Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
February 13, 2020

“Top Ten” | February 13th, 2020

I miss David Letterman. His show was always the release I yearned for after a long day. I love Colbert too, who replaced him but Letterman was unique. His signature top-ten list is something I always call to mind this parsha, of Yitro.

This week in Yitro is the first occasion that Moses receives the 10 commandments and will eventually pass it on to the Israelite people. What is compelling about the concept of these laws –  some which are obvious, some quizzical and some challenging – is the idea that it binds us as a people. That is what laws and statutes do for any people: bind and unite. These laws give us guidelines and rules and systems for us to follow and structure that holds us together as a people.

I am curious, if you were to start a religion, a country, a corporation, what would your top-ten list be? What commandments would you invoke?

In our home hanging in our kitchen, are our family rules. It includes: be grateful, try your hardest, say please and thank you, help others, be kind, always tell the truth, respect each other and always tell the truth. In many ways, this list is a modern list of our values and laws for our family to abide by.

Perhaps in honor of Parshat Yitro, you should not only review the 10 commandments of the bible, but think about the rules and top-ten list for your family, work, life, and value system. May it unite you and your loved ones as the commandments have done for our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

February 7, 2020

“Call and Response” | February 7th, 2020

Our Parsha this week, Beshallach, contains what is known as שירת הים/The Song of the Sea, which Moses, Miriam, and the people of Israel sang after they successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds and watched as their Egyptian taskmasters and pursuers were defeated by God. Noting the soaring language, expressions of God’s saving power and providence, as well as the way the entire people sing the song, Professor Stephen Geller of JTS, refers to The Song of the Sea as the National Anthem of B’nai Yisrael.

The ancient Rabbis ask a very practical question about this ‘national anthem.’ When the verse states “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord,” (Ex. 15:1) how exactly did they sing it? The song is rather lengthy, and the Torah describes it as having been spontaneously composed, so how is it possible that the people and the leaders sang the same song, together, without it falling into a dissonant mess?

The debate in the Talmud lists out a few possible options:

  1. Moses taught Israel one refrain, and they repeated that same refrain after every new verse Moses added: (AA,BA,CA,DA, etc.)
  2. Moses led Israel in a call and response format, where they repeated whatever he sang (AA, BB, CC, DD, etc.)
  3. Moses started singing, the people repeated the first verse, and then they spontaneously sang the rest of the song together (AA, B, C, D, etc.)

The Rabbis leave us guessing as to the exact way the song was sung, but their question and answers provide an important framework for thinking about song and prayer. How should we sing and pray we sing together with our prayer leaders, repeat a particular chorus, repeat after them, or let the melodies wash over us?

While there are certainly times to let the experience of musicianship and melody guide us without participation, the Rabbis of the Talmud believed that when it comes to the most important of songs and prayers, like the biblical national anthem, our participation is necessary. Even when we think we don’t know the words or the tune, our job is to try to sing together. By participating with the Cantor or service leader we add our voice to the chorus of praise and joy of our services.
More importantly, by joining in we begin to learn the words, tunes, and feelings that make prayer and song so powerful.

So however you like to sing, whether with spontaneous poetry, a repeating chorus, or call and response, on a weeknight, shabbat morning or Friday night, please add your voice to our spirited, uplifting, and song-filled tefilot.

Wishing you all a week full of song,

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

February 7, 2020

“Statehood or Victimhood. Choose!” | January 30th, 2020

This week welcomed another momentous opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians. Like times before, the Israelis eagerly and optimistically looked forward while our partners rejected it, site unseen. Below, in lieu of an official D’Var Torah, are my thoughts on this moment: the message and the messenger. 
Today’s world has become a Rorschach test that is more concerned with who said something as opposed to what was actually said.

The announcement about a bold plan for Middle East Peace could easily fall into that dangerous trap. One could paint the moment as mutual political backscratching that will only benefit Netanyahu and Trump in their respective elections. While undeniable, I caution you to fight the urge and unpack the details we know and why we should, and how we can appreciate this moment in history.

I was fortunate to be in the East Room of the White House where it happened on Tuesday afternoon. Below are some of my observations and considerations.

For 73 years, since Israel announced its statehood, it was welcomed with bullets and bombs instead of partnership and possibility. That Heisman style embrace has been one sided. It is high time for a new strategy and refreshed approach to the Middle East.

I believe that the administration has presented the seedlings of such a plan. Remarkably, this plan is endorsed and championed both by Blue and White (Gantz) and Likud (Netanyahu). Together, they represent more than two thirds of the Israeli Knesset. That alone is newsworthy. It is also the first time Israel has agreed on paper to the establishment of boundaries and borders of the Jewish State and the Palestinian State. This historic moment should not be diminished

This plan seems fundamentally different than Oslo, Camp David, Wye and Annapolis primarily because the vantage point of Israel was one of which detailed security measures would ensure her safety and would not uproot Israeli life or safety. Those factors include:

1. Palestinian Leadership recognizing Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.
2. Israeli autonomy and military control over the Jordan Valley.
3. Continued access to Jewish and Christian holy sites, including Shilo, Bet El and Hebron.

These can be achieved with some first-time opportunities for the Palestinian people. They will be able to claim a State within four years’ time with East Jerusalem as its capital. The United States will establish an Embassy in East Jerusalem where other countries can follow suit. Additionally, $50 Billion of aid in the form of grants, loans and investments will be offered to the Palestinian People for infrastructure and growth. I cannot imagine a mother in Ramallah that would not well up with tears considering the opportunities such an investment would offer her children. Salaam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of Palestine, was a passionate proponent of infusing the economy so that purpose and opportunity will abound for the Palestinian people. Sadly, he was removed from his role before his plan could take form.

Some things have to happen before this can be realized.

First, the Palestinians need to take a serious and contemplative look at the offer and negotiate. Sitting out in protest has yielded no results, to date. Time has proven that Israel will not sit idly by and wait for their neighbors to engage in talks to consider growing infrastructure, developing relationships with Arab neighbors or strengthening their army and resolve.

While the Palestinians have pouted for the past 53 years, Israel has been watering the dessert and watching it bloom. As Palestinians have been writing propaganda against the State of Israel and Jews in their schoolbooks for kids to be brainwashed, Israelis have been chronicling their achievements and inspiring the next generation to dream big and reach for the stars. Palestinians have threatened to pursue baseless criminal charges against Israel in International Court while neglecting local civic opportunities for development of schools, hospitals and roads to help its citizens.

Secondly, the Palestinian people must choose between establishing statehood or continued victimhood.

The former entails denouncing and dismantling all terror and terror infrastructure. It means defanging Hamas and Islamic Jihad and demilitarizing evildoers. It means changing textbooks that call for incitement against Israel and the Jewish people and censuring Imams and political leaders that preach hate. It requires Palestinians to establish human rights for its citizens. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, it demands that the Palestinian State recognize the right for Israel to exist and to do so in peace and safety. The former means nothing changes. Where has that led?

If these simple steps occur, the Palestinians will double their footprint within Area C, solidify their place within Areas A and B, and work in concert with the IDF to maintain calm and peace in the region which is mutually beneficial. The plan maps out a rail line connecting Gaza and the West Bank, making the families within these places connected and contiguous. Most importantly, it gives the opportunity for Palestinian and Israeli children to dream of a better tomorrow.

For Palestinians, the poverty line has climbed to a place where one out of every four are below it. This plan and the influx of resources to a future Palestinian State supplants stone throwing with crop planting; building for bombing. It is a tangible opportunity for the Palestinians to shape their destiny. Equally, Israelis are exhausted from decades of fighting and hatred that has yielded nothing positive on either side. Tomorrow can and should be a brighter day for the young, innocent children of these two countries.

The plan thoughtfully and carefully details a path where no current home of any Palestinian or Israeli will be uprooted. There will be a four-year settlement freeze to demonstrate the possibilities of growth for the Palestinian people so it cannot move the goal-posts mid game. Further, it solves the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel.

Israel has been adamant on maintaining control over the region based on the historical realities on the ground and for sound reason. When Israel pulled out of Lebanon, Hezbollah amassed 150,000 rockets and aimed them southward. When Israel unilaterally left Gaza, Hamas rose to power and launched more than 10,000 rockets on neighboring Israeli civilians. In Gaza, greenhouses and synagogues were pillaged when they could have been transformed for something better. The vacuum left from pulling out of territory has always been fertile for bad people to infiltrate. Maintaining a security presence closes that opportunity.

Sadly, the Palestinians have pronounced this plan dead on arrival, without ever seeing the document, accepting the call of U.S. leadership or triaging the proposal. They have refused to come to the discussion table for the past 18 months. If they were there, they would have been surrounded by brethren. Bahrain, Oman and UAE were all in the East Room next to me this afternoon when the plan was unveiled. They applauded and rose to their feet in anticipation and opportunity. Saudi Arabia later announced its commitment to working with the plan as a starting point. These countries are committed to working with Israel and the United States towards turning this dream into a reality. It was the dawn of a new day. I predict that Egypt and Jordan will join them around the table soon, and model leadership for the Palestinians to follow. I can only hope the Palestinians will follow the lead. Golda Meir said that the Palestinians rarely miss an opportunity to miss and opportunity. I hope this time is different.

These words on paper, the countless editorials and pundits chiming in here and there, or the jagged graph on the map will all aim to simplify an old problem. It cannot be simplified or boiled down to a tweet or an elevator pitch. The problem is complicated, just like the plan itself. The region is complicated. The history of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people are complicated. This initiative needs attention, patience, energy and elbow grease. Let us focus on the message more than the messenger. History will demand that of us.

What this moment does have, beyond the support of both leading parties in Israel, is enthusiasm from many in the Jewish and pro-Israel world. This is not new. We are a people fashioned by hope. That is why Hatikvah is our anthem. We were bright eyed and cautiously eager in Oslo, Wye, Madrid, Annapolis and we are today, too. We remember a prayer of “Next year in Jerusalem” that turned into a reality before our eyes. Our prayer today is that our neighbors will realize the potential of turning prayers and dreams into realties, and together we craft a new and better world for future generations to inherit.

May the history of this moment be appreciated by all parties and may the opportunities be seized. May it bring an end to bloodshed and shine peace on the State of Israel, the future State of Palestine, and all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner


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