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D'var Torah: Parashat Shelach

D’VAR TORAH

RABBI DEBORAH A. HIRSCH

JULY 1, 2016

This weekend…this Shabbat… embraces both memory and future for Village Temple.  

Like Americans throughout our country, this weekend celebrates the birth of our nation.  Technically, the Continental Congress declared Independence on July 2, 1776; however, the final wording that became memorialized as the official document wasn’t approved until July 4 –only 2 days of wordsmithing--and so for 240 years Americans have commemorated this auspicious date—with parades…BBQ…Fire Works…aren’t we glad that our nation’s birth occurred in July and not February?

Some communities celebrate July 4th with reenactments of the reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Several years ago, Carole and I attended such a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA…and it amazed me as to how many people come year after year to touch that part of American history. 

Each year the 4th of July stands as a vivid reminder of our nation’s embrace of freedom…our nationalistic DNA includes historical memory of struggle, passion, debate, vision, and determination.  The Musical, Hamilton, has created for our generation…a new connection to our nation’s founding fathers and mothers.

And for us at Village Temple, this Shabbat marks a new chapter as well.  Our historical heritage is only a quarter of that, of our country’s--- nevertheless, for 68 years—Village Temple’s has been the spiritual home for individuals and families seeking a liberal Jewish connection…and for nearly thirty years…the doors of Village Temple have been open to fulfill the biblical command to care for the stranger and feed those who are in need.  

For the next year we are embarking upon a journey that will create a new beginning in this congregation’s history. But, we can only arrive at that new beginning, by working together as a community—honoring the past, ensuring healing where needed, and visioning toward the future.  Sacred community is part of our spiritual DNA—for, the Jewish people, first and foremost, is a sacred community—Torah was given publicly, not privately—the formal name of the Village Temple is Kehila Kedosha B’nai Israel—it begins with the same two words that defines every synagogue: Kehilah Kedoshah--The sacred community of B’nai Israel.  Even the English name—the Village Temple is an attempt to identify the congregation in relationship to its geographic community.  

There is much in this week’s Torah portion that can provide a blueprint for the way ‘community’ should and should not behave.  On the one hand, Parashat Shelach—is the second of five Torah portions that include some form of rebellion...individual and communal.  Last week’s portion concluded with Miriam being stricken with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against their brother, Moses’ leadership.  That portion contained the shortest prayer uttered in Torah—El Na Rafa Na La—God please, heal her please.  

In this week’s Parasha, Shelach, the historical setting is stills in the second year…the second month of the year…since the Israelites departure from Egypt.  Barely a year has passed since the revelation on Mount Sinai.  And—It has been a year of grumbling and opportunity.  

The portion begins… The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, "Send emissaries to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them." The Hebrew phrase for send is, Shelach L’cha---Why doesn’t the text, usually preferring brevity of words, just say, Shelach—Send!  Why the phrase Shelach l’cha.  The medieval commentator Rashi, interprets this phrase as Send for yourself...according to your own judgment. According to Rashi, God doesn’t command Moses to send forth the 12 spies; rather it was at Moses’ discretion to do so. In looking at the phrase Shelach-L'cha,  I would like to suggest, as God called Abram to leave his native land with the words  Lech L’cha—Please Go—I  implore you to go—The simple command—Lech—did not suffice. So, too, in our portion, God knew that sending forth the spies was going to be seminal moment in both Moses’ and the Israelites journeys.  Perhaps God, considered to be ‘all-knowing’ in the biblical world, knew this biblical James Bond mission, was not to be an easy one and would have powerful consequences.

Indeed, the spies strategically go out and survey the land…12 in all, one chieftain from each tribe. Like Moses on Mt. Sinai, the spies spend 40 days surveying the land.  He instructed them:  

You shall see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many? יחוּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־הָעָם֙ הַיּשֵׁ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ הֶֽחָזָ֥ק הוּא֙ הֲרָפֶ֔ה הַמְעַ֥ט ה֖וּא אִם־רָֽב:

19And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they reside are they in camps or in fortresses? יטוּמָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ ישֵׁ֣ב בָּ֔הּ הֲטוֹבָ֥ה הִ֖וא אִם־רָעָ֑ה וּמָ֣ה הֶֽעָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יוֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּהֵ֔נָּה הַֽבְּמַֽחֲנִ֖ים אִ֥ם בְּמִבְצָרִֽים:

20What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land."

After 40 days the spies returned….carrying on their shoulders a cluster of grapes.  As God promised them when they left Egypt—The Eternal One would bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey—and so it was.  God had told them the truth.  After affirming the goodness of the land, 10 of the spies reported that the land was occupied by people mightier than the Israelites—they instilled fear when they told in their attempt to conquer the land the Israelites would have to defeat the Moabites, Jebusites, Canaanites—all of whom would surround and defeat them if they engaged them in war.  The spies reported that they  saw the Annakites—the giant people of the Nephalim—who, according to Genesis, were descendants of the sons of God and daughters of men---the spies stated that they, the chieftains of their tribes, appeared to themselves like grasshoppers in comparison.  Despite Caleb’s attempt to assure the people that they would prevail, the people, despondent and untrusting in either Moses or God, woefully raised their voices in dread and rebellion.  

God reached a Divine moment of outrage…and uttered a silent Dayeinu, surely the Israelites whom God and Moses had led through the wilderness could only find comfort in the past—despite the hardship they endured in Egypt.  They could not embrace the destiny their redemption from Egypt promised.  The consequence of their action—40 years of wandering—one year for each day the scouts surveyed the land. 40 years—sufficient time for all of the Israelites to die out—save Joshua and Caleb.  Yet despite, all of their bitter complaining—the Israelites, under Moses’ leadership trudge on for 38 more years…laying the foundation for a future only the next generation would secure.  

Indeed, there are lessons to be learned from our ancient people’s wandering.  Perhaps, the single most beautiful part of Torah—is that it is so human.  It teaches us about the human response to change.  We catch glimpses and insights into human foibles and triumphs.  At times, we even see God waffling with emotion.  Parashat Shlach captures for us a moment in time when Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness pushed them backwards, rather than ahead.  

During the Revolutionary War, there were moments of defeat for the fledging American nation.  The Battle of Charleston in 1780 forced Major General Benjamin Lincoln to unconditionally surrender to British Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton.  Despite a devastating defeat, the patriots’ vision for independence prevailed…and through the efforts of soldiers with moxie—using guerilla warfare tactics...through the efforts of Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Nathanael Greene—names not found in Hamilton, The Musical, the Continental Army, eventually pushed the British out of South Carolina---and the British finally surrendered to the American army at Yorktown, VA in 1781.  

Two seminal moments in history—two distinct responses resulting in opposite outcomes—What were the driving factors that caused polar results?  How do they inform our Village Temple community as we move through a time of transition—without knowing the results that loom on the horizon? What role does each member play in ensuring a dynamic and spiritual future for this spiritual home?  

There are five key emotional and strategic components that are needed to ensure Village Temple’s success in the months ahead.  They are:

• Trust

• Courage, 

• Commitment

• Clear Vision 

• Leadership.  

Please remember, without the first four the fifth, leadership, is doomed to failure.   

A critical element is trust.  The Israelites lacked trust in God, in Moses and in themselves.   Their fear of the future, and external factors, paralyzed them from believing in God’s promise that God would bring them into that Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  For us, trust doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement or questions…debate and respectful challenge can provide important checks and balances to any decision making process.  But ultimately, the vision of those in leadership—elected representatives—whether members of the board or, in time, the rabbinic search committee, must be honored and supported.  And that vision must not emerge ex nihilo—out of nothingness or in a vacuum.  

In the coming weeks, each member of our congregation will have the opportunity to have his or her voice heard.  The community conversations scheduled throughout this summer and probably a few in September, will provide leadership with the core values of the congregation that will shape future vision. Your responses will inform leadership, what you consider to be the spiritual DNA of Village Temple. Indeed, there have been changes in the past year—and change is an event that happens—and how we respond to those changes—how we manage the emotional—what William Bridges calls, the human side of change…that is transition. The Israelites did not manage their change to freedom very effectively.  The coming year is about being change-‘able’—having the courage and fortitude to see the process through—holding fast to those unique qualities of Village Temple that differentiates it from neighboring congregations. The year will be about honoring the past, and having the courage to embrace a future that is not yet defined—the courage to try on new programs…new approaches…knowing that they are temporary solutions, and that transition can indeed be a time of opportunity as well—more about that on Rosh HaShanah.    For now, let us be content knowing that the future is totally dependent upon each member’s commitment to making Village Temple the best spiritual home possible.  Each person’s voice needs to be heard. Healing of feelings and relationships need to be part of that process as well—El na rafah na lana—God, please, heal us, please.  And hopefully in one year from today, this kehilah kedosha—this sacred congregation, united in vision, will welcome your next senior rabbi. Let us journey to that end together.  

Keyn Yehi Ratzon.  

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New Beginnings

On Friday night Rabbi Deborah Hirsch stepped onto the bimah for the first time as spiritual leader of The Village Temple. As it happened, that Erev Shabbat coincided with Erev Fourth of July weekend, not quite propitious timing for starting a new job!!  Happily, a great many of you chose to begin the holiday by welcoming Rabbi Hirsch to our community. The sanctuary was delightfully full—not just with people, but with good will and open hearts. Accompanied by the beautiful music of Anita Hollander and Holland Hamilton, Rabbi Hirsch conducted a moving, intelligent service that invited participation as well as introspection. With eloquence and respect, she spoke about the importance of healing, for our little congregation and for the large, troubled world around us. 

This summer you have the opportunity to have a voice in directing the future course of The Village Temple. Please come to one of several small gatherings taking place in congregant homes for conversation and connection with fellow congregants. Rabbi Hirsch will lead discussions that will allow you to talk about your experiences and hopes for the synagogue, what would make you feel more engaged, why is it important to you. Supper will be served at the evening get-togethers.

Two dates have already filled up. Please reserve as soon as possible, so your hosts can begin to plan. To RSVP please email Sandy Albert in the VT office This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call 212-674-2340.

Tues. morning 7/19—11 a.m to 12:30 a.m

Thursday evening 7/21  6:30 pm to 8:00 pm

Tues. morning 7/26—11 a.m to 12:30 a.m

Tues. evening 7/26 – 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm

Mon. evening 6/6 6:30 pm to 8:300 pm

Thursday evening 8/11 –6:30 pm to 8:00 pm

Please indicate your top two preferred dates and times. You will be notified of the date, time and location a few days in advance.

Meanwhile, we encourage you to come to services when you can over the summer. Anita and Cantor Nancy Bach and guest musicians will join Rabbi Hirsch in making Shabbat at The Village Temple inspirational and engaging,  a lovely respite from the hubbub of everyday life.

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Summer Plans

While Religious School may be finished for the year, The Village Temple is open all year round. Our summer services are always a special pleasure, with guest appearances by wonderful musicians and the opportunity to meet Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, our interim rabbi. Rabbi Hirsch’s official start date is July 1, which happens to be Erev Shabbat. Skip the holiday traffic and start July 4 weekend at The Village Temple. Come to Friday night services on July 1 to welcome Rabbi Hirsch and then head out for wherever you are going!!

We have emerged from this difficult year stronger and smarter about community engagement. You are invited to participate in one of several opportunities to meet with Rabbi Hirsch in small groups, to discuss what you would like the Village Temple to be. Most of these gatherings will take place in the home of members, and will be part business, part social. This will allow you to be part of an important conversation about the synagogue’s purpose and meaning, as well as the chance to get to know fellow congregants. Please attend these sessions, so your voices can be heard. 

The information gathered at these meetings will provide guidance to the search committee for a full time rabbi. Thanks to the following congregants who have volunteered for this important task. They represent the spectrum that makes up The Village Temple: long-time and recent members; grandparents, families; singles; interfaith families; experts in Jewish ritual and those at the beginning of their learning journey: Sarah King, Marina Levin, David Caceres, Rachel Glube/David Friedman, Gabrielle Haskell, Esther Siegel, Alizah Brozgold, Mickey Rindler, Adrienne Koch, Jamil Simon, Fred Basch, Larry Klurfeld, Sandi Tamny, Dean Chavooshian. (The co-presidents will be ex-officio members.)

This group will have the task of creating a job description, based on your input, and then managing the process outlined by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. They will be reporting to the congregation along the way, to keep you fully informed.

Please let us know if you have any questions. Look forward to seeing all of you soon.

 

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Rabbi Hirsch on the Tragedy in Orlando

Dear Village Temple community,

We are sharing a note Rabbi Deborah Hirsch sent to her congregation at Shararay Tefilla yesterday upon learning of the tragic events in Orlando (Rabbi Hirsch begins as our interim rabbi on July 1.)

From Rabbi Hirsch:

It was with disbelief that I woke on this Shavuot morning and heard the news of the mass shooting at the Pulse Orlando Bar.  When I left for services this morning, the death toll was at twenty.  When I returned home three hours later, the number had climbed to fifty dead and fifty-three injured—many who are listed in critical condition. 

Today, Jews across the world listened to the chanting of the Ten Commandments, a set of rules embraced by multiple faiths.  The sixth commandment, Lo TIrtzach—you shall not murder, was transgressed at least fifty times early this morning. The president and media called the slaughter ‘the worst mass shooting massacre in American history’.  Today’s tragedy must lift up for us the value of human life and we must raise our voices against senseless violent acts that not only cut short the lives of innocent men and women, but eclipses God’s presence in our world. This deadly assault occurred in the shadow of the upcoming first anniversary of the historic gay legislation that secured the rights of LGBT citizens in our country.  Sadly, we know we can legislate laws but we cannot legislate an end to hatred.  Clearly, today’s terror was a hate crime—a reminder that it is incumbent upon all of us to champion the rights of those who face discrimination in our land. 

I know there are gun debates across our country and there are those in our congregation who represent both sides of that debate.  Having said that, I truly hope we can all raise our voices in solidarity against horrific mass murder—that we can distinguish between the possession of a gun and the possession of an assault weapon, whose sole purpose is not to defend, but to snuff out dozens of lives in a single breath—leaving carnage and pain and misery for so many. 

May God grant comfort to all who are in shock this day—to all who are wounded—to family members who will mourn the loss of loved ones—to first responders who forever will be haunted by the images they witnessed.  May God grant them strength to endure their pain and may God send healing that will embrace them with memories of love. 

L’shalom,

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch

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Parshat Emor: Dvar Torah by Alizah Brozgold

This week's Torah portion from Leviticus names and describes the sacred festivals of the Jewish year: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. As Elyse Goldstein writes in her commentary on the URJ website, these sacred festivals invest time with holiness and declare ourselves as active partners with God.

In another commentary by Rachel Mikva, she adds the point that these holy days are holy because they don't "await our convenience" and don't accommodate our own personal schedules.  As Jews celebrating a holiday, "We have an appointment, so we drop everything and show up. That's part of what makes it special." 

She also quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that asks "whether we keep these appointments for God or for ourselves. The paradoxical response is that they are wholly for our own enjoyment . . . because the Holy One wants us to keep showing up (B'reishit 4)."

The question of showing up is an important one and is critical to how we define ourselves as Reform Jews in 2016.  How do we create spiritually and socially meaningful experiences in our shul that will get people to show up? One way is clearly....Jazz Synaplex! Jazz is the perfect musical medium for Jews because it's all about improvisation - something that is central to Jewish culture and religion and our historical status as wanderers, as we constantly needed to adapt to the mores and traditions around us. We are always striking a balance - between our ancient melodies and our new riffs on those old tunes.

Jazz, too, has some Jewish roots. Reading about Jews and jazz in one of Nat Hentoff's JazzTimes columns, for example, he wrote about how Artie Shaw's longtime jazz theme song actually was based on a cantorial niggun. The improvising chazzans in Orthodox synagogues sang a kind of "soul music" that connects us not only to jazz but to American blues as well.

Every generation of Jews needs to find its own voice to remain vital, its own ways to inspire people to show up. This year, as our community collectively and metaphorically composes what songs we want to sing, I imagine there will be lots of improvisation.

And all of your voices are needed! As Henry Van Dyke, an educator, once said, "Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang best."

We need all your voices and we need you all to show up...because the shul must go on!

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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After the Holocaust

At last Friday night’s Shabbat services, The Village Temple commemorated the Shoah with quiet power and poignancy. Through words, music and poetry, Alizah Brozgold, Cantor Bach and Anita Hollander created an evocative stream of memory that connected the hopeful beauty of Shabbat with the horrible events being recalled. Perhaps most touching were the readings and songs from the children of the Terezin concentration camp, brought back to life by choir members Rachel Hendrickson and Emma Basch. It felt appropriate that on this memorial evening we were also celebrating the bat mitzvah of Sasha Beutler, looking to the future as we remember the past. These young people may be the best answer to the question hauntingly posed by Elie Wiesel:  “But who will be the last survivor, the last to tell the tale, the one who, like the prophet Jeremiah, said, “I am he, I was there.” Who will be our witness? What will happen to our legacy?”

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Interim Rabbi News

On Wednesday, April 13, the Village Temple community voted (51 yes, 1 abstention) to approve Rabbi Deborah Hirsch as our interim rabbi, beginning July 1. This is a poignant moment, as we move toward our congregation’s future while appreciating the past 17 years under Rabbi Koster’s leadership.

The next year will offer our congregation an opportunity for self-examination and renewal. Rabbi Hirsch will be an able guide through this process. She brings an impressive array of experience, with more than 25 years as a congregational Rabbi, including 15 years at East End Temple and 6 years at Sharaay T’fila. In addition, she has worked for the Union of Reform Judaism, and has a deep well of knowledge about the wider Jewish world. Those who meet her are struck by her wisdom, ability to listen deeply, intuition, warmth, and sense of humor. You will have many opportunities to meet her and her wife Carole in large groups and small. Please join us in welcoming this exceptional leader to our community.

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Restoration and Remembrance

In her poignant, exquisite book Beloved Dog, the artist/author Maira Kalman says this about the death of her husband:  “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.” Kalman’s words came to mind on Sunday, April 3, during the memorial gathering for Village Temple member Ze’ev Mehler, husband of Nathalie Horowicz-Mehler, father of Elan, Jessye, Sarah, Yoav, Noa and Yael.   At an evocative service led by Rabbi Koster, Ze’ev’s family and friends recalled what the world was like with Ze’ev, a passionate man who made every minute matter. Friends were his oxygen, Nathalie said. He lived for his family, his friends said. He taught by example that what you loved had to be embraced. Besides his friends and family he loved music, motorcycles, New York, history, conversation, community and the pure excitement of making things happen, lighting a spark. This was not a man who dipped his toes in the stream of life. He dove in with relish—and made everyone want to jump in with him. When Ze’ev died, the world didn’t come to an end and neither did he. That was evident in the memories shared, the inspiration he gave.

