Open Temple


How Do We Bear Grief During This Time?

The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Hope Edelman, bereavement expert and New York Times bestselling author of The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. Hope helps us address our feelings of loss. Loss for all that never happened; a lingering sense of emptiness for the celebrations disrupted, those who died that we were not able to memorialize with our communities and a general sense of malaise.


It’s Really Bad…

…and It’s Opon Us.

This week I offer a longer than usual email; please stay with it, as the message concerns Each and Every One of Us.

The Los Angeles homeless population proliferates like a plague of human depravity. While driving down Venice Boulevard, I watched as traffic slowed down and swerved to avoid an unkempt, elderly man unsuccessfully navigate his wheelchair across the street. I stopped my car in the middle of the street, stopped traffic, and moved him to safety. Asking where he lived, he pointed to an encampment nearby. I wondered why I was the only one to stop, why we have elderly individuals living in encampments and how each and every one of us can convert our hearts to say, “It is upon me to help in any way I can.”

Feeling utter futility and tasting tears on my burning cheeks, with a heavy heart I returned to my car and drove to my doctor’s appointment.

Mashal (Allegory/Story):

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

About a month ago, while riding my bicycle through Venice, I happened upon a woman sitting outside of the Oakwood Rec Center and began a conversation with her. I learned that Germaine was living in a homeless shelter that was about to close. I invited her to share her story at the Passover Seder Crawl, and after that event, many of our hearts turned to find a solution for Germaine, and her son, Chris. Open Temple’s Electric Starfish Project began as a collective of individuals who circled around one houseless individual and advocated for them through the labyrinthine system of social services. We found inspiration in the above essay from American anthropologist Loren Eiseley entitled “The Star Thrower”. Eiseley was also the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the UPenn. Considered a “modern day Thoreau”, his virtuous work connects the world of social science, culture and science as a call to humanize our civilization.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, asks us to hear “the holy utterances” in our midst, and cultivate justice as an essential quality of character (or middah/virtue). It reminds us that justice does not dwell in the savage mind, but requires a cerebral calisthenic that elevates our consciousness to seek and create justice from the chaos and ugliness that is also a part of the human condition, literally a ladder of neurons moving from the more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, to our pre-frontal cortex. Eiseley, and the scribes of Parshat Emor, whisper to us from the beyond: “Do Something with those emotions of anger, frustration, indignance and futility. Go Find Your Starfish.”

The above photo, “Bashert”, was emailed to Open Temple from Chris and Germaine Montgomery as an expression of gratitude for our work moving them from houseless to home. The word “Bashert, or Beshert,” means “soulmate,” and most commonly refers to our fated life mate. But, as any Starfish washed upon the shore can attest, one simple act of kindness can turn the course of fate for another with an impact resetting the course of history.

Germaine received the key to her new apartment this week, and sent this text:

“I’m surfing channels and what’s on…Yentl. You are a blessing to us. Thanks so much. Now I can rest my mind. Signed lease, got keys. Looking for stuff to make it home now…I appreciate all the support. Thank you Open Temple.”

Germaine returns to the sea of her life; but, what about the elderly man on Venice Boulevard? What about the encampment near Erewhon, the homeless on Ocean Front Walk… and on and on and on. It is clear that our local, county and state government are not solving this problem at a pace that provides immediate relief. Sure, we can continue to move about Los Angeles with our hearts dissatisfied with the lack of solutions and other feelings of futility or disempowerment. Or, we can seek-out our own Bashert.
Just One.

Beachcomb Your Starfish:

Open Temple Electric Starfish Project circles NOW FORMING throughout Venice and the Westside. We join forces with other local agencies and take justice into our own hearts and hands. Enter into the next cohort of OT Electric Starfish Project, and find a way to help the humans on our streets by letting them know that They Matter:


Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale

The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Dr. Cara Natterson, one of the founders of 10th Street Pediatric in Santa Monica. Dr. Cara is on the vanguard of re-opening and vaccination conversations, vaccinating children conversations, and spends a lot of time advising schools throughout LA about how to do what comes next on the heels of pandemic.


The Butterfly Series: Conversations for our Rebirth

On Thursday, April 8, Open Temple invites all of us in conversation about how to relaunch into life responsibly. Physician Cara Natterson, who is on the vanguard of school reopenings in Los Angeles, shares with us her frontline insights, important data about children and the future of COVID Times. For all of us wondering, “Just how the heck do we do this right?”, this important program provides a roadmap.

There is a concept in Hasidut that considers the mystery of why a butterfly must first live the life of a caterpillar, and then spend some time in the dark prison-cell of the pupa, instead of coming out as a butterfly straight from its mother’s egg.

The rabbis question: Perhaps The Creator meant to tell the butterfly, fluttering by and seemingly so proud of its sparking colors: “Don’t be so proud, butterfly! Remember where you came from…”

We are all eager for life to begin again. And yet, we are humbled. Many are broken. There is unresolved grief, loss and still the threat of virus endures. As all of us are eager to “return to normal life,” it is important to remember that the transformation we have all been through is messy and unresolved. How we act now is really a moral question.
Open Temple created a 3-part series that will help all of us ease through these times with community, education and wisdom.

The Butterfly Series creates a space for all of us to consider this evolution:

CATERPILLAR: Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale
CHRYSALIS: Isolation and Darkness: How Do We Bear Grief During this Time?
BUTTERFLY: Spreading our Wings in the Wave of Disruption.

Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale
Thursday, April 8 @ 7:00 pm
Featuring Dr. Cara Natterson, Worry Proof MD
Sign up for online access

How Do We Bear Grief During this Time?
Thursday, May 6 @ 7:00 pm
Featuring Hope Edelman, Bereavement Expert
Sign up for online access

Spreading our Wings in the Age of Disruption
Friday, June 4 @ 5:30 pm
Featuring Dr. Denise Berger, Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility
Live at the Electric Lodge/Open Temple Parking Lot (reservations available soon)

When God Calls – Vayikra

Why on earth would we put God on hold?

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Wondering who or what spoke to Moses in the first verse of Vayikra? What’s with the small Alef? How are these first eight words a sign of leadership, transmission and “black fire on white fire”? Sal Litvak and his Accidental Talmudist probings invite Rabbi Lori and others to contemplate these thoughts.

And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… – Lev. 1:1

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Open Temple

The Book of Leviticus departs from the Biblical narrative as the scribal voice shifts. Our text illustrates this idea, weaving “Something spoke to Moses,” a phrase that splinters or dilutes the relationship of Moses and God through this non-specific pronoun, and replaces this formerly explicit and intimate relationship with God as a nebulous “He” or “It”. The ambiguous pronoun construction continues, “and God said to him at the Tent of Meeting.”

Just who is the subject speaking to Moses? And who is God speaking to? The scribe answers the question by directing us to the temporary “construction site” – the Ohel Moed, a space that only permitted the Priestly class as the gathering place within. In this subtle, seemingly throw-away verse with ambiguous grammar, we discover the transmission of authority — moving away exclusively from God to Moses — and passing it over to the Priests standing by, eager to scribe their expressions of holiness to follow in this Priestly Book of Torah.

Lt. (res.) Yoni Troy, Israel Defense Forces officer

Why begin the third book of the Torah with this eight Hebrew-word seemingly banal sentence?

This supernatural Godly encounter with flawed human beings touches upon a basic question: Why not create a perfect universe? Why create one with such flaws?

G-d wants us to be the completing factor. Throughout the Bible, G-d seeks a partnership with humanity — to challenge us to improve ourselves and create a better world.

Each one of us was created in our own way, born into certain situations with certain abilities. While this creates a lot of conflict, when harnessed correctly the mix can lead to perfection. If we use our strengths to help others rather than hurt them, we can create a synergy overcoming our weaknesses.

In the army, every job is essential to keep Israel safe. Some jobs are considered to be more prestigious such as pilots and commandos. However, without the cooks and mechanics the army could not function. As it is in the army, so too in civilian life and throughout the world: each country, culture, religion offers its unique contribution.

G-d’s call to Moses symbolizes the great connection between G-d and humanity. This connection continues through each of us. While Moses already took the receiver-of-the-Torah slot, each one of us has our own special way to do G-d’s bidding. We each can offer a unique contribution. While G-d’s summons today may seem less direct, by remaining attentive we will hear The Call to fulfill our destiny.

Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Counselor; Author

In the wilderness, the Tent of Meeting was the special place G-d would rest His presence to speak to Moshe Rabbeinu. It was set up beyond the border of the main camp, distanced from the home-tents of the people. At times, even Moshe would not enter this tent, but spoke with G-d at its doorway. Although the Bnei Yisrael were able to look at the doorway, it was not possible to “sneak a peek” into that tent and catch a glimpse of the Holiness it contained, unless one was invited to do so.

Similarly, the people’s tents, which of necessity were set up fairly close to each other, were also arranged in a way that prevented uninvited scrutiny from the neighbors. Why would that be? Why would the Tent of Meeting be inaccessible for the casual viewing of the people? Perhaps one reason is that, had they seen the G-dly perfection within that tent, they would have continually compared every other tent to it, and found them all wanting.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, “not looking into one’s neighbor’s tent” means that the Jews did not scrutinize their neighbors’ faults. The way to develop ahavas Yisroel, to come to love your friend as you love yourself, is by not looking at their faults. Look into your own tent, and work on your own shortcomings. But don’t be too hard on yourself–realize that G-d speaks to each of us from within our own tent, and His holiness resides there, too!

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom

The third book of the Torah begins with God calling out to Moses. As compared to the rest of the first Hebrew word – VaYikra – the Aleph is always written in a smaller size, making it pronounced.

Our people’s Exodus and our communal effort to build the Tabernacle has proven successful in the previous book, and now the institution is ready for personal interactions with God. The first interaction is of course between God and Moses. Each year at this time I wonder, “What did Moses say prior to this verse that prompted God’s call?”

We strive for a prayer experience in which we, as individuals, receive a call back from the large Aleph, the Oneness of the universe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel acknowledged the personal nature of prayer in his book Man’s Quest for God (1954). The transition from communal structure in Exodus to personal worship in Leviticus is a tension we have lived with as Jews from antiquity through today.

Sometimes my prayer is for Israel, for our people or for our national homeland, and sometimes my prayer is personal, for my family or for myself. Sometimes my prayer feels heard and sometimes perfunctory. As Heschel argued, the key is to keep praying. Sometimes the Aleph will feel large, and sometimes small. Through prayer we try to connect the small Aleph of our self to the larger Aleph that joins us all together, as one.

Dini Coopersmith, Speaker, Israel Trip Director,

When the call initially comes for Moshe, it is anonymous – “He called to Moses.” Only afterward is it more specific – “the Lord spoke to him, saying….”

The Baal Shem Tov refers to the statement of the Zohar (3rd part, 126):”every day a heavenly voice rings out, saying ‘return, my naughty children.’” Like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, he asks: why don’t we hear this heavenly voice? and if we don’t hear it, is it really happening?

This is the hidden voice of God that comes to each and every one of us, through the events and circumstances of our lives. Saying: “return to me, return to your true self.” We can choose to listen, grab hold of that voice, make a positive change, meet the challenge, or we can ignore that still small voice within, which directs us toward an Infinite source of wisdom and insight.

What a shame if we ignore this heavenly voice, thinking: Maybe this isn’t God, maybe people are to blame, this is a meaningless event, just a hassle that I have to overcome. Moshe teaches us that when that call comes, we listen, even if life’s twists and turns are confusing. The details will become clear later on.

As we close a strange Covid year, let’s tap in to the insights we have gained. Let’s listen to that inner heavenly voice, exhorting us to find our true selves, to grow and connect to God through all events and become great.



Tapas, Latkes & My Car

Igniting the Flame for Practice During Pandemic

By: Dr. Zach Lasker

A few days ago I tried to start my car in order to run an errand and … no power. Irritated since I had replaced the battery earlier this year, I looked up and noticed I had left the reading light on. No wonder that nine days after I last used the car (for my pre-Thanksgiving COVID test) it was empty. Now, I’m not too proud to admit that this isn’t the first (or second) time that my battery has failed from car neglect. When will I learn?

At first I chalked this up to yet another casualty of pandemic quarantine.  With so many restrictions and the disruptive pains of isolation, the lights that animate my life are at risk of powering down. Nine months earlier I was supposed to see The Book of Mormon at the Ahmanson Theater the exact night the first round of Los Angeles lock downs occurred and since that time I haven’t enjoyed big screen or live stage performances, felt the pulsating beat and communal energy of spinning in a cycling studio, nor hosted a Shabbat dinner for friends. There are days when life feels so hopeless.

My challenge can be summarized in a single word: Tapas. No, I’m not referring to the tasty small plates of food that come out of a Spanish kitchen. Tapas is a concept in yoga that points to the inner flame in each of us which inspires dedication to our practices; the discipline that fires us to pursue our goals and dreams regardless of the obstacles we face. In the words of my teacher Constance Habash:

“Think of Tapas as that little flame inside of you that motivates you and keeps you on track with anything of importance in life. It makes you floss when you don’t feel like it. That inner fire motivates you to make changes when you know you need to. Without Tapas, we probably wouldn’t bother to do the “hard” things in life, and therefore to make any sort of progress…”

This pandemic has pushed me to confront my Tapas at a raw level of intensity I never fathomed in the 10 years I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga.  It seems the only effortless ritual is binge-watching tv shows on my beloved streaming platforms. Each day I wake up and dig deep to gather strength for rituals that I previously took for granted – my morning run, connecting with family and friends, and even showering, shaving, and getting dressed.

Back in my car, as I confronted my depleted battery, a lightbulb switched on over my head revealing the unprecedented relevance of Chanukah this year.  On a “p’shat” (simple/direct) level, we celebrate the flask of oil which lit a Menorah salvaged from destruction for eight miraculous nights. Yet, the power of Chanukah runs deeper as we honor the Maccabee family and their crew who drew inordinate Tapas-energy to protect their Jewish practices and freedom from the merciless grips of religious persecution.

As we head into this next dark phrase of pandemic I’m curious to know if and how my fellow Americans generate and maintain the lights of faith, joy, and connection that keep us from sinking into despair. While unquestionably a time of loss, the virus is also pushing us to adapt and make new discoveries.

At Open Temple in Venice, CA I partner with Rabbi Lori Shapiro – a spiritual leader, artist, parent, and entrepreneur – who is more determined than ever to re-enchant Judaism and create open doors for each person to carry on their Soul Journey. We’ve converted our parking lot into a holy paradise with green pods for households to engage in ritual while social distancing. Car scavenger hunts and outdoor puppet shows nurture the creative spirit of our children. Challah dough, incense, and lanterns have dropped on the doorsteps of our families to help them usher Shabbat in and out of their homes. We gather under the stars for contemplative walks, ocean dunks, and fire-pit discussions on holidays ranging from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hodesh to invite reflection and growth. Bicycles and kayaks are used to glide through prayer services – six-feet apart, yet together – surrounded by the rhythm of music as we exchange blessings of gratitude. And, we use Zoom rooms and online platforms to engage people in Jewish yoga, text study, respectful dialogue around the future of American democracy, and to stream offerings that help people stay safer-at-home when necessary.

As Jews we are familiar with barriers to entry. Rather than retreat, we carry the legacy of the Maccabean Tapas to illuminate new ways to sustain and evolve our spiritual practice.

Rabbi and scholar Moshe Davis taught, “A candle is a small thing. But one candle can light another. And see how its own light increases, as a candle gives its flame to the other. You are such a light.” This Chanukah it is more important for each one of us to re-dedicate ourselves to the fight for social, racial, and spiritual freedom. The volatile combination of pandemic and political division has revealed the plague of inequity that creates suffering. May each night of Chanukah empower us to nourish our inner flames of compassion, justice, and love and may we use this heat to lift each out of darkness and into light.

Click here to register for Open Temple’s virtual Shabbat Yoga class on Saturdays at 11:00 am PST.

Dr. Zach Lasker is a Jewish educator and communal leader who serves as Executive Director of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. He is also a 500-hour certified yoga instructor.  

Thoughts from Co-Creator Julie Cantor

The ‘Mominee’: Supreme Expectations and Gender Bias in Amy Coney Barrett’s Confirmation

Marveling over motherhood was a theme, not a footnote of Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, like so many before them, went beyond simply vetting a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court. They offered a window into the culture.

Amid soliloquies about the Affordable Care Act, a tour of American government and constitutional law and explications of an originalism whose inherent countermajoritarian dilemma was left unchallenged, the hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett were laced with a disquieting gender bias. That it thrived during proceedings to fill the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who dedicated her life to eradicating that brand of stereotype, illustrates its insidiousness and bathed the hearings in irony.

At times, they resembled career night. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, casually asked Barrett for tips on managing children during the lockdown. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, was befuddled by the combination of Barrett’s CV and her seven children. “I’m genuinely curious,” he said. “Who does laundry in your house?” And John Cornyn, R-Texas, bet that young women, but not young men, were awestruck by her ability to balance personal with professional.

Fathers’ proceedings contrast sharply. During the hearings for Barrett’s role model, Justice Antonin Scalia, “balance” referred to the philosophical balance of the court, checks and balances, and the balance of powers—not career and kids. And Scalia had nine children. Talk of fatherhood was limited to him introducing his brood. When the chair asked him to do that, Scalia quipped that he might not be able to remember all of their names. Or ages. Surely, that would have been hilarious had Barrett said it.

Barrett was not just a nominee. She was a “mominee.” Marveling over motherhood was a theme, not a footnote. Senators called her a “working mom,” a shining example of “what a mom can do” and “a legal titan who drives a minivan.” Has any dad nominee—or any man, ever—been characterized as a “working dad”? At the Kavanaugh hearings, we learned that the judge coached girls’ basketball. But that detail suggested a man going beyond the call, choosing to daddy in his free time. It was less of an expectation than an extra. And so the paragons of the patriarchy continue to send a clear message: Caring for children and managing a home remain the province of women.

American law is no stranger to the trope. Nearly 150 years ago, the highest courts of both her state and the nation precluded Myra Bradwell from becoming America’s first female lawyer. As one Supreme Court justice explained in a concurrence that two others joined, the very “idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband” was “repugnant.” “The paramount destiny and mission of woman,” he said, “are to fulfil [sic] the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things[.]”

Though that view may now seem absurd, the malignancy of gendered expectations remain. It’s why a reporter asked Alexis Ohanian if he babysat his daughter while his wife and her mother, Serena Williams, traversed tennis tournaments. It’s why some men in academia find paternity leave to be hugely productive. And it may be why women have left the workplace in droves during the pandemic.

The legal profession is a serial offender. This bar exam season, professors implored state committees to let examinees bring their own menstrual supplies to test sites. Requests for breastfeeding accommodations were not always granted. And one examinee who was 38 weeks pregnant gave birth during the exam and still finished the test. Probably best, since her state had rejected her request for more bathroom breaks.

Climbing to the upper echelons of any career is a magnificent accomplishment, and raising children during the ascent is a feat. But allowing motherhood to give a near-angelic sheen to a Supreme Court nominee exposes a bias that is both systemic and suffocating. For those who cannot arm themselves with tenure, status or money, who feel relegated to a mommy track or who do not have a live-in relative to help, as Barrett has for the past 17 years, the stereotypes can be particularly stifling.

Because they may not affect the Senate’s vote, the Barrett hearings may have been little more than theatrics. But their tone and tenor offered insight, apparently lost on many, if not all, senators, into the deep rot of gender stereotyping. That matters—because they actually make law and because when senators fail to fawn over fatherhood and ask dads about their laundry, it leaves a societal imprint that parenting is for moms (which, make no mistake, harms dads) and perpetuates the myth that women can and should do it all.

Gender stereotypes are splinters in the social fabric. Their removal would benefit everyone. So start with the Senate. For the next nominee with children, introduce the kids, honor the parenting and leave it there. An acknowledgment, not an undercurrent. Then focus on the work. Otherwise, we feel the weight of biased expectations. And that heavy mantle—one that Ginsburg, with her quest for equal citizenship stature under the Constitution for men and women, worked to lift—leaves us less than free. In fact, it imposes a profound indignity on us all.

Julie Cantor is an attorney and physician who, for over a decade, taught a seminar on reproductive rights at the UCLA School of Law. She is the founder and CEO of Harlen, a brand that reenvisions accessories for women’s work.

The Sukkahs in Our Midst

By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Published by: Jewish Journal

On the corner of Washington Way and Venice Boulevard, an island grants pedestrians a safe haven as they cross the expansive street. Sometime within the past few months, a structure appeared on the island. With four walls of various materials and a sheet of bamboo as the only separation between the occupant and the sky, it was the first sukkah in Venice this year.

You’ve likely seen similar structures. When we leave our quarantine bunkers and make our way through the city, it seems as if a tribe of new people multiplies as plentiful as stars in the sky.

Throughout Los Angeles, row after row of tents — under overpasses, over concrete islands, standing side by side — proliferate. In many ways, they appear like the community of Israel as described by Rashi: “When Balaam cursed the Israelites, God changed Balaam’s curse into a blessing; he was struck by the beauty of what he saw in our itinerant, refugee ancestors.” 

Today’s sukkahs and their inhabitants, however, are controversial. In a recent Facebook thread, one woman posted about a local homeless man needing help, then was accused of enabling his presence in our neighborhood. Beyond their “Not in My Backyard” attitude, homeowners have a genuine fear of this proliferating tribe. Open up any Citizen app at 10 p.m. and it’s filled with orange squares reporting incidences of “shooting,” “armed robbery” and the mysteriously ubiquitous “man wielding hammer.” Fears of COVID-19 infection have recast the presence of the homeless into a kind of leper colony, with dogwalkers crossing the street rather than walking alongside them. 


Lining our avenues for blocks at a stretch, these sukkahs seem to create new neighborhoods in our midst and transform the conversation from one of homelessness to one of homesteaders. Their inhabitants are a rising tribe, some of whom are referred to as L.A.’s homeless population, although many of them, I have learned, don’t identify as homeless. They do have homes, they assert, such as this “sukkah” on a pedestrian island in Venice. 

The sukkahs in our midst are a visible reminder of the formerly invisible homeless. Since the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) annual “Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count” in January, the number of homeless individuals has significantly risen. The tents are proliferating, and people dwell inside of them. Are they a symbol of urban blight and human depravity, or do they serve as a visible reminder of our shared humanity and the temporal nature of life? Do they inspire us to look closer or turn away?

Tents in Penmar Park, Venice

A shelter, but not a hiding place

As Sukkot approaches, these tents remind me of the omnipresence of sukkahs in Jerusalem. As I walk in Venice, I consider whether or not the rabbis would consider these tents kosher. They have at least 2 1/2 sides with walls at least 40 inches high and have coverage allowing the starlight to make its way inside and shine upon the dweller. Some are built alongside fruit trees, and one has a pomegranate bush bursting with buds. I recall the uniquely crafted sukkahs in Union Square Park in Manhattan, N.Y., in 2010 — a reimagined design of what a kosher sukkah could be. I wandered through masses of wire, stacks of tinder and globular structures and was inspired by their temporal nature and the heartbreak of their evanescence. Seeing the newfangled sukkahs of Los Angeles, I think about how much the world has changed in such a short time, and yet, the structures arouse a similar heartbreak.

As I walk past these tents, I pass a lemon tree and it reminds me that I have yet to order my lulav and etrog. This year, it’s one per customer — no sharing. During Sukkot, we wave the arba minim, the four species of plant life (willow, myrtle, palm and citron) around us, marking the celestial sphere that surrounds us. Symbols of heart, eyes, lips and spine, of taste and smell are reminders that Sukkot is an embodied practice as well as a vestige of ancient pagan rituals, appropriated to worship the God of the Israelites. Sukkot is sensual; it arouses our bodies toward life. We crawl into the sukkah each night, surrounded by a bounty of harvest, constellations, tastes, smells, touches, sounds and sights, and we sleep inside of it. The sukkah is a womb, and as we slumber and dream, we dwell inside the mystery of life itself.

Sukkot magnifies the temporal nature of life and amplifies our relationship with the rustic world around us. There is no shelter from the pandemic, fires and civil unrest within a sukkah’s walls. Nature is indifferent to our existence and the sukkah is a visible reminder of nature’s steadfast persistence and ostensible victory. Oblivious to our suffering and the fragility of human life, dwelling in a sukkah reminds us that all of us are but visitors here.

The island Sukkah

Seeing Samuel

On one particular walk in front of these sukkahs, I happened upon a man whom I shall call Samuel. (In the Book of Prophets, Samuel was the son of Hannah, who was gifted to the priest Eli. Samuel helped identify King David, and it is from King David’s progeny, in the biblical imagination, that the Messiah will appear.) This Samuel, however, sat on the open concrete, his shirt exposing his heart, drooling as he cried. Morning joggers and cyclist passed him, indifferent. No one seemed to notice him. There are so many Samuels in Venice now, calling out to us to recognize redemption. 

But something drew me to him, so I said, “Hello, friend. My name is Lori. Why are you crying?”

Standing in front of him, I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance. Samuel was raw, his skin sunburned, his mouth agape, a figure of mournful, abject sadness. He was so exposed and I thought, maybe that is why the rabbis insist on Sukkot being “mo’adim l’simcha,” a time of rejoicing. Perhaps we created this celebration to defy the existential loss of life that we constantly face. We trot out our temporary dwellings like Christmas trees, gathering trinkets and tapestries each year to mask how temporary each year is. 

Although Sukkot is a holiday “d’oreita” (from the Torah), vivid descriptions of how Sukkot was celebrated in the ancient world are discussed by the rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud. The holiday culminates an annual cycle that begins with fecundity of Pesach, climaxes with God’s revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, and erupts with the harvest of Sukkot. Sukkot is the fulfillment of God’s promise, and in ancient Jerusalem, it included the water drawing festival, Simchat Beit Hashoavah. As described in the Talmud, candelabrum lined Jerusalem’s streets, jugglers passed torches, knives and wine goblets, and acrobats flipped and bound down the stone streets. The Levites formed an orchestra and everyone took to the streets to dance. The pageantry of Simchat Beit Hashoavah evokes imagery of a Jerusalem Junkanoo or Carnivale. 


In the same moment, as I considered this commandment of joy, Samuel’s tears reminded me that Sukkot is the bloodiest of holidays. The Israelites offered hundreds of animals as sacrifices on the altar, filling the streets with the rank stench of death and foreshadowing that an arid winter could bring crop failure, famine and our ultimate demise. Sukkot is our panoply of light and darkness, abundance and scarcity, past and present, as we continue to hang in the scales of justice for an uncertain future. Sukkot displays a dizzying array of truths, and the fleeting booths we build are a mere stand-in for the bodies that house our souls. 

Samuel blinked quickly and replied, “I lost my HUD (government Housing and Urban Development) housing after I had hip surgery. After the hospital, they sent me to an old age home, and when I was discharged, they told me my HUD was given away. They dropped me off at Skid Row 35 days ago, and I made my way to Santa Monica. I walked up to Venice yesterday.” He pulled down the side of his pants and displayed a fresh surgical scar. “I tried to get one of the LAHSA workers to help me, but all of the services are saying there is nowhere to go because of the COVID.”

I asked if he had a family. He told me about his mother in West Virginia, his brother in Ohio. “Where is your father?” I asked. “My father …” he stammered, and began to cry. “My father died a year and a half ago.” “And he really loved you?” I asked. Through his cries, he gasped, “Yes.” “What was his name?” I asked. “Jamie … James. His name was James.”

In the sukkah, we call forth our ancestors, or in Aramaic, ushpizin. Their presence draws forth the reality of the world that existed before we did, and reminds us that one day, not so soon in the cosmic sense of time, we will join them. As we look up at the stars through our sukkah, the very same stars that shone upon our ancestors shine upon us. Sukkot demands that we invite in the ancestral system; like the ofrendas (offerings) from Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), we place photos of our grandparents and great-grandparents inside the sukkah, and our meals take on a heavenly presence. Samuel’s grief reflects that wherever we may tarry, our ancestors are with us always, waiting for us to feel their loss, remember their words, integrate their love and find our way. 

Samuel and I walked toward the beach. He shared that he was HIV positive, that young people were doing drugs on the streets, and he cried again. “What’s making you cry?” I asked. “They are so young,” he responded.

The final days of Sukkot create an off-ramp into our lives. Hoshanah Rabbah is like the spin cycle that dries us out; circling in procession, we whack the willows to remove the final drops of transgression within us. Shemini Atzeret offers a seasonal turning from the arid months to the wet ones. This final observance prolongs the Sukkot festival by gently pressing down on the breaks, signaling that the High Holy Days are literally stopping. Our etrog and myrtle are to be dried and turned into besamim (spices) for Havdalah, an olfactory bridge to enter the next week, and our lulav will be upcycled and woven into a basket, where we will place these spices. Then, on Simchat Torah, we will rewind our ancestral story, and the cycle will begin again.


Rejoice with the stranger

Samuel and I stopped at a bench. I’d bought him a sandwich. He ate heartily, and my dog snatched some turkey from his roll. Samuel laughed and ran his hands through her coat. “She’s a good dog,” he said. 

I spotted a Parks and Recreation vehicle patrolling the boardwalk and flagged it down. I asked the driver if he knew of any shelters that could take in new residents, “None,” he replied, “and I know. I’ve been living in this truck for four months now. I’m homeless, too.” 

I stayed with Samuel for another hour. I bought him a shirt the color of techelet(turquoise), and he told me it was his favorite color — he would have chosen it, too. He asked if I could get him a Mountain Dew. We picked up a few groceries, and it was time for me to go back to the place I call home. 

As I walked away, I turned back a number of times and saw him swigging his soda with futility in my heart — an incomplete mitzvah. As I walked down Ocean Front Walk, the lawns were filled with the sukkahs of the men and women of this new Tribe. My inner Torah echoed a chant from Deuteronomy 16:14: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities.”

A cop car passed slowly on the walkway. I wondered what sukkah Samuel would sleep in that night. Maybe he would camp on the beach beneath the stars, like Jacob at Beth El, with a rock as a pillow. My vision blurred, passing tent after tent. The words from the Sukkot haftarah echoed in my mind, expressing the paradox of life’s joys and sorrows: “Utter futility,” said Koheleth, a pseudonym ascribed to King Solomon, the purported author of Ecclesiastes. “Utter futility. All is futile.” 

And yet, the futility of it all hangs in a delicate balance: A time for weeping and a time for laughing; a time for wailing and a time for dancing.

My heart turned to Samuel … I’d look for him tomorrow.

The Statue of Liberty at Rosh Hashanah

American Wanderers: A New Covenant
by: Rabbi Lori Shapiro


Why the Statue of Liberty came to Rosh HaShanah

In preparing for High Holidays, I knew that we had to weave our liturgy into the presence of what America faces today. While reflecting upon social unrest, pandemic, political landscape, and economic hardships, I also found myself officiating Zoom funerals as well as live funerals for COVID victims. My heart broke with every story of someone who could not travel to say goodbye to a dying parent; for every individual that died alone; for the courageous staff of hospitals and caregivers. There is so much courage in our country through this time: the selfless love and serve attitude, the embracing of all peoples through sickness and health, the curiosity arising around implicit bias and racial relations. These spiritual giants in our midst made me think of how our country stands up for justice, and the image of the Statue of Liberty fixed itself in my mind. I thought of our prayer of life and death, the Unehtanneh Tokef  (the prayer that reminds us of our equality through our shared mortality), and I began to dream of a way to weave those two images together.

The Statue of Liberty is like Shechinah standing in NY Harbor. A feminine presence of godliness, she welcomes the poor, the downtrodden, the neglected, the stranger – of all colors, races and sizes. She lights the way for all. She is hope, she is courage, she is the New Colossus, steadfastly witnessing America’s vicissitudes. Upon research, I discovered a lesser known fact:
The Statue of Liberty was originally sketched to be an Egyptian woman of color.

Our Torah portion on the first day of Rosh HaShanah involves the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Hagar is the mother of Ishmael, Sarah’s maidservant, and the woman Rashi teaches us becomes Keturah and marries Abraham after he buries Sarah. Hagar’s name means something like “The Stranger.”  Reading Savina Teubal’s (z”l) “Hagar the Egyptian”, I envisioned Hagar dressed as the Statue of Liberty singing to us at Rosh HaShanah services. I rewrote the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” to reflect our America today, and hired an open and gifted soul, KC Carnage, to dress as Lady Liberty and Deliver Us.



American Pie 2020/ Uneh Taneh Tokef 5781
Adapted from Don McLean for Open Temple High Holiday Ritual Lab 5781

A long long time ago
I can still remember how
Some music used to make me smile;
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make some people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver
With words of virus they’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about how many died
Then Something touched me deep inside
The day that George Floyd Died


Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
And do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me why he died so slow?


Well, I know that you all cared for him
‘Cause I saw you marching with your sin
Your White Fragility
Taking a sub 9-minute knee


It was Quarantine, and we all got stuck
With no TP,  fear, and just out of luck
But I saw just how much we sucked
The day that George Floyd died…


I started singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die


Now, for six months we’ve been on our own
Locked in our homes and all alone
But, that’s not how it has to be


When Kayne sang for the king and queen
In a ruse he borrowed from Putin
For a vote that comes from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
A judge raised up his broken crown
The courtroom was adjourned
Mueller’s verdict was returned
And while Bernie read a book on Marx
The donkeys protest in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day that George Floyd Died


We were singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die


Helter skelter in a summer swelter
Fires burning it’s a fallout shelter
Orange skies, people falling fast
Blake was shot before a lawn of grass
For Breonna justice did not pass
With jesters on the sidelines as cardboard masks
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While peaceful marchers chanted a new tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never had a chance


‘Cause too many players tried to take the field
Then bullets came and made us yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day that George Floyd Died


We started singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys are drinking whisky and rye
And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die


And there we were all in one place
A Tesla rocket launched in Space
Maybe no time left to start again


So come on: Derek be nimble, Derek be quick
Derek sat on a Roman candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
Oh and as I watched him on the iPhone stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day that George Floyd Died


He was singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die


I’m just a girl who sings the blues
And I’m asking for some happy news
Cause I just can’t smile and turn away
I’m here at the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But my heart says that the music shouldn’t play
(Silence – then, a capella until final repeat verse)
In the streets orphaned children scream
The lovers cry, no poets dream
Not a word is spoken
Our lonely hearts are broken
And the three things I admire most
Liberty, Justice and the US Post
Were silenced out here coast to coast
The day that George Floyd Died.


And so we’re singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys are drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die


Yes, we’re singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys are drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.


U’tshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah m’avirin et roah ha’gezerah.
But Return, Prayer and Righteousness will reverse the decree.

Not Everyone Can be a High Priest…Or Can They?

Jews often call Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year, but it won’t be unless we prepare for it both spiritually and physically. Holiness requires a vessel, and we can learn much from the extreme contingency plans undertaken by the High Priests in ancient Israel.

Discover the perspective of Open Temple’s Rabbi Lori along with other spiritual leaders and writers.

Not Everybody Can Be A High Priest… Or Can They? – Yom Kippur

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