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Gratitude Amidst Loss

There is a Jewish value called hakarat hatov, which I believe to be an important discipline for my life. Hakarat hatov means recognizing the good. There are some moments when I find it more challenging to recall good things happening around me and there are other moments when it is easy to do so. No matter what I am feeling or what kid of day I am experiencing, I believe that recognizing goodness is an important everyday activity. When things are going well we are encouraged to remind ourselves of that goodness and to specify the person that helped to make that goodness a reality. It helps us remember the source of our blessings and helps us appreciate the gifts we receive and never take goodness for granted. When things are not going according to our expectations or when we feel that life is not treating us well, hakarat hatov reminds us that despite all of the reasons for upset there is usually still something to be grateful for.

I imagine that this is what Noach, the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion, feels as he emerges from the ark after God destroys all of creation except for the humans and animals inside of the ark by sending a flood. Looking around, the images of destruction that Noach sees must be unimaginable. What Noach sees must shock him.… Read more

Happenings at Shaarei Tikvah

There were many many beautiful moments over this holiday period. However, there were two moments when I felt that my breath was taken away. The first was at Neilah, the final service on Yom Kippur, when I witnessed families and individuals coming before the ark and standing in front of the Torah scrolls. For some it was a chance to reflect on the past year and offer a prayer for the year ahead. For others it was a chance to meditate on the themes or ideas in the service, and for others a chance to offer blessings to family members. And of course there were tears. I was lucky to witness the way that so many of you connected with this ritual and our sacred objects and spaces. It simply was a beautiful outpouring of emotion and it gave us all hope for the year to come.

The second moment was last week when I saw the final result of our food drive for the Interfaith Food Bank. We collected 140 bags of food! I got chills as I saw Shaarei Tikvah’s generous heart take shape in the hallways and closets of our building and was very proud as I helped our volunteers schlep heavy bags out to the car for delivery.

With the holidays behind us I want to call our attention to some amazing events happening at ST.

The topic for our first Midtown Midrash will be “Communal Responsibility Against Sexual Assault.”… Read more

Healing the Relationship Between North American Jews and Israel

I want to take a moment to highlight next Shabbat, Saturday September 1st.  At services that morning, we will celebrate Eugene and Diane Linett’s 50th anniversary together with their family. In the evening,  we will hold a very special service called Selichot that helps to spiritually prepare us for the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe, which are a time for introspection and commitment to change in the coming year.

We will begin our evening at 8:30pm with a fascinating conversation about one of the relationships in our lives in need of healing this year- the relationship between North American Jews and Israel.

One of my teachers and colleagues, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, recently featured in the Jewish Week  will have a conversation with Maital Friedman about the rough edges of this relationship.… Read more

Judaism is not just about observing laws. It is about treating people well.

Rabbi Israel of Rizhin once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Arukh (16th century code of Jewish Law). The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “do you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.”

In this week’s parashah, Vaetchanan, there is an interesting passage which relates to this story. “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and God’s testimonies and statutes, which God has commanded you.  And you shall do what is right and good (hayashar vehatov) in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” (Deut. 6: 17-18)… Read more

Reflections from Jerusalem Parashat Devarim 5778

Hi friends!  My time in Israel is winding down and I am getting ready to head back to the US in a few days.  My experience here has been very rich and meaningful.  I spent most of my time in Jerusalem except for a day in Tel Aviv and in Haifa.  I read about but did not witness the attacks in the South of Israel.  Thank you to those of you who reached out to make sure I was safe.  The learning I did with many rabbis of all denominations was fascinating and inspiring and I am looking forward to sharing it with you in sermons, classes, and in my writing.

In my last week here I am reflecting on the experience of visiting places at which something meaningful occurred in my past. … Read more

Greetings from Jerusalem!

I hope you have been enjoying your summers thus far. I am grateful to be in Jerusalem these few weeks where I have been enjoying my time learning with incredible teachers and over 150 rabbinic colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, including a number of rabbis and educators from Westchester! Most days go from 8:30am to 9:30pm and are filled with fascinating courses and lectures that have been filling my mind and my notebook with precious Torah, which I am excited to share with Shaarei Tikvah.

I want to offer you a few nuggets of Torah from the learning… Read more

When is God Raising our Hands to Heal?

One of the things I love about being a rabbi is the opportunity to explore the unanswerable questions of life with congregants. I find that some of the most challenging questions tend to arise when we feel the strongest need to connect with the Divine. We may find ourselves in crisis because of the uncertainty that comes along with these questions and we wonder about the possibility of God’s presence in our lives when we or our loved ones are suffering. As many have done before us and as many will inevitably do in the future, we ask ourselves, “Where is God?

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner z”l responds to this question in a piece he wrote… Read more

Caring for the Stranger in our Land: A Call to Support Immigrants in America

 

A few weeks ago we read from the Torah in Parashat Mishpatim, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah sees a direct relationship between the experience of our own oppression and our ability to care for those who are marginalized. Additionally, the Torah specifically calls for the protection of the widow and orphan and describes the punishment of mistreating them. “If you mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (Ex. 22:20-23). In fact, 36 times in the Torah, Israel is commanded to be compassionate to those that require assistance. This message is what separates the nation from its enslavers, reminding the Israelites and by extension the Jewish people how we should act when faced with the opportunity to care for the stranger.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation that calls on us to remember our own oppression.  Shaarei Tikvah’s Social Justice Committee is leading an effort to encourage all of us to recognize and respond to the concern for immigrants in our country. Thousands of individuals known as Dreamers who came to the US at a young age through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which temporarily shields them from deportation and allows them to study and work legally, may be deported to a country that was never their home and possibly be endangered. (See some of their stories here.) In addition, we are concerned for the safety of many other immigrants who have come to the United States as a safe place to live and raise their families, who need support to help them integrate in a healthy way into their communities.

We are encouraging anyone who cares about the futures of these immigrants to respond to their needs right now. We have partnered with Neighbors Link which has been providing education, employment and legal services for immigrant families throughout Westchester County since 2001. A few months ago we learned about Neighbors Link in a presentation by a few of their leaders at Shaarei Tikvah. Check out the attached documents to read about this organization, which describes the mission and the work that they do along with volunteer opportunities in which we should all consider participating.

We encourage everyone to consider taking action in three ways. First, think about volunteering at Neighbors Link to connect with the immigrants who are supported by the organization. Second, please consider a donation to help Neighbors Link build its capacity to support more immigrants integrating into their communities. Currently, Neighbors Link is fundraising for an ESL Program (English as a Second Language). Please see the attached wish-list which totals $2,796 and see what you could do to help them achieve this dream. Please make your contribution directly to Neighbors Link as mentioned in the attachments.

Third, in order to advocate for immigrants, please send your email address to Robin in our office. In addition, we will keep the congregation apprised of additional ways to get involved in this issue.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Baldachin and the Social Justice Committee
rabbi@shaareitikvah.org

Facing Darkness Together

Chanukah is the most Jewish holiday there is. It’s not only because family comes together or because we eat a lot of food, or even because dreidl is one of the most well known Yiddish words, but rather because of an underlying belief that the Jewish people have held connected to the meaning of the holiday: that even in the darkest of times it is possible to have hope.

I learned from my teacher at JTS, Rabbi David Hoffman, that there is a different side of the long-lasting-oil-miracle story as described by Jacob Falk (1680–1756, Poland), better known by the title of his book, the Penei Yehoshua.

He teaches that there is a law in the Babylonian Talmud (5-7th century, compilation of rabbinic discourse) which teaches that objects rendered impure can still be used for communal needs (BT Yoma 6b). Following that teaching, the fact that only one container of pure oil was found should not have been a concern to the Israelites that wished to rededicate the temple. They could have used any of the oil that they found in the desecrated temple- pure or impure. Seemingly, the miracle of the pure oil lasting for eight nights was unnecessary!

So if the pure oil was not necessary for lighting the menorah, what was the purpose of the miracle? The Penei Yehoshua teaches that God kept the oil lasting for eight nights to remind the Israelites that God was still with them. After the battle with the Greeks, the war-weary Israelites needed a reminder that God was with them in order to give them the inner strength they needed to re-engage with the sanctity of life.

Chanukah comes at the darkest time of the year and the darkest time of the month when the moon is almost completely hidden. And yet we light a candle to mitigate this darkness and bring our candles together to remind ourselves that all we need to bring a miracle is one light.

Shaarei Tikvah to Offer Interfaith Aufrufs

Recently, our ritual committee studied about a ceremony on shabbat offering blessings to interfaith couples before their weddings.

One of the things I love most about being a rabbi is introducing people to living a Jewish life- celebrating special and joyous occasions as Jews, helping individuals suffering a loss through the comfort of Jewish practices of mourning, and encouraging people to try ancient rituals to bring the sacred into their lives. Often, these moments can open doors for people as they explore their Jewish identity. And I am often amazed at the profound experiences people can have when they try something new.

Unfortunately, we live in a time and a place where many people find Jewish ritual foreign and irrelevant to their lives. Jewish identity is not assumed to be passed on to the next generation, and affiliation rates are quite low. The oft-quoted Pew survey of US Jews from 2013 spells out some of these trends.

http://www.jta.org/2013/10/01/news-opinion/united-states/pew-survey-u-s-jewish-intermarriage-rate-rises-to-58-percent

In particular, the reported intermarriage rate of over 70% of non-Orthodox Jews is quite startling and makes us question the continuity of the Jewish people. And yet, in my experience, having Jewish communities in America that are welcoming to interfaith families can have a tremendous impact on the identities of these families.

As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association for Conservative rabbis, I honor a standard of the organization which prohibits me from performing weddings for interfaith couples. However, as a rabbi who cares for all people and acknowledges the diversity of families in our congregation as well as in our larger community, I am aware of the importance of providing a place for interfaith families to feel welcome at Shaarei Tikvah. In addition, I am committed to supporting Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, and believe that maintaining the continuity and strength of Jews and Judaism is one of my mandates as a rabbi.

Therefore, it is my obligation to ensure that I am playing my part to support the task of creating and maintaining Jewish families. In my first four years as a rabbi, I have met a number of couples where one partner is Jewish and the other of a different faith or no faith. Interestingly, many of these couples are committed to raising a Jewish family even if the non-Jewish partner has no interest in converting. Often, my relationship with that couple can help shape the future religious identity of their family.

In my experience, my participation in life cycle events can have an important impact on a family’s or individual’s experience of that event. More specifically, the work of relationship building I have done with engaged couples has been deep and profound, often resulting in decisions to bring more Judaism and Jewish ritual into the identity and practice of the couple and their children’s lives.

Shaarei Tikvah has taken steps through its Keruv committee work over the years to enhance its ability to welcome interfaith families. My interest in connecting with interfaith couples at this moment in their lives coincided with our community’s goal to welcome these couples and their families into our community, and this ceremony seemed like a good way to expand this effort. It is for these reasons that I brought before our ritual committee the question of Cantor Cohen’s and my officiating interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah.

Aufruf, a Yiddish phrase which means “to go up”, refers to the ritual of an engaged couple “going up” for an aliyah to the Torah the Shabbat before (or close to) the wedding. The aliyah consists of blessings recited before and after the communal reading of the Torah. After the aliyah is recited, Cantor Cohen and I offer a mi sheberach, which is a prayer of blessing for the engaged couple before their wedding which speaks to the hopes of the community for the successful marriage of the couple, filled with joy, health, and other blessings. It is joyous for the community to see a new couple embark on their journey together, and we conclude with singing “siman tov umazal tov” to express our joy for this occasion.

Our congregation has already made the decision that interfaith couples who celebrate a child’s bar/bat mitzvah can stand together during an aliyah. And so, here too in the context of their upcoming wedding, the interfaith couple would come up for the aliyah. As is the case during the celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah, the Jewish partner then recites the aliyah, which includes the words of gratitude for God’s choosing the Jewish people to receive the Torah. The partner who is not Jewish does not recite this blessing. Cantor Cohen and I will then offer some words to the couple who seek blessings from God and the community that we wish for a couple before their wedding.

The ritual committee recommended in the late spring of 2017 to allow interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah subject to my discretion. I will be basing my decision on a couple’s desire to maintain a Jewish home. Each family will discuss with me their interpretation of what that means and I will decide whether it is appropriate for that particular couple to have an aufruf ceremony. It is my hope that through these and consequent meetings I can delve into deeper discussions about the couple’s relationship and improve and encourage their family’s commitment to Jewish practice in their home.

I understand that there are many reasons why someone is unwilling to convert. I don’t want to put up extra barriers of entry into the Jewish community or make it more difficult for a family to raise Jewish children because they are excluded from a community or from a relationship with a rabbi when they are in the process of beginning a family and determining the religious identity of their family.

I believe we should take the opportunity to celebrate and encourage that process. We must acknowledge that we as a Jewish American community are in a world where Jewish identity and endogamy, marrying within one’s community, can no longer be assumed from one generation to the next. Rather, we must work with what we have and utilize the strength of interpersonal connections and powerful community gatherings, to open our doors and our arms to couples of different faiths.  Here, at Shaarei Tikvah, the gates of hope are opening more widely to all who experience their family’s identity as Jewish.

Mazal tov!