Ze’ev’s memorial was part of a weekend of restoration and remembrance at The  Village Temple. At Friday night services the community officially thanked Judy Steinman for underwriting the refurbishment of the synagogue’s Torahs in honor of her late husband Ralph Steinman, a longtime member who served twice as temple president. Artist and sofer Neal Yerman spoke eloquently about the relationship between the physical Torah and the meaning contained in the letters and words. Sofer Yerman returned to the VT Sunday morning to demonstrate his craft and the concepts behind it to religious school students and their families. Having this event take place the same day as Ze’ev’s memorial felt like a consecration of our community and what it stands for.

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On Being Grateful in the Moment: Dvar Torah by Alizah Brozgold

Dvar Torah

Parshat Tzav

3/26/16

This week's Torah portion, Tzav (from the Hebrew word, 'command') continues the commandments related to ritual sacrifices. Remember there were different kinds of sacrifices for different circumstances, and one was called the "sacrifice of well-being" or "peace offering". Nehama Leibowitz, a contemporary biblical commentator, points out that the sacrifice of well-being was unusual for having no request or petition connected to it. The offerer brought a gift, yet asked nothing of God, motivated simply by, in her words, ". . . an abundance of joy and gratitude."

The people were commanded to eat the sacrifice of well-being on the day in which it was offered. We read (Leviticus 7:15), "And the flesh of the thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning." 

So why would we be required to eat the sacrifice of well-being on the day in which it is offered? If the sacrifice symbolizes a miracle in the life of the one who brings it - as some biblical commentators have argued - it makes sense to me that the ceremony of eating the sacrifice would be done on the same day. It emphasizes that a moment of gratitude and well-being needs to be acknowledged 'in that very moment', without delay. In so doing, it emphasizes the importance, immediacy, and primacy of our thanksgiving. 

This led me to muse on the times in my life that I hadn't stated my gratitude 'in the moment'. How many times did I think about the love and support given me by my family, friends, and colleagues without saying a word, perhaps planning a special future acknowledgement or expression of gratitude? How many times did it come to pass that I never had the chance to express it and deeply regretted that missed opportunity? 

It also made me think of how the expression of gratitude and well-being can quickly become a wonderful chain reaction. It's like holding the door for someone with a smile and seeing the person behind you doing the same thing for the person behind them. Similarly, when we express our gratitude to someone, it often leads to their acknowledging their gratitude to us. The gift of well-being and gratitude is truly a gift that 'keeps on giving'.

Knowing human psychology, even if we do express our gratitude 'in the moment', we are often back to our old complaining, ungrateful selves a few minutes later. This is exemplified by the story of Sadie and her grandson. One sunny day, as they were walking along the beach in Miami together, an enormous wave suddenly came along and swept up little Joshua into the ocean. Sadie looked up at the heavens and railed at God. A moment later, another wave came along and safely deposited her precious grandson on the shore. Sadie looked toward heaven in gratitude, then looked down again, yelling back up to God, "He had a hat!"

May our offerings of well-being and gratitude be given in a timely way and may they, in turn, evoke well-being and gratitude in others. Amen.          

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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Purim spectacular!!

The Village Temple is rocking the house for Purim this year! 

Last night’s Megillah reading and Purimspiel made for an incredible evening, thanks to the talent, creativity, hard work, and enthusiasm of our choir kids and the many adults who planned and performed. Special kudos to Mickey Rindler, who wrote the VT adaptation of “Frozen” with great panache; the performers who put on a chillingly fabulous show; Tina Ball who did a masterful job of herding cats and other delightful creatures. The sanctuary was packed with adults and children. You could see how much fun everyone was having by the fact that it seemed like half the kids in the audience tried to climb up on stage at one point or another. And hats off to Alex Tansky, the best sport ever, onstage and off. 

Cantor Nancy Bach led a lovely service. And while Anita Hollander is performing in Chicago, her incredible daughter Holland Hamilton carried on in style, leading the children’s choir to new heights (with a lovely assist from guitarist Jonny Kunis). Talk about l’dor v’dor!!! The choir was just amazing—truly a sign that spring is here. 

Special thanks to Sandy Albert, who has been working double/triple-time to keep things running, publicize our events, handle our books, and represent the VT with singular grace and intelligence. 

By the time the evening was over our faces hurt from smiling so much. Thank you all for demonstrating so beautifully what a dynamic community we are blessed with at The Village Temple. 

And the fun continues on Friday, March 25, with our adult Purim Celebration. Come in costume, mask (or not), and join the fun, with services followed by Haman’s hat hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, live music and dancing. Childcare provided!

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Parshat Pikudei: Dvar Torah by Alizah Brozgold

At services on Friday night, March 11, lay leader Alizah Brozgold beautifully captured the moment of transition we are experiencing at The Village Temple. Please read her inspiring words:

 

Dvar Torah

Parshat Pikudei

3/11/16

 

         This week's Parsha contains an image that has always held a great sense of awe and mystery for me. The Torah describes that after the Tabernacle or Mishkan is built, a description is given of a pillar of cloud that covers the Mishkan by day and a pillar of fire that burns by night, indicating God's Presence and leading the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. (40:33-38) 

         Of the two pillars, it is the one of fire that would seem to offer the most impressive symbol of God's presence. Fire and light would literally 'show the way', illuminate our path, inspire wonder in the Israelites and anyone we passed on our journey.The pillar of cloud, on the other hand, has the potential to obscure and hide, although as such, it also serves a protective function.

         Thinking of these two pillars led me to muse on the aspects of cloud and fire both in a psychological and spiritual context, as well as in the context of our synagogue. 

         In the two types of pillars, we can see represented different types of spiritual revelations. One is bright, fiery - a sight that no one can miss. I think of it as the kind of psychological insight that comes in the form of a joyful spark or celebratory "Aha moment". 

         Then there is the cloud revelation. It is the quiet understanding that comes in a darker, more somber moment. It may come to us when we reflect on the challenges of life or experience illness or the loss of someone we love. 

         In the life of our synagogue, we also have these two pillars accompanying us as we proceed on our journey to find a new Rabbi and figure out what our community's future should look like. 

         In the example of our synagogue, the pillar of fire can be seen as representing our hope and aspirations, our need for light and warmth that will bring healing and closeness and clarity. We want that light to embrace us, as well as draw others in. 

         The pillar of cloud also follows us. In the cloud are our hurts and our confusion. The cloud doesn't disappear - as much as we may want it to. We may want to hide in the cloud for a while, just as when we grieve, we may want to withdraw into ourselves for a time. Yet, in the darkness, we can also find insight, and wisdom in the wake of loss. This is beautifully described in the Tanhuma Midrash:

"The eye has a dark part and a light part. One can only see through the dark part." 

         The fire and the cloud are states of being that have their time or season in the life of a human being and in the life of a community. 

         May we make use of our cloud and our fire revelations, and remember in the words of Shlomo Yehoshua aka Stephen Sondheim:

"Where ever we go, whatever we do,

We're gonna go through it together."

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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In Memoriam – Paul Aiken

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, The Village Temple sanctuary was packed with friends, family, and admirers of Paul Aiken, a VT congregant who died on January 29, one day before his 57th birthday. Paul spent the last two years of his life battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He approached the diagnosis the way he lived his life—refusing to accept conventional wisdom and trying to make the world a better place. He was not Jewish but lived and breathed the values of tikkun olam. Paul established a blog, n=2.com, to record his fight against the disease which included taking a number of alternative cures. In addition to the blog, Aiken made n=2.com into a foundation with the aim of “building a global ALS community.” To remember Paul, donations can be made to MAC Angels and Project ALS. Rabbi Koster led a beautiful memorial service which elicited as many laughs as tears, appropriate to Paul’s character and his beautiful, spirited family: Stefanie his wife and his children, A.J., Will, and Melanie. His college roommate and lifelong friend recalled Paul as a man who took deep satisfaction from everyday pleasures—a satisfying bike ride, a sunny afternoon in New York, the Chicago Cubs playing baseball, a hot dog and papaya drink from Gray’s. “This is a good day,” Paul would declare. But his impact was far from ordinary. As executive director of the Author’s Guild for almost 20 years, Paul led the guild in a lawsuit against Google that charged the company’s library book scanning project was copyright infringement. The case continues in the courts. In a statement about Paul, guild president Roxana Robinson noted that "Brilliant and fierce can change the world, but it's generosity that makes it a better place. For twenty years Paul worked to make the world a better place for writers, readers and everyone else affected by the written word.”  

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The Legacy of Leon Klinghoffer

On Thursday evening, October 8, 2015, many Village Temple members joined a huge crowd at the Center for Jewish History, for an emotional, fascinating, inspiring gathering to celebrate and commemorate Leon Klinghoffer. Thirty years have passed since he was murdered by terrorists, during a vacation trip with his wife and friends. His legacy might have been simple, a Jewish entrepreneur out of the Lower East Side who invented the Roto-Broil Rotisserie, a popular kitchen appliance in the 1950s. But at age 69, retired and wheel-chair bound, Mr. Klinghoffer took a cruise with his wife Marilyn to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. Palestinian terrorists hijacked the ship, shot Mr. Klinghoffer in cold blood, and ordered his body thrown overboard. In that horrible moment, he became a catalytic part of history, changing the way many in the United States and the world viewed terrorism and its consequences.

 The Klinghoffers’ two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, have transformed this devastating loss into a profound legacy for their father—and their mother Marilyn, who died of cancer a few months after the death of her husband. The sisters, who are long time Village Temple members (Lisa is married to co-president Jerry Arbittier), have dedicated themselves--through their foundation and working with the Anti-Defamation League--to fighting terrorism through educational, political and legal means.  At the 30th anniversary event, Lisa and Ilsa recounted their experiences in a performance-dialogue that was heart-rending, funny at times, riveting throughout. It was humbling to witness their courage in recalling these events. Most amazing, from a narrative propelled by a hateful act, was the palpable love the sisters demonstrated for one another, their families and the extraordinary cast of characters they have met on this amazing journey.

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B’nei mitzvah and legacy….

June 22, 2015

This past Shabbat, with the Bat Mitzvah of Addie Rosenthal, this year’s crop of Village Temple b’nei mitzvah students has completed the journey to the bimah. Nothing provides greater pleasure to our community than to see these young people make this commitment to their families and to their heritage.  Week after week, we hear them apply their Torah portions to today’s world, finding ways to make these ancient stories relevant to their lives.

The effort this takes shouldn’t be underestimated. Each of these b’nei mitzvah students has to do something that would terrify many adults: stand up in front of a large group of people and present a series of complex prayers (in a foreign language); deliver a speech; and accept public proclamations about them from family and clergy. The preparation is long and often difficult, and competes with the demands of stressful school schedules. Meanwhile, all of this takes place during the psychologically fraught transition from childhood to adolescence.

The importance of this transmission of values has never seemed more important than this past week, when our nation once again experienced racial hatred expressed through murder.  The 21-year-old killer, Dylann Storm Roof, was described by Charles Blow in The New York Times as “a millennial race terrorist.” The columnist asked, “Who radicalized Roof? Who passed along the poison?”

The only antidote to that poison is to strengthen a legacy of social action, of belief in true equality and justice. Throughout the year we’ve listened to young people affirm these values. Our hope lies in them.

 

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One Thing Leads to Another

For the past two years The Village Temple has joined with Judson Memorial Church to co-host the Greenwich Village Interfaith Thanksgiving. Through this wonderful event, Rabbi Koster became involved in the New Sanctuary Movement http://bit.ly/18XPr9p , an interfaith network of congregations and individuals working together to stop unjust deportations that separate families and ruin lives. This past Shabbat, our congregation had the privilege of hearing from Kamal Essaheb,http://1.usa.gov/1ztavhO an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, D.C. who spoke eloquently about his personal history while offering specific ways individuals can help this important cause. 

Immigration reform is a subject close to our hearts at The Village Temple, with a rabbi from the Netherlands, a religious school educator from the former Soviet Union, and a cantorial soloist from Morocco. You probably don’t have to go back too many generations to find an immigrant connection in every Village Temple family.  As the child of immigrant parents, for me one of the most moving passages in the Torah was the admonition in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” This spring, working with New Sanctuary, The Village Temple plans to put these words into action.

 

 

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Seeking the Light

On January 16, 2015, The Village Temple honored the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. by remembering our shared commitment to peace and justice for all. It was an evening of legacy.  Anita Hollander was joined in song by the children’s choir she guides so beautifully, as well as her daughter Holland Hamilton, whose marvelous voice often graces our services.  Anita also invited a special guest performer—the magical Rebecca Naomi Jones,  a rising star in the New York theater, whose mother Susan Rosenberg Jones is a former VT co-president and an accomplished photographer. The presence of these exquisite young performers was just another remember of the many gifts and talents our congregants bring to our community.

It was an evening to look inward and outward. The Village Temple continues to blossom. It’s been gratifying to watch the growth in attendance at services, thanks to the spiritual depth of our clergy and musicians, as well as the diversity and vibrancy of our programming.  Our office staff is doing an excellent job of keeping the machinery running.  We have committed volunteers, including our engaged and hardworking board of directors.

Still, our sweet and lovely MLK commemoration couldn’t entirely block out the barrage of hatred out in the larger world. Even as we enjoyed and appreciated the spirit within, we couldn’t ignore the murderous assaults in Paris. Less publicized here but no less vicious than the Parisian attacks, was an Al Queda car bombing in Yemen that killed 37 people. The victims included Jews, Christians, agnostics and Muslims.

 Our service was dedicated to respect for individuals and groups, at a moment when Muslim extremists have dominated the news.  Yet, as Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a thoughtful column nyti.ms/155NaGC  we can’t fall prey to what he calls “religious profiling.” As a congregation, we are continually working to make The Village Temple live up to our aim of kesher, or connection, and to always seek the light of knowledge and tikkun olam.

As Dr. King said so eloquently: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 

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In Memoriam - Cantor Jenny Izenstark

jenny izenstark

On Friday, November7, 2014, with the untimely death of Cantor Jenny Izenstark, The Village Temple lost a dedicated teacher and a brave friend. She was fifty years old.

Born in Chicago, Cantor Jenny was a Fulbright Scholar and then an opera singer in Europe before she became a  graduate of Hebrew Union College and an ordained cantor. For the past twenty years she guided countless students through the process of becoming B’nei Mitzvah, including those with learning issues and challenges.

In the spring of 2013, at age 49, Cantor Jenny was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that she battled with courage and humor .“I pretty much have my mojo back,” Cantor Jenny told a reporter for the hospital newsletter during her stay at Columbia University’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. “But it’s been quite a dramatic and humbling experience. Certainly I didn’t expect to almost die before I turned 50.”

Despite the physical toll the disease extracted from her, Cantor Jenny rallied to teach her students at The Village Temple and elsewhere,. Less than a week before her death she was working with young people,, determined to pass her knowledge to the next generation.

Her humble courage was inspiring. “Have you heard the saying, man plans and God laughs?” Cantor told the hospital reporter.”To me it means you just have to roll with it. Whatever life brings you, turn it into lemonade. I’ve always been good at doing this—but I didn’t know I’d have to be quite this good.

We are grateful for all she gave us. Her family has requested that memorial donations in her name be made to Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center, www.ndbc.cumc.columbia.edu.

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The Embrace of Community

In a sharply crafted article in the October 23, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, http://bit.ly/1vkxUB2 the brilliant writer Zadie Smith writes of a harsh individualism she sees in Manhattan, gentrification gone wild, celebrating singular success and “happiness” without regard for those who don’t have this luxury. She writes: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with.”

Updated and incisive as her essay is, Smith’s observation isn’t a revelation. New York has always been perceived of as a tough and often heartless town—because it can be. In her Brain Pickings blog last year, Maria Popova quotes a 1934 letter from Anais Nin to her then-lover Henry Miller http://bit.ly/1yr69rH:

“New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.”

And yet, now as always, New York offers another kind of energy,  embodied by countless people whose ambitions are just as relentless as the “hard-minded” success seekers, but with a different definition of success.  Maybe you don’t notice them as much because selfishness stands out more than kindness, in the way you remember the person who shoves you more than the 100 people who passed by, mindful of your space as well as theirs.  We tend to revisit/analyze/dwell on the sting of rejection more often than the embrace of approval.

So in the spirit of embracing warmth between human beings and celebrating the empowerment of community, Jerry and I thank all of you who make The Village Temple such a welcoming corner of our sometimes harsh city. The warmth was palpable this past Friday at our Succoth service, with the sanctuary and Succah filled with people of all ages, from a wide range of socioeconomic circumstance, to join Rabbi Koster and Anita Hollander and our amazing children’s choir.  For a couple of hours the clock stopped ticking as we celebrated the great gift of stepping outside the usual demands and concerns imposed by our hectic lives, to recognize that we are not alone.

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A Rare Glimmer of Hope

On September 12, 2014 The Village Temple was honored to host Avshalom “Abu” Vilan as our speaker for Shabbat services. Mr. Vilan—a former of the Knesset, founder of Israel’s PEACE NOW movement, veteran of the Israeli armed forces, father of a soldier who fought in Gaza—provided a rare glimmer of hopefulness—however tiny—from the Middle East. Hearing about his family’s generational commitment to Israel—three generations now fighting in so many wars—was so moving.  He brought a fresh perspective that you don’t often hear—vehemently pro-Israel/anti-Hamas/pro-peace—presented with knowledge, political savvy, enormous sophistication.

Seventy people attended services and engaged in a respective, provocative post-service Q&A in the social hall. We hope this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation: How do we maintain security for Israel and her citizens while promoting peace in the region? This isn’t just a question for Jews but for everyone in the world at a moment when so much madness is raging.

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Feeling With Our Minds

It may seem like a busman’s holiday for an author to read books about writing, but I do it--often. Right now I am engrossed by Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Yesterday I came across this wonderful passage, meant for writers but meaningful  to anyone who takes respite in reflection—and  a fine prelude to the meditative spirit of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

“We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us,” Shapiro writes. “And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us? Are we climbing on the shoulders of those who paved the way for us? Are we using every last bit of ourselves, living these lives of ours, spending it, spending it all, every single day?”

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