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A year ago, we declared that we were embarking a year of kesher, or connection.  Every week since then, we have been amazed and gratified at the breadth and depth of our small congregation’s talents and resources. Almost every weekend our programming has led us to think: We can’t match this—and then we are proven wrong again. This past weekend, beginning with Friday night services and continuing with our Yom HaShoah commemoration, was the most recent of those occasions.

The importance of legacy was the unstated theme throughout the weekend, where congregants ranging in age from 11 to 95 gathered for three powerhouse presentations. 

At Friday night services, the congregation had the chance to connect Jewish values to two American traditions: the rights and demands of a free press, and the spiritual practices of Native Americans. Harry Rosenfeld, the Washington Post metro editor who oversaw the Watergate coverage in the 1970s, provided fascinating insights into the relationship between his personal history and professional path, which became the basis of his memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate. Mr. Rosenfeld was introduced by his daughter, Village Temple congregant Stefanie Rosenfeld and appreciated by all, including his lovely wife and grandchildren, who were also present.

Deborah Wolf, an integrative cognitive therapist and anthropologist, who has worked with indigenous healers and spiritual leaders for over twenty-five years, presented a remarkable and moving interpretation of Yedid Nefesh, that linked this ancient Jewish prayer with a Native American pipe ceremony.  (While words can’t  adequately convey the experience of watching Deborah perform the ceremony, her beautiful text is available under the Prayer Project link on The Village Temple website.)

On Sunday morning, with the guidance and wisdom of Rabbi Koster, Alex Tansky, Anita Hollander, and our religious school music leader  Ty Citerman , members of the Village Temple Religious School led a reverent and meaningful Yom HaShoah service for the religious school students and our adult community, more than 100 participants in all—including one of The Village Temple’s most revered and longtime congregants, Harriet Zimmer, age 95.

They were joined by Lilly Salcman (mother of co-president Julie Salamon), who is, among many other things, a survivor of Auschwitz. In a living example of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, Lilly recalled her experiences and answered the sincere and probing questions provided by the religious school students. Inspiration overflowed in all directions.


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Spring Awakening

As we write this we have two images in our minds: On one side of the screen in our heads: delight. We see the 70 members of The Village Temple, half of them children, who spent a recent Sunday morning volunteering to clean up Washington Square Park. It was a wonderful occasion, welcoming spring by doing an act of Tikkun Olam in the community where we live., 

On the other side: horror. We can’t shake the image of a crazed, hate-filled man murdering innocent people present at Jewish institutions in Kansas City. The facts that the killer was a self-proclaimed anti-Semite, that his victims were  not Jewish, and that the heinous act was perpetrated on the eve of Passover and the Sunday before Easter, added symbolic weight to havoc wreaked by a madman.

As we send our condolences to the families of the innocent people destroyed by the madness, we search for a way to process the irrationality. The violence has become the catalyst for many responses. Two were especially compelling.  Frank Bruni wrote a disturbing Op-Ed piece in The New York Times ( about contemporary anti-Semitism.  Here is an excerpt:

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps statistics, the most recent of which are for 2012. In the United States that year there were 6,573 hate-crime incidents reported to the bureau (a fraction, no doubt, of all that occurred). While most were motivated by race, about 20 percent were motivated by the victims’ perceived religion — roughly the same percentage as those motivated by the victims’ presumed sexual orientation. I didn’t expect a number that high.

Nor did I expect this: Of the religion-prompted hate crimes, 65 percent were aimed at Jews, a share relatively unchanged from five years earlier (69 percent) and another five before that (65 percent). In contrast, 11 percent of religious-bias crimes in 2012 were against Muslims.

Our country has come so far from the anti-Semitism of decades ago that we tend to overlook the anti-Semitism that endures. We’ve moved on to fresher discussions, newer fears.”


We share Bruni’s article not to promote fear but awareness.  The question, especially pertinent on Passover, is how do we respond to ignorance and violence? Joel Braunold, a liberal blogger on Jewish issues, wrote a thoughtful piece in Ha’aretz


Braunold offered this rumination on how we should respond to the kind of hatred promulgated by the Kansas City killer.

“One can look at Jewish history and know that the line from the Haggadah “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” is true.

Yet what should our response to this be? We are within our rights to be hostile to the outside world, to close ourselves off and be suspicious of all those around us. Yet by doing so we would be failing in our duty to be an or l’goyim (a light onto nations.)

Being Jewish is not easy. We need to be able to deal with the tensions that our traditions demand from us. We need to understand our own particularism while being open to the universalism of the world around us. Sadly, even today, there are those who rise up to destroy us, but we cannot allow them to destroy our way of life.

Our resilience is shown by not withdrawing from the world and enclosing ourselves in the comfort of our particularism. Nor is it found in assimilating into the universalism of all of that around us. Rather, our quest to demonstrate what it means to live as a happy and free people, celebrating our traditions and impacting those around us, is found in balancing the wonder of the cosmos and the glory of our rich history together.”

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Just saw Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and highly recommend it on cinematic and theological grounds. It’s a mesmerizing, brilliant, crazy interpretation of the Bible story—deeply personal, intelligent and serious. Don’t be thrown by the Transformer-like angels and the nods to Lord of the Rings and other fantasy epics. Aronofsky has simply done what most of us do when confronted with Biblical texts: he has internalized the story and its message, and made it his own.  

On returning from the movie I immediately went to Genesis to read the original. The story is rich with metaphoric and narrative implications for religious and philosophical contemplation, but surprisingly skimpy on details. Aronofksy has colored the gaps with a remarkable combination of razzle-dazzle Hollywood convention, contemporary thinking,  and Talmudic investigation. Yes, he fiddles with the story, enhancing with plot twists and characters notably absent from Genesis.  Yes, his Noah is a vegetarian but also a bloody warrior—fiercely depicted by Russell (“Gladiator”) Crowe, whose Noah represents many sides of humanity.  This Noah is fierce, dogmatic, tender and fragile; a flawed but courageous man aiming for righteousness while condoning mass destruction to achieve the divine. His “triumph” is shadowed by sorrow.

With courageous and refreshing sincerity, the movie trumpets the critical dilemma Noah faced—can man be obedient to God (called Creator in the movie) and still exercise free will?  

Lots to think about as Passover approaches and the story continues, many generations later….

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Disabilities Awareness Shabbat

Throughout the year we’ve been amazed and gratified by the breadth and depth of talent in our little congregation.  Last Friday night’s Disabilities Awareness Shabbat exemplified the intellectual and emotional energy that have been sparking services. Alice Chernik gave a moving talk about dealing with disability throughout her life. Anita Hollander, singing “Mommy is a Mermaid” from her one-woman show “Still Standing,” hit deep emotional chords with wit and grace. Following services, Rabbi Koster delved into the subject of the Torah’s treatment of those with special needs, focusing on Moses (who stuttered), using Esau’s Blessing by Ora Horn Prouser as her textual guide.

We also had the pleasure of hearing from our Prayer Project interpreters. This week the prayer under discussion was v’ahavta, the essential prayer that is part of the sh’ma.

Sandi Knell Tamny, a congregant who is an accomplished artist, connected the prayer to her art with insight and passion. Her engrossing talk culminated with the unveiling of a remarkable work, reflecting the artist’s feeling for the v’ahavta. Sandi has generously donated this beautiful piece to The Village Temple, and it is now hanging in the synagogue’s social hall. Bill Abrams, former Village Temple president, described the resonance he feels between the prayer and his work as the president of TrickleUp, an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping the ultrapoor take the first steps out of poverty into a sustainable life. [Sandi and Bill’s talks, with illustrations, will be posted in the  Prayer Project section on the website under Worship]

As if this Shabbat evening weren’t remarkable enough, we also heard from one of our young congregants, Isabel Stern, who gave a rousing appeal for The Village Temple March 9 blood drive. Clearly, with her evident desire for tikkun olam,  Isabel has taken the message of the v’ahavta to heart.

Here are the words to the prayer:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy

heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

And these words, which I command thee this

day, shall be upon thy hearts. Thou shalt teach

them diligently unto thy children, and thou

shalt speak of them when thou sittest in thy

house, when thou walkest by the way, when

thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy

hand, and they shall be for frontlets between

thine eyes. Thou shalt write them upon the

doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates:

That ye may remember and do all My

commandments and be holy unto your God.

Deuteronomy 6:59

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Pete Seeger’s Legacy

We join the many who mourn the passing of Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. Seeger wasn’t Jewish but he embodied values we hold dear, chief among them the notion of tikkun olam.

He had a complicated relationship with Israel: admiring and then questioning, but always open to discussion. Below is an excerpt from Seeger’s obituary in The Jerusalem Post:

The musician first visited Israel in 1964 to spend time on several kibbutzim with his wife and children, JTA reported. He also visited again right before the 1967 Six Day War, performing the hit Hebrew song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” which he had recorded with the Weavers in 1950, according to JTA. The Weavers version of the song, originally written by Polish immigrant to Palestine Issachar Miron in 1941, made No. 2 on the Billboard charts for 1951 – second only to another song of the Weavers, “Goodnight Irene.”

In addition to performing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” Seeger also recorded a version of “Dayenu,” from the Passover Haggadah, in the 1959 album Folk Songs for Young People. Seeger also performed “Hineh Ma Tov” with the Weavers in their 1963 Reunion at Carnegie Hall – Part 2 album.

In November 2010, Seeger performed in an online peace rally “With Earth and Each Other,” in support of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, despite widespread calls for him to boycott the event. At the Kibbutz Ketura-based institute, students from around the world, including Jewish and Arab Israelis, as well as Palestinians and Jordanians, partake in environmental studies and research programs.

Seeger resisted the call of more than 40 organizations, led by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, to skip the event and “join the growing list of artists who have respected the Palestinian boycott call.” At the time, Arava Institute executive director David Lehrer stressed that the event was not designed to be a political rally but “to show the world that there is another side of the conflict, in which people across borders are striving to work together for the betterment of all.”

The musician expressed similar sentiments prior to his performance, telling JTA that, while he could understand why someone might want to boycott a place financially, he could not understanding a boycott of dialogue.

“The world will not be here in 50 years unless we learn how to communicate with each other nonviolently,” he told JTA.

“By March 2011, however, Adalah-NY reported that Seeger had met with representatives of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and said that he supports the anti-Israel BDS movement, according to JTA.”

“Afterwards, Seeger told JTA that while he “probably said” that, he is still learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that his “opinions waver with each piece of information” he receives.”

“After learning about Seeger’s passing, Lehrer told The Jerusalem Post that “this is indeed a sad day” for the Arava Institute and for “all those who love folk music and believe in the power of song to change the world.” Lehrer fondly recalled visiting Seeger at his home in Cold Springs, New York in 2010, when he and his daughter enjoyed singing a few songs with the musician as well.”

“Pete Seeger stood for justice and for standing up for the weak and the powerless,” he said. “Mr. Seeger supported the Arava Institute because of our commitment to environmental justice in the region and because of our commitment to building bridges between people instead of walls,” Lehrer continued.

“We join with the rest of the humanity in mourning the loss of an important voice for peace, sustainability and human dignity.”

The founder of the Arava Institute, Prof. Alon Tal, recalled the “tremendous pressure on Pete Seeger to pull out of the virtual rally.”

“But Pete refused,” said Tal, a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University’s Blaustein Institute of Desert Research, on sabbatical at Stanford University.

“He sought peace in the Middle East and expected Israel to pursue peace more expeditiously, but he was not an anti-Zionist,” he added.

Commending Seeger’s commitment to the environment, Tal stressed that the musician’s work to preserve natural resources must be remembered by all those working toward a more sustainable future.

“Pete Seeger’s efforts, indeed unflagging efforts, to restore the Hudson River to its former glory constitutes one of the great conservation stories of recent US environmental history,” he said.

Tal – who is also a banjo and fiddler player in the Arava Riders bluegrass band – said he learned to play banjo using the “Peter Seeger method.”

“Pete Seeger will first and foremost be remembered as someone who popularized the social conscience in the American folk tradition,” Tal said.

Crediting Seeger for transforming the five-string banjo “into an acceptable acoustic instrument and not just a marginal twanging oddity,” Tal said he appreciates that Seeger made the instrument mainstream.

“Most of all he loved to sing and got a lot of us who grew up in the ‘60s to love to sing the great American folk repertoire,” Tal said. “And I will always remember that he never stopped singing Israeli folk songs like ‘Hineh Mah Tov.’ Let’s look at the entirety of his remarkable life and not this or that political statement that he might have made – and sing a song in this great man’s honor today.”

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