s why she kicked Yishmael out. As someone who laughed alone, perhaps she recognized something in him that she knew well and didn’t like.  Watching him laugh alone, m’tzahek in the singular, was the kind of laughter she didn’t want in her house. Maybe she read the study I did, about teenage boys at risk for psychopathy, ones with major behavior problems, how they tend not to laugh when other people around them laugh. Sociologists teach that we use laughter to show belonging to a group, and also to convey that we understand that someone else wants us to laugh and that we want what they want. 
  • Perhaps the Torah is suggesting: notice when you’re laughing alone too much. It’s a sign that something is off. God made us to laugh together. Not at one another, not by ourselves. But together, passing our giggles around the room like candy.

So lesson #1: laugh at yourself.

Lesson #2: laugh at the unexpected, and share that laugh with others. 

So Abraham laughs, Sarah laughs, Yishmael laughs.

And one child, named Laughter. 

Laughter, Yitzhak, is the answer to Abraham and Sarah’s prayers. Yitzhak, Laughter, is Redemption. Redemption is brought into this world by a child named Laughter. 

But – do we ever see him laugh?

In all of Torah and rabbinic literature – the answer is: no.

And this, my friends, is Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #3 –no matter how tough it gets, no matter how bad the diagnosis, no matter how rotten the cheese, keep laughing.

Isaac has a tough life. He has a pretty traumatic childhood, born into a rather weird family dynamic with a step brother and his mother living with them, super elderly parents who probably needed the car keys taken away before they were ready; there’s the trauma of tomorrow’s Torah reading, the whole we’re-going-on-a-trip-son-actually-I-might-kill-you-wait-never mind episode; his mom dies, his dad remarries, starts a big new family. Isaac grows up, can’t have kids, then has twins but they are constantly bickering and finally he goes blind and his wife and one of the kids conspire to lie and cheat him and then one of the sons runs away…I mean this is not an easy life. For a kid named He will laugh. 

And yet – and here is where I need you all to lean in a little, listen up: Isaac is the one patriarch whose name does not change. Abraham started life as Avram; Jacob ends up being named Israel. Isaac stays Isaac. He will laugh. Even when his life is not so funny. He will laugh. 

And so must we.

Life is hard. For Isaac, and for all of us. Life is full of unexpected twists, traumas, loss. One natural response is anger and outrage, fear and stress; but another natural, God-given response is: to laugh. Yitzhak never changes his name - God never changes Isaac’s name - to teach us: no matter what comes our way, keep laughing. 

We don’t get to choose a whole lot about how this year unfolds. But God has given us the thing we need most to handle whatever comes our way: a sense of humor.

Let our Rosh Hashanah resolution be to laugh more this year. 

At ourselves, and with one another. 

May we learn from Abraham and Sarah and Yishmael and Yitzhak to laugh no matter what happens. To laugh at ourselves, to laugh with one another, to heal ourselves and this world by spreading smiles that turn to laughs that turn to joy.

Shana tova u’metuka. May this year be full of laughter for us all.


07/25/2023 09:17:15 AM


In just a few days many Jews will fast in observance of Tisha b'Av, a day of mourning. While over the millennia the day has accrued layers of meaning -- not just the First Temple destroyed that day, but also the Second; the Crusades launched that day; the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492...the original ones are the ones that cost the Jewish people our homeland and started the Diaspora. It took nearly 2,000 years until we came back with an attempt at sovereignty and self-government.

The rabbis taught that at its spiritual root, the expulsion of the Temple was caused by senseless hatred that Jews felt for one another. That in-fighting and factions destroyed us from within. Of course, the Babylonians and then the Romans played their part too. But the spiritual message of the ancient Sages is that when we are divided against ourselves, we are lost.

When I fast in a few days, I will be fasting in hopes that the divisions that are tearing apart Israeli society will soon be surmounted. That people -- all of whom value reason and reasonableness, even if they cannot agree on its place in the judicial system -- should apply their minds and hearts to building the state that has been the dream of the Jewish people these two thousand years. We have enough work to do to make peace with our Palestinian neighbors as well as the rest of the world. Let us not turn on one another, let us find peaceful resolution, let us find a way to make the modern state of Israel into the temple of our dreams.

Photo:  Amir Levy/Getty Images

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On the Mystery and Magic of Charoset

04/05/2023 09:42:37 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

In our family, it is the matzah balls that win the nostalgia award. The brisket, too, but sometimes that is swapped out for turkey or chicken, the price of kosher meat being what it is; and anyway, there are the vegetarians to consider. The charoset? Well, yes, of course. In some years it has also been the star feature; in particular that final year of my uncle’s too-short life, when he decided to make six different recipes from Jewish communities around the world even though the chemotherapy made it hard for him to stand in the kitchen for very long. Every one of the six was deliciously bittersweet.

Charoset: nominated for best lead or supporting role? To look at the Haggadah, it would seem the latter. It doesn’t get its own named step in the seder, or even its own blessing. In fact, it is unclear if it is its own mitzvah (commandment) or just a part of the maror (bitter herbs) and korech (Hillel sandwich) ones. The charoset is just sort of slipped in there, in the instructions for how to eat the maror, right before the meal is served. Like, that spot where no one wants to take extra time to consider another question. It’s just there, part of the meal, something you do as part of the maror and korech steps but not actually part of the narrative arc of the Haggadah-script at all.

In fact, unlike matzah and maror, charoset is not found anywhere in the Torah.

It is, however, alluded to in the earliest rabbinic works of the Mishnah, a collection of early rabbinic teachings that was completed around 200 CE:

“They brought before [the seder leader] matzah and lettuce [hazeret] and charoset, and at least two cooked dishes, although eating charoset is not a commandment (mitzvah). Rabbi Eliezer ben Tzadok says: it is a commandment (mitzvah).” (Mishna, Pesachim 10:3)

Already nearly 2,000 years ago our ancestors were eating something they called charoset as part of the seder meal. It’s never defined, and there seems to be disagreement about whether it was a mitzvah or not.

The rabbis living in the following centuries took up the question, and some of their conversations are recorded in the Talmud. “And if it is not a mitzvah,” Rabbi Ami asks  (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a) “why does one serve it?” A few answers are offered:

Idea #1: “It is brought due to the poison in the bitter herbs, which is neutralized by the charoset.” Is this a culinary suggestion or a spiritual one?

Idea #2: “Rabbi Levi says: It is in remembrance of the apple.” Huh? What apple?

Idea #3: “Rabbi Yohanan says: It is in remembrance of the clay.” This sounds familiar. The charoset, we learn as children and most haggadot tell us, is to remember the mortar used with the bricks in the building of the pyramids. In fact, a Haggadah printed in Spanish in 17th century offers a recipe for charoset that includes the following: “Then mix in a bit of brick dust, in memory of the bricks which our fathers made in Egypt.” A haggadah printed in Salonika in 1740 reports that “in Salonika the elders testified that they used to put chopped calermini stone in the charoset.” I’ve read that during the American Civil War, soldiers at the front, unable to find the ingredients for charoset, put an actual brick on their makeshift seder plate. Rabbi Yohanan’s idea seems to have stuck and become mainstream. But as we see, his is not the only idea about this mysterious dish. In fact, the Talmud seems to want to compromise, which brings us to…

Idea #4: “Abaye said: Therefore, to fulfill both opinions [the idea of the apple and the idea of the clay], one must prepare the charoset tart and thick. Tart in remembrance of the apple, and thick in remembrance of the clay.” Again, what’s with the apple? Why not just go with the clay idea and move on?

That apple comment becomes important, as most – though not all – charoset recipes feature apples as a key ingredient. So what is the apple? Is it perhaps an allusion to the fruit of the Garden of Eden? Perhaps. And also, perhaps to a midrash (rabbinic story) about love, as Rashi suggests in his 11th century commentary to the Talmud. He reminds us of the story: Disheartened by their ongoing oppression and in particular by Pharoah’s decree that all Jewish boys should be killed at birth, the Israelite men gave up being intimate with their wives. The wives however refused to accept their husbands’ sense of defeat, and went out among the apple trees and seduced their husbands. Later on, they went out to those same apple trees and gave birth to their children nearby. This midrash (rabbinic tale) is included in the Haggadah, actually just a few pages before we eat the charoset.

So what is the apple of the charoset recipe? The apple is about Jewish continuity, resilience and most importantly and uniquely at the seder: love.

The ingredients of charoset are actually all mentioned in the Biblical love story-poem Song of Songs, which is read on the Shabbat of Passover at synagogue and also included in some haggadot:  “Come, my beloved, let us go in the open – under the apple tree I roused you… I went down to the nut grove…the pomegranites were in bloom…the figs…the almonds…the dates…all choice fruits” (Song of Songs, 7:12-14, 5:11).

Perhaps, then, eating charoset is ingesting this love song. The love song of the Jewish people and God, and also two human beings. Aryeh ben David has written:

“The face of someone who has fallen in love shines with hope. Often, with the passing of years, the early spark felt when first falling in love fades. But when we look at old pictures and read the letters written in early romance, we can often rekindle the flames of our passion. The Seder, with its four cups of wine, recling posture, charoset, and lengthy discussion of the Jewish People’s “first date” with God, evokes and rekindles this love. And as with all love stories, hope is renewed.”

Abaye’s Idea #4 is right. The charoset is a mixture that is full of the love of the apple, and also thick like the mud of slavery. Because isn’t that what life is? A thick mixture of hope and despair, of sweet moments of love and tenderness and also sticky-thick moments of pain and trauma that are hard to let go?

“From darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from winter to spring, and now from bitterness to sweetness. But with the light, there is still darkness in the world. With our freedom, there are still those who are enslaved…Even within our own lives, we live within the tapestry of these contradictions. It is dark, and it is light; we are trapped, and we are liberated; we are cold, and we are warm; we experience pain and joy, just as we have eaten the maror with the charoset, taking the bitter with the sweet. Through this act, we acknowledge the fulness of life, shaded by the gradations of experience…a reflection of the full range of possibilities.” (Rabbi Joy Levitt)

As we head to the seder table tonight and tomorrow, may the charoset bring us all to the messy, sticky-tart-sweet taste of life in all its fulness, the taste of liberation and love.  

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anti-semitism Today

10/20/2022 11:05:32 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

Earlier this week, I was astounded to log in to one of the news websites I read regularly and see the word “Jew” appear – not once in one article, but three times, three different headlines, covering three different topics. This was not the Jewish press, mind you; it was the Drudge Report, which I read along with its left-leaning counterparts (we also subscribe to both the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. Lest you don’t believe me when I say I am a centrist and pluralist to the core.) Between Kanye, former President Trump, and the UC Berkeley Law School student government, there was what to cover.

There are only 6 million Jews in this country. That’s less than 2% of the national population. Worldwide, there are fewer than 16 million Jews. In the world. That’s 0.2% of the world population.

Why are we in the headlines? Why are we the object of such fascination, obsession, hatred?

The recently appointed head of the Institute for Advance Study, David Nirenberg, explored this topic in his 2013 tome Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. He argued that anti-Judaism “should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought…[but is] rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.” He traces this idea from Egypt through Roman through Islam and Christianity to the modern era. Several hundred pages of scholarship later he concludes: “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel’.”

Nine years later, we have only seen this problem grow. When a highly regarded law school, an internationally acclaimed rap star, and a former President are all talking about the Jewish problem, our radar goes off the charts.

I have very little new to add to the conversation. I write about this now mostly to convey a concern, one that I know most of us already share. I can invite you to read thought pieces I’ve appreciated this week, among them What Kanye Can Teach Us About Anti-Semitism, Yair Rosenberg’s piece in his Deep Shtetl column in The Atlantic, and We’re Jewish Berkeley Law Students, Excluded from Many Areas of Campus, published in the Daily Beast. I can invite us all to be activists on this issue, in as dovish and loving a way we can, so that we sow seeds of peace and not further antagonism. Our teens in the POST program are engaging this year again with the Anti-Defamation League’s educational programming so they can go out into the world educated and equipped with knowledge to help them navigate life on campus and in the world as Jews. As an ADL Signature Synagogue, we will continue to offer educational programs for adults to help us fight anti-Semitism. This spring we are looking forward to new programming now in the works with the local chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom, helping strengthen our connection to the local Muslim community, and to lifting up as we do each year the memory of the Holocaust through the Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration and Yom HaShoah programming.

When I was in college, a student group sent in the postal mail an oversized envelope to every self-identified Jewish student on campus. Open the envelope, and on a large piece of paper, in huge black letters occupying nearly the whole page, was one word: JEW. A postcard also in the envelope asked: how do you feel seeing that word? Are you ashamed, defensive, braced for an insult? Or are you proud?

In a moment where our culture has once again fixated on Jew-bashing and anti-Semitism, I hope our congregation can be a source of Jewish pride, sanctuary and strength. I do not have easy answers for combatting anti-Semitism. What I do have is a way for us to calm our nerves and strengthen our resolve: residing in community. The more we connect with one another, the more we own our Jewish identities and operate from a deep sense of peoplehood. This is as true for our family members who are not Jewish as it is for those of us who were born or chose to become Jewish. May our connection to one another as a Jewish community fill us with the strength and resolve we need to move forward in a world that clearly needs us to heal much that is broken.

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08/19/2021 10:41:52 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

This week is a pessimist’s raison d’etre:  devastation in Haiti, heartbreak and harrowing events in Afghanistan, the continued flourishing of the coronavirus. To say nothing of the wildfires raging on in California, or the water shortage on the Colorado River, or continued fighting between Israel and Hezbollah including an alleged missile strike in Syria.

How does Torah—in its mega-sense, meaning all of Jewish teaching and expression—help us absorb the news? How might it inform how we respond to events? What are some guidelines for us in a week like this?

  1. I know I am called on to help. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – we are to pursue justice; v’ahavta l’reikha kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself. We know we are to do everything we can. Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest is working with American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to support efforts in Haiti (, as is Haitian-operated NJ4Haiti ( HIAS is collecting funds to help settle Afghani refugees, the ones we saw crowded into the aircraft carrier, the ones who make it out. Closer to home, we can cooperate with medical directives to vaccinate and wear masks as instructed, to help keep others who cannot be vaccinated safe.

  2. Judaism offers us the outlet of prayer, which can satisfy our emotional need to “do something” even in situations when we can do very little to help. Some people pray because they believe in a God who hears prayers and acts on it them in some way. Some people pray because it is a form of contemplative expression, a way to shape the climate of our hearts. Either way, prayer can help us through. Pray. Use the siddur (prayerbook), or don’t. Psalm 27, which is the Psalm for this month of Elul, is a good one to recite for all we are witnessing and experiencing in the world right now. Or stick with one of my favorite lines in the weekday Amidah: Grant us from You the grace of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It really feels like right now we need all three.

  3. Choosing Torah means placing myself as part of a community. If I were all alone in the world, the hard stuff would be overwhelming and unbearable. It might still be overwhelming – but it is not unbearable, because we have one another. Pick up the phone and call someone from the Oheb community whom you think could use a compassionate check-in. Talk about the news, or don’t. It will help you both; it will weave us together. A few weeks ago I preached on mental health. This is a moment where someone reeling from watching the pictures of those planes taking off from Kabul might really need that check-in. Because we might be all alone in the world – but through Torah, through choosing to be part of the Jewish community, we are not.


In a week like this, when there feels like there is so little to do except despair, I am grateful that Judaism gives me a framework to handle it all, and this holy community to do it with.


08/12/2021 08:00:28 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

One of my earliest Jewish memories is of the shofar. In particular, the final blast of the season, that long blast at the end of Yom Kippur ne’ilah. My memory is of the synagogue elder, ancient to my little girl eyes, holding the Havdalah candle, and – to my horror – beckoning me and my sister to come join him on the bimah. We must have been sitting in the front rows. I was too shy in those days; I wouldn’t do it. From our seats, I watched the flame light, and then saw more than heard the shofar blown in the flickering shadows of the candlelight.

The shofar is one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah, and that final Yom Kippur service. Tradition holds that we blow it 100 times on Rosh Hashanah morning; according to Jewish law, at least 30 are required. But did you know – that the shofar is blown every morning of Elul, this month leading up to Rosh Hashanah? With no blessings recited before, no words uttered at all. Just the sounds, a brief set that takes only a moment.

Why? If the mitzvah is to hear it on Rosh Hashanah, and then we use it again to close the service on Yom Kippur, why do we blow it daily for a whole month? Because teshuvah takes time. We cannot just wake up three weeks from now ready to jump in. Teshuvah is the work of bringing ourselves into alignment, of living up to the aspirations of our own best possible selves. And that re-alignment takes more than just a day. The shofar wakes us up to what we need to be doing right now, today, this whole month. Not just ordering the brisket, figuring out how to have meals with loved ones during the pandemic, arranging for seats. What we need to be doing is cheshbon ha-nefesh, accounting for our lives, looking at who we’ve become so we can become who we want to be in the new year.

To that end, I offer three suggestions.

  1. My wonderful colleague Rabbi Jill Zimmerman has created an online guided workbook for your Elul journey at her website,
  2. Spend time outside every day this month. Take a walk, or find someplace to sit. Don’t pick up your phone, check your email, or read anything. Just be outside, giving yourself some time to connect with yourself and nature.
  3. Hear the shofar every morning. Some mornings I blow it, other days it is the awesome Steve Friedlander; perhaps others will take a turn, too. The shofar comes at the end of morning minyan, so even if you are not able or inclined to log in for the full service, come 30 minutes or so after we start to catch it (on Mondays and Thursdays, make that 40 minutes or so from the start). 


In these ways, we can take Judaism up on its annual invitation to live our best lives, working toward an annual reset where we can begin again – if we’ve taken the time to know where we want to start.

Oheb at the Isaiah house

07/28/2021 03:49:31 PM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

When I was in high school, I spent a large part of my time and energy helping people who were homeless. I helped organize a club at school which collected leftover and unused food from local supermarkets and restaurants and brought them to a local soup kitchen (we called it the Gleaners, taken from the Book of Ruth, though I admit I didn’t get the reference at the time). I spent a summer working at the Crisis Ministries, stocking shelves of the food pantry and learning the ropes of the office and doing phone intakes. I hung out with the pastor there and wondered what the Jewish equivalent of such work was. I suppose the seed of an idea was planted then, though again, I didn’t know it quite yet.

To be the Rabbi of Oheb Shalom Congregation, which houses a food pantry in the building, feels like a home-coming in this regard. The food pantry was one of the congregations “selling points,” and I look forward to joining with our social action and social justice teams in so many ways building from that foundation. I am deeply proud of the way this congregation uses our resources to help those in need. I am proud as well of the many Oheb members who take leadership roles at our partner organizations working towards social justice of all sorts.

On August 13, we have an opportunity to show up in support of one such communal effort. Isaiah House, the only comprehensive family shelter in Essex County, is hosting a daybreaker event to raise funds not only for its own work helping our most vulnerable community members but also to help in the effort of identifying the person or persons responsible for the tragic death of Columbia high school student Moussa Fofana last month. I will be there in my Oheb t-shirt and hope many of you will join me in this alternative morning minyan of sorts – one that connects us to the broader SOMA community and lifts up the Jewish imperative,  which we will read that very week in parashat shoftim: “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

1. SunUp with Isaiah House – In Support of the Justice for Moussa Fund: August 13

Join Rabbi Treu and Oheb members and Isaiah House board leaders Liz Kubany, Marci Silbert, and Louise Weingrod, at SunUp on August 13.

In the spirit of Daybreaker, the morning rave party that has taken off around the world, come celebrate at the first annual SunUp with us - an hour of yoga and meditation with Baker Street Yoga, followed by some very spirited dancing to the spins of local DJ - DJ Jen Jones - all to celebrate the day! Proceeds from this event (your ticket purchase is 100% tax deductible) will be donated to Isaiah House, a homeless shelter in East Orange that is near and dear to us in SOMA. Isaiah House leadership has also committed to donating a portion of our proceeds to the Justice for Moussa fund, which is working to find information about the person or persons responsible for the tragic death of our beloved community member, Moussa Fofana. Funds are available to support Oheb members who wish to participate but need assistance toward the Isaiah House fundraiser ticket price; email Rabbi Treu for confidential assistance.

Register here

Let us know you’re going so we can greet you as part of Team Oheb!

2. Soul Refresh: Shabbat Morning 8/14

With Elul upon us, we look to new ways to make contact with ourselves and work towards renewal from the inside out. In place of regular Shabbat morning services, join Rabbi Treu in Murnick Hall for singing and chanting, silence, Torah learning, and a soul refresh.

10 – 11:30 am

Please note that on-time arrival will make a difference to the experience for you and others. Followed by kiddush lunch to go / outside. Zoom link forthcoming

3. Slichot: Saturday 8/28

Re-encounter high holiday melodies from years past and learn new ones with Cantor Kissner and Rabbi Treu at slichot services, held per tradition the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Light dinner will be served (shabbat’s “third meal,” seudah shlishit) and we will conclude with havdalah.

6:30 – 8:30 pm

Jewish Identity in Sports

07/22/2021 01:30:00 PM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

Jewish baseball is hot right now. Team Israel heads to the Olympics, in itself a minor miracle as Israel has yet to field a team making it past the European Championship B-pool, much less win the entire European competition or the next-level Africa-European games to clinch the Olympic spot. Closer to home, another miracle of sorts is taking place. Among the eight Jewish players called up so far this season from the minors to play for the Major Leagues (itself a terrific thing), two are shomer shabbat, keeping shabbat according to halakhically traditional ways.

That’s right. In an “only in America” moment, two players have thrown off the age-old compromise Jews in the Diaspora have for most of history felt torn to make. I’m thinking of my uncle’s father, a man who loved synagogue and shabbat deeply, but had no choice but to work his factory shift on Saturday mornings in order to support his family. I’m thinking of my friends in Paris, where required high school classes meet regularly on Saturday mornings. I’m thinking of the choices we make as parents navigating our childrens’ passions and weekend commitments.

The two players are not identical in their shabbat observance – what two Jews are identical in any of our anythings? Seventeen year old Jacob Steinmetz, picked 77th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks, plays ball on shabbat, but stays at hotels within walking distance of the ballpark so as not to use transportation. Elie Kligman, 18, drafted by the Washington Nationals, takes Saturdays off altogether. “That day of Shabbos is for God. I’m not going to change that,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. Both keep kosher.

For my generation, this is our Sandy Koufax moment. These ballplayers are living their American dream and not compromising their Jewish values to do so. More than that, holding on to their Jewish observance has not hindered their professional advancement. That is not always possible, to be sure. But this story should loom large in our imaginations. It is the counterpoint to the narrative which encourages us to trade away Jewish life for other things, the fear that if we prioritize Jewish community and commitments we will lose in business, sports, or other kinds of success.

It is also a counterpoint to another major storyline of our community. At a time when rising anti-Semitism is of grave concern, we would do well to take note of what is happening here: two young men modeling for us all to live our Jewish lives out loud and with pride. Modeling for the rest of us that we can take our Jewish identities seriously, and make choices with integrity to our whole selves and our people.

I will still be rooting for the Mets and Yankees (who could use a miracle of their own this season). But I will have my eye on the Nationals and Diamondbacks and to two young players who by pursuing their baseball dreams are a source of pride and inspiration to the Jewish community they now unabashedly represent.

Wed, September 27 2023 12 Tishrei 5784