Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Our Commitment to Community - Shavuot Passing, Camp Pinebrook Beginning

As May comes to an end, the echoes of a moving Shavuot and confirmation service are still reverberating in my mind. Despite my being the cantor, I’m not actually referring to the beautiful music (although much of our festival music is indeed beautiful and powerful). Rather, what made this Shavuot and confirmation so powerful were the primary participants: our confirmands.

Sixteen 10th graders were confirmed during Shavuot. It is not a coincidence that our tradition places confirmation on the holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah. We as a people received Torah at Sinai, and year after year, our 15- and 16-year-olds actively receive it again and confirm their commitment to Torah. The confirmation tradition and Shavuot holiday make a strong case for the Jewish sense of community. We don’t just celebrate a book (Torah); we celebrate its power as the defining source and guide for our entire people, l’dor vador, from generation to generation. If you know any of our confirmands, or if you witnessed them chant our sacred books, lead prayers, sing and play music of worship or express themselves through personal, confirmation statements, then you know the strength of each individual. They stood up as a community; but sixteen unique individuals confirmed their commitment to both our synagogue and the Jewish community at large.

On June 3rd, at 4:00 pm, we celebrate another powerful commitment to community as we officially open Camp Pinebrook with a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony (see invite below). The opening of our camp will not only strengthen the Temple Israel community, but the Jewish People! Study after study shows that a Jewish camp experience is the greatest indicator for lasting Jewish engagement. How many of you have vivid memories of special moments at camp and lifelong friendships? Commitment to camp doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to encourage a diverse involvement in Jewish life such as a religious school education and participation in Shabbat and other holiday observances, both at home and at the synagogue. But if we truly want to cultivate engaged  Jewish adults, the future of our people, then meaningful camp experience could be the most important thing we do. The Reform movement understands this, creating more and more URJ camps of all kinds and placing a great emphasis on youth engagement. How wonderful that within our Temple we are doing the same.

But Camp Pinebrook does not only serve community, it takes the support of our community to make it happen. Our camp staff (really the entire Temple staff), led by Jesse Gallop, is working diligently to create both a beautiful camp facility and great programs. And, our lay leaders are equally committed and involved—this is no small endeavor. But it requires all of us. Many have given time, expertise and money to ensure the success of this community project.

If you would like to donate, there is still time! Visit to give.

Also, join us on June 3rd as we stand as a community to support our new camp, and know that through this project we are strengthening both Temple Israel and the people of Israel.

Let us go from strength to strength,

Cantor Randall Schloss

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Shavuot - Confirmation - Community 2018

We start out the Confirmation year by having our teens read from The Faith of Israel: A Guide for Confirmation, published by the Reform movement in 1917. This guide uses phrases such as “old-time Bar Mitzwa” and “good Jews and Jewesses.” I love starting with these excerpts because the language makes the teens giggle, but it also helps the teens place themselves in the history of the Jewish community. This year’s Confirmation class will be the 106th Confirmation class at Temple Israel, joining thousands of young people who have pledged their commitment to Judaism standing before our congregation on the holiday of Shavuot.

To understand the placement of Confirmation on the holiday of Shavuot, it is important to know the dual meaning of Shavuot. The Faith of Israel describes it in the following way: It was the first harvest festival of the year, and the people gave thanks for the yield of the land. Besides, it was observed in memory of the giving of the Law at Sinai, and the people gave thanks for the gift of the Law. Both meanings of the Feast of Shavuot are important. On the one hand, we commemorate Israel’s receiving of the Law. On the other, we give the first-fruits of our spiritual life to God. Therefore, we have set Shavuot aside as the day for Confirmation.

Our confirmands symbolically celebrate the two meanings of Shavuot, both through the Confirmation year as well as through leading the celebration of their Confirmation on Shavuot itself. By choosing to participate in Confirmation, young people  symbolically receive the Torah at Sinai by studying Jewish tradition and declaring its place in their lives. They also symbolically offer their "first-fruits" by articulating their individual understandings of God and prayer, and choosing for themselves elements of Jewish practice that add meaning to their lives.

Shavuot, however, is not a holiday only for Confirmation students. The dual meanings of Shavuot issue an invitation to each one of us to consider, and confirm, the role that Judaism plays in our lives. We can each ask of ourselves, how do I receive Torah in my life? and, how do I offer the fruits of my spiritual life through prayer or action? Whether you celebrated your Confirmation or not, we can all see Shavuot as an opportunity to stand at Sinai and confirm our Jewish identities and commitments.

If we need further inspiration, May is a month full of celebrating exemplars of Jewish life in our community. At the 110th Anniversary Gala on May 5 we will celebrate the illustrious history of our community along with Cantor Helene Reps, Beverly Hoffmann and Amy Bass; three women who repeatedly confirm their Judaism through a diversity of volunteer activities, on-going study and religious expression. On May 11, we will bless our High School Graduates, young adults who have expressed their Judaism in the classroom, on the bimah, as role models to our children, in our youth groups and on the basketball court. And on May 19 and 20, as we celebrate the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai, we will be led in worship by our newest class of Confirmands.

May this month be a month when we are all inspired to stand again at Sinai and receive Torah for ourselves, each in our own way.

Rabbi Beth Nichols

For more information on celebrating Shavuot, click here!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Yom Huledet Samech l'vashingtone (Happy Birthday to Washington)!

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," declared Shakespeare's Juliet about her beloved Romeo. The upshot of this line is to imply that names do not matter, actions do.  While I am in full support of the notion that actions mean quite a lot - a notion that Jewish values completely supports - I believe that names are equally important and so does Judaism. For the ancient rabbis, it was a near heresy to quote Jewish law without giving the appropriate attribution to the rabbi who conceived the law or legal concept. It was considered theft! Perhaps this was an early version of intellectual property rights, but it seems that it went far deeper than just giving credit where credit was due. A name, when given the proper respect will endure forever. 
Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center,  derives its very name from this concept.  People who have a working knowledge of Hebrew might assume that the words yad vashem mean "hand and name." But, a yad is not only a hand in biblical Hebrew, it is a monument and shem is not just a name - but a name that endures. The words yad vashem come directly from a verse in the Book of Isaiah, "I will give them, in My house, and within My walls, a monument and a name - better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish." (56: 5) The establishment of Yad Vashem, the museum, was meant to be both the place of the Jewish people's permanent monument to victims of the Holocaust, but also a place where names would endure forever, fulfilling the Jewish value of remembering the dead even when there remains no family to mourn them.
I bring this up, this week, because on Monday the United States will celebrate Presidents Day. Except, we aren't celebrating Presidents Day at all - there is no US holiday with such a name! That is the colloquial name for the day, but, in truth, the holiday is Washington's Birthday (he was born on February 22), established officially as a memorial day on Washington's first birthday after he died in 1800. In 1885, Washington's Birthday was, by law, established as a federal holiday. For the last four decades, however, we have celebrated it, not on February 22nd, but on the third Monday in February (to give us all a three day weekend). This created the false notion that it was meant to commemorate both Washington and Lincoln (who's birthday is the 12th), which some states, like Lincoln's home of Illinois, already celebrated. As time marched on, people started to refer to it as Presidents Day, and thus, began to lump all the presidents into one omnibus holiday - even the short lived, scandal filled, philandering Warren G. Harding!
This is what flies in the face of the Jewish concept of creating a yad vashem (not THE Yad Vashem) - that some individuals deserve both physical monuments and to have a name that endures forever.  We can all agree that some presidents are worthy of neither a monument, nor an enduring reputation! We might not all agree on which presidents fall on which list, but I think we are unanimous in that George Washington was worthy. He was worthy not only as the first president for our country, but because of the ideals he represented. Washington had every reason not to volunteer for his role as General and later as President. He was a wealthy land owner, who could have been like most of his fellow gentry, who sided with the British merely to protect their own interests. Later, after two terms as President, he could have been president for life, as many wished he would be, but he refused in recognition that we did not want dictators, but elected officials with finite days as leader of our nation. Add to his bravery, kindness and honesty, among other laudable qualities. These are the characteristics which led both to the Washington Monument, and his name being given an enduring memorial by having his birthday made the only federal holiday named for a President of the United States.
For we Jews, Washington set an important precedent, that we would be treated as equals here in the new Promised Land. He set that tone in his letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, which I have excerpted here:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy - a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants - while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. [as quoted from the prophet Micah 4:4)
So, while many of our fellow citizens will celebrate Presidents Day this Monday, I would encourage you to celebrate Washington's Birthday. Names matter. Washington mattered - for us Jewish Americans, for all Americans. His ideals seem to matter more today than ever.
Shabbat shalom and Yom Huledet Samech l'vashingtone (Happy Birthday to Washington),
Weiner Signature
Scott Weiner

Friday, January 5, 2018

Songs That Changed the World Music Benefit at Temple Israel!

Temple Israel of New Rochelle Presents
“Songs that Changed the World” Concert

From rituals of mourning to exuberant celebrations, from rebellion to times of healing, history has always had a soundtrack to mark key events, figures, and movements. A concert at Temple Israel of New Rochelle, January 26 will highlight how music has reflected and inspired change throughout history.

Temple Israel’s Cantor Randall Schloss, who initiated the concert concept as the perfect way to showcase the recent renovation of the sanctuary, said, “Music gives voice to the important events in history in ways that are digestible and memorable and often expresses meaning beyond mere words.”

Cantors Erik Contzius, Shira Ginsburg and soprano and Cantor Schloss’ wife Leah Schloss perform to the accompaniment of organist Christopher Creaghan, pianist Isaac Ben Ayala and oboist Alan Hollander. Temple Israel’s youth choir Kol Simcha, will sing an original composition, “This is Just a Song (But a Song can Change the World!)”

A Musical Journey that Changed Our World
The evening presents a musical journey with a variety of songs focused on change, including within the world of music itself. The program features: “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, that integrated plot and song in a revolutionary way, to the contemporary, ground-breaking Hamilton, in which Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of the “founding father without a father,” blending hip-hop with traditional ensemble pieces.

Selections from Fiddler on the Roof, about a traditional village adapting to a changing world, and from West Side Story will be performed. “In West Side Story, we have music that blurs traditional lines between musical theater and classical music,” says Schloss. “It’s appealing like pop music with the depth of expression of opera. And it introduced the world to the brilliant lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.”

The program also includes selections from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan that perhaps best encapsulate music with overt political messages, from the civil rights and human rights movements. “We Shall Overcome,” for example, an anthem with gospel roots that helped expand the work of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., was first sung by striking tobacco workers in South Carolina in the 1940s and has been recorded by everyone from Odetta to Joan Baez, Pete Seeger to the Jewish Young Singers.

But protest music didn’t start or end in the 1950s and 1960s. The stark “Strange Fruit,” written by Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allen), the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who adopted the Rosenberg children, was recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday. This haunting anti-lynching song is one of the earliest and boldest political statements of American culture. At CafĂ© Society in New York, one of the first integrated nightclubs in the country, Holiday closed her set with it each evening, while waiters stopped service, and the lights were dimmed, while Ms. Holiday closed her eyes as some patrons walked out in disgust.

Just as Holiday considered performing “Strange Fruit” a sacred responsibility, notes of social justice ring throughout the music of the world’s religions. The program will also explore the original musical prayers, the Psalms in settings from Middle Eastern music to gospel, reggae and spirituals.

Following the concert in Temple Israel’s sanctuary, a dessert reception will be open to all.

Temple Israel of New Rochelle, 1000 Pinebrook Blvd., New Rochelle, will present “Songs That Changed the World,” Saturday, January 27, 2018 at 7:30pm.

The concert is a benefit to raise funds to support music programming at Temple Israel, including its youth and adult choirs. Tickets are $36 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, and $5 for children, with tots under 6 free. Special ticket packages with reserved seating and recognition in the concert program are available, as are ticket sponsorships for those otherwise unable to attend. For more information and tickets call 914.235.1800 or visit: