Monday, August 31, 2009

Doctor Rambam's Prescription: Health Care and Maimonides

This Shabbat morning we'll be talking about Maimonides' guidelines for character development. As a physician and rabbi, he understood that the key to a sound mind was to maintain a sound body.

In his Mishna Torah, Maimonides listed the top ten services that must be provided by any community. It is noteworthy that #1 on his list is health care. What was true 9 centuries ago is true today.

23) It is not permitted for a learned sage to live in a town which does not have the following ten things: a doctor, a blood-letter, a wash-house, a toilet, naturally occurring water such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a midwife, a scribe, a warden of charity and a Court of Law
which imprisons people.

See the entire chapter on health (it's fascinating - remember, he was a doctor) at
Did you know, for instance, that

...One should not eat until one's stomach is [very] full, but one should [only] eat until one's stomach is three-quarters full. Nor should one drink water during a meal, except a little mixed with wine, but once the food begins to digest one should what one needs to drink, but one should never drink too much, even when the food digests. One should nor eat unless one has checked oneself to make sure that one does not need to relieve oneself. One should not eat unless one has first relieved oneself, or until one's body gets warm, or unless one has worked at something else first. The general rule of the matter is that one should always answer one's body. In the morning, one should work until one's body gets warm, then one should wait until one's soul has settled, and then one may eat. It is good to wash in hot water after having worked, then wait a while, and then eat.

Who needs "Doctor Mom" when we can get the straight dope from "Dr. Rambam."

Shabbat-O-Gram Archives 2002-2008

For more than a decade, I've been sending my congregation a weekly Shabbat-O-Gram. While that format has now been replaced by this blog, I want to preserve the archived links here so that people can continue to access them. These O-Grams are a window into the recent history of TBE, containing photos, Bar Mitzvah speeches, announcements, Super Bowl predictions and essays by congregants. You can access them here, by clicking on the dates:

Jun 20, 2008
Jun 13, 2008
May 30, 2008
May 23, 2008
May 16, 2008
May 9, 2008
May 2, 2008
Apr 25, 2008
Apr 14, 2008
Apr 4, 2008
Mar 28, 2008
Mar 14, 2008
Mar 7, 2008
Feb 29, 2008
Feb 15, 2008
Sep 29, 1981
Feb 8, 2008
Feb 1, 2008
Jan 25, 2008
Jan 18, 2008
Jan 11, 2008
Jan 4, 2008
Dec 21, 2007
Dec 19, 2007
Dec 15, 2007
Dec 14, 2007
Dec 7, 2007
Nov 30, 2007
Nov 16, 2007
Nov 9, 2007
Oct 26, 2007
Oct 19, 2007
Oct 12, 2007
Sep 21, 2007
Sep 7, 2007
Jun 23, 2007
Jun 15, 2007
Jun 8, 2007
Jun 1, 2007
May 18, 2007
May 11, 2007
May 4, 2007
Apr 27, 2007
Apr 20, 2007
Apr 13, 2007
Mar 30, 2007
Mar 23, 2007
Mar 16, 2007
Mar 9, 2007
Mar 2, 2007
Feb 16, 2007
Feb 9, 2007
Feb 2, 2007
Jan 26, 2007
Jan 19, 2007
Jan 12, 2007
Jan 5, 2007
Dec 15, 2006
Dec 8, 2006
Dec 1, 2006
Nov 17, 2006
Nov 10, 2006
Nov 4, 2006
Oct 27, 2006
Oct 20, 2006
Oct 13, 2006
Oct 6, 2006
Sep 29, 2006
Sep 15, 2006
Sep 8, 2006
Aug 11, 2006
Aug 4, 2006
Jul 28, 2006
Jun 24, 2006
Jun 17, 2006
Jun 10, 2006
May 27, 2006
May 20, 2006
May 13, 2006
May 6, 2006
Apr 29, 2006
Apr 8, 2006
Mar 31, 2006
Mar 25, 2006
Mar 18, 2006
Mar 11, 2006
Mar 4, 2006
Feb 18, 2006
Feb 11, 2006
Feb 4, 2006
Jan 28, 2006
Jan 21, 2006
Jan 7, 2006
Dec 23, 2005
Dec 16, 2005
Dec 9, 2005
Dec 2, 2005
Nov 18, 2005
Nov 11, 2005
Nov 4, 2005
Oct 28, 2005
Oct 21, 2005
Oct 14, 2005
Oct 7, 2005
Sep 30, 2005
Sep 23, 2005
Sep 16, 2005
Sep 9, 2005
Sep 2, 2005
Jun 24, 2005
Jun 17, 2005
Jun 10, 2005
Jun 3, 2005
May 27, 2005
May 20, 2005
May 13, 2005
May 6, 2005
Apr 15, 2005
Apr 8, 2005
Apr 1, 2005
Mar 25, 2005
Mar 18, 2005
Mar 11, 2005
Mar 4, 2005
Feb 18, 2005
Feb 11, 2005
Feb 4, 2005
Jan 28, 2005
Jan 21, 2005
Jan 14, 2005
Jan 7, 2005
Dec 17, 2004
Dec 10, 2004
Dec 3, 2004
Nov 19, 2004
Nov 12, 2004
Nov 5, 2004
Oct 29, 2004
Oct 22, 2004
Oct 15, 2004
Oct 1, 2004
Sep 24, 2004
Sep 10, 2004
Sep 3, 2004
Jun 25, 2004
Jun 18, 2004
Jun 11, 2004
Jun 4, 2004
May 21, 2004
May 14, 2004
May 7, 2004
Apr 30, 2004
Apr 23, 2004
Apr 16, 2004
Apr 2, 2004
Mar 26, 2004
Mar 19, 2004
Mar 12, 2004
Mar 5, 2004
Feb 27, 2004
Feb 13, 2004
Feb 6, 2004
Jan 30, 2004
Jan 23, 2004
Jan 16, 2004
Jan 9, 2004
Dec 20, 2003
Dec 19, 2003
Dec 12, 2003
Dec 5, 2003
Nov 28, 2003
Nov 21, 2003
Nov 7, 2003
Oct 31, 2003
Oct 26, 2003
Oct 24, 2003
Oct 19, 2003
Oct 12, 2003
Oct 5, 2003
Sep 26, 2003
Sep 19, 2003
Sep 12, 2003
Jun 27, 2003
Jun 20, 2003
Jun 13, 2003
May 31, 2003
May 30, 2003
May 23, 2003
May 16, 2003
May 9, 2003
May 2, 2003
Apr 11, 2003
Apr 4, 2003
Mar 28, 2003
Mar 21, 2003
Mar 14, 2003
Mar 7, 2003
Feb 28, 2003
Feb 14, 2003
Feb 7, 2003
Jan 31, 2003
Jan 24, 2003
Jan 17, 2003
Jan 10, 2003
Jan 3, 2003
Dec 20, 2002
Dec 13, 2002
Dec 6, 2002
Nov 22, 2002
Nov 15, 2002
Nov 8, 2002
Nov 1, 2002
Oct 25, 2002
Oct 18, 2002
Oct 12, 2002
Oct 5, 2002
Sep 27, 2002
Sep 20, 2002
Sep 13, 2002
Sep 6, 2002
Aug 31, 2002
Aug 24, 2002
Aug 17, 2002
Aug 10, 2002
Aug 3, 2002
Jun 22, 2002
Jun 15, 2002
Jun 8, 2002
Jun 1, 2002
May 17, 2002
May 10, 2002
May 3, 2002
Apr 27, 2002
Apr 20, 2002
Apr 12, 2002
Mar 22, 2002
Mar 15, 2002
Mar 8, 2002
Mar 1, 2002
Feb 23, 2002
Feb 16, 2002
Feb 9, 2002
Feb 2, 2002
Jan 25, 2002

