CBB Voices Blog2020-06-22T14:35:19-07:00

Michael Wasserman: Visiting GHIS in Israel

Michael Wasserman: Visiting GHIS in Israel
I had the privilege to be the “special guest” at GHIS this past week.  Can you imagine?  GHIS is a private, not for profit high school in Israel that our CBB Community has taken under our wings helping them to fly and even soar.  GHIS is doing the unique work of bringing Israeli Arabs and Jews, and high schoolers from other countries (many of which counties also experience conflict and internal struggles) together, and in my opinion, proving our common humanity, making space for all narratives, and realizing, of course, peaceful coexistence.  The “kids” are living this at the boarding school and we hope the adults “In the many rooms” are taking notes.
I am part of CBB’s GHIS Committee. We are about 10 people and it’s truly a super star group that has given tremendous amounts of thought and action directed at helping the school succeed.  Our Committee has raised money, tutored students, connected the school with experts in marketing and other areas to make the school stronger.  We have even helped to recruit new students.
Truly, while on campus, and attending the Israeli Advisory Board meeting, I represented our entire Committee and when I say that the Israelis are amazed at the work little SB is doing you can believe me.  They thanked us personally and expressed awe for our efforts, commitment and achievements.  I sensed envy because their communities are not typically uniting and working together as we do!  We can be so proud of ourselves and our community’s values and collaborative spirit!
Michael Wasserman, his wife Liat, and daughters Sarina and Leora have been members of CBB for almost 20 years.  Michael works in Wealth Management and his clients span from Latin America to Israel.
2021-11-24T11:36:38-08:00November 24th, 2021|

Susan Levine: Creating Peace One Student at a Time

Susan Levine: Creating Peace One Student at a Time

CBB has formed a partnership with the Givat Haviva International School (GHIS) in Israel – a diverse community of student leaders promoting cross-cultural cooperation – as part of our community’s Tikkun Olam initiative to heal the world and build a more peaceful future. CBB members donate time and financial gifts to support the work of this transformative high school. To learn more, contact CBB Director of Community Engagement, Mariela Socolovsky at mariela@cbbsb.org. In today’s CBB Voices Blog post, CBB member Sue Levine reflects on her experience as an academic tutor to a GHIS student. – Ed.


“Kayf halukum,” I was instructed by my young student, meant “how are you” in Arabic.  I repeated those words over and over and still I struggled with remembering.  How was I to tutor a student in English who has already mastered Hebrew and Arabic and was also teaching herself Spanish?

Yet “Kayf halukum” began some of the most illuminating, inspiring (and yes, even entertaining) sessions that I have experienced in a long time. My brief conversations with friends  often paled in depth to my upcoming dialogue where my student practiced her evolving English.

I had flashbacks to my early teens.  Was I as poised, winsome, respectful, feisty, clear-headed, and honest as the student to whom I was assigned?  I think not.

Once I had accepted an English tutoring assignment with a new Givat Haviva International School (GHIS)10th grade student, I felt the jitters associated with the responsibility and preparation.  I worried that a 15 year old Muslim surfer wouldn’t respond to a white-haired woman equal to or older than her own grandmother.

Aisha and I agreed to meet weekly at a designated time on Google Meet, a program similar to Zoom.  I recognized that she, too, was apprehensive as she often fidgeted with her long brown waves, alternately wrapping them into a bun and then letting them drop to her shoulders.

We quickly became friends.  I expected an adequate exchange but walked away from each session with an ever-increasing admiration for this young woman and for the school that selected her among its many applicants.

Aisha lives in an Arab town in Israel surrounded by close family and friends.  As devout Muslims, her parents are raising 5 career-oriented daughters and 1 son, the youngest.  The oldest three currently attend university in Israel and Aisha hopes to earn her medical credentials in an English-speaking country.

In many ways Aisha’s family is not much different from ours.  Even though both parents work, her mother takes on more child-rearing responsibilities.  She is determined to provide opportunities that were unavailable to her when she was growing up. Travel and integrated (Jews and Muslim) camps are part of her plan.  Consequently, Aisha counts many Jews as her friends.

Most schools are segregated in Israel.  Aisha’s Arab schools expected students to “think the same way”.  Children are discouraged from questioning.

In contrast, Aisha loves her first year at GHIS; in fact, the string of Jewish holidays only made her anxious to return to classes sooner. She enjoys the range of creative activities that both cement relationships and give her a better understanding of the subject matter.  Teachers are approachable and determined that their students understand all content. They encourage questions and sit in on political discussions only to ensure respectful dialogue.

Students are exposed to foreign customs and traditions—experiencing the costumes (Halloween), food and dances (Cultural Day) of other students’ homelands.

Tutoring is not difficult or time-consuming.  Talk about family, friends, interests, values.  Branch off into American sports, fashion and celebrities. Laugh over some of our ridiculous American expressions (did you know that some Americans refer to “it’s raining cats and dogs” as a “frog strangler”?).  It takes no longer than ½-1 hour a week.  (For more information or to sign-up, contact CBB member and GHIS Committee member, Diane Blau. dblauphd@gmail.com.)

My months-long association just ended and I feel honored to have had Aisha in my life.  As a teen with a sound moral compass who embraces her womanhood and who embodies drive and vision, I am certain she has a promising future.  I am confident she will weigh the complexities of life with intelligence and leadership.

Sadly, not all GHIS students are as fortunate as Aisha.  Many have little familial support, both emotionally and financially.  That’s why I urge you to join me in supporting GHIS with a charitable donation made out to CBB/GHIS.  Together, we can provide those at the frontlines of controversy our support.  Together we can turn our dear homeland into a kinder, more peaceful place.



Sue Levine is a CBB member who loves Rummy Cube, foreign movies, chocolate (preferably See’s),  family, genealogy and Daughters of Abraham (not in that order).






2021-11-19T14:17:06-08:00November 19th, 2021|

Rabbi Steve Cohen: Religious Experience and the Reality of the Unseen

Rabbi Steve Cohen: Religious Experience and the Reality of the Unseen

One hundred twenty years ago, the great American psychologist and philosopher William James was invited to deliver the prestigious Giffords Lectures in Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  The texts of his lectures were published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, which became an immediate best-seller and eventually, maybe, the most influential book about religion in the twentieth century.  The Varieties of Religious Experience.

These were the Giffords Lectures in Natural Religion, and James undertook this assignment at a pivotal moment in the history of religion in western civilization.  In 1901, science was king.  Having brought about so many stunning advances in medicine, earth sciences, chemistry, biology and physics….this was just four years before Einstein would publish his paper on the Special Theory of Relativity.  Science was revealing new and powerful understandings and insights into the deepest mysteries of creation.  A huge question for William James and the thoughtful, humanistic, reading and thinking people of his generation was: does religion still matter?  Or is it time to lay religion to rest and to give it a decent funeral?  Is religion still relevant?

One hundred and twenty years later, we are still asking the question which William James set out to address in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In that classic work, William James took a new approach to the study of religion.  For the first time, he investigated religion not by asking about God, and not by asking about creation or divine revelation.  Nor did he ask about the institutions of religion.  He was not interested in dogmas, in priesthoods and Temples, churches, sects and their structures.  William James asked about the individual who is believing, or doubting, or praying or experiencing.  Therefore he called his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.  No modern scholar of religion had asked those questions before.

After setting forth his project in the first two lectures, in his third lecture James offers the following general definition of the life of religion.  “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting our lives thereto.”  The name of his third chapter is “The Reality of the Unseen” and is the central premise of the entire book, so let me read it again, to allow it to sink in.  “… …the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, …. consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting our lives thereto.”

We Jews have an old story about the first person to become aware of what William James calls the reality of the unseen.  This week’s Torah portion begins with that story: Sulam Yaakov.  Jacob’s ladder.

Here is the story in brief.  All his life, Jacob has been an indoors man, a “dweller in tents” who, unlike his hunter brother Esau, has probably never slept out of doors in his life. Now he is on the road, fleeing from home and his brother who is filled with murderous rage because Jacob has obtained, by purchase and by deception, both Esau’s birthright and the blessing their father Isaac had intended for Esau.  So Jacob is alone on the road, and the sun sets, so he is forced to lie down and to sleep outside, under the starry sky.  He takes a rock from the place and places it under his head for a pillow.   Jacob sleeps and he dreams.

The text then tells his dream.  Behold! a sulam—a ladder or stairway—stretching from earth to heaven.  And “behold! Angels of God ascending and descending on that ladder.”  And “behold, God standing by him.”  Jacob wakes up and cries out “Achen, yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va-anochi lo yadati!  Ahhh!  God is in this place, and I did not know it!” 

Jacob wakes up certain that his dream has revealed to him what is actually happening all around him, but invisible to his normal consciousness.  Jacob has discovered the unseen spiritual dimension of reality and it changes his life. His dream sets in motion four thousand years of Jewish spiritual experience.

What is the unseen spiritual dimension of our lives?

It is nothing extraordinary.  Our emotions.  Our prayers.  Our loves and fears.  Especially our unconscious intuitions and inklings.  The awe in a room when a human being is approaching the end of their life.  The holiness in the hospital room when a baby is being born.  Nothing in this spiritual dimension can be touched or measured.  I cannot prove empirically that I love or that I am touched deeply by a word of poetry or by a chord of music.  The spiritual realm is never visible, and yet it is the most important reality of our lives.  That is what Jacob saw that night, out on the road, dreaming under the starry sky.

How does Jacob respond to his dream of the spiritual world? First of all, Vayira. He is scared.  He says mah nora hamakom hazeh.   This is a place of fear and trembling.  This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”  To awaken to the presence of the divine is not a warm and cozy experience.  In that moment Jacob experiences yirah, which might be translated as holy fear.  Hours later, in the morning light, Jacob responds to his dream and the unseen spiritual realm with a ritual gesture, setting up the pillow stone as a matzeva, a monument, and pours oil on it, making it glisten in the sun, and he gives the place the name Beth El, meaning House of God.

That night of vision does not turn Jacob into a saint.  He is throughout his life a work in progress, like all of us.  At times capable of great love and at times withholding love, fearful and flawed.  More than any of our other patriarchs, Jacob is exactly what he will be named many years later by the angel:  Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God.  His dream of the ladder, with the angels of God going up and going down, marks the end of his youthful obliviousness.  He leaves that place full of energy and strength, arriving almost immediately at his destination, where upon seeing his cousin Rachel he runs to her, kisses her and weeps, and rolls a great stone off the mouth of a well, a feat which would usually require several men.  All of this energy and strength seems to flow from his dream and new-found knowledge of the unseen spiritual world all round him and within him.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, William James offered the modern world an approach to religious life that can co-exist happily side by side with science: the belief that there is an unseen reality, and that our supreme good….our happiness, our well-being, our shalom….is found in aligning our lives to that reality.

This has been my guiding belief also, throughout my career as a rabbi.  That in spite of the real harm and even evil that has been done in the name of religion, in spite of all of that, the living heart of religious experience….the awareness of the spiritual dimension of our lives, discovered by Jacob out alone on the road under the starry night sky…. is in fact the most important part of being a human being.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara CA

2021-11-16T11:55:50-08:00November 16th, 2021|

Liam Avolio: Reflections From My Bar Mitzvah

Liam Avolio: Reflections From My Bar Mitzvah

The day had finally come. I suppose I knew that it was happening, but it always seemed so far away. But years became months, and months became weeks, and weeks became days. And now, here I was, catching up with family, outside the temple where my Bar Mitzvah service would occur in a few short minutes. As I stood outside on the patio, the cold April wind blowing onto my face, I thought to myself about how I had got here.

I’d been preparing for this day for four years. Four. It’s honestly still unbelievable how much time I put into preparing for a mere two hours. I would say that I was confident in what I had learned, but I was still nervous. Even though, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only a few dozen people there in person, it was still nerve wracking knowing that I would be speaking in front of them in just a few minutes. I walked around, talking to family members, but I wasn’t fully thinking about the conversations. I was busy mulling over in my mind, had I prepared this, was I confident in that? After more than a few cookie cutter conversations of “how are you, I haven’t seen you in forever, you’ve gotten so big,” we sat down for the service.

There are three main parts that I had to prepare for this event. The first is the easiest, because I had been practicing it for the longest. You lead a large portion of the service, which mostly involves singing in Hebrew along with the congregation. It’s the least personal section, because everyone does it, and there isn’t an opportunity to add your own touch to it.

As the service started, the rabbi sang a few songs which I got to participate in, but not lead. And then, the rabbi called me to the Bima to recite the first prayer. I began to sing, יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא (Yitgadal, v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah). I sort of melted into the flow. I’d done this a thousand times and this wasn’t any different. I continued reading, focusing on the text on the page, the group of faces looking at me, the words I was saying, and the next section of the service.

The second section of the service is all about learning, and sharing what you have learned with the group of people in front of you. On a Bar-mitzvah, the teen is called up to chant that week’s portion of the Torah. I had been practicing my portion for over a year, and I felt fairly confident in what I had prepared. Even still, there were doubts in the back of my mind – Did I practice this part enough, is that word  pronounced Hi or Hu? (Vowels aren’t included in the Torah, so I had to not only read Hebrew, but remember certain parts.)

The easy part was done. I sat back down with my parents, happy with how I had done singing the prayers. They smiled at me, whispered, “Amazing job, Liam.” I smiled back absentmindedly, but in my head, I was thinking about how I would chant from the ancient book of the Jewish people, the Torah, in just a few short minutes. First, my aunt and uncle were called up to open the ark and lift the Torah onto the table. My brother and sister walked up afterward, and removed the fancy silver decorations from the scroll. Now, it was finally time for me to chant. I walked up to the Bima, and stood in front of the actual Torah scroll for the first time. The handwritten, stylized letters contrasted sharply with the page I had been practicing from. I had prepared a short summary of my portion in English, which I read aloud to the small crowd of people. Afterwards, someone began to sing the blessing before the Torah reading. It was like a timer, counting down until I was going to begin. She finished the blessing, “נותן התורה,” and I started chanting from the Torah. It was strangely relaxing. Even though this was difficult, I had practiced so much, I didn’t even have to focus. The words just came off the page and into the air. It was amazing being able to finally use what I had been learning for so long.

It was done so quickly. It’s amazing how much had built up to those few moments. I honestly don’t really have a vivid memory of what happened while I was chanting. I feel like it sort of started, and then ended the second after. I don’t want to say it was… disappointing, but it just didn’t feel like what I had been preparing for so long was over. The third section of a Bar Mitzvah service is the D’var Torah, which literally means, “A Word of Torah.” It’s when I shared what I learned from my Torah portion, the parts I agreed with, the parts I disagreed with, the questions I had, and how my portion relates to the Bar Mitzvah experience as a whole. I had a lot of ups and downs when writing mine. I really enjoyed studying what the rabbis had said, why they thought that thing x happened to character y. However, a really hard part of this for me was writing about my connections to my personal experience. My portion had a lot to do with how to make sacrifices to G-d. However, that hasn’t been a part of Judaism since around 70 CE, when the second temple was destroyed. It was a difficult subject to relate to modern life, because on the outside it looked as if it had nothing to do with today’s world. I was a bit worried about my D’var. I hadn’t had a lot of time to practice reading what I had written, and I wasn’t confident that I had made something that people would find worth listening to. Nonetheless, I started reading. As I continued, I felt more and more like I had done a good job. I was wrapped up in what I had written, even though I had written in just in the last few weeks. As I finished reading, I shared my questions with the people at the service. I listened to their thoughts on the portion, which were interesting, and often completely different from my own. As the last person finished their thoughts, the main portion of my Bar Mitzvah service was over.

“Bar Mitzvah.” What a strange sounding phrase. A lot of people know it refers to the coming of age ceremony celebrated by Jewish boys when they turn 13 and become “adults” in the eyes of the community. However, it literally refers to not the service, but the person. Any Jewish person becomes a Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah when they turn 13. And I think that this explains the thoughts I had earlier. My Bar Mitzvah service felt anti-climactic because it’s not supposed to be climactic. It’s not the end of a journey. All the practicing, learning, studying I had been doing, they were partly for my Bar Mitzvah service, but they were partly for my life as a Bar Mitzvah. I was preparing, not for a mere two hours, but for the rest of my life as a member of the Jewish community.


Liam Avolio is a freshman at Dos Pueblos High School.  He has been a part of CBB’s Jewish education since he was in preschool at BHY.  Liam’s interests include math, physics, video gaming, and spending time with friends and family.  Liam’s bar mitzvah experience was a very special highlight in his life and he is so grateful for being supported by a loving Jewish community.
2021-11-01T10:32:32-07:00November 1st, 2021|
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