Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justic, you shall pursue. - Deuteronomy 16:18

As I write to you, I am screeching up the East Coast aboard an Amtrak train with my two colleagues and 12 tenth grade students as we return from Washington, DC, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. This is an annual rite of passage for our Confirmation classes, going back many years. In fact, generations of Temple Israel students (and our clergy) have made this journey. We make this trip each year, not just for the fun and the bonding, which are outstanding, but also for the important things that occur there: deep learning about our values and beliefs, soul searching and learning how to voice our values to those who have the power to turn them into tangible benefits for our nation and the world.

In my years of doing this trip, stretching back 28 years now, I have been a part of these seminars during both Democratic and Republican presidencies, Democratic and Republican houses of Congress and liberal and conservative Supreme Courts. Ultimately, that back and forth is an inherently good thing for our country. That vacillation between the hands that control the levers of power generally lead to a government that falls somewhere in the middle, representing an electorate that in past generations was likewise, generally, somewhere in the middle.

So, each year, we head down to DC, aiming to replicate the amazing experiences of years past, as well as knowing that we are headed into an environment of healthy give and take, exchanges of ideas and, often a frustrating, but importantly slow pace of change. This year, however, there was a different air in Washington when we arrived. The government is, as of my writing, in the midst of the longest shut-down in its history. I’ve been on these weekends at the RAC under shut-down conditions before. But, again, this year was something different. Added to the mix was 5 inches of snow. DC barely tolerates an inch of snow under fully staffed conditions. These 5 inches, combined with the shut-down gave DC an aura of a wasteland. Nothing happening. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do.

DC was frozen, both literally and figuratively. Paralyzed, better portrays it. Worse, still, is the sense from all around us that there is complete resignation that, perhaps, this is the best we can expect nowadays: dysfunction, despair, loathing. It was with that dispiriting sense all around us, that we arrived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While we go every year with our teens, the USHMM took on a rare role this year – a place of refuge, as it was one of the few places open in the entire city. The exhibits, moving and challenging in their own ways to all of us, only heightened the sense of despair outside.

Then, we made the short journey over to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Standing there, King’s words, from his famous “I have a dream” speech, the overarching theme of his memorial, are emblazoned into the rock: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope!” I couldn’t help but think of the sense of despair King and millions of black Americans felt then, in 1963. At the same time, that speech, on that day, in that place, was an important turning point in the fight for civil rights. In just the next two years, momentous legislation guaranteeing both civil and voting rights for all of our citizens would change our country forever.

Standing there, reminded me that in our current state of Washington despair, we too needed a stone of hope. This weekend, mine came in the form of our handful of days with our teens. Their earnest concern for our world and our country was evident throughout our intense learning. This contradicts the usual “kids today” zeitgeist that they are apathetic and ill-informed. In fact, they are acutely aware that they are living in times that are not normal, imperfect and ready for tikkun – repair. They engaged in our tradition and sources, debated ways we can change and live our values and prepared to advocate for the world they want to live in, not the one we are giving them.
Then came Monday. Plans were shifting all around us as the snow and shut-down made all of our scheduled visits on Capitol Hill tenuous, at best. Not to be deterred, we stood for over an hour in frigid conditions to get into the Supreme Court to watch oral arguments. Once inside, each of us had a little faith in our government and our American values restored. Before us, we saw the one fully functioning branch of our government, engaged in reasoned debate, questioning petitioners in a time-tested dance of resolving our national issues. In a year that has included much acrimony over the Court, it was a relief to see adults behaving adult-like in our government. I was glad that the students were there to see it. We all kind of needed it.

At that same moment, just feet away, the House and Senate were at a stand-still and a few blocks further down Pennsylvania Avenue, the President of the United States was essentially locked in the White House. On we marched, into the offices of our elected officials. Our teens, eloquently, powerfully told their story. They didn’t ask, didn’t beg or plead with our congressional leadership to do the right things in the year ahead – our teens were the adults in the room. They stood tall, used their learning, their wisdom and their voices. They articulated the future they expected to see and how they expected these leaders, our leaders, to make it happen. They were as clear and rational and as principled as those justices we had witnessed just an hour earlier. They weren’t nervous, they weren’t flustered and they certainly weren’t intimidated. They spoke truth to power. These 15 and 16 year olds were the grown-ups in the room. Just one week before MLK Day, they were a stone of hope in a capital city of despair.

We stepped out of the office buildings of the US Congress into a day, and a future, that was suddenly bright and full of promise. Snow was melting. Hopefully, another kind of thaw was just beginning.

Rabbi Scott Weiner

Friday, August 24, 2018

Rabbi Nichols' Sabbatical - "Time to Refresh and Renew..."

Dear chevrei (friends),

I am writing this letter just prior to the start of the month of Elul, the month of spiritual preparation before Rosh Hashanah. While our halls are filled with the sounds of children playing at Camp Pinebrook and Kamp Kehillah, you can also hear the melodies and themes of the High Holidays drifting out of rehearsals and planning meetings. Soon, we will gather together as a community for a month of holidays and festivals, beginning with Erev Rosh Hashanah on September 9th and concluding with Simchat Torah on October 1st.

Following the holidays, beginning October 5th, I will be taking a two-month sabbatical. I will return to work right after Thanksgiving. I am grateful to the Temple Israel leadership for providing me with an opportunity to rejuvenate and spend time delving into some of my passions. Now in my 12th year at Temple Israel, it is so nice to have this time to refresh and renew myself so I can better serve the congregation when I return. I am also grateful to my colleagues, to the Board of Trustees, and to the TIFTY Board for continuing the full schedule of our activities, programs and services for our community while I am away.

True to my nature as an educator, I am starting my sabbatical by going back to school! I will be attending a two-week woodworking school in Maine. As some of you are aware, I relax and recharge by creating. I have always been up for a DIY project, but with my sabbatical, I am hoping to add some refinement to my homegrown woodworking skills!

From Maine, I will head to my family’s home in Massachusetts. For the remainder of my time away I will be balancing my time between volunteering and researching my family tree. As a volunteer, I will be putting my new woodworking skills to the test with Habitat for Humanity’s Greater Boston chapter. My ancestry research will focus on the branches of my family that helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I discovered these ancestors through online research, and am eager to continue my research at local historical societies. (And in case anyone is wondering if Jews founded Massachusetts…these ancestors were Puritans through and through!)

When I return at the end of November, I hope to be able to share with you at least one piece of furniture and many stories. But before I leave, we will have plenty of time together, as we usher in 5779, dine under the shelter of the sukkah and dance with the Torah.

Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Nichols 

Monday, June 25, 2018

July 4th at Temple Israel of New Rochelle

Dear chevrei (friends),

In just a few days, July 4th, Independence Day, will be here and with it, the usual gaiety and frivolity that comes with celebrating a glorious moment in American history – world history, actually. I love the 4th of July. Unlike other patriotic holidays, such as Labor Day and Memorial Day, which sadly have lost their meaning to most Americans, as I have lamented in the past, I think this day is still true to form: outright celebration. And rightly so! We’ve earned it. The Declaration of Independence, and the chain of events it set in motion have truly changed the course of human history and I say that without even an iota of hesitation. The United States has been the catalyst for such good, positive and progressive change in our world, it would take volumes to recount.

Of course, we’ve not had a flawless history. How could we? Our foundational documents, the Declaration and the US Constitution, left an entire race in the category of property and women as second class citizens. Those issues, thankfully, were remedied over time. As were so many others. What is special about the 4th of July is not merely that it marks the beginning of American history on the calendar, but that it marks the beginning of the history of a uniquely American way of meeting the world’s challenges – audaciously and radically for the better – that progress serves all, rich or poor, man or woman, black or white.

I’m not my usual euphoric American self this year. Our uniquely American spirit has been diverted off of the trajectory of our history. This year’s 4th of July cannot celebrate our progressive society, we’ve become so regressive. As I write this, the news is filled with horrific images and sounds of children separated from their parents as they desperately seek to enter America as a safe haven – the same reason, one way or another, we all wound up here. But, this, sadly, is only the latest example of a regressive set of policies that seem so palpably un-American. We are a country of immigrants and refugees and now we’re turning our back on that heritage. My children are Americans of Russian-Polish-Hungarian-Rumanian-Syrian-Israeli descent. This 4th of July, how can they celebrate what has become of the melting pot? We’re also a country that has worked hard to build a shared society, with civil rights for all, yet, now, it seems the idea of racial equality is under attack at every turn – from Nazis with torches marching in the streets to Nazis running for the US Senate. What has been creeping out of the shadows these days is nothing to celebrate on this 4th of July. It is also feeling particularly hard to celebrate the end of British tyrannical rule over our American ancestors when our current democratic allies are dismissed at every turn in favor of the glorification of today’s tyrants, despots and dictators. Jefferson must be rolling over in his Monticello grave!

What is most distressing to me is what this all means for us Jews. I’m not a Henny Penny who’s wont to claim that the sky is falling and that there are anti-Semitic bogeymen lurking around every corner – just the contrary. Part of what makes the 4th of July such a great day for the Jews is that it was the first domino to fall in what would be the most flourishing and free space for us to live openly as Jews in the history of the world – more so even than ancient or modern Israel! America has been good to the Jews and the Jews have been very good to America in return. An open progressive society has benefitted us as much, if not more, than any group who has made this country home. Until less than a century ago, our Reform ancestors referred to this country as The New Promised Land, eschewing Zionism since we’d already found the ideal homeland, according to them.

If the sky isn’t falling, it’s got some big cracks in it, that is for sure. While we Jews know what progressive American freedoms have meant for minorities, we also know, all too well, what happens when open societies turn regressive. It ended self-rule in our ancient homeland 2,000 years ago – nearly wiping Judaism out altogether. It led to the end of the Golden Age of Judaism in Spain, bringing centuries of the Jewish good life to an end – by the sword, forced conversion or expulsion. It led to the Shoah, in the heartland of the Enlightenment, Germany and Austria, nearly exterminating the entire European Jewish community.
Will that happen here? I certainly hope not. In the past, I would have said never. I’m not so sure any longer. The tell-tale signs are piling up all around us these days.

So what should we make of this 4th of July? I’d start by re-reading the Declaration of Independence, it is an amazing document, still. Read it through your own eyes, today. Celebrate that it is ours, uniquely ours, and then think about how you can work to help our country live up to its ideals. After all, that statement of principles was just a piece of paper. It was the people that made it come to life. The first Americans. We, the newest Americans, are just as responsible for ensuring its vitality into the future. So this 4th of July, I’ll still be celebrating, but also thinking about my role in living up to Jefferson’s words: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” I’m not one for overthrowing the government. But altering it? I’m all in. It’s the American thing to do.

Rabbi Scott Weiner

Note: The Temple Office, Kehillah School, and Camp Pinebrook will be Closed on Wednesday, July 4th in observance of Independence Day.

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 www.tinr.org/donation 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: www.tinr.org/SongsThatChangedTheWorld