Saturday, September 28, 2013

Words Clear and Unclear

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion, Breishit, includes the story of the creation of the world.  In it the phrase, “God said, ‘Let there be….’ and it was so!” is repeated throughout the passage.  In the Torah, God speaks and the world comes into being.  In the Torah words matter.

At the United Nations it is less clear. 

Lots of significant sounding words were uttered this week and some significant words were agreed to among major world powers.  The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have agreed on a resolution that will require Syria to give up its chemical weapons.  On the face of it this is a very good thing.  But, when one reads the fine print it is less clear.  The resolution, “makes clear that there will be consequences for non-compliance,” Samantha Power, the new American Ambassador to the U.N. said.  But, what those consequences would be is not so clear.  If Syria does not comply with the resolution, the matter would have to go back to the Security Council, where Russia holds veto power, for further deliberations before the U.N. could support any not-yet-specified consequences.   

Equally distressing, the resolution does not make clear who is to blame for the recent chemical weapons attack upon Syrian civilians.  In this week’s Torah portion, when Adam eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he tries to pass the blame off on Eve.  She tries to pass the blame off on the serpent.  God has none of it.  It is clear that all are responsible and all are punished.  In the U.N. resolution it is less than clear who is to blame for the chemical weapons attacks that murdered thousands - though it is clear to everyone and anyone who has actually looked at the facts that the Assad regime is to blame.

There were also many significant sounding words uttered at the U.N. this week by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.  But, what they mean is less than clear.  I really do not want to be cynical about the new President of Iran.  He may be sincere in his efforts to open the door to a rapprochement with the United States and the West.  But, when he makes a statement that seems to say that the Holocaust actually happened and then the Fars news agency in Iran says that he didn’t actually use the word, “Holocaust,” and that CNN had fabricated that he had acknowledged the Holocaust, it all seems less clear.  To be clear, it seems President Rouhani did, in fact, acknowledge that the Holocaust happened, but there are significant conservative forces in Iran, represented by the Fars news agency, who are not so happy about this and wanted his words to be less clear. 

Moreover, on the question of Iran developing nuclear weapons, President Rouhani said directly that Iran would never give up its right to enrich uranium.  At the same time he said he wants to swiftly resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.   Is that clear?  Let’s hope President Obama is better at divining these things than I am.

In the big picture I would rather have the less than clear words of President Rouhani than the clear words of the former President Ahmadinejad.  I’d rather have less than clear U.N. security council resolution saying Syria should give up its chemical weapons than the complete silence that preceded it. 

But, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that what we have heard at the U.N. are like the words of Torah from Mt. Sinai.

Shabbat Shalom,

p.s.  If you want to hear some meaningful words of dialogue I urge you to come this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. to the program with Rabbi Kronish and Kadi Zahalka.  And don’t be afraid to ask questions if their statements are not clear to you!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dialogue (Sunday, Sept 29 @ 9:30 am)

Dear Friends,

It seems that everyone wants to talk.

We’ve been talking with the Russians. They want us to talk to the Syrians. The Syrians want to talk to us. The Israelis and the Palestinians are talking. Even the Iranians now want to talk! What’s going on? It must be a full moon or something. (Actually, there was a full moon last night – coinciding with the beginning of the festival of Sukkot.)

No one knows where all this dialogue will lead. Many among us are cynical. We see the Syrians and Iranians as trying to stall for time and ward off any military attacks, while continuing to engage in their development and use of weapons of mass destruction. Others among us are hopeful. Weary of war we hope that the evil regimes in Damascus and Teheran have come to their senses and will negotiate in good faith to get rid of their WMDs. In truth, only those privy to negotiations and intelligence on the highest level, including back channels, can really assess the situation with any validity. And, even they may not really know whether this dialogue is worthwhile.

On the other hand, for those of us who are not dealing in the world of realpolitik, dialogue is not only worthwhile but essential in order to understand the world around us and build positive, peaceful relationships with those from other communities. On Sunday September 29th at 9:30 a.m. at Temple Sinai we will have a remarkable opportunity to engage in this kind of positive dialogue. Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel and Kadi Iyad Zahalka, Chief Justice of the Shar’i Court in Jerusalem, will be our guests at a Brotherhood Breakfast, co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The program is called, “The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue in the Service of Peace.”

Rabbi Kronish is a Reform Rabbi and the former Director of the Israel Office of the American Jewish Committee, having received degrees from Hebrew union College, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brandeis University. Kadi Zahalka is an accomplished judge, author and activist, having received an L.L.B. from Tel Aviv University and an MA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

We do not know what will happen when it comes to negotiations with Iran, Syria or between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There is little we can do to impact such negotiations. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t take actions that will help us understand those of other faiths and from other communities, actions that can help build a more peaceful world.

Shabbat Shalom U’M’vorach – May you have a blessed and peaceful Shabbat – and Chag Sameiach – Happy Sukkot!


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Top Ten Reminders for Yom Kippur

Dear Friends,

With Yom Kippur beginning tomorrow evening, here’s a top ten reminder list to help you prepare. May you have an easy fast and be sealed in the Book of Life for a wonderful year!

Top Ten Handy Reminders Just for Yom Kippur:

1. What time are Yom Kippur services?
Yom Kippur begins on Friday, September 13 with Kol Nidre services at 8:00 p.m. On Yom Kippur morning, Saturday, September 14 there are two services. The first is at 8:45 a.m. followed by a repeat of the morning service at 11:30 a.m.

2. When is the Yizkor service?
As in prior years, there are two Yizkor Services. The first Yizkor Service follows the conclusion of the second morning service. There is a second Yizkor Service and it is part of the afternoon group of services. At 4:00 p.m., we begin the Afternoon (Minchah) service which is immediately followed by Yizkor and then Ne’ilah, the beautiful concluding service. If you come to the early afternoon Yizkor service, I strongly urge you to return for the Ne’ilah service, which is considered one of the most important services of the year. It will begin around 6:00 p.m. or shortly thereafter.

3. I heard that it’s traditional to stay in synagogue all day on Yom Kippur. What will be happening at the Temple after the late morning and first Yizkor services? 
After the first Yizkor service, Rabbinic Intern Jonah Zinn will lead a discussion on High Holy Day themes beginning at 2:45 p.m. in Founders Hall. This is a program designed for those who wish to stay in Temple through the afternoon.

The Tot Yom Kippur service takes place at the same time in the sanctuary. A beautiful Musical and Meditation Interlude will take place at 3:30 p.m.followed by the Afternoon (Minchah), Yizkor and Concluding (Ne’ilah) Services.

4. You are invited! Join together to break the fast with new and old friends after the concluding (Ne’ilah) service on Saturday, September 14.
This event has become quite popular and has outgrown its former location in Founders Hall. Join us in the rear of the Social Hall on the upper level. Wish one another a Shanah Tovah and enjoy a wonderful time with special thanks to Ophelia Yudkoff, David Klein and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood organizations.

5. What are the options for my children?
For those in grades K – 6, on Yom Kippur morning, we have Junior Congregation for children only, which runs concurrently with the first morning service at 8:45 a.m. (note the early start time). Registration is required. Contact the religious school office at 201.568.3075 or email

Our Tot Yom Kippur Service is on Saturday, September 14 at 2:45 p.m. and is just right for families with children ages 6 and younger.

6. Do you need to find babysitting for your young child?
Babysitting – starting at 8:30 a.m. – is available for children ages 2-5 during the first service on the morning of Yom Kippur. Advance registration is required. Email to participate.

7. Aargh. I forgot about my tickets. Or … what do I do – Uncle Fred just decided to come with us to services?
Please call the temple office NO LATER than 12 noon on Friday, September 13 so we can work with you. There will be a “will call” area near the sanctuary entrance for last minute ticket needs. Come early and speak to an usher for guidance.

Bear in mind the temple office is not open on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.

8. The three pillars of the High Holy Days are t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity/justice). Please remember those in need.
Buy groceries now for our High Holy Day food drive. Bring them when you come for Yom Kippur services or no later than September 20 for distribution to our neighbors in need. Special thanks to SFTY, our high school youth group, for their commitment to this important project.

9. The holidays don’t end with Yom Kippur. Don’t miss the colorful celebration of Sukkot in our great sukkah and festive and fun Simchat Torah!
Sukkot begins Wednesday evening, September 18. Children are invited to decorate the sukkah in the Dustin Drapkin Outdoor Sanctuary with our ECC at 4:30 p.m. This will be followed by a Tot Sukkot service at 5:30 p.m. in the Sanctuary. Families and adults of all ages are invited to our Sukkot family dinner at 6:00 p.m. (outdoors at the sukkah, weather permitting). RSVP to At 7:00 p.m. we will hold a Musical Sukkot Family Service featuring our 4th and 5th grade students. Contact Teddi Krauthamer for more information.

On Sukkot morning, Thursday September 19, we will worship together with other local Reform congregations at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road in Teaneck for the festival morning service at 10:30 a.m.

On Wednesday, September 25, the Simchat Torah festivities begin with a free dinner at 6 p.m. for all ages. Many thanks to Anne-Marie Bennoun for organizing this! RSVP to Following a brief 7:00 p.m. service, enjoy festive hakafot (marching and dancing with the Torahs), accompanied by a klezmer band and a delicious oneg as well as chocolate treats from our Sisterhood.

We will hold a Festival Yizkor service on the morning of Thursday, September 26 at 10:30 a.m. followed by a Kiddush in Founders Hall.

10. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu… May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a great year!

Rabbi Jordan Millstein

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Our Decision

Dear Friends,

Whether or not you believe that President Obama should have asked Congress for authorization before launching a military strike against Syria, one thing is clear: the responsibility for making this decision now lies with all of us. Congress may be an imperfect instrument of the people’s will (LOL). But there is good reason to believe that our representatives will, in fact, be listening carefully to what we have to say before casting their vote on this vitally important question. I strongly urge each of you to contact your Congressman and Senators between now and when Congress comes back from its recess to share your views.

In fact, I would argue that it is our moral responsibility not to remain silent.

I realize that the phrase “remain silent” carries with it an enormous amount of baggage for us as Jews and in using it I am certainly not comparing what the Assad regime has done in Syria to the Holocaust. But, something need not rise to the level of an out and out genocide to require a response from us, even a military one. The use of chemical weapons is a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and is a war crime. For the United States to do nothing to punish the Syrian regime for this crime is a virtual invitation for them to do it again, and again. We may not want to be the world’s policemen but if no one else is willing to do it, can we truly just stand idly by and do nothing? The Torah portion that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon commands us, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (Lev. 19:16) In Pirkei Avotthe great sage, Hillel, teaches, “In a place where no one is acting like a human being, try to be a human being.”

In addition to the moral argument our own safety and security is at stake. Doing nothing could easily lead other dangerous regimes (e.g. Iran, North Korea) to believe that America is a “paper tiger,” and that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, with impunity. It is clearly in the interests of the United States not to allow that to happen.

Moreover, as Jews, we cannot ignore that what is dangerous to the United States in this case is ten times as dangerous for Israel. Some will point out that an attack against the Assad regime is itself dangerous for Israel, as Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel. But, Israelis, by and large, do not see it that way. Certainly, the danger is there and Israel is preparing for it. But, the danger of inaction is greater in the long term than the danger of taking action now. Let us support Israel by supporting an American strike against the Assad regime and pray for Israel’s safety and security.

I imagine that, like me, few of you want to see our country involved in the Syrian civil war. There are few “good guys” discernible among the rebels and the Assad regime is nothing if not despicable. There is no “good” result that one can envision from an ongoing, unlimited American military involvement. Consequently, a forceful, punishing attack from the air or sea of limited duration is likely the best option.

And let us be realistic about what such an attack will do. Such an attack is not going to end the civil war in Syria; it is not likely to lead to the ouster of President Assad. In fact, it is possible that it may not work at all, i.e. it may not deter him from the use of chemical weapons in the future. So why do it? Because the only thing worse than this would be to do nothing.

Our High Holy Days are a time of reflection, decision and judgment. Let us contemplate. Let us decide. Let us not remain silent.

L’Shanah Tovah – A good, safe, happy, healthy New Year to all of us and the entire world.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein