Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
December 8, 2017

Ten years later, I’ve changed my mind about intermarried families – December 7, 2017 / 19 Kislev 5778

Like so many college students, my roommate and I engaged in late-night conversations about world-changing ideas. Unlike some other dorm rooms, however, ours always revolved around Jewish topics. We both became rabbis, to nobody’s surprise.

I remember returning to one question in particular several times: Does a Jew who marries a non-Jew opt out of being Jewish? I always said yes, while Aaron Weininger said no.

To me it was simple: logically, if one isn’t committed enough to marry another Jew, why would he or she have a Jewish home and raise Jewish kids? Out-marriage marks a stepping out of the Jewish community. The data bore out this fact.

Aaron, for his part, pointed to individuals who bucked the trend, who married someone not Jewish but still remained involved in the Jewish community, for whatever reason. They were the exception but still very real. He reminded me that the world had changed.

Unconvinced by the other’s argument, we called it a night.

Ten years later, I think Aaron is correct. Jews who marry out don’t actively end their Jewish involvement.

What has happened in the past decade to change my position?

First, the theoretical became practical. In college, none of my friends had gotten married yet. Now, however, my peers have families with kids. I see that even those who married out still go to Shabbat dinners, Seders, services, often with their spouse. I know these people.

Second, I realize that while marrying Jewish still remains the logical thing for Jews to do, logic doesn’t govern everybody’s choices. And when love enters the picture, its heat sometimes melts cold logic.

Third, I shifted my focus from the rule to the exception, to those Jews who marry out but still remain involved. The overwhelming odds still maintain that marrying out of the faith lowers or eliminates the markers of Jewish identification in those Jews, their children, and their grandchildren. The rule remains. But without question, there are plenty of exceptions. Not most, to be sure, but plenty. And if I as a rabbi and the Jewish community can increase the odds of these exceptions remaining committed by reaching out to them, then let’s do it.

A really interesting case study is Mark Zuckerberg. Though he married a non-Jewish woman, here is someone who publicly celebrates his Judaism. It seems like the birth of his first daughter brought about this strengthened public connection to his faith. Consider that in May he told Harvard graduates at Commencement that at his daughter’s bedtime he sings her an adaptation of Debbie Friedman’s Misheberach prayer; after Yom Kippur he posted on Facebook about forgiveness; and in September he posted pictures of his family celebrating Shabbat with lit candles, homemade Challah, and a Kiddush cup that’s been in the family for 100 years. Look at Ben Sales’ article for more about this: (https://www.jta.org/2017/10/02/life-religion/how-mark-zuckerberg-embraced-his-judaism)

I’m captured especially by that Kiddush cup. I don’t know the story, but somebody in his family saw that Mark might one day want to use that Kiddush cup for Shabbat, even while married to a non-Jewish woman. That person saw potential that I, as my college self, certainly did not. I’m so grateful that whoever it was took a chance and passed down that Kiddush cup. What “Kiddush cups,” real or metaphorical, do we have that we can pass on to somebody close to us?

To be clear, I will only officiate at weddings between two Jews because I believe in-marriage is ideal. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t welcome intermarried families.

Each of us should reach out to families that have intermarried in the realistic hope that some of them can be the exception and stay connected. If not the other parent, then certainly the children. Of course I’m not the first to suggest “Being welcoming,” but that doesn’t make the call to do so less true or less urgent.

The Talmud records an amazing sequence of three stories of people who want to convert to Judaism. First they approach Shammai with an unfair request (the best known is “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot!”). Then Shammai shoos them away because Judaism rightly maintains standards. Next they approach Hillel with the same absurd condition. Hillel quickly agrees, converts them, and teaches them the tradition in a way that leads them to embrace it all, which is more than they expected. Hillel doesn’t do this because he has lax standards; rather, he sees the potential in each to meet those standards eventually.

At the story’s end, the three converts gather together and praise Hillel’s humility for bringing them under the wings of G-d’s presence (Shabbat 31a). The Talmud here gives Hillel its overwhelming approval.

Very soon, Chanukah will see us gather in the presence of family, friends, and community. Singing the blessings and songs by the flickering flames, we will rightly feel the warmth of community and G-d’s presence. We use the Shammash candle to kindle the other candles; let’s each be a Shammash candle and spread the light of joyful Jewish living.

We can’t all be Mark Zuckerberg with 99 million followers. But to our friends and family who married non-Jewish spouses and their kids, we can all be Hillel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman

November 30, 2017

We Have a State – Parashat Vayishlach / November 29, 2017 / 11 Kislev 5778

The novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, best describes for me what the fall of 1947 United Nations vote must have felt like. The world was still reeling from World War II and people were dispersed around Europe searching for survivors from their family or village.

Then, one fateful day in November, people huddled around the radio as the representatives from the Family of Nations voted for a partition plan to divide a land known as Palestine into two states for two peoples. When the tally came in – 33 states voted in favor of the plan, while 13 voted against the plan and 10 abstained from the vote – the young Zionists who supported in resources and elbow grease the foundation of a Jewish homeland exclaimed, “We have a state! We have a state!”

Ironically, the rejection of the plan by the Palestinians and the War of Independence that ensued and in essence, has continued for 70 years, was not a worry at that moment. A 2,000-year-old dream had now become a reality. It was a modern-day miracle.

Today marks exactly 70 years since that momentous vote in the UN. The 29th of November 1947 will forever be a date that shaped the future of the world.

In honor of this anniversary, take a few moments to read this attached article and gather your loved ones near to watch this short video clip. Do not let this moment pass without recognizing the impact this date has forever made on the world and reality we too often take for granted.




Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Kirshner

November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving: A Jewish Holiday – November 22, 2017 / 4 Kislev 5778

Thanksgiving often feels like a Jewish holiday to me. So much so that my instinct before the big Thursday meal is to say Kiddush! First, there’s the ample food and warm company around the table. Next, there’s the day off from work and school. Finally, the theme – gratitude – is a central Jewish value. In fact, gratitude is so important to Jewish tradition that we try to practice it every day. It’s even encoded into our name, Jews.

We should be aware of our blessings far more than once a year. That’s why for Jews, our thanksgiving – expressing gratitude to G-d for the blessings in our lives – is a daily practice. It’s why we have prayers every day. It’s why we say blessings before/after meals and momentous events. The very first prayer of the morning captures this: Modeh Ani. I am thankful. “Modeh” and “Todah Rabbah” share the same root word of “Thanks.”

One real challenge of praying the same prayers and blessings over and over is that they become routine and mere words. I experience this challenge myself too. But nevertheless we should strive for an attitude of gratitude on a daily basis. I believe that even when my prayers aren’t fully heartfelt, my intentions are since I’m setting aside precious time.

To be a Jew is to be part of a grateful people. This is true historically since we have needed countless blessings in order to survive and thrive as we do today. And it’s true linguistically as well. The Jews are יהודים, or those descended from the tribe of Judah, יהודה. Our ancestor Judah is given this name by his mother Leah because she affirms, “This time I will thank G-d. הפעם אודה את השם” (Gn. 29:35). The root thank “Odeh” becomes the basis of “Judah,” whose children became the “Jews.” So we are the people who are grateful. We read that verse from the Torah this week in Parashat VaYetze, which just so happens to be the Torah reading for the week of Thanksgiving.  Coincidence?

The rabbis ask, Why does Leah thank G-d only after this fourth son of hers? They answer that Leah could foresee that there would be 12 sons born to four women, which meant that each should be allotted three. Her fourth, therefore, was above and beyond, more than she deserved.

That’s a goal of Jewish prayer and Thanksgiving, for us to pause and realize we have more than we deserve. As Gilbert Chesterton said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Before eating dinner this Thursday night, many American families will go around the table saying, “I am grateful for X.” This is a wonderful thing. The Jewish reflex, I believe, is to go one step further and say, “Thank you, G-d, for X.”

Hag Thanksgiving Sameach!

Rabbi Alex Freedman

November 16, 2017

Parashat Toldot – November 16, 2017 / 27 Cheshvan 5778

A few weeks ago, my wife and I watched a documentary about Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy who in 2000 was a lone survivor aboard a raft with his mother and stepfather and some other family members. They all sought refuge in America from communist Cuba. All the members of the boat Elian was aboard perished at sea. Miraculously, six-year-old Elian survived. He was saved by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day and brought to his relatives who lived in Miami. What ensued was a six-month standoff between Castro and Clinton, Elian’s family in Cuba and in Miami, and the relentless pursuit of Elian’s father to bring him back to Cuba against the wishes of Elian’s extended family in the United States.

This episode boiled to an eruption when armed SWAT team members forcefully took Elian from his temporary home to reunite him with his father, and then soon after brought him back to Cuba.

The documentary concluded with the ripple effect of Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to insist that the boy be returned to his father, who lives in Cuba. The 2000 Presidential election took place six months after this ordeal. Many Cuban dissidents living in southern Florida held that Vice President Al Gore was guilty by proxy for returning a child to an evil regime. This cost Gore crucial votes in Dade and Broward Counties that ultimately led to swinging the election towards George W. Bush. The intention at the end of the documentary was to illustrate that this event forever impacted the directions the United States took because of the implications it had on the election and the greater world.

One person changing the world by design or inadvertently is nothing new. It goes back to the Bible. Before Joseph is sold off into slavery and his brothers go searching after to repatriate Joseph with his father, a nameless character is asked, “Which way did they go?” (Gn. 37:16). Were it not for the attention of this character and his honesty, the fate of the Jewish people would be forever changed.

These events affecting the direction of our history – Jewish and world – have led me to wonder: What if Jacob had empathy for Esau instead of contempt? What if when Esau had come in from hunting, Jacob preemptively offered him stew instead of leveraging it to get the birthright he wanted? What if he showed appreciation for his brother providing for the family instead of exhibiting a form of control? What if his guilt got the better of him when he colluded with his mother to trick Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob?

It is possible that this one moment forever changed the fate of the Jewish people with other nations, no differently than Elian Gonzalez’s rescue and return to Cuba shaped a soldier’s life in Afghanistan or a random stranger pointing Joseph toward his brothers that allows for reuniting and the eventual Jewish peoplehood and our Exodus. Our lives are shaped by random encounters and events. But, at the same time, they are fashioned by how we act during those events and the values we demonstrate.

Parshat Toldot asks us to consider our actions and the implications they will have. It reminds us to favor empathy over callousness, love over strife and compassion in place of conviction. These small characteristics might have been enough to change our fate for the better today, and can be enough for us to be better tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

November 9, 2017

Rabbi’s Weekly: Who Consoles Abraham? Hayyei Sarah – November 11th, 2017 / 20 Cheshvan 5778

I spent my Monday morning at the heart-wrenching funeral of Darren Drake, the 32-year young man from New Milford, NJ who was murdered in Manhattan last week by an ISIS terrorist. Darren was clearly a special soul, a devout Catholic, a trusted colleague and a soft-spoken leader.

Darren had recently lost over 100 pounds.  In lieu of taking smoke or coffee breaks at his Wall Street job, he would keep up his health focus by renting a CITI- bike and riding the path on the West Side Highway for 15 minutes, twice a day. That is what he was doing when tragedy struck.

At the funeral, Jimmy Drake – Darren’s father – walked into the Ascension Church that serves as his long-time place of worship and saw the throngs of people gathered to wish his son goodbye and offer Jimmy and his wife Barbara consolation on the death of their only child. Overwrought with emotion, Jimmy took his seat and wept uncontrollably.  The priest stopped his introductory words at the beginning of the first hymnal and walked over to Jimmy and hugged him tightly and kissed his forehead. He held Jimmy until his crying paused. It was like that one embrace from the priest was an embrace for all of us and from all of us.

That moment was the ray of hope amid despair. Like the Psalmist asks, where will our help come from when we are pained and sad? It comes from God and God’s partners. It is community: the church, friends and strangers alike who will stand with the Drake family and escort them through this dark tunnel of grief. Jewish or Catholic or Protestant or Muslim, community helps us when we are grieving. Community works as our training wheels that pushes us back to some sense of normalcy. Such is the brilliance of Shiva and Shloshim and our responsibilities during that time.

In the portion of Hayyei Sarah that we read this week, Abraham comes home by his lonesome to discover his wife who travelled by his side and mothered his child Isaac, had died. What is missing from the text are the people who console Abraham in his grief. The Bible leads us to believe that Abraham grieved alone, making the death of Sarah even more painful.

Torah is full of lessons on what we should do and what we should not do. This week it reminds us of our sacred role of consoling the mourner and being by their side during the passage of grief and loss. This is what it means to be a partner with God. Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a dark journey. Let us shed some light on the path for those sojourners.

May the soul of Darren Drake rest in peace. May we all continue to bring comfort and love to his family.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner