Friday, May 13, 2016

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Russell Moskowitz on Kedoshim

Shabbat Shalom

As I’ve been studying to become bar mitzvah, I’ve learned that the Torah has something to say regarding just about any topic.  So when the rabbi asked me what my interests are, the first thing that came to mind was, of course, “Basketball,” a game that I’ve loved since I was literally smaller than the ball. Once I could walk, it was not long before I learned how to shoot. So I wondered whether the Torah could have anything to say about my favorite sport.

After all, basketball wasn’t even around when the Torah was written.  Actually, a form of the sport was played in the ancient world – in Mexico about two thousand years ago.  But the Torah was written at least five hundred years before that.

Still, the Torah has many things to teach about basketball, and lots of those things are found in my portion of Kedoshim, which is filled with important laws.

For instance, there’s the law that states, “DON’T STAND IDLY BY YOUR NEIGHBOR.”  In real life it means to stand up for people who are in trouble.  But in basketball terms, it means to help out on defense.  I can recall a number of times when we’ve teamed up to stop a bigger player and we were able to shut him down.  Or, if my teammate was trapped in the corner, it was my job to find an open space and call for the ball so he could pass it to me.  Basically, the message of this commandment is to be a team player, and that we are ALL in this together.

Another law states, “DON’T PLACE A STUMBLING BLOCK BEFORE THE BLIND.”  Of course, if we take it literally, it means that we shouldn’t make fun of people with disabilities.  Commentators also state that we shouldn’t mislead people, or, as we often say, “blindside” them.  That happens in basketball all the time, like when people set an illegal screen.  Sometimes faking is good, like when a shooter does a pump fake in order to get open.  But in real life, we should aim to be honest – in other words, to be straight shooters.

In another verse, the Torah instructs us to REPROVE OUR NEIGHBOR.  That means that we need to correct things that other people are doing wrong.  However, when we point out someone’s mistakes, we should NOT embarrass them.  At one time, long ago, I had a habit of dribbling into the corners.  When I did that, my coaches would quietly correct me when I came over to the bench.  They never yelled at me in public.  THEY must have read the Torah!!

My portion includes the commandment not to STEAL.  It’s actually there twice.  – Well in basketball, unlike life, it’s good to steal!  Sometimes, a great defensive play can decide a game just as much as a clutch shot or a great assist. 

But even in basketball, not all forms of stealing are proper.  Stealing a call, for instance, by flopping – is not a good thing (even though I’ve probably done it a couple of times).

The most important commandment in my portion also happens to be the most important one in the entire Torah: LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.  In basketball terms, that means to put the team before myself. I enjoy making a great pass just as much as a great shot.  But since the verse also says to love myself, I also need to have the confidence to take the shot when I am open.

My mitzvah project ties into this theme.  PeacePlayers International uses basketball to unite, educate and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world. Based on the idea that children who play together can learn to live together, this organization brings together children from different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds to develop friendship and mutual respect.

       So as you can see, the Torah has a lot to say about basketball. So now that I’m a bar mitzvah, I hope I’ll be able to use these important lessons both on the court -  and off.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Can I Do to Celebrate Israel Today?

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored this week by Michael and Leslie Moskowitz in honor of Russell becoming Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.

This week's Shabbat-O-Gram is coming out a day early as we celebrate Israel's 68th today (the Hebrew date actually falls tomorrow, but it is moved up a day to avoid bumping up against Shabbat).  Mazal tov to Russell Moskowitz and family as he becomes bar mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  Join us for our Mediterranean Shabbat on Friday night at 7:30, featuring the long-awaited return of Avram Pengas and his group. And please do something else: Go to this Facebook event page and share it with your friends.  Go ahead.  Do it..... I'll wait right here. 


Israel is 68 today, and there are a number of things we can do to keep Israel in our thoughts...  

- Do what our 6th graders did - they have been corresponding with Arab-Israeli middle schoolers from my son Dan's classes in Lod. I am really, really proud of our kids for doing this.  You can watch their videos here.  And read Dan's amazing blog here.



