Friday, February 27, 2015

Esther's Quiet Room: Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb 27

The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored by Beth and Jeff Goodman in honor of their son, Benjamin, becoming a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to Ben Goodman and Emma Ostrovsky, this Shabbat b'nai mitzvah, and their families!  March is truly coming in like a lion (or, more precisely, Feb. is going out like one) , with a weekend full of celebration, beginning with services at 7 tonight, with musical guests (why do I feel like Don Pardo whenever I say that?) Avram Pengas and Eitan Zahav.  And if you have a preschool or younger aged child, come to the Cantor's home at 4:30 for a special Tot Shabbat playdate!  And plan to join us for Purim on Wednesday night, with our Megilla reading (for families and later, for adults) and always enjoyable carnival.  Wait til' you see what I'll be wearing!

March will bring several very important events to TBE, including the first event for our new LGBT group next Saturday night (see news coverage), our Interfaith Seder on the 26th, with the theme "Befriending the Stranger." On the 19th, we'll be privileged to host the National Yiddish Theater, "From Rosenfeld to Robeson,"program, a special gift provided free to the community in memory of Dr. Harry Romanowitz - a man so dear to so many of us.  And well over a hundred have already reserved for the March 13thShabbat Across Stamford.  Hundreds of Jewish groups will be celebrating the annual "Shabbat Across America" that day.  But we are the only community that will be coming together - Jews of all denominations - to do that.  I'll talk more about that next week, but it is a real feather in Stamford's  cap.  Because people observe Shabbat in such vastly different ways, our prime goal has been to bring people together in the spirit of unity and mutual respect. So no one group will feel completely familiar with the kind of Shabbat we'll experience.  We'll all have something to learn - but most of all, what we'll learn is how important it is to cultivate an atmosphere of nonjudgmental love and respect, despite the differences. 

Gee. If we could just export that to Washington and Jerusalem, how different our world would be!

Jerusalem, Washington, Tehran...and Shushan.  Esther's Quiet Room

This is not the first time that Purim (next Wed. night) comes on the same week as a major speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington about Iran. It almost seems like he's been making these speeches since Mordechai and Esther frequented the streets of Persia.   Add to that the fact that this weekend is Shabbat Zachor and the temptation to draw historical parallels is irresistible.

But which lessons do we draw?  That the threat from our eternal enemies, especially the ones from Persia, never abates?   That Jewish life in the Diaspora is precarious and we need to stick together in a bipartisan way in order to survive?  That we need to be diplomatic - and courteous -when approaching the king? 

Esther fasted for three days before entering the palace's inner sanctum.  Maybe we all should do that before Bibi comes to Congress.

Maybe Netanyahu will surprise everyone.  Maybe he will actually apologize for his inexcusable snub of the President. Maybe he will offer a substantive good will gesture on the Palestinian issue to garner more American support. Maybe he will offer to form a unity government should he win the upcoming Israeli elections to de-politicize this appearance.  Right.  If the situation weren't so dead serious, it would almost play as a Purim farce. So many miscalculations. so many behind-the-scenes political machinations.  And so much foolishness.

David Brooks nailed it in today's Times.  The proposed deal with Iran might be a calamitous miscalculation on President Obama's part.  Bibi's speech to Congress was too.  He pulled the rug out from under many of Israel's greatest defenders, includingMossad chiefs, and reportedly, AIPAC leadership.  Everyone foresaw the train wreck that was slowly developing.  But it didn't matter.

For another view, see this letter to the editor by our own Jan Gaines in Thursday's Stamford Advocate. Always good to hear from Jan.  Until now I've been reticent to chime in with any reactions to next week's speech, for a few reasons:

1)     There has been too much noise as it is.

 2)     There has been precious little honesty - from all sides.

3)     Because this is totally about politics, on all sides.  On one side it's about getting Bibi reelected (check the ads from his prior campaign, which featured snippets from his last Congressional speech) while sticking it to Obama; and on the other side it's about defeating Netanyahu on March 17 - and the Prime Minister gave the Administration the perfect excuse to abandon all pretense of objectivity and go all-in on that.

4)     The one thing it isn't about is Iran. 

a.       If it were about Iran, the speech would have been scheduled for any time after the Israeli election (there would have been plenty of opportunity to schedule it between March 18-31, the Iran negotiation deadline, or even after.

b.       If it were about Iran, the Prime Minister would not have weakened Israel's position by turning this into a partisan issue in American politics.

c.       If it were truly about Iran, the Prime Minister's speech at AIPAC, attended by a majority of Congress, would have been the perfect platform. Now, instead, it is his appearance before Congress that will be debated front-and-center, rather than the Iran deal.  He could have chosen to make next week a serious, reflective, Fast of Esther.  Instead, he went right to the Purim Carnival.  Welcome to Bibifest, and the circus will be all about him.

5)     This whole thing is so incredibly painful. 

The actions that have taken place have caused great damage to Israel's image, including among many American Jews.  Some may feel that the speech is so important that it doesn't matter that feathers were ruffled.  I agree that there needs to be a substantive debate over this possible Iran agreement, once the details are revealed.  I have grave concerns about what I've heard - though I know that much more about the deal remains as yet unknown.  But meanwhile, it is much harder for us to make Israel's case in an atmosphere of confrontation and partisanship, where everyone is yelling and posturing and no one is listening.  It's really too painful to bear.

I do believe that the US - Israel relationship is strong enough to withstand this episode, and I do believe that the current Pennsylvania Avenue good-cop bad-cop routine could ultimately lead to a better agreement with Iran, if an agreement is to be had.  But who will care about the young Jews who feel increasingly distanced from the Israel their grandparents loved?  Soon they, and many other Americans, will simply yawn when Israel is discussed.  And that represents yet another, perhaps more pernicious, existential threat.  Perhaps the Prime Minister should have thought about that before accepting this invitation.

So I've decided to opt out of the Bibifest circus, and I'm going to make like Esther next week.  I'll retreat to a quiet room and watch the speech from there, fasting and praying that this capricious and reckless roll of the dice will prove to be just another Purim disaster averted, in our long history of courage, foolishness and blind luck. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb. 20


Shabbat Shalom!

Tonight our 7th grade class (see four of them above) will be helping to lead our main service.  They'll show us how popular TV programs and movies teach us Jewish values.  With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, I'll assess which Best Picture nominee best exemplifies positive Jewish values (I've seen all but one).  Meanwhile, send me your nominations.  Also, read the Jewish Journal's special "Jews and Oscars" section here, look here to read about the Jew behind the Grand Budapest Hotel, also click here to read about Holocaust themed  foreign film nominee "Ida."  

On Tuesday at 7:30, as part of my "Hot Topics for Cold Months" series, I'll be joined by the JCC's Israeli Emissary Or Berger to discuss the upcoming Israeli elections and, more generally, the state of democracy in Israel.  Here's some homework: read the most recent Israel Democracy Index and follow closely what's going on with the Israeli elections.  It has been wild.  Undoubtedly, we'll come around to what's become a very hot topic on both sides of the ocean, Prime Minister Netanyahu's upcoming speech before Congress.

And finally, please spread the word about next Saturday evening's inaugural event of our LGBT group, a gathering at Harbor Point.

The group's goal is to create a welcoming environment in which the Jewish LGBT community can socialize, celebrate Jewish life, learn together and share experiences. Membership in Temple Beth El is not required, and people of all ages are welcome to the group.  Inclusivity has always been a hallmark of Temple Beth El and we want to remove the sense of alienation that Jews in the LGBT community have experienced in many synagogues when seeking acceptance and a spiritual home.

Meanwhile, as we welcome our most joyous month of Adar today, our joy is tempered by the events of this past week in Copenhagen...

The Copenhagen shooting: Driving a Hole through the Holy


One of our TBE young adults, Lauren Pollack, is spending the semester in Copenhagen and is living very close to the synagogue that was attacked.  She was kind enough to send along reflections for me to share with you.  Look for them below. 

When I visited that very synagogue last summer, I noticed the sign above the entrance (see photo above), which states, "Blessed be the one who comes in God's name."  I could not help but reflect this week on the irony of that invitation, in light of the desecration committed by perpetrators of terror who claimed to speak in God's name, and who violated that sacred space without invitation.

We get hung up on the semantics as to whether those who pervert God's name should be seen as representing their faith.  Like just about everything else in our polarized political landscape, this debate has been used to demonize and paint entire faith groups with very broad brushes.

Judaism teaches that we are all representatives of our faith group - which is why we even have a name for those who give us a bad name by perverting the divine name, or more accurately, we have a name for those despicable deeds themselves: we call such actions a "Hillul Ha-shem," a "Desecration of the Name."  It comes from a verse in Leviticus, "And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the Lord who hallows you."  Examples of such "hilluls" in Jewish sources include stealing, desecrating the Shabbat and gossip.

The Hebrew root for "hillul" implies more than a moral desecration of that sacred Name; the imagery is quite concrete and physical.  It connotes a piercing or hollowing out.   Taking this imagery to its logical conclusion, these destructive actions create a cavity, an abscess that infects everything else around it.  The "Hillul Hashem," rather than being a sacred act, is in fact a hollow caricature of the sacred.  The perpetrator dresses the part of piety, but it turns out to be a grotesque disguise.  In other words, it's a cartoon, this caricature, one that renders profane the sacred surroundings and drives a spike of nihilism into the heart of divinity.  They drive a hole in the midst of the holy. 

These purveyors of death, not the journalists and satirists, create the most objectionable cartoons of God.  The unfathomable, unknowable God is rendered two-dimensional by their outrageous breach, and through their nihilism, God's name becomes the greatest victim.

So those who perpetrate terror in the name of God are actually desecrating that name and defaming their faith.  But they remain, to the outside world, representatives of that faith simply by the fact of their identifying with it.  Bernie Madoff identified as a Jew.  His views were as far from mainstream Jewish values as you can get - his life was Exhibit A in the museum of "Hillul Ha-shem."  Exhibit B might well be Rabbi Barry Freundel, who on Thursday pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism from secretly videotaping nude victims at his congregation's ritual bath.  

It is up to Jews everywhere to demonstrate that we, not Freundel, Madoff or Baruc Goldstein, are the representatives of the true Judaism; we need to overwhelm their i evil with our good.  Muslims have no less a burden right now. I work closely with several Muslims on our local Interfaith Council and have great deal of sympathy for their ongoing plight.  I do not regard the terrorists as the true face of Islam, but much of the world does.  Who really is the face of Islam is now an open question, just as it is an open question whether Meir Kahane's disciples are the true face of Judaism.

But this I believe: Those who do God's work here on earth, those who care for others and treasure each precious human life, whether they be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything else, they are the true face of God.  They are the ones who are filling the breach in the divine Name.  

And they are the ones being welcomed by the sign over the door at the Copenhagen synagogue: "Blessed be the one who enters in God's name."  


The Copenhagen Shooting-A Reflection  
By Lauren Pollack

 I had just gotten home from a short study tour in western Denmark when I heard the news of the first shooting. It's sad to say but as soon I heard that the shooter had fled the scene and the police had begun a manhunt in and around my neighborhood my thoughts instantly jumped to the Copenhagen Synagogue, situated in the heart of Copenhagen, which also happens to be less than a 2-minute walk from my apartment.

I fell asleep before the shooting at the synagogue happened, but at around 2 AM one of the SRA's in my building (Social Residence Advisor-similar to an RA in a college dorm except they're more like mentor and friend) came running downstairs to check if we were all home and safe. I saw how nervous and shaken he was, my housemates started chattering about a shooting that had just happened at the Synagogue. I grabbed my phone and I checked the news.  I saw what I had so unfortunately expected; someone who had been guarding the Synagogue during a Bat Mitzvah had been shot and killed.

The day after the attack I kept finding myself leaving my apartment to walk over to the Synagogue; I went three times in one day. With each hour the piles of flowers, candles, and notes grew larger and larger. The sidewalk is still covered in flowers and candles, and more fresh bouquets are laid down each day. Each time I visit I weave in and out of the people in the crowd and the police who have been stationed there to protect the visitors and the city as a whole.

The outpouring of love and support from the community here in central Copenhagen has been truly profound. Jews and non-Jews alike have been paying their respects at the site of the second attack, but it has also been very eerie and confusing time for many, including myself. A friend of mine has been attending Shabbat services at the Chabad house here in Copenhagen and this upcoming weekend she invited me for Shabbat. But the questions I keep asking myself are, "Do we go now?" "Is it even more important that we go this Shabbat, or would we be making a mistake or taking too big of a risk?"  I keep finding myself considering sacrificing my freedoms of expression, religion, and speech so that I can ensure my safety and avoid calling attention to myself as an American, and as a Jew. Where is that line between being cautious and sacrificing my beliefs in the wake of such a devastating attack?  
I think that I have also experienced the attacks differently because I am Jewish. I have noticed that even though just a few days have past since the attacks, everyone is still somewhat in shock, scared, and upset. I think those same feelings will linger with me a bit longer than many of the students here. Many of my American friends did not contextualize this event and consider it as something that fits into a larger more systemic issue currently facing Jews in Europe and around the world. It's unsettling to me that one of my most immediate thoughts after the first shooting was that Synagogues need protection, that Jews in Denmark, myself included, were very vulnerable.

My reaction to the attacks remains in stark contrast to the reactions of most Danes. Denmark's society is a very trusting one. For instance, during the winter months, the sun is very rarely seen-the skies are consistently gray. So when the sun is shining bright, daycares here will bundle up the babies in their care and place them in their carriages out in the sun, usually on the sidewalk-for the most part unattended. That's just how this society works, and before the attacks I thought it was so beautiful and interesting-if someone left a bike unlocked in front of a store in Washington D.C. within hours it would be gone for good. Reflecting upon this aspect of society following the attacks, it's hard for me to say whether or not I'm confortable submitting to this Danish way of life. Trust is such a fundamental aspect of society here and is engrained in much of their routine, it would be hard for me to adjust back to my new "Danish life" if you will-if I abandoned all trust because of one tragic event; I do have a lot of faith and trust in this country and the people that I have met here so far.
I trust that the Danish police, whose presence was very scarce in Copenhagen before the attacks (part of the trusting nature of the Danes), are working hard to protect this city and me. I trust that my abroad program is working hard to make this situation as manageable as possible and provide resources should any student feel overwhelmed and distracted. I trust that the uneasiness I feel walking around will slowly dissipate, as I know I cannot feel this way forever.
Life moves on. That isn't to say that there is nothing the world can learn from what happened; we have seen attacks like this one before, in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket for instance, where many more people lost their lives because they were targeted for exercising their right to free speech and for being Jewish (and in the wrong place at the wrong time). I think personally however, it's important for me to focus on not letting this event dictate how I feel about Denmark, how I feel about being a Jew (especially during such tumultuous times for Jews in Europe and around the world), or influence my time in Copenhagen and my travels.
The Danes have welcomed me so warmly during my first month here and I'm looking forward to the next 3 months I have in Scandinavia and Europe (and for the sun to be a more frequent visitor). Copenhagen is such a beautiful city. Hatred does not belong here; it doesn't belong anywhere.

Below are some photos that I took the day (afternoon and night) of the shooting of the flowers, candles, and letters that have been placed on the sidewalk in front of the Synagogue: 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Emily Marrinan on Mishpatim

People who know me know that I love to read.  One of my favorite series is the “Divergent” series, the first of which has come out as movie.  It turns out that “Divergent” really ties into my portion of Mishpatim.  In fact, it also has a “bat mitzvah” ceremony.

It’s really called the “Choosing Ceremony” and is very similar to today, minus a few details.  Don’t worry, no blood will be drawn! But when you get beyond those details what’s happening?  Teenagers are deciding their future, and starting to make choices for themselves.  It’s the first time they are really responsible for those choices.  Also, the Choosing Ceremony, like the Bat Mitzvah is the moment when they start to become independent of their family.

Today, I am making my choices, although thankfully I won’t be becoming fully independent and I have a lot more freedom to decide than most people did in the book.

Another similarity is how Mishpatim and the dystopian of Chicago in Divergent are both based on a strict set of rules that people have to follow – and both societies expect full obedience to those rules.

The Torah expects 24/7 obedience.  When the Israelites are at Sinai, they say “Na’aseh  v’nishma”  which means that they will “do and listen” – in other words, that they will obey even before they have totally understood the reasons behind the laws.   It so happens that this is said in chapter 24, verse 7.  So they really were pledging to be loyal 24/7.  But the Torah also has a built-in flexibility where laws can be changed if they no longer make sense.

Here’s a great example.  The Torah says, “Eye for an eye.”  But the rabbis of the Talmud later made it clear that the law is not talking about literally taking out someone’s eye, but paying them money and compensation for their injury.

Another example found in my portion is slavery.  We don’t have it any more. But these laws still are important, because the Torah is teaching us how to treat employees and also to love the person who is different from us.

In the world of swimming, another one of my favorite activities, I’ve learned that rules or standards are important – and there are a LOT of them.  They’ve changed a lot too, just like the laws of the Torah.

For example, in the breast stroke, there are rules regarding the pullout, the kick, the actual stroke, breathing patterns and more.  These standards were changed very recently, just four or five months ago.  I’ve had to learn a new pullout and really practice it to get it right. 

In swimming, when you don’t get a stroke right during a race, you get disqualified, so there is no margin for error.  This has given me good practice at being able to develop self discipline and limit my mistakes.  Fortunately, in life, there’s a greater margin for error.  You can even make some mistakes when leading services or reading Torah, and the rabbi has promised that we won’t get disqualified. 

Not only are rules meant to change in order to adjust with the times, but sometimes we might need to protest against a rule that we think is unjust.  We shouldn’t just follow orders blindly.  When the Israelites said “Na’aseh V’nishma,” while the doing came first, the word “Nishma” teaches us that the laws eventually need to make sense, even if they don’t right away.  That’s an important message of Divergent, and also of becoming a Bat Mitzvah.  Because when things don’t make sense, or when the law or society is unjust, we can choose to protest against them or try to change them.

Maybe the most important lesson my Torah portion teaches is that we should love the stranger.  With that in mind, my Mitzvah project is called “Goggles for Guppies.”  I’ve been collecting new or gently used goggles, swim caps and bathing suits which are being donated to underprivileged children who can’t afford them.  So far, I’ve collected over 200 caps, over 75 goggles and about 50 suits.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Mazal tov to Emily Marrinan and her family, as Emily becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat afternoon and our thanks for sponsoring this weekend’s Shabbat announcements and Shabbat-O-Gram.


While we find ourselves in the midst of a ridiculous string of snowstorms, we can be grateful at least that major events have not been affected.  Last weekend we came together for events both joyous and sad.  On a bone-chilling Friday night we joined together for services downtown.  Saturday night’s Temple Rock was incredible fun

Saturday night’s Temple Rock was incredible fun -see our online album here.  You can also see our Tu B’Shevat album here, featuring last week’s seder for the younger grades and our Thursday “Top Chef” competition for our older grades (see photos above and below).  Oh yes, and there was that football game on Sunday night.  My prediction, alas, was incorrect.  I had the Patriots winning by 3, and as we all know, they won by 4.


This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, which includes the Ten Commandments.  See this source material comparing our “Big Ten” to similar colelctions from other world religions.  You’ll find many similarities, a needed reminder that no moral code - and no religious group - exists in isolation.

Judaism: Shaken and Stirred

In the midst of all the joy and fun of last weekend, on Sunday we had two funerals in our sanctuary and an additional one in our cemetery.  Many, many turned out to honor Penny Horowitz, a woman loved and admired by our whole community.  Among Penny’s pet causes here at TBE were two events that ironically are occurring this weekend.  One is our Scholar in Residence program, which she and Michael created here many years ago as an ongoing, annual event.  This year’s guest is Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a noted author and speaker, who promises to shake and stir us with his brand of “Martini Judaism.”  Read this interview with Salkin in this week’s Jewish Ledger. 

His Friday night topic (service begins at 7) is “Israel without Apology.”  Given the great concern so many of us have about Israel, along with the ambivalence many feel, I am hoping that this lecture will lead to some honest, constructive conversation.  Here’s what Salkin says in the Ledger interview:

There are three steps to effective Israel advocacy, according to Salkin. “First of all, people have to know the facts - the history of the Arab-Israel dispute, the origins of the Palestinian issue, and what Zionism means and has always meant,” he says. “Second, we need a communication strategy. It doesn’t work to simply fire back our perceptions and our truths; we need to engage others who might not agree with us on everything, but who might, nevertheless, be partners in dialogue. Finally, we need to defend Israel unequivocally.”

On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Salkin will speak on, “What They Never Taught Us in Religious School.” What are Judaism’s most controversial teachings and why don’t we talk about them more?  And after our sit-down Kiddush lunch, he’ll speak on “The Gods Are Broken” - The legend of Abraham breaking his father’s idols is Judaism’s most famous (non-biblical) story. Do Jews still have the courage to break contemporary idols?

I mentioned that this weekend there would be two programs near and dear to Penny.  For many years, she handled bar mitzvah related matters at our gift shop, including invitations and the sale of tallises.  Every year, our seventh graders learn all the ins and outs of tallit and tefillin - and they get to try them on.  We call it the “World Wide Wrap.”  Bar Mitzvah class Parents and students will wrapping this Sunday morning (we're inviting 5th and 6th grades too) and then Rabbi Salkin will speak on “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.”  Our men’s club is providing breakfast.

So it promises to be a great weekend for everyone, and one where we will be able to honor the memory of Penny Horowitz by promoting the living, vibrant Judaism she was so instrumental in perpetuating here at TBE.  See the full scholar in residence schedule here.

Jews and Marijuana

Next Tuesday night at 7:30 I’ll be exploring what Judaism has to say about the ongoing debate on the legalization of marijuana.  Just to give you a little sampling, check out this article on the biblical roots of this topic.  Our “Hot Topics for Cold Months” series will continue with a conversation about Israel and Democracy on the eve of their elections, on Feb. 25.

I hope you'll be able to dodge the snowflakes and spend some time with us over the weekend.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman