Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TBE Israel Adventure - NEW Interactive Itinerary

Check out our newly revised, interactive itinerary for next summer's TBE Israel Adventure, by clicking here.  The changes reflect requests made by the group at our recent informational meeting.  The group is coming together.  Click here for pricing and here for the registration form.


The Inbal in Jerusalem was named one of the top ten Best in the World Middle Eastern hotels by Conde Nast. And we're staying there on our TBE Israel Adventure this summer! See 2 Israeli hotels in 'Conde Nast' Top 10

Read the mouth-watering review:

The neo-Byzantine landmark made of Jerusalem stone sits in a former olive grove in the Talbieh district, overlooking Liberty Bell Park. Rooms are decorated in muted cream and honey hues and have marble and glass furnishings; anticipate “unmatched views of the Old City from the huge private terraces of the suites.” “Probably the best food in the city” includes “an excellent breakfast buffet” at Carmel Restaurant. Grilled meat is the specialty at Splash Pool Bar.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Apology Regarding the Tim Tebow Article

This week I wrote an article for the Jewish Week in which I attempted to explore the phenomenon of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow to make broad points about society and extremism. I now realize that some of my statements had the reverse effect of what I had intended and for this I deeply and sincerely apologize.

As many of you know, I have spent my entire career engaged in dialogue with people of all faiths while speaking out passionately against all forms of bigotry. I have the deepest respect for those who are committed to their faith, including Mr. Tebow. I realize the way in which I attempted to make my points was clumsy and inappropriate, inadvertently suggesting the kind of intolerance and extremism my article was intended to disparage. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Tebow, his family, the Broncos and Patriots and all those whom I may have offended.

Monday, December 12, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Dustin Knopoff on VaYishlach

Shabbat shalom!

You know speeches are very difficult for me. I have never liked them. I was always the one who never practiced a speech but somehow ended up getting an excellent grade on them anyway.

So here it goes...

At this moment I'm standing in limbo, hovering between my past and my future. (Put small blue rug or blanket on the ground). Similarly to standing at the shore of a river deciding whether to cross or not. When I cross this river, my future will begin. But it’s not easy to cross such a large mass of water. On the one hand, what’s on the other side is unknown and scary. But at the same time, it’s exciting to have new adventures and I've always been curious to discover new things.

Where I am right now, is exactly where Jacob stood toward the beginning of my portion. He was about to cross the river back into his homeland, but it was a homeland he hadn’t seen in twenty years. He didn’t know how his brother Esau would react to seeing him. He feared for his family and his own safety.

I can only imagine how it must have been for Jacob. If I were coming back to Stamford after 20 years, I’d immediately go to see if the majestic theater was there or my dad’s office or even Mrs. Hammerman’s M&Ms! For those of you who don't know, Mrs. Hammerman always has M&Ms in her back pocket. But I'd also wonder what new things had come to the community.

Think how much has changed in the past 20 years. In 1992, there were no iPods, smartphones or even no Facebook! How crazy is that! Jacob must have been really fearful of what he was going to encounter. As someone who loves technology and looks forward to the future, I would have been more curious than fearful.

So Jacob crossed this river and while he was crossing, he had a wrestling match with what might have been an angel. I can relate to that part of the story as well. Taekwondo is an extremely important part of my life. I started 7 years ago and now I am a 2nd degree black belt. In case some of you think I'm pulling your leg… Here is the proof(Pull out belt). So I would have not been afraid to cross the river, even if there was a threatening-looking angel standing in my way.

Jews have historically been confident to move into the future. Jacob and his family were called Hebrews which originates from the word “ivri” (eevree) meaning “to cross over.” We’ve been crossing rivers for hundreds of generations.

Similar to Jacob’s, my family has also been quick to adjust to changing times. My grandfather has always used technology to help him work as a doctor. Along with my grandfather, my uncle owns a company that develops games and applications. He’s inspired me to explore the possibilities of new technology, things like learning code or developing my own apps. Someday I’ll develop a Bar Mitzvah app, which helps Jews with all their bar or bat mitzvah needs, from ordering party favors to learning torah trope. Afterwards I might even program a robot to replace the tutor, another to replace the cantor, and another one to chant haphtarah.

Steve Jobs is one of my biggest inspirations. He is a perfect example someone who had every right to fear the future but embraced it and revolutionized it. His views were expressed in a Think Different commercial: “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

With such inspiration from my family and people I admire, I am confident and ready to cross this river. (Cross rug/blanket)

For my mitzvah project I realized that there are other people who need my help to cross into the future. So I will be donating and collecting select foods needed to supply the local food bank. For without food the future looks a lot murkier than it has to be.

At this time I would like to thank those who have helped me get to this point and supported me to make the crossing of the river much easier.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Steroid Shock

With today's revelation that Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance, I must confess to my own steroid issue. Last week I was diagnosed with a herniated disc and immediately began a regimen of steroids as treatment. I was recovering fast enough to be listed as "probable" for this past Shabbat but now am subject to a four Shabbat suspension by the NFL and 50 games by MLB. On the plus side, my prayers are now going 30 percent farther.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Responding to Merry Christmas: Hammerman on Ethics

Responding To Merry Christmas

Jewish Week Online Columnist

Q: It’s that time of year, when everyone everywhere is saying “Merry Christmas” to me, even people who know that I am Jewish. Should I simply smile and repeat the greeting or politely correct the greeter and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t observe Christmas.”

A: Now I know why Lenny Bruce said that Christians celebrate while Jewsobserve. We never get to be happy, even at this most celebratory time of year. We’re alwaysobserving. And in December, we’re always agonizing over how to find our little niche in this annual Yuletide cultural bombardment.

The key is to come up with strategies that affirm Jewish distinctiveness and pride while not adding to the already tense, politicized atmosphere of the Christmas – er, holiday – season in American public life (and if you don’t believe it’s been politicized, take a look at this week’s opening salvos by Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly). How can we reply in a manner that does not invite retaliation and resentment?

There is nothing wrong with wishing a non Jewish neighbor “Merry Christmas,” just as it would not be a betrayal for her to wish you “Shabbat Shalom” when leaving work on Friday afternoon. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moses Isserles notes the need for being good neighbors in a society where Jews and non-Jews mingle and do business together, even regarding problematic greetings. It’s all done for the sake of peace. The idea is to reduce tensions, not increase them.

It’s even halachically OK to mention a holiday whose name includes the name of a foreign deity. At least it is in this case, since the word “Christ” is not really a name at all, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew term for “Anointed One.” If the holiday were called “Jesus-fest” or “Zeus-mas, or “Tim Tebow Day” there might be cause for concern. So when I speak with my Christian clergy colleagues, I have no problem acknowledging their holiday in my seasonal salutations.

Ironically, Jews tend not to label our festivals when extending greetings. We traditionally just say “Happy Holiday” on Passover or Sukkot (“Hag Sameach” in Hebrew or “Gut Yomtov” in Yiddish). The only exception to that rule happens to be Hanukkah. We say “Hag HANUKKAH Sameach” in order to distinguish this minor non-biblical festival from the more significant biblically mandated holidays.

A greeting should be seen as a verbal embrace, the extension of blessing, rather than as an assertion of xenophobic power. In a perfect world, “Happy Holidays” would not be seen as a cheapening of the meaning of Christmas, but as an enhancement of its deepest spiritual message.

So let’s try to get beyond the clichéd salutations that have backed everyone into a corner. If you feel that someone is deliberately trying to impose upon you the hegemony of Christmas, wishing you a “Merry Christmas” while knowing that you are Jewish, let’s look for a reply that is both respectful of diversity yet deeply spiritual, something that could be uttered simultaneously to Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly without blinking an eye. Here are my nominations:

“Wishing you a Blessed Season!” (Sounds too much like Red Skelton, or a Debbie Friedman song, not that there’s anything wrong with Debbie Friedman songs)

“May the Light Increase” (Sounds a bit too Star Warsy)

“Peace” (A little too ‘60s, especially if you are wearing a Nehru jacket)


Think about it. Shalom is perfect. These days, everyone knows what it means - likeschlemiel and chutzpah. The reply is spiritual, identifiably Jewish yet increasingly universal. Listen to a parade of evangelical politicians lining up to speak at a conclave supporting Israel. You’ll hear more “Shalom”s uttered there than in the hallways of the Knesset, where the politicians are more likely to be spitting at one another.

So the next time someone who knows you are Jewish says “Merry Christmas” just to get a rise out of you, take the high road and elevate the conversation by replying “Shalom.” But if it’s simply someone on the street, movie theater or supermarket, “Merry Christmas” OR “Happy Holidays” would be equally fine.

Anything but, “Oy vey. My children never call!”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Bible and Adele

Last week's Bat Mitzvah student was a big fan of the humungously popular singer Adele, who last week was nominated for six Grammys. Since I like to integrate the kids' interests in my message to them, I looked for ways to use Adele's songs in explaining her portion, Vayetze. Little did I know that Adele could have WRITTEN Vayetze. Her heartstring-yanking songs could easily be placed into the mouths of the main characters, Jacob, Leah and Rachel.

Some examples:

Early in the portion, when Jacob meets Rachel, a large stone is blocking the mouth of a well. Jacob summons superhuman strength that can only come because he is so smitten by her, and he rolls the rock from the mouth of the deep well. Yes, he was Rolling in the Deep.

And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother's brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother's brother.

So Jacob was not only the inventor of "rock and roll," but this scene presaged the Adele hit, Rolling in the Deep. Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep and indeed they do, because Rachel dies in childbirth – they could have had it all. (Also see Adele's song Melt my heart of stone)

These are the FIRST REAL TEARS of love and loss IN THE ENTIRE BIBLE! And as we know from the recent SNL skit no one can make people shed tears of love and loss like Adele. In her song First Love, she croons: Please wear the face, the one where you smile, Because you lighten up my heart when I start to cry.

Adele's current mega-hit Someone like You could have been written by Jacob, thinking that he's speaking to Rachel on their wedding night - Old friend, why are you so shy? Ain't like you to hold back or hide from the light

Then Jacob turns on the light and realized he’s married the wrong sister, and exclaims to Leah.

Never mind, I'll find someone like you (YOUR HOT SISTER, IN FACT)
I wish nothing but the best for you, too
Don't forget me, I begged, I remember you said
Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.

Leah has lots of kids with Jake, but nothing can make her husband love her, and she feels so lonely. Which leads us to the Adele song, I Can't Make You Love Me

Don't patronize me. Cause I can't make you love me if you don't. You can't make your heart feel something it won't

In the Torah, Leah actually gives her kids names that reflect these very sentiments:

And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said: 'Because the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.'

And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: 'Because the LORD hath heard that I am hated, He hath therefore given me this son also.' And she called his name Simeon.

So could Adele have written the Bible? Maybe not, but her songs prove that the human story remains the same.

The Aborted Israeli Absorption Ministry Ad: Some Reflections

Much has been written about the Israeli Absorption Ministry’s now-aborted ad, asserting that Israelis should not marry American Jews and reside in this country because their kids will grow up observing Christmas instead of Hanukkah. See my prior posting, including links to Jeffrey Goldberg's posting which exposed this quintessentially chutzpahdik ad. Following a nearly unprecedented avalanche of outrage from American Jewish leaders, including groups who typically give carte blanche to far greater affronts, the Netanyahu government wisely pulled the video from YouTube on Friday. As Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha’aretz:

For several long months, the (mostly self-appointed) "leaders" in the U.S. community have ignored the unbridled incitement launched by Israel against human rights organizations, the Supreme Court and the media. As far as is known, the federations have not sent protest letters to the prime minister to express dismay about the rise of violence and racism toward Palestinians in Israel and in the territories. The Anti-Defamation League has said nothing about the exclusion of women soldiers at Israel Defense Forces events. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC passionately defends settlement policies which are shutting the door to a two-state solution. Thus everything is all right - until the ethnocentric wave which engulfs Israel crosses the ocean, and throws cold water on their egos. For many long years a group of Jewish philanthropists and activists - some of them with right-wing, conservative outlooks, others rank opportunists - has been throwing fuel on the fire of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that threatens to extinguish Israel's democracy.

Although the offensive video is no more, here are some follow-up reflections:

At a Bat Mitzvah last Shabbat morning, I asked a random sampling of about 50 kids if they knew what Hannukah is. All did. So the fact that the kid in the video, when asked what holiday it is by the Skyping grandparents (with a lit menorah just behind them), said “Christmas,” is ludicrous. Not that I’m so thrilled at the excessive inflation of Hanukkah’s importance over here, but believe me, Bibi, Hanukkah is alive and well among American Jewish kids.

Assimilation does present challenges, to be sure, but growing up in America does not necessarily or even typically lead to a one way ticket out of Jewish identification. For that we can thank, in large part, the Israeli government itself, whose contributions to the successful Birthright Israel project have been crucial to furthering the cause of keeping our kids Jewish.

I thought we had gotten beyond the efforts to de-legitimize the Diaspora. But the culture wars that infect both America and Israel internally have also impacted the Jewish people globally. Israelis look at American Jews and fear the lethal impact of assimilation on their Jewish soul. American Jews look at Israel and fear that occupation has done the same. One side sees excessive tolerance, a fatal ecumenicism blurring the lines between Jews and the gentile world, and the other sees a fatal chauvinism, a triumph for an extremism fostering nightmares of a Taliban-like takeover of a faith tradition that was built on tolerance.

Also, who’s to say that Israelis are so Jewishly literate? We often have Israeli soldiers visit our community – they are the best and the brightest. As a matter of courtesy, we offer some of them aliyot to the Torah. Almost none accept. Very few know what an aliyah is or how to do one (and a few refuse to take one in a non Orthodox setting). If the situation on the video was reversed and an American Jewish grandparent Skyped a grandkid in Jerusalem, would that child know that in America, it’s OK for a woman’s face to appear on a billboard?

And how can the Absorption Ministry bemoan the Americanization of Judaism, when Israel has itself become so assimilated to American culture. Those ascending to Jerusalem for the first time are greeted by McDonalds golden arches glowing down from Mevasseret, miles before before the road grants them their first view of the other holy sites. When the biblical Jacob and his family became the first Yordim to return to the Land, they brought along Laban’s household idols; the purity of the indigenous faith was contaminated by diaspora syncretism long before McDonalds (granted, a Kosher McDonalds) opened at the Harel Mall. I can just imagine Rachel sneaking through the customs line at Ben Gurion with her imported goodies like so many returning Israelis have done since.

I follow the Religion and State in Israel blog, a weekly review of media coverage on issues of religion and state in Israel, unaffiliated with any organization or movement. Here are some of the headlines appearing in THIS WEEK’S digest. I repeat. These articles have come out JUST THIS WEEK.

High Court rejects petition over civil marriage

The High Court of Justice made clear Monday it would not accede to the petition filed by numerous progressive and pluralist groups asking for an injunction against the government to institute a framework for civil marriage in Israel.

Israeli women fight back against Jerusalem billboard vandals

Jewish women in the Britain and the US are being urged to send photographs of themselves holding signs saying "women should be seen and heard" in a campaign against efforts by the ultra-orthodox to remove female images from advertising billboards in Jerusalem.

In Israel, women’s rights come under siege

“In the past two years or five years, it’s just deteriorating,” said Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of the liberal New Israel Fund, which has launched a campaign to combat the “erasure” of women from public advertising. “The Haredi are having more and more say about how our lives are in Israel.”

Clinton astonished by exclusion of women from public spaces; warns of Israel's eroding democratic values

Clinton related that she had read a day before in The Washington Post an article by Ruth Marcus, called "In Israel, Women's Rights Come Under Siege," which detailed examples of the exclusion or boycotting of women, including incidents where IDF religious soldiers have boycotted events in which women sang, and the segregation of women on some bus routes, in contravention of Supreme Court decisions.

Knesset committee to tackle IDF's gender issues

A Knesset committee will convene in the next few weeks to deal with the IDF's failure to implement a report calling for full equality between men and women in the military.

Women Barred From Funerals in Israel

The troubling phenomenon of excluding women from cemeteries in Israel appears to be getting worse.

Number of gender-segregated religious schools in Israel tripled during past decade

Gender segregation is in effect at 65 percent of the state-run religious elementary schools in Israel, according to data obtained by Haaretz from the Education Ministry's elementary school supervision department.

Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate

For many Israelis, Tzohar is the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter pill of dealing with the official rabbinate palatable. However, it seems clear that increasing numbers of them—including Orthodox Israelis—would prefer never to have to deal with it in the first place, even with Tzohar as a buffer: They would prefer, that is, to have the oppressive and despised rabbinate be removed altogether, whether because they do not share its values or its interpretations of Jewish law, or because they feel that moderns states should stay out of ecclesiastical business.

The people's IDF is turning into the rabbis' IDF

Haaretz Editorial December 1, 2011.
The decision by the Israel Defense Forces senior command to freeze implementation of the Segev Report, which recommended establishing full equality among men and women in the army is another aggravating example of the IDF's continuing capitulation to the demands of religious extremist rabbis and officers.

IDF freezes implementation of report calling for gender equality

The Israel Defense Forces has effectively frozen implementation of a report that called for full equality of service between men and women.

Jerusalem center goes to extreme measures to help Russian immigrants prove their Jewishness

Based in Jerusalem, the six-year-old [Shorashim center] serves as an international investigation agency, which, by doing intensive research and establishing a wide network of contacts, has helped hundreds of young people from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the rabbinic courts, enabling them to get married without having to go through a conversion or marry abroad. …Rabbi Shimon Har-Shalom estimates [of the 750,000 FSU immigrants listed as Jews] between 150,000 and 200,000 will be forced to prove their Jewishness at some point, while some 20,000 of those with "no religion" are actually Jewish and would be able to prove it.

Past ARZA president, wife warn threats to Israeli pluralism

Resa Davids described how her granddaughter’s planned bat mitzva by the Dead Sea had to be moved because not a single hotel in the area would permit a woman to read from the Torah on their grounds. “The threat was if they allowed this child to read Torah, they would lose their hashgacha (kosher certification),” she said. Asked if she equated that to blackmailing the hotel owners, she replied, “exactly.”

I’ve experienced something similar.

When I was on the “March of the Living” two years ago, my mostly non-Orthodox group stayed in a nice Youth Hostel near the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Our group arranged to have access to the hostel’s synagogue, a simple meeting room with an ark, for a private Kabbalat Shabbat service. No other group was in there at the time. The Orthodox members of our group decided to daven with a mechitza in another location in the building – it was an arrangement that worked well throughout our trip. About ten minutes into our egalitarian service, our group leader came up to me – as I was leading the service – and said that the hostel’s manager had told him that our service cannot continue unless we separate the boys from the girls.

Now this was a group of seventy teens who were, for the most part, experiencing Israel for the first time. Just days before we had cried at Auschwitz and stood silently by the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were exhilarated to be in Israel and I was trying not to douse their enthusiasm by interjecting the sorry state of Israeli pluralism into their experience. So rather than tell this group that this state-run hostel was hostile to the way they pray, I looked for an escape hatch – literally. There was a door in the back of the room, leading to a large outdoor patio overlooking the city. The weather was perfect, and I had planned to take them outside for Lecha Dodi anyway, so I stalled for time until we got there (as my group leader stared at me nervously, I stared back defiantly), and then, as we reached Lecha Dodi, we danced out the door and onto the patio, where we danced and prayed for the remainder of the service.

So I thank the Absorption Ministry, not for opening a wound, but for opening a dialogue on what kind of Judaism we wish for our grandchildren and where it is best being nurtured right now. My hope is that both America and Israel will be places where all our kids will be proud observers of Hanukkah, and where they will learn to love their neighbors as themselves.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Elise Schoenfeld on Vayetze


In the portion of Vayetze, Jacob flees his brother fearing for his life.
At the same time, he also fears the unknown, as he heads off to a
distant land that he had never visited before. The story in this
portion is how Jacob is dealing with his fears so that they will not
paralyze him.

I can relate to Jacob. I have also been to new places – like camp – where
I have not known a single person. I have also changed schools a couple
of times. The kids are great at all three schools I have been in, but
very different. For one thing, they dress differently. The schools
have all different cultures. One school had all Jews, and the next a
variety of people. It was a dramatic change going from one to the next.

And change can be scary at times.

It’s not like I’m always fearful, but when I do get scared, I’ve learned
a secret that never fails to calm me down.

The secret is MUSIC!

Let’s just say that I REALLY to sing! I sing in school – and not just in
chorus – but randomly. I sing around the house. I sing everywhere.
And I sing everything! As many of you know, I can go from Adele to
rap to Broadway Show tunes without skipping a beat.

At school my friends say “You’re really good!” At home, my sister says:
“Ellie stop singing!”
When I’m not singing I’m drumming. I’m always tapping out beats,
especially at times I when I feel nervous or fidgety. During the past few
months I’ve been doing that a lot!

Whenever I sing I feel better. It makes me feel I can handle anything!
For instance, I’m terrified of being on airplanes.
But when I listen to music – no problem (except when they say “turn
off all electronic devices” – I must admit that once or twice I have failed
to do so!

When I was younger and home alone in the house, and there was a loud
noise followed by the dogs barking, I would go up to my room and put
on my iPod.

Even now, I play music all night long. When I don’ have it on, I feel
lost. It’s harder to sleep. I can imagine what Jacob must have felt like
when he lay down to sleep on that rock – before having his famous
dream about the angels going up and down a ladder. I wish I could
have lent him my iPod. I bet he was listening to one, actually, and
that it was playing “Stairway to Heaven!!”

I find that music doesn’t just help me when I feel stressed. It helps me to
help others. When my friend was sad recently, I started to sing to her.
It just happened! I started singing “Just Whistle a Happy Tune” -
but of course, at the time I couldn’t whistle. And she started

I’ve come to learn that many of the prayers in our prayer book are
designed to lift our spirits when we are afraid. A great example of
this is the Sh’ma, which is recited several times during the day, when
you wake up until you go to sleep. It’s very comforting.

I also understand that while there are moments when anyone might be
Afraid, I’m very fortunate to know that I always have clothes to wear
and food to eat. Foe my Mitzvah Project I have been helping Person
to Person. After Yom Kippur, I helped to organize the food donations
that were made by congregants here. I went to Person to Person’s
warehouse and put food on the shelves. Also, I’ve been collecting
clothing here and in my neighborhood for the past several weeks and I
will be donating those clothes to Person to Person as well.

Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I’ve come to realize that you should never
let fear conquer you – but if you feel afraid, I’ll always be here to sing
you a song – or to whistle a happy tune.

Thank You!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shabbat-O-Gram for 12/3/11

The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored by Deborah and Joel Schoenfeld, in honor of Elise becoming Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom, and mazal tov to Elise Schoenfeld and family as she becomes Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat morning. Tonight at 7:30, we welcome Senator Dick Blumenthal, who will speak at the conclusion of our Kabbalat Shabbat service on how “Breaking the Gridlock.” He’ll also share some reflections on the Middle East. The service will be in the lobby, so get here early to get the best seats. Hazzan Rabinowitz will also be joining us this Shabbat, his first time at our services since the recent passing of Sandy z’l and the birth of their first great grandchild.

Have you heard the latest brouhaha about the Israeli government’s campaign to lure Israeli expats here in America back to the homeland? According to their most recent videos, it seems that American Jews are lying in wait for them, ready to marry and then corrupt them, luring them and their kids away from identification with all things Jewish? You can see the videos and read “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews - The Atlantic.” On Shabbat morning we’ll be discussing this, as there is a sharp connection between this controversy and the portion of Vayetze, where Jacob becomes the first person to both emigrate from and return to the Land – and he brings back some strange pagan objects with him. See this week’s parsha packet for a sneak preview.

During this holiday season, we are begged to go out and buy, buy, buy, as a means to save our fragile economy. This week’s Hammerman on Ethics column asks Is Spending to Help the Economy Ethical? We know it is patriotic, but is impulse shopping and conspicuous consumption good?

Join us tonight and tomorrow, and don’t forget that the cantor and I will be joining together on Thursday for our new comparative religions class looking closely at Christianity, Islam and Judaism as they interact in our postmodern society. We call it “Tweets of Abraham,” and the class will feature guest appearances by Christian and Muslim clergy.

Last but not least, Mara and I would love to have you join us at our home on Dec. 12 at 7:30 for a preview of next August’s TBE Israel Adventure. Read details about the trip here. We’ve got a great itinerary at a terrific price. Please RSVP to me if you intend to come to the meeting.

Shabbat Shalom!

Is Spending to Help the Economy Ethical? Hammerman on Ethics

Q: During the holiday season, I keep hearing how important it is for our fragile economy that we buy, buy, buy. If it is patriotic to buy impulsively and consume conspicuously, is it also good?

A: Patriotic: yes. Good…not so much.

Evidently, it worked, at least on Black Friday, when, lured by crafty retailers, shoppers bought much more than anyone anticipated. The stock market subsequently zoomed and people are feeling good. So, should we be troubled that all this good feeling is predicated on impulse buying? It’s conspicuous consumption that got us into this economic mess, so it’s hard to imagine that we can spend our way out of it.

Retailers have been trying to lure shoppers to buy on impulse since the snake gave away free samples in the Garden of Eden. Jewish law is protective of both the buyer and seller, understanding that some purchases need to be made in haste, like Abraham’s acquisition of a burial place for Sarah. What matters is less the speed of the transaction than that both parties are honest in their dealings.

There’s an argument to be made on behalf of impulse purchasing, as long as we live within our means. It’s as close as you can come to the thrill of the hunt without actually harming anyone or getting hurt – unless you happened to be standing in the way of that woman packing pepper spray at Walmarts last week. The stampede that she claims prompted her violent assault reminded me of scenes from my childhood in Boston, when my mom would take me to Filenes Basement on Black Friday, an experience not dissimilar from the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The rabbis vilified Esau for dealing his birthright so impulsively for a bowl of lentil soup. His ruddy complexion and very name, a derivative of the Hebrew word for red, combined with the “red, red” pottage, speaks to his impulsiveness. Psychologist Max Luscher’s famous color test sees red as an indicator of uncontrolled craving.

Judaism assures us that those who have the willpower to control their impulses achieve long term success. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob patiently works for seven years to marry Rachel, then he blows it by impulsively cohabiting with the wrong sister. But he learns from that experience, agreeing to work another seven for Rachel’s hand. He ends up with four wives, a baker’s dozen kids and countless sheep, ample rewards for the man who learned to wait.

Four decades ago, the landmark Marshmallow Test measured the self control of preschoolers, who were placed in a room and instructed not to eat the treats left there; if they held out for fifteen minutes, greater treats would be their reward. Tracked through the years, those who successfully delayed gratification have had greater success in life, outscoring the Esaus by 210 points on their S.A.Ts and far less likely to have problems with obesity, addiction and other challenges of young adult life. A recent article New Yorker piece delved into the diversionary strategies that can help Esaus become more Jacob-like.

The Talmud states, “Life is short, so we must move slowly.” It’s a good lesson to recall when confronted with that strategically placed candy at Shop Rite’s checkout counter or that plaid turtleneck sweater sale at Macy’s.

Yes, buy – but buyer beware. Impulse buying may be patriotic, but only on occasion is it good.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews - The Atlantic

Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews - The Atlantic

It just gets worse and worse. Sarkozy and Obama move over. We who love Israel and are upset by this, we DO have to deal with it every day. The only alternative, which is unacceptable, is to disengage.


See the videos and read Jeffrey Gold berg's comments below.

I don't think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads. I understand the impulse behind them: Israel wants as many of its citizens as possible to live in Israel. This is not an abnormal desire. But the way it is expressed, in wholly negative terms, is somewhat appalling. How about, "Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.'s"? Or, "It's always sunny in Israel"? Or, "Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you"?

These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America. How else are we supposed to understand the "Christmas" ad? Obviously, assimilation and intermarriage are issues in America in ways they aren't in Israel. Israel has other problems of course, such as the fact that many of its rabbis act like Iranian mullahs. (I'm not even going to try to unpack my complicated beliefs about intermarriage and assimilation and life in the Diaspora here; that's for a book. But let me just say that intermarriage can also be understood as an opportunity.)

The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don't mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

I agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that it is offensive, but it is hardly new. This is reflective of the stereotypic way Israelis have viewed American Jews and Judaism for decades. We, in their eyes, are Jewishly irrelevant - which is laughable, because they, in many of our eyes, are Jewishly malignant. Visiting Israel ignites the Jewish soul. But the right wing extremist strains of Israeli Judaism are threatening to turn that ignition into a conflagration. Maybe we all need to settle down and recognize that none of these stereotypes is entirely accurate - and in the case of the Jewish child who knows not of Hanukkah, they are stunningly inaccurate. And if anything, many American Jews know more about Israel's civic celebrations (like Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron) than they know of Shavuot and Tisha B'Av. But if American Jews (and the Israelis who marry them) are not as comfortable with Israeli culture as we should be, it's because Israel is in the dark ages in disseminating their culture to us. Where is the Israeli Al Jazeera, broadcasting all things Israeli in English to a world wide audience 24/7? The Israeli Network, a poor excuse for internationalized Israeli television, can be seen only by those who have DISH Network or the chosen few who can get it on Comcast cable. We get the occasional film festival and cold falafel, while Polish, Russian, Italian, French,Chinese, South Asian and of course Hispanic transplants feast on their homelands' manifold offerings on local cable systems. The best of Israel's news and entertainment programs are nowhere to be found.

But of course, if Israeli cultural fare were easily available here, not only would American Jews identify more with Israeli culture - but the Israelis living here would have one less reason to go back. And American Jews, used to getting one-sided and distilled Israeli news from their propagandists of choice, miss out on the rich and nuanced dialogue that goes on in Israel's news media every day.

But maybe, again, that's what the Israeli government wants.

December, No Dilemma

As of midnight tonight, we'll arrive at that month both anticipated and dreaded by Jews. Play word association with "December" and you will all too often hear Jews reply, "Dilemma."

But for us at Beth El, December = Dialogue, as on several fronts we are fostering deepening understanding among faith groups. Just yesterday I had the pleasure of giving a tour of our sanctuary to a dozen confirmation students (8th graders) from the First Congregational Church of Darien. They had amazing questions about Judaism. And look what's going on over the coming days:

-- We'll be participating in the annual World AIDS Day interfaith service at 7 PM on Thursday, Dec. 1 at the First United Methodist Church, 42 Cross Road. This service always is most moving, bringing together people from all segments of the community.

-- This month, and extending into January, Cantor Mordecai and I will be leading a four part series "Tweets of Abraham: Judaism, Islam and Christianity in an age of Globalization." Because the AIDS service is this week, the first class has been moved toNEXT Thurs., Dec. 8 at 7:5. During this series, we'll have the chance to speak with local Muslim and Christian leaders.

-- This Sunday, I'll be a guest speaker at St Francis Episcopal Church on Long Ridge Rd., discussing Jewish views of the Messiah. Their service begins at 10 AM, and guests are welcome.

-- And speaking of dialogue, Senator Blumenthal will be joining us at Kabbalat Shabbat services this Friday at 7:30, to discuss how to "break the gridlock" (in Washington, I presume, and not on the Merritt Parkway). Invite your friends to come and experience our service and the senator's presentation.

Now more than ever, we need to be talking to one another. Therein lies the true dilemma, as we enter this month of December.

Sen. Blumenthal at TBE -THIS FRIDAY NIGHT

Friday, November 25, 2011

Toldot, Black Friday and Impulse Buying

Click here for our Parsha Packet of study materials for this Shabbat morning's Torah discussion. The topic is instant gratification, which has great relevance to the portion (see: Esau and the birthright) and Black Friday. How much is impulse buying necessary for the growth of our economy? Should that be considered a virtue or a vice? What of Esau's impulsive makeup can be corroborated given modern psychological research? How do traditional commentators react to those character traits? And what in the world does all this have to do with Nimrod (thy guy, not the sandals) and the soon-to-go under Feline's Basement.

For a hint to that last answer, some of my fondest childhood memories (not) involve going with my mother to the aforementioned bargain hunter's paradise and watching civilized people fighting over a marked down garment at the bottom of a large pile of clothing. A bunch of Esaus bargain hunting.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shabbat-O-Gram for 11/24/11

When you are so stuffed that you can't eat another bite...or when all those out of town relatives are beginning to go a little stir crazy...




Show us off to your relatives! We like that! Show your college students what all the buzz is about (we love to welcome them home)! Work off that second helping of stuffing by belting out a few verses of Lecha Dodi! But most of all, come here to feel spiritually renewed, ever grateful for the blessings in our lives.

Join Cantor Mordecai and myself on Friday evening , and on Shabbat morning too.

Also, morning minyan will be held on Thurs., Friday and Sunday at 9 AM.


Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

PS - Take a look at my "Hammerman on Ethics" piece

"Is Turkey Kosher?"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Rachel Sherman on Toldot

Shabbat Shalom!

At the beginning of my Torah portion, Toldot, Rebecca discovers that she is about to give birth to twins. She feels them fighting inside her, and when they are born, things get even worse. Jacob and Esau could not be more different. Jacob is the student, who spends most of the time indoors. Meanwhile, Esau is the hunting type. He loves to be outdoors. Rebecca loves Jacob and Isaac loves Esau. Jacob is the younger one, but in the end he wins out, and gains the birthright and the blessing through deception. Later commentators see Esau as one of the least liked figures in Jewish history, but the Torah itself doesn’t think Esau is that bad. He’s just misunderstood.

From the first time I rode on the back of my father’s bike when I was little, I’ve always loved the outdoors. Imagine my surprise when Esau is described as a man of the outdoors. I could relate to him immediately. Not only is he outdoors, but, like me, he’s the first born and his father’s favorite.

So today I want to state the case for Esau. Loving the outdoors has helped me to grow in so many ways.

Last summer at camp, I went on a 33 mile hike. It wasn’t easy. Imagine huffing and puffing your way to the top of a mountain in Vermont, and then looking down and realizing that you still have 28 miles to go! But I did it and I felt really proud that I was one of only five from my group of 25 kids to finish, and we even broke the record, finishing the “Death March” in less than 6 hours.

Those who know me know that I love to ski and snowboard. Gliding down a trail and looking over at the other peaks is an amazing feeling. You can’t get that inside of a tent.

I’m all for studying – my favorite subject is history – but maybe it’s important to be a little like Jacob and a little like Esau. I understand how it’s important to be a studious person like Jacob. But it’s also important to be athletic like Esau – except for the hunting part.

Maybe the Torah, in making these two characters twins, is telling us that there is a little of each of them in each of us. Sometimes these two parts of us fight for control, much like Rebecca’s twins fought in the womb. There are times when I really want to play basketball outside with my brother and my dad – but I have a big math test tomorrow. So what do I decide to do?

Of course….STUDY!

So in this case the Jacob in me wins out.

And there are times when my parents ask me to clean my room and those are times when the Esau in me wins out and I go outside and play basketball.

In the Torah, a couple of portions from now, the two brothers unite once again, but this time, instead of wrestling, they embrace.

And so, in order to correct a big historical injustice, I thought I could say some words on behalf of Esau today. Because in the end, there’s a little of Esau in all of us.

For my mitzvah project I’ve been helping less fortunate kids at the Domas foundation by running a khaki drive. I’ve been asking people in my school to donate their used khakis that they’ve grown out of.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Shaina Lubliner on Sukkot

Those who know me know that I love theater. My mom passed that love on to me when I was very young. I remember my first acting experience, at Curtain Call when I was about six. It was a medley of Disney songs. Since then, I’ve been in over a dozen shows and I’ve seen lots more, on and off Broadway.

There are a lot of similarities between my showbiz career and becoming a bat mitzvah. There are lots of lines to learn, hours and hours of practice and rehearsal, the butterflies of opening night and one other thing. When you finish a show, the experience stays with you long after the lights have gone down. When this service is finished, I’ll always remember this day, but even more so, I’ll remember the lessons I’ve learned in preparing for it.

Add to all this drama one more thing. This is the festival of Sukkot, which involves more choreography and staging than a production of Les Miz. We wave the Lulav on other days of the festival and march around the sanctuary. Out there is the set for this drama, the sukkah, where we’ll be going at the end of the service. And there are special readings for Sukkot, including one that we did earlier in this service, a selection from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, or, as it’s called in Hebrew, Kohelet.

Kohelet is a very old book filled with very modern wisdom, and many of the pieces if advice it gives remind me of shows that I’ve seen and participated in.

For example, the verse, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns unto God who gave it.” This reminds me of the musical, “Once on this Island,” which speaks how when we die we return to nature.

Kohelet also said, “One who loves money will never be satisfied.” I played an orphan in a production of “Annie” at Curtain Call. In that show, both the bad guys and even the hero, Daddy Warbucks, need to learn that lesson.

I was also in the all-school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” a couple of years ago, playing one of Tevya’s daughters. Kohelet must have had Anatevka in mind when he wrote, “Enjoy life with the one you love all the fleeting days of your life that have been granted you under the sun.”

One of my favorite musicals, Pippin, actually has a song that begins with a line from Ecclesiastes. Pippin, the prince, is trying to figure out his place in the world, much as a bar or bat mitzvah does. So he sings, “Everything has its season, everything has it’s time; show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme.”

How many of you have seen and loved the musical “Wicked,” like me? (PAUSE). I first saw it when I was about ten, and I found it so thought provoking that I couldn’t stop thinking about it all the way home on the train. How is it that someone we’ve always thought was evil, the Wicked Witch, could turn out to be good? And how could the ones we thought were good, actually be so selfish? I think Kohelet asked the same types of questions when he wrote, “There is not one righteous person on earth who does only good and never sins.”

This teaches us that no one is perfect and we should not judge a book by its cover – even if that cover happens to be green.

Finally, “Eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy,” says Kohelet. Which is sort of what I sang when I played the role of Balloo in the JCC’s production of “The Jungle Book.” All you need to get by are the “bare necessities” of life, things like good friends and family, which is what I have here today.

For my mitzvah project, I’ve been raising scholarship money so that other children will have the opportunity to participate in Curtain Call, so that they can share in my passion for theater.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is Turkey Kosher (Hammerman on Ethics)

Is Turkey Kosher?