Tuesday, September 19, 2017

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jeremy Young on Nitzavim Vayelech

Shabbat Shalom!
When I first sat down with the Rabbi to write this speech, I wondered if I could really actually relate Torah to real life. As it turns out, it’s pretty relatable!
So here goes…
It happened in the fall, about 5 years ago.
I had always loved playing sports, but was basically mediocre at basketball, baseball… and don’t even get me started about soccer!
But on that day 5 years ago, which happened to be “Bring a Friend Day,” my good friend Miles brought me to my first ever hip hop class – and immediately I was hooked. 
Why did I come to love dance so much? 
For one thing, it gives me the chance to express something deep inside, and even when I’m on the stage, I truly dance with a feeling that no one is watching.
Also, it gives me the chance to do something a little different; not only to march to the beat of a different drummer – but to dance to it as well!
But one of the best parts about being a dancer is dancing at home and watching my Dad, Andrew and Marissa try to copy my moves. I love them, but let’s just say, they have other strengths! 
Sad to say, I wasn’t so good at hip hop at first, but I didn’t realize it until I tried out for a selective performance group.  I was devastated when I didn’t make it.
Fortunately, Jimmy, Liana and Monica, the teachers who conducted the tryout four years ago and who are still my teachers today, gave me lots of encouragement, telling me that I should never give up and always believe in myself.   They said I would come back the next year even better.
I took this to heart and I practiced a lot, and the next year, I made it into the performance group.  And, this year, I’ve been added to an advanced competition team. 
In Nitzavim, one of my Torah portions today, Moses talks to the people about God’s teaching, saying in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy,
  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.
“For this instruction, which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.”
The Torah then continues, saying “Lo B’Shamayim Hee,” “It’s not in the heavens.” Meaning, it’s not beyond our reach.  In other words, what the Torah instructs us is not beyond our abilities to accomplish, although lots of effort is needed – but the spiritual rewards of accepting the laws of the Torah, of living a Jewish life, are so worth the effort.
Just as dancing for me has been at times fun, challenging, hard, overwhelming, and worthwhile, I know that following the teachings of the Torah and being a Jew is not just simple and easy.  But, just as dancing ended up being something that I can learn and grow with, and keep striving to become better and better, the lessons of the Torah are also not things that you just learn once and then move on.   Over the years while growing up, I’ve experienced lots of great Shabbat dinners at my house.   They usually aren’t hard.  But fasting on Yom Kippur isn’t easy, and it seems like every year I learn a new rule or requirement for Passover.  And I know there are lots of holidays and other Jewish laws that I don’t know much about at all, although I know I have lots of people in my life who can teach me about them.
Of course, when it comes to prayers and traditions, because of my Hebrew school education and growing up in this temple, I am prepared to continue to learn.  And, it doesn’t hurt that I was once rabbi for a day at Temple Beth El.  My parents won that experience for me at the Temple auction and I got to learn what it’s like to be a rabbi. Hey, did you know there’s a bathroom back behind the bima? Pretty cool, right? Just so you know, you can’t hear the flush from out here!  I tested it with the Rabbi.
My mitzvah project is an example of how things that seem so difficult and out of our reach can be made possible, even if they never become simple.  This summer, I volunteered with several children with special needs at the Hand in Hand camp in Stamford.  I worked with three young children who were mostly non-verbal.  I helped them make their camp experience as normal as possible.  I helped with swimming, dance, art and several other activities.  By the end of the session, the kids had really improved.  One was becoming a little more verbal, one was learning to repeat words, and one was learning sign language.
These kids are a real inspiration to me, just as my dance teachers and friends are at dance class – and just as my family and community here at Temple Beth El have inspired me to do things I never thought I could do.
It’s funny that in Hebrew and English, two sayings that seem to be opposites are actually saying the same thing: “Lo B’Shamayim hee” means “it’s not in the heavens,” but what it really means is, “The sky’s the limit!”

And it always will be!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for Sept 15


The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Sheryl and Daniel Young
in honor of their son, Jeremy, becoming a Bar Mitzvah

Israeli new years card from the 1940s
courtesy of Israel 21c

Shabbat Shalom

... and Happy 5778! 

Mazal tov to Jeremy Young on his becoming Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  Join us for that, as well as for tonight's service, when we will be celebrating the ufruf of Emily Pomerantz and Sean Altman.  This busy weekend will also include Selichot services at The Conservative Synagogue (TCS) in Westport, where TBE and TCS will be joined by Congregation Beth El of Norwalk in our annual Selichot collaboration.  On Sunday morning, our annual cemetery service will take place at 10 AM, and our bima and sukkah will be assembled. Thanks in advance to everyone for their help!
Check out Jake Rosner's bar mitzvah d'var Torah from last week, as well as our Parsha Packets for this season of repentance: a discussion guide for Simon Wiesenthal's "The Sunflower,"  and  our packet on self-scrutiny, "Can We Judge Ourselves?" (see excerpts below).

 TBE European Trip:  
Reflections from the Group & 
Bavarian Quarter Memorial

Those who traveled with me this past summer to Poland, Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic have written about it and I've assembled their reflections in a booklet that will be distributed on Rosh Hashanah.  You can preview it here.  

I've included in it some photos, as well as a most impressive living museum, an entire Berlin neighborhood describing the meticulous, incremental discrimination that led ultimately to the deportation and murder of their Jewish population.  It's called The Bavarian Quarter Memorial.

Before Hitler came to power, 16,000 Jews lived in the Bavarian Quarter of Berlin's Schöneberg district. It was often referred to as the Jewish Switzerland because it was an affluent neighborhood of physicians, businessmen, lawyers, and artists.
Holocaust historians have identified the names of 6000 Jews from Schöneberg who were deported or killed.

This decentralized memorial comprises 80 two-sided plaques on 80 lampposts throughout the neighborhood. The stark contrast between an innocent-looking everyday item on one side, and the official Nazi statute succeed in surprising even the casual passer-by.  Click here to see the signs, with English translation.  Below are a few examples can be found.

The central question of the memorial is "How could it come it this?" and is designed as a web of remembrance. The goal of the memorial is to focus on the many small steps in the persecution of the Jews that affected the "everyday lives" of the inhabitants of the Bavarian Quarter.

Remember, the Holocaust did not happen all at once.  Though Kafka might not agree (see his classic, "The Metamorphosis," here), the process of turning a human being into vermin takes years, and it begins with the little things, like forcing someone to sit in the back of a bus.  The fact that this exhibit is so public is just astounding. School children cannot help but pass these signs every day, even at the playground.  Every day becomes Remembrance Day.  It's a fantastic educational tool.  Read an interview with the creators of the memorial.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Nazis did, and anyone who embraces their legacy, their symbolism and their name, is embracing this program of systematic degradation of human beings.  Please feel free to show this to anyone who might be tempted to scrawl a swastika on a school bathroom door because it's cool to get a rise out of people - or anyone who dares to introduce moral equivalency to any conversation about Nazis. 

You might have guessed that our summer excursion will provide a backdrop to my sermons over the coming two weeks.  But although the Holocaust is hardly a neglected topic (to say the least!), I'm going to be sharing some new approaches that I hope will stimulate thought (at least enough to get you through your Rosh Hashanah lunch).  I look forward to your feedback.  For those who missed them, here are my own dispatches from Europe , written this past summer during the trip.
"Jews in Berlin may only buy food between four and five o'clock in the afternoon"

Jewish musicians are no longer allowed to work. March 31, 1935

"Jewish Veterinarians may not open practices"; "General employment ban"


Jews are no longer allowed to join the German Automobile Association. October 1, 1933
Jewish actors and actresses are no longer allowed to perform. March 4, 1934 

German movies are only those movies created in Germany, by those of German descent. June 28, 1933

"Jews must forfeit all electrical devices"

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, 
some reminders and requests from the rabbi

1) As in prior years, we will be live streaming, with the intent of reaching those who are in senior residences (Atria will have a public viewing in their community room), hospitals and those in college or living in far flung places around the globe.  There is nothing like being here, but we are delighted to bring the joy to everyone looking for our support.     
2)     Once again, we are collecting food for Person to Person.  Please take a bag home and fill it, bringing it back over the coming days.

3)     Our offer of second day Rosh Hashanah services open to the unaffiliated (along with the longstanding practice of opening up Yizkor on Yom Kippur) is one that goes right to the core of our mission.  We're here - all of us - to share the beauty and wonder of Jewish tradition with everyone around us, not to proselytize, but to help repair the world.  If we can reach people who are lonely, disengaged or seeking, we are doing are job.  Our area happens to be filled with such people, especially young professionals who have moved in recently.  You know them.  Please tell them about us and invite them to be here, whether as members or as visitors.  Please contact execdir@tbe.org for more information.... 

And while I'm at it, plan to be here on second day Rosh Hashanah yourselves!  Our attendance has been growing every year, and it's a great time to really settle in to a more relaxed service (and hear part two of the sermon cycle).
5)     Plan to get here as early as you can in the morning.  We begin at 8:45 AM on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The service is scheduled to end at about 1:15, after the children's program has let out.  That is by design, so that you can pick up the kids and bring them down to the main service for the conclusion, so they can hear multiple blasts of the shofar.  I'll encourage the kids to come forward to the foot of the bima.  Please don't rush for the doors as the service nears its conclusion.  I know the shuttles are inconvenient, but think of the wait as an added opportunity to wish more people a sweet year.  Or, to avoid the bus-crush entirely, see #7 below.

6)     Please turn off electronic devices - this is for adults and kids too.  I love those items as much as anyone and I'm also as dependent on them.  But there comes a time when simply living requires living simply.  No need for Facebook while we face the Book.  But once the holiday is behind us, feel free to post and tweet away how wonderful it was to be at TBE, and share what you gained from the experience!

7)     Tashlich always provides a welcome change to get outdoors after a long day of praying and eating.  Join us right after services on Thursday (1:15 ish) weather permitting, for a quick walk over Doral Farms together.  As always we will cast breadcrumbs off into the living waters, symbolically throwing off the burden of our sins.

8)     My final request... smile a little. Maybe even a lot. You'll be amazed at how much 1500 smiles can illuminate and energize a room.

My best wishes to you and yours for a sweet new year.

High Holiday Services...Boring?  No Way!!!
(Ennui Shall Overcome!)

We enter these Days of Awe filled with both anticipation and trepidation. I feel quite a bit of both at this time of year.  I feel it's my job to help you feel both too - and to enter next week's services fully prepared to be totally present for the totality of the experience.  We always hear complaints about services being "boring" - not ours, of course - but out there :) and that troubles me.  Boredom connotes detachment and listlessness.  The French word ennui is closest to what we are feeling when we say we are "bored" at services. One writer calls it "a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction, an attitude of lethargic disappointment, a preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of existence." 

I call that "Tuesday."

Without getting overly dramatic, boredom is usually less about the service itself than it is about the worshiper.  Don't get me wrong; I take it as my responsibility to lead a service that is as engaging as it can possibly be - with inspiring music, readings, explanations, meditative moments and ample opportunities for congregational participation. We've got all that (and, in my humble opinion, the best cantor in the universe).  The rest is up to you. 

So what follows is my High Holidays Anti-Ennui Survival Guide, some suggestions for you, wherever you happen to be.

1)    If you feel disconnected, try to connect, in whatever way you can.  I give some suggestions below.  If you see someone else looking disconnected, take a moment to reach out and welcome that person, while respecting the desire for privacy.  Each of us a greeter.  We are all responsible for our neighbors.  You can assume that every person in the room next week will be feeling the same angst you are, whether about a family crisis, a health challenge, job troubles, or just general feelings of insecurity about the future.

2)    If you don't understand a prayer or disagree with its apparent theological message, join the club.  Remember that we are in dialogue with a liturgy that spans many centuries and continents.  Think of the Machzor as an eclectic playlist on your favorite electronic device (I'll take an iPhone 6, thank you) .  You've got your Mozart, your Beatles and your Taylor Swift; many different voices speaking across the ages, in dialogue with one another.  And now you will be adding your own, equally authentic voice to that eternal symphony, the ageless Jewish and human quest for a purposeful life.

