Friday, June 24, 2016

Vigil This Saturday

Dear Friends,

It’s easy after a week like this to become anxious and depressed.  The Brexit vote has undermined the unity of Europe, sent the financial world reeling, and injected a sense of uncertainty into the world economy ; the Supreme Court left an Appeals court ruling stand that will undermine the President’s immigration policy and make this fall’s election even more tense; the Democrats in Congress staged a sit-in on the floor of the House to protest the lack of progress on gun control, creating an unprecedented stand-off between the parties; and all this as we still grieve the horrific slaughter of 49 Americans in a terror attack in Orlando.

After such a week it is hard to feel any sense of hope.  And yet hope is what our sacred tradition teaches.    Our Torah says that when the People of Israel were trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh's armies – wracked with fear and trembling  - God reached out and saved us "with a mighty hand and outstretched arm," splitting the Reed Sea so we could cross to safety.  But, the midrash sees it a bit differently.  Yes, God did save us, but first one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, jumped into the water, wading in up to his neck, willing the waters to part.  It was after seeing Nachshon take those daring steps of faith that God responded by splitting the sea.

Understood another way, we are the fingers on God’s mighty hand, God’s outstretched arm.  We can keep our fingers balled into a fist, in which case we will continue to inflict punishment on one another.  Or we can open our hands, reaching out to one another as neighbors, as friends, as fellow Americans.  We can reach out our hands, offering help and assistance.  We can hold each other’s hands and hold each other up.  We can be the fingers on God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. 

And we can start tomorrow.  “Memory, Unity, Hope:  A Vigil for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre” will be held on Saturday, June 25, 3:30 – 4:15 p.m. in Huyler Park, Tenafly.  All are invited to participate in this gathering for prayer and remembrance, sponsored by the Tenafly Interfaith Association.  We will stand together to send a message of love, mutual support and solidarity to our community.  I hope you can join us.  We certainly need the hope.

Shabbat Shalom.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Queen Bibi

Dear Friends,

Purim is probably the most fun holiday on the Jewish calendar. We dress in costumes, sound the groggers as we listen to the Megillah reading, eat Hamantashen, exchange Shalach Manot...It's really a big party. I hope you will join us for our joyous Purim celebration this Wednesday evening.

At the same time, there is a dark, serious side to Purim. The Book of Esther refers to Haman as an "Agagite," which is to say that he was a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites. Who were the Amalekites? Amalek (pronounced "Ah-mah-lek") was a tribe that, according to the Torah, attacked the Jewish People and tried to wipe us out in a surprise attack when we were wandering in the desert right after the exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition has it that all those who sought to wipe out our people throughout the ages are thought of as descendants of the tribe, Amalek. Hitler, for example, is understood to be an Amalekite - not literally, of course, but spiritually, symbolically. The Torah pulls no punches when it comes to Amalek: We must do everything we can to wipe them out before they wipe us out. It is a dark but powerful call for us not to be naïve about the intentions of our enemies and to do everything we can to upend their plans, to stop them by any means necessary.

This is the essence of the story in Megilat Esther - the Scroll of Esther, which we will read on Wednesday night. Esther and Mordechai foil Haman's evil plot to kill the Jews of Persia, stopping him before he is able to commit genocide against us. In the pivotal scene in the Megilah,Esther screws up the courage to go before King Ahasuerus without his permission, to plead for the lives of her people. She does so despite the fact that she knew that, "if any person...enters the king's presence in the inner court without having summoned, there is but one law for him - that he be put to death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he live." Fortunately, as soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, the Megilah says, "she won his favor" and he extended the golden scepter. As the story goes, she invites the King Ahasuerus and Haman to a banquet where she denounces Haman in front of the clueless king. Enraged, the king orders Haman's execution. Esther thus saves the Jewish People; we all live happily ever after and have the "jolly feast of Purim." (Or as Jewish holidays have often been explained, "they tried to kill us, we stopped them, let's eat!")

But, what if Esther had not had the courage to go before the king without his permission? What would have happened then...?

I have no doubt that this question has not been lost on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, one has to imagine that it will be going through his mind as he steps to the podium to address the joint session of Congress tomorrow. After all, Bibi knows that he is giving his speech right before Purim. And he knows the Purim story. Every Israeli does. And he knows, as well, that Iran is modern day Persia - and that the Ayatollahs of the Iranian regime are the modern day Hamans, who have threatened to destroy Israel. Bibi remembers Amalek.

" prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there's still time to avert them," he told the 16,000 people gathered at the AIPAC conference today. "For 2000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves.

"Well, no more, no more.

", we are no longer silent; today, we have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice."

Tomorrow Prime Minister Netanyahu will dress as Queen Esther.  

Some will say that the Queen's dress fits very poorly, that he has offended the King (read: President Obama) instead of finding favor in his eyes, as a good Jewish queen or Prime Minister should do. Some will say that he is really here to heard back home, so he can win an election, while recklessly endangering bipartisan support for Israel. Still others will say that the message itself is wrong, that negotiations are the best way for us to stop the Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon. They may be right. Honestly, I am not writing this piece to make a political statement. I really don't know who is right.

What I do know is that life imitates Torah. Or as the rabbi's taught, "Maaseh Avot Siman L'Banim" - "The deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants." Let us watch those signs or we may miss what is really going on.

Chag Purim Sameiach - Happy Purim!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Terror Response

Dear Friends,

What can I say?  What can anyone say after the cold-blooded murder of 4 innocent people – 3 of them rabbis – while they were in the midst of reciting the morning Amidah in their synagogue? What can one say about the heroic Israeli Druse police officer who gave his life trying to stop the assailants? There are no words…

And yet we cannot remain silent. 

My mind keeps bringing me back to the tallis and tefillin worn by the men who were worshipping - soaked in blood around their lifeless bodies.  It is an image that takes one back in time to the martyrs of our people in past generations who gave their lives, “al kiddush Ha’shem,” for the sanctification of the divine name.  They died - not for anything they did - but simply because they were Jews.

But, it also makes us think about ourselves.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Granted, if it were me, I would not have been wearing tefillin - just my tallit.  If it were you, perhaps you would not have been wearing any ritual garb while praying.  As Reform Jews we see such observances as personal choices.  And, yet, underneath these garments we are all the same, are we not?  Underneath the ideological differences we are all members of the Jewish People – Am Yisrael.  We are family and we take these deaths personally.  This Shabbat at Temple Sinai we will recite Kaddish for all 5 of these men, who gave their lives, “al kiddush Ha’Shem.”

Beyond the Kaddish is there anything else that we can say?

Of course, volumes have already been written about the politics surrounding this tragedy:  the escalating violence, the incitement, the Temple Mount and Haram Al Sharif; the allegedly new religious overtones of the old nationalist violence.  I will leave the analysis to the many experts and pundits.  I will share just the following three ethical points based on Jewish teaching.  Apply them as you wish:
1.    Words matter. – Rabbi Leon of Modena, a 16th century sage, taught, “Words are the guides to acts; the mouth makes the first move.”  Violence does not erupt in a vacuum.  It is fueled with words.  In the same way as one should not light a match in the barn full of hay, if there is even the possibility that one’s statements might incite someone to commit murder wouldn’t it behoove one not to speak? 

2.    Vengeance is not a Jewish value; justice is.  “Lo Tikom V’lo Titor” – “Do not seek vengeance nor bear a grudge…” (Leviticus 19:18)  “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20)  No one is immune to the desire for vengeance.  The terror attack yesterday was likely an act of vengeance.  After the murder of the three yeshivah students last June many calls for revenge were heard in Israel.  Shortly thereafter a Palestinian teen was murdered by Jewish Israeli fanatics, a clear act of vengeance.  Vengeance, simply put, is not the Jewish way.  Justice is. Justice, however, is pursued through the magistrates and officials appointed to adjudicate cases according to the due process of law.

3.    Good relationships between neighbors need to be cultivated.  The most well- known commandment in the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  It is a positive commandment, meaning it should be observed pro-actively.  In Israel there are numerous groups that try to build such relationships.  If you are interested in this work, Seeds of Peace and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel are two that have visited our Temple and in which members of our congregation are actively involved.  At the same time, here in the U.S. we often take peaceful and positive relationships with our neighbors for granted.  We must not be so insouciant about them.  We need to be deliberate in cultivating these relationships.

With that in mind I strongly urge you to come to this year’s Tenafly Interfaith Association Thanksgiving Service, which we are hosting at Temple Sinai this coming Tuesday, November 25, at 7:30 p.m.  Members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities will join together in prayer and song.  Together we should be grateful for the peaceful and positive relationships that we share.  Let us be gracious hosts and show the other communities that as Jews we do not take our relationships with them for granted.

May you have a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2014

This evening at 6:30 p.m. Rabbi Millstein will be deliver the following words as a reflection and invocation at the September 11thMemorial Ceremony in Demarest.  Weather permitting the ceremony will take place at the September 11th Memorial by the Demarest Duck Pond. 

I am the rabbi of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly but I live just a few blocks from here on Achilles Street.  I’ve lived there with my wife and two daughters, both now attending NVD [Northern Valley Demarest High School], for 6 years.  One of the things that attracted us to move to Achilles Street was that it is near this little park and Duck Pond.  It has a certain charm. 

Anyway, during my not frequent enough exercise walks I tend to go down to Cresskill, past Cresskill HS, back up along the railroad tracks, and through this little park.  And then often, without even being conscious of what I am doing, I find myself stopping here at this monument.   There is something that pulls me here.  It is a peaceful spot, set off the road; a place to pause, to meditate.  But, it’s more than that which draws me here, of course.  It has to do with the power of the sacred. 

The Bible tells us that when Moses was shepherding his flock in the wilderness he happened upon a bush all aflame, but it was not burning up.  Moses turned aside to look and God called to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses!” 

“Hineini - Here I am,” Moses answered. 

God continued, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

… THIS place [the September 11th Memorial], which is sacred, calls out to us and says, “Stop!  Don’t just walk by, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

This day, which is sacred, calls out to us and says, “Stop!  Don’t just let the day go by like every other day; this day is holy.  Take note; recognize; remember!”  

This place is holy, for it is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Vialonga, who grew up here in Demarest and perished on this day, 13 years ago.  It is holy because this monument, set as it is on an I Beam from the World Trade Center, honors the memory of all the victims of the cowardly terrorist acts perpetrated on the United States on September 11, 2001.   

This day is holy, for on it we can see that the World Trade Center Towers, like that bush in the desert in days of old, are still burning.  And they are still calling out to us with that very same message, that message of freedom and hope that God spoke to Moses so many centuries ago.

Oh God, who speaks to us out of the flame
May our ears remain open to your voice, even now, 13 years after the great tragedy.
May we realize that our sorrow is still with us
and not run from its touch or its flame
Yet may we discover the gift of the fire burning
in the inner chamber of our being -
burning great and bright enough
to transform any bitterness into blessing.

And may we hear its call:

To remember the fallen
The helpless, the heroes
Our loved ones, friends, neighbors and countrymen

To come together and not let apathy or self-interest pull us apart

And to act
To offer the power of our sorrow to the service of something greater than ourselves.
To “proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to all its inhabitants thereof” [Lev. 25:10]
To “let justice roll down waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” [Amos 5:24]
And to work fervently for the day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; And none shall make them afraid.” [Micah 4:4]

Friday, July 18, 2014

What You Can Do About the War

Dear Friends,

I am on vacation and was planning to observe Shabbat elsewhere this evening.  However, with the events going on in Israel I feel that the place I must be is with you at Temple Sinai.  This is not because it is my job; Cantor Nitza is more than capable of conducting services on her own.  It is because I want to pray with you for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  I need to pray for Shalom on this Shabbat when there is no Shalom.  And I want to welcome and hear the reflections of a very special Shabbat guest, who will share his insight into the current situation: Dr. Arie Eisenman, Emergency Room Director of the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya and Chairman of our Jewish Federation Partnership Task Force with the City of Nahariya.  If you are in town I hope you make a special effort to join us. It is so important to come together when Israel faces the type of challenges it does at this time.

Many of you, I know, are wondering what else you can do to help.  In addition to joining us this evening and offering your prayers, you can contribute to the “Stop the Sirens” campaign of the Jewish Federations of North America.  The Reform and Conservative Movements in Judaism are both joining with Federation to support this emergency campaign to help support millions of Israelis in harm's way, many huddled in bomb shelters as Hamas rockets continue to rain down on Israel.

To donate through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey go to:
To donate through the Union for Reform Judaism go to:

Stephanie Hausner of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey sent the following message to share with you about the JFNNJ campaign: 
“The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey along with our beneficiary agencies, including the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), continues to mobilize and take action. We in Northern New Jersey are committed to do our part in a national initiative to raise $10 million to assist the people of Israel. $4 million will be going to send 50,000 children in the rocket range up North for a summer respite so they can enjoy some semblance of normalcy outside a bomb shelter. The remaining funds will go to general emergency trauma and social welfare programs. There has been a 150% increase in those seeking help for shock and anxiety. There is also a need to take care of the elderly and those with special needs through mobile shelters. This Shabbat please keep our brothers and sisters in Israel in your prayers and after Shabbat please make a contribution to our STOP THE SIRENS campaign through the Federation website ( 100% of all money collected will go to relief efforts.”

If you cannot join us tonight at Temple Sinai below please find a prayer sent to me by the Jewish National Fund (slightly modified) that you can say on your own.  Perhaps we can all light an extra candle as well as we welcome Shabbat this evening.  Let this light reflect our solidarity, the spirit we share with our people in Israel, the spirit of Shalom:

A Shabbat Prayer for Israel
As we prepare to light Shabbat candles tonight let us take a moment and pray for Israel.
Pray for the men and woman of the IDF, trying to restore peace and stability.
Pray for our extended family living in and out of shelters, who remain in harm's way.
Pray for our brave volunteers who are delivering supplies, equipment, and food to those in need.
Pray for the civilians of Israel and Gaza that they be protected from harm.
Pray for the leaders of Israel to be blessed by the Almighty with wisdom and strength.
Pray for peace, the Eternal's most special gift, to be granted for all.

Shabbat Shalom,


Friday, June 20, 2014

Kidnapped Teens

Dear Friends,

I imagine that all of you join me in being outraged by the abduction of the three Israeli teens last Friday.  As I write this the IDF’s hunt for the teens continues in the West Bank.  Three-hundred thirty Palestinians, including 240 Hamas activists have been arrested in the crackdown on Hamas activities that has accompanied the search.  Two Palestinians, regretfully, have died.  It is worth noting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the kidnapping.  PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki, while objecting to the IDF sweep, also said that if Hamas is behind the kidnapping, “it will be a blow to the reconciliation process [between the PA and Hamas]….If we reach that conclusion, then the president will take drastic action.”  Today PA security forces broke up a pro-Hamas rally in Hebron.  The PA continues to cooperate with the search for the teens.

Sadly, despite the massive operation the teens have not been found.  Naturally, many fear for their lives.  In addition, as time passes, there is also the fear that the world will forget the teens and go on to the next news story.   It is at times like these that we recognize the deep truth of the rabbinic teaching, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Ba’Zeh” – “All Jewish people are tied to and care for one another.”  We must not forget these young men.  Please include the kidnapped teens in your prayers this Shabbat.  Their names are:  Eyal Yifrach (Eyal ben Iris Teshurah) , Gilad Shaar (Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim) and Naftali Fraenkel (Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah).  Below is a prayer, written by Alden Solovy, which we recited at our Temple’s annual meeting this past Wednesday.  It was published on the Reform Movement web site,

God of the prisoner,
God of the captive,
The voice of anguish echoes across the land.
Our sons,
Kidnapped, hijacked,
Torn from their lives and dreams,
Are held captive by violence and hatred
By those who would take our land
And destroy our people.
Guardian of Israel,
Bless those who have dedicated themselves to returning
Our sons to safety and shelter.
Grant them skill and wisdom
In this hour of need.
Give them the tools they need in the days ahead.
Bless their work.
Let success be close at hand.
This dismay is almost too much to bear.
Return Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Elad Yifrach
To the cradle of their parents’ arms,
And the refuge of their homes,
Speedily, in life and in health.
Bless their families with endurance and faith
That they will soon be reunited in the fullness of joy.
Bless our boys, in their captivity,
With hope and courage.
Grant them the strength and fortitude
To face, chas v’shalom, any shames or tyrannies forced upon them.
Rock of Israel,
Hasten their release.
Grant them lives of Torah and parnasa,
Rich with health and happiness,
Joy and peace.
Let rescue be near.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Matir Asurim
Blessed are you, Adonai our God,
Sovereign of the Universe,
Who releases the captive.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 9, 2014

I Got a Guy

Dear Friends,

You mention to a friend, acquaintance or co-worker that you need the help of a professional or expert to get something important done and the answer comes, “I got a guy….” Renovating your kitchen? “I got a guy.” Have a problem with your computer? “I got a guy.” Just had a baby boy? “I got a guy.” (Well, “I got a mohel,” to be more specific.)

Everybody’s “got a guy” and somehow their guy is always the best at whatever it is that you need done. Of course, that can’t literally be true. Some have to be better at what they do than others. But, the fact that your friend or acquaintance happens to use that person makes them the best. It’s human nature. But, the truth is oftentimes when experts do things for us we have no idea if they are truly excellent or just got the job done.

The same is true of Israeli tour guides. I talk to people all the time who come back from a trip to Israel and whatever else they tell me about the trip they invariably say, “…and we had the best tour guide!” There are good reasons for this response. Going to Israel is a phenomenal experience. For someone who has never gone before almost any trip to Israel, no matter who leads it or what the itinerary happens to be, will be wonderful. For a Jew just being in Israel touches our souls in a way that it simply cannot be otherwise touched. Moreover, all Israeli tour guides are required by the state to go through a rigorous educational training process in order to get a license. That training goes far beyond what any other country in the world requires of its guides. They are, in fact, the best in the world.

Still, some must be better than others, which leads me to my point: I got a guy. His name is Ezra Korman. He is the CEO of Makor Educational Journeys, a newly formed division at IGT, and he is leading Temple Sinai’s trip to Israel this coming December 2014 during the end of the year holiday break. And, yes, my guy is the best. I don’t say that lightly because I have travelled with other guides who were very good. But, Ezra is truly one notch above. Moreover, he is different. He is not just a tour guide but an educator. He has the depth of knowledge of a college professor and the skill to communicate that knowledge to people of all backgrounds and interests. He understands that all of us learn differently, that kids and teens need alternative programming with their own “youth guide” to experience Israel in a way that engages them.

Ezra has more than 20 years of experience running trips and missions for youth groups, university study groups, synagogues, churches, federations, interfaith groups, high level political delegations and fundraising missions. In the past he has served as educational director and then vice president of Daat, an educational travel company in Jerusalem and was as associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Travel in Israel.

But, don’t take my word for it. Come meet “my guy,” Ezra Korman, a week from Sunday, May 18 at 10:00 a.m. at Temple Sinai. Find out the scoop on our trip to Israel this coming December from the guy who is going to be leading it with me. Bagels and coffee will be served. Please RSVP to me at or Ronni Zlotnick, our trip chairperson, at (If you forget to RSVP come anyway!)

Shabbat Shalom,

PS - We are extending the deadline to register until June 15. But, don’t miss this opportunity to meet our tour leader, Ezra Korman – join us on May 18 at 10:00!

PPS - Happy Mother’s Day to all of you wonderful Mothers!!