President Lisa-Sue Quackenbush’s RH Address, 2022

President’s Rosh Hashanah Address 2022

In the September Bulletin, I wrote about being present. I was referring to being mindful, focussed, and in the moment. This is one definition of being present and certainly an important one, especially during these High Holy Days. Introspection, mindfulness and truly sitting within yourself helps you really avail yourself to the liturgy and meaningfulness of the Holidays. And while I believe this to be an essential process to experience these Days of Awe, I also believe that being present can have another meaning.

Being present can include actively engaging, embracing and availing yourself to connect to what’s around you. In many ways, you are already present. You are here (either in the Sanctuary or via Zoom). You have paid your yearly dues. And while we are incredibly happy and appreciative to see you physically in our midst and to receive your very necessary, monetary support, is that enough for you? Is that enough for us?

Please do not misunderstand my intentions here. My appreciation of your support of Vassar Temple is truly heartfelt and sincere. My question for you is this, are the membership dues that you pay worth simply receiving the monthly Bulletin and attending a couple services a year? Could you be getting more bang for your buck? I think so. And while monetary support is what pays the bills, it’s not the only thing that makes a Congregation. I send my payments and donations in because it’s necessary and certainty commits me financially. I serve this Congregation because it fills my heart and soul and connects me to people. Ultimately people are what make this the warm and engaging Congregation that Vassar Temple is known for. I believe that you get back what you put in and more at Vassar Temple. It is my honor and pleasure to give you some examples that can help you “stretch” and become more present, engaged and connected at Vassar Temple.

Let me start off by inviting you to join (if you are not already a member) our very active and dedicated Brotherhood and Sisterhood. The contributions of these groups to so many aspects of Temple Life cannot be overstated. We truly could not function without their diverse, physical and long-time financial support. We welcome your membership and participation in these essential auxiliaries.

As far as committees go, let’s first look at the physicality of our Temple. As any homeowner knows, no matter how much future planning is involved, there are always projects and surprises that pop up and must be addressed. We have a House Committee that assesses this building on a regular basis for safety needs, maintenance and upkeep. We have a Technology Committee that ensures we can have both in person. remote, and hybrid Services, meetings and educational experiences that reach as many congregants as possible. We have a Security Committee and a separate Health and Safety Committee. Both of these committees strive to always be at least one step ahead, in mitigating congregation and community safety and health concerns for our Congregants. We have a Robust Cemetery Committee that is in the process of updating and clarifying our policies as well as ensuring the upkeep of the final resting place of our Congregants, in our cemeteries.

We have both vibrant Ritual and Music Committees who are tasked with making our multitude of Services varied, joyful, spiritual, and continue to meet the changing needs and wants of our Congregation. We have very active Adult Education and Religious School Committees who work hard at stimulating both the younger and older minds, and developing and bringing in topical and interesting programs for this community.

We have a warm and wonderful Reyut Committee who reach out into the Congregation when anyone might have a need. They bring food to the homebound and offer rides for people to various appointments.

It’s not surprising that We have a multitude of Committees dealing with Finances at our Temple. This is such challenging work. We have a General Finance Committee, Fundraising Committee, Endowment Committee, Investment Committee, and Scrip. These committees are made up of great collaborative and financially conscious people who find a multitude of ways to not only maintain, but to grow our money and investments at Vassar Temple.

We have incredibly energetic Social Action and Civic Engagement Committees that not only boost up and support our local communities with multiple and varied food drives, and donations of health and safety supplies for the homeless, but support our society as a whole with programs like Reclaim Our Vote and collections for various global disasters, which unfortunately happen way too often.

We have hard working and dedicated Membership and Outreach Committees that are always making new connections and working to expand and invite families to join our growing and diverse Congregation.

We have had a Refugee Resettlement Committee that has helped a few families over the years acclimate to their new lives in America, most recently working with HIAS and MHIA to resettle an Afghan family.

We will soon be assembling a House Green Committee that will assist Vassar Temple in participating in productive and concrete ways so that we can make a smaller carbon footprint in this community and the world. We will also be assembling a 175th Anniversary Year Committee to begin orchestrating and planning all the ways we will celebrate Vassar Temple’s 175th year (which is next year).

We have a Publicity Committee that gets the word out there to local publications and Social Media to keep people engaged and informed as to who we are and what we do as a Congregation. We have a Nominating Committee that looks into our Congregation every year to entice and invite members to become leaders in governance of our Temple.

This Congregation has quite a few, very active leaders, whom I deeply respect and enjoy working with side-by-side. And while the focused work and value of their efforts cannot be denied, don’t be fooled by what you see. They are not exclusively running the Temple. Committees are working relentlessly on pivoting and tweaking goals and ways to achieve them as our society and community seems to continually change. In the same way that there is a driver (our leaders) steering the car. The car does not go anywhere if all systems (active committees) are not primed, in place and working to full capacity.

I have just named over 25 active and necessary committees at Vassar Temple. I’m sure I will hear from those I inadvertently left out. I’m sorry if I missed you in this very expansive list. I’m hoping that I have enlightened you to the many ways in which you can be present, engaged, and connected. If there is a relevant committee that you can think of that we don’t have, please let me know. We will initiate one. Some of these committees are large. Some are small. Most committees meet once every month or two. Some meet more often. Some meet less. Many committees meet via Zoom. Some meet in person and some are hybrid. All committees welcome new members. Committees should represent our membership. That only happens if you join. What committee speaks to you? Where do your strengths and interests lie? How can we help you get more bang for your buck at Vassar Temple? Most importantly, how can we assist you in becoming more engaged, connected and present in Temple life? In the coming days and weeks, please reach out to me, any member of the Board or the Office and ask questions. Attend a Committee meeting or two. See what works and feels right for you.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that I have gotten to know so many members just by serving and working side-by-side on various committees over the years. Friendships and special bonds are formed from working on common interests and goals. There is truly a camaraderie and family feeling here when it comes to Vassar Temple. Working alongside one another for a common cause enhances the feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and empowers us to feel useful, connected and truly being engaged in the future of Vassar Temple.

Merriam- Webster defines the word Committee as: a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report in some manner. I would offer my own take on this by saying that it is a group of individuals coming together in collaboration for a common goal. I am a firm believer in both of the sayings; “Many hands make light work.” and “We only reap what we sow.” In this year 5783, may we join hands and minds and come together and work towards a common goal. May we work together to plant the seeds of our future here at Vassar Temple. I look forward to collaborating alongside you in making the commitment to be just a little more engaged, connected and present in Temple life. I am certain that like myself, you’ll be glad you did.
L’Shanah Tovah.

Lisa-Sue Quackenbush
Vassar Temple



What Angell Will Stay our Hands? Renni S. Altman, DD, Rosh Hashanah morning

“What Angel Will Stay Our Hands?”
A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple
Every year I cringe as we approach the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. I hope that young children aren’t present. How can you begin to explain to a child that on one of our holiest days of the year we read this most perplexing story of a father’s near sacrifice of his son?
Yet we are not unique.
In the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease a goddess and be granted favorable winds to sail against Troy.
In Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus kills his daughter, Lavinia, after she has been raped and maimed by attackers to preserve the family honor.
And child sacrifice is not just part of literature, it was part of ancient cultures:
The Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed both children and adults to their gods. Exposing an unwanted child to the elements or wild animals was a common practice throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Carthaginians of North Africa sacrificed their infants and children to pagan gods over a period of several centuries.
Even in ancient Israel there were kings who adopted the cultic practices of the Canaanites and “consigned [their] sons to the fire in the Valley of Ben-hinnom.”
So, at the time of the writing of the Akedah, its message that the God of Israel did not want child sacrifice had real, lifesaving, meaning. This story was central in setting Israel apart from child sacrificing nations, emphasizing that ours is a unique and loving God who demands that we act ethically in our treatment of one another, especially our children.
By the time our liturgical practices developed, however, child sacrifice had become a rare phenomenon. Still, this story has maintained its place as a high moment in our Rosh Hashanah service. And it is not only the Torah reading, but the shofar, the most unique and prominent aspect of Rosh Hashanah, that takes us back to that moment. The rabbis taught that in sounding the shofar, we remind God of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and as Abraham’s descendants, we are worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Need we be reminded annually that our God would put a person through such a test, even to teach this most powerful, lifesaving lesson?
Need we remember year after year, this darkest moment in the life of Abraham? This man who so boldly dared to challenge God, the Judge of all the world, to deal justly with the innocent of Sodom and Gemorrah, yet remains silent when God tells him to bring his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac, up to the mountain as an offering? What about Isaac and justice for innocent Isaac? Where is the plea for your own son, Abraham?
Throughout the ages, we Jews have wrestled with this story. Did Abraham pass the test? What exactly was the test? Was it that he was so willing to sacrifice his son, or did he really believe that God wouldn’t let him go that far?
So intent was Abraham on his mission that the angel had to call his name twice, “Avraham, Avraham” — to get him to stop!
For centuries, Jews have been reading this story on Rosh Hashanah. Even our reform movement, with all its creativity and changes, wouldn’t omit it. The traditional practice is to read Genesis 21 about the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day and the Akedah on the second – both challenging stories! When Reform Judaism omitted second day observances, the one Torah reading chosen was the Akedah, I’m guessing in large part, because of its connection to the ram and the shofar.
The Gates of Repentance offered an alternative reading: the story of creation, since this is the birthday of the world. Most likely, it was included for the growing number of congregations observing a second day and not as a replacement for the Akedah.
It wasn’t until Mishkan Hanefesh that the traditional first and second day readings, Genesis 21 and 22, are both included. Two alternative readings are at the back of the mahzor: the story of creation and the passage where Abraham challenges God about Sodom and Gemorrah.
It is hard to imagine a Reform congregation, even those observing two days, where the Binding of Isaac, is not being read today. So ingrained is it in our Rosh Hashanah experience that it wouldn’t feel like the holiday without it.
Here we are again, poised to read this horrific tale. I must confess, I came close to being renegade and suggesting that we read an alternative passage. Then, I heard the voice of that angel crying out to me. She is crying out to all of us: stop sacrificing your children! Yes, today, in the 21st century, we are sacrificing our children and it is not to appease any gods or for some supposedly noble cause, but for completely selfish reasons.
When an 18-year-old can legally acquire a weapon of war and murder 19 children and two teachers, when firearms continue to be the leading cause of death for American children and teens , hen this great nation cannot find its way to end gun violence, can we honestly say that we are not sacrificing our children?
Judaism teaches that Adam was created alone, to teach that if you take a life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world, and if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world.
Nineteen children, gone in a matter of seconds; nineteen worlds, erased.
The news accounts of the children returning to school in Uvalde, TX earlier this month were simply heartbreaking. Nineteen children did not return to school. Nineteen families sent one less child to school this year. Two teachers are forever missing from their classrooms. Some children are being home schooled; others are going to new schools. Their school has been torn down. Children are traumatized and fearful of going back to school; they don’t have faith that the additional police can protect them. Imagine their parents’ fear. An entire town has been forever changed.
After ten years of unfulfilled promises of gun safety legislation following the Sandy Hook shooting, it took Uvalde for Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose state that carried those 26 deaths for the past ten years, to be able to bring together senators from both sides of the aisle who could overcome partisanship and agree upon the first major gun safety legislation in decades. While not banning any weapons, it is an important first step towards sensible gun control.
Personally, I am grateful for New York’s strong gun safety laws and the prohibition against carrying guns in sensitive places such as this synagogue. We are taking appropriate safety precautions and leaving weapons in the hands of those most trained to use them.
If we are to save and not sacrifice our children’s lives, these legislative protections must not be the last. Creative minds can certainly find ways to protect life within the legitimate parameters of the second amendment.
On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world. In the biblical account of creation, Adam and Eve were put in charge, given free reign, though tasked with the responsibility to “work and protect” the Garden. A midrash envisions God warning them, “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created I have created for you. Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one else to set it right after you.”
Look at our world today: increasing land and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, ice loss at the poles and in mountain glaciers, increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires — so much of it the result of human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.
We are failing in our roles as stewards of this world. The world’s children are dying – in fires and hurricanes, from cancer caused by pollutants, from hunger and malnutrition due to food insecurity brought on by climate change.
We are sacrificing our children on the altar of our unquenchable thirst for the world’s resources, our inability to put future generations’ needs ahead of our own, the polarizing partisanship that precludes compromise, stagnation that inhibits the possibilities of new approaches and innovative solutions.
If we cannot find ways to slow the increasing temperature, we will be desolating our world, leaving an inhospitable environment for future generations. The recent climate legislation included in the Inflation Reduction Act is a first step upon which we must continue to build if our children and our children’s children will have a healthy world in which to live.
Gun violence, climate change – these are but two of the many challenges we are facing in our society for which our children are suffering. We can all name more. What angel will stay our hand?
When protesting against the Vietnam war, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.” The responsibility for our children is upon all of us. Judaism commands us to save life; pikuach nefesh overrides all.
Yet, it feels so overwhelming. What difference can we make?

Ruth Messenger, a great Jewish social activist and immediate past President of the American Jewish World Service, challenged attendees at a Reform Movement biennial convention some years ago on just this issue:
“We have to confront…the feeling that we are too insignificant to do this work,” she said.
“We feel overwhelmed by the statistical realities or the political challenges, but we do not have that luxury. We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We bemoan the lack of leaders for our time, but…we are those leaders. We have that power. We need to believe more in ourselves.”
I remind you as well of a much older teaching, from R. Tarfon, who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple: “It is not upon you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every step we take, even the small ones, makes a difference. With every action, we lower that knife from the necks of our children.

And when it feels too overwhelming and we lose sight of the big picture, remember the starfish. A man walking on the beach, sees piles of starfish washed up on shore. In the distance, he says a woman bending down and straightening up, bending down and straightening up. When the man reaches her, he sees that she is picking up a starfish and casting it back into the ocean. “What are you doing?” asks the man. “There must be thousands of starfish along this beach. You cannot possibly save them all. What difference can you make?” The woman looked at the man, bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it back into the ocean and said, “Made a difference to that one!”

We do not have to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it.
If you save a life, you save a whole world.
In a society, some are guilty, all are responsible.
We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.

We are responsible to stop the sacrifice of our children.
We can begin personally, making changes in our own lives: limiting our use of fossil fuels,
supporting solar farms even if we cannot have solar power ourselves.

We can get involved in community efforts and support organizations that help the causes we care about.

Through the efforts of our social action committee, we offer so many ways to make a difference in the lives of those within our own Poughkeepsie community who are struggling:
You can make food for lunch box or the homeless shelter
You can provide school supplies and winter clothes for children at Morse School, or volunteer there as some of our congregants do
When you shop, buy some items for the can jam to go to the food pantry
You can be an escort at Planned Parenthood,
You can be part of a building-level green team being formed here to assess and improve our sustainability.
These are just some of the efforts in which this congregation is engaged to help save lives.

Perhaps the most important, far reaching and long-lasting tool that we have to protect our children is that of our vote. Our democracy gives us the great gift of voting, the opportunity to participate in the election of representatives who will be our voice – on the local, county, state, and federal levels. We can counter the frightening rise of those that would limit what teachers can teach and what books children can read, by voting in school board elections. This year we can vote to protect our environment by supporting the Environmental Bond Act. Remember, our voices matter not only on election day, but at all times to convey our concerns to our representatives.

I invite you to join with our Civic Engagement Committee and participate in our Reform Movement’s, Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign, to help increase voter turnout. We are partnering with the non-partisan Common Ground for the Common Good and sending postcards to people in other states who may be in danger of being dropped from the rolls, encouraging them to register and vote.

So, did Abraham pass the test? In the end, Isaac is not sacrificed. The ram that suddenly appeared is offered in his place. But God never speaks to Abraham again. And Abraham walks down the mountain – alone. He never sees or speaks to Isaac again.
Will we pass the test of protecting our children? This is the challenge articulated in the moving words of the poet Amanda Gordon, written the morning after the Uvalde shooting:

“Hymn for the Hurting”
Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.
Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
May 5783 be a time of such change. Strengthen us, O God, in our resolve to act so as to protect and cherish our children and the generations to come.

Seeing New Possibilities, Renni S. Altman, DD

“Seeing New Possibilities”
A Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple

How many of you have seen images from the James Webb Space telescope? Pretty awesome, right? I have to admit, astronomy is not my thing. I actually dropped Intro to Astronomy with Carl Sagan in college because I just couldn’t follow what he was saying. Those images, though, are simply mind boggling.

When they were first revealed this summer, President Biden captured our amazement at what NASA described as our deepest view into our universe’s past, when he said “We can see possibilities no one has ever seen before.”

Seeing possibilities. This really is the essence of these Yamim Noraim. We set aside these days annually to search within ourselves, striving to see possibilities we may have never seen before. Judaism begins the New Year with ten days of repentance precisely because we believe in the possibility of change. The past – things that happened to us or things we did – does not have to determine our future. We have the opportunity to write that ourselves, to choose how we will live.

Among the opening reflections in our mahzor is a teaching by Rabbi Laura Geller that underscores this fundamental principle of our faith:

“Your Book of Life doesn’t begin today, on Rosh HaShanah. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings, and teachers. Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people’s decisions: where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like. But the message of Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to leave behind. Shanah tovah means both a good year, and a good change. Today you can change the rest of your life. It is never too late.”

The notion of choice, so fundamental in Judaism, is very empowering. It is the guiding principle of the work of psychologist, Dr. Edith Eva Eger. Her inspiring memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, describes her incredible life story: a native of Hungary, she was 16 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She and her sister survived; her parents perished. Today, in her 90s, Eger still maintains her psychology practice, lectures and serves as a consultant for the US Army and Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. Her memoir interweaves with the stories of her patients her own life journey, the challenges she faced, and how she ultimately found healing from her traumatic past, eventually confronting her deepest pain by returning to Auschwitz. She empowers her patients to choose to break free from the experiences and thought processes that have imprisoned them and to embrace true freedom by opening their hearts to see the possible.

For many years Eger couldn’t bear to talk about Auschwitz, she didn’t even want her children to know that she was there and would get angry at her husband if he mentioned it. She struggled with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt. Then someone gave her Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. A key teaching in his book about how he survived the camps struck her deeply: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Each moment is a choice,” writes Eger. “No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond. And I finally begin to understand that I, too, have choice. This realization will change my life.

The recognition that we have the power to choose how we respond to the experiences of our lives, while certainly powerful for those who have suffered trauma, is not limited to such dramatic situations. It is a lesson for anyone who has faced challenges, anyone who has wrestled with disappointments or experienced failure, anyone who has made mistakes – and that means all of us.

“We can’t choose to vanish the dark,” teaches Eger, “but we can choose to kindle the light.” We can choose to take a different path, to embrace new possibilities, but that will take effort and commitment on our part. As we all know, change isn’t easy. Our old prayer book for Selichot had a reading I appreciated as it expressed well the challenge of change:

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways.

These are the steps of Teshuva, of repentance, that our tradition lies out for us.

Eger offers her readers and patients a similar process. We can only change, we can only embrace the possible she writes “when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let of the past or the grief.”

We can begin to change when we take responsibility for our actions and recognize that we have a part in maintaining unhealthy patterns, that which keep us stuck in old ways, in fear, in anger. While it may be that others are responsible as well, if we absolve ourselves and only blame others or circumstances, then we give up the essential control of our lives that is necessary to become the person we want to be, the person we can be.

We will begin to change when we choose to take risks and dare to go down a different path. That means breaking out of old habits, leaving behind that which, while harmful, is familiar and, ironically, feels safe, to try something new. Certainly, it will be uncomfortable at first and it is to be unexpected that there may well be steps backwards, but if we persevere, we will be better for it in the long run.

Finally, embracing the possible requires letting go of the past, of the hurt, of the anger, of the grief. Where appropriate, it means forgiveness. In some cases, there is no possibility of or warrant for forgiveness; then there can only be an acceptance of what was and a separation from, a leaving behind, that can free us to move forward.

All too often, it is hardest to forgive ourselves. In so many of the patient stories that Eger shared in her book, people carried tremendous guilt for things for which they blamed themselves that were not at all in their control: the parents who couldn’t have prevented their son’s suicide, the woman who could not have fought back against the family friend who raped her as a child. It was only when, with Eger’s guidance, they were able to forgive themselves, for something that wasn’t their fault, that they were finally able to take important steps towards healing and change.

Speaking to an army unit that had just returned from combat in Afghanistan, a unit with a high suicide rate, Eger shared the importance of forgiving oneself: “to run away from the past or to fight against our present pain is to imprison ourselves. “Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover the miracles that exist now.”

For most of us, I would imagine, it is the ability to forgive ourselves for things that we have done wrong that is the challenge. Forgiving ourselves is an essential step in the process of teshuvah, of making amends with others for ways that we have hurt them. It is also essential if we are to learn from those mistakes and change in the future.

Dr. Maya Angelou paints a powerful picture of the impact that unforgiven mistakes can have on us: “I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,” that’s all. So you say to yourself, “I’m sorry.”

If we all hold onto the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror. We can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”

On Rosh Hashanah, we strive to see what we are capable of being, to see beyond the mistakes, beyond the pain, trauma, and disappointment, to “see possibilities we have never seen before.” We get to decide what parts of our Book of Life we want to carry forward and what we want to write anew, what we want to transform with a Shanah Tovah, a good change.

On Rosh Hashanah, we say Hayom Harat HaOlam – this is the world’s birthday. A colleague pointed out recently that this expression translates literally as “today, the world is pregnant.”
This is an instance where the literal translation is preferable to the idiomatic as it captures the Jewish attitude towards each new year:

It is pregnant with possibilities: the possibility of new beginnings, of starting over, of being different, of returning to who we really are and want to be. We believe in the possibility of change — in ourselves, in others, in our world.

May we be blessed with the strength, wisdom and open heartedness to discover new possibilities in this new year.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu – may you be written in the Book of Life for a good change this year.

Abortion is My First Amendment Right

“Abortion is My First Amendment Right”
Rabbi Renni Altman
Shabbat Emor
May 17, 2019

Our rights and liberties as Jews are under attack.
I’m not talking about the threat from the White supremacist movement, though that is very real. I’m talking about the anti-abortion legislation signed this week in Georgia and Alabama, and today in Missouri, joining states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi — with more to follow.

Back in January, after our New York State legislature courageously passed a law protecting reproductive rights as codified in the constitution under Roe V. Wade, with protections even surpassing that law, I spoke in support of that law and about Judaism’s views on abortion and when life begins. Given the events of this week and the grave danger these states’ actions pose to women’s health and lives, to constitutionally protected rights and to the separation of church and state in our country, I cannot remain silent – or speak about anything else this week — for this issue is so important to me that to not address it would feel like an abdication of my responsibilities as your rabbi. So, at the risk of repeating myself, I beg your indulgence.

The mages are frightening:

  • protestors dressed in costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s frightening and powerful vision of a dystopian society where one class of women serve as the womb for another;
  • legislators who are making decisions impacting women’s lives but who cannot speak intelligently about reproduction;
  • laws being passed that will undoubtedly impact the poor who will not have the means to travel to get health care that those with financial means will be able to obtain, forced to bear a child that they did not intend to conceive and that may well have been a product of rape or of incest;
  • cases where the pregnancy may put the mother’s health at risk while not necessarily her life;
  • instances where the fetus is diagnosed with some terminal birth defect and enduring a pregnancy that will only end in the death of that fetus will cause unnecessary emotional pain that no one should be forced to endure;
  • or places where doctors will be limited from performing a medical procedure that they believe is in the best interests of their patients – at the risk of being sentenced to 99 years in prison!

I heard an interview from one of the organizers of the anti-choice movement in Alabama who was not at all bothered by the fact that under the new law the doctor who performs an abortion on a 15 year old who was raped could face a longer prison term than the rapist!

Intellectually, I do understand how those who believe that life begins at conception will, therefore, view abortion as murder and, consequently, will not allow an exception for rape or incest as such a termination would still be murder. I can appreciate how such people would be motivated to prevent what they understand to be murder from happening.

However, the notion of when life begins is not a scientifically proven fact; it is a matter of personal belief that, for many of us, is based on our faith.

In the second story of creation in Genesis, we read that God breathed into the first man the breath of life. When do we understand that happening today? When a baby is born and takes that breath? At conception? When a fetus is viable to survive? What is the status of a 6 week old fetus?

My faith guides me in this determination. It teaches quite clearly that a fetus is a life in potential, but that it is not yet a human life. When does life as a full life begin according to Judaism? The answer is codified in the Mishnah, the first of the law codes to follow the Bible, dating back to the year 200 CE: when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Until that point, a fetus is a potential life, but the woman’s life ALWAYS takes precedence.

The basis for this determination is a case of damages recorded in the Book of Exodus. It presents the case of a pregnant woman who is injured accidentally when two men are fighting. If she miscarries, the man who caused the injury must pay the husband damages; if, however, that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been lex talions – life for life.

Throughout the development of Jewish law, the woman’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. We do find differences in the interpretation of that principle as it applies to cases where the woman’s life is not literally at risk, but where the pregnancy or having a baby could lead to various difficulties. These are instances when the pregnancy would cause severe emotional distress to the woman or where that pregnancy would threaten the life of another child (in other words, another existing life).

The rabbis even understood different stages of pregnancy. Back in the 12th century, the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi, taught “in the first forty days, it is mere fluid.”

NONETHELESS, the rabbis recognized that the fetus is a life in development. Thus, in the Talmud they taught that in the case of a pregnant woman who dies on Shabbat, one would violate Shabbat to save the fetus under the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, even though the fetus is not yet a life. “Profane for his sake one Sabbath, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

My faith, my understanding of life, teaches me that ABORTION IS NOT MURDER. The life, health and emotional well-being of the pregnant woman must always take precedence. Yet, as a potential for life, as a human being in process, in development, a fetus is in a different category from an appendix or some other bodily part that can easily be removed. But regarding how the determination of when a pregnancy should be terminated and how the different factors impacting a woman’s life and well-being are to be considered, my faith teaches me that those decisions should be left up to the woman (based upon her faith or moral grounding and understanding of when life begins), in consultation with her medical provider and, if she so desires her religious leader, and, where appropriate, her sexual partner.

It is this right to make this most difficult and personal decision that is currently protected by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as affirmed by the Supreme Court Decision of Roe V. Wade. These new anti-abortion laws are a clear violation of this right.

I also understand these laws to be a violation of my religious freedom as guaranteed by the establishment cause of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Frankly, I’m surprised that this aspect of the abortion debate has not been given much attention in the media. Thus, I was pleased to read this morning in the now only digital version of the Forward a column by Jane Eisner that begins: “In enacting a law that would make performing virtually all abortions a crime, the state of Alabama is impinging on my religious freedom as a Jew.” ( )

It is the same principle by which we fight prayer in public schools. For many years now, we have witnessed the wall separating church and state begin to crumble. In the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court, for example, employers were given the right to refuse to include contraception in health insurance coverage for their employees because it violates their religious beliefs, regardless of the beliefs of their employees.

A recent ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services gives health care workers and institutions (such as religiously funded hospitals) the leeway to refuse to provide services if they cite a religious or conscientious objection; that would include abortion, sterilization, and overriding a Do Not Resuscitate order!

The “fetal personhood” movement is another glaring violation of my religious freedom. Again, Judaism teaches that a fetus is not a separate being; it is understood that a fetus is part of the mother. As far back as the 12th century, Rashi said that fetus has no separate legal rights or identity. Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.

The supporters of this movement would charge women with murder for having an abortion. In her column in today’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Already today, some states have legislated “fetal personhood” and women have been arrested on suspicion of harming or endangering their fetuses by using drugs, attempting suicide or delaying a caesarean section…. In 2014, a woman was arrested under Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute for taking half a Valium while she was pregnant” (Post-Roe America won’t be like Pre-Roe America. It will be worse. Michelle Goldberg, NYT 5/16/19)

These laws and actions are steps that are tearing down the separation of church and state, a bedrock our democracy. This is not a Christian country! The United States of America is a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion.

As a religious minority that now thrives in this country (despite rising anti-Semitism), it is incumbent upon us to speak up to protect this fundamental principle upon which our nation was founded – not only for ourselves but for all minorities.

So what can we do?

A week from Wednesday, I will be joining with members of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany to meet with our lawmakers.

First and foremost, I want to thank them for the swift action they took on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to strengthen support for reproductive rights in our state and to protect the doctors and medical personnel who provide these medical services for women by moving these laws out of the penal code and into the health care laws where they belong. We don’t thank our legislators enough; they need to know that they have our support, especially in such controversial matters.

We will also be asking our legislators to support a renewed initiative to bring sex education to New York State. All sides on this debate can agree that we are in favor of minimizing the number of abortions in our country. One of the best ways to do that is to educate our children about reproduction and contraception. If the energy and funding that is going into the current anti-abortion debate would be directed towards such efforts, we would go a long way to preventing the abortions they are fighting against.

If you believe in supporting reproductive rights and protecting religious rights in our country, I would urge you to support organizations that are now taking on this battle in states where these rights are in danger. They need financial support to carry on the legal battles that will ensue.

For much of the past forty-six years since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, supporters of reproductive rights have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on while the anti-choice movement has never moved away from this cause and has been building up their efforts for a time such as this, with a President who supports them and has changed the balance in the Supreme Court.

For many years now, anti-abortion groups have taken intermediary steps to limit women’s access to abortion, often under the guise of protecting women’s health

Such steps have included

  • creating unnecessary requirements for clinics to be able to perform abortions that have resulted in the closing of clinics:
    o In 2017, in 25 states, more than half of the women lived in a county without an abortion provider
    o In 2014, some 44% of New York counties had no clinics that provided abortions,
    and 10% of New York women live in those counties (Guttmacher Institute)
  • Requiring an additional sonogram close to the date of the abortion that have required women to make additional trips to the clinics.
  • Mandated waiting periods, parental notification for minors, etc
  • Most recently, effective this month, President Trump reinstated the Gag rule withholding Title X funding from organizations (such as Planned Parenthood) that provide counseling or referrals about abortion. This ruling is currently in the courts.

Some of these laws have been struck down on the basis of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that ruled that abortion restrictions cannot place an undue burden on women.

These latest state rulings in states such as Alabama that effectively ban abortion and make the doctors liable for criminal action, have taken a more dramatic step in their very openly stated goal of overturning Roe. It is not yet clear if that will be achieved, but if these state laws make it to the Supreme Court, the future of Roe is anything but guaranteed. Analysts imagine that the rights guaranteed by Roe may be whittled away piece by piece, rather than overturned all at once.

Either way, the future may be more frightening for women than it was in the pre-Roe days. While medically induced abortions may replace the dark days of back alley abortions, women may be forced to get those medications online without professional guidance or support (or back up in case of any complications). Women who have or attempt abortions may be charged with murder or attempted murder.

The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be a matter of personal choice; we can no longer be a silent majority.

Rabbi Renni Altman

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”, Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Jack was an atheist, but he went to synagogue religiously, every Saturday morning.  His grandson watched this and knowing his grandfather’s strong feelings, was very confused.  Finally, one day he asked him, “Grandpa, I don’t understand it.  You say you are an atheist, but you go to synagogue every week.  How can you pray if you don’t believe in God?  Jack answered, “My boy, I don’t go to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”

Religion is really about relationships.  That is especially true in Judaism.  If one Hebrew word could capture the essence – and sometimes challenges – of being in real relationship, it is the word Hineini – one word that means “Here I am.”

Some of you may remember this word from Hebrew school as the answer when the teacher took attendance – Hineini – meaning simply, I’m here, I’m present. In the Bible, the term Hineini takes on much greater significance.  Altogether, Hineini appears fouorteen times in the Hebrew Bible.  Three of those instances are in the powerful Torah reading we read this morning, the

Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, including the very first time that this phrase is uttered.  Though Abraham appears on the scene much earlier, it is only here, when he is called to his last and most challenging of ten trials that his relationship with God is put to its greatest test.

With the first Hineini, Abraham responds to God’s call, without even knowing what he would be asked to do.  It is a statement of absolute readiness to act on behalf of another.

With the second Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of his son, “Avi – My father” as they walk up the mountain together.  It is the response of one who is present for another, even in times of great stress and difficulty.  Abraham does not reveal the potential horrors of what lies ahead, concerned here only for his son.

With the third Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of the angel stopping him from committing the unthinkable. So intent is Abraham on fulfilling his understanding of God’s word that the angel must call out to him twice, “Avraham, Avraham!” Here, Hineini is the response of one awakening to the reality of what he is about to do.  It is the response of one who is trying to be fully present in two roles:  Abraham, the believer, present to God, while at the same time to be Abraham, the father, present to his son, Isaac.

In his study of the meaning of Hineini, Dr. Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at HUC-JIR, concludes: “Hineini, in part, has to do with sacrificing for the other, and every time it appears it forces us to consider the nature of our relationships.”[1]  He posits three primary meanings to the response Hineini:  one; it indicates an ability to be present for and receptive to others; two, it indicates a readiness to act on behalf of others; and, three, it indicates a willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher.

During these Yamim Noraim, as we reflect on our lives and consider where we have missed the mark, most of us, I’m sure, think first and foremost about the various relationships in our lives and where, too often, we feel that we may have fallen short of our best.  We strive to say Hineini, “I’m here for you” with full integrity in all of our relationships but we know how challenging that can be, even in the best of circumstances.  Life’s demands pull us in so many directions. What family with working parents doesn’t struggle to achieve that ever-elusive work life balance?  The normal ups and down of family dynamics test us at different points in our lives, in some painful cases to an extreme.  We want to be present but the other person isn’t ready or able to let us in; or, we don’t yet know how to be present in a way that they need.  We try to be there for our friends, but we can get so caught up in our lives, that we sometimes lose track of what is going on with others.

As a community, this congregation tries very hard to say Hineini to its members.  Through organized efforts such as the Reyut and Nachamu committees, we have set up structures to support one another through times of illness and loss.  Each Shabbat we share birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal simchas, creating an opportunity to connect and share in one another’s joys as well.  In the small gatherings that were held this summer and through numerous conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve heard very powerful stories from those for whom this community has truly become their “family” and about how this congregation has supported them through the most painful of times.  Of course, no one and no institution is perfect; surely, we have missed the mark at times and for this I would apologize to those who may have been hurt as we try to learn from past mistakes.  I would encourage those who remain on the periphery to become more engaged in the life of the congregation that you might benefit from the full sense of community that this congregation that strives to say Hineini to its members can offer to you.

This morning I want to focus on a particular challenge that we are facing in saying Hineini to one another that is impacting the nation as a whole, religious communities, our relationships at work and even our families.  I’m speaking of the ever-widening political divide in this country where people are less and less able to respond “hineini” – I can listen and be here for you – to those across the divide; in a growing number of cases, it seems, people cannot respond to one another at all.  This gap is eroding our society as a whole, leading to escalating negative attacks on one another, to dysfunctional government, and to divided communities, destroyed friendships and broken families.

An article in the New York Times from just a few weeks ago described some of these situations: “A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.”

We know that concerns about “the great American divide” are not new to this unique time period in American history.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are at one of our lower points in national discourse and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.

Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show a widening and toxic political gap.  A Pew Study from last summer noted that since the Trump presidency, the partisan gap has surpassed earlier record levels reached during the Obama presidency.  Partyism is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party evokes feelings of not just frustration, but of fear and anger. Most politically engaged on either side see those in the other party as not just wrong, but “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” [2]

The pollster Frank Luntz recently commissioned a survey on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one result especially troubling: nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.

One organization on the front lines of trying to counter these trends is The National Institute for

Civil Discourse, a non-partisan center based at the University of Arizona’s School of Social and

Behavioral Sciences, founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The Institute provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements with civility and respect.    Reflecting on the 2012 presidential election, Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process… [t]hen 2016 rolls around … This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces… It really is a virus.”[3]

Religious communities are not immune to this divide and these feelings.  Rare is the synagogue whose very identity is defined by being either left or right, blue or red.  Most of us are various shades of purple.  Certainly, Reform congregations such as ours have become more diverse politically over the years and while we accept diversity in religious practices, it is much more challenging when it comes to political points of view.

For some the answer is to avoid the challenging issues altogether, to keep the synagogue as a sanctuary, a safe space away from anything that might hint of controversy.  I agree that the synagogue should be a sanctuary and a safe space, but not as an escape from the outside world.  Judaism has taught us the opposite, as we learn in the Talmud: “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[4] We pray with windows so that our gaze can be towards the heavens, but so, too, do windows bring the outside world in; we cannot avoid it.  In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read on Yom Kippur known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 19, reminds us that we strive for holiness in our relationships with one another by being fair in our business practices, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, by not dealing deceitfully with one another, by being responsible for one another, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  If we do not address how we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, in a way that invites everyone into the conversation, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.  Our faith provides our moorings, our moral grounding in a world that is more and more unmoored.  Judaism can help us to navigate these very rough waters.

We, too, have a long history of communal divisions.  You see, even as Judaism and Jewish law developed, it was never monolithic as we might imagine it to have been.  There were always multiple houses of study led by different rabbinic scholars who reached different conclusions regarding questions of Jewish practice.  Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, we find records of debates between rabbis followed by the statement:  and the halakhah (the law) is according to Rabbi Ploni.  If the law is according to one interpretation, why record the minority opinions at all?  Because they still had a place within the Jewish community and, therefore, within the records.

Among the most famous pairs of rabbis in the time of the Mishnah was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, each the head of a different school.  They disagreed about practically everything and rare was the time that a ruling was according to Shammai.  Still, they had respect for one another as is recorded in the Talmud:

…for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halachah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the halachah is in agreement with our views.” Then a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed,“both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”  Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs.[5]

Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that even though they disagreed with each other’s rulings and had different interpretations for some Jewish practices:

The School of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “you must love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)[6]

Sadly, too many within the Jewish world today are not following these ancient practices!

The following teaching from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the most beloved and influential of the 18th century Chassidic masters, can be a guide for us today:

The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.[7]

It is my fervent prayer that as a nation we can find ways to achieve some harmony, to bridge the divide that is tearing us apart, so that we can bring out the best in one another as opposed to the worst.  So, too, do I pray that if you find yourself in a similar situation to the respondents in the survey who have lost friendships or who aren’t speaking to relatives because of this political divide, that you can find a way to reach out and rebuild those fractured relationships for the greater whole that is shalom.

My concern this morning is about us, Vassar Temple.  How do we as a congregation build upon the strong foundation of community that exists here to bridge some of that divide, lest we will either move closer to irrelevance, unable to discuss or act on many issues of concern, or we will create an atmosphere where some people may no longer feel welcome in their own spiritual home.   I know that these are stark choices and I’m not saying that this is where we are, but I fear that this is where we will be heading if we do not find a way to become a true sanctuary, a sacred space where we can say Hineini to one another, that we can talk about difficult issues even when we disagree, and that we can find common ground upon which we can act to live out the values and teachings of our faith.

First, we need to try to be able to talk to one another and to understand one another.  I have found the work of a social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haight, and a sociologist, Dr. Arlie Hochschield, most enlightening in trying to understand some of what is behind the current political divide.

In his groundbreaking research, Haight explores the processes by which we make moral judgments, fundamental decisions that shape our view of the world.   We actually use two different processes of cognition:  intuition and reasoning; and, while we might like to think that we use our powers of reason and intellect to make such decisions, Haight discovered that, in fact, it is our emotions that guide us in making quick, instinctive moral judgments.  Our powers of reason only come into play once we have already made our decision to justify them afterwards.  He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe how the mind functions here.  The rider represents the controlled process, such as reasoning and intellect; the elephant represents

the automatic processes, such as emotion and intuition.  (Yes, I said an elephant.  Haight explains that he chose the elephant over the horse because elephants are bigger and smarter, a better representation of the strength of the automatic processes that run human minds.)  Though the name, rider, might imply other, the rider does not control the elephant; rather, it is the elephant who controls the rider.   The rider is really just the spokesperson for the elephant, finding justifications for what the elephant has done or will do next.  Haight gives an example from his own life of a time when his wife complained that he had left dirty dishes on the counter that morning, something she has asked him not to do numerous times before.   Haight, who believes that lying is wrong and often chastises his wife for exaggerating in her stories, finds himself coming up with a very reasonable explanation for having done so, except that it is all a lie.  He later realizes that because he doesn’t like to be criticized as soon as he heard the criticism coming, his inner elephant started to react by claiming innocence and then the rider jumped in with all kinds of justifications that sounded reasonable, though not true.

In his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haight applies this process of reasoning to the divisions we see in our society today.  If we are going to understand people across the political divide or have any hopes of changing someone’s mind on an issue, we need to better understand the forces behind their intuitive responses to reaching their decisions or in Haight’s terminology, “[we]’ve got to talk to their elephants.”[8]

Haight references Henry Ford who taught, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”[9]  So, too, does this apply to conversations on moral or political issues. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s angle as well as our own.  Haight concludes, “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response.  Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”[10]  Difficult, but not impossible.  “When does the elephant list to reason?” asks Haight, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.  We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.  When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight…The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objection from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants… or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants…”[11]

In other words, we need to get out of our echo chambers, not only by reading other opinion pieces or seeking out news from other sources, but most productively by trying to get to know people who are across the divide – and not on the other side of an argument, but by getting to know them as people first, getting to know their elephants.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschield does just this in her book, Stranger in Their Own Land.

Hochschield, an admittedly political liberal from the very blue city of Berkeley, CA, had been watching the growing political divide for some years when she concluded that she could not understand those on the other side of the divide from a distance; she needed to get to know the people who were completely dumbfounding her.  She decided to focus on one issue, the environment, and in one area, in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In the course of five years of research and ten trips to the area, Hochshield spent time in deep conversation in people’s homes and work places where they spoke openly and shared their stories.  “As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right –that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.  To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.”[12]

Referring to one of the first women in Louisiana who opened her home and her life story to her, Hochshield wrote “…it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined.  It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.  We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”[13]

Hochshield’s book is a powerful one and one I highly recommend.  It certainly opened my mind to understanding some people who are across the political divide from me and how neglected and lost they had felt from the political leadership of our country for so many years.

If we can create opportunities for real dialogue here, not with the goal of changing people’s minds, but simply to begin to understand why they think the way they do, we, too, can build empathy bridges, as we may then open our minds to some of the concerns of the “other” in a new way.  We can say Hineini.  We can say I disagree with you, but I now understand you.  Such conversations will strengthen us as a community and may lead us to find Bratslav’s harmony between opposites.  In doing so, perhaps we will also discover more ways to join hands and take action on issues of common concern to better our community, our country and our world.  I invite you to join with me in envisioning what might be small group conversations where we really listen to one another in a safe environment where we can speak freely and openly, without critique.  If you would like to partner with me in this venture or participate in such conversations, please let me know.

Just over a week ago our nation paid homage to Sen. John McCain, an elder statesman who spoke the language of Hineini (even if he didn’t actually know the word!)    First and foremost, he lived Hineini through his life of sacrifice for this nation, through both his military service and his political leadership.  He lived Hineini by doing what he believed was right, even going against his own political party to do so.  He lived Hineini when he defended his political opponent against racist charges because it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the most expedient for his campaign.   He lived Hineini when he admitted his mistakes.  Personally, I disagreed with John McCain on many issues, but I have the greatest respect for him as a man of integrity and decency who was willing to put aside differences and reach across the aisle for the sake of what he believed was better for our nation.  His choreography of his own funeral was his final testament that a different form of political discourse is possible and preferable for the wellbeing of our country.  May he inspire other leaders to pursue that better path.  May he inspire us to respond to opportunities for service, to be willing to sacrifice – – even on a much lesser scale – for the good of others, to act on behalf of causes we believe are important, to reach across the divide and say Hineini.

The final three Hineini’s in the Bible are not uttered by any person; they are words of promise from God spoken through the prophet Isaiah.  Hineini is God’s promise to the Israelites of the ultimate redemption that will come when they change their selfish and hypocritical ways.  We will read one such passage on Yom Kippur morning, where Isaiah reminds us of the nature of the fast that God desires  – that when we fast we will also share our bread with the hungry, that we will reach out to those in need, that we will be willing to sacrifice for others, that we will no longer act in ways that exile us from one another.  When we can truly say Hineini, I am here for you, then our redemption will be at hand and then the promise of Isaiah will be fulfilled and God will respond to us, Hineini, Here I am.

Rabbi Renni Altman


Cohen, Dr. Norman J., Hineini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003),

Haight, Jonathan The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2017)

Hochshield, Arlie Russell Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Peters, In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite:  Political Anger (New York Times, August 17, 2018)

Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[1] Dr. Norman. J. Cohen, HIneini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003), p. 4

[2] Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[3] Ibid

[4] BT Berakhot 34b

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b

[7] Likkutei Etzot, Shalom, #10

[8] Jonathan Haight, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 57

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 58

[11] Ibid., p. 80-81

[12] Arlie Russell Hochshield, Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right, p. ix

[13] Ibid., p. xi

“A Time for Turning”, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018 sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“A Time for Turning”
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn… It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy… It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways. Adonai, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, Adonai our God, and bring us back to You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, Adonai our God, for in isolation there is no life.”

This prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer captures so beautifully the essence of these Days of Awe.  Indeed, this is the season of turning.  Each year at this time, Jews all over the world pause for ten days of self-examination, of Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls to determine what it is that we need to change as part of our process of Teshuvah — return.  We seek to return towards our highest selves, to return towards one another and, in doing so, we return to God.   Turning implies making a change, moving away from a direction in which we were heading towards a more positive behavior and, with that, we hope, to fulfilling a better vision of ourselves and our world.

There is a Hassidic story about a rabbi who asked his teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kossov, why the Messiah had not come and why the promises of redemption remained unfulfilled.   Rabbi Mendel answered: “It is written: “Why has the Messiah not come either today or yesterday?”  The answer lies in the question itself: “Why has he not come?”  Because we are today just as we were yesterday.  As Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner note in their commentary on this story “the hidden implication in Rabbi Mendel’s remarks [is] that change is vital, even though you may be uncertain as to where you are going.  Change shakes up old habits and routines and opens up new vistas… As long as there is change there is hope for transformation, and as long as there is transformation there is a possibility for the greatest transformation of all”[1] – through our actions we can transform the world and bring about the coming of the Messiah (or a Messianic age).

With all of the potential that lies within change why is it so difficult for us?   The idea of change is often so overwhelming that we remain paralyzed in unhealthy patterns, rather than take the steps necessary to improve our lives and our relationships.  Here we are again, back at Rosh Hashanah, talking, praying and thinking about teshvuah, promising ourselves that we will really, really try to change this year.   Perhaps we have tried before, but maybe we didn’t do it quite right and things backfired and now we feel like more of a failure than before.  Perhaps we tried, but others wouldn’t really let us change; or, perhaps, it was just too hard and it was taking too long to see a difference, so we gave up.  Now we can’t bear trying to climb that mountain again.

Dr. William Bridges, author and lecturer in the field of transitional management and change, offers an approach to change that might help us move forward and achieve greater success.    He draws a distinction between change and transition.  Change is the desired outcome; but it cannot happen without transition as the process we undergo to get us there.

“Change is situational,” he teaches. “Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  This three-phase process – ending, neutral zone, beginning again – is transition.”[2]

Successful changes emerge out of an intentional process of transition.  The first step is recognizing, in Bridge’s words, that “every transition begins with an ending.”   That ending, even when desired and ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.

We can see this most clearly in changes that occur when we move from one stage of life to another:

A couple is about to become parents; it is the fulfillment of their dreams.  As excited as they are, they are surprised by feelings of sadness, as they will miss the freedoms and spontaneity that they have enjoyed until now.

At a dinner honoring him upon his retirement after 30 years of devoted and exemplary service and leadership as a teacher and later principal, instead of the joy he had anticipated when thinking about this next chapter in his life, a man feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as he looks out at his teachers and former students.  What will his purpose be now, he wonders?

Proud to launch their youngest child off to college, a couple re-enters their home, now an empty nest.  They have successfully reached a major milestone in their role as parents; they had looked forward with great anticipation to this time of renewal in their marriage.  Still they will miss the regular presence of their children in their lives and the feeling of being needed on a daily basis.

We can also experience a sense of loss when we consciously choose to make a change in our lives that will ultimately be an improvement for ourselves and our loved ones:

A woman leaves a job she has outgrown for a position in a different company that offers greater leadership and responsibility.  She looks forward to the new challenges; it’s the next step in a professional path she had envisioned for herself.   Still, she will miss her former colleagues and the stability and safety of that routine.

A nicotine patch helps a young man move beyond the physical addiction of smoking and enables him to move forward in the healthy choice he has made of quitting, but it doesn’t address his longing for the way smoking cigarettes helped him relax during his hectic days.

A brother reaches out to his sister after not speaking for many years.  Their lives have taken different paths; they hardly know one another or their families.  A disagreement over inheritance separated them; now their parents have been gone for more than a decade.  He finally decides that too much time has passed and too much has already been lost; he looks forward to this opportunity to rebuild their broken relationship.  Still, he has to let go of his need to be right at all costs; not an easy thing for him to do.

Changing – whether it means moving from one stage of life to another, kicking a bad habit or just admitting that you were wrong, means letting go of some part of our past.

Too often we deny the reality of that loss and any emotional toll it may take upon us.  Without recognizing the sense of loss we may be experiencing, however, we will end up carrying that unfinished business with us, a burden that will hamper our ability to achieve the change we seek, perhaps fulfilling our deepest fears that we couldn’t really change anyway.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves the time and space to accept and grieve for those losses, we can see beyond those painful moments with hope towards the future, buoyed by the knowledge that “every transition is an ending that prepares the ground for new growth and new activities.”[3]  We can now enter what Bridges calls the most important element in the process of transition, the “neutral zone” -– the in between space between endings and new beginnings.  It’s the space where we still feel the loss of the old, but we haven’t yet experienced the benefits of the new; we’ve broken away from the past but haven’t quite settled into the new present.  All that we imagined with this great opportunity seems so far off.  We may even begin to question:  was this the right move?

“The neutral zone is… both a dangerous and an opportune place..,” teaches Bridges. “It is the time when repatterning takes place:  old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones … It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal.  It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.  It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.  It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.[4]

The neutral zone – it is both dark and frightening and bright with potential at the same time.  Our society, by and large, does not allow for time in the neutral zone.  Where time is money, there is little value placed on stopping to reflect, to consider, to dwell in one’s thoughts.

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, learned the hard way about the need for a neutral zone when making a significant change.  While the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds provided a dramatic end to slavery in Egypt, those miracles could not transform the Israelites into a free people.  Moses learned this lesson all too quickly from the moment the Israelites crossed the sea and began complaining about the bitterness of the water, when they then lost faith in God and in Moses and turned to a Golden Calf right after the experience of Sinai, and, ultimately, when they preferred returning to Egypt rather than seize the opportunity and challenge of entering the Promised Land.  They needed the 40 years in the midbar, in the barren wilderness, to successfully transition from a generation of slaves to a generation ready to embrace freedom.

Wilderness is an apt metaphor for being in the midst of change.  Times of transition can be frightening, filled with uncertainty; but at the same time, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities that this open space can provide, they have the potential for creativity, growth, and redefinition of self.    When we allow ourselves the time and space for real transformation to take place, we can then reach a new beginning and experience real change.

These Yamim Noraim are an annual taste of being in the neutral zone, entering the midbar, as we pause to reflect, take stock of our lives, and repurpose ourselves for the year ahead.   I encourage you to find ways to return to the midbar in the course of this year.  Seek out opportunities to reflect upon the transitions that you are in – some may find that space in prayer, others in long morning walks, or therapy, or taking a weekend away — by yourself.  Seek out any opportunity that will enable you to better recognize the losses you may have experienced with an ending, to reflect deeply about what you need to do to heal, and to find ways to move forward by setting goals for yourself and adjusting to the new ways of an anticipated change.

Endings, neutral zone, new beginnings — this understanding of transition that has the potential to be so helpful in addressing the changes we want to make in our lives, can also guide us through the most painful changes we encounter, those changes that happen to us that are out of our control.  We are reminded of such changes during these Days of the Awe through the haunting and powerful Unetonatokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by sword and who by beast.

 Why by hunger and who by thirst…  Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

So many changes in our lives – for the good and the bad – can happen to us out of nowhere. An investment long ago forgotten suddenly brings in huge dividends and you find yourself with an unanticipated nest egg.  You take a trip on a whim and fall in love with the stranger you meet across the dinner table. A doctor’s visit leads to a diagnosis of cancer and your world is upended.  A loved one is in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life is changed forever.

While we do all that we can to make the best choices and plan our lives, the

Unetantokef reminds us that all is not in our control.  The actions of others, random acts of nature and chance, can bring upheaval and tremendous loss.  Change, welcome or not, does sometime happen to us.  We cannot prevent or control those changes; we can only mold their effect on our lives by how we respond to them.

U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezera
But repentance, prayer and acts of justice, temper the severity of the decree.

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah – while these actions cannot change the course of events, past or future, they can be the tools by which we alter our experience of those events and help us move through the transition process to find a new beginning.

A colleague of mine shared with me the following parable about twins in the womb.  The whole world, to these two siblings is the interior of the womb.  They can conceive of nothing else.  Somehow, they realize that life, as they know it, is coming to an end.  What will happen to them?  One of the twins is a true optimist, embracing change and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth and development.  “Just think of the new opportunities that will present themselves,” says the optimistic twin. “We will have the opportunity to try new things, to do things another way.  Sure, it may not always work out perfectly, and some things will certainly be different, but what a great time it can be!”

The second twin is far more skeptical.  He fears change; change upsets the apple cart, turning the world, as we know it, upside down, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.  “How can you talk about opportunities?” says the skeptic.  “There is no future, and even if there is to be a new future, it will be so different that we won’t be able to survive.  Our world, as we know it, is finished.  The future is grim.”

Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts, and the ever-optimistic sibling tears

himself away.  Startled, the skeptic shrieks, bemoaning the tragedy.  Sitting in his morose state, he hears cries from the other side of the black abyss.  “Just as I thought, all is lost.  There is no future.  What was, is no more.  It is time to just call it quits, rather than face the other side.”

But what the skeptic doesn’t realize is that as he is bemoaning the loss of the world as he knows it, his brother sits on the other side, taking a breath of fresh air, hearing sounds that he has never heard before, already feeling his limbs stretching out beyond their previous boundaries.5

Just as individuals go through periods of change and upheaval, and can respond in different ways, so, too, do institutions and organizations.  Vassar Temple is no exception.   I am so proud and excited to be the newest rabbi in Vassar Temple’s very proud 170 year old history.  The fact that I am the 30th rabbi in 170 years means that this congregation has been through rabbinic transition before.  Certainly in more recent history this congregation has been blessed by the stability of strong rabbinic leadership with your wonderful rabbis emeritus, Stephen Arnold and Paul Golomb.  One can hardly go through a day without a mention of their names and their presence being felt (and I say that in the most positive way).  What a blessing for this community!  I’m sure that for many of you, starting again with a new rabbi is a challenge, especially in what feels like a relatively short amount of time since your last rabbinic transition.  Yes, relationships take time to cultivate and nurture and I look forward to building them here with you.

I understand well the angst of transition for this time is one of great transition for my family and me as well.  I am transitioning back into the congregational rabbinate after a decade in organizational life.  I took Bridge’s teachings to heart and spent significant time and energy this past year addressing many of the issues around endings as I prepared to leave HUC-JIR.  My husband and I will be uprooting ourselves from the community in which we have lived for 25 years.  First, we will literally dwell in the neutral zone, between an apt in Poughkeepsie and our home in Great Neck as we settle in and get to know the area.

Arriving in Poughkeepsie just under two months ago, I am now fully in Bridge’s neutral zone at Vassar Temple as well, taking this time to learn about this congregation and you, its members.  My friends, I invite you to join me in this midbar; let us maximize our time in this transitional stage as we get to know one another this year; let us explore together just who Vassar Temple is today and formulate our vision for tomorrow.  Let us take this time to plant seeds of growth and creativity for the future.


5 Rabbi Jan Offel, “Changes,” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006,Temple Kol Tikvah, Tarzana, CA


We began one aspect of this transition process this summer in small group meetings, called “At home with Rabbi Altman” (my sincere thanks to the gracious hosts who have literally opened their homes for these gatherings).  There will be more such gatherings in the coming months and I urge everyone to attend one.  I also invite you to contact me for individual meetings whether to talk about more private things or just to get to know one another better.  I invite you to share your needs, your ideas, your dreams for this congregation and what you would hope for in this new chapter of rabbinic leadership.

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter…” So, too, may we come to see change as a positive part of the natural order of the universe.  May we learn to embrace the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth and renewal.  In that process may we experience teshvuah.   Help us, O God, as we strive to return to You.  Strengthen us, Adonai, as individuals and as part of this sacred congregation for a year of transformation that leads to change; a year of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Renni Altman

[1] Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, pg. 366

[2] The Way of Transition, p. 2

[3] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, p. 42

[4] Managing Transitions, p.9

Cantor Laura Stein thanks Vassar Temple

By Laura Stein, Friday June 22, 2018

I wanted to be a cantor my whole life. After I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah and chanted Torah for the first time, I was hooked. In high school, I interned at my home synagogue, attended the URJ’s Kutz Camp to learn guitar and songleading, and started serious vocal training – all in anticipation of one day attending cantorial school. Would you believe that I even wrote my college entrance essay – early admission to Washington University in St. Louis – on my dream of becoming a cantor and on how their liberal arts curriculum would help me get there? And it worked! They let me in and then I spent four years studying Spanish literature…

All joking aside, arriving at my cantorial ordination was a lifelong dream. And yet, it posed challenges I hadn’t accounted for. During my second year of cantorial school at HUC, I was unhappier than I had ever been before. I was working at a pulpit in the Northeast where I didn’t feel particularly appreciated or utilized, and hadn’t found a mentor in any of my co-clergy. Congregational life was unconvincing. During the week in my classes, I felt unstimulated and disconnected from the teachers and their values. Academically, I found cantorial school to be pretty lackluster. Was this what cantorial life was like? This wasn’t what I had envisioned. And so, like I had before, I followed my heart, took a big leap, and asked those around me to trust and support what I was about to do. I walked just four blocks over to NYU and handed in an application for social work school, the addition to my career I felt I needed. On the walk back to HUC from the NYU admissions office, I called my parents and told them what I had done. Their response was “wait. Did we agree to pay for that?!” I said, “I don’t care what you do. I have to go.”

I simultaneously quit my Northeast pulpit for the following year and got accepted to NYU for an MSW. That following year, my 3rd year of school, was now filled with a lot of social sciences classes and no connection to pulpit life. To say that I was a bit shell shocked would be an understatement. I was so lost that year, more lost than I wanted to admit. I wasn’t “Cantorial Intern Laura Stein” at any synagogue. I mean, I didn’t want to be and…now I wasn’t. So shouldn’t I have been happier?

Then an email arrived. It was May, the end of my 3rd year of school – a year during which I felt suspended in mid-air somewhere between the identity of a cantor and the identity of a social worker. HUC’s student placement director emailed the entire cantorial school asking if anyone wanted to make the trip up to Poughkeepsie five times the next year. It wasn’t a formal internship, she said, just a way to introduce HUC life to the congregation and show them what a cantorial intern or a cantor could bring. I responded hesitantly. “You don’t like congregational life, remember?” I told myself as I sent the email. “You want to be a social worker who just sings sometimes, remember?” I sent the email anyway. Something pulled me toward Vassar.

And so, I came last year five times, as I was contracted to do. It was supposed to be a short stint – just a way to show the congregation what an HUC student could do, and try to sell cantorial music and the value of having a cantor. And yet – it wasn’t a short stint. That email that I responded to oh-so-hesitantly changed my life.

I said this to Rabbi Berkowitz on the phone the other day – that this internship changed my professional trajectory – and she said, “Wait, really? I didn’t know that!” I don’t think I’ve shared that with the congregation, since my job doesn’t include much speaking from the bimah. So let me take this time to tell you: This congregation is the home I had been looking for during my five years at HUC. Leah – you are the mentor I had been waiting for during my five years at HUC. Joe – you are the musical partner I was waiting for during my five years at HUC. And you: the congregants. All of you were the voices I had been waiting for. The people who’d sing back when I said “now your turn!” The people who’d watch my recital online and support me as I finished my graduate school journey.

I want to thank the music committee, the ritual committee and all of the people who brought me into the Vassar Temple family and made it possible for me to find home among you. I want to thank all of you who have invited me into your prayer life, into your homes, and into your lives in general, so that I could be on your Jewish journeys with you.

It’s hard for me to believe that I was here for two years. After my first pulpit and my first year at NYU, I said I would never find another home. But Vassar found me. I now see myself as a cantor who can work in congregational life. This wonderful community has taught me that integrity can exist in synagogue life and that Judaism is alive and well.

Thank you for everything you have given to me. V’yarechecha – May God Bless all of you.

Cantor Laura Stein

Youth Group Social Action & Birthday Blessing for Rabbi Berkowitz

Written by Nancy Samson:

One of the strongest values of Jewish tradition is gratitude; expressing our thanks and awe to G-d for blessings large and small in our lives. Our very lives are a blessing, and as such,Trim A Thanksgiving at Vassar Temple 2 we have obligation to use our lives for good, for making the world better. Tonight the gorgeous baskets of trimmings donated by Temple members and arranged by our VTRS students honors that commitment. In making these basket, we share a special opportunity to express our thanks, to notice our own blessings, to decidedly act on our ability to move to world, to make a difference in someone’s life, to repair it.

But did you know that engaging in the act of tzedakah like this can also be done in celebration of a birthday?

It’s Rabbi Leah’s Birthday. Rabbi Leah is a present to us, to all of our families and friends at Vassar Temple, to her family and friends outside of the congregation too. She is a blessing to be grateful for. Rabbi Leah comes to us with her own unique gifts like the courage to relocate to a new place, to join and lead in a new spiritual home. She comes have been willing to meet a lot of new people, willing to talk with us, to inspire us, and to share her wisdom and knowledge. Her gifts too include her warmth, enthusiasm, her abiding passion for Judaism, her commitment to spiritual growth, faith and more. Tonight, we have a golden opportunity to recognize the blessing of having Rabbi Leah, and to celebrate her both by engaging the mitzvah of helping to feed others and by letting her know just how grateful we are to have her.YouthGroup@Birthday

A birthday is a wonderful time to recite the following blessing in which we give thanks for having reached this day:

“Zeh hayom atah Adonai, nagilah venism’cha vo” –
This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

It is said that a birthday is a “mini-Rosh Hashanah,” referring to the tradition that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion.

And of course, a birthday is the best time to sing! Happy Birthday Rabbi Leah!

Busy second day at the Biennial

We started today by attending the morning prayer service using Visual T’filah. I wanted to see how they supplemented the information on the screen to make for an engaging service. The service was run by a young (female) Rabbi and (male) Cantor, both with beautiful voices. The Cantor played a guitar during half of the service and a piano during the 2nd half.

Next I attended a session on the “Intentional Interim Rabbi” where I learned about the CCAR training now required of all interim Rabbis, and how the interim rabbi not only helps with transition from the prior rabbi, but also helps the congregation determine the profile for what they’d like in a new Rabbi. Typically hired for a 1 year period, the intentional interim rabbi is typically an empty-nester who likes traveling to different areas, helping congregations in need, and then moving on. It was stressed that the interim year is not a disruption, but is an opportunity for the congregation to reexamine who we are, identify traits that we feel we absolutely require, and help the congregation arrive at consensus. Where there’s conflict, the interim doesn’t take sides … he/she needs to hear from everyone and help all arrive at consensus. It was mentioned that congregations who don’t hire a full rabbi rather than an interim will often take on a second rabbi search within the next year. So planning is very important.

The session on Visual T’filah was particularly enlightening. The temple purchased the CCAR model service based on Mishkan T’filah and we enhanced it to meet our needs. This session focused on how to create new, fresh visuals for services, and create unique services for specific situations, like a Martin Luther King service, or tailoring a Saturday morning service to highlight the interests of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. One of the panel participants was Rabbi Danny Dreskin of Woodlands Community Synagogue in White Plains. Rabbi Dreskin started the Visual service trend and Visual T’filah is used regularly at his temple with very wide acceptance. After speaking with him following the session, he invited us to visit his temple on a night when they’re using Visual T’filah to observe how they conduct the service using this medium.

I also attended a session on Best Practices for fundraising. During this session, issues related to marketing and messaging, running fund development, and running an annual campaign were discussed, as well as how to inspire donors to give. A panel of reform synagogue development professionals offered advice and answered questions. A common theme throughout the entire discussion was the need to make connections with everyone at the temple, to cultivate members, set goals and to get the message out … to always tell our story about what’s involved in running the temple and why additional fundraising is necessary. The role of clergy was also discussed, how clergy relationships with potential donors is very powerful. Build relationships via life events, engage new congregants, and develop appropriate goals on why funding is required, and how the donor will benefit. While I felt many of the suggestions were more appropriate for larger congregations, the basic principles apply regardless of the number of families.

On a side note, I got to meet Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s dad), who was doing a book signing at the URJ Bookstore. Rabbi Hoffman’s wife was there as well. They are both looking forward to visiting Vassar Temple for the Shabbaton in the Spring, to see the temple that Joel has been raving about!

This evening’s Plenary session will feature Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President and other speakers, followed by music entertainment featuring Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols.

Bob Abrams

First day at the Biennial

First day at the Biennial is off to a great start. Our flights (LGA to Dallas, then to San Diego) were smooth and we got to our destination close to on schedule. And our bags got to our destination as well … yay! Many thanks to Mary Ritter for driving us to LaGuardia Airport very early in the morning for our 6am flight!

After checking into the hotel we headed over to the huge convention center to check in and get our bags with the program and other handy info. We located the Kikar, which is the “central square” with the URJ Book store and a stage featuring Jewish music artists much of the afternoon. I spent much of the afternoon at a program for temple presidents, where I met up with several fellow presidents who I met at the Scheidt Seminar last year. I got there too late to hear Ron Wolfson talk about Synagogue 3000, but was fortunate to attend There were two great speakers: Rabbi Sam Joseph and Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s father).

Rabbi Joseph’s topic was on the need to establish relationships as part of creating community. He stressed that the Board needs social settings (away from the Temple) to help create and enhance relationships, something that cannot be done at the Board meeting around a large table. He then took the group through a self-survey of leadership orientations that expressed the importance of considering 4 major leadership styles among the Board and its leaders: structural, human resources, Political and Symbolic leaders. It’s a good exercise that I’ll try to do with the Board. During the discussion I found out about a good way to engage families with younger kids is a “Pajama Havdalah”, with activities for the little ones. Rabbi Hoffman talked about the need to “think differently”, establishing the true values of the congregation (look beyond being a welcoming temple) and crafting our messages to focus on the values that matter. He also offered some useful tools for determining the culture of the temple, such as level of trust, purpose of programming, whether congregants are consumers vs. partners, and other aspects. Rabbi Hoffman received an award for his long-time contributions on the Synagogue 2000 and 3000 initiatives.

The first Plenary session was kicked off by very funny comedian, Joel Chasnoff. Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the Biennial via pre-recorded video, introduced by Rabbi David Saperstein. VP Biden was recognized for his work on social justice issues, stopping gun violence, rights for disabled Americans, and national security for the US & Israel, including elimination of Iran’s nuclear program. Later in the evening was a wonderful concert by Jewish musicians Julie Silver and Michelle Citrin!

Bob Abrams