Now I have a big advantage over most of you.  I never get bored during services, for a variety of reasons: For one thing, I am working - I need to stay completely focused on what is happening and what is upcoming. Also, I understand the prayers from many perspectives: historical, existential (oh, that word again), experiential, personal, musical, you name it.  Just today, I was listening to my father's classical cantorial Rosh Hashanah service, taped "live" in 1971.  So I can relate to the prayers not only as documents of the Jewish experience, but as a personal reminiscence from my childhood.
To a degree, most of us have similar childhood memories. What's harder for most non-rabbis is to be able to understand the prayers enough to grapple with them, and to stay focused when there are so many distractions.

3)    So my next suggestion is: Eliminate the Noise.  I mean that literally, of course, but even more in a non literal sense.  Yes, it's important not to disturb those who are trying to engage, especially for those who are sitting far from the bima, way back in the social hall.  There are usually seats available up front, by the way, especially on day two or late in the service.  By all means, give lots of hugs and reconnect with all those people you haven't seen; but that can all be done with smiles and kisses and not with long conversations (which you are welcome to have elsewhere in the building).

I know it's challenging to feel connected to a service when the rabbi is the size of a flea. 

But even that shouldn't matter if you succeed in eliminating the other kind of noise,the internal distractions that are the hallmark of our multitasking, 24-7, A.D.D. everyday lives.  Do yourself a favor and leave all of that at the door. Think about the bigger questions that need to be asked.  Let yourself get swept away by our musicians, singers and fantastic cantor.  Lose yourself in the repetitive cadences, even when you don't understand what they mean.  That's not so important.  Eliminate the noise in your head.  You will thank me.  And if you do that, you will never be bored.

4)    Don't try to keep up. You don't need to pray every word.  Those who wish to will have the opportunity to, both with us and on your own. Understand that we may go at a pace that won't allow non-speed davenners to pray every word.  This is not a competition. What I recommend instead is that you focus on certain phrases or concepts and ask yourself some basic questions. If you find one that means something to you, repeat it again and again in your mind, or even out loud. Take it home with you.  Let it marinate. It could change your life.

5)    With that in mind, here are some key "mantras" from the prayers to reflect upon (pages are from our prayer book, Machor Lev Shalem)

 P. 91, 138 and 169.  In the prayer for peace, Sim Shalom, we say:
Ki ve-or panekha natata lanu, Adonai Eloheinu Torat ħayim ve-ahavat ħesed, u-tzedaka u-ve-raħa ve-raħamim ve-ħayim ve-shalom
For by the light of Your face You have given us, Adonai our God, the Torah of life, and love of kindness, and righteousness and blessing and mercy and life and peace;
I say this prayer each morning, and when I do, allow those words to linger on my tongue.  Our way is the way of life, kindness, righteousness (tzedakkah), blessing, mercy and peace.  I absolutely promise you that if you say that verse over and over, especially in Hebrew, where there is a mantra-like rhythm, you will become a more kind, charitable, merciful and peaceful person - and therefore happier.

P. 142.  In the Unetane Tokef prayer, (which has a remarkable history), there are several memorable verses that I carry as mantras, including "Who shall live and who shall die." 

The idea is that we carry the power of life and death in us, that we also have tremendous power to shape our own destiny.  Leonard Cohen's version only highlights how we can interpret ancient prayers with great freedom and creativity.

But the kicker is "Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree."  How can we  not sing that refrain, as we do with incredible intensity here, and not be changed by it?
In Musaf, (eg p. 162) right after the shofar is blown, we come to the line"Hayom Harat Olam," "Today is the birthday of the world."  

Chew on that for a while.  Just repeat the words.  The Hebrew literally means, "Today the world is pregnant."  Whoa!!!  This mantra is pregnant with possibilities.  Maybe it means that we are about to give birth to our future.  Or maybe it harks back to the notion that the world is a living being, from which we are born - and that we need to care for our planet as we would care for a parent. Or maybe since "olam" also means "eternity," it means that our world is eternally pregnant - and so are we - we are constantly in the process of gestation.  Aside from what that would do for the pickle industry, it is a remarkable way to look at how we live.

So there you have it.  Three Mantras, and that's just off the top of my head.  And I haven't even gotten to God yet.  Avinu Malkenu, or the Sh'ma, for instance, force us to confront our beliefs about what metaphor for divinity and holiness works best for us, about how we can listen attentively enough to hear that Still, Small Voice speaking to us. Oh yes, and there's the shofar, whose mantra like soundings (100 blasts each day) can't help but stir us from our lethargy.

 "Can We Judge Ourselves?"
"Know thyself." - Socrates
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. -- Tao Te Ching
One of the secrets of life is to be honestly who you are. Who others want you to be, who you used to be, and who you may someday become ... these are fantasies. To be honestly who you are is to give up your illusions and face today with courage.  -- Bill Purdin
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning to work on becoming yourself. -- Anna Quindlen
Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices. -- Benjamin Franklin
We know what we are, but know not what we may become. -- William Shakespeare

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-- Tao Te Ching

The most common sort of lie is the one uttered to one's self. - Nietzsche
The remarkable thing is that we really do love our neighbors as ourselves; we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate oursleves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. It is not love of self but hatred of self which is at the root of the troubles that afflict our world. -- Eric Hoffer: U.S. Writer

1. Think about yourself.
2. Talk about yourself.
3. Use "I" as often as possible.
4. Mirror yourself continually in the opinion of others.
5. Listen greedily to what people say about you.
6. Expect to be appreciated.
7. Be suspicious.
8. Be jealous and envious.
9. Be sensitive to slights.
10. Never forgive a criticism
11. Trust no one but yourself.
12. Insist on consideration and respect.
13. Demand agreement with your own views on everything.
14. Sulk if people are not grateful to you for favors shown them.
15. Never forget a service you may have rendered.
16. Be on the lookout for a good time for yourself.
17. Shirk your duties if you can.
18. Do as little as possible for others.
19. Love yourself supremely.
20. Be selfish.

This recipe is guaranteed to be infallible.

-- Gospel Herald.

Four Steps of Repentance

Teshuva is actually a process of self-evaluation and self-improvement. The Rambam enumerates four primary steps to the teshuva process:
1. Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
2. Verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.
3. Regret the action. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or others.
4. Determine never to repeat the action. Picture a better way to handle it
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Photos from Omaha Beach

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jake Rosner on Ki Tavo

Shabbat Shalom!
Those of you who know me know that I have a real interest in history and geography.  I love to learn about different cultures and countries all over the world.
So it was a nice coincidence that my portion begins with a history and geography lesson.
Back in ancient Israel, farmers would bring their first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem and when they presented them, they would recite a formula that begins with the words: “My father was a wandering Aramean…”
This verse takes the history of the Israelites from their roots in what is now Iraq and describes their adventures in Egypt as slaves; leading up to the Exodus, their wanderings in the wilderness of Sinai and eventually to their final destination – the land of Israel.
The early history of the Jewish people was one of wandering and persecution – and a key lesson of that history is to appreciate having found a home, and to be sympathetic to the needs of strangers – or others who are persecuted.
The geography part is to appreciate the chance to cultivate a land rich in produce with ample water.  The whole reason they went to Egypt in the first place was because of a famine, something not uncommon in that part of the world.
These historical and geographical lessons teach us, then, to be sensitive to those who are suffering, as well as to appreciate the bounty of a good harvest with enough water to survive.  That’s why the farmers made that presentation when bringing their first fruits.
You can learn a lot about a nation from its particular history and geography. 
For example, I’ve always been interested in North Korea.  From their geography, we learn that they also have lots of famines.  So no food, no water, and the people are totally isolated.   Add to that, they have little education (except for those in the capital city), no money and no hope.  You can’t cross into South Korea – the DMZ is arguably the most militarized border on earth.  And China controls their northern frontier and if anyone tries to escape their, they end up in prison camps.
Or take Germany and Japan.  They are two of the most powerful military forces in the world.  But their history has taught them important lessons about what can happen when you go too far.  So they are very reluctant to use force.
Poland is weak and for centuries it has been like a ping pong ball being squeezed by Germany and Russia.  That history has shaped them as a nation.
And take the nation of Malawi, in Africa.  My mitzvah project involves assisting the people of that country with medical supplies.  You can make a donation at https://www.gofundme.com/jakesmalawiproject.
Why did I choose Malawi?  Well, for one thing, it’s one of the poorest countries on earth, so the need is very great.  But it is also easy to send supplies there, because there is no major conflict going on currently in the area.  It’s located in southeast Africa, with Zambia on the west, Mozambique on the east and south and Tanzania on the north.  These are all pretty peace-loving countries.   The people are known as the “heart of Africa,” both in that that they are close to the middle of the continent and because they are kindhearted.  Their flag has a sunset – they have beautiful sunsets.  The people there, from what I’ve heard, are kind and warm.  That’s why I chose to help the people of Malawi.

So you can see how we can learn about a nation from its history and geography.  As I become a bar mitzvah, I hope to use my interest in these subjects to help make the world a better place.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for Sept. 8


The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored by Elisa Rosner in honor of her son, Jacob, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat shalom!

Mazal tov to Jake Rosner on his becoming Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  Our Parsha Packet for the portion Ki Tavo discusses Simon Wiesenthal's classic symposium "The Sunflower," a perfect topic for this season of introspection and forgiveness.  Preview it here. 

Along those same lines, click here to see our prior packet, "Can We Judge Ourselves?"  
Something else that came across my desktop this week, a gift from the Hartman Institute and the State of Israel: In the Gates of Jerusalem: Reflections on the Eternal City for High Holidays.

Comings and Goings

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, בְּבֹאֶךָ; וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה, בְּצֵאתֶךָ
"Blessed are you in your coming in and in your going out"


Goodbye, Antonio; Hello David and Beth!

The above quote from this week's Torah portion (Deut. 28:6) is perfect for this weekend of comings and goings, After nine years of diligent service, Sunday will make the final day here for Antonio Avilos, who has been part of our maintenance team and TBE family since 2008.  He'll be returning to Colombia to open a restaurant.  

In a religious institution like ours, anyone on the staff is a a de facto educator, modeling, especially for our children, the values that we all cherish.  Antonio has done that to perfection.  He, along with Alberto Eyzaguirre (who has been here longer than I have), often faces inordinate pressure to accomplish so much in so little time.  Yet Antonio and Alberto pull it off so magnificently, and always with a smile.  Their work, so indispensable, is also often underappreciated.  It was a pleasure to bring them front-and-center to the bima during this year's cantor's concert honoring the Landers.  We had a staff lunch to thank Antonio last week; if you see him this weekend, let him know how grateful you are!

Antonio's successor just began working here this week.  His name is David (pronounced the Hebrew way, Da-VEED) Jimenez.  Please make sure to give him a warm TBE welcome when you see him in the building.  And also make sure to welcome Beth Silver, who is providing administrative support in several areas, including our education department.  Of course Beth has been a valued part of the TBE family for many years.

Best of luck to Antonio in his new venture - can't wait to book a table on Yelp!

Hello, 25 Years....


Speaking of comings and goings, it seems like just yesterday that I arrived here.  In fact, it was 30 years ago last month.  But since I was assistant rabbi for the first five years, my installation as senior rabbi of Temple Beth El occurred only 25 years ago - and the anniversary of that event is this Monday (Sept 11, 1992 - little did we know at that time how significant that date would be).  

Here is the program that was handed out that night.  Past President Alan Kalter chaired what was a most memorable evening.  A feature of the program was when representatives of many different groups within the congregation came up to the bima to present "offerings" of new siddurim that had just been acquired. Part of my "first hundred days" strategy was to finally move on from the old Silverman siddur; that along with not standing for the Sh'ma and ending the practice of having  the Men's Club having chicken dinners at Pelliccis.  I was very ambitious! In the photo above you can see Jill Rothkopf and Josh Donner, who were to become my "first" b'nai mitzvah as senior rabbi the following day.   So yes, Jill and Josh have a 25th anniversary to celebrate this weekend too!

The event was also videotaped, and you can see videos from that evening by clicking here.  Some other significant videos from my early years here are also found on that page.  Below are some more screen grabs from that evening.  See who you can recognize.


"Blessed be you in your coming and in your 
About DACA...

At the rally supporting Dreamers 

And while we celebrate this week the comings and goings of those who are making choices as to where they will live, many are very concerned about the fate of the Dreamers, those who have lived in America for most of their lives, pay taxes and contribute to this country in so many ways, who are now being callously threatened with deportation to places they have never known.  I am proud to have been at Mill River Park on Tuesday to show my support, along with other religious and civic leaders. I will continue to stand up for the defenseless and innocent, as our sources compel us to do, not simply because we are commanded to "love the stranger,' - although the Torah does say that 36 times.  But in fact, DACA recipients are, culturally speaking, every bit as American as you and me.  They are not strangers.  They do not deserve to feel so threatened in their own homes.  We should embrace them because, in so many ways, their story is our story too.

Read "Top Ten Facts about DACA and Dreamers" (from the Bipartisan Policy Center)

Read about the Atlit camp in Israel, where Jews, desperate and homeless following the Holocaust, were rounded up and detained by the British after being caught trying to immigrate illegally to Palestine in the '40s.  Many of them were deported to Cyprus (think Ari Ben Canaan) while others were forced to go back to the very places in Europe that had devoured their families.

Read how, back in the '40s, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Palestine "because they did not want too many of them in New York."  (It's been rumored that Bevin wanted to build a wall around Palestine and have the Haganah pay for it).

Read how Israel today is facing a migrant / asylum crisis that the government is handling in a controversial manner.

If any group should have compassion for the Dreamers, it is the Jewish people, we who know all about that knock on the door.

Our First Shabbat-in-the-Round
By Irma Ross

At the end of August, we experienced our first Shabbat-in-the-Round, a milestone event described below in this report compiled by Irma Ross, who has been instrumental in spearheading this project.  We are so grateful for Irma's positive energy and drive.  As we await with deep concern the predicted arrival of Hurricane Irma on the American mainland, be assured that this Irma and that Irma have nothing in common!

TBE's first Shabbat In the Round for 2017 was a wonderful spiritual, uplifting service and experience thanks to the beautiful music of Cantor Fishman with her gentle guitar playing and spiritual insights, the thought provoking teachings of Rabbi Hammerman, and the participation of the 45 people who came to pray together.

The schmooze portion (with coffee and) before services eased us into a warm and inviting space.

The informal setting, including pillows on the floor, allowed everyone an opportunity to be comfortable, and feel "at home."    It also allowed for some organic questions and discussion, and probing of the Torah portion.

Even the folks who are 'traditionalists" found the experience to be meaningful and loved the music added to the service.

Some feedback from the participants:

"What a wondrous idea to change things up and keep the Shabbat experience fresh.  The more informal setting provided connection and a spirit of community--a sense and a feeling we sometimes take for granted."

"I appreciated the special added prayers--they were refreshing and soul stirring."

"It was very spiritual and meaningful.  The readings and music were beautiful and appropriate.  I look forward to next time, and plan to tell others and encourage them to come."

"I loved the participatory nature and the communal feeling engendered by the service."

"I enjoyed the informal sitting in the round.  It enabled us to see each other and encouraged more participation. I liked the new prayer pamphlet--it was easier to follow. 
 I also like the group aliyot--it made it easier for people to come up to the bimah.  I'd like to see more of this format even with possibly having our traditional service in the round."

"I so appreciate all the work that went into making this service happen.  Can't wait for the next one!"

Please join us for our next Shabbat in the Round on Dec. 9th!

As we approach the High Holidays, some guidance on soul searching
From "Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice"
by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

For someone to write a sefer, is more than to say they've written a "book." A sefer is an enduring gem of Jewish significance and one such was written in 1812 by Rabbi Mendel of Satanov. He created a new approach to the practice called Heshbon HaNefesh, "Accounting of the Soul." Reb Mendel teaches a 13-step program of journaling, self reflection, and planned personal change. Heshbon HaNefesh is a helpful method for those who choose to take on the Yom Kippur practice of feeling yourself participating in a Divine review of your ethical actions. Being only human, you will have errors on your record, and so it helps to have a sense that you will earn "extra credit" in your examination by showing a record of sincere efforts at introspection and personal change.

In order to be truly free, honest looking is needed into sensitive areas of self. This approach is not one of self-excoriation. Alan Morinis, author of Musar, explains: "We're seeking insight, so in a recording [journaling] practice you are to make note of what ever you see, positive, negative or neutral. That shifts this practice quite a bit towards a healthy pursuit of self-understanding as opposed to bare self reproach."

Dr. Gene Gendlin, author of Focusing, observes that to be able to undertake such a soul journey it is important to have something comforting to hold onto. Most likely, you can be even harder on yourself than others will be and you might want to find something real or conceptual to bring along that helps you be both tender and honest with yourself. What would be comforting for you? Bring it to your heart and let's continue.

Accounting of the Soul
While Reb Mendel and Alan Morinis are teaching the art of spiritual journaling, rather than replicate their work, here is another approach I've developed to Heshbon HaNefesh.

Equanimity. Ability to live in balance.
Tolerance. Growing pains lead to knowing gains.
Orderliness. Allocating time for living life fully with integrity.
Decisiveness. Acting promptly when your reasoning is sure.
Cleanliness. Modeling dignity in your ways and space.
Humility. Know you will always have much to learn and more opinions than answers.
Righteousness. Conducting your life such that you are trusted and respected.
Economic Stability. Safe guarding enough resources for yourself to live without debt.
Zeal. Living with gusto focused on purpose and care.
Silence. Listening and reflecting before speaking.
Calmness. Giving your needs and thoughts gently while being respectful and clear.
Truth. Speaking only what is fully confirmed in fact.
Separation. Focus on each strand in its own time, avoid multi-tasking.
Temperance. Eating and drinking for good health, not dangerous excess.
Deliberation. Pausing before acting, consider consequences, integrate heart and mind wisely.
Modest Ways. Eschewing crude, lewd and boastful mannerisms and practices.
Trust. Living in the spirit of knowing there is abundance in the universe and you are in the flow.
Generosity. Finding satisfaction in making much possible for others.

(Bold type, concepts of Reb Mendel, z"l; Regular type=interpretations of Reb Goldie)

First take any one of these qualities and reflect on its degree of presence and activity in your life.

(Next, you might sit with a friend, partner, class or child and discuss the quality. What are examples for it? Flesh out its meaning to you, find as many nuances of the quality as you can.

(Now, go into yourself and notice where in your body this quality resonates. The mind/body connection creates a short-cut to knowing. Is it lodged somewhere? Rather than thinking about the quality, listen to it, discover what your body knows about it. Then, take the information and gently set it before you and return to see if there is more, something new about this quality you can learn inside yourself.

(What is your desire with regard to this quality? Sit quietly with this question until a clear image forms, til you imagine a real probability. Invite strength and support for this intention from the great dynamic flow of all possibilities in creation.

The Path of Yom Kippur Preparation

Many think of Yom Kippur, known as the "day of atonement," as the annual day of repentance. Actually, each Yom Kippur is the apex of one year's cycle of serious self reflection. Judaism is bullish on humanity, passionate about our in-born ability to change for the better. And, it only makes sense that it would require far more than one day to fine tune your life for rebirth at a more expanded level for the next year. 

Accordingly, there are many days in the calendar where incremental Heshbon HaNefeshwork is traditionally practiced: Thursday evenings as part of lifting soul shmutz in preparation for Shabbat; every day (except Shabbat) of Elul, the month which precedes the High Holy Days. Some also observe Yom Kippur Kattan, "Little Yom Kippur," on the day before each new moon, and as Reb Mendel suggests, it is most effective when engaged in nightly.

The high holy day experience is often reported to be intensified in value and meaning for those with a regular Heshbon HaNefesh practice. Why? Because instead of leaping out of daily life and into the holidays, you will arrive prepared.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman