Monday, April 21, 2014
Friday, April 18, 2014
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Pesach
Mazal tov to Danny Granowitz and Jennifer Stern, whose ufruf we will be celebrating at services this Shabbat morning. Mazal tov also to Phil and Loralee Granowitz, who will be sponsoring a special Kiddush lunch in honor of Danny and Jen.
I'm pleased to share the wonderful news that our congregation is being honored by the Shelter for the Homeless at its annual dinner on May 14. We, along with Joan and Fred Weisman, will be award recipients in recognition of the volunteer support we have provided to the homeless of our area on Christmas Eve. Joan and Fred started this program three decades ago and TBE has been the only synagogue to be full partner in this effort right fro the start. If you would like to attend the Rays of Hope Gala honoring TBE and Weismans click here.
Please note that for Monday and Tuesday, the final two days of the holiday, the office will be closed and services will take place at 9:30 AM. Morning minyan will be at 9 on Sunday and return to 7:30 AM after the holiday is over. Please join us!
A New Song (Again)
On the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover it is customary to recite the Song of Songs, (Shir ha-Shirim), arguably the most passionate and erotic love poetry found in the Bible (OK, it's the ONLY erotic love poetry found in the Bible). I will be discussing some elements of it at services this Shabbat. It should be noted that, as graphic as the poem is, it is not remotely porno/graphic. What's described in such detail are not the mechanics of sex, but rather the longing for deepened relationships. (see more about this here).
The electricity of that poem, the passion, the immediacy, the spontaneity - that is precisely the electricity that is essential for Jewish prayer - and what it lacked in synagogue life for a long time. For a variety of reasons (including fear of dealing with the difficult theological questions of the Holocaust or the pediatric focus of the baby boom), synagogues of the prior generation became museums to ossified forms of Jewish prayer rather than incubators of a revitalized Jewish spirituality.
For more than a decade, Beth El has been on a journey toward prayer that is joyous, authentic and invigorating. It is the kind of prayer that allows each of us to suspend our theological uncertainties, to jettison our inhibitions and open ourselves up to one another; to ourselves and to a God we may not fully comprehend. In doing so, we have become pace setters, much like the congregations described in this important feature story in this month's Hadassah Magazine.
We have been fortunate to have some wonderful cantors over the years and we have learned something new from each of them. Our four years with Cantor Mordecai have propelled us to a place we wouldn't have dared imagine just a few years before. Our services have become a model for others to emulate. Joined this year by Beth Styles, along with David Daniel Klipper and guest musicians, and supported by a grant from a most generous donor, we've reached new musical heights on Friday nights and have begun to explore new ways that our musical vision can spread a message of joy, inclusiveness and love throughout the community and beyond.
So you can imagine that I was as disappointed as anyone when Cantor Mordecai informed us of his decision to depart. I am grateful to him for all he brought us, for his artistic brilliance, for the mensch that he is and for the friend that he will remain. I join with all of you in wishing the cantor and his family well as they move on to the next stage of their journey.
And now, joined by our visionary lay leadership, I am fully focused on the next stage of ours. For this vision of vibrancy that was set in motion long ago will continue to be our calling card. We have no choice but to continue to advance. As I wrote way back in 2000, "There is a Darwinian aspect to this that we must understand. That which brings life to our worship will survive, and that which doesn't will not. The psalms themselves are imploring us, 'Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash," "Sing unto Adonai a new song.'"
Our cantorial search committee has been working hard for the past few months andnext Friday night will be presenting a prime candidate, Magda Fishman, to the congregation. I encourage you to attend. While I will withhold my personal observations for now, know that any candidate that the committee presents to the congregation must be someone that we feel can take us to the next level, musically and spiritually and must be a "mensch," who can build relationships and really cares about people of all ages; in short, someone who can help us all to sing a new song.
The committee has made it clear from the outset that we will not settle. And fortunately, our community is one that can attract superb candidates, people who are looking to further our efforts at revitalizing synagogue life. With our resources, our growing city, our vibrant and caring congregation and our reputation for experimentation and musicality (including the liberal usage of instruments), we are the ideal match for someone like Magda - and indeed we were brought together by professionals in the field who know us, know her and see the potential of an excellent match. By attending next week, and by responding afterward, you can help us determine our new course as we begin the next stage in our spiritual journey.
