Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, this blog contains random musings of a journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and occasionally-ranting rabbi, taken from Shabbat-O-Grams, columns, speeches, letters, sermons and thin air. "On One Foot," the column, appears regularly in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a blog for the "Times of Israel."
June 14-16 was an exciting time for me and for TBE, as we celebrated my 30th anniversary serving this community. See the entire service below (it's called an aufruf here, though it wasn't...except that it sort of was - and you'll have to hear my D'var Torah to understand why...). My thanks to everyone who made the weekend so special!
Temple Beth El celebrates senior rabbi’s 30th anniversary
STAMFORD — When Rabbi Joshua Hammerman joined Temple Beth El, his goal was to inspire the conservative congregation to be open and inclusive, more so than it already did.
“Fairfield County, more than 30 years ago, was seen as very stiff and formal, and not just among synagogues, but in the churches too,” he said. “And I think a loosening and a sort of democratization needed to happen. The expression that’s used often is ‘high church’ and with that was a feel of formality. And I think all religious institutions have realized over the years that they need to be more welcoming and more inclusive.”
Hammerman, a Boston native, came to Stamford and joined Temple Beth El as an assistant rabbi in 1987. Five years later, he was named the temple’s senior rabbi, a position he has held for about 25 years. This month, Temple Beth El is celebrating Hammerman’s 30th anniversary with the congregation.
He said the past three decades have been filled with lessons and challenges.
“One thing I learned early on as a rabbi...is that anyone who tries to change people will never have success,” he said. “The only way to have an impact on people’s lives is to love them, and not manipulatively, but unconditionally. So, if a religious leader can love his or her congregation unconditionally, and stand there as an example to them, then they can succeed and maybe even influence change.”
Hammerman said he quickly adopted a “fellow journeyman” approach.
“My way of leadership has not been to be the priest, not to be the one who afflicts the comfortable, but to be the one who comforts the afflicted,” he said. “I’ve always felt that was my role.”
But Hammerman said it was also his duty to call for change when he felt it was needed, something that came with a steep learning curve.
“One of my first sermons here, I stood up there on the high holidays, on our pulpit, and I addressed a situation where at that time Stew Leonard’s had been convicted of tax fraud,” he said. “And I said I felt uncomfortable shopping there and that I wouldn’t be going in there for a while. That was not meant to be a call for a boycott, but somehow it was translated into that. … So, I learned very quickly that my words matter, and that afflicting the comfortable is an important role but there also needs to be some understanding of the impact that words will have on people.
“So, I grew up,” he said with a laugh.
In today’s climate, where people are faced with fierce political and ideological divides, and organized religions struggle to maintain influence and relevance, Hammerman said this is the time when people need faith.
“I think religion has never been more relevant,” he said. “At a time when basic values are being challenged and questioned by political leaders, this is where those values can be emphasized — such values as truth and honesty and compassion are just fundamental to our faith. And when we proclaim that, as I do every week at services, I almost feel subversive, which is an incredibly strange feeling. But we’re here, advocating that people be nice and honest to each other and embrace facts, and that’s what religion should do. That’s what religion looks like. So, I know that I am playing a very important role right now.”
During his tenure, Hammerman has worked to include people from all backgrounds and walks of life, championing inclusiveness and innovation and becoming heavily involved with the interfaith community.
Hammerman said he’s seen the congregation evolve to become more open and accepting of those who may have felt unwelcome decades ago.
“We are constantly reimagining our spirituality, our prayer, our role in education and community service,” he said.
“It’s really a gift to have gotten to be here for so long. Most clergy don’t stay this long with one congregation any more. Really, most people don’t stay this long at any job. So, it’s a blessing in so many ways, but it’s also a challenge because it’s so easy to stagnate. The years go by in a flash and it can be easy to fall back on old habits, but you can also move forward and re-invent yourself and try to seek new challenges.”
There will not be a Shabbat-O-Gram next week - too much happening. So let this one linger. Make sure to get your tickets for next Thursday's cantor's concert, and if you have them, make sure to get here early. Hundreds of tickets have been sold. We'll have a shuttle bus for those who need to park down the street. Join us on Friday night, and on Shabbat morning, when we'll explore the portion of Shelach Lecha.
If you would like to prepare a d'var Torah (with my help) to be delivered while I am away this summer, now is the time! Let me know!
Also, Sat night is the community Iftar, sponsored by the Interfaith Council. It's at 7:30 at the Union Baptist Church (I'll be running there at the conclusion of Shabbat). Click here for more info. If you have never experienced Muslim prayer and fast-breaking at the conclusion of a day of Ramadan, imagine a Yom Kippur Ne'ilah and Break-the-fast - every day for a month! Our Muslim neighbors need our support, at a time when Islamophobia-inspired hate crimes are on the rise, just as hate crimes against Jews have increased. I've been honored with the opportunity to recite a blessing at the beginning of the Iftar feast.
This Friday night TBE celebrates our annual Pride Shabbat. Our guest speaker, Dustin Rader, a transgender former student of our education director Lisa Udi, will discuss the challenges and triumphs of his life. Dusty has spoken here before, and his words are truly inspirational. At a time when individuals like Virginia's Gavin Grimm need to go to court simply for the right to relieve himself in a boy's bathroom, we know that we have a long way to go.
Did you know...
There are about 1.4 million transgender adults in United States and about 150,000 youth ages 13-17
Only 26% of LGBTQ youth report that they always feel safe in the classroom
73% of LGBTQ youth have experienced verbal threats because of their actual or perceived LGBTQ identity
More than three-quarters (77%) of K-12 Students who were out or perceived as transgender had one or more negative experiences at school because they were transgender, such as being verbally harassed or physically attacked
Federal Civil Rights law has not been amended and no federal law has been created to include gender identity and sexual orientation. States have passed laws that either affirm discrimination against LGBTQ people or protect LGBTQ people, at varying levels, from discrimination
Over 129 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2017
Transgender people face higher-than-average rates of police violence, discrimination in the workplace, housing and healthcare, and are more likely to live in poverty than the general population.
When Willem announced his intention to become an artist and declared his homosexuality, his father drove him out of the house. Willem began to write, working on a number of autobiographical novels as well as a biography of the 19th century Dutch painter, Matthijs Maris.
In the spring of 1942, Willem founded Brandarisbrief, an illegal periodical in which he expressed the artist's opposition to the edicts imposed by the Kulturkammer, the occupier's cultural committee. Willem was one of those Dutch artists who considered resistance a mission and had no qualms about spreading his views in artistic circles in an effort to influence others. A year later, his publication merged with De Vrije Kunstenaar, where Gerrit van der Veen* was one of the editors. Willem soon struck up a friendship with van der Veen, who had begun to specialize in forging identity cards. Forging identity cards and distributing them in Amsterdam was a task that involved one particular problem: The Municipal Office for Population Registration in the city center served as the repository of the residents' personal data and so forged cards could easily be detected. The existence of this bureau therefore posed a serious obstacle to rescuing Jews and consequently a plan was devised to attack the registration office, burn all the identity cards and files kept there, and destroy the building.
Willem, assisted by his male companion, was involved in the preparation of the attack. Albert Schlosser, a German immigrant, obtained the explosives, and Sjoerd Bakker made the Dutch police uniforms that were going to be used as a disguise. This mission was made all the harder after a similar attack was made on an office in Wageningen, Gelderland, near the end of 1942 and security in all the registration offices throughout the Netherlands was tightened. In Amsterdam, guards were placed at strategic points in the municipal building, thereby complicating the plan, which had to take into account all the possible scenarios.
The attack was finally carried out on March 27, 1943. It was a Saturday night and Willem, dressed in an officer's uniform, approached the guards at the door and told them that he, his lieutenant (van der Veen), four policemen, and three more officers had come to search the building for explosives. The guards believed the story and let them into the municipal building. Two medical students then sedated the guards. The attack went according to plan: 800,000 identity cards were destroyed; 600 blank cards and 50,000 guilders were found; the building was blown up; and no one was caught.
The head of police in the German occupation administration, immediately announced a 10,000-guilder reward for finding the perpetrators. On the night of the attack the group celebrated their success at Limperg's apartment. A few days later Willem went into hiding in Amsterdam. In early April, Willem was apprehended, but he did not utter a word while being interrogated.
On June 18, 1943, Willem was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed on July 1. In 1984, each member of the group involved with the attack was honored by the Queen of the Netherlands and awarded the Resistance Memorial Cross. On June 19, 1986, Yad Vashem recognized Willem Johannes Cornelis Arondeus as Righteous Among the Nations.
Blended Families, TBE's New Bylaws and the Abayudaya
At our recent Annual Meeting, our congregation passed bylaw revisions that, while somewhat more symbolic than substantive, make an enormous, loud statement about how welcoming we wish to be toward blended families. See the changes here.
It is important to note that the bylaws do not stray into the complex area of defining who is a Jew. Nor does it propose any changes to our ritual practice. Our practice in regards to including non-Jews in our ritual has been evolving for some time, including having special "ufruf" blessings for interfaith couples about to be married and involving non Jewish parents, spouses and other relatives in various life cycle events on our bima. I also make it a priority to contact TBE young adults who are about to be married (when I hear about the wedding), whether or not the spouse is Jewish, to congratulate them and welcome them home to their synagogue.
You can see in this article that our efforts are being echoed throughout the Conservative movement.
The bylaws do not define who is a Jew, but they do redefine who is a member of TBE, and the definition, much like that used by the state of Israel for the Law of Return, is expansive. A voting member of TBE may now be someone who is not Jewish by the traditional definition. In fact, that person can even become a committee member and a trustee.
Our growing inclusiveness is essential to our future and the future of American Jewry. It stands in direct contrast to worrisome happenings in Israel. See below an announcement that came from all the arms of the Conservative Movement this week:
In a blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Israel's Interior Ministry last week rejected the aliyah application of Kibita Yosef, a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, currently in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz. Explaining its May 31 refusal, a ministry spokesperson reportedly stated, "This is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community - it is not about one specific applicant." But such a statement amounts to a de facto dismissal of the legitimacy of the 2,500-strong community that has been practicing Judaism for a century.
It is outrageous, disrespectful and very possibly unlawful for the Interior Ministry to reject the validity of conversions performed abroad by a major Jewish movement. The Abayudaya Community are members of Masorti Olami (World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues).
This decision reverses over two decades of government policy that has conferred Jewish status for purposes of immigration and citizenship on those who convert abroad through a major Jewish movement. It is not only an affront to the Abayudaya, but also to the entire worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.
Happy Parentless Day
Here's an excerpt from an essay written by TBE's Samantha Klein, whose father Matthew dies suddenly several months ago. You can find the whole thing online here. Read about the exciting project that is being planned - and please support it. And see above a photo of the lovely garden donated and personally planted by Matthew last year. it is now dedicated to his memory.
After losing my dad unexpectedly on December 3rd, 2017, I have found that one of the only cathartic things (other than listening to his favorite songs, smelling his worn-in t-shirts, and reading Pinterest quotes about loss) is to speak to others who have sadly suffered something similar.
Through the, unfortunately, many conversations I've had of late (I only became comfortable with sharing my tragic story in the last two months; before then I was lying under the covers of my bed in my what was once my parents' house but now is my mother's house), I've learned that the toughest day of the year in the U.S. (my apologies as I haven't had these conversations with international folks yet, but I look forward to doing so) for the members of this shi*ty parentless club, no matter the age, race, gender, etc., is Mother's and Father's Day. It's not their birthday where just you, your family, and friends are remembering / celebrating the person you lost, but it's a day where EVERYONE in the United States is celebrating their moms and dads with cards and gifts and BBQs, hugs, kisses, you know the drill...
This year, a few members of one of the world's worst clubs, the parentless club, is hosting a Happy Parentless Day event on June 21st at 7pm in NYC for those (and their significant others) who have lost a parent. Tickets ($5) are required for this event with all proceeds benefiting Experience Camps, free, one-week camps for boys and girls who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Unfortunately, space is limited due to fire code regulation.
If interested in creating your own event and you have questions, need ideas, etc, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thirty Years of Trivia
A lot has happened here over the past thirty years, during my time here at TBE. Your ticket of admission to next week's festivities will be to get at least half of these questions right.
1)Who of the names below did NOT speak here as part of the Hoffman Lecture series?
(Answer is 5. Rabbi Greenberg was here as a scholar in residence)
2)Our first weekend scholar in residence was...
(Answer is 1. Peninnah Schram, the great Jewish storyteller, came for a weekend while I was still assistant rabbi. The first who came when I became senior rabbi was Waldoks, the rabbi and humorist (and he was very funny))
3)TBE Shabbatons were memorable. List the one place where they were never held....
(Answer is 5. We were never invited.)
4)In which Confirmation Class photo did my hair begin to turn silver-ish?
(Answer is 4.)
5)Of all the things said from the pulpit during my tenure, this line drew the most laughs - and I didn't say it. Who did, and when?
"I'd like to thank the rabbi. He's been like a father to me."
(Answer: Ethan at his bar mitzvah)
6)Which was my favorite bar/bat mitzvah class ever?
6) Are you kidding me? They all are!
7)In 30 years, I've missed exactly one bar or bat mitzvah. Why did I miss it?
Saturday, the rabbi slept late
The kid stuck gum on my chair
Hey, she missed my bar mitzvah.
To go on the March of the Living
(answer: d - and she was given 9 months advance notice and a chance to switch dates. Just sayin')
8)Which of the following was the worst usage of the term "Shabbat" in our eternal efforts at marketing Shabbat?
Shab-N-Schmooze (for teens)
(answer: none of the above!)
9) Which large retailer did I cite during an early High Holidays sermon, mentioning that because of their serious moral lapses I would not be shopping there for a year (I never called it a "boycott...")
1) Bloomingdales (there was a Bloomingdales?)
2) Stop and Shop
3) Stew Leonards
4) Bernie Madoff's Superstore
5) Amazing Stores in Norwalk
(answer: You think I'm crazy? Ask someone who was here!)
10) Most of our recent Israel trips have been run by Keshet Israel Tours. What company ran the first few?
Answer: "Hearts of Pam," lovingly run by our very missed and loved Pamela Cohn Allen
– Rabbi Joshua Hammerman will be honored for his 30-plus years of service as
spiritual leader of Temple Beth El (TBE) at a weekend celebration to be held at
the Stamford synagogue June 14 through June 16.
Prior to his appointment in 1987 as
assistant rabbi of Temple Beth El, Rabbi Hammerman was spiritual leader of a
small congregation in Peekskill, New York, his first pulpit following his
ordination. Seeking a challenge, and attracted by the large Jewish community in
Stamford, he visited and, as he puts it, “fell in love with the people, who
were unpretentious and positive, the area, which felt very ‘New England’ for
this Boston boy, and the synagogue itself, especially the sanctuary and the
Since stepping up to become Beth El’s
spiritual leader in 1992, Hammerman has focused on creating what he calls “an
oasis of warmth, love and mutual respect” that he believes is vital for a
modern congregation. As the synagogue’s rabbi, he embraces people of all
backgrounds and faiths, and encourages inclusiveness in synagogue life.
Programs he has implemented include Synaplex and Shabbat Unplugged.
Over the years, he has also been
involved in numerous local and national organizations. Among his roles, he has
served as president of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut and
the Stamford Board of Rabbis, as chaplain for the Stamford Police, and as a
member of the pastoral advisory committee of Stamford Health Systems.
The weekend celebration honoring Rabbi
Hammerman will begin on Thursday night, June 14, when the rabbi will be honoree
at the TBE Cantor’s Concert led by Cantor Magda Fishman and featuring Cantor
George Mordecai. The concert will be held at Temple Beth El, 7-9:30 p.m.
Shabbat services on Saturday, June 16 will include Torah readings by TBE high
school and college students, followed by a celebratory luncheon with musical
entertainment and a presentation by TBE children. The luncheon is free of
charge, however registration is required.
Carl Weinberg, President of TBE, says,
“Rabbi Hammerman has been our spiritual mentor at Temple Beth El for many
years, through our congregants’ good times and sad times. We are thrilled to
have this celebration in his honor and everyone is welcome.”
For more information on these events,
including ticket information to the June 14 concert, call (203)
322-6901 or e-mail email@example.com.
Temple Beth El is located at 350 Roxbury Road in Stamford.
This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content here are presented solely by the author, and The Times of Israel assumes no responsibility for them. In case of abuse, report this post.
An Open Letter to Sheldon Adelson and George Soros:
It’s time to talk. Anywhere, anytime. In my office, if you wish. Southern Connecticut is centrally located, an easy drive from George’s Westchester home, where I once performed a wedding, and Sheldon’s old Boston area haunts, where I grew up.
But this is not about me.
For you, George and Sheldon, are the polar axes of the Jewish world. Yes, the Jewish people are now bipolar, half Adelsonian particularists and half Sorosian universalists, and we spin around you. With apologies to the non-Jewish world, which the two of you have greatly influenced, this is not about them, either.
This is a matter of mishpacha, family, a term that both of you know well. Just seven decades after the Holocaust, the remnants of the Jewish people are splitting at the seams, and right now neither of you seems to care about that. But I suspect that you do.
Last year, when Sean Spicer made ill-advised comments downplaying Hitler’s atrocities, you, Sheldon, were the one who set him straight and steered the Trump administration away, even if only temporarily, from the path of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
And you, George, while you deny being a practicing Jew or a Zionist, you openly profess to having “a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”
So let’s put that to the test.
While the Lauders, Bronfmans, Steinhardts, Schustermans and others have had a tremendous impact on Jewish life and Israel, they have neither been as impactful nor as demonized as the two of you. You represent the left and right extremes of both American and Israeli politics, and vicious attacks on you have come from Jews and non-Jews alike. While my views tend to reside somewhere in between, I feel personally attacked when I see how you both have been singled out.
Now you may not care, George, that half of Europe has turned you into Shylock incarnate — and that even Prime Minister Netanyahu has foolishly piled on. Or that the Republican party decided to use your image as a dog whistle in an ad on the eve of Election Day, 2016. And it may not even bother you that Roseanne Barr dragged you into her most recent racist, anti-Semitic Twitter rant.
And you, Sheldon, may not be bothered about being the subject of an anti-Semitic cartoon in the Boston Globe, with an exaggerated hook nose, or the many accusations against you employing classic anti-Jewish tropes of greed and control
But as a Jew, it bothers me to see any Jew demonized — or any other human — because we know where that can lead.
Meanwhile, the split between Israel and American Jewry is widening dramatically. Since Birthright Israel was imagined two decades ago — and thank you, Sheldon, for your recent $70 million gift — world Jewry has been twiddling its thumbs, while its two main communities have been drifting apart like polar ice sheets passing in the night. Israeli politicians continue their unabated onslaught of insults directed against American Jews, and American Jews continue to respond by caring less and less about Israel. Those destructive trends must be reversed.
You, Sheldon and George, have the power to do something about it. Simply by sitting down and sharing a knish, you will be sending a powerful signal that will instantly improve the atmosphere. “If even Adelson and Soros can break bread together,” people will say, “maybe there is hope for the rest of us.”
If you could conclude that meeting with a brief statement covering areas where the two of you agree — and I’m sure you can find some — that would give us all a path for continuing the dialogue.
The alphabet soup of Jewish organizations does not include a single one that is meaningfully inclusive, in other words, one that would willingly embrace both of you. Even the umbrella of them all, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, has banished J-Street, which is the equivalent of Congress kicking out California. All we are left with are echo chambers on the left and the right.
But you two can bridge those gaps. Plus, you have enough money to really make a difference. Imagine a program of universal Jewish service, helping needy Jews (a nod to Sheldon) and non-Jews (a nod to George); or expanded programs of Holocaust education, a concern you both share; or maybe assistance to Israeli hospitals that bring together Arabs and Jews. Imagine a “Soros – Adelson Cancer Center.” It would blow us all away.
And hey, you both are into media. How about an international newspaper that you both share? Free distribution to Jews throughout the world. We could call it, “Israel Tomorrow.” Articles might be color coded to reflect whether the source is S.A or G.S., but I think we’d be able to tell. Have the red and blue halves meet in the middle. You could run a weekly “Point-Counterpoint,” in the centerfold, featuring guests like Trump and Obama, or Bibi and…whomever.
I would be the first to sign on to an Adelson-Soros tour of Hebron and Hungary. If you guys could pull that off with no name calling, maybe we’ll be onto something.
I’m not expecting an instant bromance here, nor do I have any illusions that major points of conflict will be rapidly resolved. But for heaven’s sake, the Bushes and Clintons joined together. Same with Obama and McCain. And don’t forget that supreme odd couple, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. If they can do it, why can’t you?
For the sake of Jewish unity and the future of our remnant people, why not — to use an expression you will appreciate — roll the dice?