Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Counting the Omer with Amichai

FROM AMICHAI LAU LEVI of Storahtelling

Dear friends,

I want to invite you to join me on a journey that began yesterday, during the first day of Passover, online.
I am counting the Omer - 50 days from Seder to Sinai, from slave to soul, from midnight to dawn. This is a personal journey but I want to invite you to count with me and join the journey. Please read the rest of this note and join me on Facebook or Twitter to make each day count more on our journey to a mountaintop of more meaning, reflection, more mindfullness.

see you on the road!

love and liberation


50 days to live your lover

WHAT: Hear Ye: there's this intriguing judeo practice I am reigniting- the Count-Up from Seder to Sinai, slave to soul - in 50 Days. The traditional way you do it is simply count, aloud, each night, for fifty nights, from the first sunset of Passover until the eve of Shavuot, the holiday of Revelation. Known as The Counting of the Omer, this practice was originally used in Biblical times for scheduling the barley harvest - Omer is Hebrew for barley.

Over the centuries Jews became writers in Hollywood and the counting evolved into an abstraction. The farmer's tool became a practical but complex and mystical tool for disciplined self reflection and personal growth. a bit elaborate. As a religious child and teen I never quite got the point and often forgot to count within the first week, shrugging it off. In recent years I was tempted but kept forgetting.

This year I'm back, determined to use this count-up as useful technology for refocusing mindfulness, embodied discipline, a sacred daily practice in the art of being more present, and more loving. (and more hairy. One of the things one does during the counting is not shave. I forget why but will find out soon. I may trim my neck a bit but here comes the Big Beard, just like Sting and the Rebbe. Good thing beards are back.)

WHY EXACTLY? I'm doing this count up as a reminder to be more present. I like rituals and love all mythic journeys that chart old paths and new milestones in the mundane maps of life. And i need help to refocus. This year I want to embody some of the visions and ideas I've been 'thinking' of - and I want to focus on real change in the way I live and love in the world. Each nights' count will be a commitment to this process and vision for change. I don't just want to sit around the Seder table and chat about freedom. There's work to be done. I will start by recharging this ritual reality. night by night. and I invite you to join me.

Night 1 celebrates the Exodus from the narrow reality of the Mythic Egypt - the psycho-spiritual reality of being enslaved by forces of habit and force. Night 50 symbolizes the completion of the count - and arrival at the top of Mount Sinai, where the sky opens wide for new revelations of free will and real love. Something fabulous will happen that night - real, virtual, other. TBD.

WHERE AND WHEN: i'm taking it outside - not just the beard - going public with commitment and accountability for each day's counting, to be reported by midnight each night of the 50 on my facebook page and brand new twitter account, created with this task in mind. Each day i'll count, share an image, write a brief thought about the word of the day, my task, my intention, process. Each day i'll focus on making each day count. more. I'd love for this to become a conversation. What intention for more love and focus can many of us create, what impact? what's waiting for each one of us on the summit of Sinai and along the way?

Like she said - climb every mountain. I want to climb towards the mountaintop, and I got work to do to get there. Step by step, here we go: a pilgrimage towards Sinai, towards The Divine as Lover - within, and in the world, in so many ways. 50 days to live your lover. and.. go.

WANT TO JOIN? check it out online, daily:

On Facebook
On Twitter

please join, add comments, count with me!


PS. lots of sages are posting remarkable resources, links and more info on the Omer Counting. see some of them here, including Iphone App and the Homer Omer Calendar:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pesach Thoughts

At last Passover is here - and not a minute too soon. Not that there is any rest for the weary, but, despite the bustle, this festival takes us away from the craziness of the everyday and expands the boundaries of present-time to include all generations, past and future. The Seder suspends us in time, allowing us to see clearly, if only for an instant, our precise and significant place in the vast tableau of Jewish history. So things really do slow down for a week, as we go straight from the Merritt Parkway to the shores of the Red Sea.

And we can use that break! These past two weeks have ranked among the busiest we've had in quite some time - busy with programs and busy with people. Just this past weekend, you responded in tremendous numbers to our call for people to come out and meet Cantor Mordecai. Over 250 on Friday night and again on Shabbat morning, and about a hundred more on Saturday evening. I am so grateful to all who helped to navigate us through the numerous challenges of putting this weekend together, so quickly and so successfully, on the weekend before Passover. Please take the time, if you have not already, to share your reflections on the person we met and the spiritual places you would like us to go.

The candidate and his family were lovely, but what moved me the most about this weekend was the mirror that it held up to ourselves. The Mordecais were most impressed with the warmth with which they were welcomed, the strength of our commitment to a Jewish future, the melodious sound of our voices in song, the earnestness of our prayer, and the genuine harmony that extends far beyond the music. I joked when the cantor commented on how well we sung, saying, "I bet you say that to all the congregations," but he was serious. And I could hear it too. Our voices, so many voices, united in song. It was a proud weekend to be part of the TBE family. Our guests could sense that this is a very special place (and we had a number of additional guests this weekend, aside from the Mordecais); they see us as a congregation with a very promising future.

As we move forward with important decisions (some of which were described in Eileen Rosner's recent letter to the congregation), we are increasingly guided by the realization that congregations - not just Conservative ones - can thrive in this challenging environment only if they act boldly and creatively. During this search process, we've seen a number of qualified candidates whose cantorial positions were eliminated or cut back, often at once-successful congregations. These places that have fallen on hard times, in part because of a sour economy and local demographics, but also in no small part because their leadership has failed to adjust to a rapidly changing Jewish landscape. We've learned some important lessons from this process, ones that we have taken to heart. Those congregations who fail to think out-of-the-box eventually find themselves boxed in. The projects we've been initiating, such as the Community Garden, Young Jewish Professionals and enhanced Early Childhood programming (did I mention that we had a hundred-or-so people at Friday night's Young Family Pesach Fest as well?), these are all our initial responses to that quest for boldness and excellence. "Good enough" just isn't good enough anymore.

Just as I am proud of our growing reputation for warmth and harmony, so am I excited by a sense of purpose that is bubbling up from below as it simultaneously coalesces at the leadership level. This season of liberation is a good opportunity to take stock in our collective goals and objectives - and to take pride in our accomplishments.

So as Passover approaches, we can feel very good about the future of our congregation - but we share concerns about Israel's immediate and long term future, and we are confused about what is happening between Israel and the US right now. I've included in my blog a Pesach letter from Jan Gaines in Netanya that reflects some of the frustration being felt by Israelis right now. I appreciate that frustration - we all share it - though some blame one party more and some the other. What's clear from all accounts, including Jan's letter, is that Israelis (many not them, not merely the Prime Minister) have badly miscalculated President Obama - his positions, his needs, and his political strength. No doubt the reverse is true as well. My own position regarding Jerusalem - and in particular the Jewish neighborhoods of post 1967Jerusalem - is unchanged. These neighborhoods should be part of Israel and will be. They are not settlements. But to stick that in the eye of your only friend in the world was either a colossal blunder or a reckless provocation. Why the person who caused the ruckus during the Vice President's visit hasn't been fired yet is beyond me. For all of us who love Israel and love America too, there is more than enough frustration to go around. But, eternal optimist that I am, I tend to take the long view. The US-Israel relationship has taken hits before (remember AWACS with Reagan and James Baker's shots at the Israel lobby?) - this too will pass...over. Sometimes, these things work out for the best.

Finally, many people have commented positively on the video Pesach Greeting I sent out last week. If you didn't receive it, my apologies, as I had to cull together email addresses from various lists, some of them dated. But at last count, it has been opened over 300 times - and many have "passed" on its message to family and friends. As one who has devoted so much time toward fostering mutual understanding between Jews and people of other backgrounds, I found that message to set the perfect tone for TBE's Pesach observances. We're playing our small part in fostering love and understanding in our little corner of the planet. May that message resonate throughout the world during this week that is holy for so many.

And may that message help transform this Seder night, and every night hence, into a night different from all other nights.

Best wishes from myself, my family and our entire professional staff, to all your families - to our entire TBE family, and to the world.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Pesach Thoughts from Jan Gaines in Netanya

Here is the latest dispatch from our correspondent in Netanya, Jan Gaines.

Dear Friends,

As Pesach rapidly approaches and everyone is scurrying around cleaning, last minute shopping and planning their Pesach HoHamoed holidays, some of us are looking to Washington with dismay, wondering what the next "blow" will be coming from the Administration.

Yes, the stupid announcement of 1600 housing units in an existing Jerusalem neighborhood of 20,000 religious Jews, just on the day VP Biden was here, was a terrible blunder of Israeli bureaucracy, whose left hand often doesn't know what its right hand is doing. Never mind that it was only the 3rd stage in a 7 stage approval process and wouldn't happen for another 3 years at least.

But the resulting anger,scolding and threats coming from the Administration came as a real shock!!

Many of us can't understand what the whole crisis is about and why. We don't think of this as East Jerusalem. It isn't. Its part of Jerusalem, and as Bibi said, Jerusalem is NOT a settlement. And the construction freeze was never to include Jerusalem!!

So naturally we wonder what is behind this angry response and cold shoulder of the Administration, especially Obama. Our news here revealed that Obama walked out on Bibi after 2 hours of discussion, saying he had to attend a dinner, and left our Prime Minister standing there. Why is Obama behaving like this.

There is lots of speculation. Is Obama trying to curry favor with the Arabs and the Palestinians.? Why? It hasn't worked up to now. Iran is charging ahead with its nuclear program. Syria got our ambassador back. The Palestinians are making great progress in their delegitimization campaign world wide. The UN is more anti-Israel than ever before and pays no attention to US efforts to stop being one-sided.

Hamas and Hizbollah are re-arming at a rapid rate. The Kassams are back again, with 20 of them fired this last week alone. And Abbas still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He doesn't need to do anything actually, except refuse and refuse over and over again to make a single move toward us of positive intent. Palestinian media and schools are more virulent than ever toward the "Zionist entity".

The Palestinian "street" rises up at the slightest excuse. For example, they rioted last week when Bibi announced inclusion of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, our forefather and mother, the Machpela, in a list of Heritage Sites to be rennovated. They claim the Machpela is on their land and belongs to them so we can't claim it. They say we are "judaizing" Palestinian land.

So we are really behind the eight ball already. Really, our only ally right now is the U.S. Does that mean that we are so vulnerable that Obama can push us in any direction he chooses? Does he want to topple the Netanyahu government as some claim? But that would probably backfire. The coalition right now is very solid, even if we don't like some of the partners.,

And added to our threats on the north and south boundaries, we may now face a potential threat right on our West Bank boundary. The Americans have been successfully training a Palestinian Police force to keep law and order. All they have to do is secure some heavy weaponry, turn west, and be a serious military threat to us. That would mean we would be surrounded on 3 sides by well trained and well armed fighters.

So why can't Obama just leave us alone and let us try to find a way out of this mess without being forced and threatened if we don't do what he wants? We aren't going to give away Jerusalem or the 3 big settlement blocs. The whole country is solid on that score. We have already offered very generous peace plans to both Arafat and Abbas, in just those terms. We've been turned down consistently for 65 years.

We know the Arabs have a great deal of patience, which we don't. We know they are waiting for the time when they can just take back the whole country.

So why does Obama need another foreign policy headache. And why does he keep waffling on Iran when we may be first on Iran's list but the U.S. is still in their sights.

This is what we are wondering on the eve of our "freedom" holiday. As we remember our exodus from Egypt, we wonder if we are facing another one, this time from our own land.

Hag Sameach

Jan Gaines

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Should Ruth Madoff Have Blown the Whistle?

The Jewish Week's new website launched this morning, and I'm delighted to be a part of this exciting new venture. Check out the site at, and then scroll down for Hammerman on Ethics. This week's question is, naturally, Should Mrs. Madoff have reported Bernie?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Ruth knew about the Ponzi scheme and that Bernie's crimes were committed while of sound mind and body. From the public record there is little information about Bernie's mental state - aside from indications he is a grade-A sociopath, of course.

So should Ruth have blown the whistle on Bernie? By all means.

Family loyalty cuts deep in Jewish tradition, but not that deep. Click here for more.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Israeli Cows to Get Kosher for Passover Diet

And I thought that getting my teeth cleaned for Passover was excessive...

Israeli Cows to Get Kosher for Pesach Diet
The Israel Agriculture Association has announced that dairy cows will begin receiving kosher for Pesach bedding this week, and beginning next week will get kosher for Pesach food as well. Dairy cows normally sleep on hay, from wheat plants. However, due to concern that the hay could stick to the animals’ bodies and trace amounts could enter the milk, the animals will sleep on non-wheat bedding beginning on Tuesday of this week.
Read the report at
Arutz Shevah.


Did you observe the National Day of Unplugging, which happened to coincide with this past Shabbat? You may have seen all the coverage, now see the video! Also check out the Sabbath Manifesto website.

The Sabbath Manifesto is a creative project designed to slowdown lives in an increasingly hectic world. They've created 10 core principles completely open for your unique interpretation. The site states: "We welcome youto join us as we carve a weekly timeout into our lives.
Check out what the New York Times, USA Today and others are saying about the Sabbath Manifesto. To find out more click here."

Washington's Kumbaya Moment: AIPAC

With the Health Care debate essentially behind us, all attention in Washington will now turn to the AIPAC Policy Conference, and suddenly last week's combatants will join arm in arm. Yes, the lion will lie down with the lamb, Boehner with Pelosi, Obama with Bibi and all will be right with the world. Everyone loves Israel - at least at AIPAC. But under the surface and between the lines, some important things will be discussed.

Here is Today's Report from AIPAC on the goings on at "Policy Conference" (it's important enough to remove the "the" - NEVER call it "The Policy Conference."

The theme this year is "Israel: telling the story." It's more than about getting the word out regarding Israel's accomplishments - it also ties into the major theme of the upcoming Passover holiday - connecting people (in this case Jews AND non Jews) to the miraculous story of Israel's birth and growth. Just as we relive the Exodus every year at our Seders - and in fact every day of our lives as Jews - so does the fact of Israel, along with its myriad accomplishments, resonate within us all the time.

Here is the AIPAC account of Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Gala Banquet on Monday night. Speaking in front of 7,500 delegates, more than half of Congress and hundreds of ambassadors, cabinet officials and invited guests, Netanyahu said that the United States and Israel "stand together because we are fired by the same ideals and inspired by the same dream—the dream of achieving security, prosperity and peace."

The prime minister reiterated his call for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table for direct negotiations. Netanyahu also challenged those who question Israel's desire for peace, pointing to numerous steps his government has taken, such as removing "hundreds of roadblocks, barriers and checkpoints in the West Bank." He also pointed to his country's unprecedented construction freeze in Judea and Samaria.

Regarding the construction in Jerusalem that led to the recent rise in tensions between the Obama administration and Israel, Netanyahu underscored that "everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

The prime minister also provided historical context to Israel's right to build Jerusalem. "The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel cannot be denied. "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital."

In addition, Netanyahu spoke about the threat of a nuclear Iran, explaining the risks the world would face if the Islamic Republic had an atomic bomb. "Such a regime could provide nuclear weapons to terrorists and might even be tempted to use them itself," he said. "Israel expects the international community to act swiftly and decisively to thwart this danger, but we will always reserve the right to defend ourselves."

The prime minister also spoke of his vision for the future of Israel. "The people of Israel want a future in which our children no longer experience the horrors of war," Netanyahu said. He concluded by stating that the relationship between the United States and Israel is based on shared values, common principles and the aspiration of living in peace. "We are gathered here today because we believe in those ideals. And because of those ideals, I am certain that Israel and America will always stand together."

Click or paste to see hVideos of Speeches and to read the transcripts of the following:

Israel Around the World

Kadima Party Chair Tzipi Livni

Israel's Ethical Defense

Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA)
March 22, 2010
"Iran must be dealt with firmly, with real sanctions—that have real teeth. The message should be clear, if you deal with Iran you are not welcome to deal with the United States."

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD)
March 22, 2010
"At core there is an unshakeable, unbreakable, unmovable bond between Israel and the United States."

The Honorable Jim Langevin (D-RI)
March 22, 2010

Mr. Howard Kohr
March 22, 2010
"This year, we need to focus on this issue in a new way — a way in which we, the pro-Israel community in America, go on the offense in demanding fair treatment for Israel."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
March 22, 2010
"Our commitment to Israel's security and Israel's future is rock solid."

Professor Alan Dershowitz
March 21, 2010
"No country has contributed so much to the world in a mere 61 years."

Col. Richard Kemp, CBE
March 22, 2010
"Israel follows the rules of engagement and int'l law. Insurgents exploit this."

Mr. Lee Rosenberg
March 21, 2010
"No country has contributed so much to the world in a mere 61 years."

Foreign Policy Roundtable
March 21, 2010
"The Israeli Defense Forces risk their lives to avoid civilian causalities." — Sen Evan Bayh (D-IN)

Innovation Nation Roundtable
March 21, 2010
Meir Brand, Dr. Daniel Zajfman and Dan Senor discuss how Israel has emerged as a leading innovator and technological beacon.

Student Moment
March 21, 2010
"We recognize that this is work for the long haul—and we have pledged never to grow weary—never to give up, because far too much is at stake."

The Honorable Shlomo Molla
March 21, 2010
"The story of our journey to Eretz Yisrael on the way to fulfilling the Zionist dream is interwoven with heroic stories and difficulties that did not end even after arriving in Israel."

Here is Sunday night's summary from JTA's Ami Eden:

Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC's new president, received a standing ovation when he rebuked the White House, insisting that "allies should work out their differences privately" (video or transcript).

David Victor, AIPAC's outgoing president and incoming chairman of the AIPAC board, drew applause when he essentially urged the thousands of attendees to provide Obama administration officials with a warm reception.

Comments from potential presidential contenders Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.

Monday is the big day, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton set to speak in the morning and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahulater that night. Our on-the-ground reporting and video team will be there for both speeches, and everything in between.

So be sure to visit the blog throughout the day.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Connecticut Difference

This week's Jewish Week chronicles some of the reasons why it has become increasingly desirable for Jews to settle here in Fairfield County, and in particular, Stamford. See "The Connecticut Difference."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New Jewish Ritual

See the current issue of "Contact," the magazine of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, for some interesting articles on new Jewish rituals.

From one of the essays, by Vanessa Ochs:

In our generation, ritual innovation has come about in response to the crisis of the Holocaust (Yom HaShoah) but it has also been the necessary response to a whole range of marvelous things: the creation of the state of Israel (Yom Ha’atz maut), the ethics of feminism (bat mitzvah, Rosh Hodesh groups, Miriam’s cup and the orange on the seder plate), and the growing interest in social justice and tikkun olam (the matzah of hope for Soviet Jewry, community mitzvah day, mitzvah projects for b’nai mitzvah). Some of the newly invented rituals eventually
become so old and so beloved — say, breaking a glass at a wedding, or tossing out one’s sins in the tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah — that we start believing that they have been around since the beginning of Jewish time. Part of the efficacy of rituals is that we can easily trick ourselves into believing that our invented rituals were never new, reembraced or remade. But the fact is that all of our rituals were at one point created. They were new and then, because they were embraced, they became real.

It's a Small Planet After All

With all that we've been going through here these past several days, it is easy to lose sight of our relative good fortune. While we can't minimize the pain of those who had to toss out a freezerful of spoiled TV dinners, we need to recall that there are so many around the world with nothing at all to eat. As Passover approaches, this message is spelled out clearly in that call at the beginning of the seder, "Let all who are hungry come and eat."

Back in the early '70s when "Diet for a Small Planet" introduced a new era of mindful-eating, little did we know how small our planet would subsequently become. During this season more than any other, we need to feed the hungry.

This weekend's Synaplex promises to be one of our most significant ever. From start (Friday night) to finish (Saturday night's caberet), we'll go global, focusing on the issue of hunger while sharing in a cultural feast of Jewish diversity. Our special guest, Prof. David Kraemer, has literally written the book on Jews and food, ("Jewish Eating and Identity Throughout the Ages"). He'll begin our global tour on Friday night, following our 7:30 Kabbalat Shabbat service (featuring Katie Kaplan and our 3rd and 4th graders) and continue it on Shabbat morning. Also on Shabbat, among our usual array of service and meditative options, I'll be leading a Learner's Service (at 10) on the theme of Global Hunger Shabbat (which this week happens to be, thanks to the American Jewish World Service). Our children's programming will feature African drumming. At lunch, all of us will connect with families in far-flung nations to see how they cope with hunger and then after lunch, I'm really looking forward to a panel discussion featuring congregants who will talk about what it was like to grow up (and eat) Jewishly in India, South Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, and elsewhere.

Finally on Sat. night, one of the musical highlights of the year, a Cabaret Night featuring the talented Sarah Aroeste and her band. Sarah is noted for her exciting fusion of Ladino, jazz, blues, traditional and modern. We have over a hundred reservations in already. Make sure to add yours, which you can do online at For the full Synaplex schedule, go to

Oh, yes, and one more thing. There will be food. Lots of food, at lunch and at night - food representing the far-flung diversity of the Jewish people around the world.

It truly is going to be an amazing weekend at TBE. The world has just gotten a whole lot smaller. So has the planet.

See you at Synaplex!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Women of the Wall Get Chaired

See below what happened as the Women of the Wall prepared to have their monthly Rosh Hodesh service today at the Kotel. They appear to have their own "chairing" section.
It's an embarrassment.

Monday, March 15, 2010

US-Israel Relations: A Low Ebb?

Below are links to articles that have come out over the past few days on the current crisis (or is "spat" a better word?) in the US-Israel relationship, along with the latest on the Conversion Bill. AIPAC has now chimed in, calling out the US for essentially making a mountain out of a molehill. This is a very unusual tack for AIPAC to take, coming out squarely against an Administration it will be cozying up to in just a week, at its annual Policy Conference:

The Obama Administration's recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern. AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State. Israel is America's closest ally in the Middle East. The foundation of the U.S-Israel relationship is rooted in America's fundamental strategic interest, shared democratic values, and a long-time commitment to peace in the region. More...

I see a direct connection between the two current crises, the one between the US and Israel and the one instigated by the Conversion Bill. In both cases, Israel is being held hostage by an increasingly bold and untethered Radical Religious Right.

Links to recent foreign relations developments between Israel and the USA:

Israel envoy: U.S. ties at their lowest ebb in 35 years (Haaretz 3/15)
Obama's Turn Against Israel (Wall Street Journal 3/15)
Oren: Worst crisis with US since '75 (JPOST 3/15)
'Jerusalem construction will go on' (JPOST 3/15)
Netanyahu Offers Apology, but No Shift in Policy (NYTimes 3/15)
Wall Street Journal: Why is Obama against Israel? (Ynet 3/15)
A blessing in disguise (Ynet 3/15)
Are America and Israel drifting apart? (Washington Post 3/14)
Obama aide condemns 'destructive' Israeli homes plan (BBC 3/14)
Driving Drunk in Jerusalem (NYTimes 3/14)

Links to recent articles concerning the conversion bill:
US Jewish leaders concerned over conversion bill (JPOST 3/14)
US Reform Jews protest conversion law (Ynet 3/15)
Bill Making Many Converts Ineligible Under ‘Law of Return’ Faces Backlash (Forward 3/12)

Meanwhile, I just received this important briefing from the leadership of the Federations of North America:


March 15, 2010

A delegation of leaders representing Diaspora Jewry met today in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament,) with Member of Knesset (MK) David Rotem, the initiator of a controversial new conversion law.

The delegation was led by Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) Chair Natan Sharansky and The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi, director of JFNA’s Israel office.

MK Rotem, a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been working to pass a proposal that will allow local municipal rabbis in Israel to perform conversions to Judaism. Some versions of the proposed bill being circulated also include a provision that could, in theory, prevent a convert to Judaism, who underwent conversion in Israel or in the Diaspora, from receiving Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The Jewish Federations of North America has issued a statement strongly rejecting such a proposal, and has written directly to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the subject. (Click here for details on The Jewish Federations of North America's response.)

At the meeting, MK Rotem expressed his commitment going forward to consult with Diaspora Jewry on any issues involving conversion or the Law of Return. Explaining that no law will be passed before the Knesset’s Passover break, he also assured the group that no future bill will affect the status of conversions outside of Israel. Similarly, Rotem stressed that Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware of the importance of these issues for Jews around the world.

According to JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky, "From my conversations with the Prime Minister and the Government Secretary, it is clear that the law that is viewed as problematic by Jews in the Diaspora will not be passed during the current Knesset session which goes into recess on March 21. We have received assurances that we will be consulted in this process so that the views of world Jewry are taken into consideration."

Jay Sanderson, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who attended the meeting stated: “We were encouraged by the frank and open discussion with MK Rotem. It is clear to us that there is a sincere will on the part of Rotem, and indeed the government, to find ways to improve the situation governing conversions in Israel, without compromising the rights and dreams of Jews of all persuasions.”

Also attending the meeting were Richard Sandler, Chairman of the Board, Jewish Federation of Greater LA; Gary Weinstein, President and CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas; Stanley Arthur Rabin, past President and senior lay leader, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and Barry Rosenberg, Executive Vice President, Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Ask the Rabbi: A Shrimp Invasion

This week's's Ask the Rabbi question challenged me to confront the complexity of the mitzvah of Kashrut and the ethics of being a sensitive host, thoughtful guest, loving daughter and supportive spouse. If you are not already subscribed to Ariela's informative Judaism newsletter, you can sign up here. Or check out Ariela's Judaism Blog.

Q. My wife and I have been married for 4.5 years. I grew up reform; she grew up conservative. She keeps kosher, but I don't; however, we have a kosher house in that we never bring pork or shellfish or other traif into the home, and never mix meat and dairy. We don't keep separate plates, dishwashers, etc.; we're really only kosher when choosing what to serve at mealtime. My wife keeps kosher in memory of her father; he kept kosher but tragically died when my wife was only 8. She decided at that time to keep kosher in tribute to him, and has remained so ever since.

That said, here's my question: Is it possible for someone other than my wife to eat traif in the house while SHE remains kosher? For example, we had a dinner party the other night and one of our guests didn't know anything about keeping kosher, so she brought a tray of shrimp scampi. It's a bit awkward to tell a guest that they're not allowed to enter our home with the food they bought and prepared, but that's what we did. If my wife never eats traif, does it place her "Jewishness" or kosher-keeping in jeopardy if someone ELSE eats traif in our house? In other words, is her keeping kosher invalid if traif is ever brought into the house, or only if she eats it?

A. Not to worry. Your wife and your home are still as kosher as they were before the shrimp's untimely entrance. While your practice does not match all the stipulations of the tradition, it is most commendable and clearly very meaningful to you both.

Questions like yours are not uncommon. Think of people who keep kosher living in a college dorm with non-kosher keepers, for example, or those who share an apartment who are not married. Also, increasingly, we have the phenomenon of kosher-keeping children coming home to visit non kosher parents for a prolonged stay, or vice versa. Plus, there are many levels of kashrut observance, as your practice demonstrates, and individuals and couples are (hopefully) on a spiritual journeys as well, where those practices evolve over time. Life is certainly complicated!

To put things simply, when we speak of a kosher home, we are not so much speaking of the whole as the sum of the parts. In reality, the entire home is not the issue. We're not talking about the bathroom, or the television, the computer or the carpet (unless we are discussing Passover and hametz); we are talking about dishes, ovens, pots, pans and of course, food. And we are talking about each individual dish, glass, fork, spoon, knife, oven, dishwasher, sink, pot and pan. If that shrimp scampi stayed in the living room and was eaten on a paper plate, it would not compromise the level of kashrut observance of anyone not eating it. Even were that guest to touch your wife with shrimpy hands, it would not be a problem. If the shrimp were eaten with your silverware or on the house dishes, that would present some (resolvable) complications. If a person eats something unkosher by mistake, s/he would just try to do better the next time. The laws of kashrut understand that people are fallible - things happen.

Your wife's dedication to her dad's memory is extremely moving. People have all sorts of reasons for keeping kosher (or following other mitzvot). BTW, I don't think it would have been rude for you both to have told the guest, sensitively, that your home is kosher, so unfortunately you won't be able to serve the shrimp scampi. You might apologize for not having made that clear in advance. We in the rabbi-biz call that a teachable moment, offering a chance to open a longer conversation about why keeping a kosher home is important to you both - and to the world.

Thanks for the question and good luck to you both.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Windpocalypse #2: An Unexpected Sabbath

Just last Shabbat, as the winds were howling outside the sanctuary, we discussed what Shabbat could mean for people today. We looked at new and perhaps unorthodox ways people are bringing a form of Sabbath into their lives and how necessary it is. It's both timeless and timely, as culture critic Judith Shulevitz has just come out with a book on the topic, based on her prior New York Times Magazine essay.

She writes:

What was Creation's climactic culmination? The act of stopping. Why should God have considered it so important to stop? Rabbi Elijah of Vilna put it this way: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don't have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.

The book is called "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time". You can read an excerpt here. See the Forward article.

I talked about how important it is to find a Sabbath - any kind of Sabbath that works - even if it is not completely consistent with tradition. As long as it is internally consistent. In other words, as Shulevitz writes, even if your Sabbath is not "religious" (halachic), do whatever you do religiously. So if you Skype family, do it on Shabbat. If you choose one day to go to a museum or listen to quiet music and avoid e-mail, make it Shabbat. If, as they did in the 1973 oil crisis, you choose to go one day without driving for environmental and conservationist purposes, make that day Shabbat.

I mentioned that my son Dan would not be taking his SATs this past Shabbat, not only because it is in accordance with Shabbat restrictions, but also as a statement of unity with the Jewish people everywhere. Even for those who do not observe Shabbat normally, I stated, it is a very positive way of affirming Jewish identity - and kids invariably get better scores.

Then Stormpocalypse hit. The hurricane force winds and driving rain did not impact those who took the SATs on Saturday. But Dan and the other Sunday takers had to bear the frustration of a cancelled test date. So much for positive impacts. But maybe in the long run it will pay off.

Meanwhile, massive power outages have forced many in this community to rediscover a personal Shabbat. One congregant, David Wolff, who had heard me speak this past Shabbat, wrote to me on Sunday:

As if on cue, Shabbat came early; or again; or simply extended. Either way, for those of us not fully observant, over the last 24 hours we have gotten a chance to experience a more traditional Shabbat (even if it was Sunday) - no phones, no electricity, no TV; rather, family games, discussions, candle-lit dinners.

And the one bend for convenience, our blackberrys, actually allowed us to alert and be aware that family and friends are all OK, providing a measure of relaxation and comfort.

Neighborhood a mess, but no one injured, and during a morning walk/survey, we got to say "hi" to people only hundreds of yards away that we haven't seen in months...

Not a bad "shabbat"!

Not a bad Shabbat at all!

As Shulevitz writes:

The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives. It scowls at our dewy dreams of total relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t personal liberty or unfettered leisure. The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible. Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy. We would be deprived of money and, to a certain degree, of the labor of others. We would be allowed to use our hands and a few utensils, and then only for a limited repertoire of activities. There is something gorgeously naïve about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away—it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization.

For those who are going through similar, Shabbat-like experiences, I'd love to hear about them! Share them with me directly or by adding a comment to this blog entry.

It turns out that this coming weekend has been declared a "National Day of Unplugging." See the New York Times article, "And on the Sabbath, the iPhones Shall Rest" also the website of the sponsoring organization, Reboot and their Sabbath Manifesto.

"Shabbat" Shalom!

Windpocalypse #1: How Art the Mighty Fallen

The storm of this past weekend has turned Stamford into a virtual war zone. The storm killed 2 locally and cut power to 80000. Estimates are that about 30% of the homes in the area are without power. Schools have been cancelled for the day and the mayor robo-called everyone yesterday to tell us to stay off the streets. I was out at the time, cruising downtown to a wedding in a blacked out inn along the battered shoreline - we did the huppah by candlelight alongside a crackling fire. It was beautiful.

The damage was awe-inspiring. Not since I saw the glowing wildfires of Yellowstone and the toothpick-like flattened trees of Mount Saint Helens have I encountered first-hand such an example of raw natural power. People commented that Saturday's storm felt "biblical." It did.

An enormous tree fell in my front yard (see photos - click to enlarge), so huge and majestic that it took three trees with it. Another large tree, beautiful and stately, now lies sprawled across the temple's driveway. Still another was completely uprooted and leans limply near the temple's office entrance. So which is more mind boggling: a huge tree snapped literally in half? Or one equally large uprooted from the bottom? Either one bespeaks a power more humbling than the human mind can imagine. One was a victim of the drenching rains, the other of the piercing, howling winds.

It is all so humbling. Humbling - and healing.

Tonight is Rosh Hodesh Nisan, an irony that one can only call Jewish.

The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch 226:1 with Mishna Brura) informs us that the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan marks the beginning of the season when we say Birkat Ha'Ilanot - the blessing we recite annually upon seeing trees in bloom. Technically, we are to say it only when we see the flower bloom that precedes the growth of a fruit.

The blessing goes like this: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech haolam shelo chisar ba'olamo klum, u'vara vo beriyot tovot v'ilanot tovim lehanot bahem b'nei adam.

"Blessed are You, Source of Life, who does not deny Your world anything, and who has created lovely things, including good trees from which human beings may derive enjoyment."

So at the very moment we mourn the loss of some stately trees, we'll also bless the new life sprouting forth from others. And the wonderful drama of nature's regeneration plays out before us.

What I wrote about Mt. Saint Helens in a Yom Kippur sermon several years ago still holds true today:

But of all the artistic responses to catastrophe, none can match what I saw just a month ago in Washington state. The canvas was Mount St. Helens and the artist - the artist was God. On May 18th, 1980 the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in southwest Washington changed more than 200 square miles of rich forest into a gray, lifeless landscape. The devastation of the blast is almost unfathomable. The lateral blast swept out of the north side at 300 miles per hour creating a 230 square mile fan shaped area of devastation reaching a distance of 17 miles from the crater. With temperatures as high as 660 degrees and the power of 24 megatons of thermal energy, it snapped 100-year-old trees like toothpicks and stripped them of their bark. The largest landslide in recorded history swept down the mountain at speeds of 70 to 150 miles per hour and buried the North Fork of the Toutle River under an average of 150 feet of debris. The massive ash cloud grew to 80,000 feet in 15 minutes and reached the East Coast in 3 days, circling the earth in 15 days. 7,000 big game animals, 12 million salmon, millions of birds and small mammals and 57 humans died in the eruption. Before the blast the mountain stood 9,677 tall. It now stands at 8,363 feet. A thousand feet of mountain is no more. Talk about destruction!

So when we went there last month, I expected to find an eerie moonscape. But I saw something absolutely amazing instead. The land around the mountain is slowly healing. There is new growth everywhere, trees and moss and animal life. In fact, life returned to Mount St. Helens even before the search for the dead had ended. National Guard rescue crews looking for human casualties during the week after the 1980 eruption found that flies and yellow jackets had arrived before them. Curious deer and elk trotted into the blast zone just days after the dust settled. Helicopter pilots who landed inside the crater that first summer reported being dive-bombed by hummingbirds, which mistook their orange jumpsuits for something to eat. A whole new ecosystem is emerging before our eyes. Peter Frenzen, the chief scientist at Mount St. Helens, put it best, "Volcanoes do not destroy;" he said, "they create."

Now I know how we Jews developed our proclivity for confronting madness with artistry. We inherited it from God, the One who renews Creation each day. Never was that more evident to me than at Mount Saint Helens.

Now I can amend that statement and I don't have to go to Washington State to do it. I only need look out the window.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

ACTION STILL NEEDED re: Conversion Bill

Statement from The Jewish Federations of North America

March 10, 2010
The Jewish Federations of North America, representing 157 Federations and 400 smaller Network communities, urges the Government of Israel to enter into dialogue with Diaspora Jews before making any proposed changes to the Law of Return, which allows Jews to migrate to Israel and become Israeli citizens.

Committees in Israel’s Knesset have begun debating a proposal to allow local municipal rabbis in Israel to perform conversions to Judaism. The proposed bill also includes a provision that could prevent a non-Jew who converts to Judaism, in Israel or in the Diaspora, from receiving Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Although we commend the Knesset for its initial rejection of the proposed bill today, this issue remains unresolved and is of urgent importance to our communities.

We implore the Israeli government to seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews before acting on such proposals. Changes to the Law of Return could adversely affect many members of our community by preventing them from making aliyah and becoming Israeli citizens. Any action of this type would be an affront to world Jewry.

Leaders of the Jewish Federations movement today hand-delivered a letter to the Office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express our concerns. Representatives in JFNA’s Washington and Jerusalem offices have additionally communicated our concerns to Israeli officials in Washington, New York and Jerusalem.

Members of The Jewish Federations of North America’s Large City Executive Committee also convened today to discuss these developments. Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, briefed the committee on the issue. Sharansky and the Jewish Agency stand in solidarity with The Jewish Federations of North America on this important issue.
Urgent Action Regarding Rotem Conversion Bill

We need your help on a matter of urgency concerning a bill that will come before the Knesset.
We have received word from our colleagues in Israel that a bill may be put forward for passage as soon as tomorrow which affects conversion and we need as many of us and our congregants to forward the following letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to your Israeli Ambassador.
The bill sponsored by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu, deals with both the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and matters of Conversion. The Rotem Bill concerns three matters:

1. It grants legal authority to the Chief Rabbinate for Conversions (while until now there was de facto recognition this gives legal recognition to the role of the Chief Rabbinate in this area) and would make it much more difficult for conversions to be performed by our Movement, by more “open-minded” Orthodox rabbis, and by Reform rabbis.

2. It provides for the ability of local rabbis in Israel to establish conversion courts. This is a good part of the bill of which we are supportive because it will potentially permit the establishment of more forward looking conversion courts. However, the first part of the bill passes, the Chief Rabbinate may declare these courts null and void, which would obviate any cause for our support.

3. Section 3 of this bill is highly problematic. Here is the summary of Section 3 by Reuven Hammer:

“Section 3 of the proposed conversion bill that we strongly oppose states that anyone that who entered Israel as a non-Jew and then converted to Judaism-either in Israel or the Diaspora would not be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. First of all this is exactly the case that we now have before the Supreme Court, asking that our conversions in Israel be recognized and citizenship rights granted to our converts. This is an attempt to go around the Supreme Court. Secondly, the wording is so vague that it could mean that if such a person had visited Israel at any time, no matter when, their conversion would not be recognized for citizenship in the future. Thirdly this would be the first time that Israel is officially making a distinction between one who is born a Jew and a righteous convert, something that we find deplorable and unsupportable in Jewish Law. Since our movement is the movement that is most involved in conversion in America and elsewhere, we and our congregants are the primary target of the bill. We urge everyone to make their protest known immediately to the Israeli government.”

The Honorable Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of IsraelOffice of the Prime Minister
Jerusalem, Israel
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,
We write to request your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation being brought forward by MK David Rotem
Passage of this bill in its present form especially section 3, will have the effect of providing for a path to alter the Law of Return or, at the least, cause undue hardship to anyone in Israel who has come from Diaspora communities and seeks conversion in Israel.

Sadly, this is reminiscent of those attempts in 1997 to enact similar legislation which ultimately led to the establishment of the Ne'eman Commission.

While we are supportive of your efforts to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel and have done all we can to aid in this effort, the overall impact of the Rotem Bill will set back these efforts. Moreover this legislation will adversely impact the work of our Masorti movement and its members in Israel. This we cannot abide.

Even more regrettably, should this bill be enacted, it will exacerbate a widening gap between Diaspora and Israel communities, which we are all working very hard to avoid.

Therefore, we believe it is imperative that you, Israel’s leader, who cares so deeply about the well-being of our people, intervene and urge withdrawal of this bill.

The email for Prime Minister Netanyahu is:
For Amb. Oren’s office:
For a list of other Ambassadors click here

How Matzah is Made: and What it Means

See the leading matzah factory in Israel, below. As historian Jonathan Sarna spoke here a few years ago, the transition from hand made to mass produced was a watershed moment not only in the history of matzah, but of Jewry as a whole and in particular American Jewry. See an article about it here. Sarna said, "Once it was round and now it's square. once it was varied, and now every matzo is the same. It was a quintessentially local product, and now it's become a brand."

See also The Lord is My Chef (and the secret ingredient is Matzah) and "iPassover: Finding Order in the Martzah and the iPod"

Free Passover Downloads

Some Haggadahs online:

Here's a very attractive one from Rabbi Alex Weinberg. Here's the student Haggadah.

See the following from my colleague, Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner:

Dear Friends,

You can enrich your Passover experience for FREE DOWNLOADS this year by looking at for the new 5770 Haggadot (of various lengths) in Hebrew, reader-friendly English translation and Transliteration.

In addition, you have (1) annual collections of "Seder Supplementary Readings" from many years with which to amend your Seders/Sedarim and (2) "The World's Largest Seder Songbook," containing songs from our childhood and contemporary parodies to familiar melodies, Hebrew and English.Check back as additional materials will be posted during the next several weeks for use in your Seder and Passover experience.

Access is simple and direct:
(2) click on "Downloads"
(3) click on "Passover"
(4) click for download of one or more from the directory of contents
(5) you may share any of the materials with any non-profit organization or individuals; the only restriction is that nothing may be used for commercial publication or profit.

Files available for immediate FREE download include:

This file contains the complete traditional Haggadah in Hebrew, and reader-friendly English Translation and Transliteration. The format is that each section of the Haggadah is posted such that after download and printing you may edit your Haggadah for your Seder by including or excluding pages. Don't forget to check the various annual collections of Supplementary Seder Readings and the World's Largest Seder Songbook.

For those who own the edition of "Davkawriter Platinum 6" THIS ONE is for you. You can download this file into Davkawriter and create your own Haggadah, editing it in the Hebrew-English word processor in which it was created. NOTE: PLEASE send me a copy of what you create - either a PDF or D6 file - to for me to enjoy your creativity. Hag Sameah.

We offer you a download of the world's largest collection of songs to add to your Seder experience, 130 songs you will recall from childhood and the years in Religious School plus song parodies - Passover lyrics set to wide-ranging popular melodies.

Siddur Audio - Passover Seder
Audio files for each of the Haggadah texts with traditional chants.

How do you create, write and edit a Haggadah that will suit your own particular circumstances, wishes and wants? Here are multiple options by which you can create your own Haggadah and then conduct a more meaningful Seder.

Haroset - no matter how you spell it is one of the very special treats for the Seder. Yet this treat is a very important part of the ritual - whether you dip maror in haroset, or you use it with matzah and maror for the Hillel "sandwich" or just enjoy it at the Seder as a side-dish. Consider making many different haroset recipes to enjoy at each Seder. The ingredients have varied from the time of the Talmud and from country to country. For home or for schools. Read, eat and enjoy. Download as a PDF.

This file includes readings and poetry that can supplement your Seder experience to make it ever more personal and meaningful, in addition to the collections from previous years.

The enclosed materials are intended to make your Seder more memorable and meaningful. Download the PDF and then select those readings you wish to print and include in your Seder.

This is the newest 5768 collection of readings, comments and additions to make your Seder more meaningful and interesting. This material is also appropriate for Divrei Torah and Homiletics.

This is an updated re-issuing of readings from 5766 to enhance each Seder and also to serve as resources for Divrei Torah and sermons.

MODEL SEDER without Traditional Hebrew Songs or English Parody Songs: PDF
This is a Model Seder with the Traditional texts sequenced into a booklet in a PDF format. No Hebrew Songs or English Seder Song Parodies are included - they can be downloaded separately and selected from the various choices in Song Books.

This is an updated Guide to Preparing For and Leading the Seder in addition to an enhanced collection of readings, games, questions and discussion topics to enhance your Seder.

This very basic and brief Haggadah is intended for the most elementary Seder, perhaps for the less experienced leader or the family with young children. Download the PDF and print as needed. It does NOT have all the songs in the 5767 Seder Songbook, and I would encourage you to download the Seder Songbook and print it separately for your selective use.