Rabbi Michael Schwartz

Seeking ‘shalom bayit’ during the ‘Omer’

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Seeking ‘shalom bayit’ during the ‘Omer’

Rabbi Michael Schwartz

Rabbi Michael Schwartz of Marblehead’s Temple Sinai is sending out a daily email to help people count the Omer this year. Schwartz addresses a different theme each week, and crafts his emails with the goal of encouraging Jewish unity and democracy for the State of Israel. “I’m hoping that the spirit of this collective focus on what unites us will carry over to the leaders of Israel and to the people,” he said.

The list is currently going out to around 200 people, including members of his current and former congregations, members of the North Shore Rabbis and Cantors Association, and to the JCC of the North Shore (JCCNS).

Schwartz has been doing the email list for three years now, but with his busy schedule (in addition to his rabbinic duties, Schwartz also works as the co-director of Jewish Engagement at the JCCNS), he decided that he wouldn’t do it this year. Then, tensions in Israel began to mount.

Schwartz harbors great concern over the Israeli government’s move to legislate power away from the Supreme Court. As Passover (and thus, the beginning of the Omer) approached this year, Schwartz had a moment of understanding. “I realized as the Israeli government put their legislation on hold right before Passover, that the Omer this year is a time of trepidation,” he said.

Schwartz explained how these seven weeks in the Jewish calendar align with a crucial point in the farming season: farmers are planting their seeds and seedlings in the quickly-warming ground, and waiting to see if their crops will be fruitful or not. Schwartz recalled the experience of Jewish farmers back in the day. “This was their livelihood, their food for the year,” he said. “And to me, it just felt like that right now. How is our country going to figure out what direction we’re headed?”

In his initial email invitation, Schwartz wrote:

“This year, let’s have the focus of our counting be on what unites us as the Jewish People, not on what divides us … Let’s count the ways our tradition teaches us to have and show mutual respect, how to value and cultivate shalom bayit – peace in our house, the home of the Jewish People in Israel and abroad … Let’s count on Jewish Peoplehood, making unity of the Jewish People in Israel and around the world, count.”

This is the point Schwartz continues to return to in his emails: that now is a time to focus on the unity of the Jewish people, and use that unity to spur forward a democratic state of Israel.

Schwartz’s connection to Israel is not merely as an American Jewish ally: he is an Israeli citizen who spent 20 years living in the land – it’s even where he got his rabbinic ordination – before moving back to the States seven years ago. He’s been on the North Shore for just under two years now, where both he and his wife have family roots. Before then, Schwartz spent five years in California, working as a rabbi at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue. It was there he first started sending his Omer emails, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. His congregants called on him for a daily reminder and guide to counting the Omer, and Schwartz delivered.

The emails started off in a fairly common manner, focusing on the mystical elements of the Omer to help promote “spiritual self-examination,” said Schwartz. Over the years, the list has grown and changed. Last year, each reflection was divided into three categories: the mitzvah of counting the Omer, those classic mystical elements, and seven different midot from musar (a Jewish spiritual practice on living ethically). This year, as mentioned, Schwartz is doing a weekly theme on Jewish unity. So far, he’s explored embracing Jewish peoplehood, law and judgment in Judaism and shalom bayit, to name a few.

“The real motivation for doing this – and I hope that people can connect to this – is that the sense of Jewish peoplehood is so important and so under threat with what’s going on [in Israel],” Schwartz said, “I’m calling for real unity about how we focus on what we have in common and how we are going to live with one another. I’m convinced and will remain convinced that the expression of Israel as a Jewish state is necessarily as a strong democracy. It can’t be any other way.”

Schwartz hopes that his email list this year will resonate with Jewish Americans keeping up with the political situation in Israel. “I believe in the efficacy of prayer,” he said. “It really feels at this time that we really, really need it.” Θ

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