Thursday, March 26, 2015

Shabbat O Gram for March 27

Shabbat Shalom 

Candlelighting time 6:55 PM
Torah Portion: Tzav – See Torah Sparks here

Mazal tov to Gail G. Trell as she celebrates a special birthday with us this Friday evening, and to Matthew Cohen and Jungmin Song, who will celebrate their ufruf here on Shabbat morning!

See recent  Bar/Bat Mitzvah commentaries by Sarah Broder, Sam Teich and Hannah Bushell.   And for your Pesach perusing pleasure. see the haggadah I created for last night’s interfaith seder, with theme of embracing the stranger.  Lots of readings there that you can incorporate into your Seders.  See also the Rabbinical Assembly Passover Guide for help in your preparations, and the extensive Passover offerings at My Jewish Learning, including articles, games, haggadot, you name it! And download the sale of hametz form and either bring it in or fax or scan to me before next Friday.  In addition to selling your household leavened items, according to some rabbis, it is acceptable to “sell” your pets in order to be able to feed them non Passover pet food.  So don’t forget to include Fido in the hametz sale. 


It’s always nice to hear from Jan Gaines in Netanya.  This week she sent me
this dispatch, passionate as always, and a perspective we should hear and understand.  You can read her letter here, along with my response.


At last night’s Interfaith Seder, I quoted from a sermon given at a campus interfaith healing service by my son Dan (yes, like father, like son).  Dan, who will graduate from American in May, recently spent a week at a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.  He took off from the verse in Leviticus calling on all of us to love our neighbors and then discussed how that week had changed him.  With his permission, I share it here:

In this busy, hectic world, it is easy to go through a day just focused on yourself and what you need to accomplish. But have you ever taken some time to think outside the box you’re confined in and consider what else is going on around you? Have you ever looked around and thought about what the person next to you has to go through on a given day? Sure, you may have an exam you’re stressed about or a rigorous internship, but have you ever thought about the person sitting next to you on the Metro who may be disabled, or worried about how to afford a mortgage?

As children of God, it is not just a suggestion, but it is our responsibility to think about others. In Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, God presents us with one of the fundamental commandments of Judaism. וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, You shall your neighbor as yourself.

God doesn’t care about skin color. God doesn’t care about sexual orientation. God doesn’t care about gender. If you are a child of God, you are loved.

This past week, I went to Cherokee, NC for spring break. This was my first time going to a Native American reservation, and initially I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into.

To my surprise, Cherokee, NC was not as unusual as I expected. There was poverty, undoubtedly, as well as an apparent sense of disdain toward Andrew Jackson and the white settlers who took their land and continue to disregard them. However, that was not the underlying thought I took out of this trip. My underlying thought was how normal these people were, and how much I could relate to them. Yes, these folks had distinctive Southern Christian identities, and I’m just a nice Jewish boy from Connecticut. But I was able to connect to them in ways I never expected. How could I have known that when going to an Indian reservation I would be able to talk about country music, fried chicken, and traveling? Even less so did I expect to meet a Native American about my age and discuss our mutual loves of pizza and Disney movies, two of my largest obsessions.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of this trip was how much I was able to learn about myself. I learned that I have a tendency to form judgments before meeting someone and truly immersing myself in an experience. In this case, all of these judgments turned out to be false. This experience taught me to be open-minded about new experiences, and to not judge a situation before you can understand it.

Going to the Cherokee boundary also taught me to appreciate the little things in life, because all things in life have value. One of the hymns we are using tonight, written by a Sioux Indian, proclaims to God, “All things belong to you -- the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.” From this hymn, I was inspired by the idea of calling animals four-legged creatures and comparing them to humans. This notion creates the sense that all of God’s creatures are equal and special, and both humans and animals have valuable things to offer. This hymn does not only describe humans and animals, of course. By mentioning the “green things that live,” the hymn also emphasizes the valuable role nature plays in our lives. Indeed, we should all take it onto ourselves to recognize that every rock and tree and creature; has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

After spending a week living in such an isolated and inspiring community, it has been difficult to go back to reality. Now that I am no longer there, my mission is to take what I learned in Cherokee and become an advocate for this community and all ostracized communities in need of support.

We all know what it’s like to be a stranger in a new land. When I first arrived in Australia, I was in a completely new place knowing absolutely no one. If it wasn’t for the kindness of people I just met, I would have been totally lost and alone. In order to fulfill the wishes of God, we all must commit to giving kindness to all who need it and comfort those who are in need of care.

Soon approaching is the Jewish holiday of Passover. On this holiday, my people are commanded to relive the Exodus from Egypt. At the Seder table, Jewish families around the world will remember the harsh conditions of slavery and the joys of freedom. At this time especially, it is crucial to remember that there are many in the world who still feel those conditions and have yet to taste those joys.

We are so fortunate to be in a community that loves and accepts us for who we are. None of us need to change anything about ourselves to feel part of this community, or to be granted God’s grace. Let us hope and pray that such inclusion can someday be granted to all peoples, including the people of Cherokee, so God’s wish can truly become a reality.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sarah Broder on Vayakhel - Pekuday

Shabbat Shalom!
  Here’s a story about me and my sister, Mia.  Like typical siblings, we almost always get along.  But once in a while we have silly arguments.  Usually it involves where we sit.  At the kitchen table, on the couch and, of course, in the car.

For some reason, in the back seat, we both want to sit on the left side. Me, because I’m a lefty and am more comfortable there. Mia wants the left side for one reason only; because I want the left side. Well maybe its because she is a lefty too, we are all lefties in my family. We get into massive arguments about this and it is not pleasant. 

Most arguments, like these, are totally ridiculous.  And yet we get into them.   And it’s not just me and Mia.  These ridiculous arguments go on everywhere.  We see them in lots of movies, like one of my favorites, “Freaky Friday,” where a ridiculous argument between a mother and her daughter results in their switching bodies. 

My Torah portion, Vayakhel- Pekudei indirectly deals with this topic.  At the beginning of Vayakhel, it says: לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ,בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת

“You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Shabbat day.”

One commentator, Rabbi Isaiah Ha-Levi Horowitz, wrote in the 16th century that besides the literal meaning of the words, this verse also alludes to the fire of anger. So on Shabbat, we should find a way to eliminate all the silly arguments that we get into on other days.  This can help us to avoid letting our anger get the best of us on other days.

I think this is good advice.  As one who has occasionally gotten into unnecessary arguments, I’ve figured out some ways to get out of them.

Here are Dr. Oz’s, I mean Dr. Sarah’s five bits of advice on how to avoid arguments:

1)       Before you say something to ignite the argument, pause for a second and think about if it’s worth it.
2)        Pause for another second and think of the consequences. 
3)       If 1 and 2 don’t work, and you say OMG I don’t care what the consequences are, pause once again, just to make sure.
4)       If even THAT doesn’t work, count to 10 and if you are still mad count to 10 again.
5)       Finally: be calm.  Really.  If you just live life in a calm way, you’ll never get into these arguments in the first place.

Interestingly, while some commentators see fire as a symbol for anger, one particular commentator sees it very differently.  And he happens to be my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great uncle, a very well known Hasidic rabbi named Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, who was called the Sfat Emet.

When he looked at flames, like the fire on the sacrificial altar – flames that never went out - he said that they represented a raging fire of love that must always burn in the heart of every Jew.

So when we are told not to light a fire on Shabbat, it means that we shouldn’t argue, but we also should be careful not to extinguish the fire that already has been lit – the flame of love.

One flame that still burns brightly for me is the flame of my love for my dog Hunter and all other dogs.  In memory of my dog Hunter, who died this past September, for my mitzvah project, I worked at STARelief, a nonprofit organization that helps people who do not have enough money to care for their pets.  I hosted three dog washes at Pet Value and raised $1200.  I also collected dog toys, food and other necessities – even dog booties – and you can see some of what I collected here in my bima baskets.

Letter from Netanya: Jan Gaines on the Israeli Elections

Always good to hear from Jan Gaines, who made aliyah from Stamford to Netanya a number of years ago. Jan's first-hand views are always welcome and valued.  Here she reports on the aftermath of the elections in Israel - followed by my response.

Dear Friends,  It's been a long time since I've written to you.  But the growing distance between us, both ideological and physical, has alarmed me. And the apopletic reaction of American Jewish spokespeople to our recent election has me scratching my head.  So let me give you my take on Bibi's re-election first by introducing you to many of the people I know who voted for him.

Let me start with Sarah, born in Romania, mother of two married daughters and 6 grandchildren. Sarah is my cleaning lady for the last 15 years. Sarah owns her own apartment, drives her own car and lives a simple life. When I asked her who she voted for, she said "Bibi, and so did my children." 

Then there's Meir, who manages the grocery store across the street. Meir's roots are in Tunisia and he has two sons. Same story. All voted for Bibi.

Tamar from Russia who cuts my hair just moved to a new apartment after saving money for 10 years. She and her husband also have two married daughters. Tamar didn't vote Likud last time because she can't stand Liberman. But this time the whole family voted Bibi.

There's my favorite taxi driver, Eli, from Morrocco. He has done well, with one son working in the Israeli Stock Exchange and a daughter in banking.We have had great political conversations over the years. Checking in with him, of course he and his family voted Bibi. Who else do they trust?

Jacob is my computer guy from Kazakstan. Totally self made expert. Bringing up 2 sons to join him in the business. You guessed it. All voted Bibi.

How about my English speaking friends?  Aida from Canada, yes both she and her nurse daughter. Berta from Greece, both she and her PHD son high up in the Agricultural Ministry. And Nina and Mervin from south Africa. Not only did they vote Bibi but when I asked their high tech whiz kid working in a start up in Tel Aviv, he said Likud.  I said, "I can't believe this Avi. You're the 30 somethings from high tech Tel Aviv. Why aren't you voting Meretz or Labor.?  Nope, they can't be trusted to lead the country.

So there you have my little sampling of middle class Israeli voters. None live in the West Bank.  None are ultra religious; most are secular. Most voted for other parties in the past.  But not only my friends in their 60's and 70's, but their children, their 30 somethings, all defied political correctness.  Why

And my answer is one word: SECURITY!!!!!

This is what all the left wing Jewish talking heads don't get.  And neither does the White House. The loud voices from Obama on down, threatening, castigating, punishing the Israeli public for the audacity to elect a man they don't approve of,  only get our backs up higher. And the vituperation coming from our fellow Jews across the pond leave us depressed but defiant. Why, why, why are all of them bashing us with such rage?  The spokeswoman for the Conservative movement?  Does she speak for you?  Certainly not for us.  Let's not even give a second thought to the ravings of Ben Ami at J Street or Peter Beinart.  They 've made themselves totally irrelevant in this discussion.

And what the enraged White House also doesn't understand is that all their threats, and money and organizers bent on defeating Netanyahu,

ONLY HELPED TO SOME DEGREE TO ELECT HIM.  Israelis resent Obama telling them what's best for them,- - -or else!!!

Perhaps my little unscientific sample of voters I know isn't completely accurate when analyzing why the overwhelming vote for Bibi.  But I urge you to read about these average Israelis, middle and lower class, living ordinary lives. Except our lives are not ordinary by American Jewish standards. Not when we have Iran, Hamas, Hisbollah, ISIS and all the other radical Islamist groups breathing down our necks.

So think about what it's like to be in our shoes,  the next time you hear all the nasty things we do and we are. It's not just "rachmonis" we need but a real eyes wide open to the reality of our lives- - - - - - -and we need it from you if we are ever going to remain a Jewish family.

Happy Pesach.  Shalom,  Jan Gaines
Dear Jan

I'm so glad you chimed in - it really helps us to have the perspective of one living there, not in the bubbles of liberal Tel Aviv and polarized Jerusalem, but out amongst "real Israelis."  Your perspective is helpful and it certainly is validated by the numbers - no doubt people voted for security.  I also know that Israelis are far more divided than your anecdotal accounting indicates - and the Knesset balance indicates a slight shift to the center and left, of all things, when the dust has settled (and yes, I include the Arab vote. Last I heard, they are very much Israeli citizens).

American Jews are also sharply divided right now - and very nervous, as Jeffrey Goldberg documented this week. I consider myself to be very much in the wait-and-see camp, regarding the possible Iran deal and where Israel stands on the two-state solution.

I feel that this is a time for a serious softening of the tone of the dialogue between Israeli and American Jews. Maybe our leaders will take OUR lead.  Bashing goes both ways - and I think you, your taxi driver and other neighbors need to reflect on that.  Our President actually has a title: "President."  These slights might seem trivial to Israelis, whose leaders often go by nicknames (though rarely derisively by their last names). Many people here were as appalled as Israel's President was at the lack of protocol followed when the P.M. came to Washington.  We can argue about who has been ruder to whom in this ridiculous spat (and I can make a good case for both sides), but we can't dispute that the statements made by the Prime Minister leading up to the elections had an extremely negative impact on Israel's image over here, and not just among Administration officials or incurably liberal Jews, but among many others as well.  The 50th anniversary of Selma was very fresh in our minds when we heard about the "droves of Arabs" being bussed to the polling stations - and I'm sure you of all people can understand the symbolism of that.  In that light, I was proud of the Rabbinical Assembly's response - along with their subsequent acceptance of the Prime Minister's apology.  

As for the two-state situation, read the President's clarification this week and you'll see that this is not purely personal.  I do think common ground can be found on two states, which would enable Israel to have long-term security and permanent settlement blocs and the Palestinians to have hope and a state. I even believe some common ground will be found on Iran, whichever way things end up in the negotiations. 

But here is the bottom line: All the people that you disparage over here are ALSO concerned about Israel's security.  For me, and many others (and please, the time has come to stop demonizing groups you don't agree with), the Prime Minister's shifting away from a negotiation process leading toward a secure, democratic and Jewish Israel as part of a two state solution is an existential threat to Israel's existence.  For me, the proposed Jewish nation-state law would be another nail in the coffin. And this election was all about passing such a law. Would you support a law that renders Conservative Judaism invalid, not to mention one that sets the stage for discrimination against non Jews?  

I certainly can understand the anxiety felt at the ballot boxes in your neighborhood, as we count the days toward (God forbid) the next round of rockets. I am hoping that when the next round occurs, Israel and the US will be as closely aligned as ever.  That will require some hard decisions on both sides.  And some much improved listening.  And no shortage of (likely unwelcome) advice from many of Israel's friends over here.

It's a simple equation: If Prime Minister Netanyahu can claim to speak for all Jews, than all Jews have a right - and an obligation - to weigh in on Israeli policies, especially when it comes the very definition of what it will mean to be a Jewish state.  We all care about Israel too much to back off.  And after what we've seen in Europe and elsewhere lately, all of us are now on the front lines.  Every Jew has a stake in a secure Israel striving for peace.

So we'll continue to annoy each other - and isn't that a wonderful problem to have!  Our great grandparents would have taken that deal in a second.

Best wishes to you and yours for a sweet Pesach!

I hope to see you over there soon!



Monday, March 23, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat MItzvah Commentary: Samuel Teich on Ki Tissa

Shabbat Shalom!

I love cars.  I’ve loved them from when I was really a little boy. When I was around 9 or 10, I went to a car show and immediately loved being there.  The newness and technology really excited me, especially since our minivan is celebrating its bar mitzvah this year. 

Mom, Dad -  It’s time for a new car!

Since that first auto show, I’ve gone to car shows yearly.

I love cars so much that the first movie I ever saw was Disney’s “Cars.” My new favorite is “Transformers,” where just about every character turns into a car. I used to collect Matchbox cars at home, car games on my X box, books and magazines about cars and of course we have cars.

I also love long car rides, although I often have to sit in the middle of the back seat in between my sisters (and I’m not even the middle child!).  I also like to travel and navigate.  I’ve been called the human GPS.

So you might be wondering:  does my portion have cars in it?

Actually, cars did not exist yet.  But some people might say that the Golden Calf was a lot like a car.  In fact, when I saw a gold car at a show, I thought immediately of the Golden Calf – and that was before I knew that the calf would be in my portion.

