Thursday, November 20, 2008

Taking Action in Hard Times

As our economy continues to unravel, all facets of society are tested. Severe economic stress affects us in so many ways. An increasing number of congregants are now seeking employment, others are confronting family pressures – and all of us are in need of words of faith, a glimmer of hope and the embrace of the community.

Congregations are tested as well in times like these, and I am pleased to announce some significant steps that we are taking to assist fellow congregants and others:

The Men’s Club, along with Donna Sweidan of Career Folk, LLC, is pleased to announce the formation of the Temple Beth El Networking Group. The first meeting will take place on Tuesday November 25th at 7:30 PM. The purpose of the group is to provide opportunities for Jewish professionals & the broader community to meet and exchange ideas and contacts. We are also looking for other members of the Temple or the community to join the group in advisory roles. If you are interested in attending the meeting, please contact Michael Arons at

In addition, a TBE LinkedIn Networking Group has been created. You’re invited to join the TBE NETWORKing Group on LinkedIn. Joining will allow you to find and contact other TBENG members on LinkedIn. The goal of this group is to help members:

**Reach other members of the TBE NETWORK

**Accelerate careers/business through referrals from TBE NETWORK Group members

**Know more than a name – view rich professional profiles from fellow TBE NETWORK Group members

**To join, you have to be registered on - Go to Groups, and type in Temple Beth El Networking Group.

We hope to see you in the group, and that it can be helpful to you in your business, personal and career endeavors. I thank Michael Arons and the Men’s Club for their assistance and concern.

Additionally, Donna Sweidan will be conducting a session as part of the upcoming Synaplex Shabbat to be held on December 13. The session will be entitled:

Career Insurance: Do you have it? - A discussion on Career Management or Job Search Strategies that will help you survive in this challenging economy. Discussion will include what is "Career insurance," and how to engage in a proactive job search or career change.

Donna Sweidan is a Linkedin Specialist and will be conducting an online webinar on Linkedin on December 3rd and 9th that will show you how to take advantage of this very powerful tool. You can email Donna for more information..

Also, we’ve already gotten some good response for “Project Hesed,” which seeks volunteers to assist congregants who are shut ins or living in nursing homes or health care facilities. The group will visit people and also offer rides, help with shopping and deliver flowers in the hospital along with gifts to families with newborns. Project Hesed is being coordinated by Suzanne Horn at

Upcoming holidays bring families together, and in painful times like these that can lead to intensified stress. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you simply need someone to talk to. In addition, along with our many adult ed offerings, Mara is teaching a wonderful parenting class, which next meets on December 14. The Synaplex on the 13th will focus on ways we can bring people of all faiths together, and at my Learning and Latte interfaith panel at Borders on the 9th, we’ll be discussing the topic, “Faith and Money: What is Religion’s Role During Troubled Economic Times?”

Finally, we all need to find comfort simply in being together, right here. Join us for services on Shabbat or weekdays. This Friday night, we have the pleasure of hearing our congregant Katie Kaplan lead Kabbalat Shabbat here for the first time, and on Shabbat morning, Oliver Sabloff becomes Bar Mitzvah, while our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade families will celebrate Shabbat together. Our minyan attendance has become spotty, great some days, struggling at other times (like today) – please make a special effort to come! Note the special holiday time of 9 AM for next Thursday AND Friday.

These are times that test us all. More than ever, we at TBE are here to help!

Thanksgiving Blessings for Your Table

As you sit down with your families at the table, pause for a moment to remember how fortunate we are, to be thankful for every moment that we are alive, for the capacity to love and to share. Say a spontaneous prayer and try to give it a Jewish context - the formula for a blessing would be perfect. Just begin as we would with any blessing, “Baruch ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-olam” and then add, in English “we are so thankful for ___.”

Jewish tradition instructs us to try to utter 100 blessings every day, whether spontaneous or not. Some can be found in the grace after meals (see Birkat Ha-mazon explained in Wikipedia and in the Jewish Virtual Library) If you would like to add some or all of that beautiful prayer to your Thanksgiving meal, it can be downloaded at Birkat Hamazon [pdf]


thanks to Rabbi Jack Bloom for sending this along - always a nice reminder of the true meaning of our upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

By His Excellency Wilbur L. Cross, Governor: a PROCLAMATION

"Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-second of November, as a day of


for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved State with the favored regions of earth for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from the labor of every kind that has sustained our lives and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man's faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land;--that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home."

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Tammy Wise on Parashat Vayera

You might have noticed that there are a good number of kids here today. My portion is all about friendships and how people need to be hospitable toward one another. So it got me to thinking about how my friends come from so many different places and groups.

