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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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What Truly Counts?

 Alizah Brozgold, a congregant who is a psychologist, filled in for Rabbi Koster, who was on vacation, at July 11 Shabbat services. Alizah connected the weekly Torah portion from the Book of Numbers, to the terrible events taking place in Israel and Gaza. We asked Alizah if we could post her beautiful reflection on our blog.

From Alizah:

            This week's Torah portion is from the 25th chapter of the Book of Numbers.

            You might be thinking that this particular book of the Torah is one you wouldn't be much interested in reading.  You might be thinking along the lines of Albert Einstein who wisely said, - "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."  In fact, this portion contains many lessons of relevance to our lives today related to both counting and what truly counts.

             We read in this Torah portion of counting in several contexts:  a census taking of the Israelites, as well as a long list of the sacrifices required at the Holy Temple for different occasions.  We read of the four daughters of Zelaphichad who appeal to Moses for an inheritance of land since their father had no male heirs.  We read of pairs, for example, Moses and Joshua, as Moses hands down his role of leadership to Joshua before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.  And in a story that resonates with the tragic cycle of violence in Israel today, we read of another couple - an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who are brutally slain by an Israelite named Pinchas when they flagrantly display their love for each other by the Temple altar.  Pinchas seems like the model of the first 'vigilante' - he takes justice into his own hands in the context of punishing a couple who violate the norms of their society in which they cannot be together. And why is it that Pinchas appears to be rewarded by God for his heinous act, as Pinchas is offered God's "briti shalom" - "My covenant of peace", and his descendants are offered the covenant of the priesthood. 

Dvar Torah, Page 2

Parshat Pinchas

           As Rabbi Burkeman in his Dvar Torah on the URJ website comments, on the surface, the Torah appears to reward Pinchas for his actions, as Burkeman says, "a worrying precedent for the actions we have witnessed in this past week."  When we look a little deeper, however, there is more to the story because God brings him into a covenant of peace. By making him a priest, God "removes him from the realm of violence and war, placing him squarely in the realm of peace and ensuring that Pinchas will never again be in a position to bring death and destruction."

            Today we also have in mind other 'counts':  the three Israeli teenagers,Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach who were kidnapped and killed as they hitchhiked to their homes, the Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and killed in an apparent revenge attack.  We're also counting the 350 Israelis who went to the home of Mohammed Abu Khdeir's family to express their condolences for his senseless murder, and the thousands of Israeli reservists who have been called up for military duty.

             As we hold all these numbers in mind, thinking back to Einstein's quote, what truly counts here? What counts is that we do what we can in our own lifetimes and societies to help justice and mutual understanding evolve above and beyond what we read in Parshat Pinchas.  Whether we are standing up for the rights of those who are oppressed or in some way dismissed, discounted, or 'othered', God's covenant of peace must be reclaimed and reimagined in every generation.  For the Israelis and for the Palestinians, we pray that peace will come with all our hearts. 

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