- Read Benji Lovitt's hilarious and poignant 68 More Things I Love About Israel

- Join me at the JCC this afternoon, along with some of our Hebrew School classes, for a community celebration.

Become an activist.  See the ADL's Guide for Activists containing lots of background information on Israel.  See the American Jewish Committee's brief guide to the Arab-Israeli conflict and how the New Israel Fund advocates for a democratic and inclusive Israel.  It's a confusing matter, to read contrasting narratives. The Hartman Institute's iEngage project is very helpful in navigating beyond the noise.  Better yet, the radio program "On Being" placed the narratives side by side.

- Watch this video 
68 Facts You Probably Don't Know About Israel
68 Facts You Probably Don't Know About Israel

- Join us HERE on Friday night for our musical Mediterranean community celebration! Did I mention that already?

- Check out Yelp's Best Hummus Places in NYC.  All of them.  Today.

- Can't get enough of this video of Nava Tehila, our guests NEXT Friday night!

- Watch last night's official celebration on Mt Herzl
.  Even if you can't understand the Hebrew (there is some English narration) it's very moving, especially as the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day takes place.  The torch lighters this year represented inspirational individuals and groups that have overcome significant challenges.  But most of all it's the music and choreography that I love - see at 1:19 a mash-up of opera, middle eastern and rap, based on the rap number  by the Ethiopian-Israeli band Kafe Shahor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee), "Yehye B'Seder" ("Everything's going to be OK"), preceded by a by Subliminal's "No Limits" - which in the Hebrew also can mean "No Borders," a not-so subliminal message for the one-staters, perhaps? (A less subtle message was sent a few minutes before, at 1:16 on the video, when the flag formation's formed the words "One Nation, One State"... to big applause).  But Yom Haatzmaut in Israel is essentially a politics-free zone, at least among the 4/5th of the population who observe it.  The other fifth will observe it on Saturday, under another name.

- Watch "Pillar of Fire," the classic series chronicling the history of Zionism. Episodes 1 and 2 are below:

- Read the reflective poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Israel's greatest poet, including the poem,  "Jews in the Land of Israel."

- Take a moment to remember Israel's 23,000 fallen soldiers and other victims of war and terror.

- Plant a tree in Israel.

- Download Kol Yisrael on itunes and listen to Israel's main radio stations all the time.

- Take a look at a live shot of the Western Wall and leave it on your desktop all day.

- Or how about this spectacular panorama view from the Inbal Hotel. Go there now, with the afternoon sun glowing off the Old City walls!

- Look back at some of our prior TBE Israel trips.... say 20122010, 2003, 2004, 2005 (prior ones too!)

-  Start planning your next trip to Israel.  To whet your appetite, view these video Postcards from Israel.

- Recognize, today and every day, just what a miracle it is that the Jewish people have returned to our homeland after 2,000 years.  There are lots of challenges for Israel and lots of things to critique.  But that remains the overwhelming fact.  And that's why me must celebrate today!

And Friday night too!

Happy Birthday, Israel! 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, May 6, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 6


This evening our K-2 families will celebrate Shabbat in a very special manner, with dinner and a Shabbat program. Those wishing to see our younger grades in action (especially if you have pre-schoolers) are more than welcome to come join us! Then, at 7:30 our main service brings back two of the musical group Banot as our guest musicians - we also welcome Cantor Fishman back from Israel.  Can't wait to hear all about it!  Shabbat morning is Sisterhood Shabbat - plus we'll celebrate the upcoming wedding of Alison Greenwald and David Ash.  Mazal Tov to all!!

And for you mothers out there, Happy Mother's Day! 

Scenes from a Marriage


Our annual 7th Grade Wedding took place last Sunday, 
culminating in the traditional fist-bump.

To see lots more wedding photos 
(courtesy of Fred Canpolat Photography)
plus our entire 7th grade life-cycle album, click here.
See how kids made their own tallitot, a huppah, a ketubah, 
and even decorated their wine cups.
One more reason why our Religious School is the best around:
experiential Jewish education at its best!

