Thursday, August 27, 2015
As you meander on the back porch or beach during this final week of the summer , you are invited to check out our photo album from our recent barbecue along with the recent family picnic. Also see some photos of my trip to Peru.
Before we being our regularly scheduled programming, some important announcement:
- UNDER STAMFORD HOSPITAL’S NEW, MORE STRINGENT PROTOCOL, IMPLEMENTED THIS WEEK, CLERGY WILL LIKELY NOT BE ABLE TO VISIT A PATIENT UNLESS WE ARE INFORMED DIRECTLY BY FRIENDS OR FAMILY. PLEASE HELP US HELP OTHERS BY LETTING US KNOW!
- Get in the spirit of this season of Teshuvah by downloading last week’s parsha packet on “Self Scrutiny,” or review last year’s list of “Judaism’s Top 40” values and concepts. Read Maimonides “Laws of Teshuvah” translated here.Read more about teshuvah here. Also, cultivate your “soul traits” (Middot) at Rabbi Ira Stone’s Mussar Pathways. Check out the Middot table and work on a different character trait each day: Patience, Humility, Calmness ,Generosity and Trust. Study Maimonides' "Laws of Personality and Character Development." Find the texts here. Read about Teshuvah in an article from theclassic Jewish Encylcopedia. See this kabbalistic approach.
- Join us for our “Shabbat Under the Stars” on Friday at 6:30. Come early with a dairly picnic if you wish. We’ll be situated just across from the cantor’s house, and the service will just about at sunset. But as it gets darker and darker, signaling the approaching end of summer, we’ll paraphrase the classic Dylan Thomas poem as we (p)ra(y)ge against the dying of the light - inasmuch as prayer here is a passionate - if not exactly raging - affirmation of life. And save the date for next week’s Selichot service in Westport. This year, the Conservative congregations of Westport, Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich will be joining together for the first time.
- This year we are once again including blurbs about loved ones in our “Book of Remembrance.” Send brief tributes to Mindy at firstname.lastname@example.org
OK, Time for the Hard Sell...
The meme above gives us lots of reasons (read: excuses) why people avoid joining congregations. But there are many, many more reasons why people’s lives could be enhanced immeasurably by affiliating. Send me yours, along with reasons why you come come to services on the High Holidays. I'd love to share some.
Next week, I am going to be hosting some new TBE members and others who are synagogue “shopping.” If you know of anyone who might be interested in learning more about TBE, please let me or Steve Lander know. We would love to share with them what’s special about our congregation. An interesting phenomenon we’ve noticed is the return of former members - several just in the past few weeks. We’re seeing adults who grew up here returning with their young families, as well as empty nesters coming home to roost.
We find that our own congregants (e.g. you) are our best salespeople. The more members we attract, the better it is for all of us.
So please help us over the next several days. Circulate the good news on your social media and in conversation with friends. Encourage people to try us out this Friday night (or next). Ask them to contact us or give us their contact info.
We have a world renowned cantor, whose music lifts us to the point that our services, in particular our High Holiday services, are beyond comparison. For those who need further proof, please direct them to the following YouTube clips: Cantor Magda Fishman sings “Anytime,” at TBE, Yom Kippur 5775 or to Cantor Magda Fishman sings Avinu Malkenu
By all means, circulate them. Share them on your Facebook page (with an enticing into like “Hear the song that brought an entire congregation to tears” - which it did). Let the world know how incredible the experience of a service at TBE can be.
And for those not yet ready to join, let them know that Yizkor on Yom Kippur and the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah are free and open to the general public for those who wish to try us out - as long as they make arrangements ahead of time by email@example.com .
If they want to know more about me, send them to my blog, which includes just about every article and High Holiday sermon I’ve given. Send them to our website or to the TBE photo archive, with nearly 90 albums. Of course, I’d be happy to speak to anyone directly - or to invite a prospective member to the upcoming meet and greet.
Below you will find something that I dug out of my files. Feel free to read and pass around. Your decision to belong to a synagogue - THIS synagogue - is one that can make all the difference, for you, for your community, for the Jewish people and for the world. We should all consider that... Membership IS a privilege.
WHY BELONG? AN OPEN LETTER TO AN UNAFFILIATED JEW
By Rabbi Rafael Goldstein
I am sorry that I have to write this open letter to you, but I don't know any other way of reaching you. I have been told that you used to belong to a synagogue but you dropped out when your children were through with the school. You are not alone; three quarters of the Jews in our community do as you did. Three quarters of the Jews in our community do not belong to a synagogue. That is a mind-boggling statistic.
Maybe you think that it is too expensive to join a congregation. There is no use denying it. Like the cost of everything else in this world, the cost of maintaining synagogues has sky-rocketed. Synagogues do have reduced rates for those that need them, and we give them without causing embarrassment, but still, I do not deny that it is expensive to belong.
But if you have a limited amount of money and an unlimited number of things that you can spend it on, you have to make choices on the basis of priorities. If you cannot afford both a new car and a trip overseas, then you have to decide which means more to you. If you cannot afford the synagogue and something else, what you are really saying when you choose the other is that the synagogue is not a priority, that the other thing, whatever it is, is more important to you. Everyone has the right to set his own priorities, but know that this is what you are doing.
Maybe you think that you do not need the synagogue anymore because your children have all graduated. Is the synagogue a gas station? When you need it, you use it and when you don't, you drive past it and you feel no deeper relationship, no greater responsibility for it than that? That is not what the synagogue is supposed to be. Being part of the synagogue you are a part of the Jewish people. No other institution unites the Jews as well across the centuries and across the borders.
This is the only institution we have that Jews from Cairo or Casablanca, from this century or the third century can walk into and feel at home. When you are a part of a synagogue, you are part of a fellowship with all those who have been a part of Judaism before you, with all those who built and maintained it before you, and with all those who have been a part, through the centuries.
You open a prayer book and the generations that went before you come alive within you. You open a prayer book and say the same words that they said, and you know that you belong to the ages, and that the ages belong to you; that you are not here today and gone tomorrow; but that you are a part of your people's history, and that history is a part of you.
There is another reason. The synagogue is not only a bond to the past. It is also a bond to the Jewish people of the present. When we meet together in this place, we meet as partners. We stand here with a sense of being connected to each other, and of being responsible for one another. That experience, the sense of being connected in this time is a healing thing. It helps you to recover from the hurt of a loss, to be part of a community that cares.
If that sense of community was always needed, it is needed even more in our time. We live in such a mobile place, in such a transient society. We pay an enormous psychic price for all this mobility. We pay, in that we have so little sense of roots, so little sense of family. Who lives in the same state, or in the same state of mind, as parents or children anymore? In this kind of world on wheels, something has to stay the same. In some place, they have to know me and care about me, not just as a customer or as a client or as a competitor, but as a person and as a Jew.
Sure, you can get a rabbi or cantor and rent a hall for all of the rites of passage - from baby-naming to burial - without having to belong. You can always find some rabbi who will do all of these things for you, out of kindness, even if you don't belong. It is bad enough if you are a number at work, or if you are a stranger to your neighbors, but if you are a number to the one who marries you, or to the one who buries you - if s/he does not know your pain, and if s/he does not even know your name, isn't that a loss? That is what happens if you don't belong to a synagogue.
There is one more loss if you do not belong. Your child, if you have one, may have finished his Jewish education by the time s/he is 13, but have you? You are more experienced in the affairs of this world than your child, and so you should know, better than s/he does, how much you don't know, how lost we all are, how bewildered we all are in this confusing, fast-changing world, how much wisdom and guidance we need if we are ever going to make it in this world. The synagogue does not have all the answers, but at least it deals with the right questions, with the ultimate questions. And it deals with them from the perspective of the centuries, and not just from the point or view of the latest fad or cult. If you come to the synagogue, you will hear some of the central spiritual questions of our time explored questions such as: what meaning does my life have now AFTER I have made it financially? Or, why do my children not understand me? And why is my life so frail, and why is my death so certain, and what should I do with my days before they disappear?
The fourth reason to belong to a synagogue is: we need you. The Jewish people need you, God needs you. For the number of Jews who are left in this world that still care are so few, and the needs of the Jewish people are so great, we need every single Jew we can find. So we say to you, join us, help us, work with us, for we need you.
These are the four reasons for which I would have you join us - or rejoin us - if you have drifted away; because it will connect you to roots from which you come, because it will connect you to a community that cares, because it will connect you to a heritage that contains some wise insights into how to lead a human life, and above all, because we need you, and to be needed is such an important part of every person's life.
I know that you will tell me that the real synagogue is not like the ideal one that I have painted. I know that, at least as well as you do. But that is all the more reason to become part of it; to help correct it, and to make it what it was meant to be. If what I have said here makes any sense to you, I hope you will respond. If you disagree, or if you want to let me have the benefit of your perspective, let me hear from you.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Sunday, August 23, 2015
These are truly the dog days, with so many out of town. So if you are here, we would love to see you this evening at 7:30 and tomorrow morning at 9:30. As you meander on the back porch or beach, you are invited to check out our photo album from last week's barbecue along with the recent family picnic. Also see some photos of my trip to Peru.
Last week was loads of fun. I've reprinted at the bottom of this email the installation remarks given by our new president, Mia Weinstein, as well as my own comments regarding our newly restored parking lot. What I can't reproduce is the priceless look on everyone's face when the cantor followed my remarks with her pitch-perfect Joni Mitchell version of "Big Yellow Taxi."
Is Self Inspection Possible?
No, I'm not talking about the Iranians and The Deal. I said my piece about it last week, and I'm happy that my op-ed was featured by the Times of Israel and has been widely shared, especially among perplexed rabbis. This week the Reform Movement came out with a position statement that roughly parallels my own. Lots of other views have been shared this week, and I continue to recommend that people stay informed, read especially the views of experts, come to their own conclusions and express them to our representatives.
Meanwhile, let's continue to focus on raising the level of discourse and lowering the temperature. That means hearing all sides, not jumping to conclusions or rushing to accuse.
The question of Iranian self-inspection came up this week in relation to the Deal. This clearly is a topic that deserves serious scrutiny and willingness to listen to and discuss reasoned explanations.
But while Iranian self-inspection might be controversial, during this month of Elul, Jewish self-inspection is essential. We call it " heshbon ha-nefesh," literally "taking accounting of the self," and that's what I'll be focusing on tonight and on Shabbat mornin g. You can download my "self scrutiny" source packet here, with a focus on this week's portion of Shoftim. You'll also find there some spiritual practices for you to implement in order to make the most of this time of reflection, along with passages from kabbalistic and hasidic sources, as well as Tao Te Ching.
"First, judge yourself," a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov said. "Then and only then, using the same yardstick, you can begin to judge others."
Self inspection is possible then - and advisable. And no nuclear scientists need be present.
Installation Remarks by Mia Weinstein, TBE's New President
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I would like to welcome all our returning and new members as well as our many guests to this wonderful evening of BBQ and Barechu. The theme of the evening is a perfect expression of the spirit of our congregation - a combination of warm, social gatherings and spiritual services.
It is my honor and privilege to serve as President of the Board for the next 2 years. We are a very active board, comprised of individuals who are committed to the vision and mission of our congregation. Each one of our board members serves on at least one committee and is more then likely reading, writing or acting upon at least one temple email daily. As evident by our lay leadership, our congregation puts an emphasis on inclusiveness and spirituality. We are trustees who have been members a long time to newly joined members, trustees with young children and those who are empty nesters, professionals and retired persons, the list goes on. This is how we strive to serve the temple by reflecting our congregation. Yes, the board is charged with the responsibility of the financial health of the temple, but equally important is our job to provide opportunities for our congregants to engage with Hashem, with the Rabbi and the Cantor, with us, and with each other.
I encourage all of you to take advantage of the wonderful religious, social and learning programs we have here at Temple Beth El and to get involved in the vibrant community that we cherish and are proud to be part of.
Comments on the Dedication of our Restored Parking Lot
In Peru last month, I visited a beautiful excavation, the Incan Temple to the Sun, in a place called Ollantaytambo, which was destroyed by the invading Spanish in the 16 thcentury. You can tell it had been destroyed, because the stones were scattered all over the ground - pristine sacred stones, thrown down, and they remain exactly where they were tossed to this day.
There's a certain beauty to ruins, especially sacred ruins, and I immediately thought of Jerusalem, where we can see the exact same thing - the stones of the Temple scattered just below the extended western wall at Robinson's Arch.
We were there just a couple of days before Tisha B'Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temples, so those stones spoke to me, of the common experience of Jews and the Inca, of the stories of foreign invasion and suffering..... of the cruelty ... and how fortunate we are that, while the Inca are no more, we Jews have somehow survived.
So here I went to a place where there almost no Jews... and still I discovered a Jewish connection.... through the cruelty of the Spanish (who tried to destroy both the Incan and Jewish civilizations simultaneously) , and the dogged resilience represented by the scattered, sacred stones.
There is a classic song about the Western Wall:
Hakotel - eizov v'atzevet
Hakotel - oferet vadam
Yesh anashim im lev shel even.
Yesh avanim im lev adam.
The kotel, moss and sadness.
The kotel, lead and blood.
There are people with a heart of stone.
There are stones with a human heart.
Just a few days ago, our parking lot looked like one of those Incan ruins. And it got me to thinking about the sanctity of place. Re'eh is all about the sanctity of place and the sanctity of time. Shabbat. festivals - time. Place: the place of holiness (as opposed to places of idolatry). What makes a place holy? The times that we have spent there....
How many tears have been shed in this parking lot? How many key decisions have been made on this parking lot?
The parking lot is the prozdor - the entrance way, the place of anticipation.
Think of a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding couple about to enter the building.
Think of a widow, about to enter the place where her departed spouse is about to be remembered.
Think of a rabbinical candidate, looking up at the wooden beams of our entrance way for the first time, wondering whether the architect wanted to emulate Mt Sinai.
We haven't paved paradise by putting up this parking lot - we've repaired it! We've made it better. And safer.
For the parking lot was a victim of a horrible winter and decades of New England meteorological battering. This parking lot survived quite a bit, but it could not survive last winter.
In making it safer, we are following two important Jewish principles. One is to save lives at all costs - pikuach nefesh. The other is avoid lawsuits at all costs.
And there is also hiddur mitzvah. The beautification of the mitzvah. This is a beautiful facility and a safe facility. And while the repair came with a cost, it was a cost we could bear without an excessive burden on the congregation. That's because this congregation has answered the call so generously and so often and we can be confident that will happen again.
We are a beautiful congregation, inside and out. And now we can welcome people with a smooth entryway, solar panels on the roof and our magnificent mitzvah garden. And a playground too.
But it all begins with the stones --- these stones, with a human heart.
Friday, August 14, 2015
I look forward to seeing lots and lots of people on Friday at our Barechu and Barbecue. During the service, Cantor Fishman and I will participate in the installation of our new board and we'll dedicate our newly blacktopped "paved paradise," at which time I will expound upon the spirituality of a parking lot. Seriously.
Back from Peru
It's great to be back from Peru and Cape Cod. I'll have the chance to talk about my visit to Peru over the coming weeks, but for those who would like to see a photo essay, including videos of Andean Condors in flight, you can find it here. Just be grateful that I'm not sending you the links to my unabridged albums, with about 6,000 photos.
Reflections on the Iran Agreement
I've had the good fortune of being away for the past month, having left for Peru precisely on the day the Iran Nuclear Agreement was concluded. That distance, both temporal and geographic, has afforded me the luxury of studying the deal without rushing to judgment. Not that "Iran away" from the topic (sorry), because if you are a citizen of this earth and care about our future, this subject will find you wherever you go; even the highest peaks of the Andes were not distant enough to avoid it. Though, I must add, we were totally without internet in the Amazon Rainforest, and it was sublime. Four blissful days where the top story involved howler monkeys staking out new turf or an unobstructed toucan sighting.
But all good things must come to an end, and I'm back. Since people do expect their rabbis to chime in on these things, here goes.
I believe strongly that rabbis are obligated to raise their voices on key moral issues, especially with regard to Israel. I've never shied away from that. And with the High Holidays looming (who could have imagined a more perfect storm, with Congress likely to vote right smack in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), rabbis have become perhaps the most vigorously lobbied beings on earth who don't happen to work in the US Capitol.
I returned home to an inbox filled with infomercials and requests to sign this and that petition: from AIPAC, a letter against the agreement signed by more than a couple of dozen Connecticut rabbis and plans for a massive lobbying airlift to Washington in early September. From J-Street, a national petition in favor of the agreement thus far signed by over 300 rabbis. Rabbis are affixing their John Hancocks to lots of letters these days, rabbis whom I respect and admire - on both sides. There is real pressure to sign on, to take a stand on this "existential issue."
(Jean-Paul Sartre just texted me from heaven, saying 1) Let's stop overusing the "e" word before it becomes a cliché, and 2) Sacre bleu! There's an afterlife!)
I've always claimed that a nuclear Iran would be an exi... untenable threat to Israel and the world. I recognize the urgency of the moment.
That's why I've decided - for the moment - not to sign anything.
I do have my views on the agreement, and they are evolving daily. Not laying them out in detail here gives me the luxury of refining my perspective as more facts emerge. But I feel, regardless of my opinion, that in the current climate, my role is best served in not being partisan, for three main reasons:
1) We need to lower the temperature.
No one should feel good about the tone of the current debate. The stakes could not be higher, for Israel, for American foreign policy, for the world. For Israelis, the rising tension with America is provoking increasing anxiety. For most American Jews, the current debate is both extremely emotional and equally complex. There are sound arguments on all sides. But as the tone of the conversation has become increasingly strident, accusations of anti-Semitism and dual loyalty have poisoned the atmosphere.
Gary Rosenblatt, publisher of the Jewish Week, expressed concern this week about the deepening fault lines among American Jews.
Iran might be many months or years away from a nuke, but within the American Jewish community, damaging meltdowns are occurring with alarming regularity. And right now, that concern must be weighed into this entire picture. Rabbis need to be the "adult in the room," especially when so many federations and Jewish organizations are choosing to go the partisan route.
2) We need more humility injected into the conversation.
Rob Eshman, publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, played out the various scenarios that could follow the September vote. I found his final comment most compelling: Frankly, I don't know what all this means for the future of American Jewry and U.S.-Israel relations, and I doubt anyone else does either.
No one can foresee what the world will look like in 2030, and we can only guess whether that world would be better off with an up or a down vote in Congress next month. In other words, we need to go into this conversation with the utmost of humility, precisely the quality that has been most lacking in public discourse thus far.
As America marched into the 20th century, an essay in The Atlantic predicted that by the year 2000 we'd have abolished war, and the poor would be living in high-rise "abodes of happiness and health." The Ladies' Home Journal predicted that all mice and rats would have been eliminated, along with the letters C, X, and Q."
Long range predictions have a way of coming up very short, which is a reminder to all of us that lots can happen in fifteen years. We also must admit that no security safeguard is infallible, including those built into this deal. Yet neither is the prospect of military action without unintended consequences. We've learned that the hard way. So both sides to be more humble. Rabbis are experts at being humble...I humbly attest.
3) Finally, there are the upcoming High Holidays themselves.
So many American Jews, particularly young ones, have been turned off to Israel and to Judaism, and the Days if Awe are the only chance we have to welcome everyone into the room to show Judaism in its best light. If the goal of our services to create the optimal atmosphere for spiritual growth and communal harmony - and if we also hope to strengthen fraying connections with Israel - Rosh Hashanah is precisely the wrong time to be manning the barricades for an issue that is so polarizing and divisive.
So while I can pretty much guarantee that not everyone will agree with everything I say over the High Holidays - I have no doubt that I'll touch a nerve here and there - I can promise that I will do my best to ensure, regarding the Iran Deal, that our sanctuary and lobby will be a sanctuary from lobbying.
Which is not to say that this matter should be ignored between now and then. On the contrary, we need to conduct a respectful and humble fact-based conversation, weighing the advice of scientists and seasoned diplomats, while understanding that no one is infallible. We should, by all means, engage politically and contact our representatives, but we should avoid the temptation to let our voices become echo chambers for someone else's talking points.
Don't just follow the crowd; educate yourself and come to your own reasoned conclusion. You can read the full text of the deal here. Chew on the highly detailed - and cautionary - Ross-Makovsky-Satloff assessment of the deal, and the more supportive letter from 29 nuclear scientists. There are also some interesting compromise proposals out there as to how Congress might make the current deal far stronger without having to vote it down; and pundits are beginning to speculate on the what the various end games will be once the vote is behind us. Read what the military and security experts are saying, in Israel and here. These are important factors to weigh. Read what other nations are saying. Encourage dialogue between the political parties. Tell Israelis we care about them and understand their concerns for their future. Tell Congress and every Jewish organization that above all, we want Israel's security to become a non-partisan issue once again.
And tell them to ramp it down a notch.
No one is totally right or totally wrong. We should echo the humble words of the Talmud, as God adjudicates a dispute between Hillel and Shammai: "These and these are the words of the living God." The deal is neither a disaster nor a godsend. It's got strengths and weaknesses. I believe that neither its affirmation nor its rejection would place Israel in immediate peril and that either way, Israel and America will need to move swiftly to meeting the next challenge, which will include monitoring Iran and strengthening US and Israeli modes of deterrence in the region. Let's keep our eyes on that prize.
So for now, my vote is for... humility.
I'm happy to discuss my concerns and current leanings in greater detail in private conversation.
Elul is Here!
The new month of Elul begins this weekend. As we know, this month is a time for reflection and spiritual preparation for the Awesome Days. You may want to review last year's "Judaism's Top 40" countdown. You can find links at the bottom of this O-Gram.
For this year, I invite you to participate. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky recently listed ten reasons why he goes to synagogue on the High Holidays. His list may overlap with yours, but I would love for us to share our own reasons. Here is his posting:
Why I Go to the Synagogue on the High Holidays
Over the last week, I have begun to see the advertisements for the High Holidays emerge, especially on the pages of local Jewish newspapers. I have even seen some appear on large billboards. And while some colleagues will argue that people should attend High Holiday services out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even in response to an interpreted Divine command, I am not one of those rabbis. Instead, I believe that we should attend services because of how they can enhance our lives. The guilt that might have motivated previous generations to attend has thankfully dissipated.
Here are ten reasons why I will be in the synagogue this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What motivates you do to so? And if you are a synagogue leader-whether volunteer or professional-can you make sure that I, or any individual, walk away feeling that my motivations have been met?
Here are ten reasons why I will be in the synagogue this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What motivates you do to so? And if you are a synagogue leader-whether volunteer or professional-can you make sure that I, or any individual, walk away feeling that my motivations have been met?
- The entire experience brings me closer to that which is greater than myself which the Jewish tradition calls God.
- I am able to see myself more clearly-warts and all-in the presence of the Divine.
- It provides me with the opportunity to be in solidarity with the Jewish community and the Jewish people through time and space while staying in sync with the rhythm of Jewish time.
- The lessons of the holidays force me to face my own mortality, my own finitude, and help guide me on a path that will help to make my life count. These lessons are made evident in the liturgy and the spoken words.
- I am uplifted by the music and the words of Torah offered by the rabbi.
- It provides me with a sacred space for prayer and offers me words of prayer when I am unable to shape them on my own.
- The High Holidays provide me with guidance to set my life back on course where I may have strayed. They provide me with strategies for living a holier, more sacred life.
- In the context of supportive community, I am not afraid to be vulnerable and I am buoyed in my efforts to become a better person.
- I am able to reaffirm my faith in God and my belief in the goodness of humankind.
- With all that I receive, I am able to leave the synagogue and face the year ahead-optimistically, joyfully, and humbly.
As we head into Elul, tell me what your reasons are!
Judaism's Top 40
Judaism's Top 40 Elul 18, #23 Lifnay Iver Lo Titen Michshol (Don't put a Stumbling block before the blind)