Thursday, January 31, 2019

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Benjamin Kassel on Yitro

Shabbat Shalom!

This morning we read the Ten Commandments.    Of course, those are the BIG TEN for the Torah], and those are very important. As I entered into my adulthood I’ll abide by those commandments. I have another love that I’d like to talk about, which is my passion for soccer. I began playing the game when I was 3 years old] and I fell in love with it right away. 
When I was about 6 years old0, I began playing goalie, a position I still play today.

When I started learning about my portion of the Torah for today, and the TEN COMMANDMENTS, I took it upon myself to make my own Ten Commandments for soccer], a mixture of my heritage, my passion, and an acknowledgement that the rules that I live by.

Number 1
Always work hard, try your best. While that is not a guarantee of success, there is a guarantee] that whatever the result, I’ll be proud of myself.

Number 2  
Never get down on myself. While I can’t stand before you and tell you that I’m not hard on myself] from time to time, I know that my team mates need me to be a leader, my coach needs to know he can trust me, and my ability to perform relies on me being able to put the past behind me. 

Number 3
Respect my team mates, and coaches, and NEVER talk back to an official .Nobody is perfect, mistakes are made, but respect is and must be an important trait of my personality.

Number 4
Trust my teammates. In my portion, Moses’s father in law Jethro, teaches him how important it is to delegate.  Moses set up a system of judges who would only bring the toughest cases to him. He trusted them that they will  do their best, and in return he would do his best. Just like Moses  I have to trust that my team mates that they will step in front of a shot, and they have to trust me that I’ll block ]whatever they can’t get in front of. Nobody is perfect, mistakes are made. But I have to trust them to do their best, and in return I’ll always be ready to do my best.

Number 5
Never blame anyone for my own mistakes; we all make them, but we don’t always own up to them. But I know I have to own up to my mistakes.

Number 6
Forgive my teammates for their mistakes. It’s my job to cover up for their mistakes at times, if they lose possession in a tough spot I’ve got their backs. The game is competitive, there are consequences for mistakes, but there is nothing worse for a team and the development of a player than the blame game

Number 7 
Never go into a game unprepared. I have sat out  entire games because I forgot my cleats. It was a terrible feeling at the time so I will make sure I will never forget my cleats or any other equipment ever again.

Number 8
Never give up. History has shown that its not over until its over. The Patriots beating the Falcons in the Superbowl after being down 28-3 shows how Comebacks are only possible. when WE never give up and still believe.

Number 9
Always saying thank you.  I always have to thank my coaches after a game because its one of the most important parts of playing soccer. I also have to thank my teammates, but we don’t just say thank you to each other… we usually do this by celebrating as a team.

And finally, number 10

Soccer is NOT the most important thing in my life. There are things much more important to me, like my education, my health, Judaism, and last by not least, my family.

As I become a bar-mitzvah] I understand how important it is to give back to the community. So I have decided to mix my passion for the game, with my commitment to my community, with the love of my family. I have donated soccer cleats, shin guards, socks, soccer balls], and other equipment], enough for an entire team], to the boys and girls foundation in North Carolina. The reason why I chose this foundation is because it is the foundation that my grandmother, Terry Kassel, donated her time and energy for years. In addition, I’ve volunteered at the Jewish Home in Fairfield Connecticut, where my grandfather is currently living.  

Friday, January 25, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 25


The Invisibles - Official Trailer

Last night I saw a sneak-preview of the new Holocaust documentary, "The Invisibles" at a sold out Avon Theater.  I highly recommend it - and so did the crowd, which gave the director and one of the films principles, Hanni Levy 
, now in her 90s, a standing ovation.  Levy hid out in Berlin during the war, and the film dramatically depicts how she and three others were able to survive.  
Afterwards, Hanni came over to me, seeing my yarmulke and guessing that I am a rabbi, to thank the Jewish community for the warm reception she received, and to reiterate why she feels this film is so important: It demonstrates that not all Germans hated Jews. Indeed, some were so opposed to what their government was doing that they risked their lives to oppose those policies. Those righteous Berliners not only saved lives, they saved Germany.

See a photo of Hanni below, taken with Alice Dwyer, the actress who played her.  

If evil can know no bounds, the Holocaust also teaches us that kindness knows no bounds and that the opposite of good is not evil, but apathy to the suffering that surrounds us - an important lesson for then - and now.


Shabbat Shalom
Mazal tov to Benjamin Kassel and family, as this Shabbat, Ben becomes our first Bar Mitzvah for 2019. We also have our "Family Kabbalat Shabbat" before our regular Kabbalat Shabbat services, celebrating "Movie Heroes and Villains and Jewish Values."  Speaking of popular culture, the arts and Jewish values, click here to see a feature in Broadway World about Cantor Fishman and "Soul to Soul" prior to last Sunday's sold-out MLK presentation in NYC.

Government Shutdown
Any congregants who are seeking assistance during the government shutdown, please let me know. We are all here to help one another during tough times.

Call for Torah Readers
If I were to total up all the congregants who have read Torah at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah services of family or friends over the past half dozen years or so, that number would easily reach into the hundreds, including the b'nai mitzvah students themselves. Among those, a surprising number are able to read somewhat fluently. Right now, we have a real shortage of regular readers. Bert Madwed, the cantor and I stand ready to help you prepare a reading, and we are not perfectionists here. Even if you are not able to learn new Torah readings, maybe your bar/bat mitzvah portion is coming up and you want to celebrate your "anniversary" by doing a Torah or haftarah portion once again. Let us know! We'll be happy to help.

Adult Ed
Join us next Thursday evening as we host members of neighboring churches for an interfaith class on Wisdom Literature. At 7 I'll be giving our guests a quick tour of the sanctuary, and at 7:30 I'll speak about the books of Esther and Ecclesiastes - two of my personal favorites.
Meanwhile, our Adult B'nai Mitzvah class meets this coming Tuesday at 7.

TBE Mensch-Mark Civility Project
A number of years ago, I challenged the congregation to go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur without gossiping, maligning, expressing undue anger or slandering other people. It wasn't easy then and it's downright impossible now. Still approximately 25 of us have taken up the challenge this week as part of TBE's Mensch-Marks: The Class. If you would like to join them, you can read what's involved by clicking here. Try it out, and if you can make it to the class next Thursday at noon, let me know and I'll send you the assigned chapter from the book.

Come to Temple Rock Next Saturday Night...
...stay tuned for a surprise announcement!

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back - for the Forward
One could well say that the Yiddish and English print versions of the Forward newspaper are taking a step forward into the 21st century by ending their print versions and going all-online as of this week. But I join with many in mourning the loss of what has been one of the great American Jewish newspapers over the past century. It is a true "blow to the kishkes." No longer will I be able to spend a lazy Shabbat afternoon catching up with the Jewish world with the Forward's excellent news stories and biting columns. Even though I will keep up with it online, I'll miss the Forward - and at services tonight, I'll pay tribute to it in a special way.

Pats V Rams Prediction - from Jewish Sources

As you may have heard, the New England Patriots play the Los Angeles Rams in next week's Super Bowl.  While the Pats get to the Big Game with regularity, the Rams haven't been here since 2002, when they lost to the Patriots in a stunning upset, one that was, of course, correctly predicted by me.  That year wasn't just the first championship in the Patriots' dynasty, it was also one of my first forays into the art of predicting Super Bowls using the matrix of biblical and Jewish sources.  Even though the Rams have moved from St Louis to LA, with most everything else the same (except the point spread) I'm here replaying that seminal prognostication.  Some of the links actually still work!

Each year I attempt to utilize the eternal wisdom of our sages and sources to divine the winner of the Super Bowl. You may recall that last year I was able to predict the Ravens' victory over the Giants by discussing the relative positions Of Ravens and Giants in the book of Genesis, among other things. This year I'd like to reveal who will win by taking us all on a little Web journey, inspired by an idea presented to me by my son, Ethan. Right up front, two important points must be made: 1) I do not advocate gambling and 2) Happy Birthday, Ethan!

This journey begins in my hometown of Brookline, Mass., not the Brookline of today, but the Brookline that existed in its heyday of the '50s and '60s (it's still great today, BTW). Go to this site and you'll see what I mean. Scroll down past the photo of my boyhood shul, Kehillath Israel, past a myriad of memories, and about five from the bottom on the memories list, you'll stop at two familiar last names. One is that of my father, who was cantor at K.I. during that period, and the other is the name of the man who was widely considered the heart and soul of the entire Boston Jewish community, Harry Kraft. Aside from being a community leader, Harry was a true patriarch for his family, and an inspiration to his son Robert, current owner of the New England Patriots. Bob often speaks of his parents Harry and Sarah as inspirations to him -- including in the New York Times. Harry was a very pious man, and were he alive, he would be a sort of Jewish Kurt Warner on the post game show, giving thanks to the Almighty, which he taught us to do at Junior Congregation.

There is a clear patriarchal connection to the Patriots. For one, the etymological connections are obvious. See here (from a source based on Harry Potter, not Harry Kraft), and here for more background. Sexist implications aside, there are clear connections between what Jews call the Patriarchs and what Americans consider "the fathers of our country," the Patriots. Abraham planted trees, George Washington cut one down. Samuel Adams had a biblical name. So did Isaac. You get the picture. Bob Kraft's brother, incidentally, is named Avram.

And so, my friends. What exactly transpired between Abraham and the Ram?
Go to Genesis 22:13 to find out. Yes, the Ram was slaughtered by the Patriarch. The knife was intended for Isaac, but in the end it is the Ram that bled-so (a joke relevant to the Pats' prior QB). And thanks to Abraham and that incident, we use a ram's horn (shofar) on Rosh Hashanah (and if you wonder rams are killed specifically to harvest shofars, the answer is here). If you use this Blue Letter commentary of Gen. 22, click on "d" by this verse for dictionary offerings and scroll down to "ram," you'll get additional important information. The Hebrew word "ram" means "elevated" and "sublime," quite appropriate when talking of the Rams' passing game. But it will not be enough to defeat the Patriarchs.

The words Patriot and Patriarch both appear in modern Hebrew, incidentally, each beginning with the three-letter root peh-tet-resh. That root yields some interesting words, like "Pehter Rechem," the first born of the womb," for livestock and humans, based on the Passover story and the 10th Plague. I'm not sure about the that plague, but I can see the Pats' pass rush reminding the Rams of a few of the others. Then there's the word "Patur," which means "exempt" or "free." It's a rabbinic concept often employed in halachic discussions (read about it here, but you'll need Hebrew fonts), especially in deciding who might be exempt from certain ritual obligations. Interestingly, in modern Hebrew a "pehter" is also a "trigger action," indicating that the Pats will be especially effective in the shotgun, and the verb derivative "hiftir" means "to sack." Clearly, their pass rush will be ferocious. Finally, "niftar," the passive form of the root, means to die. I'm not sure what to make of that. But whichever team wins, the other will be saying what parents have said to their B'nai Mitzvah children for centuries, "Baruch shep'tarani," which means, "thank God I'm not longer going to have to deal with your shenanigans, essentially, and ion modern Hebrew, "Good Riddance." All from the root peh-tet-resh.

Two more connected words can be found at this site: Maftir and Haftarah. Yes, a Haftarah is not "half a Torah." The words Torah and Haftarah are, in fact, totally unrelated in Hebrew.

So how do I know that the Pats will emerge on top of the Rams? Check out Hebrew numerology (Gematria). A chart of numerical values for each letter can be found at You can figure it out. A Ram (Ayil, in Hebrew) is Alef+Yod+Lamed, that's 1+10+30 = 41 (turn it around and you have the point spread, 14). The three-letter root Peh+Tet+Resh = 289. So the Pats will win, 289-41. You can also go to the Gematria server here. Select "Hebrew" and plug in the number 41. You'll find other Hebrew words with the same numerical value, and the news is not good for Ram's fans: words like "to fail," and "terror" appear. Finally, go to this obscure site this obscure site and you will see clearly, in the middle row, that Pat comes before Ram.


27-24 sounds more like it.

Finally, (and before my com-p-t-r runs out of RAM) a reminder that the most important thing happening this weekend is not a football game, but the reading of the Ten Commandments at services on Shabbat (also true this week in 2019). Not that the two can't be combined. Go here and you'll find out the Ten Commandments for Football Fans. In fact many of these can apply to services. Especially the last one: Never, ever leave while time remains on the clock  (A new corollary - never leave Tom Brady time on the clock).

This game's going down to the wire. And, in the end, somewhere up above, Harry Kraft will be smiling.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, January 18, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 18


Fun for all at last Saturday evening's Family Havdalah Program 

Shabbat Shalom
On this somewhat wintry day preceding a very wintry weekend, here's a quote from the great poet Mary Oliver, who passed away this week, from her poem, "Starlings in Winter."
I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.
This poem offers us a choice. We can either succumb to winter's doldrums and sink into our easy chairs by the fire - which, come to think of it, isn't so bad, as long as there is hot chocolate in the picture somewhere. Or, like the starling, we can come alive in the snow. The frigid cold can either deaden us or awaken us, lull us into doldrums or ignite the spark of activism.
This is the challenge posed by this weekend's perfect storm of holidays. It is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath when the Song of the Red Sea is chanted as the Exodus story reaches its climax. It's also Tu B'Shevat a reminder that nature's liberation parallels our national Exodus, even as the sap is beginning to rise in Israel - which confronted its own snow storm this week.
And it is Martin Luther King weekend as well, a constant reminder of what he called the "Urgency of Now." King stated:
If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
It makes one wonder what King would be saying were he preaching today.
This evening, TBE congregant Beth Boyer will be speaking about her specialty, Asylum and the Law, a key topic these days, and for Jews, every day - whenever we stand to sing that song of the Red Sea (which is actually twice daily). Join us tonight!  We are signatories to the HIAS Welcome Campaign. Read about it here.
I hope you can join us tomorrow as well, when we'll be examining closely Dr. King's words, as placed in an authentic Jewish context. Ruth Messinger, the Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service (and its former president and CEO), has put together the "Talmud of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." Preview it here, and join us tomorrow for the discussion.
One other announcement: The Stamford community's annual Chevra Kadisha dinner will be held at Temple Beth El on Tuesday night, February 12, 2019. The Chevra (Burial Society) performs what is considered the greatest and most selfless mitzvah of preparing the departed for burial. f you'd like to reserve a spot, or make a donation, please click here.
Wishing you and yours a meaningful MLK weekend, a happy Tu B'Shevat and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, January 11, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 11


Shabbat Shalom!

Join Cantor Fishman and myself for services this evening at 7:30, and then for Shabbat-in-the-Round tomorrow at 9:45 (and come a little earlier for breakfast).  Sunday is our Tu B'Shevat Ice Cream Seder at our Religious School.  Parents are most welcome to join us - and learn about one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  On Sunday we will also be having our bone marrow registration drive.

About 25 attended the inaugural session of our new sneak-preview class yesterday, in anticipation of my upcoming book.  Among other things, we watched and discussed this highly entertaining 10-minute video:

The Making of a Mensch
The Making of a Mensch

You can still join the class, as each session will be self-contained.  At each of these sessions, we'll be looking at different sections of the book and fleshing out some of the underlying Jewish values explored.  The class is free, but please register by contacting Ellen in our office, at

The Exodus Starts Here

This classic quote from Michael Walzer's "Exodus and Revolution"seems particularly timely during the week when the Exodus narrative is read in the Torah, and with dramatic events swirling all around us:


New Holocaust Film at the Avon

If you've seen movies at Stamford's Avon Theater, you might have noticed that Temple Beth El is listed as a community partner.  Well, partnership has it's privileges.

The Avon will be presenting a special sneak preview screening of  

Post-film Q&A with director Claus Räfle
and special guest Hanni Lévy
Thursday, January 24 at 7:30 pm
We can get a special group rate of $8 if more than 20 are interested.  Let me know if you are.  In any event, this seems like a film worth seeing.
While Goebbels infamously declared Berlin "free of Jews" in 1943, 1,700 managed to survive in the Nazi capital. Claus Räfle's gripping docudrama traces the stories of four real-life survivors who learned to hide in plain sight. Moving between cinemas, cafés and safe houses, they dodged Nazi officials and a dense network of spies and informants. Yet their prudence was at odds with their youthful recklessness, prompting them to join the resistance, forge passports, or pose as Aryan war widows. Masterfully weaving these story threads together, THE INVISIBLES is a testament to the resourcefulness, willpower and sheer chance needed to survive against incredible odds.

Not Rated | In German with English subtitles | 110 minutes
Hanni Lévy, who is portrayed in THE INVISIBLES by actress Alice Dwyer, was born in 1924 in Berlin-Tempelhof. Starting in 1931 she lived with her parents in Kreuzberg. Her father died in 1940 of complications from forced labor, followed by her mother two years later. Soon afterward seventeen-year-old Hanni managed to escape arrest. With the help of non-Jewish acquaintances, she went into hiding in Berlin. She found refuge with a ticket seller at the Nollendorfplatz cinema, who also housed her in her apartment until the liberation of Berlin. Lévy has been living in Paris since 1946.

Claus Räfle has directed over forty feature-length documentaries for television. His political satire DER KANDIDAT, received honorable mention at the Max Ophüls Awards. DIE HEFTMACHER received the Grimme Award, a top award for television journalism. His documentaries BLITZHOCHZEIT IN DÄNEMARK and DIE STUNDE DAVOR each received nominations for Best German TV Documentary from the Prix Europa.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, January 4, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 4


TBE kids singing at our recent multi-generational Hanukkah service 

Shabbat Shalom!

Join us for Shabbat services in the social hall this evening and tomorrow morning.

Holding Fast:
Jews Respond to American Gun Violence


I'm proud to be included in this just-released book, an instant response to the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This was both the worst anti-Semitic attack in America's history and the 12th shooting massacre at an American house of worship in the past three years.  

This week's portion of Va'era describes the Ten Plagues that descended upon Egypt.  Anti-Semitism and gun violence are two contemporary plagues that continue to proliferate.

The title, "Holding Fast," refers to the Torah which is called in the liturgy "a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it."  Among the essays included in the book are responses to the shooting from the leaders and congregants most directly impacted, including a 15 year old (see below). You can order it by clicking here.  A portion of the proceeds will go toward alleviating the gun violence epidemic plaguing our nation. 


Bone Marrow Drive at TBE

TBE members Lisa and Jeff Manheim will be hosting a bone marrow drive through the wonderful organization "Be the Match" ( on January 13 right here at TBE, from 9am to 1pm.  While it is extremely unlikely that our bone marrow drive will yield a match for Emmet, getting people on the registry WILL increase someone's chances of making a match.  And maybe someone else's drive will produce a match for Emmet.  So we pay it forward, knowing that we are doing a mitzvah and potentially saving someone's life. 
What happens at a bone marrow drive?  Glad you asked.... Here's Lisa's response;
It's simple.  You get your cheek swabbed.  That's it. Then you are on the bone marrow registry.  Chances are about 1 in 430 that you will be called to donate your bone marrow, and if you are, it is a safe and easy process.  For more detailed info, click here.
The catch: "Be the Match" will only swab people between the ages of 18 and 44, as that is the age range with the healthiest cells to do a transplant. (They will swab older individuals, but for a fee). I know that leaves a lot of you out, but I implore you to spread the word, bring your college-age kids, friends, co-workers, etc.  We have a lofty goal of adding 500 people to the registry.  And of course, there will be snacks!
If you live far away and cannot come to the, you can register online!  Simply click on the link below, sign up, and  will send you a swab kit that you need to send back to them.  
One more sort of cool side note: the drive falls on the Jewish holiday of Tu B'shvat, the day that marks the beginning of a "new year" for trees in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.  You could help someone begin a new cycle of his or her life, too.


Mensch· Marks: The Class

Finally for this week, join the 20 or so who have already signed up (flyer below) for a new adult ed class beginning next Thursday at noon, based on my upcoming book, Mensch·Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times.  
Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman