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JCC East Bay Shamash Residency

The rotating Shamash Residency is a unique opportunity for a local rabbi, Jewish scholar, or Jewish educator to teach and learn with the JCC staff and community. During each immersive residency, a rotating rabbi or educator will join us to explore Jewish holidays, texts, culture, and traditions.

The Shamash Residency fosters meaningful collaboration between Jewish educators, our staff members, and our vibrant community. Selected scholars will participate in the design of community holiday programs, contribute to a monthly blog, and offer Jewish learning for over 80 staff working throughout Oakland and Berkeley.

Application process now closed. 

The JCC East Bay is deeply grateful to the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation for their generous support of the Shamash Residency.  

Current Shamash Resident: Sara Kupor, AUG-DEC 2019

The JCC East Bay is thrilled to announce our fifth Shamash Resident: Sara Kupor.

The Shamash Residency is a special opportunity for a local rabbi, scholar, or educator to offer Jewish learning with the JCC staff and community.

Sara Kupor will be with us from August through December. We are excited to broaden this residency to include more public programs. Stay tuned for details and opportunities to learn with Sara.

About Sara Kupor

With her lifelong passion for "doing Jewish joyfully," Sara brings to us her many years of experience as a Jewish educator of preschool children to older adult populations.

In synagogues in Berkeley (Congregation Beth El), Tiburon (Congregation Kol Shofar),
and in San Diego, Seattle, and Maplewood, New Jersey, she created and implemented family and intergenerational learning experiences. During her work in community Jewish day schools, she developed close relationships with colleagues and families of diverse backgrounds.

Currently, Sara Kupor is a Judaica tutor for adults and children working toward B'nai Mitzvah, conversion, or to deepen their understanding of Jewish life. Sara uses Jewish music, dance, and humor to explore and celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays,
as well as Torah study in all of its dimensions.

"Being a Jewish educator and lifelong Jewish learner have taught me that through the deep knowing of this particular path, I am able to appreciate the beauty and truths in every tradition."

A collection of thoughts and teachings from JCC Shamash Resident Sara Kupor


Sukkot: The Jewish Thanksgiving

“Gratitude does not much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted. Gratitude rejoices with her sister, joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.”
—Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Sukkot is traditionally called “the time of our joy”. We are invited to dwell in the sukkah, a temporary hut exposed to the elements and temperature changes. “Dwell” here means eat, sleep, study, play, or simply spend time with friends, family, or by ourselves, for all the days of the holiday.

Why do we do this?

It says in the Torah, “The Festival of Sukkot shall you make for yourself for seven days, when you have gathered in your grain and your wine” (Deuteronomy 16:13). Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, an 11th century Torah commentator, says about this verse: “When you have gathered in the produce of the land and your houses are full of every sort of goodness—grain and oil and wine—in order that you will remember that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot in the desert for forty years . . . and for this you shall give thanks to G-d, and you shall not say, ‘My power and the strength of my hand have achieved this valor for me’” (italics added).

Based on this verse in Deuteronomy, as well as other sources in the Torah, Rabbi ben Meir explains the two main reasons for the Sukkot holiday: 1) because we lived in temporary dwellings during our 40-year wanderings in the desert after leaving Egypt; and 2) so that we can show our appreciation to G-d after the harvest is completed. Additionally, there is a sense that we may be drawn to haughtiness, attributing all of our blessings to our own effort and merit. Living in a humble sukkah will counteract that, and remind us that indeed, the attitude our tradition wants us to adopt is one of gratitude.

Giving thanks is the very essence of who we are as a people. The word “Jew” (yehudi in Hebrew) comes from the root “todah” (thankfulness). The name Judah, the largest tribe and the majority of Israelites at the time of the Babylonian Exile, means to give thanks.
There is a story behind how Judah’s name was chosen. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. Upon his birth, the matriarch Leah declares joyfully, “This time I will thank God.” The name reflects a very special gratitude. Listen to what Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about Leah expressing gratitude, “From the day that God created the world there was no human who thanked the Creator…”

It is indeed wonderful that our people’s name reflects this trait of gratitude. Jewish educator Rivy Poupko Kletenik notes, “Leah is the first person to walk this earth, and turn to her maker and say a simple thank you; she teaches us gratitude. One would think that she of all the matriarchs would be the least likely to thank. Compelled to marry the beloved of her sister she might have been tempted to embrace bitterness—instead she teaches us all to be grateful, to appreciate what we have.” According to our rabbis, Hebrew names are not mere designations. They intentionally encompass the true identity and reveal the essence of an individual. To be a Jew is to personify gratitude.

Robert Emmons, social scientist at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, concludes from his research that experiencing and expressing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness and even altruism. “Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good—our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives. Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’” (Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, page 12).
Amazingly, two thousand years before the field of social science developed, our tradition states essentially reached the same conclusion: “Who is rich, the one who rejoices in his portion” (Pirkei Avot: 4:1).

In Jewish tradition, mindfully saying blessings is a form of positive awareness. It allows us to recognize the meaning of the action we are about to make, encourages us to savor it, and then, importantly, reminds us to express gratitude. The rabbis recommend we to say one hundred prayers of gratitude each day, beginning with Modeh/Modah Ani (“I give thanks”) upon waking up and ending with the Hashkivenu (“May we lie down in peace, for You guard and protect us). The act of saying blessings throughout the day prevents us from becoming habituated to the blessings surrounding us, from taking our gifts for granted.

Scientists recognize that the human brain evolved to have a negativity bias, where we are programmed to be alert to the possibilities of danger. In contrast, our Jewish prayer life is designed to open our hearts to the blessings and miracles of each day. We can say that while the former allowed us to survive as a species, the latter is allowing us to thrive, both as individuals and as a community. According to Alan Morinis, contemporary educator of the Jewish spiritual path of Mussar, “A grateful heart is a solid platform from which to reach out and take care of others as well as ourselves because this orients us toward the resources we have, and not the ones we lack” (Everyday Holiness, page 74).

The Hebrew term for gratitude is “hakarat hatov,” which literally means “recognizing the good.” Goodness is already there—we have only to recognize and embrace it. At this time of Sukkot thanksgiving, may we incorporate into our lives a gratitude practice that will transform our daily experiences and connect us lovingly to ourselves and to one another.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. So May It Be.


The Flow of Generosity: How Tzedekah Benefits Both the Receiver and the Giver

What is the difference between heaven and hell? In a parable attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, heaven and hell share an identical, if unusual, quality. In both realms, people are forced to eat with long, unwieldy spoons. The difference, however, arises in what comes next. In hell, people refuse to cooperate, and consequently everyone starves. In heaven, people generously feed one another across the table, and thus everyone is well nourished.

The message of this parable—by being generous, my needs are met—is really about the importance of tzedakah. Our tradition encourages us to think about tzedakah at many different times throughout the calendar year, but we are especially called upon to reflect upon this mitzvah as we prepare for Rosh Hahanah and Yom Kippur.

In Hebrew, the word tzedakah means “righteousness” or “justice.” When we give tzedakah, whether it be in the form of money, time, energy, or possessions, we may understand it as giving righteously or justly. Generosity can also be thought of in terms of a spacious heart, an attitude of embracing each person and experience with a positive spirit, and an approach of living “life with arms wide open” (as Natasha Bedingfield expresses in her song, “Unwritten”).

According to research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, humans have evolved such that they are born with the biological hardware necessary for generosity. In particular, our brains and hormones are actually wired to help others and feel good while doing so. For example, older adults who regularly volunteer report feelings of “greater quality of life, vitality, and self esteem.” Furthermore, generosity research in animals suggests that prosocial behavior may in fact be an evolutionary adaptation that has promoted species survival (Allen, Summer, “The Science of Generosity,” May 2018).

In recent years, scientists have begun learning more about brain neuroplasticity. According to psychologist Dr. Tara Brach, “We know that... when we consistently practice new actions we can actually rewire the structure and the function of our brain” (“What We Practice Grows Stronger,” Psychology Today, May 2018).

Taken together, this research suggests that humans have evolved to be generous, our brains and hormones are hardwired to practice and respond to this skill, and generosity rewards the giver, as well as the receiver.

Our rabbis knew these truths long before scientists came along. Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, said that “virtues of character come with repetition of right action” (Orchot Tzadikim). And if a person gives one coin to a thousand poor people, “through this he will surely acquire generosity,” says Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe in his work Alei Shur, volume 28. Thus, right action will be repeated one thousand times.

Tzedekah has indeed ensured the survival and health of the Jewish community. Being a part of the Jewish community means that each one of us bears a responsibility to ensure the welfare of everyone else in the community. Deeds of tzedekah are mitzvot, or “holy commandments,” so they have the same obligatory status as honoring Shabbat or not wasting natural resources.

Another interesting idea comes from the Mussar movement, which is a Jewish ethical, educational, and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Lithuania. Alan Morinis, a contemporary teacher of Mussar, wrote: “The human heart is naturally inclined to give... the heart’s inclination is to be spontaneous generous.” (Everyday Holiness, 2007). When our hearts are closed, we are the first to suffer from that closure. According to the Midrash Tanhuma, even the poor person must give tzedekah. Why? Because no one should be denied the joy one derives from performing this mitzvah! The immediate consequence of giving is to “sense G-d’s presence.“

In Hebrew, the phrase “and they shall give” (“v’natnu”) is a palindrome, a word that reads the same forwards or backwards (vav, nun, tuv, nun, vav). As Morinis writes in Everyday Holiness, this is the flow of generosity.

A deeper understanding of the word “mitzvah” may come from examining the Arabic root of the word, which means “to connect.” In this sense, we may say that mitzvot help us connect to Holiness and to one another.

We have seen how generosity positively influences the quality of our lives, and repeated acts of tzedekah integrate it into our brain pathways. These are aspects of the wonder and genius of our spiritual heritage.

May we be blessed to practice generosity, and as we do so, simultaneously ensure our personal vitality and the vitality of our communities.

Blessings for a Shana Tova u’Metuka (a Good and Sweet Year),
Sara Ross Kupor, JCC East Bay Shamash Resident