Friday, June 23, 2017

Shabbat O Gram for June 23

This has been an interesting time for the Conservative Movement in dealing with the issue of intermarriage.  After decades of unquestioned resistance, the Rabbinical Assembly has seen a marked upsurge among rabbis pressing for change.

There was this Washington Post article in April, written by a rabbi who performed an intermarriage and then got expelled from the RA (which is automatic when that happens).  There was this independent survey, indicating that 40 percent of Rabbinical Assembly members would perform intermarriages, given their druthers.  There have been calls to redefine Jewish peoplehood, including this piece by the former director of Interfaith, claiming that non Jews need to be welcomed with no strings attached - as well as my own column published by JTA, which only spoke tangentially about marriage ceremonies but made the point that we need to redefine Jewish identity in a manner that would expand the boundaries outward.

Now, this month, two bombshells by independent but Conservative-connected Manhattan congregations. 

Amichai Lau-Levi, the founder of Storahtelling (which we brought here a number of times) and LabShul, was ordained at JTS just a year ago. He spent the better part of this year analyzing this issue and just released his conclusions.  You can see the fruits of his labors, a pamphlet, entitled Joy: A Proposal.  Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

This proposal is the product of my year-long research into possible solutions, initiated in June 2016 by assembling a research team, along with rabbinic and academic advisors. The research focused on the exploration of historical and halachic models that point at a more fluid approach to Jewish identity and affiliation, with possible applications and halachic relevance to our time.

While the numbers of Jews who choose gentile partners is without historical precedent, the tendency is neither new nor unique. Likewise, previous generations have sought solutions to address the practical realities that emerge when Jews include people of other backgrounds in their families. Numerous religious leaders and scholars have offered more nuanced approaches to defining Jewish communal boundaries that are grounded in biblical, rabbinic, historical and sociological sources.

One approach, raised in recent years by various rabbis and scholars, stands out as particularly pertinent. Based on the rabbinic category of ger toshav, or ‘resident alien’ and the historical model of Yirei HaShem or ‘the pious ones’, as well as other examples of fluid identities in the Jewish communities throughout history, this approach suggests exploring revisions of this model for our times. These categories were created by the early rabbis and adapted by later generations of leaders in response to evolving societal conditions, but have been largely forgotten and disregarded in recent centuries. The sources studied, including classical and contemporary halachic writings as well as sociological and historical scholarship, present positions that grapple with the option of these categories, and seek to retain and honor the exclusivity of traditional Jewish obligation, while also addressing the necessity of greater inclusivity. Traditional Jewish sources clearly do not condone intermarriage, but they leave the conversation more varied and open to nuance than contemporary communal discourse might lead one to believe.

One passage from the Babylonian Talmud describes the rabbinic response to specific challenging cultural boundaries. The Talmudic dictum (p. 40) resonates for us as it has for previous generations struggling with gaps between halachic aspirations and societal norms: “We make no decree upon the community unless the majority are able to abide by it.” Today’s categorical prohibition on intermarriage with no nuanced way to distinguish between varying degrees of affiliation with the Jewish community is seen increasingly as an unsustainable and unrealistic decree for the majority of liberal American Jews.

An additional source cited in the proposal is the 2006 Responsum written by Rabbi Gordon Tucker on Homosexuality and Halacha, in which he argues for “a different overall halakhic methodology” that will better serve, at times, our evolving realities. Tucker suggests that some cases will call on rabbinic leaders not to offer “a reprise of past decisions and interpretations, but rather an enterprise, at least on occasions that call for it, in improvising on established themes.”

Citing several arguments, and motivated by halachic approaches such as the one suggested by Tucker, this proposal calls for the restoration of the ger toshav category, with necessary revisions, for the American Jewish community of the 21st Century. Not without considerable challenges and application issues both theoretical and practical, the recognition of a renewed ger toshav category may enable clergy to welcome gentile partners who do not, or do not yet, formally convert but are members of the community, and to officiate at their weddings with a Jewish partner. Such steps will have implications for the evolving Jewish community that far exceed the roles of rabbis at weddings and at other lifecycle milestones.

The honorific ‘Joy’ is proposed as one possible way to name the modern ger toshav.
The proposal outlines the possible ramifications of activating this category and concludes with my recommendation to do so. While I am not a posek, jurist, or halachic expert, I am convinced the proposal I offer is the right one for my community, and my rabbinate at this time. I hope it will interest and benefit others.

In order to further explore the practical aspects of this proposal and honestly evaluate its implications, this research will continue for the next five years (2017-2022) and will include continued learning, sociological research, and communal conversations.

Though there are implications to my decision that involve some affiliations, I trust that in the spirit of debate for the sake of the sacred שמים לשם מחלוקת ,continued friendships and collaborations will deepen and flourish.

If the choice of love over tribe is the source of our anxiety as we grapple with this issue, it will be the choice of addressing our concerns with more love, and less fear, that will help us overcome these challenges and flourish as a community.

The Torah reminds us, again and again, to love. We are taught to love God, to love each other, to love the other within our gates. The Torah passage we recite each day and nail to our doorpost include the words ‘And you shall love ואהבת ‘.That extra vav, this ‘and’ calls on us, to expand our doorways, and expand our love to all those we love, who love us back, and are part of our evolving story.

The collective wisdom that has enabled Judaism to flourish, transform and persist through the ages will continue doing so, deeply attuned to the truths and changing needs of each generation. Judaism, in many forms for many different people, continues to offer an extraordinary set of values, practices, tales, and tools that bring more meaning to our private lives and connect us to each other, to a community that binds us, and to a world that needs our caring, courage, love, and joy
Almost simultaneously, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, a maverick, independent synagogue that has always had ties to the Conservative movement, announced that they too will be performing interfaith wedding ceremonies.  In this week’s Forward, they wrote “Why We Decided to Perform Interfaith Weddings.”  An excerpt:

The 21st-century American Jewish experience may be unprecedented, but Jews have always negotiated the borders of belonging, creating porousness and making room for those who wish to live with us.

“Open the gates, and let the righteous nation (goy tzaddik) enter,” says the prophet Isaiah. Midrash Sifra interprets, “‘Open the gates and let Priests, Levites and Israelites enter,’ it does not say, rather ‘and let a righteous gentile who keeps the faith enter.’”
If we do not stretch the boundaries and make room for those who wish to join us, live with us and build a Jewish future with us, we will be called to account for having failed future generations of the Jewish people. Read More

On the other side of the debate, JTS itself released a statement, entitled On Marriage and Covenant: A Statement by JTS.  Here it is, in its entirety:

The Jewish Theological Seminary affirms that the study of Torah, the sacred wisdom of our people, and the performance of mitzvot, Judaism’s sanctified pattern of religious practice, stand at the very core of Jewish identity. Torah and mitzvot have always been the foundation of the Jewish people’s covenant with God, guiding and sustaining us for three millennia in nearly every corner of the globe. They remain so today. Individuals from other backgrounds are warmly invited to join the covenant through conversion. There is also much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish. What we must not do is to abandon the core beliefs and practices which are the very foundation of Jewish life.
For JTS and its partners in the Conservative Movement, the wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.
Judaism was never meant to be practiced alone. Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community, and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. Throughout our history many individuals from other backgrounds have been welcomed into the Jewish people. That remains true, even in the greatly altered circumstances of life today. For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, understanding that their religious identity is no less significant than is our own.
We understand the arguments made for our clergy to officiate at interfaith weddings, knowing that they come from a place of genuine concern for bringing near individuals and families who are or might be estranged from the community and tradition we love. However, we believe-and the data confirm-that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command. JTS will in coming months expand our efforts to welcome all families, including those that are interfaith, to explore Judaism together with us. We will do all we can-along with our partners in the Conservative movement-to make the process of joining our age-old covenant attractive, accessible, and compelling. This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful  practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning for hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and beyond. Let us join together in confidence about the wisdom of the path to which we are committed.
Meanwhile, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has moved incrementally in the direction of more inclusiveness, recently passing a proposal allowing non Jews to be members of Conservative synagogues; while I respect the need for deliberativeness in forging monumental changes, this resolution has the whiff of a horse that has already left the barn. I alluded to that precise point a few weeks ago in this space and elsewhere.

 I wrote:  Jews have reached the post “gevalt” stage of our assimilation into the American mainstream. Rather than moaning about what we are losing, we need to capitalize on the new energy that diversity is bringing into American Jewry. I see examples of that all the time. Rather than railing against windmills, we need to turn, spread our wings, and let these winds of change take us to new and higher places.

We are heading into a fascinating new phase of the American Jewish conversation, similar to the one that broke so many barriers for LGBTQ involvement in Jewish communal life.  We will celebrate that at our Pride Shabbat tonight, with TBE congregant Elise Feldman speaking about her experiences and special musical guest, the world-renowned Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals, commenting about hers.

As the Shabbat-O-Gram bids farewell for a summer hiatus (don’t worry, you’ll be hearing lots from me when our group is in Europe), I leave you with this topic to ponder.  Download and read Amichai Lau Levi’s treatise and the other materials here.  Read the resources on Keruv (outreach) from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs that have helped to formulate our own expansive program of outreach to interfaith couples and families here.

And then, look at this material, “Sh’ma: A More Perfect Argument,” which guides us on how to discuss serious and potentially divisive issues in a respectful manner “for the sake of heaven.” It so happens that this is a major theme of this week’s portion of Korach - and we will be discussing that pamphlet tomorrow.

When the summer is over, maybe we can gather and have a conversation - or series of conversations - about this topic that has so shaken the Jewish world over recent weeks.
Shabbat Shalom - and have a restful and replenishing summer.

And PS - we are open 24/7/365 - join us for services every week - every day, in fact!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jason Busch on Shelach Lecha

I’m sure most of you remember where you were on the night of Feb. 5.  That’s because over a hundred million Americans were watching the Super Bowl.  And at halftime, about 99 ½ million thought the Patriots were going to lose.  As a big Patriots fan, I have to admit that I was one of them.
After halftime, it was as if they were a different team.  But things didn’t get better right away.  First they gave up another touchdown to fall behind 28-3.  Twenty five points down!
But slowly they began to come back.  First they got a touchdown, but they missed the extra point.  Then they drove down again, but had to settle for a field goal.  Again, it would have been easy to give up.
You know the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?”  Well that’s what happened to the Patriots.  They scored the last 31 points of the game, including a touchdown in overtime, to win the Super Bowl.
But that expression could have been invented by Joshua.  In my haftarah, Joshua, the new leader, who had just taken over from Moses, sends two spies to scout out Jericho.  Forty years earlier, Moses had sent spies to check out the land.  That time, things didn’t turn out so well.  My portion of Shelach Lecha describes what happened.  Twelve spies were sent and, while they all thought the land was worth inhabiting, ten of them were terrified at the people who were living there.  They told the Israelites that they felt like grasshoppers in their eyes and that the people in the land looked like giants.
But this time, forty years later, the two spies who went to Jericho discovered that the inhabitants of the land were terrified of them.  
With that good news in hand, Joshua set out to conquer the city.  But the walls were huge!  (insert joke here J)
So God told Joshua to march around the city and complete one circuit, and repeat that for six days.  They did as God told them.  Then, the seventh time around, when they concluded the circuit, they blew the shofar and, as the song says, the walls came tumblin’ down. 
What’s the lesson here?  Why did they need to walk around it so many times?
I think it’s to prove this point – that nothing good in life comes easily, and when things don’t go right, keep on trying.  As Edwin Louis Cole said, “Winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit.”
As I become bar mitzvah this morning, that’s an important lesson that will help me as I face the challenges in life.
For my mitzvah project, I am donating food and other items for people who are less fortunate to the Kosher food pantry of the Jewish Family Service.
Now its time for the thank yous

Friday, June 16, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for June 16

Shabbat shalom!
This Shabbat we celebrate with the family of Jason Busch, who becomes bar mitzvah.  Also, join us this evening as Meira Rosenberg, a longtime TBE member, will talk about her journey to authoring her new young adult novel, Indiana Bamboo.  Mazal tov to Jason and Meira (and you can read the d'var Torah of last week's bat mitzvah, Sarah Eisenstein, here).
This evening we'll also be featuring some fabulous new musicians, Vladimir Katz and Efrat Shapira(See Efrat on YouTube).  

Looking ahead to next week, on Pride Shabbat, we will feature Brian Gelfand and the long anticipated return of world famous violinist Alicia Svigals.

As we celebrate Pride Month at next week's service TBE member Elise Feldman will share some personal reflections about her journey.  Many of us have come to know Elise well through her involvement in our choir, Hevre young families group and her leadership in any number of areas.  We are grateful to have her here!
On a related topic...
Hiddush, a watchdog for religious freedom and equality in Israel, just released a fascinating new survey stating that support for same-sex marriage/civil unions in Israel has reached a - record high of 79% of the Jewish Israeli public. This reflects a consistent increase in public support for the official establishment of state recognized same-sex partnerships in Israel, which stood at 76% in 2016 and in previous years ranged from 60-65%. These findings arose from a Hiddush-commissioned survey conducted by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute.  And as you can see below, this support runs pretty much across the political spectrum, except among the Ultra Orthodox.

That's the good news.  The rest of the story, as Hiddush reports, is not so good:
Israel not only denies same-sex couples the right to marry, against the clear public will, but also denies hundreds of thousands of heterosexual couples the right to family because it granted exclusive monopoly over Jewish marriages to the Orthodox Rabbinate. This political reality also forces more than a million and a half additional citizens to marry in ceremonies that do not befit their beliefs and lifestyles. The data prove that the establishment of legal marriage for same-sex couples and religious freedom in general have practically become the public consensus of the Israeli Jewish population. The public's will has never been translated into legislation because all successive Israeli Governments, from both the left and the right, have instead traded away the public's freedom of marriage and divorce to the Orthodox parties in exchange for their political support.
Israel remains the only Western democracy in the world, which severely restricts the freedom of marriage. In fact, nearly ten percent of the population cannot marry at all. 42 countries now allow for marriage or legal registration of same-sex couples. In other words, the gap between Israel and the rest of the enlightened world in the arena of LGBTQ rights is only increasing. 
The gap between the Israeli public and Israeli government on the issue of civil marriage and religious freedom is growing.  Last month Hiddush released a survey showing that well over half of Jewish Israelis would prefer that the Chief Rabbinate not have a monopoly on performing weddings.

And that, in my mind, is further good news, for although this unfair situation has been around since the beginnings of the state, the public push for change is eventually going to force that change to happen, as it did here in the US with interracial and gay marriage.  Marital freedom in Israel is something that American Jews need to see as our issue too, since questions of personal status speak to our legitimacy as Jews and the core values of the Judaism we espouse.  And the fact that Haredi Jews, who represent only ten percent of the population, can impose their will on everyone else, is very troubling and inherently undemocratic.
These issues should matter to those who really care about the future of Israel. That's why I've invited Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of Hiddush, to speak here this coming fall.

A Trip of Many Lifetimes

Exactly two weeks from now, Mara and I will lead a group of 22 from our TBE family in TBE's first-ever Jewish Heritage Tour of Central Europe.
Some aspire to take the "trip of a lifetime," but the significance of this one will span hundreds of lifetimes, as we look back upon central events of Jewish history, bearing witness to some of our greatest triumphs along with undoubtedly the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen.  
Elie Wiesel believed that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses, and through us the story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding.  "Because I remember, I despair," Wiesel said. "Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair." 
As I remarked on Yom KippurWiesel's death last year was the end of an era - he was our Survivor in Chief, representing all the witnesses.  He was our prophet, and the prophet's voice has now been silenced. But he charged us with the responsibility of being witnesses in his stead.  That is why this congregational trip is so important.  This is not merely a tour of places like Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin - although we'll have lots of opportunity to enjoy these glorious cities.  Make no mistake, this is a pilgrimage, to places where Jewish civilization thrived for a thousand years, and to Auschwitz, where human civilization nearly died in a thousand days.
Auschwitz was the epicenter of it all.  It is a place where all civilized human beings must go, to remember, and pray, and to take upon ourselves the mantle of witness, to pick up the gauntlet from Wiesel.  It is not a burden, but an honor to respond to that sacred calling.
Ultimately, this "trip of many lifetimes"will direct our attention less to the past than to the future. 
The Jew has an obligation to remember, but then to shed the shell of victim, the confining shell of resentment and anger and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being.  For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future, despite the darkness that surrounds us.  Shimon Peres, who also died last year, said we should use our imagination more than our memory.  "Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death," he said, "but they live very different lives!"
The message of this trip is this: To be a Jew is to live acutely, relentlessly and compassionately, and to be moving forward while always glancing over our be a witness to the past and a beacon toward the future.  To cling to life and purpose with all our might.   And all the while to be totally and unabashedly human.
This trip will hardly be a downer: Along the way our group will encounter some true heroes to inspire us - like Mordechai Anielevicz and Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, Rabbi Moshe Isserles and Oscar Schindler in Krakow, along with TBE's own Eric Strom, Hannah Senesh and Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest,  the Maharal of Prague and the beautiful children of Terezin - and then, in the supreme irony, we will go to Berlin, where the destruction began but where an incomprehensible Jewish renaissance is taking place, and where a new spirit of reconciliation is taking root.
Oh and we're going to have lots of fun. Still, as witnesses, we'll represent this community, and one of our missions will be to bring the rest of you along with us through what we send back to you in real time.  So in early July look out for photos, videos and words from me and the others, testimony that will go far beyond a few random Trip Advisor ratings, as we embark on this trip of many lifetimes.

So much of our purpose in taking this journey is embedded in Emil Fackenheim's idea of a 614th commandment (quoted below), never to forget the Holocaust and to prevent Hitler from gaining a posthumous victory.  We have many reasons to bear witness, ranging from the particularistic (preserving the Jewish people) to the universal (to prevent genocide from happening anywhere).  No doubt, though, that Auschwitz has become sacred ground - a holy place that every Jew - and every civilized person - should visit.

What does the Voice of Auschwitz command?
Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, nor can he be commanded to do so....And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him. One possibility, however, is wholly unthinkable. A Jew may not respond to Hitler's attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction. In ancient times, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry. Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.
          For a Jew hearing the commanding Voice of Auschwitz the duty to remember and to tell the tale is not negotiable. It is holy. The religious Jew still possesses this word. The secularist Jew is commanded to restore it. A secular holiness, as it were, has forced itself into his vocabulary...
          Jews after Auschwitz represent all humanity when they affirm their Jewishness and deny the Nazi denial... The commanding Voice of Auschwitz singles Jews out; Jewish survival is a commandment which brooks no compromise. It was this Voice which was heard by the Jews of Israel in May and June 1967 when they refused to lie down and be slaughtered...
          For after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name. The left-wing secularist Israeli journalist Amos Kenan writes: "After the death camps, we are left only one supreme value: existence."
Five Rabbinic Suggestions for Father's Day
My father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, on the right, 
with his two cantorial brothers, Saul and Herman, 1971

While Jewish mothers usually get all the attention, this is the weekend to celebrate Jewish fathers.
1) A child should not stand or sit in a place where his father is accustomed to standing or sitting (Kiddishin 31b).  Some call this the "Archie Bunker Law."
 2) A child should not support his father's opponents in a scholarly dispute. In other words, they forbade "Patrilinial Dissent." (Sorry for that groan-inducing pun)
 3) The rabbis praised Duma, a heathen who refused to awaken his father, although he needed a key lying under his father's pillow in order to conclude a transaction that would have netted him a profit of 600,000 gold coins. One can imagine how proud Dama's father was of his son when he woke up...
4) The rabbis state firmly that a child is obligated to attend to the material needs of his parents while they are alive and to mourn for them properly when they die.
 5) One more suggestion not mentioned in the Talmud: on Father's Day, let your dad sleep nice and late!
-          Also, read how Jewish fathers are the opposite of TV dads.
-          Check out this historical survey of Jewish fathers.
-          Two favorite articles I've written about fatherhood, following the births of my two sons: "Birth Rite" and "Fathers and Sons"
-          The Forward asked for Six Word Memoirs about Jewish fathers. Here are a few of them:
Actor, scrap man, embellisher of of stories.
Ilene Stein, 64, Riverside, Calif., about Max M. Fields
He lives generously. That's my inheritance.
Paula Chaiken, 42, Kingston, Pa., about Gene Chaiken
Dad's matzo balls? Hard. Heart? Soft.
Cheryl Levine, 48, Yellow Springs, Ohio, about Barry Levine
Dad, homework done, healthy. Don't worry!
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 46, congresswoman, Weston, Fla., about Larry Wasserman
Always making puns, always causing groans.   (See "Patrilineal Dissent," above)
Julie Grossman, 26, North Bethesda, Md., about Garry Grossman
Sense of humor, debt-free educations.
Alexandra Schmidt, 44, Niskayuna, N.Y. about John Lutch
Eating ice cream in underwear. 5 a.m.
Rich Cohen, 45, author of "Israel is Real," Ridgefield, Conn., about Herb Cohen
Zayde shined my shoes and heart.
Donna Erbs, 52, Portland, Ore., about Max Joffee
Waiter, I ordered the kosher lobster.
Shira Kaiserman, 28, New York, about Ronald Kaiserman
Clean linen handkerchiefs comfort me still.
Roberta Rosenberg, 58, Clarksville, Md., about Harry Rosenberg
Brimming bookshelves - bent, leant and shmoozed.
Wayne Firestone, 49, president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Rockville, Md., about Bruce Firestone
Mel Brooks movie marathon: perfect Shabbos.
Casey Stein, 25, New York, about Alan Stein
Dude dug prunes, melbas and mama.
Henry Greenspan, 65, Ann Arbor, Mich., about Albert Lewis Greenspan
Theirs - writer, scholar, lecturer. Mine - Aba. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Father's Day!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sarah Eisenstein on Behaalotcha

Let me begin with a story, since I love to tell stories, especially this one, which has to do with my dad’s bar mitzvah. 

His rabbi was very strict and formal - unlike Rabbi Hammerman – and yes, Rabbi Hammerman told me to say that.

So in my dad’s bar mitzvah speech, he was not allowed to tell any jokes… and jokes are pretty much what my dad is made of!

But on the day of his bar mitzvah, he left his speech at home.  And while my grandpa and the rabbi were fuming on the sides, my dad had to reach back to try to remember what he could…but all he could remember were the jokes he was going to put in. 

So he gave his speech and the congregation was roaring with laughter, while the rabbi was pouting in the background.

 By the way, there’s no restriction on how many jokes I can use.  After all, my portion of Beha’alotcha is the funniest in whole Torah.  It’s so funny it actually has the word “ha” in it!

This is where you are supposed to be laughing!

Life is filled with stories funny and sad, and they all come together to teach us lessons and help us grow.  The stories in the Torah help to map out the journey of our lives, and in many ways my journey to adulthood beginning today.

My portion also contains many stories, both humorous and serious, and each has lessons that can help me on my journey.

It so happens that the theme for my celebration is based on my interest in Asia, where my grandma is from.   Having a diverse background has helped me to appreciate how travel can change our perspective.  The more we experience, good and bad, the more we grow - even from our mistakes.

In my portion, the Israelites begin their journey toward the land of Israel, after months of staying put. These verses are framed by two nuns, Hebrew letters that are facing backwards.   It’s a little strange and no one really knows why those backwards nuns are put there in the first place. 

Maybe it’s to teach us that while we always need to be moving forward, at the same time we need to look back and learn from what we’ve done in the past.    Or perhaps it’s to prepare us for the fact that for every two steps forward, there will be one step back.  There will be lots of setbacks – or step backs - along the way.

Incidentally, the prayers where we take the Torah out of the ark, along with the prayer when we return the Torah to the ark, begin with these verses that are between the nuns.   Back in those days, the Ark would actually lead them on their journey.   Today the ark stays in one place, but the Torah’s journey to and from the ark is a reminder for us to take the lessons of the Torah with us on OUR journeys.  Just as the ark goes on a journey, so do we.

One example in my portion is a story where Miriam and Aaron gossip about their brother Moses.  As a result, Miriam gets afflicted by a terrible disease, leprosy.  But Moses forgives her and prays for her recovery.  This is an example of how we should always be open and forgiving, as Moses was.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for June 9


The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Jon Eisenstein
 and Debbie Eisenstein in honor of their daughter, 
Sarah, becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

 Hope in Motion and Harmony in Action
Scenes from Sunday's Cancer Walk and last night's Cantor's Concert
and stay tuned for photos from last night's concert.

Shabbat shalom!
Mazal tov this weekend to Sarah Eisenstein and her family as she becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat.  This evening,we will be honoring our graduating 12th graders with a special blessing (and a gift) and also awarding our Men's Club Scholarships.  Additionally, some TBE college students will join us, particularly those who have been on Birthright Israel or wish to share campus experiences regarding Israel.  We will have some 8th graders as well who also just returned from Israel experiences.  This is a perfect way to recall the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, as we are this week.

And mark your calendars for June 16, when TBE's Meira Rosenberg will discuss her new book, Indiana Bamboo.  Mazal tov, Meira!  Also, our annual Pride Shabbat will take place on June 23rd.  Stay tuned for more on that!
Stay tuned also for our Jewish Heritage Trip to Europe will embark on July 2.  Twenty two of us will be going, and in a real way we will represent the entire congregation as we will visit places that continue to define us, both as Jews and Americans.  I am hoping to send back a number of dispatches from our journey.
Fault Lines and Menorahs

The Six Day War jubilee has stirred considerable interest in Israel and in the conflicting narratives that often confuse us.  Over the coming months, we will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN resolution that paved the way for partition  and that will be followed up with Israel's 70th anniversary next spring.  So it will be a big Israel year here.
With that in mind, please mark your calendars now for two special events in the fall:
November 7: Hoffman Memorial Lecture.  Our speakers will be Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart, well-known authors and pundits who span the right-left spectrum when it comes to Israel.  Through their popular podcast series sponsored by the Forward, "Fault Lines" they cross their ideological divides to tackle pressing issues facing the Jewish community. Peter and Daniel prove that meaningful conversation can take place despite significant fault lines. We are delighted to be hosting them both.
December 1: Uri Regev, executive director of Hiddush and former head of the Reform movement in Israel, will speak to us about religious freedom and equality in Israel, with particular regard to marriage rights for Jewish Israelis.  Regev visited TBE this week to speak to a group of Fairfield County rabbis and cantors (and it was so nice to meet with colleagues from up and down the pike) about many of the issues surrounding Jewish pluralism that tend too often to be swept under the rug. 
Uri also told me an interesting tale about the large cast iron menorah that is outside my office (see photo above).  The artist, David Palumbo, is well known for having designed the cast iron gates to the Knesset as well as the gates to the memorial pavilion at Yad Vashem.  What I did not know was that this decorated Israeli artist was a victim of Israel's endless culture wars.  His workshop was on Mt Zion, not far from a yeshiva that on a weekly basis extended a chain barrier across the road to keep people from driving in the area on Shabbat.  On a fateful Friday in 1966, Palumbo was riding on his motorcycle on Mt Zion, did not see the chain and was killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable.

One could say that the man who created the greatest artistic works of Jewish national unity, spiritual inspiration and healing, was killed by an act of religious intolerance and exclusion.

The menorah as a religious symbol has a fascinating history - and it is the subject of our Torah and haftarah readings this Shabbat. (Click for info packet)
Uri Regev, like Gordis and Beinart, are seeking to empower all of us to feel fully invested in contemporary Jewry's great work in progress, the State of Israel - the state symbolized and brought together by the menorah.

Three Pillars: My Greeting for the Cantor's Concert

Here are my words  as originally posted in the electronic journal for last night's concert:
It is my distinct pleasure to welcome everyone to our annual Cantor's Concert.  Tonight is about partnership and a leadership formula that has sustained Jewish communities for centuries.
A synagogue, like a stool, requires three firm legs to stand - a formula that is even found in our liturgy.  Almost exactly a thousand years ago, a prayer was added to the siddur to be recited on Shabbat morning, bridging the Torah reading and the Musaf service.  This prayer is called Yekum Purkan (literally, "May the deliverance arise"). (See that prayer in our new prayerbook). Its three paragraphs ask for divine protection for 1) religious leadership and students, 3) the membership as a whole, and 3) administrative leaders and volunteers who provide for the essential needs of the community, such as candles, wine for Kiddush and Havdalah and food for guests and the poor.
Even a thousand years ago, leaders understood that the sacred work of a congregation had to be a team effort, and if any of those legs were missing, the stool would not be able to stand.
Tonight we celebrate the strength of each of those pillars.  With regard to religious leadership, I could have no partner more passionate and inspirational than Cantor Magda Fishman.  Each day she challenges us to climb ever higher into the spiritual stratosphere, and her voice and energy give us a hefty boost in that direction. And this evening I warmly welcome her travel partners, the Divas, to Stamford and TBE.
With regard to membership, the incredible buzz generated by this concert is in no small part due to the sustained dedication our membership has demonstrated for our sacred work, and the excitement that we all share as we complete a highly successful programming year.  Special thanks are due to the family of Norma and Milton Mann z'l and the Mann Foundation for their sponsorship of our Cantor's Concert series.
And last but certainly not least, there is that third vital leg, embodied here for the past decade by our executive director, Steve Lander - and embodied by Lieba elsewhere in our community.  I've often thought that Steve and I aren't simply partners.  To paraphrase the Joker and Jerry Maguire, Steve completes me.  All the areas where I am not particularly skilled (like, say, fixing anything) are areas where he excels.  I'd say that the reverse might be true too, except that Steve delivers a mean d'var Torah - and he never steps on the punch line.  
My family and I have come to know the entire Lander family quite well over the past decade, and our love and respect deepens by the day.  If Cantor Fishman is the soul of our synagogue, than Steve Lander is its beating heart.  I could not be more fortunate to be partnering with them - and with our other talented professional and lay leaders.
So let's all celebrate - for tonight is a reflection of who we are and what we aspire to be.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Mickey Flaum-Souksamlane on Shavuot

Chag Samayach--Happy Shavuot!

Today I would like to talk to you about how both positive and negative experiences have the ability to leave an impact on our lives.

I am sure if you thought about it, you could think back to the most impactful moments of your life, and see how they affected you.    What made these experiences so powerful for you?

Powerful experiences are shaped when you’re part of an event that makes you feel something so strongly, that your brain imprints the experience and then stores it away.

The most impactful experiences are usually derived from fear, sadness, happiness, curiosity, or pain.

When these emotions are at the center, you are most likely to be impacted in a real way. These experiences can also shape your morals and stay with you forever.

For example, a moment that really impacted me was when my little brother Evan was born.  I was about three at the time.  Then later on, I remember teaching Evan how to swim.  The experience made me become more protective of him – and more protective in general.  I don’t let anyone pick on Evan – except for me!

The Torah reading I read for you today describes what most would call the most impactful of all experiences in Jewish history because this is when the Jews received the Torah.  It’s found in Exodus chapters 19 and 20.

One aspect of the scene at Mount Sinai is especially curious.

It states in chapter 19, verse 17: “Moses led the people out of the camp toward God and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.”

The Midrash interprets the phrase ‘bottom of the mountain’ quite literally: the people were standing, not at the foot of the mountain, but underneath it.

The Midrash continues, saying,

“The Holy One held the mountain over them like a bucket and warned them: If you accept the Torah — good. And if not — here you will be buried.” (Shabbat 88a)”

Imagine the pressure they felt at that moment.  It’s amazing how the Midrash uses the term bucket to describe the mountain, because the Israelites must have felt the same pressure under the mountain as Michael Jordan felt in game six of the NBA finals against the Utah Jazz when he made the game winning bucket.

Overcoming pressure and hardship is what makes an experience truly impactful – the key is to take that hardship and turn it into a positive.

Specifically, as I stand here, I remember my mother explaining to me the hardships that my grand-mother went through, and how those hardships ultimately led her to her untimely death.  After my grandpa died of a heart attack when my mom was 4, my grandma got super depressed and committed suicide while my mom was still young.

My Bar Mitzvah project is to spread suicide awareness in memory of my grandma by raising money.

Suicide is a big problem that needs to be fixed:
  • Each year, 44,193 people die by suicide,
  • There are an average of 25 attempts for every suicide that results in death.
  • More people die by suicide than by homicide in the United States.
  • Suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death across all ages
  • In addition, for the age range of 10-34 suicide is the second leading cause of death.
  • Suicide costs the US $44 billion a year
I’ve put together a list of suicide prevention programs that you can donate to online.

On this Shavuot, I am accepting the Torah, just as the entire Jewish people accepted it thousands of years ago, which is just a little bit longer than Dirk Nowitzki has been in the NBA.  I’m proud to be celebrating my bar mitzvah on this special holiday.