Iftar in the Synagogue with Rabbi Asher Lopatin

September 15, 2009

For the past four years, my synagogue has cosponsored, along with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, an Iftar in the Synagogue, which usually gets about 20-30 Muslims and 60-80 Jews. I feel it’s in the tradition of Middle East Friday Night that we did at the Oxford Jewish Society twenty years ago when we had Israelis and Palestinians reading poetry over a Shabbat dinner that followed davening. Iftar in the Synagogue also consists of schmoozing, then a teaching by a rabbi (me) and an Imam about the dates for Jews and Muslims, then Mincha – and this time almost every Jews stayed – then our Muslims friends go downstairs to break their fast, to pray Salat – usually in the JCC – and then we all feast together on Halal food from the best kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago. The dinner ends with Bircat Hamazon: which talks about the Land, Jerusalem and the future of the Jewish people. However, as we know, there are also universal parts to benching. It seems that at Iftar in the Synagogue everyone is looking at things that we have in common, that bring us together, rather than things that pull us apart.
But I wanted to point out that as concerned I am for peace in Israel, and for Muslims and Jews to get along and learn from each other in Chicago and America, as much of a believer I am that different people can come together and get a lot out of each other’s company, sometime the most rewarding part of an event like this is to see how it brings out the Jews. There were Jews at this Iftar – dozens – who only get to daven mincha in a shul, or only step into an Orthodox shul, when we can show them that we are open to Muslims coming to our synagogue as well. And if this is their path to Judaism, is this is the way we affirm that their heritage can speak to them as well, that’s great. That is what Morethodoxy is all about: showing people that despite what they may have been led to believe, Judaism is relevant in their lives. Judaism has a power to touch them.
I wish all of us, that just as doors to Judaism opened for some through Iftar in the synagogue, that we find ways to open the gates of Judaism, the gates of Mitzvot and Torah, which were closed to us this year. We have to be creative about finding those gates and figure out how to get through. Maybe even more creative than Iftar in the Synagogue. But we cannot afford to ignore all the doors that await us. We need to find those keys and those doors and allow ourselves to be led to new depths in our Yiddishkeit.
May we all have a year filled with open doors to grow closer to Hashem, our People and our purpose in life. A 5770 with more good, more opportunities for good, more appreciation of Hashem’s good and infinite gifts for us.
G’mar chatima tova l’chulan ul’chol Yisrael,

Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Lopatin’s Travelblog: 24 hours in Cincinnati

August 25, 2009

My wife and I and our kids packed up the car and headed on Saturday night for the great city of Cincinnati.  Just about five hours from Chicago, Cincinnati is in Ohio, but only minutes from Indiana – which feels like Illinois – and from Kentucky – the South!  Reform Judaism is still big in this town, and the original HUC branch has been given a lease on life only recently, and the great Reform synagogue, the Isaac Wise Synagogue (formerly Plum Street Synagogue) is still glorious.  But I want to point out three highlights of this trip that highlight some exciting things from the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

We went to a wedding at Adath Israel  Congregation, which has been led for the past 18 years by Rabbi Irvin Wise (Reb Irv).  You have to see this shul: I’ve seen a lot of shuls of all movements, but this shul is stunning because for a shul of 600 members (or so I was told) it is huge!  It has a Hebrew school building that would be reasonable for a nice sized day school; it has a parking lot bigger than Detroit, Motown Conservative synagogues, and there is a totally unused grassy lot next to the parking lot that is equally as large.  The shul is even more beautiful inside, with a six year, multimillion dollar renovation recently completed.  Stunning and contemporary stained glass windows in the sanctuary, granite counters in the bathrooms, with a combo of automatic faucets and manual ones as well, presumably for those who don’t use electricity on Shabbat.  There were rooms and rooms, and a huge social hall where each table had its own spotlight to shine on the centerpiece.  This shul is a living monument to the glory days of the Conservative movement.  I have no illusions that Adath Israel must have its challenges which affect all Conservative shuls, and especially in the Midwest, but I urge you to go to Cincinnati and see this shul, and you will be taken back 50 years to the days when it seemed that Conservative Judaism would lead all Jews into a beautiful future as proud Americans.  Again, we all know the difficulties all American Jews face, but especially the Conservative movement, but you won’t feel it when you go to a wedding at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.

But don’t only go to Cincinnati to relive the glory of Conservative Judaism.  Go there for the kosher places under the supervision of the local Orthodox Va’ad.  I have heard that Orthodoxy in Cincinnati is struggling and splintered – and my friend Rabbi Hanan Balk of the Orthodox Golf Manor Synagogue was not in town for the one day I was there, so I could not delve further into the challenges for the Orthodox community in Cincinnati.  But I must say that the Vaad has its act sufficiently together to supervise  three unique kosher eateries that are worth the trip: First, the quaint Kinneret Kosher that is the quintessential mom and pop dairy restaurant: The pop took our order and provided coloring sheets and crayons to my four kids.  The mom was in the kitchen cutting up the tomatoes for the tuna Panini that I ordered.  Actually, the Panini did taste exactly the way they tasted in Paris, but the quality of the food was not the star here: the grace of a small operation, and the love and sweetness of the owners were what was really unique here.  Second, Marx’s bagels – it’s a chain, but only one has hashgacha : They have the most amazing French toast bagels – that taste exactly like French toast.  OK, you say, fine, but not worth flying to Cincinnati for.  Maybe, but the final place I tried is a fantastic, low keyed, kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant called Amma’s.  They have a great lunch buffet, all you can eat for $8.99, including taxes and dessert and the place is filled with real Indian people, not just a bunch of Jews who think they know authentic Indian.  Amazing!  Amma’s is the  vegetarian equivalent of Kohinoor in the Crown Plaza in Jerusalem, which is the best meat Indian I have ever had.  But meat, anyone can make tasty; vegetables are a different story. I’ve had a lot of vegetarian Indian – including a lot in India when Rav Ahron Soloveichic said I could trust the strict vegetarianism of India, but this food in Cincinnati was by far the best.  I am already thinking of ways of getting back to Cincinnati to get some more of this great Indian cuisine, and to go back for seconds of the rice pudding dessert.  Kudos to Orthodoxy in Cincinnati for getting this places under Hashgacha.  This city is a gem – great museums, skyline, great people and between Adath Israel and Amma’s Indian cuisine, it will take you to a different place as a Jew and a connoisseur of style and good food.  Someone is doing something right in Cincinnati.

Asher Lopatin