Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
January 2, 2024

“Joseph’s Final Act” | December 29th

This Shabbat marks not only the last of the year 2023, but also the end of the rich and deeply moving story of Joseph. This week, as we close the book of Breishit, we read about Joseph’s final interactions with his brothers. They are fearful that Joseph will finally exact his retribution for leaving him in a pit all those years ago. And following the death of their father, they are convinced that with nobody there to maintain the peace, Joseph will force them to bow down to him as his dreams suggested so many years ago.

And so, the brothers nervously beg Joseph not to bear a grudge and even offer to be his servants to make up for their sins. They know that their fates are in Joseph’s hands and that as one of the most powerful people in all of Egypt, he can do whatever he wants to them. But with tears in his eyes and forgiveness in his heart, Joseph reassures his brothers that he genuinely bears no ill will towards them. Everything that happened, he tells them, was for the best and led them to the exact place they were all supposed to be. If not for these events, they would not have had the food they needed to survive the famine. It was all God’s will and Joseph is ready to move on with his brothers, as opposed to letting their ugly history tear them apart. Despite everything, rather than casting them out, he brings them in even closer.

Now, in these final days of 2023, we are exiting a year that has largely felt dominated by hate, by division and by differences here and abroad. We live in a world in which the kind of empathy that Joseph demonstrates feels lost. And in this fraught moment, I find inspiration in Joseph’s journey. After all that happened between them, and all the bitterness that defined their relationship, Joseph still does not let hate guide his actions. His openness towards his brothers teaches us the importance of kindness, of dialogue and of understanding. Rather than casting aside those who have erred, Joseph instead focuses on forgiveness, empathy and unity. He finds a way to embrace, rather than push away. As we prepare to flip the calendar to 2024, I hope we can all find inspiration in Joseph’s actions. May we not only awaken to a kinder and more united world, but like Joseph, may we all play our part in making the world that way.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

January 2, 2024

“Is My Father Still Alive?” | December 22nd

In this week’s Torah reading, we reach the emotional climax of the saga of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. With no idea that they have been interacting with their long lost brother Joseph all along, Judah begs Joseph to show some kindness towards them. And pushed to his limit, Joseph cannot maintain his deception any longer. Separated from his father for years, he breaks down in tears and yells, “I am Joseph,” followed by an incredibly devastating question: “Ha’Od Avi Chai–Is my father still alive?!”

In that moment of heartbreak, when the emotions that Joseph has been bottling up for so long finally spill out, the question he cannot help but ask cuts deep. “Is my father still alive?!”. More than anything else, Joseph just wants to know about the wellbeing of the person he cares for most in the world. What is the status of the parent who loved and cared for him so deeply, and who he hasn’t heard from in so many years? Is he even alive anymore? It is impossible for us to imagine what it must be like to be separated from a family member in that way–having no idea how or where they are.

But the events of October 7 have made that very scenario all too real. It is heartbreaking for me that as we move further and further from that horrible day, there are still families living through the nightmare of not knowing the status of their loved ones. As time passes we cannot let those stories fade from our attention. Family members of the hostages have begun stationing themselves outside of the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv amidst concerns that the plight of the hostages will turn into “white noise”. It has now been 77 days, and there is still no resolution in sight. But we cannot let our attention wane while the families of those hostages are still forced to ask the same question that Joseph did so powerfully: “is my loved one still alive?”.

Over the last two months, we have been singing the words of the song “Am Yisrael Chai” as a rallying cry for Israel and for world Jewry. The other three words that make up the song, “Od Avinu Chai–Our father still lives,” are adapted from this very scene in the Torah. But in this case, Joseph’s question is turned into a powerful affirmative–“our father still lives”. That is the hope that the families of those hostages–and that we–must keep alive. We must maintain our faith– hoping, praying and believing that they are still alive and that like Joseph, they will be reunited with their loved ones soon.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

January 2, 2024

“Testimony from Israel” | December 15th

Three days ago, as I stood in the middle of the home of a stranger 6,000 miles away, what struck me were the cribs.

We were in Kfar Azza, one of the kibbutzim near Gaza hardest hit by Hamas on October 7.

As we walked around the kibbutz, it was completely quiet—save the sounds of the bullet casings crackling beneath our feet, and the hum of an Apache helicopter hovering overhead and firing AGM-114 missiles into Gaza a few hundreds yards away. It was also eerily empty, until we ran into a young woman who was inspecting the little that was left of her family’s home and invited us in.

Next thing I knew, I was standing next to the cribs of the 10-month-old twins who’d lived there, Roi and Guy. Having spent my career as an OB/GYN in Englewood, I have always, always been drawn to babies—and that’s why I was so taken with these cribs. The woman showing us around the house, who is the twins’ aunt, told us that as terrorists attacked Kfar Azza the morning of the 7th, her sister Hadar (the twins’ mother) had slipped into the kitchen to try to grab a bottle for her boys. “This is where they found my sister’s body,” she told us as we walked through the kitchen. “And this is where the babies’ father was,” she said in the nursery, pointing to the small patch of floor where his body was found. The walls of the nursery were pierced with hundreds of bullets, and as the babies cried and screamed that day, 14 of their neighbors ran outside toward the house to try to save them. All 14 were killed. But somehow, with the way the cribs were positioned, by a mere matter of inches, these twins survived.

The babies, and their cribs, were not the only signs of life that endured.

There was the row of colorful children’s bicycles in front of a house destroyed beyond recognition.

The soaps and body creams in the window of a bathroom blown to smithereens.

The vinyl record, inscribed with the word “Harmony,” hanging untouched outside the entrance of a shattered home.

The purple sheet that an IDF soldier warned us not to step on because it was still full of blood. The pile of kites that were meant to be used that day in Kfar Azza’s annual kite festival.

And finally, a sukkah, perfectly intact, surrounded by lush and fragrant lemon trees—and hundreds of bullet holes.

There was peace juxtaposed with violence. But we saw so many tiny signs of hope; so much beauty in the darkness. And looking back on our trip, it’s clear: that is the same beauty Israel is finding in the darkness. And the same beauty that Jews around the world are finding in the darkness.

Still, I showed up at Newark last weekend with an enormous pit in my stomach, a bit anxious to go on this trip in the first place—only to then be interrogated by the El-Al attendant at check-in. “Where did you go to Hebrew school? Do you speak, read or write Hebrew? When was your Bat Mitzvah? Do you know the dates of the High Holidays this year?” For whatever reason, it was that moment when my dread dissipated and I felt immensely proud to be a Jew en route to Israel.

Our stated goal for the trip was to volunteer, to show solidarity and to bear witness. But what I’d soon learn is that what we’d accomplish and take away from this mission would far exceed that.

As we were walking out of Kfar Azza, we ran into a group of soldiers from a secret elite counterrorism unit—one of whom told us: “We all went to Poland, but we should be bringing our children here.” Their directive was clear: Don’t be tourists here; be witnesses. Give and share testimony. Make a difference by telling our story over and over and over again.

We then made our way to dinner at an army base near the Gaza border from which the IDF operates the Iron Dome. We met the small group of young women who maintain the Iron Dome battery; we broke bread with soldiers; we saw a giant menorah they constructed out of weapon shells; and finally, we cried together as we stood in a circle, arm and arm, singing Hatikvah.

After a difficult day, I felt good knowing that I’d done what we set out to do: volunteer, show solidarity and bear witness.

But then, as we were leaving, a male soldier asked me for one very simple, very easy favor: Can I have a hug?

Can I have a hug? We embraced longer than I’d ever hugged a stranger, and I knew I’d done far more than I ever could with words or donations or a retweet or a hashtag or an Instagram post.

So I just kept giving hugs. We all did. We hugged soldiers, we hugged survivors, we hugged family members of hostages, we hugged refugees as we lit candles with them on the first night of Chanukah. I even hugged a religious man who wouldn’t typically hug a woman other than his wife—and that was the first (but not the last) time I cried on the trip. Yosi, the religious man I met at a rehab facility for wounded soldiers, had been shot and left for dead, bleeding out profusely. “I spoke to Hashem and repeated the Shema,” Yosi told me. “Hashem sent me three angels, the soldiers who found me and brought me to the hospital and saved my life.” But he wasn’t grieving for himself; he was grieving for his wife and four children. He said they didn’t deserve all of this because all his wife ever did were mitzvot.

Shortly after our hug, he was getting ready to leave the rehab center to attend his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Aside from Yosi, I didn’t even know the names of the people I was hugging, but each one felt better than the next. And that’s how I knew the trip was about so much more than I’d realized at the outset. And it wasn’t just who we came to see; it was who we came to see it with: over long bus rides and a glass of wine at the end of a challenging day, I built deep and instant bonds with members of our congregation I’ve been sitting across the aisle from for years, but who I never knew.

The people of Israel have fresh wounds in need of healing—fresh scars visible on their bodies, but invisible on their hearts and minds.

The granddaughter of Shimon Peres told us Israelis are so angry at their government. Others spoke of the “unprecedented moral dilemma” Israel faces in eliminating evil. A former head of National Public Diplomacy told us Israelis are so fearful that Jews around the world are growing too detached from their Jewish roots, demanding we all do more than simply wielding our checkbooks. And the families at the center for hostages in Tel Aviv told us: all they want us to do is show up as they continue to navigate the unthinkable.

It was there that we also met Dvir Rosenfeld, a survivor from Kfar Azza who coincidentally, is the uncle of those twin baby boys whose cribs I stumbled upon and who lost their parents. When we asked what we could do to help his family, he said: “Just come to visit us. Stay with us. Just be, and listen, and hug.”

So let’s get over there and do just that. Numerous people we met along the way told our group that we were “crazy” and “not normal” for choosing to come into a country amid a war, when everyone else was running away. If that’s what it means to be crazy or abnormal, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And to those worried that the things you may see while in Israel you “can’t unsee”—maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

To steal a line from our Rabbi: “When you pour hot oil on a Jew in Morocco, a Jew in France screams.” Well, now I’m confident it goes the same way with love as it does with pain. When Jews in Israel can feel love and find hope and see light, we all can. I certainly returned from our trip full of all three. (And thanks to David, I also returned with a stash of rugelach in my suitcase, violating U.S. laws by lying to airport security that no, I was not smuggling a smorgasbord of Jewish pastries in my bag.)

Hours before we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to New York, we made a quick stop at the Kotel—I had so many things to pray for this year, and I felt that God was listening more than any other time I’d gone. I also met up with an old friend whose five kids I’d delivered before they made Aaliyah. He showed me something special I’d never seen before: each house in the old winding alleyways of Jerusalem has little glass boxes outside their front doors, set into the Jerusalem stone. Each night of Chanukah, they put their chanukiahs outside in these boxes to shine their light on the world. In our own country, where nowadays we’re often afraid to even reveal to people that we’re Jewish, I can only hope that we can take a page out of Israel’s book to shine our Judaism loud and proud, whether it’s the third night of Chanukah or any other night of the year.

Chag sameach, and let’s burn those candles as bright as we can and use them to find beauty in the darkness.

Dr. Wendy Hurst Levine

Dr. Wendy Hurst Levine is a recently-retired OB/GYN from New Jersey. In December, she participated in an emergency mission to Israel, with Temple Emanu-El of Closter, aimed at bearing witness to the atrocities of October 7. She shared this testimony at Shabbat services on December 9.

January 2, 2024

“Hanukkah” | December 8th

The holiday of Hanukkah is about many things. The miracle of oil that lasted for 8 nights, the incredible defeat of the Assyrian Greeks. It is about resilience.

Most of all, to me, Hanukkah is about courage. Were it not for Judah the Maccabee believing that we could win, and were it not for the courage of the brave fighters, and were it not for the bravery and determination to light the oil in the ruins of the temple, we would not still be here today to share our story.

Our need for courage has not diminished over time. Our demonstrations of courage are as strong as ever. For a clinic on bravery and courage, cast your eyes to Israel.

Soldiers in Gaza and the Lebanon border are demonstrating immense courage. Doctors and nurses treating the wounded are doing so fearlessly and with focus. The Israeli people are determined and unafraid of the challenges ahead. Survivors of the horrific attacks of October 7 are strong and resolute. Loved ones of returned hostages have been steadfast in support. The remaining people held against their wills are fierce and heroes of Israel.

When we light the candles tonight, let us consider the bravery each of us have been deputized with. We all have an important role. May it allow the lights of the Hanukkiah to illuminate our dark world.

Hag Urim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

December 4, 2023

“Struggling for Our Faith” | December 1st

What’s in a name? In this week’s parsha, Jacob is renamed Israel after he emerges victorious from a fight with an angel of God. The angel explains that the name is given because Jacob has “fought with beings divine and human, and prevailed”. Given the centrality of Israel for Judaism, we can look at this scene as being about much more than just Jacob. This notion of struggling for our faith is an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish. And it is something we feel now more acutely than any other point in my lifetime.

I recently had a conversation with someone who puts on tefillin and prays every single day. But in the immediate aftermath of October 7, he could hardly find the motivation to talk to God. The words on the page and the words in his heart felt hollow in light of the shocking violence that we had collectively endured. How, after all, could he (or any of us) pray when all he wanted to do was scream instead? And yet, despite those struggles, he didn’t abandon prayer. The intention had changed, but he still did his best to speak to God and to use prayer as an opportunity to express the deep pain in his soul.

To me, that push and pull-the way we still want to maintain our connection and persevere amidst the hardships –is precisely what it means to be Jewish. It would be so much easier to leave Judaism behind. We could always choose to tune everything out, simply bury our heads in the sand and stop caring so deeply. And yet, that thought never arises. That struggle only makes us stronger.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l writes, “The path chosen by Jacob/Israel is not for the fainthearted… It is not easy to face our fears and wrestle with them, refusing to let go until we have turned them into renewed strength and blessing…[but] Judaism is a faith of relentless honesty, seeing evil as evil and fighting it in the name of life, and good, and God. That is our vocation. It remains a privilege to carry Jacob’s destiny, Israel’s name.”

As a Jewish people, we are shaken, but we are not broken. Despite the fear we feel right now, we are not retreating. Instead, that struggle makes us feel more resolute as Jews than ever before. And so, as this conflict evolves both here and in Israel, we will continue to overcome the struggles that arise and prevail through it all.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen