Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, June 22, 2023
In This Moment: A Look Back: AIDS and "Feminine" Tallises
In This Moment
This will be the final Shabbat-O-Gram for several weeks, while I head out for a summer hiatus. Over the coming months, I'll be phasing out this newsletter and transitioning most of my writing to other platforms, most especially to my Substack page. Yes, your regularly scheduled TBE Shabbat-O-Gram, a constant since my first mass email was sent out to the congregation on November 25, 1996, will be coming to an end. For some that might be good news, but for most, the best news is that if you want to maintain regular contact and read my reflections well beyond the coming year, all you need to do is subscribe to that Substack page. It's free and all email addresses are kept private. So go right to https://rabbijoshuahammerman.substack.comfor uninterrupted service.
As for that historic first congregational email back in 1996, here's the actual transcript:
As we enter my final year as senior rabbi of TBE, I'm looking back at key moments. Few Shabbats were as dramatic as Oct. 9, 1993, when my cousin Jeffrey Avick, a Stamford resident who was HIV positive, spoke passionately from our pulpit about AIDS, Judaism, God and love. It was, to my knowledge, the first time someone addressed the AIDS crisis here. I wrote about Jeff's appearance in the bulletin the following month. The cover page of that bulletin is reprinted here. Click on it to see a full-size pdf, including my reflections. Jeff passed away of AIDS four years later. Incidentally, when looking at this page, check out the (over 60) new member families being welcomed that month. Some went on to become leaders at TBE and in the community.
I've also reprinted a bulletin article from October of 1992, in which I discuss a matter of great urgency, at least to me. You see, one of the advantages - or disadvantages - of having been associate rabbi for five years before taking the reins of leadership was that I could take careful note of the things that concerned me; but until the fall of 1992 I was absolutely powerless to do anything about them. Once such concern was that few of our b'not mitzvah girls were wearing a tallit on their big day. How could we consider ourselves to be fully egalitarian and yet not at least encourage the wearing of a tallit by girls, at least as an option?
This article was written just after my installation (which took place on Sept 11 of that year) and it became one of my top priorities to institute that change as quickly as possible. But it's not easy to change long accepted customs. As you can see from the article, I tried to entice kids and adults by offering more "feminine" tallit options for those who come up to the bima. It now seems rather funny to be assigning genders to prayer shawls. Does a girl's tallis have to be flowery and pink? W.W.B.W (What Would Barbie - who has Jewish roots - Wear)?
Even now, wearing a tallit is considered optional for women in many Conservative synagogues, including ours, though it's much more widely practiced. I'm proud to say that I can count on one hand the number of girls who have not worn a tallit at their b'not mitzvah services since September of 1992. And those who have chosen not to have done so out of conviction rather than peer pressure. They know that they are fully empowered to choose as they please. Empowering women to be able to choose what goes on their bodies is a small way of demonstrating support for the right to control all other decisions regarding their bodies.
There were other ritual changes that I prioritized for my First Hundred Days, including; not directing the whole congregation to stand for the Sh'ma or Mourner's Kaddish, the acquisition of more modern and inclusive prayerbooks and moving to a more traditional (triennial) Torah reading.
You can read my tallit report below -click on it to see a clear pdf.
The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter Has Been Convicted, but There's No Real Justice (Ha'aretz) - The trial of the shooter has reawakened a personal and communal trauma that has no clear chance of resolution. So I wonder what the end goal of the trial is then, since the families of the victims will never see their loved ones in the flesh again, those wounded will always have twinges of pain or worse reminders of their bodily injuries, including some who have difficulty with everyday tasks and others permanently disabled and unable to perform jobs they once loved to do. The only thing that makes sense to me in relation to the trial is an insight from the Talmud which has been on my mind. The “profundity of justice” (In Hebrew, omek ha’din) is among the seven things concealed from humans. Why? Humans are not equipped to cope with some kinds of information. Most of us would not want to know the day of our death or what is in the hearts of others. There are things that are meant to be concealed perhaps because we can’t handle them, or they are not good for us. Or there’s the response Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave to the problem of why bad things happen to good people, in the last interview he gave before his death. "God does not want us to know so that we can fight injustice," said the famed philosopher-rabbi.
The Boy Who Thought He Shouldn’t Run (Commentary) - Oliver Ferber was like many students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. His family found its Jewish identity important enough to send him to a Jewish educational institution, but much of the seventh day of the week was devoid of Sabbath observance, with a focus on athletics. “Saturday morning was sports,” Oliver’s mother told ESPN, “whatever they wanted to do and they were always busy.” Oliver embraced running, and soon became a central member of his school’s cross-country team. He excelled in his athletic activities, and the team succeeded with him. Then came Covid-19. And in isolation, the then-16-year-old Oliver found the faith of his forebears. He “began praying more” and took “a stricter approach to the holiness of Shabbat.” He came to believe that public athletic competition was inappropriate on the day of rest. Meanwhile, the Maryland cross-country championship had been scheduled for Saturday, with Oliver’s team competing. It is here that the story takes a horrifying turn. Did Oliver encounter understanding at this Jewish school? Did his classmates or community reflect respect for his newfound faith? Borden tells us that the opposite was the case.