Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Soul Searching for Rachela

Rabbi Barbara welcomes guest blogger, Marcia Colagiovanni.  

Marcia and Rabbi met via the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC) when Rabbi helped Marcia discover the Jewish roots of her family's Italian surnames. Marcia describes her remarkable Jewish journey which includes a deeply spiritual experience at the Hayim Mayim Mikveh in Boston, USA.​ You can also access this post on Marcia's blog, The Mikvah Lady Has Left the Building.

Left to Right: Marcia Colagiovanni, Robin Weintraub,
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Florence Preisler, and Ellen Paderson.
It was an honor to introduce Rabbi Barbara Aiello to Mayyim Hayyim during her February 2014 Boston visit to serve as a Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Beth David of Westwood. While all annual Scholar Programs at my temple have enhanced my ongoing Jewish learning, this one was particularly personal for me.  I am an Italian American “baby boomer” raised Catholic who has discovered and embraced her Jewish ancestry.  Both Rabbi Aiello and Mayyim Hayyim represent the beginning and ending of my spiritual journey “home” to Judaism.

Rabbi Aiello is rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria, Italy in 500 years since Inquisition times.  She is the first and only woman and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy.  Born and raised in Pittsburg, Rabbi Aiello traces her roots back nearly five centuries to Serrastretta in Calabria.  Hers was one of five Jewish families who founded the town 460 years ago as they fled persecution.

My ritual conversion took place on January 23, 2012, at Mayyim Hayyim.  Simply put, it was a highly dignified and profoundly validating experience.  My spiritual journey to Judaism had begun decades before.  I always felt strongly connected to Judaism especially when I learned from my many Jewish friends and colleagues about its teachings, and I comfortably shared with them its practices.  I was often told that I possess a Jewish soul.  But it was not until 2010 when I met Rabbi Aiello after I decided to convert to Judaism that I fully understood my lifelong attraction to and affinity for the faith.

In 2007, Rabbi Aiello founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), an organization that helps Italians and Italian Americans discover the Jewish heritage of their surnames.  She is also founder of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew phrase that means “children of the forced ones”) movement in Southern Italy, an initiative to help the “hidden” Jews of Calabria and Sicily whose ancestors were forced into Christian conversion return to Judaism.

Archival research conducted by the IjCCC reports that individuals with the surname of my great grandmother “Rachela” (Rachel) who was born in Southern Italy: 1) are listed in Inquisition records of those brought before the Inquisition authorities under suspicion of practicing Jewish ritual in secret after they had been forced into conversion to Christianity, 2) are listed in Nazi Deportation Records, and 3) appear on the rolls of those recognized today as Jewish by the Italian Jewish Community.  And analysis of my DNA finds my ancestry to be Middle Eastern (Jewish) and European (Spanish and Italian).  Remarkably, this profile traces the centuries-long geographic journey of some of my ancestors: Jews originating in the Land of Canaan who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula, Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition who sought refuge in Southern Italy, and Jews who settled permanently in Southern Italy and eventually became B’nei Anousim.  Until Rabbi Aiello’s groundbreaking research began to uncover the “hidden” Jews of Southern Italy, many of us with Southern Italian roots had no knowledge of our Jewish ancestry.

When Rabbi Aiello toured Mayyim Hayyim, she learned that it is a 21st-century creation rooted in ancient tradition and reinvented to serve the Jewish Community of today; a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity where women and men of all ages can celebrate milestones such as conversions and weddings; and a place where survivors of trauma, illness, or loss can find solace.

As I immersed in the “living waters” of Mayyim Hayyim, my eyes filled with tears.  They were an expression of my overwhelming joy and peace to have finally returned home to the Jewish faith of my ancestors.  In memory of my great grandmother Rachela, I choose Rachel as my Hebrew name.

Recently retired from a 30-year career as an Immigration Legal Specialist in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Marcia enjoys spending more time with family and friends, volunteering, and traveling the world.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Lag B' Omer: An Opportunity for Interfaith and Inter-denominational Understanding

The festival of Pesach is behind us. We’ve wiped the wine stains from the Haggadot booklets or, if we used special dishes, they are now put away. Finally the bread and cookies are back in the pantry and with a smile of satisfaction and relief, the most popular of all the Jewish holidays is a pleasant memory.

But between now and the Festival of the Ten Commandments or Shavuot, which falls this year in early June, there is a little holiday that can make a big difference for interfaith and inter-denominational families. “Lag B’Omer” is its name and it carries with it the possibility of building bridges between and among Jewish partners and families who share their lives with those of different Jewish denominations or with those of different faiths.

Let’s start with the basics. Between Passover and Shavuot there is some counting going on. The counting began on the second day of Passover and continues for 49 days when it stops at the holiday of Shavuot. This activity has a special name. It’s called “Counting the Omer.”

Back in ancient times, an “omer” was particularly important because it was an important unit of measure to determine the size of a stalk of barley.

Author Francine Klagsbrun, in her book, “Jewish Days – A Book of Jewish Life and Culture around the Year,” offers an anthropological explanation for the Omer period. Klagsbrun writes, “Many (ancient) peoples had similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops.” These periods were less joyful and were often characterized by rites of sadness or mourning.

Indeed it makes sense that back in ancient times farmers might obsessively measure the girth of their barley crop each and every day, counting, and counting, then waiting and hoping that the crop would survive.

Later on the Counting of the Omer and the festival that occurs on day number 33 or “Lag B’Omer” took on a different meaning.

Incidentally, “Lag” is not really a Hebrew word. It is a Hebrew acronym formed by combining the Hebrew letter “lamed” which is the number 30 with the Hebrew letter “gimel” which indicates the number 3.  So Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day in the Counting of the Omer, a day, following a terrible tragedy, that later took on a spiritual aspect.  

In the Talmud we read that during Omer period twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a mysterious disease. There was only one day when lives were spared.  On the 18th day in the Hebrew month of Iyar, which was the thirty-third day of the Omer or, “Lag B’Omer,” incredibly no lives were lost. Naturally there was great rejoicing since apparently the horrible plague had ended. To commemorate what seemed to be a miraculous event, our sages decreed that “Lag B’Omer” become a day of celebration.  

Rabbis interpreted the tragedy as God’s way of admonishing us Jews for our serious lack of respects for one another. According to the sages, the miracle that occurred on Lag B’Omer was God’s reminder that genuine respect and appreciation for the differences among us can change the course of history.

This year the 18th of Iyar, or the festival of Lag B’Omer, falls on Sunday, May 18 – a perfect day to set aside the denominational differences that separate us and focus on a new idea, grounded in Jewish pluralism, that maintains that “labels are for the jelly jars, not the Jews.”

For traditional Jews, Lag B’Omer is the only day in the 49 day Omer period when weddings are permitted.  Given the meaning behind the festival, Lag B’Omer is a wonderful day for modern Jewish families to celebrate an interfaith wedding or the anniversary of an interfaith event.

But even if nuptials are not on your calendar for May 18, a variety of activities can mark the special significance Lag B’Omer has for inter-denominational or interfaith families.

In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for picnics and bonfires. In fact, some of these fires are so huge that they can be seen by the satellite cameras thousands of miles up in space. Throughout the world, interfaith and inter-denominational families can light their own fires – literally, with the bonding of a camping experience or figuratively by lighting the fire of acceptance and appreciation e among Jews of different backgrounds.

Synagogues can set aside their denominational differences so that conservative, orthodox and reform congregations along with humanistic or secular groups can share a common event.

Within families interfaith partners can be warmly embraced, asking that, in honor of Lag B’Omer, everyone put to rest any residual animosity related to children or grandchildren “marrying out.”

Could it be that on Lag B’Omer God saved the Jewish people in order to remind us that there is only one thing worse than the oppression of the Jews by others, and that is the oppression that one Jew does to another Jew through gossip, slander and disrespect? If so, it is indeed a timely lesson.

Today it is not necessary to understand that an Omer is a way to measure a barley branch. It’s more important that we understand the meaning behind the custom. 

The little festival of Lag B’Omer reminds us that when Jewish families treat everyone within the family circle with love and respect, we will be rewarded with the blessing of “Shalom Bayit,” peace in our homes.  Lag B’Omer gives all of us the opportunity of moving forward or making a brand new start.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Come One, Come All!

The Hamishe Passover Seder - Seder di Pesach
Friday (Venerdì) April 18, 2014, in Lamezia Terme, Italy

(In English e sotto in italiano)

In many parts of the world, winter is still going strong, but Sinagoga Ner Tamid is already thinking of April and setting a place for you at the table. Read more about our Passover Seder below (in English and Italian), and consider sharing this most special meal with us.

Join me and Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, Calabria's First Active Synagogue in 500 years invites you and your family to join us for the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  Traditional foods, prayers, blessings and stories. 

The "Hamishe` Seder" continues the tradition of the b'nei anousim - Jews who were forced into Christian conversion 500 years ago.  At that time Christian families opened their homes to crypto-Jewish families, and at great personal peril, allowed their Jewish neighbors to hold a secret Passover seder on a day that would not arouse the suspicion of the Inquisition authorities.  We honor our crypto-Jewish and Christian families at the Hamishe' Seder.

Savant Hotel Restaurant, Lamezia Terme, (CZ)
Friday April 18, 2014 - 7:30 - 9:30 pm
For information and reservations:

Seder di Pesach - L'Hamishe seder pasquale La Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, prima sinagoga attiva della Calabria da 500 anni invita voi e la vostra famiglia a unirsi a noi per conoscere la storia dell'Esodo dall'Egitto. Vi saranno cibi tradizionali, preghiere, benedizioni e storie. A cura di da Rabbi Barbara Aiello.

I' "Hamishe` Seder ", continua la tradizione dei  b'nei-anousim - ebrei che furono costretti alla conversione cristiana 500 anni fa. In quel tempo le famiglie cristiane avevano aperto le loro case alle famiglie cripto-ebraiche con grande rischio personale, hanno permesso ai loro vicini ebrei di tenere un seder pasquale segreto in un giorno che non destasse sospetti delle autorità dell' Inquisizione. Onoriamo le nostre famiglie cripto-ebree ei  cristiani durante l' Hamishe 'Seder.

Savant Hotel Restaurant, Lamezia Terme (CZ)
Venerdì 18 Aprile, 2014 - 19:30-21:30 Per informazioni e prenotazioni:

Seder (cena)  di Pesach  costo del menu concordato è di euro 28,00 a persona;

Per dormire ad Albergo di Savant 
  • bb  camera singola euro 60,00
  • bb  camera doppia euro 86,00
  • bb camera tripla 117,00

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rabbi's Notebook

A midrash tells a story of a rabbi who carried a small book with him every day. If he went to the market, the rabbi carried his book. If he went to another village, his notebook went with him.  If he took a walk in the country… where ever he went, the rabbi carried his book. 

Some people in the rabbi’s village believed that the rabbi was carrying a Siddur, a book of prayers.  Others said, “No, it is book with verses of Torah.” 

But other people disagreed.  “The rabbi is carrying a part of the Talmud with him.”

The rabbi’s book was none of those things. The rabbi was carrying a notebook that had only blank pages, but every day he filled it with his writing.

“Ah, now we understand,” said the people of the village.  “The rabbi is writing notes for his sermons or important ideas to share with his students!” 

But again they were wrong.  Yes, the rabbi wrote in his notebook but not for students or sermons. 

Instead inside the rabbi’s notebook were long lists of names and beside the names were directions or drawings. For example, the rabbi wrote: “Shlomo -  big blue door…”  or “Miriam -  behind the marketplace near the banyan tree.”

For years the rabbi wrote in his notebook and carried it with him wherever he went. And for years the people of the village speculated about the great wisdom or wonderful teachings that surely filled the little book.

One day, near the town square, shortly after the rabbi had passed by, several people began to whisper. As usual, they were talking about the rabbi’s notebook.  It was always the same discussion. What does he write? What are the drawings? Why all the names? Why?

“I know why!”  The voice was an old woman selling vegetables from a small cart. “I know what the rabbi writes and I know why he writes it.”

One man from the synagogue looked up. “You? How could you know? Your family is not religious and your husband never comes to shul.”

“He’s right,” another man chimed in. “And your farm is far away. It is not possible that you know our rabbi. You are lying!”

The old woman smiled at the angry men. “I know your rabbi and I know what he writes,” she said. And then she told this story.

“One day, many years ago, I had an accident.  My vegetable cart was stuck in the mud.
 I tried to push it, then I tried to pull it.  But it would not move.

Finally I pushed with all my strength.  And the cart moved all right. It fell right on top of me, breaking both of my legs.”

“For days I lay in bed, in terrible pain.  Then one day there was a knock at my door.  It was your rabbi.  He had come to visit me.  He stayed with me for hours, talking, singing and praying.

“Finally I asked him, “Rabbi, you have spent so much time with me. I do not remember meeting you or talking to you. How do you know me?”

“Your rabbi smiled and took my hand. He said, “I know you well. We once stood side by side.”

“Where?  Now I am so embarrassed because I can’t remember ever meeting the rabbi. Oy vey, I must be losing my memory!”

The rabbi said, “My dear friend, we stood together, side by side at Mount Sinai.”

“Then your rabbi told me about his notebook. He said that when he learns about a person who is sick, he writes down the name. Beside the name he writes directions to the house.

And he visits everyone, even if the person is like me and does not come to the synagogue. The rabbi told me that it makes no difference because we were together one time long ago when we stood with Moses to receive the Ten Commandments.”

This midrash is important because our traditions tell us that the experience at Mount Sinai is common to every Jew. Our sages tell us that every Jew, those that were living at that moment, those who had died, and those, like us, who were yet to be born—every Jewish soul was present at Sinai for the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

This means that every Jew is connected to every other Jew. It does not matter how we look, or where we were born or what our names are. It does not matter if we are traditional or modern, or if we are religious or secular. Every Jew is connected to every other Jew.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to participate in memorial services to remember the Shoah and the liberation of the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In Italy, in Milan in 2005 my congregants and I stood in front of the prison where Jews from Milan waited to be taken to the train station for deportation to Auschwitz. With snow falling all around us we lit candles in their honor and memory.

Also in Italy, in Bergamo we remembered the courage of those who helped Jewish families. We placed a wreath against a monument and we cried for those who were lost. 

And again this year, on January 26, I have the honor to bring nine  Holocaust survivors to Tampa to participate in a beautiful memorial service hosted by the Italian consulate. Our survivors, all of them elderly, and all of the survivors of Nazi persecution, will light candles in memory of the six million who were murdered.

Why? Because January 27 is a day of Holocaust remembrance that is observed throughout Europe. January 27 marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Russian Army in 1945. When I think of that day, I am reminded that during the Holocaust, all throughout Europe all Jews stood together.

The Nazis did not ask which Jews were religious and which were secular or which were Orthodox and which were Progressive.  In that horrible moment in history, we were united. To our persecutors we were all Jews.

The lesson of the Shoah and the lesson of Mount Sinai should never be lost. The old rabbi with the notebook understood this. He realized that all Jews are connected to one another.

This year during this day of remembrance we will stand together once again. We will stand in solidarity with those who were lost, those who suffered and those who were saved. We will not ask which Jew was religious, which one was cultural or which one was secular. We honor the memory of every Jew who died.

And then we do one thing more. We remember that Mt. Sinai connects us one to another and like the old rabbi in our midrash, we continue to learn from Sinai. Regardless of persuasion or background, it is our duty to honor and respect every Jew who lives.