Friday, February 7, 2014

A Word from the Director: 2/7/2014

As it is not uncommon for me to be on the phone for many hours a day, despite being in Israel for the last week and a half, things were no different. I was happy to be able to reconnect with many of our boys who are there in many different capacities. One evening as the day was winding down, I received two phone calls - both from young men we had been involved with in Los Angeles a few years ago. I will not go into the whole list of rehabs, detox programs, homeless shelters, and jail time each had experienced at different points along their journey, but the excitement of hearing how well they were doing now kept me up the rest of the night. The 30 year old told me that he has been married for three years, blessed with two children, and is currently living in Bnei Brak - a real chassidishe mentsch. He came to Israel with not a penny in his pocket, and began to bake a unique kind of health bread. What started as 10 loaves a week has grown to a full blown bakery that delivers 750 loaves all over the country. He was so proud to tell me about the stable, healthy, self-supporting life he is currently leading. The other boy, 23, originally from Lakewood, who had made the rounds of several programs, couldn’t hold down a job, and had his share of legal woes, has been in the Israeli army for 18 months and just reenlisted into an elite unit for another 18 months. As I listened to him proudly tell of his accomplishments, I recalled the hundreds of hours I had spent listening to his parents cry over his situation, worrying that he may not even live into adulthood.

I share these stories, not to proclaim the success of Aish Tamid, and not to tell you that Israel holds the key to transformation for these kids - because it doesn’t always - but to give parents out there some hope. Their stories certainly were mechazek me! Just because a kid is struggling now, doesn’t mean it will always be like this. These boys had hit rock bottom, and there was good reason to fear for their safety, but somehow, when they were ready (and yes, the efforts of parents, therapy, programs, and many tefillos and tears do help) they pulled themselves together, took advantage of opportunities and support systems being offered to them, and have grown into healthy, responsible adults.

In general, it was touching to see how many boys came to visit as I sat shiva for my father, and asked what they could do to help. Many helped make minyanim when I needed, one boy picked me up from the airport when I arrived and another took me back when I left, and two kids who live in Tel Aviv made plans to meet me at the airport before my departure flight. It was heartwarming to see the married ones, and inspiring to place yet another boy (who had been living in a loft in Meah She’arim doing nothing for months) in a nurturing yeshiva environment.

I would like to thank everyone who came to see me during the shiva for my father and for all the comforting words, phone calls, and cards that were sent. I have a newfound appreciation for shiva and the halachic mourning process. It was an active lesson for me in what true support and help looks and feels like. One last story that occurred during shiva that I wanted to share. At some point it becomes hard for the mourner to keep talking and telling stories, although you are grateful for the presence of those who come to comfort you. There was one boy who came to our house a few times over the couple of days that I sat shiva here. He sat on a couch in the back of the room, sometimes playing with my kids and keeping them occupied, and sometimes just quietly texting, but he was there. Occasionally he would ask if I needed anything, or if I wanted him to bring me a shwarma. I found it comforting that he didn’t want or need anything from me, he was just present, and sometimes that’s all a person needs.

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my assistant Ivan who held down the fort at Aish Tamid for the past two weeks, including running our annual Super Bowl party, and even fielding a few crises along the way. I would also like to acknowledge the boys who stepped up to the plate and did some of the shopping and errands necessary to keep the Drop-In Center running.

Thank you to Allan Genauer for donating a new pool table to Aish Tamid. We are putting it together and are excited to start using it soon.

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/17/2014

This week our community has been rocked yet again by the untimely death of a very special young wife and mother. Her sudden, tragic passing has plunged her family, friends, and teachers into a blur of grief and mourning. There has been so much involvement by various community leaders and her mentors, that I even suggested a support group to be mechazek the mechazkim. Unfortunately, this is not the first or even second tragedy of this nature in the past few months here in Los Angeles. I personally lost my best friend just days before his only son’s Bar Mitzvah. And a few months before that, a woman who was a pillar in the community passed away weeks before her son’s Bar Mitzvah as well. All three were eulogized at Shaarei Tefillah where their common middah of chessed, generosity, and concern for others was mentioned repeatedly as a charge to us to learn from them and better ourselves. When a young woman dies and within hours of setting a time for the levaya, 600 people are present, with another 900 watching online around the world, and within days two different learning programs have started, plus a mitzvah campaign that over 400 people have already signed up for, one must reflect and recognize “mi k’amcha yisrael.” What other nation would come together both in sheer numbers of people and effort in such a short time?

As the outpouring of support for the family and friends continues, one must recognize that there is no one way to grieve, and each person affected will experience the grief process differently. Whether or not you believe in the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), one must acknowledge that as Jews, we have our own stages of shiva, shloshim, and the year leading up to the first yahrzeit. During each one, we must value the intensity of that stage, with each progressive one being less intense than the one before, and try to appreciate the importance of mourning at that level. As anyone who has been to a shiva house can attest, people certainly display different needs as they experience the raw pain of that first week following the loss of a close family member. Some want to talk about the niftar and share their thoughts and feelings. Others want to sit quietly and listen to memories the visitors have of their loved one, while others want to just sit in silence. Chazal knew this and therefore the halacha is that we must follow the mourner’s emotional cue. We are instructed to wait until they speak. And if they cannot – just sit there quietly. In this age of cell phones and constant communication it is one of the most difficult things to do, but nichum aveilim is about the avel, and if that’s the ‘emotional cue’ you get from him or her – do what they need. They must not be made to feel that they have to share stories and entertain you, but if they do open the conversation, don’t grill them with questions to fill the awkward, aching silence. Be still. Be there. We can’t fix it, nor do we have any magic answers, but we can be present and share the pain. As one woman mourning the sudden death of her brother wrote: “The spirit of what your friend needs to hear is simply this: Hang in there. You are brave. You are not alone although this journey is deeply lonely. You are loved. You will not always feel this way. We honor the pain and memory and life-altering experience you are having. We are here to help you. We are not mind readers so we need you to communicate if you need something. Nobody is judging you. We are heartbroken for you. No matter what, we will walk beside you.”

I witnessed this show of support being so beautifully done by a Rebbe for a talmid last night. The young man was making a siyum in memory of his mother who passed away three years ago. His aunt and uncle arranged a beautiful seudah with many family members and friends in attendance. Unfortunately, this boy’s rebbe knew the pain of losing a loved one all too well, as he lost his son in a very tragic and sudden death just a couple of years ago. Watching the two of them together, one couldn’t help but notice that there was clearly a special, unspoken bond between them as they somehow supported each other in their grief. Just knowing that the other understood his pain seemed to bring comfort to both of them. We all have our tzaros, our pain, and our challenges. The Jewish people are an “am echad b’lev echad” and as such must be there to help and support each other, even if it means dropping our own facades sometimes. We all suffer losses of varying types and we need to mourn our own losses, as well as comfort others in their time of pain. May we, as a community, be zoche to see the end of tzaros, large and small, and be consoled by the only One Who can grant us clarity and true comfort – HaMakom yenachem.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/10/2014

The other day I walked into one of the rehabs that I am involved with and met up with a young man who has spent the last six months in Men’s Central Jail. This was his second stint in that jail. Over the course of our conversation it came to light that he had just been released that very morning. In fact, he hadn’t even known he was being let out until just a few hours before, so there was quite a range of emotions he was dealing with. He was certainly thrilled with the happy news, excited to be a free man again, and so grateful to Hashem for orchestrating the whole thing. We discussed these feelings, and I asked him how long he thought the inspiration, gratitude, and commitment to change in the future would last. I actually gave him an ‘assignment’ to write down the thoughts and emotions he was experiencing on his first day of freedom, so that when his resolve faltered, he would have something tangible to go back to that would remind him of what it felt like to walk out of the gates of incarceration.

In this week’s parsha the Jews had a similar challenge of taking their inspiration and strengthened faith in Hashem into their next crisis. After hundreds of years of slavery and torture they were finally allowed to walk out of the gates of Mitzrayim, only to be chased by their enemies before they could even fully savor their freedom. To make matters worse, they are faced with the Yam Suf looming ahead and nowhere to turn. Even tefilla doesn’t seem to work in this situation, as Hashem tells Moshe that now is the time for action; not prayer. With Nachshon’s brave jump into the sea, an escape route was created, once again, for the Jews. But the Egyptians had followed them in! At the precise moment when all the Jews were safely on the other side, and all Egyptian soldiers were in the sea, the waters came crashing back down drowning them all. As if that wasn’t enough, the bodies were then spit out onto the dry land for the Jews to see and be sure that their enemies were dead and they were safe. At that point it says, “and they believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant.” Why only at that point is the declaration of their faith recorded? What about all the miracles that led to that point? Rav Moshe Feinstien answers that the makos weren’t enough because after each one, the enemy was still there and retracted the Jews’ permission to leave. Even kriyas Yam Suf might not have solidified their emunah, because they were still afraid that just like they came out on their other side, the Egyptians could have emerged as well and still continued chasing them. It was only after having the closure of seeing their captors dead on the sand in front of them that their faith was strengthened and they were inspired to sing Shiras HaYam.

If this was the case, and their faith in Hashem and Moshe was so strong, then how could they falter only a short time later when the food runs out and they want to go back to Mitzrayim. How could they possibly have forgotten all the years of fear, pain, and suffering there?! The answer is that no matter how big the miracle, or how strong the inspiration, the effect doesn’t last unless you find a way to concretize it and keep it real in your life. That’s why we have so many mitzvos that are “zecher l’yetzias mitzrayim.” As big and powerful as that experience was, we would have difficulty fulfilling the commandment to remember it everyday if we didn’t have tangible reminders like tefillin, kriyas sh’ma, Kiddush, and more. And that is why I had this young man record his feelings on that first day of his release. We would like to think that the burst of excitement he felt upon hearing that he was being let out of jail, and then the exhilaration of exiting the gates, would be enough to deter him from making the same mistakes again that got him there in the first place.

But those feelings fade and we return to our daily lives, unfortunately losing the motivation to stay in a growth-oriented mindset. The reminders need to be concrete. That’s why some people make a seudas hoda’ah every year to commemorate events in their lives. The benefit of holding onto the memories of times that Hashem saved us from a challenging situation, is that the next time we are in crisis, we can hopefully maintain our strengthened emunah that Hashem will save us this time as well. We must recognize that the flashes of inspiration that Hashem send us are a gift to carry us through the next dark time in our lives.

A huge yasher koach to Rabbi Chaim Kolodny for committing to sponsor one night of dinner from Chick N’ Chow every week for our boys!

We would also like to thank Elisha and Tehila Kramer for sponsoring our new website as well as the professional staff at Powered who designed the site. They can be reached at 818-669-4956. Please check us out at We welcome your feedback and suggestions.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/3/2014

As the secular world celebrated the start of a New Year this week, many Orthodox high schools were grappling with a dilemma. Knowing that many of their students would have opportunities to attend parties where unsafe or inappropriate activities would be taking place, should they make a rule with serious enough consequences to deter the unruly behavior, or educate the kids about the dangers of these events and let them learn from decisions they make, or is such an issue the parents’ domain and the school should leave it to the parents’ judgment?

By acknowledging the issue, is the school giving it too much credence and in some way condoning it?

One high school decided that they could not ignore the reality and as their job is to educate, they would begin with that approach. They brought in someone who, despite his Rabbinic appearance, came from a background similar to the Modern Orthodox students in his audience. He told dramatic and painful stories of lives of kids he personally knew being tragically altered due to a lapse of good judgment. He emphasized the danger of getting caught up in the moment and throwing caution to the wind because teenagers think they are invincible. Many of the kids commented afterwards that the speaker had really given them food for thought and they were inspired to rethink and maybe even change their plans for New Year’s Eve. However, as the day approached and there were still rumblings of parties being attended, a couple of teachers felt they had to face the harsh reality that some of the students that they cared for so deeply were in fact going to be in places they shouldn’t, and possibly compromising both Torah and personal values. They decided to send out an email reminding the kids of the inspiration they felt only a few days before and to encourage them to make good choices. At the end of the letter they included their cell phone numbers with an offer to come help any student who found themselves, or their friends, in a compromising situation at any point that night. Again, the dilemma: are we sanctioning the festivities by acknowledging them and possibly even enabling the kids, or are we confronting a challenging situation head-on in the hopes of protecting the kids from themselves, or does the school send a stronger message of zero tolerance by not even addressing the issue?
There are no absolute right answers. Schools, parents, and organizations like Aish Tamid all have different considerations when faced with difficult questions like these. Schools have to worry about their reputation in a community and the impact that the actions of some students can have on their peers. They have a responsibility to many different kids and their families. Parents have to answer the question of what standards they want to set in their home, and how can they maintain a relationship with the child who challenges those standards while not compromising the message of their core values to their other children. And even at Aish Tamid, where despite the fact that we may have lowered the bar, and “the rules of the game” are different when one is dealing with kids in crisis, we still have certain expectations of the kids and some basic rules for their own safety.

As parents, our primary concern is always for our children’s safety, both physical and spiritual. To that end, we set rules and try to enforce those limits both with verbal messages and consequences when necessary. But at what point do we need to let them take ownership of their behavior and learn from the natural consequences that sometimes ensue? I had a boy come to me last week with, unfortunately, a rather extreme situation. He is dating a non-Jewish girl, and as you can well imagine, his parents are devastated and have made their disapproval quite clear. We had a meaningful discussion about how decisions that one makes now may have long-term repercussions, and that what may not be important to him now might be in ten years. His response took me by surprise. He said, “In life, one has to make their own decisions. My father did that – his first wife wasn’t Jewish and he learned the hard way. Maybe that’s what I need to do too.” What can or should the parents do in such a tragic situation? I do not claim to have answers to such things. But I do know that every situation is different and presents its own “grey areas” that must be contended with. Therefore, it is imperative that one has Rabbanim, mentors, support groups, and even experienced and wise friends, to consult with as they navigate the complexities of raising a child in today’s complicated society.

We want to thank Levi Graubard from Chick N Chow for sponsoring a delicious dinner of Chinese food for the Drop-In Center this week. We’d also like to thank Abba’s for continuing to sponsor weekly dinners for the Drop-In Center. Dr. Presser also sponsored a dinner this week l'zecher nishmas Faige Nesha Bas Binyamin HaKohain; we’d like to thank him as well.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/20/2013

Since many of the boys we deal with have their own set of challenges, it is often hard for them to see outside of themselves and the issues in their own lives. I, therefore, work to raise awareness as I hear either negative or positive responses to a friend’s mishap or struggle. In general, the children of this generation are growing up in relative comfort, yet at the same time know of unspeakable tragedies in their communities and the world around them. How can we effectively teach entitled kids in an increasingly narcissistic society (as Rabbi Brander has called it: the iPod generation, focus on the “I”) to not become jaded, but rather to empathize with their friend and feel their pain?

Here are some evidence-based suggestions for teaching empathy:
•    Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.
•    Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service. Have your child bake cookies and take them to someone who lives alone. Visit a nursing home and bring a smile to lonely older people. Have an older child offer to help a neighbor with their children – without receiving payment. Take them to volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, and have them see what it’s like to not have the full pantry and refrigerator they are blessed with at home.
•    Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. As they are forced to practice soft, slow touch with the animal (or there will be an immediate negative response from it) the behaviors of gentleness, patience, and kindness are reinforced.
•    Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.
•    Take advantage of teaching moments. Role play. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others. If you can seize those opportunities to explain to the child how the other party may be feeling, and suggest an appropriate response, you will have done your child a great service. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?"

In this week’s parsha we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no greater model of someone who so clearly feels the pain of his brothers. Imagine a prince living in the comfort and luxury of the king’s palace, with whatever amenities they had in Egypt back then, and physically unaffected by the slavery of those around him, making the effort to go out and see the pain of his enslaved brethren. The midrash tells us that he even offered his own shoulders to help as many Jews as possible with their work, and actually experienced their pain! He also convinced Paroh to give them a day off each week so as to help alleviate some of their suffering. In his role as a shepherd, Moshe, and later David Hamelech, were able to show their deep concern for each and every individual: a characteristic which is a prerequisite to being a Jewish leader.

This middah of noticing, caring for, and trying to lessen the pain of another, is one that we must strive to emulate and teach our children. We must try to see things from someone else’s perspective and attempt to understand their needs, worries, and pain. We need to become good listeners and offer comforting and encouraging words. We can't always do anything tangible to solve the problem, but the fact that my friend knows that I share the ache of his burdens helps him tremendously. He knows that he doesn't face his problems alone. As the saying goes, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Included in sharing my friend's burden is the act of praying for him. The gemara in Brachos 12b goes so far as to say that whoever can daven for another and doesn’t is called a sinner. Even if we cannot contribute much financially, or don’t have the time to physically help someone who is suffering, can we not at least take two minutes to offer a prayer on their behalf?

Rav Shimon Shkop explains that a “gadol” is a great person who expands his definition of self to include others. He is not merely an individual – himself – but rather part of a larger whole and consequently he becomes “gadol” – bigger. There was a terrible fire in the city of Brisk that left half the city destroyed and hundreds of Jews homeless. The rav of the town, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, promptly moved out of his house and slept on a bench in the shul. When asked why he was doing so if his own house remained untouched by the calamity, he exclaimed, “How can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof over their heads.” That is a gadol; a leader of the generation. That is empathy.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/13/2013

One night this week, over dinner at the Drop-In Center, we were discussing the berachos that Yaakov Avinu gave his sons. The blessings of the first three sons, in particular, were called into question; they sound far more negative than one would imagine a blessing should sound like. Upon further examination, however, it becomes clear that Yaakov is not just criticizing his sons – he is offering constructive criticism. Their father is pointing out their shortcomings and areas of challenge within each one’s personality, and offering insight into the remedies for these pitfalls.

In life, we tend to eschew criticism. It makes us feel bad about ourselves and can easily exacerbate a low self-esteem. This is largely because of where that criticism is usually coming from. We feel attacked, get defensive, and try not to internalize what we perceive to be hurtful words. However, when feedback about our actions, words, or character is coming from someone who cares about us and has our best interest at heart, it behooves us to listen and heed the advice being given. In fact, such feedback can actually be an amazing gift. Becoming aware of our shortcomings, and being told how to remedy them, is one of the greatest blessings one could ask for. Many of us spend years trying to figure out why we were put in this world. If we are willing to listen, there are people in our lives who can shed light on what our purpose and mission in this world may be. The beauty of the birchos Yaakov lies in the insight he shared with his children of what their strengths and weaknesses were. The acknowledgement of their differences and the guidance of where their efforts should be focused was invaluable and empowering.

Quoting the Vilna Gaon, Rav Wolbe explains that there are certain things that cannot be changed in a person. His very nature is one of those things. Man actually has no free will in this area; he only has free will in terms of what he does with that nature. Everyone’s nature is compatible with a Torah way of life. It’s up to us to figure out how to transform our weaknesses into strengths and find the way to make a Torah lifestyle work for us. The Malbim writes on the pasuk in Mishlei, “chanoch l’na’are al pi darko,” that being mechanech a child is the art of getting to know that child’s nature by observing him or her, figuring out what makes them feel good about themselves, and then helping develop that child to meet their fullest potential. This requires much effort being put into understanding and building the person as they are, and not just trying to mold them into what we want them to be.

This week we were visited by a representative of just such a yeshiva; Yeshivas Ahavas Chayim. It was started by one of the rebbeim from Yeshiva Ner Yaakov, who excelled in understanding and developing the boys each in their own way, and continues in that derech. They pride themselves on their small student body (15-16 boys), which enables them to guide each one based on their unique personality, strengths, and weakness. The Rosh Yeshiva sits with each student once a month to review and fine tune his personal schedule. Personal growth through close relationships with the rebbeim both in and out of the beis midrash is the hallmark of this special yeshiva. For more information, please contact the Aish Tamid office.

We would like to thank an anonymous sponsor for a delicious sushi dinner this week. The boys really enjoyed the treat! If you would like to sponsor either a night or week of dinners in honor of a simcha or in memory of a loved one, please be in touch with us.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/6/2013

We are often presented with opportunities to reach out to people. Many of those situations don’t necessitate money, nor are they labor intensive. The first step is simply to be aware of the importance of human interactions and how even a small effort like a quick phone call or text can make the difference between a great day or a lousy one for the recipient of your efforts. We all know people for whom these connections would be meaningful, but for some reason we struggle to find the time to bring our good intentions to fruition. I believe the key is to recognize how critical these messages of support are, and then to work small actions into our day.

A former student of mine is an orphan and works in an office by himself most of the day. I try to check in with him every so often. Recently he told me that although he is happy to have a job, it is very lonely there as very few people walk into his store each day. I happened to be in that neighborhood this week and stopped by to see him. The look on his face was priceless. I wasn’t there very long and had no agenda other than to let him know that someone cared enough to just stop by and say hello. I experienced this in an entirely different setting as well. I attended a very moving and inspirational play made up of actors who are in recovery from addiction. Despite having seen it before, I went to show support for the actors that I knew from rehab. For the remainder of the week, I kept getting calls and texts from them thanking me for coming and letting me know how much it meant to them that I was there. The gemara in Bava Basra tells us that one who gives tzedaka receives six brachos, while one who speaks kindly to the poor gets eleven. We can all “afford” a kind word to someone in need, we just have to take the time to make that small effort.

Chanukah was a busy week at Aish Tamid. Besides for the nightly ritual of maariv, candle lighting, and sufaniyot, we took the boys out bowling one evening. As luck would have it, after organizing transportation and all the details of the event, when we got to the bowling alley we were informed that there was a blackout in the neighborhood and clearly could not bowl. We moved on to Plan B, only to discover that the timing was off and that activity wouldn’t work either. Realizing that Someone decided that this wasn’t meant to be, we ended up hanging out together at the Promenade in Santa Monica. On the way home, as I was feeling a bit bummed out that our evening hadn’t gone as planned, a few of the boys maintained a much more positive outlook and commented on how much fun they had just going out together. I was impressed that there were none of the usual complaints you might expect from teenagers and that they were able to express their appreciation for the efforts made on their behalf, despite the disappointments of that night. I firmly believe that their ability to just enjoy each others’ company is a testament to the bond these boys have created at Aish Tamid.

Another evening this week we had a Chanukah party, which was organized by Gloria Rott and generously sponsored by Abba’s. The food was delicious, and the live music really made the evening memorable. We’d like to thank Rabbi Eli Scheller for joining us that evening and inspiring us.

Yasher koach to Mr. and Mrs. Shmuel Drebin for providing us with transportation for our evening out on the town.

And finally, a big “thank you” goes out to Yehuda Klein and Eli Sharf for generously donating Clippers tickets Aish Tamid last week.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff