And God Wouldn’t Let Him Sacrifice his Son Either

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“Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  That is the challenge that Abraham placed before God when he heard of the Lord’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham negotiated with God until they agreed that if 10 innocent people could be found, the cities would be spared destruction.
I think about the question posed by Abraham this Shabbat in the context of the epidemic of gun violence in our country.  Just yesterday another school shooting “swept away the innocent.”  Who in that school could have possibly been wicked?  Who deserves to have their life cut short in such a violent way?
The Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms, but too often the 2nd Amendment seems to be an impediment to achieving the very aims of that same Constitution:  “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Too often it seems that the Constitution is used as a weapon itself, and the innocent are swept away along with the guilty.
Will we, like Abraham, raise our voices?  Will we protest?  Thoughts and prayers are nice but that is not what Abraham did.  He spoke truth to power.  Can we follow his example?

The Holocaust, Pushing Myself, and an Admission of how Weird I Am

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Warning: this will be a strange post, but one that will give you some insight into what makes me tick…and how Judaism and Fitness intersect in my life.

When I was younger, I was not athletic at all. This was not helped by the fact that when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (and my weight had dropped to 69 pounds). I was not a healthy kid and athletics were not really a thing in my family to begin with.

There were members of my family who were survivors of the Holocaust, and even more who did not survive. I remember learning about the Holocaust when I was in elementary school (too early to see the kind of documentary footage that was shown to me). I remember thinking as a teenager that had I been alive then, I never would have survived. I could not have made it without my medicine. I was weak. I was pale. It sounds morbid, but in the minds of some Jewish people I think we ask ourselves what our fates would have been had we not had the fortune to be on this side of the Atlantic or in the Land of Israel back then

As I grew older, I spoke with cousins who were survivors and heard their stories. Some of them were sent on “death marches” as the war was coming to a close. Concentration and death camps were being dismantled and evacuated, and inmates were forced to walk (or run) westward away from the advancing Red Army. Those who could not keep up were shot or died along the way; some made it until the liberation. I am in awe of my relatives who made the walk despite terrible conditions, inappropriate clothing to protect them from the elements, and a starvation diet. How did they find the strength to go on? What choice did they have?

Over the years in my fitness journey, part of my motivation was to be “ready” physically if things should ever get bad, if history (God forbid) were to repeat itself. When I run and I get tired, I remember those on the forced marches and I push myself to go the distance. This was especially true when I used to train and compete on the Black Diamond Obstacle Course the JCC of Greater Columbus. If you are unfamiliar with the course, it is outstanding and the result of a great deal of effort by committed employees at the JCC there. For a couple of years, the obstacle course was my playground. Often during my training I would think about those living in the forests or on the run in the woods during that dark period; the obstacle course runs through a wooded area by the JCC and near Alum Creek so the setting seems reminiscent. Again, whenever I felt I couldn’t do an obstacle I thought about my relatives, and pushed myself a little further.

I don’t know if this is normal. I used to think I was maybe a little paranoid, but perhaps I am more of a realist. I pray that things will never get back to the terrible horrors of WWII, but now when I think about it, I am convinced that I would have a much better chance of surviving than I did as a teenager. I am fitter, have greater endurance, and have tested my mettle on a few occasions. But who knows?

This is not my total motivation for fitness. In actuality, I want to stay healthy for my wife and kids…and someday grand-kids (?). I want to get the most out of life for as long as I can. I want to be fit–not because of fears from the past, but because of my hope for the future.

I was going to write about self-doubt…but I wasn’t sure

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One of my clients recently shared with me that they are working on trying to defeat self-doubt–not just at the gym but in life in general.

This struck a chord with me as I think it probably does with all of us. Sometimes we listen to the voices of others who tell us we cannot accomplish something, but more often it is the voice inside our own head that is telling us that we are unable, unworthy, or even unlovable.

As a relatively new personal trainer (only in the industry for about 18 months), I have my doubts as well. I don’t know the name of every muscle. I don’t always know the perfect exercise for every issue presented to me right off the bat. I have self-doubts about the work that I do.

Funny thing is that it is really all in my head. My clients have no idea that sometimes I feel like I’m winging it. [Unless, of course, they read this blog post!] Then I see the results that my clients are getting and I wonder why I am doubting myself; they are making progress that pleasantly surprises me and them. I remember all the studying I did to past the ACE PT Exam, and all the continuing education and reading I have done since them. Then I tell myself, that maybe I actually do know what I am doing.

I realize that some of my self-doubt comes from being new at this. I remember when I first became a rabbi that I had doubts about my capabilities. When I graduated from seminary I was almost 29 years old; what did I know about anything? I would agonize over sermons, eulogies, classes I would teach, etc. Did members of my congregation even know? [Not unless, of course, the read this blog post!] To this day, I am still in contact with friends from my first pulpit and I hear stories about the difference I made. After 25+ years in the pulpit, I felt good about my “craft.” I was confident that I was able to help people and that I was even ready to mentor others. This came with years of experience–not in my first congregation.

I remind myself of this when self-doubt creeps up at the gym while I am training others; I cut myself some slack and tell myself I don’t have to be perfect. In fact, none of us has to be perfect. No one expects it from us: not our families, not our employers, not our partners, not even God. All we have to do is try to be the best we can be; it may not be enough for some, but that is their problem not mine.

Perhaps a New Year’s Resolution for 2020 will be for me to work on banishing self-doubt–not just at the gym but at life in general. As Stuart Smalley used to say on SNL, “I’m good enough and I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

The morning after…

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As I write this message it is Halloween night across America and Dia de los Muertos in many Spanish-speaking countries.  I have lots of memories of trick-or-treating as a kid…and of lots of candy too.  
I don’t want to comment on whether Jewish families should participate or not, but rather to note that the macabre focus on the dead in Halloween is foreign to Jewish tradition.  But wait…what about Yizkor…and Yahrzeits…and Kaddish…and sitting Shiva?  It is true that Judaism has a way of memorializing the departed, but death is never glorified.  Martyrdom is not something to be admired, but seen as a sometimes necessary evil.  The Kaddish prayer is a praise of God and doesn’t even mention death.  The Book of Psalms tells us that “the dead cannot praise You [God].”  In other words, the preference is to be alive.
The Torah teaches us that we always have a choice.  Life and death are before us, so “choose life.”  We do not know what happens after we are gone.  We do not know for sure about the full nature of the spiritual world.  All we can know for sure (and even that in a limited way) is the world of creation in which we live.  
It is for this reason that Judaism never came up with a Day of the Dead.  Rather, each day is a day to focus on living life to the fullest.  May we all be blessed with many years of good health and life!  Lechaim!

One Year after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

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It has been just over a year on the Gregorian calendar since that terrible morning (October 27, 2018) in Pittsburgh when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered 11 innocent people at prayer services. On the Jewish calendar, the Yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) will not be for a few weeks.

I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in synagogue here in Cleveland Heights when someone brought the terrible tidings. Details were sketchy but we feared it wasn’t good. Once the details emerged our fears were confirmed.

Within days, the Cleveland Jewish Community–along with other communities across the globe–were organizing memorial services. It felt especially close here in Cleveland since Pittsburgh is just a couple of hours away–closer by just a few miles than even Columbus. In this part of the Midwest there is a lot of mobility and nearby Jewish communities have a sense of kinship and overlapping of families. When I was in high school (having grown up in the Detroit area) I even attended a youth group conference that took place at this synagogue. This was not some far away shooting that affected others; it felt personal.

Since then, there is a feeling among many in the American Jewish community that something has dramatically and fundamentally changed. Our sense of belonging in this country has been challenged; an aspect of Jewish history that has been constant is that in nearly every place where Jews have been settled, we have either been expelled or persecuted or worst. I always thought that the USA was different: it is a democracy (still?!) and a nation made up of immigrants, those whose ancestors were brought here against their will, and a small but important minority of Native Americans. This is a place where anyone regardless of their background can become an American–and that is the way I have always felt.

With Pittsburgh something changed. I wonder whether there really is a future for Jews in America or whether what we see going on now is just the beginning of a long, dark path leading to yet another wandering. On the one hand it is unthinkable, but on the other hand Jewish history tells me otherwise.

I am astounded and angry that so little is done in this country to curb gun violence; when nothing was done after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, I realized this country had a problem in its soul. I am incredulous that many political leaders not only do not speak out against xenophobia but actually promote it. The depths to which levels of discourse in the USA have sunk make it hard to imagine much positive change in the short-term…and perhaps even in the longer-term.

I am sad. My heart aches for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, for the victim’s families, and for our world. I cannot imagine the loss felt in the Steel City.

I am also afraid. I fear that saner voices will not be heard, that the deafening daily distractions will drown them out. I am afraid that things will get worse for the Jewish community in the US (and elsewhere) that has already had to spend millions to upgrade security. Does your house of worship have an armed security guard during prayer services? Mine does….now. How can we focus on feeding the hungry, pursuing justice, seeking peace, educating our youth, looking after the elderly, and caring for the sick when we must divert funds to simply keep ourselves safe and secure?

I will do what I can at the voting booth as well as by contacting my elected officials. I will demand that steps be taken to put this country back on track and make it the place where ALL Americans feel at home. Hopefully my worst fears will not be realized and next year at this time, we will see a new light shining on our great nation–a light of peace, knowledge, justice and love. We must do more than hope…we must act.

A Post for National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month 2019 — Rami Ungar The Writer

A repost of a blog post written by my son. Important to remember in the Fitness Community and Jewish Community as well.

As many of you are aware, I am a member of the disabled community, having autism, ADHD, anxiety, and more things than I can name. What many of you might not be aware is that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM for short) in the United States. And this year’s theme (which I […]

A Post for National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month 2019 — Rami Ungar The Writer

Shabbat Shuvah: Recharge

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This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Traditionally, it has been considered (along with Shabbat Hagadol before Passover) to be one of the most “important” Shabbatot of the year; it was one of two times during the year when rabbis were required to give a sermon to get the flock in order.
Why is this Shabbat so critical?  In the coming days, we will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  According to our tradition, this is the day on which our sins are forgiven and wiped away…well, at least some of our sins.  Transgressions committed against God could be erased, but those committed against our fellow human beings could not be forgiven until we had made proper atonement for our offenses.  
But can’t this process occur at any time?  Can’t we choose to make things right with God and those around us during the other 364 days of the year?  Yes we can.  Yom Kippur, however, is kind of like marking a fiscal year; it is the day that Judaism recognizes as a time to take care of all that unfinished business.  The fact that it is accompanied by fasting and prayer helps us to focus on our spirits and less on the everyday distractions that often prevent us from being our best selves.
Shabbat Shuvah is the day on which we rest and recharge from Rosh Hashanah to prepare ourselves properly for the task at hand.  We need all our energy–physical and spiritual–to make the changes so that we can be right with our fellow humans and God.  Shabbat Shuvah (with or without a sermon!) is essential for our success.
Wishing all a Shabbat Shalom, and meaningful and productive fast.