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Jaguar Attack and Halacha

Living in New Orleans in the mid-70s, I remember the Audubon Zoo as a frightful nightmare. The animals were housed in old-fashioned cages and a visit to the zoo was hardly fun. All that changed toward the end of the 70s when major changes were implemented and the zoo evolved over time into one of the premier zoos worldwide. With those improvements we loved visiting the zoo, as do my children until this day. My mother’s Audubon Institute membership card is responsible for many exciting days for her grandchildren from around the country.

I am not going to get into the morality of zoos and whether animals should be housed in captivity or not; as I do not know enough about the subject to offer intelligent commentary.

This week’s incident with Valerio, the Jaguar that escaped and went on a mauling rampage resulting in the death of nine animals, got me thinking about a related Halachic connection. Six of the animals were killed right away and the other three died within days as a result of their injuries.

One of the conditions that can render an animal non-Kosher (unfit for consumption) is called Trefah. This means that the animal suffers from a condition that threatens it health and life. There are many different causes and types of circumstances that can designate an animal as Trefah. One of them is called Derusah – mauling by a wild animal. Halacha discusses the criteria of Derusah depending on the species of the aggressor. A lion and similar sized cat has the capacity to maul even a large animal such as a bull thereby threatening its Kosher status. One of the areas of discussion is whether the animal can survive after the mauling for an extended period of time. There are different Halachic methods used to make the determination.

Initially after the jaguar incident, some of the animals that had been mauled were projected to survive. Within two days all three of them died, including the fox that was in stable condition. This really drove home to me the Halacha on full display about the impact that mauling has on the long term viability of the animals that survive. Just another example of seeing the world through the lenses of Torah.

On a different note… This Shabbat is Tisha B’av and so the fast is delayed to Sunday. Usually the meal that we eat before the fast is eaten in a mournful state; bread and eggs dipped in ashes, while sitting on a low stool all by oneself. However because on Shabbat no public display of mourning is allowed, the meal before the fast can include even meat and wine. When Tisha B’av falls out this way, we get a taste of Redemption when the fast will be abolished and transformed into a celebration. May we indeed experience that transformation this year so Tisha B’av will be celebrated as the Festival of Redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Friendship in Action

Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa, one of the early Chasidic masters, developed a reputation as a prodigy at a very young age. Scholars who came to visit his father vied for the privilege to discuss Torah topics with him. Once a group of scholars were visiting and his father asked him to prepare a scholarly presentation on the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests. Young Bunim went to the next room, ostensibly to prepare his Dvar Torah. A while later he returned. Curiously he asked his father and the guests to join him in the next room. When they entered they saw a room with beds prepared for gusts to spend the night. Instead of talking, he demonstrated the Mitzvah through action.

During these three weeks of commemoration for the destruction of the Temple, there is an emphasis on Ahavat Yisrael and Achdut Yisrael – love and unity among the Jewish people. This is to mitigate the baseless hatred and divisiveness that was a primary cause for the destruction. There are a lot of teachings that explain the value of love, unity and friendship. Enough to fill three weeks’ worth of Dvar Torahs and beyond. And then there are those who demonstrate with actions!

I experienced this type of friendship recently. Although he may get upset at me for publicly acknowledging it, I am ready to take the heat so that others learn from his example.

Yesterday, Yochanan and I were on a reconnaissance mission for the New Orleans Eruv project. We were surveying certain trouble spots that were identified as areas that need to be addressed. We were driving between Orpheum and Airline Dr. at the Parish line on Cecil St. We got out to survey that corner and then needed to head back toward Orpheum. We spotted a dirt road that could get us there without having to go all the way around Airline and back. In an ill-advised move we took the road. About halfway through, the car got stuck in the gravel mixed with mud. We tried to get it out but we just dug ourselves deeper into the rut. I told Yochanan to call AAA and then headed back to Airline to flag down a truck to give us a push out. It was hot and sunny. The first truck I stopped – the driver said he was on company GPS and couldn’t go off of his designated route. The second truck was a JP public works truck. The driver said he drove there all of the time but he didn’t want to risk anything because of liability and permission. He offered to call the Fire Dept… Finally an hour later the tow truck came from AAA. After driving halfway toward our car the driver decided that he didn’t want to risk getting his truck stuck so he left and said that he asked dispatch to get us a different kind of vehicle.

We were at wits end. Nearly two hours in the heat; tired, thirsty and sunburned. At that point Yochanan called our friend Adam Stross. As soon as he heard he jumped into his truck and was on the way. He tried pushing the car out but it didn’t work. He went and bought a chain, hooked it up to car and yanked it out.

We are still waiting to the second AAA truck…

Some people talk about friendship while others just do it!

Thanks buddy! We appreciate your friendship!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Speak Up

While the vast majority of the Mitzvot are initiated by G-d via His command through Moshe, there are several Mitzvot that were conveyed in response to human initiative. A notable example is in this week’s Parsha with respect to the Mitzvah of inheritance.

