Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conservative Rabbi in Hoboken on the Corruption Scandal

This is from the Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue in Hoboken. I find it to be the clearest explanation I've found as to what is really going on. (Also see this Ha'aretz feature:
New Jersey scandal less damaging to Jews than Madoff).

To: HOBOKEN@USCJ.ORGSent: Fri, Jul 24, 2009 12:13 am

Subject: What you need to know about the Jewish side of the New Jersey corruption scandal

Dear friends,

I wrote the following, to sum up some of my experiences today, and to clarify some very deep misconceptions about the role of Jews and rabbis in this scandal.Incidentally, the single most helpful thing I have read to explain the scandal is the Department of Justice press release, here:


What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?

What you need to know about the Jewish side of the New Jersey corruption scandal:

What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?

A nervous caller to my office this morning was certainly wondering.

"Rabbi Scheinberg? Are you okay?""Yes, I'm fine.""Because my neighbor just told me that the mayor and the rabbi in Hoboken were arrested! I said, 'no, not Rabbi Rob, there's no way!' But she said, 'You know, sometimes it's the people who seem most trustworthy are the ones who you have to watch out for..."Thus began my day this morning. Over the course of the day, I had more conversations with people who had read the headlines, including the words "Hoboken" and "rabbis' and "arrested," and were concerned that perhaps I, or the synagogue, were involved in the corruption scandal.

Later in the day, as I walked around Hoboken and children waved to me and said, "Hi, Rabbi," or when I visited someone in the hospital and introduced myself as the patient's rabbi, I got a sense that, to those who overheard the conversations, the title commanded less respect than yesterday, and that the word "rabbi" had been dragged through the mud today. And it made me furious at those rabbis who ostensibly share my religion but seem to overlook the Jewish ethical tradition, just as I am furious at the corrupt politicians. The traditional term for these religious leaders is "mechalelei ha-shem" - "those who desecrate God's name."

It was fascinating to see the initial news reports that sought to make sense of this peculiar story that included both corrupt politicians and corrupt rabbis. In those early hours, reporters and commentators struggled to come up with a coherent narrative that linked corruption with money-laundering and that linked the misconduct of the politicians with the misconduct of the rabbis, and that somehow linked it all to that tantalizing news about trafficking in human body parts.

And it was disheartening to see how the story motivated many on-line anti-Semites to make blanket condemnations of rabbis and Jews in general as responsible for the woes of Hudson County, New Jersey, and the United States. (Just look at the comments sections of for plenty of examples.)

By mid-day, people who were following the news reports closely realized that there were really two almost completely separate stories here: the rabbis/money-laundering story, and the politicians/corruption story.

What did these two stories have in common? Simply that it was the same cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek, who assisted the FBI in all these investigations. He is a member of the Syrian Orthodox Jewish community on the New Jersey Shore. In the course of being prosecuted for his own financial misconduct, he chose to become a cooperating witness, presumably to reduce his own punishment. He then gave the FBI access to whomever he could. He started by giving them access to the institutions and leaders of the Syrian Jewish community in Deal and Brooklyn, exposing the elaborate money-laundering scheme. Then, he started to approach various mayors and political leaders, posing as a developer and dangling bribes in exchange for preferential treatment in the zoning process.

So what do the rabbis and the New Jersey mayors have in common? Almost nothing, except that their arrests happened to take place on the same day, and the same witness was involved.
It is of course terribly damaging and embarrassing to the Jewish community that there were so many observant Jews, including at least five rabbis, apparently involved in financial misconduct. But headlines like "Mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and several rabbis arrested in corruption probe" make it appear that rabbis are the big players in corruption in New Jersey, when that is obviously not the case. And as the witness in the case was an Orthodox Jew from the Syrian community, it is not surprising that that's the first community to which he led the FBI. Had he been from a different ethnic or religious group, it could have been a different group in the headlines.

But for those who catch just snippets of the radio news bulletins, or those who quickly scan the newspaper headlines, all these distinctions will sadly mean nothing. The mayors and the rabbis will always be linked in their minds, and the story will be seen through the lens of whatever stereotypes about Jews and rabbis they already had.Rabbi Robert ScheinbergUnited Synagogue of Hoboken115 Park AvenueHoboken, NJ 07030 (201) 659-4000 ,

Friday, July 24, 2009

New York Board of Rabbis' Statement


The New York Board of Rabbis is shocked and saddened by recent criminal charges against New Jersey elected officials and especially those who pride themselves as rabbis. Jewish tradition teaches us that reverence for the Creator and respect for the law cannot be separated from one another. The title “rabbi” demands that we as representatives of Judaism be exemplars of dignity and decency. We teach honesty by being honest not simply by making perfunctory pronouncements. Rabbis are upheld as the trustees of our tradition and such perverse behavior destroys the sanctity of that relationship.

We are proud of the many rabbis who serve the community so selflessly and bring honor to our profession.

Scandalous behavior in the religious community shames everyone especially those who uphold our tradition with love and loyalty.

May we all deeply search our souls and see a moral behavior that brings much honor to our beloved belief.

Rabbi Charles Klein Rabbi Joseph Potasnik
President Executive Vice President

What's the Deal with those New Jersey Rabbis?

I've been on vacation for the past couple of weeks. I want to make it clear from the start that I have not been spending any time engaged in black market transactions involving kidneys and Gucci handbags. In fact, I've been many places, but haven't set foot at all in Deal, New Jersey, a place that may soon change its name to "Plea Bargain." My wife can state flat out that I haven't been laundering anything - although I do my part sometimes in taking the clothes out of the dryer.

So I was only half awake yesterday morning in the waiting room, servicing my car, when the news guy talked about the big sting operation involving New Jersey politicians...and then I thought I heard him say something about rabbis.


I thought it was the coffee. The dealership needs to get stronger coffee. Why rabbis? What's the deal with rabbis? What's the deal with rabbis in Deal? I half expected Howie Mandel to jump out from behind the TV and assure me that this was no deal, or at least no BIG Deal.

But it is. It's a huge deal. Bigger even than a few Cambridge policeman mistaking Henry Lewis Gates for a burglar. You should know, BTW, that when Gates spoke at Beth El a few years back as our Hoffman Lecturer, he was not frisked for silverware on the way out. He was treated with the respect due one of this generation's most inspiring social justice advocates, of course, and his lecture was well attended and much appreciated.

Back to the rabbis: You can read more about them here. It would be easy for me to say, "Whew! At least they're not Conservative," and then begin ranting about the corruption and hypocrisy of some who claim to be more observant and paint all Orthodox or all Syrian Jews living in the tri state area with the same broad brush. Of course, that would be as bad as those who paint all rabbis - and all Jews - with similar broad brushes. No, once again, we are dealing with a crime that stains all of us, all rabbis, all Jews, all New Jerseyites, anyone close enough to smell the stench coming from across the river.

Thank God we're not in Israel, one could say, where the corrupt rabbis are also part of the government. But I suppose there is not much difference when they've bought off a few mayors.... I suppose we've always said that Israel looks a lot like New Jersey. Now we can say that New Jersey ACTS a lot like Israel.

It's important to state, as the President did regarding Gates, that we don't yet know all the facts and shouldn't rush to judgment. It's also very important to state that most rabbis, most Orthodox rabbis and most Syrian Orthodox rabbis are perfectly honest, good people. I don't believe in collective guilt, but neither can we wash our hands and pretend to ignore what has happened. I know that as a rabbi, I do represent all rabbis, and as a Jew, I represent not only all Jews, but the Torah too.

Read some of the comments to this Star Ledger coverage of the sting. One person wrote:

The influence of these jewish organizations on politics in NJ needs to be investigated. These jewish communities set themselves up as effectively private fortresses - one in NY state even had its own untrained volunteer fire fighters that were at a rabbi's house fire when the legit FD arrived! As long as this kind of influence is allowed to take over towns like Deal and Lakewood, it will be a poison to elected politics in NJ and throughout the country. One needs only to look at the influence of AIPAC to see the problem at the national level.

And another:

why no photos of the rabbis been arested;only the americans;are you afraid you are going to acuse you for antisemitism;

And these are the ones that the newspaper didn't remove from their site! Imagine what the censored comments look like, or the comments not being uttered out loud.

There's no getting around it. It's another bad day for the Jews; but a very good one for corruption.

I only wish the accused rabbinic leaders had spent a little more time thinking about the prayers they utter thrice daily and a little less on the market value of donated kidneys. They could start with the one that concludes the Amida, a silent meditation, "Elohai Netzor," written by Mar bar Ravina. There are a number of versions of the personal prayer appended to this central prayer, but this is the one that has stuck:

O God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. Help me to be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may hasten to do Your Mitzvot. Save me with Your power; in time of trouble be my answer, that those who love You may rejoice (based on B’rachot 18a).

As for the rest of us, maybe we could take another look at Psalm 34:15, also found in the liturgy:

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

Look at it this way: For those who might have been looking for a good reason to fast and reflect this coming Wednesday night and Thursday for Tisha B'Av, we now have one!

Ask the Rabbi: Saying Kaddish following an Abortion

Here's a very difficult question posed to me as part of the "Ask the Rabbi" series.

Ask the Rabbi: Does One Say Kaddish After An Abortion?

Q: Dear Rabbi, I come to you because I have been uncomfortable contacting the rabbis in my life about this. My girlfriend is planning to have an abortion. I have read extensively the halacha and ethical scholarship and I support her. It is not easy for me but I love her and respect her choice. I am wondering if there is something I can do after, particularly does one say kaddish for a period?

Thank you... read more


A couple days ago a young man contacted me with a difficult question. His girlfriend will soon have an abortion and he wanted to know: should he say kaddish for their unborn child? He requested a Conservative Rabbi's opinion so I forwarded the question to Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, whose answer is below. Both the question and answer are shared with the permission of the young man, so that anyone else going through a situation like this may benefit from the exchange.

As always, please treat "Ask the Rabbi" posts with sensitivity and remember that they involve real people dealing with difficult situations.

Q: Dear Rabbi,I come to you because I have been uncomfortable contacting the rabbis in my life about this. My girlfriend is planning to have an abortion. I have read extensively the halacha and ethical scholarship and I support her. It is not easy for me but I love her and respect her choice. I am wondering if there is something I can do after, particularly does one say kaddish for a period? Thank you.

A: I know this must have been an excruciating decision for you and your girlfriend. While there is undoubtedly much grieving at a time like this, one does not mourn in this case as one would for a person who was born. Just as with a miscarriage, the fetus is not yet considered fully human in halachic terms, which is why, in fact Jewish law would never consider abortion to be murder. Jewish law indeed sees the fetus as a life, but not as a fully developed human life until it is born (or in the process of being born). This, in turn, is why I personally have an issue with those who wish to overturn Roe v. Wade. To impose on us all another religion's vision of when human life begins would dissolve that precious line separating church from state.

This is not to say that it would be wrong to say the Kaddish, if it can help you to deal with this loss. It just is not something you would be obligated to do. In fact I've done memorial events for still births and late-term miscarriages that have been very meaningful for the parents. But there is no official mourning period, no
shiva, no yahrzeit, etc.

I've seen some sensitive contemporary prayers to be recited by a parent (typically the mother) following or preceding an abortion or miscarriage, which you may find appropriate. See, for instance, this abortion ritual from Ritual Well and this act of dedication prior to a therapeutic abortion. Also see this miscarriage ceremony.

If you are more kabbalistically inclined, you might want to look at the "Tikkun Klali," the Ten Healing Psalms of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav," which are explained here. Psalms are considered to have special healing power, simply because they record the pleas of human beings in distress, helping us to connect at a time of need.

Finally, please note that I do not have enough information to make a recommendation from a Jewish perspective regarding the abortion itself. Suffice to say that while Judaism does not see it as murder, neither does it simply endorse abortion-on-demand. The most glaring generalization one can make is that the health of the mother takes precedence over that of the unborn child. But it is a very complicated question - and one that you are not asking me. Nor am I passing judgment in any sense regarding a situation that is so painful for you both.

My best wishes to you and your girlfriend.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Monday, July 20, 2009

Controversial Commercial in Israel

Watch the new commercial below from Celcom, an Israeli cell phone company, and then read the commentary of (and TBE's) Ariela Pelaia to see why it is so controversial and what the main parties are saying. It reminds me of last year's Celcom commercial that tried to bridge the divide between religious and secular in Israel using the vehicle of a prayer turned pop song, Oseh Shalom. You can see that one here. In both cases, I think the commercials are more helpful than harmful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Welcome To The Neighborhood, Jerry Springer (The Jewish Week 7/15/09)

By Joshua Hammerman

OK, say you’re a rabbi and Jerry Springer sets up shop in your backyard, moving from Chicago and schlepping his unruly entourage with him. Then he brings along Maury Povich, whose followers aren’t much better. Oh, and Steve Wilkos, too, Jerry’s former security guard, whose show recently featured the compelling topic, “Teen Girls in Jail.” They’re all moving to Stamford, my town, a place that already has gained a reputation for erratic behavior as the home of professional wrestling, chimps gone wild and Joe Lieberman.

So when fellow Jews Jerry and Maury come around for High Holy Days tickets, do you roll out the red carpet? Do you say, “And bring your lovely deviants too, like the guests featured recently in, “I Have a Latin Lover” and “Sex for Diapers,” or the teenager who claimed that he was influenced by a Springer episode on incest to molest his half-sister?

Springer’s program, which once topped TV Guide’s list for “The Worst TV Shows Ever,” is so lacking in redeeming value that the star himself admitted to Reuters, “I would never watch my show. I’m not interested in it. It’s not aimed towards me. This is just a silly show.”

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Thanks to NBC Universal and some serious tax breaks offered by the state of Connecticut, so many TV and movie productions are streaming to these parts that Stamford is beginning to look like beautiful downtown Burbank. The movie trucks are lining up at the Greenwich border, along with Powerball players, same-sex couples and New Yorkers looking for a state government that actually functions. We’re thrilled to have them all.

But this is different. Jerry Nation will now be taking over the Rich Forum, a glittering arts center that used to be known for highbrow theater, right smack in the heart of a county known for its demure upper crustiness. Stephen Colbert mused that the combination can’t possibly work out. “I want to see people in Spandex punching each other out,” he mused, “rather than having people in v-neck sweaters excluding each other from guest lists!” Predictably, elected officials are overjoyed and religious leaders less so. The tapings will take place next to one of the region’s most venerable Catholic churches. “I’m not very thrilled about it,” said the pastor, Stephen DiGiovanni.

So what does all this have to do with the Jews?

Some would claim that Jews are disproportionately represented among rabble-rousers. That category, loosely constructed, includes union activists, politicians, journalists and lawyers, all very “Jewish” professions. But I’m talking about the real rousers, people with the rare combination of charisma, sarcasm and political savvy — people like Lenny Bruce, Harvey Milk, Bella Abzug and shock jocks like Stern and, yes, Jerry Springer. The Torah calls the rabble afasfsoof, an alliterative expansion of the word for “gathering,” suggesting an arena full of unhappy hockey fans. Demagogues like Korach manipulate the mob, while organizers like Moses channel their anger and craving into constructive, world-repairing activity. That’s where Bella and Harvey succeeded, and where Jerry continues to fail.

But why give up hope? Jerry, former mayor of Cincinnati, clearly has a talent for leadership. He might be one good High Holy Days sermon away from tossing off all that craziness and channeling that asafsoof anger into the kind of compassion that could make miracles happen. Imagine all those Springer fans leaving the studio and heading for their pickups, but instead of hopping back onto I-95, they cruise on over to the local food pantry to stock the shelves.

Imagine how much good Jerry could do.

What rabbi wouldn’t want to take that challenge on? Here’s a man whose parents fled Nazi Germany for England only a few weeks before Hitler invaded Poland (eventually settling in Queens in 1949), a man who lost 27 relatives in the Holocaust. “My parents instilled in us the idea that life is a gift,” he recently told the Daily Mail.

I can work with this guy! But in Fairfield County?

Springer’s Jewishness should be immaterial, but older people who grew up here still have vivid memories of closed country clubs and restricted real estate. It’s been a half-century since Gregory Peck’s character experienced the anti-Semitic snobbery of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” but some are still uneasy. In addition, the Madoff scandal has hit disproportionately hard, town budgets have been massacred and hedge funds — many with Jewish names on the letterhead — are reeling.

Last month, the local newspaper ran a headline story about a bat mitzvah party run amok in Norwalk, with oral sex in the bathrooms and a historic mansion trashed. Many Jews reacted angrily, correctly noting that there was no need to label this sordid celebration in religious terms, nor did it belong on the front page to begin with. It hit the shanda nerve, and the vehemence of the outcry told me that there is still a tinge of uneasiness among Jews on the Gold Coast.

I’ve lived here two decades and love it. I was president of our interfaith council, presiding over the most established churches of New Canaan, Greenwich and Darien, and never once have I felt unwelcome at civic events or houses of worship. The Jewish population has boomed in formerly Judenrein neighborhoods of Westport and Greenwich. But still, some are worried about what “they” think.

And into all this storms the “King of Sleaze.” At least crazed chimps and professional wrestlers are typically not Jewish (with the notable exceptions of Kane, Goldberg and Randy “Macho Man” Savage). But the man from Chicago, the producer of “I Married My Horse” and “I Refuse to Wear Clothes,” most definitely is.

Jerry’s Web site is now casting for future shows, asking: “Did you get two women pregnant?” “Are you a transsexual who has a story to tell?” “Is your marriage falling apart because of cheating?”

So, would you give the guy an aliyah?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bruno's Top Five Jewish Moments

I haven't seen the latest Sacha Baron Cohen shock-flick "Bruno," but here are Bruno's Top Five Jewish Moments" as reported by the LA Jewish Journal. In one of them: Bruno conducts dialogues between Israeli and Arab leaders, including an ex-Mossad chief and a Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem. Alas, he confuses the word “hummus” with “Hamas.”

Also see, again from the Jewish Journal, "Is Bruno Homophobic?" and Bruno and the Jews.

Sounds like he ran out of jokes toward the end of "Borat." I did like "Borat," however, particularly the way he used Hebrew as his pretend version of the Kazakh language.

Ask the Rabbi: Judaism and Cremation

Ariela Pelaia, our new Programming Director, also serves as the Judaism Guide for Read her bio here. I appreciate her asking me to assist on one aspect of this project, a new "Ask the Rabbi" feature that she has started. The first question asked me was no softball toss, but one of the more difficult questions a rabbi can face: that of Judaism's view on cremation. And it was not asked merely as an academic exercise, but by a couple in serious distress. Check to see my response and to take a look at some of the great work Ariela has done on this very popular site.

Bone Marrow Registration Drive a Huge Success

We can't call it a happy ending yet - but what a nice happy "middle." A few weeks ago, we participated in a call for bone marrow registration for the close relative of a congregant. Below are the exciting results. I am personally grateful to all of you who responded to this plea. I've long felt that the Internet can be a tool not only for good but for godliness. This is the kind of news that proves that very point. Thank you all!


Dear Rabbi Hammerman-

We have received great news as you will read in the e-mail I have forwarded from my sister.

I apologize for the delay, but I had been awaiting further medical details which we have subsequently obtained.

While there still may remain additional medical hurdles before getting the final green light regarding the donor status, I thought I would share this now.

Once again, a million thanks for all your have done to help.

Warmest regards,


Dear Friends and Family,

I am delighted and proud to inform you that through your efforts, my stem cell/bone marrow drive was a huge success. A total of 261 people registered between June 8 and June 22. According to The HLA Registry in Oradell, New Jersey, our drive was the most successful virtual drive in the entire Eastern United States and ranked among the top five in the whole country!

Whether you registered personally and/or forwarded the email along to others who registered, please know that through your actions you have potentially saved the life of another human being. I can’t think of another act of kindness more meaningful than that. On behalf of all cancer patients and survivors who need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant to stay alive, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your generosity of spirit.

As for my own status, I am pleased to report that two people in the National Marrow Donor Registry have been identified as perfect matches for me. I am hoping that after additional testing at least one of them will be able to be my donor.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would now forward this email to those to whom you previously forwarded the information about my drive so that they can read about the success of this drive and receive my thanks as well.

With love, gratitude and wishes for a long and healthy life,


G-dcast for Pinchas

Parshat Pinchas from

More Torah cartoons at

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Conversion and Intermarriage: A Nuanced View

The Conservative movement is very good at doing nuance. We are lousy at explaining it.

I'm a great fan of nuance, because very few things in this world are black and white (for more on that, see The Muddle in the Middle). But a nuanced approach often sends mixed signals, and nowhere has that happened more in recent years than with the issue of interfaith families. The movement's position has long been to emphasize "Keruv," as it's called meaning to "draw them near." Outreach. But of late that has been complicated by a USCJ focus on promoting conversion. The two emphases need not be long as the non Jewish family members are welcomed unconditionally under our big tent.

I'd like to think that is the case here - and increasingly so over the past several years.

The Jewish Week just ran a story that has somewhat muddied the waters: Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds.

Below is a response just released today by the leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly. I believe it states well the argument for a nuanced approach leaving the door wide open for conversion - but equally for unconditional acceptance and love.


A Statement by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg

July 9, 2009 (New York, NY) -- Readers of a recent article in the Jewish Week – “Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds” – would conclude that the Conservative movement is currently being torn asunder by two divergent beliefs: that rabbis must aggressively pursue the conversion of non-Jewish spouses; or that all attempts at conversion must be abandoned and interfaith families accepted into Conservative synagogue and communal life without hope of conversion.

In fact, no such controversy exists within the ranks of those who serve on the frontline of involvement with interfaith families and non-Jews within the community – Conservative rabbis.

This false dichotomy does more than misrepresent reality; most regrettably, it shortchanges the nuanced and thoughtfully-crafted approach of Conservative rabbis to what is by now a well established reality in contemporary Jewish life – interfaith families and non-Jews within our synagogues and communities.

Yet, it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.

The Jewish Week article was based on a draft brochure on keruv (outreach), authored by a committee of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. Soon to be made available to Conservative synagogues throughout North America, the brochure is the product of a committee of the LCCJ, chaired by Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Louisville, Kentucky. A joint effort of rabbis and laypeople, it sends an important message of welcome and caring to non-Jews in our communities, while stating that we are also eager to share with them the profound joy and meaning of living a Jewish life within a Jewish community.

Herein lies the cause for confusion and seeming controversy. Instead of promoting an either/or agenda, the Conservative Movement has adopted a mutually inclusive plan of action.

The forthcoming brochure is the product of cooperative and constructive discussions over many months, reflecting the care and thoughtfulness that we wish to take in considering the delicate matters of personal relationships and spiritual life. It articulates the movement’s principles of outreach, underscoring the warm and sincere welcome it extends to people of all faiths and walks of life. The brochure is expected to be endorsed and promoted by all major arms of the Conservative movement.

Judaism has historically viewed conversion with some reticence, a position that stems in large part from the perilous circumstances that Jews faced within society. Throughout most of history, to convert someone to Judaism was to expose them to danger and ostracism. These conditions no longer apply and rabbis are able to focus on the myriad gifts of Jewish life and Jewish community, gifts that we enthusiastically share with those who seek to embrace them.

Indeed, our enthusiasm to inspire conversion has been set forth before, most recently in our 2007 rabbinic guide to conversion, Petah haOhel. We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

The Conservative movement, with its unswerving focus on the integrity of Jewish tradition and its persistent commitment to evolve as society evolves, has achieved more conspicuous success in the area of conversion than any other religious stream of Judaism. Currently, Rabbinical Assembly members are running highly successful conversion programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Jacksonville and countless other places in the United States and abroad

As the president and the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, we wish to set the record straight regarding our approach to conversion and outreach. Yes, we have undertaken a paradoxical enterprise but there is no controversy, no rift among our ranks regarding conversion. Speaking on behalf of our 1600 colleagues worldwide, we affirm our belief in the coexistence of keruv and conversion as well as the power of the two to support and enhance the lives of interfaith couples and non-Jews who are such an important part of our communities.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president
The Rabbinical Assembly

Baby Boom in the Promised Land

A few weeks ago, TBE executive director Steve Lander was blessed with a new grandchild in Israel. This week, we've got two more blessed events to note.

Liza Elisha, who was counselor to the kids on some of our recent Israel Family Adventures, and beloved by everyone, had a baby girl last Wednesday. Liza reports that "The delivery of the baby was very hard but the outcome is worth anything. I am recovering these days, at my parents' house. Not easy but so happy!!! I will send some pictures soon..."

Liza can be reached at

And my niece Luz, who you may recall was married last summer, gave birth to a baby boy at Hadassah hospital on Tuesday. It was a difficult delivery but everyone seems to be doing well now. So that makes my sister a proud grandmother, and my mom a great grandmother... but as for "great uncle"... I think I'll just ask the baby to call me "Josh."

And we also had a baby born locally this past week, a son for the UJF's Patty Goldstick.

Mazal tov to all!

Dan Madwed going to the World Championships

Congratulations to Dan Madwed, who has earned a spot on the US Swim Team at the upcoming World Championships! See the race below or click here for video.

Modi'in Continued...A Painful Exchange for the Three Weeks

I received a troubling e-mail response to my posting yesterday regarding the arson attack on a Masorti synagogue in Modi-in. Considering that today is the Fast of Tammuz and the beginning of the three weeks of mourning leading to the fast of the 9th of Av, it was especially timely.

One of the main thrusts of the rabbinic "take" on why the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 ha to do with what the Talmud calls "Sinat Hinam," causeless hatred. See some background here, including the famous story of how Jerusalem fell because of a simple cocktail party invitation snub.

I want to print the e-mail exchange verbatim, because I have no idea where the precise truth lies, but it illustrates just how dangerous infighting can be. I also recognize some of my own culpability here, in jumping to conclusions that may not be accurate.

It is important to state that there is never an excuse for destruction and vandalism, especially of a synagogue - just yesterday there was a report of swastikas spray-painted at a Chabad synagogue on Long Island, and that is also reprehensible. But it reminds me of the time when we found swastikas here (see My Dance with Amalek) and after months of firey rhetoric about the dangers of anti-Semitism, it turned out that the vandalism was perpetrated by someone who was Jewish. We are always so quick to condemn the Other, especially where it is politically expedient, when sometimes what we need to do most is look into the mirror.

So here is the exchange, with permission of the e-mailer, slightly edited for space and flow:

Hi, Rabbi Hammerman.

I'm writing because of the posting that you wrote about the Masorti synagogue in Modi'in. I live in Modi'in, and attend an independent, egalitarian minyan that broke off several years ago from Yedid Nefesh. Our two minyanim are often at odds with one another, so you're welcome to dismiss what I'm about to say. It pains me to have to write this, because I'm a former member of the board of the Masorti movement, and share many of the movement's goals. But in this particular case, I think that the movement has gone way overboard in its PR campaign, and has misled many people regarding what happened here.

I was horrified to hear about the fire at Yedid Nefesh several days ago, and joined in the condemnation against those who did this act. But the more that I have looked into the issue, the more obvious it becomes that this was not an act of religious or political violence against a Masorti synagogue, but rather the sort of (admittedly terrible) teenage vandalism that we have grown used to in Modi'in, and which happens to public buildings all of the time.

For example, my daughters' school has a wonderful nature program, with a greenhouse, large outdoor garden, and composting. I should say "had" a wonderful program, because about 2-3 months ago, someone climbed the 2-meter fence in the middle of the night, smashed the greenhouse and tore up the garden. My daughters were devastated, the school was horrified, and everyone who knew about the nature program was up at arms. Even though the perpetrators weren't caught, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was teenagers in Modi'in, because they are known to do this. From everything I understand, the police arrived at Yedid Nefesh, found that the welcome mat had been burned by some cigarettes, and that as a result of this fire, some plants had been damaged, as well. It was not arson in even the simplest of senses; there was neither kerosene nor lighter fluid, nor an attempt to enter, nor an attempt to break windows or doors, nor a note, nor anything that would be indicative of someone's malicious intent toward the synagogue. If I were personally interested in causing damage to the synagogue, I could think of dozens of ways to do it that would be more effective than what was done here.In other words, there is ample precedent for simple, random, teenage destruction of public property in Modi'in. And the fire at the synagogue building showed all of the signs of being another such incident. The local newspapers have refused to cover the story, because reporters examined the evidence along with the police, and found that there wasn't anything to report. This week's "Modi'in News" doesn't have a story about the Masorti fire, but it does have a full-page story about some destruction that teenagers did in the Reut section of Modi'in.

Now, the members of Yedid Nefesh claim that they are hated by the community, that there has been at least one problem in the past with haredim (which is true), and that a sign announcing the synagogue's affiliation with Masorti had just been put up. My experience is that almost no Israelis know what the Masorti movement is, let alone care about its symbol being displayed on a small building. My minyan (which again, broke off from Yedid Nefesh several years ago, and which is growing far faster than Yedid Nefesh, without any movement affiliation) has received nothing but the best of help from the municipality, including a building into which we'll be moving shortly. If there is hatred or animosity in the community, then I'm not aware of it; on the contrary, we have been treated in the same way as Orthodox minyanim by the people in charge of assigning buildings and rooms to minyanim in need of them.To lump this week's fire with the (very real) attacks in Ramot several years ago, or with Kristallnacht, would seem to be an extreme exaggeration. I am extremely upset to find Masorti jumping to conclusions, and sending out a letter asking for donations, when there are so many real problems for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel that should be taken care of. I don't think that Masorti officials are purposely lying, but I do think that they tend to believe that the entire State of Israel is against them, when the fact is that the State of Israel generally ignores them, given their extremely small size and negligible influence.I'm quite worried that by crying "wolf!" in this case, the people at Yedid Nefesh and Masorti are ensuring that any real threats or problems in the future will be ignored.

I'm not asking you to lessen your support of Masorti in any way, although I have become quite critical of its strategies and tactics over the last few years, and remain quite skeptical of the movement's chances for success. And I'm certainly not trying to justify teenage violence; I think that the main outcome of this incident should be greater patrols near public buildings, including synagogues, by the police and the private security company that the municipality has hired. But I am asking you to give the police and other investigators more credit than they have received to date, and to express a bit of skepticism in the face of dire warnings and PR statements.Thanks for taking the time to read this. I'd be happy to chat and/or e-mail with you on this subject at greater length, if you're interested.



You make some interesting points, Reuven. In the interest of giving a fuller picture, I’d be happy to quote you in the blog. Let me know if you would want that, either directly or anonymously. In stating your case, however, what also comes through is that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye between the two congregations, a lot of history and resentment which led to the split. That being the case, since I don’t know the first thing about that history, there is potential for a lot of sinat hinam here (nice timing, this being the 17th of Tammuz) – and the issues are too great, the stakes too high in terms of pluralism in Israel, for such important things to become sidetracked by internal squabbling.

Hi, Rabbi Hammerman. You wrote:

You make some interesting points, Reuven. In the interest of giving a fuller picture, I’d be happy to quote you in the blog. Let me know if you would want that, either directly or anonymously..

Feel free to quote me by name, since I don't believe it'll surprise anyone to hear what I (and many others in Achva) believe. I'm basically saying, "The police don't think that this was an attack, and we should believe them given the context, and thus not rush to make judgments," I don't feel that I have anything to hide.

In stating your case, however, what also comes through is that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye between the two congregations, a lot of history and resentment which led to the split.

The split between YN and Achva happened several years ago, while I was in graduate school in Chicago. So in that sense, I'm a neutral party; I returned to find two congregations where there had once been one, and chose the one to which all of my close friends had migrated. The fact that I'm now a strong believer in independent, lay-led minyanim, and that Achva allowed me to join such a minyan, was icing on the cake. As I wrote before, I am quite skeptical that the Masorti movement's current strategy is a wise one, and lobbied strongly for Achva not to join Masorti when it came up for a vote several months ago. Three or four years after the split, there remains a great deal of resentment, anger, and animosity on both sides. I know that many Achva members completely distrust members of Yedid Nefesh, and are adamantly opposed to even forming an official non-profit organization for Achva, given their bad experiences with parliamentary procedure at Yedid Nefesh meetings. Yedid Nefesh members, by contrast, seem quite upset to have lost the majority of their active membership, and see us as petty and spiteful. I do know that on at least one occasion, a Yedid Nefesh member joined our (Achva) internal e-mail list under an assumed name, presumably in order to learn what we were saying -- which isn't all that interesting, I assure you!

From my perspective, I think that it's a great thing that Modi'in has multiple traditional-egalitarian minyanim, and would like to see many more such minyanim flourishing, here and in other cities, regardless of their official affiliation. I think that the only way religious pluralism will make inroads into Israeli society is by being ubiquitous, which requires a dramatic increase in the number of minyanim, as well as a reduction in the dependence on rabbis and foreign fund-raising.

That being the case, since I don’t know the first thing about that history, there is potential for a lot of sinat hinam here (nice timing, this being the 17th of Tammuz) – and the issues are too great, the stakes too high in terms of pluralism in Israel, for such important things to become sidetracked by internal squabbling.

I agree that such squabbling is silly at best, and hurtful at worst. But it really pains me to see people make accusations that strike me as baseless, that contradict the police inquiry, and which fly in the face of too many other logical possibilities. If the police determine that this was indeed a religiously motivated attack, then I'll be the first to protest it. But to claim that an attack occurred, when it is far from obvious that this is the case, will eventually hurt the cause of religious pluralism, rather than help it.

By the way, we just got another two weekly local newspapers delivered, of the three we get on our doorstep each week. Two ignored the story entirely, while the third ("Gal Gefen") made it the front-cover story, with extensive quotations from the police and fire department, as well as the municipality, all stating explicitly that they believe the fire was vandalism. In that story, the municipality's spokesman was quoted as saying, in part, that they "utterly reject the attempts of the Conservative movement to present the vandalism of the synagogue building on the corner of Levona and Almogan as if it were attempted arson." The local police chief, meanwhile, was quoted as saying, "The Conservative movement is trying to present things as if there were an attempt to set fire to the synagogue building, to advance internal movement goals, but the reality is quite different."


Where does the truth lie? Who knows. But the end result in the year 70 was not a good one for the Jewish people. Let's hope we can all learn from the mistakes of the past.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Arson scorches Modi'in synagogue entrance

Read this Jerusalem Post article to see how a Masorti synagogue was attacked last week in Modi'in, a new bedroom community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is a crushing irony that in the birthplace of the Maccabees, some vandal decided to attack the very idea of freedom of religious expression itself. Police did not suspect the attack was religiously motivated, which is very interesting, considering that the fire came 10 days after a sign identifying the synagogue as part of the Masorti movement was affixed to the building. Also, this happened fresh on the heels of major court rulings supporting the liberal streams and a year after Modi'in became the first municipality to allocate land for non-Orthodox synagogues.

As reports, several years back, the windows of another Masorti synagogue in Beer Sheva were smashed. A little over a year before, the kindergarten of a Reform congregation in Meveseret Zion was destroyed. The fire at Kehillat Ya'ar Ramot was started when vandals threw burning rags through windows that they smashed. The fire destroyed several prayerbooks and Pentateuchs and caused extensive smoke and other damage. Fortunately however, the synagogue's three Torah scrolls were unharmed.

Rabbi Richard A. Block, President of The World Union for Progressive Judaism, stated back then that "The World Union condemns the cowardly and despicable act of arson committed last night against Kehillat Ya'ar Ramot.... Such a crime would be shocking and intolerable anywhere in the world. How much the more so in a Jewish state. Such attacks do not occur in a vacuum. As Israel's recent past demonstrates, to our boundless sorrow, vile and violent language, whether directed at individuals or at groups inevitably leads to vile and violent deeds. '

The Modi'in info blog says that the congregation will hold a pre-Shabbat solidarity vigil to affirm its commitment to tolerance and religious pluralism, and against violence, which some have construed as an indication that the synagogue administration does not believe the arson to be random.

Here is a communication sent by the Masorti leadership.

It is with great sorrow that we share with you that last night there was an arson attempt on the Masorti congregation, Yedid Nefesh, in Modiin. The unidentified perpetrators set fire to the entryway – causing its destruction. The metal doors prevented the fire from destroying the main structure. Congregation Yedid Nefesh, established over five years ago, moved into its own building just last year. It was one of the very few structures provided by the State for a non-Orthodox congregation. It was only ten days ago that a sign was erected identifying the congregation as part of the Masorti Movement. We join together in our support of Yedid Nefesh and its members. We shall provide for any resources they request. See for contact information.

Yizhar Hess Mankal, Masorti Movement in Israel

Imagine - all the horrors of Kristallnacht, in our very own state! Who needs the KKK when we have Jews who hate other Jews every bit as much. When Herzl envisioned a Zionist state with Jewish street cleaners, thieves and prostitutes, I don't imagine he had this in mind: Jewish arsonists who hate other Jews so much that they would burn down their synagogues.

Maybe the police are right and this is not a hate crime. But more likely they are part of the cover up. Would they be so quick to do that if an Arab were suspected? If that would be called terrorism, why not this?

Those who perpetrated this act of cowardice and hatred - and ALL those who enable them through their apathy, enmity and political sleaziness - should be ashamed.

Our sympathies go out to our cousins in Modi'in.

A Jewish Olympics

The 18th Maccabiah begins on July 12 (see the promotional video below). The idea of a worldwide "Jewish Olympics" predates even the birth of Israel going back to 1932. It is held quadrennially and has included many future Olympians, like Mark Spitz and Yael Arad.

This year's event will draw more than 5,300 athletes from around the world, and a couple of thousand from Israel, according to organizers. In recent games, we've seen a number of our own congregants taking part, including Brian Kriftcher and Rob Zabronsky (who are going this year), Daniel Madwed and Larry Holzman..

Israel 21c reports: Swimming, basketball, soccer - with 184 games of soccer scheduled - will be the most popular events, and would you believe it, the Maccabiah Games will also include a chess tournament, a highlight of the event. Michaeli was unfazed when asked why there is a chess tournament in a sporting event. "Chess? We don't have only Olympic [sports], we have chess and bowling and other events," he says. A nice angle of the games is that the Israeli participants also include Israeli Arab citizens - both Muslim and Christian. In the swimming team, for instance, Israeli Arab Dea Mafroua is participating in the breaststroke competition.

The Maccabiah official website features full schedules and video highlights.

As a long-time Maccabiah watcher (I attended the opening ceremonies in 1973), I've always loved the idea of a Jewish Olympics. It might seem anachronistic now, but in 1932, with fascism on the rise and anti-Semitism a worldwide pandemic (even in the US), the Zionist movement sought to remake the image of the Jew. No longer the eternal victim having sand kicked in his face or his beard pulled, the Jew was now an athlete, a farmer, a fighter. No longer the eternal wanderer, the Jew was, at long last, home.

Read this account of the first Maccabiah in 1932 to understand the great pride Jews felt in being able to shed that old image and burst forth onto the world stage in their new, futuristic city of Tel Aviv. The Maccabiah was Herzl's vision come to fruition. "Everyone felt the surge of Jewish history in these Games, from the 1800th anniversary of Bar Kochba’s revolt against the Romans to the 50th anniversary of the Zionist aliya to Eretz Yisrael of the Biluim, the Old and the New combining through the modern Maccabees into Herzl’s Jewish State in-the-making."

And today, we have a plethora of Jewish athletic role models for our kids. Now the question isn't simply how can we instill Jewish pride in our children, but how can we fill them with Jewish values. It's not enough that Jews can run faster and jump higher, we also need to be kinder, more visionary, more compassionate. If there were an ethical Olympics, I would hope we could sweep all the golds - and then donate them to those in need.

Still, I love the Maccabiah and can't wait for the opening ceremonies on July 13. Live broadcasts will available on the Maccabiah website and on JLTV (which is an interesting site to explore in its own right).

And by the way, although it is not connected to the Maccabiah, the JCC Maccabi games are always fun, and this year's will be in our own backyard, in Westchester. Read about it at

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Swine

Swine Flu may be off the front pages, but it is on the front burner of conversation at camps everwhere - even kosher ones! When we dropped Dan off at Camp Ramah in New England two weeks ago, we were greeted by a nurse at the gate, who calmly walked over to our car and took everyone's temperature.

Everyone. The parents too. Just walked over, said shalom and stuck a thermometer in my ear.

The world has gone germ crazy. I've written about the impact of Purell on our culture (Losing Touch with Touching) and how this obsession relates to the purity laws, which are Judaism’s way of acknowledging that fear of the invisible and channeling it into life-affirming action.

Public officials now tell us that advertisers cashing in on a newly germ-phobic world may be doing more harm than good. The Swine scare is even leading to travel phobia.

I commend my son's camp for taking all precautions. It's the responsible thing to do. But in the end, the germs will always find a way. Despite all best efforts, since camp started, they have had a total of 31 cases, all of them relatively mild. Like Miriam with leprosy, most of them spent the required seven days outside of camp. Most went home to recuperate. By today, 19 of these campers or staff members will have returned to their bunks and the full camp program after having completed their seven days of separation, consistent with CDC protocol and the advice of local health authorities.

The good news: Dan spent the past week on an outward bound expedition, getting drenched to the bone, but far away from other people - and their germs.

And my temperature was normal.

Threat to Pluralistic Education in Israel

The Gafni Bill, a law proposal to require the Israeli government to exclusively fund Haredi schools, passed its first reading in the Knesset last Wednesday. If the bill ultimately passes, then the future of any equality in the Israeli education system is at risk. The Israeli Religious ASction Center's position paper on the law proposal can be seen by clicking here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mazal Tov to CJ - Another Rockower Winner

CJ Wins Two Rockower Awards - CJ: Voices of of Conservative/Masorti Judaism won two American Jewish Press Assocation Rockower Awards. Justice & Judaism: Community Organizing in the Conservative Movement by Daniel May and Peter Drier won second place for excellence in feature writing, and When It Doesn’t Work by Joanne Palmer won first place in the personal essay category.

Both articles are excellent - this excerpt from the first one really points to how congregations need to approach the area of social justice and community service -at a time when there is so much need.

In most synagogues, activism is delegated to a social action committee that picks issues from a menu of social causes. With some exceptions, these become mitzvah projects for the religious school students and bar/bat mitzvah classes.

The community-organizing model inverts this approach. Instead of the issues emerging externally, they surface from within the synagogue. People don’t engage in social action simply as do-gooders, but because they see, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Has Obama Turned Against Israel?

Has Obama Turned Against Israel? Alan Dershowitz thinks not in today's Wall Street Journal. As he writes:

Are these fears justified? Rhetorically, the Obama team has definitely taken a harsher approach toward Israel compared to its tone during the campaign. But has there been a change in substance about Israel's security? In answering this question, it is essential to distinguish between several aspects of American policy.

First there are the settlements. The Bush administration was against expansion of West Bank settlements, but it was willing to accept a "natural growth" exception that implicitly permitted Israel to expand existing settlements in order to accommodate family growth. The Obama administration has so far shut the door on this exception.

I believe there is a logical compromise on settlement growth that has been proposed by Yousef Munayyer, a leader of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League. "Obama should make it clear to the Israelis that settlers should feel free to grow their families as long as their settlements grow vertically, and not horizontally," he wrote last month in the Boston Globe. In other words, build "up" rather than "out." This seems fair to both sides, since it would preserve the status quo for future negotiations that could lead to a demilitarized Palestinian state and Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish one -- results sought by both the Obama administration and Israel.

...with Iran's burgeoning nuclear threat, it's important to be vigilant for any signs of weakening support for Israel's security -- and to criticize forcefully any such change. But getting tough on settlement expansion should not be confused with undercutting Israel's security.

G-dcast for Balak and Storahtelling Commentary

Below is a commentary tying in this week's portion with the sins of Madoff - by Amichai Lau Levi. To see the full commentary, click here.

Balaam’s sin is the hitting of the donkey. In Hebrew, the word for donkey, ‘Hamor,’ is derived from the same root for ‘matter’ or ‘substance’. The great prophet is frustrated by reality and actually hitting the physical dimension of his life. The donkey is an extension of his body – but it is also a symbol for an animated, animalistic being in the world that is connected to life in a profound, sometimes disturbing way. Balaam’s sin is not just the violence – he hurts his loyal, innocent animal– it is the very expression of human short-sightedness. His is the sin of limited, selective vision and misplaced rage – he simply doesn’t see the big picture.

It turns out OK. He opens his mouth, much like his donkey does, and blessings emerge, including ‘how fine are your tents O children of Jacob’ – the poetry of a pagan prophet that made it into scripture and Jewish liturgy. But even though he gets the credit for philo-semitic sentiments – his earlier sins are not forgotten and never quite forgiven. A few weeks from now, the Torah will describe the big battle between Israel and Midyan – Balaam, enemy of Israel, will be among the slain.

So who’s a sinner and what’s a sin? Perhaps limited perspective – the choice of purposefully and selfishly refusing to see the full picture of what one’s life is about and how the actions one chooses influence the lives of others – for better or for worse – perhaps that’s the defining mode of sin – and that’s what makes a sinner.

Bernie will have lots of time to think about this, and other questions of ethical essence. Back from Chicago, packing up the Storahtelling office (we gotta move, thanks Bernie) I am grateful for the opportunity to also consider the ethics of what to do with wrong behaviors and how to deal with or forgive the ones whose sins have hurt the lives of those I love. Hate the sin – not the sinner, I’ve been taught. Mr. Madoff – you’re truly an ass, and quite the sinner but I hope you find some way to do more than say ‘I’m sorry’ to fix what you’ve done. Balaam’s prophecy – ‘this people shall rise like a lion, overcoming woe’ resonates deeply today. We shall overcome.

G-dcast for Balak:

Parshat Balak from g-dcast on Vimeo.

Jackson's Jewish Kids

For all the inquiring minds who want to know about the Jewish status of Michael Jackson's kids, this article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal helps to clear things up. What this article doesn't answer is...why we would care.

Even after Jackson’s death, the Jewish angle has been resurrected with speculation on whether custody of his two older children (and of the estate they will inherit) will go to the pop star’s parents or the kids’ Jewish mother.
She is Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s former nurse, his wife for three years and biological mother of 12-year old Prince Michael I and Paris Michael Katherine, 11, who under Jewish law are also considered Jewish.
A third child, Prince Michael II, was born of a surrogate mother, whose identity has not been revealed.

A Dog's Letters to God

In honor of this week's portion of Balak, featuring the most famous talking donkey this side of Shrek, I include here "A Dog's Letters to God." The origin is unknown, as I've seen various versions of this online (e.g. here)

I dedicate this to my own faithful pooches, Crosby (pictured below) and Chloe (above).

Dear God,
How come people love to smell flowers, but seldom, if ever, smell one another? Where are their priorities?

Dear God,
When we get to Heaven, can we sit on your couch? Or is it the same old story?

Dear God,
Excuse me, but why are there cars named after the jaguar, the cougar, the mustang, the colt, the stingray, and the rabbit, but not one named for a dog? How often do you see a cougar riding around? We dogs love a nice ride! I know every breed cannot have its own model, but it would be
easy to rename the Chrysler Eagle the Chrysler Beagle! (or the New Yorkie)

Dear God,
If a dog barks his head off in the forest and no human hears him, is he still a bad dog?

Dear God,
When my foster mom's friend comes over to our house, he smells like musk! What's he been rolling around in?

Dear God,
Is it true that in Heaven, dining room tables have on-ramps?

Dear God,
More meatballs, less spaghetti, please.

Dear God,
When we get to the Pearly Gates, do we have to shake hands to get in?

Dear God,
We dogs can understand human verbal instructions, hand signals, whistles, horns, clickers, beepers, scent IDs, electromagnetic energy fields, and Frisbee flight paths. What do humans understand?

Dear God,
Are there dogs on other planets, or are we alone? I have been howling at the moon and stars for a long time, but all I ever hear back is the beagle across the street!

Dear God,
Are there mailmen in Heaven? If there are, will I have to apologize?

Dear God,
Is it true that dogs are not allowed in restaurants because we can't make up our minds what NOT to order? Or is it the carpets again?

Dear God,
When my family eats dinner they always bless their food. But, they never bless mine. So, I've been wagging my tail extra fast when they fill my bowl. Have you noticed MY blessing?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Celebrating July Fourth, Jewishly

Interesting column in the Forward this week, A Fourth of Jew-ly Celebration, in which the writer shows a Jewish connection to the events of 1776.

But I've always been more intrigued with connections that can be made now. For instance, we had a halachic debate at minyan the other day as to whether morning minyan should take place at the usual time of 7:30 on Friday this week, or at the designated holiday time of 9 AM. Friday is July 3, but it has been declared a day off for many workers. So we made a few calls to our Friday regulars and it was decided that most preferred the regular weekday start time.

Such is the confusion when July 4 falls on a non work day - a Saturday. But there are other interesting halachic dilemmas. So, with Independence Day coinciding with our day of Interdependence, Shabbat, I am reprinting here, as a public service, some key halachic opinions from the archives:

This year, Independence Day coincides with Shabbat. I’ve done some research to see what Jewish practices are in order, and came across a little known rabbinic source related to “Ethics of the Fathers,” called “Ethics of the Uncles.” There I found the following, attributed to “Dod Sh’muel,” or “Sam, the Uncle.”


1) We begin the Shabbat with not 2, but 3 candles. The third is to be lit by remote control from a safe vantage point at least 100 feet away.

2) At the Sabbath meal, 2 hallot are served, each with apple pie filling.

3) Cookouts are allowed, as long as the charcoals are lit before sunset and the food is prepared beforehand. In other words, cookouts are not allowed.

4) It is customary to sing Adon Olam to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

5) When reciting the Amida, instead of facing Jerusalem, we face Washington D.C. Or if Joe Lieberman is in town, we simply face him.

6) When walking around with the Torah, it is customary for the cantor and rabbi to do a do-si-do with the president, singing “Turkey in the Straw.”

7) At the beginning of the Torah reading, the Gabbai (sexton) shouts, “Play Ball” and the reader takes the yad (pointer) and tries to knock a knish out of the park.

8) The popular Shabbat afternoon dish known as cholent, featuring simmering vegetables and chunks of meat, is pureed so that all the items blend together and then simmered in a melting pot.

9) NASCAR runs the “Shabbat 500.” Precisely at sundown, all the drivers get out of their cars and run for the finish line.

10) Finally, for one day of the year, Lubavitch Hasidim replace their furry streumels with red and white striped top hats, and then go around to Jews imploring, “We want YOU.”

Website of the Week: Jewish Treats

The National Jewish Outreach Program, the people who give us Shabbat Across America, has introduced a new daily e-mail called Jewish Treats - Juicy Bits of Judaism Daily. Each Treat includes a Jewish thought, an "action" for the day and the Shema as a brief daily prayer, all of which provide new insights into our Jewish heritage.

Check out these samples:
Sample Treat 1
Sample Treat 2
Sample Treat 3