Thursday, May 28, 2009

TBE Teens on the Go: Kulanu Graduation

Last night's Kulanu graduation was particularly moving for me, as Ethan was one of the dozen seniors honored for their five years of involvement in our community Hebrew Shigh School. Half of the graduates were from TBE. We're proud of all of them, along with 10th grader Jackie Schechter, winner of the writing award given annually in memory of Rabbi Alex Goldman.

Some photos of our graduates and other students, along with a video montage (click to enlarge).

TBE Teens on the Go: Canada

Our TBE USYers had a fantastic experience in Toronto last weekend, planned by our Jewish Life Educator Al Treidel. They also stopped off at Niagara Falls. See the photo album here. Here are a few selections (click to enlarge)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Everybody's a Little Bit Jew-ISH (The Jewish Week, 5.28.09)

(Special to the
Jewish Week by Joshua Hammerman - For related stories: Read more about Crypto Jews in these JTA stories: "Secret Jews of the Southwest" and "So you think you're a Crypto-Jew?"Also be sure to read Dina Kraft's report on efforts to turn Crypto-Jews in Spain into foot soldiers for Israel advocacy and Ben Harris' story on a Colombian native with Jewish roots who went from almost becoming a monk to being ordained as a Conservative rabbi.)

For ages we’ve been obsessed with the question, “Who is a Jew?” Perhaps we need to be asking instead, “Who isn’t?”

A team of geneticists has uncovered explicit evidence of mass conversions of Sephardic Jews to Catholicism in 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Portugal. The study, based on an analysis of Y-chromosomes and reported first in the American Journal of Human Genetics, indicates that 20 percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry. That’s about 10 million people. While anti-Semitism remains pervasive and the Jewish population microscopic, there is a deep fascination with all things Jewish. “We’ve gone from a period of pillaging the Jews and then suppressing and ignoring their patrimony to a period of rising curiosity and fascination [about them],” said Anna Maria Lopez, the director of Toledo’s Sephardic Museum in a New York Times interview.

So while there are almost no Jews left in Spain, a residue remains, literally in their DNA. Everyone’s a little bit Jew-ish, even if almost no one is a Jew.

The suffix “ish,” indicating approximation, is increasingly popular among today’s youth, according to the language forum, “” Kids are constantly tossing it about: A movie is “creepish,” he looks “Europeanish,” the dress is “greenish” and the meeting begins at “five-ish.” In an age where fluidity is the norm, and everything, from the national debt to Arlen Specter’s party affiliation, is a moving target, we all need to learn how to go with the flow. Fortunately, we Jews are uniquely prepared to do just that: We already have “ish” in our name.

The Pew Foundation’s latest survey on the American religious landscape, called, “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” notes that Americans change religions almost as often as they change their underwear, with over half abandoning their childhood faith-group, usually before the age of 24.

Meanwhile, Synagogue 3000’s latest survey indicates that American Jews are foregoing secular and ethnic identification in favor of a more “spiritually oriented” — and therefore more fluid — self-definition. The survey notes that the presence of Christian, or formerly Christian, members in many Jewish households has led to a greater comfort level with spiritual ideas and language. While there are some forms of spirituality that are innately Jewish, the category lends itself to a blurring of boundaries between faiths. In the S3K report, Rabbi Rachel Cowan states that spirituality “helps me see that I’m not the whole story here, that I’m just part of something much bigger.” Bigger even than Jewish peoplehood.

Prior Pew surveys have shown how Jews have been more successful than other groups in stemming the tide of assimilation. But with sectarian lines dissolving rapidly, in a century or two, how many more millions of non-Jewish Americans will be searching their family trees for Jewish ancestry? On the other hand, how many non-Jewish seekers will stop off for a nosh at a Shabbat Kiddush on the road to Damascus and never leave?

Theodore Herzl was one of the most important Jews of all time. Yet none of his three children was Jewish and only one descendant, a grandson, was a Zionist — and he committed suicide. Nancy Pelosi has Jewish grandchildren. Eight of Moses Mendelssohn’s nine grandchildren were baptized. Thomas Jefferson reportedly had Jewish ancestors and African-American descendants. We’ve become the La Guardia Airport of faith traditions; so many coming in, so many going out.

Fiorello La Guardia had a Jewish parent, in fact, as does Sean Penn. There’s a cottage industry out there identifying famous half-Jews, including Web sites like and Who knew?

The Herzl family history was tragic, but no more so than the ancestry of King David. His great grandmother was Ruth, a Moabite, whose on-the-fly conversion following the tragic deaths of her husband and brother-in-law will be recalled on Shavuot this weekend. It is likely that Ruth’s simple loyalty oath would not be recognized as a conversion by the Israeli rabbinate today, which would place David’s Jewish identity into question as well. Since tradition holds that the Messiah will come from David’s seed, though, even the Israeli rabbinate would hesitate to go there.

A Midrash states that every Jew was present at Sinai, including all future generations. If David and Ruth were there, what about Fiorello, Sean and Jefferson? What about 10 million Iberians, whose only crime was that their ancestors were forced to convert? We can’t retroactively crop them out of the Sinai family picture.

I subscribe to traditional standards in determining Jewish identity, but the world has become far too complicated to ignore everyone else. So, yes, there are Jews, the ones who fall within normative halachic parameters; and then there are those who are Jew-ish, a group that includes many millions more.

The basis for Ruth’s avowal of loyalty was “chesed,” an unconditional love going beyond the letter of the law. We need to employ lots of chesed in reaching out beyond the scope of those who are Jews, to include also those who are generations removed from their last Shavuot blintz, to those who are Jew-ish.That’s because they need us. Judaism does have something unique to offer, something that goes beyond survival and adaptability. We are the ones, after all, who invented chesed.

As a census year approaches and we ponder how to tally our people, let’s think bigger — much bigger than simply counting those at the core or even those at the so-called periphery. Let’s look way beyond that farthest fringe, to those millions of once-were Jews, whose spiritual search will inexorably lead them back to our doors.

They may not be Jews ... but they are all Jew-ish. It’s in their DNA.

And all of them were at Sinai.

The Israeli Art Renaissance

Check out this latest creative venture from old friend of TBE's Edoe Cohen.

Who Cleans Up the Mess?

From Joseph Telushkin's "Jewish Ethics Project" Facebook group:

What ethical obligations exist for customers regarding service workers?

Some examples: is it morally permissible to leave trash at one's seat when leaving the movie theater, since someone is being paid to clean the theater between showings? Is it morally permissible to leave one's table a mess at a sit-down restaurant? This dilemma was prompted by an example provided by group member Brian J. Young, who asks in another discussion board topic: do you return your shopping cart to the official cart return area at the grocery store?

What other examples can you think of in which a customer service dynamic creates ethical quandaries? And how should those quandaries be resolved?

Join the conversation at

And let me know what you think as well...

Israel, Iran and the US: Sh'ma Online

This month, the journal Sh'ma goes digital. This digital edition gives you all the features available in our print version plus faster delivery, live links, an ability to search and send copies of articles to friends and colleagues; you can flip through the magazine and personalize your reading options—all only a click away. Sh'ma chose this moment to go digital because the May issue focuses on Iran, which is much in the news these days as the U.S. and Israel try to figure out how to think about a potentially nuclear Iran, strategically and diplomatically.

This May issue of Sh'ma features a roundtable with historian Kenneth Stein and a number of Middle East foreign policy experts in which they explore the delicate nature of Middle East geopolitics. It also includes essays on Iran in the Middle East; the expressions of Islam practiced in Iran—the differences between Shi`a and Sunni Islam; Persian Jewish life in Los Angeles; the history and culture of Persian Jews; and some discussion of the condition of Iranian Jewish life today. While some argue that Jews continue to fare well, others insist that they enjoy at best second-class citizenship and are muzzled by a repressive regime.

Click here to access your digital issue.

Below are a few examples of what you’ll find inside the May issue of Sh'ma.

Iran.: A RoundtableIn a conversation with Daniel Levy, David Menashri, and Gary Sick, Kenneth Stein explores Iran as a regional player in Middle East policy; the domestic and foreign policy objectives that the Iranian government has held over the years; and finally, the contemporary issues that pertain to U.S. foreign relations.FULL STORY

The Ghost of Cyrus: Persian Potential for Reform in the Nuclear Age Marc Gopin - Over the past 25 years Gopin has developed relationships across the Middle East; in Syria, specifically, over the past five years. While he traveled as a peacemaker, he would emphasize his role as a professor and only reveal that he was a rabbi when it felt safe. FULL STORY

Ipkha Mistabra” & the Iranian Question - Ruth Lande For thousands of years, the Jewish people have known strife, hardship, and persecution. For thousands of years, "Jewish diplomacy" has found innovative, creative, and "out-of-box" solutions for untold problems. Currently faced with complexity and challenge, the State of Israel and the Jewish people are once more called upon to demonstrate ingenuity and wisdom. FULL STORY

Memories Are the Cornerstone of Stories- Dora Levy Mossanen - My grandfather, Habib Levy, was a renowned historian of Iranian Jews; he left me with a legacy of fascinating familial, cultural, and historical events that continue to supply fodder for my stories. FULL STORY

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Lauren Schechter on Naso

Today is Memorial Day, a day to commemorate the soldiers who have given their lives defending our country. These men and women have demonstrated remarkable qualities, such as courage, loyalty and most importantly, leadership.

Leadership: what does it really mean?

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we read about the gifts brought by the leaders of each tribe when the Mishkan was dedicated. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for leader, Nasi, comes from the same root as the title of the parsha, Naso. In modern Hebrew, Nasi means President.

What makes these tribal leaders special? Unlike Moses and Aaron, they aren’t really known at all, but they stand out in a different way.

According to the Midrash – they became leaders because in Egypt, they were taskmasters and they refused orders from their supervisors to whip the slaves, so they themselves where whipped. Because of their loyalty to their people, they were seen as worthy to become the leaders of Israel.

In the desert, it came time to bring the voluntary gifts at the celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan. Strangely enough, each Nasi brought the exact same thing: a silver plate, a silver bowl, and a gold spoon filled with sifted flour, along with a lamb, a bull, and a ram. The Torah then goes on to repeat this twelve times, once for each tribe.

Why does the Torah repeat the exact same thing? Each of these leaders gave with all his heart, and that spirit of generosity and love cannot be measured or compared to another person’s.
In addition, each gift was the only one that came on that given day. So on that day, that person’s gift was special. In fact, that day became a holiday for the tribe.

We also learn that leadership is not always about making a big splash, but about making a difference, even when you seem identical to everyone else.

On Memorial Day, we think of the soldiers and how they look when they are standing together, dressed in exactly the same uniform. But each brings a unique love for the country and a gift that no one else can bring - his own spirit, personality, and life. They give all of this but do not get a lot of credit, and today we give them that.

What the soldiers and tribal leaders teach us is that the best kind of leader is one who can simultaneously blend in and stand out.

Another person who fits that description is Nancy Drew. As you might guess, I’m a big fan of the Nancy Drew series. Most of the time she seems like a normal girl, but when someone is in need of help, she’s the first one to volunteer. She always tries her best but never looks for the credit.
As I become bat mitzvah, I’ve learned that I should try to become the kind of person Nancy or the tribal leaders would be proud of, someone humble, but never afraid to help.

Those who are involved in cancer research are much like the Nesi’im. They work behind the scenes to save lives, but their accomplishments are rarely recognized. For my mitzvah project, I made Hanukkah gift bags and sold them to raise money for cancer research. In addition to this, today during the party, in the lobby, there will be a table where people can decorate bags that hold aero-chambers and Epi-pens. These are medicines that kids like me, with asthma and allergies have to carry around wherever we go. The bags will be given out to underprivileged children in clinics at Montefiore Hospital.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jonathan Rich on Naso

My portion’s name, Naso, means “to lift.”

It’s a very appropriate portion for someone whose family has been involved in the moving business. But I found out that it means much more than just that. Because this is the portion where moving is a mitzvah. You see, the portion begins by describing how it was the special job of the Levites to carry the ark of the covenant which contained the two tablets with the ten commandments.

The ark was very heavy. One commentary says that it was so heavy that it took the strength of many men even to budge it. But then, the story continues, once they lifted it, it carried the carriers. A Hasidic rabbi once said, regarding a very heavy torah scroll that he was lifting, “Once you’ve picked it up, it is no longer heavy.”

Over the past several months, I have been volunteering at the Stamford Nature Museum for my bar mitzvah project. The first day I got there, I was a little scared and did not know what to expect. I even told my mom that I didn’t want to go. When I got home, I told her how much I enjoyed it. At first, cleaning out the animals’ living spaces was hard. After a little while, I got the hang of it. When I first saw the animals I was scared, because they were wild. Try cleaning out the stall of a Clydesdale horse – with the horse there! Still today, I am a little uneasy around the bigger animals, but it’s gotten a lot easier and a lot more fun. Just a few weeks ago, 12 lambs and two goats were born. Now I feel comfortable picking them up and holding them – I even named one. “Bo” the goat. I gave him that name after he put up a fight while he was getting de-horned.

The nature center is not the only place where doing a mitzvah might have been hard at first, but got easier and easier as I went along. The same is true at Hospice. Following in my brother Jeffrey’s footsteps, I’ve gone there several times. I was a little nervous at first seeing the residents in end of life care. But after a couple of my brother’s events, I got used to it and now I really enjoy talking to the patients. In fact, part of my mitzvah project is that I am selling bracelets to raise money for hospice. Again, just like carrying the ark, once you get the hang of something, it is no longer heavy.

When I was younger, I used to be scared of my brother David’s fastball. As we played more and more, I started even being able to hit home runs against him. And speaking of lifting heavy burdens, I want to pay tribute to David and all who are serving this country on this Memorial Day weekend.

Finally, what’s true about carrying the Torah is also true about reading it. When I first got my binder, I looked into it and said to myself, “I’m never going to be able to do this!”

Within a few weeks, I knew lots of the Hebrew and now I can even read out of the Torah.

So next time you think you can’t do something, try it a couple of times, and you’ll amazed how quickly you make progress. My portion’s title might speak about heavy lifting, but once you get the hang of it, there is no mitzvah that’s too difficult to do.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Ross Lang on B'midbar

My d’var Torah is about the most neglected person in all of human history: of course I’m talking about…. the middle child.

Through all of Jewish history, either the oldest or youngest child gets all the attention – never the middle one!

Today we begin the book of Numbers, and when it comes to birth order, numbers count. My

Torah portion of B’midbar describes a census that was taken of the Israelites while they were wandering in the Wilderness. In that report, the tribe of Reuben is listed first, because he was the eldest son of Jacob. In the Torah, the oldest usually inherited from the father.

The oldest comes first, but in the Torah, it is the youngest child who usually ends up as the winner. When you think about it, all the younger children end up on top: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Moses over Miriam and Aaron.

Meanwhile, the special Haftarah that we read today, on this day before Rosh Hodesh, is about David, before he became king. David was the youngest of eight brothers. Some say it was seven, but either way, he was still the youngest.

So either the oldest or the youngest always wins. So what about the middle child????

The subject of my being a middle child comes up a lot in my house.

My family thinks I use my birth order as an excuse to get attention. There may be some truth to that, but if you were in my position, you would too.

But now that I am a bar mitzvah, I need to get over it. I’ve now matured to the point where I can publicly admit that there are benefits to being a middle child.

Yes, it’s true.

So, in the spirit of the book of Numbers, here are a number of reasons why:

1) As someone who is both younger and older than his siblings, the middle child is very flexible and learns to shift roles very quickly. We also can see both sides of many issues, because we’ve grown up looking at see things from all perspectives. Middle children make excellent peacemakers. Moses’ brother Aaron, for instance, was considered a real man of peace - and he was a middle child.

2) Because of our ability to adapt, middle children usually make friends very quickly and often reach outside the family for significant relationships. I’m close to my family, but I’ve always been able to make friends easily at school. Whenever a new kid comes into the school, I try to become his friend.

As a certified middle child expert, I’ve come up with some suggestions on how to survive as a middle child. Again, I’ll list them by number, in honor of my portion.

1) Make trouble! That will get you lots of attention… but seriously…

2) Do what you can to stand out – in a positive way. Do chores around the house. I’m really good at that.

3) If you find yourself really lacking in attention, keep on asking for what you want until you become very annoying. Usually it takes about 25 minutes of whining to get an iTunes download, and up to a few months for a go cart. I think I’m wearing them down for that go-cart, though!

4) Be funny! Middle children usually make great comedians. When you are stuck between two siblings, having a good sense of humor really helps. Did you know that David Letterman is a middle child?

5) Don’t give up hope of standing out some day! Other famous Middle Children include: J.F.K., Madonna, Donald Trump, Barbara Walters, Bill Gates and Rabbi Hammerman. (He asked me to mention that – he needs the attention). Each of these people is an example of just how successful middle children can become.

But seriously, there are people in this world who really do need attention. Some of them are children in hospitals. That’s why for my mitzvah project, I will be donating toys to the children’s unit of Stamford Hospital.

In the end, I’ve learned that it’s not about the amount of attention your receive; what matters most is the amount of attention you give others. As I become a bar mitzvah, that’s something that I will try to do more and more.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Adam Lee on Rosh Hodesh

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

It was exactly one month ago, on April 24, Rosh Chodesh for the month of Iyar, when I was heading home on my bike. Suddenly, my front tire hit a pothole. My foot slipped from the pedal, and I fell forward. Somehow I stayed on the bike, but when I looked down, I saw that my leg was cut open. I was in shock! All I knew, at that moment, was that I had to get home, and despite the pain, I rode the whole way back.

Now here we are, just one month later, and I am riding my bike again. Everyone knows that when you fall off a bike, or a horse, you have to get right back on. I know this firsthand because I happen to have fallen off both a bike AND a horse, and I am pleased to say that each time, I have gotten right back on!

Rosh Chodesh is the first day of each new Jewish month. The moon begins a new cycle on that day. In ancient times Rosh Chodesh was important because the calendar was dependant on the moon so that people knew when the holidays were supposed to occur. It also symbolizes a renewal for the people. The thought is that Israel may suffer but it always survives and renews itself.

That is also the theme of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, when people are given a chance to start again. This holiday declares the new beginning with the sounding of the shofar.
Not long ago, I had an encounter with a shofar… sort of. Unfortunately, it was still attached to the ram. You see, I’m an animal lover, but it seems that not all animals love me. As part of my mitzvah project, I volunteer at the Nature Center. One day, while I was raking some leaves, I was suddenly shoved from behind. I turned to see that a ram had hit me! Obviously, he did not want me in his space! This particular ram was one of the more aggressive ones and known for butting other animals, but not usually people. Lucky me!

This was not the first incident that happened at the nature center. While cleaning out the chicken coop, I was attacked by two turkeys. One pecked my ear while the other jumped on me! I did not let these incidents stop me from helping at the Nature Center, I was just more
careful around the animals after that.

At hockey camp last summer, I was given the Mr. Hustle Award for my dedication and perseverance. I may not have been the most talented player but I never gave up. The coach thought that I had a great attitude. It was a grueling week but I always tried my best.

I am known for my efforts in other sports as well. In lacrosse last year, the coach gave me the award for the most improved player. He spoke about how I always get right up when I am knocked down, which happened more often than I would like to remember. He also mentioned that I am always smiling, no matter what.

However, I must admit, that when I biked home after I cut my leg, I wasn’t smiling. I also wasn’t smiling in the emergency room when I had to get 21 stitches or when I hobbled out of there on crutches, realizing that my bar mitzvah was just a month away. My mom tried smiling for my benefit but it wasn’t the best day I have had.

In studying for my bar mitzvah, there were moments when it felt like I could not it. But with encouragement from many people, I kept working at it and here I am today. No stitches, no crutches.

No problem.

I know that there are many people who face many difficult challenges every day. As another part of my mitzvah project, I will be donating money to the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, to help cover the cost of training these guide dogs. A guide dog will allow people to achieve independence, so that they, too, can have a new beginning!

Beth El's Sherry Cohen on "Frontline"

See TBE's own Sherry Cohen's appearance on "Frontline." Sherry was interviewed for her expertise in one aspect of the Madoff affair. See the link from Sherry's blog here: Frontline: The Madoff Affair.

Friday, May 22, 2009

4+4+4 (Days, Holidays and B'nai Mitzvah) = Memory + Meaning

We’ve never seen anything like it here! Four consecutive days, four different holidays, and four b’nai mitzvah. Throw in a baby naming and it adds up to something quite special here this weekend. This weekend’s Shabbat-O-Gram has been sponsored by the families of our four b’nai mitzvah and I also dedicate it in their honor: Ross Lang, Jonathan Rich, Adam Lee and Lauren Schechter. Mazal tov!

All four students will join us tonight at our 6:30 Kabbalat Shabbat service OUTDOORS. It will be beautiful – dress is casual.

So here’s a guided tour of four days, four holidays:


Today is Jerusalem Day on the Hebrew calendar, marking the liberation of our holy city in 1967. It was observed on Thursday in Israel to avoid conflict with Shabbat preparations (the photo above was taken last night in Jerusalem). See the following coverage: Jerusalem Day Becomes 'Stand Up To Obama Day'; read the address by PM Netanyahu on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, see also, from the IDF, Jerusalem Day: Remembering the Battle of Ammunition and Our Fallen Heroes, and read Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s interesting op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, Tradition Today: The meaning of Jerusalem. Also, see a slide show of yesterday’s events in Jerusalem, the pageantry and the politics and here for a beautiful slide presentation on Jerusalem. Click here for a map of the battle of Jerusalem and, last but not least, here to see video of the historic moment when the Israeli troops liberated the Western Wall.


Shabbat is our most important holiday. Sure, it comes once a week, but that only increases its uniqueness. Why not take this opportunity to reintroduce yourself to Shabbat, called by Abraham Joshua Heschel a “Sanctuary in Time.” Read what he had to say about Shabbat here.


Sunday we welcome the new month of Sivan. Read about this minor new moon festival known as Rosh Hodesh here and find out why it has long been looked upon as a woman’s holiday.


We are a nation at war, and never more than in the past two days have we been reminded as to why. The attempted bombing of two Riverdale synagogues by extremists, who stopped off in Stamford to pick up their fake bombs, brought the war on terror close to home in more ways than one. This is a war unlike any we’ve ever engaged in before, requiring a resolve that few nations possess – thankfully the US and Israel both possess that resolve. We need it, because innocent civilians are now the prime targets, and many have been victimized. But, as different as these wars are from the “typical” wars of the past century, one thing remains the same: brave people in uniform face death every day and some of them do not come home alive. On Memorial Day, in between the barbecues and rides to the beach, I hope that each of us will take a moment to recall those who have made the supreme sacrifice. For a history of Memorial Day go to the History Channel website and to the official US Memorial Day site.

So what links all of these celebrations and events? Each calls upon us to mark our significant passages in time and to make memory meaningful. Since we begin the book of Numbers tomorrow, let's put it in the form of an equation: 4+4+4 = Memory + Meaning.

This notion was expressed best in John Adam's famous letter to his wife Abigail of July 3, 1776: as recorded here. As we celebrate American and Israeli milestones this weekend, and mark family milestones as well, and then simply mark the passage of time from week to week and month to month, let us recall Adams's words:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

G-dcast for Bemidbar

Parshat Bemidbar from

More Torah cartoons at

When Terror Hits Home

This is a scary world right now, and this week, terror hit very close to home. Not only were two synagogues in Riverdale targeted by terrorists, but, as if that was not close enough, we now learn that they obtained their (bogus) bombs from a warehouse right here in Stamford. I never knew that we had a "Bombs R Us" outlet right in our neighborhood.

I knew we had a Target, but now we need to get used to the idea that we are one.

There is literally no safe place. While the world seems to be acclimating itself to living with a nuclear Iran, Israelis know that such a possibility would be cataclysmic, even if such a weapon were never used. See this story: One in Four Israelis Would Leave if Iran gets Nukes.

It's been easy for us to think of ourselves as being immune to such things, being relatively far from the prime target areas, in a mere suburb. But Stamford is no backwater, and as our reform and Orthodox brethren learned in Riverdale, sometimes a place a bit off the beaten track can be seen as easy pickings by those who don't care about where the lives are taken, as long as they are innocent Jewish lives.

This is not a call for panic but for vigilance. No one should fear coming to services or other events where Jews are present; giving in like that is simply unacceptable. The dangers are minimal but they are there. So by all means, come here to pray, to laugh and celebrate. Now more than ever we need to gather and celebrate the joy of being alive.

No need to panic. But let's keep our ears and eyes open.

Star (of David) Trek

Although I've never been a real Trekkie, I've always been intrigued with the Jewish connections with Star Trek, the most famous being that Vulcan hand salute which mimics that gesture of blessing made by the high priests in ancient times. The new Spock, BTW needed special training to get that salute down.

Jewcy, the hippest Jewish site online, now chimes in with "Jew Trek", which claims that the new film version of the old TV series has been rendered Judenrein. As he writes, this is what "the Jew of Star Trek has been reduced to: A cultural heritage, a memory of a series long past. Now, we look to the future. Too bad J.J. Abrams is such a goy.

Thank you to congregant Beth Madison for alerting me to following site, created by a rabbi and Trekkie, with a link to an entertaining essay titled, "New Star Trek Movie: A Vulcan Holocaust?"

The main page is here:

What is Shavuot?

Shavuot falls this coming Friday and Shabbat. We'll be celebrating with a service and study session at 8 on Thursday, a service and pizza and blintz lunch on Friday, when we'll unroll at Torah and hear the Ten Commandments. plus our annual Day School Quiz Bowl will take place.

What is Shavuot? See this introduction from My Jewish Learning.

And in honor of Shavuot, the world's only blintz joke:

A Jew was walking on Regent Street in London and stopped in to a posh gourmet food shop. An impressive salesperson in morning coat with tails approached him and politely asked, "May I help you, Sir?"

"Yes," replied the customer, "I would like to buy a pound of lox."

"No. No," responded the dignified salesperson, "You mean smoked salmon."

"Okay, a pound of smoked salmon."

"Anything else?"

"Yes, a dozen blintzes."

"No. No. You mean crepes."

"Okay, a dozen crepes."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. A pound of chopped liver."

"No. No. You mean pate."

"Okay," said the Jewish patron, "A pound of pate. And," he added, "I'd like you to deliver this to my house next Saturday."

"Look," retorted the indignant salesperson, "We don't schlep on Shabbos."

7th Grade Mock Wedding Photos

Last week our 7th graders put on a mock wedding. The lucky bride and groom were Julie Arditti and Matthew Katz. The entire class worked very hard on this project, and it showed. They produced a lovely huppah and artistic ketubah as well as numerous explanations of the rituals involved. Click on these photos to enlarge. More will soon be available at our website, Mazal tov!

(Thanks to the Temple, Ganz and Arditti families who donated photos)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Response to the Foiled Plot in Riverdale

Response to the Foiled Terrorist Plot
Against the Jewish Community of Riverdale

By Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Incoming executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly

May 21, 2009 -- Waking up to the news that the FBI foiled a plot to bomb two synagogues in Riverdale, New York was shocking not only to the local Jewish community but to all New Yorkers…and to our nation at large.

The would-be targets of this well-planned attack were synagogues – one Orthodox, the other Reform, located within walking distance of one another within this warm, close-knit and diverse Jewish community just north of Manhattan.

If we ever needed confirmation that our diverse and often divided religious community is indeed united --as one people with one heart -- the failed terrorists from Newburgh provided us with that reminder.

As a native of Riverdale, I feel a unique connection to the news of the thwarted attack. I grew up down the street from the Riverdale Jewish Center and have attended numerous events, programs, bar mitzvahs, weddings and functions there as well in the various other local houses of worship, including the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale where one of our own Rabbinical Assembly members, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, is spiritual leader.

My elderly father still lives in Riverdale, numerous faculty members of the Jewish Theological Seminary and leaders of the Conservative movement are residents and the community is renowned for its vibrant Jewish life.

Riverdale is a model of diversity, similar in many ways to the White Plains community where I live. It is one of the main arteries of my life, not only because I drive through it twice daily on my way to and from my home in Westchester to my Morningside Heights office.

Riverdale is central to my life because it is the place where I drop my children off every morning to attend the warm and loving Jewish day school they attend, located within walking distance of the targeted synagogues.

On behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly, I commend the FBI, the New York State Police, the anti-terrorist investigative team and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all of whom performed a stellar job in preventing what might have been a tragedy of enormous proportions.

Let us take this opportunity to transcend our differences and come together as a community of Jewish New Yorkers. We will not give in to fear or bend to terror. Let us not wait for hatred to remind us of our common bond.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Historic Israeli Supreme Court Decision on Conversion

Today's watershed decision in Israel could pave the way for greater pluralism in the Jewish State. It impacts both Reform and Conservative institutions.

See the Jerusalem Post report here

A Dispatch from the Israel Religious Action Center

May 19, 2009

Dear Friends of IRAC,

Today is a very important day for Progressive Judaism and the cause of Jewish pluralism in Israel. IRAC just won a precedent setting case in the Israeli Supreme Court which says that the State has to provide equal funding for Reform and Conservative conversion classes.

The case itself may seem inconsequential but the implications are huge. This is the first time that the Court has declared that government funding must be provided to non-Orthodox Jewish religious services in Israel. The verdict was amazing, going well beyond simply requesting equal funding, and addressing the core issue of religious freedom in Israel. The three judge panel, including Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, found the State's practice of favoring only one Jewish stream discriminatory and contradictory to the their responsibility to ensure freedom of religion, ruling "The duty of the State to pluralism is not only a passive duty, but an active one as well."

They also sited their previous ruling (Naamat and IRAC in 2002) that "Jews in Israel cannot be seen as only one religious sect." It is a hot day in Israel but we all have goose-bumps.

L'Shalom, Anat Hoffman

Monday, May 18, 2009

Observations on the Obama - Netanyahu Summit

This collection of analyses from the press is taken from the Daily Alert:

Differences Unlikely to Come to Fore at Obama, Netanyahu White House Meeting - Glenn Kessler
Analysts and government officials expect no fireworks when President Obama meets one on one with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday. The Obama administration has only the wisps of a policy toward the Middle East in place. With the Palestinians weak and divided, and the new Israeli government skeptical of high-profile peace efforts, many key strategic questions remain unanswered.
The Obama administration appears eager to coax small but symbolic confidence-building measures from all sides, especially Arab states, to build up a sense of momentum. Vice President Biden declared earlier this month: "Now is the time for Arab states to make meaningful gestures, to show the Israeli leadership and t he people that the promise of ending Israel's isolation in the region is real and genuine. They must take action now." (Washington Post)

Obama: It's Not My Place to Determine for the Israelis What Their Security Needs Are
Asked about Prime Minister Netanyahu's upcoming visit and concerns about Iran, President Obama said in an interview: "I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period. What I have said is that we want to offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules. I think, ultimately, that will be better for the Iranian people. I think that there is the ability of an Islamic Republic of Iran to maintain its Islamic character while, at the same time, being a member in good standing of the international community and not a threat to its neighbors. And we are going to reach out to them and try to shift off of a pattern over the last 30 years that hasn't produced results in the regio n." "Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty."
"I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are. I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives." (Newsweek)

Hamas Says Israel Recognition Not for Discussion - Jailan Zayan
The Islamist Hamas movement said on Saturday that it will not discuss the recognition of Israel with Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party during reconciliation talks in Cairo. "We can discuss with Fatah all the options...except the American card which stresses recognition of the Zionist entity and the conditions of the Quartet," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said in Gaza. "This is not open for discussion." The Quartet has long demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel and past peace agreements as a precondition for dealing with any Palestinian government in which the Islamist movement is represented. (AFP)

News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:

Obama, Netanyahu to Focus on Iran Threat - Barak Ravid and Natasha Mozgovaya
Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will discuss the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, National Security Council head Uzi Arad, a close aide to Netanyahu, said Sunday. "This is an existential matter. Iran is constantly advancing toward a nuclear capability, and joint efforts with the [Obama] administration to prevent this will be at the center of the discussion." "There is no subject more important to Israel, and the administration knows this," Arad added. "There is a sense of urgency and that time is against us."
On the matter of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Arad cited the takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007. "That is the presence of a huge terrorist infrastructure that was put in place, established precisely at the time when Israel evacuated G aza and allowed the Palestinians to rule themselves," he said. (Ha'aretz)

Iran to Mass Produce Long-Range Missiles - Yaakov Katz
Iran is in the midst of a multi-year plan to produce 500 missile launchers and over 1,000 missiles with a range of 2,500 km. by 2015. Tehran is believed to currently have an arsenal of 100-200 long-range Shihab missiles that have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers and carry up to one-ton warheads. "The Iranians are making great efforts to obtain a significant number of missiles," said Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Brothers Institute in Herzliya. "They already talk about how one of the ways they will overcome the missile defense systems is by firing salvos of missiles." (Jerusalem Post)

Israel: Syria's Assad Wants Only Peace Process, Not Peace Accord; Strict Sanctions on Iran Could Make Military Action Unnecessary
Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said Saturday with regard to Syria's President Assad: "What interests Assad is not peace, but rather the peace process. Assad knows very well that he will have to pay for peace with normalization and open his country to the West, which could bring about the toppling of his regime. Assad is only interested in the peace process in order to get his country out of its international isolation and to remove the pressure of the international community." If Assad really wants peace, Ayalon continued, "He must come to the negotiating process without preconditions. It's impossible to desire peace and at the same time support and arm Hizbullah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad."
With regard to stopping Iran's nuclear plans, Ayalon said: "It's possible to stop Iran, which hasn't yet crossed the 'point of no return,' through diplomatic means. Iran is a very weak state in a shaky situation. They cannot withstand real sanctions; their banks and shipping companies are vulnerable. If the world insists on imposing strict sanctions against them, military action may not be necessary." (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):

U.S., Israel Share Strategic Goals - Dore Gold
Will the "two-state solution," which the Obama administration has said it supports, be an enormous sticking point at Monday's summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama? The reality is that although Netanyahu has not embraced this formula, he has stated that Israel does not want to rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. He wants the Palestinians to have all the power necessary to rule themselves, but none of the power to undermine the security of Israel. What that means is that if a Palestinian state were to arise, it would have to be demilitarized and could not sign defense pacts with, say, Iran, allowing it to receive a contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (as Lebanon did in 1982). Instead of waiting for such a situation to arise, N etanyahu is addressing this issue up front. Former Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. (Los Angeles Times)

Israel's Fears, Amalek's Arsenal - Jeffrey Goldberg
Benjamin Netanyahu faces the daunting task of maintaining Israel's relationship with the U.S., while at the same time forestalling Iran's nuclear program. If Iran gains nuclear capacity, Israel will have judged him a failure as prime minister; if he does serious damage to his country's standing in Washington, he will have failed as well. Netanyahu will have a much more difficult time convincing President Obama that Iran poses an existential threat to America. It is certainly true that a nuclear Iran is not in the best interests of the U.S. It would mean, among other things, the probable beginning of a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region, and it would mean that the 30-year-struggle between America and Iran for domination of the Persian Gulf will be over, with Persia the victor. (New York Times)

Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Smart Connection - Oded Eran and Emily B. Landau
A message coming from the Obama administration is that dealing effectively with Iran's nuclear ambitions is contingent on Israel being more forthcoming with regard to peace talks with the Palestinians. Yet Iran is today much higher on the immediate agenda of most of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf as well as Egypt than is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the urgency of the emerging Iranian nuclear threat, they, like Israel, do not have time to wait for success in the Palestinian sphere. The common interest between Israel and these Arab states on Iran is real, and will not disappear if there is not movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Curtailing Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions is the major issue that must be resolved in the first place. In this regard, Netanyahu's equation that says Iran first, and then the Palestinians, rests on solid ground as far as its basic strategic logic. Oded Eran is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and Emily B. Landau is a senior research associate at the institute. (Jerusalem Post)

Netanyahu and Obama Have a Shared Interest in Iran - Reuel Marc Gerecht
Therese Delpech, a leading nonproliferation expert at France's Atomic Energy Commission, warned last October: "We [the Europeans] have negotiated during five years with the Iranians...and we came to the conclusion that they are not interested at all in negotiating, buying time for their military program."
Never before have the Israelis had to confront a rabidly anti-Semitic enemy with nuclear weapons and a long track record of supporting deadly killers such as Hizbullah and Hamas. Western counsel to Israel to calm down and get used to the idea of mullahs with nukes doesn't sit well with a people who have already lived through the unthinkable. Iran's penchant for terrorism, its extensive ties to both radical Sunnis and Shiites, its vibrant anti-Semitism, and th e likelihood that Tehran will become more aggressive with an atom bomb in its arsenal doesn't reinforce the case for patience and perseverance. The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. (Wall Street Journal)
See also Are Obama and Netanyahu Destined to Clash? - David Makovsky (Washington Institute for Near East Policy)


Obama and the Middle East - Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (New York Review of Books)
If the President's objective is to achieve a comprehensive, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will be pursued under unusually inauspicious circumstances.
On the Palestinian side, intense Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have so far failed to stitch the national movement together. Hamas possesses the power to spoil any progress and will use it. It can act as an implacable opponent against any potential Palestinian compromise. Bilateral negotiations that failed when Olmert was prime minister and Hamas was a mere Palestinian faction are unlikely to succeed with Netanyahu at the helm and Hamas having grown into a regional reality.

The other question is what, in short, would a two-state solution actually solve? Peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Unlike Zionism, for whom statehood was the central objective, the Palestinian fight was primarily about other matters. The absence of a state was not the cause of all their misfortune. Its creation would not be the full solution either.

Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine. Establishing a state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, for Americans, and even for a large number of Israelis. But universal endorsement has its downside. The more the two-state solution looks like an American or Western, not to mention Israeli, interest, the less it appeals to Palestinians.
There may be another way. Its starting point would be less of an immediate effort to achieve a two-state agreement or propose U.S. ideas to that effect. Rather, it would be an attempt to transform the political atmosphere and reformulate the diplomatic process.

Hussein Agha is Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. Robert Malley, formerly Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, is currently Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Josiah Boyer on Behar

There is a Talmudic story related to my parasha. Two men are in the desert, and there is only enough water for one man to make it to the next oasis. Who should get the water? The rabbis say that the person most likely to survive may drink the water, even if it means the other person dies.

It’s fitting that Behar is being read on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, because, like this portion, I am very concerned about how we use scarce resources.

The agricultural laws of Behar have a lot to do with giving tzedakah. Elsewhere in the Torah, God states that each farmer must not harvest the corners of his field so that the poor may come and gather what remains. My sister, Aliya, and her class from WFHA, just helped to fulfill this mitzvah. When she was in Israel for two weeks with her 8th grade class trip, they harvested hundreds of pounds of beets which a farm was growing so that it could be distributed to the poor.

In my parashah, the Torah requires that we give the land a rest every seven years and do not plant a crop. But whatever grows, and whatever fruit grows on our trees, is to be left for poor people to harvest. But we also now know how important it is to give the land time to rest, in order to make it stronger and more productive. If you keep working the land, year after year, it loses some of its nutrients. You have to give it time to regenerate. So the Torah was way ahead of its time in its concern for the environment.

Right from the beginning of Bereisheet, it is clear that we are God’s partners in taking care of the land. God planted the first garden, Eden, and gave it to Adam to till and tend. Since then, it’s been our job to protect the environment.

I’ve taken this responsibility very seriously. I have created a website that teaches you about sustainable agriculture.

The URL is

I’ve been working on it for several months. Of course, my family has always had a concern for the environment. We compost in the backyard, raise three chickens and use their eggs, and no visit to our yard is complete without seeing our honeybees. Of course, I still have my two guinea pigs, Peanut and Taffy.

On my site, you will find information about sustainable agriculture and links to other sites that explain it in more detail. I also posted links to several organizations dealing with Judaism and the environment. Judaism has a lot to say about protecting our planet and the environment and it’s a good thing that there are so many organizations raising awareness about this.

In addition, part of the money I receive for my bar mitzvah will be given to some of the organizations listed on the site, including Canfe Nesharim, which means “Wings of Eagles,” an innovative Israeli environmentalist site and COEJL, The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Of course, also JNF, where people can plant trees in Israel—did you know that in the last 107 years the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 MILLION trees?

One other aspect of the Shmita year needs to be mentioned. The laws apply only to the Land of Israel. That’s because that land is considered “God’s Land.” Elsewhere in the Tanach, we read that Israel is supposed to be a “Light unto the nations.” I believe that by keeping the laws of Shmita and letting the land rest every seventh year, Israel can set an example for the rest of the world to follow. We might follow the laws more strictly there, but we need to be stewards of the earth everywhere. If all nations followed these laws, there would be more productivity and a longer time window of productivity.

But that having been said, there is something extra special about the land of Israel. I’ve had the good fortune to visit there many times and there’s no more beautiful place on earth. The sun’s always a little warmer there, the fruit is tastier, and the colors of the landscape are more vivid. I love rafting on the Jordan River, looking into the clear water, where you can almost see the bottom, and passing the willow trees hugging the shore and listening to the sweet sounds of the birds chirping while Elias falls off the raft.

Returning to the Talmudic story that I mentioned at the beginning, water is very scarce in Israel. But leave it to Israel to find ways to conserve water and uncover new sources. If Israel has its way, both of the men in that story would not only survive, they would have swimming pools in their backyards.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I now understand how each of us can pay a crucial role in protecting our planet, because all the land belongs to God.

What Bibi is NOT Talking About in Washington Today - May 11

Study: Quality of Israeli sperm down 40% in past decade
By Ofri Ilani May 11, 2009

The quality of Israeli sperm has declined alarmingly in the last decade, according to recent research conducted at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus.
The cause for the decline is not known, but it's believed by some researchers to be connected to the exposure of children and pregnant women to hormones and other contaminants in food and water.

Conducted by Dr. Ronit Haimov-Kokhman, the study showed a 40-percent decline in the concentration of sperm cells among the country's sperm donors from 2004 to 2008, compared to those of donors from 1995 to 1999. Hadassah's sperm bank is now turning away two-thirds of potential donors because of low-quality sperm, as opposed to one-third in the past.
Haimov-Kokhman's research is to be presented today at a conference of the Israeli Society of Fertility Investigation in Tel Aviv.

Kokhman said the study was carried out to test the theory of the director of Hadassah Hospital's sperm bank, Ruth Har-Nir, that sperm quality was in decline.

The research confirmed that in 10 years, the average concentration of sperm among donors declined from 106 million cells per cubic centimeter to 67 million per cubic centimeter. The rate of sperm motility has also declined: from 79 to 67 percent, although the profile of donors did not change over that period; they are still young, healthy and do not smoke.

According to Haimov-Kokhman, the quality of sperm has declined in most Western countries, but in Israel it has been particularly rapid.

"If we keep going at this rate, a decline of 3 million cubic centimeters of sperm cells per year, we'll reach an average of 20 million in 2030. The World Heath Organization defines this as fertility impairment."

Studies showing a decline in sperm quality began to be published worldwide more than a decade ago, along with research indicating a rise in the rate of defects in the male reproductive system.
In Israel, too, a study was published about a year ago, showing an increase of about 30 percent in defects in the male reproductive system. In addition, in the past decade, the number of cases of testicular cancer has doubled.

A number of chemicals in the ground and in drinking water have been identified as impacting hormone levels and secondary sexual characteristics. These chemicals include plasticizers called phthalates, used in food wrappings, cosmetics and a various insecticides. Studies published in Britain have highlighted a clear connection between continual decline in sperm counts and chemicals in the environment.

"I would suggest that a concentration of estrogen in the water is a cause of change, Haimov-Kokhman says, noting that hormones in the ground come from both human and animal waste that reach the aquifer via sewage. "The ground is full of estrogen that produces estrogen-saturated fruits, vegetables and plants."

A study published in Israel two years ago revealed that the high level of female hormones in a stream near Beit She'an, apparently originating from women swimmers who were taking birth-control pills, caused fish to develop female characteristics. However, the researchers say that the level of hormones in the country's main waterways is negligible, and cannot be the source of impairment of the male reproductive system.

"While it's true that the evidence is only circumstantial, even the connection between smoking and lung cancer took a generation to prove," Haimov-Kokhman notes.

What Bibi is Discussing at the White House Today

"Seven Existential Threats to Israel" - Commentary Magazine, by Michael Oren, Israel's new ambasssador to America.

See also:

"For the Sake of Clarity - A Thought Experiment," by Daniel Gordis, Jerusalem Pose, May 15

He was in his 20s, the young man with the question after my lecture. He couldn't have asked it more kindly or gently. Without a hint of cynicism or anger, he expressed what was clearly on the minds of many of the people his age in the crowd: "Can you justify a Jewish state," he wanted to know, "when having a Jewish state means giving up on so many of Judaism's values?"

Here's what he didn't say: Israel is the root of evil in the Middle East. It's the cause of checkpoints, of roadblocks, of a big ugly wall that runs along a border no one has agreed to. The Palestinians are desperate, and in the massive imbalance of power, they have no chance and no hope. Israel is the nuclear bully in a region that, were it not for Israel's existence, would no longer be on the front page. To achieve peace in the Middle East, Israel just needs to be subdued. Break Israel's intransigence, and we'll finally see progress.

That was his unspoken claim, and now it's also the position of the Obama administration. At AIPAC's recent Policy Conference, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John Kerry made it clear that for the US to support Israel on Iran, Israel must settle the Palestinian problem once and for all. It has been widely reported that Rahm Emanuel, in an off-the-record session, said precisely the same thing. After decades of tacit agreement that the US would remain silent about Israel's nuclear capability, a State Department official publicly suggested that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as if, on the eve of Iran's going nuclear and with Pakistani weapons in danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban, Israel's nuclear arsenal is the world's most serious concern.

A new message is afloat - Israel is the problem, and the US has had enough.Even the pope couldn't help himself. His comments about the victims of the Holocaust were so tepid as to be outrageous, but he had no problem calling urgently for an immediate Palestinian state, as if Israelis haven't tried to create one for decades.

The young American Jews in my audience, clearly struggling with the morality of a Jewish state, now have the Obama administration and the pope echoing all their misgivings.

I have no illusions that all this can be changed overnight, but with the upcoming Binyamin Netanyahu-Barack Obama meetings putting Israel into the spotlight once again, I'd like to propose the following thought experiment - at least to these young American Jews, and possibly to Obama himself.

IMAGINE THAT ISRAELIS decide that by Jerusalem Day, this coming week, they want a deal. So we take down the security fence. We remove the checkpoints. We open all the roads, and Gaza's sea and air routes. We agree publicly to return to something closely approximating the pre-1967 borders, and we accede to the demands that parts of Jerusalem be internationally governed, or even put under Palestinian control.

Does this end the conflict? Of course it doesn't. The Hamas Charter calls not only for the destruction of Israel, but for Islamic war on Jews everywhere. (Why do we consistently refuse to believe that Hamas means what it says?) What would change? The noose would tighten. The rockets would be fired from a shorter distance and the demand for the return of refugees (thus ending the Jewishness of the state) would persist. As was the case when Israel left Lebanon in May 2000 or Gaza in the summer of 2005, Israel's enemies would smell a weakened, bloodied state and would prepare for the next stage of their war.

But peace would not have come. Much as we all want this conflict to end, does anyone really doubt that? There is, as honest brokers must admit, nothing that Israel can do to end this conflict.

NOW, HOWEVER, TRY the opposite side of the thought experiment. Imagine that the Palestinians decide that they have tired of the conflict, or their electorate begins its long-overdue rebellion and insists on a settlement. So the Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah, demand everything Israel's agreed to above - an end to roadblocks and the wall, an opening of Gaza, a bridge or a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank and a return to the 1967 borders. Let's say that they even insist on Palestinian control of east Jerusalem.

But they also recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. They agree to an immediate and permanent cessation of hostilities and violence (this is a thought experiment, after all) and insist that any other outstanding issues be negotiated and resolved with the US and the Quartet as intermediaries. And they require Israelis to vote within a month, no longer, on whether to accept the deal.

Will there be Israelis who object? Will there be residents of the West Bank who will resist leaving their homes? Yes, there will be. But would an Israeli plebiscite overwhelmingly approve the offer? Without question. In a matter of weeks, three quarters of a century of bloodshed and suffering would come to an end.

This, of course, is not going to happen, because all the new rhetoric notwithstanding, and all the confusion of today's young American Jews aside, there's always been one party that's sought peace, and another that's rejected it. It was true in 1948, and it was true in Khartoum. It's no less true today.

It's never been up to us, and it's always been up to them.

But this simplistic thought experiment is worth considering not because it can be implemented, but because it brings one unfortunate truth into stark focus. Young American Jews ought to take note: Israel cannot end this conflict. It can weaken itself, but the only way it can bring peace to the region is to go out of business.

If that is what the peacemakers really seek, we'll see that soon enough, with frightening clarity.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Craig Taubman Returns to TBE

In the winter of 2000, two things of note occurred: the Pope visited Israel and Craig Taubman came to Stamford. Both visits were historic. The Pope's changed the way Jews and Catholics talk to one another and Craig's "Friday Night Live" changed the way we talk to God. My reactions at the time were strongly stated and somewhat controversial in the cantorial world (see the article here), but I felt that this style of service was the new wave that would soon become normative in the Jewish world. I'm not right about everything (for sure!) but I was right about that.

I was speaking to Craig Taubman about that very topic a few weeks ago, in anticipation of his return here, which occurred last night. I guess Craig comes to Stamford every time a Pope visits Israel. Indeed, the style of communal worship pioneered by people like himself and Debbie Friedman, with many newer variations and spin offs, has now become the standard. Successful congregations everywhere have looked to these new forms as ways of reviving their own staid, stale sanctuaries.

So what could Craig bring us this time around? He already made history the last time. What kind of encore could possibly come after that? After all, the Pope's visit this week was at best anti-climactic, given the historic nature of the prior one. Would Craig's second appearance here also be less memorable?

Well, on one level, things never will be as they were on that cold night in January, 2000. That was our first opportunity to sing unto God this new song. But what we got last night was no less inspiring, perhaps because some of it was so familiar. The walls were shaking at times, not with his voice but with our own voices. We danced - which Taubman told me almost never happens at his concerts - though often on Friday nights. And in fact, for while last night I thought WAS Friday night. Shabbat came one night earlier this week. Craig Taubman gave us an even greater gift than last time: an extra day of Shabbat - one more night to loosen our ties and lose our worries, to smile and enjoy simply being together, to look at the hundreds of people around us and feel like a family, to send off one of our families, the Goldblums, to Israel, with our blessings and love (and quite a bit of cash for tzedakkah), to kvell over our kids in the junior choir and to sing, simply to sing.

He interspersed some new and some old favorites. His most recent creation, a version of Yedid Nefesh, was lovely. We all swayed to the duet of "Hashkivenu" done with the cantor, loved the "Shehechianu" performed with our choir and then he ended with two of my all time personal Taubman favorites, "Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash" and "Master of All Things."

Craig Taubman gave us the chance to bring Shabbat into our lives on a Thursday night. What greater gift could we hope for?

Sustainable Torah from Josiah Boyer

Here's a homework assignment to do before tomorrow's service. Take a peek at the website created by this week's bar mitzvah, Josiah Boyer, as part of his mitzvah project.

You can find it at

Josiah picks up on the notion of the Sabbatical year as described in his portion, and then gives us a complete primer on the topic of sustainable agriculture, something near and dear to him and his family.

The site contains resources for the understanding of Jewish environmentalism (or as some call it, eco-kashrut) and this portion of Behar, along with donation suggestions, related links and a detailed description of Josiah's science project on "whether seeds planted in soil with more nitrogen grow faster and are healthier than seeds planted in soil with less nitrogen, or no nitrogen at all (if possible)."

Is this a science project or a dissertation? Amazing!

Check it out!

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Lauren Tuckman on Emor

Shabbat Shalom!

In my portion, as you can see, the priests had a very set script. There were lots of rules that they had to follow and very little room for self expression. They were like the actors and actresses of their day, and the presentations they put on were very powerful… but no one ever really thought of them as leaders. Moses was the leader… the priests weren’t.

As many of you know, and the rest of you might be able to guess - I love acting. I go to acting camp and I’ve been in a number of shows, both there and back home, including “Music Man” twice!

I’ve always loved Broadway shows. I went to my first one when I was around the age of three. I’ve been to lots and lots of shows; in fact, just in the past few weeks I’ve seen Shrek and Hair. My all time favorites are Hairspray and 13.

The great thing about both shows, especially Hairspray, is that they talk about the tough choices teens have to make. It’s so important that teen feel free to be able to express who they really are.

The funny thing is, that the actors who are doing this are actually reading SOMEONE ELSE’S WORDS! They are not being themselves at all, but are going according to a script and a director’s instructions.

I also love to dance, and can tell you that the same is true for dancers. We’re dancing to someone else’s music and someone else’s choreography.

The key is to be able to take those words and that choreography and fly with it – to make them your own.

That’s what I try to do when I dance and when I act.

And that’s what a bat mitzvah does too. This morning, I’ve been chanting words written twenty five HUNDRED years ago - and the key is to make them my own. That’s what I’ve tried to do here today.

One way to make those words come alive is through speeches like this. Another way, is through performing mitzvot. For my mitzvah project, I’ve been selling hand-made bracelets to raise money. I designed them and made them myself, with some help from my friends. You can find more about this project in my booklet; I’ll be taking orders all day today.