Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kabbalat Shabbat in Jerusalem

See below photos from our group's lovely Kabbalat Shabbat service during the recent TBE trip, overlooking the Kotel. From our perch, no one seemed concerned about how we prayed. We shared some moments with a group of female Israeli soldiers, in fact, along with an American group from Philadelphia. Photos courtesy of Laura Schwartz. Click to enlarge.


From 2010 TBE Israel Adventure #1

From 2010 TBE Israel Adventure #1

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hanky Panky on a Shul Board (Hammerman on Ethics)

My latest Jewish Week ethics scenario: Hanky Panky on a Shul Board:

Q - I'm a shul president and I've just discovered that two of my board members have been carrying on an affair, using board meeting nights as cover for their trysts. I like them both and they are very hard workers. I like their spouses too. I'm not sure what to do. Do I confront them? Do I tell the rabbi? Do I kick them off the board?

A - Confront them in private and if they fess up, hope that they have the good sense to resign from the board, effective immediately. Otherwise, once the news gets out, if you do nothing, the reputation of your board and, by extension, your congregation, will be in the toilet.

See the full response (including a reference to my own experience dealing with this exact same situation) here.

The Sabbath Bride in the Secular City- The Best Response to Rotem

It's Saturday night here in Tel Aviv, and with our group having gone home early Friday morning, late in the day Mara and I went to welcome the Shabbat with many hundreds of Israelis, at the newest cool spot for young couples and families, the Tel Aviv Port. A Kabbalat Shabbat service, of all things, is held there each Friday in the summer, and it is a huge hit in this bastion of secularism.

In the video below you'll be able to see the celebration of the Sabbath Bride's entrance, as we watched the awesome sunset occurring before our eyes. Maybe a thousand people were there, maybe more. Others hopped off with their kids to the juggler on the next pier, or for dinner. Few wore yarmulkes, and at times relatively few were singing along. But they were clapping and humming and tapping their feet, and their numbers kept growing. The service is run by Beit Tefila Israeli, a pluralistic, non denominational group that seeks to meld Tel Aviv's creative spirit with ancient Jewish traditions. Their prayerbook does just that, interspersing the traditional prayers (and they are all there) with poems and quotes by Bialik, Heschel, Naomi Shemer and a number of Jewish and Israeli sources - especially Israeli, since they want to be considered an indiginous expression of modern Israeli culture, not an import from elsewhere. They are most definitely succeeding. See their website here.

Here's how they describe themselves (and it's a mission statement I would proudly adopt for my own congregation):

Beit Tefilah Israeli is a young and fast-growing, liberal and independent community in Tel Aviv, which offers a meaningful context and venue for Shabbat and holiday services, lifecycle events, and Jewish-Israeli Identity exploration for a broad range of Israelis who seek a place for spiritual quest in prayer and activism in a communal and friendly environment. In its first two years of operation Beit Tefilah Israeli has gradually become a prominent feature in the world of Jewish culture in Tel Aviv, and in the everyday lives of its members.

North American visitors will recognize the influence of non-Orthodox centers of Jewish spirtuality in the U.S., but it is so reassuring to see it happening here in Israel, far from the back rooms of the Knesset where politicians appear determined to ban all expressions of Judaism save one.

So listen and watch the final verse of Lecha Dodi by clicking below, paying particular attention to the dancing and the joyous faces of the children. Seeing this made me anticipate with even greater excitement my return to TBE as we embark on a new era of creative and inspiring worship with our new cantor, George Mordecai, in just a few weeks. Innovative, participatory services have long been a TBE hallmark, and indeed our Israel group added to that legacy by welcoming the Shabbat one week ago, in, of all places, Jerusalem, overlooking the Kotel.

See the video below, and below that, see some photos of Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv Port, as the sun was beginning to set.

Yes it can happen - even in Israel. THIS is our best response to the Rotem Bill. Click on the video below to see why.

Only Israel - by Yedida Freilich (over 400,000 views in two weeks - see why)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Serious Side Of Silly Bandz (Jewish Week)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

If you happen to know a child of almost any age, you probably have heard about Silly Bandz. If you don’t, you likely haven’t, even though these rubber band bracelets have taken the country by storm, following in the footsteps of the great fads of prior decades like Pet Rocks, Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Kids.

With almost no marketing, a Toledo entrepreneur named Robert J Croak, shaped brightly colored silicone bands into the outlines of animals, letters, instruments, celebrities and sports teams, sold them in groups of 24 for $5, and suddenly the thing took off. Kids began wearing them as bracelets, stretching them out so the original figure would no longer be visible and then taking them off their arms to reveal the original form.

Suddenly these shape-shifting wrist huggers appeared on more arms than Madonna’s red thread, and they were being traded over school lunches more than baseball cards. Croak says he has sold millions. Schools began banning them because, well, that’s what schools do when something becomes so popular that kids are distracted from the task at hand, bedazzled instead by what’s on their hand.

But where some educators saw a threat, I saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to reach middle schoolers where they’re at — and anyone who deals nonstop with bar mitzvah students craves a chance to hitch our wagon to the latest fad. Under my tutelage, students have written memorable bar mitzvah speeches about teeny bopper vampires, Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Greeting, Krusty the Clown’s bar mitzvah and all things Pokémon.

But this fad is different from the others. It comes closest to the slap bracelets of the early ‘90s, those nine-inch metal strips that, when slapped against a child’s wrist, would wrap firmly around the arm. We grownups really had a cow over that one, possibly because it smacked (literally) of the kind of self-flagellation we typically see in videos from Tehran, or maybe we were concerned that the kids would come to like the feel of handcuffs. Silly Bandz also go around the wrist, but there is no sadomasochism involved in putting them on and little danger of long-term physiological or psychological damage.

So why, then, are they so popular? I asked my middle school students. One wrote her bat mitzvah speech on Silly Bandz (along with the equally trendy string friendship bracelets), noting the similarities to our own Jewish wraparounds: tefillin and tzitzit. We discussed whether Silly Bandz’ rise to cult status could be replicated with these ancient cultic objects. Could we create a scenario where teens would put on phylacteries and prayer shawls with the same abandon now reserved for Silly Bandz?

How can we make these Jewish accessories cool?

Maybe tzitzit would be more popular if we called them “Silly Strings.” How about “Temple Tassels?” “Torah Threads?” “Shul Shawls?” “Nifty Knots?”

My student looked at me quizzically when I said the word “nifty.”

But once you get beyond the names, Silly Bandz, tefillin, tzitzit, and friendship bracelets all accomplish similar goals.

- They express a banding together of people of different backgrounds, providing a great (and inexpensive) equalizer, a common uniform that also allows for individual self-expression.

- They are tactile — no small thing in a world where most of the other senses have succumbed to the virtual. We see, hear, smell and taste the artificial much more than the real. We spend more time looking at projected images on screens than the real world around us and listening to encoded, digitalized sound more than real voices or chirping birds. But what we touch is what we get. Maybe kids are looking for reminders of real. They want to reach out, touch and be touched.

But while Silly Bandz anchor us to what is fixed and real, they also enable kids to transform that reality into something new and magical. And it’s the shape-shifting aspect of Silly Bandz that I find the most attractive to this elusive, perplexing, altogether strange new generation that we are producing, these post-millennials whose identities seem forever to be shifting like the shapes of the bands they now wear. Facebook transformations occur instantly. Doctor a photo. Invent a relationship. Create a whole past.

Transformation has become endemic to our culture. We see it in movie after movie: People become vampires, cars become robots and boys become Spider-heroes. Teens become adults, and 30-year olds become teens again. Old men grow backwards until they become babies.
In 1983, Woody Allen’s “Zelig” tugged at our inner chameleon, and more recently, Sacha Baron Cohen, today’s preeminent shape-shifter, reminded us in “Borat” that an anti-Semite’s worst fear was that a Jew would somehow transform into anything, even a cockroach, both to hide and to blend in.

For contemporary teens, perpetual transformation has become routine and Gregor Samsa’s nightmare has become Bella Swan’s dream (if you don’t know who she is, ask any teenage girl — and then marvel how the guys in marketing came up with the perfect transformational name, “Swan”). Kids now can wear a rubber band that morphs into their own personal emblem, something that tells a story about their unique loves, attachments and aspirations; much like tefillin straps, which give divine power to my outstretched arm, and tzitzit knots, which bind us together in a cosmic unity. What we wear reminds us of our capacity to transform ourselves into something sacred and wonderful.