Meanwhile, I invite you to do your own research on the candidate by reading this profile, checking her cantorial website, listening to her music (more here, some classic Israeli songs here, YouTube videos here) and don't miss this Huff Post column. Please feel free to let me and our committee members know what you are feeling, as we begin this next stage of our spiritual journey together.
The Bullet Meant for Me
What I'm about to confess is something that many Jews have felt this week but few would overtly acknowledge: When news came down about the victims of Frazier Glenn Miller's rampage in Kansas, I, like many others, wondered about the identity of the dead. As I heard Mindy Corporon, the mother and daughter of two of the victims, speak so movingly of arriving at the scene, it became clear to me from her reaction that the victims were probably not Jewish. Jews tend to imagine God and respond to sudden tragedy quite differently, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule.
So I breathed a sigh of relief.
It's not something I'm proud of, but it's a natural reaction. Please don't misunderstand: I am inspired by how the religious communities of Overland Park came together over this horror. They taught us all a lesson in how to embrace diversity. And I grieve for the three victims, just as I grieved for all the victims of last year's Boston bombings, the innocents in Syria butchered by Assad, the children of Newtown and the victims of random gun violence on the streets of Chicago.
The victims in Kansas City were random too. The killer came for the Jews but he victimized everyone. Jews are the proverbial canary in the hater's coal mine. As we've seen this week in Donetsk, Ukraine, wherever bigotry simmers, it manifests itself most vividly in anti-Semitism. In an atmosphere where hatred is tolerated and tools of murder distributed freely, ultimately no one is safe.
So why did I breathe that sigh that I'm not very proud of?
Part of it stemmed from the sense that Miller will face his fate knowing that he failed, in the sense that a warped deviant like him would imagine failure (insomuch as I can try to understand what a warped deviant thinks). He didn't just fail like most terrorists fail, like the Tsernaev brothers failed in their attempt to bring a nation to its knees. No, he failed because when he came ready for a massacre, his one shot at eternal infamy, he didn't kill a single Jew! Someday, when he meets Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada in the bowels of hell, they'll just be shaking their heads and muttering, "Frazier, Frazier, Frazier..."
But more than that, my sigh was an instinctive, flinching response, based on the knowledge that his bullet was meant for me. Not literally, since I live far from Kansas, but when he took aim for one Jew, he was taking aim at all Jews. He was aiming for me. In the same way that the killer who randomly shot 46 year old Boris Mizrahi on Monday on a road near Hebron was also aiming for Jews.
I can't get beyond the thought that he was aiming for me. In 2014 America, where t0he ADL reports that anti-Semitism in America has declined precipitously - and the shooting did nothing to disprove that - he was looking down the barrel of a gun and wanting to kill me.
The mere fact that the victims were not Jewish points to how integrated American society has become, much to the chagrin of the haters, who are more marginalized than ever as barriers of bigotry continue to crumble.
But as a Jew, I can not escape that visceral feeling that there are people out there, perhaps a billion or two in this world, who want me dead simply because I am a Jew. I'm not sure it's a feeling a Presbyterian can understand.
As a native Bostonian, I cried extra tears for the victims of the Marathon bombings. When the bombings occurred, as the horrible news trickled in on Twitter, I had that terrible, helpless feeling I've had all too often regarding Israel. I made a pilgrimage to the makeshift memorial on Boylston St.
But I know that the Tsernaevs did not take aim at Martin Richard because he was a Bostonian. They didn't bother to ask Lu Lingzi if she was American or Chinese.
On Sunday, Miller allegedly performed his own rudimentary form of selection, asking potential victims "Are you Jewish?" much as the Nazis did, or the terrorists at Entebbe. So even Bostonians can't understand what it feels like to know that the bullet was intended for me.
It's time for us all to understand what this feels like, and as a Jew, it's my precious obligation to teach the lesson. And the only way to do that is to understand that, in a broader sense, the Tsernaevs were taking aim at me too. Not as a Jew, not even as an American, but as a person bent on making our world more loving, as one bent on overcoming the fears that divide us. As someone wishing to combat fear with faith, and extremism with outreach, Tsernaev, like Miller, was taking aim at me.
Until we can see these affronts as personal attacks, and until we can rally around the victims, all victims, as if they were blood relatives, we will be content to allow these atrocities to pass from memory. We need to stop future Millers from acquiring the means to lash out with such destructive zeal. Because the next victim might well be... anyone of us.
My sigh of relief was understandable but premature. Hate rears its ugly head everywhere; we Jews know that coal mine all too well. I have that uneasy feeling that it may get worse as people seek Others to attack, anyone who is different. I fear that we're not in Kansas anymore.
To share this article or view it as a featured op-ed on the Times of Israel site, click here
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Have you seen our Chocolate Seder photo album? We had over a hundred here enjoying it last week. Pesach never tasted so good! Everything on the Seder plate was made of chocolate. Imagine dipping the strawberry into chocolate rather than parsley into salt water. It was delicious.
With Passover less than two weeks away, people are always looking for ideas to make the Seder more meaningful. This Sunday at 9:30, I'll be presenting a "Passover Seder Leader's Survival Guide," and next Thursday evening, the Board of Rabbis will join me for a panel on that topic. You can also download his collection of Seder Activities by Noam Zion, author of the "A Different Night" Haggadah. See also a personal favorite, The Velveteen Rabbi's Passover Haggadah, filled with poetry and moments of mindfulness. Click here for the New Israel Fund's packet, which this year focuses on the plight of refugees, and the Shalom Center's "Haggadah for the Earth." If you are looking for acts of tzedakkah and world repair to do this Passover, check out our updated catalogue of student mitzvah projects of this and last year's B'nai Mitzvah students. Very impressive. And if you simply want inspiration, don't miss the New World Chorus "Season of Miracles" concert on Sunday afternoon.
Oh yes, and here is the sale of hametz form.
This American (Jewish) (Parisian) (Italian) Life
A major theme of ours this year has been Jewish Journeys. Since December, we have heard some extraordinary testimonies from fellow congregants about how Judaism and Jewish identify have propelled - or been propelled by - their life trajectories. The results have been breathtaking - and in my mind proof of the fallacy of surveys depicting American Jewry as being in decline.
The next presentation in our series will be THIS SHABBAT MORNING. Lisa Strom, a newish congregant whom I recently guided through the process of conversion, will speak about the intersection of her Jewish and Italian backgrounds:
Parenting as an Italian or as a Jew: Whose Guilt is Greater?
This session is a must for current, prior and prospective parents....and everyone else!
The snapshots of pollsters cannot account for the twists and turns - and re-turns - that I see all the time. As Jewish identification ebbs for one, it returns with a vengeance for another, and often it happens many times over the course of a single life. Passover is ultimately about that process as it occurs in every Jew and every Jewish family. We reunite around the table each year and mark our place in time, reaffirming our rock-solid values as we churn through yet another tumultuous whirlpool of a Red Sea.
Reminds me of an old Dan Fogelberg lyric:
"In the passage from the cradle to the grave;
We are born madly dancing.
Rushing headlong through the crashing of the days
We go on and on without a backwards glance."
Passover is that backwards glance. It doesn't diminish the days - or waves' - crashing. But it's nice to know that when we turn around, familiar folk are still reaching out for our hand to lead us gently ashore.
As our teens will be quick to attest, I never give up on anyone. I chase them around relentlessly during their teen years and especially beyond. As a result, I often hear from young adults, years after they've left Stamford or left Beth El, and they catch me up on their lives.
I received such a correspondence two weeks ago from a former student who hadn't contacted me in years. I had every reason to believe he might have become one of those nagging statistics from the Pew Report. But instead I got this:
Dear Rabbi Hammerman
It's me Alan Tanz. I hope you are doing well. I am not sure if you remember me, but I had my Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth El January 26th 2002. I was also converted about two years before that. I would like thank you for all of the help and support you and Temple Beth El have given me in making me a part of Stamford's Jewish community. I am now 25 years old and living in Paris, France. Since my Bar Mitzvah I have graduated from the University of Arizona and done a lot of travelling. I have only been to Israel once when I took part in Birthright 2010. It was crazy experience seeing so much of Israel in such a short period of time. I knew I had to go back. So in November of 2013 I decided that I didn't only want to return, I wanted to immigrate. Last month I began the process of making Aliyah with the Jewish Agency for Israel in Paris. I am now at the stage where I am collecting the necessary documents. One of these documents is a letter from a rabbi confirming that I am Jewish. I was wondering if you could provide that for me. Also, I was wondering if you had any advice for a new oleh. My goal is to arrive in Israel this summer and to do at least six months of army service. After that I hope to study at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Attached to this e-mail are a couple of photos of me when I was last in Israel. Again, I would like to let you know how grateful I am for being so warmly welcomed and accepted into Beth El's community and for everything the synagogue has taught me. I hope to hear from you soon.
Ironically, when I received that email, I was in Jerusalem. I replied right away about how thrilled I was to hear from him and of course I remembered him. I reflected on how wonderful Birthright Israel is, how it has changed lives and transformed the Jewish landscape - and also how fortunate it is for me to have been here long enough so that students like Alan know where to find me. I could be that fixed star in the storm. Having journeyed as far from TBE as you can get, he could still set his compass by reaching back to us. I asked Alan if he wanted to share his journey's lessons with others - a written version of "This American (Jewish) Life." He said yes, and he sent me this:
I went to the University of Arizona where I was active in Hillel and since graduating have travelled to many different countries. I worked with Israelis in New Zealand and Australia. When my boss in Australia sent me to work in Singapore, I still managed to go to their only synagogue for the High Holidays where I met some nice people who invited me to break the Yom Kippur fast with them. Sadly when I moved to Europe in 2012 I didn't make as much effort to meet other Jewish people or get involved with a synagogue. So my advice would be is that no matter where you are, stay in contact with the Jewish community otherwise you will really miss out. And if it has been a while since you've said "Shalom," don't be afraid to come back. They miss you.
Shalom, Alan! We'll see you in Jerusalem.
The Final Four
I rarely make Final Four predictions based on Jewish sources, but hot on the heels of my Super Bowl triumph and in light of a more-than-casual statewide rooting interest, how could I resist? With apologies to the Lady Huskies, I'll be focusing on the men here.
Let's just start by saying that Storrs, Connecticut has become to college basketball what Green Bay is to football. To have both the men and women's teams in the Final Four and for that to feel routine keeps us from appreciating just how rarified the basketball air has become around these parts.
That said, U Conn is also the clear-cut favorite to win from a Jewish perspective.
The four teams left standing this weekend all feature animal nicknames. Badger, 'Gator, Wildcat and Husky. All are found in the Bible.
Some connect the badger to the hyrax, an animal that can be found in remote locations like En Gedi. I was interested to find out that Bucky Badger, that irrepressibleWisconsin mascot, is Jewish.
Kentucky, a traditional basketball power, had the distinction of a Jewish star player named Sid Cohen, who was one of the first junior college transfers to play for the legendary coach Adolph Rupp. We'll grant that when Rupp's mom gave him that first name, she had no idea that it might not be so popular among Jews later on (and indeed many Jews had that name too). We also read in Job 4:10, "The lion roars and the wildcat snarls, but the teeth of strong lions will be broken." If Kentucky were playing Penn State, that would be a very good sign.
But a badger 'aint a lion, and the presence of badger skins lining the sacred tabernacle tells me that Wisconsin will win.
Florida: Let's ignore the zoological distinctions between alligators and crocodiles for a moment. We're talking creepy crawling things in the water with big teeth. I've seen lots of crocs in Israel - not just the shoes (or in the form of handbags). One of my kids' favorite attractions when they were younger was Hamat Gader, a spa / crocodile farm right near the Syrian and Jordanian border, off the Yarmuk River, where Jacob fought the angel and was renamed Israel. It's the only crocodile farm in the Middle East, but the Jewish sources are filled with allusions to it, like this one in Job, attesting to the animal's ferocious nature. In modern Hebrew, the croc is Tannin, also a traditional word for sea monster, associated in folklore with the Red Sea.
Add to that the fact that the University of Florida has the largest population of Jews among all public univesities in America. A great Hillel too. Wisconsin is #10, incidentally. Didn't see the others on the list.
But I pick U Conn, specifically for four reasons (aside from my wanting to walk the streets of my fair state safely this weekend).
1) Biblical: We read in Judges 7:5, "So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, 'Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.'" Those who lapped like dogs were chosen to be his soldiers. Why? Because they were less likely to kneel to idols, and, according to some, because they overcame their fear of crocodiles in the water.
2) Because of Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld, Israeli hoop legends who came of age in U Conn blue.
3) And because U Conn is the only team in the final four with a player whose first name is also a major part of the Hebrew liturgy. Yes, Amida Brimah, the seven foot freshman from Ghana, wins this year's Torah Bright award for most evocative Jewish name ever given to a non-Jew. I sense a big weekend for Amida, a payoff from his years of "silent devotion" to his craft.
4) And to top it all off, U Conn's star guard's name is deliciously suggestive of Judaism's day of rest.
I see a big weekend for U Conn and two more banners for Title Town USA.
Shabazz Shalom and GO HUSKIES
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman