Archive for November, 2009

Thanksgiving Jew.0

November 24, 2009

For Jews, Thanksgiving is both a re-run and a preview.  Our harvest festival, Sukkot, was weeks ago.  Pesach (Passover), which won’t come around until the end of March, is our time to gather the family around for a freedom feast.  We are Americans as well as Jews, however, and there are no laws prohibiting us from participating in Thanksgiving’s tasty, and primarily, secular celebrations.  In fact, most people would agree that we should express thanks for the freedom and prosperity we’ve found in the United States.

This ain't Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving

Growing up, my family usually celebrated Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house on Long Island.  We started our meal by lighting candles and saying the blessing for Yom Tov (1).  My aunt’s father would bless the wine and say the Shehechiyanu (2), in recognition of the miracle that we were all together for another year.  Next, we’d say haMotzi over my aunt’s finger-licking, buttery garlic bread before moving onto the spinach salad, turkey, and sweet potato pie.

Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, per se.  For many, this is one of its greatest attributes.  Temporarily putting aside the critical debate over the real relationship between the settlers and native Americans, we gather to gorge ourselves on great food and family.  But, like so many others, my family began this day off from work and school in front of the television, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; a parade that ends with Santa riding his sleigh down Broadway, ringing in the holiday season.  For us, it was the beginning of the annual, month-long reminder that we were different.

And so, it seems appropriate that we should find meaning for Thanksgiving as Jews: A day for reaffirming our Jewish identity within and against the dominant Christian-American culture; A day to recommit ourselves to acts of Tikkun Olam, to work for peace and justice like the fight against hunger; A day to enact responsible choices about what we put on our tables and in our bodies.

Chag Samaech. Happy Holiday.

1. Yom Tov literally means “good day.”  This blessing is said over candles on holidays other than Shabbat or Chanukah, which they have their own blessings.
2. Shehechiyanu is a blessing of thanks for sustaining our lives so we could experience this moment of joy.  It is traditionally said when experiencing something for the first time.  Many people, including my Aunt’s father, express their joy by looking for opportunities to say shehechiyanu.


Jewish Summer Camps: “Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies”

November 14, 2009

The subtitle of this post is taken from the book Camp Camp. The book is a follow-up to the popular Bar Mitzvah Disco which chronicles outrageous Jewish rite of passage parties held between the 1960s and 1980s. yom sport (I have mentioned BMD to some of you and promise to bring it to campus soon.)  Both books depict a Jewish world very familiar to people who have  learned the facts of life – real and romantic – on the dance floors of our own bar/bat mitzvah circuits and during long summers spent away from home.

I spent 4 1/2 summers as a camper and 3 1/2 summers on staff at a Jewish overnight, summer camp.  For many Conservative Jews from the New York tri-state area, Camp Ramah was the Jewish summer camp.  While the vast majority of my hometown was Jewish, at camp everyone was really Jewish, at camp I was immersed in Jewish life from morning davening (prayers) until we said the sh’ema in bed at night (more on this tradition another time).  We had teachers from Israel and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  We used Hebrew words and phrases to refer to everything from the hadar ochel (dining hall) where we ate kosher meals, to the bet am (meeting halls) where we performed plays for one another entirely in Hebrew – one of my favorites, “Chaim & Yossi’s Excellent Adventure,” an adaptation from Bill & Ted.

Scan 1Recently, I read about the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey which noted three activities that most are most successful in instilling individuals with a sense of Jewish identity.  On the list –  attending Jewish Day School, traveling to Israel, and spending time at a Jewish summer camp .  It occurs to me that this experience was for me what the Birthright trips to Israel have become for many young Jews.  College students who never attended camp are not too late.  In many ways, experiencing camp as a staffer can be better than it is as a camper.  For one think, it makes cabin raids a whole lot easier.

Learn more about working at Jewish Summer Camps @ The Foundation for Jewish Summer Camps website, where you can search for a camp by name or region.  Who knows where you might go this summer!

Birthright Study Released

November 11, 2009

This story is a few days old, but still interesting.  Hopefully it will mean good news for the future of the program.

Brandeis University Releases Research on Impact of 10-Day Educational Trip to Israel
Monday, October 26, 2009

Press Release

The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University released “Generation Birthright Israel” today, a research study attesting to the profound and long-term impact on alumni of the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience. The study, which focuses on the early rounds of the 10-year-old project, documents participants’ strengthened connection to Israel, their greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and their increased interest in building Jewish families.

Since its launch in 2000, the Birthright Israel organization has provided free educational trips to Israel to 220,000 Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 from around the world. This first ever long-term study of the program shows that it is achieving its original objectives of closing the gap between Jewish young adults in the Diaspora and Israel, and strengthening participants’ sense of Jewish identity.

“In ten short years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has inspired a generation of young Jews to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish community,” said Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. “With tens of thousands on our waiting list, we are well on our way to establishing an educational trip to Israel as a rite of passage in the Jewish life cycle. That’s going to be the story of our second decade.”

Read the report on the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Study

Re-Visioning the Holocaust

November 10, 2009

My cousin sent this video to me a few weeks ago.  It seems appropriate to share tonight, “PogromNacht” – The Night of State-Sponsored, Nationwide Attacks on German Jews – November 11, 1938.  (As Dr. Michael Flamm taught us tonight, the term Kristalnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, is not used in Germany because it is not adequate for describing the wide-ranging attacks carried out by the Nazis and their sympathizers against the Jewish people that night.  Also, the Germans supposedly interpreted the term Kristallnacht to meet their own purposes.  For them, kristal, made reference to the belief that Germany would be cleaner, prettier, and more sparkly, without the Jews around.)


Subj: Holocaust to Modern Music


One of the most challenging questions facing the younger Jewish generation is how to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Not too far in the future, there will no longer be “Holocaust Survivors” alive on earth to tell their stories. It will be left to the next generation to tell the story in their own manner.

Many young Israelis have been experimenting with new, alternative Holocaust memorial services, which to the older generation seem highly non-traditional, and even at times offensive, yet they nevertheless are sincere attempts to keep the memory of the Holocaustalive, and make its message relevant to the younger generation.

This year, Grammy award winning Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari and Israeli rap/hip-hop star Kobi “Subliminal” Shimoni have co-produced a hip-hop music video expressing their sentiments on the Shoah. It is called “God Almighty When Will it End.” This is link to the video. Before you click and watch, just a few words. Prepare yourselves to see something that is quite non-traditional and that expresses the  Shoah in ways that we have never seen before. I am sure that some of you, at first sight and sound, may even find it disturbing.

You should know, however, that in Israel, this CD/Video was distributed by the thousands to students in schools, by recommendation, approval and blessing of — amongst others Professor Yehuda Bauer ( Israel ‘s leading historian on the Holocaust) and Rabbi Benny Lau (son of Holocaust survivor and former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau).As highly traditional people, they both praised this genuine effort make the message of the Holocaust relevant to a disconnected younger generation. In one way or the other, may the memory of the Six Million always remain alive in our hearts and souls,


Rabbi Daniel Bouskil  Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel



Who is a Jew? Who Decides?

November 8, 2009

With Kristallnacht less than 24 hours away, an article in today’s NYTimes about the admissions policy of a publicly-funded Jewish Day School in London seems timely.  Growing up, I was taught that the Nazis didn’t care how observant a Jew you were, they didn’t care if you ate pork and took communion at catholic Mass on Sundays.  If your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish.  If the Nazis came around again, I was warned, they wouldn’t care if you believed in god, went to temple on Shabbat, or ate cheeseburgers at McDonald’s.  If your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish.

The comedian David Cross tells a story that supports this idea.  Cross was born to Jewish parents but considers himself an atheist.   During a discussion about his identity, he once told a Rabbi that he doesn’t belive in god so he can’t possibly be Jewish.  After a bit of back and forth,the Rabbi asked, “Let me ask you this: Was your mother’s vagina Jewish?”  Cross’s telling of this story (which I can’t quite bring myself to link to here, but highly recommend for a thought-provoking listen and laugh), and his commentary on it, “Oh f#@*!  They got me on a technicality.  No matter what I believe in, it doesn’t matter.  Jew for life.  That’s it.  Judaism is the only religion in the world that won’t allow you to not be Jewish,” reflects the discomfort and questions that surround the matrilineal labeling tradition.

The lawsuit covered in “Who is a Jew?  Court Ruling In Britain Raises Question,” challenges the tradition of matrilineal descent as the sole signifier of Jewish identity.  (It should be noted that strict adherence to this categorization is mainly the business of Orthodox and Conservative Jews.  Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist Jewish communities have made space for other interpretations of the law found in Deuteronomy.)  The families who seek access to the school argue that it shouldn’t matter if a child’s mother is Jewish, if she was born a Jew or converted, and whether she converted in an Orthodox or Reform synagogue.  The child’s belief and observance should be all that matter.  Being Jewish, in other words, is a state of mind and practice, not of biology.  What do you think?

Torah Talk

November 6, 2009

What a week to try to prepare my first Shabbat Torah Talk!  This week’s portion, Vayeira (“and he appeared”) contains not only the story of Sarah, at this point an old woman with wrinkled skin and no menstrual cycle, learning that she will finally bear a child; the story of Sodom & Gommorrah; Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from the house of Abraham; but also the story of a divine test in which Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac to prove his commitment to haShem.  It’s no wonder these chapters are re-read on Rosh haShanah.  There is much to consider.

The commentaries I have read on Vayeira speak to many themes including challenge and hospitality.

As this week’s G-dcast narrator suggests, challenge is an integral part of the process of growing up.  “Could you have become the independent, compassionate, thoughtful person you are without the challenges you’ve weathered?  Without the journeys you’ve survived?” Evan Wolkenstein queries.  Perhaps you will never find yourself in the desert with a baby and no water, like Hagar, or on a mountaintop tying your child to a bundle of kindling, like Abraham.  But throughout our lives, we all find ourselves confronted by situations that scare or frustrate us.  We ask “Why?  Why me?  Why now?”  I see no harm in some momentary self-pity, but  as Vayeira teaches,  I encourage you to not let that be the end of it.  Try to find the lesson inherent in that challenge.  Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?  How can I use this to help me grow?”

As Vayeira begins, Abraham is attending to some unexpected guests.  During this week’s Shabbat service, we will be reading a story called “Home For Shabbat” by Deena Yellin.  Yellin’s story reminds us that, as Jews, we will always have friends spread across the diaspora, as well as in Israel.  It reminds us to treat others as we’d like to be treated.  To welcome guests for someday we may be in need of welcoming.  Can you think of a time you welcomed a stranger?  Can you think of a time that a stranger welcomed you?

Shabbat Shalom (TGIF in Jewish)