Just to give you an idea, I’d like to ask all my friends from Cloonan to stand up. OK now you can be seated.

Now, all my friends from softball, please stand up. OK, now you can be seated.

Now, my friends from Hebrew School, please stand. OK, now be seated.

My friends from the neighborhood, please stand. Now be seated.

Finally, anyone who hasn’t stood up yet. I know this group from a variety of places. (please be seated)

As you can see, friends are very important to me.

And they were to Abraham and Sarah too!

At the beginning of the portion, when guests came to visit, the first thing Abraham did was to get up and greet them. He didn’t wait for them to come to the door, he went out to meet them. When people come to my house, I often do that same thing – even more than my sisters do, but I must admit, my dog Tucker always beats me to it.

Abraham’s tent was a real center of activity. According to legend, the tent was pitched right in the middle of a major roadway, so caravans had to stop and accept his hospitality before moving on to their destination. The same is true for my house. My mom is often talking about how our house is so incredibly busy all the time. My friends and my sisters’ friends all seem to be filtering in all the time. We live on a street where everyone is friendly toward each other, and my house, like Abraham’s tent, is the Grand Central Station of Brodwood Drive.

The portion also teaches us other aspects of friendship, like caring for people’s feelings, defending them when they are in danger, and visiting them when they are sick.

I try to be honest with my friends all the time, like Abraham was. But the portion also shows how there are times when it is better not to be totally truthful. When Sarah heard that she was going to have a baby, she said that her husband is too old, but when God relayed that conversation to Abraham, he conveniently left that part out, so Abraham wouldn’t be offended.

I can think of times when I’ve also had to slip by with a white lie in order not to embarrass someone.

So as I become a Bat Mitzvah less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, I realize how thankful I am for all of my friends and that all of you could be here with me today.

For my mitzvah project, I’ve been helping out at the Food Bank of lower Fairfield County. The need is so great right now and I am thankful for all who have donated in the bins that I set up here at the temple.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lessons of the Binding of Isaac

For those, like me, who are big fans of lists, I've come up with some lessons of the Binding of Isaac, based on various commentaries, along with my own thoughts. This list is a work in progress, so let me know what you think!

1) To teach that God does not want child sacrifice and explain why Israel does not engage in that practice.

2) To indicate that God is seen through life’s darkest moments, apparently instigating them, but in reality providing us with the keys to salvation (the ram). Was that original voice, then one that commanded Abraham, really God? Or just the last voice (the angel) In Genesis, there often is confusion between angels/God/ and (see Jacob and the beginning of this portion too)

3) Torah: shows epitome of commitment to and love of God. Part of our essence – (each of us is challenged in different ways through life. Individually and the Jewish people as a whole. Abraham’s merit saves us.

4) Isaac actually doesn’t return:
- Midrash: He dies and is brought back. This was comforting to Jews being slaughtered in middle ages. Jews saw themselves as being bound on the altar.
- Christian version: He is forerunner of Jesus. The father saves the son.

5) Have to be willing to risk all in order for life to have meaning. We do not choose our fate: God does.

6) Absurdity of life (1 chapter before this one, Abraham’s immortality is “assured”)

7) Sarah’s role – why does she let them go? Both she and Abraham are automata.

8) Abraham did lose faith after this (God went too far). He never “hears” God again (this “Lech Lecha” annuls the first/Sarah dies/Abe doesn’t trust God (Isaac) to find the right wife – sends Eliezer instead (whose name means “helper of my God”)

9) Arguing for oneself is self-serving. But is submissive faith what God wants? Abe failed the test.

10) Response to the Flood – from here on, God will save (but what of the Shoah?)

11) God is never too late (angel comes just in nick of time). In the case of the Shoah it is HUMANITY that arrived too late.

12) Norman Cohen: Isaac is our child – we do not see that we sacrifice children on alters of our careers, interests or principles. Isaac even carries the wood for his own sacrifice!!!

13) Isaac is really the victim nor martyr but protagonist, challenging his father as his father challenges God. (Oedipal interpretation) – result of infant primacy psychic conflict with father.

14) Received promises do not entail being protected in moments when those promises seem to be called into question.

15) What of the Ne’arim (the youths)? Why did they not protect Isaac??? (perhaps analogous to Jews in US during the Shoah)

16) The story explains the origins of Jerusalem and Mount Moriah as a holy spot. What makes it holy?

17) We shouldn’t worship our children – this is a lesson to Abraham that despite the fact that a son was what we cherished and wanted more than anything else, even that should not become an absolute.

18) Koran: God puts us in this world in order to test us.

19) God needs to learn something here – just how much is the human capacity to fear God / or to obey blindly.

20) People who claim to hear God’s voice directly are susceptible to succumbing to madness – it is dangerous.

21) Repetition of the verb “sees.” Place is called “God will see.” Faith is not blindness, faith is sight. God grants vision. (and Isaac, the son, ends up blind, and handicapped for life).

22) “This is the terror in God’s mysteriousness and inscrutability.” Job/Jonah: life isn’t fair.

23) The ram, the vehicle for redemption (shofar) is there from the 6th day of creation. The DNA of redemption is programmed in from the start.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hoffman Lecture: "Three Movements, One Future" Ellenson, Eisen and Joel

"Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews"

From the Stamford Advocate:

3 Jewish movements unite to ponder 'single purpose'
By James Lomuscio Special Correspondent

STAMFORD - Focusing more on what unites them than divides them, three leaders representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism met Thursday for a historic, public panel discussion at Temple Beth El.

"This is the first time in history that the heads of three movements have come together under one roof in a public dialogue," said Steven Lander, executive director of Beth El, a Conservative synagogue.

More than 500 congregants representing the three denominations filled the synagogue to hear the discussion titled "Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews," the 24th Annual Harold E. Hoffman Memorial Lecture.

Moderated by Beth El's Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the panel consisted of David Ellenson, a leader in the Reform movement and president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard M. Joel, president of Yeshiva University and a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community.

"I think just our presence here says what we're going to say," Eisen said. "You have three movements with a single purpose of God, the Torah and the Jewish people.

"We have different paths, and each one of us thinks our path is the best one," he continued, "but we respect each other's path. The Jewish people need all three, and they need us to work together."

Saying the dialogue was a "sacred moment," Hammerman called the exchange of ideas appropriate on the heels of the election of President-elect Barack Obama "as Americans seek to bridge cultural divides to confront extraordinary challenges."

He added that there is no greater time for American Jews to seek common ground, especially with the increasing threats against Israel.

Hammerman began the discussion by asking each panelist what he theologically envied about the others. Ellenson, of the Reform movement, said he envied the intense Torah scholarship and devotion to Israel in the Orthodox movement.

"What Reform Judaism does well is its attention to social justice," said Eisen, of the Conservative movement. "Conservative Judaism hasn't succeeded in highlighting it."

Joel said he envied how the other movements were able to "look at the whole world."

"Sometimes we (Orthodox Jews) think we are the only ones there," he said.

Though Hammerman joked that the three coming together represented a "Kumbaya moment," stark differences came to the forefront. Ellenson said the Orthodox movement's strict interpretation of the Torah kept women in subservient roles, as if it were God's will as opposed to the social conventions of a patriarchal society.

Hammerman joked that sometimes Jews describe the movements as "lazy, hazy and crazy, and I'm not saying which is which," but all agreed their differences should be respected and not ignored to the point of relativism.

"Denominations matter," Eisen said, "but so does transcending them."
Seminary Heads Join Rare Event
By Anthony WeissThu. Nov 13, 2008
Stamford, Conn. — With the rhetoric of national unity still hanging in the postelection air, the leaders of the flagship seminaries of the three largest Jewish movements met in a rare joint appearance.

Sitting before a packed house at Temple Beth El here in Connecticut, Arnold Eisen, Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor; Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, spoke amicably about the election of Barack Obama, the future of rabbinical training and things they admired about the other movements.

Though such appearances together are rare — the three could not agree as to whether they had ever publicly appeared together previously — the leaders described themselves as friends and seemed to get along comfortably. All emphasized their ability to disagree respectfully.
“We want to symbolize our sense that denominations matter, the differences matter, but so does the transcending of differences,” Eisen said.
The joint appearance and its friendly tone suggest that relations between the movements are at a high point, a far cry from the situation a decade or more ago, when sharp disagreements between the movements were commonplace on such topics such as conversion, patrilineal descent, the rights of women, gay and lesbian rights and a host of other issues.

“The way they’re talking to each other, I can’t imagine the previous generation [of leaders] talking to each other in this comfortable way,” said Ellen Umansky, a Fairfield University professor of Judaic studies who attended the event.

The friendly atmosphere was possible, at least in part, because the Jewish stream associated with many of the sharpest conflicts — the ultra-Orthodox — was not present for the event.
The evening opened with a discussion of the election of Obama, and the discussion quickly touched upon one key difference between the movements: Ellenson commented that he didn’t think a single one of his students had voted for the Republican ticket, adding, “It’s almost a problem to me.”

“The supporters that David was looking for were up at Yeshiva University,” Joel quipped. But the discussion did not dwell on the political split between Orthodox Jews, who increasingly vote Republican, and non-Orthodox Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats — a split that has vexed communal activists. Instead, the leaders spoke about the historic nature of the election and about the notion of linking faith to political activism. They even linked their own appearance to Obama’s talk of national unity.

“Sometimes, Rabbi Ellenson, Dr. Eisen and Richard Joel just being together is a statement,” Joel said. “It’s our way of saying, ‘Yes we can.’”

Later, at the behest of moderator Joshua Hammerman, the synagogue’s rabbi, each leader identified aspects of the other two movements that he envied. Ellenson praised the Conservative and Orthodox movements for their ability to inculcate a commitment to serious Jewish life. Eisen praised the Reform movement for its commitment to social justice, and Orthodoxy for its close relationship to Israel. And Joel, after an uncomfortable pause of several seconds, praised the other two movements for their willingness to act in the world beyond the Jewish community.
When the discussion did turn to differences among the movements, the leaders emphasized the principle of having disagreements while maintaining an open dialogue. Describing himself as a pluralist, Joel explained, “I think a pluralist is someone who is prepared to honor the other person’s right to be wrong.”

Each of the three leaders who appeared is the first picked to lead his institution in the 21st century, and Eisen argued that all three boards made a conscious decision to choose leaders who are pluralists, reflecting the spirit and urgency of the current moment.

“I think it has to do with where we are right now. We’re losing too many Jews,” he told the Forward. “There is a conviction that this is a moment to shine and grow, and we have to not let it languish.”

Reality Check (The Jewish Week, November 14)

When historians analyze what drove the American electoral psyche this year, the economic downturn will dominate the conversation. But the campaigns also responded to a far deeper cultural current: a yearning for authenticity. In the end, we couldn’t tell who the real McCain was, while Obama never stopped being Obama.

Our nation’s moral compass no longer gyrates from good to evil, but from “real person” to “celebrity,” the latter being equated with “fake.” In that universe, the quintessential symbol of iniquity is no longer Osama bin Laden but Britney Spears. No wonder the McCain campaign tried to paint Barack Obama with the Spears-Paris Hilton brush and present themselves as representatives of the “real” America. But the move backfired when the “real Americans” they presented for us, Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber — who’s neither named Joe nor is he a licensed plumber — themselves became instant celebrities. They kept on depicting Obama as a deceiver, some even accusing him of using a visit to his dying grandmother as cover on a nefarious mission to whitewash his birth certificate. But no one bought it.

Early on in the campaign, John Edwards seemed authentic to many, but he hired Rielle Hunter to produce a video enabling voters to see him “as I really am.” Big mistake. Hillary Clinton’s run was upended when it turned out she didn’t run from sniper fire on that tarmac in Bosnia. Rudy Giuliani put on a dress. As the candidates fell one by one, the common denominator was that each failed to pass the authenticity test.

In a confusing world where many create ersatz profiles on Web sites like Second Life and Facebook and where 53 percent lie on their résumés, authenticity appears increasingly elusive. We are hungering for the real as never before. No wonder Universal is doing a movie about the Mili Vanili lip-sync scandal of the 1990s. When we discover that the little 9-year-old at the Olympics wasn’t actually the girl who was singing, it bothers us as it never did when Natalie Wood wasn’t really singing in “West Side Story” or Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”

We hate fakers, unless, like Tina Fey and John Stewart, they use impersonation to expose other fakers. It’s OK for Stewart to be a pretend newsman, but not Jayson Blair, whose fake journalism besmirched The New York Times. The sports equivalent of Britney is Roger Clemens, whose smelly congressional testimony scared players so much that, for the first time in a decade, real baseball was played this season by real, unenhanced players.

Eckhart Tolle’s best seller, “A New Earth: Awaking to Your Life’s Purpose,” became a marketing phenomenon this year when it attracted Oprah’s eye, but it already had caught the wave of this zeitgeist. Tolle explores how we can discover our true, authentic selves — to cut through all the layers of falsehood that cover up who we really are. And James Gilmore’s book, “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,” has spent a good deal of time at the top of business book charts.

I picked up a cute little spoof at Barnes and Noble called “Faking it: How to Seem like a Better Person without Actually Improving Yourself.” No wonder we’ve seen the revival this year of the old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s actually not such a bad idea. Twelve-step programs utilize that principle and it’s used by motivators to build self-esteem. If you pretend to have self confidence and repeat an activity enough times, that confidence eventually kicks in. As our ancestors at Sinai said, “Na’ase v’nishma,” “We will do and THEN, we will understand.”

But faking it has its limits. I once was having Shabbat dinner at the home of a family, which began with the children reciting the blessings flawlessly. When I indicated how impressed I was, the mother said to me, “We’re making memories.” The implication was that the dinner was somewhat staged so that the kids would recall it later on, when they grow up. That’s admirable, but for these memories to indeed be indelible, it has to be more than just for the children. The experience of the here-and-now has to be real.

It’s not about leaving your legacy so much as living your legacy.

In his new book, “The Quest for Authenticity,” Michael Ross tells the story of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pesischa, one of the great chasidic leaders of the 19th century. He was such a real person that when he became a rebbe, he didn’t give up his day job. He was a pharmacist who also refused to forsake western dress even when other chasidim did. And he could spot a fraud a mile away.

Later, his philosophy was echoed by Reb Meshullam Zusya of Anipoli, whom his adoring students compared to Moses. His famous response: When he gets to the Heavenly Court, they will not ask him, “Why were you not Moses?” but “Why were you not Zusya?”

Or, as we like to say nowadays, “Let Zusya be Zusya.”

The world lost one of our most authentic people this past year, Tim Russert. He learned authenticity from his father, Big Russ, a garbage collector and newspaper deliverer, who, in the words of a Gail Godwin novel, has “lived his life by the grace of daily obligations.” Russert demonstrated that you can be part of the so-called Washington media elite and yet still be a real person. Big Russ is much like Ann Nixon Cooper, that 106-year-old matriarch Obama spoke of in Grant Park last week. They are the ultimate response to the disingenuousness of Joe the Plumber.

Being a “real American,” then, has little to do with where you live or how much you know, or whether you can down a six pack, smoke a Marlboro, wear Birkenstocks, shoot hoops, field dress a moose, sip martinis or bowl. And being an authentic Jew has nothing to do with the length of your tzitzit, the precision of your praying or the size of your donation.

The authentic life is lived by the grace of daily obligations. That’s what we yearned for in our candidates, because it’s what we feel is so lacking in our world — and ourselves.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Kristallnacht, 70 Years Later

This coming week we mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when many say the Holocaust really began. Here is some background on this tragic and foreboding night, excerpted from the Jewish Virtual Library. To see the full article, go to:

Almost immediately upon assuming the Chancellorship of Germany, Hitler began promulgating legal actions against Germany's Jews. In 1933, he proclaimed a one-day boycott against Jewish shops, a law was passed against kosher butchering and Jewish children began experiencing restrictions in public schools. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of German citizenship. By 1936, Jews were prohibited from participation in parliamentary elections and signs reading "Jews Not Welcome" appeared in many German cities. (Incidentally, these signs were taken down in the late summer in preparation for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin).
In the first half of 1938, numerous laws were passed restricting Jewish economic activity and occupational opportunities. In July, 1938, a law was passed (effective January 1, 1939) requiring all Jews to carry identification cards. On October 28, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship, many of whom had been living in Germany for decades, were arrested and relocated across the Polish border. The Polish government refused to admit them so they were interned in "relocation camps" on the Polish frontier.

Among the deportees was Zindel Grynszpan, who had been born in western Poland and had moved to Hanover, where he established a small store, in 1911. On the night of October 27, Zindel Grynszpan and his family were forced out of their home by German police. His store and the family's possessions were confiscated and they were forced to move over the Polish border.
Zindel Grynszpan's seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, was living with an uncle in Paris. When he received news of his family's expulsion, he went to the German embassy in Paris on November 7, intending to assassinate the German Ambassador to France. Upon discovering that the Ambassador was not in the embassy, he settled for a lesser official, Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath. Rath, was critically wounded and died two days later, on November 9.

The assassination provided Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Chief of Propaganda, with the excuse he needed to launch a pogrom against German Jews. Grynszpan's attack was interpreted by Goebbels as a conspiratorial attack by "International Jewry" against the Reich and, symbolically, against the Fuehrer himself. This pogrom has come to be called Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass."

On the nights of November 9 and 10, rampaging mobs throughout Germany and the newly acquired territories of Austria and Sudetenland freely attacked Jews in the street, in their homes and at their places of work and worship. At least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000), almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps [added by Mitchell Bard from his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II. NY: MacMillan, 1998, pp. 59-60].

The official German position on these events, which were clearly orchestrated by Goebbels, was that they were spontaneous outbursts. The Fuehrer, Goebbels reported to Party officials in Munich, "has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either." (Conot, Robert E. Justice At Nuremberg. NY: Harper & Row, 1983:165)

Three days later, on November 12, Hermann Goering called a meeting of the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage done during the night and place responsibility for it. Present at the meeting were Goering, Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Walter Funk and other ranking Nazi officials. The intent of this meeting was two-fold: to make the Jews responsible for Kristallnacht and to use the events of the preceding days as a rationale for promulgating a series of antisemitic laws which would, in effect, remove Jews from the German economy. An interpretive transcript of this meeting is provided by Robert Conot, Justice at Nuremberg, New York: Harper and Row, 1983:164-172):

'Gentlemen! Today's meeting is of a decisive nature,' Goering announced. 'I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer's orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another.'

'Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled. Because, gentlemen, I have had enough of these demonstrations! They don't harm the Jew but me, who is the final authority for coordinating the German economy. `If today a Jewish shop is destroyed, if goods are thrown into the street, the insurance companies will pay for the damages; and, furthermore, consumer goods belonging to the people are destroyed. If in the future, demonstrations which are necessary occur, then, I pray, that they be directed so as not to hurt us.

'Because it's insane to clean out and burn a Jewish warehouse, then have a German insurance company make good the loss. And the goods which I need desperately, whole bales of clothing and whatnot, are being burned. And I miss them everywhere. I may as well burn the raw materials before they arrive.

'I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today's meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.'

It was decided at the meeting that, since Jews were to blame for these events, they be held legally and financially responsible for the damages incurred by the pogrom. Accordingly, a "fine of 1 billion marks was levied for the slaying of Vom Rath, and 6 million marks paid by insurance companies for broken windows was to be given to the state coffers. (Snyder, Louis L. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. New York: Paragon House, 1989:201).

Kristallnacht turns out to be a crucial turning point in German policy regarding the Jews and may be considered as the actual beginning of what is now called the Holocaust.

1. By now it is clear to Hitler and his top advisors that forced immigration of Jews out of the Reich is not a feasible option.
2. Hitler is already considering the invasion of Poland.
3. Numerous concentration camps and forced labor camps are already in operation.
4. The Nuremberg Laws are in place.
5. The doctrine of lebensraum has emerged as a guiding principle of Hitler's ideology. And,
6. The passivity of the German people in the face of the events of Kristallnacht made it clear that the Nazis would encounter little opposition—even from the German churches.
Following the meeting, a wide-ranging set of antisemitic laws were passed which had the clear intent, in Goering's words, of "Aryanizing" the German economy. Over the next two or three months, the following measures were put into effect (cf., Burleigh and Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945. NY: Cambridge, 1991:92-96):

1. Jews were required to turn over all precious metals to the government.
2. Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced.
3. Jewish-owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and art works can be alienated only to the German state.
4. Jews were physically segregated within German towns.
5. A ban on the Jewish ownership of carrier pigeons.
6. The suspension of Jewish driver's licenses.
7. The confiscation of Jewish-owned radios.
8. A curfew to keep Jews of the streets between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. in the summer and 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the winter.
9. Laws protecting tenants were made non-applicable to Jewish tenants.
10. [Perhaps to help insure the Jews could not fight back in the future, the Minister of the Interior issued regulations against Jews' possession of weapons on November 11. This prohibited Jews from "acquiring, possessing, and carrying firearms and ammunition, as well as truncheons or stabbing weapons. Those now possessing weapons and ammunition are at once to turn them over to the local police authority."]

One final note on the November 12 meeting is of critical importance. In the meeting, Goering announced, "I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer's orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another." The path to the “Final Solution” has now been chosen. And, all the bureaucratic mechanisms for its implementation were now in place.

Three Movements: One Future

Last night’s Hoffman lecture cannot be measured on the normal scale of measuring such lectures and programs. Typically, we measure attendance (over 500), media presence (local and national coverage, including a Shalom TV national broadcast), and the impact of the speakers (tremendous X3) and, on rare but special occasions, community partnering (we were blessed with rabbinic involvement from the entire community, and the active assistance of the UJF.

Those are all the normal measures. But last night was more than that. It was more than a huge success – it was a gift to the Jewish people. Leaders of our three main movements spoke eloquently and passionately about Jewish commitment and solidarity. And their mere presence on the bima together was a symbolic statement of our common destiny as Jews.

They regaled us with their wisdom and wit. Dr. Eisen’s last statement summed it all up, imploring us to support the institutions that train our future leaders. “We are living at a historical moment for the Jewish people that may not come again soon. We have a vibrant, strong, dynamic, wealthy Jewish community, living side by side with a vibrant, strong State of Israel. We have resources right now at our disposal that we might not have 30 years from now. We have young people with all their idealism rallying to the cause. Let us not let this moment go to waste. This is a moment that we must seize as a community.”

We'll be posting the audio file on our website shortly. Don't miss it!

TBE Bar/ Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Samuel Sterman on Parashat Noah

“And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” This verse could either be describing the world at the time of Noah – OR, a typical Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the fall at hundreds of football stadiums across the country.

Yes, football is a violent sport. Some would even say it’s not a Jewish sport, since Jewish parents tend to encourage their kids to play less violent sports, like baseball, basketball and chess.
But last year, when I went to my parents to ask them if I could play football, strangely, they said yes. Of course they didn’t really want me to do it, but my dad said to my mom, “Give him a week and he’ll change his mind.”

They were wrong. Now, I’m a defensive captain, starting defensive back and one of the leading tacklers on the team. As you might have noticed, I’m no Brian Urlacher in size and I’m not exactly one of the larger players on my team.

But Iooks can be deceiving, and I’ve learned that success in football has less to do with how big you are and more to do with technique and teamwork, along with the ability to take a violent sport and play it in a controlled manner.

“Noah” is all about technique, teamwork and controlled violence. It’s also about football: if you think of the animals in the ark, half of the NFL was there: You had the Bears, the Lions, the Eagles, and the Falcons there. So were the Rams, and they played an even bigger role in the time of Abraham. And then there were the Ravens, who played a key role in this story. Noah sent one out to see if there was any dry land, but the raven did not return.

Technique is important for a football player, especially one who might be smaller than the opponent. The key is to get low, which is very easy for me, and to wrap your opponent with both arms. Noah used technique to craft his ark and to make sure that there were no holes. If you have holes, whether in boat building or building a defense, the result can be disastrous. (Think “Titanic,” or this year’s Rams)

After the flood, God decided that He would never destroy the world again because of violence, realizing that people are violent in nature. But that violence needs to be controlled, which is why some laws were established for all people, called the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah.” Things that were prohibited included murder, animal abuse and grabbing the facemask. As a Patriots fan, they should also have prohibited hitting a quarterback in the knees, which is, unfortunately, what happened to Tom Brady.

Finally, Noah and the animals had to come together like a team to survive on the Ark. There were many animals that did not get along in nature very well, like the cats and dogs, but they had to work together to live on the Ark. In my Mitzvah project, I learned that it takes a great deal of teamwork to save abandoned animals. I raised money for PAWS, which is an organization that saves animals. It takes people like all of us to raise money to pay for the animal’s care. It also takes people to provide care for them, to nurse them back to health, and to find homes for them. I thank all of you for bringing items today that will help PAWS save more animals.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Danielle Tuluca on Parashat Lech Lecha

My portion begins with command to Abraham to leave on his great journey – and when I read it, it reminded me of a journey I took just a few months ago.

Last year, my friend and I were looking on line for a camp experience that would take us to Europe and help us experience a language that we have been learning for many years in school : Spanish.

So in early July, we flew off to Marbella, Spain, on the Costa del Sol, where we were picked up by a family friend and taken to an International Language camp. We were happy to meet kids from all over the world, including 5 Americans, 5 from France, a few dozen from Spain, a few from Italy and England… and 30 from the last place in the world I would have expected the kids to come from: Russia.

Most of you know that my mom came from Russia and never wanted to go back because of all the anti-Semitism the family had faced there. But here, suddenly, I was confronted with a large group of non-Jewish Russians for the first time in my life. The other irony is that I was in Spain, a country also known for being cruel to the Jews.

So this is how I chose to spend my summer vacation... re-living my family's nightmare!

People might not have found out that I was Jewish, except that I was practicing for today. One day my Bat Mitzvah folder slipped out of my suitcase while I was taking it out and a Russian girl picked it up and started looking at it. Within an hour, all the Russian girls knew that I was learning Hebrew.

As you can imagine, I was afraid of what was going to happen next.

The girls started treating us differently and saying cruel things about Jews. Some of them had never met a Jew before - and I had grown up thinking that most Russians are Jewish because those are the ones I had always met. So, this really hit me hard.

I talked to my parents every day, we decided not to make a fuss, and it soon died down when they found out that the friend I went with was also Jewish. She’s pretty tough and they didn’t want to mess with her!

I learned a lot from this trip. Yes, I learned a lot of Spanish; but even more, I learned what it means to be Jewish. I also learned a lot about where I come from – not just about Russians, but about my own family and what they went through. After all these years, I finally understood why my mom left and why it’s hard to go back. And most of all I realized that no matter what happens I should always be proud that I am Jewish.

Abraham took a similar journey in Lech Lecha. Commentators have asked why God didn’t just say "lech," which means "go." Why add the second word, "Lecha?" One commentator noted that "lecha" means "to yourself." So "Lech lecha means "go to yourself." Abraham may have gone very far from home, but the most difficult part of the trip was what went on inside himself. He went far from home in order to find out who he really was.

That’s exactly what happened to me!

Of course, being Jewish means more than just standing up to people who don’t always treat us well. It also means standing up to help others who are in need. That is why for my mitzvah project, I raised money for Cancer Care, a non profit organization that provides financial and emotional support to families of cancer patients , especially children whose close relatives had been diagnosed with this illness. A few weeks ago, I participated in a cancer walk in Fairfield that raised $5,000.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Most Peculiar Institution: Democracy

Some notes on the day after a most memorable night….

At our morning service today we recited the Prayer for our Government, something that’s been done at synagogues throughout the world since the Babylonian Exile (see But today those words carried extra meaning, and the hush at our minyan was palpable:

“Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.”

Barack Obama will not be a perfect president. Nor was he a perfect candidate. But last night he captured a historical watershed perfectly with his speech in Grant Park. It was important to place the event in both a historical and personal perspective, which he did wonderfully in speaking of that 106 year old woman. Ann Nixon Cooper was the ultimate response to Joe the Plumber.

Earlier this year Michelle Obama made the oft-attacked slip about being proud of her country “for the first time.” Well, I’ve been proud of America quite often in my life, but last night I understood what she may have meant, because, for this first time, I felt that an enormous pall has lifted, one that had to lift before any of us could truly feel unmitigated pride in all that America is and all that she stands for.

At last we have closed the book on what has been euphemistically called America’s Peculiar Institution, our greatest national stain, the enslavement of an entire segment of the population, simply because of the color of their skin. I’m not so naïve as to believe that this is the end of all racial and ethnic strife. But it is also the beginning of a new, worldwide appreciation of America’s other peculiar institution, the kind of color-blind democracy that would be inconceivable in almost any other country, including most that consider themselves democratic. We have much to be proud of today, and to be grateful for. Perhaps that is why, in the end, Jews gave Obama about 78% percent of their vote, even more than John Kerry received four years ago (see also here). We Jews understand full the historical meaning of this moment.

Obama’s win comes on the anniversary of Prime Minister Rabin's murder and just four days before the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, a night of terror for Jews throughout Germany. It was a moment when Hitler tested the world and the world failed, leading inexorably to the slaughters that followed. One might claim that America failed then as well, to address Germany's Peculiar Institution of anti-Semitism.

Today, the world can sit back and admire America for sending a message of utter inclusiveness. The cry against injustice that was so lacking in 1938 turned to tears of joy last night. Jews understood that implicitly, even without need for schleppers. A campaign of obscene innuendo against the Democratic candidate did not make a difference. The lies were rebuffed. All those nasty e-mails, in the end, fell on deaf ears. For me, the ultimate absurdity occurred last week. when Obama visited his dying grandmother and the conspiracists unabashedly proclaimed that he was travelling to Hawaii in order to whitewash his birth certificate. Had the campaign lasted two days longer, no doubt the same people would have accused him of killing his grandmother as part of the cover up.

Naturally, McCain was also victimized by sleazy e-mails and misleading ads. All such tactics are wrong. But the Jewish community was specifically targeted for a negative bombardment only by one campaign, McCain's, and it is satisfying that, according the the exit polls, people didn’t buy it. Bubbe and Zayde did all right – not because of whom they voted for, but because they gained a real understanding of the dangers of the Internet. It took them a lot less time to figure out how to sift through the garbage than the rest of us youngn’s.

A word of gratitude for Chris Shays, a man who has typically stood above the political muck and always did us proud. Since he and I began our current jobs at about the same time, I’ve always kind of felt like we grew up together. Over the years he has been a loyal and good friend to me and so many others – and most especially to Israel. As I wrote to him today, “I’ve been proud to live in a district associated with you and your efforts at bipartisanship and justice.” I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more from him in the years to come.

I am also looking forward to working closely with Jim Himes (and indicated as much in a congratulatory note to him). I wrote last summer about my first opportunity to get to know him, when we met for breakfast on a veranda in Jerusalem. I was impressed then and remained so throughout the campaign.

Today, the day after, we go on with our lives. But the world is not as is was 24 hours ago. I feel unburdened as an American.

The cloud of our peculiar culpability has been lifted at last.