Scenes from a March

TBE's Steph Hausman at Thursday's March of the Living. 

A TBE Men's Club Memorial Candle on the tracks leading to Birkenau

Thank you to Mindy Hausman for sending me the photos 
so we all could experience the March with her in real time.

Since the first March of the Living was held in 1988, over 220,000 participants, from 52 countries, have marched down the same 3-kilometer path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust.

The Non-Jew in Jewish Law: A Needed Conversation

A couple of weeks ago, the Law Committee of the Conservative movement (CJLS) approved a paper on the "Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore" (you can read it here ).  This paper is meant to be a polemic against rabbis in Israel who draw upon theologies and legal positions in the Jewish tradition to discriminate and dehumanize non-Jews. While Rabbi Reuven Hammer acknowledges in the essay that those positions do exist in the Jewish tradition, there is also a stronger tradition that calls for tolerance and respect. He argues that we should view the less tolerant opinions as artifacts of more vulnerable times so that we live according to the highest ideals of Judaism.  Take a look at the responsum.  It begins a conversation that has been needed for a long time.

Israel at 68

Next Friday at 7:30, we will celebrate Israel's 68th with a spectacular cabaret-style Mediterranean Service. if you are coming here after dinner, leave some room for falafel!

Click here for a stunning slide show from Israel 21c, showing some of the major contributions Israel is making for the world, from revolutionary wheels that allow wheelchairs to go down stairs, to an ice technology that freezes breast tumors, or even a pocket sensor that can identify the chemical makeup of your food. 

Despite all her challenges and flaws, Israel remains what it has always has been, a stunning, miraculous presence on the world stage and in the hearts of the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for the end of Pesach


הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ, עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ; וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר, נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ

"The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land."
Song of Songs 2:12
Passover 2016 in Israel: Buttercups on Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak

Passover 2016 in Stamford: Blossoms at Beth El Cemetery

Happy End of Passover to all.  The seventh and eighth days are full festival days; our office will be closed on Friday and services will take place on Friday and Shabbat mornings at 9:30.  On Friday, Gerry Ginsburg will give a guest d’var Torah.  Saturday’s service will include Yizkor prayers.  The festival ends on Saturday night slightly after 8:30 PM, or whenever three stars appear in the sky and the aroma of hot bagels rises over Fairway.  Ironically, Israelis, who normally observe only seven days of Passover, will also have an eighth day of breadlessness, because the festival runs right into Shabbat.  Sorry about that, Israelis (not!).
Text-Driving a Siddur


Friday night’s service will be at the usual time of 7:30. Since I will be “going solo” this week (we miss you, Cantor Fishman!), and since the service is abridged (we skip Lecha Dodi and other parts of Kabbalat Shabbat on a festival) I thought we would take the opportunity to sample the new Conservative prayer book.  Read about Siddur Lev Shalem here.  Our ritual committee has taken a good look at it and recommended it.  I’ve also been sharing insights from it over the past several weeks and inviting those attending our services to peruse the text.  Before our board discusses it over the coming weeks, I thought it would be a nice idea for us to take it out for a test drive at services. You can call it a text-drive.  Your reactions will be most helpful!  On Friday night we’ll also be getting a briefing on the much anticipated arrival this week of a Syrian refugee family to our community.

Go in Peace, Return in Peace
Several of our students and families will be heading to Israel this coming week with Carmel Academy and Bi Cultural Day School, and Steph and Mindy Hausman will be going on the March of the Living.  We wish them all a safe and amazing journey! And if any of them are in town this Friday or Shabbat, we are offering an aliyah to the Torah and special blessing, on the house!

Mazal tov to our 7th Graders (class wedding is Sunday)!


Judaism as a Path of Love
Song of Songs and the Holocaust

It’s customary on Passover to read the Song of Songs, arguably the greatest love poem ever written (with a polite nod to a certain W. Shakespeare).  In a speech delivered in early April to a group of interfaith scholars,  Rabbi Arthur Green looked at the centrality of the Song of Songs in framing Judaism as a path of love, rather than legalism and obedience.  He writes:

The Song of Songs was in fact first spoken at Sinai itself, the day of the mystical marriage (between God and Israel). While the public voice of God may have been heard as declaring do’s and don’ts, at the very same moments He was whispering sweet nothings into His beloved’s ear. 

To stand in God’s presence, Green asserts, is to live a life shaped by love.

As you all hopefully know by now, this message has been a central one in my own rabbinate.  It has been an uphill climb to convince people that Judaism really is a religion based on love, for two main reasons:

One is that it flies in the face of what the non-Jewish world - as well as most Jews - have long considered Judaism to be.  We’ve bought into the notion of the vengeful “Old Testament” God and of Judaism's obsession with do’s and don’ts.  It’s noteworthy that the Song of Songs didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible until the last possible minute, during the second century - by which time the Gospels had already taken shape, along with their negative stereotypes of Judaism.  Perhaps Rabbi Akiva had that PR problem in mind when he became such an advocate for adding the Song to the canon.

Secondly, there is the specter of the Holocaust.  Green understands that it is very difficult to speak of God’s love when so many are still asking where that loving God was in 1944.  Green asserts that the Jewish soul is only now beginning the slow process of recovering from that trauma.  That progress is enabling us once again to explore spiritual path of openheartedness and compassion, less burdened by anger, cynicism and grief. 

Green’s essay is an important one, especially this week, as we are nestled between past and future, closing Passover and re-reading the Song of Songs as nature comes to life around us, while anticipating Yom Hashoah this coming Wednesday night (join me at our community commemoration at Temple Sinai), seven decades years since the last embers of Auschwitz were doused.

By now you should have received the Yellow Candle from our Men’s Club.  Read about the Yellow Candle here.  It will be very meaningful for every TBE family to remember the Holocaust by lighting this candle during the coming week.  By supporting this program, we can also support Holocaust education for our teens by helping them to go on the March of the Living and other similar pilgrimages (including our TBE trip to Europe now scheduled for the summer of 2017).
Judaism as a Path of Kindness
Pirke Avot 6:6 as it appears in Siddur Lev Shalem

During the 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot (the Omer), it is customary to read that classic work of rabbinic wit and wisdom, Pirke Avot.  In chapter 6 of Avot, we find a list of 48 qualities that enable us to acquire Torah, nearly a perfect match for this period of counting as we ascend to Sinai to receive the Torah.  That connection  has been drawn explicitly by rabbis devoted to ethical behavior, or "Mussar" as it is called. Each of these Middot (qualities) is a crucial turn on the path toward a life of holiness - and happiness.  My suggestion is that we each try to explore one of them each day.  You can find the full  list here, or click on each of them below for helpful study guides. I plan on focusing on each of them later in the year as we approach the High Holidays - but it’s never too early to start!

Getting our Goat


Last week I wrote about the tragic overtones of the song “Chad Gadya.” Little did I know how, just as I was writing this, another little goat nearly caused a great deal of commotion.  If the headline weren’t so scary it would have been laughable: “Three Jewish Men Arrested for Attempting Goat Sacrifice” on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, just as Passover was about to begin.  That tiny piece of real estate has borne its share of controversy.  Just a few days before, in an act of outright anti-Semitism, UNESCO tried todeny Jewish ties to the Temple Mount altogether.  What this combustible piece of land requires is level headedness and compromise.  Not an attempt at restoring an ancient ritual that many very pious Jews consider barbaric.  Maimonides himself considered sacrifices a paltry pagan predecessor to prayer.  Thankfully, and all kid-ding aside, the Israeli police once again proved that they are the G.O.A.T., at least when it comes to goat-spotting, and an international incident was averted - though I suspect that for the goat the reprieve was only temporary. 

Shabbat Shalom and 
Happy End of Pesach!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman