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Joseph Attacked by His Brothers by Marc Chagall 1957

This week we begin the Joseph cycle within the Genesis narrative. Since his younger brother Benjamin has not been born as yet, Joseph is still the youngest of the sons of Jacob, the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and, as the text tells us, “the son of his old age.” And, he was his father’s favorite. In defiance of convention, Jacob designates Joseph as the one who will inherit his estate and the leadership of his people. Joseph’s brothers are understandably infuriated. When the opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, and then sell him to the Midianites, who take him off to Egypt. Once there, he is thrown into the dungeon as a slave.

Can we even try to imagine the gripping fear that Joseph must have experienced – the dislocation of leaving his homeland and his family, and everything that was familiar and comforting to him? Ultimately Joseph became assimilated into Egyptian society; changed his name, his appearance, his language, and rose to great political heights. We might identify Joseph’s experience as paradigmatic of the immigrant experience. Of course, this one turned out well. But as we know, in reality, there are no guarantees.

Whatever our political persuasions may be, there can be no denying the stark reality of Jewish teaching, tradition, and historical experience. Beginning in the 4th century of the Common Era, the notion that Jews not only rejected Jesus but actually were responsible for his crucifixion and death, became a central theme of Christian dogma, and the raison d’être of Jew hatred and persecution, to this day. And the litany is long and sad. 11th century, the Crusades. 12th century, the first blood libel. 13th century, the Expulsion from England. 14th century, the Expulsion from France. 15th century, the Expulsion from Spain. 16th century, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation brought a new level of anti-Jewish policies and rhetoric to Europe. 17th century, the Chelmnicki Massacres in Poland. 18th century, ghettoization and exclusion in Russia. 19th century, legal and economic ostracism in Germany, and vicious pogroms in Russia, that sent so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents running for their lives to America, the “Goldene Medina.” 20th century, the Shoah. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, over a million Jews were expelled from surrounding Arab countries: Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere, and they sought refuge in Israel. Some 15,000 Jews were rescued from Ethiopia and brought to Israel. Over a million Jews from the Former Soviet Union sought refuge in Israel, and many others in the United States.

“You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than 36 times our Torah admonishes us regarding our obligations to refugees and strangers in our midst. This is Jewish teaching. This is the Jewish way. As Americans, we have the right and the prerogative to support the candidate(s) of our choice with as much energy as we can muster. Our support ought to come as well with our demands of our candidates that they support policies that honor our sensitivities as Jewish Americans. As our political process unfolds during this rather extraordinary presidential campaign, it behooves us to keep this in mind, whatever our personal political positions may be.

We Too Stand with Planned Parenthood

We at Union Temple Planned share with you, and join in sentiments expressed in the Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board statement and interfaith prayer in response to the violence at the Colorado Springs health center:

Planned Parenthood Newsroom website screenshot

Planned Parenthood Newsroom website screenshot

In the wake of the violent assault on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We pray healing for the injured, comfort for those who mourn and give thanks for the devoted staff of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain and first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect and defend their fellow citizens. We stand with Planned Parenthood and their continued commitment to provide care in the safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust for quality healthcare. We also pray for an end to the climate of violence and polarization that grips our nation — asking for the will and wisdom to overcome hatred with hope, fear with trust and violence with compassion.

And so we pray with heart and mind that God of many names, Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that all nations and peoples may make known your values of love, hope and justice. Amen.

A Thanksgiving of Inclusion

President Franklin Roosevelt as he carves a Thanksgiving turkey in Wram Springs, GA in 1938.

President Franklin Roosevelt as he carves a Thanksgiving turkey in Warm Springs, GA in 1938.

On the weekend of November 14-15 almost thirty of us ventured on a bus trip to the Hudson Valley for a weekend excursion. I should acknowledge and thank Bob Newhouser and Mike Glikin for their impeccable organization of this trip. Our first stop was the FDR Home in Hyde Park, NY. One of the newsreels I have seen of President Roosevelt that stands out for me most vividly is that of him and his wife Eleanor seated at the head of a Thanksgiving Day table, as he carved a turkey with great skill and characteristically great good humor. The dinner took place in Warm Springs, GA, the site of Roosevelt’s home, known to many as “The Little White House.” Roosevelt built the house there because the water ostensibly had a salubrious effect during his rehabilitation from polio. Roosevelt used a sizable portion of his own personal fortune to build the Warm Springs Infantile Paralysis Foundation, and this Thanksgiving was also Founders’ Day of the institute. Roosevelt felt particularly comfortable at Warm Springs in the company of children and adults of all colors and creeds who were bound together by their affliction. They were all dealing with polio or similar conditions that caused levels of paralysis and disability. Roosevelt felt a special kinship to his friends in Warm Springs and much more free-spirited with the people with whom he shared this special bond. It is, of course, a bond that every single one of them would have wished they didn’t have to have. But they found support, help, love and acceptance in each other’s embrace, and that included the President of the United States.

We at Union Temple have been focusing on making our congregational home, and the programming within it, more accessible to people in our community who live with various kinds of disabilities, whatever they may be, and some are more readily apparent than others. As many of you are aware, we are being helped in this venture by the people at RespectAbilityUSA and UJA-Federation, who have awarded our congregation a sizable “Inclusion Grant,” which comes not only with a financial award but also with expert advice from professionals in this field, many of whom have gathered their expertise through personal experience.

As we gather this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, it might be in order for us to give thanks not only for the food in front of us (we should of course do that), but also for our health and strength, and if need be, for those who extend a helping hand when we need them, to bring us fully into the life of the synagogue.

And so too, on this Festival of Thanksgiving, would it be completely in order, as we begin our meals, along with our Motzi as we break bread, to remember our gift of life and rejoicing:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiy’manu, V’higiyanu Laz’man Hazeh

Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and bringing us together to celebrate this wonderful occasion.

Many Chip In to UT Food Drive

Food Drive 2015

UT members at the 2015 Food Drive in front of Key Food on 7th Avenue

UT volunteers collected food, toiletries and money from holiday shoppers at the Key Food on Seventh Avenue at Carroll Street on Saturday, November 22 for the benefit of CHIPS (Christian Help in Park Slope) which provides meals for the homeless on 4th Avenue.  Organized by the UT Social Action Committee the volunteers worked in 2 hours shifts. A friendly approach and an informational flyer helped get across the message. The shoppers were asked to buy non-perishable foods like tuna, fruit, soup, peanut butter, canned vegetables, mac & cheese, cereal, pasta, rice, drinks, powered milk, and baby formula and toiletries including soap, shampoo, detergent, first aid supplies, paper products and toothpaste. They responded generously, with many people buying large packages and many items.  We broke our record by the end of the 5 hour drive and filled an SUV!

A Shelter of Peace


The Eiffel Tower lit with the French tricolor after the Paris terrorist attack on November 13, 2015. Courtesy Yann Caradec CC.

This past Friday night and Saturday, the peace of our Shabbat was pierced by the unspeakable violence and brutality of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Our hearts go out to those who are mourning loved ones, and our prayers for healing go out to those who were wounded. It is as though this wanton attack on the City of Lights has driven a dagger into the heart of the world. And, as many world leaders and local police chiefs have observed, it is, in many ways, a game changer for all of us.

In light of the vicious attacks upon the people of Paris, we need to acknowledge as well that which has been all too conspicuously absent from the headlines. That is the spate of terrorist attacks that have killed innocent people elsewhere as well. And to this I say “mea culpa.” My attention as well has been focused on Paris, far more than anywhere else in recent days. But here are the facts that we dare not forget as compassionate members of the human race. The following is just a sampling of terrorist attacks that have taken place just in this calendar year of 2015, not including those in Israel:

January 3-7: Boko Haram militants attacked in Baga, Nigeria. Death toll ranged from 150 to 2,000 people. It was the worst death toll for an attack carried out by Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks with deaths ranging from just a few to hundreds of people over several years.

January 7: Two al-Qaeda-linked gunmen killed 11 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and killed a police officer outside. A total of 17 people and three gunmen died in bloodshed, including an attack on a kosher market.

April 3: 147 people, mostly students, at Garissa University in Kenya are killed in an attack; al-Shabaab claims responsibility.

October 10: Suicide bombers detonated devices in Ankara and killed about 100 people in the Turkish capital. Investigators suspected Islamic State-linked perpetrators.

November 12: A pair of suicide bombings struck southern Beirut on Thursday, killing 43 people and leaving shattered glass and blood on the streets, Lebanese authorities said. At least 239 others were wounded, according to the state-run National News Agency.

These and similar attacks remind us that it is almost as though we take for granted the atmosphere of violence and brutality in Asia and Africa, and the Middle East, to the point where we and our media take scant notice of it. It is not my intent to point fingers, or speak with a “holier than thou” attitude. I have no business doing that, and admittedly my own more immediate attention has indeed been focused on Israel and Paris, even as I worry as well about our safety here in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Yet, if we are going to engage in a war on terrorism that has any hope of succeeding, we can’t afford to insulate ourselves from terrorism that targets innocent people, no matter where they live.

In our Torah portion we read: Jacob awoke from his slumber and exclaimed: Surely God is in this place and I – I did not know it!

As a society, and as peace-loving people, we cannot afford to forget about our fellow human beings who are suffering. The following is an excerpt from a posting last Saturday night by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism:

Fighting evil, and that which is done supposedly in the name of God, is a great moral and religious duty. It must take place harshly and without compromise. At the same time, it is imperative that in every location, we work toward a better social, economic, cultural and political world order, which promotes hope and partnership between all of humanity. It is crucial that we fight not only the murderers and their senders, but also despair, hatred, and idol worship.

We pray that a Sukkat Shalom – a shelter of peace – be spread speedily upon the City of Lights and that it soon see again love, freedom, equality and fraternity.

“And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.” (Leviticus 26.6)

Emerging from Trauma

Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Issac. Marc Chagall

Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Issac. Marc Chagall 1958

Isaac, son of Abraham, is one of the most tragic figures in the Genesis narratives. When he was just a boy, he suffered the loss of his older brother Ishmael, when Ishmael and his mother Hagar were expelled from the household into the wilderness by Isaac’s mother Sarah. Then, sometime after this, Isaac walked for three days with Abraham his father up to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, only to be set upon the sacrificial altar. There he lay, as his father took the knife in his hand and raised it up, until at the last second, an angel shouted from the heavens, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand upon the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me!” (Genesis 22.11-12)

Now, in the frailty and blindness of old age, Isaac bestows upon Jacob the blessing intended for his older son Esau.
The great midrashic scholar Avivah Zornberg characterizes Isaac as a “survivor of unbearable trauma.” It would seem that Dr. Zornberg is spot on. The trauma that a boy would suffer from such a shocking and horrifying near-death experience, at the hand of his own father, would be deep enough to scar anyone for life. Dr. Zornberg explains: “In recent times we have become painfully familiar with the notion of a response to trauma that is delayed, repressed, and that emerges in psychosomatic dysfunction. Just such a repression is implicit in the notion of Isaac’s delayed blindness. Imprinted deep in Isaac’s consciousness is the spectacle of his own death. In old age the vision explodes in fatal bloom: his awareness of death fills every moment of life. ‘Look now, I am old, and I don’t know the day of my death . . . . Let me bless you, before I die (Genesis 27.4).’ Death haunts his imagination, the angst of one who nothing else in an eternal moment of his youth. (Isaac in fact lives sixty years after this ‘death bed’ speech!)”(Excepted from Dr. Zornberg’s book “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Knopf, 2011.)
I am moved and pained by the level of trauma that Isaac suffered in his early life. Very often the deep wounds of profound trauma stay with us throughout our lives, and are never very far from our consciousness. Certainly survivors of the Shoah have testified to this, but also any of us who has suffered any sort of profound shock to our sense of equilibrium in life. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Isaac’s life after Moriah was not a total loss – not in the least. He managed to sustain a marriage and raise two sons. He owned and cultivated land, and herds of sheep and cattle. He had many servants, and dug many wells. By material definition, he was a very wealthy man, and became the envy even of the Philistines. As with his father Abraham before, God appeared to him and promised him blessings and numerous descendants.
While the scars of deep trauma may remain within us throughout our lives, we human beings are also endowed with great power to live our lives well despite it. We can find a way to integrate pain into the totality of our lives and not lose ourselves altogether. While Isaac may be a particularly tragic figure, he also owns his own place of great significance in the saga of our Matriachs and Patriachs, and in the formative history of the Jewish People.

No Answers, Only Questions

9-11 Memorial Museum. Photo: Irina Lee

9-11 Memorial Museum Display. Photo: Irina Lee CC Flickr

On September 11, 2001, our lives were changed forever. 2,983 souls perished on that day: in New York, in Washington, in Shanksville, PA. We were a world in shock; a nation in mourning; a city in rubble and ashes. At 8 o’clock in the morning, there was not a cloud in the sky. It was the bluest, purest, calmest sky I could ever remember seeing. By 9:30, nothing would ever be the same – not even the sky.

For the better part of the past thirty years, I have been privileged to belong to a study group of some fifteen extraordinary rabbis. All of us attended the New York campus of Hebrew Union College and were ordained at approximately the same time, in the early to mid-1980’s. We are all quite close with Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Senior Liturgy Professor at HUC, and we wrote our rabbinic theses under his mentorship. We all live and work in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. For all these years, this very special group of colleagues and friends has been getting together a few times a year, usually at HUC in New York, to study. In many ways, the exact subject matter of the day is secondary. What really matters is that we’re together, maintaining and strengthening our relationships as friends and colleagues, and doing what Jews make it their life’s commitment to do: learning. This October 14 was one of these precious days together for us. But for this one, instead of within the familiar surroundings of HUC, we gathered for our day of learning a bit further downtown, at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

We spent the morning on our own, making our way through the collection, accompanied by our own thoughts, and memories, and feelings of the ways in which we experienced that horrific day and its aftermath. But then we gathered into a conference room and spent the entire afternoon with the Museum Director, Alice Greenwald. Alice had been a congregant at Temple Micah of Washington, DC, where our “convener-in-chief,” Rabbi Danny Zemel, is the Rabbi. Alice is a veteran in the field of museum direction. She has served in directorial roles at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Skirball Museum at HUC in Los Angeles, and the Spertus Museum of Judaica in Chicago. When Alice was invited to New York some nine years ago to take the reins of this enormous project at Ground Zero, she knew it was a challenge that she couldn’t pass up.

Alice spoke with us about the multiple layers of what this museum would have to accomplish, and of the decision-making process at each successive step. This is an archaeological site. Certain structural elements need to be maintained. While the towers fell to rubble, some of the underground structures remained. Pieces of the buildings had to be incorporated: the last column, the only windowpane found intact, the “survivors’ staircase,” and so on. Then there was the memorabilia – personal effects: eyeglasses, shoes, a bible, papers upon papers, recordings of last telephone calls, firefighters’ hats, etc. And, of course, there were the people: their names, their faces, their lives – 2,983 of them. And yes, there are human remains still contained in a walled area at the site. The hope is that with every passing year and every additional technological advance in identifying human remains, some of them will be identified, and their families will put them to rest according to their own traditions.

As Jews, we are well acquainted with memory. For us it is at once a commandment, a responsibility, an honor, and a burden. Alice and her colleagues were charged with helping us all with the act of remembering what was, and remains, this all-encompassing trauma. Ultimately Alice observed that the museum’s intent is not to provide answers, but to raise questions. How do we live in the post-9/11 world, in which extremism and terrorism are ever-present realities? How can we go on to live our lives in the face of such brutality and destruction? What is it that would drive a human being to make the decisions and take the actions that those hijackers did on that morning? For the children born after 9/11, this is the reality of the only world they know. It is our reality as well. The hope, as projected by the museum, however, is the triumph of the human spirit, and the values of humanitarianism, rationalism, goodness, and peace. That is our hope as well.