And there’s nothing silly about that.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. Check out his Hammerman on Ethics column on the Jewish Week Website
(See Jewish Silly Bandz - Meshuga Bands are here!)

TBE Israel Adventure: Up North

See today's Israel photos by clicking below:

TBE Israel Adventure #3

Today we went rafting on the Jordan River (no photos unfortunately), then headed for TBE traditional stops: the Naot Mordechai sandal outlet and the beautiful city of Safed. You can see above some of our women, all decked out in their "shmatehs" as we visited the Ha-Ari synagogue (Ashkenazi), one of Safed's many sacred spots. Tonight we returned to our Kibbutz on the northern tip of the country and, following a delicious dinner, learned about Kibbutz life.

Tomorrow is our final day of what has been an unforgettable trip.

See other recent photos at

2010 TBE Israel Adventure 2

and hear and see the rushing waters at Tel Dan by clicking below:

From 2010 TBE Israel Adventure 2

Monday, July 12, 2010

Getting Wet in Israel

From 2010 TBE Israel Adventure 2

Click on the above to see Judy Aronin splashing down at Ein Gedi today - and below to see our photos of sunrise on Masada.

2010 TBE Israel Adventure 2

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Greetings from Jerusalem!

From 2010 TBE Israel Adventure #1

Click above for video

Greetings from Jerusalem!

Our TBE Israel Adventure has now completed its fifth day, and we’re all having a great time. As an added bonus, it’s a whole lot cooler and dryer here than – from what I’ve been hearing – it is back in Stamford. I’ve uploaded a couple of hundred photos from the first few days of the trip – as you’ll see, I’ve really backed away from the torrid photographic pace I set on the March of the Living – yes, I've only taken about 450 photos since arriving, and you can access them all by clicking here (some of the photos are also courtesy of Laura Schwartz).

A brief summary of what we’ve done: We took off on July 4 from JFK (note Judy Aronin’s cool patriotic shades) and when we landed the next morning at 5 AM, we met our guide Peter Abelow (who sends regards to all his friends from prior TBE trips) and toured Tel Aviv, starting out at Independence Hall, a nice way to begin as Americans were still celebrating the 4th. Driving through Tel Aviv on Monday meant bumping up against thousands of Israelis who have been marching from one end of the country to the other in support of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Our day also included a visit to the Palmach Museum, a stop in Jaffa and dinner in the Yemenite Quarter.

On Tuesday we started out with a mitzvah project at the Jaffa Institute, where we learned about efforts to help kids from underprivileged backgrounds. Then we made the long climb to Jerusalem, stopping at the Haas Promenade for a traditional Shehechianu, then lunching on Emek Refaim St., where some had the equally traditional first falafel. After that we visited the very new archaeological garden at the very old City of David. For those who have been there, but not for a few years (e.g. me), it is remarkable how beautiful the place is – and relatively comfortable in the heat of the day. This area and the adjacent Arab neighborhood of Silwan has been the site of some controversy lately, but aside from a few protest signs on local shops and a couple of goats on the rooftop across the valley (King David gazed across to see Bathsheba bathing, and we got a couple of goats!), all was quiet. It is understandable that there be protest, as the remarkable new discoveries here are linking the people of Israel even more inextricably to our biblical roots right here, in this place. The tour begin with a 3-D film and ended with our sloshing through Hezekiah’s water tunnel, dug out 2700 years ago, and headed to our hotel. On Tuesday night a number of us took the short stroll downtown for dinner and shopping, with an occasional glimpse into neighboring bars and coffee shops for a World Cup score (which brought to mind the tough question facing all Jews this week: Germany or Spain? It’s like a Yankee fan having to choose between rooting for the Red Sox or the Mets.

I won’t dwell on how refreshingly cool our Jerusalem evenings have been. Sorry, East Coasters.

Wednesday was another beautiful day, which was spent entirely in the Old City. The Jewish quarter, including the Burnt House, the Christian quarter and Kotel Tunnels. A running theme of the week is the sense of security felt throughout the trip. We could not have crisscrossed the Old City so casually just a few years ago. For some of us the day ended with dinner at the Mamilla Mall – which has far surpassed expectations. I never imagined that a high end American style mall would make it in the shadow of one of the most sacred spots on earth, the entrance to the Old City. But the place was hopping, and it was filled with Israelis, not just a few tourists. We caught some of the World Cup match with some Israeli soldiers at one of the restaurants.

Today, another perfect weather day, we had our bar mitzvah affirmation service at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. Several of our teens read Torah – and they did a great job! It was wonderful to have our service blend in with the many others going on around us. A true celebration of Jewish life and renewal. After that we visited the Etzion bloc of settlements and immersed ourselves into the sad history of the region as well as the settlement issue as a whole. Peter Abelow invited us to his home for a quick reception in honor of our b’nai mitzvah. Then we returned to Jerusalem, avoiding once again the Gilad Shalit march, which caught up to us in Jerusalem, and visited the new and quite stimulating Herzl museum and then the graves of Israel’s leaders on Mount Herzl. Tonight I had the chance to catch up with my sister and her family. Yesterday was my grand nephew Neriya's 1st birthday. He doesn't look a day over 11 months!

That's all for now. As I sit in a neigborhood cafe finishing off this Shabbat Shalom missive while uploading the photos, I want to communicate clearly just how well Israel is faring, despite all the pressures on it. Today at our service we reflected on how important it is for us to be here and how much it has changed and enriched our lives. Nothing will ever be the same.

Tomorrow we go to Yad Vashem and Mahane Yehuda, before preparing for our own Shabbat.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Boycotts, Sanctions and the Pinchas Problem

Be among the disciples of Aaron:
Love peace and pursue peace;
Love all fellow creatures,
And bring them near to the Torah.
How do we reconcile the above statement with the vicious act of murder perpetrated by Pinchas, as recalled in this week's portion? Pinchas, incidentally, was a grandchild of Aaron, Mr. Peace himself, and the Torah appears to praise his act of zealotry. Find out more at services tomorrow morning, which will be in the chapel. Friday night services will be outdoors (and we're looking at another gorgeous evening).

With the very good news that the President signed the Iran sanctions bill into law yesterday, we are left to wonder still whether the path of peace is still the best one in turning the Iranian government from their ominous path. Diplomacy didn't work. Will sanctions? Are boycotts the way to go? We'll look at the ethics of boycotts during tomorrow's service, a question that is hitting home lately every time our tank is nearing empty and we drive past a BP. There is a boycott mania out there that is reflective of the angry, "take no prisoners" mentality of our culture. Is it right?

Meanwhile, check out our 7th grade class photo from their recent aliyah service. It's really lovely (and special thanks to Beth Madison, the photographer). Also this week, see how one can celebrate July Fourth, Jewishly (e.g. # 7 At the beginning of the Torah reading, the Gabbai (sexton) shouts, "Play Ball" and the reader takes the yad (pointer) and tries to knock a knish out of the park). Also, leave it to Israelis to come up with A Birth Control Pill for Men (Israel 21c). And my weekly "Hammerman on Ethics," "Is It Ethical to Read My Husband's Email." Also, some interesting responses have been generated by my recent About.com " Ask the Rabbi: is it OK to Convert for Love?"

Welcome aboard to Ronnie Brockman, the director of our new early childhood center. She began here yesterday and already our senior staff has started coming up with exciting plans for the upcoming year.

This Sunday, I will be leaving for Israel with our TBE group. Look for some dispatches and photos over the coming two weeks. After the group returns, Mara and I will stay on in Israel and then continue on to Greece and Turkey. After visiting Poland this spring, once might think that I only like to travel to distressed countries, but that's what we all try to do on vacation, isn't it? To dis-stress? :) Anyway, all the flights to Kyrgystan were booked.

In my absence, we've got a slew of guest service leaders to inspire and entertain, and Steve Lander and Eileen Rosner will be able to handle any (heaven forbid) emergencies that arise.

When I get back, Cantor Mordecai will also be here - don't forget to join us all to welcome him at our BBQ and Barachu on August 6th.

Shabbat Shalom, a Happy 4th and have a relaxing month!