All posts by Etz Hayim Office

Israel Fest at the Northern VA JCC Recap

On June 2nd, hundreds of Northern VA folks came by the CEH booth at this year’s Israel Fest, held at the Northern VA JCC.

This year’s Israel Fest focused on Israeli InNOVAtions – highlighting technology, arts, food, consumer products, and song and dance from Israel. In addition to sharing general CEH info, the CEH booth displayed a large poster and shared an interactive activity about encryption: in the early 1970s, Israeli Adi Shamir, along with two co-creators, Ron Rivest and Leonard Adleman devised a novel encryption algorithm: RSA (or Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) encryption. This encryption is used every day for transmitting personal information across the internet.

Thanks to Ben Simon and Courtney Schwartz for pulling together an informative presentation and an interactive encryption demo for the Israel Fest.

Arlington MLK Day of Service Recap

On Monday, January 21 somewhere between 25 CEH members and friends braved the bitter cold and wind to warmly join friends and neighbors this morning for the Arlington MLK Day of Service. CEH was publicly thanked for being a sponsor of the event. Members had the chance to meet and chat with County Board members Katie Cristol and Matt Ferranti before heading off to participate in many different service projects, helping Arlington non-profits such as AFAC, Doorways and Aspire. A great time was had by all!!! 

PLEASE bring your donations to our AFAC collection box in the lobby. AFAC needs even more donations to keep up with the increased demand of the furloughed federal workers. Canned proteins, low sodium soups and low sugar cereals are especially needed. Stay tuned for other fun and exciting events being planned by the CEH Social Action Committee! And let’s make CEH participation in next year’s MLK Day of Service even bigger!

Thank you to the CEH Board of Directors for having CEH be a sponsor of the event. And many thanks to the CEH members and friends who joined us for a wonderful day of service.

Volunteer Arlington MLK Day of Service

Congregation Etz Hayim is a SPONSOR for this family-friendly event to benefit over 20 local non-profit organizations. Join your CEH friends as well as other community members to make this holiday a “day on rather than a day off” and work together to move closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”.

Anyone can join us! There will be volunteer opportunities for people of all ages.

Location: Washington Lee High School

When: Monday, January 21, 8:30am – 12:00pm

Afterward, CEH friends will meet for lunch at Chesapeake Bagel Bakery at Lee-Harrison Shopping Center – around 1:00pm.

Please, CLICK HERE and register as soon as possible to get the volunteer job of your choice – especially if you are trying to sign up as a group of friends. This is a popular community event that fills quickly. For more information:

Questions, email Paula Levin-Alcorn:

–Paula Levin-Alcorn

Giving Back

As a member for over 25 years, I am always touched by the closeness of the congregants here and the spirit of Tikun Olam that so many of us share.

Several years ago, the congregation lost one of those special people that made CEH unique and special and while Alan Youkeles is no longer with us swaying to V’shamru on Friday nights, his commitment to Tikun Olam has been carried on by many others including John Howard and Dan Rosman. Below is an article written about John and Alan. Thank you, John and Dan, for having such big hearts and carrying on Alan’s legacy.

–Scott Burka                                                                                                                         President

WOW-That’s Cool! Featuring John Howard
Sometimes we serve our community in memory of a friend whose generous spirit burned so brightly we want it to live on after they are no longer with us. That is the case for John Howard, the Federal Lead in EM’s Correspondence Control Center. John volunteers at        So Others Might Eat (SOME), a nonprofit organization fighting poverty in Washington, D.C. Every 3rd Thursday, John along with other volunteers from his synagogue, cook and serve breakfast (French toast, sausage patties, and chunky applesauce) to 400 people in SOME’s dining room at 71 O Street, NW, then clean up the kitchen, and come into work. They do that partially because it is good to give back to those in need, but also in memory of their friend Alan.

Alan was an amazing guy. He spent his years after college with the Peace Corps working in sub-Saharan Africa bringing irrigation to villages with no water. After that, he moved from California, joined the Environmental Protection Agency, and began volunteering at SOME in the late 1980s with a group of friends he met when he first arrived in the DC area. Fast forward some 30 years later, Alan was the only original group member left, but through his generous spirit, he brought many new people into the circle of friends giving back each month at SOME. His warm heart just drew people in! He was most happy when he was making the world a better place.

Alan firmly believed in service and that feeding the homeless through SOME’s dining room was an excellent way to make a difference in the community. He believed in this so deeply that, following his death, his friends donated a freezer to SOME in his memory. John and the other volunteers continue to be inspired when they see the memorial plaque to Alan on the freezer being used to help others in need.

According to SOME’s website, in 2016 with the help of caring supporters, they provided 388,213 meals (breakfast and lunch), 14,546 free sets of clothing, and 10,941 showers to homeless men and women from its facilities. Volunteers, such as the group that John belongs to and Alan began, prepare and serve the meals to hungry men, women, and children in SOME’s Main Dining Room and in the Dining Room for Women and Children every day of the year at its O Street facility.

Thank you John, for continuing to follow Alan’s philosophy of paying it forward! That is a small thing with a BIG impact-the highest form of wisdom is kindness.



Making Our Voices Heard: Jewish Community Relations Council

I represented CEH at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Northern Virginia Commission Fall meeting in late October. As stated on its website, “The JCRC works within our four pillars (government relations, Israel advocacy, inter-group relations, and social justice) to advocate for Jewish institutions and values, educate the community about key issues of concern, and reach out with our neighbors to build a better world for us all.” Discussion centered on prioritizing the many competing issues for which JCRC will advocate during the 2019 Virginia General Assembly session, including expanding hate crimes protections, protecting immigrant communities, preventing gun violence, and support for Israel.

Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn provided the insider’s view of the goings on in the legislative body. She noted a current court case on redistricting that will lead to a new legislative map of Virginia, and that could affect party leadership in the House of Delegates, which would likely lead to progress on some of JCRC’s issues after many years of disappointment.

Want to get involved? Mingle with federal, state, and local Virginia elected officials at the “Lox and Legislators”breakfast, to be held at Temple Rodef Shalom on Wednesday, December 12, 7:30 – 9:30 (individual tickets $36, can be purchased at Also, consider participating in Jewish Advocacy Day in Richmond on Wednesday, February 6. Buses will leave the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center at 6:30 a.m. The long but exciting day includes lobbying our elected representatives and hearing from the Governor and others high level officials over lunch. For more information on JCRC and its activities, please see:

–Rachel Waldstein
Social Action Committee Chairperson

Meet the Clarendon Coffee Shop Rabbi!

Rabbi Rami Schwartzer is the founder of a new Jewish community for those in their 20s and 30s in the greater D.C. area. Rami is currently working as a community rabbi in Northern Virginia. You may catch a glimpse of him if you frequent coffee shops or bars in the NoVA area, where he can often be found chatting with friends and neighbors and sharing Jewish wisdom. He is a wonderful resource for those in their 20’s or 30’s who may not feel comfortable or ready to join a synagogue, chavurah, or other “official” Jewish institution.

A lifelong camper, Rami is also Director of Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, D.C., with over a decade of experience creating immersive Jewish environments. Rami has served congregations in New York, Texas, and Israel, and as a chaplain at MJHS Hospice & Palliative Care in New York City. He is the recipient of the Gladstein Fellowship in Entrepreneurial Rabbinic Leadership, the Myers Foundation Rabbinic Initiative, and the Leffell Israel Rabbinic Fellowship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Rami holds degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he received rabbinic ordination.

Rami can be reached at

–Naomi Harris

VP, Membership


CEH Professionals Attend Family Programming Conference

On October 30, 2018, five CEH staff members attended The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Family Programming Professionals Conference. CEH was represented by Laura Naide, Director of Religious Education; Alexis Joyce, Preschool Director; and Linda Lichtman, Milena Serrato and Ana DeMaree, Preschool Teachers. Altogether more than 50 Jewish professionals from the Greater DC Metro area met to learn and share ideas about family programming.

We started the day with a text study led by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, the Federation’s Scholar-in-Residence. Our text (Brachot 10a) was the basis of a discussion about how we deal with perpetrators of evil. Do we blame the perpetrator? Or do we embrace the idea that every person created by God has the capacity to do good in which case we focus on the sin and restitution/rehabilitation. We were able to share our thoughts on this dilemma in light of the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh.

We next learned from a diverse panel on “Creating an Inclusive Community.” The participants included a same-sex couple with one Jewish and one non-Jewish spouse, a Jewish parent of developmentally-delayed children, and a transgender Jew of color. The panelists shared the best and worst experiences of their Jewish journeys. The overarching messages were: 1) never assume that you know someone else’s journey, and 2) engage the person, not the “category.”

We concluded the morning with two professionals from PJ Library who shared four family engagement principles. First, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” This means that frequent social interaction builds lasting relationships. Second, “Stop, look, and listen.” Make time to reflect on your programming and question it – does it meet family’s needs? Third, “PJ Library is a GPS for parents in the driver’s seat.” While PJ Library and other Jewish institutions can guide, support and incentivize Jewish engagement, parents ultimately choose their destination. And, fourth, “Jewish content, quick and deep.” It is important to offer accessible Jewish content that addresses parents’ deepest needs and inspires them to learn more.

The afternoon was similarly busy, with workshops on experiential programming, building relationships, marketing and family education. At the end of the day, we had the opportunity to meet in small groups and put together action items and follow up with a colleague

This opportunity to learn and build relationships with other Jewish professionals will help us to continue to provide excellent family programming at CEH. This year’s programming, “What’s Jewish About . . . “ provides opportunities for families to learn about life through a Jewish lens at different locations throughout Arlington. We invite you to join us at our next event, “What’s Jewish About Bubbies,” at CEH on Sunday, November 18 at 1:30 PM.

PJ Library offers FREE books delivered to your home for children ages 6 months to 11 years. Visit to sign up.

— Laura Naide & Alexis Joyce, Family Programmers


Shabbat-Hanukkah Party

Our monthly first-Friday night potluck is turning into a Hanukkah party on December 7! And we’re serving up the latkes!

Join us for Shabbat services which begin at 6:15pm and end around 7:30pm. After kiddush and motzi, we’ll serve latkes to complement the potluck, sing songs with Moreh Will and play Hanukkah games. Bring your entire family!

When: Friday, December 7 here at CEH

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED! If you can help serve latkes or lead a Hanukkah game, please contact Naomi Harris at


2018 Artist Expo Recap

On November 4, hundreds of congregants and members of the greater Arlington community attended the 14th Annual Etz Hayim Artist Expo and Bake Sale.

The 14th Annual Etz Hayim Artist Expo and Bake Sale was once again a great success as a fundraiser and community-building activity. On Sunday, November 4, from 11:30am to 4pm, more than 30 vendors filled our converted sanctuary space with fine art photographs, pottery, jewelry, glassworks, Judaica, and so much more.

Several generous artists donated handmade textiles and other items to the raffle, which generated additional funds.

Though the bake sale was scheduled to begin at 11:30, the purchasing and noshing began well before then. Homemade cookies, cakes, challah, and other treats crafted by our own talented congregants earned more than $350 for our synagogue.

New in 2018, religious school families were further enticed to linger after school with opportunities to purchase bagged lunches made by CEH volunteers and free face painting for kids of all ages.

Preliminary estimates show that the artist expo and bake sale earned more than $4,000 for Etz Hayim, and the camaraderie generated was priceless.

Thank you to Naomi Harris and the Malovany family for their leadership and support to make the art expo such a success as well as the scores of volunteers who aided exhibitors, worked in the kitchen, toiled over ovens for the bake sale, and did so much more to execute a marvelous event!

Mike Stein’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Bar Mitzvah Speech

Shabbat shalom. Fifty years ago, I celebrated my bar mitzvah with this sedrah. I read the entire Torah – annual cycle, which I did not inflict on you today – and the haftarah. But I didn’t lead the service as well. And there’s one other thing I didn’t do. Because of the peculiarities of my preparation – we moved from Peoria to Milwaukee just a few months before my bar mitzvah – it never got explained to me that I was supposed to give a d’var Torah. Maybe that turned out for the best, because back then I didn’t have the experience and insight for what I’m about to say. So today I’m going to make up for that omission – in spades. Make yourselves comfortable, because I’m afraid this is going to rise to the level of an actual sermon.

In today’s reading, we have the famous story of the Tower of Bavel, or Babel as it’s more commonly known in English. Supposedly a bunch of people decided to build a city with a tower reaching to heaven. God took exception to this for some unexplainable reason – like they really were going to be able to reach heaven before the air got too thin to breathe, right? – and created all the different languages, so they couldn’t understand one another. And that’s why they stopped building the city and tower and scattered all over the world.

At the risk of being called a heretic, I don’t believe that story. There are many reasons to be skeptical. As I said, what did God have to be upset about? But to me, the main reason is this: people can misunderstand one another perfectly in the same language. Here’s the real story: some people thought the tower to heaven was symbolic, and some thought it was literal, and they got to arguing, and they completely unable to work together, so nothing got done. They split into red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods, and then ….

OK, maybe that’s not what happened either. But I think that’s a lot more likely than the story we read today.

In “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Language is the source of misunderstanding”. That’s a clever turn of phrase, but I don’t believe that either. I think the biggest reason people misunderstand each other is because of the experiences, assumptions, and biases we bring to the conversation. People interpret the words – and the actions – of others through the lens of their own preconceptions.

People do this even when they are ignoring meanings that would be the immediate first choice for an independent newcomer who knew nothing about the speaker. The more we interpret according to our preconceptions, rather than actively listening and seeking the interpretation most favorable to the speaker, the more we build our own tower of Babel.

One reason for misunderstanding is different knowledge. Person A has facts that Person B doesn’t have. Think back – have you ever thought of a time when someone said something that didn’t make sense, until you found out a new piece of information – and then everything made sense? If someone misunderstands you, allow for the possibility that you know something they don’t – or that they know something you don’t. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people”. Be like Ben Zoma. And – a very important point – be willing to admit when you’re wrong. This will be on the test.

Unfortunately, nowadays we increasingly have the phenomenon of people knowing “facts” that aren’t so. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it also permits the unprecedented spread of misinformation. We assume that people are more often honest than dishonest, and we are particularly primed to believe things we are told by friends and family. So, another rule to follow is Abe Lincoln’s famous saying: don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Of course, Lincoln said it – I saw it on the internet! Before you spread the latest “send this to everyone you know” email, check it out. Google. If you can’t find a reliable source for it, it probably is fake news. Don’t spread it. Each bit of misinformation is another brick in the modern Tower of Babel.

Perhaps the most pernicious destroyer of communication: people are
subject to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. We discount things
that don’t agree with our previous beliefs, but take anything that
agrees as further proof of the correctness of our beliefs. There’s a
saying: if you start with the assumption that someone is basically
good, they will probably prove you right. And if you start with the
opposite assumption, that same person will probably also prove you
right. People also hear what they want to hear, and avoid hearing what
they don’t.

Just yesterday I had a perfect example of the combination of this and the problem with the internet. Discussing the allegations against Kavanaugh, a friend of mine on Facebook said that the entire school was talking about it within days of it. I thought she was talking about the Ramirez incident. She said no, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s said it was Ford.

I couldn’t believe this. Why wasn’t it all over the news? So, I did some searching. In a long post, mostly about a priest accused of homosexual misconduct, someone said almost as an afterthought that in his four years at Georgetown Prep, he heard the story Ford was telling repeated dozens of times.

In a later clarification, it turned out that he was there twenty years after Kavanaugh, and all he meant was that he heard stories just like it. But someone heard what they wanted to hear, even though there was plenty of reason to doubt that interpretation. And then it got spread on the internet. And then people start accusing people of lying, and it goes downhill from there.

There’s a saying: never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. I’m going to give you a rather extreme example.

About twenty years ago, websites were not what they are now. There was something called Usenet, a distributed bulletin board. One discussion group was called alt.revisionism. It was a group almost entirely devoted to Holocaust denial.

I was fascinated by this from a sociological perspective. How could these people believe that there was not a deliberate effort by the Nazis to wipe out the Jews? So, I joined the discussions.

As you might expect, there was a lot of overt antisemitism. A lot of the exchanges boiled down to “You’re a liar – no, you’re a liar”. I joined in the discussions and refrained from name-calling. I just posted facts, with sources. I got to know some of the “revisionists”, as they styled themselves. And I saw there were differences among them – they were not all just anti-Semites looking for one more way to smear Jews. A lot were, don’t get me wrong, but not all.

Some were ethnic Germans who were psychologically in denial. They could not believe that Germans could do such a horrible thing. It threatened their sense of self as a civilized nation.

Another person never expressed any animus towards Jews. After I learned more of his background, I would say he had what I might call a Don Quixote complex. He had a thing for attaching himself to hopeless causes, the lonely seeker after truth.

One of the most surreal experiences of my life was having dinner with Robert Faurisson, a Frenchman who was one of the leading Holocaust deniers. Also, at that dinner was the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, as well as the Don Quixote type I mentioned previously, who had invited me. Faurisson and I got on OK until I contradicted him – with a statement made by a different Holocaust denier! At that point it’s as if I became a non-person to him.

But the reason I mention all of this is because of one final character, and what happened between us. He was an actual, self-professed Nazi. During one discussion, he said something rather garbled. It made no sense to me. I posted that it was crazy.
The next day, though, I reconsidered. I looked again at what he wrote and found an interpretation that wasn’t crazy.

I posted an apology. Yes, to a Nazi. I stated my new understanding of what he had said, and said that while I disagreed with it, I couldn’t call it crazy. I said, “I don’t know if this will make any difference to him, but it does to me.” To my surprise, he responded to my message. “Actually, it does.”

He is no longer a Nazi. No, it didn’t happen in a blinding flash because of that exchange. But I would like to think that that little unexpected understanding – and my willingness to admit publicly that I was wrong (told you it was going to be on the test) – might have opened a small chink in his mental armor, one that over time grew, and allowed his personal Tower of Babel to crumble.

We live in some pretty scary times. Towers of Babel are going up all around us. Please don’t help build them higher. There are certainly evil people in the world. But there are also misguided people in the world, or ignorant, or mistaken. Try to stay open to the difference. We say that God keeps open the gates of repentance. Let us always do what we can to keep open the gates of understanding. Shabbat shalom.