Hineinu- Here We Are, But Where are We Going?

Rosh Hashannah Morning 5774

The mysterious voice of God echoed: “Abraham?” Abraham could have ignored it, could have dismissed it. But ever faithful Abraham answered “Hineini—Here I am.” I am here God, I am attentive; I am ready.

On this first day of the Jewish year, we have gathered together, offering prayers, continuing on our journey of self-reflection and atonement, and celebrating in the brilliant new possibilities that lie ahead. God says to us “Temple Emanu-El?” And we say “Hineinu—Here we are.”

But why are we here—really?

Is it for the prayers and melodies? Out of respect for tradition? Is it to learn or to be inspired? Is it to see friends and loved ones? While there is no shortage of reasons for why we come through the door, Ron Wolfson explains there is only one reason that we stay: relationships.

In his book, Relational Judaism, Wolfson offers the case study of Central Synagogue member named Jill. Jill was not active in temple life as a child. When given the choice of becoming a Bat Mitzvah or skiing every weekend, she chose skiing. She did not have complete Jewish education as a child. But when she married her husband and had children, she became interested in temple life. To her surprise, she found services to be engaging. Immediately she felt as if both the clergy and the entire community cared about her—and really wanted to know her family. Her family began to meet others at cocktail parties in congregant homes. “my husband and I believe that you can’t really know who you are and where you’re going unless you know where you come from,” she explains. “I think that our experience at Central Synagogue has helped us to know where we are and has made us better parents, better friends and better people… really. And my kids feel connected there, too. They really enjoy it. We have Shabbat dinners with other families. We light candles together. We talk about things as a family that I don’t think we would ever have talked about if not for [Temple]. This is the value-added of a great synagogue.”

 Jill came to temple for the programs and the services. She stayed for the relationships.

Ron Wolfson reflects on his Jewish upbringing. “I learned to love being Jewish through relationships. My Jewish self was shaped by my relationships with family, with friends, with Jewish texts and ritual, with synagogue and community, with Jewish peoplehood, with Israel, with social justice work and with God. These relationships form the beating heart of my Jewish soul.”

Okay, you may be thinking. But what do I really get out of temple? What can I? I have friends outside of temple. I can learn about Judaism from books delivered to my door. I can do social justice work in the community. I can pray or meditate or connect to my spiritual size on my own. I can celebrate holidays outside of temple. And you’d be right. So why do we need Jewish community?

In the summer of 2009, my friend Mara and I met at a bar. There we expressed what we had been feeling for some time. We loved Astoria, Queens, where we lived. There was no shortage of culture—from a wide array of cuisine to parades to fairs to museum exhibits and beyond. We had some friends in the area, but no matter how much we loved it, it still was not home.

Both rabbinical students, we didn’t need another place to study or even pray—we had both in the communities we served as well as our seminary. We didn’t need a place to celebrate holidays—we both had family nearby. But we profoundly felt a loss. Without a Jewish community, we could never fully feel at home.

We craved what we could not find outside of Jewish community—what Jill had been searching for—“the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationships with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”[1]

God called to Abraham, and Abraham said “Hineini. Here I am”

Our commentators ask why Abraham was so eager and willing to say “Hineini,” again and again, not knowing the path God had for him. Why was he willing to pick up everything he ever knew to follow God to the land to a strange land? Why would he allow God to test him time and time again? Perhaps he too was in search of Jewish community—of relationship with God, with himself, with family and friends, and with the world. God called to him, and he knew he needed to heed God’s call.

Mara and I decided we would form our own minyan—a group that any Jews in their 20s and 30s could join. We would start by having a monthly Shabbat potluck in our homes. At first the idea was frightening. In this day and age was I really going to advertise locally and invite complete strangers into my house to eat and pray? Was I out of my mind?

Was Abraham out of his mind to leave his home? Wasn’t he scared or hesitant to go on God’s missions? Was Jill out of her mind to step foot into temple for the first time?  Wasn’t she scared to step foot into a new community?

Yes, absolutely. It is not easy to say “Hineini.” It is not easy to step foot in the door.

The first month we held Shabbat services and potluck, exactly four people showed up: Mara and I and our husbands. The second month we tried again. A few more people bravely came into Mara’s home. Mara bravely hosted. Our guests were people we had never before met—and likely never would have met if we didn’t start this group. But we talked and laughed and celebrated Shabbat well into the evening.

Each month our prayers became louder as more people joined the group, and past participants came back. Before we knew it, we had more people than we could comfortably fit into our homes. Each time we opened our house we were nervous, but as people came we could feel Shabbat ascending. We were finding everything we had been searching for. Slowly the group was expanding to 20 people, 30, 50, 100, 200… We began not only eating and praying together, but volunteering together, celebrating life’s joys and being there for one another at times of challenge. We became good friends, inspiring one another to live more meaningful lives, and helping one another to connect with God and the Jewish community in ways we had not imagined.

One day a friend told me, “You know, I was about to leave Astoria before I found this group. Now I couldn’t imagine leaving. I finally found my home.”

This is what it can mean to be part of a Jewish community.

***

I asked congregants why they are members of Temple Emanu-El. This is what they told me:

“I am a member… to be able to connect and exchange ideas with other Jews, to be part of something I cherish, [and] to feel spiritually connected…”

“I am a member… because I want to be part of a Jewish community and instill Jewish values and traditions in my children.”

I am a member… because my belief and faith in God needed direction—so I could learn how to be Jewish as an adult.

I am a member because “Being involved in the temple has taught be many things…how to work together towards causes of common interest, how to give and listen, how to become a good person, and [how to develop] a relationship to God.”

Each person in their own way is seeking relationship—with themselves, loved ones, the Jewish community and with God. Each one is searching, in some way to find their home.[2]

Here in Temple Emanu-El, many of us do feel at home. We are engaged in a variety of programs, services, and events. The conversations we attend in Torah study inspire us throughout our week. We feel as though the community truly cares about us—that people are there for us at times of joy and celebration and times of struggle. We feel that temple is our extended family.

But many of us are still searching, still missing something. We don’t yet feel at home—or we don’t feel at home anymore. We don’t feel inspired, or connected—yet.

Our Torah teaches that when the Jewish community received the 10 Commandments, everyone in the community was present—young and old, Jews and people of other faiths and background. We all heard the words of God, together.

Temple Emanu-El does not belong to a select few. It belongs to all of us. And until each and every one of us feels at home, cared for, that we have a second family—we have work to do.

We have begun this work already.

Each week people of all ages, and backgrounds come together for Torah study. Struggling to apply the words of tradition to our lives, we share parts of ourselves, and form a undeniable bond. Everyone is encouraged and welcome to attend.

Families with bnei mitzvah aged children meet once a month throughout the year to learn about the service, study, and reflect on their new milestone. Throughout the year, they form a supportive community.

Families gather for Tot Shabbat experiences, in which they play, pray, do art projects and eat with other young families. A tiny torah playgroup for families with children under age 3 meets regularly in congregant’s homes so that children can forge important friendships, and parents can connect in meaningful ways.

This year, there will be an adult Bnei Mitzvah class, where people of a variety of backgrounds can come together to explore Hebrew, better understand the Shabbat service, study Torah, and explore theology. The community of leaders who partake will end the year with a joint Bnei Mitzvah service in which we can all rejoice.

The Waldman lecture in October will jumpstart a congregational band, in which many people can take part.

Students in grades 8-12 will meet once a month to talk about Jewish issues that matter to them, hang out, and eat together—helping to foster more meaningful relationships.

This is a good start. But there is far more to do.

That is why the board met 2 months ago to discuss the future of Temple Emanu-El. In what areas are we excelling and in which are we falling short? We began to imagine what we would need to do to meet everyone where they are, allow everyone to feel connected. And those conversations are only beginning. This fall the temple will be inviting each and every one of you to house meetings in congregant homes. There I encourage you to voice what Temple has meant to you, and what it could mean, to dream together about turning our great congregation into a phenomenal one.

I know many people in this room fairly well. Some of you I consider friends. I know something about your past and your present, what matters to you—what keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning. The conversations I have had with you—at times of good and times of sorrow, times of joy and times of challenge—I have found meaningful.

But there are too many people here I am sad to say I hardly know at all. I do not know what drives you to come here today. I do not know your passions, what matters to you.

So I make a pledge today: It is my goal to meet with every single member of this community—to strive to understand who you are, what you need from this community, and what I can do to transform Temple Emanu-El into your home, your family, your enrichment.

But it cannot only fall on me. We are a community. Look around the room. Who do you know? Who have you not yet been blessed to know? Why not say Hineini—I am here? Why not approach them, why not take that leap as Jill did? Or as Mara and I did, and connect with your neighbor?

Some of us do not have family and friends locally. Why not sign up to adopt a grandparent/a family/a friend—bringing congregants together that may not have otherwise had the opportunity. Even if we are surrounded by family, why not sign up?

Some of us are empty nesters, caring for sick family members, or retired. Some of us are artists, musicians, or poets. Why not form chavurah groups to get together with others, exploring your commonalities? Why not join Torah study? Or the adult bnei mitzvah class? The Tiny Torah playgroup, or Hebrew High?

It requires a leap. It required us to stand up and say “Hineini”—but isn’t it worth the risk?

As we march forth into 5774, we enter a tomorrow full of possibilities— where we each realize our potential to form not just a disparate Jewish community where some are members but few are involved—- but a community in which we all feel as though we have a family.

 A tomorrow in which we all say “Hineinu—Here we are”—“Hineini—Here I am.”


[1] Ron Wolfson Relational Judaism

[2] Eisen: “It’s no coincidence that this tradition of ours mandates relationships and has a God who invites us into relationship. Relationships build communities. There is no doubt that it is the heart of the matter”

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Our Covenant with Israel

Israel is not an easy topic of discussion.

Perhaps we are weary of showing allegiance to Israel when she acts in ways that are not consistent with our sensibilities. Perhaps, as 21st century American Jews, we feel alienated from Israel; she does not play into our lives in a meaningful way. Or perhaps we feel such a profound allegiance to Israel that we feel it is our mission to defend Israel, to quiet critiques made against her in favor of her positive qualities.

As we embark upon the year 5774, I fervently believe that the time has come to engage in a meaningful dialogue of what Israel means for us today, and what it has the capacity to mean.

***

This is not a sermon about whether Israel has a right to exist. This is a sermon about what it means that Israel does exist.

In the Post-Holocaust world, Israel became a refuge for the Jewish people. Confronted all too often with hatred and anti-Semitism, this was a homeland that would gladly accept the homeless Jews of the world. It was a place that Jews could go when the world was stacked against us. It was a place filled with hope—a realized dream. No matter where we lived—no matter what happened—there were Jews working to transform Israel into a place we could call home. There was a place that would always be thrilled to welcome us. What could be more reassuring?

At the same time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, “a false Jewish story” was looming: “Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages. They were in Christian Europe from the eleventh to the twentieth century. They are now in the predominantly Muslim Middle East. To be a Jew is to be hated and to defy that hate….”[1]

As Emil Fackenheim wrote, “Jews are commanded to stay Jewish in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.”[2] We must defend Israel in order to ensure we can continue to exist when the world rises against us.

“[This] isn’t the Jewish story,” Sacks argues. “The facts may be true, but the narrative is wrong.” It leads us to believe that we are victims, that we must distrust the world. No, he explains. The Jewish story “is not about Jews destined to live alone, at best misunderstood, at worse the perennial target of hate. This way of looking at the world is “understandable given the terrible history of the twentieth century, but [it is] misplaced given the circumstances of the twenty-first.” [3]

It’s true. In the twenty-first century, there is anti-Semitism in the world. There are Jews in need of a homeland in which they can find refuge. But for me, an American Jew who has been fortunate to encounter almost no Anti-Semitism in my life, for many of us living a life of relative acceptance, Israel has to be more than a land born out of fear, more than “crisis management.”

Israel has so much more to offer.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik distinguished between Brit Goral– a covenant of fate—from Brit Ye’ud – a covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate came from of the experience of Egyptian bondage, when the people felt alone in the world. The covenant of destiny—was far more important to Judaism. It came from revelation at Sinai, when the people felt united in a sacred purpose filled with pride, hope and faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that Israel provided the Jewish people an opportunity to shape our collective future, instead of our past.[4] He reminded us that faith is one of the most important Jewish values—one that was alive in Israel’s past, and is certainly her present and future.

According to Rabbi Sacks, faith is the true Jewish story—

a faith so strong that it gave survivors the hope and strength to rebuild

a faith so strong that it has enabled the Jewish people to maintain a the only democratic country in the middle east

a faith so strong that through it we could be partners with God in creating an Israel “that would become a home for the divine presence.”—one based on some of Judaism’s most important values: “justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person without regard to color, culture or creed”[5]

 

I do not believe Israel is perfect, but there are many aspects of Israeli life that I love.

Israel became the only democracy in middle east, a country with more noble prizes than medals at the Olympics, with the highest ratio of university degrees to the population, a country that turned desolate desert into a developed—the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees—pretty astounding considering Israel is mostly desert!

Israel is consistently one of the first responders to crises from Haiti to Sudan to Turkey to Kenya to Japan. It has, in its short 65 year history absorbed immigrants from over 100 countries, who speaking over 80 languages.

Israel elected the world’s second female leader in modern times—when Golda Meir became Prime Minister in 1969. It has more museums and scientific papers per capita than ANY other country.

Israel is cutting edge in technology—creating everything from voicemail to instant messaging to cell phones to the windows operating system to the first ingestible camera for medical exams, with more profound medical advances than I can count.

A country producing an astounding quantity of books, from religious to novels to scholarly works to poetry.

In his article “Why I am a Zionist,” Canadian born Gil Troy argued that it is time to reaffirm our faith and pride in Israel, marveling at her accomplishments. No country is perfect, but these are only some of the ways that Israel brings honor to the Jewish people. Troy says that he is a Zionist because he is an idealist—believing that if Israel could overcome nearly impossible odds to become a strong vibrant nation, it can also one day create true peace with its neighbors, because Israel is a land that consistently realizes the words of Theodore Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.””[6]

Okay, you may be thinking. So Israel has done some pretty remarkable things, but it has also acted in ways that may upset us. It’s been unfair to Palestinians, and to Bedouins. Its built settlements, even while releasing terrorist prisoners in a gesture towards peace.

And on top of that, as liberal Jews, we do not always have an equal voice in Israel. Some of us may struggle to be accepted there as the Jews we are. Liberal rabbis in Israel have not received government funding that is handed over to orthodox rabbis with ease. Each month, there is a gathering of women from every movement who meet at the Kotel—the western wall—to pray. The government has responded by arresting women time and time again for “disturbing the peace,” by reading a Torah, wearing a Tallit, or singing loudly enough that men could hear them. Why? Because these actions offended the orthodox Jews also praying at the wall. This degrading of liberal Judaism is a problem.[7]

These are all problems.

But does criticizing Israel—or disagreeing with some of its policies make me anti-Zionist, anti-Israel?

When Rabbi Soloveitchik spoke of the Covenant of Destiny—he chose his words carefully. He did not call it a contract, but a brit—a covenant. A contract is an agreement by two parties based on common interest. The parties enter into the agreement in order to get what they would like out of it. If the contract ceases to be beneficial to one of the parties, it may come to an end. A covenant is different. It is not based on mutual benefit, but relationship. It binds the parties in good times as well as bad because it is based on loyalty, fidelity, of love and respect.

When a loved one does something that upsets us, it is often healthy to clear the air, to voice our feelings and concerns. Why? Out of commitment for our relationship. If we voice the concerns, we may be able to correct the problem. It fosters the process at the very core of the High Holy Day season: teshuvah – repentance. When done from a place of covenant, respect and commitment, voicing concerns can be an act of love.

Our concerns and actions as the liberal Jewish community have fostered real change. Women of the Wall have been offered a place to pray as they would like. The location is not ideal, but it is a start. There have been strides in the Knesset towards securing funds for liberal rabbis to do much needed holy work throughout Israel. Even some conversion laws have been resolved favorably. We have a long way to go, but it is clear that when we raise our voices from a place of love—when we donate to, and volunteer for organizations such as the Israeli Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall we can make a profound difference for liberal Jews within the land of Israel and in the world entire.

After all, Israel is the Jewish state for all Jewish people and their loved ones. We are all part of the same people, and only together can we strengthen and enrich the land even further. Only together can we work to transform a remarkable country into a remarkable country we can wholeheartedly call home.

Israel is not perfect. No country ever has been, nor will it ever be. That is not an excuse for mistakes, but it is reality.

We as Jewish community have a covenant with the land of Israel—because we are unquestionably connected to Jews throughout the world.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai teaches that the Jewish people are like one body with one soul. “When one sins, all are punished.”[8] He tells the story of a man in a boat who began to bore a hole under his seat. When his fellow passengers protested, he responded, “What concern is it of yours? I am making a hole under my sear, not yours,’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will down.’[9]

The actions of our fellow Jews reflect on us—and our actions reflect on fellow Jews.

We share a covenant with Israel and Jews throughout the world— one that, like any worthwhile relationship, may at times give us great pride, and at others some frustration.

But Israel remains our country, a country to which we are inextricably linked, a country overflowing with blessings.

Israel is a country that has overcome more obstacles than most ever thought possible—from winning battles despite unbelievable odds, including the Yom Kippur war in 1973—to creating a country with achievements so remarkable that we can kvell like proud grandparents for hours and hours.

As first Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion said, “In Israel, to be a realist you have to believe in miracles.”

There is reason to believe, that with dedication and hard work, we can help Israel to overcome its challenges and persuade us to believe in miracles once again.


[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Future Tense

[2] Emil Fackenheim The Jewish Return to History, New York, Schocken, 1978, p 19-24.

[3] Future Tense

[4] See Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofek—Listen, My Beloved Knocks”

[5] Future Tense

[6] Gil Troy “Why I am a Zionist” The Montreal Gazette, 26 April 2001-B3, as seen at http://www.giltroy.com/GilTroy/WhyIamaZionist.htm Why I am a Zionist

[7] According to Rabbi Rachel Sabbath Beit-Halachmi “Jewish destiny and the Women of the Wall,” April 11, 2013, 11:51am, ehttp://blogs.timesofisrael.com/jewish-destiny-and-the-women-of-the-wall/ ,the liberation of the Kotel in 1967 symbolized finally coming home to Jerusalem as a free people. Jewish women want to be fully free and at home too. The Kotel symbolizes for World Jewry the collective identification with Jerusalem of Jews throughout the world. It does not and cannot belong to the Orthodox alone, because it belongs to the Jewish people. The paratroopers of 1967 liberated it for the whole Jewish people – as they continue to declare publicly – not just for the Orthodox.

[8] Mekhilta de Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to Exodus 19:6

[9] Leviticus Rabbah 4:6

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Immigration Reform

This afternoon I was honored to speak at an event on immigration reform put together by Nuns on the Bus. There immigrants, clergy, and advocates of reform spoke to an interfaith audience. These are the words I delivered:

I am an immigrant.

Sure, I was born in the US. My parents were born in the US. Even my grandparents were born in the US, and my grandfathers were both Army vets.

Yet, I am an immigrant.

Why? Because we are all immigrants. Almost all of us have ancestors who came to the land of America in search of something—be it opportunity, equality, or to run from persecution.

I am an immigrant, just like my ancestors were immigrants—from Abraham who left his home in search of his Promised Land, to my great-grandparents who came to America in search of opportunity and a land without persecution.

And I wonder if I would be here today if America hadn’t taken them in. I wonder if my family, like so many others, would have been murdered in the Holocaust. Although many Jews were not so lucky, I was fortunate in that my ancestors were allowed into the US.

Today the US turns away millions of people a year—people like us, in search of opportunity, in search of equality, refuge, a better life. People who are already working here as teachers and clergy and housekeepers and nannies.

And when some of them are denied access to legal immigration, they become undocumented workers—living in fear of deportation, without the same rights to basic labor laws such as minimum wage or safe working conditions. If they are injured on the job, or denied their rightful wages they have little if any recourse.

These are our brothers, our sisters. These are people who live next door, who work to make America a better place to live, who pay taxes and contribute to society. Or who are desperately trying to pull themselves up by their boot straps when everything around them is pulling them down.

Dare we be like Cain who said “I am not my brothers keeper?” Dare we turn a blind eye while our brother is suffering?

Or will we follow the words of Leviticus: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers….”

The words of Emma Lazarus are a moment of pride for the United States, words forever written on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

But I leave you with a question, posed by my colleague, Rabbi Esther Lederman, “What would the statue of liberty say today?”

We are our brothers’ keepers. That is why we need comprehensive immigration reform today.

Please speak up for your brothers by writing to Congressman Hanna here.

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Tu B’Av: A Jewish Expression of love

Grab a bouquet of flowers, and a bottle of wine. Throughout Israel couples are dancing, giving each other small gifts and dedicating love songs on the radio. This Sunday night, July 21, we usher in a Jewish holiday of love, Tu B’av.

Well before the time of Valentine’s Day, Tu B’av was a holiday in which women dressed in borrowed white dresses danced through the vineyards. Young men followed in hopes of finding a bride. Love was certainly in the air. Although the idea of men venturing out to capture a young bride is rather outdated, Tu B’av carried a message that is anything but.

“There never were in Israel greater days of joy,” explained Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, “than the Tu B’Av and the Day of Atonement.”

On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, we partake in self-reflection and honest soul searching, in hopes that we can learn from past mistakes and become the people we wish to be. On Tu B’av, we reflect on our relationships with our significant others, and consider ways to strengthen them. We search within ourselves, and reflect on past relationships, to consider what qualities our ideal mates should have.

ImageIn temple times, the Israelite women borrowed garments they wore on this day, in order to place all of the women on a level playing field. Even those who could not afford to own a white dress would be able to wear one and participate. According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, these women danced in the vineyards exclaiming, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set them on good family. Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. But a woman that fears God, she will be praised.”

Even in Temple times people needed to be reminded that they should pick a spouse based on far more than looks and social status. And yet, like today, there had been barriers to finding true love.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites entered the Land of Israel on Tu B’Av. When they did “tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other” (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 30b). In other words, whereas before they entered the Promised Land, the Israelites may have been expected to marry within their tribe, now they were permitted to marry Jews of other tribes. Social status should no longer get in the way of marriage.

In modern times, social status may not deter marriages in the way it once did, but we have other barriers to recognizing true love. Same sex couples in many parts of the world are forced to keep their love as a secret; marriage is out of the question. In 38 states, same sex couples are not permitted to get married. Homosexuality is regarded by many as “immoral” or “a disease.”

Despite these setbacks, campaigns for marriage equality have become increasingly successful. This year alone, gay marriage was legalized in France, Uraguay, New Zealand, and now the UK. Homosexual couples can get married in 12 states in the US, and the recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) means that couples married and living within those 12 states can enjoy the same federal benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Each of these decisions is a celebration of love– a realization the the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution is an outdated boundary that is slowly crumbling. Just as the Israelites were afforded the right to marry a mate on the basis of character rather than status or looks, it is my prayer that one day couples will be able to marry based on love, rather than sexual orientation.

This Tu B’av let us celebrate the love all around us, recognizing that when couples marry for the right reasons, the institution of marriage becomes that much stronger.

 

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