Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Defend Health Care for Low-Income and Disabled Mainers

Proposed budget cuts will deprive 65,000 vulnerable Mainers of health insurance. It is one of the core values of Judaism to provide for the poor and fight for their dignity. Even in times of austerity, no one deserves to suffer or die because of poverty -- it is inhumane and completely out of line with what the Bible teaches:

Is not the fast that I desire the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of the oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with those who starve, the bringing of the wretched poor into your house,
or clothing someone you see who is naked and not hiding from your fellow human being in their time of need?
(Behave this way and) Then shall your light burst forth as the dawn, your waters of healing will flourish again,
your righteousness will go before you and God's glory will be behind you. Then, when you call out to God, God will respond, "Here I am." ( Isaiah 58:6 12)

Please consider signing this petition to protect the lives and dignity of thousands of vulnerable Mainers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Locating God's Will or a Silver Lining?: Questions from Parashat Vayigash

When tragedy strikes, how do you respond? In that moment of pain do you attribute your suffering to the will of the Divine, to some more ambiguous form of fate, to chance, to others in your life, or to your own sins? For most of us, the answer probably varies depending on the severity of the calamity and how easily we can assign blame to human actions. If someone someone falls victim to a freak accident or becomes ill for an unknown reason, we may be more inclined to invoke God's role. If, however, one is sold into slavery by his brothers (for example), he may be more inclined to blame them for his fate than God.

However, Joseph, whose youth is characterized by vanity and arrogance, develops a more productive, even possibly more mature, outlook in his middle age. When Joseph's brothers approach him initially in Egypt, they have no idea who he is. They cannot recognize the little brother who they so savagely sold into slavery. According to Midrash Rabbah, they did not believe it was him until he showed them that he was circumcised! However, once they did realize that they were pleading before Joseph, they were consumed by busha, shame.

Joseph, who had no obligation to console them, puts them at ease. Instead of licking his wounds or demanding an apology, he responds (Genesis 44:5):

5. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.

ה. וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:

Joseph saw the positive that came from his struggle. He was even thankful that he could aid his brothers as a result of all he endured!

There is danger and beauty in Joseph's approach. The danger is that this approach can prevent us from taking people to account who have wronged us. We can attribute all suffering to God, and as a result, never take necessary steps toward creating necessary change. The beauty in his approach is that it allowed him to move on with his life, find fulfillment, and recommit himself to his family. In my view, whether or not Joseph was empirically right about God's role in his life is irrelevant. Rather, the critical point to draw from this story is that Joseph had constructed a healing narrative instead of a self-destructive one.

David Brooks addressed this point in one of his editorials last month. He wrote a series of articles dedicated identifying effective strategies for crafting happy lives. One of the tips he offered in his November 28th editorial was "beware rumination":

"Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy."

I am not insinuating that believing in God's providence is a form of self-deception. Rather, I am asserting that this belief system often leads us to a better, more productive place. Rumination, "self-awareness", and an obsessive desire to identify the cause of all things are often not good for us. They do not lead to a life of giving, forgiveness, and joy. These behaviors and traits certainly play crucial roles in leading an honest life, but we should be loathe to make them our cornerstones.

Sometimes the "right" is the enemy of the "Good." There are times when we need to strive to be like Joseph, adopting a narrative that heals and builds. This narrative might not resonate with our pain, but maybe that is precisely the reason that we should seek it out and bring it to the forefront of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fat Cows, Skinny Cows and the Struggle to Remember Miracles

When was the happiest day of your life? And then when did you forget it? No matter how great the day we have had, no matter how hard we try to hold on to the memories of abundance and joy, most of us forget our greatest days. Even if we remember a great day, it usually loses its luster after time, and we only retain ever fading images of those experiences.

In this week’s portion, Miketz, the Torah alludes to this phenomenon. Most of us know the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. Pharaoh dreams of seven healthy cows followed by seven lean cows. Joseph interprets this dream: There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity, and as such, the Egyptians need to store grain in order to make it through the lean years.

However, there is a part of that dream that I never really noticed: Not only do the ugly, thin cows follow the healthy ones, they also devour the the healthy ones. Barring some unfortunate trends in modern agriculture, cows usually don’t eat meat, and certainly don’t eat other cows. However, Rashi interprets this verse in an interesting way:

4. And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy; then Pharaoh awoke.
ד. וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה:

devoured: A sign that all the joy of the plenty will be forgotten during the days of the famine. ותאכלנה
סימן שתהא כל שמחת השובע נשכחת בימי הרעב:

Once the years of scarcity arise, the years of plenty are quickly forgotten. It is as if they never happened. There is something deep within our psyche that communicates the words of Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, this propensity for focusing only on present problems and not on past blessings is the source of most of our misery.

We can all think of individuals in our lives, and certainly ourselves, who are incapable of appreciating what they have or have had. Constantly focusing on the negative, their positive memories are devoured by sadness, depression, and loneliness. Even as a country, we are living through and facing many lean years and we are realizing that we squandered our abundance, either literally through not saving money, or figuratively by not adequately savoring the goodness that we enjoyed.

This portion is particularly appropriate for Hanukkah, when we are commanded to persum et hanisa - to publicize the miracle of the oil lasting 8 nights. That is why if it is possible and safe, we are supposed to put our hanukkiot by our windows for everyone to see and remember. The second blessing that we recite over the candles forces us to remember that God did not only deliver miracles in those days, but bazman hazeh, in this time as well God bestows miracles Our lives, if we are living, are miracles in it of themselves. Most of us, enjoy copious blessings even beyond our physical survival.

There are times in our lives when years of scarcity force us to take stock of all the goodness in our lives and reevaluate all of the petty things that we have obsessed upon. There are other times when sadness consumes all of our good memories and feelings and obliterates them in our minds, hearts, and souls. This Hanukkah, and this week of parashat Miketz, let us focus on not letting our ugly cows consume our beautiful ones. Often we do not have a choice about whether or not we will have a plentiful year, but we always have a choice about how we react. Even when we are scared and afraid, we can still allow the memories of past goodness to survive and allow our gratitude to sustain us during times of despair.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tzedakah on the Global Stage

More food for thought during this season of giving. Think about making a donation in someone's name for one of the remaining nights of Hanukkah -- it's a mitzvah and the right thing to do.

From the American Jewish World Service:

Visit their website at and join the conversation!

Ethical Consumption and Sacred Spending

An important message for the holiday season: Every purchase has a human cost.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!!

Great new video from the Yeshiva University Maccabeats:

The Hunt for Kosher Donuts...

This is a great article about Tony's Donuts in Portland, Maine. The owner worked with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, on making his donuts kosher. His sufganiot (Chanukkah donuts) are not only filled with raspberry jam, but also blueberry jelly, lemon cream, and bavarian cream. The best thing about the donuts, however, is that they will be making a performance at OUR HANUKKAH party at Beth Israel!

I'm looking forward to seeing the whole gang on Thursday night at 7 pm for gelt, latkes (made by our very own latke bregade), and some delicious, certifiably kosher, Maine-made donuts!

Hunt for kosher doughnuts comes full circle | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

Happy Hanukkah!!!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Circumcision and the Fight Against HIV

A great article from the Jerusalem Post:

20m. Africans to be circumcised against AIDS:

Inspired by Israeli program, men and youths will undergo the procedure as part of US, UN program.

Continue reading here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Strong: A Video by Rabbi Jason Miller

A great parody by a rabbi in our movement:

Holocaust Talk and Meditation at Congregation Beth El Augusta

Temple Beth El of Augusta welcomes the community to a Shabbat evening service on Friday December 16 at 7pm. The service will include a response by Marji Greenhut and Susan Marshall, along with their friend Susan Bardfield, to their pilgrimage to Poland and Auschwitz-Birkenau, led by Zen Master Bernie Glassman. It will involve silent meditation and prayer in response to this deeply disturbing journey.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Vayishlach: Thanks for Nothing/Everything

One of the greatest gifts that I have ever received is the gift of independence. Looking back, not having someone there to support me at every minute forced me to develop skills of self-sufficiency, confidence, and creative thinking. Of course, I have enjoyed the enormous love, support, and care of countless people, but just as important as their concern was the space others left for me to grow and define myself.

In this week's portion, Vayishlach, Jacob indicates that all of God's love and support might not have been as helpful as God had intended. Jacob says to God in Genesis


11. I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
יא. קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

Rashi interprets this verse:

I have become small: My merits have diminished because of the kindnesses and the truth that You have rendered me. Therefore, I fear lest I have became sullied with sin since [the time that] You promised me, and it will cause me to be delivered into Esau’s hand[s]. — [from Shab. 32a, Ta’anith 20b, Ber. 41]

קטנתי מכל החסדים:

נתמעטו זכיותי על ידי החסדים והאמת שעשית עמי, לכך אני ירא, שמא משהבטחתני נתלכלכתי בחטא ויגרום לי להמסר ביד עשו:

Who could ever complain about too much kindness and truth?! Don't we all want more of both in our lives? Of course we do, and the more kindness and truth we receive from God and loved ones, the more we consider ourselves to be blessed. However, all good things, even these two values, have their limit. God's care was so great that Jacob ceased to take accountability for his own sins and weaknesses. He would have been better served with fewer blessings so that he could grow more as a son, father, brother, husband, and leader.

One of the greatest challenges of parenthood and leadership is knowing when we are giving so much that we end up taking away from the people we love. Sometimes, less is more. We need to take the risk of not doing everything for the person we love so that they have the freedom, the room, and the incentive to grow. Vayishlach teaches us that even God struggles with where to draw that line, and his beloved Jacob suffered from God's abundance.

This week let us all focus on taking the risk of not doing it all and not giving everything we have, so that the ones we love and with whom we work have the potential to take accountability for their own lives and assert their unique and valuable gifts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is Compensation Possible for Damages?

Our next Talmud class will be January 5, 2011. It will be at 5:30 pm at Selah Tea Cafe.

We will discuss:

"Is Compensation Possible: Introduction to Civil Law and Torts in the Talmud."

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Excellent Video on Diversity in the Jewish World

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party

What's the right way to spell Chanukkah/Hanukkah in English? I have no idea! But what I do know is that we're having our annual Beth Israel Festival of Lights party!

December 22, 2011 at 7:00 pm.

Beth Israel Congregation, Kelsey Street Entrance

It will be a night filled with music, latkes, chocolate, and fun for folks of all ages!

Monday, November 28, 2011

This Week at Beth Israel Conregation

1) Adult Education:"When the Torah is the Other Woman: Rabbinic Marriages and Romances in the Talmud."

Thursday, November 1, 2011
5:30-6:30 pm
Selah Tea Cafe in Downtown Waterville
Snacks and beverages will be available for purchase.

Due to the noise from our last class, we will be meeting at the front of the cafe around a large, communal table.

2) Shabbat Potluck and Services on Friday night. Dinner will be at 6:00 pm and services will be at 7:00 pm.

3) Shabbat morning services with interactive Torah study. Saturday morning at 10:00 am.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Big Weekend at Beth Israel!

This weekend will be filled with great events in anticipation of my installation on Sunday.

Kabbalat Shabbat will be Friday night at 6:00 pm,

Shabbat Morning Services and interactive Torah study will be Saturday morning at 10 am

The Installation will be Sunday at 1:30 pm with a reception to follow!

See you there!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When the Torah is the Other Woman

After the overwhelming success of our first adult education program, we will continue with our "Top 10 Stories of the Talmud" series. I plan to offer classes during the first Thursday of every month. Our second class will be entitled, "When the Torah is the Other Woman: Rabbinic Marriages and Romances in the Talmud."

Thursday, November 1, 2011
5:30-6:30 pm
Selah Tea Cafe in Downtown Waterville
Snacks and beverages will be available for purchase.

Due to the noise from our last class, we will be meeting at the front of the cafe around a large, communal table.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Can We Agree to Disagree? First Adult Ed Class this Thursday!

Liberals vs. Conservatives, West vs. East, Humentashen vs. Latkes. The world is full of disagreements. However, is there a right way to disagree? And why is it that we Jews love to argue so much?!

Check out our first adult education class in the series, "Top Ten Stories of the Talmud."

November 3, 2011
Selah Tea Cafe
5:30 pm

See you there!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Danger of Moral Equivalencies

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Annual Lipman Lecture, November 16th: Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the international bestsellers, Everything Is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, will give the 2011-12 Lipman Lecture on “When Jews Laugh at Things that Aren’t Funny,” November 16, 2011, 7.00 pm, at the Ostrove Auditorium, Diamond Building, Colby College. Open to the public.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Earth was Filled with Lawlessness: Parashat Noah

One of the questions that emerges each year as we read Parashat Noah is, "How big was the sin that his generation committed? What did they do that convinced God to destroy the world?" The rabbis respond to this question in an unexpected way. The sin that they committed was not "large" in the traditional sense. Rather, the people of Noah's generation stole just enough so that it was worth their while, but not enough to be prosecuted by the courts. In both Bereshit Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud, the rabbis tell us that these individuals would:

ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה וזה בא ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה עד מקום שאינו יכול להוציאו ממנו בדין

"...take less than a prutah (a small amount of money) -- just the right amount so that they could not be brought before a court for their crime." (Genesis Rabbah 31:5)

Etz Hayim, the Conservative Commentary explains why God considered this act to be so heinous, " The Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as 'lawlessness' (hamas)to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them. This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy." (p. 41)

The true evil behind Noah's generation was not the amount of money that was stolen, but rather, the way in which the theft occurred. By playing the system and looking for loopholes, this generation damaged the rule of law and the claim of justice. The effects of their crime were not limited to the two immediate parties involved. Rather, they cumulatively degraded the moral standing, purchase, and authority of their government. The ultimate effect of this insidious, "barely legal" behavior was a society so wicked that God could not let it continue.

In David Brooks' column today, he opens with the following observation, "The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government? During the middle of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. During the 1970s, that fell. By the Iraq war, only 25 percent trusted government. Now, amid the economic slowdown, public trust has hit an all-time low. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, only 15 percent of Americans asked said that they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time."

At least part of the loss of faith in the US government is due to its inability to prosecute individuals who commit financial crimes that are "barely legal." With loopholes and fancy legal footwork, large banks manage to evade taxes and financiers can profit by betting on the failure of businesses. The current state of affairs is clearly wrong, but often, still within the framework of legality. Therefore, due to the fact that the government cannot correct these wrongs, the citizens of the United States have lost faith in the art of governance almost completely.

Part of what can be learned from this week's portion is that legality is not morality. Just because a court cannot prosecute for something, does not mean that it is morally justifiable. An ethically bankrupt society cannot stand before God, and cannot command the loyalty and faith of its citizens -- all of which are needed for the survival of a nation. Through faith, the propagation of the Torah's teachings, and the personification of Torah values, we can all play a part in redeeming our society. Communities of faith play a unique role in the cultivation of conscience, both on personal and communal levels. Let us all take part in this essential process for the safety and security of our nation.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wine, Women, and Death: Love and Piety in Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture

Check out this awesome event happening at Colby:

Professor Raymond Scheindlin of the Jewish Theological Seminary is coming to Colby on to give a lecture entitled "Wine, Women, and Death: Love and Piety in Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture."

The lecture will take place on November 9, 2011 at 7 pm in the
Lovejoy building, room 205.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Creation and Health: Lessons from Parashat B'reisheit

One of the most famous lines from the Torah is its first verse which is located in this week's portion, Parashat B'reisheit:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Many lessons can be learned from the linguistic characteristics of these opening words. The first has to do with the root that is used for creation: bet, reish, aleph. The root for creation in Hebrew is the same as that for health. The word, breiut, health, is related to bara, God created. What does this teach us? That health and creativity are interrelated concepts. One of the symbols of vitality is the impulse to create, and creation itself. One of the clear signs of an unhealthy person or organization is the repetition of the same stories, behaviors, events, and behavioral patterns without new thought, innovation, or the desire to be something better. Without creativity and creation, we are are not healthy. Even though creation takes energy and effort, it is what ensures our future life and success.

The second element of this parasha (Torah portion) that is noteworthy is how God creates. The idea of creation is intricately linked to havdallah, separation. God does not create out of nothingness, but takes the amorphous chaos of the universe and provides ordering and categorization. Often when we assume leadership positions, we think it is upon us to re-create the wheel. However, Divine creation is about using the materials at hand and making what already exists manageable, usable, and meaningful.

At the beginning of this new Jewish year, let us learn from God's example about how to how to live a healthy, creative, and effective life of leadership. Let us always strive to be creative and break paradigms that have failed us, while using the resources we already do have in order to craft a life of richness and fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom!

P.S. Thank you to Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz for the central ideas in this post. His words were sent to me via the weekly JTS Torah Commentary email!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rabbi David Ellenson on Shalit: Historical and Theological Perspective

Some of the best Jewish commentary on the topic from personal role model, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College:

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Political sovereignty in the restored Jewish homeland often means making decisions with life-and-death implications. That reality was brought home last week with the agonizing decision to authorize the terribly imbalanced swap to gain the release of Gilad Shalit.

The criticisms and concerns lodged by many supporters of Israel within and beyond its borders against the Netanyahu government for exchanging more than 1,000 prisoners for a lone Israeli soldier are legitimate and understandable. Undoubtedly some of the released prisoners will attempt again to wreak murder and mayhem against inhabitants of the Jewish state.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Jews and people of good will throughout the world have rejoiced over a decision that will allow Shalit to return to the safety and love of his family and nation. Agreeing to the lopsided deal involved great pain for an Israeli government charged with balancing numerous and competing concerns in providing for the safety and security of its soldiers and citizens. The decision involved no easy or obvious choice.

However, as so many reflect upon the action taken by Israel, it is instructive to remember that Israel unfortunately has confronted the same heartbreaking and excruciating question before. In 1985, the Jewish state had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers.

While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs remains unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis -- Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi – addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words from that time have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position adopted by the current Israeli government in agreeing to this exchange.

Rabbi Goren served as Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, while Rabbi Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Rabbi Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming “our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists,” and based his ruling on a Talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, “Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value.”

Rabbi Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives – they were surely in “mortal danger.” However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them, as an exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all Israeli citizens and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Rabbi Halevi, responding to Rabbi Goren soon after the article appeared, said he was sympathetic to the position advanced by his Ashkenazic colleague but disagreed with the conclusion. In Rabbi Halevi's view, the conditions that obtained in a modern Jewish state were vastly different from those that confronted the Jewish community in pre-modern times when the Talmudic passage was written. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the “political-national” aims that motivated the terrorists “to wreak havoc among the Jewish people” would continue regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers.

Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their efforts until a political solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government, as Rabbi Halevi saw it, was whether to “strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars.” Faced with the two options, Rabbi Halevi believed that priority had to be assigned the latter -- the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the Israeli soldiers.

If a soldier and by extension his family and all residents of the Jewish state knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, and that such release possessed the highest governmental priority, then the resolve of the citizen-soldiers of the State of Israel to defend their nation would be fortified and absolute.

In a moral universe where alternatives were limited and where the military might of the State of Israel could protect its citizenry despite the preposterous numerical imbalance of the exchange, Rabbi Halevi felt this choice was still the wisest one that the government could make in an imperfect world.

In responding in this way, Rabbi Halevi enunciated a position that provides a rationale for understanding why the current Israeli government made the decision on the issue of prisoner exchange. As its critics contend, surely it is a policy fraught with danger for the state. At the same time, it appears to be a policy that continues to guide Israel legitimately as it continues to provide unlimited support to its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on the state's destruction.

(Rabbi David Ellenson is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Two Moving Images

Israel Does not Abandon it's Soldiers in the Field. Blessed is your return home!

Mom, I'm coming!

Gilad Shalit is Home!

Blessed are you God who frees the captive. Today is glorious day for the Jewish people. A captive son has been returned to his homeland and to his family.

There is no moral equivalence between the 1,027 terrorists released and Gilad. Gilad, as opposed to those for whom he was exchanged, was held without medical care, international observers were barred from seeing him, and he was denied all basic human rights. Yet he persevered and has be returned back to a jubilant people who places human life before all other values. For Israel, human life is an end, not a means and that is why the Jewish State has taken such heroic measures to secure Gilad's return.

You can read more about Gilad's return here.

May his family and all the people Israel be blessed with peace and security.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it all (Life, Humanity, etc.) Absurdity?

Great question! Read some of what Kohelet (the Book of Ecclesiastes) has to say on the topic. We covered this source sheet this past Shabbat -- the Shabbat when we traditionally read and discuss this underrated book!

Also, here is the source sheet that we used at the Barrel's event this past weekend. It is a collection of classical and contemporary texts about the connection between Jewish ethics and eating. Thanks to David Gulak of Barrels and the generosity of our community, the event was fun, delicious, and educational!

Moadim L'Simcha -- Happy Sukkot -- Eat, Drink, and be Merry!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Simchat Torah Celebration - Thursday October 20th!

We will be celebrating Simchat Torah again this year at Beth Israel Congregation! Let us make it a success again this year! We will be making caramel apples and reading a story together at 6:00 pm and celebrating Torah together at 7:00 pm.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Local. Organic. Kosher? Joint Program with Barrels

This Sunday at 5:30 pm in the Waterville Sukkah (between the Foss Dining Hall and the Marylow Coffee House) there will be a joint educational program with Barrels and the Waterville Jewish community. David Gulak and Rabbi Isaacs will be co-teaching about the connection between Jewish values and ethical eating. Samples will be provided and congregants are encouraged to bring food for a potluck dinner!

This is going to be an amazing event and I'm looking forward to seeing you all there!

Shabbat Dinner and Services - Rain Location

Unfortunately, due to rain, Shabbat services will not be held in the sukkah. Both will be held in my apartment on the Colby campus. Contact me for further details if you are interested in attending!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Erev Hag (The night before Sukkot), and it Looks like Gilad is Coming Home!

It looks like Gilad Shalit is coming home soon! Here is a video that was made 2 years after his abduction. The chorus repeats, "there is a place set for you at the table." May this sukkot, this zman simchatenu, time of happiness, truly be a time of joy for the Shalit family and the entire House of Israel!

Upcoming Sukkot Activities: Be There!!

Upcoming Sukkot Activities:

The Colby Sukkah will be located next to the Foss Dining Hall.

Thursday, October 13, 2011, Sukkot Morning Services 10 am

Friday, October 14, 2011 Sukkot Dinner with Colby Hillel
at the Colby Sukkah at 6:00 pm

Sunday October 16, 2011, Program with Barrells Community Market, "Local. Organic. Kosher?" A Talk by David Gulak and Rabbi Isaacs (samples will be provided) at Colby Sukkah 5:30 pm

Thursday October 20, 2011, Shemini Atzeret Services (Yizkor) 10 am at Beth Israel Congregation

Thursday October 20, 2011, Simchat Torah Services 6:00 pm at Beth Israel Congregation. Come make caramel apples and celebrate Torah!

Yom Kippur Sermons

In case you missed the Yom Kippur Sermons, you can check them out here:

On the necessity of forgiving people for their transgressions against you, click here.

On the complexity of supporting Israel as an American Jew, click here.

Looking forward to seeing you all on Sukkot!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Living a Torah Life - A Thought for Tishre

This month has been one where I have looked often to Rav Kook for inspiration regarding how to life a better more holy life. I found this quote from a friend and collegue, Rabbi Eitan Bendavid:

"Therefore, the pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the
light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not
complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance,
but increase wisdom."

Let our actions speak louder than our words, and let us make the world brighter and better instead of bemoaning that which troubles us.

G'mar Hatimah Tovah. May everyone be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Missed Rosh HaShannah at Beth Israel Congregation?

Here are the sermons from the holiday!

Click here for the Erev Rosh HaShannah sermon about the spiritual guidance provided by Jewish time.

Click here for the first day sermon about the spiritual dimensions and depth of being a Jew in Maine.

Click here for the second day sermon on the importance of living wills and advanced directives. You can access the necessary paperwork for the State of Maine by clicking here. You don't need a lawyer to fill out these documents!

Looking forward to seeing you all on Yom Kippur and the many forthcoming events for Sukkot!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Music for the High Holiday Season

Yael Naim and Din Din with the song mashmauyot, "meanings."

Can Repentance Change the Past?

Come and join this holy and important discussion at Selichot services at Beth Israel Synagogue, this Saturday night at 8:30 pm.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Selichot Services, Held at Beth Israel Synagogue, will be at 8:30 pm on Saturday, September 24th. It will be a joint service with Beth El in Augusta. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shabbat Services this Week

Services on Friday night will be at 7:00 pm (Kelsey Street Entrance): The sermon will be called, "The Birth of a Nation: From the Children of Israel to the People Israel."

Saturday services will be at 9:15 am (Main Street Entrance) and we will study the Shema and Her Blessings during Torah study.

Weird Moments in Jewish History

Check out this new blog from our very own Mel Weiss. She will be producing podcasts that teach us about various strange, funny, and exciting moments in the history of the Jewish people. You can check out her blog at:

A Must Read on Current Events in Israel

From the Washington Post Editorial Board:

Once again, Israel is scapegoated

By Editorial, Published: September 12

ISRAELIS WORRY that the Arab Spring is turning from a popular movement against dictatorship into another assault on the Jewish state, and their worry is not unfounded. Last week in Cairo a mob attacked the Israeli Embassy, forcing the evacuation of the ambassador and most of his staff; the previous week the Israeli ambassador to Turkey was expelled. Later this month Palestinians are expected to introduce a resolution on statehood at the United Nations, and Israel could be further isolated if, as expected, a large majority of the General Assembly votes in favor of it.

There’s little doubt that plenty of Arabs and Turks are angry at Israel. But it’s worth noting that, as often is the case in the Middle East, those passions are being steered by governments.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who aspires to regional leadership, has directed a campaign against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and stoked it with incendiary statements. Mr. Erdogan is furious that a U.N. investigation concluded that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, and thus its intervention to stop a Turkish-led flotilla last year, was legal. He also finds it convenient to lambaste Israel rather than talk about neighboring Syria, where daily massacres are being carried out by a regime Mr. Erdogan cultivated.

The assault on the embassy in Cairo has been condemned by the leaders of Egypt’s popular revolution and by some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both they and Western diplomats blame the ruling military for failing to secure the embassy, and they suspect the omission may have been part of an effort to divert rising public unrest toward a familiar target.

In the West Bank, polls have shown that President Mahmoud Abbas’s U.N. statehood initiative is regarded as a low priority by the majority of Palestinians, 60 percent of whom said the better option was resuming direct negotiations with Israel. But Mr. Abbas fears he may be the next target of popular uprising; the U.N. gambit appears aimed in part at preempting that.

This is not to say the trend is benign. Israel is looking more isolated than at any time in decades. It is more than a hapless bystander: Mr. Netanyahu’s government could have avoided a crisis with Turkey had it been willing to apologize for the deaths of nine Turks during the interception of the flotilla, which the U.N. panel rightly judged to be an excessive use of force. An incident in which five Egyptian guards were killed when Israeli forces pursued terrorists crossing the border helped to trigger the upsurge in tensions with Cairo. And Mr. Netanyahu’s slowness to embrace reasonable parameters for Palestinian statehood provided Mr. Abbas with a pretext for his U.N. initiative.

It nevertheless is in the interest of Western governments, as well as of Israel, to resist the counterproductive and irresponsible initiatives of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Erdogan. In Egypt, the military has cited the attack on the Israeli Embassy as a pretext to apply emergency laws and censor the media; those, too, are steps in the wrong direction. The core demands of the Arab Spring have nothing to do with Israel: They are about ending authoritarian rule and modernizing stagnating societies. Scapegoating Israel will not satisfy the imperative for change.

Very Very Awesome Rosh HaShannah Video

From the Fountainheads in Ein Prat, Israel:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Israeli Song of the Week: Adon HaS'lichot, Master of Forgiveness

Another wonderful video from the Piyut Project in Israel which has showcased the traditional music of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews (from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.) Here is Adon HaS'lichot, part of the High Holiday liturgy which asks for God to forgive us for the sins we have committed before The Divine:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Mitzvah of Egalitarianism

Beth Israel Congregation has been Egalitarian for a long time. Men and women have been called to the Torah and to the bimah several times over the past few decades. It is a value that we hold as a Conservative congregation committed to inclusion. Shaul Kellner, a professor of Jewish studies from Vanderbilt University wrote the following article for on taking the value on egalitarianism one step further and integrating it into all elements of our Jewish existence:

A Mitzvah of Egalitarianism

Posted By eJP On September 8, 2011 @ 10:35 am In Opinion | 4 Comments

by Shaul Kelner

Several years ago, a friend at a Jewish feminist organization asked if I would consider joining some of my male colleagues in making a pledge: to not participate on all-male panels and to make the inclusion of at least one woman a condition of my involvement. The idea was to enlist men as allies in the ongoing struggle for gender equity in Jewish communal life.

I had conducted research on gender and power in Jewish organizations, some of it for the group that was now making the request, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. I knew the hard figures about the glass ceilings, pay differentials, and devaluing of women’s achievements in the synagogues, day schools, community centers, federations and agencies I had studied. Agreeing to the request was therefore easy, and I quickly responded, “I’m in.”

It was clear to me that the issues that my friend, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, was raising, were important ones: Whose voices are given platforms in the Jewish public square? What message does an all-male panel send about who is valued, who is worth listening to, who has something important to contribute to a conversation?

As I considered these questions, I recalled a situation a few years back when a Jewish think tank convened a “visioning the future” conference to which they had invited not a single woman. More like visioning the 1950s, my fellow sociologist, Steven M. Cohen, and I wrote at the time in an op-ed that took the organizers to task. But words after the fact are not enough to really solve the problem. Better I and like-minded men should speak up beforehand, and not allow our presence in public forums to legitimize women’s forced absence from them.

When event planners are faced with criticism over lack of female representation in their speaker line-ups, a common dodge is to claim that they are under pressure to bring in “big names” and that these are just more likely to be men. But there is a circular logic here. Someone becomes a “draw” when they have appeared in many public settings, when they are invited to be on important committees, and when they are invited to address large convenings. The absence of women from these settings is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since accepting AWP’s challenge and making a pledge two years ago not to participate in all-male panels, I have had the opportunity to invoke the pledge in a number of professional and communal settings. (Not too many, thankfully. That is a good sign.)

I cannot speak for the dozens of other Jewish male leaders, scholars and activists who also made the pledge, but in my case, push has never actually come to shove. My convictions have not yet been tested. I never had to refuse participation because, so far, not once have the conveners failed to “find” a woman who can participate. Generally, the conversations have gone something like this:

“Prof. Kelner, will you teach at our all-night Shavuot study session?”

“Sure. I’d be happy to. Who else is on the program?”

“Abe, Isaac and Jake”

“You couldn’t find any women to teach? Look, I’d love to join the program, but I’ve made a pledge not to participate in all-male panels. And anyway, do you really want to send the message that there are no qualified women?”

“Wow! You’re right. Thank you. We’re going to fix this.”

“Do that, and I’ll be happy to participate.”

Perhaps I would encounter more resistance were my response seen as an idiosyncratic choice. Presenting it as a “pledge” – a commitment that I have made and that other men have made, too – gives it a certain force that it might otherwise not have.

As it stands, the responses I get from program organizers usually include some expression of thanks. People want to do the right thing. When I mention the pledge, it is a values-clarifying moment that typically leads people to realize that they care about gender equity and need to act on these values. Significantly, when the same conveners have invited me back a second time, the problem of all-male panels has not repeated.

Many men, particularly of my generation, have already committed themselves not to speak on panels and in programs that exclude women’s voices. Hopefully, more and more will use their influence in this way.

The pledge is a mitzvah of egalitarianism. And as the sages teach, mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another. Together, we can help build a community that values men and women equally as leaders and as teachers of the Jewish people.

(If you are interested in learning more about this pledge, please contact Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community at

Shaul Kelner teaches sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beth Israel Fall Schedule

Beth Israel Congregation:

Upcoming Events for the Fall

Selichot (Joint Service with Temple Beth El)

September 24, 2011 at Beth Israel Congregation

Rosh HaShannah

· Wednesday, September 28, 2011, Erev Rosh HaShannah Services 6:00 pm

· Thursday, September 29, 2011, Rosh HaShannah Services 9:15 am

(12:30 pm Lunch will follow - please rsvp at

· Thursday, September 29, 2011, Tashlich at 2:15 pm - meet in synagogue lobby

· Friday, September 30, 2011, Second Day Services at 9:15 am

Shabbat Shuvah

· Friday, September 30, 2011, Shabbat Shuva Evening Services at 7:00 pm

· Saturday, October 1, 2011, Shabbat Shuva Morning Services at 9:00 am

Yom Kippur

· Friday, October 7, 2011, Kol Nidre Services 5:30 pm

· Saturday, October 8, 2011 Yom Kippur Morning Services 9:15 am

· Mincha, Maariv, and Neilah 5:45 pm


· Thursday, October 13, 2011, Sukkot Morning Services 10 am

· Friday, October 14, 2011, Soup Dinner with Colby 6 pm Colby College Sukkah

· Sunday, October 16, 2011 Sukkot activity with Barrels Community Market

in the Colby College sukkah at 5:30 pm

· Thursday October 20, 2011, Shemini Atzeret Services (Yizkor) 10 am

· Thursday October 20, 2011, Simchat Torah Services 6:00 pm

Fall Adult Education Series: Top 10 Stories in the Talmud

· First class: How To Fight Fair: Lessons about the Power and Pitfalls of Arguing. Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm at Selah Tea Café in downtown Waterville. Snacks will be available for purchase.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shabbat Services This Week

Join us this weekend for Shabbat services!

Friday night at 6:00 pm: Potluck Downstairs

Friday night at 7:00 pm: Shabbat Evening Services (Sermon Topic: Pain and Suffering: Can you ever compensate?)

Saturday morning at 10:00 am: Shabbat Morning Services (Learning about the Prayerbook)

See you there!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Noam and Aviva Shalit's Letter to their Son Gilad After 5 Years in Captivity

Noam and Aviva Shalit's letter to Gilad

Parents of captive soldier write letter to mark his 25th birthday: 'We know that every day that passes is another nightmarish day of impossible suffering, days and nights of suffocating endless loneliness. But we do not forget you'
Omri Efraim

On Sunday Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas over five years ago, will turn 25. In honor of his upcoming birthday, his parents Noam and Aviva wrote him a letter, which they chose to share with the world:

Our dearest Gilad,

With the burning sun beating on our heads, on the sidewalk adjacent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's home, we are trying to digest the fact that 1,890 days have passed and you still are not with us.

We have been here on this sidewalk for over a year now, trying with all our power and using any means at our disposal to break the wall of imperviousness that lies between us and those who have yet to be convinced after so many days, months, years and after mistakes it is time to bring you home.

We're here. We haven't given up, we haven't surrendered, and we have not been broken. And we are not alone. Our dearest Gilad, many many people who are strangers to you, who you have never met, think as we do, that it is inconceivable to speak of social solidarity, of national fortitude and of having faith in the State while abandoning you to your fate. Day after day, lonely and abandoned in Hamas dungeons for over half a decade.

Another nightmarish day

Last summer tens of thousands marched for you, out of the belief that it would set your release in motion. This summer, tens of thousands marched on the streets in protest calling for social justice, the public's right to live and make a living with dignity, and we and many with us, added to that call the demand for your right to live, your oh so basic human right to freedom and liberty.

Our beloved Gilad, we know that every day that passes is another nightmarish day, a day of impossible suffering, days and nights of suffocating endless loneliness. But you must believe that we do not forget you, we do not forget the fact that next Sunday, you will be 25 years old, that this is your sixth birthday in captivity, that more than a fifth of your young life has been spent in a dungeon, a Hamas pit.

The Shalit family  - heavyhearted (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
The Shalit family - heavyhearted (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

We know that you have no idea why the nightmare has yet to end, and why our many efforts have yet to bear fruit. We are trying to hold on to life though our life has become unrecognizable.

Your brother Yoel has already graduated from university at the Technion, and Hadas your younger sister is set to finish her military service any day now. And while these are supposed to be joyful and happy occasions, we are heavyhearted because you are being prevented from experiencing them.

With every moment that passes we try to seek an answer, advice as to what else we might do? What remains to be tried? How can we convince people that you aren't just a poster, a cardboard image or even a picture that can be found wherever you turn, how do we remind everyone both here in Israel and abroad that you are still there?

Recycled, tattered statements

They constantly offer us shreds of hope, telling us they have made headway in the negotiations, but each time we see once again how hundreds and thousands of security prisoners are released from Israeli prisoners back to their homes.

We see money and goods continue to flow into the hands of those who have been imprisoning you brutally for years, that the conditions awarded to Hamas (yes, that same cynical organization that is holding you as a secret weapon) prisoners here in Israel are improved and no one really manages to change anything in spite of all the talk. And our hearts are heavy. For how long?

As more days go by our concern for your health, your very life, increases. Recycled and tattered statements will most likely once again make their way from the Prime Minister's Office in addition to the usual commentary and editorials published by experts on "terror" on behalf of the government and independently.

Statements that will say "we are doing everything in our power" (five years of doing everything in their power) and will continue to inspire fear in the Israeli public as if a deal for your release would bring terror back to Israel. As if leaving you to your fate in Gaza will prevent dozens and even hundreds of future casualties.

Sadly, even when you're there the deadly terror attacks and attempts to carry out terror attacks continue ceaselessly.

Your sacrifice changes nothing in the sensitive and unstable situation in our little state. Moreover, as time goes by, we see how our nation's sense of security, of the younger generation serving and enlisting in the military, and the parents who send them, is growing weaker in light of the breach of our unwritten pact (and not for the first time) between the state and its soldiers – the primary duty - to bring every soldier back home.

Yet we will not despair, and you must hold on because we must find a way to bring you back home to us, soon, tomorrow!

With much love and endless yearning,

Mom and Dad