Friday, May 11, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 11





Scenes from our Religious School Mock Wedding and Lag B'Omer Family Fire Festival, both held last Sunday, and 7th graders burying sacred books at Beth El Cemetery yesterday, as part of their life cycle curriculum.  On bottom, our 6th graders unveiled their own hand-made tallises (tallitot), as they begin preparing for bar/bat mitzvah.  If you look closely, you'll see Red Sox and Yankee themed tallises, side by side!

See more photos by going to our Spring photo album and scrolling down.

Shabbat Shalom
...and Happy Mother's Day and Jerusalem Day!

This week is our annual Sisterhood Shabbat, and I look forward to sitting back and enjoying the service that our sisterhood members have prepared, and lunch a la mens' club.

In other congregant news, mazal tov to Sheryl Young who this coming week will receive the Hoffman award from the JCC, and to Joy Katz, who will become the JCC's new president.  Mazal tov once again to last week's bat mitzvah, Nora Amsellem, whose dvar Torah can be seen here. Also, mazal tov to Linda Simon - her story is online, along with those from dozens of women writing about cooking with their moms. Perfect for Mothers Day.  See it at  After you've read Linda's excellent piece, peruse around the site - perfect for this weekend.  And for some Jewish background, see my piece, What's So Jewish About Mother's Day?
This weekend is also Fair Trade Shabbat.  See the discussion packet on Judaism and Fair Trade that I prepared for last Shabbat morning's service.  Read more about World Fair Trade Day and Fair Trade Shabbat. 

Tibetan Prayer Flags at Boudhanath Temple
  in Kathmandu, Nepal last winter

Last winter when I traveled to Nepal, it was impossible not to notice Tibetan prayer flags flying everywhere, carrying their message of compassion, joy, long life, and prosperity.  Imagine writing a note at the Western Wall, but instead of placing it into a crevice, letting it fly freely in the wind.  That's what these personally-inscribed flags are like.

In the Tibetan tradition, prayers are carried on the wind. The Hebrew word for "wind" is "ruach", which is also translated as "spirit" or "breath," as if the blessings of our spirit are carried in the wind.  There is so much that we share.

As the Fair Trade Judaica website explains, this set of Jewish Blessing Flags celebrates seven key values in the Jewish tradition:

  • Ahavah (Love)
  • Rachamim (Compassion)
  • Chesed (Lovingkindness)
  • Shalom (Peace, Wholeness)
  • Refuah (Healing)
  • Kavod (Respect)
  • Tzedek (Justice)
The colors and imagery of the Blessing Flags are based on ancient Jewish tradition (Exodus 28:1-8, 33-34). The High Priest's garments were primarily blue, purple, and scarlet, and the tunic hem was adorned with embroidered bells and pomegranates. The hamsa (hand image) is a symbol of blessing and protection in many Near and Middle Eastern traditions, including Judaism. Also known as the "Hand of Miriam", it is often used for protection in amulets and other ritual items. Five (hamesh in Hebrew) represents the five books of the Torah.

The blessing flags were produced by Mahaguthi, a fair trade organization in Nepal, according to fair trade standards, which reflect Jewish values of economic justice, fair treatment of workers, environmental sustainability, and consumer responsibility.

These flags will eventually fly in our sukkah, but in honor of Fair Trade Shabbat, on Friday night they'll be on display in the lobby, to enrich our prayer experience, and to inspire is all to live lives of simplicity and goodness.

Jerusalem Day


Sunday is Jerusalem Day and next week, at long last, the American embassy in Israel will officially be moved to Israel's capital of Jerusalem.  Next week also marks the secular anniversary of Israel's independence, a date that is mourned by Palestinians as the "Nakba," - disaster.  One might argue that it's time for the Palestinians to "get over it," in which case I suggest that we stop commemorating Pearl Harbor Day and Tisha B'Av.  There are plenty of good reasons to commemorate catastrophes, not the least of which is that it can lead to positive soul searching on all sides.  It's hard to soul-search, though, when some parties are determined to stir things up, which is precisely what Hamas is planning to do on the Gaza border next week - and, sadly, it's what will be happening in Jerusalem too.  

Jerusalem Day, which commemorates that wondrous moment in 1967 when the Jewish people returned to our most sacred precinct, has already been abducted by those wishing to demonstrate an "in-your-face" slap at those who were vanquished.  I led a TBE group to Israel for Jerusalem Day way back in 1991, where we attended the opening ceremony for the Western Wall Tunnels.  That excavation is remarkable (and our group will go there next month), and in no way does it infringe on any Muslim or Christian holy site.  Minority religions remain free to worship as they wish in the Holy City (unless they happen to be Conservative or Reform Jews at the Kotel). But Jerusalem Day also includes an annual in-your-face parade of Jews through the Old City that has become needlessly provocative.  Because of Ramadan, last year's marchers were limited in the time they could spend taunting residents of the Muslim quarter.  Lets hope cooler heads prevail again next week.

So the question we must ask is whether the dedication of the new American Embassy adds more to Israel's sense of security or to this atmosphere of provocation, at precisely the time when things are most volatile.

Jerusalem Day marchers near Damascus Gate

During these weeks when we are looking back at my 30+ years of service here, it's timely to look at an op-ed I wrote for the Stamford Advocate in 1994 (see the article below), calling on Washington to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.  As I stated then, even though the Jerusalem's final borders would be determined by an Oslo process still in its infancy, Jerusalem's status as Israel's capital was non-negotiable.  I suggested that the time was right for President Clinton, who was about to visit the region, to give Prime Minister Rabin a "peace dividend" that would isolate extremist elements among the Palestinians and diminish growing resistance to the peace process among Rabin's Israeli opponents.

Imagine how history could have been changed had President Clinton taken that bold step to reward a friend - and remember, Israel had only recently "taken one for the team," in absorbing 39 Iraqi Scud missile during the Gulf War.  Perhaps this vote of confidence would have weakened the hand of Rabin's critics and boosted the morale of those willing to take large risks for peace. "America no longer needs to be an even handed broker," I said back in 1994, adding that a gesture of support toward an Israel bent on peace would send just the right signal to the Arab world.

Unfortunately, President Clinton did not choose that bold path in 1994, and the Oslo process begin to break down almost immediately after that.  Would things have been different?  Would the forces that led to Rabin's assassination the following year have been quelled?  Would Arafat have been chastened by such a strong show of support for Israel by the Americans?  We will never know.

As I wrote last December, the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem remains the correct one, but the timing remains wrong for a variety of reasons.  Those reasons have not changed, and in fact, they have become more pronounced.  Israel's need to assert itself to protect its northern border is a priority right now, as is the search for ways, ideally diplomatic, to diffuse the tinderbox in the south.  With instability increasing along Israel's borders (and whatever you think of the decision to back out of the Iran deal, it has created more instability, at least in the short term) we can only hope that some day soon, the promise of Jerusalem, as a city of peace and reconciliation, will be fulfilled.  

Next week's embassy photo-op  - it is hardly the "peace dividend" so richly deserved in 1994 - will do nothing to help us get there, especially when it will be displayed in concert with images of misguided celebrants, kicking sand in the faces of people who have called the place home for many generations.

In my mind I keep returning to the amazing concert I attended at the Jerusalem YMCA last Christmas Eve, where Israeli and Palestinian children together sang, in perfect harmony, "I'm gonna make this place my home."

Jerusalem is ours - and it should be.  But for everyone, it is home.

Video I took of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus singing "Home"

To honor Jerusalem Day, see a packet of historical maps and information on Jerusalem that I prepared for our Israel Adventure group, which departs June 24.


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Nora Amsellem on Emor

My portion of Emor includes a story about what can happen when someone’s emotions get a little out of control. In my Torah portion, two Israelites have an argument, and one gets really angry and swears at the other.

The Torah teaches us that words matter and what we say has consequences.  In this case, the consequences were extremely bad. The person who swore was stoned to death.

If everyone who took God’s name in vain were put to death these days, there would basically be no people left, as many people today use God’s name in vain. But the main message is still important. We should be thoughtful about what we say. The book of Leviticus draws a direct connection about the importance of what goes into our mouths, the Kosher laws, and what comes out. We need to control how we express our feelings and watch our words.

But, if these two Israelites had taken this advice, they wouldn’t have even swore in the first place. Because when I am feeling a little upset, down, or mad, I have a few solutions. First off, instead of losing control of my emotions, like the two Israelites, I like to think things through.  

First I think about what I did wrong, then I think about what I could have done better, and what I will do in the future. Then I think about what the other person has done, and decide how I will approach them next.

The next thing I do when trying to solve an argument is talk to a different person I trust. I do this to get advice from someone other than myself and to hear a different person’s opinion. There could be more than one correct way to do something, you may just have to find the best one. This is an extremely important strategy.

After I have thought things through, its always important to finish solving an argument by addressing it with the person you had it with. Even if it feels like it's not the best thing to do, it always means something to the other person when they see that you want to make up with them. If the Israelites had thought about it like I do, they would have resolved their problem. Instead of swearing at the other person, he could have apologized.

Also, sometimes when I’m upset, I just need to settle down and do something like have a drink of water. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are, and in some parts of the world, people don’t have the opportunity to pour themselves a drink of water.  

In many countries around the world, clean drinking water isn’t available to people and this may be hard for us to understand. But we all do understand that without clean water, you can’t survive.

That is why my mitzvah project is so important.  I chose Charity:Water because this organization brings people in developing countries clean drinking water. I’ve already raised more than my first goal of $1,800. I increased my goal to $2000, which I met over 3 weeks ago.  

At that point I decided to increase my fundraising goal to $3,000. I had met my goal over a week ago and fundraising is going strong. The amount of money I raised will provide clean drinking water to over 100 people. I know that people who benefit from our charity are very grateful and that this has helped improve their quality of life. Thank you to everyone has given thus far, and this means a lot to me. If you still haven’t donated you can find my campaign on the Charity:Water website by searching my name.

Water is such a precious resource and so scarce in areas where it is most needed. There have been - and still are - so many conflicts on the lack of clean drinking water, as people cannot survive without it.

So bringing it back to my d’var Torah, one can say that water might be the secret to keeping people happy, safe and make the world more peaceful.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 4


This Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Marni Amsellem and David Amsellem, in honor of Nora's becoming Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat. 

From last week's Sisterhood Fashion Show. Click here for the all the photos
Thank you to Stephanie Zelazny for the photography

Mazal tov to Nora Amsellem, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  Join us Friday night as well - and don't forget our Lag B'Omer Fire Festival this Sunday, along with our Men's Club Blood Drive.

The Band's Visit
This week, "The Band's Visit" received multiple Tony nominations and is seen as a favorite in several categories.  Last night, approximately 50 from TBE went to see it, as part of our new "Broadway Club," led by Cantor Fishman.  A great time was had by all.

See more photos from last night in our Spring Album - scroll down to the end.

Donna Wolff commented, "I loved this show! So poignant, sweet and heartwarming. Nice to see Arabs and Israelis be kind and human to each other. This how to welcome the stranger. Hope they win some Tony Awards."

Heidi Ganz, who helped to coordinate the event, called it "magical, entertaining, and beautiful!"  But even more than the show itself, "what everyone  was raving about was the warm feeling of togetherness!"   Cantor Fishman concurred, stating that what she loved even more than the show itself was "to look on the bus and restaurant and see people talking to each other."

Ironically, that is precisely what the show is about too.
I saw "The Band's Visit" last fall, right as it opened - and already was a big fan of the 2007 film on which the musical is based. But the addition of music makes the Broadway version even better.   It's the story of an Egyptian police band that gets sidetracked to a dead-end Israeli development town in the 1990s.  The acting is superb, the music spirited, the theme universal and the ambiance authentically Israeli.  

The overarching message is of overcoming difficulties in communication and developing authentic relationships. The premise of the show is a mix-up at the border that sends the band to Bet Hatikva, instead of Petach Tikva, "with a P."  English is the common ground where the Israelis and Egyptians meet, but it's also slippery ground for all of them, and the words never flow easily.  Audience members get to feel that first hand, as some of the dialogue is in Hebrew and Arabic, and goes untranslated.  BTW, understanding Hebrew - and Israeli culture - adds a whole new dimension to the experience of this play, and I assume that is the case with Arabic too.

In some ways, though, the communication issues are more acute among couples and families that have known each other for years in the town, who, in a literal sense, speak the same language, but really don't.   It's nice to see a show about Arabs and Israelis where not a word is spoken about territories, terrorism or anything remotely political.  

In the end, the languages that are truly universal are the ones that matter here the most: music and love.

Hebrew Expression of the Day: נסיגה לאחור

The expression means "backtrack," and we saw a number of examples of it this week, even a few that did not involve a certain former mayor of New York.

There was Mohammad Abbas, retracting one of the most blatantly anti-Semitic speeches ever given by a world leader.  There was Paul Ryan, reinstating the House Chaplain who had been unceremoniously dumped, for what appear to have been all the wrong reasons.  That one hit home for me.  Boy, people say synagogue politics can be brutal, but imagine having as your bosses 435 people serving in the most hyper-political, dysfunctional place around.  Kudos for Father Patrick J. Conroy for standing his ground and not allowing innuendo to trample upon his hard-earned reputation.

I hate it when my GPS inadvertently circles me back past my point of departure, but sometimes, once you've reached the destination, you realize that you were far better off at Square One. (Is it a mixed metaphor to use squares and circles in the same sentence?)  It's axiomatic that sometimes the best decisions are the ones never actualized.  But the corollary to that is true too.  Sometimes the best decision is the one where you walk back your prior decision.

Jews have another word for backtracking - it's called Teshuvah, and it's not just meant to happen around the High Holidays.  In fact, the High Holidays are discussed in this week's Torah portion of Emor, and we are half a year away!

It's the Torah's way of reminding us that it is never too late - or too soon - to back off false statements and come clean.  In order to move forward, it's perfectly fine to backtrack - as long as the goal is to, at long last, get it right.

Toyota, Auschwitz and Chelm

Here's another in my series of personal favorites from yesteryear, as we all celebrate 30 years together.  This article was written in 2010, just before I want to Poland for the first time.  One particular stop in our itinerary made me reflect on matters both ridiculous and sublime:


This week, I'll be joining the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage from Poland to Israel. The experience of the Holocaust stands alone in Jewish history, a godless counterpoint to all things sacred. Alongside the majestic peaks of Sinai and Zion, our view now includes this man-made mountain of children's shoes, empty luggage and echoing shrieks, a clump of human refuse that dwarfs everything around it, taller than Sinai, more imposing than Zion, more insurmountable than Everest.
As I prepare to face the enormity of Auschwitz for the first time, it occurs to me that since the Shoah, rabbis have become like Toyota salesmen. What, after all, are we selling, but a product once revered, but now proven to be a grand farce? The myth has been summarily detonated, the brand exposed. Just as "Made in Japan" now has reverted to its original derogatory, postwar meaning (cheap, fake, laughable), "Made at Sinai" now feels like its"Made in Japan."
Oh, we rabbis have been trained well. We've developed numerous diversionary strategies to refocus the question("Where was God? Well, where was man?") or simply to foster a perpetual state of denial ("We can't know God's ways"). Some have chosen to relinquish some of God's omnipotence, others go much farther. But for the most part, we focus on beating home the message that Judaism still has an important function to serve, even if there's a gaping hole under the chassis. Some deny that the hole exists, clinging naively to pre-Auschwitz fantasies. It is astonishing how many otherwise intelligent, modern, skeptical Jews buy this theological nonsense, slickly packaged by various ultra-Orthodox groups. But most rabbis, while not denying the seriousness of the challenge, prefer to set the questions aside, suggesting that maybe the next generation will solve the problem.
Over the decades, there have been brilliant attempts to deal with this dilemma. Some, like Richard Rubenstein's existentialist "After Auschwitz," have been powerfully honest. Such radical theologies proliferated in the '60s, during the so-called "Death of God" era. Since then, God has survived quite nicely, thank you, but those bold theologies have yellowed with age. The question of Auschwitz remains as vivid as ever, but after 65 years, we seem to be tiring of asking it.

It makes me wonder: If Toyotas never get fixed, but for 65 years company propagandists spew forth the message that the cars are really safe, will we start believing in them again? Will the producers just wear us down until we tire of asking the questions? That strategy seems to have worked with other products. Some people actually think that cable news is really news. Some Jews believe that the same God who was silent in Auschwitz actually caused Iraqi Scuds to miss their targets in Tel Aviv. The madness has worn us down.
Perhaps the antidote to such madness is a different kind of madness.
The day after we march on Auschwitz, my group will stop off on the way to Warsaw in a quaint town called Chelm, for Jews the eternal capital of absurdity. Chelmites are mythical Jews from a real town, known for their propensity to take logic to its bizarre extreme.
Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain.
"Quick," said one. "Open your umbrella."
"It won't help," said his friend. "My umbrella is full of holes."
"Then why did you bring it?"
"I didn't think it would rain!"
A New York-based klezmer group named Golem wrote a song recently about a Chelmite who leaves on a journey to Warsaw, gets lost and ends up back in Chelm. "He's so stupid that he thinks he's actually in Warsaw," bandleader Annette Ezekiel told "The moral is any place can be any place else - it doesn't matter where you are."
But for me, it will matter a lot. I'll be coming from Auschwitz, the darkest place in Jewish history, and then I'll be staying over in Chelm, the funniest. Chelm will be the place where I wash my hands after visiting this countrywide cemetery, a way station before I head to Jerusalem for the second part of the March.
Two points about Chelm. First, laughter provided a great outlet for those suffering from hunger, poverty and hatred, as the Jews of Poland did for so long. But rather than laugh at real people, the Jewish genius invented a mythical community to laugh at. Not only is that practical (as opposed to laughing at Poles, who might respond by killing you), it is far more ethical to make fun of fake people than real people.
Second, Chelm might hold the key to our getting beyond the theological quandaries of our age. If the commanding voice of Auschwitz has muffled the God of Sinai for the time being, maybe we need to pay more attention to the God of Chelm. The Yiddish aphorism, "Man plans, God laughs," just might be the most apt theological response to an age of absurdity. It's not that God is laughing at us; it's simply that God has taught us that laughter is the only way one can respond to a world of unfathomable evil and unspeakable tragedy, while clinging to life and dignity. Maintaining some semblance of sanity requires a modicum of insanity, an art we've been perfecting for centuries, ever since we figured out how a poor peasant living in rags could be transformed into royalty through the simple act of lighting candles, drinking wine and blessing hallah. The first Jewish kid, whose life was replete with tragedy, was nonetheless named laughter (Isaac). We've been re-living Isaac's story ever since.
Would you buy a used Toyota from this God? Perhaps not. But at least the divine gift of laughter gives us the courage to stare directly into that gaping hole in the chassis and laugh at the absurdity of it all, while gasping in amazement that, despite everything, we are alive.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Mensch•Marks Table of Contents

Introduction: Mensch•Marks

One - Work and Worship
Mensch•Mark 1– A Young Rabbi (…are exuberance and wisdom the product of one’s age?)
Mensch•Mark 2 – Gentleman’s Agreement (…afflicting the comfortable)
Mensch•Mark 3 – The Santa Suit: Do the Clothes Make the Rabbi? (…does appearance define us?)
Mensch•Mark 4 – Rising Above the Hate (…being more authentically loving by facing one’s enemy)
Mensch•Mark 5 – Saturday Morning Fever (…I’m sick; should I hug the Bat Mitzvah?)
Mensch•Mark 6 – Regaining Touch with Touching (…touching souls in a germophobic age)
Mensch•Mark 7 – Dancing Sheva (…the rhythms of sacred time)
Mensch•Mark 8 – Shedding the Baggage (… baring my soul before God)

Two - Loving and Letting Go
Mensch•Mark 9 – Fathers and Sons (…the power of parental presence)
Mensch•Mark 10 – The Dangling Knife (…at a son’s bris, the parent as sculptor – and shield)
Mensch•Mark 11 – Hugging, Blessing, Letting Go (…with every embrace there must be a release)
Mensch•Mark 12– Leaping with Angels (…choosing between my sick child and a dying congregant)
Mensch•Mark 13 –My Brother’s Keeper (…my brother’s disabilities and our intertwined destinies)
Mensch•Mark 14 – The Peter Panning of America (…can the past remain ever-present?)

Three – The Nobility of Normalcy
Mensch•Mark 15 – Living on the Back Pages (…holiness lies in the sacred pulse of daily life)
Mensch•Mark 16 – The Forbidden Oreo (…the snack we eat reveals the masks we wear)
Mensch•Mark 17 – The Invisible Fence (…the importance of setting behavioral boundaries)
Mensch•Mark 18– The Power Grid (…recognizing power’s limits – and potential)

Four - Pain and Perseverance
Mensch•Mark 19 – The Other Side of the Bed (…the healer as patient)
Mensch•Mark 20– Numb and Numb-er (…a rabbi’s job is not to numb the pain)
Mensch•Mark 21 – Goodness and Mercy (…finding my voice at my first funeral)
Mensch•Mark 22 – Over and Out (…in which I am asked to “out” a congregant at his funeral)
Mensch•Mark 23 – The Vale of Tears (…a condolence call to a place of unspeakable suffering)
Mensch•Mark 24 – The Towers (…the chutzpah to reach for the sky)

Five - Belonging
Mensch•Mark 25 – The Yarmulke Bin (…even beanies become souvenirs from Sinai)
Mensch•Mark 26 – Bar Mitzvah Nation (…what happens when “they like us, they really like us”)
Mensch•Mark 27 – My Father’s Huppah (…a Catholic Tevye.  Sounds crazy, no?)
Mensch•Mark 28 – Jews of the Jungle (…lessons from the cruel and supremely tranquil savannah)
Mensch•Mark 29 – The Wall and the Mall (…What makes a place “holy?”)
Mensch•Mark 30– Where Spring Forever Dwells (…recognizing that heaven is other people)
Mensch•Mark 31 – Kosher Pigs (…in religion hypocrisy can be a good thing)

Six – Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness
Mensch•Mark 32 – Crisis (…my greatest test of faith – and most lasting life lesson)
Mensch•Mark 33 – Championing Civility (’s impossible to avoid gossip, but essential to try)
Mensch•Mark 34 – “Do You Think I’m Evil?” (…the stain of hatred on the human soul)
Mensch•Mark 35 – Piercing the Heavens (…the purest form of prayer)
Mensch•Mark 36 –  The Good Swastika (…finding truth in all religions)
Mensch•Mark 37 – Going, Going Gone (… a baseball immortal and overcoming tribal loyalties)
Mensch•Mark 38 – Developing God’s Image (…God’s love glows from a human face)
Mensch•Mark 39 – From “I” to “Wii” (…overcoming selfishness as a key to happiness)
Mensch•Mark 40 – The God of Love (…my great grandfather and a legacy of unconditional love)