Friday, April 20, 2018

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Evan Roth on Tazria Metzora

Shabbat Shalom!

    Thank you all for coming as I become a bar mitzvah today.  
    As you may have guessed,| I am the one who got stuck with the portions about leprosy.
    Actually, Tazria and Metzora are very important portions because illness and healing are very essential topics, both in biblical times and today.  My parshiot teach us some important lessons about how to care for those who are the most vulnerable because they are not well. For instance, it’s important to try to keep people from feeling isolated. It was the Cohen’s role not only to treat the illness, but to reconnect the person back into society.  Healing, in the Torah, is about more than finding a cure. It’s also about extending a helping hand and giving people a sense of love and dignity.
    In a way, it’s sort of fitting that this is my portion, because as you may or may not know, my cousin Brad, who is my age, was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago.
He has been through tough chemotherapy and radiation making it a difficult year.  So today, I’m sharing my bar mitzvah with him.
    Also, my aunt Ali was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when she was a teenager.  In both my aunt and cousin’s honor, I am dedicating my Mitzvah Project to them.
    For my Mitzvah Project, I raised over $6,000 to support Pet Partners, which trains therapy dog  for people who are suffering from illness or otherwise in need. The money  will help Pet Partners train 63 therapy dogs teams. Each dog visits a number of people, at nursing homes, hospitals and at homes.
    When hospitalized kids see therapy dogs, it brings them joy and excitement. When therapy dogs visit my cousin, it takes his mind off of how he’s feeling. I'm a dog-lover, and truly understand the joy, excitement, and love that dogs bring. I baked homemade dog treats for some of the therapy dogs at Stamford Hospital.
    I've been baking since I was 2 years old and have loved it from the beginning. I have a huge passion for baking and dogs, so I think it's the perfect Mitzvah Project, especially for my Torah portions.
    One thing that Judaism emphasizes is that illness should not be seen as a punishment.  In ancient times, people couldn’t understand why someone would randomly get sick so they sometimes saw it as a punishment from God.  In truth, sometimes illness has to do with our actions, like when we go out into the freezing cold without a coat.  But for the most part, it may have something to do with genetics, but it’s basically random - and it’s not a punishment.
    In Metzora even houses get sick, which the rabbis claimed was a sign that there is no peace in the home – Lo shalom bayit - something that’s never a problem between me and my sister!
    So I hope you can see that even though my portions can be a little depressing, their message is very meaningful - and powerful. Everyone is human and should be treated with dignity. As I become a bar mitzvah today, I hope that I can help make the world a more loving and respectful place

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for Yom Ha'atzmaut

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Dana and Stuart Roth, in honor of Evan's Bar Mitzvah

Drones (peaceful ones) above Jerusalem, tonight

Shabbat Shalom! 

Happy Yom Ha'atzmaut and an early Shabbat Shalom! Mazal tov to Evan Roth, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.
As we celebrate Israel's 70th, we are overwhelmed by memories, reflections and feelings, a sensation not so different from how you feel when you get off the plane for the first time at Ben Gurion. The light is blinding, the sights, sounds and smells so powerful and multifaceted.  Beyond the cynicism and partisanship, there is something pure and thrilling about the realization of a 2,000 year old dream.  
Many American Jews are conflicted about Israel, and for good reason. It is troubling that so many feel like second class Jews at our sites and that human rights organizations like the New Israel Fund are being demonized by a government that bows down to, among others, the Haredim, 83 percent of whom don't even celebrate Independence Day
But that's the view on the ground.  This evening's ceremony on Mt Herzl began by imploring us to take the long view - to look down from the mountains.  Herzl himself did that, and fittingly for Hi Tech Nation. the show's climax was when 300 Intel drones lit up the Jerusalem sky  with Herzl's face, so that Mr. Zionism himself would get to judge his life's work from a thousand feet up.
If you feel that Israel has veered from the correct path, my advice is this: register your concern.  That is also the recommendation of Don Futterman, whose column I've pasted into the bottom of this Shabbat-O-Gram. His points are well taken. We can and should speak out.  

But in the end, as the song goes, "En li Eretz Acheret," there is no other Jewish state to fall back on.  Israel is the only Jewish state we've got.

En Li Eretz Acheret

So if you are discouraged that Israeli leaders no longer seem to care about you and question your loyalty, know that we are all stakeholders in this once-in-a-millennium project.  Israel is the Jewish magnum opus;   I own a piece of it (and have the tree certificate to prove it) and so do you.  Don't let anyone disenfranchise you.  We're all part of the conversation.  For American Jews, America is our home. But Israel is our canvas.  The former is where we live our lives.  The latter is where our lives will have mattered - or not - a millennium from now.  

The view from 30,000 feet is quite different, and an anniversary like this one requires that we look down from that height to fully recognize what a miracle Israel is, and what an opportunity it represents for the Jewish people to contribute mightily to the future of a desperate and fragile world.  That contribution is already happening. 
Here's a list of 70 reasons to admire Israel just from the past year.  The Startup Nation is great at inventing things.  So what's to say that they won't be able to invent peace?  New ideas are coming forth all the time.  No less an authority than author AB Yehoshua came up with an alternative to the two state solution in Ha'aretz today.
I asked the congregation to share reflections on what they love most about Israel. Here are a number of replies that I received. I'll keep adding to this as more replies come in. Scott Allen shared an amazing list 70 things he loves about Israel. A few examples:
58) shaking my head in amazement at the aggressiveness of Israeli drivers
59) trying to understand Israeli politics
60) eating bourekas right from the oven of small bakeries
61) the feel of brand new Israel currency
62) walking thru parts of the Old City in Jerusalem
63) checking out European fashions that are in Israel but haven't made it to the States yet
64) feeling the joy of being in a country where Jews are the majority
65) seeing how tikkun olam is practiced by so many average citizens and how important it is to them...
To each of them I say, "AMEN!" See the rest of Scott's list here.
In June, God willing, I'll be bringing a group of over 20 people from our congregation for a two-week Israel adventure.  I was just there several weeks ago and can't wait to go back.  BTW, for those in the group - your homework assignment is to devour this Israel tourism brochure - and while you are at it, maybe check out some of these these restaurants
This group will consist primarily of those who have never been to Israel or last went there many years ago.  While reservations are officially closed, there may still be space.  As of last week, our hotels and flight still had room. If you have always wanted to go and have put it off, there is no better time than now. Check out our itinerary and registration details here - and let me know if you would like to join us from June 24 - July 8.
Israel is many things for people - but most of all, it's family.  To experience that sense of family more fully, you need to go there.  But for the moment, the video below will suffice - it's gone viral, and it is spectacular

Happy 70th, Israel!  We'll continue the celebration at services this Friday night and don't miss our Mediterranean Shabbat next week!


This weekend is also Earth Day.  Given the swirling events of these turbulent times, we can't forget the increasing intensity of that turbulence is partially due to unchecked, human caused climate change.  As we reflect on the fragility of our earth, here's a noted passage about our earth, followed by a Jewish prayer:

Hashivenu Yahh elecha v'nashuva, hadesh yameinu kekedem.
Let us return, help us repent,
You Who Breathe all Life;
Breathe us, Breathe us,
Breathe us into a new path-
Help us, Help us,
Help us Turn to a new way of living
Make-new, Make -new, Our world of life intertwining -
Splendor, beauty, joy in our love for each life-form - Tamara Cohen

Here's Don Futterman's Ha'aretz article:
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

70 @ 70: Reflections on Israel by TBE Congregants

70 Things We Love About Israel

Fridays in Jerusalem:  there are so many different ways the people of Jerusalem celebrate and observe Shabbat.  What unites them all is that feeling you get walking around Jerusalem on a Friday with everyone running around getting ready for Shabbat.  Love feeling that there really is an end to one week and a beginning to the next one. – Leon Shapiro 

One of the most impressive and memorable things from our last trip to Israel was the time we spent at Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute of Environmental studies where they train young men and women from Israel, the US, the West Bank and Jordan on regional agricultural issues and techniques.  The students live and work together and develop friendships outside their normal circles.  Special teams also come in for training from across Africa.  Among the many notable accomplishments there is the Methuselah Date Palm, a male from a 2000-year-old seed that was successfully germinated about 10 years ago.  They now have a few young females that have germinated and within a few years will know what the local dates tasted like back then.  - Bob and Susan Friedman

The incredible abundance of flowers in the Spring. – Barbara Brafman

From Donna Wolff:

I love that so many Israeli's know how to sing in perfect harmony!
I love how it's different every I time I go!
I now have my favorite niece ( the challah)  there and will visit more often. We are Skyping next week!

One of my favorite things was always that the ONLY word for Saturday is שבת.
Susan Schneiderman 
Scott Allen adds 70 of his own!
1) the relative peace and quiet of Jerusalem on Shabbat
2) the chaos of Mahane Yehuda on Friday as people shop for Shabbat
3) the view from the Haas Promenade, especially on a Shabbat afternoon
4) hummus from P'nati in Jerusalem
5) lunch in Abu Gosh
6) the Tel Aviv beach on the weekend
7) all the great photo shots from either Mahane Yehuda or Tel Aviv market
8) sunrise in Jerusalem
9) sunrise from the top of Masada
10) springtime in the North
11) jumping into the pools at Ein Gedi during a hot summer day
12) the underwater aquarium at Eilat
13) walking through the art galleries in S'fat
14) movie watching and then dinner in Emek Refayim
15) leisurely coffee at Aroma by the Shuk, with fresh pastry from a nearby vendor
16) the smell of fresh pita right out of the oven
17) the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv at night
18) the air show on Yom Ha'atzmaut from a hotel balcony in Tel Aviv
19) seeing all those Israeli flags waving in the wind
20) the eerieness of stopping a car in the middle of a highway to stand in silence as the siren blares for Yom Ha'Zikaron
21) landing at the airport in Tel Aviv and the feeling of being home
22) eating really good falafel or shwarma any time of the day or night
23) discovering and trying out all those homemade ice cream and gelato shops
24) going to different synagogues every Shabbat
25) not knowing which way to face during the Amidah because of being in Jerusalem
26) the sound of Hebrew being spoken everywhere
27) the beauty of Israeli women
28) breakfast at a hotel or b&b
29) the history that is a part of every stone, grain of sand, or amazing view
30) the signs in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Russian
31) the occasional misspellings on those signs
32) the technology that comes out of Israel that is used everywhere, is so useful, and often not known as an Israeli product
33) the diversity found in Israeli hospitals
34) celebrating a major holiday in Jerusalem
35) driving or walking in the Ramon Crater
36) the taste and crunch of fresh fruits and vegetables that haven't been grown to withstand long trips from distant farms or countries
37) all those small appetizer dishes that precede lunches or dinners
38) holiday preparations taking place everywhere
39) being with family and friends
40) the great museums
41) bougainvillea growing on the sides of buildings
42) Jerusalem stone
43) the respect given to soldiers who have died in various battles or combat situations
44) the numbers of stones placed on many headstones by loved ones
45) really strong coffee
46) the sheer number of small shops
47) improving my understanding of spoken Hebrew the longer I am there
48) the sound of the wind whistling through the Judean hills
49) imagining the ancient battles that took place there
50) being in the North
51) being in the South
52) being in cities
53) being in small villages
54) swimming in the Mediterranean
55) swimming in the Red Sea
56) swimming in a rooftop pool in Tel Aviv
57) driving a car and managing to get to my destination without getting into an accident
58) shaking my head in amazement at the aggressiveness of Israeli drivers
59) trying to understand Israeli politics
60) eating bourekas right from the oven of small bakeries
61) the feel of brand new Israel currency
62) walking thru parts of the Old City in Jerusalem
63) checking out European fashions that are in Israel but haven't made it to the States yet
64) feeling the joy of being in a country where Jews are the majority
65) seeing how tikkun olam is practiced by so many average citizens and how important it is to them
66) seeing all those plastic bottle recycling containers scattered about
67) feeling so relaxed
68) the memories from days gone by and of the people I shared them with
69) amazement at how many dogs and cats there are
70) the longing to return

And this personal recollection by Chris Maroc:

My grandmother, Pola Weinbach Hoffmann Stout was a well established international textile designer.  She was educated by Josef Hoffman at the Kunsgewerbe Schule and then at the Weiner Werkstatte in Vienna.  She married his son, Wolfgang Hoffmann and they came to NYC in 1925 opening an architecture and design business.  She met my grandfather, author Rex Stout, in 1932, at which time she began designing textiles.  She designed exclusively for Hollywood and international designers, such as Adrian, Irene, Edith Head, Pauline Trigere, Mainboucher, Bonnie Casin, Muriel King, Valentina, and others. 

My grandmother was good friends with Ruth Dayan, Moshe Dayan's (Minister of Foreign Affairs; Minister of Defense; Minister of Agriculture) wife.  In 1968 my grandmother and I went to Israel as she was invited by Ruth Dayan to educate students and exhibited her textiles (several attached) at the Maskit fashion house. Founded by Ruth Dayan, Maskit is an Israeli fashion house founded in 1954, the countries first fashion house. Maskit produces textiles, clothing, objects d'art and jewelry.  In the early years of the state, when government was seeking work opportunities for new immigrants to Israel, Ruth Dayan realized that many of them were skilled in decorative arts.  The concept of Maskit was to take modern European patterns and combine them with ethnic embroiderty.  Maskit enjoyed worldwide success in the 1960's, with clients that included Audrey Hepburn. Maskit employed over 2000 people in the 1960s, with 10 stores in Israel and one in New York.  Maskit garmets were sold by Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

I have fond memories of this trip.  Ruth Dayan was a lovely human being.  Though,  Moshe Dayan frightened me with his appearance and guardedness. 

This was my one trip to Israel.  I was quite young and do hope to return. Soon. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Malkam Sabloff on Shmini

For most kids, when they think of their favorite childhood memory, it usually takes place at a baseball game, or, for the other half of you, a hockey game, or a celebration of some sort.  But for me, my favorite childhood memory took place when I was about eight years old, at, of all places, the allergist.

My mom had prepared eggs at home and brought them in a little purple container, and in front of my doctor, I took my first real bite of eggs.  I ate a little bit – and we waited. Then a little more, and we waited. In all, we were there for over three hours. And in the end, the doctor declared me allergy free.  My last remaining food allergy had cleared up.

Since birth, I had been unable to eat eggs, soy, wheat and dairy.  On the other hand, I could eat peanuts! It was bad. I had to carry my own snacks to parties. For 8 years my mom had to bake egg free hallah for me.  My family would buy a regular hallah and I would just have a roll. One time my mom, after learning how to bake without eggs, made an eggless hallah and said, “We’re all going to eat it together.”  For the first time, I was not separate with my roll. I cried.

So I’ve come to appreciate food in a special way.  

It’s fitting that my portion of Sh’mini contains the laws of Kashrut, explaining how the act of eating can help us to live holy lives.  My portion tells us which kinds of animals are considered acceptable. For instance, a cow is kosher, a lion is not. By the way, breaking news: bacon is not kosher.  

But kosher is not just about what you can or can’t eat.  It’s about acting with kindness toward animals and having reverence for life.  Kosher animals have to be killed painlessly. Also, these laws help us to understand that we are what we eat.  We don’t eat birds of prey, like vultures or eagles, because eating then would make us more violent. We tend to eat docile animals like chickens, or cows.

At my house we say, “food is medicine.”  We have to be mindful of what we put into your body and its impact on us.  I learned that from my allergies.

There’s also a social element to kashrut.  All the holiday foods bring families together, as we just saw with our Passover Seders.  Cooking and mealtime at my house are very important.

Dinner is my favorite time of day. I’ve even prepared our family dinner with my brother several times.  Eating together is very important for my family. It’s always been a priority. No TV is in the room, no phones are allowed at the table.  I savor these meals – in fact, I’m always the last to leave the table.

Speaking of the table, in my house, it’s all about the table. The table is so important in my house, that we switched the living room with the dining room so that we could make room for a bigger table.

So the dining room has become the room where we spend the most time.  Our lives revolve around it. It’s where my day begins and where my favorite part of the day happens. Several times a week, my family hangs around the table after meals to play board games.  

Because of my history of allergies, when I go to a new restaurant, I sometimes get nervous about the food.  In fact, I get nervous about a lot of things. A lot of people in my family get nervous! But for me, it’s something I’ve been fighting for a long time.  So for my Mitzvah Project, I chose to sell bracelets with individualized messages for people – words to comfort and inspire them. They are called “My Intent” bracelets.  I’m going to be creating each bracelet made to order. The proceeds of this mitzvah project will go toward the Cystic Fibrosis Walk. My family has been participating in it for the last several years.

So I hope you all now understand why food is so important both to me and in the Torah.  As they say, “Noshing is sacred.”

Your tax return is a sacred document

Your tax return is a sacred document

(RNS) — April 17 is Tax Day in the U.S. We get a two-day reprieve this year because April 15 — the traditional day — was on a Sunday and April 16 is Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C., a legal holiday commemorating the 1862 signing of the Emancipation Act by President Abraham Lincoln. It’s also Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts and Maine.
So we have an extra couple of days to reflect on what Ben Franklin considered the only certainty of our world (along with death). Taxes have never been popular, and recently they’ve been castigated and chopped with particular glee by Congress and the White House. My purpose here is not to debate that tax cut, nor to discuss the merits and demerits of supply-side economics, but rather to focus on the bright side of paying taxes.
For not only does Jewish tradition acknowledge the importance of taxes, we have an entire Shabbat devoted to them. We call it Shabbat Shekalim, one of four special pre-Passover Sabbaths reminding us to prepare our homes, hearts and municipal institutions for the upcoming holiday. Millennia ago, one way that was accomplished was through the annual gift presented to the national treasury to support the Temple sacrifices.
The fact that Shabbat Shekalim always comes in late winter, around the time when I need to be reminded to get my own taxes in order, is one way that I have tried to imbue the secular calendar with the rhythms of Jewish sacred time. It also reminds me that the giving of taxes is in itself a sacred activity. Corny as it seems, I improvise a blessing when I put my completed tax forms in the mail, realizing that this money is going to help people who are in need, which helps my nation to maintain a position of moral leadership — plus, a good chunk of this money also helps to preserve Israel’s security.
If you’re looking for a blessing to recite, take a peek at the Birchot HaShachar, the morning blessings recited in the daily liturgy. Almost all of them work well for a tax blessing. (The Open Siddur Project offers a creative interpretation.) Our taxes provide food for the hungry, health care for the sick, housing for the homeless and shelter for the refugee, security for Israel, clothing for the needy, protection of the environment (“who spreads out the land upon the water”), a just penal system and freedom from fear of crime (“who releases the bound”), and an education system that teaches us to treat our neighbors with dignity and respect (“who created us in God’s image”).
I understand that people should be able to take advantage of incentives to reduce the tax burden.
That’s why God invented accountants. But tax evasion, whether by an individual or corporation, should be looked on with deep scorn. We pooh-pooh it by referring to it in benign terms, such as “white-collar crime,” rather than what it is, a direct violation of “Thou shalt not steal.”
In the Talmud, Samuel states “The law of the land is the law.” To which the ancient scholar Rava replies, “Observe that this must be true. For (the government) fells trees and builds bridges, and we cross them.”
Back then, it seems, they were able to pass an infrastructure bill.
The key here is that it is prohibited to cheat tax collectors unless the taxes are illegal — and the Talmud discusses those exceptional cases when they are illegal.
There is plenty of room for disagreement as to where our tax dollars should go. Some bemoan the ballooning deficit, while others feel the defense budget is bloated. For those who don’t have the time to read the recently passed 2,232-page omnibus spending bill, it’s important to know at least in general terms what’s in there. It’s also comforting to many that the bill emerged from genuine bipartisan compromise.
I’m not thrilled about everything my hard-earned dollars will be supporting, but I am a proud taxpayer nonetheless. That’s why it is so important that our moral leaders — who include our political and religious officials — set the example in rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. For politicians that means releasing their tax returns — and it goes without saying that it also means actually paying their fair share of income taxes — while working toward a more just system of taxation. For religious leaders it means encouraging their flock to pay up, and to set an example of paying taxes with gratitude rather than reluctance. That could even mean reciting a blessing when dropping that fateful envelope in the mail.
This year of all years, we need to look at our tax return as a sacred document. In doing so, maybe we can reimagine what the promise of America can mean for its own people — and the world. 
(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “ Seeking God in Cyberspace.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)