Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
January 24, 2020

“A Seat at the Table” | January 23rd, 2020

Perhaps the most important question asked about Modern Zionism is as follows: Do diaspora Jews have a seat at the table?

This question highlights a fundamental challenge in Modern Zionism: To what extent do Jews who live outside of the State of Israel have a role in shaping the future of the Jewish state? Put differently, if you are a Jew who cannot vote in Israeli elections because you are not a citizen of Israel, do you have a voice in Israel? Should you?

Though there are many within and without Israel who might argue otherwise, thankfully, the answer is a resounding: yes! Through the World Zionist Congress elections, happening right now, Jews all over the world are able to have a seat at the table and help determine the future of our Homeland. By voting in the WZC elections, Diaspora Jews are able to shape the policy of the World Zionist Congress, and determine who helps govern the National Institutions of Israel: The World Zionist Organization (WZO), the Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI) & Keren Kayement L’Israel aka Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). The National Institutions are responsible for the annual allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars to different movements, programs, and institutions all over Israel.

Voting in the WZC Elections is the only opportunity for Diaspora Jews to democratically participate and influence what happens in Israel. Moreover, by voting in support of MERCAZ- The Conservative Movement’s slate, you help:

  • Support religious freedom in Israel, strengthening non-orthodox institutions and ensuring that Conservative communities in Israel receive their fair share.
  • Provide critical funding for Conservative/Masorti programs that benefit all Israelis and Jews around the world.

A vote for MERCAZ is more than just the opportunity to gain delegates to the World Zionist Congress – it is our best opportunity to send a strong message to the Israeli government and people of Israel that we stand for an Israel that is democratic and pluralistic, that recognizes and empowers all streams of Jewish practice, and that guarantees the civil and political rights of all of its citizens.

The online-only voting began on January 21st and continues through March 11th. Please head to https://www.mercaz2020.org/ to pledge to vote and find out more information, or by texting VOTE to 917-332-1162.

Please join me in voting for MERCAZ for the World Zionist Congress, and ensuring that all of us have a seat at this very important table.

עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה
With an eye towards Zion

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

January 17, 2020

“The Cow in the Coal Mine” | January 17th, 2020

Elsie the cow is unemployed.
She is the latest casualty in the evaporating milk industry. Borden Dairy, Elsie’s employer, one of the largest milk producers in the country, filed for bankruptcy last week. Just two months before, Dean Foods, which is the largest producer of dairy in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 protection.
So what is happening in the world of dairy?

Milk consumption is down 6 percent in the last five years, but that is not enough to lose the farm. The real issue at hand is the overall number of milk drinkers. For the last 30 years, there have been just about the same number of people drinking milk. That number has stayed static.
What has changed is choice.

In 1990, when you went shopping in the supermarket, you could choose between skim milk, whole milk, and occasionally, buttermilk.
Today, walk into any market and you will have the choice of
• almond milk
• cashew milk
• soymilk
• hemp milk
• oat milk
• rice milk
• lactose-free milk
• kefir
• coconut milk
• as well as the more traditional 1 percent, 2 percent, whole, and skim milk.

A fixed at best— and diminishing at worst — number of milk drinkers are presented with more than nine new milk alternatives and options. You need not be an expert in economics or marketing to realize that is a recipe for the industry to go bust.

This challenge is not unique to the dairy industry. Modernity, science, and technology create different behaviors and demand new norms. Ask HBO how it feels about Netflix. Ask Target how it feels about Amazon. It is not only the milk industry that has been affected by modernity, science, and technology. Business models cannot stay stagnant and continue to meet and exceed goals. They have to be dynamic and adjust with the tide or be ahead of that tide.

As an Ashkenazi Jew who suffers from my fair share of digestive challenges with milk and rarely watches any TV, I am not up at night worrying about the demise of dairy in America, or about Netflix’s growth. What is happening in the world of milk soon will happen in the Jewish world, however, and it is incumbent upon us to learn from the experience.

Allow me to explain.

The number of people who identify as Jewish in America today is not drastically different from the number of people who identified as Jewish a generation or even two generations ago. In 1960, United States Jewry was about 6.5 million people. Today, we are close to 7.3 million. That’s not an enormous jump in 60 years.

The good news is we have beat out most prognostications about our numbers. Still, we are not a larger demographic per capita than what our grandparents lived with in America. But today, unlike 60 years ago, we have countless outlets to express our Judaism that were not accessible or available to us in the past.

In 1960, the primary two outlets for Jewish philanthropy were the United Jewish Appeal — the UJA — and the JNF, with its blue boxes. The synagogue was the central address for Jewish life. Some of that was because Jews were not as welcome in the general society, and some was because we were more insular.

Now, nary a day passes where I am not solicited by phone, in person, or by email for a random Jewish cause that I have never heard of. Some are based in Israel, and some are in the diaspora. Some seem to address pressing issues and others seem to be fringe. But we are inundated with options, and many organizations are competing with one another.

A Jew deep in the weeds might be able to explain the difference in mission between the UJA, the JFNA, the AJC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Most cannot.

Do you want to support a food pantry in Israel? You can choose between Leket, Pantry Packers, Meir Panim, or Carmei Ha’ir, just to list the most well known.

What about special needs Jewish education, you ask? Well, you could support Matan, Ruderman, Shutaf, Sinai, ALEH, Beit Issie Shapiro, Shalva, and Salam.

All of these places are engaged in holy and sacred work and each is worthy. The problem is that our Jewish organizations are splintering, making us the most saturated and engaged Jewish community in the history of our existence. The problem is the pool of supporters and people who plug into our systems is the same as yesteryear.

More demand. Same supply.

Today, there are countless power sources for your Jewish identity. The JCC, the Federation, a local day school, any one Jewish philanthropy can be the place where someone finds community and is Jewishly and spiritually enriched.

Jewish leaders who have been equally engaged in non-Jewish causes exacerbate this dilemma. Jewish donors’ names are decorating the walls in universities, performing arts centers, and hospitals, where once they were verboten. This is a great thing. We cannot want to jettison the strides we have made to be welcomed in these arenas. It does, however, make our task more challenging, since we are working in the same confines as Jews, with the same number of people as we had in 1960, but with an exponential jump in demands and opportunities.
We have more than quadrupled the amount of milks we can drink in the Jewish world, but for the same number of milk drinkers. Something will have to give — and we cannot afford bankruptcy.

I have two radical ideas that can help to start to get us in front of this problem, instead of behind it.
First, we need to consolidate resources. This will require some ego-swallowing and creativity, but Jewish organizations that have redundancies have to merge. Movements that share seven of 10 things in common can join forces, instead of each making its own Shabbos.
In the Conservative movement, it is high time for USY and Camp Ramah to unite. We also do not need many locations and institutions of higher learning in Israel. We can share one campus, one vision, and one set of resources. Our physical differences force us to pull at needed resources, and our minuscule philosophical differences do not require different buildings and staff. Diversity is wonderful, but not at the expense of possibility and success.

Aren’t there other organizations that could say the same?

My second idea is inspired by Yehuda Kurtzer, and what I think was his tongue-in-cheek proposal. What if we were to make a communal dinner night at, say, the Javits Center, for 30 different Jewish organizations? One night of chicken and sushi stations for all of us, and then breakouts to listen to a favorite speaker or two from our top philanthropies? That would allow us to save needed overhead for meals that become excessive and expensive and would enable us to free up precious time on our overly programmed calendars.

Remember when we consider this, we are not failing. None of this is an indictment of wrong-doing. We are succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

In 1970, Life magazine predicted that there would be just 2 million Jews in America by the year 2000. In 2020, we beat that expectation almost fourfold — and Life magazine is out of business. But we need to learn from the cow in the coal mine.
If we do not adjust and pivot properly, we could be joining Elsie. That’s a place none of us wants or deserves to be.

Wishing you a Shabbat of receiving and being a blessing.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 10, 2020

“Asking for and Acting as a Blessing” | January 9th, 2020

Tomorrow night, as Jewish families all over the world sit down at their Shabbat dinner tables, parents will offer a traditional blessing to their children. So too in our own community, before we conclude our Friday night service, we share a sweet moment of standing arm-in-arm and blessing each other.

When we share that blessing, we recall two important moments of blessing in the Torah. The central blessing is known as the priestly blessing, which asks God to bless and keep, to show kindness, and to grant peace to the individual or people we are blessing. In this formula, we beseech God to be active and kind in the life of the object of our blessing. God is the active participant in this prayer. Hard as we might try, no individual can truly bestow these divine gifts upon another human.

The second blessing we recall is rooted in our parsha, Vayechi. When we say  יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹקים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה- May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe (to males) or יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹקים כְּשָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה.- May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (to females), we are actually referring to a different blessing, a completely different style of blessing.

In our parsha, Jacob blesses his grandchildren “ הַמַּלְאָךְ֩ הַגֹּאֵ֨ל אֹתִ֜י מִכָּל־רָ֗ע יְבָרֵךְ֮ אֶת־הַנְּעָרִים֒ וְיִקָּרֵ֤א בָהֶם֙ שְׁמִ֔י וְשֵׁ֥ם אֲבֹתַ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם וְיִצְחָ֑ק- “May the Angel who has saved me from all harm, bless these children. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” At first, he sees a similar formula to the priestly blessing, asking God to be the active force, protecting and saving his grandchildren. But the second line introduces a new type of blessing: “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers,” Jacob is articulating a hope that the children themselves will be the blessing, that their actions will cause others to remember the deeds of our patriarchs. In doing so, Jacob encourages Ephraim and Menashe to not just be the passive recipients of God’s kindness and blessing but to be active participants in bringing that kindness into the world. By sharing in the names and deeds of their ancestors, they connect the generations and bring God into the world.

These two types of blessings reflect a fundamental truth about Judaism: we pray for miracles constantly, and yet we know that we can never rely upon them. We pray that God will shower us with goodness, yet we also know that we must act to bring about that goodness. We must ask for blessing and also act as a blessing.

At this week’s Solidarity March, these two ideas were out in full force: precisely when the Jewish community feels that danger is near and divine protection is far, that is when we must pray to God and demand God’s active participation in our protection and safety. Similarly, many Jews feel that now is the moment to downplay our Judaism, to take off our Jewish Star necklaces or our kippot, to become passive in our Judaism. Instead, this is the moment to remind ourselves of Jacob’s blessing and to become active participants in bringing the goodness of Judaism and the righteousness of our faith into a world that so desperately needs the blessing of our action.

Wishing you a Shabbat of receiving and being a blessing.

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

Please consider joining us on Monday, January 20th, hundreds of Jewish high school singers from HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, will be providing a free “open rehearsal” concert at Temple Emanu-El, at 12:30 pm. They will be putting on the final touches for their Gala Concert Performance at Lincoln Center on March 22. This concert will be the end of two day-long retreat hosted at TE in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash z”l. Please see the flyer below for more details and hope to see you all there!

January 2, 2020

“Knowing Your Worth” | January 2nd, 2020

Entering a new decade, year and quarter at the same time might cause someone to inquire about worth.

Unfortunately, there are few balance sheets to offer proper summation to a person’s worth. Making it more complicated is realizing the dividend on investments made today and tomorrow might not mature for many years. But, when they do, their value will be priceless.

In the course of three weeks, two of my middle school teachers died, as well as a classmate from rabbinical school. All in separate incidents. My two teachers left this world at a ripe age. My classmate and friend died far too soon.

When news about their respective deaths reached us, students and colleagues, we immediately began to share stories and teachings that have stuck with us for decades.

My math teacher for 7-9 grades, Mrs. Jaffe, always offered a re-test and a chance to make your grade better. She gave endless hours to teach after and before school to learn the material. She invested in EACH student.

Mrs. Levy infused a love of civics and current events. We were required in middle school to wake up every Sunday morning (before DVRs) and watch one of the morning news shows and report on it on Monday morning. The Gettysburg Address, the preamble to the Constitution and much more were on the tips of our tongues and the fronts of our minds.

35 years later, I along with scores of their students still think about their impact. To see the tributes was to see maturation on their investments.

My friend Adam and I began rabbinical school together. Though he was 10 years my senior, we were still good friends, drawn closer by a shared love of sports and laughter. We would play golf a few times a year and each time we would laugh like school children, releasing the tight valve surrounding the nature of our work.

But, when I was going through a challenging time, and in particular when tragedy struck our community with the death of a young man, my pal Adam called me only to check on ME. How I, the rabbi shepherding the community through this moment, was doing. That ethic stays with me still and makes me miss him more.

Chances are, we do not know the impact we make in our lifetimes. It takes the sad news to learn of someone leaving this world for us to recount goodness, acts of kindness, moments where they made the difference.

Perhaps for this new quarter, year and decade we should consider two new resolutions:

1) Do not wait until death to share our appreciation for another person and the positive impact they have made in shaping our character and lives.
2) That we aim to lead a life that is about making meaningful deposits in the lives of others which will allow the dividend of making our world a more fulfilled and sacred place for us to share.

That is my posture for the days and years to come. May their memories be a blessing. May they inspire us.

Shabbat Shalom and happy 2020!

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

December 30, 2019

“Staying in Touch with Those We Love” | December 27th, 2019

           This past Sunday night on the first night of Chanukah, I gave my parents an Amazon Echo Show. For those who are wondering what that is, it is a video version of Amazon’s Echo, also known as Alexa.  Although it can do all sorts of amazing things like share the weather forecast or turn the lights on in the house, it can also make a video call to someone who also has the same type of device. Since I have one as well in my home, I can call and SEE my parents anytime.  (Honestly, my parents love me, but are mostly thrilled that they can see their baby granddaughter with ease).  Technology has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with my parents, so now I wonder, what is my excuse when I don’t call them?  What could possibly prevent me from just walking into my kitchen and saying “Alexa, video call Miriam Ruberg” and speaking with my mother? The answer and its subsequent lessons can be found in this week’s Torah portion.

We continue reading this week the story of Joseph and learn how he became one of the most powerful people in the world, as it says in in Genesis 41:39-41:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף… אַתָּה֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה עַל־בֵּיתִ֔י וְעַל־פִּ֖יךָ יִשַּׁ֣ק כָּל־עַמִּ֑י רַ֥ק הַכִּסֵּ֖א אֶגְדַּ֥ל מִמֶּֽךָּ: וַיֹּ֥אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֖ה אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף רְאֵה֙ נָתַ֣תִּי אֹֽתְךָ֔ עַ֖ל כָּל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “…You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.”

From these verses it is clear that as the second in command to Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, Joseph has access to all the resources of Egypt. He has at his disposal the ability to fulfill any and all desires he could possibly fathom.  And yet, despite this fact, Joseph it seems never sends a message to his father Jacob to let him know that he is still alive.  (A quick story refresher: Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, however they lie to their father Jacob and tell him that Joseph was killed). So why doesn’t Joseph call home?

Many medieval and modern Biblical commentators are troubled by Joseph’s inaction. Perhaps the most famous critique is made by Nachmanides (Ramban) who says:
איך לא שלח כתב אחד לאביו להודיעו ולנחמו?! כי מצרים קרוב לחברון כששה ימים ואילו היה מהלך שנה היה ראוי להודיעו לכבוד אביו…

How could he not send one letter to his father to inform him (that he was alive) and to comfort him?! Egypt is only about a six day trip to Hebron. Respect for his father would have justified a year’s journey…” (Ramban on Gen. 42:9).

In my humble opinions Joseph, does not have a good excuse for not calling even once.  Frankly, he should have called his father and informed him that he was alive. The Torah is not meant to be simply a history book, but a guide for living and here the Torah seems to come to teach us how we can learn from Joseph’s error. Staying in touch with people is hard. We all live busy lives and often don’t feel like talking at the end of a long day. However, I believe that we can learn from Joseph that if given the chance to call our family, we should do so.  No, I don’t think you have to call every day, but maybe once a week before Shabbat?  I am pretty sure that if Joseph had a video Alexa, he would have called home.  So, this Friday before Shabbat call the ones you love or better yet, video chat, see their faces and make it a personal experience, even from miles away.  I know I will be calling my mother.  Who will you be calling?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg