Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oklahoma Tornado Response

Dear Friends,

I know your hearts, like mine, go out to the victims of the terrible tornado that killed at least 24 people, including 9 children, in the suburbs of Oklahoma City yesterday. Many of you, I imagine, are looking for ways to help the victims of this tragedy. Some of you have asked me whether there is an organized Jewish community response. Both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America (partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) have established emergency funds to help those who have been hurt, lost homes and suffered other losses during the storm. You can follow the links above to make a donation to help the victims.

The following message was shared by Rabbi Dan Freelander, Senior Vice President of the URJ, earlier today:

“We are all terribly saddened by the devastation caused yesterday in Oklahoma. Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City reports that thus far it appears that the Jewish community has been spared any loss of life. Nonetheless, the human, emotional and physical toll is being deeply felt throughout the area-and beyond.

Working across denominations, the local Jewish institutions are coordinating relief efforts, but have requested that we not contact them directly. Rather, offers of support should be directed to funding agencies on the ground. With that in mind, the URJ has opened a fund to direct contributions (without any deductions for administrative expenses) to local relief agencies on the ground in Oklahoma….

"We are numb with grief, and yet inspired by the heroic resilience of the people of Oklahoma. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by this horrific tragedy," said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. "For now, we will collect donations and distribute them to the American Red Cross and others on the ground in Oklahoma. As other needs arise, perhaps including volunteers to assist with the clean-up and rebuilding, we stand ready to help in any way possible."

To make a donation online visit www.urj.org/relief. Checks can be sent to the Union for Reform Judaism (Attn: Oklahoma Tornado Relief), 633 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017….

I know that you join me in sending thoughts and prayers to the individuals, families and communities impacted by this event.

Take care,

Friday, May 17, 2013

NEW Israel Trip Meeting Sunday 10:00 am

Dear Friends,

Ever since our group from Temple Sinai returned from Israel at the beginning of the year I have been thinking about when I would be able to lead another Temple Sinai trip to Israel. That’s just the way it is with Israel. Once you’ve gone you keep wanting to return again and again. Of course, I could go back by myself. There are always rabbinic missions and study opportunities. But, I’d much rather go with you. There is nothing like being with congregants and friends exploring our homeland, ancient and modern – the fun, the smiles, the looks of awe as we travel the country. And the bonding; the friendships that developed and deepened during the trip this past December mean so much to me. Just a few weeks ago at my daughter, Sarah’s, bat mitzvah I looked out and saw the faces of so many of those who were with us and participated in the b’nei mitzvah ceremony we held at the Kotel/Western Wall. There was a connection, a feeling that I and the rest of my family felt in that moment that is beyond any words that even I, a rabbi, can write.

I would like to begin planning a new trip to Israel to take place at the end of August or the end of December 2014. In order to do this I need to know that you are potentially interested in participating in a trip at one of those times, and I need some feedback from you regarding the kind of trip in which you are interested. Consequently, I have scheduled an open meeting this Sunday, May 19th at 10:00 a.m. (just late enough for those attending the Temple Gala the night before to get some sleep) to see if there is interest in such a trip and to have a discussion about the different kinds of things we could include in it. The trip we took this past December was multi-generational, including people ages 8 – 80+. It included a number of students who participated in the b’nei mitzvah ceremony I mentioned. Will we do this again or do a different kind of trip? It all depends on what those who are interested want to do. I will share different ideas at the meeting on Sunday.

If you cannot come this Sunday at 10 a.m. to this meeting but would consider participating in a Temple Sinai trip to Israel at the end of August or end of December 2014 email me at rabbimillstein@templesinaibc.org ASAP. The number of responses will figure highly in whether we go ahead and begin planning.

This past Tuesday night was the Festival of Shavuot and we celebrated the confirmation of 11 wonderful young people who completed a year of study with me and Jonah Zinn, our rabbinic intern, in our Monday evening High School program. I wish you were all there to participate in the service they led. It was really something to behold. Each student wrote what we call a, “Jewish Identity Statement.” Three of these students were on the Israel trip with us this past December and all three wrote about how significant this trip was in the development of their Jewish identity. Here’s what one of them, Noah Rosenberg, wrote:

While there, I learned not only about what it meant to be a Jew in ancient times but also what it means to be a Jew today. We visited Tel-Aviv which is the epitome of modern Israel as well as visiting Masada and Jerusalem which both have strong ancient Jewish roots….

…It was amazing to see how much Israel has developed into a modern state in only 65 years of existence as the Jewish state. The youth director on the trip brought up a very good point while we were in Tel-Aviv. On the first day she sat all the kids in a circle and said to us, “Isn’t it amazing that when you walk outside, nearly everybody you see is Jewish?” This was when it really hit me that I was in Israel. I was in the land that my ancestors had given their lives for, and now we Jews finally had a place to call our own.

This all came full circle on the last day of the trip when we visited The Wall in Jerusalem. I, along with five other kids in the group were able to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah or in my and my sister’s case, Bar and Bat mitzvah again at the Western wall. What an experience that was! Reading the Torah in front of the last remaining wall of a temple of our people that was destroyed twice was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. It’s just another testament as to how strong we are as a people. That’s what it means to be Jewish.

It’s amazing what thirteen days in a foreign country can do to someone. Being in Israel was such an amazing experience and I would go back in a heartbeat….

If you’ve been to Israel at some point in your life you know you want to go back. If you have never been there, what are you waiting for? As the great sage, Hillel, taught, “Im lo achshav, eimatai,” – “If not now, when?”

Shabbat Shalom,
p.s. Hope to see many of you this Saturday evening at our Gala as we honor Janene Edlin, Michele Harris and Ilana Matteson. Mazal Tov Janene, Michele and Ilana!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Women Overcome Wall

Dear Friends,

Today was an historic day for “Women of the Wall” (WOW) as they overcame a wall of protesting Haredim/Ultra-Orthodox Jews to pray and sing together at the Western Wall. It was the first Rosh Chodesh (First Day of the Month) since the Jerusalem District court ruled that women wearing tallitot/tallises at the Kotel are not violating the regulations that govern the Western Wall plaza, which only say that people there have to pray according to “local custom.” As they have tried to do every Rosh Chodesh members of WOW came to the Kotel to pray together in the women’s section of the plaza. This substantial group of women were met by a very large group of Haredi protestors. The ultra-Orthodox Jews flooded the area and might have blocked the women from reaching the women’s section of the wall. However, unlike previous times, the police not only did not detain the women but formed a ring around them to protect them from the protestors. As a result, they were able to pray and sing songs joyfully in unison – a great victory!

It should be noted that all did not go perfectly. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported:

“Three people were arrested and two police officers were injured in the protests, in which demonstrators at several points threw water bottles and chairs in the direction of the women’s section, while calling the police “Nazis” and shouting at them “Go back to Germany.” Police formed a human barricade to hold back the protesters when the women exited the prayer plaza after they had concluded their service. After they had passed through Dung Gate, a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters began throwing rocks in their direction. They continued to throw rocks at buses that delivered the women away from the violent protests.”

Unfortunately, this offensive and violent display is not surprising, given the history of Haredi reaction to what they consider violations of Jewish law. This is a black and white issue. It's about whether those with Black hats and white shirts should be allowed to make the rules for how Judaism is practiced by the rest of us. It is about religious freedom, pure and simple, black and white. On the other hand, the political situation in Israel is far from simple. So, with that in mind, and in the interests of "Shalom Bayit" ('Peace in the House' - a great Jewish value) I accept the compromise that Natan Sharansky has proposed establishing a pluralistic prayer site at the South Wall/Robinson's arch. But, until that is done, which is likely to take several years, the Women of the Wall must be allowed to pray there unmolested.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jordan Millstein

p.s. You may not know that the leader of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, is also the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (i.e. the Reform Movement of Israel). So, this is a proud day for us as Reform Jews as well!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Mazel Tov, Jason!

Dear Friends,

Among the legendary figures in Jewish history is Nachshon ben Aminadav. According to midrash, when the Israelites reached the sea during the exodus from Egypt none of the tribes wanted to be the first to enter the water. With Pharoh’s army fast approaching, Nachshon, the leader of Judah, jumped into the sea setting an example for all of Israel. With time, the name Nachshon came to symbolize individuals who break new ground with acts of courage.

This week the world met a new Nachshon when NBA center Jason Collins announced that he is gay, making him the first openly gay active player in any of the four major professional sports leagues. Jason demonstrated that sexual orientation should not prevent anyone from achieving his or her goals, even at the highest level of professional sports. Given the importance of sport in our society, Jason’s openness is a powerful model for young people struggling with their own identity.

All corners of American society responded to his announcement with tremendous support. Collins called the response he received since coming out “incredible." Unfortunately, for many, the experience of coming out is not always so positive. Working together, let us strive to create a society in which all people feel “incredible” about the support they receive when sharing of themselves. Our young people in particular need role models and support as they struggle with issues of identity during the already challenging period of adolescence.

The outpouring of support for Collins also demonstrates the progress of society in accepting GLBT Americans. However, despite such signs of progress, much work remains in the fight for equality for all

This week Rhode Island joined nine other states and the District of Columbia which allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. However, marriage equality remains elusive in much of the country including here in New Jersey where Governor Christie vetoed gay marriage legislation last year.

Workplace discrimination also remains a major issue. Currently it is legal in 29 states to fire or discriminate against an employee because of his or her sexual orientation. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was reintroduced this week in congress, would ensure fundamental fairness and equality in the workplace for all. I am proud that every year during our trip to Religious Action Center's L'Taken Social Justice Seminar to Washington, DC, our high school students from Temple Sinai choose to lobby for the passage of ENDA. You can learn more about the RAC’s position on this important issue at http://rac.org/advocacy/issues/issuegl/.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, Rabbi Tarfon teaches “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Chorin L’hibateyl Mimena,” it is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Just as we join together to applaud our new Nachson, Jason Collins, for reminding us that no one should be afraid to be themselves, let us also come together to affirm that we are all created b’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image, with equal rights for all.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jonah Zinn
Rabbinic Intern