Torah Study 12-31-11

December 31, 2011

p. 293

46:28 This recalls Jacob’s reunion with Esau. When we read these passages and find them familiar there is a reason for that.

46:31  Joseph is prepping his family for a life in Egypt – and wants to protect them – but at the same time they will be a foreign group within the Egyptian polity. There are, accordingly, the seeds in place for the future conflict between God and Pharaoh.  There is dramatic foreshadowing here. LL: Note the footnote mention of the Hyksos – there has been recent archeological evidence suggesting that they may be the progenitors of the Israelites. SF: Phillip Johnson refers to the Israelites as a “warlike tribe.” PG: Based on what? This is a constructed history but basically there is very little to go on. Walter Benjamin, a Jewish thinker from the early part of the 20th C. noted that descriptions of wars written by the victors always exaggerate the power of the other side. Here we are not concerned with the actual history – which is unknown – but why the account is structured in this manner. Why does Abraham leave Ur? Why is it important that the Israelites have this sojourn in Egypt? There is considerable extra-biblical evidence for the Babylonian exile. The Torah as we know it today was assembled after the return from Babylonia. The ability to survive exile is central to the story of Judaism. See the book “Etched In Stone” where the author argues that the concept of Sinai and Moses was developed after the return. However, something was there that allowed a people to cohere and survive after two full generations – completely disconnected from what had established them as a people. Both the monotheism and the sense of covenant were significant factors in the retention of cultural identify. Note that this was not “law” received from a king – such as Hammurabi – but rather received by an entire people from God. It is revolutionary that every individual – including the kings – are subject to this law. SF: Rabbi Feldman speaks of eternal and transcendent truth that we connect to – beyond our temporal psycho-sexual references. PG: If we wanted to treat this merely as story-telling we miss the meta-messages of the construct. We are attacking the text from both sides: by value free investigation and by faithful acceptance of the text as  it is presented. “Wiesenshaft” is the German word for the notion of analysis by value free neutrality. This approach is very difficult because we all carry baggage – it is a high wire act with no net. Nachum Sarna compared the literary quality of the Bible to Greek poetry – in the sense that the telling of the stories is done by and to people who already know what is going to happen. The pleasure is in the repetition. LL: And in the analysis.

47:1 :Your servants are shepherd’s…”  This all raises the question as to what is a Jew. Do we survive by maintaining strict discipline? Or is the gift of the Jews more subtle? Herman Cohan has argued that modern western religion and life is essentially Judaism. PG: When the church was The Church canon law was the law. The Reformation changed all that. The New Testament contains very little about how society is constructed. The reformers had to turn to the Old Testament for this – Leviticus and Deuteronomy. SF: In the modern Mussaraf world the dilemma is between walking in the way of God by following all of the biblical mitzvot – following Jewish law in its strictest sense- and determining how much of that is relevant in our lives today.  The consensus is that you do what you can. PG: This is the story of Franz Rosenzweig who was brought up in a secular home and had not adopted all of the strict Jewish  practices – his answer to the question of whether he had adopted certain strict practices was “not yet.”

PG:  Compare the thinking of Irving Kristal – the founder of neo-conservative thought. There is an advantage of clarity to a didactic position. Consider Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism. You knew exactly where he stood. How does a people maintain its cultural identity? It may be no more than retention of a family name. Recall that Moses was mistaken for an Egyptian because of his clothing and appearance. This issue of identify was critical during the first one hundred years of the modern era. There were several answers ranging from Qumran to rabbinical Judaism. And there are several answers to this day.

Hineni Biennial: The Enduring Legacy of Seth Erlebacher, by Rabbi Richard Jacobs

Rabbi Jacobs distributed a very impressive article to the URJ Biennial distribution, highlighting Seth’s excitement for the Biennial and ways in which Seth “understood the serious challenges facing our congregations and our movement, but as a true leader he was always focused on turning challenges into opportunities.”   Please follow this link to the article.

Bob Abrams

Vassar Temple Celebrates Hanukkah

A Festive Hanukkah Dinner

A Festive Hanukkah Dinner

Getting Ready to Light the Menorah

Getting Ready to Light the Menorah

Members of Vassar Temple gathered on Friday evening to celebrate the fourth night of Hanukkah.

A well-attended celebratory pot-luck dinner preceded a festive service featuring a candle-lighting ceremony, led by the post-bar/bat mitzvah students, and a rendition of “Candlelight,” led by the older high-school students.

Vassar Temple Post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Students Lighting the Menorah

Vassar Temple Post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Students Lighting the Menorah

Vassar Temple Post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Students Lighting the Menorah

Vassar Temple Post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Students Lighting the Menorah

High-School Students Reading Lyrics from Cellphones as They Lead Singing

High-School Students Reading Lyrics from Cellphones as They Lead Singing

The Integrity of the Upright Guides Them

The attendance for Seth Erlebacher’s funeral service filled Vassar Temple; not just the expanded sanctuary, but virtually the entire building.  Rabbi Richard Jacobs, newly installed as President of the Union for Reform Judaism, came and extended condolences on behalf of the entire Reform Movement.  Colleagues from IBM came and spoke not only on behalf of their department, but also for IBM employees around the world who had been touched by Seth’s leadership and friendship.  The synagogue was filled, but it represented just a small portion of those who were banded together in mourning.

Young or old, all deaths reverberate through a population.  Some, however, make a much greater impact than others.  Seth Erlebacher clearly touched on the lives of an extraordinary number of people, from those, such as his family who knew him intimately, to individuals who were unaware of his existence and yet benefited from his technical skills and personal generosity.

I believe that the principal reason for this impact is Seth’s innate integrity.  “Integrity” pertains to a sense of internal oneness; the ability to meld together the distinct and diverse elements of one’s life into a consistent and reinforcing whole.  Seth’s life could be characterized by this integral consistency.  For twenty-three years, upon his arrival in the Hudson Valley, he brought together family – Melissa, then Rachel and Brianna – work at IBM and participation in a Jewish community through Vassar Temple into a virtually seamless unity.  Nothing was fully divided out.  Jewish life permeated both home and synagogue.  Love of family underpinned devotion to friends, colleagues and community.  Technical precision and professional care was brought to bear at both work and volunteer activities.

In the Book of Proverbs one reads: The integrity of the upright (tzaddik) guides them.  What makes one upright?  It is precisely one’s integrity!  Seth was truly a tzaddik.

             The passage of time allows individuals and communities to overcome loss and readjust the new circumstances that the loss has brought about.  In due time, we will all get along with the rigors of living.  But, make no mistake: Seth’s presence in our lives, however brief in the greater scheme of things, has made a profound impression.  Each one of us is better off for the blessing his life bestowed upon us.  And each one of us will feel is loss to the end of our days.


Rabbi Paul Golomb


Today I Buried a Friend

Today I buried a friend.

In attendance at the funeral with me was the president of the largest movement of Jews the world has seen; other clergy; representatives of neighboring communities; members of various intersecting business, social, and religious circles; friends; and numerous acquaintances.

Toward the front were his grieving parents, wife, and two teenage daughters.

I met Seth only a few months ago, in his capacity of Temple President, at a meeting of three concerning the religious school and whether I would run it. We talked about vision and salary, education and culture, supervision techniques and attendance policies, work hours and commuting distances.

Follow-up discussions were devoted to health insurance, keys, voice mail, computers, e-mail, security codes, and myriad other details related to a new job.

The job interview is always an odd way to meet someone, and this was no exception. By the time the process was concluded, I knew where Seth stood on everything we’d discussed — he preferred to lock the door before arming the alarm, for example, and he was adamant that e-mail addresses should be part of the Temple’s branding — but I didn’t know who he was.

Seth was always around the Temple, though, giving us lots of informal opportunities to talk in addition to our formal meetings. We discussed mundane matters like budget lines and teacher salaries, and lofty goals like how to foster Jewish commitment.

I remember one particular day I came to Seth when I discovered what could have been a huge problem. He responded with a cheery if ironic one-word answer: “excellent!” His simple reply was laden with complexity. We’ll fix this together. We won’t let it stand in our way as we build for the future. And for sure we won’t let it stop us from having fun now.

Come September, Seth wasn’t the only Erlebacher to hang out around the Temple. I saw his elder daughter Rachel each week, because she was one of the 3rd-grade teachers and part of my job was to supervise her. It didn’t take me long to see how talented she was. At one point, at a congregational dinner, I think, I told Seth how lucky Rachel’s students were. He was polite enough to say “thank you,” but his eyes replied, “yes, I know.”

His younger daughter Brianna, too, who was both a student on Wednesdays and soon a student teacher on Sunday mornings, was particularly helpful to me, especially in my first few weeks, before I knew how the teachers and students expected things to run. I remember I said something to Seth about how wonderful Brianna was, and, again, courtesy won out in his polite reply, but I could practically hear his body language: “You don’t have to tell me. I already know.”

Seth and I talked about the school, of course, and the Temple, about summer camps and the future of the Jewish people. We celebrated Shabbat together. We mocked the ineptitude in the world (sometimes, sadly, our own), chatted about current events, and planned for a better tomorrow.

Six months ago I met the Temple President.

Today I buried a friend.

Seth Erlebacher, z”l

It is with profound sadness, regret, and shock that we must inform the congregational family of the sudden, unexpected death of our beloved Temple President, Seth Erlebacher, on Friday, December 16, 2011.

Vassar Temple is located at:
140 Hooker Avenue,
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601.

As we mourn Seth’s passing, let us all keep Seth’s family in our prayers.

  • The funeral service will take place on Wednesday, December 21, at 10:30am at the Temple, followed by interment, then a minchah service back at the Temple.
  • Shiva minyan services will be held Thursday and Saturday evenings at 7:00pm.
  • The family will rise from shiva Sunday morning.

Barak Day 1

Today was a full day at the Biennial.  I decided to skip services this morning, since we were up so late last night.  Did you notice the time of my post last night?  The morning started with a plenary session.  These sessions are a combination of music, speeches, awards, and business.  The session started with Julie Silver leading us in singing.  She is one of my favorite artists.  Next, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the RAC, introduced house majority leader Eric Cantor.  Although the majority of the delegates don’t agree with Mr. Cantor politically, the speech was well received.  He stayed focused on international issues where there is more agreement.  Mr. Cantor stressed the need for continued support of Israel by the US government. not tolerating any form of antisemitism, and not letting our political differences get in the way of supporting Israel.

Next, Lynn Magid Lazar, the president of WRJ, presented Ambassador Nancy Brinker the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for Service to the World Community.  Ambassador Brinker is the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  Ambassador Brinker’s speech was moving and emotional.  It along with the other major speeches from the plenary session can be found on the URJ’s YouTube page.  I urge you to view these.  Next Rabbi Eric Yoffie presented another Bearer of Light award to Rabbi Richard Hirsch.    Rabbi Hirsch was honored for being the founding director of the RAC and for being the “architect” of Reform Zionism.  Rabbi Hirsch gave a moving speech.

Following the plenary session, I attended another learning session about how do we connect with our kids and bring the “camp” experience back into our congregation.  A number of ideas were presented to encourage getting more kids to the URJ camp programs as well as bringing the feeling of camp into our congregation.  The second learning session I attended today was a presentation on improving the content our temple web sites.  Stay tuned for some changes which may be coming to our web site.

In between the two learning sessions, was the kick-off on the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE).  Here is the description of the session.

We know that youth and families can find relevance, community, and purpose in our Reform Jewish communities. And yet, our synagogues lose connection to 80% of the children who become b’nei mitzvah. Join us as we stand together with leaders of the entire Reform Movement to reverse this trend by launching the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a Movement-wide strategic commitment to successfully engage in a majority of Reform Jewish youth by the year 2020.
Join the leadership of our Movement, including the URJ, ACC, CCAR, ECE-RJ, HUC-JIR, MRJ, NATA, NATE, NFTY, PARDes, and WRJ for this dynamic and interactive forum. Learn how to take action in your congregation and be part of this historic moment when we come together to commit to the Jewish future.

What we see at Vassar Temple is no different than many other congregations.  The Reform movement is committing to make a change.

Before dinner, we attended a very moving musical Ma’ariv service.  After dinner was another plenary session.  The session was opened by a male a capella group Six13.  The featured speaker at the plenary session this evening was the Isareli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.  Mr. Barak expressed the thanks of Israel to the Reform movement and the United States for their ongoing support of Israel.  He stressed that Iran must be prevented from gaining nuclear weapons, and that internally to Israel, the state must remain Jewish and democratic.  In addition to Mr. Barak, we heard from David Boies and Ted Olson.  They were also awarded teh Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for their joint work in overturning proposition 8 in California.  The plenary session concluded with the passage of a number of resolutions.

We concluded our evening with a great concert featuring Michelle Citrin and Craig Taubman.

Watch out for tomorrow’s post when when it is “Barack Day 2”.

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A Microcosm of the Biennial

Today was the first day of the URJ’s 71st Biennial Convention.  Bob Abrams and I left the Hudson Valley early this morning.  We drove down to the Washington DC and made very good time, arriving just after noon.  We found the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD.  This will be our home for the next 5 days.

Once we checked into the hotel and received our credentials we were offer to explore the conference area and get our bearings.  Today ended up being a microcosm of what makes up a biennial.  First I attended to 2 very well done learning sessions.  The first was on Technology and Your Synagogue.  The focus of the session was more on the philosophy of incorporating technology into congregational life rather than the nuts and bolts of how to do it.  The second session also had a technology focus.  It was titled The Social Sermon.  In this session, I learned how a congregation had used social media to work with their rabbi over the period of 1 week to generate a sermon which was delivered at Friday night services.  Both of these learning sessions gave me real concrete ideas which I will be able to bring back to Vassar Temple.

After dinner, we went to the exhibit hall which had just opened.  We were able to explore about 1/2 of the hall before it was time to head to the first plenary session.  The exhibit hall many vendors displaying art, jewelry, and other Judaica.  There were also vendors who are more on the business or management end of synagogue life.

The first plenary session this evening officially welcomed us to Washington DC.  There were a number of speakers from the URJ including the incoming chairman of the board, Steve Saks, Senior VP of the URJ Rabbi Dan Freelander, current president of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and incoming president of the URJ Rabbi Rick Jacobs.  We learned that this is the largest biennial in history.  there are 6,700 attendees representing 541 of the 900 URJ congregations.  The biennial is completely sold out.  On Friday night over 4,000 Shabbat dinners will be served.  This will most likely be a world record for the largest Shabbat dinner.  More on this Friday night.

There were 2 main speakers this evening.  The first was Dr. Wendy Mogel who is the author of Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and Blessing of a B-.  Dr. Mogel talked to us about raising Jewish children today.  It was both funny and inspirational.  The second main speaker was Natan Saransky.  He spoke to us about what we can do for Israel and what Israel can do for us.

The plenary session concluded with a special tribute to Debbie Friedman.  There were spoken and musical tributes to Debbie.  The tribute culminated in the announcement of a new award, The Debbie Friedman Award For Contribution To Music.  The first awardee is Theodore Bikel.  Following a short speech, he performed 3 songs for us.  One each in Hebrew, Yiddush, and Ladino.

Following the plenary session, we headed over for some late night entertainment.  We saw a great song session featuring Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Beth Schafer, and Doug Cotler.

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All Ready For Biennial

Well, I’ve finished most of my pre-biennial planning.  I have worked through the schedule and selected the workshop/learning sessions I plan on attending.  I am left with only a few “ties” where I haven’t made my final decision.    Those will be made dynamically as I go along through the week.  You also never know, if something new may appear during the week.

I am including my tentative schedule below, so you can get an idea of what goes on at the biennial.

Seth’s URJ Biennial Schedule


02:00PM 03:30PM Technology and Your Synagogue URJ Biennial 7 – National Harbor Conference Rooms
03:45PM 05:15PM The Social Sermon: Connecting Torah Study, Community Building, and Social Media URJ Biennial A – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
05:30PM 06:15PM T’filah: The Sacred Ties of Song URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
07:00PM 08:00PM Exhibit Hall Gala Dessert Reception URJ Biennial A – Maryland Ballroom
08:15PM 10:15PM Welcome to DC Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Beth Schafer URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Peri Smilow URJ Biennial Event Hall


10:30PM 12:00AM ARZA Reception URJ Biennial 1 – Potomac Ballroom
10:45PM 12:00AM Small Congregations’ Reception URJ Biennial Event Hall
07:15AM 08:30AM Beit Midrash: It Takes a K’hilah to Raise Jewish Teens URJ Biennial 7 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
08:45AM 10:15AM Joint Plenary with WRJ URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30AM 12:00PM Idea Exchange: Congregational Presidents URJ Biennial 12 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
10:30AM 12:00PM How Do We Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from Camp URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
02:00PM 03:30PM Campaign for Youth Engagement: Committing to the Jewish Future URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
04:00PM 05:30PM Using Your Website to Tell Your Congregation’s Story URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
04:00PM 05:30PM Shaping Your Synagogue’s Future Through the Voices of Congregants: A Strategic Planning Approach URJ Biennial 1 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
05:45PM 06:30PM T’filah – Kesher Shir: Connecting Through Song to One Another and to God URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:15PM 10:15PM Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Joel Chasnoff URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Mattan Klein and the Seeds of Sun Playing a Tribute to Naomi Shemer URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Michelle Citrin and Craig Taubman URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom

FRIDAY DEC 16, 2011

07:00AM 09:30AM T’filah and Visioning Breakfast URJ Biennial C – Prince George’s Exhibition Hall
08:30AM 09:15AM I Have Seen it With My Eyes: Visual T’filah URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
09:45AM 11:15AM The Big Picture: Enhancing your Congregation’s Communications Across Multiple Platforms (Intermediate) URJ Biennial 4 – National Harbor Conference Rooms
12:45PM 03:00PM Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
03:15PM 04:45PM How Congregational Leaders Can Better Know What Congregants Think, and What To Do With That Information URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
04:15PM 04:35PM Taking Your Services Onto the Web: Live Streaming (20 minute session) URJ Biennial J – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
06:15PM 07:15PM Shabbat Services (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
07:45PM 09:45PM Shabbat Dinner (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Prince George’s Exhibition Hall
10:00PM 11:00PM Oneg Shabbat Song Session (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom


11:15PM 12:00AM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
08:00AM 09:45AM Presidents Council Breakfast URJ Biennial 10 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
08:00AM 09:45AM Torah Study with Rabbi Uri Regev URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:00AM 09:45AM Torah Study Breakfasts (click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:00AM 12:30PM Shabbat Services (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
01:00PM 03:30PM The Eichmann Trial: Jewish Encounters (Deborah Lipstadt)(CLOSED) URJ Biennial 3 – Baltimore
04:00PM 05:30PM A Six Pack of Singer/Songwriters URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
04:00PM 05:30PM Afternoon Programs URJ Biennial Event Hall
04:00PM 05:30PM Celebrate Chanukah Today URJ Biennial URJ Books and Music Store and Stage
09:00PM 10:30PM Havdalah & Evening Program (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:45PM 11:45PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall

SUNDAY DEC 18, 2011

07:45AM 08:30AM T’filah – Engaging our Teens and our Teens Engaging Us: Worship with NFTY URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:45AM 10:30AM Closing Program URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:45AM 12:30PM Special Interest Session: URJ Conference of Presidents URJ Biennial 2 – National Harbor Conference Rooms

Before we get there … Preparing for the Biennial

I’m looking forward to attending the Biennial at the Gaylord Conference Center in the National Harbor area just south of Washington D.C.  (The area is across the Potomac River from Alexandria, VA.)  In addition to the great speakers listed at, there are numerous forums and learning sessions to select from prior to even getting to the Gaylord, resulting in a personalized schedule.

The sessions focus on many areas, like Congregation management, Leadership Development and Membership & Outreach … just to name a few.  In my first pass, I found so many interesting topics that I had 4- to 8-way ties for many of the Learning Session slots!  I finally whittled the list down to a primary and secondary session for each slot.  I’m sure that some of Seth’s selections are similar, and others reflect his specific interests as well, so we’ll be able to ensure that we cover as many different topics as possible.  A special highlight of the Biennial two years ago was the continuous entertainment offered by numerous Jewish musicians … I’m looking forward to hearing many of the musicians again (see for a list of featured musicians).

I hope that additional people from Vassar Temple attend future Biennials so that we can cover even more informational presentations and discussion topics among us, as well as benefit from the overall program!