Friday, February 15, 2019

USCJ Immediate Past President Interviewed in the Atlanta Jewish Times

Margo Gold, USCJ's immediate past International President, was interviewed in her local Jewish paper. As she put it, serving as USCJ president "was pretty much a four-year full-time volunteer job!"

Thank you for your service, Margo!

Read the full Q&A in The Atlanta Jewish Times.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Tetsaveh


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Tetsaveh February 16, 2019 I 11 Adar I 5779
Annual | Exodus 27:20-30:10 (Etz Hayim p. 503-518; Hertz p. 339-349)
Triennial | Exodus 29:19-30:10 (Etz Hayim p. 513-518; Hertz p. 346-349)
Haftarah | Ezekiel 43:10-27 (Etz Hayim p. 1280-1285; Hertz p. 995-998)

D’var Torah: On Your Heart
Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz, CY Director of North American Engagement

Following the description of the structure of the Mishkan in Parashat Terumah, our parashah, Tetsaveh, leads off with a description of the Kohel Gadol’s “sacral vestments” - the choshen hamishpat (breastplate of decision), the ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash.

Classical commentators go to great lengths to explain the symbolic meaning of the different elements, but their overall purpose is to elevate the kedusha/holiness of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol. A key aspect of kedusha/holiness is setting something apart - making it distinct and special - so that it prompts greater feelings of carefulness, respect, and honor. Thus the sacral vestments are not only different from regular clothing, but also made with great care out of precious materials to be both beautiful and awe-inspiring.

But there were also specific elements of the sacral vestments that God commanded be included, not because of what they would communicate to the masses, but because of what they would communicate during the intimate moment in the Holy of Holies when the Kohen Gadol communes with God. On his shoulders and on his chest, the Kohen Gadol is instructed to wear precious stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Torah says that two lazuli stones would sit on the shoulder straps of the Kohen Gadol’s ephod, each bearing the name of 6 tribes. Aharon would bear the names “al shtei k’teifav” - on his two shoulders - to be a “remembrance before God.” Similarly, the choshen hamishpat had 12 stones embedded within it, each one bearing the name of a single tribe.

And thus the names of the tribes would also be “al libo” - on Aharon’s heart - “to be at all times a remembrance before God.”

But the text is ambiguous about who these stones are meant to remind. According to Exodus Rabbah 38:8, which Rashi refers to in his commentary, the stones were there to remind God of Israel’s righteousness. The Netziv, however, in his commentary HaEmek Davar, says that they were there so that Aharon would always have Israel in mind during his prayers.

I cannot read about Aharon having the tribes of Israel “on his shoulders” and “on his heart” without being reminded of the second paragraph of the Shema that tells us to “put these words on your heart” and “write them on your doorposts and gates.” Medieval Karaites (a group that broke off from mainstream Judaism) and some modern reformers argued that texts like this are not meant literally - that we err when we affix text-bearing mezuzot to our door-frames or bind text-bearing tefillin to our arms and heads. And it seems obvious that God wants more than just scrolls in magic boxes; God desires that our homes are marked with Torah, that we think about it, talk about, value it, and act on it.

But the p’shat - the simple meaning - here in Tetsaveh is that the Kohen Gadol is to LITERALLY WEAR A TEXT-BEARING RITUAL OBJECT ON HIS BODY. The Torah is clear - values, stories, and concepts are not enough. They are more impactful when they are embodied within ritual objects and practices. And lest we think that rituals and ritual objects like these are only needed for children or the “common folk” - Tetzaveh makes clear that both Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, AND HASHEM need them.

It is with that in mind that the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and Women’s League for Conservative Judaism collaborated this year to promote the “World Wide Wrap” back on Superbowl Sunday. And it makes me proud to work at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and at Camp Ramah, where the communal embodiment of Torah is both taught, valued and lived. Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Tetsaveh Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In this Parasha we receive the instructions for the Kohanim, the priests working in the Mishkan/Tent of Meeting, both their garments and the ceremony to turn them into Kohanim.

1) The people are commanded to bring olive oil to keep the Tent of Meeting lit up from evening until morning (27:20-21). Why do you think that this was not part of the donations that could be made by anyone who felt a desire to contribute?

2) Moshe is told to have special clothing made for Aaron “for glory and for splendor” (28:3). What is the role of the clothing of the Kohen Gadol (high priest)? Who should feel the glory and splendor?

3) On the Choshen, the breast-piece, the names of the tribes are inscribed on precious stones, each one got a different stone. All the stones are listed (28:15-21), but it does not tell us what name was inscribed on each one. Why do you think that 12 different stone are used? Why might we not be told who is inscribed on which stone?

4) The ordinary Kohanim also had garments made for them; a coat, a sash, a head covering and breeches (28:40-42). Nothing elaborate or outstanding is recording about these garments, yet the Torah defines them, as well, as being “for glory and for splendor”. How do you understand that in relation to the (relatively) simple garments of the regular Kohanim?

The instructions for the ceremony of consecrating Aaron and his sons as Kohanim include, early in the process, washing them in water and dressing them in the garments (29:4-9). Can you think of other situations in which water (perhaps a mikvah) and or clothing are used to mark the change of a person’s status?

D’var Haftarah: Guilt & Hope

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Ezekiel was a prophet who was already exiled in Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. Many of his prophecies are attempts to put the tragedies of his people into a theological perspective that would allow them to understand their circumstances, carry on with their lives, and hope and prepare for redemption. In addition, his later prophecies focus on plans for the rebuilding of the Temple and the rites which will take place there. This week’s haftarah ties together these two themes: “[Now] you, O mortal, describe the Temple to the House of Israel, and let them measure its design. But let them be ashamed of their iniquities: When they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the plan of the Temple…” (43:10-11)

A message which combines both hope for the future with shame and guilt over the past seems a bit odd (or, some might say, quintessentially Jewish). Rabbi David Kimche (12-13th century Provence) explains the historical context of Ezekiel’s charge, helping to put it into perspective: “The House of Israel [refers to] the exiles: Tell them that on their account the Temple was destroyed and also tell them that the future Temple will never be destroyed, since they will not sin…”

According to Kimche, Ezekiel’s aim in joining hope and guilt was to create a situation where a constructive future might be possible. Without recognition of the negative forces which brought about the people’s tragedy and the role of the nation itself in its own fate, there would be no means for correction and consequently no future to look forward to.

Ezekiel’s lesson is a hard one to hear and an even more difficult one to abide by. No one likes having their faults put on display, let alone being made aware that it was their wrongdoing which put them in their current circumstances. And when one does hear that message, it can often lead to an overwhelming feeling of guilt and lowness that negates the possibility that one might ever be better, and therefore removes the motivation to correct one’s mistakes.

Still, all said, Ezekiel’s message is worth heeding both on the national level as well as on the personal. Positive guilt - otherwise known as taking responsibility - is the only secure ground on which to build hope in a better future.

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Friday, February 8, 2019

What Synagogue Leaders Can Learn from Yitro

I have always been fascinated by characters in the Torah and the leadership lessons we can learn from them. Many of the most prominent personalities such as Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Jacob get much of the attention. However, I have always been very interested in Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, the high priest of Midian who brings Moses’s family to the Jewish camp in the desert after the crossing of the sea and the battle with Amalek (maybe my interest was initially piqued because Yitro was the name of my Bar Mitzvah portion). In one section, Yitro observes Moses spending day and night judging the people. He becomes very concerned and shares his concerns with his son-in-law. What ensues is a fascinating interaction which gives us several wonderful lessons for synagogue and nonprofit leaders. Below is the text of the interaction (italics), followed by my interpretations.

Read more in eJewishPhilanthropy

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Prioritizing Inclusion Across All Faiths

"As secular and religious leaders from different faiths, we believe we should cast our keenest eye toward our own homes – our houses of worship, religious schools, and community organizations. While religious institutions are exempt from many provisions of The American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which took effect on January 26, 1992, we believe that these organizations must follow a greater morality than government statute to include all members of their communities. Faith-based communities should exceed their legal obligations under the ADA to meet a higher standard because our values compel us to so."

Read more on eJewishPhilanthropy

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Afikomen Postcard Project: A Case Study of Teen Engagement and Staff Collaboration

The way to children’s hearts is through their stomachs. That’s what staff at Temple Beth-El in Rochester, New York realized as they were brainstorming ideas for teen engagement. After a community-wide meeting about the topic, Rabbi Leonardo Bitran returned to his synagogue eager to collaborate with his team and come up with a creative engagement strategy.

After he spoke individually with the synagogue’s executive director and its religious school director, the need for teen engagement was brought to a weekly professional staff meeting for further discussion. The staff reached a consensus that they wanted to let teens know that Beth El was thinking about them, to open a line of communication with them and to inspire positive awareness about the congregation through a short-term project while staff members developed other programming and a deeper personal connection with their teens. The team decided the outreach would be in the form of a postcard, a nice change of pace for teens that primarily communicate through texting and digital messaging

With Passover was coming up, the synagogue’s Marketing and Program Coordinator, Jessie Atkin, was tasked with developing an afikomen themed card. The synagogue collaborated with a local kosher bakery to create a postcard that read, “You’ve found the afikomen! Good for two brownies at Malek’s bakery.” Not only would this let teens know that the synagogue was thinking of them, it would drive families to the only kosher bakery in town.

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TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Terumah


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

February 9, 2019 I 4 Adar I 5779
Annual | Exodus 25:1-27:19 (Etz Hayim p. 485-498; Hertz p. 325-336)
Triennial | Exodus 26:31-27:19 (Etz Hayim p. 495-498; Hertz p. 333-336)
Haftarah | 1 Kings 5:26-6:13 (Etz Hayim p. 499-502; Hertz p. 336-338

D’var Torah: Building Institutions with Joy
Dr. Joshua Kulp, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh HaYeshiva

In this week’s parashah, Terumah, the Israelites in the desert face the challenge of their generation—to build a structure in the desert through which they can meet God. The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, is the first fixed place of Jewish worship and as such, it is the model for everything that comes after. But our parashah is not about what went on in the Mishkan—it is about financing its construction, and this gives us the opportunity to examine a dispute between the commentators as to how this campaign was accomplished and perhaps reflect some on how we finance our own institutions.

The opening verse of the chapter seems to refer to a fully voluntary system; “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept (va-yikḣu) gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The word that is translated as “gifts” is “terumah” and does not necessarily mean a voluntary gift. But the phrase at the end, “every person whose heart so moves him” certainly gives the impression that the material used to build the Mishkan was given voluntarily. Indeed, R. Meir Leibush Weiser (Poland, 1809-1879, known by the acronym “Malbim”) noted two other linguistic features that prove that the donation was voluntary. First of all, the word command is not used here. Second, the word “Me” implies that the gift must be dedicated only with the intention of worshiping God and not for any ulterior motive such as personal honor.

However, the Malbim’s contemporary, R. Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin, (Lithuania, 1817-1893, known by the acronym, Netziv) raised several difficulties on this assumption, some of them practical. What would have happened, the Netziv asks, if the Israelites had not donated material to build the Mishkan? Would there simply not have been a Mishkan? Rabbinic literature rules that members of a town can force one another to pay for the building of a synagogue. All the more so should this be true of the Mishkan, which after all, the Jews were commanded to build (Exodus 25:8). Thus the Netziv would not translate the word va-yikḣu as “accept” but rather as “you (i.e. tax collectors) shall collect.”

However, the problem for the Netziv is the end of the verse—“every person whose heart moves him”—which clearly implies a voluntary donation. The Netziv resolves the problem (his resolution is already echoed in Rashi’s interpretation) that there are multiple collections taken for the Mishkan. There is a mandatory collection which in the Netziv’s mind must have been sufficient. After all, the Mishkan was a necessary institution without which the Israelites could not have maintained their relationship with God. There are two reasons that this donation had to be mandatory. First of all, building essential institutions cannot be left up to the whimsical generosity of the people. Second, mandatory donation implies equal participation—everyone has an equal stake in building the Mishkan.

But necessity and equality are not meant to stamp out the human possibility and desirability of generosity. Encouraging the generous donation of one’s hard-earned resources is beneficial not only for the receiver but also for the donor. I do not get warm fuzzies paying my taxes, even though I know that part of these taxes goes to healing the ill. But ask me to donate money to help kids with Muscular Dystrophy (as I did for my last triathlon) and I will feel happiness and fulfillment every step of the way. The Netziv leaves room in his system for both the mandated base, necessary for institution-building, and the voluntary addition, which brings joy to the hearts of the giver.

Today, in most places, and certainly outside of Israel, Jews cannot be forced to participate in the building of synagogues, or any other Jewish institution. The challenge our generation faces, I think, is to bring ourselves and our communities to the point where we understand that having a strong synagogue is essential for a community. The mitzvah to build strong communal structures must, today, be self-imposed, not all that different than the way we conceive of most mitzvot. And to build a community, both the poor and the rich must participate. Finally, we must recover that sense of joy that our ancestors experienced in voluntarily donating beyond the minimum amount. Like those Jews in the desert, whose resources were surely less than ours, we must become joyous institution builders.

Parashat Terumah Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The story of the Exodus pauses to focus on another story: The building of the Mishkan (literary ‘a dwelling place’) - the Tabernacle. This week we get the initial instructions for making a portable temple.

1) Last week we left Moshe as he ascended Mount Sinai and remained there for 40 days and 40 nights. Now we are reading about the instructions for building the Tabernacle. Why do you think that the Torah placed our Parasha at this juncture?

2) We open with the instruction to the people to ‘take a donation,’ each should give as they wish (25:1-7). Considering the verb used ‘to take a donation’ rather than ‘to give’ one, who do you think this instruction might have been meant for?

3) Moshe is told to make the Mishkan and its furnishings according to how God shows him (25:9). Why do you think that God had to show (visibly) to Moshe what it should look like, rather than just give the production instructions?

4) On top of the Ark, which will contain the Testimony that God will give to Moshe, are 2 cherubs (25:18-22). God tells Moshe that He will meet with him there and speak to him from between the two cherubs. What is the significance of the voice of God coming from that location?

5) The actual Mishkan is made of richly woven fabrics, but the outer layer is made of hides (26:1-14). What would be the logic of that?

D’var Haftarah: Reading In & Reading Out
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The art of interpretation is as much about reading “into” the text as it is about reading “out”. In other words, interpreters tell us as much about themselves as they do about the text they are interpreting. Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, a Talmid Hacham born and bred in Eretz Yisrael at the end of the 19th century and then transplanted to the United States where he served as a rabbi in Hoboken, NJ, is an interesting example of this phenomenon. A thoroughly pious Jew, he was also highly influenced by the intellectual and political environment in America. Some ninety years ago, he wrote a book where he analyzed the “britot” or covenantal treaties found in the Tanakh. Among the treaties he examined was the treaty between King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre. In his analysis, he focused on the unusual way the opening verse of our haftarah describes the relationship between these two kings and how it is reflected in the political interaction between them.

The haftarah opens: “And the Lord had given wisdom to Solomon as He had spoken to him. And there was peace between Hiram and Solomon and the two sealed a pact” (5:26) It was the juxtaposition of these two sentences, one describing Solomon’s divinely granted wisdom and the other concerning the establishment of the covenant between Solomon and Hiram which made a deep impression upon Hirschensohn. From it and its context, he deduced that treaties are formed through the “wisdom” of understanding that common interests and needs can overcome differences and help avoid conflict. In the case at hand, Hirschensohn points out that Hiram and his people were from the seven forbidden Canaanite nations. Nevertheless, Solomon made a treaty with him based on the economic and trade interests of both nations. Similarly, Hirschensohn points out that Solomon showed similar discernment in his judicious restraint in engaging in war, which apparently included some surprising territorial compromises. To Hirschensohn’s thinking, Solomon judiciously avoided capricious geo-political behavior. (Elu Divrei Habrit, pp. 11-113)

In sum, it is clear that Hirschensohn’s worldview was shaped by the pragmatic optimism what was current in America before World War 1. He obviously saw Solomon’s diplomatic behavior through this prism. That textual interpretation can so deeply reflect the interpreter and his or her times should make clear two things: first, that there is no single definitive way to look at the stories in the Tanakh, and second, that there is much to be gained by a wide diversity of individuals, generation after generation, adding their interpretations to the growing body of Torah.

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Israel Perceptions and Mis-percentions: A Conversation with Dr. Stephen Arnoff

A conversation with Dr. Stephen Arnoff, Executive Director of USCJ’s Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center

Q: You were born and raised in the United States. Having lived in Israel now for so many years, what would you say is the most common mis-perception North American Jews have about Israel?

DR. ARNOFF: That Israel is monolithic, that there’s such a thing as “Israel says” any more than there’s such a thing as “Judaism says.” Judaism doesn’t say. There are so many different ways of expressing what Judaism says. It’s not a sentence that makes any sense any more than “Israel is.”

Israel is not monolithic. Like the Jewish community, Israel is full of micro-communities, sociological combinations that couldn’t have been imagined, mixtures of language and culture and influence.

Israel is not just about politics or security. It’s not just about the kinds of images that may be more cliché. It’s about taking a nuanced, more immersive approach. So a person who loves music should engage with Israel deeply through music. Same for someone who loves food or liturgy or art. A person who loves and cares about the environment should come to one of the most innovative, per capita, guardians of the environment anywhere in the world — from the recycling of water and the use of solar energy to the development of all kinds of technologies that influence how sustainable food is grown. If you’re interested in the world, Israel is a wonderful laboratory in which to explore it, through the Israel lens.

Q: Can you say more about the immersive approach and how it informs perception?

DR. ARNOFF: From my perspective, whether it’s something short-term like Birthright Israel or long-term like Nativ or the Conservative Yeshiva, two of our signature programs here at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center (FJC) — it is through the immersive experience that someone experiences community on an intimate scale. Content, whether it’s textual content, Israel experiences or meeting with Israelis — that’s where real engagement happens. And that’s what transforms people’s lives.

Real engagement does not happen on a website, reading the news, making terse comments on social media, or in taking a position and not listening to other positions. Immersion creates a 360-degree experience of the place. And I believe that the more people who can have an immersive experience in Israel, whatever their political or religious perspective, the deeper their connection will be. It will be more nuanced. It will be more complicated. But it will feel like something in a way that a long distance relationship doesn’t.

Q: Aren’t we talking about a small percentage of individuals who have the opportunity to engage in an immersive experience?

DR. ARNOFF: I understand the need for wanting the numbers to get really big, but Judaism has always thrived on communities of a different scale. It has been the network of small communities that has made Judaism big — and resilient. So let’s not be distracted by large numbers of less than deep connection, when Jewish life historically has been defined by a network of small communities with a number of flagship communities.

Whether it’s Baghdad, Jerusalem, Vilna, NY or Los Angeles, there were always flagship communities. But for every New York City, there were hundreds of Poughkeepsies. Who is the rabbi, who is the lay leader, who are the scholars, what good works is that community doing, what’s their relationship with their non-Jewish neighbors — that’s what defines what those small communities give back to the larger network. It’s always been a sense of being greater than one’s self, being part of a covenantal community which is defined globally and a micro-community that is defined locally.

Q: There’s a perception that Israel and the rest of the global Jewish community are drifting apart. Do you feel that’s true?

DR. ARNOFF: Well, I feel that Kentucky and NY are drifting apart, too. What does it mean that they are drifting apart? I could show you Conservative Jewish communities that are fiercely Zionist and they would say, “Drifting apart? We’ve never been closer. We’ve never had more families who go back and forth, who speak Hebrew. We’ve never had more Israelis who choose to live in our communities and then go back to Israel. We’ve never had as many kids who went on a gap-year program.”

So I don’t think that there’s a label that describes every community, and even within a single community, I don’t think there’s a label. And I don’t think it’s useful to disempower people who are deeply Zionist and who are making choices about Israel by saying that they are part of a civilization where things are drifting apart. They’re certainly not drifting apart in my house. And there are a couple hundred thousand other houses where they’re not drifting apart at all. Now maybe there’s hundreds of thousands where they are drifting apart, or maybe they were never really linked in those houses. Or maybe a generation from now they will be.

Q: Speaking of generations, there is also a perception that it’s no longer a given for Jews under the age of 35 to accept and support Israel. Your response?

DR. ARNOFF: Why is it no longer a given for people under the age of 35 to accept anything? Do Protestant or Catholic North Americans accept their Protestant or Catholic church? I don’t think it’s wise to think about Jewish sociology in a vacuum. We need to look at it in context with every other cultural trend. Because the same conversation is happening in faith communities of every kind in North America.

What are the defining cultural tropes of the world right now? It is about the crowd. It is about trend lines that cluster around certain great ideas and certain great innovations. It’s about a free market of ideas counterbalanced against totalitarian regimes. So people under 35 who look at the world and don’t trust the structures of the world, the infrastructure of the world, the systems of the world — and for good reason — don’t trust that in the Jewish realm as well. Any more than they trust the United States government or the media or any other previous given of society.

That being said, Israel is in a uniquely difficult situation in the world. One can point to various forms of Israeli fundamentalism or racism or dysfunction, but one can point to those times a thousand, times a million in its neighbors. And what’s happening around the world, what we clearly see is that even if Israel had created — and some would say it did — a true Garden of Eden, a true light unto the nations, would that make any difference in Europe right now where 90% of Jews say that anti-Semitism is a mortal threat?

Show me a world where Israel behaving in this way or another way would make a true difference in the zeitgeist of anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiment. I would be surprised if you could demonstrate to me, as the claim has been made, that it is Israel’s actions that drive anti-Zionism.

However, at the same time, I would say that there are many things that Israel can, should and must do to make life better for Israelis — Jews and non-Jews — as well as for Arabs. And certainly from our perspective, for non-Orthodox Jews — Conservative and Reform. Israel can, should and must do things differently.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

DR. ARNOFF: Just this: in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites are called a stiff-necked people. And there’s a lot of complaining and kvetching — that’s not attractive. I had a very wise supervisor who once said to me, “If you want the job, start doing it and the title will come. So will the salary.” I feel the same way about Zionism. Find what’s attractive in it. Find what’s exciting about it. Find what’s troubling in it. Live it. Don’t complain. Get to work.

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