Friday, May 31, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 31:Big Win for Israeli Democracy; Jerusalem Day and D-Day; Keep-On Kippah; What is Tikkun Olam?


The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by 
Marni and Michael Handel in honor of their daughter,

Elexis, becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

"Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem," by Shalom of Safed

This Sunday we celebrate Jerusalem Day.  

Click here to see our Jerusalem info packet, including an annotated time-line, maps explaining ancient history and current events, Biblical and Talmudic sources, as well as poetry and art.  Look at the maps on pages 11 and 12 to better understand the city's shifting boundaries since 1967 and the enormous challenges facing those hoping for two distinct, contiguous states.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to Lexi Handel, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning, with the portion of Bechukotai wrapping up the book of Leviticus.  Click here to read Adam Kinderman's commentary from last Shabbat.  During the service, which had an American History theme (see his speech for the reason why), I gave Adam an American Jewish History Quiz, which he aced.  Take it yourself and see how you do! Answers are at the bottom of this O-Gram.

A special thank-you to Ellen Gottfried, who will be leaving our office staff on Friday after nearly a decade and a half of service to our congregation.

Jerusalem Day is commemorated on Sunday.  As is often the case, TBE congregants will be all over the map this Sunday, doing good wherever we go.  Some will be in NYC to march for Israel, others will be marching on behalf of the Bennett Cancer Center here in Stamford, and still others will be heading to Washington for the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum.  That's where I'll be, and I'll report back on what I see.

Next Thursday is the 75th anniversary of D-DayHistorians estimate that 600,000 American Jews served in the American military during World War II, and that giant collective experience marked the "coming of age" for the American Jewish community. See Rabbi James Rudin's commentary from RSN.

Next weekend is Shavuot, with services, blintzes and other goodies on Sunday and Monday mornings, June 9 and 10.  On June 8, following Sisterhood Shabbat in the morning, we'll join with Temple Sinai at 8 PM to welcome the festival with a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot - a session of study, meditation and song.  The cantors and rabbis of the two congregations will lead.  Here's the info:
Cultivating Kindness
A Tikkun Leyl Shavuot
Sat. June 8 @ 8:00 PM at Temple Beth El
Join us for meditation and conversation, through sacred song and reflection
As we focus on the middot (Divine Ethical Qualities) of
Patience, equanimity, fear and humility
Nurturing the better angels of our nature
As we join hands with our neighbors
*cheesecake included!
For a sneak preview, here are three tips to practice equanimity, and here is a practice for when you lose patience.  Interested in cultivating humility? Click here.  And click here for fear.

Keep on Kippot in Germany

This yarmulke cut-out from a major German tabloid, as reported here in the Jerusalem Post, is an encouraging response to the upsurge in anti-Semitism in Europe.  For an item devoid of any official religious meaning, the kippah has become perhaps the most meaningful garment Jews wearOn the surface, it seems to pale when compared to other ritual objects. Unlike the tallit, it has no foundation in the Torah and law; unlike the siddur, it can be tossed into the garbage. It has long been the butt of jokes, partly because it sounds more like a Japanese motorcycle than a ritual garment, but mostly because our ambivalence regarding the yarmulke mirrors our ambivalence about Judaism itself.  (See my essay on the ubiquitous yarmulke, which also appears in Mensch-Marks.)

What is more distressing even than the upsurge in anti-Semtism is that the German government appears to be giving in to it, as was evidenced by the official who warned Jews not to wear kippot in public. This only encourages more attacks and validates the efforts of those whose goal is to intimidate, to convince Jews that Germany cannot be a home for them.  The response of non-Jewish Germans donning the kippah is reminiscent of the Montana menorahs placed in windows throughout Billings in response to anti-Semitic attacks from KKK and skinheads. Such gestures address the problem constructively and courageously.  Advising people to hide their religious diversity in the public square does not.  While there are lots of places where I personally would opt for a baseball cap rather than a kippah (including parts of Jerusalem), were I a government official I would not be recommending it.

Meanwhile, as admirable as those cut-out kippot may be, I recommend that readers of Bild check out our TBE gift shop.

Is "Tikkun Olam" Authentically Jewish?

A number of conservative thought leaders have been suggesting that the notion of "Tikkun Olam," "world repair," a foundation for the Jewish ethic of social justice - which happens to parallel many causes identified as progressive, is somehow counterfeit and not authentically Jewish.  I don't intend to get into a political debate here, but it is clear to me that delegitimizing has become an urgent agenda item for those hoping to loosen American Jews' long-established tendency to vote for candidates who embrace principles of social, economic and environmental justice.  

As this balanced analysis of the matter from the Jewish Funders' Network explains, "Around 70% of Jews in America believe that “working for justice and equality” is a key part of what being Jewish is all about. They often equate it with “holding liberal values” broadly understood, and consider these values a key component of the American Jewish experience. They note, rightly, that there’s a big overlap between those liberal values and traditional Jewish ones."
The meaning of the term has evolved over the centuries, but its roots are biblical and the term is found in our daily prayers - most specifically in the second paragraph of the Alenu, which speaks of "repairing the world to create a heaven on earth."  The Jewish Funders' Network article explains, "It would take gallons of ink to list all the traditional sources that encourage us to embark on what we call today Tikkun Olam. Considering how many of these sources are traditionally understood to be directly and authoritatively quoting God, whoever has an issue with Tikkun Olam needs to take it up with the Boss Himself. So no, it’s not a marginal idea that evil liberals brought to the forefront of the Jewish agenda; it’s been central to Judaism for millennia."  

That article then goes on to point out that, while Tikkun Olam is central to an authentic Judaism, it is not all that there is to Judaism.  "Judaism has a history of emphasizing timely aspects of our tradition, even to the detriment of others. The Pharisees emphasized the Oral Tradition over literal interpretations of the Torah; the Mussar movement emphasized moral virtue; the rationalists emphasized the philosophical elements in Judaism; kabbalists, the mystical; Hasidim the emotional over the intellectual and mitnagdim ( 18th-19th century opponents of Hasidism), learning and sternness over fervor. By stressing one particular aspect of Judaism (probably to the detriment of others), Tikkun Olam advocates are keeping in line with millennia of precedent."
The embrace of Tikkun Olam needs to be nuanced.  We need to understand that those two words should not signal an uncritical acceptance of an entire political agenda.  We need to be able to question aspects of it.  In Israel, for instance, social justice needs to be weighed sometimes against security needs; and short term economic concerns must be weighed against long term universal visions. Just as airlines instruct us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping another, sometimes you've got to feed yourself before you can feed the world.

But world repair is a bedrock Jewish concern.  To prove this point conclusively, Rabbi David Seidenberg has assembled 29 Jewish sources on Tikkun Olam.  Click here to see them all.  The next time you hear someone parroting talking points disparaging the vision of Judaism that nearly three quarters of American Jews embrace, pull out Rabbi Seidenberg's packet.  Progressive Judaism is not the only version of Judaism out there - but it as every bit as authentic as all the rest.

A Political Earthquake in Israel

While we here in American are never lacking for things to keep us up at night, especially in dealing with threats to first amendment rights and to the rule of law, I've been sounding the alarm for the past couple of weeks about an enormous threat to Israeli democracy.  Israelis understood the dangers, as a huge rally last weekend in Tel Aviv demonstrated, one that brought together most of the Israeli political spectrum, including Arab parties.

Daniel Sokatch wrote, "Israelis gathered in the tens of thousands, pouring into the streets around the Tel Aviv Museum and standing shoulder to shoulder from Shaul Hamelech Boulevard to Weizmann Street. These were citizens saying "NO" to a prime minister running roughshod over democratic norms. The protest was a resounding response to the very real threats to the independence of the judiciary - all in service of a desperate prime minister's attempt to avoid criminal indictment. It is a showing that should stiffen the spines of champions of democracy in Israel and around the world."

To the shock of everyone, Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to gain that crucial 61st Knesset member to cobble together a narrow right wing government, as he was thwarted by Avidor Liberman, not usually a big supporter of democratic norms - and the best Bibi could do was have the brand new Knesset dissolve itself (its only legislative "achievement") and set up new elections for September.

I watched live coverage of this vote on i24 and the commentators said it "looks like Tisha B'Av" as they voted.  I took a screen shot (see it above) and the Prime Minister's face looked particularly ashen. In the short term, his gambit to curtail or even kill judicial review has failed and Israeli democracy is safe. 

Since it's important for American Jews to understand what is happening, I'm sharing here an article by one of Israel's best known political analysts, Yossi Verter of Ha'aretz, who explains that Bibi's face was ashen because he knows that his chances of escaping justice just took a humongous hit. You can also read Newsweek pundit Marc Schulman's analysis here.

Analysis: Even Netanyahu Knows It's Over - Yossi Verter, Ha'aretz

Netanyahu may win the new election, but it will be too late to push through the High Court override and the immunity from prosecution: Who will sign a coalition agreement with someone on his political deathbed?

On Thursday, May 30, the countdown to the end of the Netanyahu era began.

On the very same day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to look over five signed and sealed coalition agreements with his government allies. He was supposed to call up the Knesset members from his Likud party and divide up the remnants his coalition partners left behind after they finished extorting positions and promises from him.

Next Monday, the Knesset was supposed to have convened for a festive session and voted its support for the fifth Netanyahu government, his fourth consecutive government since May 2009. The next day, without any delay or pause, a marathon of two-headed personal-legal legislation was to begin: One part was meant to rescue the suspect from justice, and the other was meant to deal a lethal blow to the Israeli legal system, its independence and power.

But it won't happen now. Not here. Israel is going to the polls again on September 17. This is the insanity, Italy at its worst. A politician entangled up to his neck in crimes, with a harsh indictment hanging over his head - is dragging an entire country to the polls and no one in his party and no one in his planned coalition has put his foot down and told him: Stop! It's over! Leave us alone!

Netanyahu realized on Wednesday night, and he showed it clearly, that the story was over. Elections on September 17, a new government - assuming that he wins and puts together 61 MKs without Avigdor Lieberman, this time - at the beginning of November. This will be a month after his pre-indictment hearing. The Supreme Court override law will not have passed, nor will he have immunity from prosecution: There will be an indictment and Netanyahu will be history. It is doubtful that any of his "natural partners" will agree to sign a coalition agreement with someone on their political deathbed.

One of the most despicable days in the history of the Israeli parliament came to an end late at night on Wednesday when the only 30-day-old 21st Knesset - it is superfluous to say the shortest in Israel's history - met to vote to dissolve itself. Netanyahu, the man who on the night of the last election on April 9, arrogantly and drunken with power celebrated his "incredible victory," entered the Knesset chamber defeated and humiliated.

So far, Israel has had two candidates for prime minister who failed in their task to form a government after being given the task by the president: Shimon Peres in 1990, after the political "dirty trick" of breaking up the second unity government; and Tipi Livni in 2008, after the resignation of Ehud Olmert. Peres did not have 65 MKs in his bloc, and Livni was a political rookie who had never put together a government coalition.

Netanyahu is the third prime ministerial candidate to earn this dubious honor. His failure is the most stinging of the three: It came immediately after the election, after a clear victory for the right and with political experience that no one else in the Knesset had. What is the right-wing bloc now?  Avigdor Lieberman, whose insistence on the approval of the passage of the new Draft Law - which no one understands in detail, has driven the political system crazy - can no longer be considered an integral part of the bloc. Not as long as Netanyahu is its leader.

This is Netanyahu's second total defeat this decade, after his efforts to prevent the election of Reuven Rivlin as president five years ago ended in a rout. To add to the rage and humiliation, Netanyahu spent the tensest hours on Wednesday in a pitiable, sweaty, humiliating and ineffectual pursuit after potential deserters on the left. Both individuals and groups.

Our magician tried to pull a rabbit from up his sleeve, but what came out was a dead parakeet - and then another one and another. What didn't he offer? The defense and finance portfolios to Tal Rousso and Avi Gabbay of Labor - who fell into the trap and said he would "consider" the offer - the Communications Ministry to Labor and the Justice Ministry to Shelly Yacimovich. He promised to give up on the Supreme Court override bill and the immunity law, which were intended to be his escape tunnel from a trial, and possibly prison. Yes, he was even willing to sacrifice the things most precious to him, the original reason he moved up the election, just so he could stay in office and hope that even after the indictment he could continue on in office - as the law allows.

Wednesday's disgrace only shows how much of a failure the coalition negotiations were. He needed to have made such arrangements earlier, at his leisure, in secret. After all, he suspected Lieberman form the very beginning, so why didn't he make sure he had an alternative? That is the price of his arrogance.

Oh... and the American Jewish History Quiz answers: C,A,B,D,A

Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, May 30, 2019

American Jewish History Quiz

American Jewish History Quiz
1)      In this year, 23 Jewish refugees fled this country in the Western hemisphere, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, and landed in New Amsterdam
a.      England
b.      Spain
c.       Brazil
d.      Peru

2)      In 1700, the Jewish population in America numbered approximately
a.      10,000
b.      a million
c.       a minyan
d.      250

3)      The first high holiday prayerbook was published in New York in this year:
a.       2019
b.      1761
c.       1776
d.      1812
4)      George Washington sent a letter to the Jews of this synagogue promising that “happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”  Which community was it sent to?
a.      Philadephia
b.      Boston
c.       New York
d.      Newport, Rhode Island
5)      This Polish born patriot was also known as the financier of the revolution – and the most famous Jew to be involved in the Revolutionary War.  His name was:
a.      Hayyim Solomon
b.      Julian Edelman
c.       Joe Cohen
d.      Bernie Sanders

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Adam Kinderman on Behar

Shabbat Shalom!

I don’t know how the Torah portions are assigned – but for some reason the stars were perfectly aligned when I got mine.  For those who don’t know me, my dad was born in the City of Brotherly Love.

So I am a huge fan of everything from Philadelphia – well maybe everything but the hoagies.  But I love the Eagles, the Phillies and the Sixers.

And rabbi, I am soooo sorry that the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl last year. (pause)

Not only that, but like any true Philadelphian, I love American history.

I’ve been on the Freedom Trail and at the JFK Library in Boston, to the Spy Museum in Washington, the LBJ Museum in Austin, Texas, and of course, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  And just a few weeks ago, I went with my Hebrew School class to the Lower East Side of New York, where so many Jews first set foot in America.  It was interesting to learn about how families were able to hold together despite hard times and crowded conditions.  So I am fascinated by American history and Jewish history.

Oh, and by the way, I LOVE the musical Hamilton!  My favorite characters were Thomas Jefferson and King George III. 

So what does all this have to do with my portion?

It comes down to one line.
The portion, Behar, speaks about the Jubilee year, the 50th year, when all slaves were set free.  One verse tells about how the shofar is sounded at the beginning of that year, and it says, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

That’s the same verse that is found on the Liberty Bell.  By the way, I really liked visiting the Liberty Bell, although I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

The interesting thing is that in the portion, the verse is talking about freeing slaves.  But on the Liberty Bell, it’s talking about freedom from Britain and my buddy, King George III. 

It’s definitely not talking about freeing slaves – because that didn’t happen for about another 90 years.

American history is filled with lots of compromises, and that one was one of the worst.  But the laws of the Torah also are built on compromise.  They had slavery too, and it was laws like the Jubilee year that were designed to correct them.

By the way, there’s also an American JEWISH history museum in Philly, right near the Liberty Bell. But one could say that in America at least, freedom comes with a Philadelphia accent.  That’s what makes Philly special!  Ooops… sorry, rabbi. 

For my mitzvah project, I went to Stop and Shop and stood in front and asked people to help buy and donate food for the Jewish Family Services’ Passover food drive.  I collected several hundred dollars’ worth of food, enough to fill three cars.  Then we brought the food down to the kosher food bank and helped them put it away.  During Passover, I thought about how through my efforts, people who otherwise might not have afforded Passover food were able to celebrate the holiday.  Also, the food in the baskets in front of the Bimas today are also being donated to Jewish Family Services.

And so today, I am becoming part of American Jewish history.  And this is definitely the room “where it happens.”

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Conversation with Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


Conversation with Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

“Mensch Marks” delivers a little wisdom for untethered times

By Stacey Dresner
STAMFORD – Rabbi Joshua Hammerman calls himself an “aspiring mensch.” 
Spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford for the past three decades, Hammerman has also served as president of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut and the Stamford Board of Rabbis, and as chaplain for the Stamford Police Department.
While he would never actually call himself a mensch – true mensches don’t lack that kind of humility, he points out – Hammerman has written a new book in hopes of inspiring others to to work on their humanity a bit, in these times of uncivil discourse and hatred.
Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi is a collection of 42 essays divided into sections such as “Work and Worship,” “Loving and Letting Go,” “Pain and Perseverance,” and “Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness” among others.
Rabbi Hammerman was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1983 after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a B.A. from Brown University. His journalism degree has come in handy – his column, “On One Foot,” has appeared regularly in The New York Jewish Week since 1994. His blog, On One Foot, is followed worldwide. 
He is the winner of the 2008 Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and the 2018 Religion New Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. He is a regular contributor to the Times of Israel, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Religion News Service and his personal essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. He is the author of Seeking God in Cyberspace and co-author of the children’s book, I Have Some Questions About God.
Hammerman serves on the Rabbinic Leadership Council of the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a member of the faculty of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has been deeply involved in many Jewish think tanks, including JESNA’s Jewish Education 3.0 project, STAR-Tech and Synaplex.
Rabbi Hammerman spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his new book and his own goals of living a “more human” life.

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Your book is very timely, given the divisiveness that seems to be consuming the world. Did you write it in response to this sense of global upheaval or have you been contemplating writing a book on becoming a mensch for a while?
JOSHUA HAMMERMAN (JH): I think it is sort of all of the above. The essays and ideas and thoughts that have gone into this book have been part of a common thread of my whole rabbinate over the last three plus decades, so in one sense I started working on this many, many years ago. On the other hand, in trying to pull together all of those themes, it all seemed to keep coming back to the notion of being a mensch and what it means to be a mensch. My father literally told me, “Be a mensch” – so I have always felt that to be the essence of my own message.
Of course, you are dealing with a situation where the world is coming apart at the seams, especially morally, and Judaism has so much to offer along those lines, and my own experiences have so much to offer. So, it all came together.
 JL: Would you categorize this a self-help book? 
JH: Yeah, I think so…it’s not a direct how to…do this and you’ll be a mensch. Its more of a “walk with me” – not even “follow me” because I’ve always felt that rabbis or clergy are not shepherds leading the way, but in fact fellow travellers. So this is my journey. 
There are 42 short chapters – we call them Mensch Marks, sort of like bench marks of “menschiness,” which I know is corny but it fit well. The chapters correspond in a way to 42 stops that were made by the children of Israel on their way out of the wilderness as they headed from Egypt to the Promised Land. There were 42 stops noted at the end of the Book of Numbers and according to some authorities, like the Baal Shem Tov for instance, they correspond to 42 stages of a person’s life. 
So, however you look at it, for me they are stages of growth, but not necessarily chronological. I don’t necessarily think I am a better person than I was 30 years ago. But they are thematic. The way they are drawn out in the book is that you have different sort of themes that have been the focus at different times of my life.
 JL: You note in the chapter “Nobility of Normalcy” that one can be a normal person with a so-called boring life and that’s a good thing – that is mensch-like. Can you explain that?
JH: Yes, it’s been a key to Jewish survival over the centuries that it’s not always about what’s on the front pages. We spent about 2,000 years on the back pages of the newspaper. It’s the courage to do the little things, like get up in the morning, get married, have children, be kind, be careful, set limits and restrictions in your own life, sanctify one moment over another, etc. These are part of the essence of being Jewish, but also they are the kind of nobility that we should celebrate in a world that has gone so crazy.
It’s a way for each of us to find our own center; our own sense of purpose and that is done through just being grateful and showing appreciation and all of that.
 JL: What has the response to the book been thus far?
JH: It’s been out for about a month and I’ve been getting some really nice responses from the Jewish community but also from non-Jews as well. 
I think “mensch” is a word whose time has come. There are a lot of Yiddish words that have made it into English – like bagel, chutzpah, kvetch, things like that. Mensch needs to get up to that level where you don’t even think of it as a Yiddish word, where it is trending, where it is something that we are all striving to be. And I’m hoping that we can get there.
 JL: Is there anybody out there in public life whom you would like to send the book to? Someone who might benefit from working on his or her “menschiness?”
JH: There are a lot of names. More than one of my endorsers has said that every politician in America should read this and that every rabbi should read this. Senator [Richard] Blumenthal wrote a beautiful endorsement – he is a member of my congregation. So he also agreed that people in public life should read it. 
There comes a point at which rabbis and clergy have to take stands; they have to have principles. And so one of the aspects of being a mensch is to be able to call out, to speak truth to power directly, saying when things are wrong, and certainly there are things that are wrong right now. 
I have a very large congregation and it’s a big tent. There are people who don’t agree with me on every issue, so I need to be very respectful of them. But I think it is possible for a mensch, or an aspiring mensch, as I try to be, to both be civil and principled and chew bubblegum at the same time.