Posted by: Rabbi Zamir on Friday, December 25, 2009 at 2:14:41 pm | Comments (0)
Candle Lighting: 5:16PM
Torah Portion: Vayigash
From our Prayers: I beg You, O G-d, inasmuch as the impact of harboring improper thought is so great, and evil thoughts can virtually detach a person from spirituality, that You protect me from all improper thoughts and feelings (from the personal prayers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov).
It was characteristic of Rabbi Nachman not only to formulate prayers of his own, but also to explain in his prayer why he was asking for something. Rabbi Nachman advocated personal prayer in addition to formulated prayers, and urged that we pray just as a child pleads with its parents for something that it wants.
When people are stricken, G-d forbid, with illness in themselves or their families, their prayers to G-d are sincere, and may be accompanied by tears of intense emotion, reflecting the deep pain and fears they experience as a result of the illness. This is not as likely to occur when we pray for wisdom, for the Redemption, and even for forgiveness. There may not be the same intensity of emotion.
Just as we feel the misery of serious illness and the fear that it may progress, G-d forbid, to loss of life, so we must come to realize that loss of spirituality is every bit as grave as physical illness. Our prayers for spiritual well-being should be no less fervent than for physical health.
Rabbi Simcha Zamir
Posted by: Rabbi Zamir on Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 3:25:56 pm | Comments (0)
Candle Lighting: 5:13PM
Torah Portion: Miketz
Eighth Candle of Hanukah
From our Sages: Hillel says: On the first day of Hanukah, one candle should be lit. Each subsequent night one candle is added, so that there are eight lights (Talmud: Shabbat: 21b).
Why not light eight candles every night?
Hillel teaches us two things. First, we must always seek to increase our enlightenment and not be stagnant. We should never be satisfied with whatever spiritual growth we have achieved, but should constantly seek to further our growth.
Secondly, it is a mistake to grasp too much too fast. Spiritual growth should be gradual, and we should adapt ourselves to each new level and integrate what we have achieved before going on to the next step. Overreaching can cause us to be top heavy, and our spirituality may be tenuous. Gradual growth provides us with a more firm foundation.
Eight lights the first night would be too much and too soon, and each night thereafter would show no increase in light.
Holocaust Exhibit Provides Powerful Experience
Posted by: UJA Federation on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 6:41:52 pm | Comments (0)
"I still remember the first time I met someone who didn't know about the Holocaust," said Joshua Cusano, dressed in a dark suit, addressing the crowd of more than 100 at the Hunter College Hillel opening reception December 9th for the One Soul: When Humanity Fails exhibition.
It was not that the girl was a Holocaust denier, Cusano, a Hunter undergraduate, explained. She just did not know, and she is not alone.
Survivors of Dachau greet U.S. troops, April 30, 1945. Photograph Sydney Blau, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy National Archives.
Commissioned by the Afikim Foundation - a nonprofit dedicated to developing educational and communal programs - When Humanity Fails is an exhibit designed to reach out to people who would not ordinarily visit a Holocaust museum. A four-walled structure with two openings, it contains photography, video, text, and recorded audio of testimonies from survivors and liberators.
Hillels Provide Access
Speaking to guests - Hunter alumni, fellow students, faculty, and family - at the reception, Lisa Pollack, executive director of Hunter Hillel, thanked UJA-Federation of New York for their "unwavering guidance and support." Although UJA-Federation is not directly involved with the project, it contributes by supporting Hunter as part of "12 local Hillels that provide an opportunity for increased access to Jewish life and experiences," said Suzanne Peck, chair of UJA-Federation's Task Force of Hillels. "The Hillels reach and engage more than 16,000 Jewish college students in a broad range of Jewish learning and living activities."
"One of UJA-Federation's priorities is to support and inspire current and future generations by drawing on Judaism as a source of purpose, meaning, and community," Peck said. "Exhibits such as One Soul: When Humanity Fails not only connect students to a painful era in world history, but also help them understand the necessity of taking a stand. For many college students, social-action activities are their link to Jewish values, and exhibits such as One Soul encourage this connection."
Cusano and fellow student Leya Schwartz spoke at the event, drawing parallels between the exhibit and a Holocaust class they had taken. Through the class, each was paired with a survivor with whom he or she met weekly. Schwartz said that all four of her grandparents are survivors, and she has thought that "as nature takes its course," we lose the people who can tell us about what happened. The firsthand accounts will still exist in movies and textbooks, she said, but it's not the same.
Cusano added that when we have first-person testimony or an exhibit like When Humanity Fails, we "can utilize it to raise awareness of other genocides."
Fighting "Holocaust Fatigue"
"People suffer from what they call ‘Holocaust fatigue,' " said Dr. Rabbi Israel Singer, a former CUNY graduate and teacher who spoke at the event. Singer is the former president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Singer said many people are tired of reading about the Holocaust, about genocide in Rwanda and Darfur. We need to fight this, he said, and one way is to focus on "what man can be, not . . . how bad man has been."
Singer said he first thought the exhibit might not be a good match with Hunter College. But upon learning how "the demography of City University has changed," he said he realized the lobby at Hunter is the perfect place. Much of the Hunter College population is made up of students who are the first generation to go to college or the first generation to be born in the United States.
The exhibit will be on display through Wednesday, December 16th, in Hunter College's West Building lobby, East 68th Street at Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Posted by: Rabbi Zamir on Friday, November 20, 2009 at 7:34:20 pm | Comments (0)
Torah Portion: Toldot
Candle Lighting: 4:16PM
From our Prayers: I betroth you unto me eternally. I betroth you unto me with righteous and justice, and with loving-kindness and mercy. I betroth you unto me with faith, and you shall know G-d (recitation upon putting on tefillin, Hoshea 2:21-22).
The relationship of G-d and Israel is sometimes depicted as that of a father to a child, or as a sovereign to a subject. Here it is depicted as a husband to a wife.
One cannot say that this marriage has not had its problems. Israel has tested G-d's patience countless times, and G-d's management of Israel has often resulted in outcries of anguish and bitterness. The moments of unperturbed conjugal bliss throughout history have been rather brief.
But this marriage has survived the test of time, and has withstood many ordeals. Perhaps the manifestations of righteousness, justice mercy, and loving-kindness have not always prevailed. All the difficulties notwithstanding, Israel has never lost faith in G-d, nor G-d in Israel.
Perhaps this daily prayer was meant to alert us to what marriage should be. Too often these days, marriages that do not measure up to popular fantasy of perfect bliss are terminated.
Where mutual faith prevails, all other problems can be overcome.
Tabbo Jew on CNN
Posted by: Jonathan Newcombe on Wednesday, November 11, 2009 at 6:24:02 pm | Comments (0)
(CNN) -- When Moses came down from Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago, he couldn't have seen these Jews coming.
A blogger writes about how one of Judaism's holiest days ended, for her, in a strip club, while elsewhere a guy strolls into a tattoo parlor requesting a Star of David. Two women exchange wedding vows in a Jewish ceremony, and hipsters toss back bottles of HE'BREW, The Chosen Beer. A full-time software developer prepares to lead a group in Jewish prayer, as a PhD candidate in Jewish thought pens a letter criticizing Israel's policies.
Meet the "New Jews," as some call them: pockets of post-baby boomers -- or more accurately Generation X and Millennial (Gen Y) Jews -- who are making one of the world's oldest known monotheistic faiths and its culture work for them and others in a time when, more than ever, affiliation is a choice.
"I could wake up tomorrow and say, 'I don't want to be Jewish.' There would be no social, political or economic consequences," said Shawn Landres, the 37-year-old co-founder of Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-area organization that pushes forward out-of-the-box ideas in the Jewish world. "It's true for the first time in thousands of years that we can build the identities we want."
Many of those at the forefront of innovative Jewish construction are rabbis, religious educators, people who know their stuff. But they're not interested in foisting labels on people -- like the denominational terms Reform, Conservative or Orthodox -- nor do they want to perpetuate the pressures that come with fitting into religious, political and social molds.
For Atlanta, Georgia, punk-rock musician Patrick A, or Aleph (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet), this means he can seamlessly blend who he's been with his newly embraced religious observance.
They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes.
--Ari Wallach, social entrepreneur and consultant
"When I'm on stage screaming, hitting my face with a microphone and pouring beer on my head, at least I'm singing about the Torah," said the 26-year-old founder of PunkTorah, an outreach effort to inspire Jewish spirituality.
Turns out the traditional synagogue model doesn't have a lock on religious offerings. One alternative that's sprouted up: independent prayer groups that invite the spiritually hungry to study text, as well as shape and lead their own services.
"It's tapping into a need that stems from people wanting to take hold of their Jewish life," said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 36, executive director of Mechon Hadar, a New York-based organization that tracks and empowers such groups. He said there are about 60 nationwide. "When the institution wasn't serving the need, people stood up to create their own communities."
It's this kind of innovation that Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis University and a leading scholar of American Jewish history, can get behind.
"When there's religious complacency, when there's boredom, we're much more likely to see people check out," said Sarna, who is a member of an Orthodox synagogue. The more pressing issue, he added, is whether cultural ties alone can keep Jewish life going.
That concern is a real one, said Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College in New York. He said about half of young Jews are not marrying Jews, and that only 25 percent of children born to interfaith couples grow up to see themselves as Jewish.
But by making Judaism and its rituals more accessible and meaningful, "Emergent Jews," as they're also often referred to, hope they can inspire a long-lasting connection to their faith.
It's why volunteer-driven educational retreats, sponsored by a group called Limmud (Hebrew for learning), are cropping up in Colorado, Illinois, Georgia and across the globe. It's why Jewish Milestones in Berkeley, California, is helping interfaith, same-sex and other couples have Jewish weddings. And it's why another Bay Area group, Wilderness Torah, hosts Passover in the desert, where participants combine Jewish traditions with their commitment to the outdoors and sustainable living.
Unlike their parents and grandparents, who may have gathered to fight anti-Semitism, remember the Holocaust, rally around Israel and liberate Soviet Jews, many Gen X and Y Jews see their worlds as wide open.
These Internet and media savvy Jews are behind what Ari Wallach, a 34-year-old social entrepreneur and consultant in New York, likes to call "Judaism 2.0."
"They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes," said Wallach, who was one of the forces behind The Great Schlep, an online push, featuring comedian Sarah Silverman, that encouraged young Jews to fly to Florida and convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.
"If asked, 'Would you rather fund raise for trees in Israel or for solar-powered ovens for refugees in Darfur,'" he said, "they're more likely to go with Darfur," which is why the American Jewish World Service, an organization that fights poverty, disease and hunger in the developing world, resonates with many of them in a way other Jewish organizations don't.
In fact, they may not have a relationship with Israel. And if they do, it's often complicated. They might support the country and people while being critical of the government's policies and wanting a Palestinian state, too, as evidenced by J Street, a new left-leaning lobbying group in Washington.
