Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor: Mourning Inside Out

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Yom Kippur morning 2015/5776. Please note that this is being posted now without final edits and additions of hyperlinks; hopefully that will happen soon.)  

Each year as I contemplate my remarks for before Yizkor,
among my preparation tasks is to think about the people who have died since last Yom Kippur - people from this community, and people of special significance to the Jewish community and to the world.
In this community I think especially of the loss of our dear friend and member Tuvia Rosenberg, a gentle soul whose life intersected with just about every major movement and significant event in the 20th century,
and we’ll have more to say about Tuvia’s remarkable life later in our service.

And I think of the many many others on our list who are dear relatives and friends of our community - men and women, some who died in the fullness of years, some agonizingly cut down much too young.   Some endured war and persecution early in  their lives; some struggled valiantly with illness for many years.  Many were passionate about their work achievements; many were deeply committed to their families;  many were passionate in their connection to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.  Most were able to find enduring sources of deep joy in their lives.  The people on our list are different in every way except that they are remembered and deeply missed by our community.  May their memory be for a blessing.

And we’re also connected to the larger Jewish community and the larger world community.  
And I think of some people on our list who were especially known for their heroism and dedication to others -
like Sir Nicholas Winton, the British financier who while in his 20’s came up with the idea for, and then implemented, the Kindertransport - a project to save more than 600 Jewish children from the Holocaust and bring them to England.  He lived past age 100 and was blessed to meet hundreds of the descendants of those whose lives he saved.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis,  one of the most outstanding American pulpit rabbis, and the founder of organizations like the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, to provide for the material needs of non-Jews who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.
And Rochelle Shoretz, a  heroic young woman who founded the organization called Sharsheret to give support to Jewish women dealing with breast cancer and ovarian cancer - an organization that has directly helped a number of people from our own community at very difficult moments.

And also on my mind is a particular writer and teacher who died just last month - this is someone that I first heard about when I was in college,
and a woman I was interested in was taking a class in Jewish literature,
and one of the books on the reading list was a book called “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” by Oliver Sacks -
It was one of his books of case studies of his patients, that helped

Resumes and Eulogies, and Race in America in 5776

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Yom Kippur evening 2015/5776. Please note that this is being posted now without final edits and additions of hyperlinks; hopefully that will happen soon.)

Every year there’s the competition for which new book by which author will get quoted in more high holiday sermons than any other.
Of course, we won’t know who the winner REALLY is until after Yom Kippur is over.  (and of course there is no authoritative national registry of High hOliday sermons so we wont’ truly know at all.)  and of course it’s not really a competition.
But if it WERE a competition, my sense is that this year’s winner, probably quoted in more high holiday services than any other contemporary writer, would be New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Why would David Brooks be the most quoted person these high holidays?  First of all, because of where he falls on the political spectrum - as a political conservative who is moderate enough for liberals to at least pay attention to.

But second, that he is an observant and knowledgeable and committed Jew who this year wrote a book called “The Road to Character,” which includes one phrase which is just tailor made for High Holiday sermons.
And that idea is:  there are various kinds of virtues that people can express in their lives - and they fall into two main categories:  there are the ‘resume virtues’ and there are the ‘eulogy virtues.’

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being small, being blessed (Rosh haShanah 2015 / 5776)

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's Rosh haShanah comments, 5776 / 2015
When you’re walking around Manhattan, how can you tell the real New Yorkers from the tourists, the people who live anywhere other than the New York area?
One way, of course, is that the New Yorkers are looking down or straight ahead -
it doesn’t matter if they’re passing one of the tallest or most historic skyscrapers in the world; they just keep on walking and they don’t look up.  While the tourists can’t stop looking up, because in most cases, this is something amazing and so wildly different about Manhattan - the quantity of immense buildings in such tight proximity.  And it’s not surprising that the people for whom this is a novelty can’t stop looking up, while the people who live nearby are a little jaded by it and have long stopped looking up.

And what’s the opposite?  When you’re out in a rural area, how can you tell the New Yorkers from everyone else?  At least to judge from my own experience, there’s a reciprocal phenomenon which has to do with stars at night. For the last almost 30 years I have lived in places where you can't see stars.  And when I get the opportunity to be in a place where I can see stars, I start to be like a tourist in Manhattan. Looking up; tripping over things, bumping into people, getting frustrated glances from people, who seem to be saying to me: “Yeah, those stars sure are interesting, in a very stable kind of way.  You know, they have looked much the same for several hundred thousand years, but I’m glad you’ve discovered them now!”

I had the pleasure of spending some time at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, in upstate New York.  It was a pleasure in part because - unlike in Hoboken - they have stars there.  Unfortunately, they also have something called ‘shmirah,’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘watch’ or ‘protection’ - which includes a  special role assigned especially to the quote-unquote responsible older staff, to be available on a rotation until 2 in the morning and sometimes later, in case there are any emergencies with the kids that require an adult who is older than college age.
It happened that on August 12, I landed a shmirah slot of 1.30-3am.

But this was actually a highlight of my summer because it happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor Shower, which under other circumstances I wouldn't have even noticed.  And that is how I got to be outside in a clear field in the middle of the night in rural upstate New York and got to see a view I had previously seen only in a planetarium.

And while I was sitting there I got a song running through my head. It’s the song I sang just a moment ago.  It’s a relatively new melody, but the words come from the book of Genesis, from an episode in the life of Jacob, in which he says in the middle of a starry night:  קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך
“I am so small - so small in the face of all the kindness and all the truth that you have shown to your servant.”  (for a musical rendition of this verse, see

Friday, September 18, 2015

Rosh HaShanah eve 2015 / 5776: "Growing new rings"

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Erev Rosh HaShanah 2015 / 5776:

I have heard that it sometimes happens that people’s minds wander during High Holiday services.  So I would like to offer you something to think about if this should be true of you.

Should you find your mind wandering, I invite you to take a close look at a piece of wood.  This is easy to do in our sanctuary.  there is wood on the benches, on the bimah behind me, on the hardwood floor below us - everywhere.  And I invite you to pay attention to the natural coloring  and pattern of the piece of wood you are looking at -  what carpenters would call the ‘wood grain.’  The exact patterns that you are looking at are absolutely unique to this piece of wood.  it’s presumed that there is no other piece of wood in the world that has the exact same pattern of lines and curves and gradations of color as the one you are now looking at.

You may have learned in childhood that when one looks at a cross-section of a tree, one can assess how many years that tree has lived by counting the tree rings, the concentric circles around the center.  Every year, a tree adds a new layer of wood right below the bark - usually a light-color ring in the spring, and then a dark-colored ring in the summer.  You probably can’t see the rings in the pieces of wood you are looking at, because they are probably not cross-sections, but you probably can see the lines that represent the layers of wood.  And each dark line represents the conclusion of another summer in the life of the tree.  Each piece of wood tells its story - a story of the life of the tree of which it used to be a part.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Blowing the Shofar at the Kotel (Western Wall)?

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's introduction to the Shofar blowing, 1st day of Rosh haShanah 2015 / 5776) 

 The year was 1929. It was the holiday of Yom Kippur.  The Jewish community of Jerusalem, though constituting the majority of the city population, was as usual given only begrudging permission to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Jerusalem.  

The Western Wall was under control of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority of Jerusalem.  And there were strict guidelines about how Jews could pray there.  It was basically -- at the risk of using a trivializing example -- similar to how our congregation gathers for Shabbat in the Park.   They could gather there informally, but could not leave anything at the prayer site.  Prayerbooks, chairs, benches, all needed to be brought on that day and removed upon the conclusion of prayer.

And there was to be absolutely no blowing of the Shofar.  Ostensibly, this was because the Western Wall was in a residential neighborhood and it would bother the neighbors. But interestingly, there was no such restriction on the call of the Muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer.  And there was no such restriction on church bells.  Only the sound of the shofar.  But the British authorities who governed Palestine at that time acquiesced and criminalized the blowing of the shofar because it could antagonize the relationships that were in such a tight balance.

And yet -- Jews gathered at the wall each year for Yom Kippur.  It was deemed too hazardous to try to blow the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah, because of the repeated Shofar blowing that is necessary on Rosh HaShanah, so Rosh HaShanah prayers would happen elsewhere. But considering how much of the Yom Kippur ritual centered on the Temple in Jerusalem, it seemed that it was worth the risk.  For all the years between 1929 and 1947 - immediately before Israel became a state -
the sound of the Shofar could be heard at the Kotel in Jerusalem at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, even though it was illegal to blow the Shofar there.

The shofar blowers tended to be teenage boys - then as now a group of people who may be more likely to take risks than the general population.  They knew that this task could be hazardous, and would sometimes lead to spending the night in jail, or longer. They would arrive with the shofar hidden in their clothes.  Often a few shofar blowers were appointed so that if one was detained, another would be able to blow, or so that if the British police arrested one young man mid-blast, another young man could continue the sound.

The blowing of the shofar is unique in that it is one mitzvah that absolutely cannot be performed in secret.  So Jewish law addresses the questions of whether one can blow the shofar into a pit or into a barrel.  And the stories of the Jewish people are full of accounts of people blowing the shofar even when it was illegal or dangerous to do so -- in Inquisition-era Spain, or during the era of the Shoah --  or at the Kotel during the period of the British Mandate.

Several years ago, many of the surviving shofar blowers gathered together at the Kotel to remember what they had done - recalling the risks, but also recalling how their deeds gave inspiration to a community that a despised and oppressed people could rebuild.  (See for a video of that gathering and interviews with the shofar blowers.)

We will read about the various meanings of the sound of the shofar.  But among them is the simple fact that the volume of the blowing of the shofar is a proud announcement:  I am allowed to be where I am.  I belong.   It reminds us to express gratitude to live in a time and place when there are no such restrictions, where our freedoms are protected.

Today, Jerusalem is a place where the sounds of the muslim muezzin, the sounds of church bells, and the sound of the shofar coexist regularly.  As it should always be -- in a place that is holy to three major faith traditions, where all three major faith traditions belong.    

And yet this year also saw actions of religiously inspired violence - murders in synagogues in Jerusalem and Copenhagen, and in a kosher supermarket in Paris; murders of secularists and public figures in Paris and Copenhagen; firebombing of a church and of mosques in Israel; murder of a marcher in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade; religious violence of horrific magnitude in Syria, in Nigeria, and in so many places around the world.  Crimes where the victims were of all religions and no religion; crimes where the perpetrators were of all religions and no religion.

Another message of the blasts of the shofar is that, according to Biblical texts, it would accompany great acts of liberation.  The Book of Leviticus tells us, with regard to the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25):  תעבירו שופר בכל ארצכם --- “You shall sound the shofar throughout your land,” וקראתם דרור בארץ לכל יושביה -- “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants.”  May the shofar sound herald freedom for our world, bringing us closer to the vision of peace we have dreamed of, a vision in which the muezzin, church bells, and shofar sounds forge a beautiful and complex harmony throughout the world.  

Introduction to Torah Reading - Rosh HaShanah Day 1 (5776 / 2015): Refugees in the Torah

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's introduction to the Rosh HaShanah torah reading)

The torah readings for the holiday of Rosh haShanah focus on the first family of the Jewish people - and it’s a blended family, of two parents, Abraham and Sarah, and their son Isaac, and then also Ishmael, who is Abraham’s son from another partner, Hagar.

Sadly, blended families are sometimes fraught with tension, and that is the case with this family.  There is a conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, and between Sarah and Hagar, that leads to Hagar and Ishmael being sent away.  They lose their way; they run out of water and food. Hagar is sure that her son will die until miraculously she sees a well of water and is able to revive her son.

Families thrust away from their homes.  Parents trying desperately to keep their children alive. It’s hard to read this story without thinking of the headlines around the world right at this moment.  Hagar and Ishmael are among the original refugees in the torah - the first ones described as being thrust from their homes and therefore vulnerable to all the forces - natural and otherwise - that threaten our world.

As  you certainly know, there are more refugees now than at any point since world war II.  Most are displaced from the Syrian civil war -- the figures are staggering:  seven million people internally displaced; four million in the neighboring countries.  Some are fleeing the fearsome and criminally abusive Assad regime.
Some are fleeing the even more fearsome and incomprehensibly criminally abusive ISIS regime.  Others are fleeing from war-torn areas in Africa, like Eritrea and Somalia.  And the full-blown refugee crisis in Europe has dominated headlines for the last couple of weeks - not because very much has changed on the ground, as the situation has been dire for months, even for years, but because a uniquely horrible photo has galvanized attention to the crisis.

Jews know a thing or two about the experience of being refugees. And for this reason there are many Jewish communities all over Europe, and all across the Jewish spectrum - that are taking a leadership role in encouraging their countries to welcome refugees.  For example, I read an article this July about how the kosher soup kitchen in Milan, Italy, provided the meals with which Muslim Syrian and Eritrean refugees and volunteers in Milan broke their fasts for Ramadan, and how the Holocaust Memorial in Milan has become one of the central locations for social services for the thousands of refugees.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The High Holy Days Don't Work 

Years ago I read an essay by Rabbi Art Green about a poster he saw in a spiritual bookstore near his home.  In the window was sign that said, in big letters:  “Scientology Doesn't Work.”  Below that, in slightly smaller letters, the sign said:  “Integral Yoga Doesn't Work.”  Below that, in smaller letters:  “Christianity Doesn't Work.  Sufism Doesn't Work.”  And after indicating that a number of additional spiritual paths don't work, at the bottom of the poster were the words 'YOU work.'

Rabbi Green tied this message to the High Holy Days, and to the Kotzker Rebbe's teaching that the primary message of Judaism is ארבעטן אויף זיך arbetn oif zikh - "to work on oneself."

Since my arrival in Hoboken, we have used this motif on the cover of the brochure that describes our High Holy Day services and gives guidance to people about how to get the most out of the High Holy Day experience.  The brochure (and cover) have been beautifully redesigned by Susan Chait.  You can access it at or by clicking on the graphic above.  I hope it helps you to 'work on yourself' these High Holy Days, whether you do so at the United Synagogue of Hoboken or anywhere else!