Friday, August 30, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for Aug 30


Shabbat Shalom

The season of change begins in earnest this weekend, with the confluence of Labor Day, the beginning of September and the beginning of the month of soul searching, the final month of the Jewish calendar, Elul.  On a personal note, my mother's unveiling will also take place this weekend, as the year of mourning begins to draw to a conclusion.

Looking ahead for a moment, don't forget our annual Barechu and Barbecue is next Friday at 5:30, with services to follow (led by Katie Kaplan and myself, with musical guest Kobi Hayon)) at about 6:45.  And we are thrilled that not only will Unorthodox, the most poplar Jewish podcast in the universe, be doing a live taping here on September 19, but that the guests will be Rabbi Joseph Telushkinrenowned spiritual leader and author, and Farooq Kathwari, co-chair of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council.  Please register here and plan to come early - a huge crowd is expected.

Join us for services this evening at 7:30.  Katie Kaplan will be joining me, along with musician Barbara Orwick, whom we had the pleasure of meeting for the first time last weekend.  A focus tonight will be on this time of transition, the pilgrimage we are taking take from yesterday to tomorrow, and the circle of the seasons.

On Shabbat morning, as we celebrate Rosh Hodesh Elul, our discussion will revolve around Maimonides' Laws of Repentance and how they match up with his Laws of Character. The great sage lived nine centuries ago, and yet the questions he raises are similar to questions we ask today.  Are we the product of choices or our disposition?  Are we judged by actions only, or by intent?  Should I focus simply on trying to stop doing angry things, or should I focus on stopping being an angry guy? (Just kidding, I'm relatively not-so-angry).

The portion of Re'eh lends itself to this conversation, since it focuses on the choices that we make and informs us -

כו  רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.26 Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
- imploring us to choose the path of blessing.

And it through choosing that path that we can transform our world, echoing the words of  the famous 19th century poeOde, (The Music Makers) by Arthur O'Shaughnessy:

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

Sarah Cohen, z'l - the Matriach of Kochi


As our season of renewal approaches, a tribute to an extraordinary woman who passed away a few hours ago.  Sarah Cohen was 96. The video below was taken by me when I visited Sarah a year and a half ago in her embroidery shop in Kochi, India, where she embroidered kippot.  She was chanting Psalms from her siddur, as she did daily, using a melody that is, to my knowledge, unique to her community.  Sarah was the matriarch of that city's tiny but very important and historic Jewish community. Every morning, she enjoyed a range of Kerala and Jewish dishes (dosa, idli, challah bread) and then spent the majority of her day sitting by the window, singing prayers and people-watching.  She loved to meet Jews visiting from around the world, and I was privileged to have met her. Imagine, being one of just a dozen or so Jews remaining in her community - living in a country with 1.339 billion people.  Yet she was honored and proudly welcomed the world to "Jew Town" as her section of Kochi is known.  She was once visited by British Royalty and a visit to Sarah has was even rated (highly) by Trip Advisor!  

In a 2007 profile in the Washington Post, Cohen explained that she is a part of a dying tradition that will probably no longer exist in 10 years, because most of the Jews who used to live there emigrated to Israel during its creation in 1948. At that time there were believed to be only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews -- from seven families -- still living in Kochi, a sun-dappled city thick with coconut palms. "We couldn't bring ourselves to leave. We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?" Cohen said with a gentle wobble of her head, an Indian gesture sometimes used for emphasis. "Besides, I like this place. And I like the people."

Here is the video of her chanting, followed by more photos from my visit to her shop in Jew Town.  May her memory be for a blessing.

Sarah Cohen age 95




Labor Day

On Labor Day, it’s important to note that the Hebrew expression for work, Avoda, also means worship.   

As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld puts it: Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings.

I’ve written regarding my own profession:

It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, "He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn."

Happy Labor Day, Happy Elul (we can now officially begin wishing one another a sweet new year) and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, August 23, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for August 23


Shabbat Shalom. 

It's good to be back, following an enjoyable vacation.  It's a real source of satisfaction for me to be able to go away and know that the place is being left in good hands, both lay and professional.  Services have been super (thank you Katie, Beth, Rabbi Gerry and musical accompanists for all your assistance), and extremely well attended; bar mitzvah lessons have been going strong (thank you, Cantor Bear) and people have been busy planning for the upcoming year.  

Katie Kaplan will be joining me for Friday night services this week - don't be a stranger!  And join us on Shabbat morning as we celebrate the ufruf of Richard Hecker and Kit Ling Wong.  Richie and Kit are relatively new to our community but have jumped in with both feet - join us to wish them well on their upcoming wedding.

Services will be in the social hall, which is a cozier setting than the sanctuary, but the question often arises as to why we don't use the sanctuary more, since it is so lovely and awe inspiring.  This summer we've experimented with new configurations enabling us to have the flexibility and intimacy (and security) we are seeking, while also experiencing the grandeur of the sanctuary.  Tomorrow for the ufruf, we'll use the sanctuary bima, while remaining in the social hall most of the time.  In fact, the whole rationale for having a bima (elevated pulpit) is found in this week's portion of Ekev and we'll be discussing it at services.  See the parsha packet here.

The Sh'ma and the Amazon

Ekev also includes the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the part that speaks of how if we are corrupt, God will shut the heavens and there will be no rain.  

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְותַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃ וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃ וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם׃ וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil- I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle-and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD's anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children-reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates- to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.
This paragraph has been controversial in Jewish history, and the Reform movement even removed it from the prayer.  As Rabbi Rachel Berenblat has written "The early Reform liturgists were troubled by the direct causality of the traditional prayer's second paragraph. Drought and famine are equal-opportunity tragedies, and who could countenance an understanding of God which holds that lack of rain is God's punishment for idolatry?"

I've never had a problem with this paragraph.  The impact of human transgression on the environment has never been so apparent.  We might debate God's role in all of this, but the paragraph speaks of a cause and effect.   If we collectively act abusively toward the earth, the earth will become a hostile environment for human habitation.

I immediately thought of this second paragraph of the Sh'ma when I read French President Emmanuel Macron's tweet yesterday about the blazing fires in the Amazon Rain Forest, which were set by humans and have come as a direct result of the reckless policies of the Brazilian government.

Meanwhile, aside from the raging fires in the Amazon, much has happened in the world since I last communicated, most of it scary and disheartening.  Since Jews and Israel have been central to the narrative over the past couple of weeks, you might expect me to have something to say.  But really, right now it's best to simply encourage people to keep up on events, relying on reputable sources.  I also post relatively little on Facebook and Twitter, but there are some recent postings and links that you can check if you are interested in my take.  Suffice to say for now that there are some who are deliberately trying to divide us, as Jews, as Americans and as supporters of Israel.  They are doing it for their own cynical, political ends.  We can't and won't let them succeed.


Time to Sign On...

While I was away, two important registration websites have gone live.  

You can now reserve for next summer's trip to Eastern Europe by clicking here. Reservations will be taken on a first-come-first-served basis. I can't emphasize enough how important it is, now more than ever, for Jews to see these places, to bear witness to the darkest moments in history and to learn the lessons of our recent past - while at the same time see how these devastated communities have turned themselves around.

And if you are interested in the March trip to Cuba - although it is essentially full, there may be a little wiggle room, so if you are still interested, let me know.  The trip's website is at

Also we've gone live with a reservation page for the world's leading Jewish podcast, Unorthodox, which will be our Hoffman Lecture on September 19.  When I say "leading," I mean leading - Unorthodox sent out a blast to Tablet magazine's email list in our area, and literally overnight we got over 160 reservations.  This will be a very popular event, so even though we are not used to signing up for the Hoffman Lecture, I highly recommend that you do that.  You can find more information and get your (free) tickets by clicking here.

Enjoy your end-of-summer and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


Monday, August 12, 2019

Russian Revolutions (Times of Israel featured post)


Russian revolutions

We Jews are old hands at fighting Russian hegemony, and we must defend democracy in the US and in Russia, just as Russian Jews are poised to do in Israel

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Ben Gurion airport, June 25, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/File)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Ben Gurion airport, June 25, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/File)
Have you watched what’s being going on in Russia these past few weeks? While Americans and Israelis been justifiably focused on other things, tens of thousands have been taking to the streets of Moscow to demand democracy, precisely at a time when Vladimir Putin is reportedly contemplating moves to make his rule permanent.
Even if the current protests in Moscow do not yet rise to the level of 1917, Russian revolutions are happening wherever we turn.
Take Israel, where once again, the Russians are interfering in an election. Only this time, the mastermind is not named Vladimir Putin, but Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters are primarily veterans of the great, late 20th century exodus from the former Soviet Union to Israel — the exodus that American Jews proudly championed. Liberman’s goal is not to divide and conquer, a la Putin, but to bring together a unity government that would revolutionize Israeli politics.
Believing in Liberman is not easy for me. Let’s just say that when I think of him, the words “liberal democracy” aren’t the first that come rolling off my tongue. He and Natan Sharansky are the Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky of the Cyrillic set. While Sharansky has prioritized broader coalition building, Liberman has been the ultra-nationalist, and his vision has prevailed among the million-plus Russian olim (15 percent of the Israeli electorate), whose political muscles are now being fully flexed.
Israel’s Russian-speaking community is both nationalistic and fiercely secular — few had any Jewish education back in the USSR, and many are not halachically Jewish. It is precisely that secularity that has made Liberman a strange but welcome bedfellow to the many Israelis who have become tired of ultra-Orthodox hegemony over their personal lives. His audacious redrawing the Israeli political map along a Haredi–progressive axis, rather than according to the traditional hawk-dove divide, has gained some allies in strange places, like the Upper West Side, Tel Aviv, and other enclaves of Jewish progressivism, where people fear the overreach of rabbinic authorities and the anti-democratic trends that have marked the latter stages of the Netanyahu regime.
Meanwhile, in America, where Vladimir Putin continues to subvert our democracy, Russia also holds the key to Jewish unity. Just as the fight for Soviet Jewry brought American Jews together a half century ago, a crusade to repel Putinism, the greatest danger to democracy everywhere, can bring American Jews together again in a renewed sense of purpose.
This anti-Russia revolution should be bipartisan. Were it not for the reluctance of Senator Mitch McConnell, who recently held back votes designed to protect US elections, bipartisanship would have prevailed, as it did in 2017, when both houses of Congress approved strict sanctions against Moscow with near-unanimity.
So how can Jews come together to fight our common enemy? We wrote the book on how to overturn the 20th century’s Russian Revolution; we just need to open that same playbook to stop Putin’s hegemonic designs now.
We can begin by protesting all things Russian — their embassy, their consulates, even their cultural emissaries, from hockey teams to the Bolshoi Ballet. It is time to get serious. Hey, Americans once showed displeasure to the French by serving “freedom fries” — so how about a boycott of Russian dressing?
Speaking of boycotts, some are talking of avoiding tourism to Poland, given Polish leaders’ stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for the Holocaust. But if Jewish tourists are looking to boycott a country, no other nation has been more responsible than Russia for the swirling hatred that is infecting our world, the suppression of free speech, the corruption of the press and muddling of truth, the murder of innocents, 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. 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.
I don’t support some boycotts, like BDS., but let’s not forget that it was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking trade directly to the cause of Jewish emigration, that denied Russia its coveted most-favored-nation status and was a key factor in triggering the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. Imagine how much a united American Jewish community could achieve if we denied Putin our tourism dollars, while championing legislation sanctioning the Evil Empire for their invasion of our democracy.
When Elie Wiesel took up the cause of Soviet Jewry in his 1965 book, Jews of Silence, he challenged Jews to come together to resist autocracy and support the powerless, for when we do, the world listens. When Natan Sharansky was freed from the Gulag in 1986, he drew 300,000 to Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside the UN on Solidarity Sunday (an annual day of protest that was like a third High Holiday for Jews). As Gal Beckerman recounts in his history of the Soviet Jewry movement, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, Sharansky pleaded for support not merely for Jews still held captive, but also for other human rights activists. “As a Zionist and a Jew, I support universal justice, the call from Sinai,” he proclaimed.
Now, as then, the stakes could not be higher. Muscovites are taking to the streets to defend democracy in Russia. In Israel, those Russians whom American Jews helped to liberate a generation ago are suddenly poised to save the Jewish state from becoming an illiberal theocracy, what Liberman has dubbed a “halachic state.”
Meanwhile, in America, we are poised for what could be either liberal democracy’s last stand or its finest hour. If we unify against Putinism, we can win. The Jewish community, proud and united, can once again lead the way in the cause of human rights and freedom. And once again, we could become a Russian tyrant’s worst nightmare.
Wherever we gaze, these are revolutionary times.