Saturday, June 23, 2018
Four cantors and a rabbi at last week's concert. Click here for the full photo album (and thank you Aviva Maller for the exquisite photography).
Screen-grab of former B'nai Mitzvah leading Ashrei on Shabbat morning.along with the article that appeared in Saturday's Stamford Advocate.
I'm sending this O-Gram out a little early this week for two reasons;
1) To thank everyone for what was a very special weekend.
2) To crow about what we've got coming up this week.
So let's begin with last week. Both the concert and the service were overwhelming experiences for me and for my family - and for many of you as well. It was so important for me that this be a celebration of TBE's past and its future, not simply my own, and that is exactly what it was. Being able to celebrate the engagement of one my cousins to a four-generation TBE family perfectly amplified the blending of the personal with the communal.
Seeing four of our cantors singing harmoniously together enabled all of the years to blend together into a coherent whole, a unified vision (despite their musical diversity - and indeed because of it). My thanks to all of them, and in particular to Cantor Fishman, both for her artistry and vision. It all came together perfectly.
So did Shabbat morning - it all ran seamlessly. Devra and Lisa's words were most meaningful (and appreciated), and I know that their involvement went far beyond the d'var Torah. I'd like to thank everyone who helped - all the Torah readers, service participants, along with the committee members, Aviva for her photos, and...
I apologize for not having the chance to thank everyone more personally, but so much to do, so little time...
2) To crow about what we've got coming up this week.
This Friday night we will be joining together for a special musical Kabbalat Shabbat at Mill River Park. I've long been a fan of outdoor services, ever since we started doing them outside the sanctuary windows in the '90s. The "camp-style" feel lends itself to the informality and warmth we seek, and we've experienced it at places as diverse as Treetops, Camp Eisner and Cove Island - not to mention the beach in Tel Aviv and the balcony of a hotel in Safed.
This service also presents us with a chance to take our fabulous service out into the public square - and downtown will be hopping with an arts festival this Friday. It gives total strangers the chance to connect - or reconnect - with deep spiritual feelings that might have been abandoned years ago.
Plus, good weather is predicted. So by all means bring friends - and also lawn chairs - and prepare for something very special. See the flyer below.
And that's not all, because Shabbat morning is our final "Shabbat in the Round" for the season. Join us at 9:30 for breakfast, and 9:45 for a relaxed participatory service.
This will be the final Shabbat-O-Gram for a number of weeks, as I head off for our TBE Israel Trip and then vacation after that. As I typically do, I'll be sending back some photos and highlights from Israel. I understand Prince William will be there when we are - the first official visit to Israel for a member of the British royal family. I wonder if he will be staying at the King David Hotel... Anyway, if we bump into Wills, I'll be sure to send regards.
Despite a pervasive sadness for people suffering in our world, for this final O-Gram of the season I'll keep things upbeat, by sharing some excerpts from my d'var Torah last Shabbat morning.
More than human beings, we are human becomings. "Be a mensch!" was my father's message to me before he died so tragically young. And that is what I have striven to be - to set an example, possibly to be emulated by others.
All the messages, the sermons, the classes, the columns, Shabbat-o-Grams, all can be distilled to those three words - Be a mensch. If by sharing what I've learned, I can bring just a smidgen more decency to a world that has lost its moral moorings, a modicum of generosity, honesty and human connection in a world overflowing with cruelty, loneliness and deceit, then I'll have done my job.
I've been telling people that this is OUR celebration, not simply mine. The book that we spoke of the other night - Mensch*Marks - which will be out early next year, is not really my book - it's a book that we have written together over the past 30 years. You have taught me much more than I could possibly have taught you.
I see it every day. There is nobility in normalcy, in simple goodness, especially in tumultuous, cynical times such as these, where the world seems to have lost its moral moorings. In Psychology today, a mensch was defined as a person whose characteristics include decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion, and altruism. Just try to be a mensch, and you can heal the world. Hillel states in Pirke Avot, "In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human." In a world as dehumanizing as ours has become, simply being human, a mensch, is a measure of heroism. It may be the only measure that matters.
There is a gallantry in overcoming everyday challenges; like Jewels Harrison, a young man whose bar mitzvah was a resounding statement that every human being has his hour, every life has infinite value, and everyone is equal in the eyes of God. He fulfilled our special needs.
Or the of a Mel Allen, whose life was one long, exhilarating, prayer, a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind. And who coined the most sublime expression of wonder of all, radical amazement in three short words: "How About That."
Or the things we've experienced together, like the heartbreak of Sandy Hook, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which we followed up with our solar panels; or those first few days after 9/11 when I sat by my phone, terrified every time it rang. Or the lessons I learned with your help - like how not to boycott Stew Leonards or make fun of football players from Denver, how to out someone at his own funeral, how to see God's image in the faces of Ethiopian children at an Israeli absorption center near Afula or in the gleaming eyes of an older Polish woman in Krakow who happened to save a Jewish teenager during the war because she came to her door and that's just what you do.
We have learned all these lessons together - about how to be human.
All the while, I've been lucky to have an incredible wife by my side - Mara's impact on the lives of the children of all our children can never be overstated(many call her for advice years after she taught them); two amazing children who embraced their role here but even more, have become full-fledged menschen on their own. And of course, three menschlicht dogs - and a goldfish. The fish was a party favor. Didn't last too long.
You have welcomed us into your hearts; you got us, and we understood you too.
We've had lay leadership here that is the envy of any rabbi. I used to think it was too corporate. Now I'm the one always talking about metrics and branding. I've had incredible professional partners here: staff, educators and fellow clergy, including Rabbi Goldman, z'l, who brought me here.
And I've been lucky to be part of an extended family, many of whom are here, although my mother and mother in law unfortunately could not be.
My great grandfather, Joshua J. Kastan, a saintly and strictly observant Hasid, fell in love with a woman named Mollie; but family lore has it that when they were about to be married, Mollie refused to shave her head. One can only imagine the hubbub provoked by this breach of traditional practice. Yet Joshua was no fence sitter - he stood by her and they were married, hair and all. He continued to love her through years of barrenness (attributed by detractors to her brazenness), and resisted the advice to leave her. Finally, miraculously, they had a daughter, my grandmother, Rebecca.
Rebecca, as fiery as her mother, married Samuel Hammerman and they had seven children, one dying very young. Their home was filled with music and laughter. They scraped by on Samuel's income as a tailor. To help earn money, my father, who had a lovely tenor voice, began to sing professionally. Eventually, he and his two brothers became cantors. Their fondest childhood memories included spending Shabbat afternoon together with all the cousins, gathered in their Zeyde Joshua's home.
Rebecca and Sam had 16 grandchildren, and fully a quarter of them were named for Joshua Kastan, including me, my cousins Jan, Jules and Jeffrey.
We were named for a man for whom the highest possible value was unconditional love. Ahavat Hinam. Defiant, courageous, brazen love. In a world dominated by superstition and suspicion, he dared to be a mensch.
My great grandfather Joshua died on the 15th of Av, the Jewish Valentine's Day. A few decades later, I was born on Feb. 14. I'm still striving to finish his work.
And I know I never will. But the striving is what matters. In a world of inhumanity, we have brought out the humanity in one another.
This is what religion looks like. And this is why, despite all the Korahs of our world, it is that humanity - that menschlichkeit, that will prevail.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sunday, June 17, 2018
June 14-16 was an exciting time for me and for TBE, as we celebrated my 30th anniversary serving this community. See the entire service below (it's called an aufruf here, though it wasn't...except that it sort of was - and you'll have to hear my D'var Torah to understand why...). My thanks to everyone who made the weekend so special!
Here is the link to the photo album for the Cantor's Concert (thank you to Aviva Maller Photogrpahy)
Here is the Stamford Advocate article on 30th Anniversary
Here is the link to the photo album for the Cantor's Concert (thank you to Aviva Maller Photogrpahy)
Here is the Stamford Advocate article on 30th Anniversary
Temple Beth El celebrates senior rabbi’s 30th anniversary
Thursday, June 7, 2018
There will not be a Shabbat-O-Gram next week - too much happening. So let this one linger. Make sure to get your tickets for next Thursday's cantor's concert, and if you have them, make sure to get here early. Hundreds of tickets have been sold. We'll have a shuttle bus for those who need to park down the street. Join us on Friday night, and on Shabbat morning, when we'll explore the portion of Shelach Lecha.
If you would like to prepare a d'var Torah (with my help) to be delivered while I am away this summer, now is the time! Let me know!
Also, Sat night is the community Iftar, sponsored by the Interfaith Council. It's at 7:30 at the Union Baptist Church (I'll be running there at the conclusion of Shabbat). Click here for more info. If you have never experienced Muslim prayer and fast-breaking at the conclusion of a day of Ramadan, imagine a Yom Kippur Ne'ilah and Break-the-fast - every day for a month! Our Muslim neighbors need our support, at a time when Islamophobia-inspired hate crimes are on the rise, just as hate crimes against Jews have increased. I've been honored with the opportunity to recite a blessing at the beginning of the Iftar feast.
This Friday night TBE celebrates our annual Pride Shabbat. Our guest speaker, Dustin Rader, a transgender former student of our education director Lisa Udi, will discuss the challenges and triumphs of his life. Dusty has spoken here before, and his words are truly inspirational. At a time when individuals like Virginia's Gavin Grimm need to go to court simply for the right to relieve himself in a boy's bathroom, we know that we have a long way to go.
Did you know...
There are about 1.4 million transgender adults in United States and about 150,000 youth ages 13-17
Only 26% of LGBTQ youth report that they always feel safe in the classroom
73% of LGBTQ youth have experienced verbal threats because of their actual or perceived LGBTQ identity
More than three-quarters (77%) of K-12 Students who were out or perceived as transgender had one or more negative experiences at school because they were transgender, such as being verbally harassed or physically attacked
Federal Civil Rights law has not been amended and no federal law has been created to include gender identity and sexual orientation. States have passed laws that either affirm discrimination against LGBTQ people or protect LGBTQ people, at varying levels, from discrimination
Over 129 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2017
Transgender people face higher-than-average rates of police violence, discrimination in the workplace, housing and healthcare, and are more likely to live in poverty than the general population.
Also see this rescue story from the Yad Vashem archives, involving an LGBTQ hero named Willem Arondeus. It's a story I had never seen before:
When Willem announced his intention to become an artist and declared his homosexuality, his father drove him out of the house. Willem began to write, working on a number of autobiographical novels as well as a biography of the 19th century Dutch painter, Matthijs Maris.
In the spring of 1942, Willem founded Brandarisbrief, an illegal periodical in which he expressed the artist's opposition to the edicts imposed by the Kulturkammer, the occupier's cultural committee. Willem was one of those Dutch artists who considered resistance a mission and had no qualms about spreading his views in artistic circles in an effort to influence others. A year later, his publication merged with De Vrije Kunstenaar, where Gerrit van der Veen* was one of the editors. Willem soon struck up a friendship with van der Veen, who had begun to specialize in forging identity cards. Forging identity cards and distributing them in Amsterdam was a task that involved one particular problem: The Municipal Office for Population Registration in the city center served as the repository of the residents' personal data and so forged cards could easily be detected. The existence of this bureau therefore posed a serious obstacle to rescuing Jews and consequently a plan was devised to attack the registration office, burn all the identity cards and files kept there, and destroy the building.
Willem, assisted by his male companion, was involved in the preparation of the attack. Albert Schlosser, a German immigrant, obtained the explosives, and Sjoerd Bakker made the Dutch police uniforms that were going to be used as a disguise. This mission was made all the harder after a similar attack was made on an office in Wageningen, Gelderland, near the end of 1942 and security in all the registration offices throughout the Netherlands was tightened. In Amsterdam, guards were placed at strategic points in the municipal building, thereby complicating the plan, which had to take into account all the possible scenarios.
The attack was finally carried out on March 27, 1943. It was a Saturday night and Willem, dressed in an officer's uniform, approached the guards at the door and told them that he, his lieutenant (van der Veen), four policemen, and three more officers had come to search the building for explosives. The guards believed the story and let them into the municipal building. Two medical students then sedated the guards. The attack went according to plan: 800,000 identity cards were destroyed; 600 blank cards and 50,000 guilders were found; the building was blown up; and no one was caught.
The head of police in the German occupation administration, immediately announced a 10,000-guilder reward for finding the perpetrators. On the night of the attack the group celebrated their success at Limperg's apartment. A few days later Willem went into hiding in Amsterdam. In early April, Willem was apprehended, but he did not utter a word while being interrogated.
On June 18, 1943, Willem was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed on July 1. In 1984, each member of the group involved with the attack was honored by the Queen of the Netherlands and awarded the Resistance Memorial Cross. On June 19, 1986, Yad Vashem recognized Willem Johannes Cornelis Arondeus as Righteous Among the Nations.
Blended Families, TBE's New Bylaws and the Abayudaya
At our recent Annual Meeting, our congregation passed bylaw revisions that, while somewhat more symbolic than substantive, make an enormous, loud statement about how welcoming we wish to be toward blended families. See the changes here.
It is important to note that the bylaws do not stray into the complex area of defining who is a Jew. Nor does it propose any changes to our ritual practice. Our practice in regards to including non-Jews in our ritual has been evolving for some time, including having special "ufruf" blessings for interfaith couples about to be married and involving non Jewish parents, spouses and other relatives in various life cycle events on our bima. I also make it a priority to contact TBE young adults who are about to be married (when I hear about the wedding), whether or not the spouse is Jewish, to congratulate them and welcome them home to their synagogue.
You can see in this article that our efforts are being echoed throughout the Conservative movement.
The bylaws do not define who is a Jew, but they do redefine who is a member of TBE, and the definition, much like that used by the state of Israel for the Law of Return, is expansive. A voting member of TBE may now be someone who is not Jewish by the traditional definition. In fact, that person can even become a committee member and a trustee.
Our growing inclusiveness is essential to our future and the future of American Jewry. It stands in direct contrast to worrisome happenings in Israel. See below an announcement that came from all the arms of the Conservative Movement this week:
In a blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Israel's Interior Ministry last week rejected the aliyah application of Kibita Yosef, a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, currently in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz. Explaining its May 31 refusal, a ministry spokesperson reportedly stated, "This is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community - it is not about one specific applicant." But such a statement amounts to a de facto dismissal of the legitimacy of the 2,500-strong community that has been practicing Judaism for a century.
It is outrageous, disrespectful and very possibly unlawful for the Interior Ministry to reject the validity of conversions performed abroad by a major Jewish movement. The Abayudaya Community are members of Masorti Olami (World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues).
This decision reverses over two decades of government policy that has conferred Jewish status for purposes of immigration and citizenship on those who convert abroad through a major Jewish movement. It is not only an affront to the Abayudaya, but also to the entire worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.
Happy Parentless Day
Here's an excerpt from an essay written by TBE's Samantha Klein, whose father Matthew dies suddenly several months ago. You can find the whole thing online here. Read about the exciting project that is being planned - and please support it. And see above a photo of the lovely garden donated and personally planted by Matthew last year. it is now dedicated to his memory.
After losing my dad unexpectedly on December 3rd, 2017, I have found that one of the only cathartic things (other than listening to his favorite songs, smelling his worn-in t-shirts, and reading Pinterest quotes about loss) is to speak to others who have sadly suffered something similar.
Through the, unfortunately, many conversations I've had of late (I only became comfortable with sharing my tragic story in the last two months; before then I was lying under the covers of my bed in my what was once my parents' house but now is my mother's house), I've learned that the toughest day of the year in the U.S. (my apologies as I haven't had these conversations with international folks yet, but I look forward to doing so) for the members of this shi*ty parentless club, no matter the age, race, gender, etc., is Mother's and Father's Day. It's not their birthday where just you, your family, and friends are remembering / celebrating the person you lost, but it's a day where EVERYONE in the United States is celebrating their moms and dads with cards and gifts and BBQs, hugs, kisses, you know the drill...
This year, a few members of one of the world's worst clubs, the parentless club, is hosting a Happy Parentless Day event on June 21st at 7pm in NYC for those (and their significant others) who have lost a parent. Tickets ($5) are required for this event with all proceeds benefiting Experience Camps, free, one-week camps for boys and girls who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Unfortunately, space is limited due to fire code regulation.
For more information and to purchase tickets please visit https://bit.ly/2JaqpdP.
If interested in creating your own event and you have questions, need ideas, etc, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thirty Years of Trivia
A lot has happened here over the past thirty years, during my time here at TBE. Your ticket of admission to next week's festivities will be to get at least half of these questions right.
1) Who of the names below did NOT speak here as part of the Hoffman Lecture series?
- Wolf Blitzer
- Alan Dershowitz
- Elie Wiesel
- Thomas Friedman
- Yitz Greenberg
(Answer is 5. Rabbi Greenberg was here as a scholar in residence)
2) Our first weekend scholar in residence was...
- Peninnah Schram
- Neil Gillman
- Moshe Waldoks
- Steve Greenberg
- Burt Visotzky
(Answer is 1. Peninnah Schram, the great Jewish storyteller, came for a weekend while I was still assistant rabbi. The first who came when I became senior rabbi was Waldoks, the rabbi and humorist (and he was very funny))
3) TBE Shabbatons were memorable. List the one place where they were never held....
- Holiday Hills
- Camp Sloane
- The Nevele
- Camp Eisner
- Camp David
(Answer is 5. We were never invited.)
4) In which Confirmation Class photo did my hair begin to turn silver-ish?
(Answer is 4.)
5) Of all the things said from the pulpit during my tenure, this line drew the most laughs - and I didn't say it. Who did, and when?
"I'd like to thank the rabbi. He's been like a father to me."
(Answer: Ethan at his bar mitzvah)
6) Which was my favorite bar/bat mitzvah class ever?
6) Are you kidding me? They all are!
7) In 30 years, I've missed exactly one bar or bat mitzvah. Why did I miss it?
- Saturday, the rabbi slept late
- The kid stuck gum on my chair
- Hey, she missed my bar mitzvah.
- To go on the March of the Living
(answer: d - and she was given 9 months advance notice and a chance to switch dates. Just sayin')
8) Which of the following was the worst usage of the term "Shabbat" in our eternal efforts at marketing Shabbat?
- Tot Shabbat
- Synaplex Shabbat
- Shab-N-Schmooze (for teens)
- Shabbat Unplugged
(answer: none of the above!)
9) Which large retailer did I cite during an early High Holidays sermon, mentioning that because of their serious moral lapses I would not be shopping there for a year (I never called it a "boycott...")
1) Bloomingdales (there was a Bloomingdales?)
2) Stop and Shop
3) Stew Leonards
4) Bernie Madoff's Superstore
5) Amazing Stores in Norwalk
(answer: You think I'm crazy? Ask someone who was here!)
10) Most of our recent Israel trips have been run by Keshet Israel Tours. What company ran the first few?
Answer: "Hearts of Pam," lovingly run by our very missed and loved Pamela Cohn Allen
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman