Thursday, December 7, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for Dec. 8


What a day last Sunday, as our Hebrew School students participated with our teens by makig cards for the BBYO Mitzvah project. Collected toys will be donated to the pediatric unit of Stamford Hospital.  And Cynthia Blumenthal wowed everyone as guest speaker at Sisterhood's paid up membership brunch.   Click here to see our winter photo album, featuring pics from both events, along with a third grade Noah's Ark skit.  Thank you to Stephanie Zelazny for superb photography!

Shabbat Shalom

Join us on Friday night for a "December Dialogue" with Rev Mark Lingle on the Messiah, as the first part of a "home and home" series with St Francis Episcopal Church.  I'll be speaking at St Francis on Sunday at 10 AM.  Please make sure to welcome our guests on Friday night!  We'll also be celebrating with the Brewer / Waldman family, in anticipating of Jared Waldman becoming bar mitzvah shortly in Israel.  Jared is the son of  Gina and Brian Waldman and grandson of TBE's Wil and Carol Brewer.  Gina grew up here and she really wants to celebrate his upcoming simcha with her "home" community.  It will be a delightful evening.  

See my comments on Shabbat morning's Shabbat-in-the-Round below.

Also please note that the ISRAEL TRIP DEADLINE IS ONE WEEK AWAY. A good number have expressed interest but we need reservations and deposits to make our go / no decision.  To reserve  or to see the itinerary and details, go to

Check out this great video done by the students of Weshill High School, featuring some of our teens - and prodiced by TBE's Dani Cohen! 

Hanukkah: It's Complicated
Hanukkah, which begins on Tuesday evening, is complicated. Nothing is as it seems. For one thing, it is the festival the ancient rabbis wanted to get rid of. They hated the Maccabees (primarily because their descendants, the Hasmoneans, became corrupt rulers) and devoted very little space in the Talmud to discussions of this holiday. Purim gets an entire tractate, Hanukkah barely a page.  But it was too popular to get rid of.  So the rabbis tried to gerrymander it to fit their visions.
Some have asked me how we can say, in the blessing, that we are "commanded to light the Hanukkah candles," when Hanukkah is not even in the Torah and doesn't seem to have been commanded anywhere.  The rabbis got around that one by invoking a verse from Deuteronomy ascribing special authority to sages living during the Second Temple period.  It's complicated, but the idea is that the verse gave these sages authority to give a non Torah activity "mitzvah" status, to be included among the 613 commandments.  So a new commandment was shoehorned into the Torah for a holiday that's post biblical.

Even the simple dreidel game, one of Hanukkah's best known customs, is complicated. It's in fact derived from an English and Irish medieval Christmas custom.  Sorry, Virginia, it's one of those freaky ironies of Jewish history that in order to celebrate a holiday that marks our victory over cultural assimilation, we play a game that resulted from cultural assimilation.  You can read more about the origins of the dreidel and more Hanukkah exotica, here
As we delve more deeply into Hanukkah and find other examples of cultural borrowing.  What is this season about, after all, for so many cultures, but the spiritual power of fire and night.
In a technological society, one of the great purposes of religion is to enable human beings to return to the bare essentials of life.  In our age, religion serves as a sort of paint stripper, removing layer upon layer upon layer of artificiality, reminding us who we are and where we come from, begging us to embrace simplicity and rediscover the basics.
Hanukkah is the holiday of fire and night, two of creations most necessary, and most feared, phenomena.  The festival comes at a time when the days are shortest and even the night sky is at its darkest - since it is the end of the Jewish month.  With no sun or moon to light up the sky, and December's winds blowing briskly, it is up to us to create the fire that will sustain us physically and spiritually while the days begin to grow longer and the moon larger.
On Hanukkah we light that fire, demonstrating that human beings have the capacity to create light and harness the power of fire. That's why it's possible for so joyous a celebration to occur at so dark a time of year.  The fact that Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev and Christmas occurs on the 25th of December is not entirely coincidental - and this year, the stars are aligned perfectly and the two dates coincide.   Both holidays are responding to the universal and ancient need to light up the night of winter - it's a need that gave rise to all the winter festivals celebrated throughout the world.  It is the bond that links the flickering Hanukkah menorah to the Christmas tree, and it is a need that predates both.
You can read here how Christmas originally was moved to the winter months in order to compete with Zoroastrian and then European pagan celebrations.  Also, at this time of year, Hindus in India, and all over the world, celebrate Diwali (or Deepawali), a festival of lights that is as big as Christmas is for Christians. And the Chinese New Year, celebrated in several weeks, is also a festival of light featuring lanterns and flames (and if you've dodged the fireworks in Chinatown on that day, you know exactly what I mean).
              So cultures share.  That is a fact - one that we should celebrate.  We are all human beings, after all, with the same fears and hopes.  But we Jews also celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, with our great heroes of the battlefield and of the spirit.  And the fact that our ancestors had the faith to light the lights, even when all seemed so hopelessly dark.
Also, see these Hanukkah goodies from the Rabbinical Assembly:
  Prayers & Kavannot (meditations before lighting candles)

Religious Freedom in Israel

Hanukkah is a great time to discuss freedom of religion, which has all kinds of connotations these days, but in Israel it has a special meaning for Jews, especially those Jews who are denied the right to practice their brand of Judaism.  It was wonderful to hear Rabbi Uri Regev discuss the critical issue of religious freedom in Israel, last Shabbat. Uri's presentation was passionate - stirring, in fact - as he laid out the challenges facing Israel as it strives to maintain itself as a Jewish and democratic state, a distinction that, he believes, should not be made.  Israael has some significant challenges in this area, as illustrated by this freedom of marriage world map, which puts Israel in some unenviable company.  Just two days after Regev spoke here, Ehud Barak made some of the same points in a New York Times op-ed.

At the end of his presentation, Uri spoke about a "Vision Statement" that he wrote with Rabbi Marc Angel, one of the most well-regarded Modern Orthodox thinkers in the US, today, describing the imperative for Israel to address the repair the rent in Israeli society that has been caused by the rise in the power of religious fundamentalists aided by their allies in the political world.  The statement, subtitled "Israel as a Democratic State", has already been endorsed by religious leaders in North America and Israel, representing the spectrum of Jewish belief, leaders of major national Jewish organizations, philanthropists - even celebrities like Michael Douglas Mayim Bialik. With them, over 750 people have signed the statement...including me.

Here is a link to the statement so that you can read it and, hopefully sign onto it, joining with us in expressing your commitment to Israel's future as an inclusive, welcoming, and democratic Jewish state.

The Gateway to a Richer Jewish Life
"When you pray, pray in the synagogue of your city.
If you cannot pray in the synagogue, pray in your field.
If you cannot pray in your field, pray in your house.
And if you cannot pray in your house, pray on your bed.
And if you cannot pray on your bed, reflect in your heart."
                                                                                    - Midrash on Psalm 4:

A primary goal of mine has always been to release prayer from the shackles of routine and rote.  The words should fly out of the prayer book, by way of our hearts, heavenward.  There are a number of great obstacles to such Kavanah, a term that means "direction" or "intention," but really connotes aim, or focus.  Too many distractions deny us from total immersion in prayer, whether they be our own preoccupations or the simple distraction of fellow worshipers conversing.  The greatest impediments to prayer are our feeling of discomfort with the text, with the choreography and with God.
Sometimes it seems as if you need a PhD to understand the prayer book.  Sometimes the ideas found in it are objectionable.  It requires great energy to pray.  What we fail to appreciate is how prayer, when done with Kavanah, reinvigorates us, providing us with new sources of energy and focus to tackle the problems that confront us.  That's the secret behind the power of the morning minyan for those who are compelled to begin their day with it.  It's hardly an obligation; prayer is a gift.  For the early riser, it's a spiritual jog in the park.  We need it.
This Shabbat morning, we will feature the second in our series of "Shabbat-in-the -Round" services.  The idea is behind this service is to enable us to encounter prayer in a manner that is meaningful to you, so that the prayer, in a sense, becomes you.  That service is an important step for many looking for a gateway to a richer Jewish life.
 We've long since passed the point where Judaism will sustain itself because of guilt.  Those who come here out of obligation alone are to be commended for their commitment, but that commitment rarely can be transmitted to the next generation.  The only way for Judaism to grow is if it enriches lives.  Those who attend services regularly have begun to discover this dark, hidden secret: prayer can be fun.  To the extent that the person who comes only rarely feels like an outsider when entering the sanctuary, it's often because that person sees lots of other people really enjoying that which he long ago had abandoned as boring and tedious -- and she can't figure out how to be a part of all that.
Here's how.  Come this Shabbat morning.  And come after that, to any of our services. 
Happy Hanukkah to all.  As our congregation continues to strengthen and extend its loving embrace to all Jews and all humanity, there is little doubt that our descendants will look back on us one day and say, "Nes Gadol Haya Po," "A Great Miracle Happened Here."

