Friday, April 30, 2010

Joint Statement on Conversion Bill


Statement Reflects United Stance on Proposed Legislation

April 30, 2010 (New York, NY) -- Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem, author of a proposed bill dealing with conversion in Israel, met this week with leaders of the North American Jewish community to discuss the bill's possible ramifications. Following a series of discussions with Rotem, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements together issued the following statement:

We are appreciative of the substantial amount of time MK David Rotem devoted to meetings with us, individually and collectively, during his visit to the United States to discuss the legislation he has sponsored in the Knesset dealing with conversion and the Law of Return. We also welcome Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Ayalon's participation in many of our meetings.

It should, first, be emphasized that we deeply appreciate Mr. Rotem's stated goal in advancing the legislation - to ameliorate the bottleneck in the conversion process that currently keeps as many as 350,000 thousand olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union from converting to Judaism. The laudable goal of attempting to hasten the process of conversion for these individuals - who currently serve in the Israeli army and contribute positively to Israeli society - is one that deserves widespread attention and support. Together, we thank MK Rotem for his efforts in addressing this crisis.

MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree. Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people in a number of ways.

The bill threatens to alter the Law of Return and consolidate conversion power into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Both of these results could have devastating effects on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and thus on the broader unity of the Jewish people. Such concentration of power in favor of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry effectively negates the roles of the non-Orthodox movements both within Israel and abroad, sending the message that only the Orthodox have a place within our Homeland.

Specifically, the current formulations of Article 1 would legislate the role and status of the Chief Rabbinate in a way not previously written into law. Such legislation would turn back the clock on 20 years of hard-won accomplishments in the Israeli High Court and complicate future efforts to appeal to the Court, which has been the single mechanism to counter religious discrimination in Israel.

This bill returns us to the destructive "who is a Jew" question, that has previously threatened to divide World Jewry, as it does today. To explicitly connect conversion to a single religious stream, while making no mention of other streams of Judaism, is by definition to compromise and jeopardize the Law of Return, as it places the decision for "who is a Jew" in the hands of one group. Such an action is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded and relies, and would detrimentally affect the worldwide Jewish community.

Further compounding our concern is the fact that the bill mentions no alternative method of conversion via non-Orthodox streams. We - and more importantly, our Israeli colleagues and their lawyers - believe that this language, if adopted as written, would further marginalize and hamper the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel. This would be a tragic consequence as we offer vibrant religious alternatives to a nation of Jews religiously alienated by the increasingly extreme positions of a minority religious establishment. We firmly believe that any conversion legislation must explicitly address these concerns.

We are additionally troubled by language that provides that any person who entered Israel while ineligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return will remain ineligible following conversion. Though MK Rotem says this language exists to outlaw the possibility of illegal immigrants undergoing conversion solely to obtain Israeli citizenship and remain in the country, the reality is that this deeply troubling clause differentiates between those who are born Jewish and those who choose to be Jewish, amending the Law of Return to exclude those who have made a conscious decision to join the Jewish community. For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice the same as Jews-by-birth. We are taught "as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes." (Talmud, Yevamot 47b) We see no justification now for differentiating between groups of Jews or including an article with such severe ramifications in the framework of a law purportedly dealing with easing conversion procedures.

While we recognize the goals Mr. Rotem is working to achieve and deeply respect his efforts, we cannot lend our support to a bill that will have such devastating ramifications. This moment, when Israel faces a great many challenges, both at home and abroad, is no time to enact legislation that has the potential to divide the Jewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.

Even as we expressed our concerns to Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon and MK Rotem, we also emphasized our steadfast love and commitment to the people and State of Israel. It is in this spirit of unity that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel and with one another. Indeed, it is our unconditional love for Israel as both a sovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that calls us to urge, in the strongest possible terms, upon MK Rotem, the Yisrael Beitenu party, and Prime Minister Netanyahu to withdraw this bill and introduce legislation that resolves the urgent problems of olim from the former Soviet Union without compromising either the core democratic values of the State or the Law of Return.

For information about this joint statement of the leadership of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements to the Rotem Conversion Bill, please contact the following: Conservative: Shira Dicker at 917.403.3989,
shira.dicker@sd-media.comReform; Kate Bigam at 202.398.2800, Reconstructionist: Yael Ridberg at 917.287.4207, yridberg@yahoo.comCarl Sheingold at 215.885.5601,

March of the Living: Killing Fields

We arrived in Warsaw this evening and I'm writing to you from the lobby of the Novotel. After a week traversing Shtetl Country, we are suddenly thrust into the 21st century, into a huge city totally rebuilt since the war. The kids were thrilled to be here, and in great spirits as we will fly to Israel tomorrow. French and Canadian MOTL groups are sharing this hotel with us, giving the place a real international flavor. This is the first time I've actually seen a newspaper that I understand. But we've pretty much been living the news this week.

Poland is bereft. We arrived at the Lublin yeshiva when a memorial service was going on inside with Poland's chief rabbi and church leaders. When we entered the sanctuary after the service, the memorial display was still in its place. Every town we've passed through in criss-crossing this country has had flags draped in black ribbons everywhere. The TV stations are running nonstop coverage of the happenings and the history.

While Poland focuses on their WW2 tragedies, so do we. Today we visited Sobibor, where 250,000 Jews met their demise in a 16 month period before the famous revolt (inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). Then, we went to another infamous locale, Maidanek, just outside Lublin - in fact, not even. This is the best preserved camp, with gas chambers and crematoria intact - it was quite moving for the kids walk through them, and then to see the huge mound of human ashes recovered after the war.

I've studied the Shoah for most of my life, but until this trip I was never able to really put the pieces together. The staff has been superb and the kids even better. But now we are definitely ready to let loose and head for Israel tomorrow night. Before then we'll see the Warsaw Ghetto remnants and Treblinka tomorrow. Then we're off.

I've chronicled the experience in photos uploaded to - scroll down half way for today's photos.

Find earlier photos at

Goodnight from Warsaw. I'll likely not be able to write home until after Shabbat - so Shabbat Shalom to all!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Danielle Leffand on Tazria Metzora

My torah portion describes how to overcome an illness or help get through tough times. In those days, the worst form of illness was called leprosy. The person who got it was sent away from the community so that no one else would get it.

But the torah tells us that the community could not be whole without even its weakest, including those who are sick with leprosy.

What’s amazing, is that the priest, the most important person in all of Israel, took it upon himself to bring the sick person back in to the community.

Those who know me know that I have had to deal with lots of injuries myself, though thankfully never leprosy. Just to name a few, I’ve had 5 broken arms, 3 times hurt my leg, and last year I fell off a cliff. Worst of all, was the time, I got cellulitis and had to spend about a week in Greenwich hospital. But it was pretty fun.

What I’ve learned from that experience is to make sure to appreciate what you have. When I was in the hospital I wasn’t able to walk at first. So when I was able to walk again, I really appreciated it. But you can’t let little things get you down.

Then there was the time when I demonstrated what I mean by not letting things slow you down. I still had a cast on from one of my broken arms but I still decided to go mountain biking at camp. I did pretty well. But two days after I got the cast off, that’s when I fell off the cliff.
Many of you know I’m a huge fan of the Jonas brothers. 6 years ago, Nick Jonas was diagnosed with type one diabetes. When I was in the hospital I listened to a song nick wrote about having diabetes and one of the lines in the song goes like this: but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone And you don't know what it's like to feel so low.

My portion teaches us how important it is to give people support when they are sick so that they won’t feel so low. I know how important that can be. Because when I was sick a lot of people helped me.

In the same spirit, my mitzvah project is to go and visit kids in the hospital that are also very sick.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Someone Call a Doctor! (TBE Bulletin Message)

On the 27th of May, I’ll be receiving an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I’m grateful for the honor, but this has prompted the question as to what exactly an honorary doctorate is and why anyone would want one.

Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas after a certain amount of service to the Jewish people beyond ordination, usually around 25 years. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment (setting aside the question as to whether they would give one of those things out posthumously). I suppose it could be said that surviving 25 years in the rabbinate is quite an achievement, particularly in the pulpit rabbinate.

But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on intellectual terms? Shouldn’t a rabbi’s success be rewarded in other ways having less to do with academic achievement? When I get my doctorate, does that title supersede “rabbi?” No it won’t . The title rabbi indicates a mastery of knowledge, but it means much, much more. Besides, we already have a doctor in my household, and one is enough. I defer to her on all matters doctoral.

So, no need for you to address those envelopes “Doctor and Doctor.”

And shouldn’t my work of encouraging people on their Jewish journeys be reward in and of itself? I didn’t need a new title to reap the rich rewards of seeing a number of our teens soak in a life-changing experience at last month’s March of the Living (from which I am writing this). If JTS is now supposedly in the business of taking Judaism out of the ivory tower and bringing it to the people, the rabbi of the 21st century should be a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.Div.

That’s not to say I won’t accept this honor. For one thing, it comes with lunch. And it will be a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership from TBE, as well as a few dozen colleagues who will be similarly honored at our alma mater. Some of these colleagues have become true leaders on the Jewish scene. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized. I’ve also got a great deal of pride in what I (read: we) have accomplished all these years (since all but four years of my rabbinical career have been spent here.

So I’ll accept the title “doctor,” but only on a part time basis. Meanwhile, I’ll work harder to truly earn that title - in the new specialized field of Mensch-ology. As the Jewish Week website’s new Jewish Ethicist, I’ll have to earn my stripes by fire.

But the only degree I am seeking now is a degree of difficulty. As we approach the holiday of Mount Sinai, Shavuot, mountainous challenges us await us here at TBE, and even loftier opportunities. Encouraged by the honor I’ll be receiving, I think I’m up to that challenge. I know that you are!

Friday, April 23, 2010

March of the Living: We're back!

At a little before 7 last evening, local time, the bus pulled into Agudath Sholom's parking lot and the March of the Living was over. Parents and community leaders greeted us with a big welcome sign and pizza, plus lots of hugs. The trip ended on a high note, despite a three hour delay in our takeoff, due to the fact that our plane was coming from London and was delayed by, yes, the ash cloud. To the very last moment, our personal journey was intertwined with world events going on around us. But one long, smooth flight later, we are back.

I want to thank everyone back here who held the fort in my absence. Now that I'm back, please join us tomorrow morning for a very special Shabbat service in which we'll welcome our Tzahal Shalom soldiers being housed in TBE homes. (Thank you to Terry and Asa Hazen for sponsoring these Shabbat announcements in their honor and to Mia and Lonny Weinstein for sponsoring the Kiddush.) We'll hear from them and also from a number of our March of the Living participants who will be giving us their exclusive first impressions, while the "iron is hot." Plus, I am expecting that we'll be honored to be joined by the New England Regional Coordinator, Claire Roche.

The response to my blogs has been overwhelming and gratifying. But it's the kids whose experience matters the most to our future, and now that they are home and have some time to reflect on it, we all will have much to learn from them.

For those who want to catch up on my blogs and photos from the trip, you can find them at here. You can also read my Jewish Week piece (written before the March), "Toyota, Auschwitz and Chelm." And you might want to catch up on the two Jewish Ethicist blog postings of mine that appeared on the Week's web page while I was gone: Should I Keep An Undeserved Bonus? and Coming Clean with a Fiancée.

Join us for services this evening as well, at 6:30.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Hammerman on Ethics: Coming Clean with a Fiancée

Q: I'm about to get married to the woman of my dreams. She knows I was married before; what she doesn't know is that the marriage broke up because I was a schmuck. Ethically speaking, how much do I need to tell her?

A) You have a right to privacy, but a relationship that begins with massive deception has little chance of long term success. Even JDate, where people routinely avoid exposing their dark side, suggests that profiles include a response to the question, "What I've Learned from Past Relationships." If the cause of your failed marriage somehow never came up before, at the very least, you and your fiancée should come to a mutual agreement as to whether sordid details of all past relationships are off limits.

But it would be much better to come clean. There are many shadings of schmucky behavior in marriage, ranging from rape to refusing to put down the toilet seat, but anything resembling either cheating or domestic violence would be relevant enough to warrant full disclosure.

For the rest of the response, click here.

Hammerman on Ethics: Should I Keep an Undeserved Bonus?

Should I Keep An Undeserved Bonus?

Q. My boss has decided to give me a big bonus for something I only helped with; another worker deserves it more than I do. But I need the money, and she is pretty well off. What's the right thing to do?

A. Maybe your contribution was more integral to the success of the project than you realize. But, regardless, you should be forthcoming. Not only does our tradition demand honesty in how we conduct business, but it's really the most practical professional decision you can make.

Click here for the rest of the response.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

March of the Living: Endings and Beginnings

The March is over. Final day photos are at

We leave for the airport in just a few hours. Today we went to Masada and the Dead Sea, then back for a few hours at the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem and then one last session all together, where participants shared reflections on the trip. The group has come together remarkably and it was hard to imagine that this group, as constituted, will never be all together again. But we'll have memories that will always be shared.

For my bit of final advice to the kids, I referred to a selection from Pirke Avot that I had discussed at this morning's service atop Masada. We had a conversation about what it means to be a hero. And so many options were offered over the past few weeks, from Warsaw Ghetto fighters to Masada zealots, and everything in between. Moral courage and the willingness to sacrifice and to speak out were offered up as barometers of heroism. Judy Altmann has clearly emerged as a major role model to everyone in our group. She was not able to return to us for the end of the trip, but her presence remains most vivid. In the eyes of these kids (and adults too), she is a moral giant.

The rabbis measured heroism in other ways - in the ability to resist temptation. "Who is a hero? The one who conquers her incination."

So tonight I reflected on what we've seen and heard about. We've seen how perfectly normal people have the capacity to be utterly cruel. People who love their spouses and children and pets, could go to their "jobs" as death camp guards and perform unspeakable acts of sadism, well beyond the "call of duty." We've seen that such cruelty lies within the capacity of every human being.

We've also seen that the human conscience is capably of unfathomable acts of courage and kindness - that people can create mind-numbing beauty. We've seen that especially here in Israel, a nation built from the ashes, ashes that we literally stood before in Maidanek and Treblinka (and it was pointed out by our group leader that we'll be flying over a cloud of ashes in our return to the States).

The kids spoke of how important it is for them to bring these lessons home with them and teach others, and for some the first chance to do that will be at Beth El this Shabbat morning. They also spoke of how important it was to "be more Jewish," however they defined that.

I need to stop here, both to save something for the High Holidays and to give myself the chance to at least say that I tried to get some sleep before our 4 AM wakeup call (the flight home leaves at about 9 AM here, an hour later than scheduled - but that's fine; the Australian group is still making its way here from Poland!)

Again, thank you for your many comments and e-mails.

Signing off for now. See you in Stamford.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The March of the Living: Israel - A Young 62

As thousands of MOTL teens piled atop tanks this evening at Latrun and then danced and jumped their way through an electric "mega event," it occurred to me what this was all about. It was about kids, Jewish kids, very assimilated kids, getting together and being, simply, kids. No inspiring calls to a mission. No deep thoughts to convey. Not even any political statements.

I had feared a political punchline to the March in today's concluding events. But there was nothing about our march to the Kotel from Safra Square, or tonight's mega, that would have upset Joe Biden or his boss. It wasn't about Jewish control over this neighborhood or that. It was about Jews being joyous. It was about Jewish kids - alive with passion for life, for Israel and for one another - simply being kids. The closest thing to a political statement made tonight was one in support of Gilad Shalit, and that brief interlude ended with the singing of John Lennon's "Imagine."

"Imagine?" That song hardly speaks of our national homeland. It's a song that speaks of the ideal of having NO national homelands! The message of the event was simply: be free, be alive, be who you are, be proud.

"Free to Be - Jew and Me."

Tonight's event had all the political intrigue of an Abba concert, and the music was just as cheezy. It ended up with a rousing rendition of "Halleluyah," which fittingly won the Eurovision contest a generation ago. Because, aside from the pyrotechnics (which were impressive) this event could have been one of those Eurovision contests in the era when Israelis were still watching it in black and white.

One of the teens came up to me at the end, all smiles, saying, "That was so much fun!"

'Nuff said.

Put into perspective, what response can be better? After our weeklong trudge through the death camps, the only statement that needs to be made is that we are alive. And kids having the time of their lives is a perfect way of stating precisely that. The idea is to channel all those raging teen hormones into love - for Israel and the Jewish people, but for life and humanity.

So here we are, on Israel's 62nd birthday - also Hitler's birthday. And who has turned out better? The newspapers today proclaimed that Israel's economy is growing at one of the fastest rates in the world. Their is a feeling of security in this country that I haven't seen here in many years. The police are much less noticeable (even those security checks at the door) in public places and the people more plentiful. As Israel celebrated her birthday today with cookouts and picnics, Jerusalem was festive in every respect. This already most beautiful city was decked out in her finest. But for the Jewish people, it's not just about Israel. The Jerusalem Post holiday supplement boasted about "62 years of brain power." When Hitler killed the 6 million, he failed to kill the Jewish mind. He also failed to kill the Jewish soul - the human soul in every Jew. Jews are not prisoners to hate and revenge. We love our neighbors, and we love ourselves. Hence John Lennon's "Imagine." We can still imagine a world where people love one another. And the kids will lead us to THAT promised land.

Take that, Fuhrer! We can still love. And we got the kids to prove it. And they are falling in love with each other on this trip (some romantically, for others, lifelong bonds of friendship) and I guess the theory must go something like this: if you fall in love IN Israel, you'll fall in love WITH Israel. It's working.

That's why the March works. It is not indoctrination - unless being human is a doctrine. It's a journey of self discovery and communal connection. And it's worth every minute.

I've uploaded a couple of hundred new photos to give you the flavor of today's events: our return to Jerusalem, the march to the Kotel from Safra Square and the events in Latrun. You can find them at

Thank you to everyone who has written to me responding to these reports from the March. I'll be joined by some of our students at services this Shabbat to give some first hand impressions.

Tomorrow, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem and preparations for our return. (Alas, the Aussies have yet to get here! Stuck in Poland for an additional week by the ashes). The plane ride ought to be one very long, 11 hour tearful goodbye.

If time permits I may blog tomorrow, but more likely not.

Signing off from Jerusalem on the 62nd birthday of the thriving Jewish state.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Monday, April 19, 2010

March of the Living: Raise Your Eyes to the Mountains

Today the teens experienced the full swing of emotions, a microcosm of the entire trip, as connected to the rhythm of Israeli time, starting the day with the seriousness and grief of Yom HaZikaron and ending it with the ecstasy of Yom Haatzmaut.

See today’s photos at - scroll down for the latest ones.

After our daily morning service, where I played selected Israeli songs, including a recent version of Psalm 121 “Shir hamaalot, Lift your eyes to the mountains,” we headed for the hills – a spectacular view from the top of Mount Gilboa, commanding a view, on one side, of the Jezreel Valley, and on the other of the areas on the other side of the Green Line, including Jenin. We got a good look at the Security Barrier and saw why it has been so helpful in stopping terror. This area had been particularly hard hit in the suicide bombings of a decade ago. And now there is almost air-tight security, to the point where a visible police presence is rarely needed in public spaces. The view was spectacular, but so were the wildflowers dotting the hillside.

After that we went to a nearby Kibbutz, Beit HaShita, to commemorate Memorial Day with them. This Kibbutz has suffered dearly in wars and terror attacks dating back to 1937 when the valley was being developed and especially vulnerable. The fields were lush and green – as I hope the photos demonstrate. The ceremony was brief and moving. Since this is a secular Kibbutz, there was no Kaddish or Memorial Prayer – and they didn’t light candles but brought flowers to the graves of the departed heroes. Later on we joined in at another ceremony, with a group of disadvantaged children at the Emunah Center in Afula. Our teens helped them to make memorial candles and befriended them. In between we had another meet & greet with a group of 11th and 12th graders from a local high school. It was a very full day.

While we were in Afula, Mara and I were thrilled to see an old friend to many at TBE, Liza Elisha, who was our youth counselor on the past two TBE Israel Adventures. Liza (whose last name is no longer Elisha), showed up with her new baby. You can see photos at the photo site.
Finally, tonight we all went out to Tiberias and the disco boat. What a release for everyone! A great time was had by all. One of the first songs the DJ played was… that same version of Psalm 121, Shir hama’a lot… which morphs from a dirge to a song of celebration and assurance. Tiberias was hopping tonight – wall to wall Israelis. The kids did some shopping after the disco boat docked, a special unplanned treat, a reward for how fantastic they’ve been through this whole trip – in particular on this difficult day.

It’s too soon to try to piece everything together – and too late for me to have the strength to do it! Two more days. Tomorrow, another march – this time in Jerusalem.

Happy birthday, Israel!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

March of the Living: Thy Beauty, O Israel

We’ve been quite fortunate on this trip. So much of the experience is planned months in advance, but the best things happen spontaneously: like the rainbow that appeared in the clouds as we disembarked in Safed this afternoon.

Or the fact that our plane took off for Poland an hour and a half late because of reported fog in Krakow – and then we landed, only to discover the next day that the Polish president’s plane had crashed… because of fog at the airport. Or the fact that our flight out of Warsaw airport was one of the last flights out before the volcanic ash from Iceland brought European air traffic to a standstill. And then there was the sudden flyover of Israeli Air Force jets as we arrived at our first stop in Jerusalem, the Haas Promenade, as they prepared for Independence Day festivities and seemed to be welcoming us.

Or Shabbat. This was a magical Shabbat for the group. Blessed with perfect weather, it began with a Kabbalat Shabbat service featuring a combination of dancing, exuberant singing and quiet meditation. As we looked out over the hills surrounding our hotel, we could literally see the peace of the Sabbath descend as the sky began to darken and the cars suddenly disappeared below us. In the pluralistic spirit that has defined this group, it was decided beforehand that the dancing at services would be with girls and boys together, and it was (girls also helped to lead and one even brought a Middle Eastern drum to assist), and then at dinner, there would be separate dancing, which also happened. But what ensured, totally unexpectedly, was a sense of empowerment by the girls, who, rather than simply standing aside and taking the lead from the boys, formed their own circle and initiated their own songs, even lifting one another up on chairs. It was separate, but it was equal… Of course, I loved it. Pluralism in action. I explained to the kids that given the fact that Israel is the only country in the world where a Jewish woman can be arrested for wearing a tallit, we have much to teach our hosts about loving our neighbor as ourselves – and respecting religious diversity.

There were no exotic davening options on Shabbat morning, but herein lies another spontaneous miracle…and a quintessential “only in Israel” story. Because our hostel lies in a rather remote part of Jerusalem, there were no alternative prayer options available within walking distance…. Unless you are an elephant (we were next to the Biblical Zoo) or a corrupt former mayor (we also were quite near the now-infamous Holyland construction project, which has been the big scandal to hit this week). So, almost everyone in the group opted to go to a lovely Sephardic synagogue in an adjoining neighborhood. We were welcomed with open arms. The service was hard to follow for most of the kids (though it was interesting for them to see a Sephardic torah), but it didn’t matter. When it was announced, in Hebrew, that a group from March of the Living had joined them, the congregation instantly applauded. We were given several aliyahs. Oodles of little kids played with our teens outside, and they were thrilled when our kids shared with them some of the pins they had traded for on the March.

At the end of the service, (at 10:30 AM!) we were invited by a family back to their home for Kiddush. That’s right, all 75 of us who came to the service were invited back. The area is new – less than a decade old – and the apartments are lovely, with a spectacular view of the Judean hills. The entire extended family was rushed into action, ripping open bags of candies, cakes, chips and Bamba, and soon bottles of soda appeared. We stood in the spectacular courtyard of their home, all of us fitting in the tight space, and Yossi, a biologist, teacher and the patriarch of the family, recited the Kiddush. He told us how his family had emigrated from Iran in 1951. Each member of the family introduced him/herself and then we toured their home.

For the kids, it was the perfect Israel experience. We all felt like family. They made it clear, we ARE family. After a difficult week in Poland, nothing could have been better.

We relaxed in various ways on Shabbat afternoon. Some went on a hike, others met up with old friends and family members (Mara, Dan and I met our new great nephew – my sister’s grandson – for the very first time. He is, BTW, adorable). At night we walked atop the Old City walls and then let the kids loose on Ben Yehudah street.

This morning, we left for the north and a quick tour of several parts of this country. All of Israel is awash in flags as Memorial Day and Yom Ha’atzmaut approached. We climbed to Safed and heard from one of the group rabbis about Kabbalistic approaches to life’s pressing issues. The kids shopped and ate and then we were off to our northern base in Beit Sha’an. Later in the day, we set the tone for Yom Hazikaron by watching "A Hero In Heaven," a video about Michael Levin, an American Jew who moved to Israel and died in the 2006 Lebanon War. The film touched us all. Tonight we ushered in Israel’s Memorial Day with a moving ceremony with the community of Gan Ner, in our sister region of Afula-Gilboa. Our kids were involved in the ceremony, which featured poetry, songs and dance. The rabbi of the community, whose first name is Avshalom (the name of David’s son), begin the ceremony by reading from Second Samuel chapter 1, King David’s lament for the loss of King Saul in a battle that also took the life of his beloved friend Jonathan.

“Thy beauty, O Israel, upon thy high places is slain! How are the mighty fallen!”

It struck me immediately that the choice of this opening was no accident, for that fateful battle against the Philistines had taken place in EXACTLY THE SAME PLACE – right there on Mount Gilboa. And once again I felt a deep connection to the land, its history and its people. Israelis all mourn loss on this day – Hatikva was profoundly moving as young children held flags, marching in to a soulful saxe playing the selection from Psalm 34, "Who is the man that desireth life, and loveth days, that he may see may see good therein? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”

Another psalm of David. Another expression of the Israeli desire to give all for peace.

The ceremony included a song by the popular Israeli singer Rami Kleinstein, ”A Feather in the Wind” (hear it sung here). After the ceremony, another abrupt change of mood, as our teens mingled with the teens from this community. As you’ll see from the pictures, the kids had a fantastic time.

So this weekend we saw the beauty of Israel – its landscape, weather and most of all, the people. And tonight we mourn the best of the best, those beautiful souls who gave all for their country, and for the Jewish nation.

Check out the photos from this weekend at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

March of the Living: Wall to Wall

We are in Israel. Our plane landed at nearly midnight, just in time to celebrate Melanie Katz' birthday in the terminal. Today was a very full day, as we saw seeing the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto wall and then journeyed to Treblinka, which is about 2 hours drive from Warsaw.

In all we visited five death camps (if you count Auschwitz - Birkenau as one), more than enough for one lifetime, much less one week. But each camps tells a different and important part of the story, and each one displays it in a slightly different way. Treblinka, like Sobibor and Belzec, was totally destroyed by the Nazis, so the memorials leave more to the imagination, In fact, Treblinkas' is downright lovely, especially on a sunny day like today. The natural beauty seems oddly out of place, but since we had seen much more jarring images at other places, it actually served as a fitting coda to our journey. The many destroyed communities remembered there include the ancestral home of Dr. Harry Romanowitz, whose commitment to the cause of Holocaust education made this trip possible for many in our group. We took photos there (see the uploaded photos).

As our final ceremony in Poland concluded I spied - of all things - a lovely yellow butterfly, resting on a flower in the facsimile ash pit at the memorial. The great poem came to mind. The author never saw another butterfly in the ghetto - but we did, at the site of Treblinka. And it was time to leave for Israel.

The charter flight was filled with MOTL groups from Canada, France and the US. There was palpable excitement throughout the 4 1/2 hour trip as we approached our landing and that continued all the way up to Jerusalem, where we are now. It is such a thrill to see the look of excitement especially on the faces of those who have been waiting a lifetime to get here. Some even kissed the ground!

Photos are uploaded at - scroll down for today's pics. You'll see from the photos that while we waited in the terminal, just outside we could see a large transport plain unloading coffins from Smolensk. The military ceremony seemed to go on forever and was still going on when we boarded our plane. A sad bookend to a trip that began with the sad news of the Polish plane crash last week.
There is much, much more to say about the experience in Poland - but you'll just have to wait to hear it! Next Shabbat, when I return, will be a good time to start.

Tomorrow (today) we'll get to sleep in a little later, then head out to the old city, including the Kotel and Jewish Quarter. Weather is expected to be warm and beautiful - mid 70s, at least. It's cool right now as I look out from our lobby to the back porch where we'll be having services this morning. The lights from apartments and street lights dot the hillside across the way, suspended, it seems, in mid air. There is a certain claylike smell in the breeze, something that tells my senses that I am home.
It's very quiet... so I think I'll go catch a couple of hours sleep.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem
I've chronicled the experience in photos uploaded to - scroll down for today's photos.
Find earlier photos at

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Toyota, Auschwitz and Chelm (Jewish Week)

Toyota, Auschwitz And Chelm
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

This week, I’ll be joining the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage from Poland to Israel. The experience of the Holocaust stands alone in Jewish history, a godless counterpoint to all things sacred. Alongside the majestic peaks of Sinai and Zion, our view now includes this man-made mountain of children’s shoes, empty luggage and echoing shrieks, a clump of human refuse that dwarfs everything around it, taller than Sinai, more imposing than Zion, more insurmountable than Everest.

As I prepare to face the enormity of Auschwitz for the first time, it occurs to me that since the Shoah, rabbis have become like Toyota salesmen. What, after all, are we selling, but a product once revered, but now proven to be a grand farce? The myth has been summarily detonated, the brand exposed. Just as “Made in Japannow has reverted to its original derogatory, postwar meaning (cheap, fake, laughable), “Made at Sinainow feels like its “Made in Japan.”

Oh, we rabbis have been trained well. We’ve developed numerous diversionary strategies to refocus the question (“Where was God? Well, where was man?”) or simply to foster a perpetual state of denial (“We can’t know God’s ways”). Some have chosen to relinquish some of God’s omnipotence, others go much farther. But for the most part, we focus on beating home the message that Judaism still has an important function to serve, even if there’s a gaping hole under the chassis. Some deny that the hole exists, clinging naively to pre-Auschwitz fantasies. It is astonishing how many otherwise intelligent, modern, skeptical Jews buy this theological nonsense, slickly packaged by various ultra-Orthodox groups. But most rabbis, while not denying the seriousness of the challenge, prefer to set the questions aside, suggesting that maybe the next generation will solve the problem.

Over the decades, there have been brilliant attempts to deal with this dilemma. Some, like Richard Rubenstein’s existentialistAfter Auschwitz,” have been powerfully honest. Such radical theologies proliferated in the ’60s, during the so-called “Death of God” era. Since then, God has survived quite nicely, thank you, but those bold theologies have yellowed with age. The question of Auschwitz remains as vivid as ever, but after 65 years, we seem to be tiring of asking it.
It makes me wonder: If Toyotas never get fixed, but for 65 years company propagandists spew forth the message that the cars are really safe, will we start believing in them again? Will the producers just wear us down until we tire of asking the questions? That strategy seems to have worked with other products. Some people actually think that cable news is really news. Some Jews believe that the same God who was silent in Auschwitz actually caused Iraqi Scuds to miss their targets in Tel Aviv. The madness has worn us down.

Perhaps the antidote to such madness is a different kind of madness.

The day after we march on Auschwitz, my group will stop off on the way to Warsaw in a quaint town called Chelm, for Jews the eternal capital of absurdity. Chelmites are mythical Jews from a real town, known for their propensity to take logic to its bizarre extreme.

Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain.

Quick,” said one. “Open your umbrella.”

It won’t help,” said his friend. “My umbrella is full of holes.”

Then why did you bring it?”

“I didn’t think it would rain!”

A New York-based klezmer group named Golem wrote a song recently about a Chelmite who leaves on a journey to Warsaw, gets lost and ends up back in Chelm. “He’s so stupid that he thinks he’s actually in Warsaw,” bandleader Annette Ezekiel told “The moral is any place can be any place elseit doesn’t matter where you are.”

But for me, it will matter a lot. I’ll be coming from Auschwitz, the darkest place in Jewish history, and then I’ll be staying over in Chelm, the funniest. Chelm will be the place where I wash my hands after visiting this countrywide cemetery, a way station before I head to Jerusalem for the second part of the March.

Two points about Chelm. First, laughter provided a great outlet for those suffering from hunger, poverty and hatred, as the Jews of Poland did for so long. But rather than laugh at real people, the Jewish genius invented a mythical community to laugh at. Not only is that practical (as opposed to laughing at Poles, who might respond by killing you), it is far more ethical to make fun of fake people than real people.

Second, Chelm might hold the key to our getting beyond the theological quandaries of our age. If the commanding voice of Auschwitz has muffled the God of Sinai for the time being, maybe we need to pay more attention to the God of Chelm. The Yiddish aphorism, “Man plans, God laughs,” just might be the most apt theological response to an age of absurdity. It’s not that God is laughing at us; it’s simply that God has taught us that laughter is the only way one can respond to a world of unfathomable evil and unspeakable tragedy, while clinging to life and dignity. Maintaining some semblance of sanity requires a modicum of insanity, an art we’ve been perfecting for centuries, ever since we figured out how a poor peasant living in rags could be transformed into royalty through the simple act of lighting candles, drinking wine and blessing hallah. The first Jewish kid, whose life was replete with tragedy, was nonetheless named laughter (Isaac). We’ve been re-living Isaac’s story ever since.

Would you buy a used Toyota from this God? Perhaps not. But at least the divine gift of laughter gives us the courage to stare directly into that gaping hole in the chassis and laugh at the absurdity of it all, while gasping in amazement that, despite everything, we are alive.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

March of the Living: Lancut and Belzec

Greetings from Chelm!

We arrived here at the conclusion of a remarkable day. Read on to find out why.

I've chronicled the experience in photos uploaded here
Find earlier photos here

We left Krakow early this morning and were on the road all day, heading east, through the rolling, lush farmlands of Galicia, toward the Ukrainian border. The small towns and villages of this part of the country has been partitioned over and over, but for the past few centuries, Jews were a large proportion of the population no matter who was in charge, be they Austro-Hungarians, Russians or free Polish...or Germans... until the Holocaust, that is. As we rolled along on a sunny, pleasant day, the grainy black and white photos suddenly gained color, and thick forests took on a fairy tale hue, the grass turned as green as could be. Poland is Europe's breadbasket, and I could see why. I could also see why the mystical threads of Judaism, Hasidism and Kabbala, thrived here. Nature at it's most natural, and most beautiful (outside of Israel, of course).

When we saw a horse pulling a plow, and I almost heard Tevye complaining about it. Yes we saw chickens, loads of chickens, and ducks and even a stork or two. We saw peasant folk aplenty. But what we did not see were Jews, in an area that was once was filled with Jews.

We stopped for lunch in a quaint town called Lancut. The buildings in Poland (frankly) hadn't impressed us too much - until we came here. The photos I uploaded will help you to see why we all felt this was one of the most beautiful shuls we had ever set foot in. Small, colorful, filled with frescoed walls with simple but beautiful artwork and calligraphy.

We sang and danced and prayed, and with the echoes ringing throughout the room, it sounded like many more than just our group were singing. We prayed Mah Tovu, which speaks of the beauty of this place of prayer, as we read its words painted over the entrance to the room. Our singing sounded like we were accompanied by thousands of angels. It got so loud in fact, that a woman came in off the street and asked whether this was indeed a prayer service, intimating that it would be inappropriate for us to be celebrating at a time of national tragedy here. Judy Altmann conversed with her in Polish, assuring her that we were praying. And I stopped for moment while leading the mincha service to explain that we are all sorry for the country's loss and feel solidarity (solidarnosc) with her. She smiled and told Judy that in fact her mother had protected some Jews during the Shoah.

Our next stop, Belzec, was as difficult as Lancut had been enjoyable, (though even through that earlier joy, we knew that we were bringing to life a dead synagogue, whose congregation had primarily been brought here, to Belzec). Nothing remains of the camp, which was destroyed by the Nazis after it had completed its work of rendering Judenrein entire stretches of Poland and surrounding countries. This was solely a death camp, not a labor camp. At least 434,000 Jews were killed systematically, and only a few hundred remained alive at any time, only a handful of them surviving the war.

Then, as we began to say Kaddish for the victims, Judy told us that she had found a plaque memorializing her village (all the Jewish communities that were sent to Belzec are memorialized at the site). This brought closure to one of the great unknowns of her family's life. If her village had all been brought here, as was now confirmed, this is where her sister died. She had never known this before. It was a cathartic moment for her, bringing her to tears. Our group has bonded closely with Judy, so this became a tear-filled, cathartic moment for the teens as well. Many came up to comfort her. Some of us walked back to that spot and I photographed it for her (see it among the uploaded photos). We chanted the memorial prayer, so that now Judy's sister would be properly memorialized, at her own place of burial. We all felt fortunate to have helped her fulfill this quest, as painful as it was, and to achieve some closure.

It was just another example of the remarkable sensitivity of the teens in this group. It is a privilege to be sharing this time with them.

Following Belzec, our group drove another couple of hours to Chelm, where we rest tonight, just a few miles from the Ukrainian border The hotel is actually nicer than the one in Krakow, but some of you may recall that I was concerned about riding in an elevator in a place known to Jewish legend as being unable to distinguish up from down. Well, sure enough, when we entered the lobby, one of the elevators was being worked on - out of order. And when I rode the other one, I discovered to my dismay that there is no inside door. Welcome to Chelm.

Yes, this is an emotional roller coaster - with a tough day upcoming tomorrow, but many more highs than lows to come. But I am learning much more about the Holocaust than I ever knew before, and the shtetl world we left behind. The grainy black and white is gone forever now.

Laila Tov from the tired man of Chelm

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Monday, April 12, 2010

March of the Living: The March

Imagine an Olympic village in the shadows of Ground Zero. That is in essence the March. I've uploaded nearly 200 photos from today - at

Scroll down half way and you'll find today's photos.

The weather cleared and was beautiful and sunny, if a bit windy at times. A perfect day for a leisurely stroll... even one from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Not just any stroll, but one including nearly 10,000 of our closest friends. It was a celebration of Jewish life. Our kids really got into it, trading pins and meeting up with Jewish teens from all over the world. They had never seen so many Jews in one place before (until next week, when they'll see that many in front of them in Jerusalem traffic). They felt great about being Jewish.

For survivor Judy Altmann, her return to Auschwitz might actually have been one of the happiest days of her life, for she got the message resoundingly clear, that not only will her people live on, but so will the story she has spent most of her life telling. We will remember. The next generation will remember.

The recent tragedy in Poland was also remembered appropriately. Our group wore black ribbons that our hotel staff procured for us - they were very grateful for our consideration of their loss - and there were several reminders of the tragedy in today's program, including a moment of silence. There was singing, but it was muted somewhat in deference to the people of Poland.

The program followed the pattern on many Yom Hashoah programs (except with big names like Natan Sharansky and Dudu Fisher on the bill). You can see the entire ceremony streamed at the website of Jewish Life TV
Early wake up tomorrow - we are headed for Chelm (and other places). Internet permitting (and in Chelm we might have to make due with two cups and a string), I'll upload more photos and commentary.

But make sure to take a look at today's, to get a real flavor for the event: - scroll down half way.

Laila Tov

See below for video of Sharansky speech, plus two songs, including (bottom) "What Will Become of the Memories."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

March of the Living: A Visit to Hell

(click on photos to enlarge)

From March of the Living 2010

From March of the Living 2010

From March of the Living 2010

While Poland begins to absorb the shock of its terrible loss, the March of the Living takes place tomorrow. This is a national week of mourning here, as declared by the government. In a statement released not long ago, MOTL states:

We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss. Our thoughts, hopes and prayers are with them during this difficult time. During the March of the Living, we will express our solidarity with the Polish people over their loss by observing a moment of silence in honor of those who died in this tragic accident.

Today was rainy and cold, and our group spend several hours touring Auschwitz / Birkenau. Knowing that the victims had no warm bus to return to, the teens were patient and resilient. The visit hit a deep emotional chord in all of us - for some that took the form of more outward emoting, but everyone was cared for - and this evening, the teens have had a chance to "process" this difficult day.

Earlier in the day we held morning services at the Tempel Synagogue, where we had gone on Shabbat. The synagogue occasionally opens for foreign groups like ours. This congregation was totally wiped out in the Holocaust. So when we said the mourner's kaddish this morning, each of us said it in memory of the person who used to occupy that seat. And again, as we did yesterday (but this time just our group), we danced the Krakow Niggun, created by
Shlomo Carlebach after the Holocaust.

Before the service, we had some moments outside the temple (waiting for the caretaker to show up with the key), giving our Kulanu group a chance to send this video greeting:

This evening, we ushered in Yom Hashoah with a program back at our Krakow hotel, as students read poetry and we heard from survivor Judy Altmann, who today returned for the first time to the place where she last saw her parents and where she lost 22 members of her family. Earlier. she had found the building in Birkenau where she had stayed, barrack 14, and described to the kids how she was able to scrounge for food in order to survive. This evening, she tearfully thanked the staff and teens for giving her this opportunity, and she called upon us to remember the victims not as emaciated prisoners and ashes, but as they were at home, before the Holocaust, surrounded by their loved ones. I'll be sending along her message to the community back home for the Yom Hashoah program on Monday evening.

From March of the Living 2010

The trip to Auschwitz took about an hour. As the bus we passed small rolling towns outside of Krakow, it was hard to believe that we were approaching the place we had heard about all these years. It is too soon for me to give many details, but as you look at the photos you'll see how expansive Birkenau is. That is where the bulk of the killing took place, and those barracks that remain are close to their original - inhuman - condition. Auschwitz, a mile and a half away, is more compact and dressed up. It was originally a Polish military training camp, so the facilities are more substantive, built of an orangy-brick vaguely reminiscent of some neighborhoods in Queens. But what went on inside those buildings was simply the greatest crime against humanity of all time. We went there second and spent time at the museum, seeing up close the machinery of mass murder - how efficient it was. At the tours conclusion, we walked into a gas chamber, staring up at the vents through which the Zyklon B was deposited into the room. We saw the ovens as well, as you can see in the photos.

Tomorrow: the March.

I've uploaded a number of new photos from today; those pictures will speak far louder than my words.

Click on the photo below (or here) for the complete, updated photo album with over a hundred new photos, and click on any of the photos to enlarge. Once you are on the page, scroll down for most recent photos. A slide show of these same photos can be seen below that.

To everyone back in Stamford, a meaningful and reflective Yom Hoshoah, from here in Poland.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman