Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thoughts on Hoboken public school holiday celebration issue

From time to time, I offer some comments about issues in Hoboken’s civic life that are somehow connected to the Jewish community or Jewish issues.  
Hoboken has attracted some press coverage because of a decision regarding a Hoboken public school's holiday celebration (you can read about it here). 

My comments are printed below.  Permission is granted to reprint or forward what I have written, but please include my blog web address, rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com, so the comments can be read in their entirety.

First, the Hoboken Jewish community is very diverse.  There is no unanimity in Hoboken’s Jewish community on this (or almost any other) issue.  For this reason, I emphasize that the opinion I express below is my own, and it is not necessarily the opinion of the United Synagogue of Hoboken or its members.

Jews are a minority in the United States.  Choosing to raise children as Jews in the United States entails an acknowledgment that there will be some special challenges - as well as some special opportunities - that come from raising children in a minority culture.   Each year, the December holidays provide Jewish familes with the challenge of affirming a minority culture, as well as the opportunity to help children to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being different.  In fact, one of the most important and useful adult skills that parents can inculcate in their children is a deep comfort with being different from the mainstream.  

One of the great blessings of this country is that minorities are not merely tolerated, but encouraged to be fully a part of this country and encouraged to thrive.  This is one of the values that has made our country great, and has made New Jersey and Hoboken great.  Public schools, especially, are places where we celebrate both our commonality and our diversity. To my understanding,  the Board of Education’s decision has enabled more students to feel that their diversity is validated, while not limiting any student’s opportunity to celebrate Christmas.  Thus It appears to me that this is the kind of pluralistic perspective to which we ought to aspire.  

It has been disheartening to see some of the public discourse on this issue.  I usually prefer to avoid reading the ‘comments’ sections of web sites, because they give the opportunity to anyone with an internet connection to make anonymous attacks on others.  Certainly many of the hurtful comments I have read about this issue are in sharp contrast to the warmth and respect that I have almost always felt in my face-to-face interactions (whether agreements or disagreements) with Hobokenites of all religious and cultural backgrounds.  Especially at this festive time of year, I hope that those in and outside of our Hoboken community will address this and other issues with the spirit of civility that has characterized our country at the best of times.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"10 Jewish Things to Do Before You Die": Yom Kippur Sermon from 2008

This was a Yom Kippur sermon from 2008 .... but as I was looking over it I decided I liked it enough to put it on my blog.

One of the themes of Yom Kippur seems to be making lists:  lists of categories of vows that get annulled in Kol Nidrei; lists of sins to which we confess in Al Chet; lists of loved ones who have died, whom we remember at Yizkor; and perhaps most importantly, the lists we make inside our minds:  Lists of people to apologize to and to reconcile with, and lists of changes we pledge to make in our lives during the coming year.

List making is in vogue this year in a big way.  Look at recent or current best selling books like “101 Things to Do Before I Die,” and “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”  These books address the phenomenon of “life lists” - lists of things that people want to accomplish at some point in their lives.  It’s a practice adapted from bird watchers who keep lists of the varieties of birds they have seen and aspire to see, and of mountain climbers who keep lists of the mountains they have climbed and aspire to climb.  There are books with sample life lists and suggestions for creating your own life lists, and of course there are web sites where you can keep track of your progress towards your list and take a peek at what’s on others’ lists:  items like running in a marathon; climbing a tall mountain; skydiving; learning a new language; and - of course - losing weight.  And the first “life-list-themed movie” is coming out in December (which makes me think this trend has probably peaked already).

Even if you haven’t written a life list written down yourself, you probably have a list of your life goals in your mind.  Some say that keeping life lists is popular because it’s a practical and tangible way to feel that you are accomplishing goals and that your life has direction.  It also permits us to do the difficult but essential work of confronting our mortality, but in a softer, gentler, even fun way!  And everyone loves checking items off a list when we’re done with them.

On the one hand, I look at the “life list” phenomenon and I see obvious and appealing parallels in Judaism.  One midrash teaches that over the course of one’s lifetime, one should make an effort to have a child, plant a tree, and write a book – as these are three ways to perpetuate one’s influence and legacy in the world after one is gone.  There are some of the mitzvot – the commandments – that are described as incumbent upon every Jew at least once in their lives, such as the commandment to assist in the writing of a Torah scroll.  And of course, the Jewish life list par excellence is the list of the 613 mitzvot, the 613 commandments of the torah – though, traditionally speaking, that’s not a list of items that you do once and check off.

But at the same time, it is clear that most life lists are written in the spirit of personal fulfillment, rather than in the spirit of personal responsibility that Judaism tends to encourage.  Items on a life list are thought of as new experiences to be collected, new thrills to be sought, rather than commitments to be fulfilled to God and the community and the world.  And the focus is on novelty, rather than on regularity.  Checking items off of a list once they have been accomplished is very different from Jewish tradition that promotes spiritual discipline, that encourages us to take the most important activities in our lives and work them into our regular routine.

But sometimes we are so used to talking about Judaism and Jewish practice as a responsibility, and an obligation, that we forget that many traditional Jewish practices
Fit quite perfectly on a life list –  activities that are fascinating and engaging, that give the satisfaction of accomplishment, and that enable a deeper level of appreciation of life.  In fact, those people who make a commitment to do Jewish things on a regular basis, as their own spiritual practice or as their commitment to the mitzvot, usually STARTED to do Jewish things on an OCCASIONAL basis because they found them to be life-enhancing and personally fulfilling.

So whether or not you keep a life list, I’d like to share with you a list of ten experiences that I strongly encourage every Jew to have at least once over the course of their lives.  Per the recommendations of the “life list” experts, the items on this list are ambitious but achievable.  Some of the items on this list – you may already do all the time;  some of them – you may never have done.  The goal for all of them – traditionally speaking – is that they get incorporated into one’s regular routine.  But nothing has ever gotten incorporated into someone’s regular routine until it has been accomplished once.

So here is Rabbi Robert Scheinberg’s list of 10 Jewish Things to Do before you die:
(And yes, a copy will soon be on the synagogue web site, as there’s no note-taking tonight.)

1:  Lead a Passover Seder.
The Passover Seder is the best example of the educational ingenuity of the Jewish people.
Our sages were so wise to say that, the seder, the most important Jewish educational experience of the year, ideally takes place in the home, rather than in the synagogue, meaning that every Jewish family is asked to produce a cadre of knowledgeable people who know how to lead a seder.  The experience of preparing to lead a Seder can be one of the most intellectually challenging, thought-provoking and entertaining tasks of a Jewish year.  And it’s a palpable way to experience continuity with thousands of years of Jewish history.  Many of us experienced Passover Seders in our childhoods.  If they were done right, the memories are magical and timeless.  I know I will carry the memory of my grandfather’s seders of my childhood throughout the rest of MY life.  If you can create such an experience for the next generation, it’s a way for YOU to continue to have an effect for many decades into the future.  Every spring, I lead training courses to help to prepare a new group of seder leaders for the Jewish world, and it could include you.

  1. Visit Israel
Jews who have grown up in the United States are often unprepared for the emotional impact of visiting Israel for the first time, where Jewish culture is the normative culture; where Hebrew is not just the language of old books, but of television and government and traffic signs; where the stories of the patriarchs are not just world history, but LOCAL history; and where - in the alliterative words of the medieval poet Yehuda Halevi – sham ha-shekhinah shekheinah lakh -  you have a sense that the Shekhina, the presence of God, is your neighbor.  Jews who have returned from their first trip to Israel almost invariably express to me how deeply moving and engaging the experience was, how it helped them to begin to understand the mysteries of Jewish history and Jewish identity.  For many of them, they felt a sense of ‘home-coming’ upon arrival to a place they had never seen before, but that their ancestors had seen in their dreams for 2000 years.  If you’re under age 26, you simply cannot pass up the opportunity to go on a Birthright Israel trip – all expenses paid. And think about our first ever Congregational trip to Israel this coming August, about which you’ll hear more tomorrow.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

2nd day Rosh HaShanah sermon 5772/2011: "Change your perspective, see the invisible gorilla"

Ten years ago, two experimental psychologists at Harvard, named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, created what has become one of the most famous experiments in the behavioral sciences.

Before you read further, you may want to try this demonstration: 

The participants in this study in the study were given a simple task. They just had to watch a brief video that included several people passing basketballs back and forth to each other. Three of these players were wearing white shirts, and three were wearing black shirts.

The task was simple:  watch the ball that was being passed among the players with the white shirts, and count how many times the basketball was passed. This was not such a difficult task - most people came up with the right number.

But then, the participants were asked: did you notice anything unusual about this video?  A majority of participants said, no, not particularly.  But - if you watch the video again -- you see that right in the middle of this basketball game, strolls a person wearing a gorilla costume.  He walks to the very center of the court, beats his chest a couple of times, and walks away.  And more than 50% of the participants in the study had absolutely no idea, which is why this experiment became known as the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment.  You couldn’t imagine that you could be oblivious to something as unusual as a person in a gorilla costume. But the participants were so focused on the task at hand, that it crowded out all other information.  They saw only what they expected to see.

The psychologists gave a name to this phenomenon – they called it ‘inattentional blindness.’  (see http://www.amazon.com/Invisible-Gorilla-Other-Intuitions-Deceive/dp/0307459659) So many participants were blind to the gorilla because they simply were focusing on other things, and they were oblivious to anything they did not expect to see.

Now I was paying pretty close attention to our Torah readings yesterday and today - these biblical readings with which the Jewish people have welcomed thousands of new years. And I can say with certainty that our torah readings contain no invisible gorillas. But the invisible gorilla phenomenon, however, is not unknown in the Torah.

First, in the torah reading we read yesterday.  You’ll remember that Abraham has sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.  For whatever the reason, they are given insufficient water, and the water runs out.  Hagar fears that her son Ishmael is going to die of thirst.  But then, at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Hagar, and tells her that God has heard the cries of the child, and they will be saved.

Usually, when we tell the story, we understand the next thing that happens as a miracle -- suddenly, a well of water appears, to revive Ishmael and Hagar.  But that’s not exactly what the Torah says.  What we ACTUALLY read yesterday, was “ויפקח אלקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים - God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw the well of water.”  The implication is that the well was there all along, but for some reason Hagar was unable to see it.

An ancient rabbi in the Midrash, Rabbi Binyamin, had a provocative comment on this line:  he said:
אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקב״ה מאיר את עיניהם מן הכא ויפקח אלהים את עיניה
this verse shows that all people are considered to be blind until God opens their eyes. (Genesis Rabbah 33:14) 

Why was Hagar completely oblivious to the well that was right in front of her, that was the answer to all of her hopes and prayers?  Perhaps for the same reason that 50% of people missed the invisible gorilla.  We are unlikely ever to see that which we don’t expect to see.  Perhaps Hagar was so despondent that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face, even though it was what she was yearning for more than anything else.

If this were the only example in our torah readings of someone who was oblivious to something hidden in plain sight, we could say that this is only Hagar’s problem, not our problem.  But actually, there’s a similar example in our torah reading from today.

Sermon for 1st day of Rosh HaShanah 5772: "Hagomel la-chayavim tovot" - "Who bestows favor upon the undeserving"

(photos are by Rabbi Will Berkovitz and Rabbi Suzanne Singer)

Baruch atah adonai - eloheinu melech ha-olam - ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot - she-g’malani kol tov.
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who bestows favor upon the undeserving,  and has bestowed favor onto me."

Several minutes ago, I invited you to join with me in reciting this blessing - all those who recovered from illness, or had surgery, or extensive travel, or who had endured any other brush with danger during the past year.  It’s the traditional blessing of thanksgiving -- - the Birkat ha-gomel - that is recited upon such challenging moments of life.

More than 12 years ago, I recited this blessing in this congregation after I was attacked on a subway platform and realized how grateful I was to have survived the attack.  And ten years ago, many of us remember how - on the first shabbat after 9/11 - every single person who came up to the torah for an aliyah - a torah honor - recited this Birkat ha-Gomel blessing - because every single person either had worked in the World Trade Center, or had managed to escape from the world trade center or from the vicinity on 9/11.

But listen closely to these unusual words again.  "Blessed are you, Adonai, hagomel la-chayavim tovot. 
Who bestows favor upon the undeserving."

In this blessing, of course, “the undeserving” – is us.   This is a blessing that acknowledges that the fundamental unfairness of the universe sometimes accrues to our advantage.  Some people have a brush with danger and they emerge safe and unscathed – not because they have greater merit than those who do not so lucky, not because they have been singled out for divine reward because of extraordinary things they had done, but rather because God is “ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot’ - the one who bestows favor upon the undeserving.

When we have a brush with danger, we have a special responsibility to experience a commonality with those who have suffered -- to understand that, by rights, their fate could, or even should, have been our fate -  and to contemplate the obligations that are ours as a result of our good fortune.

This summer, I learned a lot about gratefulness, and unfairness, and responsibility when I spent nearly two weeks in Ghana, in West Africa, together with a group of 15 other rabbis, organized by the American Jewish World Service.  I spent those two weeks in a fishing village called Sankor, just outside the city of Winneba, along the Atlantic coast.   We worked with an organization and school called “Challenging Heights.” (www.challengingheights.org)   

The motto of “Challenging Heights” is essentially a Christian version of the Birkat ha-Gomel that we said earlier today.  The motto of ‘Challenging Heights’ is:  “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Now, to understand WHY the motto of Challenging Heights is “To whom much is given, much is expected,” you need to understand some things about Ghana and about Sankor.

In so many ways, Sankor is just like Hoboken.   The people, by and large, are extremely friendly.  There are adorable children everywhere.  The town is right on the water - in this case, the Atlantic Ocean.    (As far as I can tell, here’s a  Google Maps link of Sankor.)   And it’s a genuine community - people live much of their lives outside, together with their neighbors.

But then there are many ways that Sankor is different from Hoboken.   In particular:  in Sankor, the most severe social problem has been families selling their children into slavery.   The people there are poor enough that sometimes, families will allow their sons to be contracted for labor on fishing boats, from as young as age 6.

When people ask me if there was a highlight from my trip,  my answer is obvious: It was the opportunity to meet and learn from a valiant and visionary Ghanaian man named James Kofi Annan, the founder of the “Challenging Heights” organization with which we were working.  And this is James’ story.

He was born in the fishing village of Sankor about 38 years ago.  In fact, the house where our group stayed was the home in which James lived for the first few years of his life.  James was the youngest of 12 children,
and his parents simply had more children than they could afford. At age 6, they contracted with a child labor broker and sent him away to work for the fishermen –for just $40 for each two years of his labor.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

High Holy Days -- Sing along!

At our synagogue -- as at many synagogues -- the most powerful moments of the High Holy Days are connected not only with words, but with music.

If  you're joining us for the High Holy Days in Hoboken this year and you want a refresher of some of the melodies we will be singing, click on the links below.  We'll add more sound clips as time goes on.

Mekhalkel hayyim be-hesed -- the special high holy melody to this passage from the Amidah

Avinu Malkeinu -- perhaps the most well-known congregational melody for the High Holy Days

Hayom -- 'hayom' means 'today.'  We sing this rousing prayer at the conclusion of the morning service on each day of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.  The words (actually, 'word') are very simple to sing along.

Kevodcha malei olam -- New for our synagogue this year.  This melody was composed by my colleague Cantor Ken Richmond, with whom I served on the Mahzor Lev Shalem Editorial Committee.  The words are from a medieval Spanish Hebrew poem by Yehuda Halevi, and the melody was composed in honor of the new Mahzor Lev Shalem.  Sheet music is at http://rabbinicalassembly.org/mahzor/mahzor%20music/Yah%20Ana-Richmond.pdf

Od Yavo Shalom:   This contemporary Israeli song in Hebrew and Arabic has become a classic... and no High Holiday experience is complete at USH without it -- here's a recording of the USH Choir together with Cantigas.

Kol Nidrei -- The most famous melody for Yom Kippur evening. traditionally sung three times.

Shanah Tovah!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah / death of Bin Laden

Thoughts I shared with my community today by email:

Today is being observed in Israel and throughout the world as Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I have pasted below the comments that I made at the Jersey City Yom HaShoah commemoration yesterday.  Our Learning Center students in grades 4-7 will participate in a Yom HaShoah educational program tomorrow.

Also today, we are focused on the fact that one of the most fearsome people our world has known since Hitler has been killed.  After 9/11, I remember thinking - and sharing with this community - that whereas comparisons between contemporary figures and Hitler are always overblown, in the case of Bin Laden the comparison is not inappropriate.  It seems oddly fitting that he was killed by American special forces not only on the day of Yom HaShoah on the Jewish calendar, but also on the anniversary of the date on the secular calendar when Hitler killed himself.  

Thinking back to those days in Hoboken immediately following 9/11, when we learned of all the terrible ways that this tragedy touched our own community, I can only pray that the survivors of the attacks, and those who continue to mourn loved ones, can take satisfaction that the world is finally rid of Bin Laden.

While I understand the motivation of those who have greeted this news by dancing in the streets, there are some good reasons why I am not among them.   Our world remains precarious, and terrorism remains an ever-present threat.  Some around the world are greeting the news of Bin Laden's death in very troubling ways that show their true colors (see, for example, the statement of the leader of Hamas in Gaza:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110502/wl_mideast_afp/usattacksbinladenpalestinianshamas).  And Jewish tradition counsels us to tread carefully with our emotions when our enemies fall.   (On this last point, I have also pasted below some comments of a more scholarly nature that I wrote today to some colleagues, discussing Judaism's ambivalent perspective on the suffering of enemies, from the perspective of the history of Jewish liturgy.)  I can't feel much joy today, but I feel relieved, and hopeful that we can succeed in building a better world.


Rabbi Scheinberg's comments at Yom HaShoah Commemoration, May 1, 2011,  Congregation Bnai Jacob in Jersey City

My colleague Rabbi David Ebstein tells this story that takes place in the early 1990’s.

He was developing Jewish educational programs in the Former Soviet Union
immediately after the fall of communism.
He travelled to the city of Minsk, the capital of the new country of Belarus,
and a city with a historic Jewish community that was largely destroyed during the Holocaust.

One of the synagogues in Minsk survived the war, and that’s where Rabbi Ebstein went for services on that Shabbat.

In the midst of the service, an old man walked into the synagogue
and - surprisingly enough - began dancing in the aisles to the melodies of the synagogue service.

He seemed so full of joy and enthusiasm.

Rabbi Ebstein asked him, why are you so happy?”
And the man responded:  "Because I used to be the last Jew on earth.

What did he mean?
During the war he escaped to the forests of Belarus….and survived.

After the war he married a woman who was not Jewish, and kept his Jewish identity a secret.
Because he was illiterate, and his village was so isolated, he never met or saw any other Jews.
He thought that the Nazis had annihilated all the Jews,

and he assumed he was the last Jew on earth.

One day, his son, a train conductor, told him that in the great city of Minsk,
his train had driven by a synagogue where Jews prayed.
This man was incredulous. He just had to find out where the synagogue was.
Visiting the synagogue for the first time was like a rebirth for him --

and eventually he moved to Minsk.
He says that whenever he sees Jews praying in the synagogue,

it fills him with tremendous joy,
because it reminds him of how he used to think that he was the last Jew on earth.

Part of our task on Yom HaShoah
is marking the unbearable devastation of our people -
a wound from which we can never fully recover.
But part of our task on Yom HaShoah
is taking note of just how miraculous the rebirth of the Jewish people has been.
The State of Israel was created just 3 years after the liberation of the camps.
In most of the world, Jews live in conditions of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
While in some cases Jewish communities are precarious, and Jews around the world do face real dangers,
there is so much to celebrate about these 65 years since liberation.

Thousands of years ago, the prophet Ezekiel comforted his community of exiles in Babylonia
with a vision of dry bones --
the prophet saw a vision of dry bones reassembling themselves into the shape of human beings,
then miraculously being covered with flesh and coming alive.
And he was told:  these bones represent the people of Israel.
Even though they say
יָֽבְשׁוּ עַצְמוֹתֵינוּ
our bones are dry
וְאָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ:
and our hope is lost,
I will open their graves, and bring them to the land of Israel
יד וְנָֽתַתִּי רוּחִי בָכֶם וִֽחְיִיתֶם
And I will breathe my spirit into you and you shall live.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the Jews say avdah tikvateinu אבדה תקוותינו - our hope is lost -
like the man from Minsk, they think they are the last Jews on earth.
but the words of Hatikvah turn around Ezekiel’s words,
as we say od lo avdah tikvateinu עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו - our hope is not yet lost -

may we express gratitude for our revival
and may we remember always to take delight in every demonstration of our vibrant Jewish future.


Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on reacting to the suffering of enemies, from the perspective of the history of Jewish liturgy - May 2, 2011

In my opinion, anyone who thinks that this issue is very simple, in one direction or the other, is not considering all the variegated evidence.
Two things to consider, from the history of Jewish liturgy, about how we react at the suffering of enemies / wicked people:

(a)  I was surprised the first time I learned that the prevailing interpretation I had heard about removing drops of wine from the wine cup at the seder when we mention the ten plagues -- that we do so to diminish our full cup of wine and to demonstrate less than full joy at the plagues that afflicted Egypt -- is a relatively late interpretation, found first in the Haggadah commentary of Abravanel (late 15th/early 16th c) and popularized by S.R. Hirsch (19th c).  Earlier (and many later) interpretations regard the wine-pouring as a vengeful gesture or as an imitation of God's 'finger' - etzba elohim hi - in inflicting the plagues.  This reinterpretation can be considered among the many ways that a traditional inclination to vengeance has been blunted in the modern era.  (Another example, among many:   in the blessings after the Haftarah, prevailing practice is to say "ve-la'aluvat nefesh toshi'a bimhera be-yameinu," "May You save the despondent of spirit speedily in our days' -- but this is clearly an example of Christian censorship or self-censorship of the printed liturgy, as manuscripts (and Yemenite siddurim to this day) have the text 've-la'aluvat nefesh tinkom nakam bimhera be-yameinu,'  'May You surely seek vengeance on behalf of the despondent of spirit, speedily in our days.')

(b) And on the other side:  It is striking that the Gemara (RH 33b-34a) draws major conclusions about the sounds of the shofar from the use of the word 'uteyabev' in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), describing the wailing of Sisera's mother as she comes to the realization that her warrior son isn't coming home.   This seems to me to be a remarkable, even over-the-top, demonstration of universalism:  our cries to God on Rosh HaShanah are supposed to resemble, in some way, the cries of a bereaved mother, even though the son she is mourning is our enemy.  The song of Deborah itself shows absolutely no sympathy to Sisera's mother and in fact gloats over her sadness -- but the Gemara appears to encourage us to consider her humanity.   (While some would argue that this verse is only cited for linguistic reasons and it's inappropriate to draw any conclusions about how we should think about Sisera's mother, I would disagree.  Bringing the original context of verses to bear on a sugya that quotes them is absolutely interpretive fair game.)

Bin Laden is clearly in a different category from the Egyptians suffering from the plagues (including many presumably innocent people) and Sisera (who may have been a ruthless warrior but who was a military opponent of the Israelites rather than a terrorist).  But overall, what I feel Jewish tradition is guiding me to feel at a moment like this -- as I feel Jewish tradition often guides me to feel -- is......challenged to at least consider something contrary to my natural inclination.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

links to Sheva Brachot files and other wedding materials

At many Jewish weddings, the recitation of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Wedding Blessings) is done not by the wedding officiant but by family and friends.

Here is a copy of the Hebrew / English / transliteration of the Sheva Brachot, together with sound files (which can be downloaded one by one, or all together in one zip file).

If you find these resources useful and are not from the United Synagogue of Hoboken community, please go to www.hobokensynagogue.org and send me a quick note -- and mazal tov!


http://www.scheinberg.net/rabbi/sheva_brachot_mp3s.zip -- all the mp3s below in one zip file

 (please note:  this order of the sheva brachot is for the wedding ceremony itself.  When recited as part of the birkat ha-mazon after the wedding feast and during the first seven days of marriage, the order is different (blessing #1, 'borei pri ha-gafen,' is moved to the end), and this alternate order is what is found in many benchers and siddurim. )

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Baking Hamentaschen in Shichigahama: reactions to the Japanese earthquake

This is a modified version of an email that I sent to my congregation yesterday.

The news reports of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan just keep going from bad to worse to unimaginable -- with the death toll now revised at over 10,000, several villages and cities reduced to rubble, and the possibility of nuclear disaster.

David H., a member of our synagogue, has numerous direct connections to this tragedy and asked me to send the following reflections to you.  David lived and worked for many years in the town of Shichigahama, in the area that was hardest hit by the tsunami.  This town of more than 20,000 inhabitants is now mostly destroyed.    David's words help to communicate in very personal terms how devastating this situation is.  Below David's remarks are some suggestions for how we can assist.  (If you wish to contact David, you may contact him through me.)


By now, I am sure you have seen the horrific and terrifying images of the disaster that occurred in Northern Japan on 3/11. Whereas I am very thankful that my wife’s family lives in the southern island of Japan and was unaffected by the earthquake and Tsunami, I have a very deep personal connection to the affected region.  I want to share some thoughts with you in hopes of painting a picture of picture of a place and a people that I know seems very distant and unrelated to our daily lives as Jews and as part of the Hoboken community.  In doing so, I hope that you will see some of the connections we share with Japanese and be moved to support them in this time of their most dire need.

From 1998-2001 I was privileged to be employed by the Japanese government as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) on the JET Program.  You may be surprised to hear that the Japanese government through the JET Program is one of the largest single employers of American college graduates in a single foreign country.  This is only one of many Japanese sponsored initiatives that represent Japanese openness and generosity to furthering peaceful international relations.

What may further surprise you is that Japan also has a long history of supporting the Jews and Israel. Japan was one of the earliest nations to recognize Israel as a state.  In Japanese-occupied China, Jews were allowed to practice religion freely, and historians continue to discuss and debate the possibility that Japan was willing to spare the Jews of Europe in what is known as the Fugu Plan.  Chiune Sugihara, the Japanse consul to Lithuania,  spared the lives of thousands of Jews (and saved the renowned institution of Jewish learning, the Mir Yeshiva) by  issuing exit visas via Japan to China during the war.   Again, I could go on and on.

 For my three years on the JET Program, I lived, worked and represented small coastal community of Shichigahama in Miyagi prefecture.  My responsibility there was to promote grassroots culture, sports and economic exchange.  Japan is often characterized as a “closed society” -- but you must know that this just isn’t the case. People often asked how I could survive in rural Japan keeping kosher, and I can tell you it was because every one of my colleagues and neighbors knew just what I could and couldn’t eat, and they unconditionally assured that there was something at the table for me, whether it be a working lunch or a festive banquet.  Participants in the international and English clubs that I ran there -- a wide range of professionals and housewives --  reveled at the opportunity to cook Hammentashen on Purim.  At Hannukah, I made the rounds of Shichigahama’s three elementary schools to help the kids make latkes, and the holiday was built into the curriculum accordingly.  

At our wedding in Tokyo in 2005, 40 of my Shichigahama friends travelled the 250 miles so they could experience a Jewish wedding first hand, donning yarmulkes and dancing the hora.  At the reception, they enjoyed individual challahs, that were prepared as a surprise for us by Izaki-san, an 80 year old woman who has spent half her life as the chief cook of the JCC in Tokyo.  When I visited Shichigahama in December 2010 for the first time in almost a decade, my colleague immediately displayed my wedding photo on his cell phone from 5 years prior, still fascinated by the experience.

I can’t tell you how helpless I feel now, seeing images of what has happed in Sendai, a place as familiar to me as Hoboken. Andersen Cooper stood on top of 10 feet of debris in front of the very market in Shichigahama where I did my daily shopping. Ishinomaki  and Kessenuma, towns that have been reduced to rubble,  are the places  I would go on the weekends to watch movies or visit friends. My friend Yuko said her uncle clung for life as he watched his wife and his house wash away.  Friends who were of good means and wealthy communities now write that they are without food, water or heat. I haven’t been able to get through to people  are closer to me than people I grew up with. 

This is not the first disaster that needs our assistance and there continue to be many other worthy causes that demand our attention.  But now, more than ever, the people of Sendai and of Shichigahama need us.  I hope you will understand from what I have shared, that Japan is much closer than you think.

David H.


There are a number of ways that the American Jewish community can assist at a time of tragedy like this.  The following are four organizations that are collecting funds now, which you could consider among the many organizations engaged in disaster relief. 

Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief:  https://www.jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx?type=JCDR  (a coalition of many American Jewish organizations that channels donations to reputable organizations working on the ground after disasters)

Jewish Federations of North America:    http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=238775

IsraAid:  Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid:  Israeli non-governmental organization for disaster relief -- http://www.israaid.org.il/

The Jewish Community Center of Japan is collecting funds for distribution as well -- see http://www.jccjapan.or.jp/ -- but please note that the bank wire transfer fees for foreign currencies are very high.

David also mentioned to me that there is a Facebook page for "Friends of Shichigahama" on which additional updates may be posted regarding ways to assist.

We pray for recovery for all the injured, comfort for all the bereaved, and for all those affected by this tragedy, the strength to begin again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What graffiti on the Kotel can tell us about Egypt

What messianic graffiiti on the Kotel can teach us about Egypt

delivered Sat., February 5, 2011 / 1 Adar I 5771,
United Synagogue of Hoboken

Who in their right mind would think of writing graffiti on the Kotel, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, the last remnant of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem thousands of years ago?!

This is a question that is asked by many tourists to Israel when they visit the part of the Kotel referred to as “Robinson’s Arch.” This is a section of the Western Wall of the 2nd Temple plaza
that was buried in rubble for thousands of years.

If you visit Robinson’s Arch, you can see a large Hebrew inscription carved into one of the Western Wall’s stones.  It’s actually a quotation from the Haftarah we read this morning, the Haftarah designated for the confluence of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh [the first day of a Hebrew month].  It’s from the Book of Isaiah, 66:14:  
Ur’item, ve-sas libchem; va-atzmoteichem ka-deshe.  “You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall spring up like grass.”  The inscription actually cuts off in the middle of a word, as if the artist were interrupted in the middle of his work.  It doesn’t look like professional stonecutting; it looks more like graffiti.  Hebrew Biblical graffiti from thousands of years ago.  (That alone is a great reason to visit Israel.  Where else are you going to see Hebrew Biblical graffiti from thousands of years ago?)  

Since this inscription was discovered in 1969, archeologists and historians have been trying to figure out why someone would chisel these words into one of the stones of the Temple.

The first question is, how could someone have chiseled these words, perhaps twenty feet above the pavement.  The presumption is that it was done after the destruction of the Temple, at a time when the rubble was high enough that he could easily have reached that point on the wall.

This is one current speculation: the most likely time for this inscription to have been written
was about 1600 years ago, when, for a brief period of time, a Roman emperor named Julian was friendly to the Jews and even invited them back to Jerusalem to begin the reconstruction of the Temple.  The theory goes, this anonymous stonecarver was so moved at the prospect of the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem that he remembered how, in an earlier time, after an earlier destruction, the prophet Isaiah had given his community hope and inspiration.  Following the destruction of the First Temple, the prophet had reassured them that one day they would return to their homes and their lands, and one day they would rebuild the holy sites that lay in ruins.  
This graffiti artist felt that he was beholding the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in his own day:  
“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice!”

Sadly, though, the Emperor Julian died, and any plans to rebuild the Temple were indefinitely put on hold – and so they remain, 1600 years later.

It’s happened so often throughout Jewish history.  Against a backdrop that was often bleak and oppressive, there would be moments of great optimism and hope, that would lead many Jews to the conclusion that God was finally going to fulfill the promises in the prophets, that the oppression and exile were going to end, and Jews would have their sovereignty restored, in a world at peace.

But sadly, so often, that optimism was too good to be true.   Such was the case with the anonymous stonecutter and so many others throughout Jewish history whose hopes were dashed by reality.

Often, this Jewish optimism and hope for redemption were bound up in the belief in a single charismatic individual. One of the most illustrious of the rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva,
lived nearly 2000 years ago, under Roman oppression.  But there was a Jewish rebellion at that time, led by a warrior known as Bar Kochba.  And Rabbi Akiba was so optimistic that Bar Kochba’s rebellion would succeed and end the degradation of the Jewish people that he proclaimed Bar Kochba as the Mashiach - the Messiah.  But  a more sober colleague responded to him, עקיבא, יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא  Akiva, ya’alu asavim bi’’hayyayikh ve- adayin ben david lo yavo.  “Akiva!  grass will be growing from your cheeks, while you lie in the grave, and the Mashiach, the descendant of David, will not yet have come.”  [Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5]

In the Middle Ages, too:  At a time of terrible bleakness, the Jewish world was transfixed by the arrival on the scene of a charismatic mystical scholar, Shabbetai Tzevi, whose followers proclaimed him as the Mashiach.  And among the most embarrassing moments in Jewish history were those moments in the mid-1600’s when Jewish communities were so despondent that they were convinced that Shabbetai Tzevi and his followers were sure to come flying overhead on clouds or a magic carpet to bring them all to the land of Israel - and of course their hopes were dashed.

And so it has been with every Messianic movement in Jewish history - the reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  And this makes many contemporary Jews skeptical of messianic movements at all - taking the attitude of Rabbi Akiva’s colleague.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But in every generation there have also been the Messianic dreamers, who read world events as a confirmation that the world is poised for dramatic improvement. And it could be said that without those dreamers, we would forget what we aspire to.

The world this week has been focused on Tahrir Square in Cairo where as many as a million Egyptians have gathered to demand an end to the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak. There is so much that resonates with Jews when we hear the voices of the protesters. For our people, Egypt is where our own struggle against tyranny began. Egypt is where the Jewish people first learned to value freedom - and it is natural to feel kinship with Egyptians who are also valuing and working for freedom - there are so many parallels to our own story.  Even the square where the largest protests are taking place - Tahrir Square - has a name that is closely related to an important Hebrew word from OUR story. Tahrir is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘Shichrur,’ meaning ‘liberation,’  One of the Hebrew names for Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 is מלחמת השחרור milhemet ha-shihrur. Those of us who remember the euphoria of the fall and winter of 1989, where every day seemed to bring another revolution in another formerly communist country, greet with excitement the possibility of a similar domino effect throughout the Arab world bringing greater freedom to their citizens just as it brought relative freedom to Eastern Europe.  

And then at the same time -- a widespread reaction in the Jewish world and in the United States is that Mubarak may have been a cruel dictator, but at least he has been OUR cruel and stable dictator --Israel’s only ally in the Middle East, maintaining a cold peace - but a peace nonetheless - for these past 30 years.  And if he were to fall, there’s no guarantee that the next government would prioritize peace with Israel - and if the Muslim Brotherhood steps into this power vacuum, as the best-organized of the opposition groups currently, then a worst case scenario is that Egypt could turn into another Iran -- an Islamist state sponsor of terrorism, antagonistic to everything American,  with the goal of wiping Israel off the map - but this time, sharing a border with Israel.

So the debate about this Egyptian popular uprising seems to mirror the debate about messianism throughout Jewish history.  Some people are like the messianic enthusiasts- celebrating with the protesters, looking forward to the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and furious that skeptics are raining on their parade. While others are saying “not so fast”.  This may look like a cause for celebration, but it’s truly a disaster in the making. It will get worse long before anything gets better.

Determining which side is right and which side is wrong is a task too challenging for the Middle East policy experts, and certainly impossible for me.  But what I can do is provide the context of that anonymous stonecutter.  On the one hand, in his prediction that the prophesies of Isaiah were coming true, he was tragically wrong.  And his unfinished quotation stands as a cautionary note for all those who get swept up in messianic fervor.  

But on the other hand -- picture yourself as one of those Israeli archeologists in 1969 who discovered this inscription.  The graffiti artist thought that Isaiah’s words of reassurance and renewal were being fulfilled in his own day.  Not even thirty years after the Holocaust, seeing the Jewish people returned to its land and building a free society,  those Israeli archeologists must have been thinking exactly the same thing. The graffiti artist wasn’t wrong.  he was simply 1600 years ahead of his time.  But he, and others like him, are the reason why that dream stayed alive.

The more I study Jewish history, the more convinced I am that the answer is to strive to balance our enthusiasm with our skepticism. Without the necessary skepticism, we are like Rabbi Akiva, wide-eyed and setting ourselves up for dramatic disappointment.  But if we ONLY have the skepticism, we lose our dream and our motivation to work towards the world’s perfection.

Perhaps this is what  the  paraphraser of Maimonides’
Thirteen Articles of Faith had in mind, writing paradoxically in the Twelfth Article of Faith:  אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח, ואף על פי שיתמהמה עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא.  “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach -- and though he may tarry, despite this I wait for him every day that he should come.”  In other words, integral to the belief in the Mashiach is the belief that the Mashiach will tarry.

And in more contemporary times, the modern Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky wrote:  שחקי שחקי על החלומות - laugh, laugh, at all my dreams,.... אאמינה גם בעתיד אף אם ירחק זה היום, I will believe in the future, even if that day seems far off.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baruch Dayan Emet -- Debbie Friedman z"l .... and prayers for healing for Representative Gabrielle Giffords

My note to our congregation on January 9, 2011, in memory of Debbie Friedman, and out of concern for the victims of the shooting in Tucson:

Whether or not the name of Debbie Friedman is familiar to you, you are likely to have heard (and probably sung) her music.  For the last twenty-five years or more, she has been the most outstanding composer and performer of contemporary American Jewish synagogue music.  Sadly, she died today, in her late 50's, after a bout with pneumonia, and after many years of serious health challenges.

Debbie Friedman's music has been like a soundtrack for many important moments of my life.  At age 15, the first time I ever conducted a choir, we sang her "Dodi Li."  When Naomi and I got married, her "Lechi Lach" was played during our procession.   We sang songs from her album "Renewal of Spirit" as we approached the birth of each of our children.   Most Shabbatot of my adult life have concluded with her "lai lai lai" melody for the blessings of Havdalah at the end of Shabbat.  Numerous times I have sung her"Beyado Afkid Ruchi" at the bedside of people who were approaching death.  

In the life of our congregation, all of our preschool and Learning Center kids have sung her call-and-response"Alef Bet" song to teach them the Hebrew alphabet.  We sing her "Oseh Shalom" most Friday nights, and her "Mi Sheberach" Prayer for healing every Friday night.  In fact, Debbie Friedman is the person who, more than anyone else, taught American Jews how to harness the healing power of musical prayer.  Drawing in part from her own struggles with illness, her "Mi Sheberach" and many other compositions have been mainstays of American Jewish prayer services for healing.  The words of "Mi Sheberach" remind us that a "cure from illness" is not the same thing as "healing."  Sadly, the cure does not always happen -- but the healing is always possible.  The traditional formulation is "refu'at ha-nefesh u-refu'at ha-guf," which she translated as "renewal of body, renewal of spirit."    (See here for some words from Debbie Friedman about healing.)

More than twenty years ago, when I first met her and had the opportunity to sing in a choir she was leading at a conference for Jewish educators, I remember being amazed:  here was a Jewish musician, who had the stage presence that I would expect from a "regular" musician.    Remarkably, (at that time at least,) she was not able to read music, but this did not stop her from composing melodies that were simple yet profound and that perfectly captured the traditional texts to which she set them, and that seemed perfectly designed as receptacles for heartfelt prayer.

I haven't even mentioned Debbie Friedman's joyful music for kids, or the pioneering role she played as a woman in synagogue musical life.  Her loss profoundly touches our community and American Jewish communities across the religious spectrum.

According to the Talmud: אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: כל תלמיד חכם שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר.
"Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:  Any time someone quotes the teachings of a deceased scholar, it is as if that scholar's lips are speaking from beyond the grave." (Eruvin 96b).    Debbie Friedman made her life a blessing, and her lips will continue to sing from beyond the grave for as long as individuals and communities use the musical gifts that she brought us.

(The memorial gathering for her that took place at the Jewish Community Center of New York this evening can be seen at 


In a cruel coincidence, Debbie Friedman's "Mi Sheberach" was sung earlier today in Tucson, Arizona, at Representative Gabrielle Giffords' synagogue, as her friends and family gathered for prayers of healing for her and others injured and bereaved after the shooting spree that killed six and left Representative Giffords in critical condition.  As Americans and as Jews, the horror of that event is beyond words, as we join in with the prayers for healing and for comfort.  

While only the gunman and his co-conspirators (if any) have apparently committed murder and attempted murder, this event sounds a cautionary note for any who engage in inflammatory political speech.   Many of us remember the weeks and months preceding the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, when violent political rhetoric (mostly from people who had no intention to provoke violence) set the stage for violent action by making it less unthinkable.    May we and our leaders take the words of the Book of Proverbs to heart:  מות וחיים ביד לשון - "Death and life come through the power of the tongue."  (18:21)  The words we choose to use, especially when we refer to our adversaries, can have painful consequences, or healing consequences.