Friday, November 22, 2013

Do You Know the Ten Commandments?

Rabbi Sonsino
The Decalogue (lit. “Ten Words”) is often viewed as embodying some of the high values of the Western civilization. It appears in the Bible in two parallel but conflicting versions, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Yet, it is amazing to read what many people think the Ten Commandments say or include. Here below I wish to identify some of the most popular erroneous assumptions about this famous text:

1: Everyone agrees on the number of injunctions in the Decalogue. This is wrong because the text contains more than ten instructions formulated in the imperatives (that is, Do this…Do not do that). In order to arrive at “ten,” some injunctions need to be combined. In the Bible, ”ten” most likely represents a quorum (cf. “ten” judges in Ruth 4:2). Someone suggested that we have “ten” commandments, because we have “ten” fingers with which to count! Who knows?

2: Everyone agrees on the division of the Ten Commandments. This too is wrong, because the traditional Jewish division is different from the many Christian divisions. Thus, for example, whereas in the Jewish tradition the very first statement, “I am the Lord your God…” is considered as the first commandment, in many Christian traditions, this is viewed only as an introduction to the following commandment that reads, “You shall not have other gods…”

3: The meaning of the Ten Commandments is clear. This is also not true, because there is an ongoing scholarly dispute on the correct understanding of many of the injunctions. For example, it is not clear whether the original Hebrew meant, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not murder.”

4: The Ten Commandments are the essence of Judaism. This is not correct either, because, even though the Decalogue is considered important in Jewish lore, the Rabbis of old purposely removed them from the liturgy when “heretics” (early Christians?) claimed that only these commandments were revealed by God (BT Ber. 12a). Most Sephardic Jews do not even stand up when the Ten Commandments are recited. Many Reform Jews do.

5. The Decalogue represents ten “commandments.” This is not so clear. The word “commandment” (mitzvah) does not appear in the text. In the Bible they are simply called aseret ha-diberot, “ten words” (Deut. 10: 4; cf. Ex. 34: 28). The Rabbis referred to them as aseret ha-debarim  (“ten words.”). In time, they were viewed as commandments because the term dibber became a technical term for divine speech (see, Jer. 5: 13). If God said them, they must be commandments!

6: Because many people assume the Decalogue is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they attribute to it injunctions that do not appear in the text, such as “You shall not lie,” or “Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.”  Sorry, these are not part of the Ten Commandments.

These major popular but misleading claims led to me to do an in-depth study of the Ten Commandments for many years, which culminates in the publication of my new book, And God Spoke These Words; the Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Press. Please check it out for other details to see how the Decalogue was interpreted historically and how it is applied to modern ethical situations. The link is:

http://www.urjbooksandmusic.com/product.php?productid=12549&cat=0&page=1&featured.

Rifat Sonsino, PhD
Nov. 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Trophy for Dad!

This post originally appeared on the TBS Children's Center Blog on October 29, 2013
Adam was so excited to share with Kohavim, that his dad, Rabbi Todd, was getting a really big award! He wasn't sure if his dad would be getting a trophy when he accepted his prize, so he decided he would make one for him. He looked through the art closets and selected different materials. He chose blue foam shapes, a bag of marker caps, a green Jewish star, and gold plastic caps. Joshua and Josie asked to help him construct the trophy. Adam shared his plan with them and they got to work. They first glued the gold plastic caps together in a stack. Then Adam wrote, "I love you" on one side of the star and Joshua wrote, "Good Job" on the other side. They attached purple marker caps to the top of the trophy because Adam explained his dad really loves the color purple. They then secured the star at the top. Lastly, they glued the pieces of blue foam together to create a base. Adam and the children in kohavim were so proud to make a trophy to celebrate Adam's Dad!

Rabbi Todd was selected by the Covenant Foundation as one of four honorees from across the country to receive the prestigious Pomegranate Prize, which recognizes outstanding emerging Jewish educators. Click here to read more about this amazing accomplishment!  Mazel Tov Rabbi Todd!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Carol Bolton Kappel: Birthday Wishes - A Postscript

Carol Bolton Kappel
The following article was published in the Jewish Advocate on 10/24/13. Carol Bolton Kappel has a long history of involvement at Temple Beth Shalom including serving as Sisterhood President as teaching the 2nd grade for many years. Her husband Jonathan is a Past President of TBS.
 
While taking in a magnificent panoramic view of Boston while running a 10K race last week, it dawned on me that exactly 3 years ago; I was composing a piece for this same column. However, that is where the similarities end. In 2010, I was writing an open letter to my daughter on the occasion of her 19th birthday a very sick woman in the throes of aggressive chemotherapy, treating the breast cancer I had been diagnosed with the previous spring. Over 19 months, I navigated the terrifying world of breast cancer and in the time since, I have been able to precariously heal both physically and emotionally. Consequently, on that brilliantly sunny and crisp day, while running those 6.2 miles; I celebrated my health and reminded myself of the lessons learned from this life altering experience. And as I crossed that finish line which lends itself as a metaphor for that dark and uncertain time, I determined that it only seems fitting to write a postscript to my daughter because on the other side there is light and guarded optimism. 

So to my wonderful and brave daughter, as you approach your 22nd birthday and with the difficult time we experienced as a strong and loving family as a backdrop, I offer these wishes in the hope that all of yours come true.

My wish for you is that you understand not all of your friendships will last a lifetime. Some people will disappoint you and it is perfectly acceptable to move on. There are times when we believe our relationships are more intimate than they are. A crisis has its way of demonstrating who your real friends are. Your dad and I were abandoned by some and held tightly by others. Instead of dwelling on the hurt, we rejoiced in the beauty of those strong bonds and vowed to be good friends back.

Take good care of your physical and emotional health. You have one body, make sure you exercise, pursue healthy habits and craft strategies that help you manage stressful times. For obvious reasons, this is especially important.

Realize your passion and use it for good. There are people who need you. Your voice whether individual or collective, can make a difference. I have become vocal and dogged around breast cancer issues and am pouring my energy into supporting the hospital that saved my life. I want you to live in a world that is free of this wicked disease and I am doing everything in my power to ensure that.

I hope that when the time comes and you commit yourself to that someone, he is a kind, decent, loving and loyal human being. Your father never left my side from the moment I felt the lump in my breast, to the heart shattering news confirming the cancer, as well as throughout this ordeal. He loved me bald, sapped of my strength and scared. In spite of that, we managed to bring humor and hope into our lives.

Speaking of humor, make sure your don’t take yourself too seriously. Even in the midst of a life threatening disease, I laughed and allowed joy in. Perhaps to the outsider, the humor seemed a bit maudlin, but it sustained me.

Recognize and surround yourself with good people. My chemotherapy nurse embodies what a truly good human being is. She took extraordinary care of me during a perilous time. If not for this nefarious disease, our paths might have never crossed and now that they did, I am grateful that she was and remains in my life as a cherished friend.

Appreciate every single day. Welcome and make meaning out of the mundane and routine. Every morning, I am grateful to wake up to another healthy day.

Take those risks. I assure you it will feel better than the regret. I don’t question one single decision I made around the toxic and aggressive treatment that was dispensed. The stakes were too high. You and your dad are counting on me for a long time.

Take the time to simply be. Personally, there is nothing better than sitting on a beach gazing out at the ocean and breathing in the salt air. I take it as my time for me.

Try to remain an ardent Boston sports fan. There is nothing quite like calling this city home and even if you move on, our teams give us a sense of identity and are just plain fun to watch!

My sweet girl, life is a series of moments. You can allow those moments to define you or you can grasp those circumstances and define them. You are poised to make your mark in this world.  We are proud of your resilience during a crisis as well as daily resolve and gentle soul. Now, three years later, I have every reason to believe that I will continue to share birthday wishes for a long time. Happiest of Birthdays!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rabbi Sonsino: My Granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah

Rabbi Sonsino
Mid October, my granddaughter, Ariella, became a Bat Mitzvah in California, and made us very proud and happy.

There are moments in life which define us. There is a before and an after that particular event. In the present Jewish practice, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is one of those cutting moments. A thirteen year old boy (a Bar Mitzvah) or a girl (a Bat Mitzvah) marks a significant transitional period in life by celebrating it with family and friends during a religious ceremony and often with a big party afterwards.

In Hebrew the expression Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually translated as “son/daughter of the Mitzvah,” really means youngsters who are now “responsible for the performance of the Mitzvot (commandments/good deeds).” It takes about two years to get a date from the synagogue and six months to learn how to lead the service in Hebrew and English. In most Reform synagogues in the USA, during a Sabbath morning service, which often includes the celebration of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the high point is reached when the candidate chants a section of the Torah portion of the week taken from the Pentateuch and part of the prophetic portion (Haftarah) that follows it. Also, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah usually reads a short commentary of the biblical passages and a message of gratitude to parents, relatives and friends. Ariella did all that. She was nervous but went through the whole thing with poise and a great smile. We were delighted.

In my granddaughter’s temple, they have a lovely custom of invoking God’s blessings upon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah while standing under a prayer shawl (tallit) held by close friends. As a grandfather, it was my pleasure and honor to recite the priestly blessing there as I prayed for Ariella to have a good and long life, contentment and peace.

However, what moved me the most was a moment just before the Torah service when the Rabbi asked us to pass the Torah scroll from one generation to another, as a reminder that we, as Jews, are all connected by tradition, cultural as well as ethnic ties, from our ancestors in biblical times to the present generation and beyond. As I handed the scroll to my wife, and as she passed it on to my son and daughter-in-law, and they gave it to Ariella, I thought of my own Bar Mitzvah in Istanbul in 1951, of my deceased parents and grandparents, and forward to my son and his daughter, with a sense of gratitude and connectedness that can only be described as magical. I was overwhelmed by emotions, my eyes became teary and I had a hard time breathing. Yes, our Jewish tradition is being handed down to a new generation, and I hope they will be proud of it, keep it and enrich it with their own creativity. 

Ines and I still have the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of three more grandchildren to go, and I hope God will grant us the opportunity to witness their own celebration.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
Oct. 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rabbi Sonsino: "Can You Trust Anyone?"

Rabbi Sonsino
Many people read consumer reports before buying an article, such as a car or a TV, and even about a restaurant. I often do. However, recently I was shocked to read that some individuals are getting paid to write favorable reviews for products in respectable periodicals. That is outrageous. Can you trust anyone today?

Our religious literature cautions us not to put our faith in someone else. The model is set by the patriarch Abraham: “Because he put his trust in the Eternal, He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15: 6). The prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in God and who makes God his refuge” (17: 7), and, conversely, “Cursed is he who trusts in man” (17: 5). Similarly, the psalmists states, “Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust” (40: 5), and “Do not put your trust…in mortal man who cannot save” (146:3). In the early rabbinic period, Hillel is reported to have warned people against overconfidence: “Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (Pirke Avot, 2: 5; the Talmud gives a few examples in Ber.29a). In medieval times, the Jewish philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th cent., Spain) spent an entire chapter on the idea of trust (see, his chapter 7, in The Duties of the Heart), and, even though he thought that it was possible to trust human beings who have compassion, empathy and love, he added that these qualities are often wanting in everyone except God. He then concluded by saying that “whoever trusts in what is other than God, God removes His providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.”

Non-Jewish literature on this subject is not more comforting either. The Roman philosopher Seneca (I cent CE) put forward a balanced viewpoint: “It is a vice to trust all, and equally a vice to trust none.” Most writers were more cautious. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare stated, “Love all, trust a few” (All’s Well That Ends Well). Ronald Reagan insisted, “Trust but verify.” Some thinkers even said that we need to put our faith only in ourselves, not on others. And Joseph Stalin went to the other extreme allegedly saying, “I do not trust anyone, not even myself.”

I maintain otherwise. I am not naïve but I do tend to be a trusting individual. I often take people at their word. Before a purchase, I do read one or two reviews and then proceed. How can you live in a society where no one relies on another? A student trusts his/her teacher. Children trust their parents, and vice-versa. We rely on a variety of experts. Personal friendship or a good marriage is possible only when there is mutual trust. When we read a book, a research paper, a magazine article etc., unless the claim is preposterous, we all tend to accept the facts cited in them as reliable and true.

Yes, some people do lie; some people cheat. And it is getting more difficult to trust others. One needs to be skeptical of unusual, strange and outrageous claims. But I don’t think the dishonest are in the majority. I will continue to rely on my guts and depend on others. That is what we need to work on, and make individuals responsible for what they say and do. Society cannot survive on falsehood and suspicion.

As for me, I will start to read many more reviews than before buying anything, and then decide. What a shame!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
October, 2013

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rabbi Todd: Taking Responsibility Beyond Our Own

Rabbi Todd Markley
[The following is Rabbi Todd's drash from Friday, September 27, 2013]

I am standing in the kitchen of our home cleaning the dishes just following meal time when the yelling begins from the other room. They were playing together so nicely just five seconds ago…what on earth happened? Here come the 4 and 7-year old. They’re pointing at one another. Each is a prosecutor with case prepared about why it – whatever it was…I may never know – was entirely the other one’s fault.

And so it is at the outset of the Torah. As we begin our annual Torah reading cycle anew on this Shabbat we find two stories that bespeak the childlike state of humanity just following the stories of Creation. First, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and then ashamed, try to hide from God.

Side note: This was a rookie parenting move on God’s part…you can have anything you want in all of the Garden, just don’t touch the fruit on this tree? Come on! Any parent knows that this is the tree they’re running for first!

Seemingly not yet self-reflective enough to recognize this, God asks Adam from on high, “Ayeka…Where are you?” Of course, the Divine Being who just made Creation happen knows where these two are…the question is a spiritual and psychological one. One I might ask of my own children from my stance at the kitchen sink…Who are you? Is this really how you want to behave? What did you do?!? How do Adam and Eve respond? Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the snake. Their children are, fittingly perhaps, fruit that does not fall far from the proverbial tree.

Their sons Cain and Abel each offer up their own sacrifices to God, and in yet another highly questionable parenting moment in God’s earliest days at this, God very publicly favors one child’s gift over the other’s. The result? Cain kills Abel out of jealousy and when confronted asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that there is a commonality between these two narratives: an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s own actions. In the case of Adam and Eve, they were wrapped up in the blame game…it wasn’t me! In the case of Cain, he couldn’t fathom the possibility that he was responsible for anyone’s wellbeing beyond his own. Humanity has come a long way, and yet, sadly perhaps, we still know these behaviors all too well…in our children, in our co-workers, in our friends and neighbors, and in ourselves.

We can sometimes fall prey to our earliest forebears’ lines of thinking, not just as individuals but as communities. We experience what psychologists call “In group, Out Group” effect. We assume that our own cultural, ethnic, religious, geographic, or communal group must be better than the others. Sometimes this moves us to do good. As our Sages taught, Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’Zeh…all the people of Israel areresponsible for one another, and this teaching has yielded countless examples of Jewstaking care of one another, insuring one another’s safety, well being, and peace.

On the other hand, whenever we begin dividing the world up into groups we run the risk of becoming Adam and Eve…blaming the other groups for our problems, or worse yet, of becoming Cain…not being able to imagine that we are actually responsible for the well being of others beyond our own group. Of course, throughout our history from Torah through the present day, great Jewish thinkers have sought to remind us that our people is no better than any other and that we have a unique responsibility to be a light to the entire world, not just to ourselves. Yet, we have not always been able to live up to this sacred task.

Recently, we were blessed to have a great model of such explicit and thoughtful reaching beyond faith boundaries in none other the new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. I have been loving much of what this Pope has shared so far, and his stock only rose with me when, earlier this week, I attended a meeting of our Needham Clergy Association. Muslim representative to the group, Abdul Cader Asmal, shared aloud this letter which Pope Francis wrote to the Muslim communities of the world to mark the end of their festival of Ramadan.

He wrote, “This year, the theme on which I would like to reflect with you and with all who will read this message is one that concerns both Muslims and Christians: Promoting Mutual Respect through Education.

“Respect” means an attitude of kindness towards people for whom we have consideration and esteem. “Mutual” means that this is not a one-way process, but something shared by both sides.

What we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity, his reputation, his property, his ethnic and cultural identity, his ideas and his political choices. We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation. Families, schools, religious teaching and all forms of media have a role to play in achieving this goal.

…We are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values.

…We have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices.

We all know that mutual respect is fundamental in any human relationship, especially among people who profess religious belief. In this way,” concludes Pope Francis, “sincere and lasting friendship can grow.”*

Wow! Until only fifty years ago, the Catholic church embraced a supercetionist philosophy, meaning that – according to official church doctrine – the covenant between Catholics with God was superior to, and even came to replace, those of any other people in the world. Now the leader of that faith tradition is actively seeking to bridge those divides, not only for our generations, but for the children who will grow to represent our faith communities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if his invitation was received by open hearts and open minds within the Muslim world? By his own followers in the Catholic church and their sister Christian denominations. Would it be incredible if we, as Jewish communities, could engage in this effort as well?

We are in the season of beginning our Torah anew with our stories of Creation…reminders that, according to our faith tradition, all of humanity is one large family which began with just a single person…the culmination of a Creation process which began with light. May this new year’s Torah cycle see us follow the Pope’s lead…recommitting ourselves not only to service of our own people but to knowledge of, understanding of, and service of the whole…reminding ourselves not only of our stories but those of our sister faith communities as well…taking responsibility not only for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of our own people but for all peoples. In so doing we can be more enlightened and can, individually and collectively, be a light to the world. Amen.

*  (MESSAGE OF POPE FRANCIS TO MUSLIMS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD FOR THE END OF RAMADAN ('ID AL-FITR): http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/messages/pont-messages/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130710_musulmani-ramadan_en.html )

Monday, July 22, 2013

Does Fasting Make Sense Today?

Rabbi Sonsino
When was the last time you fasted?

There are various reasons for which people fast. Some do it for medical purposes, like to get thinner. Others resort to it for a political or social cause, like a hunger strike in jail. And others do it with a religious motive, like many Jews on the Day of Atonement or Muslims during Ramadan or Catholics on Ash Wednesday. The question for me is whether or not religious fasting makes sense today. It is my impression that in the Jewish community the number of people who fast for religious reasons is progressively diminishing. I agree with their skepticism.

The custom of fasting as a religious ritual was well known in the ancient Near East. In fact, fasting and then consuming special foods were part of the Mesopotamian New Year Festival (Akitu). According to some scholars, fasting survived as a remnant of the ancient cult of the dead because of its connection with weeping and mourning.

Like many other religions, Judaism too knows about fasting, and mandates both major and minor fasts. A major fast goes from sunset to nightfall the next day and a minor fast is held from sunrise to sunset. The two major fast days of the Jewish calendar are The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Tisha Beav (9th of Av, usually in July), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the centuries.

The Bible mentions various fast days (each one called a tzom) that were observed either by individuals (e.g., King David fasted before the death of his child, II Sam. 12: 16), or the Jewish people at large (e.g., Ezra’s fast, 8: 21, before his return to Judah). Rabbinic law added a number of minor fasts (each one referred to as taanit), like the Fast of Esther (Taanit Esther, just before Purim) and the Fast of the First Born (Taanit bekhorot), observed just before Passover by firstborn males, commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the firstborn in Egypt (Ex. 11:4-6).

Why do people turn to religious fasting? Our tradition provides various answers:  as a humbling experience (e.g., Ps. 35: 13); as an expression of mourning (e.g., Tisha Beav); as a way to propitiate the divine (e.g., Jonah 3:7); for atonement of sins (e.g., Yom Kippur), and even as a technique of divination (e.g., Moses at Mount Sinai, cf. BT Yoma 4b). None of these rationales works for me today.

The only thing that fasting accomplishes is hurting the body. This is self-punishment which does not benefit anyone. One cannot “afflict the soul”-another biblical expression for fasting (Lev. 23: 27)- without damaging the body. In fact, the ancient Rabbis forbade people from fasting if they are under age, or pregnant and even if they have a medical condition against it.

If the feelings I have during a fast day are pains and headaches due to the lack of food or drink, then the religious value of the occasion is severely diminished. I might as well concentrate on the message of the spiritual moment by keeping myself hydrated and nourished.

In the past, I never fasted on Tisha Beav, and do not expect to do it in the future,  even when this ancient memorial day progressively assumes a new and more acceptable meaning in our time, namely, the atonement due to vain hatred of the other. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem took place in ancient antiquity and, even though I mourn the loss of life in ancient Judea, I do not pray for the rebuilding of the temple that would reestablish the sacrificial rituals, give legitimacy to the cast system that was prevalent then in the Jewish community by giving priority to priests over lay Israelites or by separating men from women. (We already have enough problems with the Haredim in Jerusalem who wish to deny women access to the Wall).

Would I continue to fast on Yom Kippur? In the past I always did. I expect that I will do it again in the future as long as I can tolerate it. But isn’t this a contradiction of what I have just been saying? Yes, of course. Then why would I continue to fast? You never heard the song, “tradition, tradition???!!!!.”

Rabbi R. Sonsino, Ph.D

July 21, 2013


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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Golden Voices and Melodies

Rabbi Sonsino
I have always been drawn by the beauty of the human voice. Even though I love instrumental music, I find that good male or female voices can reach the innermost recesses of the heart, and allow us to transform ourselves in spiritual ecstasy. Whenever I have an opportunity, I turn to my favorite singers, whether classical or pop, or, for that matter, to western as well as oriental musicians, for a transcendental experience.

Over the years I have had many favorites. Here below I wish to share with you my three choices. I hope you, too, will find them exhilarating.

a) “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens:

This is a hymn that gives thanks for each day. It originally appeared in the “Songs of Praise” (1931), a Christian hymnal, and was popularized by the British-born singer and songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam, reaching the No. 1 spot in the musical charts.



b) “Beklenen Sarki” (in Turkish, ‘The Long Awaited Song”)  by Zeki Muren:

Born in Turkey (1931), this incredible singer became famous for his compelling and sweet voice, precise articulation of exquisite Turkish poetry and flashy appearance (a la Liberace) in his long career (he died in 1966).  When I was young in Istanbul, I did not pay much attention to him, but now I have rediscovered him and realized what a great musician he was. In this love song, he hopes that his beloved will not have other dreams but those directed at him.



c) “Ah, Perdonna al primo affetto” from “La Clemenza di Tito” by Mozart.

In this short but sweet two-act opera, two lovers sing, each asking the other, “to forgive my former love.” In this version the duet is sung by Elena Xanthoudakis and Rosel Labone. I hope you like it.




Rifat Sonsino

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Remarkable Growth of Reform Judaism in Spain

Rabbi Sonsino
I have been going to Spain every year since 2008 in order to help out Bet Shalom in Barcelona, a small nascent Reform congregation, with its programs and religious services. This past June, after ten days in Turkey, Ines and I spent two weeks in Barcelona, taking part in history making activities.

My daily schedule was full. I officiated at three weddings for temple members, a Bar Mitzvah for an American Jewish family on its way to a Mediterranean cruise, gave two talks at Atid, the other Reform congregation in the city,  lectured in a Skype-type forum on the conversion process to the rest of the progressive congregations in Spain , had numerous meetings with various individuals, led Friday night and Sabbath morning services, and took part in the proceedings of the Bet Din (Religious Court) from London, which represented the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and in two days we welcomed 20 individuals as Jews-by-choice (including tevilah, immersion in the ocean). After all these activities, I think I earned the right to have a long long vacation. After all, I am a retired Rabbi. But who could tell?

What made this trip so fascinating is that I witnessed the remarkable growth of Reform Judaism in Spain, and in particular, the creation of a new federation by three Reform synagogues, namely, Bet Shalom and Atid from Barcelona, and Bet Emunah from Asturias. It is expected that shortly other liberal groups from the cities of Seville, Madrid and from the region of Galicia, will join in, thus establishing a strong foundation for the presence of progressive Judaism in Spain within a cooperative structure. I am also delighted that the newly established Reform congregation in Seville has named me its honorary spiritual leader.

Friday night service, Barcelona, June 21, 2013

There aren’t too many Jews in Spain, maybe 20,000 in the entire country, but Reform Judaism is here to stay.  The creative visionary of this endeavor is Jai Anguita, 42, of Bet Shalom, who has moved earth and sky to bring enthusiasm to many of his fellow Jews and potential Jews, of which there are many in Spain, especially among those who wish to “return” to Judaism because of their families’ association with our faith going back to 1492 when Jews were forcefully expelled from the country or forced to convert.

It is not easy today to be a Jew in Spain. There is a great deal of anti-Semitism, at times even of violent nature. One prospective convert told our Bet Din about the discrimination and physical assaults he experienced because he was wearing a Magen David. Another person told us that she was cut off by her family when she announced that she was going to convert to Judaism. So, we asked her, “You still want to become Jewish?” “Yes,” she responded, “It is in my soul.”

The next phase of Reform Judaism in Spain will require that each congregation be better organized, having good publicity (e.g. Web pages) as well as a sound organizational structure, with election of officers, preparation of realistic budgets, yearly congregational meetings and imaginative fund raising campaigns. Reform Jews in Spain will also need a new and common prayer book for Shabbat and festival services. Realizing that money is always tight in these circumstances, I urge world Jewry to take note and help them out.

As for me, I did as much as I could by actually going to Barcelona and spending a few weeks on location the last few years. From now on I will be available to teach classes through Skype or other media directly from Boston. Now that the European Region of the WUPJ in London considers Spain a priority, I am sure it will continue to provide all the necessary help and services. I am glad I witnessed this historic development since 2008, and consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to add my own contribution.

Rifat Sonsino

July 2013

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Turkey's Summer of Discontent

Rabbi Sonsino
During the month of June, Ines and I spent ten days in Turkey. The main reason for our visit was to attend the wedding party (of the daughter of a classmate of mine from Law School) that took place in the magnificent French Gardens by the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Before the festivities we flew to Cappadocia for a few days to see the famous rock formations in the middle of Anatolia. It was simply spectacular, with various types of caves and volcanic rocks as well as incredible underground housing that went back to the Hittites in ancient times.  We were lucky with the weather: it was sunny and hot.

We spent most of your time in Istanbul where I grew up. The city is massive with about 17 million people. Traffic is challenging at best. People everywhere. Construction continues without stop. Yet, the Bosphorus still remains as one of the jewels of the world. Our stay coincided with serious social upheavals in the country. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a very popular right-wing politician, promised to take down the Gezi Park, in Taksim (Istanbul), and instead proposed to build another mall, a mosque and Ottoman-style military barracks. In many parts of the world, such issues are usually handled by local planning boards. But not in Turkey and not by this prime minister. Young people, by the thousands, disagreed with his decisions, and took to the streets, shouting, “Government…resign!” The noise of the protesters at night was so loud that we had to ask the hotel, located in Nisantasi, about a 10 minute walk from Taksim, to give us another room facing a back street.

In reality the social unrest stemmed from the prime minister’s autocratic style: he tells his people what to do and what not to do, including , for example, to have three children. He also prohibited the purchase of alcohol after 10 pm and is leading the country away from its traditional Ataturk-style secularism, replacing it with a structure that is more traditional and more Islamic in its orientation. The reaction of the younger generation was rather mild and peaceful. There were  protests around the country. In Taksim, thousands occupied Gezi Park, where they set up a tent city with a library, free food, a place for animals, and a small museum.

Standing by the barricades at Gezi Park

One morning, we visited the park and talked to some people. I asked them, “How long do you think you can keep up this protest?” They said “maybe another week.” But the end came quickly, when the police attacked the camp the next morning and evicted all the occupants with brutal force, using tear gas and pepper sprays. Other cities faced the same violence. So far, four people have died and about 5000 were injured. Instead of unifying the people and trying to find a middle ground, the prime minister stood by his ideology and continued to divide further the country. It is too soon to say how the crisis will end. 

We were sad to witness this new escalation, and left the country with broken hearts but with the hope for a peaceful solution. The Turkish people deserve better.

Rifat Sonsino

July, 2013

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Guest Post - The Talk: Cruising Towards Puberty

The following guest post from Temple Beth Shalom member CJ Kaplan originally appeared on The Good Men Project blog:

“Dad, I need your help with my homework,” pressed my soon to be 11-year-old son, Alex.

“Sure,” I said, looking up from my half-eaten meal. “But, can I finish dinner first?”

“Yeah, but it’s got to be you. It can’t be Mom,” he insisted.

“Okay, okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Clearing my plate and walking into the office/play area where my kids alternately study and watch TV, I found Alex sitting on the couch holding a single piece of paper.

“I have to ask you these questions for Health Class,” he said. And without further preamble, he began.

♦◊♦

Ah yes, Health Class. The new moniker for what we used to call “Sex Ed.” That was the class where the teacher used to pull out charts, graphs, filmstrips and animated renderings of the human reproductive systems in an effort to explain how babies were made while twenty-four 5th graders giggled uncontrollably. This section of the school year also included the day when all the girls were mysteriously spirited away to a secret underground bunker to learn about their menses while us boys got to talk openly about nocturnal emissions and ask questions like: How much masturbation is too much? The answer: It all depends on how much chaffing you can stand.

Today, Sex Ed has expanded to include personal hygiene, how to deal with bullying and how to curate your online persona. (That last one may or may not be true.)

I suppose advocating for the use of deodorant has given the school board license to use the far less incendiary Health Class in lieu of the giggle-inducing Sex Ed. But, make no mistake. They’re still talking about penises and vaginas in there.

♦◊♦

I’m pleased to say that Alex was not unfamiliar with the material being covered in Health Class. He and I had discussed the mechanics of sex before he went away to overnight camp last summer. I didn’t want him learning about the X’s and O’s of intercourse from some kid on the tetherball court, so we sat on a bench outside a Fresh City Wraps. (He’ll never look at a Chicken Caesar Walkabout the same way again.) and I gave him the lowdown. He listened attentively, asked a few questions and then finished his mango-strawberry smoothie in relative silence. I told him that he was always welcome to come to me with any questions about sex or his body or any new development that he didn’t understand. But, he’d remained fairly mum on the subject. Until now.

♦◊♦

Question #1

Alex (reading from the paper): What do you remember most about puberty and growing up?

Me (crossing my legs and furrowing my brow in a professorial manner): Hmm. I remember that hair started showing up in strange places (pointing meaningfully to my crotch and my armpits) and that my voice started changing. I also remember that my main goal in life at the time was to see a naked woman.

Alex (laughing) Really?

Me: Yup.

[Aside: I did not tell that despite having achieved this goal it was still a primary driver for much of my life.]

Question #2

Alex: What did you enjoy doing when you were my age?

Me: Pretty much the same stuff you like doing. I played all kinds of sports. I read a lot. I listened to loud music. And I liked hanging out with my friends.

Alex (nodding): Yup.

Me (to myself): Nailed that one!

Question #3

Alex: What did you like and dislike about growing up?

Me: Well, I liked that I was getting taller and stronger and that I could do things that I couldn’t do when I was younger. I liked having more responsibility and staying up later and stuff like that.

What I didn’t like was that my voice sometimes cracked while it was changing, which made me sound funny. And I really didn’t like how I sometimes felt awkward when I was around kids who I thought were cooler than me. I was always afraid I was going to say the wrong thing and then everyone would think I was a bozo.

Alex: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Me: You do?

Alex: Yeah, I’ve felt that way before.

Me: Well, guess what? Everyone feels that way sometimes. So, don’t sweat it.

Alex (a little unsurely): Okay.

Me (to myself): He’s not buying it. Only partial credit on that one.

Question #4

Alex: How did you get answers to your questions about puberty and about growing up?

Me: Mostly from Zayde (the name my kids call their grandfather) and then some from school like you’re getting now. I also remember there was this TV movie called My Mom’s Having A Baby that came out when I was in 4th Grade. It was very specific about how babies are made.

Alex (incredulously): And they showed it on TV?

Me: Yeah. They told us to watch it with our parents and then discuss it afterward. Even after we watched it and talked about it, I was still a little unclear on how the sperm got into the woman’s body to fertilize the egg. So, Zayde drew a picture.

Alex: He drew a picture?!?

Me: Yup. And then I was even more confused.

Alex: Wow.

Me: Yeah, wow.

Question #5

Alex: This is the last question.

Me: Okay, I’m ready.

Alex: What do you want me to know about growing up?

Me (after thinking for a moment): I want you to know that no matter how strange and weird you think the changes that are happening to your body and your thoughts and your dreams, it’s all perfectly normal. Okay?

Alex: Okay.

Me: Now, do you need me to write those answers down on your questionnaire.

Alex (looking horrified): Jeez, Dad. My health teacher doesn’t need to know this stuff. She just wants you to sign the page so that she knows I asked you the questions.

Me: Ah. That’s probably for the best.

♦◊♦

Last week, the entire 5th Grade at Alex’s school went on a harbor cruise to celebrate the end of elementary school. Parents were also invited on board to join in the festivities.

It was a beautiful night on the water after a long, hot day. The adults sat up on deck and enjoyed the freshening breeze while chatting amiably. Below deck, the kids gobbled snacks and danced to music that seemingly exists only to drive their parents to the classic rock stations.

As I leaned against the rail and inhaled the salty air, several parents approached me at different intervals with the same report.

“You ought to see your son,” they began. “He’s dancing up a storm down there.”

“Alex?” I replied, although he was the only son I had with me on this particular outing.

“Oh, yeah,” they insisted. “He’s a big hit.”

Soon, Alex emerged from the bad music pit to get some money from me to buy a soda. He was drenched in sweat from the top of his head nearly down to his waist. Apparently, the antiperspirant he had applied earlier was no match for “Gangnam Style” or whatever the hell they were playing down there.

“Dad,” he panted between gulps of Sprite, “they played a song I requested and then everybody made a circle around me and I danced to it.”

“So I heard.”

“I’m one of the only guys in my grade who would do something like that.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, I’ve got some serious moves.” And with that, he handed me his empty cup and headed back to the dance floor.

Later, I snuck down below to see some of Alex’s moves for myself and perhaps film them for his mother to enjoy later. The room was hot and crowded and the music was earsplitting. Hanging back in corner with a couple of other parents, I soon spotted Alex amongst the crowd. His dancing was frenetic—arms and legs going in various directions in and out of time to the music. Occasionally, he would look to the ceiling and sort of gyrate as if his body parts were made of rubber. But, the overwhelming impression I got from his dancing is that he didn’t care at all what people thought of it. He just did what made him happy.

♦◊♦

As we walked back from the dock to the car after the cruise had ended, I showed him the video I had taken.

“So, where’d you get those moves?” I asked.

“We have a dance party every night at camp,” he replied. “That’s where I invented most of them.”

“Let me tell you something. I never would have had the guts to dance in front of my friends like that when I was your age.”

“Really?”

“Nope. And let me tell you something else. Don’t ever lose that confidence. It will serve you well.”

See, that’s the thing that I really wanted him to know about puberty. Despite all the changes, feeling good about yourself is perfectly normal too.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

BESTY Board 2013-2014/5774!

What is BESTY?
BESTY (BEth Shalom Temple Youth) our Senior Youth Group is open to all temple members grades 8-12, and is a program run largely by teens, for teens. The goal of BESTY is to make Judaism accessible to all, whether that is through direct learning, spending time with Jewish friends, or anywhere in between. BESTY hosts events once or twice a month, including lounge nights, ski trips, Fire and Ice, and more.

BESTY is affiliated with NFTY-NE, the youth division of the URJ. NFTY-NE is one of 16 national regions in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), and is comprised of youth groups from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and parts of New York. On top of local youth group events, BESTY takes part in region-wide events with teens throughout the area.

The BESTY Board creates each event for the BESTY community on top of developing important leadership skills throughout the year. This year’s board was selected by a group of outgoing board members and their leadership. Each person applied to the board, and was carefully and thoughtfully placed into a position that was thought to be best suited for his or her skill set.

And the positions are…
  • President: Molly Shuman
  • Liaison Vice President: Margo Blank
  • Programming Vice President: Sammy Lerner
  • Social Action Vice President: Rebecca Resnic
  • Membership and Publicity Vice President: Gabi Sherman
  • Religious and Cultural Vice Presidents: Sammy Altman, Rachel Zaff
  • Financial Vice Presidents: Molly Lemkin, Sam Cohen
  • Correspondence: Jeremy Marcus
  • NFTY-NE Representative: Michelle Saylor
  • 9th Grade Rep: Maddy Garf
  • 12th Grade Rep: Tzipi Crandell

Friday, May 31, 2013

Dan Sheetz's Sinai Statement

We know that humans have ten fingers, we know that 12+3 is 15 and we know that a full grown male walrus in the Pacific can weigh up to 3,700 lbs. We know a lot. Everything that we know is something that was proven. The proven facts we hold in our minds can be used to answer many of life's questions. Nevertheless, there are some questions that we can not answer with our knowledge. These questions are ones that the world's greatest minds have quarreled with since they were first posed millennia ago. Under this category fall questions like, "What is the meaning of life?", "How was the universe created?", "How did everything we see today come to be?" as well as thousands of other existential inquiries. For a large majority of the people on Earth, the answer to many of these questions is religion and more specifically, "God".

To me, there isn't a God. What I mean by that is I don't think that there's an enormous, bearded caucasian man in the sky wearing white robes and granting wishes. I think that God is an answer, a common denominator that people use to solve the questions in life. How did time begin? Scientists can't prove their answers so the answer is, God. How did humans come to be? There's no absolute, indubitable evidence supporting evolution and so, many people say, God did it. I don't think "God did it," however when you say something like that, people often say, then what's the answer? And frankly, I don't know. The way I see it, why do we need to answer these questions? Are we so greedy that we have to know the answer to every question? My answer for the big questions in life is God didn't do it all, but I don't know who or what did.

The reason that I don't think that God, in the conventional sense, is real is the fact that so many bad things happen to good people. Why would ‘God’ do that? Why would God, an autonomous, divine being who supposedly loves all humans, make or allow so much suffering? I look at events like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Sandy Hook shooting, and I think, how can this be part of  ‘God’s plan.’ What I am saying is I don’t think that there’s an all-knowing, all-powerful being living in the clouds making miracles and hearing prayers. Maybe I’m wrong and that’s exactly what God is. Maybe God isn’t a thing but rather an idea, maybe God is the love that people feel between one another. When one looks around in nature throughout the world, there is eerie ubiquitous divinity in the pure beauty of landscapes. Point is, I don’t know for sure about anything, much less the answer to the age-old inquiry of the presence of a god. I just don’t know but it’s struggling with these unanswerable questions of life and divinity, even if that means disagreeing with some aspects of  Torah, that is the true essence of our faith.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Marla Perelmuter's Sinai Statement

Ever since I was born I have been raised with the values that I think most Jewish families live by. Until recently I was oblivious to the fact that it was mostly Jews living with the same morals that I have. Being part of the youth program at temple has opened my eyes up to a whole Jewish-teen community that I wasn’t aware of previously. The community I speak of has started within the temple. Some of my best friends have come from the temple youth group. Ever since the Kallot started in eighth grade, I have formed a group of friends that I can rely on for anything. Not only are we talking non-stop outside of temple activities, but the temple trips have given us an opportunity to become closer on a much different level.

Beyond my friends at the temple, participating in BESTY activities and going on our DC trip made me aware of how the Jewish-teen communities are strong within the state and all over the country. Although walking into a conference or dance with a bunch of strangers that I didn’t yet know was intimidating, we all connected through the fact that we are all Jewish. Although that sounds cliche, it is true. On the trip to DC I was so comfortable walking up to any of the other teens and introducing myself because I knew that we were all feeling the same way and would have similar views on many issues. This was an automatic community that was formed from being involved in the youth group, and I am so glad I am a part of this.

Being in these setting of people that are like me has helped me feel comfortable in my own skin and with the people around me. Temple was my first exposure to this type of community and it is something I will take with me for the rest of my life and will continue to be a part of wherever life takes me.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Julia Silverman's Sinai Statement

This past January, members of the Confirmation class traveled to the Religious Action Center in Washington DC. In DC we learned about justice, and how, individually, we have our own opinions on morality. On the trip, we participated in different programs on issues or bills that are being debated in Congress. We learned about particular legislation and how each bill might impact an important issue in the world or the United States. One of the main components discussed throughout the trip was justice. In my mind justice goes hand in hand with morality. Our nation’s laws reflect our nation’s values. This is why it is important to participate in the legislative process and have our voices heard. As Jews, we must express our morals and values, and how those come to be expressed in our nation.

On the trip, I lobbied representative Kennedy about the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in the working environment. I was for the bill which called for equal rights for all in places of business. When I thought about why I felt strongly that the bill should be passed, the answer to me was that I believe all men and women are created equal. The book of Genesis states that all humans were created “in the image of God.” Not just some...all. Therefore, I believe, all humans should have the same basic human rights, including being free of discrimination. According to current laws it is legal to treat people in the LGBT community differently than straight people in workplaces. However, it is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, different races, and different religions in the same situations. I could not imagine why this would be a fair reason for discrimination. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people have the same capabilities to work as anyone else, so why should they be treated differently than their straight counterparts. I chose to lobby for this important legislation because I felt that they did not deserve to be treated differently than the rest of America in the working place.

My whole life I have had a hard time finding places where I fit in. I am not the most athletic person, the most talented artist, or the best at anything, I have always just been me. I am okay with that but to be good at an occupation and not be able to do that occupation just because of your sexual orientation is incomprehensible to me. It is simply unjust. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” but in reality that is not the case because if someone is deemed unqualified for a job just because of their sexual orientation then how are they created as equals? I haven’t yet determined what I am most passionate about and where I will fit in the professional world, but for those who have - shouldn’t they be allowed to contribute to their field regardless of their sexual orientation?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jess Sickles' Sinai Statement

An important part of growing up and becoming a self aware individual is feeling a sense of belonging and having a community to fall back on. Throughout my younger years I yearned to be included in a group that would welcome me and allow me to thrive. I did not realize that I was already a member of a special community until I extended my time here at TBS. This temple community that I am a part of is truly something to marvel at. How 20 plus teens are able to get along extremely well and feel as close as we all do is a great feat. These healthy relationships did not come to be overnight. It took time spent laughing at kallot, discovering New York, engaging in discussions during class time, and exploring issues in Washington DC. No matter the time or place our temple community has been growing and changing for the better, and I am so glad that I have been able to be a part of it.

I remember stepping off the bus at the first kallah in 8th grade not knowing what to expect. I was not particularly close with any one group of people and was afraid that I would be unable to find my place within the group. What I found though, was that I didn’t need to worry. After that first kallah I realized what a great group of friends I had at the temple. I was able to be myself around these kids and I did not have to worry that they would make harsh judgments or criticism. After spending the weekend with the temple, it assured me that I would be able to create long lasting relationships. I also felt a growing sense that I was entering into a strong community that I could fall back on. I feel as though the kallot enabled us all to step away from the identities we encompass at school and really be ourselves.

Both trips I attended brought us closer as a community too. The New York trip allowed us to step out of our comfort zones. Being in a different environment helped strengthen the relationships we each held with each other as we got to see the other group members in a different light. Sharing new experiences with each other and creating unforgettable memories was a bonding experience that I know I will not forget. Learning about our culture together brought a sense of community as we all shared common ways of life. Being in such a gigantic setting, with a small group of friends also made me feel closer with the group. And on the next trip to Washington DC, I feel that the community was well established and that I truly was a member of it. As we merged and mingled with the other Jewish kids at the Religious Action Center, we all knew that at the end of the day we would come together again. By this point in time we were a strong community capable of opening up to others but always knowing that if we needed each other we would be there. The difficulty process of preparing our lobbying statements was yet another experience that allowed us to work together. Being together as a group this year in DC showed me how strong of a relationship I have with the other teens. I felt completely comfortable having conversations with anyone and even unleashing my awkward tendencies on the group without a self conscious care.

The final component to what really brought us together as a community this year was the time we spent together in class. Talking about thought provoking subjects enabled us to get a sense of each others’ morals and beliefs. Discussing substantive issues is not usually an adolescent activity, so these discussions reflected the introspective thoughts we all harbor. Class time was also spent, in part, on catching up with each other, which is so important in maintaining close friendships. I am so glad and honored to be a part of an ever growing and close community. I feel lucky to be able to be a part of a group where I can be myself and am constantly allowed to grow closer to my friends. I can only hope that this community stays as close and comfortable in the years ahead.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Rachel Novick's Sinai Statement

We are all part of a Reform Jewish temple and to me it is important to stay connected throughout our lives to G-d. G-d to me is an essence that resides within each and every living thing on this planet called Earth. There was a story someone told me, about a block of holiness that the angels didn’t know where to hide. They tried hiding the holiness in the trees, underwater, in caves, underground, in the mountains, and in the sky, but they knew that one day humans would find a way to get to it. So the angels decided to break up the holiness into little shards, and put each shard inside a human being. This way, humans cannot find the holiness without discovering who they are, and with this holiness, we can make a difference. We must protect and care for the Earth in order to sustain ourselves for a long time, or else we’ll burn out in the end. Within the Torah in the book of Genesis it says, “The human being was placed in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it.” (2:15) As a Jew this emphasizes our responsibility to protect the integrity of the environment so that its diverse species, including humans, can thrive. Jewish tradition teaches us that human domain over nature does not include a license to abuse the environment. The Talmudic concept ba’al taschchit, “do not destroy,” was developed by rabbis into a universal doctrine that asserted G-d’s ownership of the land. Climate and energy policy must also be equitable and just, as the Torah commands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Getting the world population to use renewable energy is one of the ways we can help to protect the environment.

I went on the Washington, D.C. trip to Religious Action Center with TBS. While I was there I learned a lot about the environment and how to make it better. I learned about climate control and how humans change the climate by using fossil fuels. We also learned about a very harmful process called Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking for short). Fracking is the process of forcing open fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas. As of 2010, it was estimated that 60% of all new oil and gas wells worldwide were being hydraulically fractured.
Proponents of hydraulic fracturing point to the economic benefits from vast amounts of formerly inaccessible hydrocarbons that the process can extract. Unfortunately, there are potential environmental impacts, including contamination of groundwater, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, surface contamination from spills and flowback and the health effects of these. The relationship between well performance and treatment pressures was studied by Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation. This study became a basis of the first hydraulic fracturing experiment, which was conducted in 1947 by Stanolind. On March 17, 1949, Halliburton, an Oil Well Cementing Company, performed the first two commercial hydraulic fracturing treatments in Stephens County, Oklahoma, and Archer County, Texas. Since then, hydraulic fracturing has been used to stimulate approximately a million oil and gas wells. The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of fracking has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" just beneath us. But when filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled nearby Pennsylvania town reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country called GASLAND. He interviewed some people in New York City, to ask them how they felt about the fact that although New York has an enviornment law protecting them now, the law may be changed. Approximately 8,336,697 people dwell and live in New York City as of 2012. All these people are drinking from the same water supply. As someone said in Gasland, people come to NY for the tap water. A waiter doesn’t give you the choice of bottled v.s tap water. Unfortunately, if the water supply is tainted from the chemicals, it will be much harder to split resources enough so all citizens can drink clean water. New York is situated on the Marcellus Shale, which makes it a valuable source to drill natural gas from. The Marcellus Shale goes through many other states, especially western states in the U.S. Now, most of my family lives in Ney York City. It’s important to me that my family lives in a safe enviornment, and if their drinking water, as well as the air they breath are infected in any way, I personally will not stand for that. Human activities are enhancing the natural greenhouse effect - thickening the walls of the greenhouse—causing significant consequences for the global climate. Since the Industrial Revolution atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short, have increased by more than 30%. Climate change causes droughts, floods, and increasingly severe natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. In its 2007 report, the UN international panel on climate change concluded that the evidence for climate change is “Unequivocal” and that human activity, primarily the CO2 omission that come from the burning of fossil fuels is “Very likely” (almost certainly) the cause. When the climate becomes warmer, and flooding occurs, the air becomes humid. People who live near water normally have resistance to diseases born from the water. When the diseases move inland with the floods and humidity. the people inland most likely will not have encountered these particular diseases before, and thus their bodies are not immune and will be unable to counter-attack the disease. Over the next hundred years climate change will displace, at the very least, tens of millions of people.

That’s why at the RAC I wrote a speech about renewable energy as well as urged people to reintroduce and sponsor the American Energy Production Act of 2011. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is one of the country's biggest environmental and public health challenges in history. The 2005 Energy Bill exempted a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allowed the natural gas industry to unleash a massive 34-State drilling campaign. In these troubled times, Congress may not be popular with the American people, but the fact is that they are our hope for controlling the Climate chaos that, if left unchecked, will destroy our way of living.

Rabbi Sonsino: Writing an Introduction to Judaism

Rabbi Sonsino
My new book, Modern Judaism, published by Cognella in Jan. 2013 and available through other venues, is a full introduction to the Jewish customs and ceremonies, the history and basic beliefs, the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and all the major Jewish platforms of our time. Written first as a college text book, it is now available to the general public.

Writing an introduction comes with its own challenges as to what to include and what to exclude. You would expect that Judaism, as an ancient religion that is well known in the West, does not need another introduction but the fluidity of the literature and the constant changes in our life-style and religious beliefs make it necessary to update the material on a regular basis. My book attempts to meet that need.

In 1961 when I arrived in the United States as a rabbinic student from Turkey, it was much easier to identify who was an Orthodox Jew and who was a Conservative or a Reform Jew. Today, the line of demarcation is not so clear. Even though non-Orthodox movements, which now include the Reconstructionist, Humanist and Renewal, have their own religious platforms, they are general in nature and tend to be inclusive and therefore vague; they do not always reflect the practice in the field. In former years, I could attend a Reform rabbinic convention (CCAR), and know exactly what to expect liturgically and theologically. Today, it includes a mishmash of all types of religious practices and beliefs. More and more, it looks like a bigger divide is emerging in the Jewish world between the Orthodox and the rest of all the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Modern Judaism discusses all of these religious movements.

Most previous introductions assumed that the Ashkenazic religious practices determined the core of Judaism, and consequently contained hardly any reference to the rich Sephardic tradition. In my Modern Judaism, I tried to present both points of view on most contentious subjects, such as the various practices regarding what to eat and not to eat during Passover, whether flowers are permitted during funerals, and what is the pattern of naming a child after a living or a dead parent and many others.

In addition to religious practices, it is important to point out that in the realm of religious beliefs, even though we all believe in the existence of One and Unique God, Jewish thinkers have advocated various concepts of God as well as other major religious concepts (e.g., freedom of will, sin, salvation, the efficacy of prayer). Furthermore, we, in the liberal community, need to approach our Sacred Scriptures through critical eyes and not take them as infallible, which they are not. My book highlights these points.

It would have been advantageous to include other subjects in the book, such as, an extensive discussion of critical biblical passages, a more comprehensive analysis of Jewish medieval thought, a full evaluation of modern Jewish approaches to various ethical and medical ethics, but that would have been beyond the scope of an introduction, and I decided to leave them out. I hope my Modern Judaism will whet the appetite of the readers and will lead them to further studies in their chosen fields. I am only opening the door, and if I have been able to excite the curiosity of my readers, I will be happy.


Rifat Sonsino

May 2013

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Talia Shapiro's Sinai Statement

Throughout my years at TBS I have developed relationships with a variety of people in our temple community. When I was in fourth grade I joined the temple youth choir and sang at every family service at the beginning of each month. I learned songs in Hebrew and strengthened my bond with friends and other members of the temple community. These services were where I gained much of my Jewish education. After hearing the prayers so many times I started to pick them up and even though I sometimes chatted with friends I knew what was going on. Towards the end of the service, one of the rabbis would share a short story that involved Jewish morals. Listening to these stories were fun because they usually had some humor, but reflecting I realize it was the start of educating us about Jewish values. It also strengthened my value of celebrating Shabbat every week.

I also have consistently enjoyed participating in the small activities in our temple community. I’ve helped the brotherhood set up the sukkah, talked with people at the blood drive, I used to come early to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings just to chat with Nate in the religious school office, and I always ask my dad about how things are going with the new building plans after a Mikdash committee meeting. Every time I come to temple I meet more and more people who introduce me to more and more connections, thoughts, ideas, and even secret light switches in the bathroom. These activities have helped me to create my own unique connection with the temple and what it means to me.

My bat mitzvah portion was the Holiness Code, another set of Jewish values from the book of Leviticus. Becoming a bat mitzvah made me realize that the temple started as a place I went to Hebrew school and sometimes services and over time I formed my own relationships and reasoning for what Temple Beth Shalom means to me. I gained all of my knowledge for my bat mitzvah from studying Torah in the community and from my Dad and his experiences. I waited a long time for my bat mitzvah, and it was even better than I expected. When my parents asked my brother and I if we had had fun at the party that night, we looked at each other and agreed that we had much more fun leading the service than we did doing anything else that weekend. The support and education that we received over the years was part of the reason that our service was so meaningful.

Confirmation class has been the formalization of what has been expressed to me through my time at temple. Only now have I realized what I’ve learned over the years and the role of the Ten Commandments in our temple community. The Ten Commandments don’t help shape me solely based on a simple reading of them, but rather because of how they are expressed in the values of our community. I have taken in others’ interpretations and made them my own by participating in our temple community. By celebrating Shabbat and studying Torah within the community, I have made the commandments and Judaism my own.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Rogers Epstein's Sinai Statement

There’s a TV show called Touch, which is about human connections. At first the show can seem a little out there. For example, In the beginning of an episode the main character picks up a radio part for someone who dropped it. Later, the person uses the radio part to rescue an Italian astronaut's life. But the moral of the story is sound. We are all tied into each other’s lives whether we know it or not. So, it is important that we leave a positive impact. This is where the Torah comes in. Not coincidentally, the show is about a Jewish legend - the 36 righteous people, or Lamed Vavniks. These people contribute to the world by performing wholesome acts that impact others: essentially, they are protecting the Ten Commandments and all the good that the Torah stands for. By not letting the person lose their radio part, thou art not murdering the astronaut. Now, as far as I know, my murdering record is pretty clean. But how many times have we let something so simple in our world which is broken go unfixed? In Jewish tradition, everyone should act as a Lamed Vavnik since - as the legend has it - those who are cannot know they are. We should perform acts like planting a tree, that may not benefit us but could heavily impact others in the future. Perhaps a main purpose of the Torah is to establish a righteous world through many acts of kindness.

For me, the core tenet of Judaism is that it is important to utilize your energy to help others. By respecting thy mother and father, my family’s life is easier. By not pirating music, I can rest with a clear conscience. Though the small lies I no longer tell are as subtle as the pun in this Sinai Statement, I’m happy knowing the world is probably a better place. In  Judaism, 18 means life. So, the 36 means two lives: our own and the others whose lives we have the potential to impact.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Katrina Coffman's Sinai Statement

[The tenth grade students who became Confirmed on May 14, 2013 have spent a year immersed in the study of Torah,
and in particular, the Ten Commandments. Shavuot is a time when the Jewish people is asked to bring bikkurim, offerings of great meaning and value, to share with God and community. Our students have responded to this call. Each of our Confirmands has prepared a “Sinai Statement,” a reflection on the learning and experiences that have been part of their year together as a class. They were asked to consider one of a number of topics including: their relationship with God, Torah’s impact on their behavior towards other people, the role of Jewish community in their lives, or our tradition’s prophetic call for social justice in our world. We hope that you will take the time to read them, perhaps to learn from them, and to be inspired by the thoughtfulness and commitment of this class. We are very proud of them!]


If a practicing Jew were to be asked if they knew what the Ten Commandments are, I’m almost positive that person would laugh and say, “Of course”. The Ten Commandments seem to be one of the best known elements of the Jewish tradition: I mean, I’m pretty sure they were the first thing we learned in 2nd grade religious school. But, if the Ten Commandments are so basic and so significant, why - when twenty 10th graders gathered in a room at the beginning of the year - did we actually struggle with naming all ten? I think we didn’t completely remember them because we thought of them as almost outdated and irrelevant. Do we really need to be told to not murder or to not commit adultery? The commandments can feel kind of condescending, with “I Am Adonai Your God” telling us exactly what to believe from the very beginning to “Thou Shall Not Murder,” and “Thou Shall Not Steal,” things that surely, for the most part, we can be trusted to do without direct orders. But as the year went on, and we talked about how people can be killed with words and gossip or how pirating music is just as much theft as walking out of a store with an unpaid CD, I realized that the Ten Commandments do have a relevant place in our lives today. That’s not to say that one necessarily thinks of them all the time. To be honest, I probably didn’t actively think about them this year except in Confirmation class. But when I studied them in greater depth I realized that the commandments, even the ones that seem obvious, are actually good advice - and may not be as condescending or obvious as I originally thought. One should try not to lie or steal or gossip, but that’s easier said than done, and the fact that qualities that are thought of as a necessity in any good citizen are outlined in the basis of Judaism really show what kind of values our religion stands for. Even practices that I may never completely keep, like the rules of kosher and all the rules of Shabbat, are based on basic Jewish values like kindness to animals and the value of taking time to rest. And these values are what really makes the Ten Commandments and more importantly, Judaism as a whole, everlasting and relevant to whatever time period we’re in.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Rabbi Sonsino - The Evil Eye

Rabbi Sonsino
In my home I have a Turkish blue eye charm/bead (called Nazar Boncugu in Turkish) that sits on one of my shelves casting a protective gaze upon the entire house. Does it help? I doubt it, but it does not hurt either.

This is obviously an old superstition found all over the world: an envious glance can bring harm to the person or object. How do you protect yourself against it? You get a blue eye amulet that mirrors back, and stops the harmful look, the so-called, “evil eye.”

In Hebrew, the evil eye is called ayin hara or en raah (in Yiddish it is “kayn aynhora”). According to the Rabbis, whereas a benevolent eye (“ayin tovah”) is praiseworthy, "an ayin hara, (an evil eye), the evil urge and hatred of another human being take one out of the world.” (Av. 2: 11). According to another, ninety nine people die of an evil eye, and only one through natural causes (BM 107b). You can protect yourself against this malicious curse, by repeating ever so often, beli ayin raah (“without the evil eye” [having power over you]). In a popular Jewish joke, a Jewish patriarch who was on the witness stand was asked by a District Attorney: “How old are you? He answered, “I am, kayn aynhora, eighty one.” Similarly, when counting people, you are expected to say, “Not one,” “Not two, “Not three” etc. in order to avoid the disastrous effects of the evil eye.

This meaning of “evil eye” represents an extension of what the original word for “eye” meant in biblical literature. Ayin, (pl. enayim), simply refers to the physical organ of sight. Whereas, a person with tov ayin (lit. good eye) is considered a “generous person” (Prov. 22: 9), one with ra ayin (lit. evil eye), is “miserly” (Prov. 28: 22). One can have eyne gavhut, a haughty look (Isa. 2: 11), or shah enayim (lit. “lowly eye”) “humility”(Job. 22: 29). Being consumed by an attitude described as raah enekha (lit. an eye set on ill will), simply meant being “mean” to another person (Deut. 15: 9). God’s eyes (eyne YHVH) are placed upon the land of Israel as a promise of protection (Deut. 11: 12). It is not at all clear what the Bible implies when it states that Leah, Jacob’s wife, had “weak eyes” (rakot). (Gen. 29: 17). Did she lack luster (Sarna), or did she have lovely, delicate eyes (Speiser)?

The Hebrew word, ayin, (pl. ayanot), also means, “spring” (of water). Example: “An angel of the Lord found her [Hagar] by a spring of water (eyn ha-mayim)” (Gen. 16: 7). This may be an extension, maybe a figurative way of speaking of an “eye.” It is interesting to note that in Akkadian, inu(m) means both “eye” and “spring” or “source.”

The human eye is our window to the universe. What we see is a reflection of our personality and provides a frame of reference for our approach to life. Some see things in color; others consider the world a dark place. Those who find shadows everywhere use amulets and other defense paraphernalia against the corrosive impact of the evil eye. It is, however, better to have a positive attitude in life and face the world with optimism, courage and determination. In the long run, the talismans do not work.

Rifat Sonsino

Monday, April 22, 2013

Words from Rabbi Todd - Friday, April 19, 2013

Rabbi Todd Markley

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim


Our 6-year-old, Mia, walked into the den this afternoon where I was working. “Daddy, since none of us have school today, can you come play with us?” “I can’t right now, sweetie. I need to prepare for services tonight. A lot has happened this week, and I want to speak with the people at temple about it all tonight.” Mia glanced at the TV on the other side of the room that was running the same looped video feed of police cruisers and beleaguered reporters stalling by re-sharing the same information over and over again. She turned back to me with a look of pity on her face. “Well, it looks like you only have bad things to talk about, so…” – then she shrugged her shoulders and walked out of the room. Thank you, Sweetie.

It has, indeed, been an awful week, made all the more numbing by the juxtaposition of such seemingly opposite emotions. A day of great pride and celebration was, without warning, turned into one of shock and terror. An event meant to celebrate strength and endurance forced us to confront our own mortality and vulnerability. Lives filled with promise and future cut tragically short with only memories left behind. A Patriot’s Day meant to celebrate our freedom now haunted by a stark reminder of the price we sometimes pay for committing to the laudable goal of  extending freedom to all…those with good will and those with malevolent intentions.

In some respects, these contrasting experiences echo those lived by our brothers and sisters in Israel this week. For them, Monday was Yom Hazikaron – the day of remembrance for all who have given their lives defending the Jewish State. Tuesday, the very next day, was Yom Ha’atzma’ut - Israel’s Independence Day celebration filled with rejoicing. Memory and freedom. Mourning and celebration. Grief and joy. Life often asks us to hold onto both at once. The past several days have been a profound and unsettling reminder of that reality.

Fitting, perhaps, that our two Torah portions this week reflect this very theme. The first is entitled Acharei Mot – meaning “after the death,” referring to the untimely demise of Aaron’s two sons as they assumed their roles as priests in last week’s Torah reading. The second of this week’s portions is Kedoshim – The Holiness Code – Torah’s “Cliff Notes” on what it means to live a holy life imbued with goodness, sanctity, and respect for fellow humans and God. Acharei Mot…Kedoshim…after death can follow holiness. Sanctity can be found – even in the wake of loss and pain.

Can we really hold onto both realities simultaneously? Our Jewish tradition teaches that we can. Let me be clear…I do not understand Judaism to seek meaning in anguish. Pain is awful and is not one of life’s goals. Grief is not a desired path to redemption nor is suffering a preferred gateway to the Divine. The vicious attacks that occurred at Monday’s Boston Marathon should never have taken place, and their victims were undeserving of this torment. Our task is not to find God’s hand in the bombs and their makers – two men who gave way to an inclination to make evil manifest in our world. Rather, our task, having born witness to this wickedness, is to keep faith that the human drive towards good can and will overcome that evil, that light can and will cast out darkness, that justice can and will outweigh sin and transgression, and that love can and will conquer hate. Two men committed a horrible crime. In response, hundreds of thousands have reached out helping hands to others in need.

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
– even in the wake of death and loss there is holiness. There was holiness in the first responders – police, medics, and compassionate citizen-heroes - who ran towards the explosions rather than away from them to lend support to the injured. There was holiness in the resilience of the surgeons, and physicians, and nurses and medical staff who worked around the clock to tend to the wounds which often required two and three surgeries in as many days. There was holiness in the runners who completed their 26.2 mile race, and – rather than collapsing in understandable exhaustion – ran two more miles to the hospital to give blood for the injured. There was holiness in calls from our political leaders to refrain from vigilante justice before we knew the identity of the criminals – to temper our desire to lash back in violence and instead to heed the words of this week’s Torah portion that we should not “hate our kinsfolk in our hearts…nor shall we take vengeance or bear a grudge against them, rather, [we should] love our neighbors as ourselves.” There was holiness in our Needham interfaith community coming together at the Congregational Church last night – Jews, Christians, Ba’hai, Quakers, and Muslims – united in our commitment to stand side by side in comfort, support, and hope.

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
– After there is loss there can be holiness. We see that tonight as we come together to recite kaddish – a word rooted in “holiness” just like kedoshim – for those whose lives were lost. Even in our grief and our pain, we seek out the holy – reflections of God’s light and God’s goodness found in the faces, the tears, and the actions of our neighbors and loved ones.

My colleague, Rabbi Karyn Kedar, penned these words in the wake of Monday’s attack:

Suddenly,
in the light of day
darkness was revealed.
We are in shock. Stupefied. Angry. Sad.

God, If the heart of every living being is good,
and if the soul you have given us is pure,
how does evil appear?

Hear our prayer!

Help us to have faith when there is doubt.
Bring healing to those in pain.
Comfort us in our grief.
Give us courage in our confusion.
Grant us strength
to look straight into the darkness,
defiant and determined
to pursue peace and establish safety
in our fractured world.

Oseh shalom bimromav
You who makes peace in the high heavens
Help us find the ways to make peace here on earth.

And so we pray…