Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Shabbat Shalom!  

Have you seen our Chocolate Seder photo album?  We had over a hundred here enjoying it last week. Pesach never tasted so good!  Everything on the Seder plate was made of chocolate.  Imagine dipping the strawberry into chocolate rather than parsley into salt water.  It was delicious.

With Passover less than two weeks away, people are always looking for ideas to make the Seder more meaningful.  This Sunday at 9:30, I'll be presenting a "Passover Seder Leader's Survival Guide," and next Thursday evening, the Board of Rabbis will join me for a panel on that topic.  You can also download his collection of Seder Activities by Noam Zion, author of the "A Different Night" Haggadah.  See also a personal favorite, The Velveteen Rabbi's Passover Haggadah, filled with poetry and moments of mindfulness.  Click here for the New Israel Fund's packet, which this year focuses on the plight of refugees, and the Shalom Center's "Haggadah for the Earth."  If you are looking for acts of tzedakkah and world repair to do this Passover, check out our updated catalogue of student mitzvah projects of this and last year's B'nai Mitzvah students. Very impressive.  And if you simply want inspiration, don't miss the New World Chorus "Season of Miracles" concert on Sunday afternoon.

Oh yes, and here is the sale of hametz form.

This American (Jewish) (Parisian) (Italian) Life

A major theme of ours this year has been Jewish Journeys.  Since December, we have heard some extraordinary testimonies from fellow congregants about how Judaism and Jewish identify have propelled - or been propelled by - their life trajectories.   The results have been breathtaking - and in my mind proof of the fallacy of surveys depicting American Jewry as being in decline. 

The next presentation in our series will be THIS SHABBAT MORNING.  Lisa Strom, a newish congregant whom I recently guided through the process of conversion, will speak about the intersection of her Jewish and Italian backgrounds:

Parenting as an Italian or as a Jew:  Whose Guilt is Greater?

This session is a must for current, prior and prospective parents....and everyone else!

The snapshots of pollsters cannot account for the twists and turns - and re-turns - that I see all the time.  As Jewish identification ebbs for one, it returns with a vengeance for another, and often it happens many times over the course of a single life.  Passover is ultimately about that process as it occurs in every Jew and every Jewish family.  We reunite around the table each year and mark our place in time, reaffirming our rock-solid values as we churn through yet another tumultuous whirlpool of a Red Sea. 

Reminds me of an old Dan Fogelberg lyric:

"In the passage from the cradle to the grave;
We are born madly dancing.
Rushing headlong through the crashing of the days
We go on and on without a backwards glance."

Passover is that backwards glance.  It doesn't diminish the days - or waves' - crashing.  But it's nice to know that when we turn around, familiar folk are still reaching out for our hand to lead us gently ashore.

As our teens will be quick to attest, I never give up on anyone.  I chase them around relentlessly during their teen years and especially beyond.  As a result, I often hear from young adults, years after they've left Stamford or left Beth El, and they catch me up on their lives.

I received such a correspondence two weeks ago from a former student who hadn't contacted me in years.  I had every reason to believe he might have become one of those nagging statistics from the Pew Report.  But instead I got this:

Dear Rabbi Hammerman

It's me Alan Tanz.  I hope you are doing well.  I am not sure if you remember me, but I had my Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth El January 26th 2002.  I was also converted about two years before that.  I would like thank you for all of the help and support you and Temple Beth El have given me in making me a part of Stamford's Jewish community.  I am now 25 years old and living in Paris, France.  Since my Bar Mitzvah I have graduated from the University of Arizona and done a lot of travelling.  I have only been to Israel once when I took part in Birthright 2010.  It was crazy experience seeing so much of Israel in such a short period of time.  I knew I had to go back.  So in November of 2013 I decided that I didn't only want to return, I wanted to immigrate.  Last month I began the process of making Aliyah with the Jewish Agency for Israel in Paris.  I am now at the stage where I am collecting the necessary documents.  One of these documents is a letter from a rabbi confirming that I am Jewish.  I was wondering if you could provide that for me.  Also, I was wondering if you had any advice for a new oleh.  My goal is to arrive in Israel this summer and to do at least six months of army service.  After that I hope to study at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Attached to this e-mail are a couple of photos of me when I was last in Israel.  Again, I would like to let you know how grateful I am for being so warmly welcomed and accepted into Beth El's community and for everything the synagogue has taught me.  I hope to hear from you soon.   

Ironically, when I received that email, I was in Jerusalem.  I replied right away about how thrilled I was to hear from him and of course I remembered him.  I reflected on how wonderful Birthright Israel is, how it has changed lives and transformed the Jewish landscape - and also how fortunate it is for me to have been here long enough so that students like Alan know where to find me.  I could be that fixed star in the storm. Having journeyed as far from TBE as you can get, he could still set his compass by reaching back to us.  I asked Alan if he wanted to share his journey's lessons with others - a written version of "This American (Jewish) Life."  He said yes, and he sent me this:

I went to the University of Arizona where I was active in Hillel and since graduating have travelled to many different countries.  I worked with Israelis in New Zealand and Australia.  When my boss in Australia sent me to work in Singapore, I still managed to go to their only synagogue for the High Holidays where I met some nice people who invited me to break the Yom Kippur fast with them.  Sadly when I moved to Europe in 2012 I didn't make as much effort to meet other Jewish people or get involved with a synagogue. So my advice would be is that no matter where you are, stay in contact with the Jewish community otherwise you will really miss out.  And if it has been a while since you've said "Shalom," don't be afraid to come back.  They miss you.

Shalom, Alan!  We'll see you in Jerusalem.

The Final Four

I rarely make Final Four predictions based on Jewish sources, but hot on the heels of my Super Bowl triumph and in light of a more-than-casual statewide rooting interest, how could I resist?  With apologies to the Lady Huskies, I'll be focusing on the men here. 

Let's just start by saying that Storrs, Connecticut has become to college basketball what Green Bay is to football.  To have both the men and women's teams in the Final Four and for that to feel routine keeps us from appreciating just how rarified the basketball air has become around these parts. 

That said, U Conn is also the clear-cut favorite to win from a Jewish perspective. 

The four teams left standing this weekend all feature animal nicknames.  Badger, 'Gator, Wildcat and Husky.  All are found in the Bible.  

Some connect the badger to the hyrax, an animal that can be found in remote locations like En Gedi.  I was interested to find out that Bucky Badger, that irrepressibleWisconsin mascot, is Jewish

Kentucky, a traditional basketball power, had the distinction of a Jewish star player named Sid Cohen, who was one of the first junior college transfers to play for the legendary coach Adolph Rupp.  We'll grant that when Rupp's mom gave him that first name, she had no idea that it might not be so popular among Jews later on (and indeed many Jews had that name too).  We also read in Job 4:10, "The lion roars and the wildcat snarls, but the teeth of strong lions will be broken."  If Kentucky were playing Penn State, that would be a very good sign.

But a badger 'aint a lion, and the presence of badger skins lining the sacred tabernacle tells me that Wisconsin will win.

Florida: Let's ignore the zoological distinctions between alligators and crocodiles for a moment.  We're talking creepy crawling things in the water with big teeth.  I've seen lots of crocs in Israel - not just the shoes (or in the form of handbags).  One of my kids' favorite attractions when they were younger was Hamat Gader, a spa / crocodile farm right near the Syrian and Jordanian border, off the Yarmuk River, where Jacob fought the angel and was renamed Israel.  It's the only crocodile farm in the Middle East, but the Jewish sources are filled with allusions to it, like this one in Job, attesting to the animal's ferocious nature.  In modern Hebrew, the croc is Tannin, also a traditional word for sea monster, associated in folklore with the Red Sea.

Add to that the fact that the University of Florida has the largest population of Jews among all public univesities in America.  A great Hillel too.  Wisconsin is #10, incidentally.  Didn't see the others on the list.

But I pick U Conn, specifically for four reasons (aside from my wanting to walk the streets of my fair state safely this weekend). 

1)     Biblical: We read in Judges 7:5"So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, 'Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.'"   Those who lapped like dogs were chosen to be his soldiers.  Why?  Because they were less likely to kneel to idols, and, according to some, because they overcame their fear of crocodiles in the water.
2)     Because of Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld, Israeli hoop legends who came of age in U Conn blue.
3)     And because U Conn is the only team in the final four with a player whose first name is also a major part of the Hebrew liturgy.  Yes, Amida Brimah, the seven foot freshman from Ghana, wins this year's Torah Bright award for most evocative Jewish name ever given to a non-Jew.  I sense a big weekend for Amida, a payoff from his years of "silent devotion" to his craft. 
4)     And to top it all off, U Conn's star guard's name is deliciously suggestive of Judaism's day of rest.

I see a big weekend for U Conn and two more banners for Title Town USA.

Shabazz Shalom and GO HUSKIES   


 Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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