RABBI’S FEBRUARY MESSAGE
I am writing this message early in the morning and, as I do so, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude. The members of Beth Israel’s new class on “Spirituality and Prayer” have been doing an in-depth study of the traditional morning “Modah Ani” prayer (which means “I am grateful”). Our study group has caused me to rethink and meditate in a fresh new way on this prayer’s central theme of gratitude and daily renewal. I am so grateful to the Divine Source of my life’s breath to have been given the opportunity to connect with you and to share in your personal as well as our communal spiritual journeys. You are changing how I experience the Holy Source of all being, and I am looking forward to ongoing spiritual growth and connection with you in this community.
We have covered quite a bit of ground in our first six months together. December and January led us out into the community to connect intentionally with people of other races and faiths. Beth Israel participated in the local event “Conversations on Race and Interfaith Dialog” along with Muslim and Christian faith communities, a series of community discussions held at Highland Park Elementary School. For four consecutive weeks, we gathered to share a vegetarian meal together and to discuss our different faith perspectives on the themes of Love, Peace, Joy and Hope. There were profound moments of understanding as well as peaceful moments of difference. It was beautiful to have the opportunity to share Judaism with some individuals in our community who’d had no prior contact with Jews in Roanoke and, for some, in the world. I was very proud of the strong turnout and support of Beth Israel congregants, and we established some durable bonds with local Interfaith community and clergy.
In the coming months, I hope to continue to accompany Beth Israel Jews “Out of the Pews” and into the community for broader discussions about personal and communal spiritual life. I will be holding a series of informal “Rapping-with-the Rabbi” and “Coffee Shop Talks” in various locations around Roanoke, including local coffee shops, campus cafeterias, and hospital cafés. I want to hear from you and from the broader community about the big ideas on your mind. Let’s take a step out of our comfort zone and reach out to connect to Jews who might feel uncomfortable or who do not typically show up in traditional religious spaces. What new and meaningful connections can be made with the broader community around us and how can we think differently about the physical boundaries and location of Jewish community?
In the upcoming months, Bina and I will be hosting various Shabbat experiences and Havdalah hang-outs in our home. In addition, you can look forward to upcoming outdoor experiences and events, including some with proximity and spiritual exposure to our beautiful local mountain scenery. Nature spirituality and the comfort of casual prayer spaces are an important component of Jewish spirituality.
Back in synagogue, we will also continue to offer traditional conservative prayer nusach and structure for religious services and study, while also blending in new and contemporary melodies and beats. We also plan to continue to offer our monthly Friday night Family Shabbat Dinner experiences, which have been extremely well attended.
Judaism is broader and more meaningful than what we typically experience in our synagogue pews for religious services. Judaism is good for the world and the world is good for Judaism. So, join me as we get out of our normal seats in Shul, and explore together the melody of new spaces, faces, and places.
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S JANUARY MESSAGE
What is Jewish prayer, and how do we evaluate the effectiveness of our own personal and communal
prayers? A group of congregants and I have recently begun meeting regularly to discuss the
challenges we face as we seek to connect more deeply with the ineffable Holy Source of all being.
For many, weekly Shabbat services serve primarily as a social avenue to connect us to Jewish
tradition, history, or community, or as an intellectual challenge replete with rewards of
Torah learning and debate about social and moral issues. Each of these is a worthy purpose. But
isn’t prayer supposed to be something more than that? How many of us can use Jewish prayer to
successfully connect to a higher power, to access something greater than ourselves, to tap into a
deep spiritual sense of the holy and transcendent? And how do we judge whether we have a rewarding
personal prayer life, or whether our communal prayer services are “successful,” especially
when there are so many different views about “spirituality,” “G-d,” and “prayer”?
It is hard not to fall prey to judging the quality of our prayer services by critiquing content or
counting how many people are present. Even in large crowds, I personally can feel lonely and
disconnected from my own needs, from others, and from G-d. We often look to clergy or
spiritual leaders for a solution. “If only the service were more entertaining or more
musical, if only the sermon was more powerful, if only the prayer book was easier to
understand.” “If only I got more out of the spiritual vending machine.” The question of value all
too often becomes more about what value one is acquiring as opposed to how one is investing in
one’s own spiritual development. I would like to offer all of us a challenge.
First, let’s commit to being real. If you are struggling, come and speak with me. Don’t pretend
you are loving routines that you don’t understand or that make you feel disconnected. I would love
to hear what makes you feel personally connected to the transcendent, when you feel most connected
to G-d, and to help you think about potential ways to deepen your own sense of the Divine.
Becoming more personally connected to prayer and to a deep sense of the ineffable requires
us to take daily responsibility for what happens in our hearts rather than depend on clergy to do
it for us once or twice a week. So much more spiritual power is accessible to each of us, but all
too often, we check our own spirituality at the door, passively looking to clergy or communal
leaders to shoulder the responsibility of our own spiritual lives.
Second, find a point of access for your own spirituality, or help to establish points of access
that don’t currently exist. Currently, the predominant forms of spirituality in our
community are intellectual. We have for many years had Talmud-Torah study groups,
educational programs, scholars-in-residence, etc., and we will continue to do so. But I am hearing
that for many, spirituality isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It is equally an
emotional, physical, psychological, and sensory yearning for the transcendent based on deep
experience, connection, and comfort from multiple facets of divine existence.
As your spiritual leader, I hope to help us to cultivate multiple points of access to the Divine at
Beth Israel, perhaps opening new doors to spiritual experience for every congregant. In our new
class on Jewish spirituality and prayer, for example, we are exploring multiple forms of
spirituality and prayer in addition to text study and discussion. I anticipate new
classes and prayer-forms to emerge this year in our community, such as Jewish meditation,
sacred chanting and/or singing of traditional Jewish texts and niggunim, Jewish mindfulness
practices like Musar or Jewish Yoga, and/or varied forms of embodied and/or nature-spiritualty. I
am committed to ensuring that these options are embedded in traditional Jewish practice, and to be
authentically present as your fellow seeker and spiritual leader.
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S DECEMBER MESSAGE:
In the Torah portion “Vayetze,” Yakov encounters a “certain place” in his flight from
his brother Esav’s anger. In a sense, he is a refugee from potential violence, but in the midst
of his journey he encounters a place where the Holy One is truly present, and it
changes his entire perspective. He sleeps, he dreams a visionary dream, and when he awakes
the Torah says “V’hiney Adonai nitzav alav.” Suddenly he awakes to find the weight of Adonai
“standing upon him.” It is a heavy sense of awesome and new responsibility. Like Yakov, we
too can awake from a state of somnolence to an awe-inspired understanding of new
responsibilities as we move forward in spiritual community.
The whole Torah itself is in a sense a refugee story that began with G-d’s instructions to Abraham:
“Go to a land that I will show you.” Perhaps because of this, few commands in the Torah exceed the
number of times we are told to welcome the stranger among us. I want to ask you, dear Beth Israel
congregant, who exactly is “the stranger among us” according to your view, and who is
the resident alien we are supposed to be welcoming? Are we really awake to our
Our spiritual community is and always has been a big tent, with diverse experience and different
ways of thinking and understanding the world. We have and always will be welcoming
people whose unique personhood, skills and abilities often exceed our own judgments and
projections, and we will always strive to welcome and incorporate diversity into our ongoing and
new vision of who we are as a spiritual community.
Sometimes we will be welcoming fellow Jews; at other times we will provide communities of caring
for the “ger toshav,” persons of other faith preferences who for whatever reason have found our
Jewish community a place of learning and of spiritual connection and comfort. We will be
welcoming people whose spiritual journeys may have taken the “more-travelled” pathways, others
whose journeys have been expeditionary, or jagged and nonlinear. Like Yakov, my vision is that
everyone experiences Beth Israel as a place of refuge where they can see and feel and know that
Adonai is truly present.
In particular, our community already is composed of many inter-faith families. As your spiritual
leader, I have heard that we can do more to reach out and welcome interfaith families to join our
kehillah and/or to feel welcome. Whenever an interfaith family commits itself to raising
Jewish children and/or to values of Torah, I would like to see us working hard to be more
welcoming regardless of our past understandings of Jewish identity and privileged status. Some
of our past (and current) beliefs and practices are rooted in conservative halakha
(Jewish Law), but some are not. Our Board of Directors has issued a clear mandate that we see
ourselves as a fully egalitarian and contemporary halakhic Jewish community. Contemporary Jewish
law issued from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement
is in some cases more expansive than we have yet allowed ourselves as a community to implement.
In the coming months, we will be working together to review our policies and procedures, beginning
with issues of egalitarianism and inclusion. What does the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
recommend, and how do we measure up at Beth Israel? How can we renew our vision and
awaken anew to our responsibilities? Our Ritual and Membership committees have begun
already to consider some of these questions, and I welcome your ideas and suggestions as well.
We have such a strong history of caring and religious tradition to build upon. Excitement is in the
air. We are growing, and not just in number. It is an honor to be travelling with you on this
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S NOVEMBER MESSAGE:
In my initial draft of this newsletter, I wrote about events of this past week in our country,
where a hate-filled U.S. citizen mailed life-threatening bombs to current and past
political leaders. I had also written about the past few months in Roanoke, where antisemitic
fliers were posted around college campuses, news organizations, and at both local synagogues. Then,
just before the bulletin was to go to print, the tragic assault occurred at the Tree of Life
Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest antisemitic attack ever in the American Jewish
community. We are heartbroken about this tragic and senseless loss of life at the hands of a
lone antisemitic gunman. His actions represent the worst of humanity. Our hearts go out to the
families and friends of the victims and to the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community.
Debate will continue over so many aspects of this tragedy, and I encourage all of you to continue
to exercise your civic voting rights and correspondence with elected officials. Our
country allows extremists and mentally compromised individuals legal access to assault-style
weapons like the one used by the Pittsburgh gunman. Antisemitic acts have increased 57% since 2016,
mostly in the form of harassment and vandalism (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Cal
State University, San Bernardino). Our country is divided politically, and public rhetoric has
been increasingly inflammatory. Our increasing reliance on electronic media distorts the
way we experience our lives and relationships with people of different political and
religious beliefs and cultures. Even more concerning, extremist individuals and hate groups who
have always been around are capitalizing anew on our present-day uncertainties to encourage fear
and hatred. Prayer only goes so far in addressing these issues; our tradition encourages civic,
social and political action.
On behalf of the Board of Directors of Beth Israel and as its spiritual leader, I
can say that our Board is disgusted by these recent events and we take them all extremely
seriously. Even prior to this most recent tragic event in Pittsburgh, we have been working
closely with appropriate authorities to investigate all potential threats, which in my
experience at Beth Israel have included “prank” calls, occasional negative contacts
through our website, and the recent posting of antisemitic fliers around Roanoke. Nevertheless, the
Board of Directors is taking new steps to review security procedures, including alarm systems and
security cameras. We recently added additional armed security personnel for our high-holiday
services, and a review of day-to-day security staffing needs has been initiated. We also are in the
process of forming a new team of congregant leaders to work together in a permanent and ongoing
fashion to review policies and procedures, including adding additional training of staff and
congregants, and interfacing with the broader Jewish community and appropriate government
and police authorities. No level of tolerance of antisemitism is considered appropriate.
I will do my best to communicate to you openly if new information becomes available. In addition, I
will also be working closely with local government, faith, and minority communities to foster
education and open dialogue and understanding about issues of difference in cultural, political,
and religious beliefs. I will be reaching out to you occasionally to join me in these discussions.
As your spiritual leader, my door is open to further process this episode with you emotionally and
spiritually. Beth Israel’s community is joining with Temple Emanuel on October 30 for an evening of
solidarity, prayer, reflection and mourning. Roanoke’s civic and clerical leaders have offered
their support and condolences, and I will continue to speak out on behalf of the Jewish Community
and against antisemitism. We can and will preserve our faith and trust in the goodness of our
Roanoke community, and in the safety of our worship and communal spaces. May we all continue to
stand strong together in solidarity and in peace.
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S OCTOBER MESSAGE:
As I am writing this note, we have just completed our observance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and are anticipating the upcoming festival days of Sukkot. This is certain to be “z’man simchateinu,” a time of our joy. Already I feel a deep sense of joy at everything our community has accomplished these past few months. Spending so many hours together with so many of you in prayer and t’shuvah has helped me to get to know you at a deeper level. This important spiritual work has left me feeling a strong sense of connection to you and to the Divine, as well as a sense of renewal and dedication to our broader mission to build bonds of caring and connection in the coming year.
Importantly, we had many visitors join us during these holidays. Please take time to reach out to the new faces you see in the coming weeks at community activities and spiritual gatherings. Religious and Hebrew schools have also started back up with a number of new families, and it is exciting for me to see so many of our children and young adults active and engaged. I was so excited this week when one of our youngest attendees said “I love being Jewish. It’s so much fun!” Nothing could make a Rabbi happier!
Many of you also made commitments over the Yamim Noraim to become involved in new and ongoing activities at the synagogue during the upcoming New Year. Many new programs, activities and spiritual and educational events are being planned, so keep an eye on the calendar.
Now for a brief word about Sukkot. We actually read a story about a Sukkah during Yom Kippur afternoon services. After the prophet Jonah warned the people of Nineveh to repent from their evil ways, he erected a tiny Sukkah on a hillside near the city, from which he expected to sit back and watch G-d destroy the city. The whole city actually had already repented, which would have made Jonah the most successful prophet ever, except for one thing. His harsh judgement of others didn’t allow him to believe that G-d would forgive the people. And the Sukkah Jonah built was not kosher; the s’chach was not detached from the ground as it should have been but was a living poisonous plant that was destroyed in a day by a mere worm. Jonah’s Sukkah was a pious, harsh and judgmental sukkah, only big enough for one person’s world-view. There was no room for forgiveness, community, or for the joyful experience of G-d’s mercy and protection. Jonah was living with a “small-sukkah” theology.
Contrast that with the Sukkot we erect: temporary dwellings that recognize the fragility of life and the joy of total dependence on the Divine. For a week we pretend that our temporary dwelling is our permanent home and that our permanent homes are only temporary. We invite others to dwell with us in the cool fall air, totally exposed to the elements and to our exchanges with each other. Our ancestors say that the words from Vayikra 23:42 “… seven days all citizens of Israel will dwell in sukkot…” actually means that for these seven days our sukkot should be big enough for everyone in the community!
An ancient rabbinic text in our tradition also records a sukkah that was once built in Jerusalem by a prominent individual that, like Jonah’s Sukkah, also was technically not Kosher. It was built with walls that exceeded the maximum height specifications for a Kosher Sukkah. On the other hand, the individual who built this Sukkah was a Torah scholar, and also very generous and inclusive, reaching out to others in community and donated significant tzedakah and food to support the Jewish people during periods of famine and poverty. Perhaps because of this generosity and care, some of the sages of the time recognized this particular “non-kosher” sukkah as…. kosher!!! May we all continue into the new year with “Large-sukkah mentality!”
RABBI’S SEPTEMBER MESSAGE:
As I am writing this note, the High Holidays are fast-approaching. We will gather for
Slichot prayers on Saturday evening, Sept. 1st, the first time that many Jews begin thinking in
earnest about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many, Slichot marks the first hearing of the
poignant melodies associated with our High Holiday penitential prayers. On the other hand, our
sages set aside the whole month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah for deep introspection
and preparation, and for intentionally regretting our mistakes and misdeeds and turning
ourselves around and back towards the sacred.
During every day of this month we have been thinking about repentance while listening to the
startling and wailing sounds of the shofar. Why the shofar, I ask myself? Couldn’t we as a Jewish
people have come up with a more perfect-sounding instrument to mark the joy of Rosh Hashanah?
Similar to a bugle, this crude instrument made from a Ram’s horn lacks a musical mechanism for
accurate pitch-control, and the quality of its sound is supposed to be raw and jarring. The output
varies depending on the input of the person blowing. Even for an expert shofar-blower, there is a
lot of room for imperfection of sound, and for contemplating the similarity to the imperfections in
Sounds that need to be heard are sometimes stifled, weak, and groaning. Sometimes a significant
effort fails to achieve the desired result. At other times, we blow spontaneously, and our
constitution is relaxed and free, and the sound is on-point and miraculously strong, jubilant and
The series of shofar sounds also play a role in the emotional impact the Shofar has on us. We start
with one long sound, Tekiah. We start out thinking we are whole, but something unexpected happens
to us. The initial long blast jars us entirely out of our complacency. We realize suddenly that we
cannot continue living the way we have been up until now, and the urgency of the blast pushes us to
break things down: to re-evaluate our choices and our life-path… before it’s too late.
Next comes Shevarim: three medium, wailing notes. These sounds can be compared to a broken heart
once we’ve recognized our shortcomings and our wasted opportunities in the past year. We cry out as
we yearn to free ourselves from past ways of thinking… to make way for new opportunities in the
future… to become a truly changed individual and community.
Then we hear the sounds of Truah: nine quick staccato blasts. Like the final alarm of an alarm
clock: we know the time is waning and we scramble to motivate ourselves to make the necessary
changes, drawing perilously close to complete brokenness. It’s our last opportunity to set the plan
of action: What is our revised vision of our new “Best Selves”, our best Beth Israel, our best
Roanoke Jewish community? Are we going to make real changes with the greatest potential to make a
difference? And finally…
…Tekiah Gedolah: one long tekiah. If we’ve done the hard work of introspection, the final long
blast on Yom Kippor should be a great moment of joy. I am looking forward to sharing this difficult
work together in our community as we listen with extra kavanah this year for the shofar sounds, a
listening that has great potential to heal us and to change us all for the better.
L ‘Shanah Tovah U’Metukah! May we all have a Good and Sweet New Year!
Rabbi Jama Purser
RABBI’S AUGUST MESSAGE :
As I am writing this note, our community has just turned the corner from our annual
three-week period of mourning for the loss of the first and second Temples. From the
17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, we’ve explored the relationship between two Biblical words
that without vowels are spelled alike in our Torah: Ayeka – Where are you? And Eicha – How did this
happen to me/us? The similarity in the Hebrew spelling encourages us to reflect on the
thematic connection. Perhaps this past period in the Jewish calendar encourages us to
examine our own current moral status in terms of how it might be impacting the suffering we see
and experience in our own lives and in the world. At Beth Israel, we do an awful
lot of good in the world, but as Jews, how can we do better? Are there those who we can
better reach out to, or social justice issues we are avoiding lending our voices to? Are there
blind spots and real suffering in our community that is going overlooked?
At our recent Tisha B’Av prayer gathering, we had some deep and meaningful experiences as we
studied together the poetic and metaphoric structures and social implications of our
Lamentation poetry. We listened as Rebecca, Gabriel, Uri, and Jacob
gave poignant and passionate expression to our traditional liturgy. The chanting
of the Biblical poetry gave ear to voices of suffering and protest that really resonate with
anyone who has ever experienced devastation, loss, poverty, hunger, or abuse. Too often we
see those who suffer without an ability to connect to their pain or to facilitate a
voice of protest. Participating in Eicha gives voice to our lament: “Why has this happened to me,
to us, to our community, to our country?”
On July 27, we celebrated Tu B’Av, the Festival Day of love, a fitting metaphor for the gradual
uplift in our spirits that we begin to feel as we begin the long and gradual build-up to maximum
joy at Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. Once we have turned this corner and have re-dedicated
ourselves anew to doing good that will make a difference in the world, we begin to experience God’s
love on a different footing. Each year we have this opportunity to make this same turn, in our
relationships, our commitments, and our caring. As we are doing so, each of our Haftarot during
this period leading up to the High Holidays is designed to bring comfort to sufferers. But how do
we make that transition? What is it that brings healing and comfort to us after experiencing
personal suffering and loss?
Trees when they are wounded are said to heal over but never completely rid themselves entirely of a
wound. Perhaps trying to help someone heal is a futile endeavor without a real ability to see and
witness the whole living being. Our brokenness and our wounds are an integral part of
our being, and we take comfort in community as a place where we can safely share our
Like the magnificent tree who, despite her wounds, sprouts new leaves and reaches out with new
branches each year, we have the capacity with each new Holiday season to really listen to each
other and to grow together and strengthen ourselves and our communities in unexpected ways. May we
leverage our comfort and our wholeness to move eagerly and with intention toward the jolting sounds
of the Shofar in the month of Elul, reawakening ourselves to reach out to others in our
community in need of our listening, our presence, and our care. Let’s all take a new
visionary hold on our sacred tree of life, Etz Chaim, so that we experience the upcoming Holiday
season with renewed depth, commitment and joy.
July Rabbi's Massage:
June has been quiet in some ways and busy in others. On the one hand, the Jewish holiday cycle was
quiet this month, with no major Jewish holidays to keep us busy with extra cleaning, special
baking, or additional holiday-specific spiritual preparation. Many of our members travel
or plan a vacation at this time of year, taking advantage of this quiet and peaceful moment
in the Jewish calendar.
For me personally, it has been a busy month. Bina and I have been occupied with unpacking boxes,
settling into our new home in South Roanoke, finding our way around town, and meeting new neighbors
and friends. We have also found a little time to explore some of the many beautiful hiking trails
in the area. At the same time, I have begun meeting with officers and board members of Beth Israel
and preparing myself spiritually for a life of joyful service to the Beth Israel community. I am
really looking forward to joining the community in July!
There has also been much poignancy this month in our Jewish community. Several of you observed
important births, birthdays and anniversaries. A few of you are transitioning into grandparenthood.
Our community also supported several congregants as they observed meaningful yahrzeits. Together we
remembered the life of our member Morton Rosenberg as we embraced Carol Rosenberg and her family
at the unveiling of the memorial stone for her beloved husband. I would also like to thank you
personally for your care and concern during my shiva period and as I continue to mourn the passing
of my beloved mother, Ramona Morton Purser, z”l.
The Jewish calendar begins to “heat up” in the month of July, as we immediately transition into the
period of the Jewish calendar referred to as the “Three Weeks.” This period begins on July 1
with the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, marking the three-week mourning period leading up
to the 9th of Av on July 21 (Tisha B’Av). This three-week cycle at the beginning of July
commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of both holy
Temples (the first by the Babylonians, and the second Temple at the hand of the Romans).
At Beth Israel’s Tisha B’Av service on July 21, I am preparing a special study session
about “Eicha,” the Jewish poem of Lament for the destruction of the Temple. I will also help
lead a brief service after the study session, including a chanting of the poem by congregants and
the Rabbi. After Tisha B’Av, our somber mood will quickly change to one of renewal, as we look
forward with anticipation to the sounds of the shofar and the upcoming joys of the High Holidays in
the months of Elul and Tishrei.
Life has a way of blending sadness and joy, and I am grateful that our Jewish tradition, sacred
texts, and rituals can accommodate all seasons and emotions, of both stability and
change. I look forward to the bonds of sharing and caring we will create together as we
continue to mark in a sacred way the special moments in the ongoing life of Beth Israel.
Rabbi Jama Purser