Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey - helping those who are affected

This is the note I sent to my synagogue community on August 28, 2017. 

The images of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston and other communities in Texas and Louisiana, is devastating. It is on pace to be one of the worst episodes of flooding in recent American history.

Many of us in Hoboken know what it is like to be evacuated, stranded, and/or to have flooded homes and cars or other property. For many of us, this prompts a desire to help others, just as others around the country came to the aid of our community at our time of need.

In addition to aid organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, there are a number of Jewish organizations that are providing non-sectarian disaster relief. The following are some of the organizations that are accepting donations -- together with some thoughts about how these same organizations assisted us after Sandy. The United Synagogue of Hoboken Rabbis Discretionary Fund is making donations to all of these organizations.

Jewish Federations of North America -- This is the umbrella organization of all the Jewish Federations across the country, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. You can donate to Harvey relief through our local Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey's dedicated page,, or to the Houston Federation's Harvey Relief Fund or to the national JFNA relief fund. Donations from Jewish Federations were helpful to our synagogue and many individuals in our area following Sandy. 100% of donations go to disaster relief in the affected area.

Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster is a Jewish disaster relief organization that mobilizes volunteers to assist with the hard work of gutting and rebuilding following storms, floods and other disasters. Nechama volunteers were instrumental in the early stages of our synagogue's recovery after Sandy, as well as in clearing many of Hoboken's municipal buildings so they could be used as polling stations (for the 2012 election shortly after Sandy), and in assisting many people in our area -- especially the elderly -- in cleaning out their homes after the storm. While most Nechama volunteers are Jewish, most beneficiaries of Nechama's work are not - they assist whoever needs the help most. Nechama is currently evaluating their plans for responding to Harvey and will be seeking funds as well as volunteers.

Hebrew Free Loan Society has a project to provide interest-free loans to people in Houston who will need help in rebuilding. see

Friday, July 14, 2017

What does the Torah say about ... insurance?

Every so often I will get a question from someone in this community or outside of it, of the form “Rabbi, what does Judaism say about X?” Like “What does Judaism say about genetically modified organisms?” Or “What does Judaism say about Snapchat?”

The answer, of course, is that the Torah and other classical Jewish texts basically doesn’t say anything about any of these issues.  However, the Torah includes ethical teachings that can shed light on all of these issues.

In this vein, a question on my mind over the last few months is: What does the Torah say about insurance?

Ostensibly, the answer is nothing.  The first insurance contracts date from the 14th century. The idea that you would pay a small amount of money on a regular basis, to someone who would pay you a lot of money to help you if something bad happened to you - seems like a new idea.  And that you would buy insurance for just about everything in your life - to insure your family against someone dying, or against having health care costs, or having property damage, or a car accident, or losing your job, or having your vacation cancelled, or having damage to the contents of the package you are sending -- appears to be an especially recent phenomenon.

Then again, the Torah and the Talmud do talk about institutions that are quite similar to insurance. Maybe we wouldn’t call them “insurance”’ per se, but we would call them examples of “risk pooling,” which is part of the underlying principle by which insurance operates.

If you lived in an ancient Jewish community, you would have lived in close proximity with other people and other families.  Some people would probably be farmers, while others would be merchants, and maybe others would be hired laborers.  Some would be wealthy, some would be poor, and some would be in the middle.  And if someone should experience a crisis -- for example, if someone became impoverished and needed financial assistance, or suffered illness, or crop failure -- the others in the community were responsible to come to the assistance of the person or people who were experiencing difficulty.  Such assistance would usually be possible to provide because most of the time, most people are not enduring a crisis and are therefore available to assist someone in need.

This is the most basic principle of social welfare as described in the Torah and the Talmud. We read, for example, in Leviticus (19 and 23):  If you have a field, don’t harvest the corners of the field or collect the harvest so thoroughly that there are no dropped sheaves.  Rather, let the poor and the stranger harvest the corners of  your field and glean (pick up the dropped sheaves) in your field.

This is a major theme at the conclusion of the book of Leviticus. Almost at the conclusion of that book, we read: -- וכי ימוך אחיך --- והחזקת בו - “If your brother is starting to become poor, hold on to him and strengthen him.” Prop him up. Keep his head above water.   (Leviticus 25) In Leviticus 19, we read  לא תעמוד על דם רעך “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

The common denominator in all these examples is that people who are doing well at the present moment should help those who are not, in part because such a situation could so easily change -- as the Talmud says (in a precursor to numerous 1960s folk songs), Galgal hu she-chozer ba-olam.The world is like a revolving wheel.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b) .  Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. It makes sense for us to structure our society such that those who are up are giving some assistance to those who are down.  It’s not only a matter of beneficence and generosity; it’s also a matter of self-interest, because we know that the wheel keeps turning.   If today we are in the position to help others, it may happen in the future that we will be the ones in need.  

But is such assistance best defined as an “obligation,” or is it “an optional but prudent thing to do,” or is it “an optional nice thing to do?”  In other words:  Is it analogous to a tax (which would be an obligation), or is it analogous to an insurance premium (which would be optional but prudent), or is it analogous to charity (which - at least according to American society - would be optional but nice)?

My sense is that Jewish tradition does not really recognize the distinction between these categories.  The Hebrew word usually translated as “charity” is tzedakah, and it means “justice,” and it is considered obligatory, not optional.
Many Americans this year are asking the question: who should be eligible to get health insurance?  Who do we accept into our community, into our circle, to pool risk together with us?  In particular:  if I am healthy, do I need to accept sick people into my circle to pool my risk with them?  I might do much better if I excluded sick people from my community. In fact, If I am extraordinarily healthy, maybe it would be better for me not to be part of one of these communities at all.
Judaism has an unambiguous response to such questions: We don’t make decisions about who is in our community based on how expensive their needs are.
Still on my mind is an incident a couple of months ago in which TV personality Jimmy Kimmel described his new son’s medical condition, how henceforth his son will have to have many heart surgeries, which are likely to be successful but will classify him as having a preexisting condition for the rest of his life.
Former Congressman Joe Walsh responded to Kimmel:  “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care.”
Ever since I heard that, I have been wondering: Setting any actual policy proposals aside, is there a way to interpret the Torah and Jewish ethics to agree with former congressman Joe Walsh, that someone who is fortunate at the current moment is not obligated to share in the risk of someone who - through no fault of his or her own - is experiencing misfortune?  
It appears to me that Joe Walsh and I do not only disagree about health care, but about the nature of community, and what it means to be part of a community and a society.  And these are things on which reasonable people can in fact disagree.  But it is incontrovertible that the Torah is sketching out a vision about the nature of community, and it looks different from the Joe Walsh version -- in that the Torah’s version reiterates the injunction,  lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hoboken shelter Civic Champion award to Erica Seitzman: presentation by Phil Cohen

This week, USH member Erica Seitzman was honored by the Hoboken Shelter. The following is the text of the speech delivered by USH member Phil Cohen to present the award (also presented on behalf of USH member and Shelter board member Rebecca Kramnick who was unable to attend)

Erica Seitzman Introduction
Presented by Phil Cohen at the Hoboken Shelter’s 35 Anniversary Gala
June 13, 2017

It’s my privilege to introduce you to Erica Seitzman.

This weekend, our family watched the movie Wonder Woman.  In Wonder Woman, the heroine has amazing powers given by the God Zeus, which she uses to save civilization and bring peace to the world.

Erica is the Hoboken Shelter’s Wonder Woman.  

Erica’s parents, who must have given Erica her amazing powers, are here with us tonight.  Can we please recognize Erica’s parents?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Fifty years since the Six Day War: Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim 2017 / 5777

On this 50th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim, I am reading Michael Oren's history of the Six Day War. (Ok, I'm actually listening to the audiobook.) I am learning more deeply about various details that I had known before but not fully understood or appreciated.
I am learning about the tense atmosphere in May 1967 with escalation of troops and rhetoric from Egypt and Syria and their pledges to destroy Israel once and for all, as well as the USSR's pledge to support Egypt and Syria in this endeavor. I am learning about the US 'Regatta' plan to assist Israel in challenging the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, a plan that the US eventually decided not to undertake because it would entail too much risk for the US.  In other words, at the same time, the US was telling Israel 'you will only be alone if you go it alone,' but also giving Israel no option but to 'go it alone.'
I am learning about the agonizing discussions in Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's cabinet: do we have to wait for a potentially devastating first strike that we have evidence is being planned by Egypt and Syria and will happen imminently, or can we strike preemptively using the blockade of the Straits of Tiran as a causus belli?
I had not previously known that the most cautious, 'dovish' members of the cabinet - the only ones to vote against authorizing the war, because of discomfort with the first strike approach and the lack of explicit American support - were the two representatives of the National Religious Party, Shapira and Wahrhaftig. (Today, in general, it is rarer for Religious Zionists to take a more dovish position on any issue than secular Zionists do.) I had also not
known about Ben-Gurion’s deep ambivalence and concern about the decision to go to war. Nor had I known that Moshe Dayan, who took a relatively hawkish approach regarding Jordan and the West Bank and Jerusalem, initially strongly counseled against occupying the Golan Heights. What we who follow Israeli politics today think of as ‘hawkish’ and ‘dovish’ perspectives were much more nuanced in the context of the decisions to be made in 1967.
Today is a day to celebrate Israel's endurance and survival and thriving, how 50 years ago it withstood its neighbors' effort to wipe it off the map. Today is a day to celebrate renewed Jewish access to sites that are among the holiest places for Jews - per Naomi Shemer's spontaneous rewrite of her song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, שופר קורא בהר הבית בעיר העתיקה- ‘the sound of the Shofar [long banned at the Kotel] can be heard at the Temple Mount in the Old City.’
This 50th anniversary is also a time for sober assessment of some of Israel's challenges. I count myself among those who fear for Israel’s future in the absence of a resolution - or at least a much better management - of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of the many complicated aftereffects of the Six Day War, some make such a resolution seem more likely (like Israel’s demonstration that it will not be dislodged militarily and thus must be a Middle East reality to be reckoned with), and some make such a resolution seem more distant (like the effect of generations of Palestinians who know of Jews and Israelis only as the soldiers who control their movements and the details of their lives).
I had the opportunity to learn twice this week from Yossi Klein Halevi, one of my favorite American/Israeli writers and thinkers. In his typical style, he encourages us to live in the tension between two opposing ideas - in this case, to live in the tension between May ‘67 and June ‘67. We must acknowledge both the precariousness of Israel in May ‘67 and the relief and jubilation of June ‘67 - while not getting so caught up in June ‘67 that we forget the enduring human cost of the war on all sides, and not getting so caught up in May ‘67 that we forget that the Israel of today is a regional power that is strong enough to be magnanimous.
For me, per Yossi’s suggestion, Yom Yerushalayim is a day for ‘sober celebration’ - and per the psalms, a day to pray for Jerusalem’s peace and welfare. שאלו שלום ירושלים…. יהי שלום בחיליך, שלווה בארמונותיך. May there be peace in her walls and tranquility in her palaces. למען אחי ורעי אדרבה נא שלום בך. Jerusalem, I pray for peace for you, for the sake of all my brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends. (Psalm 122)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thoughts for Yom HaShoah 2017 / 5777: Remembering Gertrude Grossbard z"l, Rabbi Herman and Lotte Schaalman z"l, and Elie Wiesel z"l

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day - the day when we remember the effort by the Nazis to obliterate the Jewish people -- and how they nearly succeeded in their diabolical plan, murdering ⅔ of the Jews of Europe, approximately 6 million men, women, and children.   The Holocaust continues to exert an influence on the life of our community today, as so many of us have family members who are survivors and so many of us have family members who were killed during that terrible era.  (Click here to see a video of how Yom HaShoah is marked in Israel today -- with a two minute siren that brings the entire nation to mournful standstill in tribute to those who were killed.)

Many of us gathered at Congregation Bnai Jacob this afternoon for a moving tribute to those who died, including presentations of music by the USH Choir and memorial prayers chanted by our member Rebecca Weitman.  Our older Learning Center students in grade 6 and above will have special programs this week focusing on remembering the Shoah.

This Yom HaShoah, I am reflecting on the memories of some people who were connected to our community who died during the past year, whose lives were touched by the Shoah.

Our friend and member Gertrude Grossbard, mother of our friend and member Stan Grossbard and wife of Henry Grossbard z”l, died almost exactly a year ago at age 92.     Gertrude grew up in Vienna, where her parents had a business for leather and shoe accessories. She recalled having a happy childhood in Vienna, though starting in 1933 it was clear that things were changing. Her childhood included harrowing stories of stumbling upon a Nazi rally and hearing the most bloodthirsty songs vowing violence against the Jews, and memories of her brothers being arrested.  In 1939, when she was age 14, her parents took her by train to Belgium, and with tears in his eyes, her father put her on a boat to the United States,with fear that they would never see her again. She lived with aunts and uncles and cousins in New York while still hoping to see her parents again.   Only much later would she find out that they perished at Auschwitz.  

In the US, Gertrude was reunited with her childhood friend Esther, through whom she also met Esther’s brother Henry, who had a harrowing Shoah story of his own. Within just two weeks, Henry was asking Gertrude to marry him… and apparently he kept on asking for the next five years until Gertrude finally said yes. Her reason for hesitating? -- How could she get married before she was reunited with her parents? Gertrude finally came to the conclusion that her mother would have approved of Henry had she met him.

Despite the difficulties that Gertrude endured, she would emphasize that she felt so fortunate to have survived and built a wonderful life and family in the United States.  She is dearly missed by her son Stan Grossbard, her daughter-in-law Dawn Zimmer, her grandsons Jake and Alex, her daughter Rebecca, and many other relatives and friends.

Also on my mind are Rabbi Herman and Lotte Schaalman, grandparents of our friend and member Joshua Youdovin, who both died this year at age 100 and 102.  They were both fortunate to leave Germany during the 1930’s to establish a new life in the United States; the story of Rabbi Schaalman’s immigration process can be found here and in his obituary here

Also on our minds this Yom HaShoah is writer and activist Elie Wiesel, who died this year.  There have been numerous tributes to Elie Wiesel this year, including these powerful remembrances from friends, relatives and students:  On Yom Kippur 2016, I told the story of the melody for Ani Ma’amin (“I believe with perfect faith”) that Elie Wiesel learned from the nephew of the Vishnitzer Rebbe.  See below for my retelling of the story, and the link to the musical performance at which Elie Wiesel told this story.

With each passing year, the responsibility of sharing and the transmission of the stories of the survivors, the liberators, and the righteous rescuers passes more and more to the next generation.  May the memories of all those touched by the Shoah -- those who died decades ago, and those who died this year -- be for a blessing always.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Elie Wiesel's 'Ani Ma'amin'

For Yom Kippur 2016/5777,
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Elie Wiesel told the story of how, as a teenager in 1943, he and his mother traveled to spend a shabbat with the Hasidic community of the Vishnitzer Rebbe, in Hungary.
At that time, everyone knew that terrible things were happening to the Jewish community in Germany and Poland - though the magnitude, the specifics, were not yet known.  But Jews in Hungary felt safe because the Nazis were not yet controlling Hungary, and the thought that they might gain control in Hungary seemed unthinkable.
That Shabbos, one of the guests around the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe was the Rebbe’s nephew, who had escaped from Poland. All the hasidim circled around him, eager to get some news from him about what was befalling their brothers and sisters in Poland.  What was the situation like?  What exactly had he escaped from, and how did he escape?
The Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew refused to answer - saying “I cannot tell you.” But over the entire Shabbat, they circled him and asked him over and over to give them some news, to tell them what was happening in Poland.
Finally, in the waning hours of shabbat, as the sun was setting, the Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew finally said - “ok, I will tell you.”  But he did not tell them a story. Instead, he sang a song - a particular melody of the words of Ani Ma’amin - “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach, the Messiah - and though the Messiah will tarry, nevertheless do I await his arrival every day.”
[melody at -- sung by Elie Wiesel, 'Elie Wiesel in Concert,' 92nd St Y, 2010]
The Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew did not convey any actual information about what was taking place in Poland. But his message was unmistakable, and all those around the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe came to some understanding of the magnitude of what was befalling their brothers and sisters in Poland.  How the world felt like it was crashing down over them.  How they valiantly struggled to maintain faith that the world could still be redeemed, that what they were experiencing was not the utter collapse of the world, but rather that it was yet one more example of the tarrying of the Messiah.
Through the song, Elie Wiesel and those sitting at the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe gained a window into the horrors of the Shoah.  
At that time, none of them realized that within the year, the Nazis would control Hungary as well- and the fate of the Polish Jews would be their fate as well.
We are grateful for the lesson of Elie Wiesel, who died last summer -- for teaching us over and over again that even in the most abominable life situations, we must never regard ourselves as powerless. We must never respond with indifference or resignation to the suffering of others.  There is always something we, and others, can do to bring our world closer to redemption.
Ani ma'amin- this I believe;  be-emunah shleimah - with perfect confidence.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Seder Trivia - 2017 / 5777 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can see previous editions of this game here

This is what was presented at our congregational seder in 2016, in honor (?) of that election year. All 3 stories this year have to do with people who reached, or aspired to reach, the Presidency of the United States.  2 are true; one is fictional.


Many of us saw videos of visits to Matzah factories in the spring of 2016 by presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich.  For some people with long political memories, these campaign stops were reminiscent of the first ever Passover-oriented campaign stop, back in 1988.  

Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic front-runner, and his wife Kitty Dukakis were getting a lot of questions about their family’s religious practices, as Governor Dukakis was a Greek Orthodox Christian, and his wife Kitty was Jewish.  In response to a reporter’s query in February 1988, Michael Dukakis indicated that his family had a Passover seder every year, and they would likely host a Passover seder in the White House if he won the election.  

The B. Manischewitz Company, upon hearing this, invited Governor and Mrs Dukakis to come to tour the Manischewitz processing plant in Vineland NJ, at that time a major employer in the Vineland area.  During the tour, the chairman of B. Manischewitz Co. joked that Manischewitz would be the ideal choice to be the official matzah of the first-ever White House Seder.

The tour nearly came to an end, though, when Kitty Dukakis removed a rice cake from her purse.  The sight of unauthorized food in a kosher for Passover facility nearly made the Manischewitz kashrut supervisor lose his composure, but he collected himself and calmly asked the prospective First Lady to refrain from eating until she got back outside.


Passover shopping promotions have a long history:
Buy $50 of groceries and get five pounds of matzah for free!
Buy 3 Passover products and get a free Maxwell House Haggadah!

But did you know the story of the first ever Passover shopping promotion?  It happened in 1889.  The United States was celebrating 100 years since the inauguration of George Washington, who became president in March of 1789.  The entire nation seemed to be celebrating - but this posed a dilemma for the Jewish community because the anniversary of the inauguration fell during Passover.

Well, New York Matzah bakers came to the rescue and announced a way that the entire Jewish community could join in the celebration:  Anyone who bought 10 pounds of Matzah would receive as a free gift -- a portrait of George Washington, suitable for framing.
And thus -- that year, George Washington was a welcome guest at many passover seders throughout the United States. I cannot tell a lie.


Various products bear the name of Donald Trump -- some elegant, and some ridiculous.
Trump Tower, Trump Place, Trump Palace, Trump Plaza - - Trump Shuttle, Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Fragrance, Trump Mortgage, Trump Natural Spring Water.
But one of the very craziest of the Trump products has special relevance to Passover.

Trump Vodka was not a particularly successful business venture. Introduced in 2006 to great fanfare, it never sold very well, and the brand had completely gone out of circulation by 2011, at which time Trump Vodka could no longer be found anywhere in the world….

Except for one place:  Israel.  For some reason, the distributor of Trump Vodka in Israel kept on distributing it after the brand had been officially terminated. The Trump organization even sued the distributor to stop him from distributing Trump Vodka -- but Trump apparently settled the lawsuit (even though, as Trump says, “I NEVER SETTLE LAWSUITS.”)   So Trump Vodka can be purchased legally in just one country in the world:  Israel.  

pictured:  a different kind of k-p vodka?
And even in Israel, Trump Vodka doesn’t sell so well.  But relatively speaking, Trump Vodka IS  popular in Israel at this time of year, in that it is not made from wheat, but from potatoes.

And thus -- Trump Vodka happens to be one of the only brands of vodka in Israel that bears kosher for Passover certification.
Please note, however:  drinking four cups of Trump Vodka at your seder (or, for that matter, drinking any Trump Vodka at all at your seder)  is strongly, strongly not recommended.

Scroll below for answers!


For the two true stories, click these links:

Trump vodka

(Dukakis story is not true, though it is true that he said that he would host seders in the White House if he were elected.)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Haman on the Couch....

see for something I wrote in honor of Purim this year, making an effort to peer into the mind of Haman, everyone's favorite Purim villain.   Purim Sameach!