Meet the Chaplain of Heart of Peace Chapel


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

March 24, 2020

Meet the Chaplain of Heart of Peace Interfaith Chapel — Paula E. Popper.

Paula has worked in religious organizations in a wide range of roles for many years. She has been the Chaplain for the Towpath District of the Seneca Waterways Council of Scouts BSA for 5 years. She is the Chaplain for Troop 171 in Pittsford NY. She has been a community-based chaplain since 2007. As she puts it, she is specifically an interfaith community chaplain, helping people find their spiritual path in a confusing world. All are welcome, regardless of background, ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation, economic status or education level. She continues to offer programs for the Scouts and other youth through the PRAY PUB programs and the Jewish Committee on Scouting (she is also a Jewish education and hazzan). She teaches God-centered meditation and visualization through her programs under the Passionate Meditation flag.


Observations in a virtual classroom

This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

February 13, 2021

Hey everyone! I hope all is well with you.
I have had the opportunity over the last couple of months to participate in a wide range of virtual learning situations, virtual meetings, and even virtual awards ceremonies. I continue to see interesting ways to create connection and community in virtual settings. I also continue to see practices that could use some improvement.

One thing I am seeing that works well is having someone designated to be the “admin/moderator” of the session. This person would make sure that people are admitted to the room, perhaps give the overview on how to do reactions, raise hands, whether chat is on or off, what some of the limits and norms will be, etc. This person will then monitor the chat during the program and look for raised hands and notify the presenter so these can be addressed as needed.

Having someone other than the presenter do this makes the presentation smoother, more interactive and less stressful for everyone.💻💻💻💻💻

The Wayfaring Stranger Comes Home


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

The Wayfaring Stranger Comes Home
Paula E. Popper, Chaplain and Hazzan (originally posted in 2018)

Once, quite a few years ago, I learned to sing the song, “The Wayfarin’ Stranger”, in my chorus at a performing arts school in Cincinnati, OH. This song so completely resonated with me, even at the age of nine, that I have continued to sing it in its many versions ever since. It is one of the private labels I have given to myself over the years. I found myself on a twisting road with many high and low areas. Perpetually wandering, perpetually a stranger, looking forward to “goin’ over home.”

I have had many labels given to me and have received them with frustration, recognition and amusement. The wayfaring stranger is one I gave to myself as I traveled through spiritual terrain and moved around the country. I grew up in a predominantly evangelical Christian home, with a father in the Navy, and afterwards moving around my parents’ hometown of Cincinnati as he found work and we found new places to live. Surrounded by extended family, part of a large church family, I felt like a stranger. My soul was not home.

I dove deeply into the Christian scriptures and tried to understand, to fit in, to be home.

In a job working in a library, I wandered through the religion and philosophy sections, reading endlessly, trying to understand the music in my soul, looking for a spiritual home.

One day I read a book about Jewish traditions. There was resonance and harmony here. I remembered a series of books I read in elementary school featuring a Jewish family of all girls. I remembered the warmth that I felt reading that series, wishing that was my home. I continued to study Judaism and found that my home was there, within a vast ancient tradition that had room for so many expressions. I was home.

I soon discovered that I had not found a home community even though I found my spiritual home within Judaism. There was often something missing , either I was too observant, too liberal, too mystical, too practical, too iconoclastic. I asked too many questions and accidentally shook up the status quo. I didn’t get invited to Shabbat dinner or holidays much, so I began to host them with my husband. We looked for those who were strangers, on the outside, on the edges, in the between spaces. We tried different congregations and minyanim. While some parts were wonderful and delightful, it wasn’t yet home.

I met Elana and discovered we had many things in common at our core. We recognized the resonance of home in each other. We both knew, separately, our friend Bean. He was also looking for a home, a community, and we found we three were looking for the same things. We have chosen to share our vision of community, naming it Yeshiva Shalem. A place to learn and to pray, to share meals and socialize, to do good in our world, to be our whole selves, to be at peace. Home.

© 2018 Paula E. Popper

Who am I? an introduction



This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

By Rabbi Elana Spezio

Who am I?

A Jew. An American. A Parent. A Child. A Grandparent. A scholar. A storyteller. A time traveler.

Yes, you read that right: a time traveler. Oh, not like H. G. Wells, or Timeless, or Dr. Who. I’m a time traveler in the same way that you are. Totally human, totally mundane. I travel through time one minute, one hour, one day at a a time. Don’t we all? Linear time delineates my life and experiences.

My parents’ family was totally not observant – Judaism was non-existent. I survived childhood. Left Rochester, went to University. Then Professional career in the helping professions, Boston, MA, and Western New York. Married, twenty years, three children. Spiritual but not religious. Divorce. Career continued – focus on Nursing Home Administration and teaching.

Lived for a time in New York City. Married Orthodox man, embraced Orthodox life, what many call ‘Teshuvah’ (returning). Totally observant. Increasing discomfort. Only photos on walls were right off of Smith Brothers Cough Drops box. Divorced. Get. Returned to Rochester. Explored various shuls. None have community like I need.

Met some like minded people. Paula, Bean. Over several years of talking, davening, sharing our respective journeys, Sabbath Dinners, yada we determined to make a community to meet our needs. Make our own. Yeshiva Shalem.

Meet the founders


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This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

Meet the founders of Yeshiva Shalem: Rabbi Elana Spezio – rabbi and visionary, Paula Popper – chaplain and hazzan, Bean Shirazi – board president and PR coordinator. This was at an afternoon mini-retreat for planning and vision development.

Forgiveness and Hope in 5779


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

Forgiveness and Hope in 5779
L’shanah Tovah Tikatayvu, the traditional greeting we give one another during the High Holy Days. It references a prayer – may your name be written in the Book – so you may have happiness in the year ahead. Don’t we all want this? I do. Let’s hope each and every one of us do have a marvelous year ahead. Now, how do we get there? I sum L’shanah Tovah Tikatayvu with two words: Forgiveness. Hope. That’s how.

The paths we take are as numerous and varied as we are as a people. And as individual and unique as are each of our life stories. For me, it’s expressed in screen writing. (More on that later.) You? Consider, we’re a savvy people. We search our libraries, and the internet, for all sorts of resources, commentaries, guides, lists of mitzvot (commandments) about the High Holidays. I could list all the services, regale you with cool stories about the songs. But I won’t rehash any of that here. Life is too short.
It’s not that the long Hebrew language rituals, music, and carefully worded prayers, the fasting, don’t mean anything to me – they do. I am deeply moved by the traditional conserva-dox liturgy. The Hebrew songs and chants bring tears to my eyes. But many of us didn’t grow up in Shul. We didn’t go to Hebrew School. We aren’t fluent in Hebrew. So the series of exquisite Hebrew services that make up the Days of Awe are a challenge we often shy away from. Yes, we, that includes me. I play hooky with the best of them.

So what do I do to honor the gift our ancestors have given us – their story – the holiday services? How do I make them authentic and meaningful in the context of my life? Simple. I wrestle with them in my own words. Screen writer words. As a screen writer, I love stories, plots, themes, the surprise twist. Think about any movie, or television show you have watched, enjoyed. Visual storytelling that grabbed you, made you laugh, or cry, get angry, scared you, or see something in life just a bit differently. And this story starts with a screenplay.

Screenplays are a thoroughly modern form of storytelling. They have a very specific vocabulary, style, structure. It’s a language all its own. There’s more. If you read the screenplay of your favorite movie and compared it to the actual movie you would discover vast differences. The screen play is the skeleton upon which many others build . The directors, the film crew, the actors, and computer graphics folk, all add their own distinctiveness to the original screenplay. They translate the original text into a visual, living experience. The movie you view is the result of many people collaborating to create a greater whole. The screenplay may start with one person – but the movie requires many.

And that’s exactly what the High Holidays are all about. The rituals, prayer, songs are the movie our ancestors made for themselves. Their movie, however, may not resonate with you. Parts of the typical service don’t work for me, either. So, what do I do? I dig down, find the essence of each of the services, rituals, etc. I look for the skeleton upon which these services are built. I did. What did I find? Two words. Forgiveness. Hope.

As a savvy people, we find all sorts of clever ways to look at our past – and find negative things. Our New Year is about forgiving ourselves of past failings. And forgiving others who have failed us. This doesn’t mean forgetting. Never forget. It does mean letting go of negative feelings toward that person (or your past) and getting on with living today. After all, harboring negativity doesn’t hurt anyone but ourselves, does it? Let it go. Embrace the theme – be kind to yourself – forgive.

The Days of Awe have a second theme. Looking to the future with hope. Returning to hope. Each of us has the power to imagine the coming year as filled with positive or negative things. The stories told during the Days of Awe push us to the positive – to hope. YOU have returned. Your name IS in the book. YOU ARE inscribed for a marvelous new year. If that’s what you want. It’s your story – make it a good one.

Here is my storytelling, this time around:
In This New Year, 5779,
I forgive.
I forgive myself for all the stupid things I did.
I forgive everyone who mistreated me.
But I won’t grant them opportunity to hurt me again.
I hope.
I return to hope.
I visualize 5779 filled with kindness.
Kindness to myself.
Kindness to my friends.
Kindness to my enemies.
L’shanah Tova. How will you write your story in 5779?
Rabbi Elana F Spezio

Reaction to the massacre in Squirrel Hill – Paula E. Popper, Chaplain and Hazzan


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

October 28, 2018

I was home from services because of an asthma-like cough that was rather severe. As I was relaxing after an inhaler treatment, my notifications started going off on my phone. I have it silenced during most of Shabbat, normally, but had forgotten because I wasn’t feeling well.

Denial. Shock. What? A shooting at a synagogue?!

I began to follow the news reports and other communications through the day.

Tears. More shock. Horror – there was a bris that morning!

Knowing that so many in my community were in services and wouldn’t know until later in the day gave me a deep sense of dread. The Jewish community is small. There are no “six degrees of separation” here. Often it is at most two or three. Where I live, Pittsburgh is a relatively nearby big city. We know many people there. Many of my community here in Rochester grew up in or lived in Pittsburgh. The ties are extensive between our communities.

Through the day I kept vigil, I read Torah, and read prayers. This week’s parsha has many of the founding stories of the Hebrew people. Father Avraham, his wife Sarah and the saga of the sons. We read how Avraham and Sarah kept their tent open in all directions to welcome anyone who came in. We read how they welcomed strangers into their tent and cared for them and fed them. We read of the extensive family strife. We read how Avraham attempted to sacrifice his son to G-d.

We heard in our news how the doors to the synagogue building were open to all. We read how different groups were gathered throughout the building, providing a welcome for any spiritual seeker to find a community with whom to pray. We read about the shooter who ranted about immigrants and strangers and targeted Jews because they welcome and help such people. And we read about the eleven people who were killed and others who were injured, sacrificed.

It is my opinion that Avraham failed in the test G-d set before him. Human sacrifice was not unknown in that region at that time. G-d specifically asked Avraham to leave the family, culture and beliefs in which he was raised to seek a new way with the One G-d. Yet, when G-d gave what seemed like a command in keeping with the “old” ways of the culture Avraham was supposed to have left, Avraham obeyed without question, failing the test. Avraham should have argued with G-d. This path was supposed to be different. Why repeat the cruelties of the other religions Avraham was asked to leave behind? Clearly, Avraham had not fully left this behind if he could follow this dictate without question. Our sacred texts repeatedly state that human sacrifice is abhorrent. Avraham should have argued with G-d, reminding him of the charge to be different, to not do as those around do, to not do this cruel thing. But Avraham failed the test.

We must not fail this test. We must fight against the sacrifice of innocents on the altar built by guns and violence. We must stand together as a community, be vigilant against those who wish to see us dissolve into senseless hatred, bigotry and cruelty. We must stand as one, in the Name of the One.

Reaction to the Sacrilege at Squirrel Hill – by Elana Frances Spezio, Chaplain and Rabbi, Yeshiva Shalem


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

19th Cheshvan, 5779

A tweet about murder at a temple in Pittsburgh just hit me.

I was, of all things, studying the script of the third episode of the just released ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,’ while also watching that episode on Netflix. It’s a much darker re-envisioning of the very chaste and moral ‘Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’ comic book series. Why? Because my contribution to Tikkun Olam is through storytelling, specifically writing scripts for the screen. And learning what works in today’s markets moves me closer to achieving that goal.

This episode was re-envisioning the classic ‘Devil and Daniel Webster’ story in Sabrina’s world. In the midst of the trial, surprise! A Tweet: Five killed by gunman at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. My first thought? One of my friends, a gabbai – his mother once lived right across the street from that shul.

Then Paula texted me. Truth be told, I wasn’t surprised to hear about another vicious attack on people of our tribe. The 2016 election cycle did many things, both good and bad. The good? It revealed how thin the veneer of civilized behavior has become in the USA. Among the bad? The election also emboldened the alt-right to come out of the woodwork, to reveal their true feelings and sentiments. Intolerance unleashed. This is good because we now know who needs our help. But the cost of remaining in their cross-hairs just a bit longer is escalating.

Like Sabrina, like Daniel Webster, we’re on trial, again. My very good friend, Chaplain / Cantor Paula pointed out that our father Abraham, of blessed memory, was also tried and tested. Remember the akeda? The binding of Isaac? I agree with Paula, Abraham failed . He chose to desecrate the image of G-d as presented in Isaac. A big no-no, as our story is told.

Many lessons we may learn from reading (or viewing ) the stories of our ancestors. What do we learn from this story of our Father Avraham agreeing to murder Isaac in the name of G-d? Don’t let fear of disappointing those with more power than you push you to violate your integrity. And today? Don’t react with fear or hate toward the vicious forces unleashed here two years ago. Yes, we are targets – nothing new under the sun.

We are targets. Our synagogues, Temples, houses of Study, our homes are targets. Yes, many of the alt-right hate us – hate Jews. To the Alt-right: get in line. Many have hated us before you were born. We protected ourselves then (yea Maccabees). And we will, today.

Now, as in the past, we will protect ourselves. Oh, as if armed guards would actually solve this here in diaspora America. Whatever we decide to do, as individuals, as families, as a community – to protect ourselves – don’t repay their hatred with hatred, their fear with our fear. Yes, we must do everything we can to ensure future attacks fail. Never forget. Always remember.

And also remember we are still on trial. Will we, in the final analysis, respond to the sacrilege at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in such a manner that we honor HaShem?

Will we honor our fallen without malice toward others?

Will we protect ourselves and our neighbors without hatred or fear?

Will we trust that HaShem is still the Guardian of Israel, wherever the descendants of Jacob may reside? That includes America. Because this is us.

Blessed be our Sovereign, the G-d of Yisrael,

even here in America,

In Monroe County,

in my home. And your home.

Now. Always. Amen.

Rosh Chodesh Kislev 2018


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

It is Rosh Chodesh Kislev – In the Tanach, this is the ninth month (first month is Nisan). Hanukkah occurs this month. The rainbow of the Flood story fame was seen during Kislev. It is sometimes called the month of dreams since most of the dreams mentioned in the Torah are read during the portions this month. It is associated with the gemstone amethyst (achlama in Hebrew). Because of the holiday of Hanukkah and the occurrence during the darkest part of the year, Kislev is also about finding the light in the darkness, and shining your light in the darkness. May we have a month of increasing light in our lives despite the darkness that seems to surround us. (contributed by Paula E. Popper)

Rabbi’s Thanksgiving 2018


This is part of my ongoing effort to collect notes, postings and longer writings from Facebook and other social media sites into my WordPress blog site.

This week I met someone who radically changed my feelings about Thanksgiving.

We, in America, so often talk about gratitude at Thanksgiving. Or complain about the unleashing of the annual deluge of Christmas music on the radio, in the stores, too many places. As a Jew – it’s borderline harassment. Even some Christians lament this hyper commercialization of the holiday season ushered in by Thanksgiving. I have. This year is different. I met someone – while shopping – of course.

A woman wearing a hijab approached me in the supermarket. She asked me about American Thanksgiving traditions. Specifically, what desserts are ‘American?’ I told her apple and pumpkin pie. She thought I meant a pie made of apple and pumpkin. I showed her the various pies. We had a nice chat. She was helping prepare an American style Thanksgiving dinner for her family and friends.

We talked a bit about turkeys, stuffing, gravy. Sweet potatoes. I told her about roasting bags. She told me she planned to wrap the potatoes in foil before she baked them. She asked about the best way to make turkey gravy. I confess I never expected to have this kind of conversation with a devout Muslim.

Just before we parted, I asked her why, of all the people in the store, she asked me. Why? I was the only woman wearing a hat. She felt I was being respectful. Those of you who know me know I’m just a tad non-conforming. Her observation surprised me. It’s true, even though I am now divorced , I still always cover my head in public: hat, sheitel, scarf. Old habits. Still non-conforming.

As we parted I said “salaam alaykum – peace to you.” (I say namaste to Buddhist and Hindus.) She questioned me, “you’re Muslim?” No, I’m a rabbi, and I love all my cousins, and want peace for everyone.” Her face lit up like the sun. “Sha, how you say?” I said “Shalom. Peace.” She said “Shalom” back to me.

My views of Thanksgiving changed. Now I’m focusing on Thanksgiving as a bit of real peace making. And tradition actually supports this.

The people who came over on the Mayflower were mostly Dutch – and seeking peace. Yes, it’s true – the stories of that first thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Native Americans feasting together is pure propaganda. The Europeans who settled in America, and their descendants, actually perpetrated one of the most widespread genocides in human history.

So that story of that ‘First Thanksgiving’ is revisionist history – a bold and bald falsehood. But the fantasy is one of hope, and peace, and sharing, and caring, and all good things. My ancestors failed. We can’t change that. We don’t have to. I want to make real the fantasy of that first Thanksgiving by changing the present, and the future.

In America, Thanksgiving ushers in a season of many holidays. Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, the big three. This year I’m paying more attention to what others are celebrating, and why. And when I light my Hanukkah candles – I’ll also remember that there are other lights shining from people who don’t light our candles. And smile – wondering what the woman wearing the hijab is doing.

But first, I have a thanksgiving turkey to roast. A good beginning. Except, of course, for the turkey.

– Rabbi Elana Frances Spezio, Yeshiva Shalem