Friday, August 19, 2016

What did you learn at Jewish summer camp? (Parashat Va-et'hanan)

I returned home this week after spending a few weeks as a Jewish educator and rabbinic resource at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. And greeting me on my return is the Torah portion of Va'ethanan, which reminds me of some of the value of learning about Judaism at summer camp. 

The Torah portion of Vaethanan has been described as the 'greatest hits collection' of the torah.  This torah portion includes numerous well-known passages including the second retelling of the ten commandments, and verses quoted in the Torah service and in Aleinu.   But most famous of all is the Shema, which affirms our belief in one God and our commitment to perform various mitzvot as a way to keep this central teaching at the forefront of our minds.

One of the Hasidic masters, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, made a perceptive comment about one verse in this paragraph, that reminds us of an element of the core mission of Jewish learning in a summer camp context. The verse says, 'vehayu hadevarim ha'eleh, asher anochi metzav'cha hayom, al levavecha.'   “These words that I command you this day shall be upon your heart.”

The Kotzker Rebbe noted the unusual construction in this verse: let these words be 'upon' your heart. Wouldn't we have expected that the words would actually be 'in' our hearts rather than simply 'upon' them?

The Kotzker answers his own question:  certainly the ideal is for the words of torah to be within our hearts. But sometimes our hearts are closed -- so our strategy should be to pile the words of torah upon our hearts, so that at the moment our hearts open, the words of the torah will slip right in.

I see two applications of this teaching to Jewish education at a Jewish summer camp like Camp Ramah.  Many of the campers learn about Jewish tradition intensively during the year in their schools and synagogues and at home. But it is at camp that they live in a Jewish communal environment and they experience Judaism as the normative basis for the community. For many campers and staff members, camp is as close as we come (outside of Israel) to experiencing Jewish tradition on its 'home turf,' as it were. For many of us, camp is where we learn the value of an entire community observing shabbat, or where we learn to interact Jewishly with the beauty of the natural world.  And as a result, for many campers (and staff members), it is at camp that our hearts are most truly 'open' to more fully incorporate the Jewish teachings we have learned over the years.  

And similarly, there are insights that our campers learn at camp that truly enter their hearts at other times, later on in their lives when their hearts are open to those teachings.  As a Ramah camper for many years, I learned so much about Jewish tradition, Jewish life, the Torah and Israel, and periodically even today I realize that these teachings are still entering my heart, as I undergo new life experiences that cause me to think again about what I learned at camp.  

As the summer draws towards its conclusion, I pray that the hearts of the campers I worked with (and all those who attended Jewish summer camp this summer) will be open to Jewish teachings in new ways as a result of their camp experience. But we know that the true and full impact of this summer will be felt only in the future, as their hearts grow ever more open, as they gradually understand more fully what they have experienced this summer.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Prayer at Hoboken's vigil in memory of those murdered in Orlando

My closing prayer at the Hoboken vigil on Wednesday evening June 15, in memory of those murdered in Orlando:

I invite you to join me in praying to the Source of Life.
Our various communities know you by many different names,
but on this we agreed: we learned from You to treasure life.
We learned from You that to take a life is like destroying the entire world,
and to save a life is like saving the entire world.
Dear God, Our heart breaks for 49 precious lives
cut short because of who they were and who they loved.
Where they gathered was supposed to be their safe space.
In their memories, help us to make a safe world.

Help us to make a safe world for our brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender, who so often are targets of hatred and oppression and violence, so many of whom feel unsafe even in the best of times, let alone today.

Help us to make a safe world for our brothers and sisters in this country who yearn simply to live their lives, to work, to travel, to celebrate, without fearing that they could suddenly become the randomly chosen victim of hatred and violence, whether motivated by extremist religious ideology, or mental illness, or anything else.

Help us to make a safe world for our brothers and sisters who practice Islam as a religion of love and generosity, those who condemn violence and courageously stand up to extremism.

Help us to make a safe world for American schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes where the rates of gun-related deaths and injuries so far exceed that in every other industrialized democracy -- Help us to affirm that this country can do better and can be safer.

Help us to make a safe world for the values that represent our country and our traditions at their best, values often under attack in our world:   values like love, tolerance and respect, reverence for life, generosity and compassion, freedom, and peace.

Help us to bring the day
when all people shall realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
In memory of those whose lives were cruelly cut down,
Help us to work together for the fulfillment of the Biblical promises:
  ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד --
‘I will bring peace to the land,
and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you.’  (Leviticus 26)
וישבו איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו ואין מחריד -
’All shall sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid." (Micah 4)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In memory of the murders in Orlando

This is the note that I sent to the United Synagogue of Hoboken community following the Orlando murders.
Dear friends,

Our community, country and world are reeling after the tragic events in Orlando on Sunday morning.  

Many of us are looking for a way to express our outrage at the murders in Orlando and to express solidarity with the families of those who were murdered, and with the LGBT community throughout the world that is disproportionately a target for hatred and violence.  
We are all invited this evening (Wednesday June 15) at 7:15pm to participate in a vigil on the steps of Hoboken City Hall, with the participation of Mayor Zimmer, the Hoboken City Council, community clergy, and members of the LGBT community in our local area.   (See

I look forward to participating in this ceremony representing Hoboken's Jewish community.

The following are some of my personal thoughts after this tragedy and at this time of challenge in our nation.  

Among my responses at a time of tragedy in the world is to pray -- to pray for comfort for the bereaved, to empathize with those who are mourning beautiful lives cut short, to express gratitude for acts of heroism that saved lives, and to pray for courage and wisdom for communal and governmental leaders.  Some belittle prayer at a time like this, implying that prayer gives us the satisfaction of feeling like we are responding to tragedy while actually accomplishing very little to solve current problems.  Indeed, there are people who use prayer as an evasion of responsibility.  But sometimes prayer is the most appropriate response in the immediate aftermath of a tragic situation. Prayer allows us to communicate our solidarity with those enduring a terrible experience, to reaffirm and recommit ourselves to our deepest values, and to reaffirm our vision of what a perfected world would look like.

However, prayer may be a necessary response, but it is not a sufficient response to this or any other tragedy.   In our tradition, prayer and study are supposed to lead to tangible action.  It's our responsibility to take reasonable steps to bring our world ever closer to a world of peace, of the fulfillment of the Biblical vision וישבו איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו ואין מחריד -'All shall sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid." (Micah 4)  Our prayers remind us that we must regard our world's current level of violence as unacceptable.

Some see the Orlando massacre exclusively through the lens of Islamic extremist violence. Others see it exclusively as a problem of the easy availability of guns in the United States.  Still others see it exclusively as a manifestation of homophobia.  Others see it exclusively as a mental health tragedy.  My sense is that it is all of these, and those who look at this horrific situation through the lens of just one of these factors -- or who seek to exclude one of these factors from the discussion -- will misunderstand the tragic events and will not be able to take steps to make our world and community safer.  The truth is:  too many people in the world are poisoned by the ideology of violent radical Islamism - even if this is only a tiny percentage of Muslims in the world and in the United States, the overwhelming majority of whom are no less peaceful than any other human being. (See for a statement by a broad range of American Muslim leaders about this and other acts of religiously motivated violence. ) And the truth is: numerous religious traditions have for too long legitimated oppression and violence against gays and lesbians and people who are transgender.  And the truth is:  it is far too easy for dangerous people (whether motivated by radical ideology, or mental illness) to get their hands on dangerous weapons in the United States, leading to rates of gun deaths that are completely out of scale with those in other industrialized democracies.  The tragedy of Orlando results from all of these factors.   

We may not agree with each other about how to make our world safer, but we do not succeed by demonizing entire large groups of people.  Jews know too well the sting of being treated as the source of all of society's ills.  Many of us know the famous injunction of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:  "The entire world is a very narrow bridge -- but the most important thing is:  do not be afraid."  Rebbe Nachman's words are paradoxical:  the first half says that our world is fearsome, but the second half says that we must not permit ourselves to respond primarily with fear.  Fear is a distorting emotion that all too often keeps us from being compassionate, and sometimes leads us to exacerbate the very problems we are trying to solve.   

In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, our tradition counsels that we can be most helpful simply by being present; this is part of the wisdom of the shiva mourning period that encourages us to be present for those who are bereaved. We pray that the words and the gatherings, locally and around the world, in response to this horror will help those who are bereaved, and those in the LGBT community who feel especially vulnerable this week, to know that they are not alone, because a whole world stands with them.

In the words of the prayer for peace that we regularly recite in our community:
May we see the day when bloodshed ceases,
when all people shall realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.  
In memory of those whose lives were cruelly cut down,
may we work together with God for the fulfillment of the Biblical promise:
 ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד --
'I will bring peace to the land,
and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you.'  


Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

(pictured:  the American flag and pride flag, flown at half mast in front of Hoboken City Hall, June 2016)
United Synagogue of Hoboken
115 Park Avenue
Hoboken, NJ 07030
See what's happening on our social sites

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Corn, Rice, Beans on Passover? -- new ruling from Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards

This is the note I sent to my congregation....

As we approach Passover, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about an opinion published by Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards that you might have seen earlier this year.
 It has gotten a fair amount of news coverage (see, for example,   Our rabbinic intern, Philip Gibbs, who is the secretary of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, taught about this opinion this past shabbat.  Here is my summary of the issue.  

The background: 
  • According to Jewish law, Jews should abstain from hametz (leavened products) on Passover. According to Jewish law, the only substances that can be hametz are wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt.  Thus, a product that has absolutely no wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt content cannot be hametz.
  • Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Eastern and Central Europe) have had the practice for several hundred years to also abstain from other foods on Passover, like corn, rice, and beans and other legumes.  (Collectively, these additional foods are called kitniyot.)  Several reasons have been suggested for this practice, including that it is possible to make flour out of these substances and that they could have been stored together with hametz or inadvertently mixed with hametz.  These foods, however, have remained in a separate category from hametz.  (Whereas hametz is actually forbidden according to Jewish law, kitniyot are merely customarily not eaten by Ashkenazic Jews.)   In general, Sefardic and Mizrahi Jews (Jews who trace their ancestry from Spain, the Mediterranean region, and the Arab world) have not abstained from eating kitniyot on Passover.
  • More than 20 years ago, Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel went on record declaring that Ashkenazic Jews need not abstain from eatingkitniyot anymore, in the interests of the unity of the Jewish community, and in light of the fact that the original reasons for abstaining from eating kitniyotwere questionable.  (The author of this opinion was Rabbi David Golinkin, who visited our community last year; see
  • This new opinion of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (2016) essentially reiterates Rabbi Golinkin's opinion:  Ashkenazic Jews who want to follow the Sefardic practice of eating kitniyot on Passover should feel free to do so.  Ashkenazic Jews who want to continue to abstain from kitniyot on Passover are welcome to do so.


Questions that may be on your mind

What does Rabbi Scheinberg think about this ruling?

People who would like to follow this ruling should feel free to do so. (In fact, I have been telling this to people for many years, since the publication of Rabbi Golinkin's opinion about
kitniyot.)   I see this as a very individual decision that will be right for some people and not right for other people -- but there is no question that in my opinion, this decision is consistent with Jewish law and practice as understood in Conservative Judaism.

How will our synagogue policies change?

We do not plan for our synagogue policies to change. Currently, we do not serve
kitniyot at synagogue functions on Passover, and we will continue not to serve kitniyotat our synagogue, as there are many people from our synagogue (including Rabbi Scheinberg) who will continue to refrain from eating them.

If I want to start eating kitniyot on Passover, how can I go about this?

People who want to eat kitniyot on Passover according to the guidelines of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards will be eating unprocessed corn (i.e., fresh corn on the cob), rice, and fresh or dried beans.  Eating canned or other processed versions of these foods is not recommended because they can include actual hametz.  

There are increasing numbers of products available for sale in the United States that are labeled "Kosher for Passover for those who eat kitniyot."  People who would like to follow these new guidelines should feel welcome to eat products that are so labeled.  (People who want to adhere to the traditional abstention from kitniyot will not eat products that are labeled 'kosher for Passover for those who eat kitniyot.")

Below is the section from the responsum of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards which gives the practical guidelines. Click here to read the entire responsum:

In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.

Some Details of This Psak:
1) Fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans (like lima beans in their pods) may be purchased before and during Pesah, that is, treated like any other fresh vegetable.

2) Dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased bagged or in boxes and then sifted or sorted before Pesah. These should ideally not be purchased in bulk from bins because of the concern that the bin might previously have been used for hametz, and a few grains of hametz might be mixed in. In any case, one should inspect these before Pesah and discard any pieces of hametz. If one did not inspect the rice or dried beans before Pesah, one should remove pieces of hametz found in the package on Pesah, discarding those, and the kitniyot themselves remain permissible. [Note from Rabbi Scheinberg: enriched white rice can contain actual hametz. includes a list of rice products that are certified kosher for people who eat kitniyot.]

3) Kitniyot in cans may only be purchased with Pesah certification since the canning process has certain related hametz concerns, and may be purchased on Pesah.

4) Frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame [soy beans], etc.): One may purchase bags of frozen non-hekhshered kitniyot before Pesah provided that one can either absolutely determine that no shared equipment was used or one is careful to inspect the contents before Pesah and discard any pieces of חמץ (hametz). Even if one did not inspect the vegetables before Pesah, if one can remove pieces of חמץ (hametz) found in the package on Pesah, the vegetables themselves are permissible.

5) Processed foods, including tofu, although containing no listed hametz, continue to require Pesah certification due to the possibility of admixtures of hametz during production.

6) Even those who continue to observe the Ashkenazic custom of eschewing kitniyot during Pesah may eat from Pesah dishes, utensils and cooking vessels that have come into contact with kitniyot and may consume kitniyot derivatives like oil (מי קטניות).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Goats and Cats, Sticks and Dogs, Angels and God: Finishing the Seder with Had Gadya

Some find it surprising that at the Passover Seder, we discuss weighty themes of slavery and freedom and redemption, but the culmination, the grand finale of the entire seder, is Had Gadya - basically the Jewish version of “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
In fact, there has been a lot of confusion in Jewish tradition about how this folk song for children managed to work its way into the Haggadah, such that it is now sung in virtually every Jewish community around the world:  “My father bought a little goat for two gold coins.  Then came a cat that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins.  Then came a dog and bit the cat - that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins.  Then came a stick - and beat the dog - that bit the cat......” etc. etc.  And the song concludes, ten verses later:  “And then came God, the Holy Blessed One, and slaughtered the Angel of Death - who slaughtered the butcher who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two gold coins.”
This is, of course, very inspiring religious material.
I was once teaching the song to second graders in our Learning Center, and one girl said, “Did this really happen?  I mean, how can a cat eat a goat?”
A wide array of commentaries in our tradition endeavor to explain exactly what this passage is doing in the Passover seder at all.  This is quite a conundrum, considering that the song seems to have nothing to do with Passover, and almost nothing to do with Judaism, except for the appearance of God at the very end.
Some people choose to understand Had Gadya theologically.  They say that the point of the song is that at the end, God slaughters the Angel of Death.  If God is truly all-powerful, then God can triumph even over death and bring the world into the era of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.
Others interpret Had Gadya as an extensive allegory for the history of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people, of course, are the goat, and some say that the 2 gold coins are the two tablets of the ten commandments, given by God to the Jewish people to solidify our relationship.  But over and over, the Jewish people are oppressed and persecuted and burned and extinguished and slaughtered, just as happens in the song.  And in fact, each stage of the song can be regarded as a different stage in the history of Jewish persecution.  The cat represents Assyria; the dog is Babylonia; the stick is Persia, and so on and so on.  But ultimately God rescues us and saves us from our oppressors.
Another explanation was presented by the eminent Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.  He remembers in his childhood trying to make sense of this song, concluding that this is really a song about vengeance.  The cat eats the goat - but then the dog bites the cat.  So, he presumed, the dog and the goat are friends.  They’re on the same team.  The dog saw that the goat was getting eaten, and came to its aid to exercise some vengeance against the cat.
But then the stick comes and beats the dog.  So presumably the stick is friends with the cat, and the stick is angry at the dog for biting the cat.  But then there’s another reprisal: next we have the fire, burning the stick, so the fire seems to be defending the dog for his vigilante action, and so on and so on… until things get so out of hand that God has to step in.
The song, then, is a classic demonstration of how a cycle of violence can so easily and quickly spiral out of control.  What was once a small, local conflict between the cat and the goat has now involved, and destroyed, two other animals, three objects, one person, and one angel, and God has to step in and keep the peace.
But all these efforts don’t bring the goat back to life, nor do they necessarily function to deter the cat, or anyone else, from eating other goats in the future.  The song reminds us that revenge is, plain and simple, a failed strategy most of the time.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are at least three prominent Israeli poets and songwriters who have played with the imagery of Had Gadya as a way of describing the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, which often times looks like this kind of pointless cycle of violence and revenge (though clearly there is a difference between terrorists who target civilian populations, and military actions that target only known perpetrators and go through extraordinary measures to limit civilian casualties). (See poems and songs by Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew, English) Chava Alberstein (Hebrew, English, and video), and Levin Kipnis (who pictures a utopian version of Chad Gadya in which the animals cooperate rather than fighting with each other; Hebrew, video)  

Had Gadya reminds us that no matter who is more at fault, the cycle of revenge is likely to continue until someone breaks the cycle. And the longer it takes to realize this, the more people die.
I wish Had Gadya or some other Jewish text were able to present precise guidelines for us, or for Israel today, for how to cope with the terrorism and the hatred.  But perhaps it’s not in the nature of religious texts to provide specific policy guidelines.  Religious texts are more likely to be successful at planting values within us, and helping us to balance those values against each other.  May the values presented in the Passover Seder, and in Had Gadya, help us and others to move our world in the direction of peace.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Seder Trivia -- 2016 / 5776 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 find previous years' stories here,  here, here, here and here.


The stories from our 2015/5775 seder are below.  Three unusual Pesach stories..... 2 are true, and one is fictional.  Can you figure out which story is not true?   (The answer is at the bottom.)


With each passing year, the number of Kosher for Passover products continues to grow.  In 2015, Israel's Ben and Jerry's factory, which has been selling kosher for Passover ice cream in Israel for several years (sadly, not available in the US), has announced a new flavor - Haroset ice cream, made with apples and nuts and wine. (see photo)  But believe it or not, this is NOT the most unusual kosher for Passover product ever offered for sale.

In 2013, British kosher food manufacturer Hoffman’s began to sell …… sealed jars of …...certified kosher for Passover…..  salt water.  Offered for sale for £0.99 for a liter -- which turns out to be about $1.50 for a quart.

Yes, salt water is a seder necessity. And I guess it is a convenience to have ready-made salt water so you don't need to go through the onerous difficulty of pouring the water, pouring the salt, and stirring them together.

The question remains, though: for the last several hundred years, busy Passover Seder hosts trying to get their 5-year-old kids to leave them alone in those crucial final hours before the Seder have been able to tell their kids, "Let me give you a very important job!  You can help by making the salt water!”  And thus these Seder hosts earned an additional five minutes of peace and quiet.    What will they do, if Kosher for Passover bottled salt water catches on?

Irving Berlin, one of the greatest composers of American standards, was Jewish, of course -- actually, he was descended from a long line of rabbis and cantors. He grew up among the melodies of the Jewish community.  And one prominent American Jewish musicologist and composer, Jack Gottlieb, has written that you can find Jewish melodies hidden in many of Irving Berlin’s best known songs.

For example:  for many centuries children would sing the 4 Questions at the Passover Seder to a melody that sounds like

mah nishtanah line.png
(This was the Mah Nishtanah melody that was sung by everyone in the Ashkenazic Jewish world, before the upbeat Israeli melody that people sing today became popular in the 1950’s.)

According to Jack Gottlieb, the great composer Irving Berlin incorporated this melody into one of his best-known songs, which is:

no business like show business.png
Yes, eminent musicologist Jack Gottlieb believed that the classic Irving Berlin song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was inspired by the old melody of Mah Nishtanah.

Gottlieb asserted only a musical link between these two melodies - not a conceptual link between the lyrics of the two songs.  But we at USH notice that it is very easy to modify ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business” to make it a good summary of the Four Questions. Who knows, maybe THIS was the original version of Irving Berlin’s classic:
There's no dinner like the Seder dinner,
like no dinner I know,
Why are we all dipping and reclining?
Why maror, but bread we don't allow?

(c )
What do the wild cats of ancient Assyria have to do with the Passover seder?

As is well known to readers of the Bible and those with even a passing familiarity with the archaeology of the Middle East, the ancient city of Nineveh (in what today is northern Iraq) was infested with large wildcats, which were the primary hazard for the residents of Nineveh.  The kings of Assyria, who had their palaces in Nineveh, usually didn’t have to worry about the wildcats because they lived in palaces with high walls.  However, the nomadic shepherds and goatherds on the outskirts of Nineveh had to contend regularly with the wildcats.

But what does this have to do with the Passover Seder?  

Well, this year, scholars at the British Museum in London published a new translation of an Aramaic clay tablet that had been part of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.  Apparently, a poor goatherd in the Nineveh area was applying to King Ashurbanipal for financial assistance.  The King had apparently asked this goatherd for a detailed inventory of all his animals, how they were acquired, their appraised value, and how and when they ceased being part of his inventory.   

There was one line in this otherwise prosaic clay tablet that caught the eye of one of the scholars:   “ve-ata shunra de-achal le-gadya dizvan aba bi-trei zuzei.” “Then a cat came, and it ate the goat that my father had bought for two zuzim.”

Dr. Efraim Goldberger of the British Museum commented, “While it cannot be conclusively proven that the Passover song “Chad Gadya” is based on a true story, this tablet makes it more plausible than we had previously thought.”



A is true (See

B is true (see this book I am not passing judgment on whether there really was a relationship between these songs, but Jack Gottlieb does assert this in his book.)

C is false. (Had Gadya was definitely not written in ancient Assyria! And no, Nineveh was not known for its wildcats....and no, no one thinks that Had Gadya is based on a true story.... )