Join us for services this evening at 7:30, as, I will be joined by guest musicians Katie Kaplan and Assaf Gleizner (Cantor Fishman is away this week).
On Shabbat morning, our Torah portion is Yitro, which includes the Ten Commandments. We'll look at them in depth. Meanwhile, from the archives:
Shababimbam is off this week, but it is growing fast! If you know of anyone with little ones (babies through preschool), let them know about our vibrant, exciting young family programs. Send them to our new TBE Tots Facebook page.
Your Presence is Your Present!
Our daily morning minyan benefits the community in innumerable ways. We almost always have people attending who are saying Kaddish, either for a yahrzeit or because they are in the mourning period for a relative. People also come to say prayers for loved ones who are ill, or because they are facing a life crisis. Unfortunately, some of our "regulars" are facing challenges of their own - so we occasionally fall short of ten. If you have ever benefitted from our community's support of you during hard times, please consider "paying it forward" by coming to minyan. 7:30 weekdays, 9 AM Sundays and federal holidays (including this Monday). And you can brush up on the prayers by checking out our "Minyan Mastery" webpage. Remember, there is no need to be intimidated. Your mere presence is your present!
Europe Trip Deadline is 14 Days Away! See our revised itinerary
We live-streamed Wednesday evening's superb lecture on "Secrets of the Warsaw Ghetto" by Dr. Samuel Kassow. You can watch it by going on to our TBE Facebook page; and "like" that page to have quick access to our streamed services and lectures. And sign up for the trip now!
Passover Second Night Seder
Passover is just six weeks away! For the first time in several years, by popular demand, we are doing a Passover Seder here on the second night of the festival, thanks in part to a grant from the Mann Family Foundation. Despite the high cost of Passover food, we've kept the price as low as possible. Space will be limited, so please sign up early! And let me know if you would like to serve on a committee that will plan a very special evening.
President's Day: "To Bigotry No Sanction'
When confronted by fears of anti-Semitism from the Jewish community of Newport Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote his famous response:
"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support... May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
When confronted with a nation more divided than ever as result of centuries of institutionalized racism, President Lincoln gave his famous "House Divided" speech. It's interesting that in this speech, Lincoln did not advocate unity at all costs. Unity for its own sake can never be the ultimate goal. What he was looking for was a nation united for a just cause, in this case the abolition of slavery. Unity with a common purpose can bring people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives together.
This week, the President of the United States was given the chance to answer virtually the same question posed by 18th century Jews of Newport - a softball toss from an Israeli journalist giving him the chance to address the fears of Jews facing the documented rise of anti-Semitism and hate in this country. The number of hate groups rose in 2016, and most are anti-Semitic.
You can read the unfiltered responses of the President and Israeli Prime Minister here and decide for yourself whether those responses fit into the mold so powerfully cast by Washington and Lincoln. You can also read how President Trump responded to a Haredi reporter who was asking about anti-Semitism in Thursday's press conference, once again - twice, actually - missing the chance to state clearly and calmly that anti-Semitism and all forms of hate are not to be tolerated.
Afterwards, the Ultra-Orthodox reporter gave President Trump a mulligan in the hopes that he will soon clarify his response. But the ADL and AJC were less generous in their assessments of what transpired at the press conferences.
Despite the alarming trends on hate groups, American Jews have no reason to fear an onslaught of hate directed against us. The bigger picture was revealed in a poll this week, which shows that Americans are warming up to religious groups, and Jews are at the very top of the list. The top! Jews have never been more secure here.
They like us! They really like us!
But still there is much to be concerned about. The form of hatred being incubated, whether deliberately or tacitly, is every bit as virulent as those Middle Eastern strains that are being so zealously targeted. The terrorism of Quebec City and Charleston was every bit as hateful and murderous as the terrorism of Orlando and San Bernardino. Bigotry is bigotry, no matter what the source.
On Thursday, I attended a meeting of clergy and other community leaders, called by Mayor Martin and Chief of Police Fontneau. It was heartening to see how our community has come together to help those who feel the most vulnerable and counter hate in all its manifestations. (See the mayor's press release about the meeting here). The Mayor and Police Chief emphasized that the police will be increasing patrols around vulnerable institutions and that the rights of individuals will be protected.
So on this holiday weekend celebrating the gifts of great leaders, we pray that our current leaders live up to their immortal words - so that bigotry will never find sanction in either land.
The Complicated Legacy of Jacob Neusner
During last fall's election turmoil and High Holidays crush, the death of Jacob Neusner, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the past century, received relatively little attention. Neusner, who died in October, was one of the giants who established Jewish studies in the 20th century, and a central figure in the history of critical scholarship on our holy texts. He was also my mentor and inspiration. But the relationship was not without complications.
In late December, with a chance finally to collect my thoughts, I reflected on how Neusner's passing has moved me to come to terms with the many ways in which this intellectual colossus both shaped me and shafted me. In fact, it's only now, decades later, with the man who launched 1,000 books now at rest, that I feel able to look back and assess his impact, both on my life and on the world.
As the many scholars who knew him can testify, Neusner was famously cruel - one might even say abusive -- to students and colleagues, and in particular to those students in whom he saw promise. I was one of them.
He was fundamental in shaping my perspectives on ancient and contemporary Judaisms, while challenging me to question my own faith system with an ultra-critical eye. He fed my insatiable need to smash idols and my deep desire to seek common threads linking Judaism to the universal human enterprise. He took this Ramah/USY-bred insider and ripped him from the womb of a Jewish establishment that had been ossifying for years, replacing spoon-fed platitudes with a far bolder quest. He is the reason I became a rabbi - and for the kind of rabbi I became.
This Sunday evening at 7:30, I'll be discussing Neusner's legacy and his personal impact on me, at a meeting of the TBE Discussion Group, here in the lobby. All are welcome.
My reflections were published in a long form essay in the Forward, which you can read here.
Mitzvah of the Week: Hachnasat Orchim (Welcoming Visitors)
A STAMFORD EFFORT TO HELP STUDENTS IN THE U.S. FROM SOMALILAND:
This week, I met with representatives of an effort going on in Stamford to find host families and internships for this summer for approximately 30 students from Somaliland who come from the Abaarso School of Science and Technology.
These students are attending US prep school and colleges. Unfortunately they will not be able to go home this summer for fear of not being able to return at the end of the summer to continue their studies, due to the Executive Order barring entrance of people to the U.S. from their country. Therefore the group is looking for host families who can host one or two students for 2 - 3 weeks this summer. There are several families in Stamford who have hosted these students in previous summers and school holiday breaks. The students are super smart, interesting and wonderful people. It is a great experience for all involved.
This act of hospitality, though in response to the President's Executive Order, transcends politics. As the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, has stated, the Order flies against "Judaism's imperative to 'welcome the stranger,'" but one can participate in this particular mitzvah no matter what one feels about the Executive Order.
Currently there are 58 students from Abaarso in the US. They are concentrated in the East Coast, but in the South-East, and West, as well. They are in Secondary Schools and University programs including MIT, Harvard, Brandeis, Wheaton, Brown, Ct. College, Clark, Holy Cross, Amherst, Berkshire, Choate, Yale, Taft, Trinity, Hotchkiss, Emma Willard, Maris, Rochester, Swarthmore, Lafayette, Church Farm, George Washington, Woodbury Forest St. Albans, Agnes Scott, Rabun Gap, Oberlin, UWV, Grinnell, Westminster (Mo.), TCU, and Hockaday (TX). Some of these students will be finishing their studies and others will be able to stay at their schools, but we do need host families for approximately 30 students. For the college students we are also looking for internships.
Here is some information and coming news coverage for the school and its students (www.abaarsoschool.org).
1. Jonathan Starr, Founder of Abaarso, was interviewed on "Morning Joe", on Friday Feb 8 to discuss the school and his new book about the school, It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World's #1 Failed State (available through Barnes and Noble). See the interview here
2. Anderson Cooper went to Abaarso last year (see preliminary YouTube interview on the Abaarso site: The full interview is scheduled for the "60 Minutes" program this Sunday. The interview will emphasize the value to an integrated and more secure world where students like these, smart, educated, worldly become leaders in their countries.
3. Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times, about an Abaarso student at Harvard.
Here is a brief summary of the help needed to find host families and internships for summer 2017:
a. Summer host families: Abaarso management has advised current students in the U.S. not to leave the U.S. while they are students here, to prevent any possible rejection when they attempt to return. No matter what happens with the on-going appeals of the court decisions, there is likely to be a new Executive Order that might affect these students. This means that we are seeking host families for these students for this summer. Obviously critical is that these families are well known by the person recommending them.
b. Internships: The Abaarso students are in the U.S. with F-1 visas which permit them to work in the US, so long as the work is related to their Major in college. If you or members of your congregation have ideas for internships for summer 2017 please let us know and we will marry your sources with the majors of the Abaarso university students (to conform with the USSD reg's).
A lot of people don't know that there is a difference between Somalia and Somaliland. (Apparently, neither does the US government; hence its inclusion in the travel ban). Here is some info from Wikipedia:
Somaliland is a self-declared state internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia. The government of Somaliland regards itself as the successor state to the former British Somaliland protectorate, which as the State of Somaliland, united on 1 July 1960 with the Trust Territory of Somaliland (the former Italian Somaliland) to form the Somalia Republic (Somalia). The territory has been governed by democratically elected governments that seek international recognition as the Government of the Republic of Somaliland. The central government maintains informal ties with some foreign governments, who have sent delegations to Hargeisa. However, Somaliland's self-proclaimed independence remains unrecognized by any country or international organization. It is a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, an advocacy group whose members consist of indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognized or occupied territories.
Please contact Belle Horwitz or Walter Stewart for additional information:
Belle Horwitz: firstname.lastname@example.org: Cell: 1-917-603-1175
Walter Stewart: email@example.com: Cell: 1-203-912-8266
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Friday, February 17, 2017
Friday, February 10, 2017
I hope you are managing to navigate this slippery, snowy day. As for last week’s spot-on Super Bowl prediction, I never doubted it for a moment. Well, maybe for one moment. But just as the most watched Super Bowl ad, which featured an Israeli startup, celebrated perseverance and grace under extreme pressure, so did the action on the field.
Yael Stolarsky, JCC Emissary
Join us for services this evening at 7:30, as, on this Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Song). I will be joined by guest musicians Katie Kaplan and Gòn Halevi, (Cantor Fishman is away this week). We will also be hearing from JCC Israeli Emissary Yael Stolarsky, who will be discussing recent events in Israel, and in particular the important case of the Hebron shooter, Elor Azaria, which has become a major story in Israel. Also, this evening is our 5th and 6th grade “Superhero Shabbat” service and dinner.
On Shabbat morning, we reenact the Song of the Sea in this week’s Torah portion. It is also another of our B’nai Mitzvah Club and Shababimbam Shabbats. If you know of anyone with little ones (babies through preschool), let them know about our vibrant, exciting young family programs. Send them to our new TBE Tots Facebook page. And speaking of B’nai Mitzvah, take a look at this d’var Torah given last weekend by Charlie Schwartz.
This weekend brings us another Super Sunday, this one on behalf of our local federation. Please support the UJF, whether by volunteering or giving, so that it can continue to sustain the Jewish present and future, for all the important work that it does.
Come to Europe with us - See our revised itinerary!
The lecture on "Secrets of the Warsaw Ghetto" by Dr. Samuel Kassow, postponed last night, will now be held this coming Wed., Feb. 15, at 7:30.
At a time when the Holocaust’s very veracity is being questioned and it’s uniquely Jewish nature pooh-pooed even by the White House, every Jew must affirm that we are witnesses. The registration deadline for our Jewish Heritage trip is just a few weeks away. We have just revised the itinerary, based on feedback from the group. See that itinerary and other information on the trip’s webpage. Contact me directly with any questions.
- Many people have mentioned “How well do you know Jewish slang” test. You will be relieved to know that I scored 100%.
- TBE’s Dorothy Levine had a letter to the editor letter to the editor in the New York Times this week on the need for mindful listening by doctors with patients.
- The alarming increase in alt-right inspired hate is hitting very close to home. White Supremacists have been disseminating racist flyers in our area, including a number distributed in Norwalk. Also, following up on last week’s Shabbat-O-Gram posting on the Jewish value of zachor - remembering the Holocaust, see this article on why scholars and others are so concerned when people begin talking about the specific numbers of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Interestingly, the disputed estimate that five million non-Jews were killed came decades ago from the Simon Wiesenthal Center - but it has since been refuted by acclaimed scholars like Deborah Lipstadt.
- One response to the recent Executive Order on immigration (which, as I mentioned last week, runs counter to the Jewish value of AHAVAT HA-GER - EMBRACING THE STRANGER), has been the increased demonstration of support by Jewish groups for those most threatened. A number of rabbis were arrested in Manhattan this week, and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explained why the protest was a holy act. Noted Jewish educator Erica Brown calls the current activism “holy outrage.” Jews and Muslims gathered in Norwalk this week to offer a message of inclusion. See also this interesting commentary from a Muslim on how neighborliness and kindness can overcome even the deepest fears and prejudice. We aim for that kind of neighborly love within our community as well.
What Trees Can Teach Us
This weekend is Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees. Why do trees need a new year?
The tree has always been a source of mystery and sustenance for Jews (see this article and some more background here). In ancient sources, the cypress, cedar, myrtle and willow have special symbolism. The Torah itself is called a “Tree of Life.”
But the origin of Tu B’Shevat can be found in this passage from the Mishna:
On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree; the fruit of a tree that was formed prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and cannot be tithed together with fruit that was formed after that date; this ruling is in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai. But Beit Hillel say: The New Year for trees is on the fifteenth of Shevat.
So it was all about tithing; not that big a deal. For the Talmudic rabbis, celebrating Tu B’Shevat would have been akin to our having parties on April 15. But Tu B’Shevat has changed over time, as this article demonstrates. Tu B’Shevat has been reinterpreted in four ways: for the Sages, for medieval Jewish mystics, for modern Zionists and for environmentalists. Each of these adds an important element to this multilayered celebration.
Contemporay versions of the Kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat Seder bring together all of these elements. We’ll be having such a seder for our younger grades this Sunday. Here are some more ideas on how you can celebrate Tu B’Shevat.
Like many of you, I’ve always been inspired by Shel Silverstein’s timeless classic, “The Giving Tree” (which you can read here in full). It speaks of how a tree continues to give of itself, even after it is chopped down and becomes merely a stump. It’s a lovely poem, but the premise, that trees actually form relationships, seems a little far-fetched.
Or does it.
Now we are finding that trees indeed interact with those around them. Dr. Tamir Klein of Israel’s Weitzman Institute recently made a startling discovery that neighboring trees relate with one another in complex ways. In the forest, trees are known to compete for resources such as light and nutrients, but Klein found that the same trees also engage in sharing. Trees compete, but they also form communities and protect one another, and amazingly, they also form families, with parents protecting their children.
These discoveries are echoed in the current bestseller, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben, which I picked up a few weeks ago and have been reading in honor of Tu B’Shevat. The complexities of a tree’s ecosystem are mind-boggling. As Wohlleben writes, “There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments. All these work the soil, transform it, and make it so valuable for the trees.”
When strong trees get sick, as happens inevitably, other trees rally to their support, through root networks and in how they grow in ways that maximize sunlight for those who need it most. This all plays out at a much slower pace than humans are used to - but it does play out. Trees mount defenses. Trees even feel pain: leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.
Wohlleben speaks of a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects trees and other vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods. He writes of how trees communicate through emitting and interpreting scents, often as warnings when predators approach.
“If every tree were looking out only for itself,” he adds, “then quite a few of them would never reach old age.”
Here’s another gem from the book:
“Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination-in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!”
It comes as no shock to us that trees are living beings. Perhaps it is time to stop calling them “things.” Decades ago, Martin Buber wrote in “I and Thou,”
I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air - and the growing itself in the darkness.... One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.”
I’m not suggesting that we stop picking their fruit or using their wood for our homes. Even Wohlleben acknowledges that in order to survive, we need the help of organic substances of other species. All animals do. But just as we have now come to understand that other animals too have complicated emotional existences (yes, even fruit flies have feelings), we need to see that tree as a “thou” rather than an “it,” one not existing in isolation but living in relationship with all of us.
Shel Silverstein was not far off base in bringing us that immortal tree-buddy. Neither was Disney’s Pocahontas. And if we can begin to anticipate every walk in the woods as chance to forge new relationships, sort of like a high school dance with sap, maybe our world would be much better off.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu B’Shevat!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman