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!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Quebec City, Har Nof, Charleston, Oak Creek, Hebron, Birmingham....

Quebec City... Charleston ... Oak Creek ... Har Nof ... Hebron ... Birmingham ... 
The word 'sanctuary' implies a place of safety, a place where one can stand or kneel before God in prayer and fully inhabit one's vulnerability. But we also know that houses of worship can be targets of hatred and murderous violence. I remember my reaction upon learning about the massacre or worshippers in the synagogue in Har Nof in 2014 -- and I imagine that Muslims throughout the United States and Canada are feeling something similar now to what I felt, some painful mix of grief and fear and indignation and concern, as I made unsuccessful efforts to cleanse my mind of images of blood and violence in what is supposed to be a place of peace and tranquility. The horrific murders in the masjid in Quebec City yesterday should shake every person of every faith -- because of the precious lives that were lost, and because we know that this massacre could have taken place in our own houses of worship.
Our synagogue leadership is meeting with the Hoboken Police Department tomorrow, as we do periodically, as part of our process of keeping our synagogue safe, with the knowledge that there are those who would do harm to our community if given the opportunity. Certainly the leaders of masjids throughout the United States and Canada are having similar meetings to assure their safety at this time when it is clear that there are haters who would do them harm. I feel so fortunate to know that the Hoboken Police Department would come to our aid if we were in need; they have our back -- as should always be the relationship between law enforcement and law-abiding citizens and residents. (And I know that there are so many Muslims in the United States who equally deserve to feel protected by government and law enforcement and yet they feel, through no fault of their own, that that relationship is antagonistic. I pray that over time, that relationship between communities and law enforcement gets better and better, not worse and worse.)
At the Shalom Hartman Institute Conference on Jews and Muslims earlier this month, I got to learn from Haroon Moghul, who gave voice to his experience as an American Muslim a few days before the new administration. How much and how little has changed in a few days... in the brief interview below from earlier today, he expresses what it is like to be an American Muslim today, and why and how he remains hopeful despite all the fear and anger and grief.
In memory of those who were murdered in Quebec City, and in all houses of worship, may we work to fulfill these verses about the security to which we all aspire:
ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד
I will bring peace to the land, and you shall lie down and nothing will make you tremble. (Lev. 26.6)
וישבו איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאינתו ואין מחריד
Then everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and nothing will make them tremble. (Micah 4:4)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on the Inauguration

I have started blogging at the Times of Israel web site -- you can find my thoughts on the US Presidential Inauguration there, at

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Some thoughts on the West Bank ... from 1986

Israel's policies regarding settlements in the West Bank aka Judea and Samaria are in the news even more than usual -- with the United Nations Security Council resolution two weeks ago, Secretary  of State Kerry's address last week, and the nomination of a US ambassador to Israel who stakes out a position to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu by stating his principled opposition to a Palestinian state. 

One of the more entertaining books about Israeli society of the 1970s and 1980s is Zeev Chafets's book "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel," published in 1986 (and with used copies now available for nearly free). I remember enjoying this book when I was in high school.  I recently took a look at it and was sad to be reminded that more than 30 years and so many lives later, not much has changed regarding the major outlines of the conversation about Israeli policies regarding the future of the West Bank. The choices remain more or less those that are described in this piece (except, of course, that all the population numbers have steadily increased). People who think this is an easy problem to solve probably don't fully understand it.  This piece reminds us why the status quo has endured for so long, as all other possibilities have such strong negatives.  And yet the difficulty of the situation notwithstanding, everyone has been paying a terrible price for the endurance of the status quo for so long. 

Zeev Chafets, "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel," 1986

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Four Jewish texts in response to the Election of 2016

I write these words as an individual, who serves a Jewish community that is diverse in many ways, including national origin, race, sexual orientation, and political perspective, among other points of diversity.  I don’t have the illusion that everyone in our community will agree with what I am writing below, but it is my hope that you can find at least one thing with which to agree.  

My tendency at times of joy and at times of difficulty is to look to traditional Jewish writings for wisdom and solace. Here are 4 traditional Jewish texts that are helping me through this day.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 2nd c. CE), 4:10:
 ואל תאמר קבלו דעתי, שהן רשאין ולא אתה  
“[Rabbi Ishmael taught:]  Don’t say to someone else, “You must come around to my opinion!”  That’s up to them, not to you.”

Western democracy may be young, but the idea of majority vote and (in some circumstances) majority rule has been a hallmark of Jewish tradition for thousands of years. The book of Exodus tells us, אחרי רבים להטות “Incline yourself after the majority.” (23:2)  And this passage from Pirkei Avot, probably intended to describe a dispute among judges, reminds us that minds are changed only through persuasion, not through coercion.  It is a great blessing to live in a country that is characterized by the orderly transition of power between adversaries, where we are educated to grow accustomed to the notion that we will often disagree with our government.  If the result of yesterday’s election was surprising to me and to most pollsters and journalists, it’s a sign that there is a significant segment of the United States population that we don’t understand beyond an inaccurate caricature.  As Secretary Clinton said in her concession speech today, those who disagree with President-Elect Trump “owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

Psalm 146:
עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט לָעֲשׁוּקִים נֹתֵן לֶחֶם לָרְעֵבִים ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים. ח ה' פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים ה' זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים ה' אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים. ט ה' שֹׁמֵר אֶת גֵּרִים יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה יְעוֹדֵד וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים יְעַוֵּת.
God upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry; God sets prisoners free.  God gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and loves the righteous.  God watches over the foreigner   and sustains the fatherless and the widow, and frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The core of Jewish ethics is support for those who are most vulnerable: those who are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly imprisoned, those who are ill and disabled, those who are bereaved and without protection, and those who are foreigners.  This is the way that the Jewish community has always strived to be -- even when Jews lived under the dominion of ruling authorities who felt otherwise.  Embracing these values is part of what it means to live a traditional Jewish life.  These will remain core Jewish values for the American Jewish community.  It is my sincere and deep hope that the President-Elect will embrace these values as president to a much greater degree than he has embraced these values as a candidate.  If he does not, I have confidence that the American Jewish community will agitate for the fulfillment of these values, as Jews have done so frequently throughout our history.

(Moses Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c.), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temperament, 2:7)
ואמרו שכל הכועס--אם חכם הוא, חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו, ואם נביא הוא, נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו.  (הלכות דעות ב:ז)
Our sages said about those who are full of anger: if they are wise, their wisdom departs from them. If they are prophets, their prophecy departs from them.

For those who find the outcome of the election to be troubling, now is a time to be gentle with each other, as nerves are frayed and tension is high.  Many of us (myself included) may need reminders over the next few days to walk and drive more slowly and carefully, to react more slowly, and to avoid taking out stress and anger on loved ones and random people.  Crises often bring out our best impulses but sometimes (in the short term especially) our worst tendencies.  This may be why Maimonides cautions so strongly against expressions of anger even for causes we regard as righteous (and, of course, to the angry person, anger is always righteous):  anger corrodes and corrupts our souls and causes our wisdom to dissipate.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (19th c. Ukraine)
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to fear at all.
In these famous words, it is hard for me to believe that Rebbe Nahman of Breslov was really suggesting that people should never fear.   Fear is an essential emotion -- and fear plays a vital role in keeping us safe.  Those who have a realistic sense of fear are much safer than those who are never afraid.  My sense is that Rebbe Nahman was identifying that fear is a distorting emotion. In fact, (in my opinion) irrational fear of the other is exactly what led so many to make the electoral choice they made.  To me, this quotation by Rebbe Nahman is the Jewish version of the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Whatever happens, we do better when trying as hard as possible to lead with other emotions rather than fear.  

We must be vigilant, especially in identifying the warning signs of the pausing or dismantling of the government’s system of checks and balances on presidential power.   We must be activists on behalf of groups that are an important part of the American mosaic that have been threatened by the President-Elect when he was a candidate. But we should remember that the United States has been through a lot of difficult times in its long history, and the Jewish people has been through even more difficult times in its much much longer history.  The current moment calls for vigilance and activism -- as every moment does.  The current moment does not call for despair -- as no moment does.