Wednesday, October 30, 2013
As you all know, today is part two of my Bar Mitzvah. Since many of you were not at part 1, I want to tell you about it, in relation to my portion of Toldot.
My trip to Israel this past summer was a once in lifetime experience, better than I could have imagined, even though I was really looking forward to it.
So what does this trip have to do with my portion?
Well, for one thing, my portion all takes place in the land of Israel, in places not far from where I was.
Also, the name of the portion, Toldot, speaks to the connections Jews have with this land. Toldot means generations – and I felt connected to many generations of my family and of the Jewish people. Even though I don’t have a lot of relatives living in Israel, everyone felt like a relative, even total strangers on the street. Even at the airport. When I got there, the man checking passports asked me why I was coming to Israel and when heard about my bar mitzvah, he said Mazal Tov! Only in Israel will a security office say “Mazal Tov” when checking your passport!
The portion also has a real focus on food. At the beginning, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Later, Jacob and Rebecca prepare a delicious meal for Isaac so that Isaac will bless Jacob. I find it especially nice that the younger brother receives the blessing and the birthright!
But it’s the food that’s central to the plot here. And in Israel, the food is definitely important. And delicious! I came to love falafel and hummus so much over there that I would have sold my birthright for it too!
In the portion, Esau is seen as a back to nature type. He’s called a “man of the field.” Jacob, on the other hand, is a student, a man of the tent. Well, in Israel, you can do both! I loved the beautiful scenery there.My favorite place was Masada and the Dead Sea, one of the most amazing places on earth.
And like Jacob, I learned so much – especially at a place like the Kotel, where everyone was praying and studying. I really felt connected to that place.
One other aspect of the portion reminds me of my trip: Isaac was disabled in his old age – he was blind. Because of that, he was unable to tell his sons apart.
When we were in Israel, I experienced a place where people have the chance to feel what it is like to be blind or deaf. For the part about hearing, we entered a room where we had to communicate with people without speaking. We had to learn how to show emotions using hand motions and facial expressions. We had to demonstrate without words how a food tastes, how happy I am, or how much pain I was feeling. It wasn’t easy but it was very rewarding.
In so many ways, as you can see, my trip to Israel not only connected me to the land and people over there, but also, by connecting me to today’s portion and this second part of the bar mitzvah, to my family and friends, to my community and to all of you.
For my mitzvah project, I’ll be working closely with my Israeli soldier Alyon to find ways to help the soldiers over there who put their lives on the line for their country and for the Jewish people.
Friday, October 25, 2013
Are Rainbow Looms Kosher? Newtown and Normalcy, Halloween and Reincarnation, Pew Torah
Mazal tov to David Lang, who will become Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat afternoon and thank you to Elicia and Jay for sponsoring our Shabbat announcements in David’s honor David also celebrated with a ceremony at the Kotel in Jerusalem last summer – a nice reminder to check out our Interactive itinerary and registration materials for next summer’s TBE Israel Adventure.
Also see Helene Leichter’s Bat Mitzvah commentary on Hayye Sarah, this week’s portion, and other recent divrei Torah, Matthew Greenbaum on Lech Lecha and Marissa Young on Noah.
In case you missed it, see my column on why, one year later, we need to take ownership of Hurricane Sandy. Or my blog on why the Red Sox are the chosen team. Despite last night’s hiccup (my heart grieves for you, Craig Breslow), I still believe!
And with Halloween this coming week, check out what rabbis from different denominations have to say about trick or treating, as well as this interesting perspective on whether it is appropriate for Jews to observe a holiday that worships death rather than celebrating life. Good point, but it’s time to lighten up, folks. I don’t think the little kid dressing as Superman (created by Jews) is really glorifying death. Since it falls on a Hebrew School day, our kids here will be learning about Jewish superstitions and attitudes toward the occult – and having lots of fun while doing it! And on Shabbat morning, this timely topic will be discussed along with the portion Hayye Sarah (where Sarah dies) focusing on the Jewish view on reincarnation.
Join us this evening at 7:30 for Kabbalat Shabbat and tomorrow morning, when we’ll have a variety of children’s programs going on and at the end, we’ll all celebrate together our October birthdays – it’s a new thing we’re doing called Shabbirthday. Yes, there will be cake, but we also have a special treat for the birthday kids who show: Jewish Rainbow Loom Bracelets. Speaking of which…
Are Rainbow Looms Kosher?
Rainbow Looms are the latest mega-fad among American kids, in particular middle schoolers. A direct line can be drawn from prior wrist-borne fads, like Silly Bandz (and their Jewish equivalent, Meshugabands) and, going way back, the Slap Bracelets of the ’90s. On a broader level, they continue a tradition of fad-dom tracing back to the hula-hoop and the pet rock. But unlike the prior fads, in this case the kids not only wear them, they make them, and they give them away to friends and sell them for charity. A more wholesome fad can not be found.
Strangely, these wholesome projects have spurred controversy, despite the fact that they miraculously divert kids from video games and their incessant texting. The bracelets have been banned from some NYC schools, apparently because they have generated playground antics and have distracted some kids from their studies.
I believe that Rainbow Looms are 100 percent Kosher, even though some rabbinical authorities have cautioned against them. The craze has hit Orthodox yeshivot in the Five Towns, where rabbis are cautioning parents not to allow their children to weave them on Shabbat. There do appear some clear violations of Sabbath laws involved in this process (weaving itself is an explicit one), but the authorities there go too far in stating that decorative bracelets should be banned for boys because they are “simlat isha,” women’s clothing, tantamount to wearing a dress. I’m sorry, but I wear a rainbow loom bracelet and no one has ever confused it with a dress. A colorful pantsuit perhaps, but a dress?
This kind of kill-joy attitude among educators has happened before, with both Slap Bracelets and Silly Bandz. Educators seem to have an unlimited capacity to shoot themselves in the foot. The question rabbis ask should not be whether they are kosher, but how can these accessories make Judaism look cool? Any fad will do, in that regard, as long as it doesn’t involve permanent bodily mutilation.
Where some see a threat, I see an opportunity. Here’s yet another 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.
As fads go Rainbow Looms are a natural for Jewish educators. For one thing, they inspire acts of tzedakkah. We have several b’nai mitzvah students who are making and selling these bracelets, then donating the proceeds to various charities.
Hey, we practically invented the rainbow, or at least the Torah did a good job of co opting its symbolism (kudos to its Author, who clearly had an instinct for Jewish education). The rainbow appears throughout our ancient sources, beginning with the Noah story, where it is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and concern for the future of the earth and humankind. There is a blessing for when we see a rainbow: (Berachot 59a) “Blessed art You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to it and keeps Her word.” In Kabbalah, the rainbow’s colors represent the various shades of God’s emanations (the Sefirot).
As for the loom, Rabbi Akiva compared God to a weaver of a garment, and midrash has it that God wove clothing for Adam and Eve. The interwoven strands of these bracelets make them look like a havdalah candle for the wrist, which reminds us of the multi-cultural threads of Jewish identity.
I see no harm and considerable good in this new fad. As with the prior ones, we should ride it until it runs its course – which should happen about a week after Hanukkah.
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Newtown and Normalcy
Sandy Hook Elementary School’s demolition begins today. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s right that they are dismantling it without use of a wrecking ball. It’s just one more step in a town’s desire to respectfully move on.
Last week I wrote about my visit to Newtown High School at the invitation of a congregant in her late 20s who was speaking to freshmen of her struggles with alcoholism and addiction. I focused on Rachael’s moving presentation and on the importance of bringing these issues out into the open.
In part two, I want to share some reflections on my first visit to Newtown since the catastrophe.
Until now I had avoided going there, wishing to respect the privacy of the grieving Newtowners. But Rachael’s invitation gave me the chance, to begin to understand whether the people of Newtown, like Rachael herself, have begun to move on from their own hellish nightmare.
I took the back roads of Fairfield County, avoiding the rush hour traffic on the Merritt Parkway. With the foliage near peak, each twist and turn was lovelier than the last, a portrait of New England picket fence perfection. The trees were blazing in oranges and reds; the pumpkins, the Indian corn, the crispy leaves lining the driveways and surrounding mailboxes: all as deceptively peaceful as last December’s snow. My GPS led me through Redding and Bethel and on to Newtown, and then to the High School, located in Sandy Hook.
I so wanted it all to feel normal. And there was normalcy to be found: football games, pizza places, banners for October festivals, Halloween decorations everywhere. The High School looks like any other high school - even the enhanced security is now typical of all schools (though here I made a bee-line for the security desk to let them know that this strange person with the beanie is actually the rabbi of one of the presenters).
Even this program was strangely normal. Every high school has (or should have) an evening where the police, lawyers, social workers, doctors, MADD parents and survivors of addiction assemble before the freshman class to collectively scare the bejeebers out of them before they ruin their lives and the lives of everyone they know. It’s a rite of passage. Teen drinking is an enormous problem, don’t get me wrong. But it seemed in a strange way comforting to be at a program about kids and drinking, with the obligatory power point slides of crushed cars and bloody faces, with the scary statistics, with the talk about parents serving time for allowing their kids to host underage drinking parties, of date rape and endless vomiting - of teenage lives tragically cut short. All of that appeared normal, sitting in a room in Sandy Hook.
These kids need to be shocked into awareness - for sure. But the program is part of the expected pattern of ninth grade first semester. It comes with the acne.
And in Newtown, anything normal is by definition comforting. It reestablishes the patterns of life so life can go on. It’s like gorging on platters of food during shiva or the imbibing that takes place at a wake.
So here we were, watching slides of horrific drunk driving accidents and in comparison to what they have seen with their own eyes, even these horrors seemed so prosaic, so commonplace. The banality of teen tragedy. This was a program about the needless suffering and death that every community suffers. Not the horrors that only one community has ever seen.
At one point, a policeman suggested that the teens should be especially careful to act responsibly “because the whole world knows where Newtown is.” At first it seemed to me an unnecessary burden to place on teens striving for a return to normalcy. But it occurred to me that even the teens recognize that they will always be the subject of extra scrutiny and curiosity, wherever they go. For most, I would guess, it is an emblem of pride.
I sensed a great deal of love in the room. The speakers who gave testimony, including Rachael and a young woman who had attended the high school, all received prolonged standing ovations. Many of the kids sat with parents rather than peers -no mean trick with teens - and I could only imagine the swirling emotions of parents being reminded, as if they needed a reminder, that children are vulnerable beings and that the fragility persists well beyond first grade.
This was an emotional night for me. There is so much suffering in this world and a disproportionate amount of it has been allocated to this little corner of it. For the entire evening, I never lost awareness that I was dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death. This wasn’t an ordinary high school auditorium. This is the room, after all, where the President wept. I wanted to hug everyone there, but felt throughout like an intruder, a gawker, and that my hugs would only resurrect the memories they are hoping to relegate to a lock box in the attic.
I’ve been to Columbine and I’ve been to Wounded Knee. I’ve been to Boylston Street and to the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv and Sbarro in Jerusalem. I’ve been to Ground Zero. I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve frequented so many Vales of Tears. People keep living in these places, they heroically try to move on; but on some level, the tears never stop flowing. We never stop hearing the faint echoes of the victims and the rat tat tator kaboom of the instruments of death.
And now I’ve been to Newtown.
I drove back home to Stamford through the misty, rainy night. I took the highway - too dark to see the foliage anymore. No bucolic picket fences. No sparkling October sky. Just keeping my thoughts inside the car, losing myself among the Red Sox’ double plays and Mike Napoli’s mammoth clouts.
From Pew Will Come Forth Torah
For those interested in a Jewish theological response to the recent Pew survey of American Jewry, take a look at Arthur Green’s essay, “From Pew Will Come Forth Torah.” Green understands the theological underpinnings behind the numbers, explains the seismic change that has been happening in the context of living in a post-Holocaust world. He states:
Jewish belief in God, already deeply challenged by modernity and our embrace of Western education, was shattered by the Holocaust, a memory still at the top of Pew’s list of Jewish identity markers. If being a Jew means remembering the terrible events of the Holocaust years, it at the same moment challenges our faith in a God who rules history with a special concern for His beloved people….
The Holocaust challenge is joined by the results of two other great battles that traditional religion fought and lost across the twentieth century. One was the struggle against “Darwin,” or the entire scientific narrative of earth’s origins and the evolution of humanity. The other was the ongoing debate over Biblical authorship and the triumph of a critical perspective showing that religion itself, including its most sacred texts, was a product of an evolving history. Is it any wonder that a third of young Jews see themselves as “without religion?” Perhaps our eyes of wonder should be turned in the other direction. “What a marvel that two-thirds of Jewry still see themselves as religious, as maintaining their faith in the face of all that! How rich and profound that faith must be!” Would that this were true. But I fear that for many of those still on the “Jewish by religion” side of the divide in Pew’s questionaire, the definer is loyalty or nostalgia rather than deep faith. Their children as well, I fear, will soon fall into the other camp.
Green, an advocate of neo-hasidism, sees a revival of Jewish piety coming not from a God of reason, a “commanding Other who rules over history,” but rather the “still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight.”
It’s a provocative and well-written summation of Green’s influential views, a challenge to many Conservative and Orthodox Jews and a succinct preamble of much of TBE’s vision (and my own). Definitely worth a read.
Mazal tov to Helene Leichter and her family, and we thank them for sponsoring this week's Shabbat announcements and Shabbat-O-Gram, honoring Helene's bat mitzvah, which will take place tomorrow afternoon. Join us for services then as well as this evening at 7:30. At services on Shabbat morning, I'll be taking a special look at the sacrifice of Isaac as depicted in the arts. As you can see in this sneak preview and study guide, the Akeda has captured the imagination of artists, poets and essayists of all faith traditions for thousands of years, up until this very week, when it was the subject of a humorous cartoon in the New Yorker. Also, see my Jewish Week column this week, "One Year Later, Taking Ownership of Sandy," based loosely on my comments on Rosh Hashanah.
Last night I traveled to Newtown at the invitation of a congregant in her late 20s who was speaking to high school freshmen of her struggles with alcoholism and addiction. was eager to support Rachael (her first name is being used with permission); she has moved on so beautifully with her life and I am so proud of her for surmounting her personal hell and being willing to share her story with teens. I also wanted to see Newtown, at long last, to begin to understand whether they too have begun to move on from their own hellish nightmare. More on my reactions to visiting Newtown in next week's Shabbat-O-Gram.
The speakers who gave testimony, including Rachael, all received prolonged standing ovations. But the question remains, will the teens listen? Will these teens and parents, who have seen the consequences of irresponsibility, reckless behavior and mental illness so starkly, who live in a community that has suffered so immeasurably, will they act more responsibly because of it?
Although some surveys indicate that programs like this are having a positive effect, the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days (see more statistics here):
- 39% drank some amount of alcohol.
- 22% binge drank.
- 8% drove after drinking alcohol.
- 24% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
Rachael spoke powerfully about her "allergy" to alcohol, saying "I put it in my body and I break out in stupid," and she was brutally honest about the consequences of the bad choices she made. She focused on self esteem issues and the self-inflicted bullying that oftentimes is even crueler than the bullying inflicted by others. She said that every time she drank she only fueled that self loathing, and how that addiction destroyed everything in her path. Her recovery has been a blessing, and she can barely recognize the person she describes, the person she was, when she speaks with numerous groups of students.
I was very proud of her and felt blessed that in some way I've been able to help her get back up on her feet. But as she spoke, it occurred to me that I also was part of the world that let her fall. And not just a bit player. I wondered how many signals I miss from the hundreds of teens I know now and the thousands who have come through my office over the years. This is an enormous burden and a constant reminder to me that my own actions have enormous consequences. But not just me.
All of us are role models, comforters, cajolers and boosters. We need to think long and hard about all the decisions we make with regard to alcohol and other substances. Because we can be sure that somewhere, it will have an impact on a child.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Tonight I’d like to talk about trust. Two weeks ago my class went to Greenkill, an outdoor camping experience that teaches team building skills. I had a great time. While we were there, we did a number of activities that I found to be interesting and fun.
At one point, we played a game called Raging River. The goal is to help the group get across an imaginary river. It wasn’t a real river – so don’t worry, Mom!!
We also created a “Human Knot.” This is where you join hands and try to untangle the interlocked arms without letting go of one another. Our group was able to do it in just three minutes. We also did something called a low ropes course and learned how to spot our friends – kind of like a trust fall.
So much is based on trust. You really can’t have a friendship or an effective grade without trust. I wrote this last year on a poster for my history class: “You can’t have a friendship without trust and you can’t have trust without a friendship.” Believe it or not, Ernest Hemingway said something similar. He said “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
So if trust is so important, why did Abraham not trust Isaac to go out and find a wife for himself?
It’s understandable that Abraham was afraid. After all, Isaac was born when he was very old. Also, he was afraid of losing Isaac, since he had just lost his wife, Sarah. This decision was important not just for the two of them, but for the future of the Jewish people. There was a lot riding on this choice of a wife.
There another side to this. Isaac just lost his mother and had a not-too -pleasant experience with Abraham at the Akeda, when he was nearly sacrificed – so maybe Isaac had lost confidence in himself. He didn’t trust his own judgment. Maybe Isaac ASKED Abraham to find him a wife.
But by the end of the story, Isaac learns to trust again. The text says that he loved Rebecca before he had met her up close. And Rebecca was wearing a veil, so he hadn’t even seen her face. To this day, the veil worn at a wedding symbolizes the leap of faith couples make when they decide to get married. Trust really makes the world go round.
As many of you know, I love dance. I’ve been doing it since I was a little girl. Dance has taught me the importance of building trust – how?
Well, you need to be able to trust your partner to help you and not step on your toes, your teacher to teach you how to not hurt yourself and to express yourself artistically. And last, you have to trust yourself, to be able to know your limits and how to surpass those limits as well as your own expectations.
A few weeks ago, I finally managed to do a triple pirouette. I’d been working on it for a year! It made me feel so proud. Sort of how I feel today.
Trust is also at the heart of my Mitzvah project. The first part of my project involved selecting books, games and art supplies, packing them up and donating them to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Connecticut. Families in need place their trust in the rest of us to do the right thing to make a difference in the lives of their children. As the one who donated the items, I needed to place my trust in Big Brothers and Big Sisters that they would give the books and games to the children who needed them the most.
The second part of my Mitzvah project will involve reading to first graders at BCDS – that is if Mrs. Herman gives me permission. She will need to have confidence that I will approach this responsibly and the first graders will need to have confidence that my reading to them will be an enjoyable and hopefully educational part of their day.
The third part of my Mitzvah project involves Remembrance. During the Holocaust, trust was broken at so many levels. Jews could not trust their governments, their neighbors or, in many cases, their friends. My Grandpa David, who survived the Holocaust, was born in a city called Presov. When the war ended, my Grandfather placed his trust in the decency of the American soldiers that he met to journey from Europe to America to start a new life. His trust was similar to Rebekah’s trust when she agreed to leave Aram without delay to marry Isaac.
Others were not as fortunate as my Grandfather. Tonight I want to honor the memory of Chaya Sara Willner, a little girl from Presov, who did not survive the Holocaust and did not live to experience the joys of her own Bat Mitzvah. I intend to remember Chaya Sara on every Yom Hashoah. In my booklet, you can read the poems of another young girl from Presov who survived the Holocaust and see some of the photos that my sister Elana took in Poland and Israel on her Lev V’Nefesh trip last winter.