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 1


Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the UN vote that paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel   See more at the bottom of this email and click 

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat morning brings another B'nai Mitzvah Club Shabbat, along with Shababimbam for younger set.  We'll also have babysitting on Friday night.  Just before Thanksgiving, Emily Goodman became the final student from this past year's graduating Hebrew School class to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Here's her d'var Torah.  To honor this superb group off young leaders, during the service I read excerpts from each of their B'nai Mitzvah speeches.  You can find those excerpts here.  Mazal tov once again to the class, and we look forward to seeing them here often in the future, including a number who will be helping us out at our Hanukkah dinner (and after party) in a couple of weeks.  

Our TBE weekend also features Comedy Night on Saturday evening and Cynthia Blumenthal's registration-only appearance on Sunday at our Sisterhood Paid Up Membership event.  And December is just heating up! Next week, for instance, I'll be conducting a "Home and Home" December Dialogue with Rev Mark Lingle on how our different faith traditions view the Messiah.  See the flyer at the bottom of this email for more info.  And after that, Hanukkah, and our Disney-themed service and Shabbat dinner.  Lots to look forward to.

And don't forget that our registration deadline for next summer's Israel Adventure is just two weeks away!! Check out the details and reserve your spot here.   See below another of our series of great moments TBE Israel trips... our March of the Living group from 2010:


A People or a Faith?

This week, our year-long focus turns to a particular challenge facing the Jewish State, and that is to be truly a state for Jews of differing beliefs and practices.  Our first "IEngage" class focused on how there are two types of Judaism that must remain in balance, the Judaism of Belonging, stating that one is Jewish, a part of the Jewish people, simply by virtue of birth or conversion - the biggest tent of all, and the Judaism of Becoming, a Judaism of beliefs and practices, a Judaism of religion, that places different demands on those of different denominations.  Israel needs to be the place where all Jews can feel that they belong.  The big question is, are Jews a people or a religion?  Are we Jewish Americans or American Jews?  It's a complicated question and I can't hope to do justice to it - there is still time to join the class (register here) as we've only had one session (and about 40 have signed up already).
Tonight, we'll explore the topic in greater depth, tonight with the free screening of the acclaimed film, "The Women's Balcony," a comedy that poses serious questions about Judaism, Israel, religious authority and - a most timely topic - the abuse of women.
And tomorrow, we'll hear from a man that I consider to be one of the two foremost advocates for pluralism and religious freedom in Israel, Rabbi Uri Regev(Anat Hoffman is the other).  He's a great speaker as well.  He'll speak at the end of our 7:30 Kabbalat Shabbat service, led by myself and Katie Kaplan, who is sitting in for the cantor this week as she will be presenting at the USCJ Convention in Atlanta.  The title of Regev's talk is, Kotel, Conversion and Rabbinic Blacklists: What are the effects of the latest conflicts on Israel/Diaspora relations?"


Rabbinical Assembly Statement on Sexual Misconduct
Given the flood of disturbing revelations of abuse by well known figures in entertainment, the media and politics, the Rabbinical Assembly has issued this statement, shedding light on how Jewish values might inform this national conversation.  Incidentally, this week's portion of Vayishlach features the abduction and rape of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter, and subsequent revenge of his sons on those who did it, including those who stood by and allowed it to happen. For a solid, timely and in-depth look at this crucial incident and how the (nearly exclusively male) commentators interpreted it over the centuries, see Dr. Alison Joseph's fascinating article, "Who is the Victim in the Dinah Story?"
The R.A. Statement:
"In the wake of ongoing revelations of alleged sexual misconduct, including the willingness of more and more women, and sometimes men, to tell their stories publicly, the Conservative Jewish movement condemns the behavior of those who use their positions of power to take advantage of others. We must be better attuned to these incidents, develop procedures and policies to prevent them, and condemn and when appropriate prosecute the perpetrators.
Jewish tradition prohibits physical or sexual abuse and teaches that kvod habriyot, the dignity of each person, is to be honored and maintained, and that ona'at d'varim, verbal, and by extension other nonphysical abuse, is strictly forbidden, and cannot be tolerated at any level.
We must work to ensure that our Jewish organizations and also our society at large emphasize standards of propriety and respect, and that we have in place policies and structures where those abused or harassed can safely report incidents and know their concerns will be taken seriously. We agree with the Child Safety Pledge, signed by top philanthropists in the Jewish world who have committed to support only those schools, camps and other institutions that work with children to take steps to 'prevent, report and investigate sexual abuse of minors.' Let us ensure that our Jewish institutions meet their criteria."
Neil Gillman z'l

The Jewish world suffered a major loss this past week with the death of Neil Gillman.  Rabbi Gillman, the author of many books, was Conservative Judaism's foremost theologian of the post-Heschel era.  He appeared here at Beth El several times, most notably as a scholar in residence in the mid '90s and a teacher of a series of seminars on Jewish thought in 2010.
A highlight of that earlier scholar in residence weekend happened on Sat night.  For many years, those Sat. night / Havdalah programs were held at the home of Milton and Norma Mann.  They were gracious hosts and their house was the perfect setting for informal, deep and probing conversation.  On that memorable evening, Pref. Gillman led a faith development seminar in which he asked each of us to describe what God is to us - what metaphors would we use to describe God's role in our lives.  The metaphors that emerged were astonishing.  A fertility specialist spoke of encountering God when witnessing a new life that she has created in a petri dish.  I recall that I described God as a large screen TV (I was definitely shopping for one at the time), with each human being as a single, transient dot on that screen.  We never get to see the big picture, but we know that somehow, we are part of a greater order, that all of us are connected, and that the script calls for a divinely-ordained conclusion of some sort.  God also operates the remote control and could change the channel at any moment, especially if our dots separate or weaken and the picture becomes snowy.
In his 2010 seminar, Gillman also got us thinking imaginatively about a range of Jewish topics.  At one point, he had us open the prayer books of several denominations and discuss how we all deal with similar questions in very different ways.  He was supremely open and honest and craved questions and independent thought.
On a personal level, he was a caring teacher, colleague and friend.  Neil was Dean of the Rabbinical School of JTS when I entered, and in fact, he was the one who encouraged me to pursue my candidacy when I came to interview.  He was a constant source of support throughout my time at JTS and beyond.  Here is what he wrote in 2000 as a blurb for the cover of my book, " Seeking God in Cyberspace:
"In this engaging, imaginative, and beautifully crafted essay, Rabbi Hammerman challenges the conventional assumptions that the new technology is inherently dehumanizing and desacralizing.  Instead, he traces the impact of his personal adventures in cyberspace, and demonstrates how they have provided him with a new sense of community and connectedness, of intimacy, and of spiritual and religious insight.  The notion that the Web can serve as a powerful new metaphor for God's presence in the world is not the least of the teachings suggested by this compelling and subversive book."
No doubt that book on seeing God within new technologies had its origin, in part at least, on that Saturday evening at the Manns'.
Rabbi Gillman was a little subversive in his own right, and he often challenged his more cautious colleagues on the JTS faculty.  When I was there, his courage was shown more than once during the contentious debate over the ordination of women.
Although he retired from the faculty several years ago, I occasionally saw him around, both live and in print. Once when he stayed at my home as our scholar in residence, he looked into the eyes of our baby and whispered, in a very soft, spiritual  tone, "What a wonder! What a miracle!"   Abraham Joshua Heschel could not have had a more fitting successor on the JTS faculty.

B'nai Mitzvah Speech Highlights, Class of '16 -'17

Just as dancing for me has been at times fun, challenging, hard, overwhelming, and worthwhile, I know that following the teachings of the Torah and being a Jew is not just simple and easy.  But, just as dancing ended up being something that I can learn and grow with, and keep striving to become better and better, the lessons of the Torah are also not things that you just learn once and then move on.
-                                                                                      Jeremy Young

These historical and geographical lessons teach us, then, to be sensitive to those who are suffering, as well as to appreciate the bounty of a good harvest with enough water to survive.  That’s why the farmers made that presentation when bringing their first fruits.  You can learn a lot about a nation from its particular history and geography.
                                                                           Jake Rosner

In order to structure my time to get things done, like the Nazerite, I have chosen to give up certain things, like social media with my friends on most weekdays and, believe it or not, television.  Yes it’s true.  On most weekdays and even weekends when I have games or meets or, yes, services, I watch almost no TV.   For instance, I’m still on the second season of Grey’s Anatomy, which came out twelve years ago!
                                                                                  Sophie Blomberg

As I believe most of you know, I broke my elbow and was required to have surgery. But one positive thing came out of it. I was able to pick all of the colors of my casts. Of my 6 different colored casts, I think the purple one was my favorite. Just my personal recommendation. MAYBE MY ACCIDENT HAS GIVEN ME THE CHANCE TO TAKE A STEP BACK AND APPRECIATE ALL I HAVE, MUCH AS THE SHABBAT AND SABBATICAL YEAR ARE INTENDED TO ACCOMPLISH. 
-                                                                                          Julia Giventer

OK, I think you might get the message that I was born on Groundhog Day.  It’s not really a holiday (not the kind of day where I would get presents anyway), but I think of it as holiday and it’s kind of cool to have it as a birthday. So, in the spirit of Groundhog Day and the Exodus, become bat mitzvah means to stand on a bridge between my past and my future.  But even as I cross to the other side, my past stays with me.  I will always look back on this day, even as I relive it over and over again.
Charlie Schwartz

I guess I’m a bit of a dreamer.  I’ve always been that way.  By the time I was 8, I already knew which colleges I will apply to, and I even have a backup plan if I don’t get into those. Which brings me to my portion and to Joseph. From day 1, Joseph was a dreamer.  Everyone thought he was crazy. An old Apple commercial that I watched, says, “Here’s to the crazy ones,” and shows people who have changed the world, people like Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon Who were Crazy Enough To think they could change the world!  Joseph was a “crazy one.” He was able to Plan And Understand The Things No One Could, and he was also able to overcome anger and resentment in doing it.
         Danny Segal

Finally, Abraham’s last trial was to bind Isaac.  Even though he was following what he thought were God’s orders, he learned that sometimes blind obedience is not the best thing.  The same thing happens in “Anastasia,” where a Russian official is ordered to kill Anya, who claims to be the princess Anastasia.  In the end he realizes that killing her would be wrong, so he reports back that she was never Anastasia.  With Abraham, in the end, God makes it clear that he never wanted Isaac to be killed. So what’s the most important lesson to learn from all this?  The Torah is the inspiration for all Broadway shows and it’s important to take your kids to lots of them!
          Julia Marrinan

Working so much with people who are different has taught me a lot. People who are less able to walk might be able to swim better. People who might not see as well may be able to hear. We are all unique- we are all special. We are our own person, each of us with very special needs. And like I’ve always said “be yourself because everyone else is taken”. Which means don’t try to be what you are not BE YOURSELF!!
          Mollie Herz

I mean, if I were to tell you that this is a story about two men who are bitter rivals and one becomes insanely jealous of the other and wants to kill him, you can answer either “Toldot” or “Hamilton” and you would be right!

         Emily Goodman

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jonathan Cohen on Rosh Hodesh and Vayetze

Chodesh tov.

You may have noticed that I haven’t been here in Stamford lately.  Well, at least I hope you noticed!  For those of you who don’t know, over the summer I moved to Minneapolis, MN.

If you are involved in Federation, you also might have noticed that the former CEO has been absent for quite a while.  Well, he’s my father and he’s the reason that I was forced to move to Minnesota.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Twin Cities are an awesome place.  But moving is never easy, particularly at Bar Mitzvah age.

Moving has always been a challenge.  In fact, much of the torah deals with our ancestors when they were on the move.  This week in the Torah, we are reading about the wanderings of Jacob.  This coming week’s portion is actually entitled “Vayetze – And He Went Out”.  Jacob was returning to his ancestral home to escape his very angry brother Esav.

This also happens to be the week when so many people are traveling back to their original homes for Thanksgiving.  At least Jacob didn’t have to fly Spirit Airlines to get where he was going.

According to Vayetze, Jacob was nervous about his travels; just as nervous as I was before heading west.  His nervousness was eased by a famous dream he had one night during his travels.  Jacob dreamed of a ladder with angels going up and angels going down.  Jacob woke up from his dream feeling confident that G-d would protect him on his journey and that the angels would be his guides.

Rabbi Naftali Yehudah Berlin interprets this in a very interesting way. He said that “the angels represent G-d’s providential relationship with Jacob.  They are his agents in this exercise.  As Jacob came to the border of the Land of Israel, the angels who had to this point accompanied him, departed.  The new companions, the angels descending, represent the universal providence that G-d is always with us.”

Jacob realized this when he woke up from the dream.  He left so confident that he renamed the holy spot where he had slept “Beth El” or House of G-d.  Ironically, my journey wasn’t just from Stamford to Minneapolis but from Beth El to Beth El.  This Beth El was our synagogue here in Stamford and our new synagogue in Minnesota is also Beth El.  See how I am looping everything together?!

Just as Jacob realized that G-d had appointed angels for both sides of his journey, I realize this too.  Many people here in Connecticut have helped me along the way.  And now, I have new supporters, teachers and friends who are helping me during this stage of my life.

No doubt, the weather in Minneapolis can be cold, but the welcome has been very warm. After all, they didn’t come up with the expression Minnesota nice for nothing.  My new school, Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School is smaller than Bi-Cultural, but the people are just as kind.  We live in a beautiful neighborhood across the street from a park and while I miss the beach, we have lakes – ten thousand of them!

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have help and guidance during transitions or difficult journeys.  When I visited a homeless shelter with my classmates, I saw how bored the kids were and how much they needed something to help them smile.  I realized the food and shelter they were being given was vital to their survival.  But I wanted to give them something that was vital to their happiness.  That is why for my mitzvah project I am collecting games to distribute to kids in shelters who meed something to get them through tough times.