Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The More Things Change...

“Change is as inexorable as time, yet nothing meets with more resistance." - Benjamin Disraeli

A new decade?

Didn’t we just begin the new century?

Yes, I know that the century did not begin technically in 2000 but in 2001, so the new decade really will begin NEXT year, but that really doesn’t help us feel any younger. Well, at least we now have a decade that we can name. The “teens” sounds much cleaner than the “aughts.”
How much has changed over the past decade or two? Plenty.

One day last fall, Ethan called us on his cell phone from school. He was walking downtown and asked for directions to the Providence train station, which I gladly gave him. A few minutes later he called to let us know that the station I led him to had closed down… twenty years ago!

So much for my being his personal GPS.

I ran to the computer and gave him directions to the “new” station, which fortunately was just a few blocks away.

Just as I’ve come to rediscover that city, I’ve also become more aware of the dramatic changes that have taken place here in Stamford over these past twenty years. While there are legitimate reasons for natives to bemoan the passing of the “old days,” when everyone in the Jewish community knew everyone (and seemingly was related to everyone too), for we non-lifers, those who arrived post urban renewal, this city is a much more pleasant place now than it was when we arrived. Restaurants are filled late into the night downtown, a downtown UConn provides a touch of academia, and the city is sprinkled with new parks, schools and entertainment options (yes, even Jerry Springer).

I’ve seen some positive changes in the Jewish community too. More educational opportunities (the Bureau of Jewish Education), kashrut options (despite no butcher), a greater respect for pluralism and diversity (WFHA and the new pluralistic Jewish High School), and synagogues that offer a greater variety of spiritual options. For the most part, we all get along better than 20 years ago, when the board of rabbis was still in its infancy and joint communal projects were at a minimum.

Faith communities need to adapt to survive, and these are dramatically changing times. Consequently, Beth El has, of course, changed too. I’d like to think we’ve stayed ahead of the curve, but that’s for others to judge. There is no doubt that we are a very different place from the one we were in the mid ‘80s.

The key to change with religious institutions is to make it seem like nothing is changing at all, when in fact almost everything is. So the words of Torah are unchanging – and even its form, a scroll, didn’t change when the printed page came into fashion. The prayers are, for the most part, the same prayers that Jews prayed many centuries ago, and in the same language too. That is a source of great strength and rootedness.

But everything else has changed. As our Mitzvah Initiative class is discovering, even mitzvot have changed, and they continue to change as they are filtered through the experience of every individual Jew, in every generation. The Passover Seder still has the same words, but when I was growing up we didn’t know from plastic frogs and vegetarian shank bones. The Holocaust and establishment of Israel completely transformed the meaning of our observances and celebrations a generation ago, as have feminism, environmentalism and increased assimilation.

These changes are reflected in a new machzor that is being published by the Conservative movement this spring. There is no doubt that we need it (our current machzor predates the creation of Israel) and we will undoubtedly be purchasing it soon. Our board will be discussing it within the coming weeks. If you have an interest in dedicating a number of those new books, please let me know. You can view sample pages online at http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/Sample.html

So as we confront a new decade, we need to embrace change, which, ironically, is one of the great constants of life. The way things stay the same…is through the fact that they are constantly changing. Change is the greatest non-variable of our lives.

And just as everything changes around us, so do we – and so should we. We must continually be open to new ways we can find meaning in the context of our Jewish traditions and values. They are our anchor that helps maintain stability, even as the boat continues to change position with the rising and ebbing tides.

The more things change….the more they change… and the more we change too.

I would want it no other way.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sarah Lederman on Mikketz

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

This morning I’d like to tell you about a people who fought off their oppressors to gain freedom after a lengthy struggle, only to finally emerge victorious but battered. When they won, one of the first major events that happened was an important miracle, unlike anything they had seen before. They returned to their main temple and listened to their spiritual leader – then they cleaned up the place that that had been hit hardest by the occupation.

Of you’ve guessed what I’m talking about. No, it’s not the Maccabees and the Hanukkah story.
It’s “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

My mom introduced me to “Star Trek” when I was seven years old, with “The Next Generation,” and I’ve loved it ever since. How much do I love it? Everyone knows that Tribbles are giant fur balls that eat everything, breed and annoy Klingons. But did you know that the Klingon armada obliterated the Tribble home world? Or that even shape-shifting aliens, called Changelings are easily wooed by those furry creatures. If you’ve never seen a Tribble, I brought one in.

Star Trek DS9 and the Hanukkah story have a lot of similarities. For example: they both have villains that oppress a people, resistance fighters who opposed them, and in both cases the resistance wins and that victory is followed by a miracle. In the case of Star Trek, that miracle is the arrival of the emissary of the prophets and the discovery of the celestial temple, the home of the Bajoran gods.

As with Hanukkah, the weak defeated the mighty. A small Shakaar resistance cell, which
included Kira Nerys, a Judah Maccabee – like figure if there ever was one, did whatever it took to get rid of the Cardassians, who wanted to destroy their way of life – and actually did destroy it. When the war was won, they were able to restore some of their ancient glory. They did this in the same that Jews rebuild communities today – with the help of the Federation.

One of the ancient practices that they brought back was a month-long fast called the Time of Cleansing, in which they cleansed themselves of sins in a way very similar to Yom Kippur. Their services, held every day, included special prayers to the prophets, asking for forgiveness.

They even have rabbis, called Vedeks, who lead the services, meditate and study the visions of the prophets and their interpretations. People come to the Vedeks to ask advice or seek blessings. They do not have any dietary laws, as they often had no food and had to eat whatever they could find.

However, they have something like bar or bat mitzvah. As children, they begin to wear special earrings that contain the crest of their family. They are passed down from generation to generation.

And to mourn the death of a loved one, they even have something like a yahrzeit candle, called duranja.

Of course there has to be a villain to this story. In this case, his name is not Antiochus, but Gul Dukat. He was the head of the occupation during its final years. Like Korach, who battled Moses in the wilderness and was swallowed up by the earth, Dukat eventually met his end when he was thrust into a giant pit of flames.

As you can see, the faith of the Bajorans is truly what holds them together especially during the long occupation. Without their faith, they would have given up a long time ago, and their culture would have been lost. As Kira said, “That’s the thing about faith. If you don’t have it you can’t understand it. And if you do, no explanation is necessary.”

I feel the same way about being a Jew. As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope that I will be as secure in my faith as Kira is in hers. One way that I can do that is through service to others. For my mitzvah project, I did a series of bake sales to raise money and awareness for Heifer International. Heifer International is an organization that makes families that can not support themselves self-sufficient, by giving the families animals, like cows, that they then take a product from, such as milk, and the family uses some to feed themselves, and they sell the rest. When the animals have babies, the family has to give some of the offspring to another family that needs them. The new family is taught how to take care of the animals, and they promise to pass on the gift to another person.

I hope you can see how fitting it is for me to support an organization that works to end hunger, when my portion is about how Joseph prevented starvation during a famine. And how did that all happen? It all began with Pharaoh’s dreams about skinny cows and fat cows. It all begins with heifers, but heifer International doesn’t just do cows. It also provides families with goats, sheep, chickens, llamas, alpacas, honeybees, water buffalos, ducks, rabbits, geese, and, if I could say it in a synagogue, pigs.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Senator Lieberman and the Mayan Calendar: A Final Appeal

Now I'm concerned.

I'm concerned because my beloved junior senator has become both a laughing stock and the target of barbs that border on anti-Semitic. He's been called, among other things, "the most hated man in Washington," "a vampire disguised as a moose," and "responsible for everything evil in that's happened in the world since 1999." Even his wife Hadassah has been attacked. It has gone way too far.

So many of us considered this favorite son of Stamford a modern Jewish Maccabee, a latter-day Herzl, unafraid to play the political game, a Brandeis with hashgacha. His moral courage and independent spirit carried on the tradition of his (Republican) predecessor, Lowell Weicker. I will always admire his accomplishments, his Jewish pride, his devotion to his family and in particular love he showed for his beloved mother, whom I also admired greatly.

While I support the outline of the health care bill making its way through Congress, my feelings regarding the so called public option have been somewhat more tepid. So I appreciated Lieberman's desire to stand tall against the pressure to conform automatically to the dictates of the majority. Mavericks do that.

But the time for acting Mavericky ended with the successful launching of an upgraded Iranian missile this week. Perhaps not coincidentally, a new missile was also launched from Gaza into Sderot.

Joe - are you listening? An Upgraded Iranian Missile was fired - and you've been fiddling while those engines burned. You've been fiddling, and so has the rest of Congress, in no small part because of you. Everything we are reading about Iran is telling us that zero-hour is fast approaching.

Much of the Health Care debate has been foolishly apocalyptic in nature. Here's some breaking news: the world as we know it will not cease to exist if a bill is passed. If the bill is not perfect, and it won't be, it can be tinkered with over the coming years.

Iranian missiles, however, are not tinker toys. Zero hour is fast approaching. Want to get apocalyptic, Congress? Get apocalyptic about that!

Yesterday the House passed a toothy sanctions bill, 412-12. The Senate will not take the matter up until January, supposedly delaying at the behest of the Obama Administration, which is seeking to build an international consensus. But we all know the true reason why the Senate is dawdling. How do you say "filibuster" in Persian? Here I disagree with the Administration. If you want to show the Europeans, Chinese and Russians that we are dead serious about sanctions, we don't hold off on a vote until the eggnog is gone and the ball has dropped. How could any self respecting Senator go on vacation with this kind of urgent business unfilled? Since when do we put "prevent apocalypse" on a new year's to-do list, right next to "avoid sweets" and "exercise more?"

This week at Beth El, we started to figure out our Bar Mitzvah schedule for 2012. Someone asked me if we've taken the Mayan calendar into account - you know, those claims, now enshrined by Hollywood, that the world will come to an end on the 5th night of Hanukkah (Dec. 12). That's 12/12/12.

I suppose we'll front load on the presents that year.

But 2012 is a long time off, and that's about when we'll feel some of the impact of the Health Care bill. Israel and Europe might well feel the impact of Iranian missiles much sooner.

Like in a matter of weeks.

It would be foolish to blame Joe Lieberman for Iranian nuclear ambitions, but if it turns out that the last chance to apply crippling sanctions went by the boards because Congress was tied up in Health Care right up until its year end recess, Lieberman will join many others in wearing an albatross of shame. He will be seen by many as a prime reason why the Senate took it's eye off the Iranian ball at the worst possible time.

There are three filibustering parties ruling the day right now in the midst of critical negotiations: Ahmadinijad, the Republicans and Joe Lieberman.

Fiddle-bustering is more like it.

It's time to put the fiddle down, Joe, and let a final Health Care vote happen.

Those Iranian thrusters are burning.

The Spirit of Hanukkah at TBE

Click on the image above to enlarge - taken from last Sunday's Hanukkah Celebration. Check our website (www.tbe.org) for lots more photos from our that event, our Ellis Island trip plus
much more!

Mitzvah Initiative: from the Jewish Ledger

My comments regarding the Mitzvah Initiative, along with others, appeared in this week's Jewish Ledger. Join us on Sunday at 9:30 for our second session! Walk-ins are more than welcome!

Four Conservative synagogues in Connecticut are exploring the deeper meaning of the concept of 'mitzvah,' as part of an innovative program introduced by Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary called "The Mitzvah Initiative.

Read more at http://www.jewishledger.com/

Hanukkah and Home

A lovely set of meditations for the Hanukkah candle lighting, written by Jerusalem poet Chaya Kaplan-Gafni, can be found here. Her focus is on lighting of the fire in the heart, the hearth, the home of a People.

Here's what she writes for the 7th night:

As you stand lighting at the window, raise your eyes to look outside,

And behold a face before you, some curious passerby

And then realize it is your reflection, in the window glass, your own eyes

What have you seen in the window's mirror; what miracle do you advertise?
The seventh night is dedicated to the window to the world. This is where the strength and purpose that I have nurtured within are celebrated in the sight of others. This is the show of lights that sparkles forth from Self. It is the commandment of Hanukkah to do pirsum hanes — "to advertise the miracle," the miracle that was wrought in history, that is wrought within me.

May my eyes behold the miracles shining forth from each passing soul.And as I gaze into their windows may my own miracle be beheld as I behold.

Hanukkah celebrates the sanctity of home. No other festival is so home-centered. Even Passover and Sukkot, which have extensive rituals done at home (or just outside), also have lengthy communal rituals (i.e. services). Not so for Hanukkah. While the December craziness around us has compelled many Jews to celebrate the miracle in the public square, it is primarily from the window or lintel of the home that the menorah's light needs to shine.

A recent issue of Sh'ma looks closely at the Jewish home, going from room to room and exploring what exactly makes a home Jewish. Even the front porch is discussed:

The front porch is a liminal space — both public and private. It faces the street, making it far more open to the world than a secluded back deck. It also invites visitors into the front hall — the most public of spaces inside the home. Like the chuppah, the porch is covered from above and open on the sides; it protects and welcomes.

Hanukkah candles perform that same function, even when they are not lit near a window. Their glow invites outsiders in, but even more, it invites those inside the home to feel more comfortable sharing that light with those dwelling beyond the walls of the house. We don't need to be lighting at Government Center (which we are doing today) to be proud Jews. That influsion of love and pride can and most properly should begin at the source, where hearth meets heart, at home. We then take that infusion of light and become its vessels, transporting it into the world, wherever it is needed.

We needn't wear our Judaism on the sleeve to be a proud Jew. But we need to cultivate the light in our hearts, and then let it shine. And then, once we have shared that home-grown light with the world, we can return to the hearth, transformed.

As T.S. Eliot wrote,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Every journey, then, is a journey home. On Hanukkah, we set forth on that journey day-by-day, one candle at a time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Twas the 8th Night of Haunukkah

This week I received my annual plea from parents on what to say to a Jewish child who wants a Christmas Tree at home.

I'll begin with a poem....

'Twas the 8th night of Chanukah and all through the shul
Not a word was included of a holiday called Yule
It's not that we're trying to defy old Saint Nick
It's just that it's now time to go and Bensch Lick!

OK, a little poetic license was taken. Bensch Licht, BTW, is Yiddish for lighting Shabbat candles. My point is that we have so much love and warmth and light in our own Jewish rituals that having a Christmas Tree should not be an issue. At least it should not be for the child whose ENTIRE YEAR is filled with those worthy Jewish substitutes. We just need to spread the wealth around. We can't fight this battle in December alone.

Shabbat is a weekly chance to "gather around the tree," albeit a tree of wax, for a moment of reflection and a warm hug. And the day is bookended by candles, with the multi-colored multi-wicked havdalah candle accompanied by sweet smelling spices at the end. Then throw in the Sukkah and the family festivals of Passover and, most fun of all, Purim, and you've got more than enough to compensate for the tree.

We also have Hanukkah, but if we are lining the two holidays up against each other, Hanukkah will never win. So if it's a one-on-one, fahgeddabout it. See this video from the Daily Show if you need more proof. And this week's issue of the New Yorker has some amusing "tips to help the sensitive Christian make everyone, no matter what they’re wearing on their head, feel at ease."

I particularly like #9: Change the words to popular Christmas songs, as in “Frosty the Orthodox Rebbe,” “Deck the Halls with Photos of Your Many Beautiful Grandchildren,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Our Accountant.”

In the end, the Christmas Tree is a religious object, "pure and symbol." (click here to see a terrific comprehensive listing of the Christian symbols involved). Anyone who calls the tree a secular matter is simply, well, barking up the wrong evergreen. Want a secular symbol in your school? Fine. Tell the principal to leave the tree up an extra month and use it to celebrate Tu B'Shevat!

So what is the best response? I've always felt that kids need a firm grounding in one faith and, if that faith is to be Judaism, it is best to keep the tree out of the house. However I see no problem in helping Christians celebrate their holiday in other houses, hospitals or homeless shelters, as my family has done at Pacific House for years.

And then, as much as possible and all year, long, we need to light those Jewish flames. This is especially true in this era of mixed identities and the blurring of lines. For kids, the response is to affirm the values, warmth and joy of our tradition.

Now if it's the adult who wants the tree, that's an entirely different question.

As I wrote a few years back in an article entitled, "The Litmus Tree,"

I suspect that our Evergreen Envy began to rise concomitantly with the dimming of the Shabbat candles in our homes. As Jews became less secure in the glow of their own rituals, they became more fearful of succumbing to the ways of our neighbors, subconsciously recalling the warning of Psalm 106:35: "They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them." What’s nice is that, at least in some quarters, this is leading to an upsurge in observance of Jewish celebrations. People are recognizing that a Sukkah is really a Christmas tree that you can eat in, and that the warmth of Shabbat comes not once, but 52 times a year.

Happy Hanukkah to all
...and to all... Laila Tov!

Judy Feld Carr - A Hero for Our Time

Last Shabbat, from the beginning of the day to it's end, approximately 350 people enjoyed one or another aspect of the Synaplex experience. A highlight was hearing Judy Feld Carr, not a household name for many yet - alas, Spielberg has yet to make the movie about her - when he does, she'll be as well-known as Oscar Schindler (and the film will be a sure-fire hit; for her stories were as filled with intrigue as a James Bond picture). I guarantee that my grandchildren will be learning about her in the history books, for she personally directed a decades-long operation resulting in the saving of over 3,000 lives, nearly the entire Jewish community of Syria.

It was exciting to hear her story, one that no other group in our area had yet heard. The Jewish Ledger covered it, and you can read their exclusive interview with Judy at http://www.jewishledger.com/articles/2009/12/10/news/news05.txt.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A real miracle or the doing of extraordinary people?

This story appeared in Daniel Gordis' blog today. It is an incredibly moving tale of Hanukkah miracles and Jewish connections, on this anniversary of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which began last Hanukkah (and Cast Lead is a name whose origin is tied to the dreidel, which is produced out of cast lead - while American kids sing of a dreidel made out of clay, Israeli youngsters sing of cast lead.)

Hanukkah Links and How-Tos

Hanukkah Links and How-To's

Hanukkah begins tonight. Don't forget to light the Hanukkah candle before the Shabbat candles this evening.

Here are some ways to enhance your celebration:

1) Best of the Web Hanukkah links and resources: http://www.tbe.org/site/sog/071207.htm#spiritual

2) How do I "do" Hanukkah at home (a concise guide to lighting):

3) Light your Hanukkiah while watching the lighting live at the Western Wall! Find the Kotel webcams at http://english.thekotel.org/cameras.asp4)

4) Hanukkah as the holiday of the Home - http://www.tbe.org/site/sog/071130.htm#spiritual

5) Hanukkah Web Journey: Why Jelly Doughnuts?

A Menorah Story

Every menorah tells a story.

The Hanukkah menorah that Mara and I have used since the year we were married has journeyed with our family across the globe. You can see photos of it above and below, as it was lit in our apartment at Neve Schechter in Jerusalem. Notice how I look younger and she looks the same.

We purchased the menorah from a small art gallery in the Old City's Jewish quarter. 'Twas the day before Hanukkah and we needed something to light that night. We passed by all the typical ones, the traditional brass, the modernistic glass, the Zionist replicas of the Menorah outside the Knesset.

None of the menorahs we saw were what we were looking for. Until we came across this shop and immediately, we both knew - this was the one for us. Why did we love it so much?

- It's made of Jerusalem stone. This of course made it a pain-in-the-Knesset to move around (and my mother in law was the one who schlepped it home for us in her carry on - which has in itself become a family legend over the years). But wherever we lived, we felt we would be carrying a piece of Jerusalem with us. Literally! We owned a piece of the rock.

- The stone is carved out in a grid pattern, reminiscent of the Western Wall. But this no kitschy Kotel scene that you will find on ashtrays in trinket stores. This was a one of a kind, gently carved slab of marble, which may, who knows, have been part of the temple itself once upon a time. You have to understand, one of the more remarkable things about Jerusalem is that when the Romans destroyed the temple, the debris was too heavy to be moved very far. Much was simply tossed into the valley beneath. Entire pillars found their way into the upper city, which is now the Jewish quarter. I saw a bunch of kids creatively use one as a soccer goal. Every pebble in that area could well have come from the holy of holies. Every stone is holy. And each one tells a story. As the popular Israeli song about the Kotel states: Some people have hearts of stone; some stones have the heart of people. These stones cry. When wax drips down, it looks like the menorah itself is crying human tears.

- The menorah is not perfect. It slopes a little and the the little holes for the candles (or oil dispenser, which we used at first), are not symmetrically aligned.

- The Jewish star and olive branches speak less of Maccabean militarism than of the miraculous enduring hope that lights up our darkest moments - a hope that represents the most eternal victory of our indestructible people.

- This menorah, deeply rooted in our holy city, like us, has also accompanied us on our family's journey. As our lifelong companion (and in many ways, our first child, even predating Maggie, the dog), it faithfully waits all year on the floor of our upstairs closet for me to lift it (with a more audible "oy" each year) and carry it downstairs, where it awaits its first glance at us and the boys. And this menorah has seen them grow, year by year (click on photos to enlarge).

This year the menorah will look upon our family again, as we gather around it this coming week, all together again, once Ethan comes home following his finals. In a world where everything changes, this slab of Jerusalem has become, quite literally, our rock, one the few constants in a crazy world.

How fitting that we chose this simple, earth toned, unbalanced shining half-moon with which to share the light of our miracles with the world.

Even our dogs love to gather round when we light the menorah, although they prefer their own, which, when they bite it, plays "Maoz Tzur."

See here some contemporary menorah designs from the Betzelel School of Art in Jerusalem.

Below are some of the more traditional variants, taken from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain. See below also for a description of each:

1. Bronze, French, attributed to 12th cent. (in the Musée de Cluny, Paris).
2. Yellow copper, modern (in the synagogue at Pogrebishche, Russia).
3. Silver (?), medieval (in the possession of Dr. Albert Figdor, Vienna).
5. Silver and bronze, 17th cent. (in the possession of Jacob H. Schiff. New York).
6. Silver, late 19th century (from the collection of the late Rabbi Benjamin Szold, Baltimore).
7. Bronze, Italian, 15th cent. (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
8. Silver, English (?), 16th cent. (in the possession of E. A. Franklin, London).
9. Silver, Nuremberg, 17th cent. (in the possession of N. S. Joseph, London).
10. Silver, modern (in the possession of Maurice Herrmann, New York).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

G-dcast Hanukkah Special

Chanukah starts this Friday night, the 11th. So what is Chanukah about anyway?

To help you answer that question for your kids, your clueless coworkers or, er, yourself, we made a cartoon about it: G-dcast Spins Chanukah! The cartoon is a light retelling of the Chanukah story from a teen's point of view. It's appropriate for kids who are old enough to think about war and injustice. Watch it with your family before you light the menorah, screen it for your clueless coworkers, or show it to your Sunday school class. (Psst, teachers: there's a curriculum guide about using this episode in your class.)

G-dcast Spins Chanukah! is one of dozens of cartoons from G-dcast.com

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Schwartz on Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom!

Today’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the famous encounter of Jacob and a stranger which meeting turned out to be one of the most famous wrestling matches of all time, and one of the great sports moments in the Torah.

According to the text, this struggle occurred as Jacob was crossing the Jabbok River, returning to Canaan after many years away. Jacob was just about to meet his brother again and was very worried about what would happen.

Jacob won the battle and the stranger gave him a new name, Israel, which means the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed. That incident changed Jacob, and the rest is history. But Jacob did not come out of the fight unscathed. I was amazed to discover that at the end of the battle, Jacob actually came away limping.

For those of you who may not know, this past Fall I was on my school’s varsity football team, and at the end of September, I suffered a season ending leg injury – much like Jacob at the end of his fight. However, unlike Jacob, I wasn’t even able to limp - I had a broken leg and was stuck with crutches for seven long weeks.

Like Jacob, I learned a lot from the experience of being injured. Even though he won, Jacob came out of the encounter a much more humble man. I’ve learned some humility, too. When I went back to school, the simplest tasks were so much more difficult. Simple things like going up the stairs or carrying my books. People offered to help and I was very grateful for that. But they were grateful too, since they would get a hall pass and could arrive late to the next class. I’ve learned what it’s like to be dependent on others. I know that now, when I see others in this situation, I will respond quickly with help.

Jacob also learned how important it is to stand up for himself and his wrestling match gave him the courage to stand up to his brother the next day. I’ve learned the same thing from playing football; standing toe to toe with opposing linemen in the trenches. And that’s why it’s good to play football, Mom!

Another thing that we learn from this portion of the Torah is the importance of rivers. Throughout World literature and history, important things happen when people cross rivers. Their lives change. Washington crossed the Delaware. Joshua crossed the Jordan, and that pilot landed his plane in the Hudson. Strangely, it is by a river that I have also learned a lot about myself.

At a young age, I came to love paleontology - dinosaurs, fossils, dirt and rocks; it all fascinated me, and still does. One year, I made an amazing discovery by a river in New Jersey called Big Brook. I found a lot of shark’s teeth in the riverbed. Now that might not seem that unusual, except that Big Brook is many miles inland and there are no sharks there. But millions of years ago, this part of New Jersey was, in fact, under water so these teeth actually came from sharks that lived at the time of the dinosaurs. In fact, I found a dinosaur bone there once.

Who knows, maybe Jacob was looking for fossils at the river and he and the other guy were fighting over a priceless claw from a Dryptosaurus that happened to have lived in the area.
When I make these discoveries, one thing it teaches me is that we are all connected. The things that we stumble over at the river today, were possibly parts of living creatures a few million years ago. Who knows, in a few million years, people, or whatever inhabits this area, will feel similarly connected to us. That shark’s tooth connects me to all living and formerly living things.
So it’s no surprise that this major moment in Jacob’s life happened at a river. Come to think of it, my football battles are also connected to a river – “Turn of the River” Middle School…
It is also interesting that in Jacob’s case the river and the person have almost the same name – if you switch around the letters of Jacob in Hebrew, you get Jabbok.

Our lives are never the same once we cross those rivers and suffer the wounds of battle. For me and for Jacob it was not so bad; especially when you compare it to what Elie Wiesel had to go through when he was my age. He survived the Holocaust. Now, he has taken that experience and used it as an inspiration to help others who are suffering. For my mitzvah project, I have been raising money for The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. So far I have raised almost $2,000! I had the honor of meeting Mr. Wiesel several weeks ago. He told me that he was very grateful that I was helping to rebuild his foundation. I am also going to be adopting a Holocaust survivor to help chronicle their life so their stories will never be forgotten.

Next year, I am planning to be back on the football field (sorry, mom – I’ll be really careful, I promise!) While I was definitely disappointed that my football season was cut short this year, I realize now that this year hasn’t been a total loss. In fact, it has been a great year, even if I did have to limp my way through some of it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chelsea Mezvinsky

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Chelsea Clinton is engaged to marry her Jewish boyfriend of two years.

Clinton, 29, the only daughter of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, became engaged over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to investment banker Marc Mezvinsky, 31.

Mezvinsky, who works for Goldman Sachs, is the son of former U.S. Reps. Ed Mezvinsky (D-Iowa) and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinksy (D-Pa.). The elder Mezvinsky recently served a prison term for swindling $10 million from investors in a series of Nigerian e-mail scams. He was released in 2008.

Mezvinksy and Clinton met in Washington in 1993, and both attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Clinton, a Methodist, was seen attending Yom Kippur services in September with Mezvinsky at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where they both now live.

The couple announced their engagement last Friday in a mass e-mail to friends, a Clinton spokesman said, according to media reports.

One rabbinic colleague, in speculating about the paragraph in bold, wondered how it was possible for Chelsea and her fiance to be living in the dorms at JTS! (I think the last clause is modifying "in New York," rather than "the Jewish Theological Seminary," though. But it could give a boost to Torah fund.)

And what a year: A Trump and a Clinton, both marrying Jews.

What a country!

So the question for Chelsea and Marc is, which family gets the first seder?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"JAI" (Chai) is Beautiful - a Parable of Numbers on an Aging Arm

This video is in Spanish, with English subtitles. it is deeply moving and thought provoking. It causes us to wonder, how will we be able to communicate the horrors of the Shoah to the next generation, once all the witnesses are gone?

More on "Fiddler" in Stamford

Click here for the Stamford Times' coverage of the all-school production of "Fiddler on the Roof" that begins this weekend. I was happy to serve as the "rabbinic consultant" for the production. Also see my prior posting on the play, Stamford and Anatevka: Our Little Village.

Why Visit Israel?

Why visit Israel? Here are 25 reasons culled from various sources.*

1) Visiting Israel takes you higher. It heightens your senses. It heightens your awareness. It heightens your sense of self. It heightens your faith. And it heightens your sense of identification with a land, thousands of miles away, a land that is so very dear to us all. Experience Jerusalem, visit Tel Aviv, float in the Dead Sea, tour the Negev, visit Safed, the highest town in Israel, one of the four holy cities of Judaism. Drive into the Galilee hills and ascend up to the Golan.

2) Meet the Family. Israel is filled with unforgettable places, but ultimately what will make this trip so special will be the people that we’ll meet – the ones in the country and the ones in the group. I can think of no group with whom I would rather share these precious days than all of you.

(3) Feeling the serenity of Shabbat in Jerusalem.

(4) The sense of community that exists everywhere, from people annoyingly telling you not to cross the street on the red light (would they bother to do that here?), to the calls you get after every terror attack — to inform you, to console you, to include you.

(5) To show unity and support.

(6) Because it’s our home.

(8) To get back to our “roots,” smell the air and feel the dirt of our ancestors. You can feel the history come up through the soles of your feet.

(9) When I walk anywhere in the country, I always feel that I’m “home.” When I’ve traveled anywhere else in the world, and even where I live, I’m still part of a minority. In Israel, I’m part of something much more — I belong to a vibrant, dynamic, friendly society that has made its own modern history of success.

(10) Seeing the accomplishments of the Israelis . The desert has become alive with bustling cities, and a thriving economy. Visiting Israel now becomes an important statement of support for Israel, and a denial of the philosophy that “fear” will make the Israelis leave.

(11) Everything is better in Israel. Personal relationships are very real and very caring, the air smells better, the food tastes better, the sky is clearer, the birds are happier.

(12) The shwarma at Maoz on King George Street, the shwarma at Masov Burger near the central bus station, to talk to the people who make shwarma, and to see the lambs that become shwarma.

(13) The feeling I experience at the Western Wall. All of life’s idiosyncrasies become smaller when you are engulfed by what’s most important and special.

(14) Eating falafel and chumous in Machaneh Yehudah on Friday.

(15) Because I haven’t been there yet!

(16) To raise the spirits of the Israeli people.

(17) The Bible just comes alive.

(18) To see that Jewish people come in all colors, shapes and sizes and can hold all kinds of jobs……from doctors and lawyers, to police and street cleaners.

(19) To feel connected in the present to past and future at the same time.

(20) The scenery is unparalleled when standing at the Dead Sea (lowest point on earth) and then directly above it at the top of Masada. The unplanned tears that come down your face as you experience the pain of what was lost, but yet the hope of what will come promised through the prophets long ago. It is so awesome beyond words, that when you depart, you cannot say goodbye, only that you will be back. There is an unseen force that draws you in and assures you that you will be back again, it’s where you belong, it’s home.

(21) The incredible sense of unity. Being in Israel makes you feel connected to everything and every person on earth.

(22) To see true permanence. As Mark Twain said, “All things are mortal but the Jew.” In Israel, you can see buildings that were around thousands of years ago, and what could easily be around thousands of years from now. In America, nothing goes back more than a few hundred years (except for a few Native American sites), but those don’t compare to places that are all over Israel.

(23) Miracles occur daily.

(24) Two words: Kosher McDonalds

(25) Because WE’RE GOING! Our group is growing and waiting for YOU! Click here for the full itinerary for next summer’s TBE Israel Adventure.

I close with this poem, by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg:

For the Jew, Israel is a state of mind
It is not only a piece of geography
It is history
It is theology
It is Jewish tears and Jewish triumphs
It is Jewish anguish and Jewish ecstacy
It is childhood legends and biblical verses
It is the direction that we pray and the subject of our prayers
It is exile and homecoming
It is a burning Temple and a new flag at the United Nations
It is the 9th of Av and the 5th of Iyar
It is a people restored and hope reborn

*(including this from Aish and from another blog, Sixty things I love about Israel) :

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nefesh B'Nefesh Hanukkah Flash Mob

This flash mob one starts out as a rap hora and suddenly turns Bollywood. Nefesh B'Nefesh, which has revoluntionaized Aliyah, making it cool and easy the way Birthright Israel has made Israel tourism cool and easy, brought over 150 participants together on Ben Yehuda Street for the first ever Jerusalem flash mob in honor of Hanukkah. Enjoy! Or as they say in Mumbai: Jai ho!

לקראת חג החנוכה , ארגון "נפש בנפש" הביא
מעל ל-150 משתתפים לריקוד רחוב ספונטני- פלאשמוב- ברחוב בן יהודה בירושלים

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jennifer Rich on Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom. And…hola!

If you know me, you know how much I like asking questions. I’ve always liked asking questions. I think it’s the best way to learn new things. Sometimes other people find my questions annoying …. Like when I ask my dad questions about football ---- right in the middle of a New York Giants football game. I always get confused about the penalties. There are way too many of them. My favorite penalty is ------- “in the grasp”. It may be within somebody’s grasp, but all those penalties are certainly NOT within my grasp.

It’s also difficult for me to be quiet. When I have a question, I have to ask it! I smiled when I learned my Torah portion says it’s good to ask questions. Lots of questions. The tougher the question, the better. Sometimes the really tough questions make us wrestle within ourselves for the answer. For example, there is the never ending question of the difference between right and wrong. As I get older, I wrestle with that question more often and the answer is not always so clear. Should I be honest knowing it will hurt or embarrass somebody or can I figure out a way to still be truthful without causing any pain?

In my Torah portion, Jacob is given his new name ------ Israel. Receiving that new name was not easy for him because he had to wrestle and struggle with an angel to get it. The word Israel means to struggle with God – and that’s exactly what the Jewish people have been doing ever since. We don’t wrestle just with questions about God, we wrestle with questions about everything.

Here are some questions I’ve been wrestling with lately:

Why does God allow so much pain and suffering in the world? In 2009, why did God cause so much suffering to the New York Mets? I’m serious. It seemed like every time I went to a game this year somebody was injured. I was at the game when David Wright got hit in the head by a fastball. I was also at the game when Jon Niese fell off of the pitcher’s mound and tore his hamstring. But the scariest injury I saw was when my mom got hit in the face by a foul ball. There were three silver linings to that day ----- they gave my mother the baseball, it was only a bruise and it was K-Rod bobble-head day!

I’ve even posed many questions to Rabbi Hammerman, who has promised to give me some answers. I don’t even have to look at him right now to know he is probably looking at the congregation and shaking his head ‘No’.

I’ve asked the rabbi a variety of questions--- Like:

What came first the chicken or the egg? Should I practice for my Bat mitzvah, do my homework or take a nap? Why do some countries hate the United States? Why do some people want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and what would these same people think if the circumstances were reversed? Why are some people against not only the Jewish religion but any religion other than their own?

These are some questions we wrestle with, but can’t be answered with just words. They must be answered with actions. It’s easy to ask, “Why is there homelessness? But the real struggle is to trying to do something about it. For the last several years my family has spent Christmas Eve at a local homeless shelter, serving dinner with other congregants from Temple Beth El, to the residents of the shelter. Sometimes, I think it was the first time some of these people were actually served a meal by someone happy to be serving them. Of course, after we volunteer, we usually go to the movies and enjoy a late dinner of Chinese food which ------ is usually the only place open on Christmas Eve. We hope to continue our tradition and be doing this again in a few weeks. Also, the baskets of food you see decorating the Bimah will be donated to a local Fairfield County food bank.

It’s easy to ask God how he could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. But the real struggle – or question we wrestle with today is --- how do we do everything possible to prevent anything like it from happening in the future? Currently, hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered in Darfur. Isn’t this also a Holocaust? Why? For what reason? It’s 2009, not 1939! We should all wrestle with those questions for a while. . . . . . .

There are about 70 different ethnic groups in Darfur. If you’re in the wrong ethnic group – what happens?? Should you and your family be slaughtered?? I surely don’t think so. How can something like this be happening today? We, as Jews, know all too well about being targeted for torture and death because of our religious beliefs. What can be done to stop this? ………………..
That’s what becoming a Bat Mitzvah is all about, It’s not about just thinking of the answers, it’s about taking decisive actions and living them every day.

One way we do this is through our Mitzvah projects. My project was to create a living piece of history for the Jewish Historical Society of Stamford and Temple Beth El. I copied, organized and catalogued the dedication plaques from the old prayer books, in some cases the Temple’s original prayer books, before they were recently replaced with more modern books. You know, the one where the prayers include the women, too, such as Rachel and Leah. This catalogue immortalizes many of the Temple Beth El congregants that came before us and without whose efforts we may not be celebrating my Bat Mitzvah in this beautiful sanctuary tonight – and that – is a concept even I can grasp!!

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Josh Kaplan on Vayetze

When we think of the Torah, words like “awesome,” “cool” and “amazing” may come to mind, but it’s hard to imagine seeing those words IN the Torah. Those are the kinds of things you more likely hear kids screaming on the playground – at a magic show.

But in my portion of Vayetzay, Jacob says exactly that. When he wakes up from his dream, where he had seen angels moving up and down a ladder, he opens his eyes, looks around and says, “This place is AWESOME!” He says that it is none other than a gateway to heaven – an amazing sight.

One of the most important things that Torah does is to help us feel a sense of amazement. The same thing is true with magic – it builds a sense of amazement and wonder. I can see that every time I do a magic show in front of any audience, whether they are four years old or a hundred.

Everyone is amazed by magic.

My interest in magic began when my dad showed me a phenomenal mind reading card trick, back when I was about 8 ½ years old. Since then, I’ve been performing professional magic tricks inspired by great magicians from all over the world. At this point, I know hundreds of tricks and have performed a few magic shows had have made countless appearances at shopping centers, my school and on the street.

I especially like to perform in front of young kids. They seem to the most amazed of all, because they are less cynical than adults and teens. They just love to be amazed and leave it at that. Older people want to know the trick – except for my mom, who loves just about everything I do!
Aside from amazement, there is another aspect to magic that is also found in my portion: deception. While the magician needs to draw out people’s sense of amazement, he knows that it’s only an illusion. When you are doing a trick you have to sound amazed – there’s some acting involved, and acting involves manipulation.

Jacob is quite a manipulator. In last week’s portion, he was able to deceive his father and manipulate his brother in order to gain the birthright and the blessing. But this week, the deceiver gets deceived by someone even more manipulative, Jacob’s father in law, Laban. When he saw that Jacob wanted to marry his daughter Rachel, he substituted Leah in disguise and she married Jacob instead. It was a masterful illusion – I can only imagine how he set up the lighting at the wedding, and all the costumes and masks worn to hide Leah’s true identity. It wasn’t until the next day that Jacob recognized that the joke was on him.

Later in the portion, he gets his revenge, however, beating Laban at his own game.

Ever since those days, it seems, Jews have been very involved in the world of magic. Did you know that the word Abracadabra is an ancient Hebrew word meaning, "...with these words I shall create it." If you think of the great magicians of out time, many of them have been Jewish, including Houdini, Lance Burton, and David Copperfield. At times magic has been considered dangerous, but Jews have always taken seriously its power to awe and amaze.

As someone who is learning the art of deception, I realize that it is a great responsibility. It’s a lot like becoming a bar mitzvah. After all the hard work and practice, my job will be to amaze people, not only with my card tricks but with my Torah reading, and not only with that, but with my desire to make this world a better place and make sadness disappear. Whether at a magic show or right here, the most amazing thing a person can do is magically to put a smile on someone’s face.

Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA)

The posting below is from AIPAC. This week's news of increasing defiance by Iran in the face of the world's demands only serves to increase the urgency of Congressional action on sanctions before everyone goes home for the holidays. As I've been stating again and again, right now, nothing else matters as much as this matters. We can't get sidetracked by other debates. On Iran there is no debate - or at least very little. There are many unknowns about the health care plans. But health care can always be tinkered with, no matter what bills eventually pass. There are few unknowns about what an Iranian bomb would become - the Iranians have as much as told us - an existential threat to Israel and a serious blow to American interests in the region. My hope is that the Congress won't lose sight of the need for unanimous action on Iran, despite the divisive debates going on in other areas.

Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) Due for House Floor Action

Call Your House Members and Urge Them to Vote Yes on IRPSA

The House of Representatives is likely to vote on the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (H.R. 2194) before departing for their December break. This important action comes at a time when Iran is refusing to seriously engage with the United States and other world powers and suspend its uranium enrichment program. Yesterday, Iran rejected the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors' November 27 resolution calling on Iran to suspend its nuclear activities, and vowed to build ten additional enrichment plants.

The legislation contains sanctions curtailing Iran 's ability to import and produce refined petroleum, measures which could be implemented if Iran rejects U.S. overtures and continues to enrich uranium in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions. The legislation was introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Ranking Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

Since Iran must import up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum, curtailing its access to gasoline and diesel fuel could have a severe impact on the Iranian economy, forcing the regime to confront a real choice: continue its illicit nuclear program and risk economic ruin OR suspend the program and open the door to relief from sanctions. As President Obama said, "If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely, and we are prepared to move towards increased pressure."

Click here to view full text of the legislation.


Contact your House members and urge them to vote for the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (H.R. 2194): E-MAIL

Click here to send an e-mail to your House member through AIPAC's Take Action page.


Click here to find contact information for your House member. You will be prompted to enter your zip code. You can also reach your Representative through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 225-3121.

Sample phone script: "I am calling to ask the Representative to vote YES on the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (H.R. 2194), when it comes to the floor for a vote."
You may have the opportunity to speak with a staff person or leave a message at your member's office. In most cases, the person who answers the phone will listen to your message and take notes, but not engage you in a lengthy conversation.

If you have questions or feedback, please contact Julie Peretz at AIPAC: jperetz@aipac.org or (202) 639-5192.


We are at a critical juncture in efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. In a worst-case scenario, Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability as early as the end of next year.

Iran is rejecting a proposal to ship its low-enriched uranium out of the country for further processing and is refusing to meet the main requirement of the international community—the long-overdue suspension of its enrichment of uranium.

If Iran continues to defy the international community and fails to seriously negotiate soon with the United States and other world powers, comprehensive and robust economic, diplomatic and political sanctions will be needed quickly to persuade Iran to end its illicit activity.
More than three-quarters of the House and Senate have cosponsored the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) to enhance and strengthen American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Congress will send a strong message to the Iranian regime by passing this vital piece of legislation.

The legislation does not call for, require or necessitate a blockade of Iran or any use of military force. Rather, the bill seeks to leverage private market forces by making companies choose between doing business with the United States or with Iran. Companies carrying out these refined petroleum-related activites would be barred from conducting any business in the United States. Shipping companies that transport the refined petroleum to Iran and their insurers are also targeted by the legislation.

For banks, shipping and insurance companies that have large U.S. investments or do considerable business in the United States, the risk of losing access to the American market would almost certainly cause them to end their activity in Iran.

The bill includes provisions allowing the president to waive the sanctions if he determines such a move is in the national security interests of the United States.

If implemented, the bill's sanctions could severely increase the costs to the Iranian regime for its continued nuclear weapons pursuit. Hopefully, the threat of these sanctions would persuade Iran to come into compliance with its international obligations and suspend its uranium enrichment program.

From the Jewish Ethics Project...

I received this intriguing dilemma from Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Ethics blog:

Subject: Ethical Dilemma #10

The following Ethical Dilemma was originally sent to Rabbi Telushkin and published in his
http://www.facebook.com/l/b3be4;Beliefnet.com column. (It was reprinted in Rabbi Telushkin's book "The Ten Commandments of Character".)

"Dear Joseph,

I'm in my late sixties now, and I have terminal cancer. I'm also carrying a terrible secret. My husband and I have two children, a girl and a boy, both in their thirties. Our son, though, is not my husband’s, though he doesn’t know this. It all happened during a brief affair at a time of bad tension in our marriage. The affair turned out to be inconsequential, and the man himself is long dead. I love my husband, and yet the thought that I’m dying with this lie between us gives me no peace. I feel that I should speak to him and tell him, and my son, the truth.

-- In Deep Pain”

What do you think? Share your opinion at

If you go to the site, you'll see that there is near unanimity that the woman should not tell her family her dark secret. Telushkins' own opinion will be posted next week.

I'd love to hear what you think.