Thursday, October 24, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for October 25: Trees of Life: Biblical, Institutional, Sacred; Share Your Anti-Semitism Fears


  Sukkot was so special at TBE. Featured above: scenes from Sukkah Hop, Hebrew School Sukkah visits, and 7th and 8th graders enjoying the holiday.

Shabbat Shalom

This weekend marks the one year anniversary since the terror attack on the Tree of Life synagogue.  We'll join with congregations worldwide in marking this anniversary with "Show up for Shabbat" services on Friday night (with Beth Styles) and our first Shabbat-in-the-Round service on Shabbat morning (and welcome to S-in-the-R, Cantor Debbie Katcho-Gray). Also,TBE's Lauren Redniss will speak at Sisterhood's Membership Breakfast on Sunday.  With all that's happening this weekend, don't forget that next weekend will be spectacular, featuring appearances by Neshama Carlebach on Friday and Saturday nights, Nov. 1 and 2, and scholar in residence Stephen Berk on the Jews of Cuba on Sunday morning, Nov. 3.

Last Friday we heard from Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America, who is coordinating the landmark federal lawsuit against the perpetrators of the 2017 violence in Charlottesville.  The conversation was vigorous and supportive and many of the hundred or so who were there wanted more information on how we can help.  Go to to find out more about the case and also to donate.

A special mazal tov to TBE congregant Lynn Vallency Cohen, who has just published her first book:  To the Editor:  a Curated Collection of Letters and Opinion Pieces. The book is a selective compilation of her letters and opinion writings on the arts, the environment, historic preservation, parenting and politics.  All have appeared in newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle, the Stamford Advocate and The New York Times from 2006 to 2019. To explore the book further, the link is:

Mazal tov to Lynn!

Genesis's Tree of Life
In this week's portion of Bereisheet, we return to the story of Creation. Standing smack in the middle of the Garden of Eden is the Tree of Life, along with its sibling, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to the traditional commentator Radak (see lots of fascinating commentaries about the Tree of Life here), "The reason it was dead in the center is that if you want to protect something carefully you place it in the center where it is surrounded, i.e. protected, from all sides equally. A human being's heart, lung, liver, the most precious organs, are surrounded by all manner of protective bone, flesh, and other tissue. These all act like a wall protecting the interior organs from injury."

Such has become the case with all synagogues, not just Pittsburgh's, since the attack on that Tree of Life.  Added rings of security have fast become a given, rather than an option, at American synagogues, as they have been in Europe for decades.  And yet this new reality has not chased people away; it's only caused us to treasure our houses of worship - and the people within them - all the more.

Pittsburgh's Tree of Life

Past TBE president and Pittsburgh native Sylvan Pomerantz shares this photo
taken from a historical retrospective on the Tree of Life synagogue done by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.  Sylvan notes that "the twin brothers in this photo had their bar mitzvah a week before mine. The boy in front is blind. They are being blessed by Rabbi Halpern and Cantor Silverman."

If you missed the 60 Minutes feature on Tree of Life this week, I highly recommend it.  The anguish felt by each member of the three congregations housed there can be felt by every American Jew - and each of the congregations has taken a different posture in how they are responding. You can watch it here.

Meanwhile, this week saw important new revelations on anti-Semitism in America.  The Anti-Defamation League released news indicating that the number of incidents against Jews and Jewish targets in the United States reached 780 in just the first half of this year.  Also, at least a dozen white supremacists have been arrested for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community in the year since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue.  

The AJC also released a landmark survey on anti-Semitism, indicating that Nearly nine out of every ten American Jews (88%) believe antisemitism is a problem in America today and over eight in ten (84%) say it has increased over the past five years, including a plurality-43%-who say it has increased a lot. Concern about antisemitism cuts across differences of age, party affiliation, and religious identification.  See the survey's home page and check out these two troubling responses from the survey:

How Are You Coping?

Some of you might remember Jodi Rudoren, former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times and new editor of the Forward.  She was our Hoffman Lecture speaker a couple of years ago.  Anyway, she has asked rabbis to pass a request along to their congregations:
We're trying to do something (sort of) similar today off the AJC survey, and could use your help. As I'm sure you saw, the survey included the striking finding that 1 in 4 American Jews are avoiding events or places out of fear, and 31% avoiding displaying symbols of their Judaism. We want to hear the human stories behind those numbers.

We created this Google form this Google form to gather individuals' experiences, and will publish some of the responses soon. It would be terrific if you would share the form with your congregations/organizations, via Facebook groups, email lists, or whatever other means you have. 
So if you have something to share, share it with the world...and let me know about it too! I may share some of your replies at services on Friday night (anonymously if you prefer).

Below is the historic front page from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that featured the Mourner's Kaddish in Hebrew font.

TBE's Fallen "Tree of Life"

On Monday morning shortly after 11, we had just completed Yizkor prayers and the Torah scrolls had been returned to the ark, complete with the chanting of "Etz Hayyim Hee," ("It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it," and I descended from the bima to speak to those assembled - when suddenly I heard a thud behind me and saw anguish on the faces of the congregation.  I turned around to discover that one of our sacred scrolls had fallen.

I rushed up to the ark, checked it over, kissed it and secured it into its perch and the service went on.  There was no significant damage, fortunately - aside from the lasting trauma of having witnessed it.  As the service drew to a close, we processed what we had seen.

In all my years at TBE, we've been fortunate, I suppose, that this has never happened.  It's one of those things that we discuss hypothetically with b'nai mitzvah students, just so they will be extra careful.  We talk about how Torah scrolls are like people - we bury them rather than discard them when they can no longer be used.  We kiss them all the time. We hear stories of people rushing into fires to save their scared scrolls.  But one had never fallen before.

When I turned around, what I saw will be seared into my mind forever: the scroll, face down on the floor, with its mantle raised in the back, appeared strangely lifeless.  I say "strangely," because of course it's not alive...but here it looked...dead,like a murder victim with chalk around it at the scene of the crime.  The shock triggered a response of empathy, loss and deep sadness, and the collective memory of so many sacred scrolls thrown far more violently from their arks.  It was a moment of existential dread.   

And yet, we all needed to move on and figure out what to do next.  I made it clear to the congregation that this was not a curse or an omen, that we would face no divine  punishment, and that Jewish tradition offers remedies that could help to repair the damage and make it right - and help repair our damaged world at the same time.

Fasting for forty days, from sunrise to sunset, is a commonly cited remedy.  In some cases (such as with this L.A. congregation), having forty different people each fast for one day is another option.  But on Monday I proposed something different.  Let's have at least forty people in the congregation donate the monetary equivalent of one day's worth of meals to a recognized charity fighting hunger and poverty in Stamford, America, Israel and throughout the world.

Around 850 million people around the world go hungry every day, according to a 2017 study by the United Nations.  So let us turn our trauma into a hungry family's blessing.

Between now and next week, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed below - or another one of your choice that addresses hunger - and let me know when you have done it.  We can go beyond forty donations, naturally (and I hope we will), but we need at least forty to put things in balance again.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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