Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day thoughts, 2014

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For the last several years, I have sent a note to the congregation noting the survivors from our community who have died since last yom HaShoah.   As we know, those who survived the Holocaust as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything about the experience -- are nearly 70.  Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.

This year, I think especially of Gerda Stuiver z”l, mother of USH member Jake Stuiver, who died last April in her 80’s, and Lee Berendt z”l, father of USH member Chuck Berendt, who died just a month ago at age 90.

Gerda Stuiver was originally from Vienna.  When she was 8 years old, in 1938, she was one of the approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Europe who were brought to England as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission.  She was fortunate to be reunited with her mother during the war, as her mother managed to become a chaperone or escort for the children on the Kindertransport mission, but she lost many other relatives and childhood friends.  She married her husband Elko, who also survived the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and they lived in Israel and then in Philadelphia until she died almost one year ago, immediately after Yom HaShoah 2013.

Lee Berendt was from a town in Poland called Sompolno.  As a teenager, he was taken by the Nazis from Sompolno as a slave laborer to Germany. He would later learn that his slave labor helped to build the German Autobahn.  Meanwhile, most of his entire family was murdered at the Chelmno death camp.  Lee was fortunate to be one of the very few survivors from Sompolno.  He came to the United States, where he married and raised his  family.

One particular incident in Lee’s life seems especially relevant on this day of Yom Hashoah.  Around the year 2000, still relatively early in the history of genealogical research on the internet, Lee Berendt came upon a photo taken in 1941, a group photo of over 100 Jewish men from Sompolno.  Apparently this photo was taken immediately before a deportation.  Lee recognized himself in the photo, and with his prodigious memory, he realized that he remembered the names of many of them.   His son Chuck told me about how he assisted his father in painstakingly labeled each person in the photo with a number, and then listing the personal information that he remembered for 98 of them.  This labeled photo and Lee Berendt’s list are now online on the Internet (see , and I presume they have been used by many people seeking to gather information about their relatives.  Of those in the photo, fewer than 20 survived the war.  For many of the men in this photo, it may be the only surviving photo of them, anywhere in the world.   Thanks to Lee Berendt’s commitment to bearing witness, their relatives are able to locate their image on this photo - and in a small way, the memory of those who died in the Shoah is being perpetuated.

A survivor in our community of a different kind was William Jurman z”l, father of USH member Karen Jurman, whose funeral took place this morning; he died on Thursday evening at age 90.   William Jurman grew up in the United States, and as a teenager he was drafted into the US Armed Forces.  He fought against the forces of Nazi Germany, showing significant heroism and bravery in combat even after being wounded, for which he was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart medals.   At his funeral today, his nephew described how William Jurman returned from the war with significant physical pain and mental torment; it took him four years to truly re-enter society.  But he quickly recaptured his courage, pursuing a successful career as an ironworker who walked fearlessly on the girders of structures like the Verezzano Bridge and the World Trade Center while they were being built.  (Our dear friends and USH members Bernard Kammer z”l and Joe Israel z”l, who also died this year, were also World War II veterans and also played a role in bringing the Holocaust to its conclusion.)

May the memories of Gerda Stuiver and Lee Berendt be for a blessing, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, and all those who played a role in bringing the Nazi death machine to its conclusion.  As the responsibility to transmit their stories is gradually shifting to us, may we fulfill this sacred obligation, in tribute to their memories.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Iron Chef Passover Edition at USH! -- results

On March 30, we had an amazing Pre-Passover program for the USH community - Iron Chef Passover Edition!

Two teams of chefs from our community competed to make delicious Passover food using some secret ingredients they were told about only immediately before they began to cook.  (Secret ingredients were:  dates; fennel; mint.)

Simultaneously, we had workshops on Matzah baking and Haroset making and a seder trivia game.  Then we ate some amazing food and voted!  (Of course it's too late to vote now, but you can see the ballot at

And the winners were:

Best appetizer:    Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! -- Deep Fried Matzo Balls w/ dipping sauces!
Best side dish:   Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Vegetable Saag w/ Fennel & Mint!
Best dessert:    Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Matzah Bark!

Most creative use of secret ingredients:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! 

Grand prize winners: 
Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers:  Monica Plotka, Shamira Malekar, Ruby Kurulkar, Gene Steinhart!
Second place finishers:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM!:  David Swirnoff, Mike Blumenfeld, Elissa Aaronson, Samantha Myers, Susan Klein-Cohen!
Special thanks to

Grace Gurman-Chan for conceiving of the project and directing every aspect of it;

Alessa Kreger for logistical coordination of each aspect of this project;

The Losos/Weaver, Plotka and Myers families for opening your homes;

Marilyn Freiser and Louise Kurtz for coordinating matzah baking, and Max Ohring / Anya Steinhart / Hannah Plotka / Joshua Myers for assisting and helping to transport kids from place to place;

All our chefs for your extraordinary food and your culinary creativity!  (and wishing full recovery to Rhonda Strosberg who was unable to cook with us on Sunday)

We are delighted that USH Learning Center teacher Eytan Stern-Weber took video of the event and will be editing it into a brief highlights video, so we can share with others what we learned, what we ate, and how much fun we had.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Dayyeinu"? "Enough"? -- For Passover 2014 / 5774

One of the best-known parts of the Seder is certainly one of the most unusual:  the song or prayer called “Dayyeinu.”  It is perhaps the best known of all Passover melodies.  
This is the song that expresses thanks to God for each of the various steps of the process of the Exodus from Egypt.  After each step, we say “Dayyeinu - It would have been enough for us.”  “If God had taken us out of Egypt, but not imposed justice upon the Egyptians - It would have been enough for us.  If God had given us the Mannah in the desert, but not given us the gift of Shabbat, it would have been enough for us.”  Etc.
The problem is that some of the lines of Dayyeinu just seem completely illogical.
For example, I think of the line, “If God had split the Red Sea for us, but not led us through on dry land, Dayyeinu.  It would have been enough for us.”  Really now!  I’m not sure that would have been quite enough for me.  To have the opportunity to see this dramatic miracle - the splitting of the Red Sea -  but not to actually cross the sea. I imagine that would have been somewhat disappointing.  Somewhat insufficient.
Then again, perhaps a line such as this highlights the very counter-intuitive nature of the attitude expressed in Dayyeinu.  It may seem like one of the simplest of all Passover songs – and it is a perennial hit with the toddlers and pre-schoolers in our community! - but like most of Jewish liturgy, it packs a sophisticated message.
The Dayyeinu mentality is a counter-intuitive mentality.  It’s hard to say ‘it would have been enough.’  I get the sense that most people have a hard time saying that anything that they have is really enough for them.  Whether we’re talking about money, or possessions, or honor or prestige, or love and affection, or happiness or good fortune, couldn’t we always use more?  And as long as we could use more, it’s not really enough yet.
A prayer like Dayyeinu reminds us to do as honest an assessment as possible of what we truly need, and of what we merely desire.  If we have what we truly NEED, then we can say Dayyeinu, it would have been enough.  And we can express honest appreciation for everything we have that is in excess of that bottom-line need.
It takes some degree of effort to train ourselves to see the world as a collection of blessings for which we are grateful rather than as a collection of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.  This is one of the most important concepts in Jewish prayer.
You may know that I love to quote from the Talmud:  “hayyav adam levarech me’ah brachot be-chol yom.”  “Each person ought to say 100 blessings each day.” (Menahot 43b)     The talmud asserts that we can discipline ourselves to identify 100 miracles in our lives each day, and even on a difficult day we can find moments of happiness and satisfaction, wondrous moments that surpass our expectations.
A problem with this Dayyeinu perspective is that when we reduce our expectations of what we are going to get from the world, we have the potential to inhibit our reaching and striving.  We have the potential to become complacent, merely taking whatever life circumstances are thrown to us.  I have certainly met some people who take the Dayyeinu ideal to an extreme.  Their attitude is always, “God will provide.  And whatever God will provide will be enough.”
I would say, however, that Dayyeinu is not about reducing our desires or inhibiting our dreams.  Rather, it reminds us that we ought to express gratitude whenever our dreams ARE fulfilled, just as it reminds us that in our lifetimes, a good portion of our dreams may NOT be fulfilled.  For example, we each probably set out to achieve far more  than we will actually be able to achieve in our lifetimes. But when this happens, we ought to still express gratitude even for our partial blessings.
You may know that one of the traditional Jewish names for God is “Shaddai.” In the Talmud (Hagigah 12a), one rabbi, Resh Lakish, explains that the name Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word “dai,” which means ‘enough.’   (This is the word that “Dayyeinu” is based upon.)   Resh Lakish explains, God says, “Ani hu she-amarti le-olam dai.”  God says, “I’m the one who said ‘dai’ to the world.   I’m the one who said ‘enough’ to the world.”
God could have continued the process of creation, making a bigger world, or a more elaborate world.  But I imagine that on that first Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, God said “dai.”  Enough for now.  Perhaps not everything is exactly as I might have preferred.  Perhaps there is still much work to be done.  But it is still a world full of blessing.  Despite its lack of perfection, it will suffice.  It is enough.
Perhaps when we sing “Dayeinu” at the seder, we are emulating God’s capacity to look at something incomplete or imperfect, and to see it as incomplete or imperfect, but also to see it as saturated with blessing. 
Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we refer to looking at the world with Jewish eyes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Seder Trivia game - 2013 / 5773 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 and here.

The stories from our 2013/5773 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.)

The ideas for this year’s stories are thanks to Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino CA.

Story A:  

The first ever Israeli Olympic medalist was judo competitor Yael Arad.  In 1992, she won the silver medal in the Barcelona summer games.

Arad was a cross-trainer -- with expertise not only in judo but in karate and other martial arts.  How did she get interested in this sport?  It all started when her three older brothers in Tel Aviv were taking a karate class.  Five-year-old Yael was mesmerized as she watched her brothers breaking wood blocks.  She begged her parents to let her learn karate also.  She so wanted to compete to be just like her brothers.

But she was too young, and she was a girl, and in that era in Israel, girls didn’t do martial arts.

Until - the next week, Yael’s parents found her in the kitchen, undergoing a training regimen that she had devised herself -- as her powerful hand came down swiftly, breaking an entire box of matzahs that she had stacked up over the gap between two tables.

Her parents made her clean up all the matzah -- but the next day, they did enroll her in karate class.  By age 8, she had switched to judo, and within a year, she was ranked second in all of Israel in her weight class.  

Story B:  

There are so many brands of matzah available to American consumers -- Aviv, Osem, Streits, Rakusens, Yehuda, Horowitz-Margareten.... but there is only ONE brand of matzah that has been advertised on the moon.

It happened in 1973.  One of the Apollo 17 astronauts was Gene Cernan, who was scheduled to walk on the surface of the moon.  And in the middle of his moonwalk, overcome with the beauty and power of the moment, he uttered these famous words that were beamed back to earth for everyone to hear:  “ “Man oh Manischewitz!”  (This was the famous tag line of an ad for Manischewitz kosher products.)

The Manischewitz people were so delighted.  Manischewitz Wine Company co-founder Meyer Robinson used to play the recording for everyone who came into his office.  ‘Isn’t that amazing, on the moon?” he would say.


“Open up.  It’s the Kosher Police.”

You may have thought that the idea of a “Kosher Police” was a joke.  But in 2001, Israel’s Interior Ministry sent out squads to raid Israeli restaurants to make sure they weren’t serving bread on Passover.

A law was passed in 1986 that prohibited the public display of hametz (leavened products) during Passover.  But no one expected that it would actually be enforced.  And certainly no one expected that it would be enforced in Israeli restaurants that do not claim to be kosher.  But then  the Kosher Police showed up.  They fined restaurant owners 100 shekels -- at that time, about $25 - for each infraction - and they collected nearly 1 million shekels from Tel Aviv restaurant owners over the course of the holiday.

One appalled restaurant owner said,  ''They searched a major Tel Aviv restaurant, not for suspected drugs, but for suspected hametz. I'm all for the Passover atmosphere on the streets, but to search plates and kitchens, that's crossing the line.'

The Kosher Police raids ended in 2008, when a judge ruled that eating hametz in a restaurant was not actually a ‘public’ display of hametz.


(answer:  stories 2 and 3 are true.
Whereas Yael Arad truly was Israel’s first Olympic medalist, the rest of story #1 is fictional.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Who invented the tzedakah box? (For Shabbat Shekalim, 3/1/2014)

When my oldest daughter was about 1 ½, she was toddling around our home and found a coin on the floor.  Noticing this, we were a little alarmed - coins, of course, are choking hazards, and toddlers should stay far away from them.  We ran over to take it away from her, but we quickly realized we didn’t have to - because she was carrying the coin over to the tzedakah box - the charity coin box into which we drop coins.

Then we realized:  weeks and weeks of giving her coins to put in the tzedakah box as we start shabbat each week, were now paying dividends.  Now, when she found some money, her first instinct was to donate it, rather than to spend it.

(OK, I have no illusions that this act was an act of real insight and generosity.  But my wife and I were happy that our first introduction to our child to the world of currency and commerce was in the context of using money to help people.)

Tzedakah boxes are on my mind because of the story we read in this week’s haftarah.  It’s a special shabbat called Shabbat Shekalim, that takes place every year about 6 weeks before Passover.  This haftarah talks about the creation of the very first tzedakah box.

We might not normally think of a tzedakah box as an object that had a particular history and was invented at a particular moment in time.  What is a tzedakah box, after all?  It’s a box that makes it easy to put money in, but hard to take money out.  Usually it’s a locked box with a slot at the top.  

This is the story we read each year on this shabbat, from the Book of Kings.  The haftarah begins by mentioning that King Jehoash was seven years old when he began to be king of the kingdom of Judah.  You can probably guess that when someone becomes a king at age seven, there’s probably a tragic element to the story, and there is in this case:  King Jehoash’s father, King Ahaziah, was assassinated, together wtih his entire family, except that the young boy Yehoash was hidden away, which is how he survived to become king.  You can also probably guess that he didn’t fulfill all the affairs of state immediately at age seven.  Rather, he had a regent - an adult who supervised him, the High Priest Yehoyada, who was essentially fulfilling most of the functions of the king until Yehoash became old enough to take them on himself.

When Yehoash became older, he became aware of a financial scandal in ancient Israel: the priests in the Temple had been collecting a lot of donations in order to do some necessary repair work on the Temple, but the repair work never seemed to get done, and the temple was in terrible disrepair.  So Yehoash is upset - and he confronts Yehoyada, his former mentor, who is still the High Priest, and says:  מדוע אינכם מחזקים את בדק הבית?    Why are you not maintaining the proper condition of the Temple, especially considering how much money you have received in donations to do so?

Yehoyada and the other priests sheepishly acknowledge that there has been mismanagement of funds - perhaps not intentionally, but funds that were devoted to one purpose, for building repairs, were actually used for different purposes.  As a response to the King’s critique, Yehoyada takes a box and cuts a small hole in the top.  Donations are to be put in the box, and no one can remove anything from the box except in the presence of the High Priest and the royal scribe,
so that there is an exact accounting of what donations have come in for the purpose of the repair of the temple.  That’s the first tzedakah box, invented by the high priest Yehoyada, in response to the critique of young King Yehoash.

Whenever I read this story,  I am impressed at the self-confidence of King Yehoash, who is willing to challenge his mentor, the High Priest Yehoyada, when he feels that an ethical breach is being committed.  And I am also impressed at the way that Yehoyada responds, though being an elder, taking the critique into account and modifying his behavior, and enacting a new system that will permit a higher standard of ethical oversight.  And it makes me proud that the Jewish people that is especially known for charitable giving actually invented this minor piece of technology that we still use today, such that it was my daughter’s first introduction to money.

Today, of course, the way we give tzedakah has changed.  Coins do add up- but people who are really serious about tzedakah are doing it with bills, and checks, and automatic transfers. (A couple of years ago, an Israeli TV program that does satire sketch comedy had a parody of the Birthright Israel programs for American Jews to visit Israel, and the skit included a classic Jewish National Fund “blue box” tzedakah box, but with a credit card reader attached to it.)  

And our tzedakah priorities might also have changed - and broadened.  Of course the most classic, paradigmatic, type of tzedakah is assistance to needy individuals.  We also recognize the need to support institutions that do good work - even to create spaces like the Temple in Jerusalem, or this synagogue, as places for the community to gather to support one another. For centuries, it was most likely that Jews would give tzedakah to other Jews.  How could it be otherwise?  with Jews and non-Jews living in non-stop strife in most of the world, was it conceivable that non-Jews would ever give charity to Jews?  So Jews fended for themselves. Whereas today, our circumstances are different.  Not that hatred of Jews no longer exists -- it is a virulent phenomenon in many parts of the world -- but most Jews have a growing acknowledgment that there ought to be a balance in our tzedakah giving.  Many are more aware now of the problem of dire global poverty, and dire poverty at home, and that many of us are in a position to do something about it, unlike many of our ancestors who felt that they needed to conserve all their resources for specifically Jewish needs.

But more significant than the changes in charitable giving over the centuries, are the continuities between our ancient texts and our contemporary responsibilities. More than 800 years ago, in his famous “Eight Levels of Tzedakah,” Moses Maimonides urged that as much of one’s tzedakah giving as possible be dedicated to addressing root causes of poverty, to help people to extricate themselves from poverty or not fall into poverty, rather than simply providing for their needs when they are impoverished.  He also sensibly counseled that charitable funds, when they are run effectively, are usually a better way to give tzedakah than direct payments to individuals, because of the embarrassment that such direct donations can engender.  Today, we might add that many individuals in need of financial assistance today can benefit from being in the orbit of organizations that can help them to address issues of addiction, illness, and other factors that make it difficult for them to thrive.  

May the donation box created by the High Priest Yehoyada continue to inspire us to live according to the Jewish values of generosity and accountability that have always been the hallmarks of the authentic practice of tzedakah.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Musical and video commentary to Haftarah Yitro (Isaiah chapter 6)

I was transfixed by Israeli musician Shlomo Gronich's musical setting of Isaiah chapter 6 the first time I heard it, on his "Journey to the Sources" מסע אל המקורות CD.  In honor of this week's haftarah, I made this video that includes the words in Hebrew and in English (adapted from the JPS Tanakh translation).

And check out the rest of the songs on that CD, all of which are based on Biblical and Rabbinic texts, through the lens of this extraordinary Israeli secular musician.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

MLK and a 19th-century rebbetzin teach us about confidence (Torah portion of Bo)

When I was in rabbinical school, I once attended a leadership training seminar in which all those who attended had to share one of their anxieties about assuming a position of  communal leadership.  When it was my turn, I mentioned that one of the things about which I was apprehensive was that it seems to me that religious leaders need to cultivate a charismatic speaking style and stage presence, and that was something that I thought did not come naturally to me.

Later on, in the presentation, the speaker addressed my concern and told us a story that was very new and surprising to me.  He said:  Everyone agrees that one of the greatest orators and leaders of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King.  But when Martin Luther King was a seminary student, he was preoccupied by what he perceived as a lack of dynamism in his speaking style.  He felt that he had a lot of ideas -- and a lot of leadership potential -- but he was unsure whether he would be able to transmit his message effectively enough to move people.  So one of his professors assigned him and some of his classmates to travel around to various small churches, and to get some experience in preaching on a regular basis.  Martin Luther King would later credit this experience as what truly taught him how to be a preacher and how to motivate a room of people.  He would say that his speaking style never came fully naturally to him; he always had to work at it.  But he knew that, if he wanted to accomplish the things that he felt God meant for him to accomplish, he would have to hone this skill, and he did.

[NOTE: Whereas this is the way that the story was relayed to me, I have since learned from Taylor Branch's masterful biography of Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters, that even though King wanted to expand his repertoire of speaking styles, he arrived to the seminary as an already talented orator who won several awards in preaching while a seminary student. He was also known in his college and seminary years as a person full of confidence.]

This story was stunning to me because I never would have imagined that great oratory skill didn’t come naturally to Martin Luther King.  And this story was important for me to help me to gain confidence in public speaking - something that I knew that, as a rabbi, I’d be called upon to do from time to time.

We find a similar insight at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Bo, from the book of Exodus.  Our Torah portions are usually after the first significant word in the first verse of the Torah reading.  The Torah portion of Bo begins with the words:  vayomer adonai el moshe: bo el par’oh.  This is usually translated as:  “And God spoke to Moses and said:  Go to Pharaoh…[to tell him that if he doesn't let the Israelites go free, Egypt will be afflicted with another plague].”   The Hebrew word "Bo" is translated as the English word "go."  This is the way it is translated in just about every English version I have ever seen.

But there's one problem. The Hebrew word "bo" doesn't mean "go."  In fact, it means the opposite:  it means "come."  If God really wanted to say "go to Pharaoh," God would have said lech el par’oh.  The verse actually means, “come to Pharaoh.”  The difference in meaning is subtle -- but Jews have a long tradition of reading the Torah with a subtle eye.  What could this somewhat peculiar construction mean to us?

My favorite explanation for this peculiarity is given by the Rebbetzin Feige Levin of Bendin.  She was the daughter of the Hasidic master known as the Sefas Emes, who was a prominent Torah commentator in the late 19th century.  (It's exciting and somewhat unusual to find an early example of a woman in a traditional community who was a teacher of Torah and whose interpretations of the Torah were incorporated into traditional Jewish texts.  In her case, her interpretations are recorded in the writings of her husband, Hanoch Tzvi of Bendin, in his work called Yechahen Pe’er  יכהן פאר.)

According to Rebbetzin Feige Levin, God knew that appearing before Pharaoh was an exceptionally difficult task for Moses.  We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses had a speech impediment, and speaking in public was something that agonized him and made him very anxious.   In addition, it is presumably very difficult to appear before a major world leader and make a very unpopular request.  So Moses probably dreaded this task of pleading with Pharaoh.  But it was something that needed to be done, if Moses was to liberate his people from slavery.  For this reason, God says Bo el par’oh -  "Come to Pharaoh" - because the implication is "Come WITH ME to Pharaoh."
God says, "I know this is a very difficult thing for you to do.  I know it's something that makes you anxious and apprehensive.  But you should know that you're not going alone. Come with Me to Pharaoh, and I will be beside you the whole time, supporting you -- because this is the task to which I have assigned you."

Rebbetzin Feyge Levin and Martin Luther King both remind us that the things that God intends us to accomplish in our lives are very rarely the things that come most easily for us.  In fact, they are usually the things accompanied by maximum struggle and self-doubt.  One of the roles God plays in our lives is as the force that stands by our side and gives us the confidence and strength necessary to do the difficult things we know we ought to do, so we can best grow into the roles for which we are intended.