Temple Emanu-El Blog

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September 3, 2015

An Important Message from Rabbi Kirshner

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

During the course of the last year, and more intensely during the months of May and June, our congregation spent considerable time and made careful analysis of exploring ways to open doors in our Temple for the “other.” Substantive dialogue and respectful conversation was had by all who engaged, whether in the Executive meetings, Religious Practices Committees, special parlor meetings or with our Board of Directors and Trustees.

The “other” is a term used with respect and reverence for non-typical learners, same sex couples and families, non-Jewish partners along with family members and any person that might not fit into the traditional rubric of the Jewish community. The Torah and rabbinic law go to great lengths to remind us that all humans are created in God’s image. The same rabbinic teachings instruct us that portals must remain open for all who choose to align their destiny with the Jewish people through conversion. Equally, the Torah reminds us numerous times that we were the “other” in Egypt. Our lives today and throughout history were shaped by that single experience. As such, we are mandated to have a disposition of inclusion and welcoming.

In exploring this topic, we sought to find pathways to include more people in our community and address the realities of the composite of the greater Jewish world without compromising the integrity of our tradition or Jewish law.

Starting this New Year of 5776, the following changes will be inculcated into our weekly, Shabbat and Holiday services:

  • Non-Jewish members can open the ark during services.
  • Baby namings for children with one Jewish parent will be offered at our Temple.
  • Upcoming marriages between a Jewish and non-Jewish couple during services can be recognized publicly.
  • Additionally, same sex Jewish couples can be married at our Temple.
  • Children of Jewish and non-Jewish couples can continue to attend religious school at Temple Emanu-El.
  • Partnering with Matan, our Temple has created a program for all non-typical learners to be included in our school and B’nai Mitzvah programs. Thanks to generous funding, we will continue to move forward including all learners in our community.

The question of inclusivity does not rise to the surface from a place of weakness or as a gimmick to recruit members. Our synagogue is strong and trending towards continued growth. In the Conservative Movement, Temple Emanu-El is a flagship that other congregations seek to emulate. In Bergen County, we have been setting the bar for leadership and creativity. This decision comes from strength not desperation.

Some in our community will embrace and celebrate this change while others will express disappointment. Our community has always been made up of different opinions, backgrounds and traditions but common in our respect of one another. I know we will continue to explore, grow and learn from one another with kindness, patience and deference.

If you have questions, require points of clarification or just want to talk more about this, my door is always open.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah and wishing our congregation health and strength to enter each new day and challenge with open hearts, listening ears and gratitude to God.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

September 1, 2015

President Obama, Stop Treating Me Like Apple Treats My Music

By Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Published in Haaretz, August 13, 2015

Just because I don’t support the Iran deal, that doesn’t make me a mullah, a warmonger, or a Republican.

Apple is offering a new product called Apple Music. It’s a modern-day jukebox where you can listen to and download music of your liking. Its secret sauce is a simple heart-shaped button that demarcates you like any particular song downloaded or playing. Apple thinks that marking between 30 to 40 songs will enable the machine to apply some musical algorithm to determine other songs you would enjoy.

While the technology is neat, I resent the implication. How could any machine know my eclectic and diverse tastes in music from such a small sampling? Is it not possible for me to enjoy Sting and Vivaldi? Kenny Loggins and U2? Duran Duran and Gwen Stefani?

One of the sadder and more ironic parts of today’s world is that we are the most individualized and self-centric society in the history of the world, yet we are easily categorized into camps based on simple and mundane choices. I hate that.

In an example of such categorization, U.S. President Barack Obama said last week that those who oppose the deal brokered by the United States with Iran are no different than the radical mullahs that also want to derail the agreement, and he suggests anyone who doesn’t like the deal would rather go to war. The president’s sentiment hurt me, personally. In a strange analogy, I felt like he was saying if I enjoy listening to rap, there is no way I could appreciate classical music.

Mr. President, please don’t paint me in monochromatic colors.

For the record, I think the Iran deal is a bad deal. I reached this conclusion with more high level briefings and updates than most, and less than some, along with long hours of personal soul searching.

This deal indeed has many meritorious components that I do not take for granted:

  1. On the top of the list is brokering a treaty that a heavy-water reactor at Arak be dismantled and filled with concrete, so that it produces much less – if any – plutonium. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained in a briefing I attended, bombing Arak would be difficult for serious fear of nuclear fallout.
  2. This deal also limits uranium enrichment for 15 years if Iran obeys the guidelines.
  3. And, the agreement adds the number of inspectors on the ground for that time to ensure compliance.

But the bad outweighs the good, in my opinion:

  1. The release of some $100 billion in Iranian bank accounts overseas that were hitherto frozen is beyond worrisome, since Iran is one of the largest state sponsors of terror in the world. Funneling even a fraction of that sum to the streets of Gaza or inside Hezbollah strongholds can go a very long way and will have grave consequences.
  2. The eventual removal of all arms embargoes on Iran is of paramount concern. Allowing a felon with no remorse access to the artillery cabinet is a perilous proposition, especially with added funds to make purchases. Surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft machinery and the like would make any military option against Iran all the more challenging regardless of capabilities.
  3. Most problematic is that after 10 to 15 years, the physical constraints on fissile material production in Iran at declared facilities and most of the specialized verification and enforcement provisions of the agreement expire. Then, Iran could quickly grow its nuclear capabilities within a few years to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, whether at declared or secret facilities, making it a nuclear-threshold state. The older I get, the faster 15 years happens.
  4. Lastly, history has told us Iran is not to be trusted. Its rhetoric and double speak is only one instance of its commitment to terror instead of peace. Thus, brokering a deal with Iran based on trust is tantamount to asking Bernie Madoff to be secretary of the treasury!

Mr. President, just because I oppose this deal does not make me like a mullah or a warmonger. In fact, it doesn’t even make me a Republican. It makes me an American who respectfully disagrees with you and the administration on this topic.

There were many decisions and occurrences under this administration that I celebrated. When the Supreme Court passed in favor of marriage equality, confirmed health care for all in need and championed a clean energy revolution, I was proud as an American and proud of you, Mr. President, for these achievements. Woe to our future if disagreements classify us in defined camps.

It feels unfair to be painted in a monochromatic brush, even as a tactic to persuade fellow party members and supporters to follow the crowd. Real leaders stand up when they disagree on principal, even if it is against the grain of their party’s politics.

Instead, I would prefer that you, Mr. President, dip your quill into the vivid and colorful palette that comprises this splendid country; citizens of different races, creeds, colors, orientations, genders, passions and beliefs.

To melt those many hues into two simple colors and two defined camps is the greatest threat to us all.

March 21, 2015

The Bibi Cha-Cha

Benjamin Netanyahu is the winner of the most recent election in Israel. Odds are on his side to build a coalition and continue his premiership. I wish him well. But, many are still gargling to get the yucky taste out of their mouth.

Every match up will have a winner and a loser, whether pitcher versus batter or presidential hopefuls. But if a win is achieved through sneaky tactics or cheap moves it salts the wound of the loser and mitigates the validity of the winner. That is what happened when the incumbent Prime Minister made some political statements on the eve of last week’s election.

There is a new dance craze in the Middle East. It is called the Bibi cha-cha; you step forward before the election with right wing statements and then quickly take two steps back after it helps you win. Spin your allies round and round. Repeat.

There is a reason why Jews notoriously cannot dance. It is because we are not inclined to move forward and backwards in quick steps. We are fashioned in classrooms and synagogues to champion honesty and never to step out of rhythm only to cater to personal needs and endeavors. We are supposed to have passions and principles. While they might change and adjust, decency and morality is the core of our cadence.

Bibi’s ballet unearthed that foundation. World leaders are mad. As an unwavering Zionist, I am embarrassed. This behavior unnecessarily feeds a derisive narrative of the conniving Israeli in the marketplace. It needlessly transfers our focus from Israeli doctors healing wounded Syrian refugees and mind-blowing technology that enables the paralyzed to walk again to questioning honesty and intentionality. What a shame.

Two countries with shared values and much at stake are falling hardest victim. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are both hip deep in a pool of urine from their endless pissing match. The stench and volume are proving unbearable. This episode only worsens the matter while big issues and opportunities are ignored.

It is time for both of these world leaders to be as stubborn in their commitment to their countries’ alliance and future as they are in who is right and wrong between them.

Lest President Obama wag a finger in the face of the Prime Minister about cheap statements to garner votes, I would jog his memory to 2008. I was sitting a mere pitching-wedge away at AIPAC when then Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Obama, said to a sympathetic audience of close to 8,000 people “Jerusalem is the undivided and undisputed capital of the State of Israel.”  Hours later, when he was out of the AIPAC forum and had secured the nomination, he practiced his dance moves by taking steps back and restating that the status of Jerusalem must be determined by the parties through negotiations. Another Fred and Ginger move!

The notion that all politicians lie doesn’t pass muster for me. That is not a compelling reason for speeding on the highway or deflating footballs before an NFL game.  If it is wrong, then it should not happen. We are better than that. We deserve more than that. That is what it means to be a light unto the nations.

I spend oodles of time with Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers and Millennials. What all of these wide-age-gapped groups share is an unquenchable thirst for honesty, goodness and morality from its leaders; elected and appointed. They expect police to keep the law in and out of a uniform. They expect political leaders to craft legislation in congress and uphold it on Main Street. When descriptions and deeds don’t jive, we erode the trust of all of those demographic groups and leave them parched.

I have long wrestled with whether the Jews are a people or a religion. I have come to the conclusion that we are both. That means our elected officials cannot only govern with political interests but they must have a moral compass that guides them in their decision-making. I expect the Prime Minister of the State of Israel to have a core set of principles that are the basis of our religion.

I can care less if Bibi, Buji or Tzipi choose to eat cheeseburgers or go to the beach on Yom Kippur. That is between them and God. However, I do expect Israeli elected officials to be honest, moral and forthright. That is the institution we all share regardless of background or observance.  It is that shared foundation that brought all of us to tears after the three boys were kidnapped and murdered. It is that shared foundation that brought relief to our hearts when Gilad Shalit fell into his parents embrace again. It is that shared foundation that allows our chest to burst with pride when the IDF is the first to set up a field hospital after a natural disaster anywhere across the globe.

That foundation cannot claim to speak for all Jews while trying to stop the existential threat of a nuclear Iran or stand with a head covering at  the Western Wall for a photo op yet speak autonomously on the rights of Israeli Arabs and lie to capture extreme votes. It still speaks for all of us. Oh, how I wish it did not.

March 11, 2015

A Tale of Two Schools

It was the best of times and it was the worst of times….well, not really. It actually was just the worst of times, or so it seems on many college campuses today. This week, two scenes that fit the description above yet separated by thousands of miles and different cultures unfolded at two well-known schools. One school offered a clinic on how to respond to crises that any public relations team could use as a Tiffany standard for protocol. The other school should be ashamed of its silence and lack of response in the face of overt discrimination.

On the campus of UCLA one of its 45,000 students, a sophomore named Rachel Beyda, sought a position on the student judicial council. Her interview was secretly recorded, including the pre and post interview discussions that were thought to be in the strictest of confidence. During the deliberations pointed questions were raised about Rachel’s candidacy since she is an active member of many Jewish organizations on campus, including Hillel and some pro-Israel activities too. Caught on tape were other students questioning her bona-fides since she supports Israel and is active in Jewish causes. They believed that her involvement in Jewish and pro-Israel causes invalidates her to be an unbiased member of the judiciary council. The committee rejected Rachel for the position.

Could one imagine if the tape had edited out the words “Jewish” and changed them to “black” or “Latino” or “homosexual?” Would any affiliation tolerate such discrimination?! I hope not. Were that to happen I would be first in line to call out the leadership of UCLA for bigotry, racism and discrimination. Yet, this Jewish line in the sand has yielded no action from the leadership of UCLA. The very students on the council that discriminated against Rachel should be instantly removed from the council, annulling their impartiality to all peoples that stand before them. Sadly, UCLA has said and done nothing. Some papers and pundits have pointed to UCLA for this incident but the administration of the school has been deafeningly silent.

What a shameful example UCLA is modeling. I know much of my college education happened outside the classroom. I am glad I never went to UCLA. That is not the sort of supplement to my lecture hall experience I would have sought out when I was in college or even today.

Juxtapose that to a hateful incident that occurred on a bus with members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at The University of Oklahoma. A sampling of fraternity members – all students at the Oklahoma school – chanted with glee a hymn that called for the exclusion of blacks (instead of black, the derogatory ‘N’ word was used) from their Greek society. It even called for blacks to sooner hang from a tree than to join SAE fraternity.

Within minutes of this video leaking the fraternity was put on suspension and by Sunday night, just two days later, the International President of SAE closed down the fraternity on campus. He went on to say, “In addition, all of the members have been suspended (from the fraternity), and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently,” the national organization said in a statement. “We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”

The University President, David Boren called a rally and said without pause in his voice, “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.”

Boren did not undo the free will and choices of the students. He just made the consequences clear to them for those choices. Were he to have done nothing, his silence would have been understood as approval. I am glad he spoke up loudly, swiftly and appropriately. After investigation, Boren expelled two students for their role in the incident.

As long as there will be Jews and blacks there will be discrimination. It is utopian to believe that bigotry and hatred will disappear. It will not. But it can dissipate. That happens through demonstrated response and reaction to exclusionary behavior.

70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 50 years after marching in Selma, we still struggle for proper recognition of all peoples to be seen in God’s image. It is an uphill march yet, we have come so far in such a short time. Let us not despair. We must move forward. To do so, we learn from our universities; how to respond and how NOT to respond. We learn from our schools about repercussions and the power of inaction. In this tale of two schools, let us learn right and wrong and be wiser from the education we have been afforded by both.



January 23, 2015

Safe Space

I remember playing tag when I was young. Each time I was winded or felt the person who was “it” closing in on me, I would run to the closest object and yell “base!!!” The idea was, that when touching the base, we were impervious to be tagged. It was a forcefield where nothing could get us.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had ‘base’ in our world? If there were places that were devoid of political, religious or personal strife and attack? In theory, there are at least 3 places I can think of that were established for that cause. But, alas, the last standing bastion of freedom and tolerance and acceptance seems to have disappeared, just this week.

The first ‘base’ was the United Nations, established after World War II and given birth to from the League of Nations. This entity was built on the notion of creating common denominators amongst nations and to ensure that no one country could be bullied, mistreated or abused for its religious beliefs or location or political affiliations. Sadly, the UN has proven in the past years that its purpose and its daily process are far apart from each other. It regularly subjects Israel to censures and votes that no other country currently or in the history of nations has been held to.

The second ‘base’ was the Winter and Summer Olympics. A haven for athletes from all countries in all disciplines to compete with sportsmanship and respect and to leave political and religious divide at the gates of the Olympic Village. Sadly, in 1972 in Munich, Germany that safe base was violated with the brutal hostage taking and murder of Israeli athletes. Still today, many Arab countries refuse to compete if they are in a match with Israel. What a pitiful downgrading of a fabulous sporting system.

The last ‘base’ that was still standing until last week was the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Contestants from around the world don gowns and swimsuits representing the inner and outer beauty of the country they represent. However, that last sacred space was desecrated this week when Miss Lebanon took a selfie picture with other contestants, including Miss Israel.

Folks, I can’t make this stuff up.

Miss Lebanon was threatened of being stripped of her crown for this picture by her government. She later said Miss Israel photo-bombed the picture – an accusation Miss Israel denies – proving it was not her wish to take the picture with Miss Israel. Miss Lebanon even said, “From the first day I arrived at the Miss Universe pageant I was very careful not to take any pictures with Miss Israel, who tried repeatedly to take pictures with me,” Sadly, after the tidal wave of criticism in the Arab world towards Miss Lebanon, Miss Egypt behaved the same way towards Miss Israel, even though they were friendly before.

What have we come to? Is there no last place where we can all get along?

In the Torah portion Bo which we read this Shabbat, Pharaoh has his will broken by the last of the ten plaques and drives the Israelites out. We are now a people without a place. We were forced to run for our safety yet, we had no where to go. Couldn’t we just have a ‘base’ to catch our breath and not worry about the Egyptians pursuing behind us or the Amalekites or the Cossacks or the Nazis or Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran? Isn’t there a place where we can all get along in peace and safety?

We have a moral responsibility to make certain places embody their nature of freedom, tolerance and acceptance for all. We should start by demanding that the United Nations, the Olympics and the Miss Universe Pageants be safe spaces free from political and religious divide. If we don’t, I am afraid we will be tagged, we will be “it”, and it will be a matter of time before another people look for their base of refuge.

Shabbat Shalom.