Thursday, May 23, 2019

Conversation with Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

JEWISH LIFE

Conversation with Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

“Mensch Marks” delivers a little wisdom for untethered times

By Stacey Dresner
STAMFORD – Rabbi Joshua Hammerman calls himself an “aspiring mensch.” 
Spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford for the past three decades, Hammerman has also served as president of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut and the Stamford Board of Rabbis, and as chaplain for the Stamford Police Department.
While he would never actually call himself a mensch – true mensches don’t lack that kind of humility, he points out – Hammerman has written a new book in hopes of inspiring others to to work on their humanity a bit, in these times of uncivil discourse and hatred.
Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi is a collection of 42 essays divided into sections such as “Work and Worship,” “Loving and Letting Go,” “Pain and Perseverance,” and “Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness” among others.
Rabbi Hammerman was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1983 after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a B.A. from Brown University. His journalism degree has come in handy – his column, “On One Foot,” has appeared regularly in The New York Jewish Week since 1994. His blog, On One Foot, is followed worldwide. 
He is the winner of the 2008 Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and the 2018 Religion New Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. He is a regular contributor to the Times of Israel, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Religion News Service and his personal essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. He is the author of thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace and co-author of the children’s book, I Have Some Questions About God.
Hammerman serves on the Rabbinic Leadership Council of the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a member of the faculty of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has been deeply involved in many Jewish think tanks, including JESNA’s Jewish Education 3.0 project, STAR-Tech and Synaplex.
Rabbi Hammerman spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his new book and his own goals of living a “more human” life.

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Your book is very timely, given the divisiveness that seems to be consuming the world. Did you write it in response to this sense of global upheaval or have you been contemplating writing a book on becoming a mensch for a while?
JOSHUA HAMMERMAN (JH): I think it is sort of all of the above. The essays and ideas and thoughts that have gone into this book have been part of a common thread of my whole rabbinate over the last three plus decades, so in one sense I started working on this many, many years ago. On the other hand, in trying to pull together all of those themes, it all seemed to keep coming back to the notion of being a mensch and what it means to be a mensch. My father literally told me, “Be a mensch” – so I have always felt that to be the essence of my own message.
Of course, you are dealing with a situation where the world is coming apart at the seams, especially morally, and Judaism has so much to offer along those lines, and my own experiences have so much to offer. So, it all came together.
 JL: Would you categorize this a self-help book? 
JH: Yeah, I think so…it’s not a direct how to…do this and you’ll be a mensch. Its more of a “walk with me” – not even “follow me” because I’ve always felt that rabbis or clergy are not shepherds leading the way, but in fact fellow travellers. So this is my journey. 
There are 42 short chapters – we call them Mensch Marks, sort of like bench marks of “menschiness,” which I know is corny but it fit well. The chapters correspond in a way to 42 stops that were made by the children of Israel on their way out of the wilderness as they headed from Egypt to the Promised Land. There were 42 stops noted at the end of the Book of Numbers and according to some authorities, like the Baal Shem Tov for instance, they correspond to 42 stages of a person’s life. 
So, however you look at it, for me they are stages of growth, but not necessarily chronological. I don’t necessarily think I am a better person than I was 30 years ago. But they are thematic. The way they are drawn out in the book is that you have different sort of themes that have been the focus at different times of my life.
 JL: You note in the chapter “Nobility of Normalcy” that one can be a normal person with a so-called boring life and that’s a good thing – that is mensch-like. Can you explain that?
JH: Yes, it’s been a key to Jewish survival over the centuries that it’s not always about what’s on the front pages. We spent about 2,000 years on the back pages of the newspaper. It’s the courage to do the little things, like get up in the morning, get married, have children, be kind, be careful, set limits and restrictions in your own life, sanctify one moment over another, etc. These are part of the essence of being Jewish, but also they are the kind of nobility that we should celebrate in a world that has gone so crazy.
It’s a way for each of us to find our own center; our own sense of purpose and that is done through just being grateful and showing appreciation and all of that.
 JL: What has the response to the book been thus far?
JH: It’s been out for about a month and I’ve been getting some really nice responses from the Jewish community but also from non-Jews as well. 
I think “mensch” is a word whose time has come. There are a lot of Yiddish words that have made it into English – like bagel, chutzpah, kvetch, things like that. Mensch needs to get up to that level where you don’t even think of it as a Yiddish word, where it is trending, where it is something that we are all striving to be. And I’m hoping that we can get there.
 JL: Is there anybody out there in public life whom you would like to send the book to? Someone who might benefit from working on his or her “menschiness?”
JH: There are a lot of names. More than one of my endorsers has said that every politician in America should read this and that every rabbi should read this. Senator [Richard] Blumenthal wrote a beautiful endorsement – he is a member of my congregation. So he also agreed that people in public life should read it. 
There comes a point at which rabbis and clergy have to take stands; they have to have principles. And so one of the aspects of being a mensch is to be able to call out, to speak truth to power directly, saying when things are wrong, and certainly there are things that are wrong right now. 
I have a very large congregation and it’s a big tent. There are people who don’t agree with me on every issue, so I need to be very respectful of them. But I think it is possible for a mensch, or an aspiring mensch, as I try to be, to both be civil and principled and chew bubblegum at the same time.

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 24: A Congregation that Hugs First and Asks Questions Later, End of Year Montage, "Field of Dreams" at 30, The Riderless Horse, Lag B'Omer and Memorial Day, A Eurovision Moment

Shabbat-O-Gram

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by 
Naomi and Marc Kinderman in honor of their son, Adam, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
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Scenes from end of year activities...
photos by Aviva Maller Photography, Dan Young, Kenneth Cohen and Jami Fener





 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 





For those 12th graders who weren't here last night for our sendoff and blessing, your gifts await you - please let us know if you are coming to pick them up.


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Shabbat Shalom!

 

Another crazy week out there - I'm beginning to feel that we all have become Bodexpress, that horse who ran the entire length of last week's Preakness without being guided by a rider (whom he threw off at the starting gate).  No rider, no GPS, no whip, nothin' but green grass and dirt, a bunch of harnessed friends running in servitude alongside, and the simple love of running free.  With his freedom came the terrifying reality (for the viewer, presumably not for him) that a single misstep could result in catastrophe.  And when the race ended for all the other horses, their workday done, this equine Forrest Gump just kept running for the sheer joy of it.  Bodexpress was born to run, he was reared to run, and when his day arrived, he was going to run, whip or no whip, rider or no rider.  And run he did.

One can look at our country - our world - as a horse without a jockey, a rudderless ship, which is a very scary thought.  Or, like Bodexpress, we can simply enjoy the ride.  

That horse just kept running.

And so must we.
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Mazal tov to Adam Kinderman, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  You can find Yael Everett's d'var Torah from last Shabbat here.

There is still time to plan to join me and over 15 of your fellow TBE congregants at the AJC's Global Forum on June 2-4. Read more about it and register here.  

Last week's Eurovision spectacular went off without a hitch in Tel Aviv.  Two weeks ago I wrote about the band Shalva, consisting of people with disabilities, who would have been Israel's representatives at the contest except that they would not perform on Shabbat.  Well, evidently they stole the show during the intermission of Thursday's semi-final, with this rendition on "A Million Dreams."  



Excerpts from my Annual Meeting Remarks:
"A Congregation that Hugs First and Asks Questions Later"

When negative energy is allowed to dissipate, what's left is pure joy and spiritual release. What's left is the tightening of bonds that keeps people at the kiddush table long after the service has ended. What's left is dancing in the aisles, as we did at Mediterranean Shabbat. What's left is kids making food for homeless shelters or enjoying that first bialy on the Lower East Side. What's left is how we burst with pride at every single bar or bat mitzvah.

Last fall, the true nature of our congregation was on full display at the most crucial moment. It was the Friday night after the massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh. For me personally and for all of the Jewish people, it was the close of a week of shiva. If there was ever a Shabbat when Jews would avoid being near a synagogue, this would have been it. But what overcame the fear was the desire to be together; and so our sanctuary was packed that night. People came who had not been to a synagogue in years - non-members as well as members. And when they got here they experienced genuine community. They experienced a congregation that hugs first and asks questions later. A congregation that smiles first and complains later. A congregation that listens, that laughs, that cries, that sings, that wants to share its stories and wipe the years from one another's eyes. A congregation that finds inspiration and joy in praying together, even if we aren't all sure about who we are praying to or what we are praying for.
 
This is the congregation that we are and strive to be.
 
Last Shabbat I talked about the bat mitzvah girl's favorite movie, "Field of Dreams," which premiered precisely thirty years ago. It's most memorable refrain: "If you build it, he will come" rang true on that Friday night.
 
We built it - and they came. We built a community of inclusiveness, mutual respect and love. And that's exactly what people were looking for.  All the numbers you will hear tonight, our fast-growing membership, our outstanding fundraising in the face of unforeseen expenses. our admirable budgeting: it all comes back to that one fact that can't be measured in numbers: We have built it and they are coming.
 
And that's why it is so imperative for us to keep on building a community of kindness, grounded in deep Jewish values. Nothing is more important than that we continue to be that port in a storm for all who are seeking us.

More on "Field of Dreams"

To expand on that thought, read below a memorable passage from "Field of Dreams," spoken by Terrance Mann, a reclusive writer played by James Earl Jones, to Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer played by Kevin Costner.  All you need to do is replace the words "baseball" with "synagogue" "Jewish heritage" or "Passover Seder." Jewish celebrations are just like baseball - or at least what baseball used to be.
 
"Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."
The film also asks this question: Is this heaven?  The famous response: No, it's Iowa.

Ray comes to understand that heaven isn't out there. Heaven is where you are, right now. Some religions sanctify space and build big cathedrals to the sky. Judaism sanctifies time. We take a couple of candles and say a blessing, utter some more sacred words and eat hallah and drink wine, and wherever you happen to be standing becomes heaven on earth - including Iowa.  This is another example of how "Field of Dreams" espouses deep Jewish values.

And then there is this other famous quote from the film:

We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening. Back then I thought, "Well, there'll be other days". I didn't realize that that was the only day.

These are the words of a baseball player who failed to take advantage of his one fleeting opportunity to make it to the major leagues.  Psalm 90 reminds us to count our days to gain a heart of wisdom.  At this time of year, we literally count our days from Passover to Shavuot.  And we count up rather than down, so as not to dwell on the opportunities missed and our lives slipping away, but rather to celebrate each new lesson learned as we scale the ladder of accumulated wisdom. With each passing day, we come a little bit closer to achieving our full potential.  And maybe, just maybe, we'll get one more shot at the majors, and one more chance to have that catch with Dad.

That catch with Dad, the (spoiler alert) final scene that provoked more tears than any film since "Love Story," is the ultimate tale of teshuvah, a return to days of old, to the person we once upon a time hoped to become.  For Jews, that return happens on the High Holidays, for sure, but also any time we are in a place where the spirit of our parents and grandparents lives on vividly - whether that place be the synagogue, the seder table or the sukkah.

Ah yes, the sukkah.  The Torah calls to us in James Earl Jones' godlike resonance:

..."If you build it, he will come."


Lag B'Omer
 
Thursday is Lag B'Omer.   Last Friday night I spoke about one of the most important yet least understood aspects of this minor festival - fire.   All over Israel bonfires are lit on this day, with a huge celebration of fire on Mt Meron, near Safed, where the sainted, mystical Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is buried. I compiled some sources on that symbolism and on Bar Yochai into a packet. Click here to see it.  Also, see the website set up for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's website (yes, he has one).  See live coverage from Mt. Meron.  And see MyJewishLearning's Lag B'Omer page.


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ל"ג בעומר | שידור חי מ'הר מירון תשע"ט | Watch Live: Lag Ba'omer in Meron 2019

Alabama vs Algeria
Ha'aretz compared to the restrictive anti-abortion laws just passed in some American states to anti-women laws in the Middle East.  The conclusion?  "Abortion will be more lawful in Saudi Arabia and Algeria than Alabama and Georgia if the near-total ban passed by their state legislatures last week makes its way through the courts."  That's also true, most certainly, regarding Israel, where the law is much more progressive.  You can check out the article here.  Statistics for the Republic of Gilead are not currently available - I have a call into Margaret Atwood.

Update on Israeli Democracy's Moment of Truth
If you think I'm simply crying wolf in expressing grave concerns about the proposed deal to override the Israeli Supreme Court in order to keep Bibi in office when he is most likely  indicted, see this article from today's Times of Israel:  Ex-Justice Minister Warns of Netanyahu Dictatorship." Today's news indicates that the "Override Bill" is going to be part of the coalition deal.  And see how 
David Horovitz raises the alarm.


Mitzvah Opportunity

I'm including this request from Lauren Kahn Medalie, a lifelong part of our TBE family.  We are amazed at Lauren's courage under the most extreme pressures imaginable.
Dear Family and Friends
On June 8th I will run a 10K in Central Park with Moms In Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). This will be my fourth race with LLS, but my first since being diagnosed with Lymphoma. I hope you will support me in reaching my goal of $25,000.
When I got involved with Moms In Training, I loved being part of a group of moms who got together for a great cause. I loved that I ran a race (go me!) and then a few more. I met all these inspiring moms, some who had young children going through cancer treatment.  I never thought the money I was raising would help fund the research that would save my life and Taylor's life a few years later.

Dan and I were so excited when we found out I was pregnant. We had one amazing daughter and now another baby girl on the way! I had bad morning sickness with Brynn so I wasn't surprised when I was very sick again with Taylor's pregnancy. But the sickness only got worse, and I started having trouble eating, breathing, and sleeping. I lost weight and became unable to commute to work. The doctors and specialists continued to assure me that all was fine and that this was just pregnancy.

At six months pregnant I ended up in the ER in White Plains where they realized something was seriously wrong and quickly transferred me to the Cardiac ICU at Cornell. Within hours, the doctors found a tennis ball sized mass in my chest. We were told it was likely cancer. I remember saying "I can't have cancer. I have a 4 year old and I'm pregnant." Clearly I was wrong. Cancer can affect anyone at any time.

I was diagnosed with primary mediastinal diffuse large b-cell lymphoma (PMBCL). A rare, highly aggressive, and dangerous blood cancer. Fortunately, it is also a cancer that researchers have made huge progress in treating over the last decade, thanks, in large part, to funding from LLS.  My doctors were able to confidently set forth a treatment plan that was not only safe for me, but amazingly also for Taylor (who was still only 23 weeks along at that point). Treatment was very rough, but through it all my doctors always remained positive.

My chemo started immediately. It has to be administered in the hospital for five consecutive days. I needed six rounds like that. I had four rounds while pregnant and two after Taylor was born. I was away from Brynn for 42 days. I was away from Taylor for five days during her first month of life.

Taylor was born on November 7, 2017 absolutely perfect (and with a full head of hair)! Her own immune system was temporarily suppressed because of one of the chemo drugs she received in utero. Luckily, she won't remember her own experiences with blood tests, IVs, oncologist visits, and a hospitalization. At 17 months, Taylor is now a typical toddler - running around, eating snacks, following her big sis, and dancing to Baby Shark. She is THE BEST!

The scary truth is that Taylor and I would not be here today without the research funded by LLS. In the past year, I've seen Taylor take her first steps, dropped Brynn off at her first day of kindergarten, gone on vacation to our happy place, Aruba, had date nights with Dan, and snuggled my girls A LOT. I am forever grateful to LLS for giving this to me.

However, for so many people with blood cancer and other cancers, the outcomes are not like mine. That is why I am asking you to support me by donating here: 
https://pages.teamintraining.org/nyc/mit19/LMedalie. Together, we can help LLS fund new treatments that will allow others the same prognosis and ability to live full lives with their families.

Thank you!
Lauren Kahn Medalie
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Shabbat Shalom and Happy Memorial Day (read A Rabbi's Sermon on Iwo Jima), and happy Lag B'Omer too.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Yael Everett on Emor


Shabbat Shalom!

A couple of years ago, a speaker came to Bi Cultural who described an organization called “Stars of Hope,” and when my mom told me about it I knew right away that this could be my Bat Mitzvah project, and something that I could continue to support for years to come.

The idea is so simple – to send paint and decorate supportive wooden stars and send them to people dealing with crises.  It is described on their website as being “a unique disaster response and community arts program empowering people to transform communities impacted by natural and human-caused disasters by creating and displaying colorful art and messages of hope and healing.”

I’m a big fan of empathy.  I guess it’s not surprising that when I grow up I want to be a psychologist.  I hope I’ll be able to help people deal with crises in their lives.  So this project really excited me.  It reminded me of what sports stars often do – people like Curtis Granderson, who is always visiting hospitals and schools, and Roberto Clemente, a real hero of mine, who died in a plane crash trying to help people in while on route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was just 38 years old.

I’ve had lots of practice in showing empathy, through my love for my pets.

It all started with Lucky, a cat who was rescued from the streets of New York.  Lucky was not just lucky to be rescued, he was lucky enough to live to the fine old age of 21. Then came our dog Carmel, who is a ten-year-old Labrador. But after Lucky died, I wanted more, so I started begging for kitten. One day when my mom and my dad went out to buy dog food, there was a sign in the store.  That’s how we got our two kittens, Ian and Chad, who are now one year old.  And now, since it’s been a WHOLE YEAR since we got a new pet, I’m trying to convince my parents that it is time for labradoodles.

Yes, I know pet ownership can be complicated.  At one time, we were giving the cats a total of 18 different medications PER DAY. 

Having so many pets has been a real blessing for me – it’s taught me a lot about responsibility, time management and of course – empathy.

In my portion of Emor, a curious passage demonstrates the need to have compassion for animals.

“And whether it be cow or sheep, ye shall not sacrifice it and its young both in one day.”

Why is this the case?  Rambam states in his commentary that this teaches us to empathize with the mother animal, who may not be as smart as a human being, but still has the same emotional connection to its children.

Modern science has shown that animals definitely have feelings.  And when we care for animals, it also teaches us to be more caring of other people.

In my case, that training has gone a long way.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram

Shabbat-O-Gram

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Lisa and Todd Everett, honoring Yael  as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah, and Loralee and Philip Granowitz in honor of the upcoming marriage of Eliza Scheffler and Andy Granowitz. 


 
Our 7th Graders burying books at Beth El Cemetery last week, as they concluded their life cycle curriculum with a visit to the consecrated ground next door.  The class was honored at our annual Aliyah Ceremony on Thursday night.  See photos from the Aliyah Ceremony in our Spring photo album


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Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to Yael Everett, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning, and to Andy Granowitz and Eliza Scheffler, whose ufruf will also be celebrated at this Shabbat morning's service.  You can find Zachary Lew's d'var Torah from last Shabbat here.

There is still time to plan to join me and over 15 of your fellow TBE congregants at the AJC's Global Forum on June 2-4. Read more about it and register here.  Come to our Annual Meeting this Wed.  We'll be honoring some very special people and sending off our graduating 12th graders.

It's Eurovosion week in Tel Aviv:  Here's what you need to know about why Israel is so crazy about Eurovision.
 
Statement on Reproductive Freedom
 
Below is a statement from the Rabbinical Assembly responding to Alabama's new law.  It reflects my own position on the topic.  See a more detailed explanation of the topic here.

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The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association for Conservative/Masorti rabbis, issued the following statement tonight on Alabama's new abortion law:

The Rabbinical Assembly is deeply troubled by the enacting of today's abortion law in Alabama and believes it should and will be struck down by federal courts. 

Reproductive freedom is again under assault in our nation, beginning today in Alabama, where the state has effectively banned abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalized the procedure for doctors.

It is further under attack in other states' so-called Personhood Acts and Life at Conception Acts, including in Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio.

This position is based on our members' understanding of relevant biblical and rabbinic sources as well as teshuvot - modern rabbinic responsas. Jewish tradition cherishes the sanctity of life, including the potential of life which a pregnant woman carries within her, but does not believe that personhood and human rights begin with conception, but rather with birth as indicated by Exodus 21:22-23.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly has affirmed the right of a woman to choose an abortion in cases where "continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective."

Denying a woman and her family full access to the complete spectrum of reproductive healthcare, including contraception, abortion-inducing devices, and abortions, among others, on religious grounds, deprives women of their Constitutional right to religious freedom.

The Rabbinical Assembly supports full access for all women to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by government, private entities, or individuals to limit such access or to require unnecessary procedures. We also oppose so-called "personhood" legislation on the federal and state levels that would confer legal rights under the law to a fetus or an embryo.

The RA has consistently supported these reproductive freedoms for nearly 50 years.
However, recent legislative efforts in the United States on both the federal and state levels pose new threats to reproductive freedom, beginning today in Alabama. Other threats include so-called "heartbeat" bills in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Ohio.

The Rabbinical Assembly emphatically opposes all such laws and legislative or executive moves.
From Maisel to Shtisel


The Mrs. Maisel Carnegie Deli Food Truck has been making appearances in Manhattan

The proliferation of streaming content providers like Netflix has brought about an unexpected boon in niche viewing.  Suddenly there is an abundance of programs of rich Jewish content that everyone is talking about.  

True, series like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Srugrim" on Amazon Prime and "Fauda" and "Shtisel" on Netflix are not as popular as "Game of Thrones," but they aren't nearly as bloody...(except maybe for "Fauda.)"  But each of these series provides rich opportunities for exploration of Jewish themes and values; they provide what we rabbi's like to call "teachable moments."   Incidentally, here are seven Jewish facts about "Game of Thrones" for those who are interested.  And in Ha'aretz this week, Don Futterman wrote this regarding "Thrones" and "Avengers: Endgame,"  that other cultural mass-phenomenon of the month:
Both Avengers: Endgame and The Battle of Winterfell are about good vs. evil, the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, the stuff of adventure stories and romance since time immemorial. But the adversary in both of these epics is actually death; pitting life vs. death, the living vs. the dead, those who worship life vs. those who glorify death.
This is a quintessential Jewish dichotomy. Judaism celebrates life, not death: Jews don't believe that dying or suffering are forms of imitating God. Although Jews honor those who sacrificed themselves to save others, and martyrs who refused to renounce their beliefs, Jews don't make them the subject of devotion, nor aspire to become one of them. Being about the here and now, even our fantasies of the afterlife are sketchy, contested and underdeveloped.
So there are lots of Jewish themes to ponder.  But for American Jews, the response to Maisel and Shtisel in particular has been earthshaking.  So many have come up to me especially regarding Shtisel, asking questions about the little things, like what blessings they say before eating, or the big things, like whether you can marry your cousin.  Here's a good recent article about what the show teaches us.

 
I'm thinking about doing a course exploring the Jewish themes of these programs.  Meanwhile, send me your questions about Shtisel, Maisel, Srugim and Fauda


The Struggle for the Soul of Israel's Democracy
16 May 2019  - by Daniel Sokatch

Read below this chilling summary, by the head of the New Israel Fund. of what is going right now as negotiations are underway to form the new Israeli government. With democratic institutions like independent courts, separation of powers and a free press, being challenged in numerous countries throughout the world - including in the US and Israel - it's important that we understand the implications of what is going on.  Those of us who love Israel can't sit by and allow its democratic foundations to crumble.  And yes, I fully support the NIF, which has been demonized unfairly by the Prime Minister and others.

This week, we learned more about the meaning of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in last month's election. As so many of us feared and suspected, it is now clear that Netanyahu called these elections in large part to protect himself from the criminal indictments the attorney general has recommended be leveled against him. And now the prime minister appears willing to undermine the very institutions of Israeli democracy to avoid justice. Target number one is Israel's independent judiciary.

The basic deal that will form the basis of this next government appears to be the passage of an immunity law tailored to the prime minister himself, as he faces charges of corruption, fraud and breach of public trust. Such a law, which would face an inevitable challenge at Israel's High Court of Justice, comes with an insurance policy: the infamous 'override clause,' designed to take away the Court's powers of judicial review over the decisions of the government and legislation passed by Knesset. This far-reaching change would render the Court's rulings merely suggestions, rather than as carrying the force of law.

As is the case here in the US, the High Court's power of judicial review serves as a check against the most unreasonable overreaches of the other branches. The Court acts to restrain government overreach and safeguard - and indeed expand - human rights and personal liberty. Unsurprisingly, the far-right has long railed against the Court's independence, which has served to undergird and safeguard individual rights in Israel.

It appears that the bargain underpinning the next coalition government between Netanyahu's Likud and the other right wing parties is immunity for Netanyahu in exchange for annexation of (at least some) West Bank settlements and an effort to circumscribe the independence of the High Court of Justice. The deal being cooked behind closed doors would apparently achieve this by neutralizing the Court's power: by taking away its powers of judicial review; by changing the rules by which future justices to the Court are appointed; by packing the court by increasing the seats on the bench by four additional justices; limiting the terms of justices to twelve years; by removing the right of the public to petition the Court directly; and by transforming the role of the attorney general, limiting her or his ability to restrict government decisions in any way, and only provide non-binding legal advice.

It takes a minute to really appreciate the gravity of this.

Let it sink in.

Any one of these changes would represent a major change to Israel's democratic structure. Taken together, they represent an effort to deconstruct the independence of Israel's judiciary.

This week, Israel's Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, speaking from Nuremberg, Germany, warned that democracies are not invincible to the designs of those who seek to dismantle them. "One of the universal lessons we should learn from the historical events I noted is that judicial independence...is one of the most important guarantees that the individual will have an address to turn to in order to protect their rights." As European history reminds us, Constitutions, the rule of law, checks and balances, separation of powers - these defining features of democratic government are only as powerful as citizens make them.

That is why legal scholar and public intellectual Mordechai Kremitzer warned in Haaretz that if a majority in Knesset "can defang the court and set its rulings at naught, Israel's government will be able to do whatever it pleases." That is why he called these proposed new restrictions on judicial independence "a tangible and immediate risk." And that is why he called for "the public to rise up to defend their liberty and rights against those who seek to revoke them."

Well, Israelis are doing just that.

And New Israel Fund can be counted on to rise to this challenge. We will be here for this fight, to support the wide coalition of Israeli civil society organizations leading the public protest and push-back against these threats to Israeli democracy.

Israelis are leading this struggle for the soul of their democracy. It is the assembled voices of Israel's citizenry-the leadership of the opposition, the shapers of public opinion in the media and academia, the organizations of civil society, and the ordinary Israelis whose liberties and lives depend on the democratic protections afforded to them-who will determine the course of Israel's future.

But these Israelis must know that they do not stand alone.

In this moment, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the defenders of democracy here in America and around the world. And they stand shoulder to shoulder with you and me.

Ask the Rabbi (3rd and 4th Grade Edition)

Last week our 3rd and 4th grade classes paid a visit to my office to schmooze about whatever was on their minds.    Here are some of the questions they brought for me:

1. Were you religious growing up?
 
2. Do you keep kosher? Why are Jews commanded to be kosher?
 
3. How do you become a Rabbi?
 
4. What is your favorite Jewish food?
 
5. What is your favorite Hebrew song or prayer?
 
6. Who is your favorite person on the Torah?
 
7. Why is God not mentioned in the Megillah?
 
8. Why are there people who do not like the Jews?
This is just a sampling.  It was a great conversation - and lots of fun - and a real tribute to our teachers and parents - and the kids themselves - that they brought so much depth to the table.   As our Hebrew School year comes to an end this Sunday, this is a perfect time to thank all those who make Jewish learning happen here.  Special thanks to Lisa Gittelman-Udi and our Board of Education as well as the teachers and specialists, for another super year.

So do you want to know how I answered the questions?

You'll have to ask one of our 3rd and 4th graders!  OK, I'll give you one answer - for #4. 

It's latkes.
"Who Will Write Our History" - 
Reflections on the Film 
and Dr Sam Kassow's Visit
by Dan Romanowitz
 
Last week at TBE, historian and author Dr. Samuel Kassow introduced the documentary film "Who Will Write Our History," which is based on his book about the heroic work undertaken by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos Archive.  Over 200 attended.

In the course of his scholarship, Dr. Kassow explained, he became fascinated with Dr. Ringelblum's life and work, and felt that - even amid a seemingly endless sea of powerful stories from the darkest chapter in Jewish history - this was a story that needed to be told. He was right.
 
The thesis behind Dr. Kassow's book and the incredible documentary - written, produced and directed by acclaimed documentarian Roberta Grossman - is that history is written by the victors, and the way the conquered group is portrayed is always through the eye of the conquerors.
 
A historian, the culmination of Dr. Ringelblum's work was borne out of his understanding that the victors write the story, juxtaposed against the daily decline of Jewish life in Poland under Nazi occupation.
 
Dr. Ringelblum confronted a scenario in which all Polish Jews, and possibly all Jews worldwide, could be eradicated. He also feared that the Nazi agenda was to not only destroy the Jewish people, but also any and all evidence that Jews ever existed. He saw the Nazis attempting to re-write history.
 
Dr. Ringelblum dedicated his life to the collection of photographs, documents, and writings, in the hope that eventually they would be discovered, and the history of Jewish life would be told not through the lens of Nazi videographers and racist propaganda, but through eyewitness accounts of what really happened.
 
Dr. Ringelblum, along with a group of 60 who represented all walks of life, encouraged everyone in the Warsaw Ghetto to write, save and collect, ultimately building an archive of thousands of documents. The cache of documents was buried, and Dr. Ringelblum went into hiding outside the Ghetto walls.
 
In March of 1944, Dr. Ringelblum was found, and became one of the six million Jews murdered during the Shoah.
 
In 1946, after the liberation of Warsaw, the first two canisters were found, and ten more were discovered in 1950. Today, the Oyneg Shabbos Archive of 6,000 documents is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
 
Dr. Kassow's book has now been printed in eight languages, and Roberta Grossman's film is available in twelve.