The land is being divided amongst the tribes and families. Five sisters approach Moshe with a claim. They are the daughters of Tzelafchad, Machla, Noa, Chagla, Milka and Tirtza. Their claim was that in the absence of male children, their father’s portion would be lost unless they were awarded his portion as rightful heirs. Moshe had a momentary memory lapse on the law of inheritance and he brought their claim to Hashem. In response, the Mitzvah containing the laws of inheritance was conveyed and they were awarded the portion of land.

Why is it that of all of the Mitzvot of the Torah, Moshe would forget this one? Our sages explain (cited by Rashi in our Parsha) that the five sisters merited to have the Mitzvah conveyed through their initiative because of the great love that they expressed for the land of Israel. They were from the tribe of Menashe son of Yosef. Their ancestor Yosef had already demonstrated a love for the land by ensuring that his coffin would be brought there for burial when the Jews left Egypt. Indeed his burial place in Shechem is known until this day. Apparently this trait was passed down in the family. The five sisters absorbed this attachment to Eretz Yisrael and it surfaced in our story. Contrast this with the disdain expressed for the land by the men of the previous generation during the saga of the spies. Parenthetically, this is one of the areas of Jewish life and history where the women outshone the men with their devotion and faith.

What would have happened had they not spoken up? Would we never have been given this set of laws? Highly unlikely. In fact the Midrash comments on the verse where G-d affirms the claim of Tzelafchad’s daughters, “This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high.” As if to say, the passage was ready to be conveyed as a Mitzvah and they merited to be the means by which is was done. Yet, unlike other times, the Mitzvah did in fact come through their initiative. This teaches us that Hashem values initiative. There are times that He would rather things develop from below. Certainly the initiative must be within the context of Hashem’s will as conveyed through Moshe. We can’t just make up our own rules and principles. If the plan had been nixed by Hashem through Moshe then they would know that they were mistaken. But it wasn’t nixed and they had been justified. The result is they merited to be associated with this Mitzvah for the rest of history.

If one has an idea, an observation, a suggestion or something similar, speak up. One never knows if their initiative can change the course of history. This is also the answer to those who criticize the Rebbe’s approach to incessantly praying for and demanding the Redemption through Moshiach. They say that it is up to Hashem anyway so why bother? Imagine if the daughters of Tzelafchad would have just resigned themselves and not spoken up? On the contrary, Hashem appreciates and values initiative. In this case we take the initiative to press the issue until we experience the Redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Alone but not Aloof

A Jew living in Berlin is the 1930s would go each morning to a café and order coffee and a copy of Der Sturmer (Nazi propaganda newspaper). His friends asked him how he could bring himself to read that vile publication. He replied, “When I read the Jewish papers, I learn of all of the negative things befalling our people. Der Stumer tells me how we are on top of the world, we control the banks, the media, the arts etc.”

In this Parsha, one of our greatest enemies, Bilaam, proclaims some of the most eloquent praises of the Jewish people. One of them “a people that dwells alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” This refers to the “otherness” of the Jewish people. (For more on this, see earlier post entitled Embracing Our Otherness -

I would like to suggest that there is also a personal application of this idea for each of us. There is a tension that is generated when we attempt to integrate our studies, faith and practice with our mundane human activities. On one hand we come to appreciate the beauty of G-dliness and spirituality. This can lead us to spurn the pursuit of material or physical experiences. We may endeavor to “float” slightly above the mundane so that we are not caught up in the earthliness of day to day life. On the other hand, we are enjoined by G-d to make this world G-dly – a dwelling for the Divine. This can only be achieved by engaging the very earthliness we are attempting to escape.

I recently heard a talk given by a colleague, in which he referenced an enigmatic Kabbalistic passage that was quoted by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was citing a talk by his father, the Rebbe Rashab. The author of the passage is R’ Shamshon Ostropolier, a mystic who was murdered during the Chelminicki massacres of 1648. He writes (paraphrasing from Hebrew) “It is good to have isolation while among people and solitude within your fellow men.” The Rebbe Rashab declared that this passage contained the underlying current of all of Chassidus.

Is he advocating for the isolation and solitude of escapism? First of all that does not fit with Chabad philosophy of engaging the world to transform it into a dwelling for Hashem. Secondly, his isolation is “among people” and his solitude is “within your fellow men.” Those qualifications do not suggest escapism or the life of a hermit. So what is the meaning; and how does it reflect the very core of Chabad doctrines?

He is teaching us how to resolve the aforementioned tension. He is giving us the secret to surviving the paradox of being a Jew who loves G-d and cleaves to Him, while living very much in 2018 and making the most of what modern advancements have to offer. We must be “among people” and “within our fellow men” while at the same time be isolated and in solitude. We speak the language of the 21st century while our hearts and souls are connected to an ancient source. We are present and in the moment, but we remember that it is for a purpose. We engage, but only in order to sublimate and transform. Bearing this in mind, we never allow the worldliness or earthliness to define or control us. On the contrary, we define it.

This then is the application of the passage from Bilaam, a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations. We live “among the nations” and are very much a part of this world. But we remain alone. We remember that we have a real self that propels us to hover above while simultaneously “remaining within.” When we live this way, we are assured to be successful in our mission of making this world a dwelling for the Divine!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin




A Life of Happiness and Good Fortune

Malkie and I are very touched by all of the blessings and good wishes extended to us on the occasion of our daughter, Mushka’s recent marriage to Yossi Cohen. Marrying off a child is an intense experience, especially the first one. Thank G-d the wedding was wonderful and, again we are grateful for those who graced us with their blessings both in person and from afar.

There are certain standard forms of blessing that the Rebbe wrote to people in honor of a wedding. One of those is the Hebrew phrase “Chaim Me’usharim Bakol.” Chaim means life. Bakol means in all. Me’usharim is hard to translate. It is the plural form of Me’ushar, which is the verb form of a combination of happiness and good fortune. So the blessing could be rendered as “A life of happiness and good fortune in all.”

On the morning of the wedding Malkie and I took Mushka to visit the Rebbe’s Ohel. As we stood there praying for our daughter’s future, I contemplated the meaning of this blessing, Chaim Me’usharim Bakol. At first glance it seems a bit cliché. We wish a young couple happiness. But happiness is subjective. What if they are too immature to know what true happiness is? Or what is they are so mature that they are happy with very little? That is why we add good fortune to the mix. This is more objective. On the other hand, good fortune does not guarantee happiness. One has to also come to appreciate what good fortune is as it comes from the Source of all Blessing. So the Rebbe combines the two together. And he then adds Bakol, in all. If a person has happiness and good fortune in all, health, prosperity, a peaceful marriage, healthy children, spiritual fulfillment and a purposeful life, this is indeed an all-encompassing worthy blessing.  

As they stand at the very beginning of their lives together, we wish our daughter and son-in-law, to quote the Rebbe, Chaim Me’usharim Bakol, a life of happiness and good fortune in all and the wisdom to appreciate it! They began their marriage surrounded by the love of family and friends, the spirituality of our sacred marriage customs, and the holiness of a chupah in the shadow of 770, the place from which the Rebbe taught, inspired and blessed so many. May this serve as a beautiful and solid foundation upon which they build their lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


It's All About Love

I am sure you think that this message with that headline will be about my daughter’s upcoming marriage. I certainly wish Mushka and Yossi Mazel Tov along with a marriage and life full of love for each other, Hashem, the Torah and other people. However my message today is about a different angle of love. I refer to the love that drives our relationship with Hashem and with each other. I refer to the love the fuels the relationship of a Rebbe and his Chassidim.

The Zohar says that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai considered love to be the primary force of the connection between Hashem and the Jewish people. He cites the verse, “I love you, says Hashem.” The Talmud explains this verse as Hashem saying, “either way (whether they keep the Torah or not) they are my children.”

Tanya teaches that the ultimate motivation for a Jew to observe the Torah is out of a love for Hashem. Then it’s not about fear of consequence or anticipation of reward. When you love someone you are devoted to what they want.

Next week is the 3rd of Tammuz, the day 24 years ago that the Rebbe was taken from us in a physical sense. Yet the intensity of the relationship between the Rebbe and the Chassidim is very profound. Someone once asked the Rebbe if he thought that the Chassidim’s devotion to him was a little over the top. The Rebbe replied, “It is merely a reflection of the love I have for them.”

In that spirit I would like to share a story about the Previous Rebbe. In 1945, upon hearing reports from Holocaust survivors about the experiences of the war, he experienced a major medical event, which further impacted his already compromised capacity to move and speak. One afternoon in 1946 the nurse observed that he was moving his lips and making jerking movements. She quickly summoned members of the family out of concern for his health and well-being. His son-in-law (our Rebbe) came and bent over to hear what he was saying. He stood up and said that everything was fine and they can leave him alone. He related that he heard his father-in-law whispering the words of Az Yashir, the song the Jews sang after crossing the Red Sea while moving his feet as if he were traveling.

Some time later, word came to New York that the first group of Russian Jews had managed to escape Russia using forged Polish passports, allowing them to take advantage of the tiny window of escape from the USSR after WWII. This was very risky and anyone that was caught suffered greatly as a result. The time that their train crossed the border was the very moment that the Previous Rebbe was whispering and walking in place. Sitting across the Atlantic, paralyzed and ill, the Previous Rebbe sensed that his Chassidim were undergoing something perilous. He was praying for them and vicariously “traveling with them” from afar.

This is the love that the Rebbe referred to and this is the love that is reciprocated by the Chassidim. This is a powerful energy. I wish that we should all be able to experience it and, more importantly, capitalize on it to accomplish wonderful things for ourselves and the world.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of Phyllis Kaufmann. She and her husband Ray, OBM, were respected members of the New Orleans Jewish community. We got to know them through their sons, David (Dr. Kaufmann OBM) and Avram (may he live and be well). In addition to being a wonderful Bubby and community member, Mrs. Kaufmann possessed a measure of wisdom that enabled her to advise people in many areas. She was a great proponent of education and a staunch supporter of Torah Academy. Her warmth and insight will be missed. May her family take comfort in the positive impact she had on so many.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Governor's Mansion Goes Kosher

This past Tuesday, through the efforts of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council, John Bel Edwards, the Governor of the State of Louisiana, hosted an event honoring the special relationship between Louisiana and Israel. A little lagniappe came during the event when the governor signed an Executive Order prohibiting the state from doing business with companies that boycott Israel, becoming the 25th state to reject BDS. Present also was Consul General of Israel, Gilad Katz. A big shout out to all the folks at the Federation that worked hard to make this happen.

In a unique twist, the elegant event was fully Kosher, catered by Rabbi Peretz and Mushka Kazen, of Chabad of Baton Rouge. This is a refreshing development under the current leadership of the Jewish Federation to invest greater effort in ensuring that Federation events are Kosher. Yasher Koach to CEO Arnie Fielkow and President Henry Miller for spearheading the more inclusive trend at the Federation.

This also reflects a national trend. Chabad has been called on to oversee the Kashrut at quite a few government sponsored events, including the White House Chanukah Party over the past few administrations. It also demonstrates that one need not compromise elegance for Kosher. Kosher food is not just gefilte fish and a barrel of pickles. Short of a handful of ingredients, almost any dish can be made Kosher. Getting the word out on this is vital to the campaign for Kosher awareness.

So pats on the back all around to everyone involved on all fronts. This was a good day for being Jewish in Louisiana.

This week, Jackie Gothard passed away. Most people rightfully associate her with Beth Israel, especially post-Katrina. I would like to share a different memory. In early 1976, just a few months after arriving to establish Chabad in New Orleans, my parents, Rabbi Zelig and Bluma Rivkin, acquired a property on Freret St. for the new Chabad House.

The Chabad House would serve the Jewish student population at Tulane as well as the general community. The grand opening was set for Purim night. Judge Sol and Jackie Gothard served as the hosts for that event, launching over four decades of friendship. May her memory be for a blessing for her family and all those who knew her.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Science and Faith Converge at the Doctor's Office

This past week we had the pleasure and privilege to hear from Yossi Goodman, a man with an astounding story of salvation through Divine Intervention. Briefly, Yossi was plowed over by a drunk driver going 60 MPH. He was thrown 70 feet through the air and landed in a pool of blood with his head smashed and legs and torso broken beyond belief. He was brought to the hospital where his parents were advised not to waste a room or machines by hooking him up to life support. A neurologist, who was a declared atheist, told his mother that he had never seen a case this bad and there was no hope. His parents, with the support of the community and prayers from all over the world, along with the advice and blessing of the Rebbe, elected to fight for his life. Many procedures and disheartening and scary moments later, he emerged from the danger and started to mend. He made a complete recovery, leads a normal life, ran a marathon, got married and has two children, (one of whom was born in the same hospital room in which he lay comatose) and shares his story all over the world. The only remnant of his ordeal is the mark on his throat where they punctured it to insert the tracheal tube. As he was leaving the hospital, months after the accident, the neurologist came over to his parents and declared, “I now believe there is a G-d, because medically there was no way for this to happen.”

This story got me thinking about the role of doctors from a religious standpoint. If G-d is the healer why do we go to doctors? If doctors are the healers, do they have the right to make blanket pronouncements about the case? If not, where does the doctor fit into the G-d’s plan for our health and wellbeing?

Clearly the Torah instructs us to use the services of a doctor. To quote the sages of the Talmud, “G-d gave permission to doctors to heal.” Since G-d created this world to operate within the natural order (primarily), therefore we do what we can within nature to resolve our issues. So when we are sick we seek medical care. At the same time, we believe, that just as all of nature is really the hidden Hand of G-d, so to with medical care. G-d works through the agency of the physician to bring us the blessing of healing. Since we are instructed to work within the natural order, we seek the best possible care, just like we do our best to earn a living and the like.

Within this context the role of the doctor is clearer. The doctor needs to view himself or herself as an agent of G-d. Doctors must do the best they can within nature to heal. A doctor who combines medical expertise with faith has the most optimal tools for success. I know a surgeon who has told me that at times she steps back from a procedure for a moment to say the Shema and pray for G-d’s help for success.

However, when they have exhausted the options available to them, it is not within their purview to declare that there is no hope. Rather they should say, that there is nothing left we can do medically. But G-d is not bound by the rules of nature or medicine and miracles can happen. This then is the role of prayer and good deeds for the sake of the person who needs the blessing of healing. By seeking the best medical care along with calling out to G-d for salvation we can give ourselves the best chance for achieving our goal of healing.

May we all be blessed with good health and prosperity for a long a happy life!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Will The Real Lag B'omer Please Stand Up

Today is Lag B’omer, a day typically and traditionally celebrated outdoors. There are often bonfires and bows & arrows. Since the 1940s, the custom of Lag B’omer Parades has grown and expanded.

Lag B’omer marks the day that the plague killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ceased. It also marks the day that one of his subsequent students, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, returned his soul to his Maker. On his deathbed, he instructed his disciples to mark his Yahrtzeit as a day of festivity - celebrating the teachings of Kabbala and the ascension of his soul on High.

A common modern misconception introduces a connection of Lag B’omer to another historical event – the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century. This is was made even more popular with the rise of secular Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, when an association with historical Jewish warriors was sought.

While both Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during that period, and Rabbi Akiva was, initially, a fervent supporter of Bar Kochba, drawing a connection to Jewish war heroism is a blatant diversion from what Lag B’omer is all about.

Rabbi Akiva’s support for Bar Kochba was based on the supposition that this revolt was a physical expression of the spiritual rise of the Jewish people. He even presumed Bar Kochba to be Mashiach. That support came to an abrupt end after Bar Kochba declared that “we don’t need G-d on our side. As long as G-d doesn’t support the enemy we will be ok.” Rabbi Akiva realized that the revolt was entirely divorced of a spiritual context and was therefore doomed to failure.

This is the exact opposite of the theme of Lag B’omer. Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon had reached the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement. They studied and taught under the most challenging of circumstances and yet, are responsible for bringing the vast body of the Oral Tradition to the Jewish people via the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar. Lag B’omer is about the powerful light of the inner teachings of the Torah. Lag B’omer is about discovering the powerful unity that Jews experience through Torah and Mitzvot. Lag B’omer is about an intensified devotion to Hashem and His purpose for our existence. Lag B’omer is about ascendancy of the spirit; the superiority of form over matter. Reducing it to a celebration of Jewish military heroics is akin to an arrow not only missing the bullseye, but missing the target altogether.

The bonfires are a symbol of the great light of Jewish mystical wisdom. The bow & arrow symbolize the righteousness of Rabbi Shimon and his followers. Jewish mystics and Chassidic masters have traditionally utilized the spiritual power of this day to perform many miracles. For the Chabad Rebbes, the blessings of Lag B’omer had a specific focus on the area of fertility. Many childless couples were blessed on this day and merited to have a child.

May we utilize this holy day properly and experience the spiritual strength it can give us!

Happy Lag B’omer and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Positive National Coverage

We are conditioned to seeing New Orleans, and NOLA related institutions, get trashed in the national media. Well I am happy to share some positive coverage for a NOLA institution in one of the most prominent and popular Jewish websites,

In connection with the 36 hour campaign that is currently running to benefit the students of Torah Academy, is featuring a wonderful exposure for the school and the community. It is a story that does a great job highlighting the challenges of getting the school back up and running after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, paired with the amazing current achievements of the school, along with the exciting projections for the school’s future.

The full article can be read at It is also featured in the news section below. I will be excerpting a few key passages from the article as well.

In the meantime, the 36 hour campaign to raise $255,000, has passed the 50% mark with contributions from over 300 individuals. We need each and every one of you to help us reach our goal by 9 PM this evening. Each dollar that you contribute will be tripled by a group of generous matchers. Please go to to make your donation and to follow the exciting developments of the campaign. Participating in this campaign will literally, without exaggeration, help shape a positive future for our NOLA Jewish community.

Interviewed in the article are: Chanie Nemes, Yochanan Rivkin, Rivkie Chesney, Orit Naghi and Naomi Smith. Here are some excerpts. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

“In 2005, things were looking up at the New Orleans Torah Academy, with an unprecedented 60 children enrolled. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything changed. Homes, businesses, highways and schools—nothing was spared… For years, streets that had once teemed with life were lined with a never-ending supply of mold-splotched sheetrock and rotten bedding, as the city struggled to dry out, clean up and get back on its feet. The original school building was so heavily damaged by the storm that it needed to be demolished. There were hardly any students anyway; most families had moved away and never returned…

It took more than a decade of building, planning and hoping, but today the school—now located in an airy, state-of-the-art facility—has seen its largest enrollment ever and looks forward to even more children in the years to come. (CN)

“We believed that having an inviting, modern and spacious facility would attract people to the school. Five years ago, I posted on Facebook that the school could have 80 students by 2018. At the time, it seemed like fanciful thinking, but thanks to our dedicated and creative staff and lots of Divine assistance, it is becoming a reality.” (YR)

“This is a school where every child—and every parent—is important. When my son started, there were eight children in his class; now there are 14 in his kindergarten/first grade. The staff greet the children like friends because that is what they truly are, devoted to every single child.” (ON)

“I had faith from the beginning that this school was going to grow. Everything we do is research-based, and the practices are top of the line. Our wonderful staff-student ratio allows us to focus on every child, and watch them develop academically and socially. There is a very positive environment, which feels like a family. If someone needs help, there will always be someone there to help them. Larger schools cannot offer that degree of attention and customization.” (NS)

My friends, whether you know it or not, and whether you recognize it or not, Torah Academy is one of the crown jewels of our NOLA Jewish community, producing students who are committed Jews, productive citizens, and future leaders. They have a diverse student body and a devoted staff that is second to none. Simply put, the decision to invest in Torah Academy should be a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the future of our community, and who is broad-minded enough to examine the reality of what the school achieves each year.

Get involved by going to and make a difference for our future.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Developing Young Supporters of Israel

One of the issues facing the Jewish establishment today is bridging the gap between young Jews and Israel. Young Jews who are socially conscious are becoming increasingly disconnected from, and even hostile toward Israel. We needn’t look further than our own community, where a group of Jews led the effort to hoodwink the city council into passing the “BDS” bill earlier this year. Beyond the open hostility, a significant percentage of young Jews are, at best, ambivalent toward Israel. They no longer see their destiny as socially conscious humans, or even as Jews, as being linked to Israel. On the contrary they (mistakenly IMO) see Israel as an aggressor whose “apartheid” policies are discriminating against the persecuted minority. Pride in Israel’s accomplishments in all areas of human advancement, has been replaced by shame at the supposed colonialist and racist methods of dealing with the issues.

While we can and should argue the issues point and by point, demonstrating how the arguments are often fallacious and misleading, the success of that approach is diminishing from day to day. They are being inundated by other view-points that are more in the vogue in today’s world, and are, by and large, tuning out the mostly impotent attempts at “hasbara.”

So what is the alternative solution? Statistics and recent demographic studies have shown, that the segment of Jewish society that is most unconditionally supportive of the Jewish right to a presence in Israel, are those who are being raised in traditionally observant environments. Why is this so?

Because this child is raised in a home and school where Israel is presented as a place that is a gift from G-d to the Jewish people. They are shown the holiness of Israel, and how it is the very place in which the narratives of the Bible occurred. They are taught the special Mitzvot connected to the land. They are exposed to the closeness to G-d that one can feel there. They are imbued with a love for the Jewish people and are thus intensely concerned with their safety in Israel. In short, they view Israel in the context of the entire Torah, Mitzvot and Jewish religion.

So Israel is not just a beautiful place with advanced technology, gritty determined inhabitants and an underrated military. It is the holy land. Israel is not just a place with great beaches and disco clubs. It is the only place where certain Mitzvot can be performed. Our right to the land is not just because of a nationalist ideal for Jewish self-determination, the holocaust, and a few successful wars. It is ours because Hashem gave it to our ancestors and us as an eternal heritage. Israel is not just a place that has a crazy political system, competitive universities and western looking cities. It is the land where thousands of years of Jewish history as recorded in the Torah took place. One can walk where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked. One can move over the very earth that Kings David and Solomon traversed. One can be on the spot where prophets like Samuel and Isaiah gave over the word of G-d. Once can travel the roads upon which thousands of our ancestors journeyed to make their thrice annual pilgrimage to the Holy Temple.

This doesn’t mean that they will be 100 percent supportive of every policy of the Israeli government and society, nor should they. But it does likely mean that they will be 100 percent supportive of the Jewish connection and right to a safe and protected presence in Israel, as they should.

Here in New Orleans there is a school that is educating and developing children in this manner. I am proud to be a parent of children attending Torah Academy. In my estimation, there are few more worthy areas of investment of Jewish funds than the area of authentic Jewish education. You want to make sure that there are youth supporting Israel? Support Torah Academy! You want to make sure there are young people committed to Jewish continuity? Support Torah Academy.

Torah Academy is going to be having an exciting fundraising campaign next week. There will be a 36 hour push, called #ThinkBigNola, during which every dollar contributed will be tripled by a group of generous matchers. Running next Wednesday and Thursday. Please look out for more information by email and on social media. If you would like to pre-pledge to the campaign or volunteer at the campaign center, please contact Rabbi Chesney at or 504-456-6429.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Thoughts on Holocaust Remembrance

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I would like to share two brief thoughts on Holocaust Remembrance.

1. When the state of Israel established Yom HaShoah, they chose this date because it coincided with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. At that time, the prevalent attitude in the fledgling state was to lionize those heroes who fought back against the Nazis, whilst at the same time there was a subtle shame and even disdain for those that went to their deaths “like sheep.” I believe this attitude has shifted somewhat over the years, but it still warrants addressing.

Those that fought back and took Nazis down with them, or even escaped and survived, are certainly heroes to be admired. This does not mean that the others, the six million “kedoshim” holy souls, were just sheep who were led to slaughter. There are many types of heroes. Some are heroic on the physical plane, and some on the soul plane. There are countless stories of heroes who kept their heads held high and refused to be degraded to the subhuman level. How many heroes in the camps gave their last crust of bread or drop of energy to uplift the spirits of those around them? How many heroes went to their deaths declaring their faith in G-d and redemption in the face of the horrific efforts to break their spirits? How many heroes risked their own wellbeing to save someone else from harm? How many heroes brought the light of mitzvot and holidays to the darkest corners of the planet? Rather than being ashamed, G-d forbid, of those who perished without taking up arms to fight, we must remember them with pride and learn from their example of how to make the most of life, down to the very last breath.

2. Contemplating the tragic events of the Holocaust has sometimes led to people questioning the existence of G-d. The question of how could G-d allow the Holocaust to happen, is very valid. It is an issue that cannot and should not be justified in any way. Indeed, I do not believe that any human being can supply a satisfactory answer to this question. Yet, at the same time, I believe that events such as the Holocaust should actually reinforce our belief and awareness of the existence of an Omnipotent and Al-mighty G-d.

In all of the arguments about proofs for the existence of G-d, the most powerful one, in my opinion, is the survival of the Jewish people. By every natural law our people should have long been relegated to the ash-heap of history. Throughout the four millennia since the founding of our people, the most powerful nations attempted to annihilate us. As a matter of fact, every several hundred years a third of our people were massacred. We were only sovereign in our land for a sliver of our history. The rest of the time we have wandered and have been tossed from place to place, hated and oppressed. We were blamed and persecuted for every problem that the world faced. Yet somehow, despite all of the challenges, we have survived and even thrived. Some of our greatest contributions to society and to Judaism came under extreme difficult circumstances. The only valid and logical explanation is that there is a G-d and He has a vested interest in our survival. This should give us hope and encouragement as we move forward to what we anticipate to be the brightest chapter in our story, the imminent redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Inflated, Deflated and Healthy Egos

The most important “ritual item” at the Seder is the Matzah. We eat Matzah because that is what Hashem commanded us (even before we left Egypt – along with the original Pesach lamb), as well as to commemorate the exodus and the dough they carried out that did not have the opportunity to rise. Conceptually Matzah is also associated with humility, as it is dough that is not allowed to rise.

If bread that rises is connected to an inflated ego, then it would seem that even more compelling that Matzah should be bread made from a grain that cannot rise at all on its own, such as rice or millet. Yet the Talmud clearly instructs that a grain that cannot become Chametz (leavened), may not be used to make Matzah. Only grain that has the potential to rise can be used for Matzah, in which rising is restricted. This is an interesting wrinkle in the arrogance vs. humility dynamic.

With respect to grain there are three possibilities, grain that cannot rise on its own, grain that can rise but is restricted from doing so, grain that can rise and does. Similarly when it comes to the ego there are three possibilities. There is an inflated ego (Chametz), a deflated ego (grain that cannot rise), and a healthy ego (Matzah).

What is the difference between the deflated ego and the healthy ego? Deflated ego is reflected in people who do not possess a sense of self-worth. They are lowly in their own eyes. These types of folks cannot achieve much. A “healthy ego” would be people who are aware of their positive qualities while at the same time recognizing that they are gifts from G-d and nothing to boast about. These are people with a strong sense of self-worth and the confidence to accomplish their goals.

On Pesach our job is to rid ourselves of arrogance and inflated ego, but not to get to a state of lowliness. Matzah is the perfect balance. In fact Chametz – inflated ego, is often as much as an indication of lack of self-worth as lowliness. It is just that in this case, the ego is inflated to compensate for the missing confidence, whereas in the case of a deflated ego the result is lowliness. A healthy state is the one where people have the confidence to do what Hashem wants them to, without letting it “go to their heads.”

We are not doormats. We are empowered by G-d to accomplish a lot and change the world. Yet we are always cognizant that the empowerment comes from Hashem alone, and we therefore do not attribute our successes to ourselves. Sometimes we need an ego check to ensure that we are staying on track. That is one of the dimensions of the Pesach holiday.

If you are still looking for a place for the seders, please contact Rabbi Nemes at Chabad Metairie – 504-454-2910 or

Wishing you a kosher, happy and meaningful Pesach!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Three Torahs - Triple the Love

This coming Shabbat we will experience something that is fairly uncommon in Jewish life, three Torahs will be taken from the ark and read. Usually we use only one Torah. On special days we use two Torahs. Three Torahs are used on Simchat Torah. There are three other occasions when three Torahs are used depending on calendrical quirks. When Chanukah, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh Tevet coincide, when Rosh Chodesh Adar and Shabbat coincide (we add parshat Shekalim), and when Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Shabbat coincide, as it does this year. We will read the weekly Parsha – Vayikra, the section for Rosh Chodesh, and Parshat Hachodesh (the section about the Pesach offering).

Even children, who do not necessarily comprehend what is being read in the Torah, recognize that something special is going on in Shul, when they see three Torahs being removed from the ark. The can line up to kiss not one, not two, but three Torahs as they pass through the Synagogue.

Why is this so special? The Torah represents many things to the Jewish people. It is our history, our heritage, our guide for G-dly living, some of the most profound wisdom available to humankind, and much more. One of the most important of all is, that Torah is a symbol of G-d’s love for the Jewish people. The Torah is described in Talmud, Midrash and Kabbala as one of the most precious entities in G-d’s possession. The greatest expression of love that G-d ever demonstrated was to give this most precious gift to our people.

Think about the words of the blessings we recite when reading the Torah. “Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah… Who has given us the Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us…” The depth of G-d’s love for us was, and is, on full display with the giving of the Torah. So each individual Torah scroll is a symbol of that deep love. When three Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark – that is Hashem’s love in triplicate. Love so deep must elicit a reciprocal love from us to Hashem. Consequently, when three Torah scrolls are removed from the ark – that is also triple the love rebounding from us to G-d.

Last week an elderly woman, who’d been living in a senior’s facility for years, passed away. Adele Cahn was quite involved in the Jewish community in her younger years, but the last few years she led a somewhat reclusive life at Lambeth House. Chabad offers quite a bit of programming at Lambeth House, including monthly and holiday events, but Adele declined to come out to participate. Every Rosh Hashanah a delegation of adults and children (usually led by Adam Stross and Saadya Kaufmann) walk from Chabad to Lambeth House to sound the shofar for the Jewish residents there. After sounding the Shofar for the group that gathered, they would go to the rooms of the residents who were unable to come down. Each year Adele Cahn would receive the delegation in her room, and delight in the ability to participate. It was one of the highlights of her time there. She will be missed. We are proud to know that our annual delegation was able to give her that joy, making her last years a little more meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Does Spiritual = G-dly?

How many times have we heard someone we know (maybe even ourselves) state, “I am not religious/observant, but I am spiritual.” What does that mean? I am not sure I can divine (no pun intended) what each person means with that statement, but let’s try to define the terms on a literal as well as colloquial basis.

Spiritual is defined in the dictionary as, A. Related to the spirit as opposed to material or physical. B. Related to religion or a religious belief. This would imply that in order to be spiritual one has to either, A. Believe in a soul or spirit. B. Accept a religious belief. Colloquially, the definition of spiritual has been expanded to include a quest for personal meaning and growth, an inner dimension and “sacred space” outside of the confines of organized religion. Often, but not always, the colloquial definition would be applied by people who believe in G-d, but don’t accept that a particular “organized religious path” is the truest way to connect with G-d.

Let’s take a look at what Judaism (granted a somewhat organized religion), within the context of Chasidism, has to say about this. Kabbala teaches and Chassidus echoes the teaching, that Hashem is beyond the grasp of the finite, and that humans through their own efforts could never achieve a connection. Therefore G-d gave us tools, which are invested with the power of the infinite, to enable us to bridge the gap. These tools are called Mitzvot. In addition to meaning a commandment, Mitzvah is also etymologically associated with the Aramaic – Tzavta – meaning connection. Within this paradigm, the only, and I repeat, only possible manner that a human being can achieve a communion with G-d, is by using the tools that G-d gave us, AKA Mitzvot. The obvious exception would be if Hashem decided to give us another (short term) method.

A fascinating example of this can be found in this week’s Torah reading. The people of Israel construct the Sanctuary so that they could connect (experience the Divine Presence in their midst). Everything is ready and complete, but no Divine Presence. Then they start to perform the service and use the Sanctuary as they were commanded by G-d. All of a sudden “The Glory of G-d fills the Sanctuary.”

In a similar sense, we can apply all kinds of activities and experiences to feel spiritual and closer to G-d, but if we don’t do things on His terms, we fall short. It might feel good, but it ain’t G-dly.

Purim with Chabad by the numbers:

12+ Megilah Readings in the NOLA metro area
300+ People heard the Megillah at those readings
270+ Purim Shuttle Packages packed and delivered by 20+ Volunteers
200+ People attended Purim in Hawaii

This is besides what Chabad did for Purim in Baton Rouge and Biloxi. To support Chabad’s Purim activities this year, go to And now, we are off to Pesach!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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