Jay Michaelson, a 38-year-old writer, activist and scholar received a torrent of responses when he recently wrote in The Forward, a daily Jewish newspaper, about his ambivalent love for Israel, where he lived for three years.
When I'm on stage screaming, hitting my face with a microphone ... at least I'm singing about the Torah.
--Patrick A, founder of PunkTorah
The reactions that interested him most came from rabbis and Jewish Federation leaders who wrote, "You've said what I cannot say," said Michaelson, who was the founding editor of Zeek, an online journal to push discussions about the Jewish tomorrow. "There's a climate of fear, and they cannot speak out on this issue."
But many of these "New Jews" aren't afraid to be who they are, say and show how they feel.
Heeb magazine, a hipster quarterly based in Brooklyn, does this and leaves some cringing. The magazine recently raised a collective "oy" -- and stirred outrage -- when it published a photograph of Roseanne Barr standing at an oven, dressed as Hitler, holding a tray of burnt-Jew cookies. The intention, said publisher Josh Neuman, was to force a conversation about how pervasive Hitler references are in modern culture.
"We aim to elicit responses, even if they're illicit responses," said Neuman, 36, who formerly taught Jewish culture and thought, and worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
If they can't easily find what inspires them, some create it themselves.
Sarah Lefton, 36, of San Francisco, California, said she developed G-dcast, weekly cartoon webisodes -- narrated by a wide cast of characters, including an indie rocker -- to make Jewish learning more engaging, "because God knows we all grew up in boring Sunday school classes."
Allowing younger Jews to connect with their faith while living in a secular world is what drives Aaron Bisman, 29. Inspiration came for him at a 1996 Phish show, when the rock band busted out with a performance of "Avinu Malkeinu," a Jewish prayer. Hearing a non-Jew sing in Hebrew a song to thousands of fans showed this rabbi's son that Jewish expression could go mainstream, without being limited to Larry David shtick.
So he formed JDub Records, the original label for Matisyahu, the Hasidic Jewish reggae phenom. Bisman's New York nonprofit promotes cross-cultural understanding by putting out innovative Jewish sounds, like hip-hop meshed with Israeli folk songs. JDub also recently adopted Jewcy, an online media outlet rich in blogs and discussions, to help build more bridges.
And mixed in with all this are those who -- irrespective of where they are religiously or in the Jewish community -- advertise their identities with Jewish-themed tattoos, as Andy Abrams, who is behind "Tattoo Jew," a documentary in development, found out.
They're not swayed by the long-perpetuated myth that Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. While tattoos are prohibited by Jewish law, Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York said he knows of "no Jewish legal source that would prohibit the burial of a Jew who violated that law." If such a prohibition existed, added Florence Pressman, executive director of Jewish Funeral Directors of America, "how would we honor our Holocaust survivors?"
When they're getting inked with Hebrew letters or Jewish symbols, these Jews are not fretting about laws followed by the most observant. Nor are they haunted by the numbers tattooed on arms during the Holocaust, said Abrams, the 40-year-old filmmaker of St. Louis, Missouri. They're taking a bold stand today that they'll carry with them, permanently, into the future.
"They're being overtly Jewish," Abrams said. "They're saying, 'I'm Jewish. I'm proud. And I'm willing to wear it on my skin.' "
Posted by: Gabriella Geselowitz on Wednesday, November 11, 2009 at 6:15:08 pm | Comments (0)
"Jews are a very opinionated people," declared human rights legend Natan Sharansky at a press conference Sunday, "every Jew cannot unite his or her all opinions in one. They have at least two opinions."
This certainly seemed to bear true at the General Assembly, where the idea of pluralism seemed to permeate the event on every level. There were several minyanim to choose from for Shacharit, from traditional Orthodox to Conservative Egalitarian. The organizations present ranged from Ha'Aretz representing journalistic coverage on Israel on a whole, to the Chabad table with tefillin for those who had not yet prayed that morning. Pluralist organizations such as MASA offered to accommodate participants from a variety of backgrounds (they partially subsidize long-term Israel trips from Orthodox Seminary to secular social work programs).
Even anti-Israel activists were represented, albeit unofficially, as a protestor interrupted Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to call to end the "occupation in Gaza."
And in keeping with the GA's pluralistic spirit, Jews and security personnel of different backgrounds and beliefs helped to escort the interloper out.
Parshat Lech Lecha
Posted by: Rabbi Aaron on Friday, October 30, 2009 at 9:18:22 pm | Comments (0)
In this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God enters into a unique covenant with Abraham, promising him that his numerous progeny will inherit the fertile land of Canaan. There's just one snag. Abraham doesn't have any children. Sarah and Abraham cannot procreate and the covenant with God is suddenly in jeopardy. Sarah gives her servant Hagar to Abraham, thinking, "perhaps I will be built through her" (Genesis 16:2). The great Spanish commentator Ramban (1194-1270) specifically identifies Sarah's righteousness through this whole process. Subsequently, Hagar conceives and everything changes. According to Rashi, Hagar now looks at Sarah differently. Hagar sees Sarah and thinks, "this Sarai is not as she appears to be. She behaves as if she were a righteous woman when she is not righteous, since she did not merit conception all these years." Only a few verses later, we see Sarah treating Hagar so badly that Hagar flees with her unborn child.
So what happened to Sarah, our righteous matriarch? We live in a culture of achievement. And when we are successful, it's so easy to look at other people differently like Hagar did. Hagar sees Sarah's struggles with infertility and assumes that this reflects Sarah's core character. This type of assumption is certainly dangerous and potentially very damaging. Ultimately, it changes the way Sarah views herself. Hagar's harsh judgment becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Sure enough, Sarah becomes far less righteous and even abuses Hagar, forcing her to flee. In those moments that we do struggle, it's so easy to take it personally. Hagar assumes a flaw in Sarah's character and Sarah starts to believe her. Just because we bomb a test or don't get the internship we so badly want doesn't mean that we have any less worth as people. Sarah and Hagar teach us that achievement, positive of negative, is not a reflection of character.
ICHEC - Week III
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 1:55:31 pm | Comments (0)
In class this past week we discussed death and dying and what it means to us and to our survivors. Many brought up how their friends very casually drop in conversation the fact that they know they are going to die soon. We discussed how to deal with that. Alicia doesn't talk about the fact that she is going to die, rather she talks about how to get better, how to feel better, how to live her life better. She and I speak about her sickness every week. She is one who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Some days she is very sad about the condition she is in. She had to turn down a tour group recently because she knew she would not be able to physically do it. So she is coping with the fact that she may never be able to work again. All I could do is be encouraging. We talk every week about her emotional status regarding her pain and disabilities now. I tell her that if she is not optimistic and positive about the situation she may only digress. This is something I believe in across the board and know that I want to incorporate into my everyday life.
Alicia has only allowed for my vision to be even clearer. I want to be a doctor, and now I can confidently say that I know how I want to practice. The mind and the body are in sync and a patient must be treated with that view. The patient's psychological mindset can heavily influence the status of their physical being.
I see this with Alicia at every meeting. She is a good patient because she knows her body, knows what hurts her, and knows why. But not only that, she is expressive. She feels more pain when she is sad than she does when she is happy. When I come to visit she always says: "Every time you come I enjoy your company more than anything. You take my mind off of this darn illness and I feel better for the rest of the week."
Here is a perfect example of how she and I help and learn from each other. Sometimes I even feel the need to call her during the week for my dose of encouragement.
Posted by: Jonathan Newcombe on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 10:20:09 pm | Comments (0)
Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don't harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from "is" to "ought", from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality - which he saw as the product of Judaism - in favour of the "will to power".
Recently, however, an entirely new scientific basis has been given to morality from two surprising directions: neo-Darwinism and the branch of mathematics known as Games Theory. As we will see, the discovery is intimately related to the story of Noah and the covenant made between G-d and humanity after the Flood.
Games theory was invented by one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, John von Neumann (1903-1957). He realised that the mathematical models used in economics were unrealistic and did not mirror the way decisions are made in the real world. Rational choice is not simply a matter of weighing alternatives and deciding between them. The reason is that the outcome of our decision often depends on how other people react to it, and usually we cannot know this in advance. Games theory, von Neumann's invention in 1944, was an attempt to produce a mathematical representation of choice under conditions of uncertainty. Six years later, it yielded its most famous paradox, known as the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Imagine two people, arrested by the police under suspicion of committing a crime. There is insufficient evidence to convict them on a serious charge; there is only enough to convict them of a lesser offence. The police decide to encourage each to inform against the other. They separate them and make each the following proposal: if you testify against the other suspect, you will go free, and he will be imprisoned for ten years. If he testifies against you, and you stay silent, you will be sentenced to ten years in prison, and he will go free. If you both testify against one another, you will each receive a five-year sentence. If both of you stay silent, you will each be convicted of the lesser charge and face a one-year sentence.
It doesn't take long to work out that the optimal strategy for each is to inform against the other. The result is that each will be imprisoned for five years. The paradox is that the best outcome would be for both to remain silent. They would then only face one year in prison. The reason that neither will opt for this strategy is that it depends on collaboration. However, since each is unable to know what the other is doing - there is no communication between them - they cannot take the risk of staying silent. The Prisoner's Dilemma is remarkable because it shows that two people, both acting rationally, will produce a result that is bad for both of them.
Eventually, a solution was discovered. The reason for the paradox is that the two prisoners find themselves in this situation only once. If it happened repeatedly, they would eventually discover that the best thing to do is to trust one another and co-operate.
In the meantime, biologists were wrestling with a phenomenon that puzzled Darwin. The theory of natural selection - popularly known as the survival of the fittest - suggests that the most ruthless individuals in any population will survive and hand their genes on to the next generation. Yet almost every society ever observed values individuals who are altruistic: who sacrifice their own advantage to help others. There seems to be a direct contradiction between these two facts.
The Prisoner's Dilemma suggested an answer. Individual self-interest often produces bad results. Any group which learns to cooperate, instead of compete, will be at an advantage relative to others. But, as the Prisoner' Dilemma showed, this needs repeated encounters - the so-called "Iterated (= repeated) Prisoner's dilemma". In the late 1970s, a competition was announced to find the computer program that did best at playing the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma against itself and other opponents.
The winning programme was devised by a Canadian, Anatole Rapoport, and was called Tit-for-Tat. It was dazzlingly simple: it began by co-operating, and then repeated the last move of its opponent. It worked on the rule of "What you did to me, I will do to you", or "measure for measure". This was the first time scientific proof had been given for any moral principle.
What is fascinating about this chain of discoveries is that it precisely mirrors the central principle of the covenant G-d made with Noah:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of G-d
has G-d made man.