So why is the calf like a car?  The calf was worshipped as an idol by the Israelites when Moses didn’t come back to them quickly enough from Mount Sinai.  Some people think that people worship their cars in the same way – as a symbol of money or status – almost like an idol.

But when I look at cars, don’t see something that should be worshiped.  I see something that can be appreciated because it has a special beauty – and some very special qualities:

For one thing: Innovation.  We can appreciate the technology that keeps making cars more efficient and better for the earth.  And even little things like phone chargers, seats with warmers, keyless starters, DVD players, and GPS guidance system.  There are great technological advances and almost none of them are found in my 13 year old minivan!

There’s also safety.  Think of all the new things: everything from motion sensors in windows to rear view cameras break lights – Yes, cars have gotten much safer over the past, say, 13 years.

Also, cars can be appreciated because they are like a portable home on wheels - just like the sanctuary that was built in the wilderness, which is described in great detail in my Torah portion.    That was the world’s first assembly line.

Cars also enable us to express individual tastes.  I like sports cars, for example, especially maroon ones.  Our Subaru is maroon.  

Cars are not only fashion statements, they are political statements too.  But it’s not so simple anymore.  People used to avoid German cars because of the Holocaust, but now, Mercedes are built in Alabama and Chryslers are built in Germany.  So cars today really show how different countries can get along.  At least sometimes.

So for all these reasons, I believe that cars are not idols like the Golden Calf.  So since cars are not idols, I believe it is time for my family to get a new one!

For my mitzvah project, I’ve been volunteering at the Community Center for Northern Westchester, where I work at the food pantry and clothing boutique.  I will continue volunteering there hoping to make a difference for the families in need. You can read about the Center in my Bar Mitzvah booklet. Thank you for your donations.  A lot of people come to the pantry for food each week.  Hunger is a problem in Westchester, and everywhere else too.

As I become a Bar Mitzvah, I hope to discover more ways to apply the wisdom of my portion to my life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Hannah Bushell on Vayikra

Shabbat Shalom!
My portion begins the Book of Leviticus and describes the sacrifices of animals at the time of the ancient temple.
Thankfully, we don’t do sacrifices anymore – although even when they were done, sacrifices weren’t just about killing animals.  After they were killed, the meat was grilled and eaten.  So what we’re describing was your basic barbecue.
Still, I must say that the idea of sacrificing animals bothers me. Even though I consider myself a good cook.   Actually I’m more of a baker – and by the way, have you ever tried my smores brownies?  They are to die for!   But back to sacrifices.  If it’s just like a barbecue, why does the whole idea bother me? 
It so happens that I really love animals. And I ask myself, what did animals do to us for us to treat them that way?
About 10 years ago, Maggie came into my life.  Maggie is a black lab who didn’t pass her Seeing Eye dog test.  But although she is not a service dog, and so she couldn’t come to services, I’ve come to see how caring she can be. Instead of sacrificing animals to God at the temple, I’ve learned how animals interact with people, and how they are capable of making great sacrifices for one another and humans, everywhere and all the time.
Maggie is like a personal psychologist.  Whenever I am upset and go over to her, she can tell that I’m sad.  While under normal circumstances she might run away, at these times, she kisses me and puts her head in my lap.
Maggie gives me exercise.  She always wants to play and she also loves attention, which gives me a chance to learn how to care for another living thing.  Maggie is the reason I roll out of bed in the morning. I can hear her squeaking her squeaky toys downstairs and know that she is waiting for someone to play with her.  I can see why dogs are called man’s, or girls’ best friend, because Maggie is definitely mine. (Look over at friends… “But you all are too! J”)
She’s also inspired my choice for my mitzvah project.
For my project I am raising money for CCI – Canine Companions for Independence – an organization that works to train dogs to help wounded soldiers, emotionally affected children, and many other types of disabled adults and children.
I am raising money by making and selling dog magnets made from Perler beads.  One of the events in which I sold these dog magnets was at the Temples Purim Carnival. I also had cookies and brownies for sale at my booth.
I was inspired not only by Maggie, but by a recent story about a dog named Haatchi.  Haatchi is an Anatolian Shepherd who lost one of his legs after being tied to a railroad track by an abusive person.  He was later adopted by a family to help their son, Owen, who has a rare genetic condition that causes his muscles to contract uncontrollably and made him fearful of appearing in public. Hattchi helped Owen overcome his anxiety of the outside world.  The two are now inseparable, and Owen now loves taking Haatchi out in public including to dog shows, where he has proved to be quite a hit.

Despite the severe challenges they had to face individually, Owen and Haatchi, united as a team, have showed us that true friendship can overcome any amount of sacrifice.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Shabbat Across Stamford Photos (Courtesy of UJF)

The Aftermath, for "Us" and "Them"

It begins

The dust has only begun to settle following Israel’s elections this week. So let me sort out some what seems to have happened and what it means for the future.  I do this with the clear disclaimer that these observations are evolving by the minute, and that as an American rabbi who has always placed the fate of Jerusalem above my chiefest joy, I have an obligation to speak out.  The mere fact that I have to affirm that is very sad.  But that's the world we live in, a world of "us" and "them."  

My first reaction to the late night news of the stunning margin of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s victory was not a pleasant one.  I did not sleep much Tuesday night.  Not because he won, because he was expected to be the most likely to form a coalition – and in fact I’m among those who thinks Israel needs to stand tough against the multiple external threats it faces. I am still skeptical about the pending US deal with Iran, for instance. 

But it was the way he won, and the things he said, particularly during the final week.  I watched lots of it on Israeli media, and it wasn’t pretty.

Predictably, Netanyahu is now walking back his rejection of the two-state solution.  It will be harder to roll back the tone of his entire campaign, which, even by Israeli standards, was of the scorched earth variety.  When your campaign slogan is “It’s us or them,” it’s pretty hard to say “Just kidding,” especially given the frantic Election Day comments made about Arabs voting in droves.  So as he builds his coalition and platform, an important goal will be to coax the many shades of “them” back from the ledge.  In this case, “them” would include not only left wing and centrist Israeli Jews, but Israeli Arabs, the Obama administration, and any who still believe in the two-state solution which, a recent survey indicates, includes 78% of American Jews.

Predictably, also, the world responded with a complete lack of understanding for Israel’s predicament.  Few media outlets seem nuanced enough to understand the psychological blow of having rockets raining down on Israeli cities and towns all last summer, or the attacks in Jerusalem that have been ongoing ever since and the still-smoldering legacy of last decade’s bus bombings. 

These scars are still real, and Netanyahu played on that – throwing in a Holocaust reference here and there (and everywhere) – and he managed to turn even some of Israel’s best friends into “them.”  This past week, the man seemed unhinged, his paranoia unfiltered.  Yes, some of Israel's enemies are very real.  But some of Bibi's aren’t enemies of Israel at all.   By the end of the campaign, everyone from Israel’s staunchest human rights organizations (the demonization of the New Israel Fund has been shameful), to America’s President, to the entirely of Scandinavia, were turned into “them.” True, as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote this week in a lengthy expose, things ‘aint great for Jews in Europe these days – and many of those things have do with anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms, but Netanyahu’s performance during the final days of this campaign did not serve the cause of European Jews.

It did not help Jews on campuses in the US either.  Those championing BDS will have a field day trumpeting that Israel has abandoned the two-state solution.  Google the word “apartheid” in Hebrew (אפרטהייד) and you’ll find nearly 85,000 results.  The topic that used to be the domain solely of anti-Semites is no longer taboo in Israel, and the future of the two-state solution, while not openly discussed during much of the campaign, was in fact the prime cause of this election.  It was the infamous “Jewish nation state bill” that Netanyahu wanted to push through.  When that bill met resistance, he went to the polls.  This bill eventually could lead to prioritizing the Jewish nature of the state over democratic values.  And this same bill would also define “Jewish” on Orthodox terms, thereby wiping out years of progress for more pluralistic visions like those of the “Women of the Wall,” creating more chaos with weddings, conversions and divorces (and if you don’t believe it’s already crazy, go and see the film “Gett,”  which is playing here in Stamford). The end result of a "Jewish state bill" would be to lay the groundwork for annexation of the West Bank and the subsequent adjustments to ensure a Jewish voting majority.  That's the great unspoken fear that overshadowed this election.  The A word.

So I went to bed Tuesday night wondering how I could continue to defend such an Israel, and how I could inspire my students to continue to do so, in the face of the blistering attacks they would face.  And how could I defend an Israel that had ceased to be a bipartisan cause sharing American values?  How could I help to stop the two natural allies, Israel and America, from continuing this inexorable drifting apart?

It’s now become clearer than ever before that Israel and American Jewry are also drifting apart, despite the herculean efforts of Birthright Israel, Hillel and other organizations. 

If there is one lesson American Jews will learn from Israel’s election, it’s this:  they’re not us. Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.  Israelis went to the polls this Tuesday and returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office.  Had Bibi run versus Isaac Herzog among American Jewish voters, he would have lost.  He would have lost almost as badly as Barack Obama would lose against Bibi in Israel.   The fact that Netanyahu garnered 29 mandates against his opponent’s 24 was as shocking to the majority of American Jews as the fact that  Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly – twice – for Barack Obama is to most Israelis.

Jewish life is composed of tribes – Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli.  Different cultures, different languages, different reality.   Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life:  same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing – and so very different natures.

For years the greatest myth American Jews have been telling themselves is that Israeli Jews are just like us. That works because we tend to prove this to ourselves by cherry-picking the Israel we most identify with.  We fell in love with Abba Eban like the French love Jerry Lewis.  Israelis, meanwhile, mocked him.  

So when I went to bed Tuesday night, in essence, I was asking myself how I could continue to be a rabbi – because, like it or not, to be a rabbi means, in this generation, to possess and impart a deep love for our Jewish state.  The love is unconditional, even when it has to come in the form of stern rebuke.  But do I have it in me to continue to rebuke and rebuke? Do I have it in me to risk being consigned to Netanyahu's (and his allies') growing list of "them" even as my every sinew since birth has been dedicated to the building of the Jewish state?

Then I woke up, took a deep breath and a long look at the numbers, and I felt much better.  Why?

Just a hunch, but just as Israel has had a knack of turning its greatest moments of promise into disasters (see: Oslo), it has also managed to turn the most foreboding lemons into lemonade (see: Yom Kippur War). 

In fact, what this election managed to do was to create a more moderate government. Perhaps.  Bibi’s last minute lurch rightward was sufficient to decimate some smaller parties to his extreme right, and the makeup of Likud is more moderate than it was, so some of the most extreme elements of Likud and the Jewish Home party are no longer there. Plus, the most extremist group, Yachad, with ties to Kahane’s racist legacy, did not make it past the 3.25% threshold.  The Haredim will likely be part of the mix, but their numbers were also reduced by Bibi’s blitz.

Plus, the remarkable showing of the unified Arab party has turned it into a significant player in the Knesset.  With the trend being toward consolidation of small parties, both Jewish and Arab, we are seeing the beginnings of a return to big-tentism, where there is strength in numbers.  Fewer and less ideological parties tend to veer governments toward moderation and compromise (except, of course, in America).  I see this as a government that will be more flexible in key areas.

And then there is the Cachlon factor, which I mentioned last week.  He indeed will be the kingmaker and his demands will be steep.  The finance ministry for sure.  But I hope among his demands will be one that for the rest of the world and for the American-Israel relationship could make all the difference. 

Four words:  Foreign Minister Michael Oren. 

Oren dealt himself a royal flush when he elected to go with Cachlon and the Kulanu party.  Oren, the American-born former ambassador to the US, was critical of the Netanyahu visit to Congress but has otherwise been very supportive of Israel’s positions regarding Iran.  He is as bipartisan as they come – as ambassador he knew how to play the DC game and everyone trusted him.  He can state Israel's case before the world better than anyone – including Netanyahu himself – since Abba Eban.  His positions on the most sensitive issues are reasoned and consensus generating. For instance, he believes that settlement expansion can only occur in those areas that the parties (including the US) have affirmed will be part of Israel in an eventual two-state arrangement.

And the most rational thing about that position is that it presupposes that a two-state solution is the goal.

It doesn’t matter what Israelis think about Oren - they barely know him.  A strong English speaker with intimate knowledge of America and impeccable diplomatic skills needs to be the face of Israel to the world. Netanyahu understands that more than anyone.

If Oren becomes foreign minister, all the problems won’t magically go away, but the tone will change significantly and immediately.  It almost goes without saying that the first thing this foreign minister will have to do is replace the current ambassador to the US.  If I were a major American Jewish leader or champion of Israel from either party, I would be recommending such a reset, as soon as possible.

And you know what?  I’m crazy enough to believe it will happen.  While the two-state solution will remain on life support for the foreseeable future, rumors of its demise will hopefully prove to have been premature.

Meanwhile, election politics are only a small part of the miracle that is Israel.  Read this letter from Nigel Savage of Hazon, describing the amazing things happening in Israel from an environmentalist perspective: an organic farm run by at risk teenagers, a new sustainability center in Gilo, a waste dump turned into Tel Aviv’s Central Park.  Thanks Nigel, I needed that!  

So Israel has not changed dramatically or irrevocably over the past couple of days.  Israel is always changing, even as its most intractable challenges never seem to go away.  But nothing stays quite the same, either. Israel will continue to amaze us, surprise us, confound us and anger us.  

And we will continue to engage with it, to love it and to struggle to help it realize its potential to be a light unto the nations and both a beacon of inspiration and a refuge of security for the Jewish people.

So I can continue to be a rabbi.  But for the next few years, I'm really going to have to earn my salary.

The Rarest Jewish Trifecta

Amidst all the hubbub of the Israeli elections, it’s barely been noticed that this weekend we will experience the rarest of Jewish seasonal trifectas: Rosh Hodesh Nisan, Shabbat Hahodesh and the 1st day of spring will coincide.

In the 21st century, Rosh Hodesh Nisan has come out on Shabbat Hahodesh three times: in 2001, 2005, and 2008. Future occurrences in the 21st century will take place in 2021, 2025, 2045, 2048, 2052, 2072, 2075, 2079, and 2099.  Whenever that happens, we read from three Torah scrolls, another rarity, which we’ll do this week.

But how often does that take place on the date of the vernal equinox? Just this year and in 2020. That’s it.  Twice in a century.

Let me throw in another spectacular alignment.  This Friday, spring will commence at exactly 6:45 pm (EDT).  Now that’s well into Shabbat in Israel and elsewhere, but here in Stamford the candlelighting time is 6:48, almost to the minute exactly when spring will be sprung.

And to top it all off, snow is expected to be falling here at precisely that hour.  I can hear God laughing.

Oh yes, and there is also a total solar eclipse that night.  The next solar eclipse coinciding with a vernal equinox will not happen for another 19 years – which is precisely the duration of the Jewish calendar’s cycle (7 leap years occur in those 19 years).

So why is all of this significant?  When the vernal equinox, called Tekufat Nisan, falls on the first of Nisan, there is a special blessing, as detailed in this essay by Jill HammerBaruch ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam, oseh vereishit. Blessed are You, God, sovereign of the world, who makes creation. Hammer created an entire ritual to mark this occasion.

In a year of bountiful precipitation in Israel and here in this corner of the Diaspora, with the flowers beginning to proclaim the reemergence of life with incredible color, we can’t allow this rare trifecta to pass unnoticed. As we ruminate over how wrong the exit polls were and the fallibilities of human calculation, we can’t allow ourselves to miss this prime example of nature’s spectacular synchronicity.

In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Eleazar Chisma, himself an astronomer, called the calculation of equinoxes “the side-dish of wisdom,” of far less significance than actual Torah law. But at a time when so much is uncertain in the political world, we need to turn to the natural cycles of our planet, the sun, moon and stars to find some comfort and unity in their consistency – and to treasure this fragile ecological balance.
So this Shabbat, let’s take a moment to set aside our differences, share a deep sense of wonder as to the mystery of natural regeneration and rebirth and the never-ending promise of spring.  Together we should stop whatever we’re doing, whether at synagogue, at the mall or at the beach, and look up in amazement toward the sky – once the snow stops falling, that is.