Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Go to Hell Christopher Hitchens!

Christopher Hitchens, the most famous Atheist in the world, returned to the earth from where he came.  I have read a great deal of Hitchens books, including God is Not Great, and his memoir Hitch 22, and I watched all the debates on Youtube.

I have always been fascinated with Hitchens and since his death I have been meaning to post a few of the thoughts that I have had about Hitchens over the last couple of years.
  • He was a great debater.  He crushed Shmuley Boteach, and he completely intimidated David Wolpe.  However, I feel like he crossed the line with Harold Kushner.  Anyone who knows Harold Kushner knows that he is perhaps one of the most caring and sensitive people in the world.  Who more knows about suffering of children than Kushner who lost a child to a terrible illness?  And yet Hitchens makes him appear to be a monster for not considering circumcision to be a crime.  The only one who I felt defeated Hitchens was Al Sharpton.  I think that says a lot about how we should view these types of debates.
  • There is a well written piece about how Hitchens attitude and opinions about Judaism could be easily construed as blatant anti semitism.  I have to agree with that.  I am sure Hitchens had more than his share of Jewish friends, not to mention that he was a classic product of a Jewish mother.  Never the less, when he writes about religious Jews you get the image that comes to mind is the Nazi propaganda caricature of a Jew.
  • I did not trust Hitchens as a writer.  His knowledge of Judaism was made up of half truths or blatant falsehoods, most if not all of which he collected second hand from writers with an obvious disdain for classical Judaism.  Yet Hitchens writes with the arrogance of an expert who has personally spent years researching and analysing the original sources himself.  Any child with a day school education could point to the inaccuracies or omissions.  I know about Judaism so I can see the inaccuracies for myself.  But when he wrote about subjects which I am not an expert, I don't think I can trust that an expert in that subject would not feel the same way about his particular field.
  • He regularly took things out of context to prove what ever point he was making.  Two in particular that I took issue with: he regularly would say how Judaism is not so nice if you are an Amalekite or a midyanite.  He felt that the Torah commanded genocide against them.  Of all people, I would have thought Hitchens would be more understanding of those commandments.  Both involve nations that were actively at war with the Jews.  In fact, regarding Midyan, it is in the very same verse.  "Harass the Midyanites for they are harassing you."  Hitchens was a proponent of the way in Iraq.  Why is that different then Moses and the Israelites going to war against their enemies?
  • The second example is something more subtle.  In his memoir, when making reference to the war Israel fought in 1973 he says, "the war that Israel calls the Yom Kippur war and the Arabs call the Ramadan war."  As if this is just another proof that all religion is bad.  The Arabs were incited to war because it was Ramadan, whereas those war mongering Jews were incited by their violent Yom Kippur holiday.
As much as I disliked Hitchens, however, there were a number of things that I learned from him.
  • As a Rabbi I am sometimes called upon to defend Judaism in public and he certainly made me aware of the need to be sharp and articulate and understand the polemic arguments that exist against Judaism and be prepared to properly respond.
  • He gave me a sensitivity to the feelings of the modern atheist.  Hitchens was obnoxious, but perhaps that came from a deep feeling of alienation.  There are many atheists who are sincere in their belief and the truth is they are in the great minority.  They are a religion, but there is really no community for them.  Also, they do not have God to turn to in their loneliness.  It is a difficult concept, but there must be a way that the religious community can be more sensitive to atheists without being condescending, alienating, or threatened.
  • He was a gadfly that caused me to question my own beliefs.  There is nothing wrong with questioning the existence of God.  Hitchens made me and thousands of others think seriously about what we believe and for that we owe him gratitude.
  • He brought me closer to God.  In his book he writes that the world is chance.  He makes a joke in God is Not Great about how his child's ear is imperfect because it is constantly filling up with ear wax.  But it seems to me that ear wax is actually a proof in God that Hitchens must contend with.  The way that our bodies miraculously produce defense mechanisms that protect us even when we are not aware is a true miracle.  Since i read his book I have become like Pascal.  Every time I observe the wonders of nature and how perfectly the world and all of its components work in so many different and interesting ways and I am reminded of God.  It is most apparent in a new born baby, when I look and see a perfect machine with so many intricate functioning parts that even the greatest of human technology does not begin to compare to.  My initial reaction is to get pissed off at Christopher Hitchens for suggesting that this is anything but a miracle.  In my head I say, "GO TO HELL CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS!!!"  But instead it immediately leads me to praise God for creating this miracle.  I am sure he did not intend to do so, but Christopher Hitchens makes me appreciate God every day and I thank him for that. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Rashi Questions for Vayigash

1. How did Yosef prove his identity to his brothers? (45:3)

2. Why is moving to Israel called "Aliyah?" (45:9)

3. What was the "best of Egypt" that Yosef sent to his father? Why? (45:23)

4. What did Yaakov do with all of the wealth that he ammassed in Padan Aram? (46:6)

5. Who was the "Canaanite woman" that came down to Egypt with Yaakov's family? (46:10)

6. According to one opinion, what happened to Yaakov's daughters? (46:26)

7. What blessing did Yaakov give to Pharoah? (47:10)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Guest blogger from Rashi expert

The translater and editor of the Artscroll Rashi Chumash sent the following for Parshat Miketz.  He will be visiting Omaha this summer for Shabbat.  Enjoy!

Shabbat Chanukah

Parashat Mikeitz

One of the themes of Chanukah is the confrontation between the culture of Torah and foreign cultures. Torah comes out the winner. It not only defeats the enemy, it takes the spoils of war. Throughout the ages Torah Jews have assimilated elements of the cultures of the peoples among whom they find themselves. A Rashi in this week’s parashah illustrates this phenomenon.

In the account of Pharaoh’s dream at the beginning of the parashah, we find the verse, “He fell asleep and dreamt a second time. Behold, there were seven ears of grain growing on a single stalk, healthy and good” (41:5).

The Hebrew word we have translated here as “healthy” is בריאות. Rashi’s comment on the word consists of a single word, the Old French word seines, spelled in Hebrew characters.

Avraham Meir Glanzer (he insists on not being called “Rabbi”), the world’s greatest expert on the French words in Rashi, raises a question here. The identical word appeared in the Torah three verses earlier“Behold, there came up from the river seven cows, nice looking and healthy, and they grazed in the swamp.” Why didn’t Rashi provide the French translation of the word there? Why did he wait until it appeared again three verses later?

Glanzer directs us to the comments of Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, the dean of commentators on Rashi, to the latter verse. Mizrachi (the title of Rav Mizrachi’s eponymous book) explains that Rashi is not merely translating the word because the reader may not be familiar with it. Rashi is dealing with a more specific problem. The primary meaning of the word בריאות in Hebrew is “healthy,” but it specifically denotes the health of animals. Its use in the context of describing ears of grain could strike the reader as problematic. Rashi cites the French word to solve this problem. The basic meaning of the word seines is “healthy” as applied to animals. But the word is borrowed to describe the health of plants and other things, as well. By the same token, Rashi implies, although in its strictest sense בריאות refers to the health of animals, by extension it can be applied to ears of grain.

Once we have established that this is what Rashi meant, Glanzer notes, it is clear that he had no need to comment on the earlier verse, in which בריאות describes animals
Glanzer uses this comment of the Mizrachi to introduce the reader to the main thesis of his wonderful book, Mayenei Agam, that Rashi often uses French for more than merely defining uncommon words

Rashi Questions for Miketz

1. How does Rashi interpret the word Chartumim? (41:8)
2. How did the Chartumim interpret Pharoah's dreams? (41:8)
3. What word in this week's parshah appears nowhere else in the Torah? (41:45)
4. What mitzvah did Yosef tell the Egyptians to keep? (41:55)
5. Why was Yosef able to recognize his brothers while they could not recognize him? (42:8)
6. Who was Yosef's interpreter?  (42:23)
7. Where in the parshah is there a kal va'chomer? (44:8)

Travel Blog #5

Home at last.  The last days of our trip were spent in new York.  On Tuesday we drove from Baltimore straight to New York City were we met up with Miriam's sisters.  One of her sisters just got promoted at work and as a result will be moving to Sydney, Australia!  She asked me if I knew anything about the Jewish community in Sydney. I said, if you think that I don't then you don't know me very well.  Of course I do.  I happen to be good friends with Rabbi Gad Krebs, a dynamic young Rabbi of a large shul in a suburb of Sydney. 
Gad is a really great Rabbi.  His shul recently suffered a terribly catastrophe. In the middle of the night before the first day of Rosh Hashana a fire broke out in his shul.  Fortunately, nobody was injured, but the shul suffered millions of dollars in damage. Someone had to come and knock on Gad's door in the middle of the night.  He had only a few hours to figure out what to do when 1,500 people showed up the next morning for high holiday services - and because it was Yom Tov he could not use phones, e-mail, facebook, or any other kind of technology.
But Gad said the entire community was there to help and they secured a number of different nearby locations to host them for the two days of the holiday.  Since then Gad has been working to get his community through this disaster and rebuild bigger and stronger than before. 
I e-mailed him and said, "Gad, good news, you now have a new member."  I heard that his community is very special and maybe Miriam and I will have a chance to visit my sister-in-law and see it in person.
We lit Candles for the first night of Chanuka with my sisters-in-law in New York City.  Looking out the window of her apartment we could see dozens of apartments with Chanuka candles as well.  It was truly a beautiful sight.
The next morning Miriam and I made one more trip to Yeshiva University.  First I went to meet an old friend of mine, Rabbi Mark Spear, who is now the head of student campus life.  He asked me how things are in Omaha.  Among other things I told him about the Teens 4 Israel program that we started at Beth Israel.  Teens 4 Israel is an Israel advocacy program that uses AIPAC and other valuable resources to educate and train Omaha teens on how they can educate others in their schools about Israel.  Mark loved the idea and said he wants to connect our Omaha teens with some of the active Israel advocates on campus at Yeshiva University.  I really look forward to working together with them on this.
I was fortunate to run into many friends of mine from the past.  I ran into my old friend Rabbi Menashe East.  Rabbi East is the Rabbi of a shul in Randolph, New Jersey.
I also saw my good friend Rabbi Gideon Shloush who is the Rabbi of a shul in New York City. 
Earlier on my trip I had run into Richard Joel, the president of the University, and he asked me to stop by. 
So on Wednesday we had a short meeting.  He told me that he is proud to have students like me who are taking what they learned in YU to serve Jewish communities around the world.  He also wanted me to know that Yeshiva University is there to help me and my community and that I should be in contact with the right people at YU to see what resources are available for Omaha. 
The time of our meeting was incredibly fortunate for me.  Periodically, Richard Joel has a meeting in his office with all of the Rosh Yeshivas from Yeshiva University.  It so happens that I was scheduled to meet with the president right before that meeting. 
I hit the Torah Jackpot!!  As the president and I exited his office about 30 world renowned Torah scholars and educators from YU were arriving.  Pondering how all of that collective Torah wisdom was filling up the conference room was overwhelming!  I had a few minutes to speak with some of the Rabbis who I was more familiar with in my time at Yeshiva.  There was Rabbi Elchanan Adler, Rabbi. Mordechai Willig, Daniel Feldman, Ozer Yeshaya Glickman, among others.  I also got to speak with the former president and current chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm.  Rabbi Lamm commended me for taking the initiative to go out to Nebraska and said that the University was proud of me.  It was truly a great compliment. 
That night Miriam and I went out with her grandparents who live in Linden, New Jersey (where my good friend Josh Hess happens to be the Rabbi) and we lit Chanukah candles with my parents.  The next morning, after one last Shacharit at Bnei Yeshurun, my parents took us to the airport and we made the arduous flight back to Omaha.

Miriam, the girls, and I had a truly wonderful trip in every respect.  Spending time in large Jewish communities like Baltimore and New Jersey is always inspiring.  The communal atmosphere as well as the immediate access to Torah learning is a great accomplishment that is sometimes taken for granted  by those who live there.  When I return to Omaha from a trip like this I am further inspired to work harder than ever to strengthen our community, create more opportunities to access Torah, and unite the Jews in Omaha with each other and with Jews around the world.  It was very appropriate to return on Shabbat Chanuka.  Chanuka commemorates the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash.  When I looked at the crowd in shul at Beth Israel on Shabbat I thought about how much we have already accomplished as a community and how much more we can still accomplish together.  I am going to make this Chanuka a time of rededication of my efforts to further strengthen our Torah community in Omaha.  Who's with me?

Thanks for reading my travel blog.  See you in shul. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Travel Blog #4

On Friday Miriam and I went to the funeral of my cousin Mark.  Mark was my father's first cousins husband.  It so happens that he lived around the corner from Miriam's parents in Baltimore so over the last couple of years I have had a number of opportunities to visit him.
He was a young man in his early fifties and he is survived by my cousin Esti and her five young children, the oldest a senior in high school and the youngest is just 12 years old.
There were hundreds and hundreds of people at the funeral on Friday and this entire week hundreds more have been through their house to pay a shiva visit and to daven in the morning and evening.
Mark was a pediatric anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins medical center, and he taught at the medical school.  He was known particularly for his dedication to his patients and students.
His mother was sitting shiva and told us about how Mark decided to go to Yeshiva.  Mark grew up in the Bronx to a traditional but not completely observant religious family.  When he was in fourth grade he decided he wanted something more Jewishly so, on his own, he boarded and went to a Yeshiva in Washington Heights in Manhattan.  He walked into the school and set up an interview with the principle.  He was excepted, on the condition that he had his parents approval.  So this fourth grade boy went home to his parents and told them what he had done, that he had made all the arrangements to transfer to Yeshiva for fifth grade.  They were supportive, and the following year Mark began in Yeshiva.  He had a lot of catching up to do in Judaic studies but by the time he graduated eighth grade he was the salutatorian of his class.  Mark had been accepted to Yeshiva University's high school, however his father had open heart surgery that year and he did not want to be an extra financial burden so instead he applied to and was accepted to the very prestigious Bronx Science school.
But he always continued to learn Torah, even through his very intensive training at Mount Sinai medical school and then Columbia University.  He was also a strong activist for Israel and the Jewish People.  He was a leader in the Betar Movement, and a staunch adherent of the movements ideology set out by its founder, Zev Jabotinsky.
I had the privilege of getting to know Mark better of the last few years because I wold visit him on my trips to Baltimore.  I spent a great deal of time with his family this week, and with my great Aunt Marilyn, his mother-in-law who was here for the week of Shiva.

On Shabbat I attended a program that was founded and run by a very close friend of Miriam's father.  The program is called, Call of the Shofar.  Call of the Shofar is an organization of Jewish men and women who experience Judaism as a vital and alive path for personal and relational transformation.   The program consisted of sessions and exercises that introduce different techniques of meditation, breathing, and discussions that focus around building better relationships with others, ourselves, and with God.  I really enjoyed the program and, although it is not for everyone, I would encourage others to look into it.

On the program I met a young man, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University, from Little Rock Arkansas. I must admit, I felt like a hypocrite because when I met him the first thing that i thought to say was, "there are Jews in Arkansas?"  It turns out there is a Jewish community of about 1000, and they are only two hours form Memphis which has a considerably large Orthodox community.  

Monday morning I gave my usual Torah teleconference class.  Every Monday i give a class by telephone, and the best thing about it is that I don't have to cancel when i am on vacation.  Every Monday at 10:30 central time we learn about 10-15 minutes form the parshah.  Anyone can join in by dialing 712-451-6000 and then access code 477412.

Today I got to go shopping at Shabsy's, the largest seller of Jewish books in Baltimore.  The store is absolutely immense and has Jewish books on every topic you could imagine, in Hebrew and in English.  In the store, I ran into my good friend Rabbi Ian Bailey.  Rabbi Bailey has written a book of his own called The Seven Ways. It is a Kabbalistic self help book.  One of these days Ian said he will come out to Omaha and talk to us about it.

Now Miriam and I are just packing up.  Tomorrow morning I will daven Shacharit at my cousins house and then it is back to New Jersey until our return flight on Thursday morning.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Travel blog #3

Miriam and I are still on the East Coast visiting family.  This has been a trip of relaxation, learning, joy, and unfortunately sadness as well. 

Sunday was the bris of my sister's and brother-in-law new son.  They honored me by asking me to be the mohel.  For those readers who don't know what a mohel is, that is the guy who does a circumcision.  For those readers who don't know - I am a trained mohel, don't worry.

The baby was named Yosef Zvi after my father's father.   Since my grandfather's passing in 1995 he has five great grandchildren named for him.
Yosef was also the name of my mother's father.  My sister had a very special relationship with both of our grandfather's and it was a great honor for her to name her first son after them.
My mother's father was a Rabbi and before he died he was the Rabbi at all of the family functions.  He was also a mohel and performed over 20,000 circumcisions in his 50 year career.

For me, the bris was special for so many reasons.  My sister and i are only a year apart.  We were very close growing up.  Both of us experienced divorces in our lives at almost the same time, and we were fortunate to get married again about the same time.  Now we both have families.  I am so happy for her that things have worked out, and I know that our children will be close with each other.
Also, being a Rabbi has many benefits, the finest of which may be being able to be the Rabbi for your own family simchas.  For my grandmother, it was especially emotional to see her grandson do the bris for her great grandchild.

Many relatives and friends came to the bris which was held at the shul that my sister attends on the Upper west Side of Manhattan.  Among the guests was a relative who is kind of a celebrity.  Some people may know that my maternal grandfather's brother is comedian Jackie Mason.  Jackie Mason could not attend but his daughter, Sheba Mason came to celebrate with us.  Sheba is a professional comedian in New York City and while not as famous as her father, she is really funny.  One of these days she said she will come out to Omaha for a Shabbat.

After the bris the whole family went to visit some more family on ("in?") Long Island.  I went to a shul to daven minchah and I was recognized by someone and between minchah and maariv they welcomed the Chief Rabbi of the State of Nebraska.  There were people in the shul who had actually been to Beth Israel in Omaha passing through for different reasons.  It is nice to know that there are people who live "out of town" who have heard of our great community.

That night, Miriam and I went to visit some of Miriam's friends on the Upper West Side.  One of her friends hosted a small get together with a number of friends that Miriam knew from when she lived in Israel.

One of her friends, Dena Weiss, is a teacher at a school called Yeshivat Hadar.  They call themselves the first egalitarian Yeshiva in North America.  It is very controversial in the Orthodox world, but it is clear that Dena is a sincere person who loves Torah.  Every time I meet Miriam's friends I am always impressed with the interesting and accomplished people that she knows.

Monday was a great day for me.  We got to visit my Alma Mata Yeshiva University.  Everyone who knows me knows how much I love YU.  I was a student there for undergraduate and then in their Rabbinical Seminary.  My time at YU inspired me to want to be a Rabbi in Omaha and it trained me be an effective Rabbi in Omaha.  Visiting YU always recharges my batteries.

Miriam and I had lunch with Adam Goldberg, the young man from Omaha who is currently a student at YU.  He has become a serious student of Torah and our shul and our community is so proud of him.

After lunch I went with Adam to learn with Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim.  Rabbi Ben Haim is the head of the Sephardic studies program at YU and he was the Rabbi who I studied under when I was a student.  I was extra proud of Adam when he chose Rabbi Ben Haim as his Rabbi as well.  The shiur is entirely in Hebrew and it focuses on learning practical application of the Torah.  Currently he is teaching the laws of mourning.  There are many aspects to mourning that are regularly practical for the modern Rabbi.  The topic of his lecture was the value of being buried in Israel verses any conflicting values like dignity to the body and burden to the family.  Rabbi Ben Haim incorporated the famous debate between Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in the 1960s over whether or not to move the remains of the great philanthropist Moses Montefiore from England to Israel. Rabbi Ben Haim is like a computer and listening to him teach Torah is an inspiring event.  I can't believe I had the privilege to learn from him every day when I was a student.  I was jealous of Adam, but I could see that he really appreciates how lucky he is to be at YU.  I hope many other Omaha kids make the great decision to learn at YU in the future.

That night I davened maariv at Bnei Yeshurun.  After maariv the Rabbi, Rabbi Pruzansky, gave a lecture that was part of a series called, "The Law and the Law" where he compares American law and Torah law.  This lecture was on Brown vs Topeka Kansas board of education: the Torah's view of race and equality.  It was a fascinating lecture and it was recorded and is available on Yeshiva University's website YUTorah.org

The next days were relaxing days.  Miriam and I took Rayali and Zoey to the park, we went shopping at the great malls in Paramus, New Jersey, and we ate at the amazing kosher restaurants in Teaneck.

On Tuesday night I attended a "State of the Shul meeting" at Bnei Yeshurun with my parents.  My parents are active in the shul and my mother has even served as the shul vice president.  It was interesting for me to see the issues that other shuls face.  Some of the things discussed at the meeting were common problems to all shuls, other agenda items were not applicable to Beth Israel in Omaha.  It was a good learning experience.

On Wednesday I decided to daven at one of the smaller shuls in Teaneck for minchah.  Most people are unable to attend minchah in the winter at 4:15 so it was a small crowd.  It so happens I was actually the tenth man at minchah!!!  So many times in Omaha we struggle for the tenth man so you can imagine I was so happy to help out a shul in Teaneck.  Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Wednesday night we drove down to Baltimore to Miriam's parents.  We arrived very late and went straight to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up early to a call from my parents.  Last night, my cousin in Baltimore passed away.  The funeral was today at 1:00pm.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rashi Questions for Vayeshev

According to Rashi...
1. What things did Yosef report to his father regarding his brothers? (37:2)
2. Who was the man that Yosef met in the field before he found his brothers?  (37:15)
3. Why did the Torah tell us what the Yishmaeli merchants were carrying?  (37:25)
4. Who were the daughters of Yaakov that the Torah mentions?  (Two opinions)  (37:35)
5. How did Potifar know that Hashem was with Yosef?  (39:3)
6. What were the crimes that caused the wine steward and the baker to be imprisoned?  (40:1)

Travel blog #2

The productiveness of a vacation is inversely proportional to the amount of time that I have to blog about it.  This vacation has so far been completely action packed, and for the first time since Friday I have a minute to share it with my friends back in Omaha.

Friday night my father, my two brothers-in-law and I davened Kabbalat Shabbat at Bnei Yeshurun. There were hundreds of people there.  The young man who lead davening (there is no professional chazzan, a different lay person leads every week)  used a mixture of contemporary and classical tunes no matter which tunes he used it seemed that everyone in the crowd was familiar with them.  The result was a beautiful harmony of voices as we welcomed in the shabbat queen.

Of the hundreds of people who davened at Bnei Yeshurun, there were many people like my father who work in New York city which is at least a half hour commute from Teaneck (it could be as much as two hours with rush hour traffic).  This week was one of the earliest shabbats of the year.  Candle lighting was at 4:08.  To be showered and dressed and ready for shabbat by 4:08 means that one cannot leave work on Friday later then 2pm.  Some jobs are understanding, however, even though there are laws that protect employees who keep shabbat, understanding cannot be legislated.  It is a great sacrifice for many people to keep shabbat and often it involves people going into work on Sunday or even Saturday night after Shabbat to make up hours that they miss on Friday.  As a Rabbi I never had to make a sacrifice to take off for Shabbat or holidays.  I have incredible respect for the people that make that sacrifice every week.  Hashem should bless them.

When we got home after shul the house was hopping.  My two sisters from Florida had come for shabbat and they brought a gaggle of children with them. 
The table was set beautifully and we all gathered to eat the first shabbat meal.  My older sister in Florida has 6 children, 3 of them are on the autism spectrum.  My youngest sister trained in New York to work with autistic children and moved to Florida where she works with her nephews.  She works tirelessly with all of the children and not only works with them on reading and socialization, but she also make sure to instill a love of Judaism and Israel as well. 
Before we began, my oldest nephew Joe showed us how he knows how to make kiddush all by himself.  I was so proud of him and my sister for all that they have accomplished together.

My father made kiddush for everyone (very nostalgic for me) and then we proceeded to eat the incredible Shabbat repast that my mother had prepared.  I remember one time my mother was on line at the supermarket around thanksgiving.  Everyone on line was making enormous purchases of food to prepare for the holiday and one lady commented to my mother, "aren't you grateful we only have to do this once a year?"  To which my mother responded, "some of us do this every week!"

This shabbat my mother had specifically prepared a variety of dishes which included favorites of each of her children.  We ate relatively quickly because we were expecting the crowd for the shalom zachor to arrive at 8pm. 

At 8 on the dot people started to arrive.  The house was hopping until after 10 and people were coming in and out constantly to give good wishes to my sister and my parents, as well as a number of people who had heard that I was in town and wanted to wish me mazal tov for my daughter.  It was overwhelming!  I saw so many people that night, but most notably, I saw one of my oldest childhood friends that grew up down the street from me.  After completing medical school he moved with his wife and children back to Teaneck.  I was also honored with the visit by one of my mentors and my old boss Rabbi Steven Weil.  I worked for Rabbi Weil as his assistant when I lived in Los Angeles.  Since then he left that shul to take the job as the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.  The OU is based in New York so he moved to Teaneck around the corner from my parents.  We had a few l'chaims, ate some cookies, shared divrei Torah, and sang some songs.  it was a beautiful Shalom Zachor.  By the time everyone left, we were all exhausted and retired for the night.

Shabbat was another intense day.  Bnei Yeshurun is so much more than just a shul.  It is a center of Torah.  There are 3 minyan times on Shabbat.  There is the 7am minyan for early risers.  When I was a kid I loved davening at the 7am minyan.  When my grandfather would visit for shabbat we would go together at 7, walk back before 9 when people were first going to shul, have a kiddush breakfast to ourselves together at my parents house, and then learn Torah together until the rest of my family got back from shul.  
The main minyan is at 9 am.  The 9 am minyan is what I call "the main show."  That is usually where there is a bar mitzvah.  It is the most crowded.  The Rabbi gives his sermon there.  And the davening incorporates more singing so it takes a little longer than the other minyans.  Ironically, even though I later became a Rabbi I never liked davening at the main minyan.  Some people prefer that type of davening experience but it is not my taste.  A big shul like Beni Yeshurun has to offer variety to its many members.  Right now at Beth Israel in Omaha we could not sustain multiple minyanim on Shabbat.  My ambition is to one day grow the shul to the point where we can offer a variety of minyans to appeal to the different kinds of people who come.
My father always davened at the 8:30 minyan.  The 8:30 minyan is in the smaller sanctuary.  It starts at 8:30 and like the baby Bear's porridge of Goldylocks fame it is not too fast, not to slow, not to crowded, not to sparse, it is just right.  Sometimes they have a lay person or the assistant Rabbi give a sermon.  When I was in college I was sometimes asked to give the semon at the 8:30 minyan.  This particular Shabbat the Rabbi of the shul, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky gave the sermon.  It was excellent.  I won't blog about it though, so I can give it next year on parshat vayishlach!
After the 8:30 minyan Rabbi Weil gives a sophisticated class on various topics in Halacha.  The text he uses is called the Minchat Chinuch, but he incorporates dozens of otehr sources and, in his characteristic way, brings interesting examples to illustrate his points.  My father attends this class every week with about 30 or so other men. 
At the same time as Rabbi Weil's class my mother gives a weekly class for women.  She has a small following of about 15 to 20 women but they really enjoy her class and look forward to it every week.  She canceled class this week because of all of her company so I did not get a chance to hear her in action.
After Rabbi Weil's class I went to a lecture given by a scholar in residence. Bnei Yeshurun hosted Rabbi David Stav from Israel.  Rabbi Stav is the chief Rabbi of the Israel city Shoham.  He is also involved in an organization called "Tzohar" that seeks to provide Israelis alternatives to the official Israeli government Rabbinate.  His lecture after shul was titled, "The Religious Establishment in Israel: Crisis, Challenges, and Opportunities."  He explained how the Rabbinate works in Israel, and how it differs from what we have in the United States.  A Rabbi in the US is appointed by his community.  In Israel, every town and city has an official Rabbi who is appointed by and paid for by the government.  The advantage is that most people in Israel don't pay membership dues to a synagogue, it is provided for by the government.  The disadvantage is that the Rabbis are then accountable not to the people they serve but to the people who appointed them.  This does not always work out well for the people and Rabbis like Rabbi Stav are trying to create a system more like what we have in the US where communities choose and pay for their own Rabbis.  The lecture was very interesting.

When we got home from shul we had lunch and spent some family time together but at 4 pm my father, brothers-in-law and I headed right back to shul for mincha, and another lecture from Rabbi Stav.  Thsi time he spoke about "Religious Zionism, Army and State: Refusal of Orders for Evacuation."  It was a fascinating lecture that spoke about the conflicts religious soldiers feel in Israel and how the different Rabbis are addressing them."

The lecture was fascinating but I missed Beth Israel of Omaha's amazing Seudat Shlishit and I missed our musical havdala which they do not do at Bnei Yeshurun.  As you can see, a lot goes on at Bnei Yeshurun, but only at Beth Israel in Omaha is every shabbat a shabbaton!!

My father made havdala at home and we had a nice night together at home as a family.  We all went to sleep early to get ready for the bris of my nephew that was to take place on Sunday.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Travel blog #1

Last Sunday my sister in New York gave birth to a little boy.  The bris is going to be this coming Sunday and my sister asked me to be the mohel so Miriam and I left for New York this morning and we will be spending Shabbat with my parents and my sisters and their husbands and children at my parents home in New Jersey.

Miriam and I made it through our first flight with the two girls.  Thankfully they were both very well behaved.
My father picked us up from Newark airport and we headed to my parents home in Teaneck, New Jersey where I grew up.  We picked up a pizza from one of the many Kosher pizza shops in Teaneck, and had dinner at home with my parents and my sister and her husband the the new baby.  My parents were thrilled to see Rayali and to hold Zoey Shayna for the first time.  Rayali loved meeting her new baby cousin and we are all excited for a great shabbat.

The weather in New jersey is unseasonably nice so my father and I decided to walk to shul for Maariv.  We went to the shul where I grew up, Bnei Yeshurun.  Every night at Bnei Yeshurun they have maariv starting at sunset and then every hour, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and then at 10:45.  Each minyan has dozens and dozens of people who come to daven. 

Every time I come back to Bnei Yeshurun I notice some little changes that the shul has made; new carpet, new artwork, new chairs, things like that.  I guess i have acquired an eye for those kind of things after over 10 years in the Rabbi business.  After being away from Teaneck for 15 years those changes start to add up and today the shul is very different than the shul that I grew up in.

And yet, when I went to shul with my father we went to the place that my father has been sitting and davening for as long as I can remember.  I was immediately flooded with a million memories of growing up in shul, spending Shabbat and holidays with family and community, and learning how to talk to Hashem in the same way that Jews have spoken to God for thousands of years.

Today, my shul is Beth Israel, but Bnei Yeshurun will always be the shul that I grew up in and will have a special place in my heart.  The other night was the Bible quiz in Omaha.  Five kids form Beth Israel competed.  I was so proud of each of them and all the work that they put into the contest.  It occurred to me that I have known each of those kids since I moved to Omaha seven years ago.  The oldest of them was 10 when I got to Omaha, the youngest was six years old!!  I think that we have done a great job of making Beth Israel their shul.  I hope that they will have the same feelings for Beth Israel that I have for the shul that i grew up in, and that wherever they go in the future the memories of Beth Israel will always engender a love of Torah, Hashem, and the Jewish people that will stay with them forever.

Today we are getting ready for a big shabbat with family.  Tonight my parents are going to host a shalom zachar for my new nephew.  A shalom Zachar is a party to welcome the new baby to its first shabbat.  After dinner tonight as many as a hundred people will stop by to drink a l'chaim and wish my parents and my sister and her husband well.  Last night and all day today people have been stopping by the house to bring home baked cakes and cookies and liquor.
My mother is also cooking a big dinner for tonight so the house smells really really good right now.
Right now I have to stop blogging and go watch my daughters while Miriam goes with my mother to do some grocery shopping and some other last minute shabbat preparations.
I hope everyone in Omaha has a wonderful Shabbat.  Even in Bnei Yeshurun I will be thinking about shabbat in Beth Israel!
Shabbat shalom.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Vayishlach Rashi Questions

According to Rashi...
1. What kind of messengers did Yaakov send to Esav?  (32:4)
2. What did Yaakov imply when he told Esav "I sojourned" with Lavan?  (32:5)
3. What two contingencies was Yaakov afraid of?  32:8)
4. Where was Dina during the encounter with Esav?  Why?  (32:23)
5. Why did Yaakov leave his camp in the middle of the night?  (32:25)
6. What was Rivka's nurse Devorah doing with Yaakov?  (35:8)
7. Why was Mehetavel's grandmother named Me-Zahav?  (36:39)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Raising Israeli Children in Exile

Above is an Israeli television ad that suggests that Israelis that move to America subject their kids to the possibility that they may lose their Israeli identity.  When asked by the Israeli grandparents what holiday it is today, they are horrified to hear their American grandaughter joyously answer, "Christmas!"  The voice then says, "They will always be Israeli, their kids will not.  help them return to Israel."

To a Jewish blogger this is blog candy!!!  What an amazing ad as a springboard for discussion!!!  As I type I am salavating!  Where to begin???

Here goes:

Frist: are the makers of this ad suggesting that location is the only way to instill identity?  Are we to understand that it is impossible to teach kids about Chanuka in America? 

Maybe they would argue that the chances are better in Israel.  Really?  In my experience in shuls from New Jersey to Los Angeles to Omaha, Nebraska I can say that the reality is exactly the opposite.  Many times I have met Israelis who would never step foot in a synagogue in Israel.  It was only when they came to america that they started to identify. 
Some of the Israelis grew up in areas of Israel that were anti religious and they were completely unaware of some of the major Jewish holidays. 
The Reform Rabbi in Omaha is a typical example that I think many people can identify with.  He grew up in Israel and describes himself as having been secular.  It was only when he came to America that he developed his deep passion for Judaism and actually went on to become a Rabbi.  He would tell you that would never have happened had he stayed in Isarel.
One Israeli woman told me that in Israel she had literally NEVER BEEN IN A SYNAGOGUE IN HER ENTIRE LIFE!  She spent a year here in the states, was attracted to the Jewish community, and started coming frequently to shul.  She made an interesting comment.  She said that Americans have spent hundred of millions on Taglit Birthright sending college students to Israel in the hopes of inspiring them.  She suggested that they have reverse Birthright to send Isarelis to the states to inspire them.

The couple in this commercial is the perfect example.  The girl in that ad clearly does not go to a Jewish day school and probably doesn't even go to a synagogue.  If she did, she would definately know it was Chanuka.  That "Christmas" remark would hopefully serve as a wake up call to those parents and maybe they will choose to affiliate with their local Jewish community, synagogue, and maybe even send their daughter to day school.  Somebody should pay to have that ad aired in cities like LA, Phoenix, and Miami where there are tens of thousands of Isarelis - but change the end to advertize the local jewish day school.

Second: Can you imagine being an Israeli Arab in Israel and watching that ad?  How offensive!!!  If I don't celebrate Chanuka am I somehow less of an Israeli?   And one does not have to be an Arab to be offended.  What if I am an Israeli Christian?  Or an atheist?  Or one of the millions of supposed secular Israelis who spend Yom Kippur by the beach or write cookbooks entirely of pork recipes?  They may not be intersted in teaching their kids about Chanuka - a holiday which, by the way, commemorates the victory of religious Jews over those who chose to assimilate.  Is the government implying that we are somehow less "Israeli?"

Which brings me to my third point:  I didn't catch this on the first time around, only when I watched the video a second time.  The voice at the end of the video says, "They [the parents] will always be Israeli, their kids will not."  It does NOT say, "they will always be Jewish."  It says, "Israeli." 

Lighting a menorah is not an "Israeli" custom.  It's a Jewish custom.  Yes, you can't be an Israeli if you are born and live in America.  That is true.  An American Jew is forever different than an Israeli Jew in that respect unless either one of them decides to move.
American and Israeli Jews are culturly different.  Americans tend to be more polite and Israelis prefer soccer to American football.  Americans go to college after highschool and Israelis go to the army.  There are many differences, but the thing that we share is Judaism.  Judaism is what unites us as a nation.  Judaism existed for 2,000 years before there was a modern state of Israel.  It was Judaism in the diaspora that made the modern state of Israel possible in the first place. 

Judaism is not defined by a location! 

Thousands of years ago the jewish sages wrote that God specifically chose to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the desert - NOT IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL - to emphasize that there are no bounderies when it comes to the Torah, not even the bounderies of the Holy Land!

This very week's Torah portion is about Yaakov when he was forced to flee from Israel because his brother Esav was threatening to kill him.  On his way out he had a dream of angels ascending and deseninding a ladder.  Rashi interprets the dream to mean that God was telling him that even when you leave the land of Israel my presence is with you.  In fact God himself specifically appears in that very dream and says, "I will guard you WHERE EVER YOU GO."

Many of us have heard an Israeli say, "I am not a Jew, I am an Israeli."  I have always been saddened to hear that.  It was the Jewish connection that compelled us to protest for Soviet Jews.  It was the Jewish connection that made the rescue of Ethiopian Jews a priority.  And it is the Jewish connection that inspires Jews around the world to advocate and support Israel.  When Israelis eshew that connection I find it sad.
But this ad, I find offensive.  If they want to create their own "Israeli" culture, that is there perogative, but they have no right to co-opt the symbols of Judaism and claim them as their own.  Let them be Israeli if they want, but let them make up their own symbols. 

If the parents in the ad want their daughter to be Israeli then they have to move back to Israel.  But If they want their kids to be Jewish, even going back to Israel will not do it.  They have to teach their children Torah and raise them in a Jewish household. 

It is surely a mitzvah to live in the land of Israel.  But the Jewish identity is defined by more than just geography.