Friday, May 30, 2014
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Today, we're going to talk about people who always go above what's expected and try to achieve something greater.
Theodor Herzl had a famous quote, " If you will it, it is no dream." What he means by this is that you can't just sit around waiting for your dreams to come true, you have to fight for them, and work hard. Once you start going after them, they're no longer a far away dream, but something that can be accomplished.
Here's a funny story about Theodor Herzl: On my trip to Israel, we went to the Independence Hall Museum. We sat in what seemed like a small theater, and a picture popped up on the screen. The worker asked, "Can anyone tell me who this is?" So me, being the overly excited person I am, practically jumped out of my seat with my hand raised. "Abraham Lincoln!" I screamed. Thanks to my rabbi and friends, I've never been able to forget that story.
In my Torah portion, it talks about Nazerites, a perfect example of Jews going beyond what's expected. For example, it's okay for Jews to drink wine. Despite this, the Nazerites still don't drink any wine, and as a matter of fact, they even refuse to eat grapes. They go way beyond the minimal requirement. And because of that, they are able to do remarkable things. My haftarah tells the story of Samson, who was a Nazerite from birth and because of that he became incredibly strong.
When you think of how tiny the Jewish population is, it's hard to believe how much we e accomplished. So many Nobel prizes, great writers and even Adam Levine! And Israel has gone way beyond what Herzl could've ever dreamed. Its now a thriving state, with a powerful defense force and all different types of people.
However, this not only applies to the Jewish community or Israel. Every day, people are striving to achieve something greater, to be better than they already are.
Music has always been the center of my life, I even used to have a YouTube channel called irevolvearoundmusic. I'm always trying to learn more, because I always want to be better at what I'm singing or what I'm playing on the flute or piano. I mean, just last week I had one of the lead roles in my school play. It added a lot of extra stress, but I knew I could do it, because I believe you can never do too much of what you love.
But enough about me.
Lets talk about my mitzvah project. I've chosen to raise money for the Emunah Afula Children's Center in Israel. When I visited there in 2012, I felt an immediate connection with one girl. She wasn't very eager to work on the art project, but slowly we made a masterpiece together. I knew then that I wanted this organization to be my mitzvah project.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
Mazal tov to Susan and Mark Plotzky, who are sponsoring this week's Shabbat announcements in honor of Rachel's Bat Mitzvah. Mazal tov to Rachel too!
Mazal tov also to our 7th graders, who graduated from Religious School at Thursday evening's Aliyah Ceremony. See photos below and
From Thursday Night's Aliyah Ceremony
7th Graders in Bar Mitzvah party attire
Some of our all-star lineup of teen Madrichim
All smiles for some of our younger Beth El'ers
Mitzvah projects spiced up the final day
Some students sent cards, cookies and plants to residents of the Jewish Home
SPECIAL TEMPORARY HOUSING REQUEST:
I am a retired professional woman, former congregant, looking for a furnished room for a month, June, 2014 in an area closer to downtown Stamford than to the Merritt or North Stamford but will consider all possibilities. I can be reached until May 28 at 215-925-1607 or 203-898-4174 until then and thereafter.
Maccabi's Big Week
I watched Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv's miraculous Euroleague basketball title on both American and Israeli TV last week, and the Israeli version was much more fun. (see English highlights of the thrilling semi final win over CSKA Moscow and highlights of the final against Real Madrid, won in overtime. Then watch the Hebrew version of the semis.) It was a storybook run.
Israel went gaga after the victory. Understand that this team was considered a mediocre shadow of its former glory. In Israel they had struggled mightily, losing to teams like Nes Tziona, (imagine the Miami Heat losing to the Miami Hurricanes). Their coach, who was nearly fired a year ago, except that the team could not afford to pay the severance plus hire another coach, is now a national hero. They overcame a dozen point deficit with a couple of minutes to go in a qualifying game just to get into the final four; and against Moscow they were down by as many as 15 points well into the second half. They have no superstars and most of their players cannot understand Israel's national anthem. This is not a national team, but a private club built primarily from NBA wannabees.
Yet here they were, celebrating on the court and the whole country was wearing Maccabi yellow, even those who ordinarily are bitter rivals of the team. President Peres and PM Netanyahu raced to call the coach right after the game. Every other news story took a back seat as the team flew home and stopped in to visit the Prime Minister on the way to the big celebration.
The adulation got to the point where even the ultra-Orthodox took notice, one of themlabeling Maccabi as a modern day "Golden Calf." "They made basketball and soccer a symbol of national pride instead of our rich Jewish culture," he said. "The team is imported from around the world. They are not Jews, but Israelis don't care as long as they win." Another, Aryeh Deri, attributed the victory to the "Jewish brain."
A slew of anti-Semitic tweets greeted the victors, as if to highlight the veracity of the ADL's recent survey. This despite the fact that so many of the players are not Jewish. But this week it didn't matter. On some level it normalized Israel, to be able to win on a major international stage. And at the same time, it played into the narrative of the resilience of the Jewish people and the Israeli nation. Nes Gadol Haya Sham. Not only did we win, but we won spectacularly, avenging the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian pogroms in one fell swoop. Take that, Torquemada! Take that, Czar Nicholas! I wonder if Vladimir Putin was watching. This was an exercise in Jewish power and Israeli pride, albeit perpetuated by non Israeli, non Jewish players.
Whatever it was, it felt good and Israelis felt unity and pride - a lot more unity than they will likely feel this week on Jerusalem Day, which has become nearly exclusively a right wing celebration, or when the Pope slips into town for a quick visit this weekend.
Foxman on Civility
Abe Foxman of the ADL slipped into Stamford this week, speaking as part of a continuing series held at the Ferguson library called "Civility in America." I went to the lecture "Civility in Politics and Public Life: A Current Challenge," expecting to hear a vintage Foxman regaling on his wide ranging areas of expertise. What would it be? Iran's nuclear program? White supremacists? Bullying in schools? The ADL's recent bombshell worldwide survey on anti-Semitism? His own retirement, which was announced recently, setting off a feeding frenzy of rumor as to whom his successor will be?
Amazingly, Foxman spoke about none of the above. He spoke about - get this - civility in America! (Read Advocate coverage here)
Reading from notes, he lectured for 45 minutes on the impact of the internet, the scourge of anonymity and our polarized political system on the stunning lack of civility in this country. He spiced it up with personal anecdotes about a commencement address he recently delivered and his reaching out to a Palestinian student who had asked him not to come. It was very moving.
Toward the end, Foxman asked and answered a key question: Why had he accepted this particular speaking engagement? The answer: No one had ever asked him to speak on this subject before. It was hard for me to believe that the head of the ADL had never been asked to speak on civil discourse before - but he then went on to say that to his knowledge, no community other than ours is hosting such a series.
So kudos to Stamford and our series on civility. May our community continue to be a shining example in the art of getting along.
A Billion People Hate Me - Do I Hate Myself?
So, what of the ADL's landmark survey? I'm still digesting it, but I promise, over the coming weeks, we'll have a chance to discuss it. So in the meantime, take a look at it and let me know your impressions.
One stat that jumps out at me: According to the survey, there are over 1 billion anti-Semites in the world (a lot, but still less than the number of McDonalds hamburgers served). Fully 27% of people who have never met a Jew nevertheless do not like us. Shockingly, 77%, of those who hate Jews have never met one. The survey also found an inverse relationship between the number of Jews in a country and the spread of anti-Semitic attitudes there. As a general rule, the fewer the Jews in a particular country, the more numerous the anti-Semites. There are exceptions to that, especially in Southeast Asia, where they seem to like us a lot.
So it's time to take your non Jewish neighbors out to lunch. To know us is to love us - or at least to hate us a lot less. (Read: Hating the Jew you've never met | The Times of Israel.)
The first thing we have to do to slowly begin to improve those staggering numbers? Rent a villa in far, far off Papua New Guinea. And fly Donald Sterling there. There was a point where we could accuse the media of making too much of Sterling's Jewish background. But then Sterling went on Anderson Cooper's show. Really. Donald. Stop. Dragging us all into this.
The second thing we need to do to reduce anti-Semitism: keep rabbis off the front pages. In the wake of a number of rabbis-gone-wild scandals these past few weeks, includingextortion and kidnapping charges on an Orthodox rabbi involving a recalcitrant husband, and then the scandal involving a Boston area Conservative rabbi that seems to get more sordid every day. It is terrifying to read about these things, because they engender an atmosphere conducive to an increase in anti-Semitism and to the erosion of trust between Jews and their leaders. These accusations, if true, especially involving a long time, trusted rabbi, bring shame to all rabbis and to all Jews.
It's enough to make a Jew anti-Semitic.
Andrew Silow-Caroll writes in today's Times of Israel that there are parts of the ADL survey that he himself would not have "passed" - and he edits a prominent Jewish newspaper. He lists the questions. See how you might have scored. I'll bet there are more anti-Semitic Jews than we ever could have imagined. Or, perhaps the ADL survey, in its desire to create headlines, bit off more than it could chew. Perhaps simply thinking Jews have a dual loyalty to America and Israel does not make one anti-Semitic.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Memorial Day (read A Rabbi's Sermon on Iwo Jima), and Jerusalem Day too.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Those of you who know me, know that I have a passion for crime shows, like NCIS. I started watching them when I was about 10. Why? Well, because my mom liked them. It was something we could do together because she was not interested in watching Disney shows with me.
I slowly got into it and then I REALLY got into it. I started with NCIS, and then I went on to CSI, Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, NCIS: LA and about every crime show out there.
Part of the reason I love these shows is that math is my favorite subject. Every crime is like one big math problem to solve. Every piece of information needs to be accumulated and stored away. Even the things that may not seem important now, might become really important later on.
So it’s fitting that my portion is the most mathematical portion of the entire Torah – it’s a census, but not only that: It’s the first portion in what we call the book of Numbers.
My portion is about counting people - even though, I must add, that in this census, the women are left out – WE COUNT TOO GOD!!!!
There’s an expression that’s used when someone dies, especially when they die because of a crime or disease. They become what is known as “a statistic.” When people are dead, they often become just a number. In the Holocaust, the Nazis tried to turn the Jews into numbers even before they murdered them. Part of the process of killing, was taking away their identity, their name and their humanity – and that was started by tattooing a number on their arms and eventually killing a large population of Jews. About six million. They saw this as a great accomplishment.
Judaism makes it very clear that every human life is of infinite value. Even a census is seen as dangerous – ONLY, if God gave permission could one be held. This is because it limits the full potential of the Jewish people. However, my Haftorah begins with an important line to counter what’s in the Torah portion: “The number of Israel, shall be greater, than the sands of the sea.”
Now back to my regularly scheduled program on my crime shows. What I’ve noticed is that when someone is murdered, it’s because the killer has stopped seeing the victim as fully human. Instead, his life has a price, and his death, a certain fixed value.
For example, when a person hires a hit man, he takes away that person’s humanity. The price that is paid becomes the price for his life. Essentially, he becomes the value of that number.
Once you’ve seen someone as being less than fully human, it becomes easier to build up a reason to justify killing someone. Many psychopaths think everyone’s out to get them. In that situation, it’s easy to convince themselves that the murder is in self defense. It’s just like what happens in the “Tell Tale Heart,” by Edger Allen Poe. When the narrator makes himself think that he should kill the man with the vulture eye, because he feels like the vulture eye is digging into his soul.
It’s not just in the world of murder mysteries where you learn that life should be of infinite value. My Mitzvah project teaches that too. Kids in Crisis is an organization that demonstrates that every child should be cared for, that everyone counts. I’ll be donating all of the money I have raised and the board games I have gotten for them – Which are in my bimah baskets and will be on the tables at my luncheon. If you would like to donate any money or purchase any candles, please see me later.
Taking this a step further, two summers ago, I took an amazing trip to Israel with the temple. In Jerusalem we went to Mount Herzl, a cemetery, where Israelis mourn their soldiers not as statistics but as human beings. In Israel, each soldier is special and unique. They each have their own story. Their humanity has not been striped in death. Here in America, this is Memorial Day weekend. We also need to remember all those who have fought and died for our country. Those soldiers have allowed us to appreciate the freedom we have. We should remember each soldier as more than just a number as they gave up their lives for ours.
For Jews, this is the most important lesson taught by the book of Numbers. And it’s an important lesson of my crime shows too. As Peeta tells Katniss in Suzanne Collins’ book “Mockingjay.” “To murder innocent people,” Peeta states, “It costs everything you are.”
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Standing here today has a lot of meaning for me. On this very spot almost 30 years ago, my dad became a bar mitzvah. So much has changed since then and yet… so much has stayed the same. For instance, the Knicks were terrible then and they sure are terrible now. But seriously, while I know today will bring back a lot of memories for my family, the prayers I have learned trigger lots of memories for me. Strangely, one has to do with camp.
We just chanted a prayer where the Torah is called a “tree of life.” Why is it called a tree? Trees protect us, nurture us, provide fruit and oxygen – we really would not be alive without trees. Similarly, the torah provides us with spiritual nourishment.
So it reminded me of camp. Every week we sit in a circle around a campfire and do what my camp friends like to call shenanigans, crazy things like catching eggs tossed over the fire, or doing a camp wide Harlem shake. By the way, speaking of camp fires, this weekend is Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday that is marked by huge bonfires, especially in Israel. In my opinion, it’s the closest the Jewish calendar comes to being like camp.
So, while the torah is a tree of life, at camp we have the Tree of Values, which are Enthusiasm, Loyalty, Sportsmanship, Friendship, Achievement and Cooperation. Every Sunday at our camp fire, two campers, who during the prior week demonstrated each value, get nominated for the award . I am proud to say thus far during my camp Winaukee career, I’ve been named on the tree every year.
My Torah portion also talks about trees – twice. If we follow the commandments, and do the right things, trees will give us fruit. And if we don’t, they won’t.
Now, I don’t believe that the Torah is teaching us that if you do good deeds, you are rewarded and if you bad things you are punished. I’ve seen too many kind people who suffer unnecessarily. Personally, I know that I did not deserve having two oral surgeries in the past few years. Also, the special needs kids I work with at Friendship Circle do not deserve their challenges. Or the underprivileged kids at Casa Verde Home of Hope in Medellin, Colombia. My family has been supporting Casa Verde for as long as I have been alive, and I am proud now to be doing my part, by featuring Casa Verde as my bar mitzvah project. Combining my love for basketball and Casa Verde, I gathered up my closest friends and family. I selected those who were good free throw shooters for the free throw fundraiser (sorry mom that is the real reason why you were not chosen). To date, we have raised $2,965 dollars. Those of you that are staying for the kiddush, will notice the branches and photos on the table which tie together my love for Casa Verde.
So we’ve talked about a tree of life and we’ve talked about a tree of values , there is a third type of tree that is the most important to me– my family tree. Not only did my dad become a bar mitzvah right here on this very bimah, but so did my Aunt Pam. And my grandparents and great grandparents have set down deep roots here. I am so proud to become part of that legacy.
Friday, May 16, 2014
Excerpts from 1989 s High Holidays Sermon on Loneliness, the Homeless and the Origins of Beth El Cares
Modern American life segregates us, unlike any society in history. People lose one another. Grandparents find themselves thousands of miles from their grandchildren. The torah says, “Love your neighbor,” but many of us don’t even know who are neighbors are. We have become atomized. Where once extended families lived on the same block - cousins, second cousins, and Reb Nachum the beggar, now there are only husbands and wives, a friend or two, and if they’re lucky, maybe some live-in help. What an incredible strain to put on a marriage - to expect your spouse to be your community as well. That is what America has become. Sweet land of loneliness. All those lonely people. Where do they all come from?
One doesn’t have to visit a homeless shelter to see the face of American loneliness close-up, but it helps. If one can see the faces at all, that is.
Christmas Eve: 1987. I joined several of you at the local homeless shelter, allowing the Christian volunteers a night off. Since this is the day for confessions, here’s one of mine. Were it not for the tug of my profession, I might well have stayed home. I’m no saint and my body was not sorely needed. I’ve no doubt that I would have found some excuse to sit by the TV and watch the black and white version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But I felt I belonged at the shelter. So I went - and did not regret it.
At first I felt useless. By the time I arrived the food was ready to be served and fifty or so had already come in from the cold and lined up to receive their dinner, cafeteria-style. I managed to make myself useful by dishing out stuffing from an aluminum tin.
As the guests passed by I would say “Stuffing?” and they’d nod, eyes glued to the floor. Half a dozen went by, maybe more. Then came this small girl of six - or seven at the most, escorted by a guardian. I couldn’t let her pass the same way, just another faceless encounter. A little girl, without a family on Christmas. As she walked past, I dished out some stuffing, and searching for the right thing to say, blurted out, “Merry Christmas.” And what I suddenly witnessed were the two brightest thank-you-Santa eyes I’ve ever seen. There is a line in the finale of the musical version of “Les Miserables,” “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I was never crazy about it at first, but when I think of that girl’s face, suddenly the line takes on a whole new meaning for me.
That one moment encapsulates all that makes my job worthwhile. All the committee meetings, the 3,000 piece mailings; it all suddenly became worth it. To ease another person’s loneliness is to ease one’s own. I was able to understand why the word “religion” comes from the Latin, meaning “to bind.” For that girl and I were at that moment bound by religion, both hers and mine.
That little girl’s case is extreme, but each of us in his or her own way can feel the same numbing, overwhelming emptiness she must have been feeling. We all at times feel that no one cares. We all feel forgotten. We all are lonely.
Let us invite others to share in the wellspring of life that exists within us, contained within our solitude. That is where true relationship begins, where the I meets the Thou. And the sounds that will come forth from such an encounter are not be the sounds of silence, but the sweet sounds of children at play, the buzzes and murmurs of men and women praying together, learning together, bound together as the very term religion implies, bound by a shared commitment and a community, bound by prayer and the triumphant blast of the shofar.
Coming together as concerned individuals, we can demonstrate that Temple Beth El cares for individuals.
Beth El cares - about the hungry and homeless of Stamford, as we’ve demonstrated many times over, and as we’ve shown again this Yom Kippur, with our food collection last night.
Beth El cares - about those who are part of the Temple family. All of them. All individuals. As an example, I’m proud to announce today that we are in the process of establishing a support group for single-parent families, with the first meeting to be held in the next two months and the first program being a special Hanukkah party.
Beth El cares - about our new Soviet Jewish immigrants, many who are attending a Yom Kippur service for the first time, here today, by special invitation. To all of them I say, “Dobro - Pojaolovart,” “Welcome!”
Beth El cares - about the particular loneliness of parents and teens. A number of our members have been at the forefront of community-wide efforts to address this crucial issue. We are proud of our association with the Adult Council for Jewish Youth, and we urge you to support it, and to attend the program series that has been planned.
This is our Temple, as it is and as it can be.
At the outset I discussed the Shma Kolenu prayer. In truth, this prayer is not a cry of desperation uttered from a broken human being to a distant God. It is a cry uttered from the depths of man himself, from his afflicted soul, from his loneliness. And the cry is directed not at God, but inward.
We must hear that cry, our own cry from within. And we must hear the cries of others. For the sake of that little girl at the shelter, for the sakes of all the lost and forgotten, the living and the dying, the widowed, the divorced, the single and the married. The children with one parent, with no parents, with two, three or four. The children with AIDS or drug dependency. The unemployed and the overworked. The homesick college freshman and the home-bound senior citizen. The child prodigy, pushed to excel, and the mentally challenged adult, pushed aside.
SHMA KOLENU! - they say - “Hear Our Voices!”
SHMA KOLENU! - the cry also comes from within.
V’AL TA’AZVENU! “Do not abandon us.”
We must not be afraid of our loneliness. We must hear its cry and embrace it - so that we can embrace others. There is so much work to do.
Walt Whitman wrote:
I saw in Louisiana a live oak growing
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches.
Without any companion it grew there uttering leaves of dark green.
And its look -- rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself.
But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves,
Standing there alone without its friends near.
For I knew I could not.
Whitman understood that the oak drew its strength and majesty from within. It needs no other trees in order to utter joyous leaves. But he realized that without other people around him he would not be able to flourish like the oak, for he would want to share that strength with others.
Let us try to be like the oak, drawing strength from within.
Let us be like the poet, sharing that strength with others.
Let us never close ourselves off from others.
But most of all, let us never be afraid to be alone.