Environmental Justice Hevra
Transform Don’t Trash NYC
Co-Chairs: Les Judd and Sandy Rocks
Our campaign proposes systemic changes to the commercial waste industry in New York City. For decades, commercial waste in NYC has caused problems for local communities and workers. Each year, our restaurants, offices and businesses produce over 5.5 million tons of commercial waste (excluding construction waste), which is currently picked up by over 4,000 trucks owned by over 230 individual companies. This staggering amount of waste ends up going to landfills and incinerators, rather than being recycled. Clearly, this is not an environmentally or economically sustainable system.
This year, the Environmental Justice Hevra is continuing to engage community members in conversation regarding current commercial waste conditions and how City Council legislation would have a revolutionary effect on NYC and its waste management practices. We will also explore how local initiatives such as this one can contribute to broader efforts to stem the tide of climate change. B’nai Jeshurun joins a robust coalition of environmental justice, labor, and community groups that includes the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA), ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Joint Council 16 & Local 813, among others.
On Wednesday, June 22, 2016 we hosted an event called Transform Don’t Trash NYC and Next Steps, which introduced new research conducted by the coalition and educated community members on the legislation that is currently being finalized.
Read Transform Don’t Trash NYC’s brand new report Dirty, Wasteful & Unsustainable: The urgent need to reform New York City’s commercial waste system and the NY Daily News article about the state of recycling in our City.
The Impact of the Current System: The “Wild West” of Commercial Waste
- Inefficient commercial waste collection is costly and polluting.
- Private sector waste workers face low wages and poor working conditions. Waste work is among the most dangerous in the nation, ranked in the top ten deadliest occupations for years.
- Landfilling and incinerating waste is costly and polluting. 90% of New York City’s commercial waste could be recycled or composted, instead all but about 24% now ends up in landfills and incinerators.
- Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by solid waste handling.
- Small businesses are disadvantaged by the current system. While large corporations can negotiate with carters to lower prices, small businesses often lack leverage and carters don’t publish their prices making comparison shopping difficult. Private carters often charge a flat monthly price, which is not directly linked to the amount of waste generated and doesn’t reward businesses for recycling or composting more. .
Reforming and rationalizing the commercial garbage collecting system in New York City might seem like an unlikely project for Panim el Panim. In fact, it has many implications for social, economic and environmental justice. Working with the Transform Don’t Trash NYC campaign, [the Environmental Justice Hevra’s] aim is to greatly reduce that harm by moving the City Council to pass a law that eliminates duplication, reduces pollution, and requires that workers be paid a living wage. – Gil Kulick, BJ Member
A More Sustainable City: Transform Don’t Trash NYC’s Vision:
- A Cleaner Environment through a clean trucks program that sets vehicle emissions standards for commercial waste trucks and smart-routing that minimizes truck miles traveled.
- Diversion Goals that increase recycling and a requirement that private waste companies operating in the city develop and execute plans to meet it.
- Good Jobs through labor standards that ensure livable wages and and first-rate safety training and equipment for private hauling and waste and recycling facility workers.
- Greater Accountability through reporting requirements for private haulers and waste and recycling facilities that ensure compliance with high-road environmental and labor standards, as well as fair and transparent hauling rates and increased oversight by the City.
These goals can be achieved through a zoned collection system, an approach being utilized by cities like LA and Seattle.
What Is A Zoned Collection System?
Proposed system changes would create a zoned collection system, already successfully implemented in a few cities across the country, which would divide each of the five boroughs into hauling districts. Private companies would have to operate in a specific zone, and would have to adhere to standards around living wages, safety, truck quality, emissions/pollution, and recycling diversion. In San Jose, CA, the zone system allowed the city to implement a wet/dry recycling process, increasing recycling rates from 25 percent to 70 percent in a six-month period. An increased focus on recycling also has the potential to create new jobs and encourage much needed private investment in technology and recycling facilities.
Watch this video about the Transform Don’t Trash NYC Campaign which reflects the stories and voices of people impacted by our current commercial waste system.
Environmental Justice Events
The financial crisis in Argentina has led B’nai Jeshurun, which has spearheaded activism for the country’s Jewish community because of the Argentine roots of the synagogue’s spiritual leaders, to start a major outreach effort to rabbinic leaders and members of New York’s wider Jewish community.
The Jewish Week, Helping Hand For Argentina, June 21, 2002
“…BJ has been viewed as a national model for Jewish rebirth and rejuvenation for more than a decade…Synagogues around the country regularly send emissaries to the shul to determine if any of BJ’s practices or elements can fit into their own services. ..”
The Baltimore Jewish Times, Opening the Soul, March 7, 2008
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun was given the Star Award from Empire State Pride Agenda in recognition of the synagogue’s leadership on working to obtain passage of marriage equality legislation in New York State.
JTA, N.Y. Synagogue Gets Award for Gay Marriage Activism, January 18, 2009
… Gan Yavneh, an Ashkelon suburb… one of a fast-growing number of secular-oriented spiritual communities that have sprung up around Israel in the past decade or so, tapping into a desire by more and more Israelis to connect, in some cases for the first time, with Jewish culture and heritage… drew inspiration not just from their Israeli surroundings but from the popular New York City synagogue B’nai Jeshurun, celebrated for attracting younger Jews with energetic and musical services…
JTA, Secular Israelis forge new ways to connect with Judaism | JTA – Jewish & Israel News, March 3, 2009
We honor Ari Priven as he celebrates his 20th year with B’nai Jeshurun. Cantor Priven is this week’s Top Jew. The Jewish Week, Top Jew: Ari Priven: Achieving New Heights through Innovative and Spiritual Prayer, July 22, 2009
A report about BJ, “Spirituality at B’nai Jeshurun: Reflections of Two Scholars and Three Rabbis” features the perspective of BJ’s Rabbis in their article, “Jewish Spirituality: Far More than Prayer, Take BJ from its Rabbis’ Point of View, For Instance.” November 2009
Little does religion ask of us. It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols, to shatter the callousness. The trouble is that religion has become “religion” institution, dogma, securities. It is not an event anymore. Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain. …
The central problem of this generation is emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse of communication between the realm of tradition and the inner world of the individual. The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, or how to resist the deceptions of the silent persuaders. …
Religion’s major effort must be to counteract the deflation of humanity, the trivialization of human experience. Our religious traditions claim that we are capable of sacrifice, discipline, of moral and spiritual exaltation, that every person is capable of an ultimate commitment. …
The spirit is a still small voice, and the masters of vulgarity use large speakers. The voice has been stifled, and many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a new perceptiveness.
Discredited is our faith in our own integrity. We question our power to sense any ultimate significance. We question the belief in the compatibility of existence with spirit.
Yet, we are bound to break the chains of despair, to stand up against those who deny us the right and the strength to believe wholeheartedly.
Ultimate truth may be hidden from us, yet the power to discern between the valid and the specious has not been taken from us.
Although the world is significantly different than it was in 1958 when Heschel pronounced these words, his message still rings true. In 1958, Heschel saw the inability of the individual to access his/her true spiritual self, swept away by the currents of the time. For Heschel, the individual was mired in perplexity, with no direction, and religion provided no lifeline to rescue him or her.
Half a century later, nine years since September 11, we seem to be swept away by the currents of our time. We would like to discuss four of them.
First, there is a tremendous polarization in our country and in the world in general, in the Jewish people, in Israel. Partisanship and extremism dominate the discourse. We all feel that there is no conversation, no dialogue; factions assail each other with simplistic slogans and fire accusations at one another. True, serious thinking has been sacrificed on the altar of shallowness.
Second, fear pervades our lives, and security has become our obsession, from global terrorism, to the environment, to the economy, to our food and our health, to our anxieties about raising our children. It is true that we live in scary times, and it is increasingly difficult these days to navigate between the fears that are real, those that are irrational, and those that are manipulated, and to manage them.
Third, the tendency toward individualism continues to increase at the expense of community and shared responsibility. The American Jewish community’s narrative was once a communal narrative; now, with the ascendancy of individualism, there is a question what the narrative of our community will be for the 21st century.
And fourth, we live amid the proliferation and idealization of choice. Our unprecedented sense of freedom, the abundance of options, often lead us to paralysis and confusion. We don’t how to select, we don’t know what values should guide our decisions, and therefore we lose our sense of identity.
As did Heschel, we lament the irrelevance of religion in addressing the important issues of our day and in awakening the human soul to aspire, to think, to challenge.
In our time, when the pace of change overwhelms our capacity to change and understanding eludes us, and when we are pervaded by a deep sense of impermanence, we long for an anchor in a wisdom that will speak to us from history and tradition, a wisdom that has come through and has been tested by the vicissitudes of time.
We come here during these days in great numbers, to recite ancient sacred words set to beautiful melodies, searching for connection, longing to endow our lives with some meaning. Perhaps religion will fill our hearts and awaken our souls. But can religion deliver more than a soothing, feel-good experience? Will its wisdom guide us and help us navigate the great challenges of our time, the polarization and the shallowness, our living in fear, the unbridled individualism, and the confusion in the face of endless choice? Will religion ask something of us and challenge us to bring about change?
Religion certainly needs to be part of the solution, but religion is at the core of the problem. Not only has religion become largely irrelevant in addressing the central issues of our day, it has become a negative force that exacerbates the troubles of our world.
The loudest and most powerful religious voices today promote fundamentalism and conflict. The fundamentalists transmit their message with clarity and passion. We, on the other hand, pride ourselves on inhabiting the world of complexity and nuance, of multiple narratives and multiple meanings; we pride ourselves on being tolerant, we live in the grays, with no certainties; we have more questions than answers.
But there are times when we need to come up with answers. Is it possible to embrace complexity, nuance, and pluralism and at the same time stand unflinchingly for our convictions? Michael Sandel, philosopher and professor of government at Harvard, challenges us: “If our convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly?”
The vast majority of us here treasure toleration and freedom of choice as the foundational values of our democracy and our way of life. Our firm commitment to toleration and freedom of choice often demands that we restrain strong-held beliefs or positions. We negotiate our moral convictions for the sake of living in an open and pluralistic society. And yet we don’t want to be moral relativists.
As religious liberals, we don’t have the confidence to know what is in God’s mind, we don’t move in the world of divine absolutes; nevertheless, we desire clarity, and we want to live out our beliefs passionately. Rabbi David Hartman offers a meaningful alternative to the either-or choice between a fundamentalist-absolutist position and moral relativism:
The acceptance of finitude and limitation, and the absence of metaphysical certainties do not entail a weakening of conviction and passion. Love can grow out of partial understanding and an appreciation of the knowledge that our convictions and beliefs are inherently limited and incomplete.
Although I live in a world where disagreement is widespread and acute, I do not admit to a lack of strong convictions.
The strength of your convictions is not dependent on a belief in their absolute status, which would condemn those who disagree with you to blindness, to self-evidence or to stubborn ill will.
A framework of rational moral argumentation without absolutes is not equivalent to relativism.
Not every point of view is equally legitimate simply because it is someone’s point of view. A point of view must always be subject to and vulnerable to counterargument and evaluation.
Rabbi Hartman’s position affirms the possibility of living without divine certainties while holding strongly to our principles. Our very nature as human beings forces upon us the humility to know that we lack access to ultimate truths. Because of this, our beliefs must be questioned and reexamined and are subject to be refuted.
Religious fervor is possible for us. Not only is religious fervor possible, it is the call of the hour. If we don’t awaken some liberal religious fervor within us, the dangerous, narrow-minded, hatred- filled voices will drown us out.
There is so much in our tradition to love and to be passionate about. It is rich and deep, and it is meant to help us change our lives and to change the world, nothing less than that. We miss the point when we approach it timidly and on a utilitarian basis.
Great religious principles like “all human beings are created in God’s image” or “am I my brother’s keeper” cannot be applied selectively and only when it is convenient. They must claim our full commitment, at all times.
It is incumbent upon us to redeem religion from irrelevance and paralysis. We must uncover its power to address itself to the issues of our day and to offer us a vantage point from which to assess our contemporary culture. Religion must provide us with the distance and the wisdom that are necessary to evaluate critically the currents in today’s world and in our lives.
In the coming days, we will unlock Judaism’s wisdom to help us contend with some of the most perplexing trends of our time. We invite you to allow the religious experience of Yamim Noraim to light the fire within you to claim our place unflinchingly, so we can face the future with a sense of commitment and hope.
One of the most famous stories in the Talmud reports that in the first century, a gentile came to the two great teachers Hillel and Shammai with an odd request: “Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
First, he came to the sage Shammai and he made his request, “Teach me the Torah, Rabbi, as I stand upon one foot.” The Talmud teaches that Shammai, who was a builder, picked up a builderâ€™s ruler and pushed him away.
Then he came to Hillel and made the request, “Teach me the Torah as I stand on one foot.” So Hillel taught him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil gemor, now go and learn it.” (BT Shabbat 31a)
Another story is told that for two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel maintained a dispute. The School of Shammai said: It would have been better if human beings had not been created. The School of Hillel said: It is better for human beings to have been created than not to have been created. They took a vote and came to this decision: It would have been better had human beings not been created, yet since they have already been created, let them examine their actions. (BT Eruvin 13b)
Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are two schools of exposition of the Oral Law, named after their founders. These schools frequently clashed about issues of textual interpretation, Jewish law, philosophy, and ethics. Only three controversies between Hillel and Shammai themselves have been preserved, but more than 300 controversies are reported between their disciples.
These two schools emerged in the clash between different opinions and approaches as Jewish law expanded and began to crystallize. The tradition saw in these two schools of thought a legitimate expression of conflicting opinions. It was permitted to follow the views either of the School of Shammai or the School of Hillel.
Beit Hillelâ€™s approach is considered to be more creative, innovative, and lenient, while Beit Shammai is more literal, conservative, and stringent.
Divergence of opinion is part of the human condition, from the most mundane to the most glamorous, from the most sacred to the most profane of subjects.
What seems particular to our time is the insidiousness with which opinions are expressed, the tremendous polarization in our country and in the world in general, in Israel, and within the Jewish people. Partisanship and extremism seem to dominate; the discourse has seriously degenerated. There is no conversation, no dialogue; factions assail each other with simplistic slogans and fire accusations at one another.
Delegitimization of the otherâ€™s position, and even of the other person, is prevalent today. The absence of conversation generates inaction. Since there is no real dialogue toward solutions to pressing problems in our country and in the world, there is disharmony and a stalemate, which has potentially devastating consequences.
This atmosphere of discord is exacerbated in our Age of Information. We all agree that information is good, therefore more information is better. Wide access to information and the energetic exchange of information can only strengthen freedom and democracy.
However, the proliferation of information through the Internet raises some problematic issues:
- We narrowcast: Since we can filter our information, we are predisposed to read or hear only the opinions with which we agree.
- We become more extreme by limiting ourselves to those with whom we agree. Research has confirmed this; it is known as â€œgroup polarization.â€
- Truth is devalued by the dissemination of unproven facts. Available information is not always reliable, and anyone can claim to be an expert. Google and Wikipedia do not make themselves responsible for the accuracy of the information they disseminate.
- Misinformation and rumors spread like wildfire. As an example, after all the evidence has been clearly presented, one out of every four Americans believes that President Obama was not born in the United States, and almost one in five believes that he is a Muslim.
The Jewish tradition has a lot to teach about these issues. The rabbinic tradition, as canonized in the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi at the end of the second century, is a system that by design integrates radically different views and makes them address one another, often bringing voices from different generations to be in conversation.
The Talmud reports that for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. Beit Shammai asserted, â€œThe law is according to our view,â€ and Beit Hillel asserted, â€œThe law is according to our view.â€ Then a voice issued from heaven announcing,
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“The teachings of both are the words of the living God, yet the law is according to the School of Hillel.”
But since both are the words of the living God, for what reason was the School of Hillel entitled to have the law determined according to their rulings?
The Talmud responds that it was not because their views were superior, in fact it was for no legal or philosophical reason, but simply because the students of the School of Hillel were kindly and humble, and because they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and they mentioned the teachings of the School of Shammai before their own. (BT Eruvin 13b).
Moshe Halbertal, in his wonderful book People of the Book, writes:
Ordinarily, canonical texts do not merely record existing traditions of a given period. They select and censor in order to create an authoritative body out of contending candidates. The Mishnah, therefore, in its codification of controversy, represents a definite break with the pattern of canonization, choosing neither to censor minority opinions nor to harmonize them within the rest of the material.
According to our tradition, the Torah was meant by God to be an open-ended revelation, generating the possibility of multi-vocal and continually unfolding interpretations.
The vitality of the tradition is enhanced rather than diminished by the coexistence of a radical plurality of conflicting opinions. The alternative, minority view is not discarded but rather preserved alongside the majority view. According to the Mishnah itself, the minority opinion of the present may one day in the future become the majority view and thus become law.
In reflecting about the particular methodology of Jewish learning, Rabbi David Hartman writes, â€œThe religious personality this system tries to produce is able to interpret situations in multiple ways and to offer cogent arguments for opposite positions and points of view. This orientation reflects a particular kind of religious humility.â€
It is this position of humility that became institutionalized and that requires that we express our views not as the only evident, valid truth, but one of many possible conflicting opinions.
A text from the turn of the third century says:
A person might think since the School of Shammai declare impure and the School of Hillel declare pure, this one prohibits and that one permits, how then can I learn Torah? All the words have been given by a single Shepherd, one God created them, one provider gave them, the God of all deeds, has spoken. So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the School of Shammai and the words of the School of Hillel, the words of those who declare impure and the words of those who declare pure. (Tosefta Sotah 7:12)
To make for ourselves a heart of many rooms means to have both the humility and the elasticity to entertain different views without rejecting them at once as invalid or illegitimate.
To make for ourselves a heart of many rooms means to have the equanimity to tolerate the tension that exists when we entertain positions that may clash with our own and when we enter into conflict with those with whom we disagree.
To make for ourselves a heart of many rooms means to reject the orthodoxy of our own views by being open to be challenged and potentially changing our minds.
At the same time, we have the moral obligation to think. Many aspects of our culture promote laziness rather than rigor, shallowness rather than depth. Not all ideas are necessarily valid and acceptable. Ideas need to be well researched, reasoned, and argued; they may not be based on falsehoods; and they must be evaluated.
And we have the moral obligation to take a stand. While the tradition entertains many opinions, it strives to reach a position, and, for the most part, it does not remain inconclusive. After all it says:
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“The law is according to Beit Hillel.”
We too must devote the time and effort to form ideas and reach positions. If we donâ€™t, others will fill the void.
The legitimacy of other views alongside our own and the acceptance of disagreement must not imply the weakening of our own convictions. We must work hard at carving out the truth, and we must hold fast to it.
A prayer in the daily morning service reads:
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“A person should always revere God in private as well and in public. One should acknowledge the truth and speak truth in oneâ€™s heart.”
A person whose heart has expanded to a heart of many rooms by the genuine encounter of others will inevitably face the creative tension between respecting others and their ideas and honoring oneâ€™s own truth.
This hour desperately calls for us to do the teshuvah of redeeming the discourse in our homes, our communities, our nation, and our people, for the sake of harmony and for the sake of truth.
In his book Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, former director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and a leading voice in the field of human rights, democracy, and international affairs, writes:
When the Berlin Wall came down, when Vaclav Havel stood on the balcony in Prague’s Wenceslas Square and crowds cheered the collapse of communist regimes across Europe, I thought, like many people, that we were about to witness a new era of liberal democracy … with blithe lightness of mind, we assumed that the world was moving irrevocably beyond nationalism, beyond tribalism, beyond the provincial confines of the identities inscribed in our passports, toward a global market culture which was to be a new home.
The world is not run by skeptics and ironists, but by gunmen and true believers and the new world they are bequeathing to the next century already seems a more violent and desperate place than I could have ever imagined. If I had supposed, as the Cold War came to an end, that the new world might be ruled by philosophers and poets, it was because I believed, foolishly, that the precarious civility and order of the states in which I live must be what all people rationally desire. Now I am not so sure. I began the journey as a liberal, and I end as one, but I can not help thinking that liberal civilization, the rule of laws, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence, runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. The liberal virtues, tolerance, compromise, reason, remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance.
These words written in 1993 resonate ever more powerfully today in our post-9/11 world. We live with an increased sense of vulnerability; there is a sense of randomness in the air; anything can unravel at any moment: violence, the environment, the economy.
The accelerated pace of change overwhelms us, and we have lost our sense of confidence in being able to get a hold on our own lives. Even with the tremendous advances that have expanded the span of human life and with all the technology that gives us access to so much information and communication, life seems more unpredictable than ever before, we no longer feel safe. Fear dominates our lives, and security has become our obsession.
There is much to fear, but we easily become confused between those fears that are legitimate and sensible and those that are irrational. In addition, our fears are often the object of manipulation for particular agendas.
The Jewish people has known fear and vulnerability in an intense way during long periods of our history. We carry the mark of fear in our collective consciousness, and we live with the echoes of the Holocaust ringing inside us. Our trauma magnifies our response to fear. It is for us a profound spiritual struggle to encounter fear without succumbing to it and reacting from the raw emotion of fear.
We believe that the Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer us on the issues of fear and security, and we hope that it will provide some insight into our own struggles. We have identified six main responses to fear in the Jewish tradition: fighting back, faith in God, compromise for the sake of peace, empowerment, community, and introspection.
1. Fighting back
In Talmudic terms, the mandate for self-defense is known as din rodef, the law regarding the pursuer, which states: “If someone is coming to kill you, arise and kill him first.” (BT Sanhedrin 73a). If I see you aiming your gun at me, surely I do not have to wait for you to shoot before I may defend myself.
While this may sound simple and straightforward, Noam Zohar, professor of philosophy at Bar Ilan University, discusses how complicated it actually is to implement this principle. He writes:
The problem is, of course, it is very difficult to translate the situation just described into its international analog. What counts as one country “aiming its gun at another”? Unlike the civil society within a nation, international society is chaotic, fraught with danger and without effective institutions for resolving conflicts.
Most nations arm themselves and often hold their forces at a significant level of readiness, yet this in itself does not prove aggressive intent. It is also true that many nations are controlled by persons or groups with records of violence and cruelty, both domestic and international; but this too does not tell us about concrete imminent threats.
Nor is following stated intentions of much help: tough talk may well be merely talk, while belligerent plans might be masked behind veils of deception. … If we really know that an enemy attack constitutes a clear and present danger, a preemptive move may be justified. But we must be extremely alert to the great potential for abuse inherent in this license.
(Noam Zohar, War and Peace, in Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life, ed. Moshe Halbertal and Donniel Hartman)
2. Ultimate faith in God’s redeeming power, in spite of the troubles we may face at any given moment
In the words of Psalm 27, recited daily from the beginning of the month of Elul:
God is my light and my rescue, whom shall I fear? God is my life’s stronghold. Whom should I dread? When evildoers draw near to me to eat my flesh, my foes and enemies are they, they trip and they fall. Though a camp is marshaled against me, my heart shall not fear. Though battle is roused against me, nonetheless do I trust. … Hope for God, let your heart be firm and bold and hope for God.
In situations of vulnerability and loss of control, the person of faith may transform feelings of powerlessness and the loss of self-esteem and draw strength and courage from his relationship with God. Though this attitude may strike some as denial and passivity in the face of one’s predicament, the power of one’s relationship with God is a source of solace and comfort. One may feel accompanied and supported by God’s Presence; one may feel encouraged not to give up in the face of fear.
3. Compromise for the sake of peace
A Talmudic text indicates that we must sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mipnei darkhei shalom, for the sake of peace (BT Gittin 61a). One possible reading of this teaching is that these generous gestures toward our non-Jewish neighbors are the necessary building blocks toward a peaceful social order.
Another, perhaps more realistic, reading of mipnei darkhei shalom, for the sake of peace, is that these gestures on our part are necessary to placate the non-Jewish majority so they will leave us alone in peace. At times of vulnerability and fear, Jews felt they had no other choice than limiting friction with non-Jews.
Much as we could resent having to make this accommodation, it points to the realism that is necessary in order to maintain civility with our neighbors in a complex society and a complex world. For the sake of our own security, we must at times extend ourselves beyond out natural tendency.
In the Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael, an ancient rabbinic text, we find the following teaching, later quoted in the Talmud:
By the law of Torah a person is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him if he be a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to teach him a trade and to marry him off.
Rabbi Akiva says: also to teach him to swim. Rabbi says: also to teach him civics. (Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael,Tractate Pisha 18)
This text lists the essential elements that a person requires in order to lead a secure life: a sense of identity and a connection to one’s larger community, an education, a livelihood, a family, survival skills, as well as the tools to be a responsible citizen.
We carry in our Jewish consciousness the imperative to empower ourselves so as to be able to survive and to prosper even in the midst of vulnerable political or economic conditions.
This has been the story of Jews in many lands, and certainly in this country: Jews have searched for security and power through financial stability, educational achievement, and the strengthening of the democratic fabric of society.
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A well-known pair of Talmudic principles state: “All Jews are responsible for one another.” (BT Shevu’ot 39a) and “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Avot 2:5)
The Jewish tradition recognizes that, particularly in the midst of destabilizing forces, safety can be found in our bonds of belonging. People who are bound by the covenant of the Jewish people are obligated by Jewish law to respond to one another; our survival depends not exclusively on our individual strength or personal stability but on loyalty, on trust, on cooperation, on responsibility, on compassion, all elements that are at the very foundation of community.
Fear is an opportunity for introspection and self-understanding. Rabbi Irwin Kula teaches: The words fear and trembling appear in the Torah when there is some revelatory moment.
Fear and trembling can be so unnerving that they can be completely debilitating, or they can be an invitation to some deep realization of a truth about ourselves and reality.
It is significant that these days of introspection are called Yamim Noraim, Days of Fear and Awe. Fear and awe are the catalyst for us to do the work of teshuvah. These days force us to confront our human condition. We are reminded in the Unetane Tokef that our human condition is highly vulnerable. For all our desire for security, we are ultimately insecure.
In that very raw place we are exposed to who we really are and we must ask ourselves: Which of our fears are legitimate and justified? What is worthy of being feared? Which among our fears do we need to let go of? How have we allowed fear to distance us and alienate us from the other? When have we used fear to control the other?
When do we need to accommodate and when do we fight back? When do we put our trust in God, and when do we trust in our own power? When can we find refuge in community? When must we learn from our fears and what is it we must learn?
Teshuvah requires that we deal with our fears, both big and small, in a conscious, intentional and responsible way. Life will place hard choices in front of us: How much can we risk security and survival for the sake of justice and peace, how much justice and peace are we allowed to give up for the sake of security and survival? We will all, individuals and nations, make different choices at different times.
May we grapple with our fears with discernment and spiritual discipline so that we may embrace life more freely and more confidently.
In his memoir A Jew in America, the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg writes:
A child does not have to be told that his parents have little. One winter, I must have been 9 or 10, I chose not to tell my mother that there were holes in my shoes, because I knew that she did not have the money to send me to the cobbler. I found some matchbox covers and put them over the holes. This improvisation did not keep my feet dry, but I persisted straight through that winter in keeping quiet about my discomfort. I did not want to make my mother cry. …
It was a weekly struggle for my parents to find a way to buy a chicken, and make the chicken soup derived from it, for the Sabbath. On Friday night we chanted the prescribed songs asserting that the Sabbath was the day of delight, but my mother often looked grim with stress and exhaustion, and my father was visibly angry, and yet, they always found room at their table for strangers that had less than they did. …
The central experience of my generation was fear. With few exceptions, those who were growing up in America in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, were afraid that they would remain poor, and that they would never acquire the power to help themselves.
Antisemitism was increasing year by year everywhere, in America, and, more violently, in Europe. The sight of refugees like Albert Einstein arriving in the United States did not cheer me up. When I saw him on the newsreels coming down the gangplank from the ship that brought him to New York, I was chilled by the thought that not even he was safe in Germany.
I was all the more frightened because I was writing letters to the State Department in those days, acting as the secretary for my Yiddish-speaking parents, to try to get a visa to the United States from my mother’s father in Lemberg and for her brothers and sisters. Only one of these letters was ever answered. The State Department informed us in 1938 that the quota for immigrants from Poland was oversubscribed for 15 years. Perhaps my grandfather would want to reapply at the consulate in Warsaw in 1951.
I read that letter not in tears but in bitterness. At the age of 16, I knew that Jews had to have some power in their own hands, so I became a Zionist.
In Rabbi Hertzberg’s story most of us recognize the story of our own family: the story of the poor immigrants who came to this goldene medine, to this land of opportunity. Here our families dreamt of freedom from persecution and of economic success.
The path was not as easy as the dream. Here the immigrant generation encountered financial hardships. And they encountered anti-Semitism.
Jewish organizations of philanthropy, mutual aid, and welfare supported those in need. As time went on, Jewish institutions were established to fight prejudice as well as to give expression to the new Jewish experience in America.
Judaism was not only centered around synagogues representing the different movements that flourished here, but the emergence of a vital ethnic-national Jewish culture in America spawned the formation of countless institutions, from the Forverts newspaper, to the American Jewish Committee, to the Anti-Defamation League, to the Yiddish Theater, to the Jewish Publication Society, to the Jewish Federations.
In addition, the nascent Zionist project found great resonance. American Jews extended their solidarity and support to their brothers and sisters who sought a secure future in the ancestral Land of Israel. Zionism and devotion to the State of Israel became the glue that held the American Jewish community together.
Our solidarity was not limited to our fellow Jews. Our community’s support for labor rights, civil rights, and other just causes became an essential part of our 20th-century American Jewish narrative.
As we more fully embraced America and as America embraced us in return, we started worrying about our endurance as a distinct community. Jewish continuity became our obsession and still is till this day.
Jonathan Sarna writes:
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, no religious group in America is more number-conscious than Jews. Three times in three decades the Jewish community has sponsored expensive nationwide “population studies” to gather data about itself. Hundreds of smaller-scale and locally sponsored surveys have also appeared, taking the community’s pulse on everything from demography to religiosity and from political preferences to marital preferences. Whatever Jews think truly counts in American Jewish life they have attempted quite literally to count and to quantify.
Two interrelated and highly contentious statistics count for Jews above all the rest: their absolute numbers in America and their rate of intermarriage.
Measures of survival on the one hand and of assimilation on the other, these numbers have fostered anew the great fear that has accompanied Jews throughout their American sojourn: the fear that the melting pot would subsume them, that they would disappear as a people.
America has offered us the blessings of freedom, integration, and prosperity, and at the same time it has caused the weakening of our communal bonds and commitment.
For centuries, the Jewish ethos has been one of common, mutual, reciprocal obligation among the members of the Jewish collective. Mitzvah, incumbent obligation, is the concept that most defines our ties, not just to God, but to one another.
Heschel captures the dynamic and creative tension between the individual and the community when he writes:
Judaism is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances, but primarily living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present.
Judaism is not only a certain quality in the souls of the individuals, but primarily the existence of the community of Israel. It is not a doctrine, an idea, a faith, but the covenant between God and the people.
Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to become a part of eternity.
The Jew does not stand alone before God; it is as a member of the community that he stands before God. A relationship to God is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou. …
And yet, this we must never forget, prayer is primarily an event in the individual souls, an act of emanation, not only an act of participation. Even the worth of public worship depends upon the depth of private worship, of the private worship of those who worship together.
The delicate balance between individual and community that Heschel describes is being upset today with the rise of a culture of individualism. We expect everything to be tailored to our own needs, and we are reluctant to accept the authority of communal norms and obligations. We want exactly what we want, when we want it. We will only respond to that which we find personally meaningful and which gives us a sense of fulfillment. And only when it is convenient. Individual direction and choice are no longer guided by our sense of communal obligation.
Amidst this shift toward individualism, the Jewish institutional world and the synagogues, with some notable exceptions, have been unable to make a compelling case for the continued Jewish communal ethos.
It is obvious that anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the embattled State of Israel are insufficient to sustain identification with and commitment to Jewish peoplehood on the part of the younger generation of Jews. It is even questionable whether the case for Jewish peoplehood can be made in the present culture.
Yet the case must be made. The abundance of options, the incredible pace of change, and the glorification of individualism, too often leave us with a sense of impermanence and dislocation. We need a sense of identity and belonging, we need a sense of calling and purpose that is beyond each one of us individually, and we need the anchors of tradition and history.
In the deep self-reflection and quest that Yom Kippur affords us, we have the opportunity to envision a new narrative for ourselves, and not only for ourselves but for the Jewish community too. As we let go of the old story of the past year, as we release the bonds that have kept us from changing and becoming who we need to be, we begin to forge the new chapter in the story of our lives.
In 2010/5771, we cannot continue to tell the Jewish immigrant story of the 20th century. We no longer see ourselves reflected in that story, and it no longer serves us. It is nostalgic, but it cannot be the driving force that will help us meet our present and future challenges.
The new chapter must reconnect the individual Jew to feel the communal “we” of Jewish peoplehood. In today’s global world tribalism carries a negative connotation. We associate tribalism with a regression to factionalism and violence. But tribe is also my family, my identity, my history, my context, the rhythms of my life. Jewish life needs to foster, not only meaningful spiritual experiences, but the connection to our people in a personal way, where the power and intensity of belonging by far outweigh the institutionalization and bureaucracy of Jewish life.
The new chapter must tell of the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-faith reality of the Jewish people. We never were a homogenous people, all the more so now. We are a people of all colors: white, black, brown and yellow, we are straight and gay, we are born Jews, adopted Jews and Jews by choice, we are in-married and inter-married, and in most of our families there are people of other faiths, many of whom are raising Jewish children. This is the reality, there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to hide. We must rise to the challenge and embrace our rich diversity.
The new chapter must guide us about how we can best participate in the unfolding story of the State of Israel. Today there are more Jews living in Israel than in any other country in the world, and Israel undoubtedly represents the Jewish people on the global stage. The story that is being written is Israel is our story too. It is our people and it is our state. The challenges facing Israel are our challenges too, and the values that are at stake in Israel are our values too. We must engage, we cannot stand on the sidelines.
In addition, we must allow ourselves to be inspired and learn from the emergent Jewish culture in Israel that blends the religious with the secular, the worldly with the particular, the ancient with the new. It is the dawn of a new locally grown organic Israeli Judaism.
The new chapter must be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. We must share the best of Jewish wisdom in a way that is meaningful and relevant for today’s globalized world. The Jewish principles “humans are created in the image of God,” “am I my brother’s keeper,” the oneness of humankind, and the wisdom of Shabbat, need to be unleashed forcefully by teaching and by example. We are a small people in the global context but we must not minimize the potential contribution of our big ideas.
The new chapter must boldly champion an interfaith project, both local and global, that binds those who resist fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalism by building bridges of moderation, mutual acceptance, and cooperation.
The new chapter must tell us what it is we must stand up for as Jews, within our community, in our country and in the world at large. We, who have been at the forefront of so many important movements and struggles, we cannot retreat into our comfort or into the exclusive concerns of our own community.
Yom Kippur only comes once a year. Only once a year do we have the privilege of an entire day dedicated to praying, and searching, and contemplating our Sefer Hahayim, our Book of Life.
What story have we told, what story do we want to tell? This is a moment of great hope: Tonight we assert our right to change, and we create a new vision.
Now, this evening, we open the gate of possibilities as we imagine a new future of hope.
A human being is a free and secure citizen of the world, for he is fettered to a chain which is long enough to give him the freedom of all earthly space, and only so long that nothing can drag him past the frontiers of the world. But simultaneously he is a free and secure citizen of heaven as well, for he is also fettered by a similarly designed heavenly chain. So that if he heads, say, for the earth, his heavenly collar throttles him, and if he heads for heaven, his earthly one does the same. And yet all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering. (Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes, p.31)
With this parable, Kafka expresses the paradox of our existence: We are simultaneously part of two incompatible realities, we are earthly and heavenly at the same time, we are both animal and divine, body and soul. Our freedom is boundless in both domains. Everything is available to us both in the material world and in the spiritual world. But human nature is such that we are not entirely of one or the other; neither can we escape one or the other. We are subject to animal instincts and earthly desires, and we have holy aspirations and a moral conscience.
With all this freedom and all these possibilities before us, we are cast into constantly having to make choices. Such is the distinctive situation of the human condition. In our time we have more choices than ever before. We live amidst the proliferation and idealization of choice.
We have an unprecedented sense of freedom and an abundance of options in almost every aspect of our lives, from food, to clothing, to technology, to books, to information, to paths in the search for meaning. We equate human freedom with the availability of options: more choices, more freedom. We assume that more choice is better.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, a professor of social psychology, writes:
There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to wellbeing. Healthy people want and need to direct their own lives.
On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better. There is a cost to having an overload of choice.
As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options.
But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress and dissatisfaction, even to clinical depression.
In the face of the multiplicity of options we often become paralyzed. We get anxious, and we become exhausted with so many decisions to make. In the old days, the doctor would tell us what to do. Today, the doctor will tell us: “You have option A and option B. Option A has these benefits and these risks; option B has these benefits and these risks. What do you want to do?” The doctor is the expert and yet the burden of the decision is on the patient.
And we end up questioning ourselves and second-guessing ourselves: How do I decide? Do I know everything I need to know before I choose? Did I make the right choice? Did I pick the best option? We expect the best option because with so many choices before us, our expectations are raised. But we often end up dissatisfied with our decision. Why? Maybe there was a better choice out there.
In The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes how we got to out present condition:
Something happens, a “tipping point” is reached, when everything is open to choice and nothing, as it were, chooses us. One of the things that made the world intelligible to earlier generations was the givenness of much of life. Who you were, what your position in society was, who you married, what you did for a living, and much else depended on the accident of birth.
Nor was this random. It was part of a total understanding of the universe. The structures of society, whether they were hierarchical, organic or divinely decreed, were one with the fabric of the cosmos. The individual was part of a pattern which had overall coherence and design. This gave identity a massive solidity, almost incomprehensible to us today.
There was much wrong with this worldview, and I for one have no desire to return to it. Much of modernity, that vast set of changes between the 17th and 20th centuries, was a liberation of the individual from the social constraints of birthâ€¦
The new economic and political order heralded by the market on the one hand, representative democracy on the other, represented a quantum leap for the individual and his or her ability to choose what to do, where to live and how to construct a life. But no social process ends where one would like it to…
We turn, in Zygmunt Bauman’s telling phrase from “pilgrims” to “tourists.” Society becomes ever less like a home, ever more like a hotel. We approach a state in which there is nowhere we belong, no one to whom we owe loyalty or who owes loyalty to us, no one with whom we share a destiny, no one for whom we hold lasting significance.
Life becomes weightless, ever less connected to something solid and enduring beyond the self.
This day of Yom Kippur is the day in which we assert that we do belong, that we owe loyalty to God and to each other, that we all share a destiny as humans and as Jews, that our lives have significance, and that we assume responsibility for our lives and for the choices we have made.
The spiritual work of this day of Yom Kippur is an accounting of the choices we have made in the past year, as well as the forging an intentionally chosen path for the coming year.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his famous lectures about teshuvah, discusses the relationship between repentance and free choice:
The assumption that we are free, that we have been endowed with the spiritual courage to make choices and with the power to determine the fate of our religious and moral life, this assumption cannot rely on the idea of belief by itself; it also depends on knowledge, on a feeling of being wholly charged by the tension present in this God-given factor of free-choice. …
Free choice requires a commitment from us, and it demands courage, forthrightness and intrepidity which one may express as a paraphrase of Maimonides: It is a positive commandment to be conscious of the existence of free choice which makes us responsible for our actions.
The practices, rituals, and prayers of Yom Kippur give us the opportunity to reflect and to understand more deeply the choices of the past and to give us direction for the future.
The fasting and the other restrictions of this day help us to internalize the fact that we do have self control, that we have the power to say no. The profusion of options poses a great challenge to our will; we often think we have no choice. This day is all about the exercise of our will; we succeed in restricting even the most basic of our daily actions.
Yom Kippur is a communal experience. One might think that the deepest spiritual work must be done in isolation. But we are here together to learn that we need to support, guide, and challenge each other as we make decisions and take on commitments that will have profound impact on our lives.
Even as it is a communal experience, the Yom Kippur experience happens in isolation from the rest of world, in separation from the excess that clutters our lives and the distractions that keep us from what is important. It is difficult to make informed decisions when so much is going on around and inside of us. Just as the kohen gadol, on this day we seek to access the kodesh kodashim, the holy of holies within us, the innermost place of purity. As we arrive to that place of clarity, we seek to better understand ourselves and our motivations. And it is in that place and from that place that we want to choose what is essential.
So many times throughout Yom Kippur we repeat Ashamnu and Al Het and confess the bad choices we have made. It is not enough to think the words: We say them out loud in the presence of witnesses, and we purge them out of our souls. We confess in the plural, because though we may not have all committed these particular sins, according to the tradition we are ultimately responsible for each other’s choices.
Yizkor is dedicated time to remember those we loved and who informed many of our important choices. We continue to live in the footsteps of their love, their courage, their wisdom, and we carry on their legacy. That which remained unresolved with those no longer here also has an influence in the life choices we make, we often remain tied to the past, unable to move into the new. We struggle for completion and release, and in their memory we commit to making decisions that will endow our lives with deeper significance.
The essence of Yom Kippur is the possibility of forgiveness, the opportunity to start anew, with new choices. It is true that some of our choices are permanent and are indelible. But a significant part of our choices are not.
The fasting and the other restrictions of Yom Kippur, the experience of community on this awe-some day, our isolation from the outside world and the turning to the innermost place of the soul, the confession of our mistakes, the remembrance of our loved ones, they all teach us the message that we can change and begin anew, that we can learn to choose in a better and holier way from a place of honesty and from a place of spiritual freedom.
The gates of Yom Kippur opened last night, and they will close in just a few hours at the end of Ne’ilah. Our spiritual work acquires more and more urgency as the hours go by. We don’t have all the time in the world.
May God bless us with courage, with the ability to focus, with understanding, and with forgiveness so that we may start anew and make the choices that are true for each one of us, for our loved ones, and for our world.
Beginning on Friday, October 8 the Kabbalat Shabbat service will start at 6:30PM.Â Â We will continue to welcome Shabbat all together at a community service through the year.Â Just imagine the ruah! Please join us.
Sunday, May 20 | 3:00-8:00PM | The Elisabeth Irwin High School (40 Charlton Street, Greenwich Village)
Are you in your 20s or 30s? Join us to learn from and be energized by local Jewish change-makers and to celebrate the multitude of ways in which we are working to create a more just world. Hosted by Pursue and its partners, the event will be emceed by Jenny Romaine and moderated by Sara Ivry. Panelists will include Dasi Fruchter, Yotam Marom, Karen Abravanel, and Phil Aroneanu. There will also be skill building workshops with a variety of talented leaders in our community. Please register here.
Judaism is a lot like gardening. I never really liked gardening growing up – it seemed like a lot of time investment for little reward, and anyway, I was more of an indoor kid. But I remember watching my dad work outside in the yard when I was a child, spending hours doing who-knows-what out there so that we would be proud of our home. I don’t know if Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of Piaseczno in Poland (1889-1943) enjoyed gardening, but he compares Judaism as a spiritual path to planting and tending a rosebush, both of which involve a lot of hard work and preparation. The goal in the garden is to eventually produce a rose, while the goal of the system of mitzvot is to allow for the full flowering and revelation of our truest selves (Derekh HaMelekh, Parshat Toledot). If we are practicing our Judaism with intentionality and purpose, Shapira teaches, we will learn to slowly bring out our best selves. Without ever looking for that self-revelation, or even being conscious that our tradition is working to profoundly affect our inner lives, then Judaism is just yard work. But without ever doing the yard work, the rose will never bloom.
We are entering Elul, the month where we – more than any other time of the year – are encouraged to get out into our gardens and begin pruning if we hope to see anything flower within us by the time we get to the Yamim Nora’im. Now is the time to begin the work of reflecting on our years, now before we are sitting in shul on Rosh Hashanah. What weeds have grown in us over the past year, what needs pruning, what needs some extra water, what needs planting in ourselves, and what are we hoping to grow? By beginning to think about these questions now, we’ll be more likely to have a fruitful time in synagogue later.
If you’ve had to ask around to find out exactly what date Rosh Hashanah is on this year, you’re not alone. The ministering angels, according to the tradition, gather around God each year to ask when Rosh Hashanah will be so they can put it on their calendars. We’re told that God’s answer is, “You’re asking me? We must ask the earthly court when they will decide!” According to this midrash, we’re not waiting for God to grant forgiveness – God is waiting for us to ask! (Midrash Tehilim, Psalm 81)
From the divine perspective in this story, the Yamim Nora’im don’t don’t begin until we here on Earth say that they are ready to begin. God waits – like many of us do – to hear that the holidays are coming up in the synagogue announcements before getting ready for the big day. So too, something inside us is eager to think about teshuvah, about beginning to repair relationships, to return to a better way of being, and to turn toward our truer selves. And, just like God in the midrash, that part of us is waiting only for our own selves to decide that we are ready, to prepare our inner courtrooms to begin the process of self-examination and self-awareness that is the goal of the Yamim Nora’im
If we want to get something out of the experience of Rosh Hashanah this year, now is the time for us to begin doing the work of preparing, not on Rosh Hashanah itself. If we wait that long, God won’t know to show up.
One time, at the beginning of the month of Elul, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809) stood at his window as a traveling shoe repairman passed by. Hoping for a customer, he asked “Don’t you have anything that needs to be fixed?” Immediately, the rabbi sat on the ground and let out a great cry, saying, “Woe is me, and woe to my soul, for the Day of Judgment is imminent and coming, and I still have not fixed myself!” (Shai Agnon, Yamim Noraim, page 30)
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok’s spiritual greatness does not come from the fact that he merited a divine messenger to remind him to repent. It is that he was already mindful of the possibility to do teshuvah during the preparatory month of Elul, so much so that even something as completely mundane as a shoe repairman could awaken in him the need to “fix himself.” Repentance was on his mind, and so that is what he noticed around him.
The simplest (and, paradoxically, most difficult) thing we can do to begin preparing ourselves now, during the month of Elul, before the Yamim Nora’im, is to be constantly mindful of the ability to fix ourselves. Our lives are busy, and the world around us does not stop during Elul to give us time to think about teshuvah. Chances are, most of us will not hear a heavenly voice calling us to this task. But we can choose to take a few moments during the week to ask ourselves, “What in me needs fixing, which of my relationships need fixing, what in my Jewish life needs fixing?” If we take this preparatory time seriously, we may suddenly find that – like Rabbi Levi Yitzchok – we are open to hearing this message from even the most unexpected places. Be on the lookout for shoe repairmen this month. If you wait until Rosh Hashanah to start looking, it may be too late.
I always look forward to hearing the shofar this time of year. As a former trumpet player, the ritual of blowing shofar always feels relevant and meaningful to me, reminding me that the coming year is full of new potential and opportunities. After each set of shofar blasts, we recite a paragraph which begins, “Hayom harat olam” which we often translate as “today is the birthday of the world.” But, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs teaches, the Hebrew word for birth is actually leida, and the word harat is related to the modern word for pregnancy. In fact, today the world is pregnant. But the word olam can also mean ‘eternal.’ So after we blow the shofar, we also are saying that today is pregnant with eternal possibility.
Today, I understand that I have new opportunities in front of me. Sometimes we feel stuck in our old ways or that we are headed in an inevitable direction with which we aren’t satisfied. The blowing of the shofar reminds us that our lives are still full of possibility. Rosh Hashanah offers us the opportunity to reflect on the new ways we want to live our lives and reminds us to set aside the time to make those changes.
As we blow the shofar, we are brought back to the story of Akedat Yitzhak, of Abraham binding his son, Isaac, on the altar. In fact, we read this difficult text on Rosh Hashanah as part of the Torah reading. Just as Abraham is about to take the knife to Isaac, God calls out to him and shows him the ram, stuck in the thicket, which he should slaughter instead of his son. This is the very same animal whose horn we use today as a shofar.
To Abraham, the ram was an important awakening that he should change his course of action. God brought Abraham’s attention to the ram in order that he stop what he was about to do. The ram’s horn for us is also an important wake up call. Often called our spiritual alarm clock, the sound of the shofar reminds us that sometimes we need to re-evaluate our own course of action. But the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) also compares us to the ram stuck in the thicket, saying that just as the ram was entangled, we will also become entangled in our own lives and in sin. Eventually, through the horn of the ram itself, we will become untangled. And as we continue to blow the shofar throughout this month of Elul and on the Yamim Nora’im, we use that spiritual alarm clock as the wake up call to help us untangle.
As Rosh Hashanah is often thought of as the birthday of the world, we are brought back to our first moments of life on earth. After the first humans went against God’s word in the Garden of Eden, they heard God’s kol, or voice. This kol, we’re told, went through the garden. “Ayeka? Where are you?” God said to them (Genesis 3:9).
This is a question that can throw someone on a deep spiritual quest. We ask on Rosh Hashanah, “Where am I?” This kol in the garden was awakening for Adam and Eve. Similarly, the Torah tells of the kol of the shofar that caused the people to tremble as they stood at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah.
The profound question of “Ayeka?” is asked of us each time we hear the shofar. This shofar, its message sometimes causing us to tremble, puts us in a place where we, like the first humans, have to take a deep look at our lives and our relationship with God. The blessing for the shofar is “lishmoah kol shofar” (to listen to the voice of the shofar). The mitzvah is specifically to hear the shofar as it walks us through our lives – just as God’s voice walks through the garden and continues to ask us, “Ayeka?”
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ
“And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God ask of you…” (Deut. 10:12)
As we stand at the gate of a new year, this profound question — which echoes all the way from Sinai — calls to us as individuals, as a community, and as a people to engage in the work of heshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting). It is not an easy task to do heshbon nefesh wholeheartedly: to face our true selves, our blemishes and our hurts, and to seek to return to the essence of our being. But we have the blessing of doing this together, in community, supporting and holding each other as we seek to fashion better and more significant lives.
We join together in prayer and song, connected to our memories as well as to our highest aspirations for ourselves and for the world. We firmly believe that the upcoming days of prayer and introspection have the power to shape our lives. We all count on each other to make these Days of Awe truly holy and transformative.
May God bless us all with health, fulfillment, prosperity and love in the New Year. May God bless us, Israel and all humanity with justice, harmony and peace.
לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תִּכָּתֵבוּ וְתֵחָתֵמוּ
LeShanah Tovah Tikatevu ve-Tehatemu
Rabbis Roly Matalon, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol, and Hazzan Ari Priven
Professor Susannah Heschel | In Memory of Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer: His Relationship with His Teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel
Professor Heschel, Dartmouth College’s Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies, award-winning author, and the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses Marshall’s relationship with her father through personal letters written to her father while Marshall was in Argentina. (Saturday, March 22)
Rabbi Sharon Brous | The Amen Effect: Finding Strength, Inspiration and Purpose in Dialogical Living
Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR and a former Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow, at the annual Teaching in Memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman, explores the menaing of Dialogical Living as well as how her years at BJ inspire her work at IKAR. (Sunday, March 30)
“…Filmmaker, Myriam Abramowicz, has also taken this mission of remembrance to heart. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Abramowicz founded The Hearing and the Reading of the Names at B’nai Jeshurun in 1995, an event that remembers those who were affected by the Holocaust…” Anxiety.org, Aging Holocaust Survivors Still Suffer From PTSD, Michele Rosenthal, April 8, 2015
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, founding director of Encounter, an organization dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, talks about the need for nuanced discussion when talking about Israel. (Saturday, April 18, 2015)
“When it was my turn to read the names of Holocaust victims, I couldn’t see them. The print was too small, and my reading glasses were too weak. I was at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan at 10 P.M. last Wednesday night for the annual ‘Reading and Hearing of the Names’ to mark Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day…” The Forward, We did More than Just Survive, Abigail Pogrebin, April 18, 2015
Zack Bernstein joined B’nai Jeshurun over 20 years ago and has worked for the United States Department of State since 2007, where he is currently serving as the senior analyst for chemical and biological weapons and terrorism. Zack and his husband Rob live in Washington, DC with their dog, Dany. (Saturday, June 27, 2015)
Our community is strongest when we care for each other in times of need. Do a deed of lovingkindness by connecting with members of the BJ community who are homebound, lonely, or in need of some extra care. With regular and consistent phone calls we can brighten the days and warm the hearts of those who need it most. Please contact Joni Brenner at ShabbatConnections@bj.org for more information on how you can help.
These joyous holidays can be difficult for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Read a beautiful essay on this topic, written by BJ Rabbinic Fellow Alex Braver.
Peter Geffen has been a member of BJ since Marshall’s arrival and is most known to us as one of our hazzanim for the high holidays. He is the Founder of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School and of KIVUNIM, the Institute for World Jewish Studies. He is married to Susie Kessler, Director of the JCC’s Makom Spirituality Center, the father of Rabbi Jonah (and Julia), Rabbi Daniel (and Lu) and Jewish Educator Nessa and Sabba of Bina and Shula. (Saturday, October 24, 2015)
Sunday, November 15 | 9:45AM-3:30PM | Schechter Manhattan (805 Columbus Avenue)
As a co-sponsor of this exciting event, join BJ community members, along with hundreds of others, in Torah learning with class offerings from over 30 teachers. Come for the whole day or just one session. Register at http://www.mechonhadar.org/globalday.
Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, where her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship and the history of anti-Semitism. An award winning author, her books include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany as well as over seventy articles. She has also edited numerous books, including Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism. (Saturday, February 6, 2016)
At the annual Zayin Adar Helen Radin Memorial Lecture, BJ Rabbi Felicia Sol and BJ Senior Rabbinic Fellow Rabbi Sarit Horwitz were joined by Dr. Eliezer Diamond (Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary), Rabbi Joy Levitt (Executive Director at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan), and moderator Rabbi Mychal Springer (Director of the Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Helen Fried Kirshblum Goldstein Chair in Professional and Pastoral Skills) discuss end of life planning and the “What Matters” initiative. Please note that videos were shown at this event that are not included in this audio. Those videos will be made public in the coming weeks. (Tuesday, February 16, 2016)
Over the last decade General Michael Herzog has held senior positions in the office of Israel’s minister of defense under four ministers. He served as chief of staff and as senior military aide to the Israeli minister of defense. In that capacity, he acted as the liaison between the defense minister and the IDF, prime minister’s office, intelligence community, and Israeli defense establishment. Since 1993, General Herzog has played a key role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, participating in most of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians. (Tuesday, March 22, 2016)
Thursday, April 7 | 8:00 – 9:30PM | Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 West 68 St.
Eshkol Nevo, the best-selling and award winning Israeli author (World Cup Wishes, Homesick, Neuland), will share his writing process and discuss themes in his bestselling books. From the freezing, lonely lands of Siberia, to shamanism in South and Central American cultures and Zionism in Israel, Nevo weaves his narratives into a complex world.
This event will be held in English at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. BJ members will get to attend this event for the SWFS member rate ($20 instead of $25-35) using promotional code: CHBJ. Register here for that event.
Getting rid of hametz is a complicated task. Of course, there are the stovetops to clean, the cabinets to clear out, and the bread to discard. The leavened items in our homes are replaced with matzah, the bread of affliction. That bread reminds us of the haste in which the Israelites had to leave Mitzrayim, and its flatness alludes to the spiritual work that we try to do around this time of year. In our tradition which teaches that teshuvah, repentance, is always a possibility, we are reminded exactly six months away from the Yamim Noraim, that the hametz of our souls and the leavening of our ego is also worth examining. This Pesah season, we not only think about the physical hametz in our homes to clean out, but also of the spiritual hametz, the spiritual schmutz that’s getting in the way of who we really are. Today, as we observed Shabbat haHodesh, we ushered in the month of Nisan and we kick ourPesah preparations into high gear. These 14 days are a spiritual cleanse to help us prepare for what it really means to be free. It’s the time to think about the spiritual schmutz we are carrying around and what we can get rid of. What are the layers we need to peel away in order to be a more liberated version of ourselves? What is excessive? What’s the hametz, the leavened, puffed-up stuff that’s holding us back?
For the next 13 days, until erev Pesah, you’ll receive a daily kavannah written by a member of our community. We’ve asked these members to think about what getting rid of spiritual schmutz means to them. Our haggadah asks us, in each and every generation, to see ourselves as if we, too, had been liberated from Mitzrayim. This is a charge that urges us to think about liberation in multiple ways: who in our world is oppressed, how do I oppress myself, and what are the ways that I can make the world, and myself, more free? In that spirit, we offer three ways for you to incorporate this charge into your Pesah preparations and celebrations.
• Before Pesah, help the hungry and get rid of your hametz by donating non-perishable food items to our WSCAH drive. Donation bins are in our 89th Street Community House and in the entrance to our 88th Street sanctuary before Kabbalat Shabbat.
• Continue the BJ tradition of adding a red onion to your seder plate as a reminder that many of the farm-workers who grow and harvest our food do not have the right to basic labor protections such as a weekly day of rest and overtime pay. Get Pesahresources and learn more about BJ’s Economic Justice Hevra.
• As we celebrate the Jewish people’s biblical exodus from Egypt, we remember that there are 60 million displaced people around the world, people fleeing violence and persecution in search of a safe place to call home. As part of BJ’s effort to respond to the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, we are partnering with HIAS, a leading organization in refugee advocacy and resettlement work. Bring HIAS’s Passover resources to your seder, learn more about this issue, and find ways to act.
Rabbi Sarit Horwitz
Senior Rabbinic Fellow
We associate the word seder with Passover meals shared with family and friends that follows a specific order of blessings, foods, texts, and songs. But seder (“order”) is a Jewish value to be practiced daily and is a key ingredient in the spiritual cleanse my 21st century life requires.
Several years ago at a gathering of entrepreneurs, the featured speaker was a CEO named Warren Rustand. His inspirational talk focused on how professional success fits into a life rich with value. One of the examples he shared from his personal practice was that he and his family deposit their cell phones in a basket by the door when they arrive home – not to be touched again until they leave for work the next morning. He believes that work needs to get done at work, and that when one is home their focus should be on the people with whom they share their life. This implicit challenge to live a life of order and discipline so that time spent with my loved ones is sacred has stayed with me.
As a student and teacher of the Jewish spiritual practice called mussar, the middah (virtue) of seder refers to an ongoing focus to bring increased order into my life so that I am present and of service to others. As understood by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov, we need seder so that “our thoughts are always free to deal with that which lies ahead of us.” It is not for the purpose of taking pride in good time management or a tidy home that my spiritual cleansing requires seder/order. Rather, lack of seder (disorderliness) puts me in a state of distracted self-absorption that precludes me from being the kind of spouse, mother, friend, and neighbor I want to be. The Passover seder is intended to remind us of the responsibility of freedom; the daily practice of seder carries the same message.
For your seder table, here are two suggestions to increase joy for participants of all ages. First, put out an array of veggies, chips and dips like guacamole to munch on after the karpas blessing. Second, encourage everyone at your seder table to share two blessings of gratitude in the Dayenu style, i.e: If only I was blessed with this good thing, Dayenu (it would have been enough), but also I was blessed with this other thing!
Rabbi Rachel Bovitz is the Director of Millennial Engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a madricha of the Mussar Leadership Program. Rachel, Greg, Sari, Sammy and Annie joined BJ a year and a half ago when they moved to New York City.
Z’man Heirutenu, the time of our freedom. The BJ family trip to Israel this past winter made me think about the different shapes and colors of the aspiration for freedom. We met people whose grandparents made their personal exodus from the same part of the Ukraine as mine—theirs to Palestine, mine to Philadelphia. All sought freedom from oppression, from powerlessness over their fate, and none of us would likely be here if they hadn’t. But what defined the quality of the lives they made for themselves and their descendants is what they sought freedom for. Self-reinvention; financial security; a society that treats people more equally and more justly; the Zionist dream. Different promises, different promised lands.
Freedom requires freedom-from. Bound to the wheel, whether of Egyptian slavery or Russian persecution or even the self-imposed bondage to the everyday demands of the seemingly urgent, there’s no space, no breath, to imagine a different way to be. But there’s no real freedom without freedom-for: without engagement and dedication to something deep and true. Moshe demands that Pharoah release the Israelites from their “avodah,” their servitude, in order that that they may offer “avodah,” their service, to God in the wilderness—the same word used for both ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom.’ Spiritual freedom is, paradoxically, inextricably bound up with service. “You gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan wrote. Freedom is less about release than about asking, discovering, and continuously choosing what and whom is worth our devotion.
Z’man Heirutenu, and its offer of transformative change, seems like the time to ask: What do I serve with my energy and time? Is this how I want to dedicate it? Would my ancestors recognize in my choices the continuation of their exodus journeys?
For the seder table, compare the “Exodus” of your family to America with the biblical story. What were they seeking freedom from and what were they seeking freedom for? Do you think they found it? Imagine in what ways their and your lives would be the same or different if they had chosen to go to Palestine/Israel, or South America, or another place.
Max Rudin is publisher of Library of America, a nonprofit organization devoted to publishing definitive editions of great American writing. He and his wife, Amy Schatz, and children Eve and Noah, are longtime BJ members.
A few months ago, our dog suddenly went blind. He is learning to get around and we are getting used to his new behavior and needs. I guide him through the streets, calling out, “Step up, step down, look out.”
This reminds me of the days when we strolled our kids over the jarring humps of New York City streets. We used to sing to them, “The road is very bumpy; so very, very bumpy; we are taking a ride that is so very, very, very bumpy.” We intuitively wanted to teach them how to pair the roughness of life with their mother and father’s tender voices. Survival depends upon sensing goodness in spite of the hard patches.
One form of spiritual schmutz is forgetting this truth.
Like many parents who show up at my office, I have often wanted to launch my kids into life perfectly. Not being able to do so torments many sane parents into some form of Upper West Side mid-life angst. But perfection is an illusion, and the absence of pain is a myth. Fostering a healthy relationship to adversity is the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves. The road is very bumpy! Hardship is more the norm than not.
Though we learn to live with the reality of pain, we also need to learn how to use it to better enable us to receive those great blasts of joyous wonder that also come our way.
For your seder table, consider seeking the wisdom about survival that is contained in the Haggadah. We know the story teaches us that we survived hardship. Now ask, “how?”
This Pesah finds me preparing to move out of the apartment I’ve lived in for nearly 30 years to a smaller space, so the question of what to hold onto and what to let go of truly resonates for me.
What is the spiritual hametz I need to get rid of?
As I review my possessions and decide what to keep and what to leave behind, I ask myself:
What do I really need? (Certainly a lot less than I have.)
What am I obligated to preserve?
Do I use this in my daily life or on special occasions, Shabbat, the holidays?
Does this enhance my life?
Is it beautiful?
Does it evoke a memory that still has meaning for me?
Am I holding onto it for myself or someone else?
If I am keeping it for the next generation, will these things matter as much to them as they do to me?
Is it time to entrust them with it?
Are things I inherited from my parents still treasures or do I keep them only out of guilt, because it feels like a betrayal to move on without them?
Does this thing speak to my yetzer hara or yetzer hatov–my negative or positive inclinations?
Am I holding onto something painful, the last remnant of a broken relationship? Time to let it go. I toss things I should have discarded long ago. Why have I held onto them? I choose what to leave behind.
I choose what I want in my life moving forward. As I shred, toss, donate, and give gifts to family and friends, I bring peace and order to my soul, and experience the joy of making space for my new home, my new life.
For your seder table, name something that you have held onto from an earlier part of your life that you might now be ready to part with, and what that would mean for you.
Marcia Kaplan is a long-time and active member of BJ who lives and works downtown. She is an attorney with the N.Y.S. Dept. Of Health, Bureau of Professional Medical Conduct. Marcia is moving a mile west to Chelsea, and looking forward to a shorter commute to shul.
Pesah preparations focus on clearing out and cleansing. We remind ourselves of oppression through restriction. We limit. We remove. We diet. We diminish.
Our daily lives also increasingly demand limitations. From the food we now must omit and the closets we must organize to the to-do list we must complete, the inbox we must purge, and the newsfeed we must filter—we obsess around an unattainable, minimalist, perfectly Pinterest-worthy life.
But instead looking for meaning in simplification, why not mark freedom by embracing abundance?
Let’s celebrate the shift from depravity to wealth. Not in money or material things, but amassing wealth in positivity, wealth in fresh food, and wealth in friendship. Creating more opportunities. Providing more support and inclusion of others. Let’s flood our world with generosity and endless possibility.
This pesah, as we remove hametz from our diet, I challenge you to add more than you subtract. Honor freedom through radical abundance of positivity, creativity, openness, and acceptance.
For your seder table, find one way to make the service or meal more inclusive—such as an added transliteration or translation, shifting gendered language, offering more dietary options, or extending an additional invitation.
Dana Kalfas Bodine is the Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development at Time Inc. She has been a member of BJ and itshevra kadisha since 2010. Just before Pesah 2013, she married her husband, Jesse Bodine, in BJ’s sanctuary. Dana and Jesse live on the Upper West Side with their dog, Pickle.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes “just as the same grains can produce either hametz or matzah, the very etymology of the words is almost identical: hmtz/חמץ and mtzh/מצה. The only difference is the soft or hard ‘h.’ Moreover, matzot and mitzvot are spelled exactly the same way in Hebrew–מצות.”
When looking at these words, I ask how we can reframe our spiritual hametz into mitzvah. How can we transform something that is cluttering or blocking us into something that pushes us forward, a mitzvah for this season of possibility and growth?
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin also has a beautiful Hebrew reference to create this awareness. “The Hebrew word for guest is ‘oray-ah/אורח.’ We can also read the word as ‘or’ and ‘ray-ah’ meaning light and fragrance. To share bread (matzah) is to open one’s house to the light and fragrance of life. By welcoming another person, one becomes oneself, welcomed by the other, welcomed by light and fragrance.”
As the changing spring light brightens these days of Nisan and the fragrance of flowers increases, we clean, declutter, plan and prepare. Moving from hametz to mitzvah requires reflection and change. There’s a transformation that happens for dough to become hametz, and a transformation that happens when our matzah becomes a mitzvah. Change, even if we know will lead to positive growth, can be hard and I am often reluctant to change. It’s easier to stick to our baseline, to what we know. I try and think about how I can move beyond my baseline to more challenging mitzvot.
For your seder, consider discussing the practical implications of this transition fromhametz to matzah to mitzvah. Are there arenas in your life where you can carry out a new mitzvah, perhaps a more challenging mitzvah?
Judy Geller-Marlowe is a language lover, student of Jewish texts, and a retired ESL teacher. She is an adjunct professor at NYU and currently mentors aspiring language instructors.
The Haggadah progresses through 14 steps meant to bring us to higher and higher levels of spirituality, light, and freedom. Like the prayers in the Mahzor do for Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, these steps during the seder provide us with vehicles for continuing the spiritual work we begin before Pesah.
We dip (Hebrew: טבל/tbl) the Karpas (“lowly” vegetable from the ground) in salt water. Rearranged, these letters spell בטל/btl, and one definition is something that’s a small piece of a much larger whole, suggesting we begin the process with humility.
The steps that follow in the seder are:
Yahatz – breaking the middle matzah. We all have broken parts of ourselves. Splitting this matzah reminds us to go below our surface and look deep down. But know , while perhaps scary, one piece of that matzah is hidden away in safety – we are both vulnerable yet protected at the same time. Later this piece (the Afikomen) will be reunited with us at “Tzafun” (“Hidden”). In fact, we can’t continue the seder (or our growth) without reintegrating our broken pieces.
Maggid – telling the Pesah story. Our journey from slavery to freedom. Like eating the Pascal sacrifice the night before in Egypt, Maggid is meant to be done in community. We are not alone. While getting rid of our individual spiritual schmutz, we have family/friends to help and support us (and we, them). Rav Soloveitchik’s beautiful article “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night” tells us “the Torah require(s) of spiritual man to open his mind, his heart, his existence. Invite others! Eating becomes a cohesive force bringing together people who were shut up in their own small worlds and coalescing them into a community…unites people, fosters friendship.”
Rahtza – we wash our hands, the active part of our body that intersects with the world. They can do positive, loving acts, or the opposite. We use water – a purifier and life giving substance – to vitalize and strengthen our hands to do loving, kind acts to others. Crowding out negative actions with positive ones helps us remove our schmutz.
Near the end we say Hallel. After going through this both difficult and inspiring process, we sing blessings both to God, and perhaps, to those around us in our new found, enlightened community.
Shari Kenner is a social worker who works with individuals with developmental disabilities and psychiatric diagnoses. She has been living on the UWS for over 35 years and has been going to BJ for 17 years.
It all started with a joke. A boy in my grade said to his friend, “you’re so retarded,” after his friend tripped and fell on the floor. I was appalled. I couldn’t fathom why he would use a mental disability to substitute the word “clumsy.” I recognized that it was wrong. But I also recognized that the word “retarded” was slang, and the boy did not have offensive intentions. Later that day, I went home and thought about what had happened. It wasn’t unusual for me to hear words like “retarded” being thrown around in the hallways at my school. Somebody’s backpack was too “gay,” somebody threw a ball “like a girl,” or somebody with an organized locker was “OCD.” I would constantly hear these phrases being used colloquially. I tried not to use them offensively, but I, as most people are, was guilty of not speaking up when I heard them.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the only reason these phrases were considered slang was that people like me, bystanders, didn’t speak up when other people used these words. I always assumed that if I personally didn’t use slurs in offensive ways, I was making a difference. However, in order to truly stand up to this injustice, being aware of one’s own personal word choice isn’t enough; people need to speak up when they hear others using these phrases.
We need to understand how our words affect others. Before you say, “I’m going to kill myself,” think about people who actually have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Before you say, “you look anorexic,” think about the people who actually struggle with eating disorders. The use of these words diminishes the seriousness of the obstacles that people genuinely struggle with. By using offensive phrases, we contribute to the stereotypes of certain groups of people, marginalizing and dehumanizing them and teaching others that it is okay to use these words in offensive contexts.
But how does this relate to Passover? It’s the time of year when we clean out our houses of hametz. As we wipe down our kitchen counters, get rid of any food containing hametz, and stock up on matzah, we also need to cleanse our vocabularies of offensive phrases. For your seder table, go around the table and have everybody come up with a certain word or phrase that should not be used in a derogatory way.
Nina Glesby is a ninth grade student at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. She has been a BJ member for her whole life and spends her free time volunteering with kids with special needs.
“No, no no, on Pesah, we’re all royalty!” My friend said, and – reaching over to stop me from pouring my own wine – took the bottle from my hand and poured me a full glass. Quickly catching on, I grabbed the bottle and returned the favor, filling my friend’s cup to the brim.
My friend’s custom – that on Passover, we don’t serve ourselves – is one of the many reminders in the seder that we are no longer slaves; we recline (or just eat with a nice soft pillow supporting our backs), we eat and drink, and we recount our mythic journey to freedom. And there’s something especially symbolic of freedom in having food and drink appear before you whenever you ask. Being served is a sure way to know that you’re not a servant. But at the same time, this particular tradition is a little hypocritical; by refusing to serve myself, I’m turning my fellow seder-guests into my servants, and they’re doing the same thing to me!
Ultimately, though, true freedom requires an acknowledgement of our interdependence. It means learning to both serve and be served, to give and receive. Too often, I’ve found myself enslaved to my own pride, refusing to accept the help and support of friends and loved ones, out of a desire to remain “free” from obligation or a sense of inferiority.
For your seder table, make a pact that everyone present is royalty, and no one needs to serve themselves. All anyone has to do is ask. But beforehand, do the spiritual work of cleaning out your inner pride, along with anything else that might prevent you from asking your fellow free people for help.
BJ Rabbinic Fellow
Our tradition commands us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. This command is at its pinnacle at the Seder when we are required to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. The Seder is the vehicle through which we are essentially supposed to relive our journey from slavery to freedom– a daunting if not impossible task.
Every year I ask my Seder guests to do a bit of homework. Though I realize that a person who has never experienced anything but freedom could not fully appreciate slavery, I try nonetheless to tackle that challenge. A task I have given to my Seder guests is to imagine themselves a person (real or fictional) from a period of transition in Jewish History (the Exodus, the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, etc). Then, they are to write an entry into their diary as this person, describing what they are going through. For example; how might the Exodus have appeared to a 5 year old boy or, conversely, to a 90 year old woman? How might your grandfather have felt leaving the pogroms in Europe to come to the United States, knowing that he might never see or speak to his parents again? While this activity in no way can actualize the experience of slavery, it might make one more sensitive to what others have been made to endure.
As we attempt to imagine the plights of our ancestors, we will become more aware of those going through similar struggles today and have a greater appreciation of that with which we have been blessed, thus more fully celebrating the gift of freedom.
Elana Weinberg is a Judaica Artist specializing in ketubot, as well as a teacher, currently teaching Hebrew in a Hebrew Charter school in Harlem.She is a long time BJ member who has served on various committees over the years.
Death, displacement and disability have combined to diminish our interpersonal worlds with each year of advancing age. The increased neediness of old age has me relying too heavily on the people that remain, especially the daughter who has taken on the burden of being available to me. As I age, I reluctantly become accustomed to receiving help; as a result, I find myself growing more helpless, diminished.
The emotional and spiritual schmutz I need to sort through is my excessive reliance on my daughter. I am mindful of the burden I place on her; I must seek more of the support I need from other, more impersonal sources. In doing so, I hope to open further opportunities to give and receive help from people in other areas of my life. I’m learning to be vulnerable by asking for help in finding a place as a contributing member in this B’nai Jeshurun community that I don’t know well. (I’m also learning that help comes in different forms and may come from unexpected or non-traditional places.)
I hope to diminish my dependency on my daughter in favor of greater involvement in this spiritual community. It becomes a two-way mitzvah: When I am more involved, I can contribute to its success, and I can seek out productive and satisfying contact with others. I want to deepen those connections so that things are expected of me – not to move fast, and not to schlep the gear that encumbers us, but to help write and edit the things we are trying to say, for instance. Within the limitations of old age, I seek a place in the community as someone who can be counted on.
Sue Finkelstein is a retired psychologist/psychoanalyst. She has three adult daughters. She lives at Atria on the Upper West Side.
I like to talk. It’s sort of my thing. I make a habit of answering questions with questions, then answering those questions with more questions. So imagine my distress waking up on Monday morning, my brain suddenly having levied some sort of sanctions against my vocal chords. Sure, I could wheeze out a “good morning”, and ask my mom if she wouldn’t mind cooking me breakfast, but even that cozy request came off sounding conspiratorial in my urgent whisper.
What to do? Could I really sit through a full school day without giving anyone my take on things? (What if they were wrong?) I knew from the get-go that I really oughtn’t use my voice any more than I had to, but it took about forty minutes of history class to ultimately convince me I wasn’t going to participate in class discussion that day. I might actually have to let my classmates’ ideas steep for a while without jumping in with my own objections.
I began to listen without the expectation of being able to respond. As the incessant note-taking and on-the-spot rebuttal formulation that usually accompanies my listening quieted, a new question rose to the surface: Does this matter?
Does this matter?
I will never apologize for the (very Jewish) instinct to squeeze every drop of meaning out of any little thing, but the cultural need to constantly be commenting on every story that hits your newsfeed, an experience that, particularly for someone of my generation, is ubiquitous, is not only exhausting but time consuming.
When we quiet down our own voices of commentary, we allow other stories to come to the surface. It becomes less about how I filter a story through my own lens and more about what someone else’s story means to them.
I’ve mostly regained my voice since then. But as Pesah approaches, I wouldn’t mind channeling that spirit of stepping back and listening to the deeper, older stories. I seek connectedness to the undercurrents flowing beneath all the small talk we make: currents of justice, currents of freedom, and the current of history yet unfolded. There’s a freedom in that sick and gravely voice: you no longer speak just to hear it.
Leon Kraeim is a high school senior.
Even as we near erev Pesah, it’s easy to feel like our preparation isn’t quite done. We struggle with the nagging suspicion: there’s still some hametz hiding that we’ve not yet found.
Our liturgy anticipates this incompleteness. Upon finishing the search for hametz, we are instructed to say: May all the hametz that exists in my property that I have seen and have not seen, that I have destroyed and have not destroyed, be considered nullified and ownerless, like the dust of the earth.
We learn that by erev Pesah, even the hametz that we couldn’t find no longer belongs to us.
This Pesah, I want to let go of the hametz of doubt, of censorship, of judgment. I know that I must disavow even the hametz that I don’t yet know how to name. And from that place, rededicate myself to the work of moving towards freedom.
The Passover haggadah says: “השתא עבדי. לשנה הבאה בני חורין” Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free people. We experience our slavery when we disconnect from our neighborhoods. When we start ignoring our ethical impulse. When we stay silent before oppression. We grow heavy with the burden of inaction.
We shed a year’s worth of accumulated hametz to make space for the courage and clarity necessary to be good neighbors, allies, and friends. We must dedicate ourselves this year to justice, to curiosity, to challenging the status quo, that we might come to feel how deeply our freedom is linked with the struggle for liberation of all those around us.
May this year’s song be a song of liberation. Hag sameah.
For your seder: invite those at your table to draw clear connection between the story of the Israelites’ struggle for liberation and those who fight for freedom today. Let the seder be an opportunity to practice making explicit the ways in which our movements and communities are bound up together.
Arielle Rosenberg has loved serving this year as a BJ Rabbinic Fellow and is glad to get to continue as a fellow for another year as she finishes her final year of rabbinical school (b”h) at Hebrew College in Boston.
“Synagogues are taking on roles usually reserved for nonprofits – hiring professional activists, organizing protests, mobilizing congregants to lobby and educating them on immigrant and refugee rights. Several synagogues sent delegations to the Women’s March on Washington and its local offshoots in January.”
JTA, Not just prayers: Synagogues are organizing to fight Trump’s agenda, Ben Sales, March 9, 2017
“‘Clergy can speak about moral issues, sometimes translating into specific policies, to enlighten people,’ said Rabbi Matalon, ‘but to endorse individual candidates? I don’t think that’s something for rabbis or pastors or priests. I don’t do it, not only because it’s forbidden but because I don’t think it’s right.’”
Jewish Week, Trump’s Limited ‘Order’ On Religion, Jonathan Mark, May 10, 2017
“‘We are embracing a significant change in how we approach the future of Jewish life at BJ,’ [Rabbi José Rolando Matalon] said, calling it a ‘shift in emphasis in the way we relate to and invite in intermarried couples.’”
The Forward, Diving Into Intermarriage Debate, Manhattan ‘Mega-Synagogue’ Welcomes Non-Jews, Sam Kestenbaum, June 16, 2017
“B’nai Jeshurun, known as ‘BJ,’ is a large and trend-setting congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that has led a renaissance of sorts among tradition-minded, egalitarian worshippers living in that heavily Jewish section.”
JTA, Rabbis at influential NY synagogue to officiate at intermarriages, June 16, 2017
Thursdays through early July | 7:00PM | Central Park
Play softball in co-ed, non-competitive, friendly games on Thursday nights in Central Park. Open to the entire BJ community. Contact Craig Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Published on January 12, 2017
On January 16, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Less than a week later, on January 21st, we will mark the first day of the new administration for our country. Following a historically divisive election season, one which surfaced hateful speech and anti-democratic tendencies, and which revealed deep fissures in our nation, we approach this moment with profound concern and the knowledge that we must be part of re-knitting the fabric of our American society.
As a faith community, we are called upon to hold ourselves, each other, and our elected leaders accountable for sustaining the core values of our nation, and to bring to bear the moral values of our Jewish tradition and teachings for the benefit of all Americans.
This is not a new focus for us. Grounded in our faith and in the belief that part of our work as members of a Jewish community is to answer the divine call for justice, BJ has long been known for its profound commitment to social responsibility and activism. We have never shied away from asking: what does God demand of us? How to do we best act to champion the values of our tradition? Great spiritual leaders such as Rabbis Stephen S. Wise, Israel Goldstein, and Marshall T. Meyer served our community, reminding us that living up to our moral commitments by standing up for the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the poor, and the stranger in our midst can be risky. We will carry on the tradition of bold action and moral courage at BJ today.
Our Strategic Plan, completed in 2015, identified four pillars, one of which is particularly animated at this moment: Social Justice and Responding to the Prophetic Vision:
“At BJ, we are heirs to the vision of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Marshall T. Meyer. Like our ancient Prophets, they called on us to see the world as it is and then take personal responsibility for helping to transform it to what it should be.”
We strive to manifest this vision in all that we do, anchored by these seven values grounded in our tradition:
- Recognize the divine image in every human being and strive to make our actions reflect this truth.
“And God said, Let us make human in our image, after our likeness… And God created human in God’s image…” (Genesis 1:26-27)
- Accept responsibility for the well-being of others; see all people as our brothers and sisters.
“God said to Cain, Where is your brother Abel? And he said, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
- Make our collective history the magnet of our moral compass, leading us to safeguard the rights and dignity of immigrants and minorities in our society.
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
- See justice and goodness as a path ; one that we are able to walk in our daily lives.
“God has told you what is good and what God requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God; Then will your name achieve wisdom.” (Micah 6:8-9)
- See ourselves as agents of change and our actions as sacred work.
“…I heard the voice of my God saying, Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, Hineni: Here I am; send me. And God said, Go.” (Isaiah 6:8)
- Cultivate gratitude for what we have, know when we have enough, and ensure that all beings have the resources they need to survive.
“And you shall have eaten, been satisfied, and made a blessing of thanks…” (Deuteronomy 8:10 and Birkat Hamazon, Blessing after Meals)
- Seek wisdom and courage to take action, without being overwhelmed by the enormity of need and injustice. Always be willing to take the risk to begin!
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers, 2:21)
We are already responding to this call, supporting and advocating for the homeless and the hungry, for immigrants and refugees, for LGBTQI individuals, and for others who are marginalized. This year, we have also deepened our partnership with the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew (SPSA) through our emerging racial justice initiative.
But there is much more to do. Should any of these communities be put at risk, we are prepared to defend those who are at risk through our values and our work, just as we have always done throughout the history of BJ. In the coming weeks we will convene the community to explore when, where, and how to deploy our strength.
HELP PAVE THE PATH FOR OUR COMMUNITY
Join us on January 18th or 24th for community conversations to help pave the path we will take in response to the call for justice. We will be gathering to share our stories, our concerns, and our passions; to strengthen our current work on critical issues; and to identify where there is energy for collective action on new issues. We can not despair. We must raise our voices and do the work. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, so famously in paraphrasing Reverend Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” It will only bend if we come together to make it so.
David Isaac Haziza and Ron Guttman | A Look at the Akeida - The Binding of Isaac, from Satan's Perspective
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about the Akeida, or the binding of Isaac. At the Mindfulness Service, BJ member and actor Ron Guttman delivered this d’var Torah. The text was written by David Isaac Haziza, who is completing his PhD in literature at Columbia. The recitation was followed by a hevruta dialogue using the modality of active listening. (Tuesday, October 4, 2016)
Monday, November 28 | 7:30PM | Location upon registration
How does Jewish law impact reproductive rights in the Jewish state? How does the discourse and culture surrounding sexuality in a religiously traditional population effect sex ed in the Israeli school system? What are the current challenges facing women who wish to terminate a pregnancy, and what reforms are taking place on this issue?
Join Alexandra Berger-Polsky, Director of Lada’at – Choose Well, Jerusalem’s organization for the promotion of healthy sexuality and reproductive rights, as she presents the intriguing history, background and current situation of the fields of reproductive rights and sex ed in Israel. The salon will take place at the home of Robin Fleischner, adoption and assisted reproduction attorney (address upon registration).
For registration click here.
“… [Shuli Passow, a rabbi at New York’s congregation B’nai Jeshurun, who recalled how her grandparents were hidden in barns and basements in Poland during the Holocaust] said there is a religious imperative to take in refugees. ‘One of the core tenets of the Jewish religion is welcoming the stranger. That is a phrase that is repeated 36 times in the Torah,’ she said.”
How Trump’s policies and rhetoric are forging alliances between U.S. Jews and Muslims, Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick, February 5, 2017
Business hours | BJ Community House
Our Human Resources and Administrative Associate, Shakeara Hatchett, is now authorized to provide notary services (for personal or business purposes) to all BJ members. Email Shakeara to set up a notary appointment.
Sunday, April 2, 2017 | 3:15-7:00PM (doors open at 3:00PM) | BJ Sanctuary
In early 2017, BJ launched a racial justice initiative with the primary goal of exploring how issues of race, privilege, and power play out in our lives individually and within the BJ community. On April 2, we will take the next collective step in this work using the Pesah seder and its themes of liberation as a guide. Join us for singing, storytelling, and an in depth anti-racism workshop led by educator Diane Goodman.
The workshop is appropriate for adults and teens. During this portion of the event, separate programming will be available for children of all ages. We will conclude all together with dinner and song.
This event is for BJ members only. Read more »
By Rabbi Sarit Horwitz
My zayde, Leon Cooper z”l, used to tell a story from an algebra class that he took when in high school. The teacher gave him a problem that offered a particular distance from home to first base and another from second to third. The question asked, “Assuming these measurements are accurate, what is the distance from home to second base?” My zayde responded quickly to the teacher and answered the question perfectly. Then he turned to her and asked, “What is a base?”
Truth is, my zayde didn’t really know what “home” was then either. Read more »
By Susan Thal
“HELLO REFUGEES!” This was my father’s emphatic greeting upon entering many social gatherings, gatherings that were almost exclusively composed of other German-Jewish refugees, most of whom had been able to leave Germany in the 1930s. As a child in Washington Heights, it seemed that we were all refugee families. The neighborhood was bursting with robust, upwardly mobile young families who gathered in the playground or at the beach in the summer. Read more »
By Gail Ressler
My mother, Bella Najman, was born in 1928 in Nowe Miasto, Poland, to an observant Jewish family consisting of her grandmother, parents, sister, and four brothers. With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the relative freedom they enjoyed came to an end.
Nowe Miasto was enclosed as a ghetto in 1941. Bella and her family moved into her grandmother’s home, crowded with people from neighboring towns. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and the Jews were transported by train to Auschwitz. Most of the family perished upon arrival or soon thereafter.
By Ruth Jarmul
Every Friday night, we light our Shabbat candles on a small silver tray that says in German, “From a grateful patient, 1937.” My mother and her family were able to flee Nazi Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht because my grandfather’s brother, who lived in Chicago, was permitted to sponsor them. The tray is from a non-Jewish patient of my grandfather, who was a beloved family doctor. As I grew up, my mother rarely talked about what had happened to her in Nazi Germany before she left at age twelve. I think she wanted to move past that experience. As a proud and grateful American, she was secure in her belief that America would never allow such a thing to happen here. But occasionally, as I grew older, she shared stories of how the Nazis came to power. Read more »
By Peninnah Schram
My mother, Dora Manchester (née Markman), came from Vitebsk Gubernia in White Russia. In 1923, her father, already in America, sent for his wife and daughter. Together, my mother and my grandmother began the journey to America. However, when they arrived in Cherbourg, France, to take a ship to New York, the quota for immigrants had already been established. Jewish immigrants had to wait for openings to continue their journeys. It was 1926 by the time the Markman family was reunited in America, where they lived in a railroad apartment in Harlem. My mother got a job in a tie factory and went to night school to learn English. Read more »
By Elaine and Bob Klein
They arrived at our home on a cold night in late October, 1980, each carrying a paper bag containing all the clothes they owned. They were three survivors of the Vietnam war: Mai, 19; Minh, her 20-year-old husband; and Hung, her 15-year-old brother. Having fled Saigon in a crowded boat two years earlier, spending the intervening years in camps on the beaches of Malaysia and the Philippines, the young refugees were seeking safety and a new life in the West. Read more »
By Steven Koppel
My maternal grandmother, Elsie Frohman, was not a religiously observant woman. Except with respect to one ritual, she was much more of a “cultural” Jew. Born and raised in Mannheim, Germany, she was forced to flee with her family through France and Portugal and ultimately to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She arrived on these shores intent on “Americanizing” her four children. Her youngest child, born here, was named Franklin Douglas after Roosevelt and MacArthur. Her assimilation into American life came most prominently in the form of being a two-pack a day smoker and an avid baseball fan. Read more »
By Anne Millman
When my parents returned to Warsaw in 1945, they were among the 200,000 refugees returning from the Soviet Union territories, where they had fled to escape the Nazis. They had hoped to find their families and resume the life they had just barely begun as newlyweds in 1939. They quickly discovered that their families and friends were gone and that the Poles were ready to intimidate, and sometimes kill, any Jew who came back expecting to stay. Moreover, the Communists were now in charge and their secret police, the NKVD, made normal conversations and interactions fraught with danger. Intellectuals and other potential “enemies” of the Communists were disappearing and there seemed to be no end in sight. This was too much for them to bear after the years of running, hiding, and trying to survive the onslaught of the Nazis. Read more »
By Susan Sanders
On November 21, 2016, I traveled to Essen, Germany to visit Turmstrasse 17, the last address of my mother and her family before their deportation. I was there to lay the Stolpersteine (memorial stones) for my grandparents and to commemorate their lives and the happiness they shared before their fate took a dark turn.
My mother saw the US as a beacon of hope and a new beginning, free from the nightmare she had experienced under the Third Reich. Despite the horror of her early years, she found the strength to make a new life. My mother attended Beth Israel School of Nursing and, with her kind and compassionate manner, brought solace to many. Read more »
By Asya Berger
We were Holocaust survivors. My father, Solomon, when liberated from Dachau, weighed 70 pounds; my mother Lea and I survived in Lithuania—she, in the Kovno Ghetto, and I, hidden from the age of eighteen months to four years by a Catholic couple. As the war was ending, my mother and I fled with false papers, wandering Europe, often staying in displaced persons camps until arriving in Munich, near Dachau, where miraculously we reunited with my father.
By Judy Geller–Marlowe
Like a lot of American Jews, all four of my Yiddish-speaking grandparents came from Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather, Joseph (Yosef Chaim) Geller, was the only one in his family who came here from Poland. His siblings remained in Europe and they owed their survival to Siberian deportation during World War II. Those three siblings all ended up in Israel. My paternal grandmother, Mary (Miriam) Geller, also from Russia, had been in New York since early childhood. She met and married my grandfather here. Read more »
By Daniela Sciaky
My parents, Isaac and Isabella Sciaky, escaped Salonika in 1943 or 1944, after the Nazis took over from the Italians. In Athens they were hidden by righteous gentiles until the day someone told the Nazis. They escaped and eventually ended up in Palestine but, with the prospect of war, my parents returned to Greece. In Greece, a civil war was also looming. They had had enough of war and made plans to join my mother’s brother in Colombia. In 1948 they traveled to the US, staying in New York City with my mother’s sister. My mother was six months pregnant. My father, who had been a lawyer in Greece, became a jobber in the garment center. My mother took care of me and was offered a position to teach languages. They moved to an apartment on West End Avenue, just four blocks from BJ. In 1955 they self-deported to Colombia, trying to preserve any chance they had of returning to the US. Read more »
By Malka Margolies
By an accident of fate, I am a first-generation American on my father’s side, born in Brooklyn and raised in Kansas City. But that is a far cry from my beloved father’s roots. My father, Rabbi Moshe Bezalel Margolies z”l (Americanized, much to his chagrin, to Morris B.), was a seventh-generation Israeli on his mother’s side, born in what was then Palestine. Read more »
By Frima Fox Hofrichter
Both my paternal grandparents and those of my late husband, Larry, each left “Russia” more than 100 years ago. In 2008, we decided to embark on a “roots” journey through Eastern Ukraine. Larry’s paternal grandfather, Harry, came from Gusaton and my grandparents, Frima and Joseph, from nearby Brahilov. In each of these towns, we learned that there were no Jews there any longer (people were sure of that). There were markers throughout the region of massacres by the Nazis, which took place in September 1941, 40-50 years after the major pogroms that had prompted our grandparents to leave. Surprisingly, however, both towns still had their old synagogues—boarded up, abandoned, but somehow still standing as echoes through time of what was once there: alive, vibrant communities. Read more »
By Bob Owens
My late parents always referred to themselves as refugees. Passover was not just Moses’ and the Children of Israel’s story, it was very much their own story, too. From our earliest years, my brother, sister, and I can remember the way our mom and dad choked up when they set aside the formal text to recount their own trials getting out of Hitler-occupied Austria alive, and the good fortune they had found in their promised land, America. Read more »
By Lorraine Korn
The story of my father, David Korn
My grandfather emigrated from Komarow, Russia (now Poland), to New York on July 25, 1911, where he worked to purchase tickets for his family. His oldest son arrived on June 27, 1914, with the plan that the rest of the family would follow. On July 28, 1914, World War I began and the rest of the family was unable to leave Komarow due to the fighting in Europe and the halt on passenger ships crossing the Atlantic. The small town was subject to fighting and cavalry battles between the Russians and the Austrians. After the war, there was a pogrom by the Cossacks, who broke into my family’s home and stole their valuables, including their tickets to the United States. Read more »
By Susan Charney
It was 1948. I was nine years old when, on a peaceful afternoon, the bell to our apartment rang from the building’s entry downstairs. There was a knock on our front door. Two faceless men wearing dark raincoats entered our apartment. One of the men said he wanted just to talk with me “a little bit.” He had a smile on his face and proceeded to chat. I sensed a sinister presence behind the smile. He was searching for some kind of incriminating evidence against my parents. My mind spun, searching for words—what to say, what not to say. My parents had forewarned me that if I was ever questioned I was not to reveal anything. But what was “anything”? Read more »
By Emily Lefton Goldstein
My maternal grandfather, Louis Lefton, A”H, grew up in a small shtetl called Andrzejewo in Eastern Poland. He was the youngest of seven children, and his mother died when he was three years old. When my grandfather was still very young, his oldest brother Hymie left for America. Hymie became successful in business and eventually brought another brother and sister to America. By the time my grandfather was in his twenties, only he and his brother Anschel were left at home with their father. Read more »
By Maya Rackoff
For the past four years, I have been volunteering in a gan (kindergarten) in South Tel Aviv where Sudanese and Eritrean refugees live. In 2008, the earliest asylum seekers started escaping from their countries because of war and dictatorships. Read more »
Written by Kate Rice, BJ Refugee & Immigration Committee Member
Small decisions can change the course of a lifetime. And so it was when Turyalai Hotak, 19 years old at the time, decided to learn English. The young Afghan man was already busy going to school and working in his father’s body shop on the outskirts of Kabul. But he saw opportunity in learning English, the lingua franca of the world. Read more »
By Allison Mishkin
Like many millennial Jews, my grandparents were Eastern European refugees. My grandpa, Eli, left Poland in 1938 to attend University in Palestine. He was lucky to have left when he did—the rest of his family perished, while my grandpa went on to receive the Technion’s first-ever PhD. Similarly, in 1940, my grandma, Esther, left her family in Kovno for college in Vilna. This separation set in motion a course of events ensuring her survival, if not her family’s. Read more »
By Ilene Richman
My paternal grandfather came to America in the early 1900s from Kaments-Podolsk in the Ukraine. It was a time of pogroms and he was a young married man who, like many of his friends, made the decision to go to America. His journey began, hidden from sight, in the back of a horse-drawn cart. When asked if he was hiding from the police, he answered, “No, from my mother.” An imposing woman, she knew her son’s leaving meant she would be unlikely to ever to see him again. His wife and infant child were left behind, but he had plans to bring them over as soon as he was settled.
By Ellen Schecter
My grandmother and her sisters all had red hair: Sarah’s was auburn, Rosie’s reddish-brown, and Celia’s the color of carrots. Their father, Wolf Davinsky, had a red beard and was a dairy farmer in Fastav, Ukraine—a village so small that the nose of a horse would be leaving town while the tail was entering. In 1903, pogroms became so brutal that Wolf left for America, promising to bring his family as soon as possible.
By Carl Stern
I was born in 1928, in Nieder Ohmen, a village in Hessen, Germany. My father served in the German Army in World War I, and the Stern family can be traced back to this German town as early as 1750. The town had about 2,500 residents, of which approximately 100 were Jewish. The synagogue was situated in a building attached to our home and owned by my parents. In 1936, the town passed an ordinance restricting Jewish children from attending the public school. My sister and I were enrolled in a Jewish boarding school in Bad Nauheim.
By Isabel Berkowitz
My grandparents all arrived in the United States from Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia in the early 1900s. Always curious to see where they had come from, in 1987 I signed up with a group of educators who were traveling for three weeks to Moscow, Leningrad, and the Caucasus Mountains. But I had a secret goal as well: to visit “refuseniks” (Jews who had been fired from their jobs when they applied to leave for Israel) in all the cities I visited. My plan was to gather information on each person and pass it on to a lawyer here in New York who would help them leave through legal means. Read more »
By Donald Isler
My mother, Charlotte Nussbaum Isler, is the only person I know who auditioned on a musical instrument to get into the United States. She and her family lived in Stuttgart, Germany, where they survived the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9, 1938. Like most Jewish men throughout Germany, my grandfather was arrested that day, though fortunately he was released a few days later. My mother, in her early teens, was feisty then, as she still can be today when she finds it necessary. She was sent to the principal’s office he, a Nazi, informed her that he could not guarantee her safety and that she could thus no longer attend the school. Of course, that was nonsense. She was being thrown out of school because she was Jewish. My mother answered “Why? I don’t see anyone walking around the school with guns!” Read more »
By Judith Rosenbaum
My bedtime stories were often of my grandparents’ lives back in the Old Country.
Before WWI, my grandfather Max was in America, looking for work and intending to send for my grandmother Molly and my aunt Ruth. When World War I began, Grandma Molly and Aunt Ruth were stuck in the shtetl of Goniondz in what my mother always called Russia-Poland; part of what is now Belarus.
By Stephen Stulman
In May 1939, at the age of five, my late wife, Elga, came to New York from the city of Kassel, western Germany, together with her parents. Over 36 of her family perished in the Holocaust, including three grandparents—two in Theresienstadt and one in Breitenau Prison.
Her parents were both physicians. Her father’s family, Kron (from Kohen), had lived for more than 200 years as merchants and shopkeepers in the nearby small medieval town of Wolfhagen where the citizens voted 52% for Hitler. Jews constituted no more than 1% of the population of the town in 1932. Read more »
By Susan Viuker Lieberman
When Jewish families left Russia and Poland at the turn of the 20th century, they knew they would almost certainly never see their homelands or their families again.
My grandfather Samuel left Vilnius in 1905 because of the military conscription and the Kishinev pogroms, which were spreading through the country. In fact, he had a tattoo (quite rare in a Jewish family) on his arm showing that he was one of the Vilna protesters against the pogrom. He walked, hitched, and finally made his way from Hamburg to New York where an unknown aunt lived. He never saw his parents again, but in 1960 he visited his two younger siblings in Argentina (they couldn’t enter the US in the 1920s due to strict immigration rules). His sister was five when he left and his brother had not yet been born. Read more »
By Alex Nacht
April 21, 1941 was a Sunday morning a week before Pesach. My parents, Arnold and Pauline, had finished studying medicine in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. They were from Lemberg (Lvov), Poland, but couldn’t do medicine there because of the numerus clausus (religious quotas). Instead of waking up to the sound of church bells, they woke to the sound of explosions. Read more »
By Avishai Mekonen
400 Miles to Freedom is my personal point-of-view documentary film that was completed in 2012. The film explores how my family and my larger community, the Beta Israel (a secluded 2,500-year-old community of observant Jews in the northern Ethiopian mountains), fled a dictatorship and began a secret and dangerous journey of escape out of Ethiopia and into Sudan, where we hoped to one day reach Jerusalem. Read more »