Friday, February 28, 2014
As we wait for March to come in like a (snowy) lion, a few odds and ends to start:
Best of luck to Rev. Ann Schmidt, who retires from her post as pastoral director after a dozen years at Stamford Hospital and many more serving our community in a number of ways. She is a dear friend to me and so many others here. We've heard from her here twice this week, and she has mentioned that TBE has been a true spiritual home for her. Below is a photo taken in Jerusalem in 2002. We'll miss you, Ann!
I've received an urgent request, which I am happy to share, from TBE congregant Claudia Lubin, on behalf of a relative of hers. You can read the request here.
Have you reserved for Shabbat Across America yet? You won’t want to miss an incredible dinner and service. And bring your friends! Click here for more information. Click here for online reservations.
We mourned Rabbi Ehrenkranz and Harold Ramis this week. You can read the Board of Rabbis tribute to Ehrenkranz, which reflects my own sentiments. This evening at services I’ll pay tribute to Ramis, and tomorrow morning at services we’ll be discussing some vexing questions about Jewish identity, in relation to the portion (Shabbat Shekalim) and in particular, patrilinear descent.
Save the date for AJC Exec David Harris Appearance at TBE: March 13.
Are you reading the MUST READ book of the year, Ari Shavit’s “My Promised land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”? Read it and come to hear my reactions and discuss it with me on Thurs., March 27 at 7:30.
Great stuff coming for Purim in two weeks: Super family megillah reading carnival in the morning and on Sat. night, in the spirit of the holiday, the megillah reading will be spiced by a Scotch (or nonalcoholic alternative) tasting led by our own Ron Zussman, and special speaker Glenn Dynner, author of “Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor and Life in the Kingdom of Poland.”
Jew-vie notes on Oscar Weekend
This being Oscar weekend, some thoughts, through a Jewish lens, about this year’s nominees for Best Picture. I’m not one to subscribe to the idea that Jews own Hollywood. To the contrary, this year’s crop speaks voluminously to some our most embarrassing mea culpas, just in case we were getting too full of ourselves.
We’ve got films based on two big time Jewish crooks, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” reinforcing some of worst Jewish stereotypes of greed, shrewdness and bad hair.
“Philomena,” which I saw last week, describes the unpardonable sins of the Catholic church. Although no one has accused Jewish organizations of enslaving young moms and selling their babies, the inexcusable betrayal of trust by religious organizations to cover up crimes of clergy, particularly sexual abuse of minors, has become all too prevalent in our backyard. Just last month, a court let Yeshiva University off the hook because the statute of limitations had run out on the cover up of hundreds of acts of abuse by two rabbis and an alumnus during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. A close friend of mine and noted rabbi recently revealed that he was a vicitim of those crimes. There is no statute of limitations on the pain of the victim. I loved “Philomena” for reminding me of that.
In “Gravity,” a profoundly spiritual film, Sandra Bullock floats through the valley of the shadow of death. Her most telling line: I know, I know, everyone dies; not everyone knows the day.” This line echoes Rabbi Eliezer, who advised, “Repent one day before your death,” Expressing the fears of so many Jews and others, Bullock adds, . “No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. … I’ve never prayed. … Nobody has taught me how. … By the end of the film, when she embraces the mud, looks heavenward and says “thank you,” she has learned how to pray as a Jew prays, not asking for the moon, but being grateful for some dry land to stand on and some blue sky filled with breathable air.
“Her” has a Jewish connection, aside from Scarlett Johansson, and it’s about loneliness and the limits of technology to satisfy our most human needs. I’m a big techno-fan, but there is something to be said for unplugging once in a while – which is a nice promo for next week’s Shabbat Across America, which is also the National Day of Unplugging. (Sign the pledge and upload a photo). When we fall in love with our machines, that means that we have fallen in love with ourselves, the work of our hands, and there is no more virulent form of idolatry.
12 Years a Slave?” Well, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Jews were 400 years a slave! This film reminds us that we Jews have lots to teach the world about how to live by a moral code that stresses that all humans are created in God’s image.
Last weekend I saw both “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” Without being too much of a spoiler, AIDS figures prominently in each. At a time where the Berlin Wall of homophobia seems to be crumbling before our eyes, in the courts (Kentucky and Texas this week, following New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio and Virginia), on the playing surfaces of the NFL and NBA and even in the statehouse of Arizona, the prejudices exposed in both films are receding as the arc of inclusiveness continues to bend precipitously. Any Jew who remembers the Nuremburg Laws, not to mention Jim Crow, had to find Arizona’s proposed law both repugnant and dangerous. Fortunately, bipartisan outrage made its mark. Yes, it’s troubling that the law actually passed at first, especially in the name of “religious freedom,” but maybe this was the tipping point.
I did not see “Nebraska” or “Captain Phillips,” so I’ll leave it to others to find the Jewish messages embedded there.
Of the ones I saw, which did I like best? I liked them all. And I’d rather award them a collective Oscar. We’ve come a long way since the homophobic 1980s, and the clergy abuse of the ‘70s and ‘60s. We can still avoid the dehumanizing, techno-landscape of the near-future in “Her.” We’ve come to see the fragile beauty of our precious blue planet as seen from space in “Gravity.” We’ve come to understand the destructiveness of excessive greed. And slavery is no longer the law of the land. We may not own Hollywood, but Jewish teachings and historical experiences can help humanity set a course for a better future.
And yes, there is much more work to do. Hatred still exists, so does greed, so does narcissism, sexual abuse and there are 30 million slaves on earth, 60,000 in the US.
Someone will probably mention that when “12 Years a Slave” picks up the ultimate gold statuette on Sunday night.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
I've received this request, which I am happy to share, from TBE congregant Claudia Lubin, on behalf of a relative of hers.
I am writing you on behalf of my niece Talia. Talia is an amazing young woman. She is twenty years old and a student at the University of Oregon. She wants to study film in graduate school. She is warm, beautiful, funny, vibrant and loving young lady, who I love dearly. At the age of 14 she was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes. She has been living with this horrible disease for almost six years.
It's been a hard road for Talia with every day holding some new challenge to staying healthy and safe. As she continues to struggle with diabetes, one of the major life-threatening challenges in her day to day care is the side effect of her body not being able to detect when her blood glucose level is rapidly rising or dropping. Unfortunately, there aren't many treatment options for this and the ones that do exist are very expensive. The only one that exists for her is a diabetic alert dog. A "DAD" is a very special service dog that would smell the chemical changes in her blood and alert her to a high or low blood glucose level up to thirty minutes before it happens. This dog could save her life. Talia has started a fundraising campaign on http://Indiegogo.com in the hopes of one day soon being able to adopt one of these amazing dogs. As of today she is half way to her financial goal of $20,000, the cost to adopt and train a DAD.
I'm coming to you today to ask for your support of Talia's campaign. You can help in two ways. First, you can donate - any amount helps. Just click this link: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/diabetic-needs-a-service-dog/x/6300187 and it will take you straight to her fundraising campaign page at Indiegogo.com http://Indiegogo.com. You can read all about her experience, the campaign, and what goes into raising and training a diabetic alert dog. Second, you can share her campaign with literally anybody. E-mail, word of mouth, facebook, twitter, anyway you want!
Much love to all of you. And thank you in advance for your support.
Friday, February 21, 2014
This week’s portion of Vayakhel continues a theme that dominates the second half of the book of Exodus, describing in vivid detail the construction of the tabernacle (Mishkan) in the wilderness. The placement of the prohibition of work on Shabbat immediately before the Mishkan passages led the rabbis to draw a connection between. The Mishna lists 39 basic categories of work (Melacha), based on kinds of work done on the Mishkan, from which are derived many other Shabbat prohibitions.
The connections between the tabernacle and Shabbat point to a much broader link. The tabernacle was constructed with such great care because, in the biblical imagination, it was to be a place where God would dwell – in other words, a microcosm of the universe itself. The blueprint for the Mishkan parallels the blueprint devised for the Creation – a Creation that culminated in, you guessed it, the first Shabbat.
A deeper message here is that Judaism’s goal is to take what is beyond our grasp, the magnitude of the entire universe, and bring it down to earth – to make it real and palatable, to take God out of some celestial ivory tower and bring sanctity down to the muck and mud of every day existence. The sowing and winnowing and threshing and writing and igniting in flame, the tent pegs and curtains and dyes – all these are holy. God dwells among us, and within us.
Sanctity is what takes place in our daily lives, our real lives. To be relevant, then, Judaism must speak to those daily realities, the tears and laughter, the small victories and crushing defeats. The TV networks long ago understood that the key to making the Olympics a ratings hit was to make them “up close and personal.” We can’t get enough of those portraits of athletes who have overcome severe setbacks, who bring out the best in the human spirit.
For Judaism to speak to us, it’s got to speak to what’s real in our lives, to tap into age old wellsprings of wisdom and the love of a caring community. It’s got to uplift us by reaching us where we are, hitting us in the gut.
So that’s why we have been bringing the stories of TBE congregants front and center this year. “This American (Jewish) Life” is the series, and thus far we’ve heard from congregants who have confronted real life crises, like the murder of a father and a descent into the disease of addiction, who somehow have found the strength and hope not only to live on, but to transcend the pain. In both cases, the love of a Jewish community and relevance of the Jewish message were instrumental to that healing process. This Shabbat morning, we’ll hear the next in that series, as Brett Goldberg will describe his years of living in Israel, serving literally on the front lines of Jewish destiny during a turbulent era.
Right now, congregants Suzanne and Norman Stone are touching lives in Israel and you can read Suzanne’s latest dispatch here. Suzanne describes a wonderful encounter with an Ethiopian immigrant, a 12th grader. And also see a dispatch received just today from TBE’s Jan Gaines, also in Netanya, describing a 20 minute walk along the beach that she calls “Israel in miniature.” Just like the Mishkan – it’s all brought down to earth. And this coming Thursday, see the local premier of a film entitled “Next Year Jerusalem” that will touch you to the core, about a group of nonagenarians who visit Israel, many for the first time.
And the heroic story of TBE’s Eli Schwartz, as detailed in a recent article by his mom Deborah, is one that impacts us all deeply, reminding us of the power that each of us has to bring a sublime healing to all whom we touch – right here, right now. We gain great strength from their courage, which in turn enables us to help them when things get tough. You can also see this week’s ADL feature on ADL feature about TBE teen Melanie Roloff, who was victimized by classroom bullying and turned that experience into a way to make our world safer.
For Judaism to be relevant, it must pass the smell test. When panicking pundits speak of the Jewish condition following the Pew report, we hear suggestions that simply aren’t helpful. A well-known demographer came to our community a few weeks ago and said it is incumbent on Jews to have more babies. Now I’m a great fan of both Jews and babies, but when you look at the consequences of humanity’s planetary presence, our dwindling resources and all the consequences of the earth’s population’s having exploded in one century from 2 billion people to 7 billion people, it’s hard to make the case that people should be having have more babies.
Not everyone is thinking of the impact of global population growth, but Jewish newlyweds are thinking of the economic strain of large families. So this message, that they need to have oodles more kids, is not one that passes the smell test.
In addition, any message that flies against accepted scientific fact does not pass the smell test for the vast majority of Jews. The fastest way to fly into the trash bin of irrelevance is to try to convince Jews that the Creation occurred in six 24-hour days. With very few exceptions (one of them notably the Lubavitcher Rebbe), Jews across the spectrum do not see evolution as incompatible with Jewish belief. We do not have any theological issues with evolution because, in part, Jews don’t read the Creation account as literal history and also because we don’t need to read “Original Sin” into the Garden of Eden account.
The recent HBO special “Questioning Darwin” demonstrates how Darwin’s theories pose a threat to Christian literalists that simply does not apply to Judaism. The sad fact is that many Jews don’t realize that. When people blur the lines between literalist Christianity and mainstream Judaism, they turn away from their own faith tradition, assuming that “they’re all then same.” Jews need to understand that there is a far greater compatibility between mainstream Judaism and the views of such modern spiritual luminaries as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic, along with the many faith traditions that perceive God’s presence within an infinitely complex universe as being consistent with evolutionary theory and modern science. A new Creation ethos is fast coming into being; one reflected in the film and book, “Journey of the Universe” that we recently showed here. This emerging Creation ethos passes the smell test. It speaks to our real lives.
Down-to-Earth Judaism has never thrived when it’s been insular – what has been “good for the Jews” has always been when Jews have been good for the world. The miracle of Israel’s rebirth and growth touches us most deeply when we read of how Israelis are creating the world’s first insulin pill for diabetes, or the breakthrough Israeli ‘Wrapping Paper’ that will make bones heal faster and better.
The Jewish story is the human story writ small, just as the Mishkan is God’s universe in microcosm. We celebrate our small but significant contribution to the healing of our world, one tent peg at a time, and that begins with the sacred work (Melacha) we are doing here down in the mud, the work of Eli and Melanie and Suzanne and Jan, of Rachael and Dana and Brett – of each of us.
We are bringing God back down to earth, as together we construct that Mishkan, one tent peg at a time.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
The latest dispatch from TBE's Suzanne Stone, who is spending several weeks in Israel. A new dispatch from Jan Gaines, also in Netanya, is below that.
Dear Family and Friends,
As I mentioned previously, on Sundays we go on tiyulim (tours). Friday is a free day and Norman and I have explored on our own. The first Friday we went to Caesarea National Park by taxi and last Friday we went to Haifa by train (they are lovely) and took a tour of the B'hai Gardens.
We have seen many special sites. As most, if not all of you know, everywhere you go in Israel there is an archeological/historical site and we have seen many. We also have visited a few museums. However, rather than tell you about these experiences, I decided to focus on the numerous examples of how the government helps young people who come from disadvantaged and/or abusive homes.
The TOM (Torah&Midah/science)school where we volunteer twice a week is a both a boarding and commuter high school primarily for Ethiopian boys. However, there are Israeli boys who have had difficulties in other schools who commute. There are 220 boys who board and go home every other weekend. Most have 8 or 9 siblings, some are here in Israel and others in Ethiopia waiting to immigrate. They are faced with many challenges, learning to live in a totally different society and culture in addition to learning Hebrew and English and many other subjects. Thirty-five boys come from a nearby youth village and 25 are local commuters. Most know very little English. The principal is extremely dedicated and caring giving the boys above and beyond what one would expect. The teachers also are very patient and caring. The students do not pay any tuition.
Another example is the Neourim Youth Village. This school was started in 1948 to help refugees acclimate. Today 30% are Ethiopians and the others from Russia Ukraine and all areas of Israel. Approximately 70% are male and 30% female. There are 300 students and 140 are new. Only students who cannot be supported at home can attend. Many are problem students and/or come from problem homes. There are dormitories and day students. In addition to the school curriculum there are after school activities leading to a certification such as hair dressing. Some participate in a 2 year program training dogs for the army which leads to being in a good division when they enter the army. The students are taught how to study, become independent and responsible. Many also are sent on March of the Living. They try to provide a good home environment especially for Nalet students (those who come to Israel without their parents from Russia, Ukarine, etc.). The students can also return after they serve in the army. We met many of the students in the choir who entertained us.
Another interesting experience was a visit to Beit El a community of Zionist religious Christians. They heard the call (a vision) to go to Israel and become one people with Israel. They came to Israel in 1963, mostly from Europe including Germany andsome from Canada. They believe that if you pray with faith for the redemption, God will make it happen. Until 2004 they had to go back and forth but now they are permanent residents (not citizens). They built a factory to manufacture aeration equipment providing jobs for their own as well as Israelis. Their choir sang psalms in Hebrew.
Today I had a very special experience. I worked with a 12th grader at TOM reviewing his final project. They are required to write a report and present it orally. He chose to write about Nelson Mandela because he thought that he was a great man who did wonderful things. Although he understood the general information, there were several details that were not clear to him. He asked me many questions which led to a meaningful discussion. At the end of our session he thanked me for helping him understand all the concepts that had not been clear. He had a big smile and was very happy. I'm sure that you can imagine how heartened I was. The director told me afterwards that at home he is ignored and put down. With the love and caring he is given at TOM he has begun to come out of his shell and begun to grow intellectually, emotionally and socially. Without this opportunity he would have a very different life. Now he thinks of going to the university after the Army.
A few tidbits before I sat good night. In both the Jr. and Sr. High School, the student call their teachers by their first names. Also, The signal to change classes is music not a bell.
Hope that you have seen the last of the snow and that spring comes early.
(from Jan Gaines)
It's about 80 under a cloudy sky. Erev Shabbat. Friday afternoon, 2:00 p.m. I decided to take a long walk on the beach.
I leave my building and enter the Tayelet or Promenade that runs for several miles along the Netanya beach. There is a playground a few hundred yards from where I start. And a small rise of grass for watching parents. The first group I see are Israeli Arabs, about 15 of them, having a picnic and enjoying their Shabbat, which is Friday. Their kids are on the playground romping with Israeli kids. Next up are skate boarding kids on the round rink; along with their Russian parents watching carefully; I find Russian grandparents especially are very careful with their grandchildren and keep a steel eye on them at all times.
I go by a father pushing double strollers with a happy twin smiling up at him. Then a chattering group of French - - - - it seems they are always chattering no matter where I see them; in our outdoor cafes, in the shops, you can't miss them.
I reach the central steps down to the beach; over 100 of them. Good exercise coming back up. Another group of French, this time teens jostling each other. Then two weary Arab women dressed of course with full headdress and long skirts, puffing their way slowly one step at a time. I feel sorry for them. All that weight of their clothes added to the steep climb.
Once on the beach, there's a lot of action. Of course there's the ubiquitous paddle ball duos, a traditional element in Israeli beach culture. A group of Mizrachi men playing a home made game of soccer with the goals made out of bent metal pieces. How do I know they are Mizrachi? Their music on the radio gives them away. There are no waves but there are kids on surf boards anyway, some using poles to stay afloat for a long distance.
There are some hearty bathers. I would guess the temperature of the ocean to be around 60 but these are men eager to start the season early. A Dad playing a kind of badminton with his 9 year old son. They are tourists for sure, because they are dressed like it and natives don't play badminton on the beach. I hear a British English.
A group of Ethiopian teenagers throwing around a small beach ball, but lest you think the Ethiopians still self segregate, right after them a black and white pair of guy friends. And they are part of a group of young couples, still without kids, seated on the sand shooting the breeze.
I reach my part of the beach, again with over 100 stairs going up to the street. Washing off my feet, someone calls Hi Jan. It's Omri, son of my adopted family. He' 14 and gorgeous, but hates school so he has a group of concerned teachers as well as his parents and grandparents all discussing alternative schools for him next year. And there are some very good ones. I'll see Omri tonight for Shabbat dinner with his family (and mine by now) so a couple more kisses and he's off with surfboard and friend.
It's only been about 20 minutes but I feel I've seen the whole of Israel in miniature. And I love it. It gives me peace and hope.
Shabbat Shalom, Jan Gaines
PS Suzanne and Norman Stone are coming over Shabbat evening, Saturday night and I've invited some friends to meet them. They are so busy it's been hard to give me an evening. They are loving it here.