Monday, October 31, 2011

Rabbi Eric Yoffie: Why Americans Dismiss Sin

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
[This post by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is reposted with permission from URJ and was originally posted on The Huffington Post and reposted on]

To talk of religion without reference to sin is absurd.

Sin is what results when a human being chooses evil rather than good. It is the consequence of violating transcendent values. Contending with sin is a central theme of both Jewish and Christian religious thinking.

The United States is a religious country, and one might think that sin would be a major subject of public discourse. Yet this is not so. We may talk of "morality," but being moral is generally a secular matter, cleansed of any hint of evil or sinfulness. And, oddly enough, even in religious circles, we fear the language of sin and rush to avoid it.

I acknowledge that liberal religion has a part in this. Liberal religious people are sometimes so anxious to see the good that they become blind to evil intentions and divert their eyes from sinful acts. They want to be reasonable and tolerant and therefore assume that others will be as well. Conservative religious leaders contribute to their unease by invoking sin for certain types of behavior that they abhor -- such as homosexuality -- while ignoring it for everything else, thus giving the impression that their real purpose in talking about sin is to promote hatred of gays.

But the problem goes deeper. When an individual acknowledges his sins, he recognizes his weaknesses and begins to take responsibility for his actions. There are many aspects of American culture that discourage us from taking responsibility for what we do. Denying responsibility, we also deny sin.

Ours is a culture of endless explanation. Our 24-hour news cycle means that sinful acts of the most straightforward sort -- abuse, violence, fraud -- are subject not just to reporting but to non-stop interpretation. Experts of every conceivable variety put forward explanations that in another era might never have been offered; some will be ingenious, some bizarre and many downright ridiculous. We gain thorough coverage but at the price of explaining what does not need explanation and excusing what should not be excused.

Ours is a therapeutic culture. Freud and his disciples have conquered us all. There is no outrageous act that cannot somehow be attributed to the interplay of psychic forces or to some newly discovered psychological "syndrome."

Ours is a culture of victimhood. Groups of all sorts see themselves as victims, even when they plainly are not. I know Jews who see an anti-Semite under every bed and evangelical Christians who are convinced that they are an oppressed class in America. By portraying themselves as victims, they send the message that they are not responsible for their actions; by definition, the fault lies elsewhere.

Ours is a culture of medicalization. (My thanks to Wilfred McClay for this term.) We trust medical science more than we should, expect from it more than is reasonable, and bestow upon it wisdom and insight that it does not possess. We believe we are at the mercy of diseases, often of a new and esoteric sort, even when evidence is scant, and we listen to neuroscientists who assert that biology controls both morality and destiny. What all of this means is that our own responsibility is diminished.

Ours is a culture of relentless realism. Realism is seemingly a virtue; in the political and financial arenas, the "realists" are tough and calculating and call upon us to deal with the world as it is. But claiming to be shorn of illusions, they are often shorn of ideals, and their talk quickly shades into fatalism. If one cannot change the world around us, one has no responsibility for that world; and in such a world, apathy makes more sense than responsible action.

In light of the above, it should not be surprising that we do not talk of sin in America. Our culture pushes us to cast aside responsibility and to find others to blame.

I thought of these matters while sitting in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Left to my own resources, I am no more able to admit my sins than anyone else. I point fingers, make excuses, hold others responsible. But the liturgy on this day is unyielding and harsh. In one prayer after another, we were obligated to proclaim what we otherwise resist: "We have violated the laws of God and Torah. We have sinned."

There is not the slightest suggestion here that our fate is determined by societal pressures, "root causes" or any other forces beyond our control. Indeed, the liturgy specifies the sin of prikat ol, which means throwing off societal restraints for one's own purposes, or more simply, "casting off responsibility." To cast off responsibility is a sin and our own fault. Period.

Jews and Christians, to be sure, do not understand sin in precisely the same way, but both see it as a foundational theological category. As a Jew, fresh from the jarring experience of Yom Kippur prayer, I find myself wishing that we would struggle with it more than we do -- separately in our respective traditions and collectively as partners in building a more just society.

Absent sin, we are not responsible. Absent sin, there is no moral precision. Absent sin, there is no moral judgment. Absent sin, there can be no forgiveness.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brotherhood Retreat - A Delight!

Free-time walks to the beach, another great retreat ritual

The 6th Annual Brotherhood Retreat keeps getting better and better. I can attest to this statement as I have received many unsolicited rave reviews. All our participants appreciate the balance of insight fully relevant Torah study, spirited topical discussions, laughter, plenty of food and drink and of course the camaraderie that brings everybody closer. Rabbis Jay and Todd do an amazing job of creating and leading a thoughtful program that is engaging, inspiring and sometimes uproarious.

Our new retreat location, The Yarmouth Resort and friendly staff made us feel welcome and supplied us with a wonderful meeting room that had all the conveniences of home. This was the first year that we could cater our own home cooked breakfasts of waffles, eggs and of course Lox and Bagels. This large sun filled room also served us well easily handling plenty of seating for our discussions and a nice venue for multi media presentations, happy hour and wonderful Saturday night after dinner. The only thing missing from other retreats was not having the Red Sox on TV in the post season, but we won't go there. We'll save that discussion for the Leroy Davis Breakfast on November 20th.

Our group dinner just happened to be right next door at the Yarmouth House. For only $40.00 we enjoyed a fabulous four course dinner with an additional large fruit & cheese plate for the table. Our first course was a choice of two soups or a fruit cup, then a garden salad, followed by a choice of 3 entrees: Prime Rib, Baked Stuffed Scrod and/or Chicken Marsala. If you weren't full by now there was a choice of 2 desserts, a fancy multi-layered chocolate cake or a rich slice of strawberry topped cheesecake. Most guys felt the need to lay down after this spectacular, it was really delicious.

We have already decided that next year's retreat will stay at The Yarmouth Resort and we are already brainstorming new ideas to make it even better. Marty Goldberg, the event chair along with Ed Schreider, Stephen Staum and Michael Herman, our new Retreat Chairman Emeritus worked on the planning for many months over the summer and everything really came together and exceeded most every one's expectations.

We again thank everyone who participated and we are already looking forward to next year's 7th annual retreat.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Preview of the Library

The other day I was sitting in the Temple Library (be honest how many congregants even know we have a Temple library?) when I looked up at our collection of books, DVDS and compact discs. I was amazed by what a wonderful collection we have!
Have a question on parenting we have the books for you a few examples are:
Parenting Jewish Teens: A guide for the preplexed by Joanne Doades (on a personal note who isn't preplexed by teenagers?)
Raising resilient children: Fostering strength, hope and optimism in your child by Robert Brooks & Sam Goldstein
Don't know what to cook tonight? How about checking out our cook book section. The library has just received Joan Nathan's new cookbook entitled Quiches, kugels and couscous: my search for Jewish cooking in France.
We also own a wonderful collection of DVDS for the entire family; from Shalom Sesame Street which provides a wonderful introduction for young children to Israel & Jewish holidays to A life apart- Hasidism in America.

So the next time you are at the Temple don't forget to "check out" the library!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Garden Club Antiques Show - November 6

Beth Shalom Garden Club is sponsoring the 14th Annual Antiques Show on Sunday, November 6 from 10 am to 4 pm at the Needham High School.
Please help support the BS Garden Club at this event, which is our only fund raising activity.

The Antiques Show will be a fun event as always.
Browse 2 roomfuls of antiques for sale, displayed by dealers from several states.
In addition, we our lucky to have an appraiser available from 10 to 3. Bring in your treasure and get a verbal appraisal of its value. Who knows, you could be a Needham star as in Antique Roadshow fame.

More fun - take a chance or more at the Raffle tables.
Great selections of Needham restaurants, Sundae Kit from Abbots, Children's Birthday Party at Boston Sports Club, jewelry, hand-knit clothes, shopping certificates, bird house, Byrd Honey from Needham, and so very much more.
Super Raffle (just $10 a ticket) gives you a chance to win a Trek Lime Bicycle, BJ's 14 month membership, AAA membership or renewal for 1 year, stay at the Needham Sheraton.

Visit our French Flower Market for a special take home lovely.

While browsing, shopping and seeing friends visit the Cafe for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or snacks.
Check out our yummy Bake Sale supplied by Garden Club members who have the best family recipes .

Hope to see you Sunday, November 6 from 10 am to 4 pm for Garden Club's Antiques Show and the Sisterhood Rummage Sale - what a great day!

Beth Shalom Garden Club presents Needham Antiques Show, Sunday, Nov 6 >10am-4pm

Please join us, Sunday, November 6, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
(Before or after Rummage Sale)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Take a (Shabbat) Hike!

Shomrei Adamah is excited  to report the success of its first two Shabbat Hikes of the year. On September 17, 17 hikers (including our new religious school director Allison Gutman) joined Beth Shulman for a two hour hike on the Wellesley Acquiduct trail. On October 15, 21 hikers including several temple families joined the Bailit family for a one hour hike at Cutler Park.

October 15 at Cutler Park

We invite you to join Marlene Schultz on November 19 at 2:00pm for our next Shabbat Hike at Wilson Hill Reservation. Rabbi Todd will be the guest clergy on the hike.

About Shomrei Adamah:
The Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) Committee at Temple Beth Shalom is a group of individuals who are connected by their belief that taking care of our natural environment is our responsibility. We believe it is ethically imperative for Jews to work toward lessening our environmental impact and thus uphold the Jewish ideals of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), and bal tashchit (prohibition against wanton destruction). We identify ways for the Temple as an organization and as a facility to improve its use of energy and natural resources. We not only educate our community about green initiatives, but we also participate in hands-on activities to make the world more sustainable for now and for future generations.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sukkot BBQ Block Party was a Huge Success!

On October 16, nearly 230 members, prospective members, and friends of the TBS community attended our annual Sukkot BBQ Block Party. Attendees decorated the sukkah, shook the lulav and etrog, jumped in a moon bounce, and dined on Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q. A fun time was had by all, as we celebrated the holiday of harvest and giving thanks.

The Sukkot BBQ Block Party is just one event hosted by the Member Relations Committee each year. We also host the adult Purim shpiel, prospective member open houses, and programs to honor both our newest and longest-standing members. We are always interested in gaining insights from others in our community. If you have ideas to share, or would like to be involved in Member Relations, please email Jenny Small at

Below, enjoy a few photos of the event.

Margit Fried paints her mother Meredith's face.

Dora, Juliana and Elsa show off their beautiful face painting art work.

Drew Koplan decorates the sukkah.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Brotherhood and our community celebrate "Jews Clues"

It was a beautiful Sunday morning and we were preparing to host the kick-off of the "Jews Clues - You're doing it all wrong" World Synagogue Tour - 5772. Everything was indicating that this event, a TBS community celebration of the authors, CJ Kaplan and Mitch Blum was going to be a smashing success. We were celebrating the accomplishment of someone in our men's community and the theme was Jewish humor with a traditional breakfast being served.

Something that our whole community could relate to and enjoy.

Thank you to everyone who made our celebration special (over 70 attendees), to our expert kitchen crew, to Mimi & Linda for creating the awesome cover art "Jews Clues" platter and of course to CJ & Mitch for sharing your humor and stories with everyone. We hope that the tour makes it on to the "Daily Show with John Stewart" and maybe as an encore at TBS as the tour comes home.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Jewish Future is Now - a Repost from eJewish Philanthropy's Blog

The following post has been cross-posted to the TBS blog from eJewish Philanthropy, a daily enewsletter about trends in Jewish Philanthropy. The author, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer and the Director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute, a part of the Jewish Education Service of North America, speaks about the Jewish Futures Conference, an opportunity for all of us together to define the future of Judaism. Special thanks to the author for permission to repost this entry.

by Dr. Jonathan Woocher

Jews have a thing about the future. We gave the world the Messianic concept, the vision of a future in which the world is perfected and peace and justice reign. But, we’re also perennially anxious about the future. An updated version of the old telegram joke might go: “What’s a Jewish tweet? ‘Start worrying; Facebook update follows.’” Historian and philosopher Simon Rawidowicz called Jews “the ever-dying people” because of our persistent penchant for fearing that each generation of Jews might be the last. In our own time, we have lived through the era of “Jewish continuity,” determined and sometimes feverish efforts to secure the Jewish future against the perceived threat of intermarriage and assimilation.

When we launched the Jewish Futures Conference a year ago, we took a different tack toward the future, one more in keeping with computer scientist Alan Kay’s advice: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We saw evidence all around us that Jews are indeed inventing an exciting, vibrant future. Yes, there are real challenges: The world is changing very rapidly around us, and Jews are changing with it. But, the raw material out of which to create a future that, while hardly Messianic, is one that we can anticipate with enthusiasm, is at hand. The question is whether we are ready to embrace fully the possibilities that exist today for reshaping Jewish life so that we can thrive as individuals, as a community, and as a people in the new environment we inhabit.

The goal of the Jewish Futures Conferences, the second of which will be held in a few weeks at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Denver, Colorado, is to stimulate conversation among the diverse groups that will determine our future – everyone from high level federation leaders to teenagers – about the visions and values that should guide our ongoing journey. As has been the case throughout our history, learning – Jewish education – will play a pivotal role in shaping both the content of these visions and whether, how and for whom they will become integral to living a meaningful, purposeful, fulfilling life. The second Jewish Futures Conference, like the first, will bring diverse and fresh, even unexpected, voices to this conversation in order to challenge and inspire us to seize the potential of this moment and to imagine where it can carry us.

The theme for the upcoming Conference is “the Jewish learner as ‘prosumer.’” The concept of ‘prosumers’ – people who are at once consumers and producers of the ideas, experiences, and cultural products that give shape and substance to their lives – aptly describes a growing number of today’s Jewish learners.

Increasingly, Jews of all ages are stepping forward to become “co-producers” of their Jewish lives. They are no longer content simply to absorb what others, figures in authority, have prescribed as the way things are to be done. They want to have an active share in the doing, the interpreting, the applying, and they want to do so together with others – Jews and non- Jews – similarly energized to learn and to teach.

Today’s technology makes prosumerism more widely achievable than ever before; it empowers and connects in unprecedented ways. But, in fact the prosumerist idea is not a new one. It is built into the fabric of Judaism itself, where Jewish learning is not limited to an elite caste, and the chain of tradition asks each of us to create new links, new midrash. The ideal of a globally interconnected learning and creating community is perhaps more realizable today than ever before in Jewish history.

What kind of a future can emerge from taking up this opportunity and unleashing the prosumerist potential of the present moment? We don’t know precisely, which, of course, is exactly the point. We will be creating it – together. We can hope, though, that it will be one in which many more Jews are engaging in a wide range of activity motivated and shaped by a passionate and expansive sense of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century – activity that will expand Jewish learning and culture, strengthen Jewish connections, repair society and the world, and enrich their own and others’ lives.

At the Jewish Futures Conference we will experience for a few hours what such a future might look and feel like. Three keynoters coming from different vantage points – Chris Lehmann, educator extraordinaire; Tiffany Shlain, prize-winning film maker; and Lisa Colton, social media guru – will encourage us to unleash the creative power that we collectively possess to shape new realities. Covenant Award winner Shai Held will use Jewish text to provoke us to think more deeply about how we use this power. New voices – two winners of a world-wide video competition and two teenagers – will share their visions of what we might create, exemplars in their own right of how empowered prosumers are already coming to the fore as creative forces in Jewish life.

William Gibson, the science fiction writer who gave us the term “cyberspace,” argued that “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” The Jewish Futures Conference organizers heartily agree. Jews may never put their anxiety about the future entirely behind them (and perhaps never should, at least till we reach that Messianic era). But, we have also never let that stop us from seeking to draw on the wisdom of the past and the possibilities of the present to create a better future. That work continues today, and the Jewish Futures Conference is ready to celebrate it and to ask us all: how can we be part of this historic venture?

The Jewish Futures Conference is presented by JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute and the Jewish Education Project, with support from a growing number of collaborating organizations and sponsors. Read more at Register to the GA at

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pride Not Prejudice

A healthy and happy new year to everyone! This year, just in between the final blast of the shofar and the beginning of Sukkot, is October 11th. We all know about September 11th, especially as we commemorated its 1oth anniversary together at Memorial Field, but October 11th is also known as National Coming Out Day.

While not often talked about, NCOD is an internationally observed civil awareness day for coming out and the discussion about the LGBTQ community, rights, issues, and awareness. One of the many blessings of the Temple Beth Shalom community has been our openness and acceptance of our LGBTQ friends and family, and yet most of it has happened somewhat silently. How does it happen? It usually happens when I least expect it. Sudbury Farms, Trader Joe's, at the oneg on a Friday night, right before a young person becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or prior to a funeral. Rabbi, I want to let you know about my ______ (fill in familiar relationship here)... He and his partner are ... She and her wife are... Did I ever share with you that ...

I have to admit that I love hearing these stories and expanding what I know about you and your family, and I think it is time that more people in your temple community can share these stories, experiences, and simchas. Many of you already know about our TBS Keshet group.

Keshet is the Hebrew word for rainbow and this group is comprised of lesbians, gays, and straight allies. Keshet is also a national organization started here in Boston whose mission is "to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews are fully included in all parts of the Jewish community." Continuing to grow and expand their own programming, Keshet has started the Keshet Parent and Family Connection as an opportunity to speak to other Jewish parents with LGBTQ children.

What I would like to ask, is that in honor of National Coming Out Day 2011, you email me and share with me some of the LGBTQ history in your own family. Talk to me about your cousin, your daughter, your son, your ex-spouse or even yourself. Be proud of who your family members are and if this is a challenge, let's talk about that too. No judgement.

I know that closet doors still exist for a variety of reasons and I am not asking you to "out" someone who is not ready to come out, but rather I invite you to open the door a bit wider so that together we can remind them that Temple Beth Shalom is welcoming and safe place.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rosh Hashanah, Blessings, Blogs, and a new Web Site...

Welcome to 5772! In the spirit of the New Year, and in the spirit of taking stock of our lives at this important time of the year, there are many exciting and new things happening with TBS online which I thought I would highlight here.

First, we have launched our newly updated web page. You can still find us at but when you log in, you will notice that the site has a slightly new look and feel. The calendar of events is now firmly linked in to all of our subpages, and we have several exciting new features which will be debuting in the coming weeks (and, in fact, later in this email).

To access much of the customized content, we have moved away from the model of a single user password for the entire congregation. Instead, you will have an individual user identity and password. If you have not already registered for a username and password, please do so by clicking here, and following the instuctions below:
  • Fill out the form to register for an Online username and password.

  • Enter key information: First Name, Last Name, Password and confirmation, Email, and Display Name

  • Enter required information on the Custom Tab: Timezone.

  • Enter optional information: Address, Avatar / Profile photo, Tags tab (to indicate your interests or affiliations), Custom tab (for privacy settings), and Activity tab (settings for how you want to be notified about activities within the Community Area).

You will be sent an email with a confirmation that your account has been established once you have been approved. Login information is per user, so everyone in your family can (and should) create their own username on our new page.

Also on the new page (as you begin to explore) you will find that we have updated the section including the Rabbi's sermons to feature the two sermons delivered on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Todd's erev Rosh Hashanah sermon entitled "Opening our Eyes to Blessings" can be found here and the list of blessings mentioned in his sermon can be found here. Rabbi Jay's Rosh Hashanah sermon entitled "Israel: Seeking Hope, Inspiration, and Courage to Act" can be found here. After Yom Kippur, we will update their respective pages with copies of this year's sermons.

Another new feature of our relaunched website are two new blogs for our K-5 and 6-12 learning programs. Following the incredible success last year of our pre-school blog, we have launched two fully interactive blogs with posts from your children's teachers, pictures from the classrooms, information about learning and curriculum, and lots of opportunities for ongoing conversation. We welcome you to come view how exciting learning at TBS is! The Elementary Learning (grades K-5) blog can be found here and the Teen Programs blog (grades 6-12) can be found here. Please note you must be logged into the Temple web site to access these pages. (If you would like to have a family member who is not a member of the Temple [i.e. grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.] be able to access the blog, please note that they can also register for a username and password using the instructions above although their access to the webpage as a whole may be limited).

As a final reminder and update, we are in the middle of our Annual Shofar Appeal. This is time of year when we reach out to you asking for your support as we begin the year ahead. A pledge card was sent home to all members, and if you prefer to make a contribution online feel free to click here (you will be able to use Paypal to make a contribution by credit card).

We hope you enjoy the start of the New Year as well as the new ways in which we are using technology at the Temple. May the year to come bring you and yours many blessings!