Rosh Hashanah President’s Speech – Now THIS!

By Bob Ritter

Shehechiyanu, V’kiyemanu, V’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Abraham Hershel said, “Life is people. ” And there are many people to thank. Perla Kaufman for all she does organizing these HHD. Sandra Mamis for creating the wonderful break fast which awaits us. Ron Rosen, our Ritual Chair, Rabbi Golomb, Elisa and Joe for their time and tremendous musical talents. To all who make this HHD experience beautiful and satisfying, thank you.

There are many others to thank for contributions throughout the year. Our past presidents, fellow trustees and officers, the many committee chairs and volunteers, especially Sisterhood, Men’s Club, and Rabbi Search. Sherrie and Alvin who run the office and take care of our building, and Dr. Hoffman, our education director, Olivia for music, the teachers and aids. To the numerous volunteers who feed meals to the hungry, and bake for the elderly, perform other social actions, pitch in to repair the building, and setup for all our occasions. To everyone for large and little mitzvot. Many ananomously. And to all of you, our members and congregants for sustaining our Temple. “Life is the actions of many people.” Thank you all!


It was hard to imagine standing before you today as your President. So years ago, when Ed Garber called me on behalf of the Nominating Committee, I did what one with my middle and Hebrew name, Jonah, would do. I tried to run away. But I soon discovered, you can’t run away. From Ed.

Being your temple president is an honor. But that is not the reason I accepted. Heaven knows … it’s not the compensation either. I accepted it because a voice in me, that was loud enough for my wife to hear too, said, “you have to do this.” But what, I asked myself, is “this?” What is the “THIS” the voice is telling me to do?

Here is what I think THIS is. Do you remember the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance, who won his only Oscar for his part as an old cowboy named Curly? Billy plays Mitch. Mitch, along with his buddies, are searching for meaning in the throws of a mid-life crisis. Mitch asks, “Have you ever had that feeling that THIS is the best I’m ever gonna do, THIS is the best I’m ever gonna feel… and it ain’t that great?

Curly offers, “Do you know what the secret of life is? He holds up his one finger, and says “This.”

A finger? Mitch quips.

Curly goes on, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean shit.”

Mitch asks, “But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly smiles and says, “That’s what *you* have to find out.”

What does THIS have to do with my message? Everything! Because I believe Vassar Temple is going through a mid-life crisis of its own. And the answer to it is right under our nose. Or I should say, right under our Temple’s name on our website and our stationery. It says “Where YOU belong.”

But it is up to YOU to “explore this sanctuary” and ask one thing, what does “belonging” means. It is up to each of us to find out what THIS is. In Psalms 27:4 it says, (A-hat sha-al-ti, mei-eit A-doh-nai, O-tah a-va-kesh.) One thing I ask from Adonai, one thing I seek:

A valued friend of mine said to me recently, “I have three homes. My house, work, and temple.”

As temple president I will tell you my opinion about what THIS is for Vassar Temple. It is one thing … being a temple where you belong. Each of you, BUT for reasons that are meaningful TO YOU. That could be ritual, prayer & song, OR Torah study, OR to develop your children’s Jewish identity, and life cycle events, OR lifelong learning in our adult education classes, OR social action, OR social relationships, OR even a sense of obligation to the Jewish people and to maintaining our Jewish community right here for future generations. These are ALL reasons to dwell in this house, and why THIS place, THIS tent, THIS temple is here!

Allow me to return to Jonah, as we all do every year in this season because it is the story we read on Yom Kippur. And my son’s birthday, the only legitimate excuse I ever had for missing YK services. Like Jonah, I wanted to run from Ed’s call. Who was I to help people to find THIS. Rabbi Jack Riemer, the founding chair of the National Rabbinic Network, known among his colleagues as the “rabbi’s rabbi” said,

“When God finished creating the world, he had to find a place to hide the Primordial Light that is meant for the righteous. God knew that there was one place humans would rarely look. He decided to hide it inside every single human being.”

That was Jonah’s challenge. He couldn’t imagine the people would look. Why should they listen to him?

But maybe they were ready to look. Maybe God knew the people were ready to look. Sure in the story of Jonah, God put a great threat in front of them, but the people could have chosen to ignore it. That would have been the easier thing! So maybe it wasn’t the threat so much as they were ready. Maybe they were looking for that one thing too, for THIS, and Jonah just happened to be the person who was asked to tell them where to look.

My lesson from Jonah is that we can’t run, from God. From being a Jew. Especially not now, when our temple needs us! It doesn’t matter if we feel up to the task. It doesn’t matter if we are confident. It doesn’t matter if we have all that it takes. It doesn’t matter if we have the time or the money. It doesn’t matter if you have other priorities. It only matters, it ONLY matters, IF being a JEW MATTERS TO YOU! You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean shit.”

This place, this tent, this temple, matters. It has mattered for thousands of families, and this community, since the civil war. And if after nearly 167 years we are having a mid-life crisis, that, should be considered a blessing.

Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Says, “Our synagogues … strive to be “Mishkan” vehicles to bring the Divine Presence into our lives.

But we all know Jonah wasn’t alone. He couldn’t be. Where do we draw our strength? Rabbi David Saperstein said, “In Jewish tradition, each time we finish reading a book of the Torah, we rise as a community and declare chazak chazak v’nitchazek, “Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.” This seems to suggest that our personal strengths are inextricably bound with those of the community: as we individually strengthen ourselves, the collective is subsequently fortified. The command may be in the singular, ‘Be strong, be strong, … ‘ but the result is in the plural.” And we will be strengthened.

In summary, WE can do THIS!

On behalf of the Vassar Temple officers, trustees, and staff, as well as my family, I wish you all L’SHANAH TOVAH!

Bob Ritter


100 Torah Study Posts – Some Reflections

100 Torah Study Posts – Some Reflections

Over the past three years I have posted my Torah Study Notes to the Vassar Temple Blog and am now advised by the omniscient computer monitoring the blog that I have posted 100 times. I am in the habit of taking notes at whatever learning event I am attending. It is a habit honed in law school at NYU. I once loaned my Real Property Notes to a class-mate/friend who never attended class. He received a better grade on the final than I did. In any event posting the notes has forced me to be more disciplined – not only in terms of paying attention to the colloquy in class – but also in terms of organizing my own thoughts and thinking about the discussions afterwards. Typically, I will go home after the class and edit what has been written and look up references that I did not understand. Because the discussions are wide-ranging with many digressions I am sure that most readers who are looking for a coherent train of thought or narrative have been disappointed. The notes are also difficult without a copy of Plaut easily at hand. These difficulties probably account for why I have not received more than a handful of comments from readers in the past three years. Notwithstanding, I like to think that the notes have been casually scanned by some of you and that there might be a nugget, an aphorism, a pithy comment from Rabbi Golomb or my classmates that may be evocative. I can tell you that, in addition to learning the lessons of Torah,  I have learned much about Jewish history, culture, thinkers, and writers, not to mention books and movies that I otherwise probably would not have read or seen. Part of the learning process has been looking up the names of the many theological and sociological commentators mentioned by Rabbi Golomb, or the concepts and even words that were new to me.

One of the greatest pleasures of Torah Study has been getting to better know the many other members of the Vassar Temple family (and even some non-members) who have attended over the years. Some of the attendees have proven to be amazingly learned in their own right: I must mention Sam Finnerman, Doi Cohen, Elaine Lipschutz, Muriel Lampell, Ron Rosen and  C. J. Kelly who have so frequently added to the discussion from what appears to me to be a deep reservoir of knowledge – knowledge not only of Jewish history and practice – but also of the human condition.

Finally, I must express a warm and heartfelt “thank you” to Rabbi Paul Golomb. His patience in dealing with the often inane questions and comments of this writer, and others, has been extraordinary.  He has been and continues to be an amazing scholar and guide to “peeling the onion” that is The Torah.

Lou Lewis – September 15, 2014


Torah Study Notes 9-13-14

Sept ember 13, 2014
p. 1350 – Deuteronomy – Ki Tavo – the conclusion of Moses’ third long oration immediately before his death and the entry of the people into the promised land.
26:1 The sanctification of the land and acknowledgement of the fulfillment of the promise. Rituals of thanksgiving are prescribed. Put fruit in a basket, take it to the priest at the place chosen by God to establish the divine name and publicly acknowledge entry into the land given by God.
26:4 The priest shall take the basket from your hand… and you shall recite… the account of the sojourn out of Egypt. Initially the Torah would be read sequentially over a three year period. The effect was that this reading could come at any time of the year. The practice of establishing a sequential triennial reading arose in about 100 AD out of Mesopotamia. Thus this Haggadah is read at Rosh Hashanah. The current practice of triennial reading started in Medieval times. It was designed to limit the size of the readings so as to promote better understanding. The Reform Movement right from its beginnings in the 1840s, read a limited portion each week in recognition of the time limitations imposed by modern life. See Daniel J. Elazar’s comments about the social and political make up of the Jewish community as reflective of the wider society around them. Elazar wrote extensively about the tradition of politics in Jewish scripture and thinking. His works on the subject include: Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses, Authority, Power and Leadership in the Jewish Polity: Cases and Issues, and Morality and Power: Contemporary Jewish Views.
• Kinship and Consent: The exploration of the Jewish political tradition is predicated on the recognition of the Jews as a separate people, not merely a religion or a set of moral principles growing out of a religion. The exploration of the Jewish political tradition, then, is an exploration of how the Jews as a people managed to maintain their polity over centuries of independence, exile and dispersion, and how they animated that polity by communicating their own expressions of political culture and modes of political behavior.
• Authority, Power and Leadership in the Jewish Polity: Many Jews are finding that they express themselves Jewishly through political means, if at all, whether that entails support of Israel or other causes which then become “Jewish” causes, or through working within the political and communal organizations of the Jewish people, which increasingly are perceived for what they are, namely, means of organizing power.
• Morality and Power: In September 1988, as the intifada approached the end of its first year, a distinguished group of leaders in academic and public affairs in Israel and the diaspora was invited to participate in a symposium on the problems of relating morality and power in contemporary statecraft
The Enlightenment started the break-down of the class system generally so the elitism in the synagogue that existed was similarly eroded. Consider the ending lines of the film Who Shot Liberty Valence. The reporter says “… when people believe the legend that is what you print.”
26:10 A prayer asking a blessing for those who have kept the law and shared their bounty. See comments of Hanoch Bricht on this subject. (Note: I could not find this person. Spelling problem?) There appear to be a consistent recognition of an afterlife here that is similar to that of the Egyptians and elsewhere. There is no distinction made between body and spirit – that is a much later concept. When we recite Kiddush we are nourishing the departed through our memory of them. LL: Why do we celebrate birthdays? It is analogous to celebrating the departed’s death day. On birthday’s we celebrate the living.
26:16 The promise that they will be a holy people. That which is holy is that which is set apart. This issue of being apart was taken up very early by rabbinic Judaism. What did that mean when, after the Bar- Kokhba revolt, they were no longer a nation state.
There was a very large population of displaced persons – some of which like the Essenes – disappeared. Christians were included in this group of people who were examining the relative importance of history and belief. Paul preached that faith was the critical element – not national or cultural background. At the time of the promulgation of this text this prediction of being chosen was extremely risky. This notion was adopted by Christianity and hence we have 2000 year of suppression of deviant practices – apostasy and heresy. LL: Isn’t this setting up an elitist society that is at odds with the political leveling of the past few centuries? PG: Not really. It is a form of nationalism, of the inherent human tendency to be part of something unique. Why do we join clubs or root for a sports team?

Torah Study Notes 9-6-14

September 6, 2014
p. 1322
21:10 How to treat a woman captured in war. Did this capture of woman have a basis in social reality? Israel was not acquiring land at the time – and was a territory of Persia. Accordingly, any discussion of the ethics of war is theoretical. Material gain is not enough to justify war. Note that marriage usually has an economic component in terms of the merger of two estates. Here the only value is in the woman herself.
21:15 If a husband has two wives… He must accept the first born – even if of an unloved wife. This is an explicit challenge to the story of Jacob – where the first born is passed over for Joseph albeit not in terms of inheritance. AF: It is not clear what “loved” and “unloved” means here. PG: The Hebrew word here is actually “hated” but the translators don’t use that. CL: In China at one time the north practiced monogamy and polygamy was practiced in the South. This was about 500 AD to 700 AD Even though the North came to rule during unification in 700 AD during the Tang dynasty the entire country eventually became polygamous in the Sung. Some scholars think that the cost of an extended household may have sapped resources during a time of war. PG: Monogamy became normative in Israel but it is not clear when.
21:18 If a parent has a wayward and defiant son… SF: The wayward son is economically threatening to the parents is what we were told by you several years ago in reading this parsha. PG: That is correct. Think of the injunction from the Ten Commandments to honor your parents. Loss of one’s land is devastating to a family. There is also an indication that society has a right to intervene in the relationship between parent and child – but only where there are serious ramification to the society itself. LL: Are there any artifacts indicating how land is held or passed to the next generation from this area/location. PG: In terms of post-exilic ownership it would be assumed that the Persian law would apply. Consider the Ketuebah – or marriage contract.
21:22 If a man is guilty of a capital offense… you shall not defile the land that the Eternal your God is giving you to possess. The most obvious reason for capital punishment is revenge. But that is not deemed a sufficient reason. See footnote 22 and 23.
22:1 If your fellow Israelite’s ox goes astray… CL: this is not a world that most of us would want to live in. Even where Moses – or the writer – is trying to come up with gentler solutions and to impose some order on the society the outcome is not very acceptable by today’s standards in civilized society. LL: What is being suggested here is a process wherein we examine society and extant mores and customs and devise new solutions to fundamental problems. That is the meta-lesson that has been adsorbed and why we are now discussing how lethal injections are implemented. It is that fundamental process of self-examination and the development of new laws that makes us civilized.
22: 4 and 5 More rules of conduct. But what about when society’s standards change? Obviously the rules can change as well. Hence transgender people are no longer considered abhorrent to God. Maintenance of the social weal is the goal of social rules of conduct.
22:6 You come across a birds nest – don’t take the mother – only the fledglings. In order that you may fare well and have a long life. Consider the story of Elisha ben Boulia – a post Mishnaic sage – who sees a young person attempting to return a bird to its nest – falling out of the tree and dying. At this point he becomes an apostate and a cynical investigator – someone who is seeking an empirical truth. One can in fact have one’s life shortened by trying to do something good. What does that imply? How long is the life that you deserve? It is problematic to assume that there is any one to one relationship between our activities and our continued life. LL: I like the Darwinian notion that death is a part of life. Without death there can be no evolution.
22:8 When you build a new house you shall make a parapet for your roof… etc. More rules for daily life. What are our responsibilities to others? How is order maintained?

Kitchen Refurbishment – Many Thanks!

By Laura Brundage

Take a peek at our newly rejuvenated kitchen! Thanks to the hours of hard work, planning and coordinating by Sisterhood Kitchen committee members Judy Rosenfeld and Roni Stein, who took this effort on with grace and style! The Temple kitchen is ready for simchas big and small! New counter-tops, cabinets, ceiling and updated wiring were important parts of this work. A special shout out of thanks also go to Alvin Rosen and Ron Rosen who helped guide the electrical work, the Men’s Club painters, and to some terrific kitchen helpers who helped move out and then re-organize ALL of the contents from the cabinets! Thank you to: Tom Frankel, Jen Dahnert, Perla Kaufman, Nadine Zaritsky, Kamil Wisniewski, Joe Stein, and the incredible support of the Vassar Temple family!

By Jennifer Sachs Dahnert

Many heartfelt thanks to the closet-Martha Stewarts and home improvement guys and gals who worked so hard over the summer to give Vassar Temple’s kitchen the most wonderful overhaul! If you haven’t yet been in it, it is a must-see! Particular thanks go to the Vassar Temple Sisterhood for providing the funding for this much-needed project and to the Kitchen Co-Chairs Roni Stein and Judy Rosenfeld for their vision and perseverance that made the project a reality. Our ever-faithful Men’s Club and House Committee pitched in with a fantastic paint-job before the cabinets and counters were installed and other advice and consulting along the way, and Alvin was amazing in his willing assistance on electrical hook-ups, mechanical issues and patience throughout. Thanks also to the members of the Vassar Temple Sisterhood, led by Laura Brundage and Danah Moore, who celebrated the completion of this project by throwing a Kitchen Shower at the Opening Dinner of the Sisterhood in September. This was a truly collective effort that has resulted in a tremendous enhancement to our Temple. Thank you everyone!