This is measure for measure [in Hebrew, middah keneged middah], or retributive justice: As you do, so shall you be done to. In fact, at this point the Torah does something very subtle. The six words in which the principle is stated are a mirror image of one another:  Who sheds  the blood  of man, [3a] by man [2a] shall his blood [1a] be shed. This is a perfect example of style reflecting substance: what is done to us is a mirror image of what we do. The extraordinary fact is that the first moral principle set out in the Torah is also the first moral principle ever to be scientifically demonstrated. Tit-for-Tat is the computer equivalent of (retributive) justice: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.
The story has a sequel. In 1989, the Polish mathematician Martin Nowak produced a programme that beats Tit-for-Tat. He called it Generous. It overcame one weakness of Tit-for-Tat, namely that when you meet a particularly nasty opponent, you get drawn into a potentially endless and destructive cycle of retaliation, which is bad for both sides. Generous avoided this by randomly but periodically forgetting the last move of its opponent, thus allowing the relationship to begin again. What Nowak had produced, in fact, was a computer simulation of forgiveness.
Once again, the connection with the story of Noah and the Flood is direct. After the Flood, G-d vowed: "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done." This is the principle of Divine forgiveness.
Thus the two great principles of the Noahide covenant are also the first two principles to have been established by computer simulation. There is an objective basis for morality after all. It rests on two key ideas: justice and forgiveness, or what the sages called middat ha-din and middat rachamim. Without these, no group can survive in the long run.
In one of the first great works of Jewish philosophy - Sefer Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions) - R. Saadia Gaon (882-942) explained that the truths of the Torah could be established by reason. Why then was revelation necessary? Because it takes humanity time to arrive at truth, and there are many slips and pitfalls along the way. It took more than a thousand years after R. Saadia Gaon for humanity to demonstrate the fundamental moral truths that lie at the basis of G-d's covenant with humankind: that co-operation is as necessary as competition, that co-operation depends on trust, that trust requires justice, and that justice itself is incomplete without forgiveness. Morality is not simply what we choose it to be. It is part of the basic fabric of the universe, revealed to us by the universe's Creator, long ago.
ICHEC - Week II
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 7:11:38 pm | Comments (0)
Alicia and I are getting closer and more comfortable with each other as our time together progresses. As our relationship grows I think of her more and more as one of my good friends. That being said it is hard to remember that she is different. On one of our last visits she spoke about her recent interview with an Austrian Jew who wants to find out more about the lives of the Jews living in Austria during WWII. Alicia explained to me that she was only 9 years old when the Germans invaded Austria and that she still remembers it as if it was yesterday.
It was the dead of winter and the Nazis were coming into Jewish homes during the night to take them across the border to Czechoslovakia. She knew that if they came to her house she would suffer the long journey in the harsh winter climate. As Alicia lay in her bed late at night she would practice enduring the cold by pulling the covers off her body and laying there shivering for as long as she could possibly handle it. This 9-year-old girl wanted to be prepared. She wanted to make sure she would be accustomed to how cold and miserable she would be if the Nazi's would take them away. The Nazis never came for her family as they did for many others in Austria at the time. But sometimes I forget that she is not just a friend, also someone who is a living proof of such a horrible era of inhumane suffering. Alicia is amazed that she is still so emotional about her early childhood but realizes that it is a part of who she is and will be there in her heart for the rest of her life.
This same theme was also conveyed in class. Last week we watched the Eichmann trial and saw witnesses retell their experiences during the 1930's and 1940's as Jews in Europe. Even though the trial took place in Israel in 1961, it was obvious that the events of the Holocaust impacted the survivors' lives forever and molded them into the people they already became. There was one witness who conjured up so many horrible thoughts and pains that he ended up fainting at the stand from distress. No matter how normal they seem they will always have a deep scar in their hearts and minds from the lives they lived under the Nazi Regime. And through all of her grief and reflectance Alicia again reminded me of how rewarding it is to be with her and be able to learn from her. Someone who experienced such tragedy and devastation still lives a happy and relatively healthy life today.
Posted by: Rebecca Kaplan on Friday, October 9, 2009 at 10:02:10 pm | Comments (0)
Autumn 1909, one century ago, was a rather uneventful time. Compared to traumatic events that took place during the previous High Holiday seasons, and the horrible atrocities that would soon be unleashed, Tishrei 5670 (September-October 1909) was relatively quiet.
As it turns out, that fall was a deceptive lull in the early years of the 20th Century. Beneath the surface and behind the scenes, violent forces were simmering which would soon erupt and throw the benign century into bloodiest century in all of history.
Despite the apparent calm that holiday season, the illustrious Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber), a grandmaster sage and mystic, was not oblivious to the impending storm. In his classic style, the Rebbe delivered another of his timeless and timely masterpieces, which presented a cosmic snapshot of events to come, coupled with a profound perspective on how to approach and take on the challenges ahead.
That Rosh Hashana, one hundred years ago, the Rebbe Rashab began delivering the series of discourses, titled "Hemshech Eter" (eter is an acronym for the year 5670, tov resh ayin). The series would span for nearly six months, until the winter of 1910, and would consist of twenty-seven discourses, delivered both live (in Yiddish) and in writing (in Hebrew), and later published in a complete volume.
Couched in Talmudic language and mystical terms, the Rebbe laid out in the first part of this series of discourses two critical elements that allow us to understand and prepare for every situation, even the most difficult of circumstances.
We will focus on the discourse delivered exactly one century this week, on Shemini Atzeret 1909 (the sixth discourse in this series). In this dissertation the Rebbe Rashab explains the difference between the two holidays that flow one into the other, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The Torah instructs us that following the celebration of the seven days of Sukkot, "the eighth day shall be a time of retreat (Shemini Atzeret) for you when you shall do no mundane work."
What is the significance of this eighth day? And why does it follow the seven days of Sukkot?
Explains the Rebbe Rashab that the secret power of the eighth day lays in the expression "(the eighth day shall be a time of retreat) for you."
We each have two aspects to our lives: Our outer lives and our inner lives. The things we do to affect the environment and the world around us. And the things we do within our own intimate selves.
The two consecutive holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, explains the Rebbe, represent two primary prototypes of human initiative that each one of us has to be involved in - the first external and the second internal.
The purpose for which we were placed on Earth, why our souls were sent down to this material plane, is in order that we illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness of our physical world. This is the primary focus of Sukkot, when we take on not just our own personal lives, but also the welfare of our communities and societies. We dwell in Sukkot, made of vegetation of the world, we pray and commit to improve and refine the nations of the world, we dance and celebrate in public, we engage, connect and unite with others.
Following this seven-day immersion in the affairs of e the world, we then arrive to the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, when we enter into our intimate space, "a time of retreat for you," when we are alone with G-d, "let them be for you alone, and no strangers with you" (Proverbs 5:17), and we are not involved in any "mundane work" of refining the world.
After refining the entire world during Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is the single day when everything else is put aside and we are alone and intimate with the King, without any strangers present, for one last time before entering the dark, cold days of winter.
In mystical terms: Sukkot is related to the role of the "reshimu" - the cosmic residue that was created by the great "tzimtzum," which concealed the infinite Divine energy to allow the emergence of finite "containers" that would be able to receive this energy. Think of it as letters and words that convey profound wisdom, whose intensity completely overrides and submerges the actual letters in a powerful light, which don't allow the letters visibility. The tzimtzum conceals the brilliant wisdom, leaving a "residue" - a jumbled up assortment of letters (which are alternately compared to a summary, a blueprint, signs and hints to something deeper), which now can emerge and be revealed, but only due to the concealment of the intense brilliance. Like letters that remain visible after the light recedes, the "reshimu" is considered to be the first "container" - the root of all the "containers" in existence, which now have to begin the long and arduous process of reclaiming the hidden wisdom hidden within these residual "letters" and "containers."
On Sukkot the main focus is to enter the world of the "containers," in all their dimensions, from the subtlest to the most callous, to refine and illuminate them with Divine energy. After seven days we then retreat into - and retain ("atzeret") - the inner sanctums and chambers of the infinite energy and essential light that is above and beyond the "reshimu" and the tzimtzum - a day that is dedicated "for you" alone.
Though it would not mitigate the tzimtzum-induced horrible events to come in the first half of the 20th century, it is a bit empowering to know that we have the ability to not only not be destroyed by the darkness, but to actually illuminate it.
The Rebbe's elucidation of the tzimtzum could help people, at least cognitively and emotionally, face the gloom to come, knowing that no darkness can vanquish the spirit. In the Rebbe Rashab's own words (in the previous Sukkot discourse): "We cannot say that the objective of the tzimtzum is to eradicate the light, G-d forbid, because what purpose is served by the removal of light, and we are told that the world was ‘not created to be empty and chaotic but to be inhabited' (Isaiah 45:18)... the purpose of the concealment is that the light should then be drawn into the finite parameters of our universe, and this happens when the light is filtered through the reshimu, which carries the infinite into the finite..."
As the clouds of doom were gathering over the European horizons, one can only imagine the strength and courage imparted to all those who heard the Rebbe Rashab explaining the potency of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret back in that autumn of 2009. No words can describe or minimize the harshness of the 20th century. But as challenging as those harsh times were, the Rebbe Rashab's words must have gathered much confidence and power knowing that these holidays infuse us with both the ability to transcend all the world's troubles, to enter an "inner" sanctum reserved "for you" alone, as well as to illuminate the dark universe.
In our time as well, though we are blessed to face far smaller challenges, we too have much to learn from Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Whether we are concerned with our uncertain economy and our future security, whether we are frightened by others fears and unknowns, whether we are anxious about our relationships and other personal ghosts, come Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and we are told that these days bring us an unprecedented gift from above. They enable us to realize that we are not victims of circumstances; we can and must illuminate the shadows around us. And they allow us to access an inner place (which is dedicated "for you" alone) that can never be affected by the storms raging around us.
To take control of your life requires discerning a clear distinction between both parts of our beings. First, the message of Sukkot: we must know that we were sent to this world, each of us charged with the mission to illuminate our surroundings. Darkness exists for a reason - so that you can dispel it with your unique light and energy. Second, the message of Shemini Atzeret: There is a place reserved for "you alone." In the depths of your soul resides a private, intimate essence, where no intruder - physical, psychological or spiritual - can enter. This is your inner sanctum where you and only you and G-d reside. Nothing can wound or even touch that connection.
A practical way to actualize these resources is to dedicate time, as the holidays wind down and we enter the new year, to focus on these two dimensions of your life. Identify elements that reflect each one of the two, don't allow their boundaries to be blurred and spill into each other - know clearly when you are focusing on improving the people and the world around you and when you are entering into your intimate space. And above all, designate time to nourish both these responsibilities.
Some food for thought as we reflect on a century old discourse, that comes with warmest regards from the Rebbe Rashab. As we conclude Sukkot (this Friday) and celebrate Shemini Atzeret (this Saturday), we can glean much from these Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret thoughts.
And then - with this intimate and invincible power of Shemini Atzeret - "for you" alone - we have much reason to dance all night and day on Simchat Torah.
ICHEC - Week I
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 3:06:00 pm | Comments (0)
The past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind for me. The months of September and October prove to be very busy ones for Jews. The holidays include a large amount of eating most times, with a small period of the extreme opposite on Yom Kippur. In addition, there is the large amount of time spent praying and reflecting. With the New Year in full swing, it is important to reflect on the past year and try to better oneself for the year ahead. This time of reflection and introspection with G-d became a large part of my past few weeks.
Perfectly intertwined has been hearing a Holocaust survivor speak of her experience. Standing at 4 feet 10 inches (at most), this special woman is elderly. Having survived the Holocaust, she came to speak to us about her experiences. Nothing or nobody can explain what her life was like, and I won't even attempt to. All I know is that every account I hear breaks another piece of my heart. She should have died in so many different instances yet she managed to survive. She survived the occupation in Poland, she survived the Sosnovietz Ghetto, she survived mass killings, she survived Auschwitz, she survived Dr. Mengela, she survived the death march, she survived two bouts of typhus, and for what? She saw her family, friends, and fellow Jews die before her eyes. Six of her seven other family members weren't as lucky, or unlucky as some look at it. But she feels that if she endured the Holocaust she HAS to live now. She is here for two reasons. First, to continue the growth of the Jewish nation with her beautiful family, exactly what Hitler and the Nazis were determined to destroy. And secondly, to experience the most beautiful gift G-d gave to the Jewish people: Israel. The first time in 25 years that she laughed was when she visited Israel 20 years after the war. That is what she lives for, and that is what all of the Jews should live for, to appreciate and understand the importance of the State of Israel. This inspired me during these important times to put my life and thoughts into perspective. She inspired me to revisit my trip to Poland, print out my pictures, put them in an album and caption them using my lengthy journal. As I revisited I thought more and more about how important that trip was and how every PERSON should go. Only there will you be able to superficially grasp what happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe.
On a very different note, along with the theme of these few months, I met with Alicia, my friend. Alicia has been an important inspiration during these times of repentance. With all of her stories and experiences she reminds me again and again that life is too short. When Alicia first moved to America she was around 30 years old and worked for Elizabeth Arden. She was a tall, thin, blond who fit the company image perfectly. After seven years she left Elizabeth Arden because she felt she could be doing something she really loves while she works: traveling. She soon landed a job for a travel agency and worked her way up to becoming a tour guide. Alicia and I have the same passion for traveling. She loves to learn about different cultures, as I do. I can sit and listen to her stories from all around the globe for days. When she was talking about one of her trips to Japan she was telling me about this waterfall that was not on the itinerary for the group but was definitely on hers. She woke up three hours earlier and trekked to the waterfall by herself. Alicia said something to me that will always resonate: "I never regret anything I did, only something I didn't do." They say that wisdom comes with age and you can really see that with Alicia. Some may think of elderly people as out of touch with the times or old-fashioned, but Alicia is more than in touch with the world today she is someone who I would gladly take advice from. She is an honest person who knows what it is to really live life. Even with her inhibiting injury she goes to museums alone, taking in the fresh air and the knowledge. She is thankful to me that she can now have a friend who will listen to her stories. "Some people my age are bitter misers and they don't get out much, but I refuse to live my life like that: you only live once," she says so eloquently and honestly. She is an extremely refreshing person to be around. ‘Refreshing' is not necessarily a term one would use to describe an elderly person, but Alicia is something special and I am so thankful to be able to spend time and learn from her. I hope this year will be as meaningful and special as these two amazing women who I met. Their stories and lives inspire me to live mine in the best way that I can.
Posted by: Rebecca Kaplan on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 2:45:04 pm | Comments (0)
Although this was only the first week of class and I only had a chance to speak on the phone with my friend, I already know that the upcoming year will be amazing. I have had bonds with older people, including my grandparents and patients in the hospital I volunteer for, but no interaction will be the same as the one I will hopefully form with my survivor. Alicia is my friend. She is someone that I will be able to have one-on-one time with, but not as a family member or a patient whom I talk to for a few minutes. We have the opportunity to form a friendship just like I would with anybody my age only I will be relating to someone much older. The fact that we are not from the same generation or the same country will pose as a challenge. To overcome those challenges we will have to relate in very different aspects than normal and leaving our comfort zone. That is what makes it a unique and unbelievable experience.
I already experienced this in our first telephone conversation. Before calling Alicia I rehearsed some lines from the notes I took in class. After introducing myself on the phone the paper was out of sight. Our conversation was so comfortable and natural that I didn't want to hang up, and neither did she. The second she looked at the clock and realized that we were on the phone for 30 minutes she said, "Oh gosh I have been keeping you on the phone forever! I am so sorry! I just felt so natural talking to you and didn't realize the time. I can tell this is going to be a great and honest relationship!" When I heard her say that there was a smile on my face that extended from ear to ear. I was originally paired with Alicia, who, for some of her life lived in Argentina, because I had studied there for a semester last year. But I soon found out this was not the only thing we had in common. She prides herself on and values honesty as one of the most important things in life, just as I do. All I can say is I cannot wait for Wednesday at 3:30 pm.
-Submitted by Leya Schwartz
Posted by: Rebecca Kaplan on Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 6:56:07 pm | Comments (0)
Being the first human awareness event of the semester and the last of the year 5769, I believe that it was one of the most successful. Some people think that the number of people that come to an event make that event sucessful, but this is not so. We are not about quantity, but quality. During my visit, I meet a man that was in his early 40's and although he had been in the hospital for about 2 weeks, he was in high spirits. Later I was baffled to learn that he was starting chemo the next day. The realization that our world does not revolve around us had hit me. Not only are we angry and worried about the minuscule details of our lives, but we let these things get a hold of us. From that moment, I learned that these things that constantly anger us and stress us are due to our own entrapments. Rather then stressing and worrying, let's rejoice and embrace the fact that our problems are not as bad as they seem and as long as we have good friends family and happiness we can prevail.
New Blog, New Year
Posted by: Unknown on Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 1:29:26 pm | Comments (0)
This weekend, we will have the pleasure of celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the "Jewish New Year". Most New Yorkers, Jewish or not, realize the gravity of this upcoming holiday. I can't tell you how many times I've walked out of a store and the owner shouts "Happy New Year!" at me. I turn around, no longer surprised that strangers know it's my New Year, and say thank you. Despite the good nature of them wishing me a Happy New Year, do they really know what they are wishing for me? Do they know what the Jewish New Year really means? Do I?
I researched the question, and found a few great sources to guide me to answering a seemingly easily, but very difficult question: What is Rosh Hashanah?
Most Jewish children learn that Rosh Hashanah is exactly what it sounds like in Hebrew: The Head of the Year. The simple minded Jewish child living in America, or anywhere outside of Israel, will equate this to the Gregorian calendar's New Year, January 1st. However, the Gregorian New Year marks nothing but the changing of the number on the calendar. It also creates a nervous few weeks when school children accidentally date their homework for the year that has passed.
Even more confusing for Jews is that Rosh Hashanah falls in the 7th month of the year. Good luck explaining that to someone! "Yes, the first month of the year is January, but we celebrate the New Years in July". The first month of the Jewish calendar is Nissan, the month of Passover (which usually falls somewhere around mid-April), while Rosh Hashanah is the first of Tishrei.
Eliminating the theory that Rosh Hashanah is like New Year's Day, we turn to another possible theory. We know that Nissan is the first month, since that is when we received the Torah. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah must commemorate some other day in Jewish history. The most logical day is that of the first day of creation. Logic serves that if the Earth was created on a day, then that would be the Rosh Hashanah, or the head of the year. We find that, according to our Rabbis, the first day of creation was the 25th of Elul, the month directly preceeding Tishrei. The problem continues.
When in doubt, turn to the Torah.
The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah as two things: (1) A day of remembrance (Yom Hazikaron) and (2) A day of shofar blowing (Yom Teruah). While neither of these explain why Rosh Hashanah falls where it does, it can guide us as to how to celebrate this amazing holiday. These two aspects of the holiday, remembering and shofar blowing, represent the year past and the upcoming year, respectively. We should remember all the bad deeds we did last year in order to correct them for the coming year. In addition, we should remember all the good things we did, not to toot our own horn, but to recall how it feels to do good in the world. We blow the shofar to wake up out souls in order to teach them the lessons we learned from our previous year.
The aspect of zikaron (remembrance) is also key to rememberi the gifts that G-d has given us. Assuming we all make it, G-d willing, to this Friday night, we were all given the gift of time. Last Yom Kippur (Day of Attonement), G-d inscribed us in the book of life, giving us an extra year to make ourselves better people. This gift of time, one of the most precious gifts we are given, is something we will ask for again this coming holiday season. Judaism puts a lot of stock in time. One of the marquis blessings in Judaism is the shehehiyanu, a prayer we say when we want to bless the moment we are in, often after doing something for the first time. The first thing that G-d blessed in the Torah is Shabbat, a period of 25 hours, which acts as an island of time. Even our lives revolve around a Jewish calendar that is full of holidays to celebrate certain periods of the year.
The aspect of teruah (shofar blowing) is important for guiding our souls to the right place. In the story of creation, which we will read in a few weeks, there's a famous showdown between Adam and G-d. G-d, after Adam and Chava hide because they ate from the tree of knowledge, asks Adam "Where are you?" This seems like a ridiculous question, which is brought up in a famous story told by the Rabbi of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. While the Rabbi of Liadi was imprisoned at a labor camp in Siberia, the head guard come up to him and asked the Rabbi a question. The guard asked the Rabbi why Adam was asked such a question by G-d. The Rabbi asked the guard if he believed that the Bible's stories and lessons can be applied in a contemporary point of view. The guard responed yes. The Rabbi of Liadi then gave us our answer. It is not that G-d is asking only Adam "Where are you?", but he is asking all of us as well.
This brings us back to what Rosh Hashanah is. It is, in fact, the commemoration of the day that G-d created Adam and Chava. Therefore, each person should take time on Rosh Hashana to answer the question "Where am I?" Knowing where you are, and what you have done with your gift of time, will help you better prepare for the gift that G-d will hopefully give you this coming holiday season: more time.
Each of you should be blessed with a happy, sweet, and delicious Rosh Hashanah, full of love and spiritual growth. May all your prayers be answered, and may all your hopes and dreams for the upcoming year come true.
Shana Tova U'Metuka and Gmar Chatima Tova!
-Jonathan Newcombe, Class of 2009.