Deuteronomy and the Jacee Dugard case

I always find the Torah relevant. Heck, that's my job. But there are times when I'm reading the Torah portion on a Shabbat morning and it's as it were that morning's newspaper. it just jumps out at you. Such a moment happened last Shabbat, when I got to Deuteronomy 24:7 and immediately thought of the Jacee Dugard kidnapping case. People are fascinated about how someone could be abducted 18 years ago and never be given the opportunity to escape. The fact that she may have in fact become attached to her abductors is nothing new. So now we are reading about the Stockholm Syndrome (see Hearst: Patty). We're all so curious about how that could happen.

But it shouldn't reduce by one iota our outrage. Rather than being fascinated by the psychology of the criminal and victim, we need to focus on the morality of the crime itself. Deuteronomy brings us right back to those moral basics:

If a man kidnaps a fellow Israelite, forces him to serve and then sells him, when the kidnapper is caught, he shall be put to death. You shall thus rid yourself of the evil in your midst.

Rashi and the Talmud note that "forces to serve" "hitamer" means "does business." Sifre makes it clear that it is not the kidnapping alone that makes this a capital crime, it is the enslavement of the individual - using that person as an object, for monetary gain.

All this happened with this child - and then add what likely would be considered rape to the mix. The message of this verse is clear:


But Jewish law also makes it nearly impossible that the penalty would ever be able to be carried out. What appears as a capital crime in the Torah is almost never carried out in post-biblical sources. The rabbis were careful not to treat human life as callously as these monsters do, even when it meant - and means - keeping most of them alive. These days, as DNA evidence is clearing many death row inmates many years after their convictions, we are discovering how right the rabbis were in their caution.

Still, it is reassuring that such a crime is on the books, (on THE book, as it were) as something akin to murder. Jaycee may get her life back at some point, but her childhood and innocence were ruthlessly taken from her.

I read that verse and nodded. Yes, Phillip Garrido deserves the chair. But we're going to confound him even more by forcing him to bend to a moral code that is far more humane than any that he has ever considered.

Foreboding Commentary on Israeli Politics and Education

I always enjoy reading Marc Shulman's daily analysis of what's happening in Israel. Sunday's is especially important and foreboding - and not so enjoyable. This time, the greatest threats are internal: the complete corruption of Israeli politics, as evidenced by the indictment of the former Prime Minister, along with some short-sighted kid-glove treatment of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population following yet another week of Shabbat rioting over the opening of a parking lot in a non Haredi area of Jerusalem. Add to this some educational statistics that are downright scary: the combined Arab and Haredi school population is about to cross the 50% threshold of all Israeli school children. Neither group is mainstreamed into the regular Israeli public schools and the Haredi "graduates" of the system are virtually unemployable.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Elul Project #2 - Remembrances of High Holidays Past

My thanks to Rosalea Fisher for contributing her reflections on the High Holidays. You are cordially invited to send me yours!

When I think of my childhood during the High Holidays, I think of our large synagogue in Philadelphia. It really was a synagogue and a JCC combined. Every week I played basketball downstairs in the gym in my high sneakers and attended Shabbat Jr. Congregation services upstairs.

On the High Holidays, I remember sitting in a very large auditorium because our family could not afford the cost of the seats in the main sanctuary. I sat next to my parents, often helping my Mother find her place on the page. She had recently learned to read Hebrew and always wanted to know where we were on the page. I remember fasting from a very early age, years before becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

If I close my eyes now, I can hear the choir singing majestically, almost angelically, behind a screen. I always wondered how they were able to sing all day as they fasted. Those were the days of long operatic-style performance pieces scattered throughout the long service. Sometimes I even lost my place during those moments and was unable to help my mother find hers. As a teenager, I often congregated with hundreds of other young people in front of the synagogue visiting with my friends, perhaps spending less time with my parents.

On Yom Kippur we walked home (we lived two blocks from our Temple) in the afternoon and set the table for our family break-the-fast dinner. My sister was in charge of having everything ready when we returned home. Then my Mother and I walked back to Temple to pray together until sundown and the end of the service. We came home to a dairy dinner with my family - sometimes blintzes, sometimes lox and scrambled eggs, sometimes tuna salad, always a large glass of orange juice. I remember eating just a little bit and becoming satisfied very quickly. A little piece of bobka, and that was it for me.

Being with my Mother in synagogue, listening to the choir, praying together, and finally enjoying our break-the-fast meal with my family. What more could a young Jewish girl ask for - nothing.

Rosalea S. Fisher

Friday, August 28, 2009

Inglourious Revenge

Click here for Amichai Lau Levi's provocative discussion of how this week's parsha deals with death, in stark contrast to the new film "Inglourious Basterds." There is much else to chew over from that film as well - as he puts it:

It’s beautifully shot, and very compelling. It’s not just the violence and the manipulation that makes me shudder at how much I’ve enjoyed the slaughter of the bad guys. I can’t put my finger on it (partially because perhaps this film is such a specific dialogue with other films and other film genres) but I sense that he is saying something important about what we choose to remember, and how we choose to deal with our rage, and how we make – or don’t make – sense of the past. There is a big conversation to be had here about revenge (and about Jewish fantasies of revenge) but I don’t want to discuss that. I just want to think about how he made me think about death.

Click here for Rabbi Irwin Kula's take, from the Huffington Post. He writes:

There may be six million stories in the Holocaust but Inglorious Basterds tells the one we have been afraid to tell about ourselves: the story of what we would really like to do to those Nazis.

Actually, it's the second. The first was "Defiance," also released this year. Is this the beginning of a pattern of revenge flicks? have we run out of contemporary villains that we need to bring back the "Krauts" to beat up? Ever since "Munich" was released a few years ago, Arab terrorists seem to have become passe as venge-objects. It's even hard to hate Iranians these days.

The Torah gives mixed messages. In this week's portion we are told to remember (Zachor) what Amalek did to us and then blot out their names. But Leviticus 19:18 instructs us not to take revenge or bear a grudge. If the Torah seems confused, that's because we are too. Revenge is a messy proposition, because it rarely leaves the avenger unsullied. The avenger then becomes the next person's object of scorn. The Torah offers ways out of this mess - like Cities of Refuge. Maybe the message here is that Amalek is the exception to the rule, whereas in other cases, the rage should be tempered. And even here, Amalek was not to be avenged with emotive fervor, but ritualistically and dispassionately (though no less ruthlessly).

Jews don't do vengeance well. But we certainly are experts at ruminating about it.

Full disclosure: I haven't seen "Basterds" yet. I get the creeps at bloody movies.... I nearly fainted watching "Twilight." But it's on my list and it sounds like one of the films I'll need to see for professional purposes, right up there with "The Passion."

Mitzvah Heroes

"Mitzvah" will be a prime theme of ours this coming year and the UJC has initiated an interesting search for a Mitzvah Hero of the Year. I guess one could call this reality show, "American Idol Smasher."
Click here for a list of all 613 mitzvot. Look it over and then think of one you might want to call your own. I'd love for each of us to develop a "signature mitzvah," and this UJC project might give you some ideas. Maybe you've even got a hero to nominate.

Every now and then, we meet people who are truly making a difference in our community — a woman who’s counseling children undergoing cancer treatment, a college student who works with the homeless, or a teacher who’s helping severely developmentally disabled kids. The list can be virtually endless.

But now we want to recognize these dedicated people through the Jewish Community Heroes project, a national program that’s honoring people dedicated to tikkun olam, repairing the world. If there’s someone you know who’s making a difference in the New York area, nominate them to be named the Jewish Community Hero of the Year for the chance to win national recognition for their work and $25,000 to invest in their program.

Also see these other mitzvah links:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

G-dcast for Ki Tetze

Hey G-dcasters,
A mitzvah is a commandment, and this week's parsha is chock full of them - 70 mitzvahs all told! Join Israeli environmental leader Jeremy Benstein, some cats, dogs, oxen, donkeys and more than a few birds to hear what the Torah has to say about a special one: preventing the suffering of animals.

Parshat Ki Teitzei from

More Torah cartoons at

Ask the Rabbi: Can I Be Agnostic and Still Go to Synagogue?

Another "Ask the Rabbi" question from About.Com. Read it also at

Q. Rabbi, I am a Jewish teenager and I had my bat mitzvah three years ago. I think I am reaching the age in which I evaluate what I have learned in my life thus far along the lines of morality and spirituality. A personal opinion I have reached thus far is that the world may be better off without organized religion, because maybe it would cause the human race to think deeper and actually reach a belief other than that which has been planted in them their whole life. Despite believing this, I have no regrets in being raised Jewish, because there are many things I did learn that had little to do with religion, but much to do with self-discovery. Aside from this I believe I have reached the conclusion that I am agnostic, perhaps an agnostic theist. I still practice judaism, because I would love to believe, with every fiber of my being that there is a higher power, but I have many questions left to be answered. Though I don't think they can be answered by anything but my own journey through life. It scares me to think of the possibility that there may not be a higher power, but I think if there is G-d and we are judged after our time on Earth, living with compassion towards my fellow man is just as important as how much one may express that they believe in G-d. Is it unusual for me to be reaching these conclusions at such a young age and if I am agnostic, is it odd that I still try to find G-d (go to synagogue)?

A. You bring up some excellent points in your question - and it is very important for you to know that you are headed in just the right direction on your spiritual journey. Your dilemma points out some of the basic differences between Judaism and its monotheistic cousins, Christianity and Islam. Although it is always dangerous to generalize, Judaism is primarily a religion of action, whereas Christianity concentrates on dogma (principles of faith) and Islam on submission to God's will. So in Judaism, while we have many actions that are required, we can believe just about anything we want, whether about God, heaven, or you name it.

That doesn't mean that belief in God is irrelevant, just that all manner of questioning and doubt are encouraged and expected. In fact, the very name "Israel" means to "wrestle with God," as Jacob did when he received that name. I know that I wrestle with concepts of God just about every day of my life. Judaism begins with questions. Think about it, just about the first Jewish passage that a child recites in public is the Four Questions on Passover. And that key role played by the child is at the core of the whole Seder experience.

Did you know that the study of Torah is best done in pairs or groups? That's so that one can always be asking questions, poking holes into the theory of the other. The more questions we ask, the closer to Truth we can get. They say that Jews are always answering a question with another question. Is this true? So what's bad about that? (Oh, I just did it).

As long as we keep asking questions, we'll never take anything for granted and the religion will never stagnate. I agree that organized religion tends to get bogged down in routine and we sometimes lose our way. But people like you will keep Judaism from falling into that trap.
In the main prayer called the Amidah, we address God as "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." Many congregations add the matriarchs as well (mine does). So the question is asked, why doesn't it simply say "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" The answer is that each generation of our ancestors experienced God in a different way. The same is true with us. I believe that every generation needs to "re-invent" God. It doesn't mean that God doesn't exist, simply that each individual needs to find its way to "sing unto God a new song" - and you do too.

In the meantime, by all means continue to go to synagogue. Let the prayers inspire you not as the quick roadmap to God, but as the journal of hundreds of generations of people asking tough questions, people just like you. Self discovery has everything to do with religion, and you are well along on this journey. Keep on practicing mitzvot, because they'll help you as guideposts on this journey. Each one performed will bring you one step closer to a life filled with incredible richness and meaning, and the answers to at least some of your questions will become self evident.

Thanks for a terrific question!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Senator Ted Kennedy, z'l

Accolades are pouring in for Ted Kennedy, and deservedly so. He was a great friend of the Jewish community and Israel. On a personal note, Kennedy was always responsive to the needs of the weakest in society and, because of his sister's condition, he was a greater supporter of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. At one time, my father was chair of the Boston Association for Retarded Children and I can recall just how supportive Sen. Kennedy was to those efforts. He was truly loved by all the "little people." We all felt that we had a voice in Washington through him.

Congregant John Graubard sent this to me, from the "Talking Points Memo" website.

It is a small part of his great legacy but it should not go unmentioned that Ted Kennedy was one of the few senators who rarely, if ever, yielded to the pressure to join the Israel-is-always-right caucus. The mindless jingoism of his colleagues was not his way (nor is it John Kerry's) and when he addressed the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he was compassionate and even-handed. He was not your standard "liberal on everything but Israel" type.

The axe to grind in that first paragraph notwithstanding, the anecdote described below is well worth the read. As for that first line, it represents a totally warped mindset that is all too prevalent. It confuses unconditional, unbreakable love for "mindless jingoism" and assumes that public support isn't often accompanied by privately expressed, supportive advice. Finally, if even-handedness means moral equivalence, no way was he "even handed." Not in the least.

At its best, even-handed means that all peoples of the region deserve, equally, to live in peace and dignity. No innocent civilian should be the target of random attack and no nation should have to stand up to mortal threats. That's even handedness.

Read on.

Professor Leonard Fein from Boston (of Americans for Peace Now) -- who has spent a lifetime struggling for Middle East peace -- offers this beautiful remembrance of Ted Kennedy today. He describes a small incident in Kennedy's long life but one that tells us a lot about the man.

"On the morning of the day before the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, Senator Ted Kennedy called the White House to inquire if it was appropriate to bring to the burial some earth from Arlington National Cemetery. The answer was essentially a shrug: Who knows? Unadvised, the senator carried a shopping bag onto the plane, filled with earth he had himself dug the afternoon before from the graves of his two murdered brothers. And at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, after waiting for the crowd and the cameras to disperse, he dropped to his hands and knees, and gently placed that earth on the grave of the murdered prime minister.

No spin, no photo op; a man unreasonably familiar with bidding farewell to slain heroes, a man in mourning, quietly making tangible a miserable connection."

Miserable it is. But how much more miserable it would be if we never had these heroes at all?

Here's a collection of tributes from Jewish groups compiled by the JTA

And here's what AIPAC mentioned in its tribute:

Senator Edward Kennedy, A Great Friend of Israel

Sen. Kennedy was a longstanding supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

AIPAC joins all Americans in mourning the loss of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and a true and longstanding friend of America's pro-Israel community.

During his more than four decades in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Kennedy consistently supported American assistance to Israel, particularly during the Jewish state's most trying times, in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. He led the fight against U.S. arms sales to Israel's enemies, spoke out forcefully against the Arab League boycott of Israel and was a fierce critic of the United Nations' isolation of the Jewish state; he urged his colleagues to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital, and warned of the dangers of global terrorism.

Sen. Kennedy became the leading champion for persecuted Soviet Jewry, advocating on behalf of refuseniks and those Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union, personally raising their issues with Soviet leaders at every possible opportunity, and demanding that the United States provide loan guarantees to Israel to absorb Jewish refugees.

Senator Kennedy's legacy of leadership on these issues and his lifelong support for one of America's closest allies are hallmarks of his historic career devoted to serving the best interests of the American people and our values. He will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Several years back, I was part of an experimental effort of Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR) designed to help congregations in their spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. It was a series of discussions communicated electronically; we called it the Elul Project. You can still read about it online here and see my own contrivbutino to it here.

My colleague Neil Kurshan is doing a different sort of Elul Project with his Long Island congregnats this month, inviting them to submit personal reflections and recollections having to do with the High Holidays. I think that is a great idea and would like to try it here.

I'll post your reflections on this blog and on our website, with minimal editing.

Send me antything: One line anecdotes or entire chapters. poetry, thoughts about specific prayers, moments of history here at TBE (like the time the fire alarm went off during Kol Nidre) or at your hometown shul, or other favorite moments; recipes, theological insights, haikus, Tweets. personal thoughts about being Jewish. A travelogue from Israel or Jewish sites elsewhere. Comments are welcome from congregants or others in our extended family, relatives and friends, including college students and recent graduaates, Young Professionals and retirees who have moved away. Let's reach out across the cyber airways to share our thoughts.

Also, I'd love to hear about some special mitzvahs you or someone you know may be up to. We call them "signature mitzvot" and this will be a main focus for the year.

You name it. Let this be our way of preparing. I would love to hear from you!

All of this is a way of introducing our first Elul Reflection for this year. It was written by Matt Raskin, son of Irma and Dan (of blessed memory) and Dan is now a member of Rabbi Kurshan's congtregation. But he grew up here and this essay is all about that.

Thanks to Dan and Irma for sharing it with us.



I recall first sounding the shofar at my Junior Congregation at Temple Beth El Stamford CT in the mid 1960's. I had asked the principal of Hebrew School if I could try the shofar. I told him I think I can do it because I'm a trumpet player. I must have been around 10. Mr. Paul Lehman said "Ok, here is the shofar!" and he gave me a pamphlet that described the three notes. I went into the library and proceeded to blow. That Rosh Hashana I recall I blew for the Jr. Congregation, and my 4th grade Hebrew teacher. Mr. Abe Hecht pinched my cheek on the bima in front of all my classmates. That was the beginning. I repeated this performance each year and when the shul moved to our newly constructed synagogue in North Stamford, I was honored while in High School to share the honor on Rosh Hashanah sounding the shofar with Mr. Al Golin, the Shul's president. I used the shofar I hand picked in the lower East Side in 1969 when my mother and aunt brought me there that summer to purchase my Bar Mitzvah talit and the tefillin that I still wear today at Minyan.

I recall also during Elul attending Minyan while in High School with my father and uncle Oscar Gelb. When the head usher for the shul asked my uncle if he knew someone who could blow the shofar, my uncle exclaimed, “Matthew can do it!” I was up at the bima in an instant that morning of Elul sounding..tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah godolah!

While I did not sound the shofar during college, in retrospect I wish I had. When I moved to the small upstate town of Cortland NY, I had the opportunity to blow the shofar for the small shul there, and it was very much appreciated and such a deep honor for me as a young adult in my 20's. It really gave me a sense of who I was as a Jew at this time.

Then in 1987 when I moved back to the metro area to Huntington and attended Rosh Hashanah services with my parents and my wife, Darlene. After the holiday meal my mother prepared, my father and I would visit two nursing homes assigned by the cantor to sound the shofar for those who otherwise could not hear it. My father would say, “Let's blow it together.”, and I'd say, “That will sound dissonant...”, but I did anyway because my dad wanted it that way. We felt good about the good deed we did together

Then there was the shofar contest my dad and I were in at the Stamford Jewish Center hosted by our Cantor, Sidney Rabinowitz. My dad created a card board mock set of Walls of Jericho and when we blew, he knocked down the walls for special effect. We won a special prize. I got a wonderful recording of Jan Pierce chanting cantorial masterpieces, very inspiring.

Well, on the day of my father's funeral I found his shofar as I was allowed to blow shofar at his grave site. The funeral was only days after Rosh Hashana. When I found his shofar, I went over to the piano and sounded it and compared it to mine that I picked out in 1969. It was only then that I realized how these two shofarot were musically related. They were not dissonant at all. They were musically connected.. where one left off the other continued. I could explain this by demonstrating as I did during his eulogy. If I recall, mine started on G and went to C. His started at C and went up a perfect forth to F, ascending to heaven or to infinity spiritually I thought...

So you see the shofar has played a very important and significant part in my life during Elul and the High Holidays. I am so fortunate to be able to sound the shofar as I can, and to have the wonderful opportunity to continue my journey as a Ba’al Tekiah at HJC. TEKIAH!


Matt Raskin
Moshe Chaim ben David

A New Jewish High School

The Jewish community of southern Connecticut is about gain a most welcome addition: a new Jewish High School will open next year. See the letter below, announcing the exciting news:

August 25, 2009

Dear Friend:

It is with great enthusiasm that I write to you today, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, to announce that the Jewish High School of Connecticut has raised sufficient funds to open the school in the fall of 2010.

I am writing to you as a supporter and visionary. For many, new ideas are often hard to conceptualize. But you, as our partner, were willing to dream and consider the potential of a Jewish high school in Southern Connecticut.

Over the past four months, our fundraising accelerated as a result of a generous challenge grant from Michael Steinhardt. The challenge contextualized the reality of the school – inspiring our community to determine whether we wanted a high school. We are thrilled that we can report to you that the community said, “Yes,” backing their affirmation with gifts and pledges.

Thank you for your support. This was truly a collaboration of many individuals and institutions. We are proud of our efforts thus far, and we will continue to implement our fundraising and development programs to ensure the long-term sustainability of the school.

As we move forward to this next stage we will be working on many fronts. Under Rabbi Harwitz’s stalwart leadership, we will be recruiting our founding faculty and staff, developing innovative programming and welcoming our first cadre of students for the fall of 2010.

We are determined to create a school that inspires our students for a life of learning, responsible action and passion for their identity as Jews.

We have great expectations. The excitement and opportunities for participation have just begun. We hope that you will continue to be an integral partner as we move to our next phase.

With tremendous gratitude and respect,

Susan Birke Fiedler

Friday, August 21, 2009

In Support of "Death Panels"

No not really, but this Shabbat morning at services we'll be discussing the current health care issues, and yes, in a rational manner! No one knows where the "Death Panels" scare tactic originated in the midst of the current debate, but what's certain is that no group of bureaucrats should decide who shall live and who shall die. However, we all need to be focusing on end of life issues long before they become crises. Here are some good resources so that you can do your homework, without the government looking over your shoulder.

Jewish Law - Articles ("End of Life Choices in Halacha")
National Institute For Jewish Hospice
"When the Body Begins to Fail: Reaching Out in Prayer," (from Hiddur: The Center for Aging)

See some of the halachic discussions about end-life care that have taken place in the Conservative movement:

Avram Israel Reisner, "A Halakhic Ethic of Care for the Terminally Ill" YD 339:1.1990a
Elliot N. Dorff, "
A Jewish Approach to End-Stage Medical Care" YD 339:1.1990b
Avram Israel Reisner, "
Mai Beinaihu?" YD 339:1.1990c
Amy Eilberg, "
On Halakhic Approaches to Medical Care for the Terminally Ill: A Response" YD 339:1.1990d
Joel Roth, "
A Response to Rabbis Dorff and Reisner" YD 339:1.1990e
Aaron L. Mackler, ed., "
Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care" YD 339:1.1993

And if all this depressing talk is getting you down, why not download the Bikur Cholim Joke Book — A collection of humor compiled by the Rabbi Isaac N. Trainin Bikur Cholim Coordinating Council that will lighten your hearts and spirits. Bekur Holim (visiting the sick) is a fundamental mitzvah, and humor can be a tool to use for yourself or to enrich another person coping with sadness and loss.

Here's one example:

A Gabbai approaches a guest in the Shul and says, "I want to give you an Aliyah.
What is your name?"
The man says "Sara bat Moshe."
The Gabbai says "No I need your name."
The man repeats "It is Sara bat Moshe."
The Gabbai asks "How can that be your name?"
The man answers "I've been having serious financial problems so everything is in my wife's name."

Shabbat, Camp-Style

Dan at Ramah in the summer of 2002.....

And last Sunday....

Our kids are now returning from camp, and re-entry is often difficult. For my son Dan, it was particularly so this week, for after eight years, he just concluded his last summer at Camp Ramah as a camper. I hope more of our congregants will consider the Ramah experience for their children; it has been incredibly rewarding for Dan.

Ramah, in Hebrew, means "heights," and there is no greater natural "high" than Friday night at Ramah, when the entire camp joins together to welcome the Shabbat. That is the case at other camps as well, but at Ramah the feeling is so incredible, and then the kids go home to their congregations and find that feeling almost impossible to replicate. There is an organic, natural flow to Jewish life there; it breathes out every pore, not just on Shabbat, but all week long.

Our outdoor services try to recreate that feeling every week in the summer. On occasion, we can come close, but it's never quite the same. Nonetheless, Dan is undaunted, and he has asked to lead services tonight, camp style.

And that's precisely what he'll be doing. Because of the oppressive weather, we're going to be inside. But as a special treat, we'll be holding services for the first time in our newly refinished lobby downstairs.
Join us at 6:30.

So now my family has completed the summer camp portion of our lives, just in time to send our first child to college in exactly two weeks. As a congregant advised me this week, just when you think you have one phase down, a new one begins.

Jerry Springer, C'mon Down!

I've heard through the grapevine that my Jewish Week op-ed of a few weeks ago, "Welcome To The Neighborhood, Jerry Springer," apparently didn't sit too well among Jerry and his entourage. I can certainly understand that my message might have seemed unwelcoming, especially when compared to the unbridled adulation hoisted upon him by our local newspaper and politicians. My piece posed legitimate questions as to whether the show and its host merit such adulation and how it reflects on our culture and our community.

We had a spirited discussion of the matter last Shabbat at services. This was no theoretical question, after all, but a real matter of just how hospitable we should be in this case, and whether the Springer show is good-for-the-Jews. There was no consensus, but it is clear to me after hearing from everyone that, in principle, we should be in the business of welcoming people to our sanctuary and community without precondition and exception... unless your name is Bernie Madoff, that is. My whole point in the Madoff case was not for him to be a precedent but for his excommunication to highlight the uniqueness of the damage he has done to America, the Jewish People, to Torah and to the trust that lies at the foundation of faith and philanthropy.

Springer doesn't even come close to that - even if his show has little redeeming value. And we can't go around passing judgment so glibly.

Some call him a modern day PT Barnum. Maybe we should see the freak show he puts on for what it is, entertainment, pure and simple (at least for those who liked "Hee Haw"), and an outlet for the frustration felt by so many. I'm not so sure it's that harmless, but neither do I claim to be the "good taste" police.

So, yeah, Jerry, C'mon Down! If you are free on Rosh Hashanah, I know you'll like it here. If you or any newcomers on your staff are looking for a shul, we're here for you! You might not like everything you hear from the pulpit, but hey, what I do is entertainment too. In the end, we all want our messages to have enduring value and not merely be a nice distraction from our pitiful existences and humdrum lives. Maybe, together, we can figure out how to do that better.

So, welcome to Stamford, Jerry Springer!

G-dcast for Shoftim

Parshat Shoftim from

More Torah cartoons at

Jewels of Elul V

Today is the first of Elul and the countdown to the new year begins in earnest. Once again, Craig Taubman brings us daily snippets of advice and inspiration, in "Jewels of Elul."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mixing Milk and Milk

Strange how these things go. Last week, just as I was sitting down to study the portion of Re'eh, which contains a summary of the Kashrut laws, my family was also sitting down with a nutritionist to deal with one of the so-called curses of the Jewish people: lactose intolerance. This affliction targets Ashkenazi Jews to such a degree (upwards of 60%) that lactose free product ads are targeting us.

Well, my son, my pizza-devouring son, has been suffering from severe stomach pains lately, and once we were able to rule out anything more serious, and once we got past the notion that it was getting-into-college stress related, we discovered that it is a severe case of that very curse of lactose intolerance.

It's nothing I've ever had to deal with - and as a vegetarian who also loves all things dairy, that's a good thing. All my professional life I've had to explain to people why Jews separate milk from meat (an idea expanded upon by the rabbis, whose roots are also found in this portion), and now I was faced with the prospect of getting my son to separate himself from milk completely. or to use those nifty pills or milk substitutes that take remove the danger of lactose, in other words, to separate the "milk" from milk.

The rabbis devised the milk/meat separation in order to ensure that no one could ever possibly violate the commandment not to seethe a kid in his mother's milk. Well, my kid wasn't exactly seething at the prospect of soy milk (or Silk), but I did have to build a "fence around the Torah" (as the rabbis called these protective measures) for him, only in this case it was a fence around Stew Leonards, so that he might enjoy the pleasures of dairy with none of the dangers.

So far so good. He's eating well and not suffering and we've all gotten much better at reading labels. We've discovered that some things that are dairy are still OK, and that other things marked "pareve" by rabbinic supervisors are far from lactose-free. I've added still another layer to my keen eye for ingredients and have discovered how, even more than I had thought, our food is very complicated.

If we are what we eat, it behooves us to take a good look at everything that goes into us. The laws of Kashrut take us on precisely that journey.

Time to get back to my pleasure reading for the summer, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a scary look at what we eat.

Pass the pizza.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Shimon Peres!

Today, Shimon Peres turns 86. Although he has taken to marking the event on the corresponding Hebrew date, which this year fell a couple of weeks ago, Israeli musicians are marking it today with the release of a new CD in which Peres' poetry has been put to music. Some of Israel's most popular singers are participating, including Matti Caspi, Izhar Cohen, Ninet Tayeb, Ofira Gluska, Arik Sinai, Miri Mesika, Arkadi Duchin, Mazi Cohen and Shlomo Gronich. Read more about it in this Jerusalem Post article and in the Forward. If Peres completes his seven-year term, he will indeed hold the record for the world's oldest ever head of state.

I'm listening to the concert right now, in fact, on Israel radio's Reshet Gimel, a station that I listen to on streaming audio all the time. It has lots of the old nostalgic melodies from Israel's formative years, the "Beautiful Land of Israel" genre of songs, especially in the wee hours of the morning there, which is prime time back here, when I typically listen. If you are listening to Israeli radio at exactly 11 PM Eastern Time, BTW, you will hear the familiar refrain of the Sh'ma recited as Israelis awaken to their 6 AM news.

You know how the Sh'ma speaks of reciting these words "when you lie down and when you rise up?" Well, here's an amazing moment when I am hearing these words as I am about to lie down to sleep, and half a world away, this same Sh'ma is being heard by those just arising to greet the new day.

Tonight, Peres concluded his brief remarks thanking everyone with a poetic reference to the Sh'ma.

Peres' life is an open book, but here's one of the most comprehensive interviews that I've found, where he describes in detail what it has meant to him to bear witness to Israel's founding and growth. Here's what he said about his arrival:

When I came to Israel, my first sensation was the blue sky. I never saw a sky as blue as that. Then, I didn't see many rivers, which surprised me again. I didn't see many forests. But on the other hand, all the writings, whether in the streets or in the paper, was in the Hebrew language. That was like entering -- again -- a new world. I saw Israeli policemen. And we came. My father, who emigrated before us a couple of years to prepare our coming, was living in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was totally white and summery and lovely. They called at that time, "Tel Aviv is a small Paris." I have never been to Paris, so I was sure that Paris is even smaller than Tel Aviv. And when I got bar mitzvah'd -- 13 years old -- my parents bought me a bicycle, and I would -- touring the streets of Tel Aviv to see if they were building a building, if they planted a new tree. I felt as though it would be my estate, as though it would be my life.

Happy Birthday, President Peres!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Health Care Reform and Jewish Values

The current health care discussions are too important to toss aside as "politics as usual," even though the debate has been marred by so much anger, confusion and misinformation. It is hard to defend or attack a bill that remains, to this day, somewhat amorphous. But the discussion is important, and Judaism does have much to say about it. President Obama has arranged for a conference call next week with rabbis from several denominations, and I will be participating in that, listening attentively.

Meanwhile, here are some resources for all of us to study, regarding this crucial matter, so that we can focus on shedding more light than heat.

The statement below was issued by Faithful Health Care Reform coalition of which the Rabbinical Assembly is a member. This statement embodies the principles that the RA has articulated in its resolutions and writings over the years. After the statement is a summary of the Rabbinical Assembly position.

A Faith-Inspired Vision of Health Care

We, as people of faith, envision a society where each person is afforded health, wholeness, and human dignity.

That vision embraces a health care system that is inclusive... accessible...affordable... and accountable.

Vision ~ Inclusive: Health care is a shared responsibility that is grounded in our common humanity. In the bonds of our human family, we are created to be equal. We are guided by a divine will to honor each person's dignity and to live together as an inclusive community. Affirming our commitment to the common good, we acknowledge our enduring responsibility to care for one another. As we recognize that society as a whole is healthy only when we care for the most vulnerable among us, we are led to discern the human right to health and wholeness. Therefore, we are called to act with compassion by including everyone in the sharing of our abundant health care resources.

Vision ~ Affordable: Health care must contribute to the common good by being affordable for individuals, families and society as a whole. We believe that in the sacred act of creation we are endowed with the talents, wisdom and abundant resources necessary to meet the needs of one another, including the health care needs of all. Therefore, in our calling to be faithful stewards, we understand our responsibility to use our health care resources effectively, to administer them efficiently, and to distribute them with equity.

Vision ~ Accessible: All persons should have access to health services that provide necessary care and contribute to wellness. We believe humanity is sacred and that all persons should benefit from those actions which contribute to our health and wholeness. Therefore, we are called to act with justice and love, to ensure that all of us have access to the health care we need in order to live out the fullness of our potential both as individuals and as contributing members of our society. We must work together to identify and overcome all barriers to and disparities in such care.

Vision ~ Accountable: Our health care system must be accountable, offering a quality, equitable and sustainable means of keeping us healthy as individuals and as a community. We believe that as spiritual and sacred vessels, we are responsible for the care of our bodies to the best of our ability and for the care of one another regardless of individual circumstances. Therefore, individuals, families, governments, businesses, and the faith community are called to work in partnership for a system that ensures fully-informed, timely, quality and safe care that treats body, mind and spirit.

Rabbinical Assembly Health Care Position

In 1999, the Rabbinical Assembly published its ““Rabbinic Letter on the Poor” by Elliot Dorff under the leadership of the Social Action Committee. This letter called for our society to provide basic health care to all. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (responsum) in affirming this principle (Responsibilities for the Provision of Health Care, 1998, available on the Rabbinical Assembly website,
). In summary, the teshuvah teaches that Jewish law requires that people be provided with needed health care, at least a “decent minimum” that preserves life and meets other basic needs, including some amount of preventative care. The responsibility to assure this provision is shared among individuals and families, physicians and other health care providers, and the community. The community bears ultimate responsibility to assure provision of needed health care for individuals who cannot afford it, as a matter of justice as well as a specific halakhic obligation. The “community” that bears that responsibility in our day is the national society, through its government, health care institutions, insurance companies, and private enterprises.

In 2002, the Rabbinical Assembly passed a resolution calling on the US government to increase its funding for health care for the poor and expanding the CHIP and S-CHIP programs to cover minor children, especially those whose parents have lost their health insurance benefits.

In light of employers reducing health benefits and rising unemployment causing the elimination of health coverage for many Americans, in 2008 the Rabbinical Assembly expressed its grave concern about this issue and called on the United States government to establish affordable health care for all Americans; and to expand access to health insurance.

The Rabbinical Assembly has signed onto numerous letters urging the US government to provide affordable and accessible health care for all of its citizens and is currently a member of the Faithful Reform in Health Care Coalition. We encourage our members to educate themselves on the issues of health care reform and advocate with their legislators and congregants and students on those provisions that reflect Jewish values.

During the August recess members of Congress are holding town hall meetings on health care in their home districts. As you know protesters have been disruptive at some of these meetings. The Health Reform Coalition has requested us to ask you to contact your member of Congress (call the district office) and offer to hold the town meeting at your shul or school or offer to deliver a prayer at the meeting. Protesters are less likely to be disruptive in a house of worship or when the tone is set by a member of the clergy.


Provided below is contact information from the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council. You need not identify as a Democrat or Republican to take advantage of the resources these two groups provide, and each group will give you the choices of “retrieving or receiving” their offerings. Please keep in mind that these two groups are devoted to promoting their party’s platforms and candidates rather than providing dispassionate insight into policy issues. Of course, the RA endorses neither organization, but provides this information as one way to become more engaged in the political process.

Republican Jewish Coalition

National Jewish Democratic Council

Finally, you can access the position statements of the RAC (the Religious Action Center) at In particular, see Understanding the Issues and Proposed Solutions; Jewish Values & Health Care, Making the Moral Case for Reform. The RAC is an official arm of the Reform Movement, but our movement makes use of its resources.

I think it would be healthy for us to have our own discussion of this matter, and I'd like to set that for services next Shabbat morning, August 22. I welcome any input from those with light to shed on this complicated and crucial matter that has enormous moral implications. Even if you cannot attend, if you could send me your information, it would be helpful. What I'm looking for is not simply your opinion, but information that has helped you to form that opinion - and please, to the greatest extent possible, let it be an opinion with verifiable facts.

In this way, our congregation can play a role in this national dialogue that will impact us all.