Friday, March 2, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for March 2

Karaoke and Kostumes 

See more photos in our Purim album - and add your photos as well!  Thank you to Stephanie Zelazny for many of the photos, and for all the volunteers who made last night's Megilla readings and carnival so special.


Shabbat Shalom!

We have a world champion in our midst.  Nathaniel Harrison's Connecticut Pee Wee team won a hockey tournament recently in Quebec City!  And even better, he is still coming to Hebrew School!  He'll be joining us on our 7-9th grade NYC trip this Sunday, which includes a visit to the Jewish Heritage Museum.  Read about the hockey heroics here and see if you can pick him out in the photo.


Friday night, get out of the rain and come to the TBE lobby for our 7:30 service.  At 5:30, our young families will be having a Shabbat gathering of their own.  The cantor and I are looking forward to seeing you there! 

With especially stormy weather in the forecast, check email Friday afternoon for any scheduling updates.  Also, note that there will be no service at TBE next Friday night, March 9, as we will be participating in Shabbat Across Stamford.  The service will be open to all - even those not coming to the dinner.

"A Prayer I Can't Believe In"

I highly recommend this op-ed on the experience of saying Kaddish regularly, written by one who has serious theological misgivings. The author writes:

"...Unlike some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take great comfort in communicating with God, I am not confident that God even listens to our prayers. Yet I have reoriented my life to accommodate my obligation to say Kaddish. And I do so cheerfully because it links me to Jews across generations and continents. It defines me as a member of the tribe. My tribe.
That is the essential gift of the Kaddish. It fosters community for a person who has just suffered a searing loss of a parent or sibling, spouse or child, even when we find ourselves far from home.
Even if the words themselves offer little comfort, I take great satisfaction in this communal act of prayer; of hearing the voices of others respond to my own prayers; and of being welcomed and enveloped by a larger and transcendent community. And in that experience, I honor and reconnect with my father."
When I explain the Kaddish to people, I find it helpful to reorient them to a more palatable understanding of God for modern, skeptical ears. I begin by explaining that all human beings are created in God's image (not just Jews), so when a person dies, the Cosmos itself is diminished. Repeating this prayer over and over is a means of restoring balance and wholeness to the shattered Universe. By praying for the restoration of order in a chaotic cosmos, we are also slowly restoring order and balance within our own individual lives.
What does Kaddish mean to you? How has the experience of saying it regularly brought richness and healing to your life? 
I'd love to share some responses.
In the meantime, it goes without saying - which is why I'm saying it - that our morning minyan offers a perfect chance to bring true healing into your life and the lives of others. Shabbat services do too.

Should Jews Boycott Poland over the "Holocaust Law?"

Poland has made news lately for its infamous "Holocaust Law," criminalizing accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.  The law, which took effect today, has caused a deep rift in Polish - Israeli relations. Polish representatives are in Israel as I write this, aiming to resolve differences.  You might have seen the full page pleas for understanding in the New York Times this week, first by Ronald Lauder and the WJC and then, today's astonishing appeal, signed by fifty Righteous Gentiles, among them Mirosława Gruszczyńska, who brought our TBE group to tears last summer when we met her in Krakow (read her story and see a video of her meeting with the Jew that she saved).

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and the Holocaust Law will be rolled back, but even if it is permanently rescinded, the forces that brought it about are not going away.  Some are saying that Jewish tourists should boycott Poland to protest this law, including Shmuel Rosner in the New York Times. Although I have major concerns about the law, I disagree with that proposal.

Last summer, our group visiting Poland saw a country struggling to come to grips with its dark side.  We got mixed messages, but we did not see outright denial.  For instance, in Warsaw's spectacular new Polin Museum, commemorating a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, one display (see a photo of it) speaks with an admirable honesty about the topic, stating, in Polish and English:

What was the attitude of Poles to the Jewish tragedy?  Few chose to risk their lives and the lives of their families by trying to save Jews.  Many were simply too preoccupied with everyday hardships of the occupation to concern themselves with the fate of Jews.  Some Poles denounced Jews to the Germans or murdered them themselves.  How did those on the Aryan side react to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?  Some sympathized with Jews and admired their heroism.  Most, however, were indifferent, while others made anti-Semitic comments.

This hardly sounds like a whitewash to me.  The museum was created by a unique partnership of the Polish government and the private sector, including Jewish groups.  It has been praised universally and is part of an impressive and expanded array of memorials, museums and restored synagogues in Poland. As the Holocaust recedes into history, it is becoming even more important for Jews to visit these places rather than boycotting them. 

The Polin Museum also describes the vibrant Jewish life that preceded the rise of the Nazis, when Warsaw was the second largest Jewish city in the world, trailing only New York, and its cultural life was unrivaled. Even now, it is impossible to find a place on the planet that teems with the intellectual ferment that existed among Polish Jews between the wars. We need to learn more about that.

In assessing the complicated historical relationship between Poles and Jews, let's acknowledge that we share quite a bit.  While horrible things happened to Jews there, horrible things - admittedly less horrible - happened to Poles too.  Jews also need to understand that the most infamous anti-Semitic episodes on Polish soil over the past millennium - like the 1648 Cossack-driven massacre - were not perpetrated by Poles. 

And what exactly is "Polish soil?"  Poland has been sliced and diced by its neighbors more than just about any other place on earth - except maybe the land of Israel.  With empiric Russia on one side and aggressive Germany on the other, and throw in the Hapsburg empire for good measure, I'm not sure we give Poland its due for standing up to oppression as often as it has.

Poles and Jews also share this: One can make a solid claim that the two biggest causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union were the Soviet Jewry movement and the Polish Solidarity movement.  And just as "Jew" became a moniker of mockery in Europe, so did "Slav," a term derived from "slave."  Poles, who are Slavs, have, like Jews, often been derided as an inferior race and ridiculed by the haters of this world.

As much as Poles need to understand the unique Jewish sensitivities regarding the Holocaust, Jews need to acknowledge that it is a great injustice to call Auschwitz a "Polish death camp." It wasn't and that mistaken phrase has been repeated often, even if innocently by those viewing the term "Polish" as being purely geographic.  When President Obama said "Polish death camps" in 2012, he later apologized in a letter to Polish President Komorowski, stating that the phrase was intended to describe "a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland," stating further, "I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth."

Last summer, when our group was being taken through the Resistance Museum, which commemorates the Warsaw uprising of 1944 (during which the Nazis killed over 180,000 Poles), TBE member Parry Berkowitz had a spirited exchange with our guide, somewhat reminiscent of the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" of 1959.  Here's how Parry recalls it:

As I recall the interaction at the Resistance Museum, I challenged our guide for her incessant narrative about the Poles being victimized by the Nazis and implication, to me at least, that what the Poles endured was somehow equivalent to what the Jews did. There was no acknowledgement, even tacitly, about the role that many of the Poles played in the persecution of the Jews and how many of the Poles profited from their Jewish friends and neighbors being hauled off to their deaths, or how, when the miraculous few who managed to survive the camps came back to their towns to find their Polish friends and neighbors living in their houses or in possession of their belongings and then claiming rightful ownership and refusing to return the plunder.   

What got particularly under my skin was her response to my challenge... instead of simply acknowledging that, yes, some of the Poles were not without blame, she instead subtly tried to defeat my premise by citing a worthless, and wholly irrelevant, statistic about the fact that more Poles than any other nationality were represented at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, as if to imply that the Poles are all heroes and should be universally lauded for their actions during the war, including her own grandmother, who she claimed also helped Jews. Her statistic about Yad Vashem, while true, was misleading, as I pointed out. The fact that there are more Poles counted as Righteous Among the Nations than any other nationality is just an accident of numbers - there were simply more Jews in Poland than anywhere else. Compared to the overall number of Jews in the population, as a proportion, the number of Poles who did anything is miniscule, and the misleading statistic should not be used to try and demonstrate the universal virtue of the Polish citizenry during the war in the face of the Nazis.

Yad Vashem lists over 6,700 Poles among the Righteous Gentiles, and there were likely many more.  While the percentage of righteous Poles among the overall population, relative to the three million Jews who lived there, is admittedly very low.  I agree with Parry that the guide seemed to write off Polish complicity too glibly.  In my mind, however, the question should not be why there weren't more Righteous Gentiles, but rather how so many could have had the courage to act so boldly at all, overcoming not only fear for the fate of their families, but also centuries of anti-Semitism inculcated by the Church. 

Here's something else Jews and Poles share - the concern for an alarming erosion of fragile democratic norms all over the world, through dangerous demagogic tactics of strongman leaders who pit one group against another.  What's happening in Poland is also happening in Hungary, and in both countries, our group confronted guides who were terrified to discuss the culpability of their co-nationals during the Holocaust.  The rise of governments who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions back then is only a symptom of the antidemocratic virus infecting them now.  It was so sad to see this in Poland last summer; my prior visit in 2010 was very different.  As you might recall, that was the week the Polish leadership was killed (somewhat suspiciously) in a plane crash over Russia, and our March of the Living group shared in their grief.  That government had been at the forefront of real gains in Polish Jewish relations and the advance of democratic values.  That government had built the Polin Museum.

In Poland and Hungary, the new far-right wing governments have consolidated power by following a familiar playbook.  They demonize the press, co-opt the judiciary and direct anger toward familiar scapegoats.  Both Poland and Israel have followed that playbook with regard to the Holocaust Law.  It's much easier to stoke old resentments than to nurture peace.  Both are playing up the affronts for domestic political gain.

That playbook's principle author is neither Hungary's Victor Orban nor Poland's Andrzej Duda, but their neighbor to the east, Vladimir Putin.  So, if Jewish tourists are looking for a place to boycott, how about Russia?  No other country has been more responsible for the swirling hatred that is infecting our world, the suppression of free speech, the corruption of the press, the murder of innocents (including the continuing Russian and Iranian abetted war crimes in Eastern Ghoutta, Syria) the exaltation of the cult of personality and the continuing and as-yet unchecked attacks on America's most sacred institution, the unfettered right to vote. 

President Trump has recently shown a great love for snake imagery.  Might I suggest that those tourists who wish to boycott a country direct their attention toward the head of the snake.  I for one will not consider visiting the land of my grandparents as long as Vladimir Putin continues to spread his venom across the globe.

Poland's Holocaust Law is wrong and should be opposed, vigorously - and in person.  We all need to go there.

Don't boycott Poland.

Boycott Russia.


I hope you can join me and our fellow congregants next week at Shabbat Across Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, United Jewish Federation's annual celebration of community and Shabbat featuring guest speaker Professor Jonathan Sarna. You can easily register at or by contacting Lauren Steinberg at or 203-321-1373 ext. 108. Early bird pricing ends tomorrow! We are proud to be partnering with UJF in creating this community-wide event and look forward to coming together for a memorable and enjoyable evening.

-         Women's Seder, Tuesday, March 13

-         Interfaith Seder at Grace Farms Thursday, March 22
-          Chocolate Seder and Family Shabbat Dinner, Friday, March 23
-          Congregational Second Night Seder Saturday, March 31

No comments: